Sounding the Century: St John's Smith Square; Nash Ensemble, Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture
Though the contents of Radio 3's millennial review, Sounding the Century, are a reminder that the mariner's plummet is as much an instrument of caution as of testing uncharted waters, there are still discoveries to be made. One of them, Szymanowski's Songs of the Enamoured Muezzin, was featured last Monday. During a live relay of the Orchestra of St John's Smith Square from its home venue, the series' artistic consultant, George Benjamin, noted the dearth of 20th-century cycles for voice and chamber orchestra. This was an oblique way of saying that he'd chosen the work for its sheer beauty and because he liked it. And why not. Four erotic lyrics set in lush colours, they were lovingly sung by soprano Patricia Rozario, evoking an Arabia of the senses, of souks and shaded jalousies. The half-full church was perhaps too reverberant to honour their finer details. Even so, the chance to hear Daniel Harding conduct this rarity was welcome.

Later, it was complemented by Britten's Les Illuminations. Matching Rimbaud's dreams with fine designs of his own, did this composer ever again display such exquisite sensibility? It must have seemed baffling in 1939. Birtwistle still baffles many, yet on Monday his Machaut a ma maniere will have won him new friends on the airwaves. With medieval music now almost mainstream, Birtwistle's original "maniere" with gothic sounds becomes all the more relevant. Strangely, the Concerto Grosso by his former pupil, Dominic Muldowney, struck out for the shores of Nyman and Part. No wonder it ended with a tango that hovered between moods of fiesta and siesta.

Not part of the Radio 3 festival, though uniquely sounding out our times in the context of its own 20th-century series, the Nash Ensemble's Wednesday evening Purcell Room recital featured flute, harp and strings of Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, the world "between land and sea" they evoke.

The evening's new music was framed by out-of-doors pieces from Nicholas Maw and Simon Holt, very different composers whose lyrical gifts are both honed to the skills of the ensemble. Shaking Robert Browning's famously robust prosody by the scruff of the neck, Maw's through-composed setting of his "Two in the Campagna", Roman Canticle, placed fast arioso around a flowing episode of Italian nature music for flute, viola and harp. The dark love songs of Holt's Lorca-based Canciones impressed both for their passion and for the punchy sounds released from three wind instruments, harp and string quintet. Stepping in at short notice, mezzo soprano Fiona Kimm delivered strong, measured readings of both works.

For his Nash Ensemble world premiere, Poetry Nearing Silence, Julian Anderson chose to write eight miniatures based on visual jests by artist Tom Phillips. They showed his telling ability to catch and hold an idea, of pitch, timbre or basic gesture, and to exploit its mood within the unfolding overall pattern. He has an enviable sense of tonal colour. Sally Beamish's Between Earth and Sea, also a premiere, added Celtic lament to the evening's range of atmosphere. A quiet prelude led to an impassioned climax, flute and viola entwined in folk-like melodies that unwound to a peaceful conclusion. Nicholas Williams

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