Arts: Classical - More than a mystic

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The Independent Culture
IN A capital city still bursting with festivals and other concert events, and in the month most popular for "festive" fare, some of what the first Hampstead and Highgate Festival is doing this week must be regarded as more for immediately local than for metropolitan-wide consumption: fairly familiar Baroque choral works and Romantic chamber music, a typical Joanna MacGregor "Gala Piano Recital", the concluding Belshazzar's Feast and Berlioz's Te Deum. But the festival's artistic director, Barry Millington, has one big thing up his sleeve this year to justify the event on a wider level. Scattered through six of his programmes in a variety of attractive venues, Hampstead and Highgate is mounting the first British retrospective of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Born in 1928, Rautavaara has recently been internationally acclaimed as a "Romantic mystic". He's all too easy to characterise with the aid of images - incandescent icons, chanting monks, tolling bells - familiar from the iconography surrounding "holy minimalists" such as Arvo Part and John Tavener. Rautavaara's music, however, has a more obvious dynamism and variety. Like theirs, but even more so due to his age, his output also has an interesting "pre-mystic" phase.

The latter was in evidence in the splendid opening concert of the festival, given in the architectural and acoustic splendour of Highgate School's panelled hall. Virtuosi di Kuhmo, a finely attuned and vividly responsive string orchestra of crack Finnish players, was conducted by the Hungarian Peter Csaba in an ingeniously constructed programme of Finnish, American and Hungarian music. This included a sensitively realised version of Copland's Quiet City with saxophone (Beverley Calland), instead of cor anglais, and trumpet (Deborah Calland) joining the Finns.

Fiddlers, Rautavaara's Op 1, dates from 1952, though the scintillating orchestration of its solo-piano original was not made until 20 years later. Like the 1955 Epitaph for Bela Bartk - also on Saturday's programme - it owes debts to that Hungarian composer and to folk models, but it does marvellous timbral, and occasionally deviantly dissonant, things with its material.

Sunday's concert by the Joyful Company of Singers, conducted by Peter Broadbent, and Chaconne Brass was cheerful festival fare. Here the incessant repetitions, glissandi and harsh dissonances of Rautavaara's powerful, if brief, 1973 Lorca Suite - unaccompanied choral settings of four Lorca poems - started to fill out the wider picture of his output. The English composer Richard Baker's newly commissioned brass piece, Keck, was full of witty invention and lively rhythms but was even shorter.