Classical music: Let the music soothe you

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL TEN years or so ago, Nigel Osborne was at the forefront of Britain's avant-garde. Then his name suddenly seemed to vanish from the concert programmes. But this was no Sibelian silence: Osborne has been busy elsewhere, chiefly in Bosnia and the Caucasus, using music to help children traumatised by war. A friend who recently went to work with the orchestra in Sarajevo reports that Osborne's name is mentioned there with a profound respect and gratitude.

A concert crowning the British Musicological Societies' conference at Guildford on Saturday presented the premiere of Osborne's first string quartet - an odd omission from the worklist of a former professional violinist- violist. It was worth the wait. "Medicinal Songs and Dances", as Osborne has called it, pays homage to the Medici String Quartet, whose leader, Paul Robertson, has likewise researched the therapeutic effects of music.

More fundamentally, the work draws on the experiences of Osborne's second life to evoke the healing music of several of the world's cultures - but if its title suggests jolly tunes, think again: this quartet mixes a wide range of techniques to produce music that both stretches and soothes the ear.

The first movement complements an ancient Greek mode with microtonal inflection. The second links Malayan music with the calming sound of rain. For the third, Osborne slowed down the sound of the !goma, the African healing bow, to examine its constituent features. The penultimate movement brings back the rain to introduce the rhythms of a taranta. And in the finale Osborne at last quotes directly, from a Caucasus healing song, emerging with the same cathartic effect as the Dowland song revealed at the end of Britten's Lachrymae.

The companion pieces were Sebastian Forbes' Fourth Quartet, written three years ago to inaugurate the Medicis' first three-year residency at Surrey University, and Britten's Third. The Forbes is an uneasy blend of dark textures and lyrical lines fractured by a mosaic structure. And the Britten is a farewell to life - but not only his own, as I now see. Britten sat down to write the Third Quartet shortly after the death, in August 1975, of Dmitri Shostakovich. The brittle sonorities and irony of the fourth- movement "Burlesque" strongly suggest that this is a private tribute to his Russian friend. But not until the Medicis played it so perceptively did that purpose become clear.