MUSIC / Jumping clear of the merry-go-round: Nicholas Williams reviews the LCO and meetings of East and West in concerts by the Bingham Quartet, at a rejuvenated King's Lynn Festival

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Stopping off at King's Lynn in 1933, J B Priestley discovered that one local industry was the manufacture of merry-go-rounds. Today's visitor is more likely to see frozen-food depots and Skoda garages, but the fairground connection survives in the army of street entertainers who have added zest to this year's festival. The overall theme has been Far Eastern culture, with an emphasis on access for all. A broad range of activities has been the central element in a return to life and coherent strategy for this annual event, after a recent history itself resembling something of a carousel: changing direction artistically, without moving forward.

Celebrating this renewed vitality, audiences have been large and responsive. Friday evening saw a rapt house for the London Chamber Orchestra at St Nicholas's Church, enjoying Handel, Mozart, and a ravishing account of Elgar's Serenade for Strings. With these performers, this was bound to be an exercise in communication. But no less encouraging was support for the Bingham Quartet's three- concert recital series at All Saints Church, based around the Beethoven middle-period quartets, and drawing a full house at a time - mid-morning - when potential support might be thin on the ground.

Partly that was to do with the Bingham's own manner of getting their message across, their informal spoken introductions bridging the gap between producers and consumers of music. Partly it's the excitement of their playing. Solos are distinctive and beautifully turned, as in Mozart's Adagio and Fugue that opened Saturday's concert. In Beethoven's F minor quartet, Op 95, heard on Friday, and the third Rasumovsky that partnered the Mozart, phrase endings and shaded dynamics were not always unanimously judged (the exposed upbeat phrases of the Rasumovsky first movement were sometimes a problem). What spoke was the spontaneous excitement and involvement in the music.

Excitement dominated on Saturday in the major new work of their series: Priti Paintal's string quartet Bound by Strings of Rhythm - commissioned by the Bingham in 1990 with funding from the London Arts Board. The rhythms in question, dancing, additive pulsations derived from African drumming, continually over- spilled the measure in a euphoric display of physical exhilaration. Avoiding the sonata model of fluctuating opposition between moods, contrast here was absolute, musical ebullience finding rest in the stillness of a dark brooding invention in octaves for resonant viola and cello, and a recapitulation of these textures in a more developed, animated form after weighty chords had modulated between fast and slow music.

One focus for style is the melodic line. Paintal's, for all its Stravinskian dislocations and dynamic modal inflections inspired by vision of European and Asian musics united, sounds characteristically her own. Melody in Philip Cashian's 12th-century Japanese cycle, Moon of the Dawn, sung by the soprano Nicole Tibbels, was the basis for atmospheric atonal harmonies capturing the poetry and imagination of the words through brief, exact gestures.

This was a worthy addition to a British tradition of word-setting stretching back through Britten's Songs from the Chinese to Constant Lambert's 1926 settings of Li-Po. With its precious jade palaces, smoke rising from tea fires and dreams of Mount Fuji, this may be a world of cliche - the East conceived under Western eyes. Yet in a week that also saw kite-flying and haiku in King's Lynn, Moon of the Dawn was a reminder that there is also much gentle art to be made from maintaining the illusion.

Festival box office: 0553 773578.