Nash Ensemble Premieres the Alluring 'Terrible Beauty,' Inspired by the Bard
London's celebrated Nash Ensemble is a collective of players who form and regroup for varied chamber music programs. Particularly noted for its commitment to enlarging the repertoire for mixed ensembles, the Nash has championed 255 new works over its long history, nearly half of them commissions. On Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, the Nash gave us one of the finest chamber music concerts of the season, both in programming and execution.
Framed by two Mozart favorites, the program also contained a beautifully interlocking trio of works: Ravel's luminous "Introduction and Allegro" for harp and mixed ensemble, the U.S. premiere of David Matthews's "Terrible Beauty" for the same ensemble plus voice, and Stravinsky's "Three Songs From William Shakespeare" (the last two presented as part of the citywide Shakespeare in Washington festival).
Matthews's new work, a setting of the vivid eulogy for Cleopatra on her ostentatious barge, from Act 2 of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," featured alluring instrumental colors and yearning vocal lines. The pantonal music seemed to find just the right balance between textual and thematic interest. Given the large and unusual forces involved, I fear for its long-term performance prospects, but the audience showed genuine, sustained appreciation.
Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley was also impressive in the Stravinsky songs. Here the voice was used more instrumentally, and her blend with the three instruments (flute, viola and clarinet) was expertly pointillistic.
Other than a slightly desiccated tone from the clarinetist, each Nash musician gave great pleasure, individually and within each ensemble. The evening was a triumph for all concerned.
-- Robert Battey