Ensemble Modern, St Paul's Hall/Town Hall, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

This year's festival of new music in Huddersfield began with a whimper but ended with a bang in two electrifying concerts of music by that most uncompromising of composers, Helmut Lachenmann. They were given by the adventurous German chamber group Ensemble Modern, blazing with missionary zeal and scaling extraordinary musical heights in the composer's obsessive exploration of the production and reception of sounds.

Sunday was Lachenmann's 70th birthday and it also marked the ensemble's 70th performance of Mouvement [vor der Erstarrung]. Playing, and indeed listening to, his music is no laughing matter. Daunting for the extraordinary demands it makes on performers - those brave souls prepared to commit to the painstaking preparation his rigorous scores require - his work is also challenging to the listener. Finding, and then sticking with, a path through this eerily familiar yet frighteningly strange musical jungle, is worth every ounce of concentration. Surely no orchestral timbre is left untried in Mouvement, each member of the ensemble treated as a soloist - plucking, striking, strumming, scraping, blowing and speaking - to fascinating aural and visual effect.

Similar randomly layered textures and irregular musical flux characterise his Concertini (2005), for which much of the balcony of the Town Hall was taken up with an impressive array of sound equipment. Theatrically presented with satellite groups of players adding a spatial element, this fractured piece shows off an infinite combination of sonorities and harmonic tensions with some luminous solos, especially from the harp. With silences punctuating a surreal wash of highly contrasted solos and dialogues - some ugly, some glowing - the listener is drawn compellingly into this web of abundant energy and variety of mood.

The previous evening, also authoritatively conducted by Brad Lubman, was no less dazzling, especially in Lachenmann's Salut für Caudwell, a showcase of virtuosity in which two solo guitarists provide their own endless variety of accompaniment, including speech.

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