The Nash Ensemble presented a programme featuring the big Romantic heavyweights, part of its ongoing Wigmore Hall series, that ended with Brahms by way of Schumann and Wagner. We opened with the rather peculiar Andante and Variations, which gave us Schumann in rich and sumptuous mood, tinged with the elegiac.

Christine Rice
© Patricia Taylor

It’s not an easy work to love, though it does have plenty of strikingly textural moments and the Nash did fine work with what was there. It’s a piece that feels somehow both too full and too empty: on the one hand, middle registers fat with harmonies and warmth from the two cellos and richness of the horn, with yet more thick musical mortar provided by the two pianos. On the other, the writing for the cellos often feels a bit bland, accompanying rather than contributing, alongside some fairly prosaic interjections from the horn. And Richard Watkins’ horn-playing was excellent, thoughtfully balanced where necessary and offering heroic lustrousness in the horn calls dotted throughout, building layers of warmth with the soulful cellos of Bjørg Lewis and Adrian Brendel.

Schumann seemed to have a bit of bother with it himself, reworking it following Mendelssohn’s suggested version for piano duet, which proves more musically incisive. Indeed the piece was at its most animated in the deft rhythmic and lyrical exchanges between Alasdair Beatson and Ian Brown, whose musical dialogue particularly sparkled in the Animato variation. But the piece was redolent of having too much festive Stollen: dense and heavy and smeared with cloying marzipan, with Schumann’s generous portions resulting in something of a musical torpor. 

Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder followed, performed by mezzo Christine Rice. Wagner is clearly less comfortable setting other people’s texts – here Mathilde Wesendonck’s poetry – and his piano writing feels like the sketches for something that really ought to be filled out by orchestra. We are a million miles away from the expressive economy and intimacy of the great songs of Schubert or Schumann and in want of the self-contained narratives both of them could so brilliantly muster in their songs. What the Wesendonck offer instead are intensely impressionistic, hothouse pictures of feeling, which is fine, but makes them feel both too big and too small as Lieder in their own right.

Whatever the generic and formal ambiguities of the songs, there can be no faulting Rice’s accomplished performance, which invested every phrase with dramatic and emotional intensity. Träume, which Wagner himself described as a study for the great Act 2 duet in Tristan und Isolde, was a particular highlight, floating and soaring alternately; Stehe still! was fierce, psychologically intense, delivered with real bite and heft, offering glimpses of the modernist monodramas like Erwartung that would follow this music in the 20th century. A few early intonation wobbles aside, along with a slight unease about dynamic control, this was a luxury performance.

Arnold Schoenberg was well aware of the textural sophistication and fine-grained colour palette of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor when he orchestrated it in 1937. After the interval, Ian Brown was joined by Nash Ensemble violinist Benjamin Nabarro, with Lewis returning on cello, affording a performance of dedicated intensity and gestural directness, anchored by Timothy Ridout’s bold and animated viola playing.

The first movement is one of Brahms’ most motivic and rigorous, and the musical argument was tackled with clarity and restraint. The coda to the first movement collapsed evocatively into hushed darkness. The Nash were not afraid to head to the extremities of Brahms’ sound world, something that continued into the 9/8 C minor intermezzo, whose animated Trio section shone in its A flat and E major themes; the flighty coda had a witty, quicksilver brilliance. This led into a slow movement that balanced warmth in the inner parts with a melodic sparseness in the outer, alongside a defiant march-like middle section, transitioning gorgeously back to the principal theme; it was this movement that anchored the performance as a whole. 

The Zingarese rondo-finale has all the gypsy affectations associated with that musical trope, one which Brahms always handled with a pleasing lack of vulgarity. There was a slackening of the emotional tension wound up by the journey of the slow movement, but not to the detriment of the performance as a whole: the Nash treated it playfully, with good humour and a raised eyebrow, though never too knowing: the sentimental, lyrical interlude was sincere without being cloying, perhaps due to the quartet’s flexible approach to colour and weight and expressive control of vibrato. Brown’s cadenza, ushering in a return of the main theme, rang with glowing cimbalom-like effects and percussive force; the final Presto planted, with ferocious energy, Brahms’ brilliant earworm straight in the skull.