S&H Concert review

Delius, Bax, Vaughan Williams, Gurney: Nash Ensemble, John Mark Ainsley, Wigmore Hall, Saturday September 29th (ME)

A programme consisting entirely of twentieth-century English music might not appear to have broad appeal, but a large audience turned out at the Wigmore on Saturday to hear this one, in another illuminating concert by the Nash Ensemble, with the tenor John Mark Ainsley - described in the programme as "baritone," rather an amusing slip for this most tenorial (in the nicest possible sense) of tenors - a man far happier above the stave than below it. He certainly got plenty of opportunity to display that tenor in all its exquisite clarity and dulcet beauty, in two near-perfect performances of cycles by Gurney and Vaughan Williams. The concert was filmed for broadcast for "OnLine Classics," an excellent enterprise which should enable many people who are not fortunate enough to hear such performances live, to experience more of the delights which regular Wigmore Hall audiences enjoy.

The concert began with Vaughan Williams' six folksong settings for 'cello and piano, played with absolute grace by Paul Watkins and Ian Brown. It would be difficult to come up with an image of harmony and happiness more evocative than the sight and sound of this young man and his 'cello; these seemingly artless pieces, many based on tunes collected by the composer in East Anglia and Surrey, may appear to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from Bach's suites, yet in this lyrical, committed performance they had an intensity all their own.

Ivor Gurney's song cycle "Ludlow and Teme" is not often performed, and it was easy to hear why. This wonderful work, at once English and ecstatic - now there are two words you don't often see together - needs a tenor whose voice is not merely a beautiful instrument, but who is capable of making light of some extremely demanding music, at the same time as singing some of Housman's most melancholy poems in such a way as to bring out their bittersweet qualities without overdoing either their preciousness or their "cowpat " tendencies. Ainsley manages this triumphantly; so convincing is his singing that it only enters your head some time after you've heard such lines as "I strode beside my team," that he is the last person you could ever imagine plodding through mud alongside a couple of shire horses. Elegance, refinement, introspection, are all words which characterise both his timbre and manner, yet he also has a certain something in his voice which is possessed by no other English tenor - it is an almost Italianate quality at times, certainly a sensuousness which brings alive this kind of music and these sometimes problematic words.

"Far in a Western Brookland" is one of Housman's most evocative poems, and Gurney's setting of it shows a remarkable sympathy; the languid, sighing accompaniment to the voice echoes the sounds of the "airy cages" of the poplars, and the setting of lines such as "Here I lie down in London / And turn to rest alone" evokes an almost Schubertian sense of contrast between past happiness recalled and present sorrow. It is in such moments of quiet reflection that Ainsley is at his best, and this was even more true of "On the Idle Hill of Summer," which must be one of the finest settings of all Housman's poems. The word-setting is perfection, and the singing echoed it; languid and desultory for the first line, angry at the realisation of the folly of war, and determinedly heroic at the end. The cycle's last line must be a testing one for any singer, encompassing as it does not only a difficult trill in the middle but an extremely high note at the end; however, Ainsley negotiated it with skill, spiralling unconcernedly into the vocal stratosphere.

The Nash Ensemble also gave fluent, engaging renditions of Delius' lyrical "Intermezzo" and the Bax Nonet, but the evening's central performance was of "On Wenlock Edge", with singing and playing which it would be difficult to imagine being equalled. The centre of the work is "Bredon Hill," a song of dramatic contrasts in mood; the idyllic opening lines "In summertime on Bredon/The bells they sound so clear" with their lovely rising arc so perfectly attuned to the words, were floated out by Ainsley with ecstatic grace, but still the singing was not just pure voice - he managed to give just enough weight to "so," without leaning on it too much. The melancholy narrative of the poem was wonderfully told, both by tenor and instrumentalists - particularly exquisite playing by Marianne Thorsen - and reached an especially high point at "And went to church alone," which was sung with heartbreaking poignancy. The highly charged ending was equally fine. Similarly, "Is my team ploughing?" was a perfect example of the art of the Nash Ensemble as well as that of the singer; exactitude of articulation, most musical phrasing and scrupulous attention to words were all much in evidence, from the hushed beginning through the anguished central section to the grimly fatalistic ending.

"Rather dreary music, tonight," opined someone over dinner; well, you might think that, but after this performance, planned with flair, played with well-rehearsed finesse and most of all, sung with beautiful tone, exemplary diction and poetic feeling for the English language, it was obvious that the audience did not share that view; a sense of real excitement was in the air, just as apparent as if we had been listening to the music of more "exotic" composers.

Melanie Eskenazi

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