Wigmore Hall’s resident Nash Ensemble blew away January’s icy blast with a warm glow of gallic pleasure in the latest instalment of its French Connection series. It didn’t hurt that, along with a dozen of the group’s instrumental virtuosi, mezzo Stéphanie d'Oustrac was on hand to add three stellar contributions. The Nash is a uniquely variable outfit and as such can handle pretty much anything that might be deemed chamber music. This concert had it all: songs, duos, a string quartet and, to open proceedings, a version for reduced orchestra of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac © Bertrand Pichene
Stéphanie d'Oustrac
© Bertrand Pichene

It did not provide an auspicious start. The arrangement of Debussy’s score by Benno Sachs dates from 1920 and was not sanctioned by the composer as by then he’d been dead for two years. It was, rather, made for one of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Society of Private Musical Performances’ in Vienna, within whose vaults it really ought to be languishing still, unheard by any ears save those of the society’s consenting adults. It worked as a showcase for Philippa Davies’ solo flute, Richard Hosford’s seductive clarinet and a good – though uncredited – oboist, but five string players and a piano do not an orchestra make. Moreover, the Nash Ensemble’s decision to replace the intended harmonium with an accordion was catastrophic, for not only did it sound faintly ludicrous against Debussy’s textures but it seemed to drive Ian Brown, on baton duty, to time his ponderous account to the imperatives of the squeezebox.

Far more polished was the arrangement by Colin Matthews of Debussy’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé for the same instrumental forces (two flutes, two clarinets including a bass clarinet, piano and string quartet) that Ravel employed in his identically titled settings of the same year, 1913. Indeed, ‘polished’ feels like faint praise for an achievement that was completely convincing, organic and idiomatic at every turn, and never felt like tinkering. The instrumentation blended impeccably with d’Oustrac’s succulent interpretations, accounts that were sabotaged by a lone interstitial clapper whose over-enthusiasm prompted an announced rebuke to the entire audience.

Lawrence Power and Ian Brown as pianist contributed a handful of attractive viola miniatures, although Léon Honnoré’s Morceau de Concert was a blustering display piece I shan’t rush to hear again. More impressively, Brown was every inch the pointillistic artist in his gracious accompaniment of Duparc’s two most popular songs in which d’Oustrac’s considered readings were extraordinarily moving, especially that of Phidylé. Whereas Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au voyage had a suitable beauty, the de Lisle setting floored this listener through the intense tenderness of its delivery.

The second half was all about Ravel and Adrian Brendel. The cellist’s tone in both the Chansons madécasses and the String Quartet in F major had a transcendent lustre; never afraid to understate yet always dignified and authoritative, Brendel was the Nash’s totemic leader in both of these ensemble performances thanks to his mesmerising eloquence and discreet panache. The readings as a whole were searching and bountiful but he, as befits his family heritage, added something extra. Taken together, these two works rounded off what had hitherto been a mixed evening with 40 exceptional minutes that nourished the soul.

****1