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Purcell Room, London January 5-8

Rachael Tobin cello

John Casken Spring Cadenza
Jonathan Harvey Curve with plateaux
Kate Romano Nocturne
Luigi Dallapiccola Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio

Jane Gordon violin & Jan Rautio piano
Milos Milivojevic solo classical accordion

Anthony Gilbert Rose luisante
Luke Bedford Dream Thou
Martin Dalby Unicorn
Luciano Berio Sequenza XIII (accordion)
Elena Firsova Vernal Equinox
John Casken Apres un silence
Howard Skempton Twin Set and Pearls
Magnus Lindberg Jeux d'arches

Daniel Becker solo piano

Pierre Boulez Incises
Paul Whitmarsh Bagatelle
Elena Firsova Elegy
Kenneth Hesketh 3 Japanese Minatures
Philip Cashian 4 Inventions

Aurora Ensemble
Anna Dennis soprano & John Reid piano

Eliot Carter Wind Quintet
John Casken la orana, Gauguin
Elena Langer Late autumn lullaby 2
Luciano Berio Ricorrenze
Gyorgy Kurtag Requiem for the Beloved
Elena Firsova 3 Mandelstam Poems
Gyorgy Kurtag Wind Quintetto
Joe Cutler Verses and Choruses

Christina Mairi Lawrie solo piano

Sadie Harrison Impressa amarosa
Brian Elias Variations
James MacMillan Piano Sonata

David Childs euphonium & Harvey Davies piano
Evelyn Chang solo piano

Elena Firsova Euphonism
John Casken The Haunting Bough
Alfred Schnittke Piano Sonata No. 2
Simon Parkin Skunk
Nigel Clarke City in the Sea
Elena Firsova Hymn to Spring
Dobrinka Tabakova Midnight
Elena Langer Late Autumn's Lullaby 1
Ed Bennett Staggering
Alun Hoddinott Sonata for Euphonium

Hiroaki Takenouchi solo piano

Piers Hellawell Basho
Elena Firsova For Alissa
Jeremy Dale Roberts Oggetti (Homage to Morandi)
Phillip Neil Martin 2 Reflections on Milton
Luciano Berio Sequenza IV

Ruth Palmer violin & Tanya Gabrielian piano
Nicholas Shipman solo clarinet

Elena Firsova Vigilia
John Casken A Bell Pavine
Roger Redgate R+
Elena Firsova Sonata for solo clarinet, Op.16
Nigel Clarke The Devil and the Hemlock Stone
Douglas Young Ten Short Symbols
Kate Romano Mechanical Toys
Alfred Schnittke Quasi una sonata

Another year, another batch of PLG artists showing their metal in contemporary music, a great deal of it likely to be newly learned and unfamiliar to the largely professional audience. All those performing need to have been technically well equipped to have got through the rigorous selection process. The prizes are these appearance in the Purcell Room, before audiences of musicians, critics and representatives of the music business, with the attendant publicity and, for some, future support from PLG; as always, no cash awards. (John Woolf told us that PLG "has no money" and this year there was no series programme book, with the usual attractive montage of photos.- a reference tp "page 37" gave away the problem).

Whilst some participants are already well established professionals, less experienced others can seem a little overawed and do not quite confirm expectations; I would place cellist Rachael Tobin, violinist Ruth Palmer and soprano Anna Dennis (albeit handicapped by a chest infection) in that category .

The shared concerts are potentially the more interesting and the best of them can constitute really memorable events. And with the better chosen programmes, it is perfectly possible to extrapolate how the musicians would do in more usual repertoire.

All this came together on the first evening. Jane Gordon is a confident, well equipped violinist with good platform manner (some others still are in desperate need of advice and coaching at their colleges on suitable apparel and how to walk onto a stage to face an audience). A Strad loaned from RAM could not but help, as did the calculated balance and rhythmic exactitude with pianist Jan Rautio. She was able to display beautiful tone and romantic ardour in Elena Firsova's Vernal Equinox, which incorporates a multitude of ciphers (a compositional practise of Schumann & Berg) to represent her own initials and those of her composer husband, together with quotes from Bach and Mussorgsky, who shared Firsova's birthday. None of that sounded too cerebral in the event - this is a composer who likes to stress the lyrical potential of violin and piano. Of their other pieces Martin Dalby's Unicorn, composed for a Junior Violinists Competition, was the most winning, and their contribution confirmed that Gordon & Ratio would surely bring similar sensibility and mutual rapport to standard sonatas.

