Elgar's rise to supreme mastery is one of the most remarkable stories in English music, since, formally speaking, he had no training whatever. All was achieved through self-instruction and participation in practical music-making.
Just how fluent he had already become by his late teens is evident from the wind-quintet pieces he composed for himself (on bassoon) and friends in the 1870s, though there is little evidence of the mature Elgar style. The Nash Ensemble opened this concert, in their ongoing Realms of Gold survey of Elgar and his contemporaries, with five of these genial pieces, including an amusing farmyard evocation.
Whereupon we were plunged into the depths of despair by the bleak opening pages of The Curlew (1922) by Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine). Eton educated, Warlock had at least some formal instruction and enjoyed the encouragement of his hero Delius, but lastingly felt he lacked the technique to tackle forms more complex than songs.
Yet these four Yeats settings, embedded in a more or less continuous 22-minute structure for flute, cor anglais and string quartet, represent a major achievement, the sustained melancholy intensified by a vein of chromaticism dissonant beyond Delius (Warlock was also a Bartok fan). In the tenor John Mark Ainsley's sensitive account of the vocal line, one hung on every note.
Whereas in the acidulated pastoral turns and Irish jiggings of the Oboe Quintet (1927) by the more professional Sir Arthur Bliss, one felt too many of the notes could have taken quite other courses, to little different effect. It fell to Ralph Vaughan Williams' far more memorable cycle, On Wenlock Edge (1909), to crown the programme.
Vaughan Williams composed these six A E Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet shortly after studying (at the age of 36!) with Ravel, and the impressionistic haze of the setting of "Bredon Hill" certainly tells of French influence. Ainsley's top notes were occasionally covered by the passionate playing of the Nash, yet I have rarely heard a more compelling account of "Is my team ploughing?". A beautifully balanced programme and, yet again, a packed Wigmore Hall.Reuse content