Opera + Classical Music Reviews

‘From My Homeland’ review – Nash Ensemble continue their Czech journey

13 January 2024

Chamber music by Dvořák, Suk and Brahms performed with intensity and passion.

Nash Ensemble (Photo: Barry Creasy)

In their ‘From My Homeland’ series, Nash Ensemble have been presenting music from Czech/Bohemian/Moravian composers from the 19th and 20th centuries, along with works by Brahms. Their latest concert featured two well-known and well-loved works (Brahms’ Op. 18 String Sextet and Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio) alongside a pair of rarities: a selection of four movements from Dvořák’s Cypresses, and Josef Suk’s Meditation on an Old Bohemian Chorale ‘Saint Wenceslas’, also for string quartet.

Dvořák’s Cypresses (Cypřiše) began life in 1865 as a set of 18 songs (texts by Gustav Moravský) for voice and piano, but it was clearly material that the composer couldn’t leave alone, as he rearranged selections from the work several times, including, in 1887, for string quartet. As would be expected, these pieces are essentially accompanied melody, but Dvořák’s orchestration skills shine out in these arrangements, allowing the melodies and harmonies to switch across instruments to produce beautifully textured, entirely charming pieces that feel as though they had been composed especially for the forces. The quartet (Stephanie Gonley, Jonathan Stone, Lars Anders Tomter and Adrian Brendel) brought out every shade of mood in these short vignettes. The sentimentality of the rose-scented ‘In that sweet power of your eyes’ came through in the ravishing opening violin tune underscored by gentle harmonies from the second violin and viola and a thrum of cello pizzicato. This prettiness continued in ‘Here I look upon this dear letter’, to be interrupted by a stormy passage given all the energy it needed. The low string opening of ‘Oh dear soul’ was delivered with bags of passion, and the jolly dance of ‘Over the countryside’ was delivered with sprightly accuracy (its occasionally uneasy harmonies skipped over with a knowing insouciance).

“…Dvořák’s orchestration skills shine out in these arrangements…”

Brahms’ Op. 18 was the first of two string sextets written between 1860 and 1865, and they seem to mark an attempt by the composer to train himself to ‘downsize’ from writing for larger orchestral forces to his later intensely precise quartets and quintets. They’re both glorious pieces, full of the composer’s adept counterpoint and sliding romantic harmonies. The performance was in safe hands with the Nash who gave us a solid feel for the tempo in the opening section of the first movement, and a deal of perfect balance across the six instruments such that each was allowed its place in the sun, but the harmonic adornments in the interior were never lost. A mannered quality to the phrasing and dynamic pervaded the performance, and here ‘intensity’ was definitely the watchword (albeit that there was occasionally a little too heavy a tread from the cellos, as if attempting to take control of the tactus). The work’s second movement is a joy: a series of variations on the 15th century La Folia dance tune that require some fancy footwork in terms of contrasting the shifting moods. This received full measure from the ensemble, and we were given plenty of intention and fire where they were needed, along with well judged dynamic swerves into the lighter variations. The performance of the Scherzo was full of joie de vivre, its rapid passages in triple time brilliantly co-ordinated to convey spontaneous abandon (plenty of wood on string) without tipping over into chaos. The final Rondo enjoyed a mannered performance where attention to dynamic (particularly in the offhand cadential phrases) was set to max.

Josef Suk’s Meditation on an old Bohemian Chorale was new to me; it is a short work, but it deserves to be heard much more often. Given its roots in a 12th century patriotic chorale to the Czech patron saint, it has not only a hymnodic feel to it, but a modal quality to its harmonies, and it’s this latter quality, along with Suk’s elegiac writing, that summons not central Europe, but, oddly, England, as there’s a real similarity to the chamber works of the English Pastoralists (Vaughan Williams, perhaps, or even Frank Bridge). Suffice it to say that the quartet applied their genius to the short work to bring out all of its allure, from the sad little procession of opening viola notes, through turbulent anger, to its breathy light close.

Stephanie Gonley (violin) and Adrian Brendel (cello) were joined by Alasdair Beatson (piano) for Dvořák’s E-minor piano trio (‘Dumky’) each of whose six movements was given intelligent consideration for texture and contrast. Particularly enjoyable were: the transition, in the second movement, from a kind of ‘Totentanz’ into a gypsy-style whirl; the elegantly poised phrasal exchanges between strings and piano (the piano notes places ‘just so’) in the third movement; and the fourth movement’s juxtaposition of a solid, constraining four-beat structure against the freedom of soaring string lines and an energetic dance.

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