John White, Wilton's Music Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

They do not come more Englishly eccentric than John White, who turned 70 this month. Composer and MD for umpteen theatre productions, luminary of London's Drama Centre, guru figure for several generations of young composers: he's impossible to pin down.

And there are all those piano sonatas: 152 of them by this week's count. Half a dozen recent ones were premiered by White himself, with all his usual charisma, at the close of a six-hour session, involving nine pianists, at Wilton's Music Hall. This included 48 of the sonatas, of which 20 were receiving their initial public airing.

These sonatas generally maintain frankly confessed links with the traditions of the composer-pianist from Schumann, Busoni and Medtner to Messiaen. Glimpses would have been welcome of White's more obviously up-to-date interests beyond the concluding electronic improvisation of his group Live Batts!!.

Nevertheless, Mary Dullea's careful marshalling of this marathon, including an entertaining interview with the composer by Sarah Walker, was a most impressive achievement. It demonstrated so many sides of this protean musician that it was impossible to view the overall impact of White's work as merely anachronistic.

During Jonathan Powell's exhumation of four of the longer sonatas from the early 1960s, brilliantly executed by this virtuoso pianist, it did feel as though White was struggling to find a compositional voice. But when he gets into his stride with the production of short, single-movement sonatas in the early 1970s, there's no stopping the flow of more individual inspiration.

Almost all these pianists revelled in the opportunities the sonatas offer. Not least Dullea herself, whose sequence of nine was played with scrupulous attention to every technical challenge and mood swing, without ever becoming indulgent. Dave Smith, Kathron Sturrock and John Tilbury also demonstrated how well White's inventive piano writing comes over without undue meddling. It was also inspirational to hear the veteran Colin Kingsley play the Messiaenic Sonata No. 1 with musical alertness and positively youthful aplomb.

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