“Dreamers of Dreams”

deluge of creativity and achievement is being celebrated by the Wigmore
Hall’s resident chamber ensemble, The Nash Ensemble, in an exciting series of
recitals showcasing some of the quintessentially British masterpieces, as well
as some lesser-known gems, of the period.

“Dreamers of Dreams” commenced with a varied and intriguing selection of
the renowned and rare. Following an early evening concert of Bax (Elegiac Trio
for flute, viola and harp), Britten (Suite for Harp, Op.83) and Bridge (Three
Idylls for string quartet), the instrumentalists of the Nash Ensemble were
joined by soprano Sally Matthews in songs by Arthur Bliss and Roger Quilter
reflecting the both the idiosyncratic innovations and pastoral traditions of
English cultural and musical life in the 1920s.

Arthur Bliss’s ‘Rout’ is scored for soprano and a large chamber
orchestra, conducted here by Ian Brown, comprising flute, clarinet, string
quartet, double bass, harp, side-drum and glockenspiel, a varied array which is
skilfully deployed to capture a dazzling melange of the “scraps of song that
might reach a listener watching a carnival from an open window”, so declared
the composer. Certainly the short rhythmic, melodic and textural motifs which
repeat, alternate and return generate a busy, sparkling mood, as we move
swiftly through interludes of contrasting texture and tempo. Interactions
between the voice, which delivers a mixture of made-up words and syllables, and
the instrumentalists bring moments of clarity and focus in the shifting
soundscape, as when a touching clarinet solo (Richard Hosford) blended silkily
with the low voice, before transforming into a march-like episode, which itself
then slid into a lively triple-time frolic.

Lacking the sharp sardonic wit of Walton’s FaÁade, ‘Rout’
nevertheless conjures an air of cabaret and fun, mingling stylisation and
realism, dance and depiction. Matthews delivered the syllabic cries with energy
and clarity, blending effectively into the vigorous ensemble and projecting the
significant vocal gestures with panache.

Two further songs by Bliss followed, both of which suffered somewhat from
Matthew’s poor enunciation of the text. Clarity of diction is essential if
the quirky incongruity of the seemingly trivial ‘nonsense’ of ‘Madam
Noy’ – a variant, by E.W.H. Meyerstein, of the nursery rhyme ‘Old Mother
Hubbard’ – is to be articulated. Indeed, Bliss dedicated this ‘Witchery
Song’ to the American mezzo-soprano Anne Thursfield, who was renowned for her
linguistic flair, and it was disappointing that Matthews, while dramatising the
inconsequential episodes with a gentle, engaging irony, did not make more of
the nuances of the text. Such nuances were, however, grasped by the
instrumentalists, to pleasing and amusing effect. The delicate blend of harp
(Lucy Wakeford) and flute (Philippa Davies) beautifully evoked the nocturnal
vista: “winds are asleep on the ocean’s back/ The moon’s ring faint and
the skyline black”; while a frolicsome trill by clarinet and flute
frivolously announced the concluding “low mocking laugh on the air”.

‘The Women of Yueh’ presents settings of five poems by the Chinese poet,
Li-Po; although originally for soprano and piano, a subsequent instrumental
arrangement allowed Bliss to capture the full range of the inferences of the
Chinese kanji through instrumental colour and shade; the flute arabesques in
‘She is a southern girl’ conveyed the mystery and fragility of the girl
whose face is “prettier than star or moon” and whose feet are “white like
frost”, while the low bass register of “She is gathering lotus buds” was
moodily atmospheric, as the girl “hides away among the lilies” and “will
not show her face again”. The moments of low, still recitation were the most
affecting: the unaccompanied conclusion to “Many a girl of the South”
settled seductively on a repeating tone, “She will pluck the flowers of the
water/ For amorous wayfarers”, while at the close of “She, a Tung-yang
girl” Matthews’ tender, slow recitation, “The moon has not yet set/ They
look at each other – broken-hearted”, was enriched by woodwind trills, the
latter evolving into a troubled, oscillating gesture before finally resolving
into a consoling major chord.

