Classical: Bringing home Bacon

Fractured Lives: Mark-Anthony Turnage

Ensemble Modern/Peter Rundel

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Nash Ensemble/Martyn Brabbins

Purcell Room

Mark-Anthony Turnage's publicists have exaggerated the Essex-soulboy, Francis-Bacon-mad aspects of his background and personality at the expense of some of the music itself. Careful husbanding of his undoubted craftsmanship sometimes constricted the expressive range of the composer's early scores, though I have to admit that Fiona Kimm and the Nash Ensemble's performance on Wednesday of Lament for a Hanging Man, which dates from 1983, packed quite a strong punch. But a constrained, rather well behaved Turnage at odds with his more familiar present image made a comeback in some of the other pieces offered by this programme.

Three Farewells, Turnage's Nash Ensemble commission from 1990, is dominated by string writing of a curiously featureless kind, prone to bland counterpoint, occasionally including some strangely conventional-sounding imitation. An Invention of `Solitude' - the new Nash piece, a 12-minute work for clarinet and string quartet - may have been almost completely rewritten to exploit the talents of the ever excellent clarinettist Michael Collins, but it marks time with some very routine rhythmic gestures. Cortege for Chris - a five-minute homage to the cellist Christopher van Kampen, who died last year, offers more immediately affecting melodic inspiration, making remarkably simple but telling use of clarinet, cello and piano.

Generously, Wednesday's concert also included a new work by the English composer Richard Causton, 27 this year, whose slender output has already managed to impress several competition juries. Notturno, in three movements lasting 13 minutes, demonstrates a real ear for sonority; for resonances in sometimes dramatic juxtaposition and for unusual timbres - low double bass and piano, quarter-tones on horn and harp - conjured from a 10-instrumental percussionless ensemble. Martyn Brabbins conducted all the bigger pieces on this programme in his familiarly unflappable manner, and deftly probed Turnage and Causton in platform interviews as well.

As the return on Monday as part of a Contemporary Music Network tour of his two-year-old Blood on the Floor amply demonstrated, Turnage is best at music for larger forces.

This suite - inspired by, among other matters, the Bacon painting of the same name - is nothing short of brilliant in its deployment of an ensemble dominated by wind (especially saxophones), brass and percussion. To this the composer adds three soloists - the leading jazz musicians John Scofield (guitar) and Peter Erskine (drums) plus the saxophonist Martin Robertson, Turnage's long-time friend - all of whom made vital and excellent contributions; Scofield and Erskine also provided three encores, ably arranged by Turnage.

I'm not sure I'd go as far in making innovatory claims for Blood on the Floor as did the jazz musician and critic Ian Carr in the pre-concert discussion. But its integration of composition and improvisation in the context of music steeped in the jazz traditions of Ellington and Mingus is certainly unusual.

The splendid musicians of Ensemble Modern, conducted by Peter Rundel, provided some further solos themselves, a number of them substantial. Blood on the Floor may be the ultimate demonstration of Turnage in "Essex/Bacon" mood, but its nine movements are as notable for their expressive incorporation of melody in a variety of guises - some quite covert, all magnificently and subtly scored - as for their mad, bad and dangerous-to-know thrills and spills. Sweet and Decay and Elegy for Andy, for instance, make magical use of the string section, individually as well as a group. I wonder where Turnage's enthusiasm for such endeavours will take him now.

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