Nash Ensemble of London
Haydn / Schumann / Elgar
Konservatorium Bern, 2018-04-23
My wife and I just spent the weekend in Lugano for three concerts at the LAC (2018-04-20, 2018-04-21, 2018-04-22). On the following day, we rushed off to Bern, for yet another chamber music event. The Nash Ensemble of London (see also Wikipedia) was performing in the big hall of the Konservatorium Bern, a venue ideal for chamber music. And we got ourselves two seats with splendid view in the second row of the balcony, right-side edge.
The creation of the Nash Ensemble of London dates back to 1964. The founder was Artistic Director Amelia Freedman, while in 1964 she was a student at the Royal Academy of Music. The naming refers to the Nash Terraces around the Academy. The ensemble performs both classical, as well as contemporary music, and it has premiered numerous compositions.
The ensemble’s Web site (outdated) currently lists 11 musicians (the somewhat rudimentary / also outdated Wikipedia entry has 12), playing the following instruments:
- piano, harp
- flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn
- 2 x violin, viola, cello
With this composition, the Nash Ensemble of London is able to perform a very wide range of chamber music works, from duo and trio (as in this concert) to quartets, quintets, etc., and also works with string instruments only, as well as compositions for wind instruments and mixed settings.
Over the 54 years of its existence, the ensemble has of course seen many members come and go. Of the artists mentioned in the program for this concert, only three are listed on their Website: Lawrence Power (viola, *1977, see also Wikipedia), Adrian Brendel (cello, son of pianist Alfred Brendel), and Ian Brown (piano). The program further listed two additional artists, both playing the violin, and both not listed on the Web sites mentioned above (yet): Henning Kraggerud (*1973, see also Wikipedia), and Michael Gurevich.
A Mishap, and a Recovery
Of these, Ian Brown unfortunately broke his leg in the week prior to the concert, so the organizers had no option other than to look for a short-term replacement. Luckily, there was an excellent artist willing and capable to step in: Christian Ihle Hadland (*1983 in Stavanger, Norway, see also Wikipedia). We now can’t tell how Ian Brown would have performed. However, we can certainly tell that much already: Christian Ihle Hadland was an excellent member of the team, and little, if anything during the performance would tell that he wasn’t part of the team originally! So, the performing team in this concert consisted of the following musicians:
- Henning Kraggerud, violin
- Michael Gurevich, violin
- Lawrence Power, viola
- Adrian Brendel, cello
- Christian Ihle Hadland, piano
The venue (315 seats, 64 of these on the balcony)) was very well-sold, for a chamber music evening in particular. However, I gathered that the organizers were lucky enough to fill major parts of the audience with subscription listeners.
The photos give an idea of the stage setup. The piano was a Steinway D-274 with fully open lid.
All photos in this posting were taken during applause in this concert in Bern, on 2018-04-23 — © Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved
Throughout his long, productive career, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) wrote as many as 45 piano trios. That’s probably too many for people to keep track of, and so, in concert halls, we usually hear a small subset of these works. Actually, I suspect that the bulk of the trio performances focus on the single one that has got a popular surname: Piano Trio No.39 in G major, Hob.XV:25, “Gipsy Trio”. It’s telling enough that only this trio and a single other one, the Piano Trio No.41 in E♭ minor, Hob.XV/31, have currently got a (rudimentary) Wikipedia entry.
The Trio No.39 appeared in 1795, together with Nos.38 (D major, Hob.XV/24) and No.40 (F♯ minor, Hob.XV/26), as op.73. Its three movements are as follows:
- Poco adagio, cantabile
- Rondo a l’Ongarese: Presto
The surname clearly stems from the last movement (the shortest of the three), which is derived from Hungarian folk music.
For this first piece in the program, only a subset of the artists appeared on the stage: Christian Ihle Hadland, Henning Kraggerud, and Adrian Brendel.
The first movement is a peaceful, somewhat harmless Andante (in two parts, both with repeat signs) with four variations.
Already in the theme, the impulses appeared to come mostly from the piano. In the theme, both string instruments are playing colla parte with the piano, and the dominance of the piano is almost a given, at least in these 21 bars. The tempo felt natural, the articulation clear, light and subtle, the vibrato was limited, never too obtrusive.
Unusually, already the first variation (A) is minore. I noted Adrian Brendel’s subtle cello playing: he never played himself into the foreground (that is natural, though, as in this first movement, he plays colla parte with the bass line, throughout). The violin is gradually gaining autonomy, however, the musicians kept an excellent balance. All repeat signs were observed, except that strangely, variation 2 (B) was played without repeats. Why?
