MUSIC : Want to see a future star? Watch this space

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YOUNG ARTISTS (other than recording superstars) and contemporary music (other than that by Michael Nyman) are the conscience-sector of concert programming, where everyone knows there's no money to be made. So I always think there's an element of conscience in the Park Lane Group's annual New Year series of young artists playing contemporary music: it con-veniently dispatches both birds with the same stone, and helps other London concert promoters to sleep easy, knowing that someone else is shouldering the burden of their responsibilities.

But beyond that, the PLG Young Artists series is a true service to the musical community. It has been so now for 40 years, providing first hearings for countless composers and stars in embryo, from Gwyneth Jones to Julian Lloyd Webber. Every year the PLG - a charitable trust - takes over the Purcell Room for a week of twice-nightly concerts, shared between as many players as can be given a fair hearing. The 1997 series started last Sunday with an entire chamber orchestra, the Brunel Ensemble, in works by British composers who were mostly present and had taken part in an earlier platform discussion about writing for "the young". Unsurprisingly, they all agreed it was a Good Thing, and that what young players lacked in technical sophistication they made up for in spirit and adventure. Which was more or less how I'd sum up the Brunel Ensemble. I've heard more exact and cleaner playing than that offered by this group (founded five years ago in Bristol). But it tackles problems head-on, and with an energy that made uplifting work of Julian Anderson's Khorovod: a mischievously eclectic dance-sequence that sounds like a Leonard Bernstein poltergeist breaking up a Stravinskian happy home. Exuberant, raucous, vital, this is one of the handful of scores that have signalled Anderson's promise in the past few years, and its impact never fails.

By contrast, John Woolrich's new orchestral fantasy, Music From a House of Crossed Desires, made as little lasting impact as his opera (from which it was drawn) did last year: a desperately empty piece of writing. But Anthony Payne's A Sea-Change, a composition about composition and the process by which imagined sounds get trapped into notes on the page, was pure pleasure. The piece was beautifully done by a seven-piece subgroup of the Brunel Ensemble, who made fascinating work of the way it absorbs Ravel-like colours into an otherwise English Romantic sound-world - the sort of thing Vaughan Williams did in On Wenlock Edge. And I was just as pleased by Viscid, a brand new score by a young composer called Morgan Hayes. What it had to do with the King's Cross gasometers that supposedly inspired it I'm not sure, and it needed some fine-tuning in the interests of clarity and sense; but the music had been powerfully imagined, with glamorous sounds, big gestures, and a suggestion of Birtwistle reheard through a glass darkly. For me this was the evening's real discovery, not so much for what it was as for what it promised. That PLG gives such things house-room, on trust, is what makes its the series special, risky and important.

At 23, Maxim Vengerov would qualify for a slot in a PLG concert - but he hardly needs it. Vengerov was at the Barbican on Thursday, playing Dvorak's Violin Concerto with the LSO, and it was dazzling - a display of utter virtuosity. Of course he's flashy, with a repertoire of platform mannerisms that belong in Hollywood; but this is showmanship of substance, with a musicality to match the fluency and facility. I know no other living violinist who could put on such a show.

My only reservation is that Vengerov's playing is so wilful that it's hard to accompany; Antonio Pappano, conducting, had to work hard to maintain the ensemble. A British-born artist who has been making a name from big-league opera recordings like last year's EMI Don Carlos, Pappano is forthright and impressive. But how tellingly he makes things happen I'm not sure. The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony that followed the Dvorak was good but domesticated: a 100 per cent performance of a score that needs to be 150 per cent to deliver its potential. Maybe Vengerov had worn him out.

Another violinist in London this week was Cho-Liang Lin playing a dream programme of Poulenc, Ravel and Debussy, with Paul Crossley at the Wigmore Hall. This was a disappointing example of how good experiences on disc don't always transfer to live performance. Crossley and Lin have recorded this repertory for Sony very effectively (Crossley in particular I've always found a fine, if slightly cold Ravellian), but here the balance was poor - the piano heavily assertive, the violin stripped of tone - and the inner radiance of this sometimes outwardly formal music rarely came across. Ravel's precious little Berceuse Sur le Nom de Faure had the simplicity but not the tenderness it asks for. And although the same composer's Tzigane began well, it suffered something like a power-cut when the note-values went down and the technical demands went up. It takes a player with fire in the soul and muscle in the forearm to pull off this music. Tasmin Little has it; but Cho-Liang Lin? I'm not so sure.

Countertenors aren't exactly fire-and-muscle voices, least of all the Oxbridge chapel breed who dominate the English market; but the impeccably Oxbridge Michael Chance is exceptional in being both one of the meatier and more animated of these voices. At his Wigmore Hall recital on Wednesday he talked (always a mistake) about his mission to liberate his voice-type from imprisonment in music which is either old or other-worldly; to make the point he then sang some of Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad songs.

As an example of boldly going where no countertenor has gone before, this was pretty audacious. Chance argues that the modern countertenor is essentially a 20th-century English invention grounded in the same culture as English Pastoral - so why not sing English Pastoral repertory? At face value it's a fair point, and you might say that a high voice is appropriate to the youthful innocence, young lads and early death which are the leitmotifs of Housman's poems. But I'm not sure that the white tonal qualities of a countertenor do suggest youth and innocence, or even remembrance of those qualities. Death, maybe - and the one song in the group that I thought might just work was "Is My Team Ploughing?", where the words are partly addressed from beyond the grave. But even there the high pitch felt uncomfortable - more Oriental Camp than English Lad - and it was left to the supremely sensitive piano playing of Julius Drake to keep the song in contact with its cultural roots.

If I don't welcome Michael Chance's bid for freedom, it's nothing personal. In accustomed countertenor repertory, such as the Purcell items included in this programme, he's a wonderfully engaging singer who I'll always want to hear. But off-patch he's an alien being. Countertenor liberation? Not for me.

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