MUSIC / The voices of experience: Nicholas Williams on the Parnassus Ensemble at the Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture
With age concerns now very much a focus of interest, the Parnassus Ensemble's celebration of the 'creative power of age' was a topical cry for attention. Though it was appearing under the umbrella of the University of the Third Age, the group itself consists of young players. Youth was also on the side of their audience - more numerous than the typical crowd for such an event. Was it support for the music, the ensemble, or veneration for maturity that had drawn them on this blustery Sunday afternoon? All the evidence pointed to the first of the three answers.

Not everything written in old age bears the instant hallmark of quality. The ensemble took a calculated risk, avoiding the safe haven of Messiaen, Tippett and Lutoslawski. Instead they found some unfamiliar names to celebrate - Ernest Bloch and Berthold Goldschmidt in the first half - and, after the interval, some familiar Faure, leaving listeners to judge for themselves.

Bloch's Second Piano Quintet was certainly something of a revelation (most of his music having been ignored since his death in 1959). Dating from 1957, the composer's 77th year, it is a trenchant, three-movement affair that for some 20 minutes rages passionately against the dying of the light. Expertly led by violinist Peter Sheppard, the players met its challenges with flair and dedication. This is music that operates from moment to moment, every phrase a little parcel of intensity. Where it fails to deliver - and this applies to much of Bloch's oeuvre - is on the broader scale. The ideas are characterful, from the same stable as middle-period Shostakovich, or late Vaughan Williams. What they lack are the persuasive techniques of continuation that each of these composers discovered in their own work.

The richly contrapuntal idiom of Goldschmidt's Piano Trio presented no such problems. If anything, the obstacle here was of fluency overwhelming individuality in a motoric forward drive. Concise and articulate, the work dates from 1985 when the composer was 82 and had resumed composition after a break of some 20 years. Schreker, Weill and Busoni - the figures suggested by its hyperactive surface - turn out to have been Goldschmidt's early models. To hear their voices working authentically in chamber music of the 1980s was an experience of genuine historical plurality in our modish times. Though not visible at the concert, the composer is happily still with us. May this musical revival long continue.

Finally there was Faure's Second Piano Quintet, sublime product of his last years. Julia Knight's viola took a leading role in all four movements, in rapport from the very start with cellist Philip Sheppard. This performance was made of many enchantments: the infinite variety of Faure's piano accompaniments (taken by Junko Kobayashi); the gentle lyricism, ever pliant to the demands of the shifting modal harmonies. The turning-point was the slow movement, redolent of Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang in its insistent return to unaccompanied melody. The ensemble brought the utmost concentration to this music, evidence not just of the creative power of age, but also of genius.