Classical music: London Sinfonietta / Martyn Brabbins

QEH, SBC, London

You don't have to rely on inadequate labels such as "New Complexity" and "Minimalism" to appreciate the gulf that exists between Brian Ferneyhough and Steve Reich. In a perceptive essay in the programme book for Sunday's "head-to-head encounter of musical styles", Julian Anderson drew attention to the certainty with which these two composers invented a "complete and self-sufficient musical world" in Transit and Music for 18 Musicians respectively, and adroitly argued the transitional role of each work in its creator's output. These major works of the 1970s were brought together here under the banner of the "Towards the Millennium" series; Transit was receiving only its third, and Music for 18 Musicians its fourth professional performance in Britain.

Musical life rarely gets such a stimulating shot in the arm as the capacity crowd here received, with evident enjoyment of a long evening - and no booing from either faction. What a pity the two composers could not be persuaded to appear together in a pre-concert discussion; instead, Sue Knussen interviewed each separately, and adeptly, before the performances. At least both stayed to hear the other's piece.

Transit (1972-5) triumphantly survives in realisation the complexities that Ferneyhough places in both its performers' and its listeners' paths to present an almost consistently compelling journey, a transitio, from the dreams of humanity - represented by the six amplified voices of the platform layout's innermost semicircle - to the shattering vision of a cosmos indifferent to human feeling. The latter is instigated by the challenges posed by different instrumental groups along the way, despite the extensive intervention of three idiosyncratic woodwind soloists, and ultimately delivered by the brass and gongs of the final moments. One of many surprising and intriguing features of the composition is its textural transparency: Ferneyhough demonstrates a restraint in the deployment of his profligate forces that in itself contributes to the feelings of tension, of frustration, also engendered by such things as the "sonic" approach to his arcane texts. That such ambiguities, even perversities, contribute so movingly to the work's impact is one of Transit's particular strengths. The performance under Martyn Brabbins' cool command seemed excellent.

Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) - here performed for the first time without its composer among the performers - came in at nearly 10 minutes longer than the version given by Ensemble Modern at the Barbican last October. (The recent availability of performing material explains the presence of two performances of such a rarely heard work in the same season). Its mixed ensemble, every bit as deliciously idiosyncratic and imaginatively deployed as Ferneyhough's, and the composition's radical reinvestigation of modal harmony may proclaim it as the product of a composer for whom "re-creating the angst of Pierrot Lunaire in Ohio, or in the back of a Burger King, is simply a joke", yet the transparencies of Music for 18 Musicians are completely the opposite of mindless or consumer-acquiescent: this is powerful music of boundless contrapuntal ingenuity, using rhythmic repetition to search and question as well as to delight.

Supervised and cued by Brabbins, Sunday's four singers and 14 players have understandably yet to attain the relaxed heights of Steve Reich and Musicians. But it's terrific that the London Sinfonietta is now attempting this composer's earlier scores.

`Music for 18 Musicians' is repeated in an all-Reich concert, 8pm tomorrow, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000)

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