Park Lane Group, Purell Room, London

Get with the programme
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The Independent Culture

I last reviewed the Park Lane Group's long-established annual five-day series, which offers young musicians a prominent platform to perform 20th-century and recent music, four years ago. Noting the high standards being achieved by some remarkable performers, I was, however, critical of the somewhat jaded format of these concerts, and of some of the repertoire.

So what has changed in four years? The atmosphere is less starchy than before; the two potted palms now adorning the stage actually make a surprising difference. All participants in a concert now return at its close to take applause, which helps to diminish the implied competitive dimension. Yet the endless parade of "turns" continues to make for indigestible programming, and doesn't always provide the best context for any individual musician or group.

The only performers I've heard so far this year who have impressed me nearly as much as the best from 1998 were the Doric String Quartet, who had Wednesday's early evening recital to themselves. Already quite experienced, these four young men concluded with a searing account of Zemlinsky's protean Third Quartet.

Their abilities could also be admired in recent pieces by Anthony Powers and Martin Butler; in Powers's Third Quartet, especially, the alert rapport and flexible, expressive response demanded by one of this composer's most adventurous and stylistically varied works made for compelling listening.

The 7.30pm concerts on Monday to Wednesday contained a number of enjoyable things. On Monday, Elizabeth Atherton (with her accompanist, Iain Farrington) – in mostly English, sometimes dated repertoire – proved herself to be a serious soprano with excellent diction and much promise, but as yet lacking in control and dramatic range. The trumpeter Alison Balsom (with Alasdair Beatson) has a confident presence and flair, but Steve Martland's early Duo showed up deficiencies in articulation and intonation.

On Tuesday, the unaccompanied cellist Richard Harwood demonstrated a flawless technique, and convincingly shaped the contours of Philip Grange's early and unjustly neglected Nocturnal Image. Overall, though, he suffered from a lack of projection and the natural performer's sense of timing.

The piano duet of Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong were more successful in flamboyant pieces such as Jonathan Powell's Notturni tascabili, a naughty post- modernist take on the old-style operatic fantasia, than in Anthony Gilbert's early, ultra-modernist Sonata No 2.

With far less excuse, some poor repertoire spoilt the impression given during Wednesday's programme by the pianist Naomi Iwase. A strong technique was mainly squandered on anonymous-sounding Romantic works by older Japanese composers, though she revealed some beautiful tone in Butler's On the Rocks.

The soprano Claire Booth chose a challenging modernist programme, and both she and her excellent accompanist, Ryan Wigglesworth, were on top of some of its demands. But underneath Booth's super- confident and in-your-face platform manner there are some technical problems to be resolved, especially her tendency to be unpleasantly squally when singing high and loud. Another PLG review from me follows next week.

For more information on the Park Lane Group, see www.parklanegroup.co.uk

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