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The Singularity of Ensemble Music

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts, 92St. Y
03/28/2009 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Viola, K. 498
Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams: Quintet for Clarinet, Horn, Piano and Strings
Igor Stravinsky: Suite from “Histoire du Soldat” for Clarinet, Violin and Piano
Antonín Dvorák: Quartet for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 87

The Nash Ensemble: Richard Hasford (Clarinet), Richard Watkins (Horn), Marianne Thorsen (Violin), Lawrence Power (Viola), Paul Watkins (Cello), Ian Brown (Piano)

My initial thought was that a concert of chamber music by The Nash Ensemble would be a pleasant entr’acte between the four concerts of Prokofiev by Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. But that would be like saying that a tureen of Beluga caviar was an “entr’acte” between Lobster Bisque and Kobe Beef. The word doesn’t fit.

Nor does The Nash Ensemble fit any chamber music category. They have strings, yes. They have winds, yes. They have a pianist, yes. But how do they put these things together for a whole evening? Very simple. Over 40 years ago, they decided to make music both mainstream and unusual. This British group has commissioned 140 different works, played 250 premieres, and done nothing but a top-rate job since then.

I have seen them in Asia and Europe, and, Gergiev notwithstanding, couldn’t resist listening to them again, since no two programs are the same with this group.

Except for a single commonality. Their musicianship—every man and woman, every instrument, every work—is impeccable. The status of the pieces may vary (as they did here), but the music they performed has a rare, almost ethereal perfection.

I had never heard two of the pieces last night, but the opening Mozart Trio for viola, clarinet and piano opened a gallery of noble colors which I had not ever conceived. The piano part was played with flourish by Ian Brown, as he did in all the works. But listening to those two stately instruments, viola and low-register clarinet—instruments which Brahms made interchangeable in some of his music—was like a study in regality.

The first movement, an unusual Andante, delved deep into the lower notes, but was hardly desolate. The middle movement was an equal delight. But these three soloists practically sung through the delectable finale.

Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams is rarely played in America these days, and The Nash Ensemble didn’t break that pattern. Little of Sir Ralph’s student piece seemed to ensue from the grizzled old Gloucester-man himself. The world-be master of atmosphere and integrator of folksong, was here the student who must have felt like the Ultimate Brahmsian. The piece was Germanic to its core, except for a very funky “Intermezzo” with a waltz tune, sudden breaks from major to minor, and a strange violin cadenza.

The rest of this quintet—played again perfectly with a spot-on French horn solo—looked like a student piece which would have been judged quite highly from his academic colleagues.

The second half of the program was a wonderful arrangement of Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat which the composer arranged for piano, violin and viola. It was more transparent than the original, if a lot simpler (the piano part sounded like some of his children’s pieces!), but the tango was enormous fun.

The finale was one of Antonín Dvorák’s masterpieces, played masterfully. The quartet has so many wonderful songs, such lovely and unexpected development and such unusual structure it was a fitting bookend to the opening Mozart. Mozart too could have started a slow movement with a viola theme, pizzicatos on the strings, and a beautiful piano role. Yet there are even more songs coming out of here, which the four Nash folk finished with a great climax.

The Scherzo was equally lilting, but the finale—wrongly described in the program as “theme with variations”—was simply the composer going partly Magyar, partly Czech, but always played with a hell-for-leather ferocity by the players.

They are a dazzling ensemble, filled with surprise, still great enthusiasm, and the gift of unerring ensemble solidarity.

Harry Rolnick



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