In the latest of its annual programmes snappily entitled “Nash Inventions”, one of our foremost chamber ensembles presented two London and two World Premieres by five of the UK’s leading living composers.
Mark-Anthony Turnage, Harrison Birtwistle, James MacMillan, Alexander Goehr and Colin Matthews were all present, as distinguished a gathering as one can imagine.
For all the splendour of huge orchestral works like The Triumph of Time and the notorious Panic, which upset a few people when premiered at the Proms in 1995, Birtwistle is at his most beautiful and insinuating when writing on a small scale, at his most expressive when working with a handful of instruments. Compared to the other works in this concert, his 2003-4 Orpheus Elegies is a relative veteran, the only one to have been previously performed, in London at least. The Orpheus legend has run through Birtwistle’s consciousness, from Nenia: Death of Orpheus in 1970, via the huge stagework Mask of Orpheus to the present piece, and what a potent subject it has proved to be.
This latest exploration of the myth is based on 26 sonnets by Rainer Maria Rilke. Not all of the 26 Elegies contain words; some are just inspired by the poems, others quote the full text. The Nash Ensemble performed a selection of 11 of the pieces here. “Postcards” is how Birtwistle describes these vignettes voice as narrator, oboe as Orpheus, harp as lyre – short, pithy, often boisterous statements, at times sounding like a cart bouncing along with one wheel missing, at others tender and sweet. In short, an absolute delight. Counter-tenor Andrew Watts was the forcefully lyrical soloist, carving great vaults of sound, with gorgeous undulating accompaniment by Lucy Wakeford on harp and Gareth Hulse oboe.
The Birtwistle was preceded by Turnage’s Returning for string sextet (2007). From a static plucked opening, the piece unwinds slowly, melodies gradually forming. Flurries disturb the melodic line and build to a frantic climax before returning to a warmer version of the opening material. Unexpectedly for Turnage, there’s an almost Elgarian feel to this fine piece: gentle, elegiac and luscious.
James Macmillan’s Quintet for horn and string quartet (also 2007) has a large-scale feel to it, the size of sound scarcely believable from so small an ensemble. Strings and horn battle it out, textures constantly change, the solo brass (Richard Watkins) is outnumbered but insistently tries to top the singing, shouting, pouting strings. Sly little tunes creep around (did Beethoven’s 5th not exactly knock at the door but stick its nose through the letterbox at one point?), a dancing figure on the violin glides over a lake of pizzicati and the horn, silent for a while, re-asserts itself before leaving the stage as the viola sings a mournful solo. Visible in the door frame, the brass pretender is still present and, just as the strings appear to have won the day, it grabs a final drawn-out word. A vigorous and enthralling composition.
After the interval were two World Premieres, Alexander Goehr’s Quintet for clarinet and string quartet, and Colin Matthews’ The Island, also based on verse by Rilke. The Goehr was less varied than the earlier works, insistently driving through 12 (or was it 10?) barely discernable sections. A few reflective moments allow the clarinet (Michael Collins) to bask in its velvety luxuriousness, before the work ends unresolvedly.
Centrally-placed, fruity-toned and voluptuous soprano Claire Booth was something of an island herself, surrounded by a pool, rather than ocean, of instrumentalists for Matthews’ slight setting of three linked poems (unlike the Birtwistle, sung in English translation) accompanied by piano, flute, horn, violin, viola, cello and harp.
Led by the excellent Paul Watkins, the Nash Ensemble gave an evening of contrasting textures and varied combinations, a thrilling insight into what our contemporary composers have to offer away from the big arena of orchestral and operatic profusion.