MUSIC / Short sharp shocks: Robert Maycock on 'Contrasts' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

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The Independent Culture
Never mind the orchestral new beginnings - the South Bank's smaller halls are already running at a frantic mid-season pace. Barely before the Proms were through and audiences had had time to notice, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was finishing its short-stay residency. Then Tuesday saw two series launched simultaneously in one of those pointless clashes that an integrated arts centre is supposed to prevent. This time the South Bank did its best to subvert its own promotion, the 'Contrasts' series, by booking in the Nash Ensemble next door. Well, you could catch both the 'Contrasts' premieres and the Nash's new Turnage if you were quick on your feet, and some did - or at least some with complimentary tickets, though the price they paid was to miss the Bach performance of the evening.

'Contrasts' was three concerts for piano and wind instruments, centred on the great quintets of Beethoven and Mozart, and devised by the pianist Andras Schiff and the oboist Heinz Holliger, who played them with some distinguished colleagues. The opening programme's first half, on paper, looked an endless and bitty sequence of short pieces. In the event, the music had a density of thought that made three-minute attention spans about right; and it was cunningly staged. Six players entered, four filed off again. During each piece the musicians for the next were in place, and those for the next-but-one waited at the back of the platform, forming a rapid sequence of teasingly changing instrumental colours.

Bach supplied the refrain: Bach in duet for oboe and bassoon, or between the pianist's hands; Bach resolutely un-period in style, and Bach in, apparently, a trio for five players (another tease: this was the set-up for the following piece, and only three took part). Between these bouts of, often, harmonically intense counterpoint, there were composers from the 20th century: Kurtag in youthful search of his personal voice and Berg in early possession of his (this an electrifying performance with the clarinettist Elmar Schmid); Berio's Sequenza VII for oboe, with Holliger showing how the fire of a piece written for him a quarter-century ago could mellow elegantly; and in unexpected contrast, the British premiere of a short and far from spiky oboe solo by Elliott Carter. Inner Song flowed from euphonious fluttering oscillations into wide-arching lines, shapely and indeed songful.

So far the night had had the heightened atmosphere of a summer festival, its only problem being excess - for there was much to come, including the intended climax in another, bigger Carter new arrival. It didn't quite work out that way. The spacious Bach flute sonata before it might have been meant as a relaxation; instead, Schiff and Aurele Nicolet made the music burst with rhythmic vitality and genial dialogue in close partnership. Carter's Quintet for piano and winds, in a single long movement, proved to be his toughest piece for some while. At the outset, the piano challenges, and woodwind burgeons; then the piano retreats into punctuation, and the horn (Radovan Vlatkovic) emerges with a forthright line; and the textures switch constantly, dominated again by lyrical feeling, now from bassoon (Klaus Thunemann) and now from oboe.

Contrasts of pace and density, however, go rather lacking, until the music suddenly gathers itself up for a brief, screaming climax, winding back through a moment of stillness to a final epigram. For too long all five instruments have been hard at it together, so that a first encounter is one of the more wearing experiences since the similarly over-wrought Schoenberg quintet for wind. The receiving mind is left without space to take its bearings. Those three-minute spans had their points, as Bach well knew.