Gordon & Rautio shared the platform with Milos Milivojevic, a gifted young virtuoso on the bayan (classical accordion - the one with buttons and no piano keys). In recent years this wondrous machine has really come into its own and into mainstream contemporary composition; accordion playing standards are disconcertingly high. Fascinating to watch, the arrangement of the notes is as bizarre and inscrutable as those of the cimbalom . Milivojevic had a real coup for PLG in bringing us the belated UK premiere of Berio's Sequenza of 1995 and he capped this with Magnus Lindberg's Jeux d'Anches which had made him feel he was 'composing for an orchestra of wind instruments'. No doubt these will find their way onto a Milivojevic CD before long - or, better, a DVD; the accordion is a supremely visual instrument.

The Aurora Wind Quintet is a formidable ensemble, revelling in the rhythmic complications and virtuosity of Carter's 1948 quintet and fully equal to the exceptional demands of Berio's Ricorrenze in which repeating fragments gradually become disjointed with 'an almost organic unpredictability'. A great piece which every top level wind quintet ought to put into its repertoire, even though that would require many hours of rehearsal. In general, it should be acknowledged, the morer stringently selected works from abroad during the week put most of the featured UK offerings into perspective.

Less persuasive were the claims of the euphonium as a mainstream concert instrument. David Childs put it through its paces efficiently but Simon Parkin's Skunk was more a vehicle for virtuosity than music which 'had to be written' and needing the instrument for its expression; if that distinction is clear and meaningful? Harvey Davies accompanied valiantly (he is well used to working with brass players, having toured abroad with Alison Balsom) but the conjunction remained stubbornly unsatisfactory.

Two solo pianists on Wednesday took on tough assignments. Christina Mairi Lawrie made a good case for Sadie Harrison's Impresa amarosa and for the intricacies of the Variations of Brian Elias, a radical rethinking of Beethoven's 32 variations. Both had programme notes which left us uncertain where we were; Harrison's because there was no indication that there were sections within the seven short pieces and our being told of some being 'less than a minute long' prepared us for a more concentrated time scale; it proved to be a major work, around 20 mins in all, and longer pauses at the proper places might have helped us to keep our bearings. Elias's scheme, on the other hand, was perplexing in the typographical layout; were we to read them horizontally or vertically. Whatever, both these works, neither of them new, deserve wider currency and Christina Lawrie's championship of them was creditable, and just what the PLG series is all about. James MacMillan Piano Sonata was more directly accessible and easier to take in; it is recorded by Rolf Hind on Factory Classical FACD 326.

Evelyn Chang, helped by her repertoire, was the more memorable of the two pianists heard on the Wednesday evening and was better attuned to the Purcell Room Steinway and that hall's difficult acoustic. Rather given to exaggerated gesture (though I would not want her self-consciously inhibited) she overdoes the hand held high above the head and crouching head down to the keyboard; she mustn't follow Mustonen's example! More importantly, her account of Schnittke's sonata was magisterial, authoritative and moving; one of the high points of the first half-week. Definitely a pianist to seek to hear again, and one who leaves no doubts but that she will have a lot to say in standard repertoire too.

I was able to hear all the performers on the first four of PLG's extended "10 days in January" this year. Most satisfying of all, and his the most successful choice of programme, was Japanese born pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi's recital. He established his pitch with a take on Haydn's F minor variations, Piers Hellawell's Basho, an engrossing work originally intended for amateurs by a composer for whom "mountainous virtuosity plays no part in any music of mine". Next, featured composer Elena Firsova's not easy gift to her 16 yr old up-coming pianist/composer daughter Alissa, and afterwards the world premiere of a collection of short pieces by Jeremy Dale Roberts. Quite different from anything heard in the whole week, they were delicate aphorisms which brought to mind the spare piano pieces of Kurtag and Woolrich, and with them Takenouchi demonstrated abundantly that virtuosity is a matter of touch and sensibility equally as prestidigitation and power. I look forward to playing them. More conventional virtuosity was delivered for the young Phillip Martin's Reflections and the requisite "dexterity of fingers and feet" for Berio's piano Sequenza IV (1966/93), which confirmed that Takenouchi is a fully equipped and mature artist who must be a strong contender for any contemporary music competition. Hiroaki Takenouchi is booked to give a recital at the Cheltenham International Festival in the summer, and his recordings of Edwin Roxburgh's Six Etudes and Jeremy Dale Roberts' Oggetti are to be released next year.

Park Lane Group's January continues tonight at the Purcell Room and with a weekend Young Composers Symposium (mornings and afternoons 10-11 January). Also a chance to hear again PLG Young Musicians the Doric String Quartet (PLGYA 2003) at Wigmore Hall 12 January.


© Peter Grahame Woolf