Reviewed by: Colin Anderson & David Wordsworth
Reviewed: 8 January, 2001
Venue: Purcell Room, London
Since 1956 the Park Lane Group has been ’providing a prominent central London platform for highly talented young artists… ’. Forty-four seasons later, with such musicians as Thomas Allen, John Ogdon, John Harle and Steven Isserlis among those who first appeared at a PLG event, the customary week of London concerts showcasing gifted performers and contemporary music has taken place.
This year 33 musicians (some as members of groups), chosen by audition, took part in a week that began with So-Ock Kim playing pieces for solo violin by Elliott Carter, Brian Ferneyhough and Nicholas Maw (now there’s a combination!). Philip Cashian (PLG’s featured composer for 2001) was specifically commissioned and there were several world and UK premieres, including Magnus Lindberg’s Moto and Autumn Music by Ned Rorem.
Pianist Eleni Liatsou impressed with her dedicated performances, beginning with 15 Little Variations by Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49), a wonderful calling-card from her Greek countryman, a composer now being recognised as truly significant. Although serial, this 1927 piece predates Skalkottas’s studies with Schoenberg – the variations’ core is a communicative passion that compels attention and unifies Skalkottas’s aphoristic structures; Liatsou seemed to particularly enjoy presenting Skalkottas’s fascinating Webernian attention to single notes. She also did well with Philip Grange’s Piano Polyptich, an overlong fantasy involving nocturne, etude and other ’familiar musical situations’. Mr Grange alluded to the pianist playing two pieces at the same time – that didn’t make listening especially complex for the composer seemed more interested in setting out material rather than developing it; too often rhetoric gestures substituted for growth.
Messiaen is not a composer I’d fly the flag for with too much enthusiasm (about half-a-dozen pieces that’s all) but Canteyodjaya could only be his work. Hindu rhythms dominate … but pall. Sections come and go; Canteyodjaya is consciously sectional (I don’t think my musical compass extends to Carngadeva – 13th-century Hindu theory, it says here!). Again, though, Liatsou played with relish, but Pierre Boulez joined Skalkottas in stealing the show with his short toccata, Incises, which displayed a precision of thought and direction that was welcome. Liatsou played this gem with terrific verve.
A similar discrepancy between performers’ abilities and the music they played came when saxophonist Charlotte Bradburn played Gary Carpenter’s Sonata. Its three pleasant-enough movements begin with a fast one of empty note-spinning, which came a poor third to the night-club blues of the second and the Latin-American third – but three (linked) movements as disparate as this don’t add up. Adam Caird’s Williamsburg Bridge (world premiere) alternated staccato notes randomly selected (it seemed) with a rather sweet, affecting melody that suggested loneliness; Bradburn played this unaccompanied piece very sensitively. I was sorry that Caird, doubling as Bradburn’s pianist, didn’t get to play a solo – having won a prize for Tippett’s Second Sonata, it would have been great to hear him play Sir Michael’s tremendous (10-minute) piece.
The pieces for guitar, which Abigail James played, included two by featured composer Philip Cashian. Neither established much personality although the fragile outer sections of Talvi (winter) did convey an appropriate chilly and desolate atmosphere, but the faster music intended as contrast seemed superfluous. Black Venus would appear to require great virtuosity (the second movement especially) but the music itself – reminding of Villa-Lobos – while expertly written failed to engage, despite James’s obviously superb technique. Then step forward Elliott Carter who, with Shard (1997), showed, in two minutes or so, the guitar’s range in an absorbing and masterly study of colour and timbre. With every note having its place, Carter’s release of tension at the close with rapid figuration and, then, Haydnesque wit – an unexpected diminution, which Abigail James brought-off, literally, with a smile – displayed Carter’s textual fastidiousness in another of his numerous occasional pieces.
Each of these performers can, I’m sure, look forward to professional careers of distinction. PLG’s programme-book, wonderfully informative and helpful, was superbly produced and a model of its kind.
One of the few bright spots on an otherwise bleak horizon of Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols are the Park Lane Group concerts at the Purcell Room. Where else is one likely to hear Nicholas Maw, Elliott Carter and Brian Ferneyhough on the same programme, world premieres by young British composers, modern classics and re-discoveries, all played with great panache – and in the company of an attentive, mobile ’phone-free and healthy (i.e. non-coughing) audience.
The first concert that I attended demonstrated that the PLG’s quality control on performers is second-to-none – sadly this is not always the case with the music. The Spanish clarinettist Josep Sancho did himself no favours with the first three pieces in his programme. Kate Romano’s Clockwork Toys and Augustin Charles’s Fantasia were empty of any personality or musical content. A title such as Context VI is enough to make me run for nearest exit – sad to report that my fears for this solo piece by Albert Llans lived up to my expectations, a tedious trawl through 1960s playing techniques. Salvation came in the form of John Casken’s elegant violin-and-piano piece, Apres un Silence, played with great passion and sensitivity (and from memory) by Dmytro Tkachenko – his unsmiling, intense pianist, Alexei Grynyuk, had fingers of steel and a tone to match. Although he could certainly play the notes, he was no match for the subtle colours of Casken’s piece, or indeed featured composer Philip Cashian’s Strobad’s Violin, its gentle irony seemed to completely pass him by. Tkachenko though is a name to look out for.
Josep Sancho redeemed himself with two rarely heard early works by Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies. He was more suited to Birtwistle’s surprisingly gentle and discriminating Verses than to the more hysterical side of Max’s Hymnos; his pianist, Lila Gailling, quite apart from dispatching the not inconsiderable number of notes, was alive to every melodic and rhythmic nuance.
The mixed ensemble Chroma showed itself to be quite a find too – Nashand Endymion had better start watching out! Once again much of the music was beneath its considerable talents. The exceptions were Anthony Payne’s beautifully realised, almost Baxian, Sea Change and Philip Cashian’s witty, but intense, and wonderfully titled, Creeping Frogs, Flying Bats and Swimming Fish. To my shame this is the first time that I have come across Cashian’s music – what a good composer he is!
At another concert, a near-capacity audience had the good fortune to hear three performers of the highest standard. Sarah Nicolls’s piano playing was a model of sensitivity, brilliance and musicality – her performance of Oliver Knussen’s beautiful Sonya’s Lullaby was quite breathtaking and had the audience on the edge of its seats. She had the dexterity to play Cashian’s finger-twisting Four Inventions and the personality to overcome the hidden interpretative challenges of David Sawer’s witty The Melancholy of Departure; I found less in Jonathan Cole’s Trapdoor, but that was certainly not any reflection of the performer.
The violinist Alexandra Wood has a wonderful stage-presence, a fabulous technique and a liquid golden-tone, which together with her undemonstrative pianist Huw Watkins, was put to best use in Hugh Wood’s striking Poeme – another wonderfully crafted work from this still-underrated master-composer. Works by Daniel Georgetti, David Matthews and Huw Watkins himself further served to demonstrate the bewildering stylistic range of the music on offer at these concerts.