Perfect partners: Annette Morreau enjoys the work of two eminent overseas composers at Britain's other New Music festival

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Poland's most famous living composer came to Wales last week. Fortunately, so did Australia's. Henryk Gorecki and Peter Sculthorpe were composers in residence at the plucky Vale of Glamorgan Festival which, in contrast to our other New Music festival, in Huddersfield, the Vale concentrates on the accessible and tuneful.

Given Gorecki's notoriety, John Metcalf's decision to invite the best-selling Pole might have backfired. But Sculthorpe, with the larger number of works programmed - 16 in all - could easily fend for himself.

It has taken a long time for his music to gain a showcase in Britain; at 65, he is Australia's most performed composer. Like Gorecki, he derives much of his inspiration from nature: 'Seeking the sacred in nature is the concern of most of my music.' Indigenous musics from the Pacific rim (Aboriginal, Japanese, Balinese) and the sounds of the wild (birds, wind, thunder) are evocative sources. But his skill lies in the ability to synthesise these elements into music all his own, melancholic and desolate, but wonderfully coloured and rhythmically vital. In common with Gorecki, much of Sculthorpe's music looks simple on paper. But in performance it is treacherous, demanding intensity and concentration. Neither Gorecki's Harpsichord Concerto (with Richard McMahon) nor Sculthorpe's Nourlangie quite got this from the strings of the City of London Sinfonia in the opening concert conducted by Richard Hickox, even if the guitar soloist, John Williams, was able to show that Nourlangie, a single movement concerto, is one of Sculthorpe's finest works.

Sculthorpe says that all his music lies in his string quartets (his best-known work, the eighth quartet, became a signature tune for Kronos). If the Brodsky's performance of the eighth and 11th quartets didn't reach the intensity of Kronos, they still revelled in the percussive col legno, slap pizzicato effects and the exhilarating rhythms of Balinese rice-pounding.

In much of Sculthorpe's music the cello predominates, and it was an inspired idea to pair his Threnody and Requiem for solo cello with choral works of Gorecki. The BBC Singers with Bo Holten brought out the intense devotion of Totus Tuus, Amen and Euntes ibant et flebant, even if Lowri Blake was underpowered in Sculthorpe's works. The scoop of the festival was to bring the first performance to Wales of Gorecki's Third, performed in Llandaff Cathedral by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with Margaret Field as soloist, conducted by David Atherton - gazumping next month's Cardiff Festival. Field's sound may be less innocent than Upshaw's but it's still affecting. Atherton's finely judged differences in string articulation helped to keep this long, slow work, throbbing along. Sculthorpe's haunting Piano Concerto, ably performed by Martin Roscoe, was the perfect partner, especially as it holds the 'Most Performed Australian Work' award.