The annual week-long Park Lane Group celebration of Young Artists – Colin Anderson reports
You know the musical year has started when the week of Park Lane Group Young Artists Concerts comes round again. For the first full week of January, the Purcell Room resounds to a gamut of contemporary sounds relayed by a crop of talented young musicians.
The opening concert, at 6pm (each night has two programmes, the other being at 7.30), featured the Gallimaufry Ensemble (wind quintet) beginning the week with Birtwistle’s Five Distances. The Purcell Room lacks the depth of perspective the composer envisaged for this work, but the performance was confident, the Stravinsky-like arabesques launched with brio; the players, standing in a semi-circle (as far apart as the platform allows), accumulated intensity and fragmented the material with full appreciation of Birtwistle’s language. The confidence flowed too in Elliott Carter’s Quintet, with Iain Farrington as the unfazed pianist. Over its 22-minute course, I lost the plot a little, and maybe the players did too – there seemed to be a lack of focus on just where the piece was heading – yet if more tautness was needed, there was no lack of vitality. After an arresting few minutes of velocity, Benjamin Wallfisch’s Quintet (all-wind) ran out of steam before its ten minutes were up.
Violinist Harriet Mackenzie made an immediate impression playing, from memory, Adam Gorb’s Klezmer, an attractive work of Eastern promise, going back to Yiddish roots, but sounding familiar through the music of Bartók. Anthony Payne’s Of Knots and Skeins (with pianist Christopher Glynn) intrigued the ear with its web and unfurling. Sarah Watts tamed the outsize bass clarinet impressively and made musical suggestiveness with Donatoni’s Soft, which slithered hypnotically; Cornelius Cardew’s Mountains, however, proved rather too steep to climb.
The standard of musicianship on offer was consistently impressive, yet there were occasions when the music played seemed less than top drawer. Ruth Potter’s harp recital included the 23-minute Linos by László Tihanyi, which required her to insert pieces of paper between the strings, play a note or two, remove the paper, and then play a ’normal’ harp for the majority of what seemed an interminable piece. Yet, hers was a performance of utter dedication. Far more intriguing was Gerald Barry’s two-minute Snow is White and Martyn Harry’s beguiling Regenstimmen. Javier Alvarez’s Acuerdos par diferencia (for electronic harp and tape) required Potter to don headphones. A mobile piece, with a Doctor Who-like soundtrack (but less inventive) that seemed to sample the cimbalom and jew’s harp, and need only be heard once. Donatoni’s supposedly war-like Marches, while too long, at least had one admiring the composer for his chiselled and innovative soundworld.
One immediately responded to the Alba Quartet for its beautiful sound and finely balanced playing. After being harped-out (!), I was gratified by Robert Saxton’s Fantazia for its structure and conversation, eloquently turned by the players who were equally persuasive in Fiori Musicale by Janet Owen Thomas (1961-2002). New to the late composer’s work, I found myself admiring her technique without being involved in the discourse. Helen Reid (who replaced accordionist Nan Li) came across as a pianist with attitude tempered by inwardness. She did her best with Geoffrey Poole’s note-and-resonance K’un (part of his in-progress 64-movement I Ching Cycle) and made much of Anthony Powers’s The Memory Room, which prevailed on five centuries of keyboard literature that was perceived rather than stated.
Musical quotation can be effective, but when a composer fills his pages with others’ music as blatantly as Jonathan Harvey does in the final movement of Four Images after Yeats, then one wonders! Mozart, a big chunk of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1, and Scriabin (among others) segued with no particular reason (to my mind). Such usage is distracting. Of course, Harvey is a distinguished composer; here, after three tightly organised movements, this final one seemed too diverse despite Louisa Breen’s fine account. This Australian pianist made a big impression – her composure, intensity and sensitivity impressed me greatly. Her concentration in Keith Humble’s Eight Bagatelles brought each to life, and she sustained the searching Darknesse Visible of Thomas Adès with much subtlety. Three more pieces from Poole’s I Ching Cycle had a sense of well-being and garnered more appreciation than hitherto. One wishes the composer all the best to complete his undertaking.
Guitarist Xuefei Yang clearly has the ability to suspend time and transport the listener. Once again Robert Saxton provided an imaginative and integrated piece, Night Dance. Not surprisingly, she included Britten’s masterly Nocturnal. Turning this week full-circle, The Zephyr Ensemble of London proved to be another excellent wind quintet. Philip Cashian’s amid the bleached stars and suns set the flautist (with three instruments) apart from the three with reeds and off-stage horn, the latter offering effective echoing and unisons. Harrison Birtwistle’s Op.1, Refrains and Choruses, seems a good place to end this report. Not only as a counterpart to Five Distances, but as an example of distinctive and engrossing music.
While the repertoire choices for this week can be debated, what cannot be doubted was the outstanding musicianship – a tribute once again to Park Lane Group’s auditioning. As ever, these PLG concerts suggest a very encouraging future.

 

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