Park Lane Group, Purcell Room, London
National Youth Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London

Emerging musicians get a welcome platform, but please change the record

For young composers and musicians, the Park Lane Group's annual showcase is required listening.

Here is the carrot and the stick: a scheme that sponsors recitals by emerging artists and ensembles with the proviso that 20th- and 21st-century music is central. Alumni include The Belcea Quartet, The Nash Ensemble, Steven Isserlis, Clio Gould and Imogen Cooper. But what of the thousand others? Likely as not, they are teaching the next generation of musicians, some of whom will become PLG artists, resurrecting PLG-approved works that would otherwise be heard only in the conservatoires.

As an eco-system, PLG is perfect: self-supporting, renewable. But it seems to me that composers benefit more than the performers. Few musicians make their living solely from playing contemporary music. Thus the canniest PLG artists ensure there is enough lyricism and character in their playing for the listener to extrapolate an imagined performance of core repertoire. Almost all the music in the January concerts is well crafted. Some of it is sensational. But when a piece is designed merely to display silent fingering, flutter-tonguing or pitch-bend, or to explore the received properties of an instrument, ennui is inevitable. Must a flute be skittish? Must a cello be soulful? And must every work start pianissimo and be nine minutes long?

Skittishness and soulfulness prevailed in the first two concerts of the series. In Jolivet's Chant de Linos and David Matthews's Duet Variations flautist Rosanna Ter-Berg revealed an unusually dark, opulent tone between the obligatory cascades of semiquavers. Edwin Roxburgh's sylvan Flute Music with an Accompaniment was more imaginative in its distribution of material between flute and piano (Leo Nicholson) and crisply evocative of reed and breath, feather and beak. Patrick Nunn's Sprite for solo piccolo had unexpected bite but a twee ending.

Nervous and score-bound, members of the Muse Piano Quintet stepped into the ring with Gerald Barry's wild-eyed Piano Quartet No 1 and Thomas Adès's Piano Quintet. I love to hear music that sounds as if it's having a good time, which Barry's caffeinated jukebox of jig, maggot and galliard certainly does. But Adès's Quintet is on a different level, a ghostly tracery of a passacaglia with Onegin-esque declarations that require pristine intonation.

Cellist Anna Menzies and pianist Prach Boondiskulchok crooned a fragmented Jerome Kern melody in Steven Jackson's limpid Zephyr Not to Dance on the Shoes and paid homage to Cornelia Parker's installations in the broken music-box abstractions of Philip Dawson's Neither From Nor Towards for cello and prepared piano. Both works (nine minutes long, starting pianissimo) were commissioned by the Park Lane Group.

The elegiac whorls and eddies of Anthony Payne's Footfalls Echo in the Memory and Of Knots and Skeins fitted neatly under the fingers of pianist Christopher Guild and flattered violinist Diana Galvydyte's rich, incisive sound. Playing unaccompanied in Thomas Oehler's rhapsodic The Great Refusal and Esa-Pekka Salonen's curving, keening chaconne, Lachen Verlernt, Galvydyte displayed a range of colours and a sense of line that could easily adapt to Sciarrino, Sibelius, Bartok, Biber or Brahms. A name to remember and, in the Salonen, a work to relish.

First of this year's Cultural Olympiad commissions, Anna Meredith's beat-boxing, body-popping workout HandsFree saw the National Youth Orchestra put down their instruments to clap, slap, tap and finger-click in counterpoint. Part Mexican wave, part Maori haka, it must be fun to perform. But where the rest of the NYO's work celebrates high-level musicianship, HandsFree lauds general aptitude: an ear for rhythm rather than attainment born of years of dedication to an instrument. The NYO deserves better. Hearing them play is always inspiring, though Paul Daniel conducted from the top down, seldom engaging with the cellos and basses during Natalie Clein's introspective reading of Elgar's Cello Concerto. Turnage's Hammered Out (aka Single Ladies) lacked heat and sass, but Walton's First Symphony blazed with intrepid energy.

Next Week:

It's all empire and eroticism as Anna Picard sees Tim Albery's production of Giulio Cesare at Opera North

Classical Choice

Brahms Unwrapped opens at London's Kings Place, London, with chamber music from the Schubert Ensemble and the Endymion (Thu and Fri). Joyce Di Donato and Placido Domingo sing Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau in the New York Met's relay of Jeremy Sams's Shakespeare pastiche The Enchanted Isle to 80 UK cinemas (Sat).

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