Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 8 January, 2004
Venue: Purcell Room, London
New Year, and what could be less unexpected than the Park Lane Group’s series devoted to young artists and (mostly) contemporary music? The tried-and-trusted format has come in for some harsh criticism of late, but there’s little doubt that the opportunity to programme adventurous music is one that all musicians with a modicum of spirit take up with alacrity. And with a little imaginative listening ’between the lines’, it is possible to hear how the artist(s) in question are likely to tackle the more standard repertoire that will inevitably determine their recitals in the future.
Cellist Rachael Tobin opened the week, at 6 p.m., with a ’deep end’ recital, albeit one suited to her inward tone and searching interpretative approach. John Casken’s cunningly elided tension and release – at a formal and expressive level – in A Spring Cadenza; a more effective solo than Jonathan Harvey’s etiolated-sounding ’liberation’ of the bass register in Curve with Plateaux. Most impressive of the recent works was Kate Romano’s Nocturne (a PLG commission), which intercuts a chorale idea and melodic phrase with imaginative resource. Best known as a clarinettist of wide sympathies, Romano clearly has something to say as a composer too. Tobin’s recital ended with Luigi Dallapiccola’s Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio – one of a handful of significant solo cello works from the mid-twentieth century, with its powerful conflation of Bachian structure and Bergian expression. If Tobin rather underplayed the music’s emotional depth, this was still a commendable performance – marking what one hopes will be the beginning of a major reappraisal of the composer in his centenary year.
The main evening concert brought the customary ’double line-up’, including the duo of violinist Jane Gordon and pianist Jan Rautio. They made the most of the quick-fire repartee in Dream Thou by the stylistically quixotic Luke Bedford, and found a whimsical vein of fantasy apt for Martin Dalby’s Unicorn. The evanescent calm of Elena Firsova’s Vernal Equinox concealed allusions to Bach and Mussorgsky, as well as her own initials (the three composers sharing the same birthday) and those of her husband, composer Dmitri Smirnov. Gordon is an accomplished player if with a sometimes uningratiating tone – evident in Casken’s admittedly dreary Après un silence, which contrasts unmemorable episodes in its progress towards an uninspiring denouement. Silence came near to being golden on this occasion.
Although accordionists are not new to PLG recitals, the sheer bravura with which Milos Milivojevic dispatched his varied sequence suggested that the instrument has come of age as a vehicle for creative expression. He brought out the steely modal dissonance of Anthony Gilbert’s Rose luisante (inspired by Bayeux Cathedral), and brought keen insight to Luciano Berio’s far-reaching synthesis of accordion idioms in Sequenza XIII – surprisingly receiving its UK premiere after eight years. An accordionist himself, Howard Skempton has amassed a fair repertoire, with Twin Set and Pearls a set of deceptively genial vignettes typical of his music as a whole. Magnus Lindberg’s Jeux d’anches was an ostensibly tougher proposition, but Milivojevic clearly relished its utilising of every aspect of accordion technique in a study which provoked and entertained in equal measure.
Thursday evening began with the other highlight of this year’s listening. Hiroaki Takenouchi, now in his third year as a postgraduate at the Royal College of Music, had assembled a demanding recital to confirm his credentials in contemporary repertoire. The parallel variations of Piers Hellawell’s Basho did little more than illustrate his programme note, while Firsova’s For Alissa is a tribute to her daughter of overtly subdued demeanour. More engrossing was Oggetti (Omaggio à Morandi), Jeremy Dale Roberts’s collection which evokes the singular ’still-lifes’ of Giorgio Morandi. Hermetic and at times inscrutable, the pieces are always intriguing and often strikingly evocative. Recently retired as Head of Composition at the RCM, Roberts’s own music will now perhaps enjoy greater profile. Equally arresting, if inevitably less personal, was Two Reflections on Milton by 24-year-old Philip Neil Martin – the diptych exploring the duality of contrasting ’wave patterns’ across the keyboard in scintillatingly pianistic terms. ’Pianistic’ was probably not used to describe Berio’s Sequenza IV when it appeared in 1966, but this study in formal continuity and variegated texture continues to fascinate, Takenouchi ensuring that it could have been conceived in terms of no other instrument.
Of the evening’s double offering, solo clarinettist Nicholas Shipman demonstrated an inclusive technique in a programme as diverse as it was qualitatively inconsistent. Roger Redgate’s +R got rather hung up on rebarbative technique, such as Firsova employed rather more sparingly in her arresting early Sonata. For The Devil and the Hemlock Stone, Nigel Clarke provided a kitsch ’sound design’ backing for the clarinet’s rather aimless doodling. Perhaps Clarke would be better employed creating ambient backdrops for current Goth-metal favourites The Darkness? A composer little heard of late, Douglas Young showed what can be achieved with the medium in his immensely likeable Three Maquettes, while Kate Romano provided something whimsical yet characterful for her instrument in Clockwork Toys – rounding off Shipman’s contribution with a pert flourish.
The remainder of the programme was given to the duo of violinist Ruth Palmer and pianist Tanya Gabrielian. Palmer has technique to burn, but also a rather gritty upper range, which became tiring in the Hoffmannesque flights of Firsova’s Vigilia. Casken’s Bell Pavine featured a tape of bell ambience to cushion the restrained violin arabesques – no more than the sum of its parts, maybe, but an ideal inclusion in a such a programme. Palmer and Gabrielian returned to end the concert with a modern classic. Alfred Schnittke’s Second Violin Sonata, subtitled ’Quasi una Sonata’, which has divided opinion over its 26-year existence. Is it a searching attempt to accommodate serial and post-tonal aesthetics, or a desperate striving for effect by a composer who has knowingly ’failed’ in his Modernist quest? The present performance gave no definite answer, but more than held the attention – with Gabrielian’s superbly responsive pianism marking her out as an accompanist of some distinction.
So, a mixed but generally engrossing bag of music more or less unfamiliar, with the players mostly justifying their programming choices. The thought occurs (not for the first time) that having a number of ’featured composers’ (some of who re-emerge with notable frequency) does lead to all too dutiful run-throughs of not very inspiring pieces. Could the shortlist of composers not be opened up, encouraging the musicians to take advantage of the spectrum of new music in Europe and elsewhere? Whatever, the series will survive this as well as more negative criticism – leaving PLG supremo John Woolf secure in the knowledge that, however late the arrival of programmes for some of the recitals, there will always be an audience keen to hear the performers in question!