London Sinfonietta / Arditti Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Better late than never. The London Sinfonietta waited 13 months before marking the 60th birthday of Brian Ferneyhough, on 16 January 2003. Inventions: Ferneyhough in Focus was nevertheless a real occasion, of which two concerts by the Sinfonietta, under Martyn Brabbins, and one by the Arditti Quartet formed just part.

In a laudable attempt to gain this challenging composer a wider audience, the Sinfonietta collaborated with the Society for the Promotion of New Music and the Purcell School in mounting a plethora of other activities. But what to put with the four works by Ferneyhough, which included the British premiere of the latest instalment of his forthcoming Walter Benjamin opera for Munich?

A rather indigestible mishmash of different styles was the answer here. But we at least heard a few very good pieces: the final movement of Paul Usher's First String Quartet, for instance, offering rich complexity with a luscious lilt. And Morgan Hayes's teeming but also convincingly evolving Dark Room for clarinet and ensemble. New Complexity, the movement which Ferneyhough more or less invented, and its aftermath were oddly represented: either in a tiny dose hard to comprehend in context or by music that proved uncharac-teristically diffuse.

Amid all this, Ferneyhough - absent in California finishing his opera, and represented in person only by some rather lugubrious interview extracts on film shown during the tortuous platform rearrangements - somehow got a little lost. The choice of works sensibly charted the composer's progress from the early 1980s, with Carceri d'Invenzione I, to the present.

The new Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia proved almost as indigestible on first hearing as its title: an uneasy fusion of spoken poetry and music that is in itself fitfully brilliant, especially when let off the leash in a purely instrumental epilogue containing some magnificently bizarre moments. Roderick Williams did what he could with the narration.

Add the Arditti Quartet's reliably incisive account of the fine Third Quartet and Paul Silverthorne's less experienced but bold projection of the solo viola part in Incipits, and you were bound to feel that this difficult but highly rewarding composer had been given a more than decent, as well as rare, outing. Yet it was hard not to wonder how much more might have been achieved, how even higher the performing standards might have been, and indeed how much larger the audience might have been, if the London Sinfonietta had properly nurtured Ferneyhough over the last three decades as the leading British composer he surely is.