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The fragmentary violin line and the sinister piano tread of the opening moved effectively through lyrical piano accompaniment

Posted on 19 October 2010

The fragmentary violin line and the sinister piano tread of the opening, moved effectively through lyrical piano accompaniment and more stridently voiced violin. It was beautifully paced by Irvine Arditti and Noriko Kawai, whose impeccable technique and musical instinct serve this repertoire well.These valiant performers could probably also have done without the jubilee peals from the belfry of Bath Abbey. The changes rang out through Takemitsu’s From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog, but fortunately stopped before Kawai’s account of Dillon’s absorbing third volume of The Book of Elements for piano solo. Its five short movements spoke volumes in their silences, shadows and dynamic subtleties.David Alexander was the intrepid piano soloist in Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cit??ste in partnership with the Royal College of Music’s New Perspectives Ensemble. The young musicians seemed unfazed by the extremes of the score’s instrumental sonorities and its intricate detail, Edwin Roxburgh drawing a particularly well characterised and integrated performance.. Household names among living composers are rare. Writing film scores may help or hinder your reputation (Michael Nyman, Philip Glass), as may extreme political statements (Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen).

But for most composers the attainment of international recognition and respect from a non-specialist listenership is down to intellect, imagination, craftsmanship, patience and a happy collision with the wider cultural zeitgeist Which leaves us, more or less, with one name: John Adams. Until, that is, his Danish near-contemporary Poul Ruders’s opera The Handmaid’s Tale – taken from Margaret Atwood’s polemical novel, nominated for two Grammy Awards, and the most inventive and intelligent modern opera since Adams’s Nixon in China – receives its British premiere at The Coliseum next April, at which point there should, by rights, be two

Household names among living composers are rare. But unlike good restaurants or sympathetic hairdressers, privately cherished Danish composers tend to remain secret. So does it seem rash to predict such success for Ruders? If you were lucky enough to catch The Handmaid’s Tale in Copenhagen in 2000 or you’ve heard the recording (Dacapo 8.224165-66) it probably doesn’t.

Nor, I imagine, will it seem so to the variously dedicated or curious few at this week’s Music of Today concert by members of the Philharmonia and conductor Martyn Brabbins at the Royal Festival Hall; a programme first performed by them in 1991 but entirely new to me.This was a brilliant, fascinating, utterly involving performance, with Brabbins as incisive as ever and the Philharmonia’s ensemble of 20 players bringing near-romantic softness to the quieter passages and dazzling attack to the climaxes. Nightshade – scored for silt-low brass and woodwind, tuned percussion, piano, and keening, rhapsodic violin and oboe solos (Helen Paterson and Jill Crowther) – predates The Handmaid’s Tale by 13 years, Corpus cum Figuris two more. But both works show the expansion of energy, confidence and colour that led Ruders from the tentative character of his early keyboard pieces Three Letters from the Unknown Soldier (1967) and the Dante Sonata (1970) to a multi-layered expressive drama that can fix the attention of opera-phile and -phobe alike. Both works show menace and brooding quite at odds with Ruders’ seemingly easy manner Both show rhythmic flexibility and formal daring.

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