In variation 4 (D), the piano part evolves into rapid demisemiquaver passagework: Christian Ihle Hadland’s playing was light, agile, and to the point—nothing in his performance would have indicated that he was appearing as last-minute replacement: excellent!
II. Poco adagio, cantabile
A gentle Lied / serenade. Here, the three instruments are more independent, though for the most part, the “action” remains with the piano, the string instruments are accompaniment. Hadland made the piano sing, kept the movement calm, cantabile, but not overly slow (adagio means calm, after all, and there’s the poco!). In the second segment, the violin takes over the melody line. To me, the vibrato was a bit too prominent / abundant here (the occasional portamento was OK, though). I also noted the excellent accord in the execution of ornaments between violin and piano. And I liked how Adrian Brendel kept watching attentively, keeping his part inconspicuous / low-key. Was he in control, secretly, maybe?
III. Rondo a l’Ongarese: Presto
Finally, the short “gipsy” movement that the audience must have been waiting for! Fast (a true Presto!), vivid, agile in the sudden “Hungarian” accents, but equally agile and flexible in the strong rubato! Naturally, the piano plays a dominant role in this movement, which is almost as busy and restless as some of Mendelssohn’s piano scores!
At the chosen tempo, the clarity in the piano part didn’t come close to that of a fortepiano at Haydn’s time: maybe the articulation was a tad superficial in the semiquaver garlands. Nevertheless, the playing, the performance was excellent, even through the final, enthralling accelerando!
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E♭ major, op.44
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote his Piano Quintet in E♭ major, op.44 in 1842. It’s a key work, not only within Robert Schumann’s chamber music oeuvre, but in the romantic chamber music repertoire altogether. The composition features the following four movements:
- Allegro brillante
- In modo d’una marcia. Un poco largamente – Agitato
- Scherzo: Molto vivace – Trio I & II
- Allegro, ma non troppo
From here on, we met the entire subset of artists from the Nash Ensemble of London performing in this concert: Henning Kraggerud, Michael Gurevich, Lawrence Power, Adrian Brendel, and Christian Ihle Hadland. Henning Kraggerud (violin 1) was sitting to the left of the piano,, somewhat separated from the others, Michael Gurevich (violin 2) sat directly in front of the Steinway grand, directly in front of the widest part of the piano; next to the right was Adrian Brendel at the cello, and Lawrence Power was the right-most artist. Visually the least conspicuous artist was—of course—Christian Ihle Hadland at the piano.
As seen from the balcony, nobody was actively leading / conducting—a truly democratic ensemble! Of course, whoever (among the string players) had the first notes would also give the starting signal. Hadland’s ability to communicate / signal was limited to visual interaction with viola and (partly) cello. On the other hand, throughout the remainder of the concert, both Adrian Brendel and Lawrence Power were almost permanently watching / observing the others: not for controlling, more in the sense of alertness. If there were lead artists in this ensemble, then it was these two (truly playing like from a single mold!). Certainly in the Schumann quintet, Henning Kraggerud showed the least amount of initiative. At the same time, impulses often came from the piano, to which composers usually assign a lead role.
I. Allegro brillante
What music, this beginning, so full of momentum! It must have been pure joy not just for the listeners, but also for the artists: certainly, both Brendel and Power were not just attentive, but also enjoying the cooperation with this outstanding set of artists. The cooperation, the coordination within the string players was excellent, as was the balance. Even though the lid of the concert grand was fully open, there were moments when I felt that the pianist could have played a little louder: self-restriction because he was “just guest artist”?? However, if there were any signs about him “just stepping in” at short notice, then this was it: truly amazing!
Hadland filled a key role here, as in all of Schumann’s chamber music with piano. He articulated carefully, and one could always tell that he was consciously and diligently using arpeggiando in his part. Some other highlights: the excellent use of rubato and agogics, the tension throughout the movement (mostly with the piano as the driving force), and the marvelous sonority of Lawrence Power’s viola (still on our mind from a recent chamber music performance in Zurich). Quibbles? Maybe the vibrato in the violins, which was occasionally a bit too prominent.
II. In modo d’una marcia. Un poco largamente – Agitato
In line with the somber nature of this slow march, given here at a very measured tempo, the viola played a major role. And we enjoyed its characterful tone, with plenty of “bite”. Musicians and audience were spellbound through this march, so full of tension: despite the measured pace, the music never lost tension or stood still, rather kept moving forward.
