Classical: Rhythms and rarities

OXFORD FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

SHELDONIAN/HOLYWELL

FROM GESUALDO to Miles Davis, by way of Purcell and Stravinsky - Saturday's Britten Sinfonia concert in the Sheldonian sounded as if it would be merely eclectic. Not so. Stefan Asbury's conducting made us aware that beyond tonal or atonal procedures, beyond even melody or dissonance, there is always rhythm, uniting all great music.

The massive drum beats which launched Purcell's "Funeral music for Queen Mary" immediately established an atmosphere of hieratic, impersonal mourning. Admirably, the three trombones stood to deliver their (perfectly chorded) interjections - a fine, dramatic touch in this, one of the most magnificent of 17 pompes funebres.

Next, a vivid performance of Stravinsky's 1924 Concerto for piano and wind. The pianist Helen Crayford made something beautiful of the slow movement's meditative opening - this is much more than Stravinsky's Twenties "clever music", and the virtuoso last movement reminded us that Stravinsky actually has much deeper roots in the 19th century than one might think.

On then to Miles Davis and his brilliant colleague Gil Evans, presented here as a masterly arranger of anything from Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez to Gershwin. With Guy Barker's normally golden trumpet tone reduced to a raucous, feline snarl, "There's a boat that's leaving soon for New York" breathed the very spirit of urban, disillusioned jazz. By contrast, the hackneyed "Aranjuez" adagio revealed such unexpected richness of harmony and rhythm that, far lamenting the loss of the guitar, I for one felt that Evans' version was far more exciting than the original. In the final piece, Gershwin's "Gone", Asbury's control seemed to give the players a new freedom; for five precious minutes the Britten Sinfonia turned into the most swinging of Big Bands.

No such rhythmic excitement in Wednesday's concert, the Contemporary Music Festival's homage to electronic music - in fact, virtually no rhythm at all. It was, however, amazing to see the Holywell Music Room fitted up with all the apparatus necessary for a rare performance of Stockhausen's Kontakte.

The first half of the concert was, however, much more interesting, with the composer James Wood on hand to introduce his Children at a Funeral - a moving work of meditation on the death of his father. As usual, the prepared piano seemed stifled; muffled rather than given a new freedom. By contrast, Edmond J Campion's "Losing Touch" received a sparkling performance on the vibraphone by the young percussionist Kuniko Kato.

Jonathan Harvey's "Tombeau de Messiaen" was also well worth hearing; Harvey rejects "well-tempered" tuning to give a rich feast of natural thirds. But the pianist Clive Williamson seemed at times to be engaged in a personal duel with the tape rather than treating it as if it were a partner.

He certainly needed every ounce of virtuosity in Stockhausen's Kontakte, as did Kuniko Kato, playing a percussion section which entailed hair-raising physical contortions. On the other hand, it is surely far better to hear this piece with live performers, rather than the all-tape version. It may be that Stockhausen seeks to "close the gap" between electronically produced sound and live instruments, but among all the sliding transformations on the tape, Kato's climactic crash on the gong sent the same shivers down my spine as in Turandot. Shockingly heretical, I'm afraid.

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