MUSIC / Posing a question of balance: Stephen Walsh on new works at the Cheltenham Festival

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The Independent Culture
HAVING survived its operatic opening at the weekend, the Cheltenham Festival swiftly confronted its patrons with other problem children of the generic text-books. Talking about his new Cello Concerto, David Blake referred to the difficulties of balance caused by the cello's low register and its similarity in timbre to the central body of the orchestra. He also mentioned the concerto problem itself: should the soloist stand out or melt into the group? And he pointed to the clarinet quintet as a parallel. Was he remembering that the other major new piece here was, precisely, a Clarinet Quintet by Simon Bainbridge, another composer who is articulate on the practical hazards of composition in the post-modern world?

Not the least tribute to Blake's achievement in his concerto, which Moray Welsh played in the Town Hall on Sunday (a superb performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Lazarev), is that one is never for a moment conscious of a problem. The cello sings its way with a certain melancholy serenity through narrow defiles of sound created by refined wind and string scoring (and occasional deft contributions from the piano); but one never has to strain to catch its voice. There is none of that effort to hear which can bedevil modern concertos. The lightening of texture without loss of expressive weight is a significant part of Blake's mature style in this work.

The other striking thing is the concerto's unusual shape. A longish but basically simple, lyrical allegro leads almost directly, by way of a tiny, scurrying scherzo, into a more elaborate and rangy finale, which seems deliberately to complicate the issues raised by the first movement. It seems obvious that this finale was the most difficult to bring off. The writing becomes more fidgety and episodic, and the issue of form takes on a dramatic cast. There is no conventional development or reprise, only - especially in the subtle and beautiful ending - enigmatic hints of things reheard.

Though not ostentatious, this is a big and important work - one of Blake's best. The writing shows consistent mastery, but it does so in the process of facing up to the old intractable problems of form and texture which were well-known to the classical masters. They usually raised issues which, in the end, made the problems even worse. Whether Blake has done that or not remains to be seen. But he has certainly produced a concerto cellists should seize on, in a repertoire not overstocked with genuinely successful works.

Bainbridge's achievement in his Clarinet Quintet, premiered by Joy Farrall with the Kreutzer Quartet in the Pittville Pump Room, is slightly different. It's typical of him to look for radical solutions, and find them without overreaching the genre. This is a proper quintet, but it discards the usual dialogue relationship of the clarinet with the strings, and substitutes a more fluid arrangement, in which the various elements converge and diverge according to a meticulously worked out rhythmical and textural scheme.

On paper the metric workmanship looks complex. But in performance, the effect of this 15-minute single movement is direct, governed by long drifting lines and much intricate, yet transparent texturing. It clearly presents quite severe problems of ensemble, but these seemed to be well solved in an expert first performance.