Brunel Ensemble / Philarmonia, Spitalfields / RFH, London

Contemporary commitment
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The Independent Culture

Now in its 20th year, the Spitalfields Festival continues its crucial role as promoter of contemporary music. The Void in This Colour, a new work by Tansy Davies for an ensemble of 13 players, was this year's festival commission. Energetic and multilayered with a sharply focused drive, it was unremittingly modernist, sharing, with Harrison Birtwistle and Diana Burrell, a strong sense of shape and structure.

Its busy surface occasionally cracked to reveal a calmer level of activity beneath: in the first of these brief fissures, an edgy hymn for strings was interrupted by Messiaen-like piano chords. More lyrical contrasting episodes and less grinding virtuosity might have made the work more emotionally involving, yet it did possess a craggy grandeur. The Brunel Ensemble, conducted by Chris-topher Austin, dissected the opaque sonorities and coped brilliantly with its formidable rhythmic complexities.

The Void in This Colour suffered from being followed by Judith Weir's ravishingly beautiful Piano Concerto, which drew a greater variety of colour and range of expression from its nine accompanying strings. The rippling, spring-like solo part was deftly realised by Rolf Hind, keenly responsive to its graceful phrasing and subtle changes of mood. While the muted lower strings of the Brunel Ensemble brought gloriously rich playing to the opening of the central threnody, a wittier, less literal approach to the woozy glissandi and scotch-snap rhythms would have enhanced the romping finale.

If Judith Weir's works are always worth catching, so too are those of Sally Beamish.Songs and Blessings was inspired by the chants and prayers of islanders from the Outer Hebrides. Five brief, rapt dia- logues each highlighted a particular instrument and the final life-enhancing song, "The Reaping" combined the lyrical and devotional in its generous outpouring. Songs and Blessings received committed and fluent playing from the Philharmonia.

The composer herself joined the players for "No, I'm Not Afraid", a setting for narrator, oboe, harp and strings of six moving poems by Irina Ratushinskaya. Oboist Christopher Cowie relished his expressive solo part in the nocturne-like opening and Beamish proved herself to be an ideal narrator, bringing out bitter irony as well as innocent joy in the text.

In today's climate of routine mainstream programming featuring over-familiar orchestral warhorses, both of these chamber concerts were especially welcome in promoting contemporary works of exceptional intimacy and intensity.

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