Classical: From melodrama to poetry, melancholy to ecstasy

NASH ENSEMBLE

PURCELL ROOM

SOUTH BANK CENTRE

LONDON SE1

THOUGH BELLES-LETTRES are hardly his style, Harrison Birtwistle has a talent for choosing the words, whether taken from The Greek Anthology or David Harsent's poetry, that prove impeccably right for his uniquely created world.

Both these sources featured in the first concert of the Nash Ensemble's 1999 20th-century music series two weeks ago. The ensemble played Birtwistle's classic 1969 Cantata, which sets fragments by Sappho, and gave the world premiere of The Woman and the Hare, a striking melodrama that overcame the problems inherent in the genre by a skilful juxtaposition of spoken and sung material, performed by reciter Julia Watson and soprano Claron McFadden.

The striking feature was the identity of both pieces shared. The textural juxtapositions and discontinuities of the Cantata were not just some identikit formula for 1960s avant-garderie, but an original approach to the setting of text, renewed in the more recent work to a novel stage evolution. Birtwistle's arrangements of Machaut and Ockeghem motets set the scene; and there were sharply focused accounts of his Duets for Storab and Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale suite.

The evening's other premiere was of Colin Matthew's arrangement of Debussy's Trois poemes de Stephane Mallarme, tailored in ensemble to match the Trois poemes by Ravel, a Nash Ensemble standard. Perfectly tailored to their role, they look set to become a significant addition to the ensemble's dazzling repertoire.

Last Thursday came the turn of younger composers to hear their work played by this talented group; and of special interest was the way in which each was able to conjure a personal sound from its heterodox line-up. David Matthew's The Sleeping Lord lent orchestral weight to its chamber textures, with soprano Valdine Anderson building from a quiet opening to forceful statement. In Jonathan Harvey's Song Offerings, she rose to ecstatic heights, with a backing for string quintet whose exultant scoring matched the radiance of Tagore's love poems, sung in the poet's own translation. If Harvey knows how to draw finely blended sounds from the ensemble, Julian Anderson can burnish its ravishing highlights. To an earlier Nash commission, his Towards Poetry added a reflective, brooding pas-de-deux that blossomed into a lively clarinet solo. Texture and invention throughout were witty and scintillating. This composer could not be boring even if he tried.

Paul Watkins gave the premiere of his brother Huw's Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments, and he clearly relished both its energy and quieter moments. Watkins is gifted with a sense of formal hierarchy: from clear beginnings flow significant middles and ends. The close of each movement in his three-movement scheme was a genuine conclusion, not just a pause in otherwise continuous music. His later pieces will doubtless display a more flexible range of chord and gesture. But here he showed himself a likely composer for the new millennium.

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