Rarely has a concert of contemporary music felt so fitting. The Nash Ensemble presented their annual “Nash Inventions” at Wigmore Hall on Wednesday night. This showcase of new commissions, alongside some of their historic commissions, brought to a close their 50th anniversary celebrations with a gaze fixed firmly on the future. Of course, there has been turnover of members since 1964, but that they still sound so fresh is as much testament to Amelia Freedman’s imaginative artistic direction as it is the verve of its current line-up.

Claire Booth © Sven Arnstein
Claire Booth
© Sven Arnstein

The first of the world premières opened the concert – Richard Causton’s Piano Quintet. The Nash’s vigour was there right from the beginning, as the trio of upper strings battled with the duo of cello and piano; the first swirling high, homophonic tonal harmony, the second low, atonal jumps. Bjørg Lewis on cello was somewhat lost in the texture, even when the duo finally won the battle. David Adams then impressively held agonisingly high harmonics on violin for well over five minutes while the atmosphere of the piece shifted into hypnotic territory. Tim Horton brought a lullaby-like quality to his piano trilling interjections as the ensemble invoked a shimmering night sky, ending with plucked piano strings wonderfully mimicking the tolls of early morning bells.

Claire Booth joined the ensemble for Elliott Carter’s Poems of Louis Zukofsky (the only piece in the programme not by a living composer) and Harrison Birtwistle’s Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker. The former was more successful Booth’s tone exhibiting both warmth and clarity, with pin-sharp diction. There was no need to reference the printed words in the programme for Zukofsky poems, where Richard Horsford’s clarinet was very much an equal voice to Booth. Both dealt admirably with the changes in style and technical from one poem to another, but they excelled in the slower, more expressive settings.

Booth’s second appearance didn’t quite match her first; the opening Niedecker setting felt over-egged and heavy, especially compared with Adrian Brendel’s sensitive, pendulum-like swinging cello. Brendel’s expressiveness impressed throughout (even with some frankly unnecessary cello codas); creating a sultry feel in the third poem, birds flying in the fifth, frogs hopping in the sixth, and a wonderful andante quality in the eighth. Booth, on the other hand, now sounded tired, the heaviness being replaced with an over-brightness over the course of the poems.

In between these works, the interval was sandwiched by the second world première, Peter Maxwell Davies String Quintet, and the oldest work in the concert, Simon Holt’s Shadow Realm (composed in 1983). The latter had some lovely musical moments. Horsford brought a wonderfully flutey tone to his clarinet, and there was great echoing and blending from the ensemble, as well a good harmonic interplay to create a shadowy, mysterious atmosphere, punctuated by night terrors. Unfortunately it didn’t quite hold together as a piece, lacking an overall momentum.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s String Quintet marks the composer’s joy and relief at working again, after being given the all-clear from leukemia. It felt as if Max wanted to explore as much as he could; the lyrical double theme which opened the first movement, the Chacony (a wonderful moment from the two cellos) went through a variety of textures and moods (hints of Janáček and Ravel among them). The ensemble articulated each of these changes in focus exquisitely, with huge passion and energy. The Reel exploded into life, before halting as if out of breath, then exploding again with whistling violins; again, a wonderfully expressive interpretation. Unfortunately it came unstuck in the Slow Air; the gentle, warm and deep rendition couldn’t make up for the movement simply being too long. This was a shame, as otherwise this quintet was a wonderful return by Max. The closing movement, Stamash (uproar) burst into life with ferocity, building up the tension before releasing into a slower, darker coda, which simmered to a close.

The ensemble-in-residence ended with a work by the composer-in-residence, Julian Anderson. Poetry Nearing Silence is comprised of eight movements, inspired by artwork where novels are treated by selecting one phrase from a page and painting over the rest, with the content of the painting being inspired by the selected words. Anderson perfectly translates this idea into music, and the Nash brought it to life wonderfully. Particularly entertaining was “my future as a star in a film of my room”, complete with ratchet to mimic the sound of rolling film, while “lashing in Italy” was the most taut of the performances. The concert was recorded for broadcast on Hear and Now on June 13th; I’d recommend tuning in.

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