Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series – 1

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Robert Saxton in conversation with Thomas Hyde; Susanna Fairburn (soprano) & Matthew Schellhorn (piano) and Imma Setiadi (piano)

Maxwell Quartet [Colin Scobie & George Smith (violins), Elliott Perks (viola) & Duncan Strachan (cello)]

Gamal Khamis (piano)


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 January, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room

Robert Saxton. Photograph: Katie VandyckIf it is the first week in January, it must be the Park Lane Group’s New Year Series. The five days follow the formula that has revitalised these concerts in recent seasons, each featuring a Frontline Composer together with a Linked Composer and the former’s Composer’s Choice.

This first evening duly focussed on Robert Saxton (born 1953), heard in conversation with Thomas Hyde during a recital that underlined the stylistic variety yet also consistency evident over his four decades of creativity. Susanna Fairburn brought understated eloquence to the setting of Mallarmé that is Brise Marine (1976), then was no less inside The Beach in Winter: Scratby [for Tess] (2011) – the final section of the song-cycle (to Saxton’s own texts) Time and the Seasons, and a fine instance of his recent music where (with a nod to Schoenbergian practice) overt recourse to serial thinking has effected greater tonal definition.

Matthew Schellhorn was highly attentive in support – before Imma Setiadi took to the stage for Saxton’s surprise tribute Thomas Hyde: His Birthday, followed by his Piano Sonata (1981). With five contrasted sections unfolding across a tensile single movement, and with a distinctive harmonic profile allied to methodical motivic transformation as amply justified its memorial tribute to Bartók in his centenary year, this is a pungent and absorbing piece that was admirably given here.

The later-evening recital alternated between string quartet and piano for a wide-ranging and cohesive programme. Opening each half was the Maxwell Quartet, founded in Glasgow four years ago and a formidably assured outfit – not least in Saxton’s Third String Quartet (2011), whose five separate yet subtly interrelated movements outline (in the words of the composer) a “semi-autobiographical voyage” whose discreet use of pitch centres and formal flexibility make for diverting and atmospheric listening. Ensemble was less assured in seven of György Kurtág’s12 Microludes (1977), though the Webernian intensity of these miniatures hardly gains from being excerpted in this way, but there were no quibbles over the account of Hyde’s String Quartet (2010). Its two movements counteract each other in an almost dialectical process – an initial Allegro, with crescendoing chords which permeate its course through to the heightened coda, followed by a Lento which builds via a series of ever-more animated paragraphs to an eloquent climax, before yielding to a coda whose repose is the destination of the whole work.

Closing each half of this recital, pianist Gamal Khamis evinced a dazzling technique that was always at the service of interpretative insight. Qualities such as were pointedly held in check in the Ballade (2001) with which Robin Holloway resourcefully pays tribute to mid-nineteenth-century pianism – its purposeful outer sections enclosing a poetic yet hardly passive episode which between them outline the range of Brahms’s piano writing. With its recourse to an altogether more flamboyant pianistic ethos, Thomas Adès’s Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009) makes wholly different demands, yet Khamis was mindful to bring out the panache along with the pathos of its third and fourth movements (hopefully he will tackle the first two if he has not already done so). Further contrast was provided by Saxton’s Hortus Musicae (2013), its five movements alluding to the concept of an allegorical or even metaphysical garden which takes in whimsical as well as animated elements in the course of an evocative sequence, to whose methodical yet limpid pianism Khamis did ample justice.

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