Belcea Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

So far-fetched, it had to be true. The link between Ernest Chausson, gloomiest and most refined of late Romantics, and Joseph Phibbs, young product of the British new-music forcing-house, turned out to be the spell cast by the poetry they chose. Few composers would want to spend the anxious minutes before their premiere listening to a suicide note. But the words of Charles Cros that Chausson set in Chanson perpetuelle were matched by Edith Sitwell's deathly visions in The Canticle of the Rose, Phibbs' new work and the latest in a series of commissions made for the Wigmore by Nicholas and Judith Goodison and using the surprisingly rare medium of string quartet and voice.

When followers of music think of Sitwell, it's usually the arch and contrived words of William Walton's flippant Façade. There was a degree of overlap here, but "Through gilded trellises" took on an edgier tone in the context of meditations about destruction, centred on Sitwell's response to the first use of an atomic bomb.

The music began aggressively, inflecting one note and its closest neighbour with a hint of flamenco. It spread out into a scampering pattern, instruments staying close together, and subsided into the slow first song, which grew from a monotone towards an eloquent introduction of the texts' central image, the rose with the darkening heart. It isn't always in a new piece that the voice line - as relished here by Lisa Milne - is more memorable than its accompaniment.

This was the most striking setting, at least until the climax of the fifth with its high, Britten-like threefold repetition of "shine". Elsewhere, the intricacy and variety of the quartet writing stole the attention.

The Belcea gave the work a concentrated, finely prepared performance, rising from the devastating effect of Chanson perpetuelle, Chausson's 10-minute evocation of lost love, with Milne at her most persuasive. Perhaps only a supremely happy artist could summon up such open-hearted, unresolved desolation and live with the consequences.

Chausson's music has one of the most unmistakable personal voices of its time. The Concert for violin, piano and string quartet, the third piece given on the night, is an epic work which, even more than his Symphony, belies the "unfulfilled" label that has stuck to Chausson since his accidental death. With the violinist Isabelle van Keulen and pianist Aleksandar Madzar, the Belcea made it the high point of the evening.

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