MUSIC: Fretting about nothing

Fretwork Nash Ensemble Purcell Room, London
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The Nash Ensemble's three-concert 20th-century music series began on Thursday at the Purcell Room with an evening of new works for standard instruments. Two days before, in the same venue, Fretwork had offered six newly commissioned fantasies for 17th-century viol consort in the context of the South Bank's sequence of tercentenary Purcell celebrations.

The contrast was instructive. While the Nash's composers indulged in ambitious schemes and bold gestures, Fretwork's collaborators behaved more cautiously. Set beside eight Purcell Fantazias, full of riddling chromatic passages and brisk allegros, their essays seemed nervously centred on the search for any material that might show up the viols in a topical way. The exception was Elvis Costello's Put Away Forbidden Playthings, which swung into a more relaxed mood through a blend of suave-toned counter- tenor (Michael Chance) with bluesy views of Duke Ellington.

For the rest, it was a case of finding a role for the thin, unstable timbre of viols, either atmospherically or in more rigorous formal settings. Within the latter tendency, Poul Ruders' Second Set of Changes was the most accomplished piece, John Woolrich's Fantazia the most promising, and Elena Firsova's Phantom the most intimate.

Soundscapes by Alessandro Solbiati and Barry Guy found fresh sonorities by checking out old techniques. Only Benedict Mason's Room Purcell bucked the system altogether. A 1970s-style "installation", it came complete with black-out, back-out, and a polite request from the composer for the audience to listen not just without prejudice, but also without applause.

Hardly the Nash's style, there were no such goings-on on Thursday, when Adrian Thompson gave a stentorian reading of Tippett's outpouring of tragic ecstasy, The Heart's Assurance, having saved his more subtle tonal range for the London premiere of Sally Beamish's Madrigali. Fragile, sometimes precious, these Italian songs were excerpts from a forthcoming opera; yet their quiet stillness seemed more suited to the concert platform than the stage.

More overtly theatrical were the abstract scenarios of two other London premieres: Robert Saxton's A Yardstick to the Stars and Colin Matthews' 23 Frames for horn, viola, cello and piano. Saxton's scheme of conflicting speeds within a torrent of whirling textures led to moments of ferocious disputation as keyboard and strings stabbed out the patterns of their different tempi. More varied in range, the Matthews packed memories of Schubert, Scriabin and others into a breathtaking sprint that drew exceptional playing from pianist Ian Brown.

Together at last, the ensemble concluded with the nightmare vision of Simon Holt's Sparrow Night: a Nash classic, and a classic of our time. Making music contemporary and making contemporary music has never sounded a neater equation. No frills here, nor early instruments. Just the dazzle of fine, collective musicianship - and a rich and rare imagination.

n The Nash Ensemble's 20th-century series continues 16 and 21 March, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, SE1 (071-928 8800)

Nicholas Williams