In this bicentenary of Robert Schumann’s birth, the programming of a modern composer’s take on one of his predecessor’s works was highly appropriate and thought-provoking.
Robin Holloway’s Fantasy-Pieces on the Heine-Liederkreis op. 24 to poems by Heinrich Heine is a instrumental abstraction of Schumann’s songs, intended to incorporate a complete performance of the cycle, which takes themes from Schumann’s original and subtly unravels them into their melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components.
Similar in intent to Aribert Reimann’s treatment of other German Lieder composers (including Schumann), Holloway’s method is less interventionist than that of his German counterpart, with more of Schumann’s original material left recognizable and allowed to filter throughout the five movements. The Nash Ensemble, on their usual fine form, were expertly directed by ENO’s music director Edward Gardner, with Richard Watkins’s horn in particular mellifluously delivering several of Schumann’s wonderful melodies.
Toby Spence was accompanied by the Nash’s pianist Ian Brown in the Liederkreis, and although the tenor’s tendency to push in the lower register when looking for volume sometimes took the sheen off his voice, it was a beautiful performance in my opinion, perhaps made a little too mannered by his vocal effects (most notably, persistent small portamenti for expression), but strong and believable.
Brown returned with colleagues Benjamin Nabarro, Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins to perform Schumann’s Piano Quartet, and this was the most moving performance of the work I can remember hearing. From the recurring opening sostenuto, the ensemble was tight-knit and vibrant, and alert to every change in direction and pace of the music. The skittish Scherzo was made almost a game, such was the ease with which the quartet fired off the notes, and the fugato of the finale was delivered with relish and abandon, but with every note and accent exactly in place. Most moving of all was the soft, gentle Schumannian fantasy of the Andante cantabile third movement, but this was a whole much greater than the simple sum of its parts.