Nash Ensemble 50th anniversary season: Turnage and Maxwell Davies

The 21st-century string sextet is alive and well in the Nash Ensemble’s hands

Nash Ensemble 50th anniversary season: Turnage and Maxwell Davies

It’s hard to think of another British ensemble that has worked so hard or generated so much new music as the Nash Ensemble. Its ‘serial commissioner’ director Amelia Freedman and its successive musicians have barely drawn breath in the last half-century, so this anniversary season at the Wigmore Hall offers an opportunity to revisit some of their 193 commissions and place them in fresh contexts.

In a pre-concert interview, Mark-Anthony Turnage paid warm tribute to Freedman for giving him the chance to explore string writing through chamber commissions which, in turn, helped develop his orchestral confidence. He pointed out that for a period in the last 30 years much new music written for strings has been ungrateful and unidiomatic – in effect wind writing to be played on stringed instruments. The Nash has played a key role in the recent renaissance for string works in old forms: ‘Composers are often too scared to write for string quartet – it’s so intimidating, so they write a string sextet instead!’ he joked. And this concert boasted two, commissioned by the Nash in 2007 and 2009 by Turnage and Peter Maxwell Davies respectively.

Yet the richly-woven Brahmsian model which so inspired Tchaikovsky and Dvořák is not in evidence in either of the works. Both Turnage and Maxwell Davies have treated the six instruments independently, rather than as sections, with no driving engine of inner-parts, thus creating airy, exposed textures and subtle timbral contrasts.

Turnage’s Returning, written for his parents’ own 50th wedding anniversary, is all about continuities and homecoming. Opening ‘as if frozen’ with fragile, keening tones over stuttering pizzicato, a melody grows from a single note and begins to clothe itself with twining harmonies, the cello shadowing violins rather than underpinning the harmony. In an intense, dynamic middle section, strokes slice antiphonally across the group, until it begins to dissolve, and the high, sweet tune of its opening returns, ending with a lone veiled viola. I would never think of Turnage in the same breath as Maxwell Davies, and yet both these sextets seemed to belong, in their own inimitable ways, to a long tradition of British pastoralism whose melancholy resonances persist into our time. 

Maxwell Davies’s musical landscapes particularly reflect his rugged Orcadian home, and The Last Island (2009) is a portrait of a rocky outcrop off Sanday. It offers a dizzying labyrinth of fiendish polyrhythms, enacting the elemental conflicts that menace the island. We seem to hear the groans of ship-wrecked sailors in its opening, a strange suspension of wails, harmonics and glissandi, which coalesce into broad, hymn-like music, disturbed by the fluttering of wings. The sextet, wonderfully performed by the Nash under Martyn Brabbin’s precise direction, ends with fragments of plainsong and the soughing of the wind. 


Photo: Hanya Chlala


The next concert in the Nash Ensemble’s 50th birthday season takes place on Saturday 17 January at Wigmore Hall and includes works by Alexander Goehr, John Casken and Judith Weir. Visit: to find out more




The Nash Ensemble celebrates 50 years

Interview with Nash Ensemble founder Amelia Freedman

Review: Arnold Chamber Music, Vols 1-3 (Nash Ensemble)


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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