It’s hard to think of another British ensemble that has worked so hard or generated so much new music as the Nash. Its ‘serial commissioner’ director Amelia Freedman and its successive musicians have barely drawn breath in the last half-century, so this anniversary season at the Wigmore Hall offers an opportunity to revisit some of their 193 commissions, placing them in fresh contexts.
In a pre-concert interview Mark-Anthony Turnage paid warm tribute to Freedman for giving him the chance to explore string writing though chamber commissions, which then helped develop his orchestral confidence. He pointed out that for a period in the last 30 years much new music written for strings was ungrateful and unidiomatic, in effect wind writing to be played on stringed instruments. The Nash has played a key role in the recent renaissance in string works in old forms: ‘Composers are often too scared to write for string quartet – it’s so intimidating, so they write a string sextet instead!’ he joked. And this concert boasted two, commissioned by the Nash in 2007 and 2009 by Turnage and Peter Maxwell Davies.
Yet the richly-woven Brahmsian model which so inspired Tchaikovsky and Dvorák was not in evidence. Both Turnage and Maxwell Davies have treated the six instruments independently, rather than as sections, with no driving engine of inner-parts, thus creating airy, exposed textures and subtle timbral contrasts.
Turnage’s Returning, written for his parents’ own 50th wedding anniversary, is all about continuities and homecoming. Opening ‘as if frozen’ with fragile, keening tones over stuttering pizzicati, a melody grows from a single note and begins to clothe itself with twining harmonies, the cello shadowing violins rather than underpinning harmony. In an intense, dynamic middle section strokes slice antiphonally across the group, until it begins to dissolve, and the high, sweet tune of its opening returns, ending with a lone veiled viola. I would never think of Turnage in the same breath as Maxwell Davies, and yet both these sextets seemed to belong, in their own inimitable ways, to a long tradition of British pastoralism whose melancholy resonances persist into our time.
Of course, Maxwell Davies’s musical landscapes particularly reflect his rugged Orcadian home, and The Last Island (2009) is a portrait of a rocky outcrop off Sanday. It offers a dizzying labyrinth of fiendish polyrhythms, enacting the elemental conflicts that menace the island. We seem to hear the groans of ship-wrecked sailors in its opening, a strange suspension of wails, harmonics and glissandi, which coalesce into broad, hymn-like music, disturbed by the fluttering of wings. The sextet, wonderfully performed by the Nash, led by Stephanie Gonley under Martyn Brabbin’s precise direction, ends with fragments of plainsong and the soughing of the wind. Helen Wallace
The next concert in the Nash Ensemble’s 50th birthday season is on Saturday 17 January at the Wigmore Hall.
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new quartet Contusion will be performed by the Belcea Quartet on 6 December