Classical: Little to fear and much to admire

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BATH FESTIVAL CONTEMPORARY MUSIC WEEKEND

NO MORE Roman Orgy. No more Led Zeppelin. But despite these edicts from the city fathers, and interminable squabbling over the direction in which it should go, the Bath International Music Festival has survived to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Now being presented as five separate mini-festivals, the jazz happenings and world music events are clearly isolated from the classical, early music and opera festival, with contemporary music hived off into a final long weekend.

A rare exception to this policy of segregation was a 50th-anniversary commission from James MacMillan for a cello sonata for Raphael Wallfisch, with the pianist John York. In two mirroring movements, "Face" and "Image", the second reflects the first in the use of some structural and technical devices, and in the swapping of roles between the two instruments. Brilliant scalic patterns cover an exceptionally wide lyrical range, especially on the cello, while the strains of a nimble jig, a startlingly brutal stamping section, and a short but extended two-note keening figure provide the bones of a framework.

The warm reaction of the oldish audience suggested that some of this contemporary music might have won new friends had it not been so firmly designated new (and dangerous). If only the terminology weren't so frightening.

Philippe Hurel had apparently abandoned his violin for a Fender Stratocaster guitar, but nothing so violent-sounding as that disturbed his Kits, in which a pre-recorded walking jazz bass supported the airy sounds of tuned percussion, played by Les Percussions de Strasbourg. The group's massive six-section set, laid out all around the Pavilion, took full advantage of the space and, in the wild drum beating of Gerard Grisey's Tempus ex Machina, the silence.

None of the ensemble's percussion instruments - not even the drus or flous, Oriental in sight and sound, and engagingly employed here by Jean- Marc Singier - could match the exotic quality of Claudine Brahem's Heath- Robinsonesque musical machines which were grounded at the Michael Tippett Centre, part of Bath Spa University College. Bicycles, milk bottles, levers, tubes and pipes all took the stage... anything, it seems, can be salvaged and transplanted into an orchestral theatre.

As part of the Tippett Centre's recent extension programme, Anne Smyth's glorious commemorative cast- and enamelled-glass panels at the entrance, featuring hawks' wings, birds and a stream of sound, reverberate with echoes of Tippett's King Priam and The Midsummer Marriage.

Nature played its part, too, in Florent Boffard's attractive piano recital in the Guildhall. To the accompaniment of circling gulls mewling at the open window, Debussy's Etudes can seldom have sounded so sea-drenched. Of the four premieres interspersed between these groups of studies, the spectral harmonies, ghostly colours and eerie tapping rhythms of Tristan Murail's La Mandragore were curiously reminiscent of Ravel's Le gibet.

The same attention to fine detail, this time at the centre of an intricate clockwork mechanism, distinguished Murail's La Barque Mystique in a concert by the London Sinfonietta. Yan Maresz's Eclipse, a Sinfonietta commission with Radio France, used the principle of shadows and obliteration as a means of development, while Philippe Leroux's AAA clucked into action in homage to Rameau's charming harpsichord piece La poule. The delightful, whirling music-box effect of AAA conjured up a miniature Stravinskian fairground in fast-forward motion.

In his spoken introduction to each piece, the conductor Pierre Andre Valade came close to drawing an explanatory thread through the Sinfonietta's programme - a process that would have benefited the weekend as a whole.

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