CLASSICAL MUSIC / Stars of tomorrow shine today

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EVERY YEAR at this time an organisation with a name like an upmarket development company (which, in a sense, it is) takes over the Purcell Room for a week and does something remarkable. It is called the Park Lane Group, and what it does is run a 10-part talent show of young artists in modern repertory: a novelty compound that ought to guarantee lingering death at the box office but actually attracts loyal audiences who know that, in the past 40-odd years, PLG has provided a launch pad for big names in British music, from Gwyneth Jones to John Harle (which is some distance).

This year there were 32 performers, and they were uncommonly experienced for their age - like Paul Watkins, who, at 22, is already Principal Cello with the BBCSO. On Monday he played Elliott Carter's lyrical but big-boned and demanding Cello Sonata with tremendous assurance and thought, well supported by the pianist Elizabeth Upchurch.

There was more Carter on Tuesday from an Italian-born guitarist, Emanuele Segre; but Segre's main pitch was a piece by Nicholas Maw called The Music of Memory, a set of variations on a theme from a Mendelssohn quartet that sounds more like a ghostly resonance of Dowland in its transfer to solo guitar.

Maw was one of PLG's featured composers this year and was well represented in what became a career precis, culminating on Friday in the long-overdue London premiere (by the Chagall Trio) of his Piano Trio, a piece I heard two years ago at the Bath Festival and have never forgotten for its passionate, post-Romantic drive and scale. It marks him out as a conscience-figure of British music: someone who stands uncomfortably apart from received contemporary perspectives and, living in America as he does, at the margins of the British performing scene; but one who has much to say, with great craft.

One final commendation in the PLG parade this year goes to Thomas Ades, a 21-year-old pianist and composer, still at Cambridge, whose reputation as an enfant prodige has already got him a publishing contract with Faber Music. Judging from Monday night, he is a pianist of formidable intelligence, albeit with pretentious tastes - not least Three in Memoriam by Kurtag, which required an assistant on stage throughout, for the purpose of adding five notes at a given moment to the right-hand part.

The assistant also had a role in Still Sorrowing, a piece by Ades himself that stood in a tradition of lacrimal writing you could trace back to the English lutenists. For colour it relied on 'preparation' - artificial dampening of the piano strings - and the idea was to do this with a strip of Blu-Tack that the assistant would peel off in mid-performance. But alas, the Blu-Tack stuck fast. The assistant had to pick it off, creating an overlay of plucking noises that were certainly not in the score.

It's good that Ades is getting these things out of his system so early and in fairness, Still Sorrowing is an accomplished enough creation to make any serious listener sit up and take note. Maybe chewing gum would work.

More conventionally, the week's pianistic focus was at the Wigmore Hall where Andras Schiff continued his exemplary series of the complete Schubert sonatas and Tatiana Nikolaeva came in on the nights he didn't for her own enyclopaedic series of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. Late in life, Ms Nikolaeva has established a legendary presence in this repertory, and it isn't easy to explain. Her third concert of Book II (1-12) on Thursday was anything but technically clean. At times it was heavy, over-pedalled, old-school Russian, and lost contact with the rhythmic grounding and seemed to be pedalling in space, with holes where there should have been notes.

And yet it was mesmerising playing that held a packed audience in silence (not a cough or fidget) through the passive drama of these pieces as they shifted semitone by semitone through their rising key sequence: C, C sharp, D, E flat, E and F. And although one knows that Bach did not originally write them as a cycle, they acquired through Nikolaeva's performance, a suggested logic of coherence - as though this little woman sitting at a large Steinway was taking her audience through a lifetime's living with the score that made its own connections and relationships. And so, of course, she was, having made the Preludes and Fugues a central feature of her career for more than 40 years. That's what you buy with a ticket for Nikolaeva: a life's experience, reflected with a calm, if flawed, intensity. And that's her claim to recognition as a great interpreter.

A ticket for the Carmen revival at ENO buys nothing of the sort, because David Pountney's production is a cheap (in every sense) attempt to politicise the narrative in terms which are half-hearted, unbelievable and rather less sophisticated than Evita. We are in a car dump in some South American republic of the Sixties: cue a lot of Latin bad taste (focused on an Escamillo with a Gary Glitter haircut, wickedly sent up by Donald Maxwell) and machine guns. These are off-the-peg ideas: they don't quite fit, they don't develop, and they undermine the genuine issues in the piece - like what does Carmen die for? Sally Burgess in the title role is marvellously individual: more a Lolita than a femme fatale, a Cherubino in a split skirt, and superbly sung. But she is wasted.

'Carmen': Tues, Fri (071-836 3161).

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