Park Lane Group – 7th, 9th and 10th January 2002

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 January, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London

The annual series of Park Lane Group Young Artists concerts begun on 7 January with a 6pm recital by Contemporary Consort (Sarah Thurlow, clarinet/bass clarinet; Edward Bale, violin; Naomi Williams, cello; Karl Lutchmayer, piano/celeste). Formed by Junior Fellows of the Royal College of Music in 1998, Contemporary Consort is clearly a group in sympathy with the broad range of new music. Thomas Ades’s Catch (1991) was deftly despatched, Sarah Thurlow’s initially off-on-offstage clarinet neatly dovetailing with audience latecomers, not to mention Karl Lutchmayer’s incisive pianism. The dark and sinister opening of Geoffrey Poole’s Septembral (1993/8) promised much, and if this fervent tribute to the Hindu god Shiva lacked a convincing follow-through, the plangent cello of Naomi Williams and characterful violin of Edward Bale in the ’Valse Grazioso Macabre’ section maintained interest. Alastair Stout’s ’all isles excelling’ (2001), inspired by Purcell and Johnny Cash, deals in fugitive gestures and pointillist timbres, suggesting a distanced recall of the famous Dryden text. Anthony Powers’s Double Sonata (1993), an ingenious sonata structure ’in reflection’, featured excellent ensemble playing, if with a lack of momentum moving into the telling return of the introductory material.

The 6pm recital on 9 January featured the Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington & Dafydd Williams, violins; Chris Brown, viola; John Myerscough, cello). Launched at the 1998 Cambridge String Quartet Symposium, the Doric Quartet offered a short but well-planned recital. Anthony Powers’s Third Quartet (1999) is a pungent work whose three brief movements inhabit a soundworld recalling the second quartets of Roberto Gerhard and Hugh Wood. Two Little Folk Games (2001) finds Martin Butler dovetailing minimalist and folk-derived techniques in an engaging if unlikely synthesis of Conlon Nancarrow and Howard Skempton. The highlight of the recital was undoubtedly the Third String Quartet of Zemlinsky. Composed in 1924, it finds the one-time teacher of Schoenberg confronting the possibilities of inter-war Modernism head-on in intensely emotional music expressed with unerring clarity. The Doric captured the unease of the opening ’Allegretto’ and the elegiac restraint of the ’Romanze’. If the ’Theme and Variations’ lacked coherence and the final ’Burleske’ a sense of barely controlled agitation, this was still a fine performance of a neglected masterpiece.

The 7.30 concert on 9 January included soprano Claire Booth and Naomi Iwase, a Japanese pianist with a cosmopolitan background and training. She included two Japanese composers of the older generation. Akira Miyoshi’s Piano Sonata (1960) is a substantial, three-movement work, though the classical formal models came over as freeze-dried, while the Prokofiev-by-rote figuration and harmonic language soon palled. Mutsuo Shishido’s Toccata II (1966) entertained through a Messiaenic harmonic range allied to jazzy syncopation. The premiere of Halli Cauthery’s Three Bagatelles (2001) evinced a personal take on the pianism of Schoenberg’s Op.23 pieces and the more expressionistic of Bartók’s early miniatures. Martin Butler’s On the Rocks (1992) adopts a Debussyian mode for its evocative seascape, giving Iwase scope for finely judged dynamic subtlety and timbral shading.

On the basis of her PLG contribution, Claire Booth is a soprano with a future. A touch over-effusive in the elaborate word play of Oliver Knussen’s Whitman Settings (1991), she conveyed the physicality and, in the final song, transcendence of musical treatment. Ryan Wigglesworth proved a superbly attentive accompanist, though such a word hardly begins to describe the complexity of his role both here and in Elliott Carter’s song-cycle, Of Challenge and Of Love (1994). These settings of five poems by John Hollander focus the powerful rhetoric and high-flown lyricism of Carter’s mature idiom down to its essence – notably in ’Quatrains from Harp Lake’, the cycle’s imposing centrepiece. Booth was fully in command of the complex textual and musical semantics here, though elsewhere she projected a little too forcefully – understandable in the relatively flat ambience of the Purcell Room. She had earlier given her all in the premiere of Wigglesworth’s own Three Coleridge Fragments (2001), attractive and lucid settings which failed to plumb the depths of this remarkable poetry.

On the following night (10 January) the 6pm recital by pianist Mari Sakata proved an undoubted highlight of the week. Having rendered the crystalline textures of Martin Butler’s Nathaniel’s Mobile (1995) with commendable poise, she gave an assured account of Harrison Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks (1998). Given with scrupulous regard for their polyrhythmic intricacy, these five pieces emerged as playful variants on the musical and aesthetic measurement of ’time’ – mind games for the ear and virtuoso studies for the senses. Sakata no doubt prepared them with the assistance of the work’s dedicatee, Joanna MacGregor (Sakata’s professor at the Royal Academy), but there was no doubting the personality of her interpretation nor the all-round fluency of her technique. Per Norgard’s perceptive study in rhythmic velocity and stretching of musical time, Achilles and the Tortoise (1983), concluded Sakata’s recital – its coruscating layers of figuration delivered with aplomb.

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