Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Serenade to Music: Nash Ensemble wish Ralph Vaughan Williams a happy birthday at Wigmore Hall

15 October 2022

“I took my harp to a party but nobody asked me to play for more than 10 minutes”.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Whoever planned Saturday evening’s chaotically programmed and overstuffed concert by the Nash Ensemble in celebration of Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary really needed to remember the dictum: Less Is More. While none of the performances was anything other than very good, and the audience certainly got their money’s worth, a concert beginning at 19:00 and ending at 22:20 (35 minutes after its billed ending, without any encores) was enough to try the listening attention of even an ardent lover of the music of the English Pastoralists. Pity harpist Sally Pryce and flautist Philippa Davies who appeared for a single item – Bax’s charming 10 minute Elegiac Trio – to be whisked off and never heard again, or the 13 extra singers (one soprano missing, presumably having given up waiting) who had to hang on until 22:00 just to get onto the stage for the final item, Serenade to Music.

Of the vocal items, the pinnacle was Roderick Williams’ account of Five Mystical Songs (in the chamber version). Williams’, solid, warm, even tone and subtle shadings of dynamic delivered all the contrasts of triumph, worship and gentle chiding that Herbert’s complex and symbolic texts require, accompanied by his usual excellent communication with the audience through glance and gesture.

While Alessandro Fisher has the right kind of English lyric voice to deliver the song cycle On Wenlock Edge, it has an occasional strident edge to it that took some of the warmth out of the songs. For the ghostly beginning to ‘Is my team ploughing?’, the tempestuous discomfort of the first song, and the breezy opening of ‘Clun’, this served well, but for the more pastoral and contemplative passages, one needed something with a richer tone, and, in the alternating verses ‘Is my team ploughing?’, there was no sense of two speakers.

“…the audience certainly got their money’s worth…”

Ralph Vaughan Williams (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Serenade to Music itself was nicely co-ordinated, and used a two piano accompaniment. After their long wait, the fifteen singers acquitted themselves well, and the magic moments (the glorious floated ‘…sweet harmony…’, the rocket fuelled ‘…still quiring…’ and ‘…true perfection…’, and the wall of sound ‘such harmony is in immortal souls’) were all delivered to extreme satisfaction, with equal joy coming from some of the lower voices (Jess Dandy’s rich contralto and Jonathan Lemalu’s basso profundo deserve special mention).

Given the concert featured players from the Nash Ensemble, there was no doubt that the instrumental work would be first class, and all of the ensemble items demonstrated not only a co-ordination between players born of long association, but a consummate understanding of the idiom, such that the small dramas of the music were dextrously performed, and each of the works was given bags of the luxuriant intensity that one would hope from this period. A few stand out moments here were: the beautifully co-ordinated rippling in the opening of the scherzo (Vaughan Williams’ Nocturne and Scherzo); the early dialogue between viola and flute in the Bax Trio; the perfectly placed piano chords of varying volume portraying the bells in ‘Bredon Hill’; the intensity of the opening statement and the magically synchronous viola and cello passages in Bridge’s Phantasie Piano Quartet; the exquisitely observed counterpoint of the four upper instruments weaving the musical material around each other in the ‘Alla Sarabanda’ movement of Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy String Quartet.

Also included were two solo instrument and piano sets, both accompanied, with his usual mannered excellence, by Philip Moore. Violinist Stephen Waarts’ Elgar set was expertly played and impressive in its technique, but for occasioning a bout of damp-eyed reverence for the beauty of Vaughan Williams’ music, cellist Adrian Brendel’s utterly perfect delivery of 6 Studies in English Folksong won hands down.

It was all lovely, but… maybe next time, spread it across two concerts?

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