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REVIEW: A Celebration of British Composers

Reuben Tendler reviews the recent concert by Ensemble ISIS and St Anne’s Camerata, conducted by Dr John Traill (8/11/19)

Hidden away from the chilling drizzle of Oxford’s seemingly ever-pluvial bustle, four of the greatest contemporary British musical minds met in the Holywell Music Room. This historic occasion was no secret – though the dearth of audience-members may have created that illusion – yet the lucky few who did take a pew at once felt as if they had entered a new music ‘hall of fame’.

The enthusiastic St Anne’s Camerata, directed by the boldly clear and unfailingly expressive Dr John Traill, began the concert with Emily Howard’s Passacaglia. Awe, however, was most definitely reserved for what followed – the world premiere of Guy Newbury’s Intermezzo. Its echoes of Elgar, noted by the amiable giant of composition, Robert Saxton, in the first of his informative interviews with the composers, were twisted into harmonic perpendicularity right through to the final plucky bass pizzicati. Patrons were then treated to an outstanding rendition of Howard’s Sky and Water by the brilliant Yundi Li, who played with unparalleled maturity and vigour. The rest of the evening was devoted to the marvellous manifestations and musical mutations of Kenneth Hesketh’s mind. Forms entangled, shapes collided couldn’t have been given a better title. Underlying the wailing bass clarinet, the splurging preciosity of the alto flute’s flutters, and the excited slapping of strings was a sonic and theatrical display of pure percussive athleticism. Finally, Threats and Declamations was noticeably fiendish but aesthetically completed by virtuosic piano-playing. In the end, the nocturnal convoking of Traill, Howard, Newbury, Hesketh and Saxton will either go down in British musical history as a seminal culmination of cultural icons, or be remembered fondly by the few who turned up (and stayed until the end) as a privilege of a lifetime.

Players of the night: Yundi Li – Solo Piano; Max Rodney – Percussion

Photo: Holywell Music Room, Tippett Quartet, THURSTAN REDDING

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