Spot on programming with a “Vienna and its Empire” theme made this Saturday evening at Wigmore Hall a pretty uplifting experience. Kicking off with the ambitious and accomplished Piano Quartet movement in A minor by the 16-year-old Mahler, finds the young composer treading in the footsteps of late Schubert, through the prism of Schumann and Brahms. In the Nash Ensemble’s hands, it came across as a mature and accomplished chamber work, making one regret that this was the only smaller scale instrumental work by the composer. Clarity of line in this performance was never compromised for lushness of tone and the emotional core of the piece was held in focus to a moving effect.

Members of the Nash Ensemble © Keith Saunders
Members of the Nash Ensemble
© Keith Saunders
From this early work, we moved to another by Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), the young composer’s breakthrough piece. Based on the poem by Richard Dehmel, it is an example of early expressionism, which unusually has a happy ending. Rather like Janáček’s Jenůfa, the theme is forgiveness in the face of sexual impropriety. And, like Jenůfa, the eventual moment of forgiveness is very moving, perhaps accounting for its continued appearance in the repertoire.

Not that it was given an easy ride by Viennese critics and academics at its first performance in 1902. Its, at times, advanced harmonic language met with disapproval initially, but with audiences, its abundance of melodies, dramatic first section and the melting beauty of transfiguration music have made it the composer's most popular work, both in the sextet version and in the string orchestra arrangement the composer made some years later.

The Nash Ensemble certainly had the measure of its intricate weaving of lines, harmonies and dynamics. Its Wagnerian opening section was played with hushed intensity and this led to the sustained passage of angst, the depicting the woman’s confession. Here, the sextet version comes into its own with the intricate lines being clear and biting, brought out splendidly in this performance. The Nash certainly found a rawness and passion in climaxes, never being tempted to linger too much in the brief periods of respite. When the storm has passed and the beautiful murmuring music of the forest arrives in comforting D major, the Nash found the most rapt and unsullied tone. The positive music that follows was wonderfully brought off, never over-indulged, and all the more touching for it. A committed and truthful performance of a great work.

After the transfiguration from darkness into the light that ended the first half of the concert, it seemed only fitting that we should continue with a work that is remarkable for its joyousness, Schubert's “Trout” Quintet. Happy music, that isn’t trite, is perhaps the hardest thing for a composer to bring off; only the greatest can do it with such gleaming sustained effortlessness as Schubert. From the outset, the rising arpeggios in the piano give the impression of upward movement, with pianist Ian Brown finding a wide variety of tone in their regular return in the first movement. Brown's performance was one of the joys of the whole performance, always alert and part of the ensemble, with just about the right level of bossiness.

A most characterful and joyous performance, it was particularly successful in the ‘Trout’ theme and variation fourth movement, which gives each player the opportunity to shine, even the double bass. A wonderful generosity of spirit pervaded the performance here, evidence of one of the chief glories of the Nash Ensemble – being neither a collection of soloists occasionally joining forces nor a small group of chamber specialists working together constantly – the pure pleasure of making music together. The finale that followed was perfectly balanced between being elegant and driven, bringing the evening to a crisp and envigorating A major close.