Nash Ensemble
Nash Ensemble

The gradual rise in the pension age is going to make 50 look anything but old. Perhaps that is why the Nash Ensemble still seems so youthful. As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations this season it has devised a series of concerts featuring new music commissioned through its lifetime, which culminated in a grand concert of “Nash Inventions”.

Amelia Freedman, the Nash Ensemble’s founder, has been midwife to a vast brood of fledgling works. The list in the anniversary programme ran to seven pages, but there was only room for half a dozen in this concert. No doubt the selection of composers was the result of judicious discussion. Other well-known faces could be seen dotted around the audience.

The highlight of the evening — if that is not a misleading term for a work so sombre — was the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s String Quintet (2014). It was written during and after the composer’s treatment for leukaemia and the music speaks of a momentous heartache. An opening conversation between the two cellos touches upon ambiguous harmonies that colour the mood throughout. The sense of a deep, burning unease memorably pervades the whole work and the more agitated the music becomes, it only seems to crave more urgently the uneasy peace at its centre. This is an important addition to Maxwell Davies’s chamber music output, a late work of stature and resonance.

Inevitably, it overshadowed the rest of the programme. The evening opened with the premiere of Richard Causton’s Piano Quintet (2015), a two-part work exploring opposition and eventual harmony. Claire Booth was the effortlessly radiant soprano in two complementary song collections, Elliott Carter’s Poems of Louis Zukovsky (2008) with solo clarinet and Harrison Birtwistle’s Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998-2000) with solo cello, both spare, elliptical.

The second half was completed by two instrumental works. Simon Holt’s Shadow Realm (1983) conjures haunted sounds in striking colours. Julian Anderson’s beguiling Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) comprises eight small musical sketches that are imaginatively fresh and pictorial. Various permutations of the Nash Ensemble’s musicians were on display, all of them equally expert.

Photograph: Kevin Leighton

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