MUSIC / Dog's dinner: Tess Knighton on the Hilliard Ensemble's Cambridge summer school recitals at the Trinity Chapel, Cambridge

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The Independent Culture
As part of its annual Cambridge summer school, the Hilliard Ensemble this week presented two recitals positively bristling with premieres, including the three winning entries in its new Composers' Competition, funded from the proceeds of a successful US sampling suit.

Composing for the Hilliards must be like plying Cerberus with Bonios, though in this case it's no three-headed dog but a four-voiced creature with one mind and a voracious appetite for new music, whether five centuries or five days old. Ask them to sing an evil cluster of four semitones or a rhythm of hellish complexity and they will not fail.

Too often, though, the new pieces, were simply unmemorable: a striking texture here, a novel chord there, but rarely a sure sense of structure or direction. Worst offender was Thierry de Mey's Amor constante: amorphous dissonance following an ear-catching opening; seemingly unending sultry, slow-moving harmonies; little contrast even within the limitations of four male voices; and an unfortunate imbalance between musical substance and length. Most of the other pieces suffered similar drawbacks.

Of the prize-winners, Paul Robinson's The Incantation was not without interest, with its mixture of medieval and Brittenish harmonies, but it was too long. Joanne Metcalf's Music for the Star of the Sea betrayed her studies with Louis Andriessen in the harmonic language of its reworking of Ave maris stella, but not in its lack of inner vitality. Indeed, of the nine premieres on offer, only one - Veljo Tormis's Navigatio cantoris - moved at anything more than a snail's pace, and was all the more refreshing for it.

Of more substance were Elena Firsova's Insomnia, a new work that might just keep one awake, and Gavin Bryars' Glorious Hill, both displaying a greater control over musical material and a more imaginative use of texture.

These qualities were absolutely to the fore in Antoine Brumel's superb Missa Victimae paschali laudes - 15th- century vocal music written with a true singer's insight.

Final concert with Jan Garbarek, 8pm tonight, King's College (booking 0223 352001)

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