Large crowds converged through the waving cornfields of Essex on the shard-like spire of Thaxted’s mediaeval church at the weekend. Passengers on the flight path into Stansted saw the festival hubbub below: the bunting, drinks tent and homemade cake stall. Safety belts on. There may be some turbulence. The illustrious Nash Ensemble was on the bill. Tearaway students at the Royal Academy of Music formed the group sixty years ago, taking their name from the Nash terraces around London’s Regent’s Park where their conservatoire is. Their successors, senior professionals, took the stage with relaxed and breezy nonchalance. How lovely to be in the country and only an hour from The Smoke.

Benjamin Nabarro violin, Lars Anders Tomter viola and Adrian Brendel cello played all that was complete of the String Trio in B flat D471 by nineteen-year-old Franz Schubert. Bright robust tone bounced off the gothic stones. A joyful teenage composer felt a moment’s doubt in the darkened middle section. The movement finished inconsequentially. The three strings were joined by three winds across the stage while a double bass presided like a tennis umpire over Franz Berwald’s feisty Grand Septet written in 1818 when the Swedish composer was 22. The sides balanced, the blend intrigued, the bass pronounced, the mood lifted. The strings pizzicato’d against Richard Hosford’s cool single reed clarinet, Ursula Leveaux’s parping double-reed bassoon and Richard Watkins’ sylvan French horn. The second movement prestissimo thrillingly broke the speed limit. Leveaux’s lip worked overtime.

The same magnificent seven performed Beethoven’s Septet Op20, written by the thirty year old at the turn of the nineteenth century. The players plumped up the cushion of the opening E flat chord, settled into it and launched into the genial repartee of the work’s six movements. The clarinet blew with blemishless tone a plaintive cantabile song, inspiring a slender violin echo an octave up. The players phrased with wit and engaged with their eyes and smiles those with whom they were conversing. They varied a theme in contrasting moods. We followed the argument. It was a most involving performance.

On Sunday there was time to visit an art gallery – The Fry, darling – in nearby Saffron Walden which exhibits the works of the Bardfield Group including watercolourists Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Sheila Robinson (Great Bardfield is one village on from Thaxted), before reconvening at the festival for Wild Arts’ simple staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Director James Hurley made plain the complicated plot by some judicious paring, aided by Jeremy Sams’ witty translation. The band played on stage which made sense, as this is, after all, an opera about the transformative power of music. A line-up of quality singers made the triumph of good over evil a well-balanced affair. The pick was Gareth Brynmor John’s Papageno who sang with rich expressive tone and acted with a comic touch but in truth it was a collective success. Eleanor Sanderson-Nash matched him with a delightful Papagena, Trevor Eliot Bowes sang Sarastro with some of the fruitiest basso tone to be heard on any opera stage currently, Luci Briginshaw’s Queen of the Night exuded contempt in her bitter staccato, and Richard Dowling’s Tamino got enlightenment and the girl through plain, straight-toned tenor innocence. The curtain call applauded a company of equals. The Thaxted Festival landed gracefully and continues on the runway into July.

Rick Jones
Hon Gen Sec