MUSIC: Cinderella instruments get to go to the ball (just this once, mind)

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The Independent Culture
IF I WERE in the business of giving careers advice to musical children, I'd start by asking if they had considered accountancy: it's easier, the pay is better, and the hours are regular. Failing that, I'd steer then towards an instrument that offers a stable orchestral income (violin, cello) or, at the very least, the prospect of regular recital work. Because beyond that boundary is a shadow-world inhabited by virtuosi of the cimbalom, theorbo and harmonica, with mortgages in permanent arrears.

But that said, the rarity of Cinderella instruments in solo performance makes them stand out when they do get their own platform. And there were good examples this week in the Park Lane Group's annual New Year series: a week-long event at the Purcell Room, designed as a double shop-window for young talent and contemporary music, with "featured composers" who this year were Diana Burrell and David Bedford.

Not every young performer would choose to make his or her first big London appearance with that sort of repertoire requirement, and the ones who do tend to be plucky, gutsy, technically advanced and interesting. So it was a shame that the 1998 series began equivocally, with a high-energy programme from a clarinet/piano duo that wasn't quite high-energy enough in execution, and a string trio that needed more work on its ensemble sense. As a result, it was the pieces rather than the performances that registered, especially the premiere of Adam Gorb's Variations, a glittering bell-like ostinato of rising, open fifths and a real test of flexibility and fluency.

But then we got an instrumental oddity: the classical accordion. No longer the preserve of men in striped vests on Parisian pavements, the accordion has shown the makings of a serious concert life in recent years; and it was at a PLG event a few Januaries ago that I first heard that accordionist-extraordinary James Crabb, who has since been recorded by EMI. The old squeeze-box still hovers at the margins of British musical life, so it was good to find PLG giving houseroom to David Farmer, a 21- year-old Scot who doesn't as yet show the virtuosity of Crabb, but certainly has sensitivity, and a mission to prove the accordion's capacity for subtle effects.

The only problem is that modern writing for the instrument tends to be more effect than music - a misplaced emphasis that doesn't do enough to rescue the box from its novelty-turn status as a tuneful whoopee cushion. Arne Nordheim's all too aptly-titled Flashing was a case in point: an exercise in self-exposure which off the very parts of the accordion that do it least justice. But there was better to come in Edward McGuire's Prelude 12, a wistful play on doctored dance rhythms that refined the vernacular charm of the instrument into a sort of commentary on its own past. Beautifully played by Farmer and beautifully written too, it stirred my conscience about Edward McGuire, whose unassumingly delightful work gets less attention than it merits south of Selkirk.

Another night produced a pianist, Evgenia Chudinovich, in a mostly Russian programme with the little that wasn't Russian played as though it should have been, and a compelling highlight in Sofia Gubaidulina's Sonata: a testament to Sixties experimentalism, with a middle movement in which the player spends more time in the piano than at it, twanging through the textbook of applied techniques that seemed so indispensably expressive 30 years ago.

But for true expressivity from an unexpected source, the PLG produced another Cinderella instrument: one with a major role in jazz and odd outings in symphonic repertory (Bizet, Strauss, Ravel, Vaughan Williams) but still a rare visitor to the recital platform: the saxophone. The player here was Sarah Markham, and she was formidably impressive, with the swagger, sensitivity and characterful sleaze of a transvestite John Harle in the making. She turned Robert Walker's Souvenir de Bali, a carillon of gamelan- style ostinati, into a sustained feat of exuberance. And Mark-Anthony Turnage's Two Elegies Framing a Shout - another of those sultry, late- night, streetwise scores from a composer whose relationship with the saxophone is congenital - breathed an extraordinary, haunted magic. The most mesmerising thing I've heard all year!

Almost as stunning was the spring-loaded virtuosity of Markham's pianist, Stephen De Pledge, a New Zealander whose laid-back, let-me-entertain-you manner might have suggested that he took none of this too seriously, except that his technique was as alert and crisp as it was fast and fluent. I'd be interested to hear him play more mainstream music; and maybe I will, since he's giving a recital next Friday for the Nicholas Yonge music club in Lewes, Sussex. Worth a journey.

Handsome of presence, handsome of voice, and unassailable in his assertive, all-American self-confidence, Thomas Hampson wasn't born to sing the suicidal neuropath in Schubert's Winterreise, and his attempt to do so at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday was doomed from the moment he walked (handsomely) on to the platform in a Saks 5th Avenue take on Biedermeier evening dress. What followed was a sort of showbiz Schubert, with a diamond-studded darkness and magnificent despair. If he had slipped a snatch of Oklahoma into "Mut" or "Gute Nacht" it wouldn't have been out of place. And for all the desolation of the final song, "Der Leiermann", you just knew that sooner or later there'd be that bright, golden haze on the meadow, a bride for every brother, and Mom waiting at home with milk and cookies.

I don't dismiss this Winterreise out of hand. The burnish of Hampson's voice is magnificent, and it does work - superbly - in songs like "Auf dem Flusse" and "Ruckblick". But the temperament and culture of his singing is designed for outward projection rather than inner scrutiny. His idea of unrequited love is more Scarpia on heat than a village youth in torment, missing the freshness of "Fruhlingstraum", the ingenu immediacy of "Die Post". And though his pianist Wolfram Rieger works hard on expression, it doesn't somehow amount to atmosphere. Given a choice between this manicured, high-gloss performance and the stylised but still searing honesty of the Ian Bostridge/Julius Drake TV Winterreise I wrote about last week, I know which I'd want for my desert island. Milk and cookies notwithstanding.

Stephen De Pledge: Lewes Nicholas Yonge Society (01273 472466), Fri.

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