The annual week-long Park Lane Group celebration of Young Artists – Richard Whitehouse reports
It seems fitting that the PLG Young Artists Concerts and the Orthodox Christmas take place at much the same time. There’s something reassuringly consistent about both – launching the New Year with a sense of anticipation about what’s to come. This year’s PLG week made a point of not having ’featured composers’, though it was a welcome move to include music by Janet Owen Thomas – whose sudden death last year at only 41 has deprived us of a significant compositional voice in the making. Otherwise, the format was the familiar one of early- and mid-evening concerts – the latter shared between two musicians or groups, and making for some quirky but engaging contrasts.
Proceedings opened with the Gallimaufry Ensemble, who made a strong impression with a late-night recital at Almeida Opera last June. A demanding programme opened with Harrison Birtwistle’s Five Distances - its Ivesian intricacy of discourse well conveyed, even if the platform of the Purcell Room made for limited spatial separation. The performance of Elliott Carter’s Quintet made up for a lack of subtlety in instrumental interplay with a strong sense of cumulative momentum, to which the forceful but expressive pianism of Iain Farrington contributed in no small measure. Between these seminal works from the early 1990s came the Wind Quintet by Benjamin Wallfisch, written for the Gallimaufry and revelling in timbral extremes to the extent that any real formal logic proved elusive.
Monday evening’s concert was emphatically one of contrast. Harriet Mackenzie articulated the stylised Yiddish gestures of Adam Gorb’s Klezmer with winning clarity, and proved equally at home in Anthony Payne’s Of Knots and Skeins – attractive in its craggy lyricism. Robert Fokkens’s Irreconcilable Truths made moving emotional capital out of the tonal disparity between violin and piano, while Louis Andriessen’s Disco gave Mackenzie the chance to let her hair down in a suitably visceral account, marred only by an edge to the amplified violin tone.
Either side of the interval, Sarah Watts gave a protean demonstration of the capabilities of the bass clarinet. Three of the works were written for the great Dutch player Harry Sparnaay, but Watts was undaunted by the extremes of register and gesture in Franco Donatoni’s deceptively-titled Soft, and kept a firm grip on the prolix variation sequence of Cornelius Cardew’s Mountains – Bach and Mao Tse-tung inspiring one of the more durable works from late in his curtailed career. A pity that the piece Watts herself had commissioned, Marc Yeats’s Vox, never strayed beyond the bounds of an elaborate technical exercise, but Michael Smetanin’s Ladder of Escape brought her contribution to a vibrant ending in a welter of pre-recorded bass clarinets and "happy disco music".
Wednesday evening opened with a well-planned recital from the Spengler Piano Trio. Pascal Dusapin’s Trio Rombach (who? what? where? – the composer purposely provided no programme note) employs basic intervallic and rhythmic patterns in music of finely judged harmonic astringency. Inspired by an Oscar Wilde poem, Britta Byström’s A Symphony in Yellow – written for the occasion – crosscut expressive gestures in a trenchant and uninhibited manner. Philip Grange’s Piano Trio made its ’Homage to Chagall’ via analogies of technique rather than aural representation. A substantial work, the airborne scherzo and elegiac threnody framed by movements of free-ranging moods, it brought out the musicianship of the ensemble in full measure – integrating form and expression to a degree for which Grange has few equals.
Having appeared as a cellist in PLG 2000, Matthew Sharp returned as a baritone in four very different works. Errollyn Wallen’s The Warm and the Cold is a diffuse setting of a not overly inspiring poem by Ted Hughes (the repetition of words and phrases seeming to serve little purpose), while Pete Wyler’s ’treatment’ of Ben Okri’s An African Elegy felt more a vehicle for Sharp as ’singing cellist’ than a composed setting in its own right (does anyone remember Paul Tortelier’s Anthem for Peace from recitals during his last decade?). The feline-inspired Three Songs by Mark-Anthony Turnage – pithy, whimsical yet with a deep underlying pathos – were a delight, while the four (out of a projected ten) settings of Salvatore Quasimodo that will comprise Richard Causton’s La Terra Impareggiabile had an emotional force allied to a musical depth which raises his music onto a new level of achievement. Throughout, Viv McLean’s pianism was that of a natural accompanist.
The other half of the evening was taken by Matilda Tullberg, whose effervescent flute playing was ideally suited to the aural choreography of Thea Musgrave’s Narcissus – digital tape delay weaving an suitably bewitching ambience around the soloist. Julian Anderson’s The Colour of Pomegranates – inspired by Sergey Paradjanov’s film of that name – puts the alto flute through a variety of discreet and atmospheric gestures: altogether more coherent than Simon Holt’s alternation of instruments in his capricious if unfocussed Maiastra – inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s eponymous sculpture. To end a recital with Pierre Boulez’s Sonatine – still fearsome after all these years – might be thought to be tempting providence, but Tullberg gave her all in a performance whose explosive energy was countered by an expressiveness which was Gallic in spirit if not in demeanour. The understated pianism of Marcus Andrews complemented her playing to an admirable degree.
Cellist Robin Michael pulled no punches in his early-evening slot on Thursday. Roger Redgate took the work of Francis Bacon as his starting point in Study for a Triptych, exploring three types of music with gritty ingenuity. Following a not dissimilar formal trajectory, Elena Firsova’s The Night Demons is altogether less rebarbative in its emotional profile. Elliott Carter’s Figment enshrines many of his harmonic and rhythmic preoccupations in music whose diversity belies its modest length. Michael was equally committed in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Intercommunicazione (which received a memorable performance in this series by Zoë Martlew some years back); as alive to the glowering intensity of its bands of cello sound as to the coming-together of cello and piano in substance if not in spirit. After such intensity, the sparse gestures of Morton Feldman’s Durations II felt suitably cathartic. Michael is clearly a performer with a future – as is Sarah Nicolls, whose sustained concentration explained just why she is among the most highly regarded of younger British pianists.

 

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