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Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London

Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS defended his right to trim AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad with the remark that "a poet should be grateful to anyone who fails to perpetuate such lines as: "The goal stands up, the keeper/ Stands up to keep the goal'."

Still, six of Housman's poems inspired one of Vaughan Williams's earliest masterpieces, On Wenlock Edge , set for tenor, string quartet and piano. It has a flair for atmospheric colour and an economy that the composer put down to "French fever" after a brief series of lessons with Ravel in 1908. "Is my team ploughing?" is particularly striking, with ghostly muted strings accompanying the dead man's questions and strumming piano underscoring pitiless replies.

These were a little reserved in John Mark Ainsley's performance with the Nash Ensemble in the latest concert of their Wigmore Hall series. Yet his diction and toughness were exemplary throughout.

Another song collection, which Vaughan Williams wrote at the very end of his long life, formed the culmination of the first half of this all-English programme. Ten Blake Songs was originally written for a documentary film about Blake's graphic works, in which they were intercut with extracts from the orchestral music of VW's Job .

Here, the tenor is joined, in seven of the songs, by an oboe (Gareth Hulse), which might suggest a pastoral mood if the music were not so spare and elemental. They must be a stern test of the singer's pitching, and the oboist's control, and were confidently delivered.

Prefacing the songs in both halves were instrumental works by Frank Bridge, Arnold Bax and Delius.

Delius's Cello Sonata is one of his weaker pieces, too reliant on a mediocre theme and monotonous phrasing in the outer sections, though perhaps Paul Watkins, however forthright, was too strict to suggest the rhapsodic flight which the programme notes optimistically spoke of. The Sonata, after all, was written for Beatrice Harrison, of whose indulgently romantic style Bax once said: "She must be kept in order about rubatos." In other words, she pulled things about a lot.

Bax's Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp (Philippa Davies, Roger Chase and Skaila Kanga respectively) was written in 1916 after the Easter Rising in his beloved Ireland. Its long, trailing melodies for the flute and viola against a continuously busy harp part suggest sensuality rather than sorrow, and the sumptuous softness of the music is far removed from Debussy's Sonata for the same instruments, composed the previous year. But Bax certainly knew how to write effectively. If, in so much music, the harp often sounds as if it's mumbling sweet nothings, here it was amazing how sheerly audible Skaila Kanga's intricate and important contribution became.

But surely the best instrumental work of the evening was Frank Bridge's Phantasy in F sharp minor for piano quartet, a single movement composed in 1910 when Bridge was 31. With its commanding opening gesture, the lyrical sweep of its outer sections, and - most original of all - the unusual syncopated rhythms of its scherzo, this is a really individual creation which still sounds vital today.

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