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MUSIC REVIEW / Putting on the styles: Nicholas Williams at London's Schnittke festival

Given that this year's Royal Academy of Music International Composer Festival began with a splash of honky-tonk piano, went on to chromatic duets for violins and then a stretch of pure Vivaldi - and all in the same piece - the composer in question had to be Alfred Schnittke.

Sadly, ill-health prevented him from being there in person. Even so, the enthusiasm and artistry displayed by the student-performers in the latest embodiment of the Academy's now legendary events was as clear as ever, with gifted ensemble playing on Tuesday in the gaudy contrasts of the first Concerto Grosso, conducted by Edward Gregson, and eloquent oboe and harp solos in the Double Concerto.

Dating from 1971, and exploring multiphonics and scrambled counterpoints in an abstract way, this work pointed through its very austerity to the week's main topic: Schnittke's famous 'polystylism'. Style, like melody, implies its own continuation. Yet Schnittke subverts its flow by generous quotation. Like Stravinsky and Berio, he alludes to the past, but, with him, the historical music seems to be the thing itself; that is, until the edges blur, and the composer wills it into something other.

The distances involved need not be vast. In the Cello Sonata, eloquently played in Wednesday evening's concert by Sarah Barnes, the tension of changing focus lay between a Shostakovich-like gloom and Schnittke's own language of tone clusters and distortions.

The same applied to the masterly Piano Quintet, heard in the same concert, but in its final pages turning from shadows into radiant light. In contrast, Hymns III and IV for ensemble, equally sombre in their Russian musical images, suggested Schnittke the film composer, building and sustaining a single mood and atmosphere.

Where polystylism turns to humour the effect can be of paradox and wit, as the Academy's Manson Ensemble and Nicholas Cleobury showed in impressive readings of the jazz-classical collages, Serenade and Moz-Art a la Haydn. Even so, Eliot-like, these fragments seemed shores against ultimate ruin. Turning back the clock again, the Third Quartet on Wednesday delved into a past that fielded quotations from Shostakovich, Beethoven and Lassus. The Medea Quartet sustained an impressive sense of line, knowing that, for all its tricks, this music runs close to dissolution and despair.

Not many student composers were keen to follow Schnittke's example, though Joanna Ives's Responses took a serious look at life in today's Russia, and Paul Englishby's escapist waltz fantasy, Blackpool Lights, had a bold part for pre-recorded Wurlitzer. Shinuh Lee's Rhul and Je Fus Mystique by Edmund Neill, winner of the Independent-RAM Composers' Competition for students at the A-level stage, tackled questions of structure, the latter in an impressive verse- refrain pattern, oboe and piano being the interior voices of the poet Verlaine. The concluding oboe melody showed craft and imagination in equal measure, poised intervals building in short, expressive phrases. Earlier, even the toughest chords had a sense of clarity and exact weight, mixed in, at times, with a personal voice as well.