Classical: Variations on a theme

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THE CONCEIT of Stephen Gutman's programming at the Purcell Room on Thursday was ingenious. From a pianist who has co-directed a course on writing piano variations, a recital programme where subsequent works reflect an initial work, should come as no surprise.One movement from Rameau's Suite No3 in D minor, a work from his Pieces de Clavecin of 1724, was the catalyst for the whole programme. Le Lardon is the title of a miniature minuet, the seventh movement of Rameau's suite.

The suite has 10 movements, which in themselves appear to use variation as a structural device, somewhat obscuring beginnings and endings so that the titles and movements seemed to get out of sync. But Gutman's delivery was elegant and poised, delightfully shaping this courtly music.

If the colouring of the Rameau appeared one dimensional on a large, modern grand piano, losing the terraced dynamics and registrations of a harpsichord, Paul Dukas's "Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme of Rameau" - Le Lardon again - demonstrated the three-dimensional colour and dynamic of late 19th century piano writing. In its pushing, pulling and stretching of harmonic language, though never completely straying away from a recognisable base, it has a restless, improvisatory feel. It also has a great many notes, which Gutman splendidly despatched.

The final set of variations were contributions from 13 British composers who were each invited to produce a two-minute miniature on Le Lardon. Such an exercise produces a fascinating barometer of current compositional fashion. While some remain modernist or grandly gestural with little hint of Rameau (Colin Matthews, John Woolrich, Jonathan Powell, Michael Finnissy, John Casken) I was more drawn to those - by Martin Butler, Gabriel Jackson, Julian Anderson and Katharine Norman - where the original seemed to lend a helping hand.

But the winners for me were Luke Stoneham, cleverly echoing "antiqueness"; Peter Wiegold's brilliant, energetic romp; and Howard Skempton, the only composer to retain Rameau's essential, simple, poise. This is not the first time Gutman has embarked on such a project and fortunately, it does not seem the last. A splendid addition to any new music festival.