Turnage – Returning, for string sextet
Goehr – Clarinet Quintet
Colin Matthews – The Island, for soprano and seven instruments
Davies – The Last Island, for string sextet
Birtwistle – Fantasia upon all the notes, for flute, clarinet, string quartet, and harp (world premiere)
Harvey – Song Offerings, for soprano and eight instruments
Claire Booth (soprano)
Lionel Friend (conductor)
Almost exactly four years ago (12 March 2012), three of the six works on this programme were performed at the Wigmore Hall as part of a ‘Nash Inventions’ programme, two of them, Colin Matthews’s The Island and Alexander Goehr’s Clarinet Quintet, as world premieres. It was interesting to welcome them back, not only to hear them again, but to hear them again in different company. Sir Harrison Birtwistle had been present in 2008, on that occasion with pieces from his Orpheus Elegies; this time, he had a world premiere, that of his Fantasia upon all the notes. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, another member of the ‘Manchester School’ – whether that school retains any meaningful identity is a question I shall leave on one side for the moment – was represented by The Last Island, for string sextet (2009), which forces also offered Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2007 Returning, the third of the pieces in common between the two programmes. Last, but certainly not least, was Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, by some distance the earliest of the works, dating as it does from 1985.
Turnage’s Returning, written for his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, made a similar impression to last time. It has an intriguing opening sound world: harmonics, shard-like writing, and a strong vein of ‘English’ nostalgia. Its sense of thawing came through powerfully in the Nash Ensemble’s performance, possessed of a wonderfully rich string tone, the impassioned central climax supported by a fine sense of line throughout. If its harmonic language tends to sound somewhat conventional in the company of these other works, this remains a work worth hearing.
Goehr’s Clarinet Quintet continues to intrigue and to delight. I cannot say that I subscribe any more than I did in 2008 to the composer’s own description of it as an austere work; at times, and perhaps especially in this performance, there is a sense of playfulness and, by contrast, almost of the ecstatic. There is an arresting – post-Bartókian – opening, whose rhythmic character as well as melodic inflection set up a number of possibilities later to be followed through, though certain melodic contours also bring to mind echoes of Brahms. (I do not think that is just a matter of the forces employed, though they doubtless make a difference.) The clarinet (Richard Hosford) acts both in a quasi-soloist role and as a member of the ensemble. Post-Schoenbergian rigour is of course present, but is in general lightly worn, though I was intrigued by the hints later on both of the First Chamber Symphony and the Suite, op.29. The work’s twelve sections are apparent but so, more clearly, is the sense of the work as a whole, for which again the performers must surely share the credit. One garners a sense of something akin to variations, though not quite the same; I thought fleetingly of Stravinsky’s Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam. But above all, there is a warmth, often a richness of harmony too, which prove inviting and satisfying, and make one very keen to hear the work again soon.
For The Island, a short song cycle on Rilke’s Nordsee, in Stephen Cohn’s translation, Claire Booth joined members of the Nash Ensemble. Her performance was every bit as excellent as one might have expected, indeed more so, precision and warmth in ideal balance. Matthews’s melancholy landscape was painted evocatively by the instrumentalists, the interlude between the first and second of the three songs a fine case in point of seamless yet perceptible transformation, the process furthered in the new vistas – ‘outside the course of galaxies, of other stars or suns’ – of the third.
Davies’s The Last Island returned us to the world of the string sextet. Its title, according to the composer, refers to the further of two small islands off the coast of Orkney, the sextet attempting ‘to invoke the island’s unique atmosphere – essentially peaceful and full of the wonder of ever-changing light of sea and sky, yet strangely threatened with menace, even on the brightest of days’. That gives a pictorial impression, which is certainly part of the story, but some older Davies preoccupations, notably magic squares and plainsong – ‘an unusual plainsong version of Ave maris stella’ – are also apparent. Hints of the viol consort characterise the opening; indeed there is very much a sense of historical refraction throughout the contrasted turns the material takes. I was taken by the frankly – at least to my ears – Schoenbergian writing of one section, put in mind of Verklärte Nacht and the first two numbered quartets in particular. The fading al niente of the plainsong material on high violin harmonics proved an evocative conclusion, whether pictorially, musically, or better, both.
I had assumed that Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes would be offering some sort of Purcellian reference, but Bayan Northcott’s note to the piece disabused me: ‘Rather, Fantasia upon all the notes hints at how, each time the harpist shifts a pedal between sharp, natural, or flat, a new scale or mode is set up, and – in this work – how a shifting sequence of harp modes can interact with and guide the harmonies of a surrounding ensemble’. It came as little surprise that we should hear a dangerous, violent archaic world presented, as hieratic as anything in Stravinsky or Boulez. Symphonies of Wind Instruments, despite the very different instrumentation, loomed large, and was that a reference in the angular rhythmic treatment of material and the crucial role of the harp to the Symphony in Three Movements too? And yet, there is acerbic beguiling to be heard too, perhaps our longing for the real world of Orpheus. Lionel Friend, as in the other works he was conducting – Matthews, Davies, and Harvey – proved as sure a guide as his players. Birtwistle learned, whilst working on the score, of the death of his sometime publisher Tony Fell. The work is marked at the end: ‘for Tony Fell in sorrow and anger’. It was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, with funds provided by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Wigmore Hall itself.
Harvey’s Song Offerings was quite a revelation. Written for soprano, flute/alto flute, clarinet, piano, string quartet, and double bass, its settings of Rabindranath Tagore in his own translation from Bengali express and further a ravishing sensual and sexual mysticism. Booth once again excelled herself, as indeed did all the performers. Sleep – ‘Ah, sleep, precious sleep – prevailed for a while in the first song, with a splendid sense of lulling, whilst the second was marked by the combination of captivating instrumental glistening and exciting vocal arabesques: playful ecstasy, perhaps. Harvey’s eroticism throughout the four songs conveys a sense of Messiaen’s spirit without ever actually sounding like him. (If I occasionally thought of Zemlinsky, I think that was more a matter of Tagore’s verse than the music.) Languor and rush were combined to highly sensuous effect in the final song, ‘Death, O Thou the last fulfilment of life’.