Contemporary Music Weekend, Bath Festival

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The Independent Culture

"The ultimate musical plunge", proclaimed the souvenir programme of the Bath International Music Festival. So what could be in store at the Contemporary Music Weekend, the third of the defining weekend pillars (the others being world music and jazz) of the festival?

Fortunately, the music proved to be diverse, occasionally daring, and even, in a whole programme of music for two pianos, dense. Gyorgy Ligeti wrote about his infinitely detailed and beautifully crafted Three Pieces for Two Pianos, "it is possible to merge two piano with identical timbre into an acoustically indissoluble unity", and in the dazzling partnership between Nicolas Hodges and Rolf Hind and two Steinway grands, the ear was certainly persuaded to hear one concentrated instrument.

Per Norgard's Unendlicher Empfang, draws on the memory of sounds emerging from within the high walls of a playground, with four metronomes adding an independent counterpoint to the two keyboards. Cascades of chattery laughter merge with ghostly voices, creating echoes of Ravel's La Valse. In James Dillon's appealingly impressionistic black/nebulae, mainly composed in Japan and inspired by crows winging in and out of mist on a mountainside, the complexities are a problem only for the pianists. Here the two soloists proved themselves volatile in the birds' defiant ducking and diving, and poetic in the score's pellucid ending when a pair of birds seem to take musical shape. In its mechanical repetitiveness John Adams's Hallelujah Junction takes a different turning, following an unexceptional route safely within the recognised limits of pianistic possibilities.

The Joyful Company of Singers were joined for three Shakespeare- influenced world premieres by the violinist Madeleine Mitchell. You didn't need any special key to enter the soundworld of "strange noises" in Thierry Pecou's Festival commission, A circle in the sand. The singers, positioned antiphonally, conjure up "a thousand twangling instruments" as a Mayan text is set against lines from The Tempest, while the violin gives out the "sounds and sweet airs" that so entrance Caliban. In her new work Undiscover'd Country, Roxanna Panufnik's theatrical treatment is most effective in the dramatic interaction between solo violin (recreating in music the rhythms and pitches of David Garrick's spoken Hamlet) and choir. Like Pecou, Jonathan Harvey also merges two languages ­ sweet/winterhart combines Celan with Shakespeare ­ and two cultures.

In a rare joint airing of Hanns Eisler's Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain and Joris Ivens's film documentary on rain ( Regen, 1929), Eisler's clouded musical reflections on these watery images were atmospheric and ultimately moving. Edward Dudley Hughes's no less artful new take, Light cuts through dark skies, accompanied the same black-and-white projections on our second outing to wet Amsterdam.

Part of the Contemporary Music Weekend can be heard on BBC Radio 3's 'Hear and Now' on Saturday at 10.45pm

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