Arts: Classical - A display of passion, grace and steel

KREUTZER QUARTET CONWAY HALL LONDON BIRMINGHAM CONTEMPORARY MUSIC GROUP/NICHOLAS KRAEMER CHRISTCHURCH, SPITALFIELDS LONDON
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The Independent Culture
THE VIOLINIST formerly known as Peter Sheppard recently relaunched the Kreutzer Quartet with new players: Gordon Mackay, Bridget Carey and Neil Heyde. Now calling himself Peter Sheppard Skaerved, this brilliant English violinist is apparently focusing much of his attention on this ensemble. His determination to make the Kreutzers one of our leading quartets has already been recognised in the warm reception to the group's disc of Michael Finnissy's music, issued on Metier last year.

Pieces by Finnissy featured in the Kreutzer's recent pair of programmes at the Conway Hall. So did the two quartets of Roberto Gerhard: the masterly Second Quartet receiving a brilliant performance in the first recital, the more diffuse but almost equally compelling First Quartet in the second one.

Persuaded to play these neglected works by Meirion Bowen, currently doing much to further the reputation of this once popular Spanish-born composer, Sheppard Skaerved and his colleagues have lavished great care on performances of music which, especially in such perceptively realised accounts, easily transcend the limitations of the labels - Schoenbergian, modernist - often hung around different parts of Gerhard's output. Issued at the end of this month, the Kreutzers' disc of these two works should be as riveting as their previous one.

Steely control combined with real passion, unusual precision of intonation coupled to a vivid range of tonal colours, both conventional and unconventional, also lay behind everything else the Kreutzers performed. Beethoven's Op 95 Quartet, David Matthews' sensitive arrangement of the same composer's Op 101 Piano Sonata and, rather surprisingly, the British premiere of George Rochberg's epic Third Quartet, proved their talents in mainstream- style repertoire. But the group also played rhythmically and timbrally challenging new music, such as Elliott Schwartz's Bellaggio Variations and Jorg Widmann's 1997 Quartet, with what appeared to be enormous precision and conviction. The tiny audiences in a more than usually noise-ridden Conway Hall received a rare treat.

Brief words only for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's demanding concert last Thursday at the ever-enterprising Spitalfields Festival, in which the girls of the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus also played a major role. Howard Skempton's new Suite from the incidental music he wrote three years ago for AL Kennedy's Delicate made typically inventive, but sometimes untypically lugubrious, use of two cellos and some minimal percussion.

The main event of the evening was the premiere of Michael Zev Gordon's Song - for soprano (Rachel Elliott), tenor (Charles Daniels), women's chorus and a sextet of woodwind, cellos and harp - from the Old Testament Song of Songs. Though at 40 minutes this was too long, I admired Gordon's daring and skill in applying such extended repetitions to his chosen text with such lyrical, contrapuntal and timbral imagination and insight.

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