MUSIC / Small and silent: Nicholas Williams on music from the new republics, and a tribute to Mikhashoff

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Around the major event of Elena Firsova's The Nightingale and the Rose, this year's Almeida Opera festival has woven a typically rich brocade of complementary music from the new republics, plus a tribute in memory of the pianist Yvar Mikhashoff.

The artistic director Jonathan Reekie's well-planned tour reveals a wealth of unknown material from composers who are not just 'catching up' with European ideas, but are working through artistic problems on their own terms.

From that universal matrix of new thoughts, the piano, came Saturday afternoon's recital by Ivan Sokolov. A Moscow-based player, he was at home in repertoire from the Ukraine that largely inhabited a world of stillness close to that of Cage and Feldman, but with more sharply etched lyric profiles. Both Valentin Silvestrov's Elegy and Leonid Hrabovsky's Fur Elise pointedly stood back from the flow of their own development, though floating warm suggestions of melody in hazes of keyboard tone. Pieces by Runchak, Shchetinsky and Grinberg were more modernist by inclination. The most testing item was Hrabovsky's Homoeomorphy II, a lengthy homage to the one-note strand of American minimalism.

There was more variety in Saturday evening's recital of music from the Caucasus. Marina Adamia's Five Pieces for Five Performers, with a crazy duet for piccolo and double- bass clarinet, neatly side- stepped issues of musical continuity by means of Ligeti- like aphorisms. Other works, more ambitiously scored and played with skill by the Endymion Ensemble (conductor Nicholas Kok), showed an unwillingness to sarifice an indigenous time-sense, either through imitation or compromise.

True, not every composer was immune from dressing up; Tigran Mansurian's Because I do not hope . . . rifled the wardrobe of Alfred Schnittke. Even so, there was more gritty originality in Mansurian's Tovem, where harmony took second place to angular, suspended lines that seemed locked in postures of immobility. Ashot Zograbyan's Parable, built around cadenzas for cello and piano, was less static, though equally personal. From an opening of harsh bird-cries, it moved in slowly changing waves of sound to a conclusion of bright instrumental litanies. In contrast, Franghiz Ali-Zade's Dilogie II was a small tone poem in Turkish folk-style: reckless, energetic dancing, with a serenely pastoral ending.

All these were British premieres, which would have pleased Mikhashoff. Responsible for bringing a wealth of contemporary music to this country, he was himself a composer whose strengths lay in apt invention and a discriminating sense of texture and phrase. There were other Mikhashoff premieres, but the most curious unveiling was of five early piano pieces by John Cage. Round, Duo and Infinite Canon explained themselves, though in typically odd ways, Crete and Dad were minor Hindemith. Some composers write this all their lives. Cage was happy to give it up for silence.

Almeida Opera, London N1, to 23 July (071-359 4404)

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