MUSIC : Swineherds can swing

Nash Ensemble / Orbestra Purcell Room, London
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The Independent Culture
Folk influences in various guises were much in evidence in London concerts last week. If it wasn't cowbells in Mahler or the cimbalom in Stravinsky and Kurtag, it was pipes and primitive viol-like strings in more or less "authentic" arrangements by Peter Cowdrey.

But the LSO, Nash Ensemble and Peter Cowdrey's Orbestra Chamber Orchestra couldn't have given more different concerts, not just in repertoire, but in terms of delivery. Tilson Thomas and the LSO never permit a snooze and the Orbestra's knee-bobbing youthfulness causes a grin. But the Nash, one of the world's great chamber ensembles, seemed at times to be uncharacteristically weary. True, illness had led to the withdrawal (from an already extensive programme) of Kurtag's Hommage R Sch, but in music that should really have sparkled - Stravinsky's Ragtime and Renard - tapping the toes and booing the fox seemed far away. Perhaps it was the hall? Both the Nash and the Orbestra had the misfortune of having to play in that box known as the Purcell Room, soon to be re-named - brilliantly appropriately - RFH3.

But whereas a bunch of cheering supporters propelled Orbestra, the Nash had to be content with a sober crowd of "professionals". Possibly the daftness of cramming Renard on to so small a stage sapped their confidence.

The Nash concert, conducted by Lionel Friend, was the last in a series of three devoted to 20th-century music. Folk and dance elements permeated their programme; Anthony Payne's new work Empty Landscape - Heart's Ease for three strings, oboe clarinet and horn suggested pastoral space with a hint of elegant dance. By contrast, James MacMillan's Tuireadh for clarinet and quartet evoked the sea with screaming gulls and fog-horns in a lament for the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster drawing on traditional Scottish intervals and ornaments. Michael Collins gave a performance of astonishing intensity, not least in sustaining incredibly soft notes. Lucy Shelton and Christopher Bradley were the soloists in a searing performance of Kurtag's desolate Seven Songs for soprano and cimbalom. Shelton's occasionally vibrato-less sound sensitively paralleled the vibrato-less cimbalom. As in the group of Stravinsky songs, Shelton projected confidence and ease, even if the voice seemed stretched at times.

The Orbestra Chamber Ensemble is an enterprising group specialising in the performance of Eastern European folk music, not only mastering the asymmetric rhythms of Transylvanian gypsies, Macedonian town bands, and Transdanubian swineherds, but also capturing the essential effervescence of the music in performance. Liz Cowdrey's nifty violin and Paul Bevan's agile trombone were stunning. Patricia Cuberos seemed happier in Cowdrey's folk arrangements than singing Dmitri Yanov-Yanovski's gloomy Lacrimosa with the Emperor Quartet where her pitch seemed uncertain.

The Emperor provided the "Conversations and Confrontation" promised in the concert title, joining in with the "Transdanubian Swineherds", and showing where Bartok got his inspiration in a spirited performance of the Third Quartet. The Orbestra's next concerts (on 31 March and 5 April at RFH3) should not be missed.

Annette Morreau