The Nash Ensemble toasted its golden anniversary with a selection of golden French repertoire – some of it more familiar in orchestral form – at its Wigmore Hall gala. Formed by Amelia Freedman in October 1964, the ensemble is a mainstay of London’s chamber music scene, its versatility a real virtue, with an incredible number of commissions and world premières to its credit. Taking the familiar pairing of Debussy and Ravel and adding a Fauré gem and Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été to the mix created a mouth-watering menu.

© Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
© Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Shorn of its orchestral gauze, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune sounded earthier than usual. David Walter’s arrangement for wind quintet, string quartet, double bass, harp and percussion (Nash Ensemble pianist Ian Brown) retains Debussy’s original colouring, but the sleek string sound diverts the focus more onto the pungent woodwind solos. Gareth Hulse impressed in long curlicue oboe phrases, while Philippa Davies’ flute solos were tenderly voiced. Conductor Paul Watkins ensured plenty of forward momentum, so that the erotic desires of the faun in Debussy’s free interpretation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem burned passionately.

Gabriel Fauré’s delectable Piano Quartet no. 1 in C minor was given a charming performance. Its composition began during Fauré’s brief engagement to Marieanne Viardot (daughter of the famous singer Pauline Viardot) and the sweeping opulence of the first movement’s opening statement was wonderfully caught. Switching baton for cello, Paul Watkins – seated between Marianne Thorsen (violin) and Lawrence Power (viola) – was again the driving force, giving purposeful intent to the music. In the movement’s more amiable interludes, Watkins would turn to his string partners, as if inviting them to join the musical discourse. Ian Brown, Nash Ensemble stalwart for 35 years, provided steady support at the piano, the Scherzo being more of a jog trot than a scamper. The trio section, however, had a lovely coyness about it.

Power’s burnished viola sound – almost as dark as the cello – was particularly noticeable in the poignant C minor Adagio, full of autumnal nostalgia. The finale was launched with vim and vigour in stormy A minor before reaching a triumphant C major conclusion, greeted with a roar of approval from the packed hall.

A ravishing performance of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro flickered between the ethereal and the effervescent. Flute and clarinet acted as sirens, tempting us in, where the crystalline brilliance of Lucy Wakeford’s harp bewitched. Commissioned by the Érard company to show off its new double-action pedal harp, Ravel’s septet is little short of a mini-harp concerto, featuring a cadenza which sparkled under Wakeford’s fingers.

That level of magic wasn’t quite maintained in the final work, Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. As with the Debussy Faune, it was presented in chamber garb, courtesy of a fine 2005 arrangement by David Matthews. Soprano Kate Royal sounded stretched by the tessitura, with a hardening of tone at the top of her range, plus a tendency to swallow consonants. In the opening phrases of “Absence” (presented here in the key of F sharp major) the notes E sharp and F sharp were especially blanched. The final verse of “Le spectre de la rose” also found her in considerable difficulty. Royal was at her most comfortable in “Au cimitière”, finding a plaintive tone, matched by the eerie woodwind calls from the ensemble.

There was much to enjoy in the playing, especially Paul Watkins’ pacing of “Villanelle”, bursting with verdant excitement. Adrian Brendel contributed a warm cello introduction to “Le spectre de la rose”, whilst chuckling woodwinds brought out the requisite playfulness in “L’île inconnue” to draw a wonderful evening to a close.