January 10, 2012 5:25 pm

Park Lane Group, Purcell Room, London

Piano master class by Thomas Adès serves as prelude to a programme of contemporary music by Edwin Roxburgh, Gerald Barry and others

The start of a new year means it must be the Park Lane Group. The timing of this annual showcase is cannily timed to get maximum exposure for its young musicians and their programmes of contemporary music while rival attractions have not yet shrugged off the seasonal torpor.

This year the format has been tweaked a little. Each of the five days now has its own composer-in-residence with an early evening event as an introduction before the main concert. On Monday, the composer was Thomas Adès, who started out by giving a master class for two (brave) young pianists tackling his technically challenging piano music.

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Many years ago the Purcell Room was the venue where Elisabeth Schwarzkopf left singing students battered and bruised after her legendary master classes. Not so here: Adès simply allowed each to play his piece – Alex Wilson agile but rather withdrawn in the hair-raising Traced Overhead, James Sherlock more decisive in the Chopin-tinted Three Mazurkas – and then sat at the piano to suggest other, usually more vivid options. “I’ve hardly ever heard anybody play this since the first performance,” the composer remarked wistfully after Traced Overheard. A shame, as both pieces offer highly imaginative piano-writing.

The main concert alternated between two performing groups. Rosanna Ter-Berg and Leo Nicholson made a first-rate flute and piano duo, who shone in everything they touched, from sultry Jolivet to neo-romantic David Matthews. The highlight of their contributions was Edwin Roxburgh’s Flute Music with an Accompaniment for Flute and Piano (1986), where the skilfully crafted give-and-take of the parts was rewarded with some razor-sharp playing. Ter-Berg also added a solo piccolo encore in Patrick Nunn’s Sprite – short, witty, inventive.

The Muse Piano Quintet found themselves with two harder nuts to crack. Gerald Barry’s Piano Quartet No.1 only lasts 12 minutes, but any more would leave most performers dead in their seats, so exhausting is its attacking energy. Adès’s own Piano Quintet gives a similar work-out to the brain, but there is much more to fascinate here, like catching glimpses of a classical chamber work down a hall of mirrors, where the perspectives are ever changing. Though short on colour, the Muse players kept intellect and ears always alert.

3 stars

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