MUSIC / High spirits

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The Independent Culture
ROBIN HOLLOWAY'S 50th birthday concert, at the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, proved to be a kind of musical This is Your Life: favourite pieces by some of the composers who have been most important to him - Debussy, Wagner, Brahms, Wolf and Stravinsky - rubbed shoulders with new works by his pupils and colleagues.

Robert Saxton, Judith Weir, Oliver Knussen and Rupert Bawden were represented, and many had written pieces for the occasion.

The evening was presented with aplomb by the Composer's Ensemble, tightly directed by Bawden, Thomas Ades and the conductor Charles Peebles (all former Holloway pupils), and to excellent playing, especially from the superb young the clarinettist Mark van de Wiel.

What was perhaps most impressive was the range of styles, from the intensely wrought, harmonically rich textures of Bawden's Tristan Fragments to the effective simplicity of Howard Skempton's Romance, and just about everything in between.

Perhaps most striking was the setting of Tennessee Williams's Life Story by Thomas Ades, the most recent of Holloway's students. Scored for soprano, two bass clarinets and double bass, the work quickly established its own rather gloomy but wry voice. Part of the attraction was the sense of rhythmic inventiveness and vitality, which was, sadly, often lacking in the piano-playing of the duo Kathron Sturrock and Caroline Palmer.

Piano music for four (or more) hands dominated. As many of his pupils will know, Holloway loves to get inside music - any kind of music - in this way, and that was no doubt the impetus behind his idea of refashioning Bach's Goldberg Variations for two pianos. Some of these Gilded Goldbergs (this is work in progress) framed the programme; Holloway extracted the essence of each variation and treated it to a flight of fancy that sent the spirit soaring.

Due to lack of space, the Scarpia column does not appear today. It will return next week.