Schubert Ensemble, Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture

The music of Judith Weir was the focus of this latest programme in the Schubert Ensemble's Composer Portrait series. But, while her own special art was represented by a recent piano trio and three tiny string duos, she chose, typically, to yield the prime spots to a younger contemporary and a great master from the past.

The contemporary was David Knotts, about whom the programme notes told us nothing but the music told plenty. His one-movement Kitharodia for piano quartet (1998) begins in juxtapositions of short phrases and scurryings, not unlike Weir. But it evolves into arcs of self-generating melody, building to climaxes of an almost 19th-century Romantic rhetoric. One does not often hear such "old fashioned" techniques renewed so freshly. There is real musicality here.

The masterwork was Fauré's Piano Quintet No 1 in D minor Op 89 (1906), from his transitional middle period. In a less than idiomatic performance, the first two movements can seem to lose their way in evasive interweavings of strings and torrential piano. No risk of that here, with the ensemble's lovingly inflected reading. And it was good to sense the enthusiasm of a full house for a composer regarded till recently as esoteric and minor.

Weir's Piano Trio Two (2003/04) could hardly be more different, its three tightly compressed movements suggested by Zen stories and abruptly juxtaposing sharply contrasted gestures and textures drawn from a variety of world musics. As often in Weir, the continuity behind the brightly faceted surface is quite challenging to follow. But that is why she always repays repeated listening.

The three string duos were all recent, too. Scored for two double basses, What Sound Will Chase Elephants Away (2006) mainly comprised thunderous drum rhythms, while St Agnes (2005) is a blues-inflected lament for viola and cello. And indeed, Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I'd Better Buy Some Shoes could almost have been any pair of Gaelic fiddlers noodling away on a folk song, until one noticed the tiny idiosyncrasies of phrasing, the very personal way of stopping and starting - reminding one that Weir is a composer for whom the smallest detail matters.

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