Arts: Classical: A very British decade

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The Independent Culture
THE ROEHAMPTON Institute - near Barnes, in south-west London - has just presented a series of concerts entitled "British Music of the 1990s": four programmes, quite ambitious for an academic organisation of its kind, which culminated on Saturday with a recital by the Arditti String Quartet. This concert was, in addition, preceded by a one-day conference on the same theme.

Though somewhat dominated by speakers from the universities of Sussex and Surrey, the conference was a useful mixture of musical analysis and cultural commentary; it was surprising, however, that no one outside what many would regard as the narrow confines of modernism had been invited to suggest a wider perspective, and to stir up rather more dissent. The lengthy day was most valuable for the forthright and perceptive observations of Arnold Whittall. And Roehampton's Chapman Conference Hall, opened just 18 months ago, proved a surprisingly conducive space for both conference and music-making.

Wednesday's opening concert, given by Gemini, did more than the Arditti Quartet's programme to suggest the full range of composing going on in Britain today; this group and its director, the clarinettist Ian Mitchell, have always been noted for their openness to nonconformist elements. But while it was good to hear pieces by no fewer than eight very different composers (five of whom were present), a shorter, better-rehearsed programme might have offered better value. I particularly enjoyed two works for the full quartet of clarinet doubling bass clarinet, violin, cello and piano; the raw energy and continually questing spirit of Andrew Poppy's Ghost, receiving its premiere, and the power as well as technical sophistication of the underrated Geoffrey Poole's Septembral.

The Ardittis - as the quartet is affectionately known - celebrate their 25th anniversary this year. Irvine Arditti and the changing collection of players he has grouped around him over that quarter-century have, as Jonathan Harvey said in his talk on Saturday afternoon, done much to keep the quartet medium alive, well and kicking in the late-20th century, and I hope we hear more of their scrupulously prepared and ever-vital performances in concert this year than has recently been the case in this country. Already established pieces by Thomas Ades, Harrison Birtwistle and Harvey himself - the latter's super-refined Third Quartet of 1995 - were preceded by the most recent of the three to have been written for the group by James Dillon; here all the composers except Birtwistle were present.

Completed last year, Dillon's 15-minute, four-movement work offers not merely string textures which brilliantly and imaginatively continue to expand our notions of the quartet medium itself, but also a fresh purchase on the modal and other allusive elements that have characterised his Nineties style. These are integrated with remarkable subtlety into what is often a still aggressive, challenging discourse, producing what must surely be not only one of this composer's best works, but also one of the finest British compositions of the decade which this concert helped to celebrate.

Keith Potter