The Nash Ensemble is a distinguished assemblage of top British musicians that varies in size and instrumentation according to its programs. Guests come and go, but core players work together frequently, leading to a group sense of identity and style through disparate repertoire. Its Tuesday concert at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, part of the Fortas Chamber Music Concert series, was more conservative, programming-wise, than it has offered in the past. The performances, although highly professional, were frustrating at times.
In the opening Mozart Flute Quartet in C — a different one than given in the program — flutist Philippa Davies offered round-toned beauty, and there was felicitous imagination from everyone throughout the variation movement. Arnold Schönberg’s arrangement for piano, string quartet, and two woodwinds of Strauss’s “Emperor Waltz” gave the entire ensemble something to play together but is not a successful work artistically; the piano makes us think of dance class, even with the other instruments filling out the texture as best they can. And using string tremolos to represent percussion parts only heightens the futility of trying to convey Strauss’s delicious orchestration.
Schönberg then got the same treatment in Anton Webern’s arrangement of his Chamber Symphony No. 1, where a score for 15 instruments gets cut down to five. Here, the piano’s contribution was somehow less inapt, and the group’s navigation of very difficult music full of gear-shifts — some sudden and some gradual — was impressive indeed (although sometimes covered by the too-heavy piano). This piece, often likened to overripe fruit, represents what Schönberg mistakenly believed was the end-point of tonality, leading to his forays into atonality and serialism. But as it stands, it is deeply felt and worthy of more frequent performances, even thinned out ones like this.
The concert closed with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. After an opening stumble, in which violist Lawrence Power apparently felt that everyone else was playing too slowly, the performance settled into one of plastic tempos and indulgent phrasing, all done with warmth and unanimity. The third movement’s “Presto non assai” section was excellent; tricky rhythms and sharp dynamic contrasts were handled with disarming ease, and the desolation at the work’s close was such that the audience could not breathe for close to a minute. But the performance overall was marred by the balances; clarinetist Richard Hosford has an edge to his sound that is unappealing at high volume, which is where he planted himself for far too much of the piece.
Praise must go to cellist Rebecca Gilliver, whose unerring musicianship and sovereign instrumental control stuck out among six other excellent players. I would also have liked to have heard more of violinist Laura Samuel, who sat in the second chair all evening but whose contributions bespoke headliner talents.
Battey is a freelance writer.