The Nash Ensembles Echoes of Romanticism concerts at the Wigmore Hall where they are Chamber Ensemble in Residence is proving to be a fascinating and excellently-programmed journey through the heady currents of musical Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first concert of the series contained Mahlers Piano Quartet movement, Brahms Clarinet Quintet, and Bruchs String Quintet in E flat, and later performances will push the chronological and stylistic boundaries even further, going back to Mozart and forward to Korngold and Richard Strauss.
Mozarts Piano Quartet served to ease us into the stormy Romantic sea. While the middle Andante and the cheery final Rondo might seem to dissipate the gravitas of the Quartets crystalline clear opening Allegro, its this very mix of moods that plants the work in the Romantic arena. To this end, while the playing of Ian Brown (piano), Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Paul Watkins (cello) was, unsurprisingly, excellent, I occasionally longed to hear more of an introverted sound, especially in the first two movements although theres certainly much to be said for forthright, strident playing in Mozart.
The monumental Adagio from Bruckners String Quintet suffered a little from this same affliction. Bruckner made exquisite use of the two viola parts ( la Mozart and Brahms) to create glorious, earthy, moving middle- and lower-register passages alongside the soaring, yearning heights to which the two violin parts climb and again, there was often too little burnish on the sound for my liking. To be transported into G flat major for this movement from the Quintets overall key of F major is to be washed over by a feeling of immense warmth, and performing only the Adagio means that even more effort needs to be made to achieve this.
These instrumental works were complemented by two chamber arrangements of orchestral songs from fin de sicle Vienna. Schoenbergs advocacy for the works of Mahler and his followers led to his founding a Society for Private Musical Performances, for which he and others arranged large-scale works for an eclectic (and eccentric) ensemble. This was the origin of Edwin Steins reduction of two of Zemlinskys Maeterlinck songs, and the inspiration for Reinbert de Leeuws 1984 arrangement of Mahlers Kindertotenlieder.
Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink joined conductor Martyn Brabbins and the Nash Ensemble for the songs and showed, with a performance of entrancing stillness and astute dynamic contrasts (although seemingly fairly dependent on her scores), why she is in such demand as a Lieder singer. Zemlinskys quirky treatment of Maeterlincks frankly creepy verse doesnt allow a singer much scope for long legato lines or beauty of tone, and so Finks excellent diction and delivery of the texts, while integrating fully with the ensemble, made sure that what we were left with was not merely the weirdness of the songs, but an unsettling discomfort.
The Kindertotenlieder are a different matter altogether, the five settings of poems by Rckert containing some of the most heartbreaking music of the period, and perhaps of any period. Here Fink found just the right times to bare her soul over the poets lost children, and just the right times to retreat within herself and draw us in with her. There was much sparkling playing from the instrumentalists, particularly Gareth Hulse on oboe and Richard Watkin on horn; again, this was an outstanding ensemble achievement, with an equally distinguished solo performance.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org