The Nash Ensemble, Richard Hosford (clarinet), Marianne Thorsen (violin), Laura Samuel (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Rebecca Gilliver (cello) and Ian Brown (piano), play a varied and generous collection of American chamber music, combining the well-known with ought-to-be well-known. All the music in this collection was recorded 16-18 March 2014 in All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, the location providing a comfortable and largely successful ambience for the instrumentalists.
George Gershwin’s Songbook for solo piano has eighteen short arrangements of some of the composer’s most popular songs, some under a minute long, a couple over two. Ian Brown takes a warmer, more contemplative view of many of these, eschewing the brisk, no-nonsense approach by others, including Gershwin himself, which can override the sentimental side of the more thoughtful original. Richard Rodney Bennett on an IMP CD (no longer available) or the young Andrew Litton in a small selection on Gershwin Gold recorded in London for the RPO’s own label in 1987 have a drier, more rhythmic feeling, Litton fair taking the breath away with his virtuosic playing. However, these are more than showpieces and there’s a lot to be said for Brown’s approach, which emphasises the melody in the more thoughtful songs, and allows the pieces to breathe. He plays with much affection and depth and his account of the Songbook shows what great music this is, both as individual pieces and especially as a collection, where the pianist’s variety in approach ensures interest from start to finish. The generous, perhaps too generous, acoustic may have affected chosen tempos, and I guess letting rip with more extrovert bluff playing in the more energetic numbers would have captured rather cloudy results.
Richard Horsford projects with a fine, confident tone in Gershwin’s Promenade: Walking the Dog, the instrument well captured by the engineers, and Gershwin’s Lullaby, a fairly substantial piece for string quartet makes one wish the composer had written a whole quartet. Aaron Copland’s ballet Billy the Kid (1938), quintessentially American with its use of folk music of the West, provides the two excerpts here in post-war arrangements by the composer for Gregor Piatigorsky who helped edit the part for cello. Nicely pointed playing by Rebecca Gilliver and Ian Brown of the two contrasting pieces make rewarding listening and a fitting conclusion to this recital.
Not often heard is a miniature suite for violin and piano, Four scenes from childhood, written by Franz Waxman (1906-1967), renowned composer for film, in 1948, and dedicated to Jascha Heifetz on the birth of his son. Discovered after the composer’s death, the piece was included in a Koch collection played by the St. Clair Trio, devoted to Waxman’s music. Marianne Thorsen presents this simple, charming music with affection, ably partnered, as ever, by Ian Brown.
Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) may well be best known, as is Franz Waxman, for his film scores, and especially for films directed by Hitchcock. Among the works not written for the screen are a Symphony (1941), well worth tracking down and investigating on a Koch CD in a performance directed by James Sedares, whose Herrmann recordings deserve reissuing in a box set, an opera Wuthering Heights, and the cantata Moby Dick, available on a fine Chandos SACD.
The substantial Souvenirs de voyage, for clarinet and string quartet, is Herrmann’s final piece of concert music, written 1967, and has a feeling of warmth of nostalgia, and some of those fingerprints which make his film music instantly recognisable. While the listener with an entirely innocent ear would date the music decades earlier than it is, I think it remains music of its time, unashamedly tonal and romantic. Herrmann’s inspiration comes from memories of touring in the British Isles, and of its related literature. Very fine playing by Richard Hosford, well blended with the quartet, brings out by turns the idyllic and stormy first movement, inspired by the Shropshire Hills and Housman’s Shropshire Lad, the second movement’s cradle song mixing tranquillity and stormy passion inspired by the Aran Isles off the West of Ireland and Synge’s Riders to the Sea, and the last, Turner-inspired images of Venice. This last movement with its rocking motifs and scurrying writing for the tarantella, by turns luxuriant and romantic, has that whiff of nostalgia but without the sometimes overwhelming brooding melancholy which is a signature of the composer. Here it comes across as a feeling of fulfilment and satisfaction, perhaps further inspired by an upbeat, happy phase in Herrmann’s life. The music comes to an entirely peaceful and contented conclusion in this appealing Nachtmusik. It’s heartening to read courtesy of The Bernard Herrmann Society that this work has received a succession of recent performances, some by The Nash Ensemble the rest by other groups. What a fine piece this is.
Recording quality from its church location is excellent, and auditioned via the 24/96 high-resolution download, the stereo imaging is very well focused and realistic. Instruments sound less thin, in sharper contrast and better defined via the 24-bit originals than via CD resolution, as may be expected from a recording of first-class quality in the first place. The booklet, with its attractive cover illustration, has a thoroughly good essay by Nigel Simeone. Very highly recommended, especially, as the reader will guess, for Bernard Herrmann’s Souvenirs de voyage!