As I took my seat at Saturday’s concert by the Nash Ensemble, one in a series entitled “Dreamers of Dreams” put on as part of their residency at the Wigmore Hall, I wondered what I was about to let myself in for. That the Nash Ensemble had chosen to present the works of early 20th-century composers was not especially surprising – after all, they are known for unusual, inventive programming – but among the composers represented in Saturday’s concert were names such as Roger Quilter, Percy Grainger and Arthur Bliss, often regarded as second-rate. What I discovered was that although they weren’t exactly classical music heavyweights, their music, along with the Nash Ensemble’s entertaining playing, made for a thorougly enjoyable evening.

Members of the Nash Ensemble © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
Members of the Nash Ensemble
© Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

The evening began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet (c. 1912), which could fairly be described as the most “serious” item on the programme. It bore many of the hallmarks of RVW’s output, with modal patterns and folk-music rhythms being particularly prevalent. The opening motif, sensitively played by violist Lawrence Power, was not dissimilar to The Lark Ascending. The Nash Ensemble’s playing was crisp throughout, despite some challenging writing; they excelled in the demanding second and fourth movements, a Scherzo (Prestissimo) and a Burlesca (Allegro moderato). It was clear at this early stage in the concert that the members of the ensemble enjoyed playing together: their expressive swaying and smiling faces gave the audience a visual treat to match the aural.

Next came the “fun” part – three folk-song arrangements by the Australian composer Percy Grainger, arranged for piano and strings. Part silly, part very cleverly written, the comical elements of the pieces were highlighted by the players. Even if a little imprecise, the final flourish of Shepherd’s Hey (1908-9) was great fun – as was pianist Ian Brown’s humorous playing of staccato chords in Handel in the Strand (1912), broadly based on Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith, with string melodies and counter-melodies added by Grainger himself. My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone (1912) provided a slower, bucolic contrast to the other pieces.

Arthur Bliss was, in his early career at least, regarded as a leading champion of the avant garde, and composed a number of pieces in which the voice was treated instrumentally. The first of the three pieces we heard – Rout (1921) – was an example of this newly fashionable style of writing. With a chamber orchestra of 11 players (incredibly, they and their conductor all fitted on the central part of the Wigmore’ small stage), Bliss gave the soprano line nonsense syllables, so as to evoke “the sound of a carnival overheard at a distance”. Soprano Sally Matthews’ powerful voice took some getting used to, but she and the enlarged Nash Ensemble were perfectly balanced and delivered successfully. The Women of Yueh (1923) was short and sweet, and perhaps did not allow Matthews to flourish, but the preceding Madam Noy (1918), a “witchery-song”, allowed her to show off her impressive voice as well as her acting talent.

A reduced Nash Ensemble returned to the stage after the interval to play Three Pastoral Songs (1920) by the much-maligned composer Roger Quilter. These songs – each a setting of poetry by Joseph Campbell – were not as twee as I had expected, though the third (I Wish and I Wish) did not pretend to be anything but a throwaway song based on child-like thoughts. Sally Matthews skilfully and expressively delivered the folk-like, impressionistic qualities of I Will Go With My Father A-Ploughing, whilst employing thoughtful dynamic contrast in Cherry Valley.

The final item was Elgar’s String Quartet in E minor (1918). Elgar completed the three-movement work in fits and starts at his country cottage on the Sussex Downs, and W.H. Reed, the violinist who played through Elgar’s sketches during composition, remarked that it showed “more than any other of his works, his love of the country-side... in all three movements it breathes calm and contentment, and the contemplation of nature in summer mood.” I was not convinced of the supposed impressionistic qualities of the piece, though that was more to do with the music itself than the Nash Ensemble’s fine playing, which maintained my interest throughout. I was particularly impressed by their ensemble in the final moments of the third movement (Allegro moderato), in which the upper strings’ semiquaver runs were perfectly together.

The Nash Ensemble has proved itself to be one of the foremost chamber groups of its time, and this concert did not disappoint. In this concert in particular, its flexible approach enabled it to tackle a variety of pieces by composers who are not always held in the highest regard, and to turn preconceptions about them completely on their head through its excellent and often amusing playing. The remaining concerts in this series at the Wigmore Hall are a must-hear (and -see!).