MUSIC: Five go over the top

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The Independent Culture
Lydian Quartet Wigmore Hall, London American performers, American repertoire: plenty of cause for bringing the well-regarded Lydian Quartet to the Wigmore, though not the crowds to hear them. A pity. Britain and the USA, relatively late recruits to the European classical tradition, have ke pt the quartet form alive in our time. Over here Maconchy, Britten, Maw, McCabe, David Matthews, and a continuing supply of younger names have made their indelible mark on the repertoire. The great American leap forward began with Ives, reached a peak of concentration with Ruth Crawford Seeger, and keeps on going - Kronos's commissions are only the most spectacular examples.

Less high-profiled, the Lydian comes with new pieces of its own from Lee Hyla and John Harbison as well as one of the Kronos's, by Thomas Oboe Lee. But the special fascination of the two evenings was to dip into the period between the pioneers and the present. Irving Fine, Leo Ornstein: one died at 48, the other is still alive at 102. They are names you read about and never hear. Well, we ought to be hearing much more of Ornstein if other groups respond to his music the way the Lydian, with th e pianistJanice Weber, did to his Piano Quintet.

An adventurous, racy and loose party-piece from the 1920s that quite overwhelmed the rest of Monday's concert, it begins with a movement marked "Allegro barbaro" - easy to smile wisely at the Bartokian shades of the initial pounding piano. But Ornstein, a Ukrainian cantor's son who reached the US in his teens, is a different kind of composer, as impulsive and effusive as a George Lloyd of the East. The rhythmic intensity is closer to late Szymanowski, spiced with harmonies out of Scriabin, and sprawlingmelodies in octaves like Chausson with a Jewish accent. The entertainment value is high as Ornstein goes right over the top.

Fine's two-movement quartet from 1952 is a more sober affair, if both extrovert and strongly felt. Engaging the ear at once with its rhythmic vitality, it later reveals a melodic core, but not a soft centre. At the climax it hurls chords about in an effort to jack up the intensity, yet stubbornly remains on an emotional plateau.

By contrast, the attraction of Lee Hyla's Third Quartet, once it emerged from its soft, dense opening, lay in the wildness. The fast music had an ungainly urgency, and I'd never have noticed it borrows a riff from the rap group Public Enemy if I hadn't been told. But for all its academic credentials - the composer, a teacher in his forties, says he performs new music, improvisation and rock - it broke loose well enough to make its point. Nothing ungainly about the Lydian's playing, though: throughout the evening, they were forthright but at ease.

Robert Maycock