London Sinfonietta/Ades, Queen Elizabeth Hall

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The Independent Culture

Sometimes a concert can leave your head ringing with sounds, and as I write mine is still reverberating to the hocketing duet between trumpet and trombone in one of the pieces from Gerald Barry’s new work ‘Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions’.

This referred to an old piano primer for children which Barry had grown up with: what intrigued him about it – and gave rise to this irrepressibly playful work – were the advertisements on the cover, which gave just a few bars of what each piece would be like. What the London Sinfonietta played – and brilliantly – were Barry’s own continuations, each of which was a joke. My favourite was a ‘Bumpkin’s Dance’ in which pianist Huw Watkins hammered his way up and down the keyboard very fast with the flat of his hands (and afterwards studied them ruefully for damage), but the finale, which referred to the lunches which Debussy cooked for Satie, had a quintessentially Parisian slyness.

This concert was entitled ‘Thomas Ades and the Origins of the Harp’, and his own work of this title – which he conducted - was notable in not featuring a harp at all. No matter: with a solo clarinet spiralling heavenwards over a heavily-tossing swell of cellos and bass clarinets, a harp was definitely discernible as a spectral presence.

The rest of the concert was explicitly about the harp, and pre-eminently the Malian harp-lute known as the kora. At two points in the evening the lights went down and Tunde Jugede materialised in sky-blue silk to serenade us with his instrument’s delicately seductive sound: no attempt at fusion, thank heavens, just the real Malian thing, weaving his soft, circular patterns in the surrounding stillness.

But we also got two remarkable modernist works. In Per Norgard’s ‘Harp Concerto No 2: Through Thorns’, Helen Tunstall was the soloist in a compelling voyage across a sea of luxurious textures and harmonies which eventually docked in a starburst of string and woodwind beauty. And in Luciano Berio’s ‘Chamber Music’, soprano Alison Bell’s limpid sound was set off by clarinet, cello, and harp in three crystalline settings of poems by James Joyce. This was kosher twelve-note music, but the verbal imagery was melodically realised with wonderful vividness.