PLG Young Artists – 3 & 4

Contemporary music played by Park Lane Group Young Artists

Wednesday 12 January
6.00: Mei Yi Foo (piano)
7.30: Richard Craig (flute, piccolo, bass flute); Marie McLeod (cello) & Martin Sturfält (piano)

Thursday 13 January
6.00: Rothko String Trio
7.30: Double Action; David Alexander (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 January, 2005
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Empires may come and go, but the Park Lane Group’s annual week devoted to young artists and 20th-century music goes on for ever – and is approaching its 50th season in 2006. The format remains as it has long been – with a daily c.45-minute recital followed by a full-length concert, both featuring solo musicians or ensembles. Programmes retain a sprinkling of modern classics among the mainly ‘middling’ (in age and aesthetic) British contingent – though the presence of the 27-year-old Japanese Dai Fujikura, whose work across a variety of media has been widely praised, as a Featured Composer alongside Sir Michael Tippett (whose centenary fell at the beginning of this year) gave the series its overall balance.

Even their presence could not rescue every recital under consideration. Tippett’s Piano Sonata No.2 received a veritable mauling from Malaysian pianist Mei Yi Foo, who clattered through its juxtaposition of musical types with little or no thought as to how they might form a coherent whole. Nor were her renderings of ‘Fanfares’ and ‘Arc-en-ciel’ from Book 1 of Ligeti’s Etudes – respectively too casual and too unsubtle – of any great merit. Better was her handling of the Fourth and Fifth in Unsuk Chin’s ongoing series of vivid and resourceful Etudes, while Fujikara’s Lost Shadows relished an interplay between staticism and dynamism that evoked David Lynch rather more than Martin Scorsese. Mei Yi Foo’s recital ended with her own Sonic Vision – four pieces dealing with infinity as a phenomenological concept, and whose coruscating figuration at least denoted a thorough command of piano writing.

Fortunately, the evening programme was on a higher level of artistic achievement. Flautist Richard Craig confirmed his credentials with an elegantly phrased account of James Dillon’s Sgothan, and identified with the inward intensity of Fujikura’s Poison Mushroom – its evoking of atomic desolation sensitively worked into a sonic tapestry whose tape part was skilfully diffused by overhead speaker placement. Michael Finnissy’s Ulpirra was a hushed, caressing study in bass flute sonority, while Kaija Saariaho’s Laconisme de l’Aile interweaved flute and voice into delicate birdsong arabesques. Franco Donatoni’s Nidi, hectic yet playful in its piccolo pyrotechnics, set the seal on a distinguished recital.

Attentively accompanied by Martin Sturfält, cellist Marie McLeod reminded one just how motifically subtle a miniature is Lutoslawski’s Grave. Not least compared to James MacMillan’s Second Cello Sonata – whose crude, disjointed progress toward and away from its crux affirmed that not even the palindrome guarantees symmetrical cohesion. Magnus Lindberg’s Moto better served McLeod’s undoubted commitment – its compendious expression and technique endowed with an element of freedom such as ensured a spontaneous response. Huw Watkins’s Cello Sonata then revivified the archetypal fast-slow-fast format, in music as purposeful as was the playing of McLeod herself.

Thursday at 6 brought the Rothko String Trio – comprising violinist Cliodhna Ryan, violist Cian O’Duill and cellist Clare O’Connell (whose work is already familiar through those enterprising groups Chroma and Sound Collective). They found mystery and not a little menace within the gestures of Bone Icon by Ian Wilson (his string quartets are already a significant contribution to the medium), and illuminated the timbral recesses of Alastair Stout’s Black Summer Heat so that the piece’s inspiration in the paintings (appropriately enough) of Mark Rothko and the landscape of the American Mid-West was powerfully affirmed. If Judith Bingham’s Fifty Shades of Green was no more (or less) than a straightforward translation of a Henri Rousseau canvas, it fulfilled its remit with an illustrative vigour that the Rothko Trio seized upon gratefully. More from this group and soon, please.

Perhaps nowhere in London other than the PLG week would a harp duo find its natural outlet, and Double Action – Keziah Thomas and Eleanor Turner – demonstrated a meeting of minds and repertoire to lift their music-making outside the realm of mere novelty. Geoffrey Poole’s Kakemono (premiere) integrated Chinese instrumental and cultural gestures into a fantasy as poetic as it was effective, then Turner’s own Butterflies’ Autumn depicted that insect’s transformative evolution in music drawing on French Impressionism with no mean flair. Embodying a plangent emotion (stemming from the loss of almost all the composer’s family during World War Two) within its succinct formal framework, Lex van Delden’s Concertino per Due Arpe (1962) is clearly the centrepiece so far of the harp-duet repertoire – one to which Fujikura’s deft and texturally resourceful Harp Duo is a recent and valuable contribution.

The other component of the evening was allotted to pianist David Alexander – who gleefully got to grips with the gritty and cumulative rhythmic energy of Luke Bedford’s Macabre Scarecrow Solo, then offered a coherent and convincing appraisal of the Expressionist extremes which motivate Wolfgang Rihm’s Klavierstück No.4. Saving the best until last, he excelled with an assured account of Tippett’s Sonata No.3: most virtuosic of the composer’s foursome, and a work that reasserts the primacy of classical virtues within his music of the 1970s. As perceptive in the sensuous repose of the central movement as he was in channelling the tumultuous energy of those either side, David Alexander evinced a keen understanding of a work that ranks with Tippett’s finest of any era. Quite a contrast to that heard the day before – and one such as makes the PLG New Year Series the more necessary.

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