Settling political scores

LME - Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
It takes confidence to miss your own debut - a quality that Barrington Pheloung, the man who wrote the Politician's Wife music, doesn't obviously lack. But then, the "first major concert" of the London Metropolitan Ensemble, in which he plays guitar, was a debut on paper alone. Most of this engaging group's players have been working together for years as the Chamber Music Players of London (and some of them before that as the Thaxted String Trio); they record his TV scores. So the novelty of Tuesday's concert was not total.

To be fair, it was a family bereavement that kept Pheloung away - on the very night that his own music was accompanying a political bereavement before the nation's viewers. So for a second time he missed the chance to play in his own Sextet - at the King's Lynn premiere two years ago he hadn't had time to learn the part. Forbes Henderson here deputised adeptly. But the guitar's role is modest. For the harpist Gillian Tingay it was more of a showpiece, with sparkling textures framed by serenely ecstatic, shifting chords for strings and flute, unpretentious but characteristically haunting in its harmonies.

Dave Heath, the flautist, also had a premiere, with the neatly provocative (to Birtwistle fans at least) title Earthdance - another work far removed from the contemporary hard core. Heath even upstaged himself by playing his encore first, a sarcastic deconstruction of Land of Hope and Glory dedicated to the current government, provoking audience reactions that seemed split according to the opinion polls. Earthdance restored unity with a fast, furious and very un-Birtwistlian mix of African inflections and British bumptiousness.

A third new piece by group member Michael Kamen, best known for film scores such as Lethal Weapon, also pleasantly avoided the shock of the card-carrying modern. Inspired by a Chinese allegory of homosexuality, Cut Sleeves was a wistfully lyrical but wan and slender work that might better have been called Sad to Be Gay. But led by Kamen's oboe, the LME delivered it with the tonal relish and sense of enjoyment that distinguished their playing throughout the evening.

What the concert lacked was a centrepiece of real power. The most incisive music was John McCabe's January Sonatina for solo clarinet, played with panache by David Campbell, but it was only a few minutes long. By default, two pieces by Alan Rawsthorne assumed the heavyweight slot. His Piano Trio and Clarinet Quartet gave a strong shot of vigour, intensity and brain - qualities that have earned Rawsthorne the status of a neglected mid-century master, even though the music is Post-War Dour in a big way.

Argument is its lifeblood. It is too impatient to ingratiate or to seek pleasure in the grace and charm of sound. In mood and tone, as well as period, Rawsthorne isn't so far removed from Malcolm Arnold, who has bounced back from a similar neglect. But expressively he plays safe, while Arnold stakes everything on opening up and usually wins. Still, 90 years after Rawsthorne's birth, it was good to renew his acquaintance.

Robert Maycock