The seventh of the chamber music Proms this year brought together two of the greatest composers of the early 20th century. Though Debussy was twelve years Schoenberg’s senior, of the two works performed it is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire which was written first, in 1912, with Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp following three years later in 1915. In spite of this temporal proximity, the works are leagues apart in terms of their means of musical expression, Debussy’s work bringing the impressionist style to its high point, and Schoenberg paving the way for expressionism, which would be the forerunner of his infamous twelve-tone technique.

Members of the Nash Ensemble © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
Members of the Nash Ensemble
© Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Though some consider Debussy’s move towards sonatas at the end of his life a sign of flagging inspiration, there is nothing commonplace about these works. His initial plan was for six sonatas, with three being completed before his death, and though two show hallmarks of tradition (being for violin and piano, and cello and piano respectively) the other four were thoroughly modern in outlook. The sonata for flute, viola and harp was to be joined by one for oboe, horn and harpsichord, one for clarinet, trumpet, bassoon and piano, and a final one uniting all eleven instruments from the other five sonatas; this was not the work of a fallen master. The Nash Ensemble’s performance of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp was captivating. Philippa Davies played the flute line with warmth and vibrancy of sound, contrasting Debussy’s liquid melodic lines with sparking staccatos. With Andriy Viytovych on viola and Lucy Wakeford on harp, the ensemble trod the line of blending and virtuosity perfectly. There were moments when the viola and flute sounds seemed to melt seamlessly together, but with solo moments which soared out of the texture, and the colours Wakeford drew from the harp ranged from silky and mellifluous in the opening to bouncy and exciting in the finale. Not only was there a great attention to colour and detail in this performance, but there was a greater narrative, giving the music a heightened sense of hopeful nostalgia in the beginning, and leading organically into the joy of the final chords.

Though she only performs the work two or three times a year, Christine Schäfer has made Schoenberg’s melodrama Pierrot Lunaire one of her signature works, having made one of the most highly regarded recordings of the work with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain in 1997. Her performance with the Nash Ensemble was the work of a master, and conductor Martyn Brabbins led the impressive instrumental ensemble through this dense and complex score. Schäfer’s greatest achievement in this performance is making the piece accessible and meaningful. Not only is the work in German, but the musical language used to illustrate it is highly abstruse. Schäfer’s delivery, however, was transparent. The opening verse, “Moonstruck”, was full of terrified wonder, while “The Dandy” was simply manic. Perhaps most enjoyable was “Parody”, which was humorous and playfully delivered, bringing a smile to the face of the Proms audience. All members of the Nash Ensemble played fantastically throughout, but special mention must go to cellist Paul Watkins, whose solo moments were some of the highlights of the concert.