The Agitato section (a reminiscence of the Florestan character in Schumann’s early piano works?) felt like a natural intensification. Here, the piano took the clear lead role, drove the performance forward (without pushing exceedingly, though). Then, the tonality changes from A♭ major to F major, and the atmosphere suddenly changes, with a melancholic cantilena in the first violin (a revival of Eusebius?). If only the violin(s) had played with a little less (and less nervous) vibrato—it’s not necessary at all!
Then, of course, inexorably, the funeral march returns…
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Trio I & II
Scherzo part: very virtuosic, especially in the piano, yet carefully articulated: excellent! The piano is “in the driver seat” here, of course! Trio I: lyrical, amiable, lovely—but still fluent, excellent, harmonious transitions. Trio II: alert, urging, forward-moving, active. In this movement, the tempo was fast—right at the point where on the piano the small notes and the inverted mordents could (just) still be articulated.
IV. Allegro, ma non troppo
The final movement followed quasi-attacca. It’s an electrifying piece, fascinating particularly in the joint realization of rubato, without the slightest coordination issues. And again, both musicians and audience were really enjoying this music, and a fabulous performance—given again that the pianist could barely have had abundant time to rehearse and coordinate with the ensemble! His integration into the ensemble was truly astounding!
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934) composed most of his Piano Quintet in A minor, op.84 in summer 1918. The work premiered in 1919; it features three movements:
- Moderato (2/4, ♩=76) – Allegro (6/8, 3/8=132)
- Adagio (3/4, ♩=54)
- Andante (2/4, ♩=52) – Allegro (3/4, ♩=126)
I. Moderato – Allegro
General impressions: here at last, everybody seemed to be in their element! While Henning Kraggerud, still more impulses appeared to come from Michael Gurevich, but first and foremost: the string ensemble acted as a harmonious unity, out of one single mold. The sound of the instruments mixed extremely well: e.g., how the warm, singing sound of the cello blended into the sound of the lower strings of viola and the violins—marvelous! Interestingly, the violins seemed more diligent and careful about the use of vibrato, compared to performance in the previous pieces.
The momentum, the verve in the Allegro parts made the music feel very close to Schumann’s. It’s music full of emotion and excitement—so excited and emphatic that Adrian Brendel occasionally and inadvertently was stomping at peak notes! There are sections that are reminding of gentle folk music, sometimes swaying like slow dance music. But there were also these dramatic build-ups, some driven from within the stings, but also others where the piano part was a key driver part, and mostly, these build-ups culminated in an impressive ff or fff outburst in the piano. Clearly, in the latter part of the movement, the excitement, the density and the heat of the emotions in this performance exceeded that in Schumann’s quintet.
But Elgar returns to the gently swaying folk-dance mode, then gets more earnest. He ends the movement with the initial Moderato motifs, which now sounded like the fate knocking at the door, while the music turned silent, died away in uncertainty.
Such beautiful, elegiac, longing, expressive music: marvelous, with beautiful cantilenas! It’s a pensive, almost meditative, in which all artists seemed in total agreement and coherence in their emotions. The musicians let the movement build up into a long, intense climax, after which the music returns to a soft ending, always with very warm and intense sonority, especially from viola and cello. A masterful, compelling performance!
III. Andante – Allegro
The Andante is just a short introduction, with a gentle, melancholic beginning, then the piano rapidly intensifies the atmosphere, with the strings tuning in emphatically, up to a brief outburst.
In the Allegro part, the strings present a simple, elegiac melody, in unison. Strings in unison continue to be a key element in this movement. And again, it was striking to see how all musicians acted out of a single mind, with impulses and drive coming from the virtuosic piano part, from the middle voices, but also the violins in turn. There are segments full of tension, with tremolo and restrained dynamics, melodious sections in the tone of folk music, even places where I was reminded of gentle, relaxed Schrammelmusik—a compendium of moods and atmospheres: why don’t we hear this fascinating music more often?
Overall Rating: ★★★★★
An excellent concert, well worth the journey to Bern—we are looking forward to more of these! I felt that while the Haydn and Schumann performances were certainly very good, even excellent, it was in the Elgar quintet where Christian Ihle Hadland and the members of the Nash Ensemble of London really unleashed their true potential, united to a truly impressive, compelling performance.
We anticipated this kind of outcome. However, we would not have guessed that we would encounter a pianist who would be able to join and fully integrate into such a high-level team with such short notice, in a matter if very few days. And who could pull these three pieces “out of his sleeve”, ready to perform in concert! In that sense: congrats to the Nash Ensemble of London, and particular, special felicitations to Christian Ihle Hadland for his performance in this concert!