The walls of the imposing Drapers’ Hall are hung with full-length portraits of British kings and queens. At the head of them, inevitably, is Queen Victoria, who cast an imposing eye down over this latest event in the City of London Festival, which has its focus this year on music in Australia and New Zealand, the most far-flung corner of her empire.
Not a lot of time, though, is being spent looking back. The main attraction of the festival’s theme is the opportunity to catch up on new work by some of Australia’s living composers and this recital had as its centrepiece a premiere by Brett Dean, who has become the most visible of them in the UK.
His first opera, Bliss, made quite a splash at the Edinburgh Festival last year. Following that, he says he found it difficult to return to writing pure music without a cast and story, but the new sextet hardly shows it. The sound-world Dean has created is entirely personal and never slips from his grasp. Low rumblings on a bass drum and edgy scraping from a violin with a paper clip fixed over one string rouse the music into action and from there it keeps rising in rhythmic energy and falling back again into a pit of primeval noises, each time reinventing itself with new material. It is an evocative work and skilfully crafted.
Around it, the Nash Ensemble had devised a programme of complex connections. One strand focused on folk music. Cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Ian Brown played Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies on English Folk Songs, really more like six meditations. Then they were joined by Marianne Thorsen and Lawrence Power on violin and viola for some Percy Grainger folk arrangements, a shamelessly brash Australian riposte to English coyness.
It is 50 years since Grainger’s death and, with a nod to the anniversary, the programme also featured Delius and Grieg, composers whom Grainger knew. Then, to finish, there was Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E Flat, Op. 87. This is Dvořák at his most unstoppably ebullient and the Nash Ensemble’s performance did its best to sweep away thoughts of the music that had gone before – the most haunting of Dean’s imaginative sounds excepted.