Classical: NO STRINGS ATTACHED

Spitalfields Festival
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The Independent Culture
There's a new artistic regime at the Spitalfields Festival, with Richard Hickox moving on and three composers taking over. Now it looks less historical, more contemporary, and even less connected with the setting. That evidently doesn't bother the audience, who arrived in strength on Friday for an oddball late-evening concert.

Too many cooks? If they are anything like most roomfuls of composers, Anthony Payne, Judith Weir and Michael Berkeley must find it easier to agree on what they hate. Yet if you took this programme by the clarinet ensemble No Strings Attached, together with the Sorrel String Quartet's session a couple of hours earlier, it added up to something quite infectious. Contrasted Purcell arrangements here, defiantly inauthentic Bach and Mozart there; Payne's enthusiasm for Frank Bridge countering Weir's for Morton Feldman, and a specially written centrepiece to bring all the musicians together: all this went beyond self-indulgence to make a fascinating mix.

The trouble came with life's little practicalities. With one group based in Manchester, the other in London, plus two busy freelances for double- bass (Chi-chi Nwanoku) and piano (Alex Maguire), something was bound to give, especially if the new commission turned out to be intricate. Gerard McBurney bravely clambered up at the end to give each player a rose, though they had only presented him with about two-thirds of his piece. They deserved the tribute.

A winter's walk round Troitse-Lykovo park was, to begin with, as picturesque and ironic as its inspiration in two visits to a Moscow suburb before and after glasnost. Clarinets keened and squealed, strings scampered around exploring their extremities; consonance and dissonance collided and separated. But the writing was densely detailed and ran rapidly and at length through to a sudden cut-off, with the promised slow section still not within earshot.

For the rest, it was the clarinettists' night, except for the Feldman: three clarinets, cello and piano sat oddly between Purcell and Mozart in its still, hypersensitive sparseness. The best experience was their version of two Bach preludes and fugues, beautifully delivered, and surprising enough to put a fresh perspective on received ideas - just what creative programming ought to do.

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