After spending a short time away on the Southern coast of France, it was welcoming to attend a concert drawn from both sides of the continent shortly after returning: a French composer, two English composers and a work of a Frenchman arranged by a contemporary English musician.

Robin Tritschler © Sussie Ahlberg
Robin Tritschler
© Sussie Ahlberg

The programme itself seemed to straddle the extremes of melancholy on the English side and quirky eccentricity on the French. Furthermore, in terms of style, the subtle and sophisticated dissonances (false relations, split thirds and the like) within Warlock’s The Curlew and Poulenc’s Sextet complemented each other particularly well, despite their vastly disparate emotional contents. The melodic integrity of the programme was an additional point of interest: parallels are often drawn between Poulenc, Warlock and Schubert with regards to their natural facility for melody. This element was not lacking in Holst’s music, either.

The opening flourish in Poulenc’s nimble and virtuosic sextet unfortunately felt a little uncoordinated, and this seemed to be an issue again in the return to the opening Allegro in the final third of the first movement. This is, however, only a minor comment. Overall, and in all movements, there was a sense of fun which was communicated both in sound and through the visual exchanges between the members of the ensemble. Timbral blends during unison lines were enjoyable and considered, and there was a good overall balance. The layers, also, were mostly clear. Furthermore, Poulenc’s quick and often unexpected changes of mood were well-incorporated, particularly the transition from the opening Allegro Vivace to the slower middle section of the first movement. Andrea de Flammineis, the bassoonist, didn't allow his unaccompanied solo (which bridges these sections) to be rushed and it thus had a truly quasi-recitative feel. Most of all, sentimentality was avoided in the slower sections of the movements, except at the very end (and gladly so), during the heartfelt coda of the third movement. Here Poulenc seems to wear his heart on his sleeve in what amounts to a brief musical sigh. In their performance, the London Conchord Ensemble simply allowed the music to speak and the Romantic, earnest side of the composer achingly revealed itself.

Imogen Holst was only 20 when she wrote her impressively mature, single-movement Phantasy Quartet, a gem of a work that is well worth taking the time to listen to, particularly those with a taste for the music of Frank Bridge or Vaughan Williams. Whilst nevertheless having written a substantial amount (much still yet to be published), Holst insisted in 1972 that she was not a composer, but rather that her musical education had simply allowed her to compose. The Phantasy received its Prom première this year, 85 years after its completion. Tinged with a typical English melancholy and wistfulness, it has an undercurrent of wintry bleakness in its sound-world, particularly as a result of the opening harmonies and barren part-writing. The Conchord’s rich and gravelly tone communicated this perfectly. There are beautifully-written, full viola lines and a truly soaring first violin part that spans great heights and depths of the instrument’s register in a single phrase.

From this platform, the programme plunged into even greater depths of human despair. The Curlew is an utterly hopeless work. Whilst other composers might have written a more compassionate setting of Yates’s poems, Warlock seems to have intentionally produced a song cycle that is stone cold, expansive, bleak, and avoids endearing itself to the listener. This is both a result of the notes themselves and of the instrumentation, particularly the dark timbre of the cor anglais. Having heard Robin Tritschler sing Britten’s Ballad of Heroes at the Wales Millennium Centre in May, it was a delight to hear him again, but in a more intimate setting. In The Curlew his diction was noticeably clear and the tortured, unsettled and pathetic natures of the words were direct and communicative.

By the end of the performance the atmosphere within the hall was palpably sombre. Thus, Thomas Adès’s charming and quirky arrangement of François Couperin’s Les Baricades Mistérieuses came like a gentle splash of warm water after Warlock’s somewhat nihilistic cycle. It was certainly a welcome finishing piece in terms of character, though in context (at three minutes) it was perhaps a little too short and unfortunately the sense of linear flow – easily attainable at the harpsichord with ten fingers (eight if one is being historically-informed and not using the thumbs) – wasn't quite there at times, an understandable consequence, of course, of the ever-changing sustained notes managed by the five instruments (viola, cello, double bass, clarinet and bass clarinet) that are designed to serve to pass single musical lines between the members of the quintet.

It was a delight to hear such an energetic group as the London Conchord Ensemble explore these examples of emotionally-varied and – mostly – early 20th century music. I look forward my next opportunity to hear them again.