London Sinfonietta/Benjamin, Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture

The German violinist Carolin Widmann opened this programme with James Wood's Autumn Voices.

The German violinist Carolin Widmann opened this programme with James Wood's Autumn Voices. Though it's the product of an extensive exploration of the violin's natural characteristics, combined with electronic elaborations of birdsong, inspired by Verlaine, I found that this piece's rather unvarying aural landscape palled fairly quickly.

Widmann, an excellent young player, also gave a vivid account of George Benjamin's own Three Miniatures for Solo Violin. Brimful of character, these little pieces are a real gem for the repertoire, though the last's fiendish fusion of moving melody and left-hand pizzicato will not endear it to more timid players.

The Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen stopped writing for 10 years, and only began again with the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra we heard here. Completed in 2000, it was inspired by his wife, the pianist Anne Marie Abildskov, who gave the piece its London premiere with evident commitment.

Abrahamsen has lost none of his quirky vigour, though this four-movement work's curious stops and starts and its allusions to other music make it decidedly odd, in a rather typically Danish way. But I warmed to its frozen friezes, its sometimes peculiarly spare and evocative piano writing, the violent, Mahlerian eruption in the second movement, and the downright enigmatic finale. Here's a composer who should be nurtured by our ensembles.

And so to the masterpiece in this concert, Gérard Grisey's last work, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. First heard in 1999, shortly after their composer's untimely death, these "four songs for crossing the threshold" offer potent, and hauntingly prescient, meditations on death.

Grisey was, I understand, nervous of writing vocal music and, fearful of sounding like Alban Berg, took refuge in models from Purcell and elsewhere. But the results are compelling, the overall impact searing. Valdine Anderson was, as at the world premiere, the moving, intelligent soloist. Benjamin conducted the Grisey and the Abrahamsen, both difficult works, with his usual acumen.

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