MUSIC / Live wires: Nicholas Williams on new works from the Smith Quartet

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Purer and more fiercely exact than at its Brighton performance two weeks ago, Steve Martland's Patrol formed the core of the Greenwich Festival's Monday evening concert, with the Smith Quartet again taking its place in the vanguard of today's new ensemble repertoire.

That the venue was a Hawksmoor church, St Alfege, only intensified the experience. While the venerable stained glass had a poetry of its own, the intensity of Martland's lines spoke of changing symbolism in contemporary spirituality. More up-tempo, the brooding melodies that followed the sharp, acidic opening might have slipped from anguished late Shostakovich. But Martland, denuding them of vibrato and weaving their repetitions into a dense web of texture, gave events a modern edge. The ethos was closer to Gorecki than Tavener, but stronger in outline than either. A devotional tone gained strength by contrast with passages of manic release and Tippettian rapture. On this evidence, Martland's reputation for rebarbative gesture is one-sided; the opposite here of violence is not gentleness, but an uplifting quality of spiritual control.

Recently recorded, Patrol also shows the Smiths as masters of the amplified idiom, which gives subtle instrumental shades and inflections, often hostile to the graded and measured sounds of the classical manner.

In Eleanor Alberga's Second Quartet (a premiere), the emphasis was on pithy, dancing syncopations and detailed figurework. Themes and phrases took shape within a flux of endless pulsation that at times seemed almost too fecund, yet was guided by some fairly standard symmetries of statement and recall. Textures were clear and crafted, their joyous spirit infectiously taken up by the players. The cellist Sophie Harris had some scrunchy chords on the lower strings, and yearning melodies too. But for all its elan, this was also a contrapuntal study that gave pleasure from the sight of players sharing material and picking over the bones of intricate accompaniments.

Then something rather different: songs by composer Colin Riley in harness with singer and writer Thomas Lang. The aim was fusion - common ground in the intimacy of rock lyrics and chamber music - a mix that could turn sour through excess zeal or sentiment. Drooping, vaguely minimalist melodies can sound like latterday salon music - a quality Riley just avoided in the purely instrumental Headland.

But the songs were gritty and tough. Lang sang, hummed or crooned along with the amplified quartet in a simpatico vocal tone that made him at times like a fifth member of the ensemble. His own words, suitably pruned of the worst pop excesses, were a flexible medium. When he chanted 'Can't stop, can't stop' against a long, slow drift of pizzicato strings, interest swiftly tuned in to sheer musical beauty rather than verbal meaning. Amongst other things, in contrast, the evening's most striking number, was a complete narrative in words and music. Falling, the last song, probed discords and harsher timbres that might prove fertile ground for future collaborations in this area.

Further concerts: Fri, Sat, 8pm St Alfege, SE10 (081-317 8687)

Comments