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Tim Benjamin, Ian Vine, Vivier, Xenakis: Radius, Wigmore Hall 8.1.2008 (CR)

Radius are:

Tim Benjamin : Director
Ian Vine : Artistic Director
Daniel Rowland : Leader/violin
Oliver Coates : Cello
Jennifer George : Jennifer George
Jocelyn Lightfoot: Horn
Charys Green : Clarinet
John Reid : Piano
Adrian Spillett : Percussion

This was an interesting evening, made up of a variety of contemporary works for chamber ensemble. Serving as a 50th birthday celebration for Simon Holt, tonight was the group’s second performance at the Wigmore Hall.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Ian Vine’s X, a percussion solo performed engagingly by Adrian Spillett. The piece opened atmospherically, with its understated quiet pulses ideally suited to the acoustic of the hall. A one movement work in four sections, the piece developed through timbral changes and increasing complexity. This was a hypnotic work, which was performed convincingly by Spillett.

Claude Vivier’s Paramirabo was for me, the low point of the programme. Written for violin, cello, flute and piano, the violin dominated the balance at the beginning of the work, swamping the low register tones of the flute. The opening monodic line betrayed some ensemble problems, with the flute sometimes falling slightly behind. However, this soon settled, revealing some beautifully sensitive cello playing and some excellent technical playing in the flute. The piece involved whistling from most of the players, which was convincingly controlled, well in tune, and added an eerie sonority to the proceedings. It felt to me that the piece went on too long for the musical material within it, although the final section was saved by a superbly played cello cadenza, which regained my attention.

This was followed by the brilliant Three Portraits by Radius’ director and founder, Tim Benjamin.  In homage to Elgar, these three short movements were described by the composer as ‘affectionate portraits of friends’. Unsurprisingly, these pieces were full of character and were refreshingly entertaining.  Scored for violin, cello, horn and piano, Benjamin demonstrated considerable skill in his use of the instruments, balancing the horn carefully with the rest of the ensemble so that it never dominated unless intended to do so. The ensemble played better together here too, with the horn played with much sensitivity by Jocelyn Lightfoot.  There was some wonderful team work between the violin and cello in the calmer central movement, with a decorative piano line performed with careful attention to balance. The final movement opened with an amusingly used quote from The Rite of Spring on the horn, with interrupted lines as all the parts battled for melodic supremacy.  This was an excellent set of pieces and I would have liked more!

The opening of the second half was, for me, worth the cost of a ticket on its own. Cellist Oliver Coates performed Xenakis’ solo work, Kottos. A highly demanding technical challenge, using many contemporary sounds and rhythmic complexity, Coates was always in control and full of charisma. This was a highly communicative performance, full of rich sonorities and musical integrity. Coates is a master of his instrument, who had me transfixed for the duration of the performance. This was virtuosity in the extreme – and he made it seem easy. He is, without a doubt, someone who has a dazzling career ahead of him.

Returning to the theme of Simon Holt’s 50th birthday, the next piece was a set of five newly commissioned short works, by Laurence Crane, Paul Newland, Anthony Gilbert, Larry Goves and Ian Vine, under the collective title Five Birthday Cards for Simon Holt. The chosen composers complemented each other well, and were stylistically similar enough to form a complete work when heard together. Laurence Crane’s Simon 50 Holt 10 alternated a small selection of chords in a spellbinding stasis. This was simple and meditative, and extremely beautiful. Paul Newland’s time quivers featured solo lines passed between the flute and clarinet, with a seamless interchange between the two players. Charys Green’s clarinet tone was warm and rich and a pleasure to hear. This was followed by Anthony Gilbert’s ecco Eco, which used the full ensemble to build up different textural ideas. An offshoot from a larger work, this was well played and perfectly formed, feeling complete within itself.  Riviniana by Larry Goves used a series of dialogues (piano and vibraphone, changing to piccolo and bass clarinet over cello pizzicato) to create diversity within the ensemble. There were some delicate sustained notes in the flute/clarinet/cello group and a well played piano solo at the end. The last of these five miniatures was fifty objects by Radius’ Artistic Director, Ian Vine. This was full of light, and there was again some excellent interplay between the violin and cello. There was a transfixing rhythmic moment on the vibraphone, repeated on the cello at the end, which added a further element to the work. In all, these were five interesting miniatures, which would have worked independently as well as in this grouping.

Morton Feldman’s Durations 1 is an aleatoric work for alto flute, violin, cello and piano, in which each player chooses the durations of their pitches within a fixed tempo. This is a slow and static work, which was mesmerizing from start to finish.

The concert’s finale was the world premiere of Tim Benjamin’s In Memoriam Tape Recorder.  In tribute to a bygone technological age, this celebrated the role of the tape recorder in its heyday, particularly from the viewpoint of the teenager who made mix-tapes for friends, with the quality diminishing with each subsequent recording. As a child of that era myself, I related well to that sentiment! Using the whole ensemble, Benjamin recorded parts of the performance from the front of the stage, which were played back at various times during the work. The combination of recorded and live sounds was enticing, particularly with the low quality of the taped sound in contrast to the technology of the present which we encounter every day. There was a beautifully played clarinet line at the opening, over jazz influenced piano chords, brushed percussion and the cello imitating a string bass. The flute then dominates, in conversation with the strings.  The second section was louder, more violent and one of the few chances to hear the full dynamic range of the ensemble all evening. There were some wonderful sounds created by the clarinet mouthpiece with lots of vibrato, convincingly played by Green. Following an interruption by a loudly blown whistle, a big romantic string and piano melody took over, all played with a sense of humour by the performers.  The tape playback was poignant and nostalgic, ending the work with a quietly mournful sense of finality. This was a well conceived work, with Benjamin once again proving himself as an exciting emerging talent.

On the whole, this was an excellent concert, and there is much to commend about Radius.  There was some first-rate playing, with each of the members of the ensemble demonstrating remarkable individual ability and working well as a group. The repertoire chosen had some fine moments, although I would perhaps have enjoyed a little more variety of style within the works featured. Although still in its infancy as an ensemble, Radius shows much potential and deserves to be supported in its future endeavours.

Carla Rees

The Radius Web Site is Here


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