Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Nash Ensemble / Ainsley @ Wigmore Hall, London

27 October 2012

John Mark Ainsley

John Mark Ainsley

This concert, the second of nine in the Nash Ensemble’s ‘Dreamers of Dreams’ English music series, culminated in a visionary performance of Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge. Preceding,Britten’s Three Divertimenti for string quartet, a student composition from 1933-6, indicates the precocious nature of Britten’s gifts. In the opening March, the Nash’s performance emphasised the contrast of rigid form through their incisive playing with wit and playful jocularity. The Waltz was of more inspired by English pastoral idioms than anything Viennese, its delicacy coming through with many subtle inflections carefully captured. The Burlesque, by contrast, was feverishly accented despite the demanding tempo. There was much of a sense of inevitability that led the piece to its abrupt conclusion.

The music of Frank Bridge, Britten’s teacher, has undergone something of a reassessment over the past fifty years. The 1904 Romanze, marked Andante moderato, was rather stately in the piano introduction before a more passionate aspect was brought to bear in the sweeping violin part. The Cradle song, also marked Andante moderato, from 1910 appeared a somewhat nostalgic lullaby, though Marianne Thorsen took delight in exploring the writing for the violin’s lower register. The 1903 Serenade is also well-known in its salon orchestra format, but is no less charming as a duet. The duo brought out its inherent lyricism and playfulness through their nuanced playing.

Warlock’s The Fox found John Mark Ainsley drawing his vocal inflections from the text to grin sardonically, laugh and mock to complete an almost ghostly vision of the dusty stuffed fox in his glass case. Even if songs with string quartet accompaniment were not something of a rarity, Warlock’s settings would be hard to better. With lyrics drawn from anonymous sixteenth-century verses, Shakespeare and contemporary poets such as George Peele, the set is diverse to say the least. Chopcherry was dance-like and fresh in its appeal. Of the Elizabethan settings My Lady is a Pretty One carried the greater sense of period influence on the writing, though both were performed and sung with clarity, and vocal effortlessness. Shakespeare’s Take, O take those lips away (from Measure for Measure) found an apt echo for the pain of the text in Ainsley’s world-weary vocal tone. Sleep brought the grouping to an apt conclusion, the song’s wrought tapestry of emotions finding rest with the words, ‘O let my joys have some abiding!’

A trio of Elgar violin and piano miniatures opened the second half. La Capricieuse, written in ABA form, proceeded with ease from its initial skittishness to a more rounded and measured lyricism. Only occasionally was the mood disturbed by Marianne Thorsen overplaying the solo part, impetuousness bringing out a touch of brashness. This could not be said though of the playing in Canto Popolare, which was openly vocal in its leanings and emotionally laden in its impact. Sospiri found Thorsen and Brown in true partnership, the broad languid phrases deployed with appropriate sense of scale.

All the performers came together for a performance of Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge. In the opening song John Mark Ainsley was pushed in his top register to maintain the floated timbre he found elsewhere, but much more in the way of a delicate perfume was found in From far, from eve and morning. The dialogue within Is my team ploughing? was effortlessly projected in Ainsley’s contrasting vocal tones, whilst the Nash Emsemble provided a searching and heart-rending accompaniment. Oh, when I was in love with you provided a much needed contrast of levity, delivered with straight-forward simplicity. The narrative of Bredon Hill was exactly conveyed by Ainsley, ably partnered at every turn. The sense of emotional emptiness the song contained was developed in the concluding song, Clun. Taking in tumult and solitude the cycle was brought to a masterful conclusion where voice and instruments held equal sway.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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