Each January an elite group of young musicians takes over the Purcell Room for a week of showcase recitals. The catch? Their repertoire must be drawn from the 20th and 21st centuries. Now, Strauss was a 20th-century composer, Debussy too. But you're unlikely to hear them in a Park Lane Group programme. For the British composers that make up 20 per cent of the PLG audience and a good 70 per cent of the repertoire, such emphasis on the new, or nearly new, must be thrilling. Still, I wonder whether it is quite as thrilling for the musicians.
Artists who make their living exclusively from contemporary music are rare, and those who do must contend with the suspicion that their mastery of seemingly impossible scores conceals a roughness of sound or lack of poetry. The trick, then, is to choose your repertoire wisely and to hint at what you could do with different music. In the first of Wednesday's recitals, the Barbirolli Quartet did exactly that, playing Elizabeth Maconchy's concise, lyrical String Quartet No 13 (1984) with Joe Cutler's neat, bright Folk Music (2007) – a virtuosic dance with shades of Adams and Bartók – and Berio's sorrowful Notturno (1993).
Equally adept in Maconchy's and Cutler's glowing counterpoint and the bone-white, ash-grey Berio, theirs was a well-crafted, emotionally mature performance.
In the second concert, it was difficult to divine clarinettist Andrew Harper's emotional range. His firm, sweet sound impressed in Brian Elias's overcooked variations Birds Practise Songs in Dreams (2002) and Jonathan Harvey's fey Be(com)ing (1981), while Timothy Salter's itchy Mondrian Pictures (1997) and Brian Ferneyhough's irascible Time and Motion Study I (1977) showed intellectual and technical fearlessness. Cellist James Barralet, by contrast, chose well in Edwin Roxburgh's concentrated, jolie-laide Partita (1970), Kenneth Hesketh's Britten-indebted triptych, Die hängende Figur ist Judas (1998), and Britten's own Suite No 3 (1974). The influence of Barralet's teacher, Thomas Demenga, was evident in his clear sound, fluent bowing, and broad dynamic range. The musical imagination was all his own.
If making a career in chamber music is difficult, establishing oneself as a lieder accompanist is near impossible. Singers are shameless hussies. They drop the pianists they win their first competitions with, chart the recital circuit with established names, then drop those names in turn for concerto soloists. Unless, of course, it's the pianist who is running the show.
Paul Plummer's Wigmore Hall survey of Strauss lieder took as its model Graham Johnson's work with The Songmaker's Almanac. Using six singers in three programmes, he contrasted Strauss's most prized songs ("Allerseelen", "Zueignung", "Morgen") with some of his oddest (the libelous "Lieder aus Krämerspiegel"). Sensitive to the needs of the singers and thoughtfully coloured, Plummer's playing was consistently intelligent. Glance at a Strauss lied and you might write it off as a brittle fancy. But these intense irruptions require as much imaginative engagement as his operas. In the two performances I caught, Rachel Nicholl's handsome, wayward soprano was sumptuous in "Ich liebe dich", Daniel Norman's readings of "Herr Lenz" and "Das Lied des Steinklopfers" were captivating, Rebecca Bottone's "Amor" a Zerbinetta in short trousers. Nathan Vale's light tenor was boyishly attractive but too frail for Strauss, despite the flattering sepia glow of Plummer's accompaniment.
Further reading "Remembering the Future", The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, by Luciano Berio (Harvard University Press)
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