SCARPIA / Endangered species: A Nash Ensemble premiere, Yvar Mikhashoff's diabolical visions and virtuoso guqin playing

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The Independent Culture
IN A week when potentially devastating cuts were announced by the Arts Council, I experienced a cross-section of London's musical life with a heightened sense of awareness of just how much we have to lose. The range, imagination and standard of excellence of the three concerts I attended only served to reinforce London's leading position as an international centre for music- making: and Arts Council funding had helped to make all of them possible.

On 6 July the Nash Ensemble gave the first London performance of David Matthews's The Sleeping Lord, a work scored for soprano and chamber ensemble and commissioned by Bath Festival with the help of Arts Council funds, to a packed Wigmore Hall. Nash concerts are characterised by the imaginative touch of Amelia Freedman's programme-planning, and this was no exception, with the Matthews piece the jewel in a crown of fine chamber works by English composers from the first two decades of this century. Based on a poem by David Jones, The Sleeping Lord (a rather obscure reference to King Arthur) opened mysteriously with some arresting chords shrouded in instrumental glissandi. Gradually, strong, even brilliant, colours emerged, but a startling feature of the writing was the way in which the voice (the soloist here was Patrizia Kwella) merged with one or other of the instruments. There was more than a hint of Merlinesque wizardry about this piece, creating as it did a magical soundworld from so basic a musical element as the perfect fifth.

The Nash Ensemble gave a superb and deeply committed performance of the work, as they did of all the items in the programme, but most notably in the Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet and strings by Herbert Howells (soloist Michael Collins) and Frank Bridge's String Sextet in E flat in which the blend and balance of the players were outstanding. Ian Partridge was the soft-grained but quintessentially English tenor in Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge: a little more edge to the voice might have served the music better.

From the strongly rhapsodic vein of pastoral England to the 'diabolical visions' of 20th- century Russian composers in an afternoon recital by the Russian-named but American- trained pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, concerts director of Almeida Opera. Some of the 'visions' bordered on the insane (the composer refused to play Scriabin's Sonata no 9, 'The Black Mass', in public because he considered it 'too disturbing'), and much of the music was diabolically difficult to perform. Mikhashoff, a big man with big hands and a small ponytail, was never happier than when he had fistfuls of notes to play at high speed, and it was certainly an imaginative, if rather bitty, programme, with a fair smattering of British and world premieres, as one would expect from the Almeida.

I was particularly struck by Thomas de Hartmann's Two Nocturnes (1953), and especially the first of these, entitled in true 'mystic' fashion 'Music of the Stars'. The composer was apparently fascinated with the idea of recreating the music of the spheres, devising a 'new' harmonic system in order to achieve this end. Less concerned with ridding the octave of its internal hierarchies, Hartmann seemed to be aiming to overthrow the supremacy of the octave itself - until, that is, the resolution on to the perfect octave at the end. Equally arresting was Leo Ornstein's Suicide in an Airplane (1912), with its rumbling bass and 'motor' rhythms. Ornstein recently celebrated his 100th birthday; he has never travelled in an aeroplane and continues to compose every day, starting at six in the morning. His Metaphor no 9 received its world premiere, but when heard in comparison with the precocious originality of Suicide, it seemed bland and conformist.

Further world premieres of short works by two young Russian-born composers, Tatiana Komarova and Elena Firsova, ended the programmes. Komarova's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (after Goya) was fragmentary, though there was the odd nicely spaced chord. Major chords dominated Firsova's Hymn to Spring as a backdrop to some rather tiresome chromatic figuration in the top octave of the piano, but Mikhashoff himself was absolutely tireless.

So was Li Xiang Ting in his amazingly virtuoso Purcell Room recital on the guqin, an ancient Chinese instrument best described as a seven string zither, for the Asian Music Circuit. His repertory varied from fully notated 14th-century pieces to his own improvisations (some upon Chinese texts chosen by members of the small but very enthusiastic audience). And when I say fully notated, I mean fully; unlike western music of the Middle Ages, every aspect of guqin performance, including the 300 fingering techniques used to create an almost alarming variety of sonorities and special effects, is specified. Li Xiang Ting played from memory and was clearly a complete master of his instrument. One writer has apparently described the experience of hearing him perform on the guqin as discovering Pablo Casals and Bach all at the same time. This raises some burning questions about performance practice that I am completely unable to answer, but his concert certainly presented a rich instrumental repertory in astonishingly persuasive performances.

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