There are great performances and then there are magnificent ones like the first of two recitals the Nash Ensemble presented for Toronto Summer Music on Thursday night.
The Koerner Hall concert featured two monuments of early 20th century English chamber music: Edward Elgar’s 1919 Piano Quintet and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge, a 1909 setting of six poems from A.E. Housman’s collection, A Shropshire Lad.
For the songs, the Nash Ensemble, one of England’s gifts to chamber music, was joined by Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth. Together, they wove a delightfully scenic path through the thicket of tragedy and elegy that runs through the poetry.
Ainsworth, whose voice has broadened and perhaps even darkened a bit over the past few years, coloured the text as deftly as did the instrumentalists in Vaughan Williams’ original arrangement for piano quartet. There really was no nuance left unexplored, turning the performance into pure magic.
The same can be said for the Elgar piece, a much more revealing window into the soul of the composer than his great symphonic or choral works. Much like the Vaughan Williams’ songs, this music sets light and dark against each other. But Elgar makes them dance together, then embrace slowly, quietly, before light and life win out in a cathartic blaze.
Violinists Andrew Haveron and Laura Samuel, violist James Boyd, cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Ian Brown turned the piece into a play so sensual that it belied its Edwardian origins. One almost wanted to avert one’s eyes.
For me, the most powerful moments came in the slow movement, where the Nashes were brave enough to nearly stop the momentum altogether, which added another layer of riveting tension.
It’s impossible to imagine this music played with more finesse. An especial joy was watching the constant communication between the players, whose gazes would meet as they picked up musical motives from each other, as if they were carrying on an actual conversation. They also played with obvious love of the music that was set before them — a love that proved infectious.
The programme opened with the piano quartet Phantasie by Benjamin Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge, which dates from just before World War I. It is a little gem of structure, with three movements that seamlessly lead into each other.
The Nash Ensemble members are proven masters of their musical domain. If you possibly can, don’t miss their all-French programme on Friday night at Walter Hall. Vous ne regretteriez rien.