Saturday, 28 August 2010

Proms Saturday Matinee 4: Spence/Nash Ensemble/Gardner - Holloway and Schumann, 28 August 2010

Cadogan Hall

Robin Holloway – Fantasy-Pieces (on the Heine ‘Liederkreis’ of Schumann), op.16, incorporating:
Schumann – Liederkreis, op.24

Schumann – Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op.47

Toby Spence (tenor)
Ian Brown (piano)
Nash Ensemble
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Following on from the previous week’s Saturday matinee, which traced connections between Renaissance music and twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers, this Cadogan Hall Prom looked at Robin Holloway and Robert Schumann. Holloway’s music has long concerned itself with that of his predecessors, Schumann having proved an especially absorbing preoccupation. A new work, Reliquary: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ will be premiered at Prom 74, on 9 September. These op.16 Fantasy Pieces (1971), written to surround Schumann’s op.24 Heine Liederkreis, followed in the wake of his Scenes from Schumann (1970, revised 1986); indeed, Holloway’s commission arose from a performance in which Graham Jones heard those scenes and requested something similar to commemorate his silver wedding anniversary.

Of the five pieces, the first, a brief ‘Praeludium’, is heard before the Schumann cycle; the latter four are heard after. Holloway described the first movement’s chords as ‘scene-setting’, which might be understood not just in terms of the two works, but in terms of Holloway’s and his work’s historical position too: this music sounding somewhere between Schumann and that most gloriously and productively unrepentant of kleptomaniacs, Stravinsky. The warmth of the Nash Ensemble’s performance, ably directed by Edward Gardner, evoked Schumann, its clarity also hinting at twentieth-century conceptions. There followed a performance of the Schumann cycle itself, from Toby Spence and Ian Brown. Brown’s account of the piano part was impressive indeed, whether in the dignity imparted to Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen, the audible heart-throbbing – remember when this signified something a little more profound than Hollywood? – of Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen, or the straightforward yet never matter-of-fact integrity with which his music enabled Heine’s poetry to shine in the marvellous final Mit Myrthen und Rosen, the one song Holloway does not use in his subsequent explorations, preferring instead to leave it as a ‘sacred farewell’. (Perhaps this might also be on account of its already recapitulatory status?) Spence’s reading could not be faulted in its sincerity: he often reminded me of a Meistersinger David. But if not far off what we want here, is it quite what is required? One can leave aside odd verbal slips, though Spence’s excellent diction rendered them crystal-clear; these things happen. However, he could hector a little too much, Es treibt mich hin perhaps being presented a little too literally. There were times, moreover, when his tone sounded forced: not unfitting, perhaps, in the madness ravaging the mind of Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden, but there are other, more suggestive possibilities. That said, the Romantic innocence of Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen, was powerfully, beautifully evoked: a highlight of the performance.

Brown’s piano provided immediate continuity with the remaining Holloway pieces: it was initially as if, in the second (the ‘Praeludium’ already having been performed), ‘Half Asleep’, the other instruments engaged in refracting commentary whilst Schumann continued to be heard from his own instrument. But soon commentary and combination of themes acquire their own life. The third piece, ‘Adagio’, heightens awareness of the continuing, indeed developing, instability of our own responses to ‘works’ we know well. Here sonorities put me in mind, especially when the clarinet began to sing, of Berio’s orchestration of the Brahms second clarinet sonata, though Holloway’s piece was written a good number of years beforehand. Here the piano’s grand Romantic chords – referring perhaps to the Piano Concerto or other concertante works? – initiated ensemble responses. Perhaps it was my imagination, or simply an unintended correspondence, but was there a brief evocation of Der Rosenkavalier? Certainly throughout the work there were references to other Schumann cycles: Dichterliebe, and more overtly, Frauenliebe und –leben. The fourth-movement scherzo’s taxing instrumental lines were despatched not only with ease but with contrapuntal and harmonic meaning by the players of the Nash Ensemble. Tossed between each other, yet with heightening cumulative effect, further impetus was afforded by Stravinskian syncopations. (The Symphony in Three Movements sprang to my mind at least.) A phantasmagorical trio provides splendidly ambiguous contrast: neo-Romantic in the best sense. Finally and immediately, there followed the finale, ‘Roses-thorns and flowers’, in which the songs of Mahler at times seem almost as present in tone as Schumann undoubtedly is in the material. The piano’s prominence, both in work and performance, heightened the properly Schumannesque sense of fantasy – which is, after all, contained in the title, and for me suggested Busoni at times, not least in the harmonies generated by superimposition. Excellent horn playing provided unavoidable allusion to the vernal freshness of so much German Romanticism.

It was subsequently good to hear again, after quite some time, the op.47 piano quartet (violin: Benjamin Nabarro, viola: Lawrence Power, cello: Paul Watkins, piano: Ian Brown). What a joyous work this is, and so it sounded in the Nash Ensemble’s performance. From the opening of the first movement, one sensed just the right sort of personal happiness being voiced: Schumann at his best is always intimate – as Holloway recognises. Poised just between Beethoven and Brahms, this account was always forward-moving, yet never rushed. Rich tone was put at the service of the music, without the slightest suspicion of narcissism. Sometimes the piano lines ran away a little from Brown at the beginning of the scherzo, which was unquestionably ‘Molto vivace’, but the musical sense was always there, thanks to exemplary string playing. The Andante cantabile was just that, suffused with a longing (the German Sehnsucht seems more apt) that looks towards Brahms, yet remains more unbuttoned. Intimacy again proved key to the performance, no playing to the gallery here, Schumann’s music therefore emerging as deeply, sincerely felt in performance as on paper. The finale burst on to the scene with palpable joy, its contrapuntal outpouring soon outdone by profusion of melody. Harmonic and rhythmic motion were so well judged that they did not register in themselves; one simply imagined that the players were channelling Schumann directly. A splendid performance!

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