London Sinfonietta / Knussen, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Oliver Knussen's four concerts a year with the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall are such a feature of London's new music scene that we will doubtless mourn their passing, whenever that time comes. His presence on the podium practically guarantees a peak performance from this crack ensemble of musicians.

Knussen frequently gives us significant new works by major figures, but his choice of British music tends to repeat the same few older names and his selection of younger composers is narrowly focused on certain kinds of modernism. Since the audiences for this seem to dwindle further each year, the suspicion cannot be avoided that the sell-by date for these concerts is approaching.

Still, when they produce such a stimulating world premiere as that of Ben Foskett's Violin Concerto - performed with Clio Gould as soloist - then their value is quite obvious. Like so many of the composers the Sinfonietta plays these days, Foskett, who is 27 this year, has studied with Simon Bainbridge. His concerto is the result of another laudable side of the ensemble's activities, the Blue Touch Paper project, which allows works to be written under the guidance of established figures such as the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.

Foskett insisted, in a pre-concert talk, that he selected the violin as he knew less about stringed instruments and was thus taking on more of a challenge. And the concerto's opening gives the impression that we might be in for another hand-me-down response to Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, which has stalked many composers for more than 60 years.

But as the work develops, Foskett soon makes it clear that he knows exactly what he is doing. In the first half, a searing solo line of considerable intensity - magnificently etched by Gould - soars and dips above a simple but telling chordal accompaniment. It emphasises the lower registers in this ensemble of seventeen players, from which violins are banished. In the second half, the relationship between soloist and ensemble becomes more complex, even confrontational, and the music moves through a series of emotions. The line of tension is expertly maintained, right through to the terrifying climax and the final plunge into stillness. The reception from this audience of musical diehards was unusually warm.

For the rest, the London premiere of Lindberg's own Jubilees - elaborations of six short piano pieces written for Pierre Boulez's 75th birthday - demonstrated all the composer's gestural and instrumental brilliance, while the veteran Thea Musgrave's Space Play (from 1974) makes rather tired work of its purely performer-led games. Penumbra by Jonathan Cole, another Bainbridge protégé, offers what these young Brits so often do: professional, well-crafted music lacking in real imagination and urgency of communication.

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