MUSIC / Spanish steps: Meredith Oakes on the Nash Ensemble, and Musica de Nuestro Tiempo

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The Independent Culture
Two new-music series locked horns in London last week. On Tuesday, there was a Spanish concert featuring Falla and Gerhard, second in the Nash Ensemble's 20th-Century Music series, at the Purcell Room. Then, on Sunday at the Almeida Theatre, the Spanish Arts Festival launched a 20th-century ensemble series called Musica de Nuestro Tiempo in which Gerhard and Falla also feature.

Both events showed Spanish composers looking for a pan-European language that wouldn't sacrifice the allure of Spain's past, but there the likeness ended. It was the Spanish-promoted Almeida concert which was the quieter, more humdrum and altogether less Spanish of the two. Where the Nash Ensemble displayed superb concentration, delicacy and polish in performance, Music Projects, the ensemble at the Almeida, was accomplished, but lacked expressive identity. More to the point, the Almeida composers were newer and milder than the Nash Ensemble's great dead originals.

Beside Gerhard and Falla, the Nash Ensemble put English composers who took musical inspiration from Spain. John Casken's Infanta Marina, sparked by a Wallace Stevens' poem about a young woman walking on the shore, was a Nash Ensemble commission receiving its world premiere. Poised, astringent, whittled in cool grey-blues, it placed a cor anglais between two trios of clarinet / horn / double-bass and flute / viola / harp. These scoured and pounced attractively around the central line.

Falla's Harpsichord Concerto (the same gutsy soloist, Maggie Cole, will play it again in March) was Dali in music. Roberto Gerhard looked to Austria and Germany more than Falla did, but retained a flamenco sense of vocal flourish. Six of his piano songs from l'Infantament Meravellos de Schahrazada had been orchestrated for a large ensemble by Merion Bowen with sensitive, exuberant colour, though he shouldn't have spared the scissors quite so much.

Riding the Straussian waves was the soprano Rosa Mannion, sounding gloriously fresh, and achieving a surprising pathos, grace and nobility. Mezzo Jean Rigby did a glittery-eyed, emerald satin number at the end of the evening, throwing full chest power into Falla's scena El Amor Brujo, where a woman's incantation forces her straying gypsy lover back to her side.

Meanwhile, back at the Almeida, composer Alfredo Aracil had made a scena out of a drama. His piece Prospero was Shakespeare recycled by dramatist Jose Sinisterra into a Spanish Beckett / Bernhard monologue for an old blind man in a dressing gown. An exiguous instrumental group brushed stagey touches of percussion into the picture.

David del Puerto's Canto de luz en el Abismo showed promising diversity of colour and invention within the small group of winds and strings that scribbled about behind a rather plodding soprano line. Sarah Leonard, as the magical protagonist Bronwyn, sustained declamatory momentum against the odds.

Manuel Hidalgo's brief piece, Three Questions was warmly and meticulously sung by Alison Wells. The syllabic text was put to the strings and woodwind ensemble in octave- shaped propositions, setting off a chain reaction. All three pieces were Spanish Arts Festival commissions.

'Musica de Nuestro Tiempo' at the Almedia Theatre, London N1. Performances: 20 & 27 March, and 10 April. (Details and booking: 071-359 4404)

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