Classical: Enigma meditations

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LION KING and Milky Way, Silk House Tattoo and Mystic Barge: The London Sinfonietta is on the march again, and on typically fresh terrain. On Friday, this most energised of contemporary music ensembles will give the world premiere of John Cooney's On Shifting Ground, at the Isleworth festival, and over the next few weeks follow up with half a dozen UK premieres in London and Bath.

For the first of the group's "New to London" programme at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday, Oliver Knussen, the Sinfonietta's music director, programmed the music of three generations, setting an introduction to the work of the American composer Peter Lieberson (b.l946), widely performed in the US, but still curiously little known here - alongside recent short miniatures by pillars of the Sinfonietta repertoire, Hans Werner Henze, now in his seventies, and Elliott Carter, who is 90.

Henze terms his six-minute piece Voie lactee o soeur lumineuse, which takes its title from Apollinaire and its inspiration from "the Milky Way as perceived in an equatorial Kenyan sky", an 18-instrument Toccata. Abetted by its diverse range of percussion and celesta, it is a rich fantasy of shifting colours and tempos, the mystique of its dark opening yielding alternately to urgent interjection and secure reverie spliced by abrupt flarings, the serener moments like a luminous, late Bergian landscape.

The fascination of Carter's Luimen ("moods") is the experimental composition of its instrumental sextet: not just the way the trio of plucked instruments - mandolin, guitar and harp - combine surprisingly effectively as a small sectional chorus, but the contrasting timbres Carter contrives by offsetting these with paired brass and vibraphone.

The rest of the evening was Lieberson's. Oddly, the purely musical interest lay in his shorter work, Free and Easy Wanderer, a compact six-minute piece, in which Lieberson packs in a satisfying range of mood and contrast - busy insistence, nocturnal lyricism and dream-like fragments, string surges, Stravinskian piquancy and affirming chorale. The clarity of the Sinfonietta ensemble in this first half was breathtaking.

Lieberson's inspiration for two decades has been Tibetan Buddhism. The ideal of the enlightened ruler informs King Gesar (l992), his 55-minute narration in seven movements retelling the birth, heroism, victories and growth to wisdom of the mytho-historical "Lion King" ruler of Ling. Its drawback is that it is one of those didactically-inclined works which sets such swathes of pummelled-out text there is scant time for an exhausted audience to ingest, let alone absorb.

Heroes of the evening were the two pianists (Lieberson wrote the keyboard parts for Peter Serkin and Emanuel Ax) and above all the inspired narrator, Omar Ebrahim, who delivered the text with such flair, ingenuity, vitality and range of voices - bringing alive the Raven scene, the Horserace, Gesar's self-proclamation, the vivid Battle declamation and lyrically affirmatory finale - that one was swept along by his rhythmic verve.