Say what you like about the German Romantics, they had a Feststück or occasional piece ready for every stage of human life, from the cradle to the grave, for domestic confidences as well as for public utterances. All bases were covered, so to speak. On Christmas Day 1870 Cosima Wagner awoke to the strains of what later became known as the Siegfried Idyll. Intended as a birthday present from her new husband, it was also a celebration of the recent birth of their son Siegfried. Wagner, along with so many other composers, was adept at recycling musical material: the most important theme in this extended serenade is taken from the love duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Act 3 of Siegfried.

Nash Ensemble © Hanya Chlala | ArenaPAL
Nash Ensemble
© Hanya Chlala | ArenaPAL

The original version was performed by just 13 players, so authenticity was maintained in the opening work of this concert given by the Nash Ensemble as part of its current season’s focus on the German Romantics. Most satisfying of all in the performance directed by Jamie Phillips was the unruffled serenity at the opening and close, where time appears to stand still. The playing was never less than highly accomplished, as one might expect from this sterling band, but it was a series of recurring balance issues that robbed this account of its nobility. In allowing the wind and brass to dominate frequently, Phillips lost much of the essential softness and intimate character of the piece. His tendency to get faster as the dynamic levels increased led to an almost operatic-like sweep and urgency in the central climax, as though the music was fighting to break out of its straitjacket.

By the time Beethoven composed his only real string quintet in 1801, itself the reworking of an earlier wind octet, musical fashions had changed. Boccherini is said to have written 113 works for such a formation (with a second viola adding mellowness), Mozart six but Haydn none at all. This may go some way to explaining its comparative neglect in the concert repertory, but there was no mistaking the utter conviction with which this performance by Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich, Lawrence Power, Scott Dickinson and Adrian Brendel was delivered. To a large extent the work is both retrospective and prophetic. These players were wonderfully alive to the classical ebb and flow of the melodic lines in the spacious opening movement, the geniality and good-naturedness of its mood as well as to the Italianate lines and sensuousness of the Adagio molto espressivo second movement. From the frequent touches of wit (the way the second violin mimics birdsong at the recapitulation of the main theme of the first movement) to the underlining of the sforzando moments in the Scherzo, here was ample evidence of this composer’s revolutionary ardour. Evidence too, perhaps, of an awareness of his own failing hearing – his Heiligenstadt Testament appeared just a year later – which pushed this “duke of dark corners” into producing a dramatic swerve towards the end of the slow movement and the storm-like tremolos and passionate undercurrents at the start of the Finale.

Richard Strauss, two of whose works occupied the second half, had supreme gifts in writing for the human voice. When the last of the great German Romantic composers came to write the Prelude to Capriccio, scored for a sextet of strings, he signalled in advance that his final opera would be what he called “a conversation piece for music”. It is in fact a conceit: which is more important in opera, the poetry or the music? This sextet is no longer than most operatic overtures, yet it manages to traverse considerable distances in musical territory, from the dramatic shivers of excitement racing through the textures to the soaring lines that appear to stretch into infinity. The opulence of the writing was ideally conveyed by the Nash players.

When Strauss wrote his first song Weihnachtslied in 1870 at the age of six, Wagner had just witnessed the first performance of Die Walküre. A year before his death in 1949 he completed the last of what were to become his farewell-to-life songs, Vier letzte Lieder. The Australian composer James Ledger’s enterprising arrangement of this cycle for soprano and 13 players was premiered by the Nash Ensemble in 2005. On this occasion the soloist was Lucy Crowe. There was a vibrancy and urgency in her voice which suited the first song Im Frühling more than the rest of the cycle, together with a richness and amplitude in her chest register for the following September. What I missed, however, was the valedictory quality of both the words and the music. Everything moves at a slower pace towards the end of life, and in the last two songs both Crowe and Phillips pressed on with too little attention paid to the dappling of autumnal colour and inwardness of the moment.

****1