Ellen Nisbeth: Let Beauty Awake
The brisk, march-like tread; the bracing swing of the melody: you might already know Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Vagabond’, but you won’t have heard it like this. The pianist is that wonderful chamber musician Bengt Forsberg and the ‘singer’ is the Swedish viola player Ellen Nisbeth, though her playing quickly parts company with Robert Louis Stevenson’s words. It’s ardent, headstrong and – coupled to Forsberg’s sardonic accompaniment – surprisingly dark (you might almost say Mahlerian). Nisbeth has transcribed five of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel in total, and they form eloquent and appropriate interludes between the three major works on this disc: Britten’s Lachrymae and Third Cello Suite (in Nisbeth’s own arrangement) and the magnificent Viola Sonata by Rebecca Clarke.
Nisbeth’s tone isn’t especially lush or velvety but it’s endlessly nuanced, and Forsberg, too, commands an enormously subtle tonal palette. If the overall effect of this predominantly melancholy recital is of a moody, monochrome engraving or woodcut, it’s no less poetic for it. And, as we’ve already heard, it’s passionate too: they begin the Clarke in heroic style before broadening into a rhapsodic, wide-ranging reading (there’s an almost pointillist quality to the flickering, fluid contrasts of light and dark that the pair find in its central scherzo).
Similarly, their Lachrymae has the freedom and questioning quality of an improvisation, though there’s no mistaking the sense of arrival when Britten finally states the Dowland theme – just as the bold, luminous final procession of themes in the Third Suite’s Passacaglia makes for a wholly convincing resolution to the contrasts of character and voice that Nisbeth has articulated so naturally throughout the earlier movements. Fresh, thoughtful perspectives on some ravishing – if sombre – repertoire.