live review Sinfonia 21/ Martyn Brabbins St John's Smith Square, London

Mix 'em once and you've got the Nash Ensemble, mix 'em twice and it's the London Sinfonietta, mix 'em three times and out pops Sinfonia 21. For this is the nature of London's freelance pool of extraordinarily gifted musicians, none of whom would necessarily give an eye-tooth for a permanent contract. Many's the familiar face that straddles London's various performing ensembles, most of which have only a permanent title, and a semi-permanent management, to preserve them from a totally ad hoc existence.

So what defines a performing group when mixing-and-matching's the name of the game? Well, the conductor (or lack of one) and the attitude towards programming, perhaps. Sinfonia 21, once our old friends the Docklands Sinfonietta, has a feisty conductor in Martyn Brabbins and a feisty attitude to programme-planning. On the evidence of Wednesday's concert at St John's, the relentless march of "themed" programming seems light-years away.

This was the third of a series in which premieres have nestled alongside the largely unfamiliar. Faure, Ligeti and Beethoven do not really spring to mind as natural bedfellows and a questionnaire - the current bane of arts events - was there to ask just what we thought: how did we like the repertoire, the dress, the venue, the start time, Classic FM, Radio 3, the Independent . . ? All this, of course, because of the tedious search for cash. No wonder London's freelancers are so good; there's simply not enough money to spend on rehearsal time - which begins to explain something about Wednesday's enigmatic programming.

A delightfully poised but airy performance of Faure's neo-classical Masques et Bergamasques showed how Brabbins could lift a potentially coy piece to realms of utter charm. But, with as little rehearsal as I suspect had been available, tackling Ligeti's Piano Concerto was stunningly ambitious. This is a work that grew from a three-movement structure in 1986 to a five-movement colossus in 1988. Its demands on the pianist are formidable, but Rolf Hind has the kind of technique that gobbles up difficulties, the relentless passage-work tossed off with a breathtaking ease.

Clarity of texture, precision of attack, emphasis of colour are key to this work - a Bartok concerto translated - but a certain hesitancy from the orchestra, little helped by the St John's acoustic, seemed to undermine the overall impact. Nothing that a further performance in a different venue couldn't fix, however.

Ligeti's Etudes are for solo piano: their inclusion here thus spared precious orchestral rehearsal time. Within a group of four, Hind brought the British premiere of Ligeti's most recent addition - No 15 - a bizarre procession of rhythmless minims suddenly interrupted by helter-skeltering quavers of Nancarrow-ish dimensions, all dispatched in scarcely more than a minute. Hind's performance was of glittering brilliance, particularly in No 13, "L'Escalier du Diable" - a case of Ligeti meets Liszt.

Equally, when it came to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, Brabbins's handling - taking brisk tempi (to the point of restlessness in the Adagio) but revealing impressive control as the finale hurtled to its close - signalled that Ligeti's stock accentuated cross-rhythms have a more than distinguished past.

ANNETTE MORREAU

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