After the interval, Matthews returned with Ian Brown now as pianist for
three ‘pastoral’ songs by Roger Quilter, songs which capture the
composer’s sensitivity to the Suffolk countryside of his youth. In ‘I Will
Go With My Father A-Ploughing’, Brown’s soothing but penetrating compound
lilt conveyed a deep connection with the earth, while Matthews brought a gleam
to “the shine of the air”, suggesting the depth of the speaker’s love for
the “rooks and the crows and the sea-gulls”. The sparse texture of the
final verse, delivered after a slight but telling pause, poignantly suggested
the pleasure in the harvest done, but also a subconscious recognition of the
passing of traditional ways.

Brown’s accompaniment in ‘I Wish and I Wish’ was fittingly fey and
faery-like, and ‘Cherry Valley’, with its tender unfolding melody
(reminiscent of Finzi) darkened with complex harmonic shadows, was touching;
but, while the low concluding line – “In Cherry Valley the cherries blow/
The valley paths are white as slow” – was wonderfully controlled, Matthews
did not really capture the simplicity in which the poet’s meaning resides.
These are intimate songs, and the Wigmore Hall (where, in fact, many of these
songs and those programmed later in the series were first heard) offers a
sympathetic acoustic, of which Matthews did not always take advantage.

The vocal offerings were preceded and followed by purely instrumental works,
beginning with a refreshing and rich performance of Vaughan William’s
Phantasy String Quintet. Lawrence Power’s opening viola theme, which
reappears in each movement, was delivered without overly fussy vibrato but with
a wonderfully focused, rich tone, delightfully complemented by the translucent
traceries of Marianne Thorsen’s high violin. The four movements (Prelude,
Scherzo, Alla Sarabanda, Burlesca) are played without a break, and the players
moved adroitly through the varying moods: Paul Watkin’s energised cello
staccato in the Scherzo initiated some dense rhythmic polyphony and
syncopation, which was followed by the serene muted blend of the four upper
strings in Alla Sarabanda. After much contrapuntal complexity the Burlesca
ended with the return of the viola motif above a held dissonant chord, before
an effulgent outpouring from the first violin, in the manner of a lark
ascending, brought the work to an elevating close.

Three folksong arranged by Percy Grainger for piano and strings entertained,
with the crisp dance textures, pizzicato bite and flamboyant final variant of
‘Shepherd’s Hey’ giving way to the restful cadence of ‘My Robin is to
the Greenwood Gone’, the cello’s calm melody supported by stirring harmonic
progressions. Brown, Thorsen and Watkins were joined by Power in ‘Clog
Dance’, which ran through a gamut of moods embracing decorum, rumbustiousness
and insouciance.

The concert concluded with a committed and intelligent performance of
Elgar’s E minor String Quartet. A mood of nervous speculation characterised
the first movement, the spry rhythms and irresolute harmonies combining to
create a restlessness which was resolved into an ebullient, confident energy in
the final movement. The intervening andante, marked Piacevole, was
contemplative, its peace undisturbed – a perfect embodiment of the words of
Arthur O’Shaughnessy which inspired Elgar, “We are the Music Makers, and we
are the Dreamers of Dreams”.

Claire Seymour


Vaughan Williams: Phantasy String Quintet in D minor
Grainger: ‘My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone’; ‘Shepherd’s Hey’;
‘Handel in the Strand’; Bliss‘Rout’; ‘Madame Noy’; ‘Women of
Quilter: Three pastoral songs for soprano and piano trio
Elgar: String Quartet in E minor Op.83

Nash Ensemble. Sally Matthews, soprano. Ian Brown, conductor. Wigmore Hall,
London, Saturday, 22nd September 2012.

image_description=Sally Matthews [Photo by Johan Persson]
product_title=“Dreamers of Dreams”
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Sally Matthews [Photo by Johan Persson]