Nash Ensemble | Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture

Though it's not in the run of things for specialist journals to make headlines, their impact may still be felt when a bold initiative bears unexpected fruit. To celebrate Igor Stravinsky's 85th birthday, Tempo, that venerable quarterly review of modern music, commissioned a set of short musical tributes.

Justly celebrated, the results included the original matrix of Pierre Boulez's explosante/fixe, a work that in later forms has been recognised as a 20th-century classic.

Time as yet is too soon to tell if a batch of miniatures similarly requested in 1998 to celebrate Elliott Carter's 90th birthday will endure beyond their initial purpose. None the less, auguries for a life beyond the page seem positive, at least on the evidence of the five that the Nash Ensemble featured at the first of their annual new-music concerts at the Purcell Room on Thursday.

Tempo's blueprint was for a short piece for a couple of instruments, and composers' responses seemed as varied and sure as the journal must have desired. These included Donatoni's playful Elly, for clarinet, cello and piano, Steven Mackey's cool and distinctly un-Carterish Etude for cello and marimba, Heinz Holliger's For Elliott - A little birthday Hansel from Heinz(el), for oboe and harp, and Kurtag's Hommage for cor anglais.

They were performed in sequence with Eccentric Melody for cello by Oliver Knussen, and a separately written tribute, 90 Es and Cs for Elliott Carter for violin and piano, Alexander Goehr's affectionate take on one of Carter's own encomia, giving formal gravitas to this suite-like medley.

From Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Tempo tribute of Three Niedecker Verses have grown, since 1998, another six settings of this obscure yet fascinating American poet, and the Nash Ensemble gave the world premiÿre of the complete cycle, with soprano Valdine Anderson most sensitively partnered (not accompanied, as the composer made clear) by cellist Paul Watkins. When Birtwistle turns songwriter the densities of Gawain are transformed into a handful of notes that express a musical correlative of the objective intimacy found, in different ways, both in Lorrine Niedecker's verse and the composer's Nine settings of Celan.

As for Carter's Enchanted Preludes, for flute and cello, their quicksilver music respectfully asserted the presence of the evening's figurehead, who could not be there in person.

Two established contemporary works completed the programme, one of which, Holt's Sparrow Night, originally a Nash commission, the Ensemble must be proud to have brought into existence. Martyn Brabbins conducted a strong and lean performance, assisting the work's original soloist, oboist Gareth Hulse, with a reading in which every detail of the composer's tempestuous nightmare fell into place. Oliver Knussen, in his Songs Without Voices, evokes different visions with equal clarity, the players responding with no less feeling and delicacy.