Reviews: New year, same old tunes? Out with the old, in with the new

New music: Hear and Now

BBC Radio Theatre, Broadcasting House, London

Despite the forecasted storm and pestilence, about 80 of us made it to Portland Place on Sunday for the first of four weekly concerts in Radio 3's Hear and Now series, each to be broadcast the following Friday. Formerly presented at the ICA, this series has seemingly been ejected from the Mall and forced back to base at what used to be called the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House. Pleasant as this is (its atmosphere still cosy after the revamping of its Thirties decor), there's a feeling of retrenchment about the move, and the audience are still treated as interlopers to a recording session. Sarah Walker's spoken introductions are efficient and effective, but the mighty BBC, on home ground, couldn't produce a piano- tuner.

The Cambridge New Music Players' programme had a rather subdued air about it, too, with two trios and a duo in Part 1 and new, or nearly new, works for larger ensemble, conducted by Paul Hoskins, in Part 2. But the lack of vitality about it seemed to have something to do with the players as well as with what the composers gave them to do. Birtwistle's Verses for clarinet and piano is, as Walker said, an understated kind of piece anyway. But Neyire Ashworth and Richard Casey's performance of it was unatmospheric, even hesitant.

Either side of the Birtwistle came CNMP director Edward Dudley Hughes's Media Vita, for piano trio - a resourceful but rather unfocused meditation on a 16th-century motet by John Shepherd - and James Dillon's Redemption, for violin, clarinet and piano, which struck me as possessing a much clearer shape and a lot more directionality than its origins - in a series of conversations between Dillon and Takemitsu about Adorno - would lead you to suppose. From its initial two-part counterpoint, sparely and widely spaced on the piano, to its clearly marked coda - triggered again by the piano, this time with high trills - Redemption is Dillon in less inscrutable mood than usual. Unless I missed the point completely.

Jonathan Powell's Pro Eto took an evidently volatile poem by Mayakovsky as inspiration for a piece for clarinet and string quartet that suggested an almost Schoenbergian determination to place musical good behaviour above passion. In Jo Kondo's A Prospect of the Sky, for nine instruments, the first violin (an excellent Mieko Kanno) had an interestingly ambiguous solo role. Walker called the piece "weird"; I thought its interruptions of mainly lyrical material by bald, rhythmic repetitions the work of a composer guilty of a surfeit of care and attention. After all this, the first complete performance of Adrian Jack's Zigzag for eight players provided some welcome energy.

I enjoyed this three-movement piece's entertaining, often rather Stravinskian play with Yiddish klezmer materials, though Jack's refusal to come up with a razzle-dazzle finale added to my feeling that careful contrivance was what this concert was mainly about. And it doesn't seem a good start to the year when a programme's second half so often makes you ask: couldn't this music all have been written 50 or 60 years ago?

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