MUSIC / Riding the new wave: Nicholas Williams on a week of musical innovation, from the late-medieval to the post-modern

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The Independent Culture
New music in London last week had something in common with the rain; there was lots of it, whatever the sceptics' prediction of long- term drought. The Park Lane Group's annual South Bank festival of young executants and composers swelled the flood, but other sources ranged from fine student performances by the Cambridge New Music Players to deft accounts of late-medieval repertoire from Philip Pickett's New London Consort.

Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ciconia as contemporary composers? Well, more so than you might think, as proved by the Consort's Purcell Room recital - 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' - on Friday. A celebration of 15th-century love, its song- texts about the charms and mishaps of amour were in themselves also witty and unexpected commentaries on current political events.

But the real updating was musical. The soprano Catherine Bott, with lute, fiddles and recorder, gave lavish readings of songs whose aching suspense arose from jazz- like syncopations sustained without let or hindrance. Modernity lay in the brash counterpoints and complex web of pulsation: sweet sounds to ears unchained by the asymmetries of Stravinsky or Asian music.

Or, for that matter, the caprices of Franco Donatoni, born 1927, whose rhythmic fantasies Fili and the jazz- inspired Hot framed birthday celebrations for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and John Woolrich, hosted by the Composers Ensemble at St John's Smith Square on Monday.

All three composers have reclaimed pre-classical techniques for their own use: those of Monteverdi in the case of Maxwell Davies's Leopardi Fragments, sung by the soprano Mary Wiegold and the mezzo Meriel Dickinson, and Woolrich's Favola in Music II, for saxophone, oboe and tuned percussion.

Sly musical systems in three other Woolrich pieces, Dartington Doubles, the affecting Berceuse and Lending Wings, looked further back to medieval practice, though, by means of a gift for finding the similar in the disparate, seeming fresh and new.

In strong contrast to this cool dignity were Birtwistle's ruggedly single-minded Paul Celan settings, conducted by Diego Masson, and Life Story, a droll poem by Tennessee Williams sung by Mary Wiegold to a funky setting for double-bass and bass clarinets conducted and composed by Thomas Ades.

Ades, already published and much discussed, is a leading member of British music's rising generation. So, too, is Julian Anderson, whose Tiramisu, elegantly premiered by Paul Hoskins and the Cambridge New Music Players at the ICA on Sunday night, lived up to its claim of animating small, assorted sections with common purpose and design, with the bonus of surplus energy that was distinctly personal.

Scores by Luke Stoneham, James Clapperton and Edward Dudley Hughes also left strong impressions, though with less obvious sense of cohesion. Stephen Gutman was the versatile and hard-working pianist.

There was more British music the previous Wednesday with the premiere of Judith Weir's The King of France at the Wigmore Hall, played by Susan Tomes (of the Domus piano quartet) in among some Mozart, Schubert and Faure. Like Woolrich, Weir finds inspiration in folklore, in this case a Jewish folksong clothed with rhythmic arabesque - not so far from that of Dufay - in a set of crisp, ingenious variations. Whatever her canvas, she is a composer who always surprises; this piece was no exception.

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