Watkins/Wood/Martlew/Spencer, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

From lamentation to rage

Paul Conway
Tuesday 14 January 2014 05:11

Four specially commissioned world premieres formed the heart of a programme celebrating the 65th birthday of the music-loving Scottish economist and Nobel laureate, Professor Sir James Mirrlees. The cellist Zoe Martlew, the clarinettist Katherine Spencer, the pianist Huw Watkins, and the violinist Alexandra Wood gathered in the Fitzwilliam to give the first performances in front of Sir James's friends and colleagues.

John Woolrich's A Presence of Departed Acts concerned acts of remembrance. The initial 11 resounding piano chords are recalled throughout the work, sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in anger. The result is an emotionally rewarding piece encompassing the gamut of grieving, from the tranquillity of private lamentation to raw uncomprehending rage.

Edward McGuire seized upon the celebratory aspect of the occasion with his tuneful Entangled Fortunes. The clearly delineated sections included an episode of weaving textures, taking its cue from the work's title, and a spirited reel. The pleasure of hearing this Scottish exultation tended to eclipse niceties such as crescendos representing Sir James's pioneering study of accumulation.

If Woolrich's new work entailed looking back, Economies of Scale by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, scored for the same forces, was goal-oriented. Closely argued and organically developed, it was based on a scale from the composer's first string quartet, and resolved – to cathartic effect – in the B major tonality it had always been striving towards. Delighting, as ever, in challenging and questioning, perhaps this was a foretaste of the structural precision of his forthcoming string quartets.

Huw Watkins took centre stage for ...symmetry disorders reach, a series of six exquisite piano pieces by Alexander Goehr that communicated his love of Bach as surely as his "musical offerings". Conceived as a possible first instalment of a collection exploring diverse musical ideas, their cool beauty is the equivalent of ice sculptures next to the pyrotechnics of James Dillon's and Michael Finnissy's piano writing.

The players brought a freshness and musical intelligence to a satisfying programme. Every world premiere rose above the level of a mere pièce d'occasion, enriching the repertoire and demonstrating how much can be expressed with limited forces for a brief duration – an economic miracle that the recipient of these gifts surely appreciated.

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