IoS classical review: Ligeti Quartet, St James's, Piccadilly, London The English Concert, Christ Church, Spitalfields, London

Young artists spread the joy – but how long can it last?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

One of the best British composers most Britons had not heard of, Jonathan Harvey, left a vast catalogue of work when he died earlier this month. But viewers of the fly-on-the-wall documentary Westminster Abbey on BBC2, which on Friday ended its inspection of the institution almost entirely through the prism of its choir, heard Harvey's Missa Brevis being sung – and shouted. This mix of song and speech was typical of the composer whose scoring reached far beyond the conventional.

Harvey's highly spiritual, all-encompassing and iridescent writing incorporated, from an early stage, electronic sound and, in homage to Messiaen, birdsong – hear his captivating Bird Concerto with Pianosong with orioles and buntings. The Barbican staged a well-timed Harvey weekend at the beginning of the year, and last week his Second String Quartet opened a captivating recital in London by the Ligeti Quartet at St James's, Piccadilly, courtesy of the Park Lane Group, which encourages rising artists.

Harvey wrote four quartets over three decades and this second was fruitful terrain for these accomplished young players who stretched and wound the membrane of sound in this questing and intricate piece, scudding through harmonics with chattering bows. The young composer Christian Mason, whose witty, gleaming arrangement of Huang Hai-Huai's Racing Horses galloped home in five minutes flat, must be just the sort of musical successor that Harvey would have hoped for. Ligeti's String Quartet No 2 with its ticking, swarming and bow-shredding explorations resolving on a single cobweb thread closed this impressive recital: the quartet make their Southbank debut next month, when Harvey is a Park Lane Group featured composer.

Laurence Cummings, conducting from the keyboard at Christ Church Spitalfields, demonstrated a gift for choosing the right soloist from the ranks of the Choir of The English Concert. In Bach's Advent Cantata BWV 36 Natalie Clifton-Griffith's unforceful soprano gave credibility to "Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen …." ("Even with subdued weak voices God's majesty is honoured"). And in Bach's Magnificat, tenor Nick Pritchard's bristling "Deposuit potentes …." ("He has put down the mighty from their seats ….") was scathing enough to make the powerful blush, as it should. A more pertinent or musical reading of either piece would be hard to find. Corelli's frosted Concerto Grosso in G minor and a small helping of Bach's Christmas Oratorio filled this musical Christmas stocking, which can be opened on Radio 3's Listen Again until tomorrow.

Later, fundraisers waggled plastic pails at the west door, hoping to tap the happy Spitalfields Festival audience as it left. The fixture's year-round mission helps 30,000 local residents, particularly children, come into contact with the sort of music that would otherwise not enter their lives, and that costs money, little of which comes from the public purse.

No such problem in St Petersburg, where, as Valery Gergiev confirmed in London on Tuesday, the new £400m Mariinsky II will open in May with one of its several performing spaces dedicated to visiting children. As the conductor and artistic director said, "Tourists and musical-lovers will be there anyway. But investing in the future is a big step."

With music booted into the long grass of the national curriculum and out of Michael Gove's Ebacc, despite its life-changing powers and the wealth that the music industry brings to the Exchequer, if the next generation of Park Lane Group artists is to come from the widest possible background, Britain is going to need an awful lot of buckets.

Critic's Choice

Actor Dominic West joins pianist Lucy Parham for Rêverie: The Life and Loves of Claude Debussy at the end of a year marking the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth. The Wigmore Hall, London, recital includes insights into Debussy's life in his own words, with pieces from the Etudes and Préludes (Sun 30 Dec).