REVIEW / Barring interruption The noise in the back room: Stephen Johnson at the Women in Music festival

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The Independent Culture
Remember the V&A marketing campaign: 'An ace caff with a rather nice museum attached'? On the strength of Thursday evening's Women in Music concert, the ICA could try advertising itself as a very noisy bar with a not-very-well- soundproofed theatre attached. The moment when the noise became most intrusive was in the fragile, transparent middle section of Sofia Gubaidulina's String Trio. In the right conditions, this kind of quiet, intense writing can be gripping. Capricorn played it with concentration and delicacy, but the ambience won. Fortunately, balance was restored in the energetic final section, and the eerie, wind-down coda was so compelling that even the noise of the beautiful people outside couldn't spoil it.

As it happened, the opening event in London's Women in Music festival was a rewarding programme. Italian composer Ada Gentile's Flash Back, derived allusively from Mozart's Don Giovanni, was a light, colouristic affair, inclined to sound like a demonstration of new-ish flute noises, but creating a pleasant atmosphere that survived even the dramatic moment when cellist Timothy Mason's bow self-destructed.

But perhaps its lightness made it a less than suitable follow-on for the Russian Galina Ustvolskaya's Trio for clarinet, violin and piano, a brooding, deeply serious work composed in 1949, but not premiered in Russia until 1968. Echoes of Ustvolskaya's teacher Shostakovich were strong, but one of them - fascinatingly - turned out to be a pre-echo: of Shostakovich's Fifth Quartet, written in 1952.

The other really striking piece here was also by a Russian: Elena Firsova. The stylistic elements in Meditation in the Japanese Garden are all familiar - an accessible modernism of typical early Sixties cast. But she writes with such skill and feeling that everything feels right - not a note too few or too many, with a strong sense of non-tonal harmony. Here, too, there was fine playing from Capricorn members Timothy Mason (cello), Ileana Rubemann (flute) and Catherine Edwards (piano).

As a finale, the Capricorn strings and oboist Christopher O'Neal gave us Elisabeth Lutyens's Driving Out the Death, from 1971. This is Lutyens at her best and worst. The opening oboe idea is striking - 'sculptural', Lutyens called it - and its transformation by strings, first bowed then plucked, made a magnificently logical climax; but earlier there were passages of well-constructed greyness. It was good to be reminded, though, that Lutyens's music could sometimes be as interesting and arresting as she, famously, was.

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