As part of the City of London Festival 2013, the Nash Ensemble delivered a varied mixture of works loosely connected by the ubiquitous Britten theme. This hotchpotch-style approach has worked very well indeed for the Nash for nearly 50 years, and tonight’s concert was no exception.

Nash Ensemble string quartet © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
Nash Ensemble string quartet
© Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

The concert opened with the Seventh String Quartet by Shostakovich, a fabulously distilled work of fifteen minutes, which demonstrates some of the best qualities of the composers’ quartet writing. Simple textures alternate with tough vertical chords and manic fugal passages – the overall musical language is tougher and leaner than his orchestral writing. One’s impression is that in the quartets, you are hearing the true voice of the composer. The Nash performed this oddly touching work, lighter than the more famous Eighth Quartet that quickly followed it, without any sentimentality or unnecessary emotional emphasis.

It was then down to Ian Brown to convince us that Frank Bridge’s Three Improvisations for Piano Left Hand from 1918 were worthy of rejuvenation. Delicate and whimsical as they are, with only hints of the powerhouse piano sonata that was shortly to follow, they seemed overshadowed by the works either side. How interesting it would have been to hear that sonata, so rarely played and one of the greatest works in that form from a British composer.

The first half ended with a vigorous performance of the suite from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale; in the composer’s own arrangement for clarinet, violin and piano. The more concentrated instrumentation gives the music even more bite and point, with excellent ensemble work from all three players. I was left musing on the thought that that maybe this work, with its lean textures, striking discords and piquant harmonies, was more influential than the more sensational Rite of Spring on the music of the 1920s and 30s. So much that was to be heard in Paris in this period seems to live in the shadow of this extraordinary composition. Of course, no one did it better than Stravinsky.

After the interval, Lawrence Power and Ian Brown gave us a blistering account of Britten’s Lachrymae (Reflections on a Song of Dowland), Op. 48, for viola and piano. It’s a work I don’t warm to, with its tricksy technical games, culminating in a direct quote from the Dowland that is supposed to melt the heart. However, I can’t imagine a more passionate and committed performance of it, and it nearly won me over, but not quite.

The evening ended in a distinctly mellow way, with the first masterpiece written for the clarinet, Mozart’s Quintet in A major. After all this abrasive 20th-century fare, it proved to be a perfect way to round off a pleasant summer evening’s concert in the beautiful surroundings of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall. Clarinettist Richard Hosford’s poised and democratic performance made the piece sound less like a concerto in miniature than usual. The rapturous slow movement, so full of gentle humanity and warmth, was the highlight of the whole concert. The Nash Ensemble truly came into their own here, with integrated playing and an affectionate rapport between all five players. May they long continue to delight us with their eccentric programming and wonderfully apt performances.