live Spitalfields Festival Christ Church, London

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The Independent Culture
Composers in charge of a music festival? Isn't that like allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum? Well, Michael Berkeley, Anthony Payne and Judith Weir are responsible sorts, and under their stewardship the Spitalfields Festival has assumed a well-rounded shape: plenty of baroquerie, of course; some educational and community work; a little bit of Asian music and quite a lot of contemporary music, including their own.

Introducing last Monday's "Composer's Portrait", Judith Weir said that this was her "one night as a complete egomaniac". Weir is a genial and generous communicator, able to engage the audience whether talking from the platform or writing programme notes. She reminded us that she once played the oboe, and sure enough the oboe's reedy vocalism suffused the evening, whether in Janacek's Mladi or Poulenc's Sonata for oboe and piano: neither work exactly over-exposed, each receiving measured performances from Jane's Minstrels.

The programme also offered a showcase for Jane Manning's soprano. Manning's French rather blurred the text of Ravel's Chansons madecasses, but there was plenty of chesty vehemence, and she made the most of Ravel's repeated grunts of "Aoua!". Weir then provided a chamber arrangement of Waltraute's narration from Gotterdammerung because, she said, she'd always wanted to hear Manning in Wagner. Reason enough to cut Wagner down to size, although the experiment wasn't wholly successful. Rather than clarifying, the arrangement seemed to muddy the textures, but, having slipped into something more Wagnerian, Manning attacked the text with relish, finding a truly fearsome sibilance for the "curse".

The evening began and ended with Weir's own music. Three epigrammatic songs, collected as Horse d'oeuvres, presented Manning with effulgent vocal lines, neatly undercut by Weir's characteristic irony. The programme closed with Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, a dense instrumental argument in which textures emerged with greater clarity than in the Wagner adaptation. The piece opened out from insistent pizzicato figures for cello and double- bass, an atmospheric flourish. Weir's favoured oboe had a prominent role, as did the bass-clarinet, providing a link back to Janacek's Mladi: Weir's piece was by no means overshadowed.

On Wednesday, Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, brought the festival to an end. There was something antiseptic and unaroused about the vocal beauty even if, as in Arvo Part's Magnificat, everything was well achieved. The two most stirring pieces were Johann Michael Bach's motet Halt, was du hast, quite different from his son-in-law's music and with some pleasing echo effects; and Anthony Payne's unaccompanied setting of Tennyson's Break, break, break, a world premiere. Payne used the title's three words as a persistent undercurrent, always threatening to break through the rippling melismas of his upper lines. As the piece drifted into silence on the words "Never come back to me, never come back, come back", we could still feel the tension of that rumbling "Break, break, break". Here was the passion and drama not always evident elsewhere in the performance.