For the second year in a row, the Park Lane Group’s Young Artists series has been as much a composer forum as a showcase for young singers and instrumentalists, setting up a potential conflict of interest. Can a well-established composer, working in harness with relatively inexperienced performers, inspire them enough to overcome the more self-regarding points of the programme he/she has devised?
With Judith Weir and Magnus Lindberg heading this week’s line-up, there is huge potential for creative cross-fertilisation, but Monday’s first instalment, curated by Colin Matthews, revealed as many weaknesses as strengths. The Achilles Heel of the PLG series remains its urge to pack in too much. That was certainly the case here: there were virtually two recitals in one. The solo pianist, Joseph Houston, and the soprano-pianist partnership of Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman acquitted themselves with such distinction that I ended up wishing they had been credited good enough to occupy an evening on their own.
The other flaw in the format is that the composer is mantled with too many bouquets to hand out – to older colleagues to whom he/she feels an affinity, to younger colleagues deserving encouragement, and of course to him/herself.
It was hard to know what purpose was served by the inclusion of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No 6 or Matthews’ trifling Berceuse for Elliott. And two similarly brief piano pieces by Charlotte Bray, including the appositely titled All at Sea, seemed an unfair way to profile this promising composer. The fact that Houston made musical sense of them – and handled with aplomb the contrasting demands of more substantial pieces by Matthews and Michael Zev Gordon – spoke well of his versatility and flair.
But the evening belonged to Alder and Matthewman. Alder showed an uncanny ability to get beneath the skin of the musical poetry – whether in the winsome “Love songs in age” from Huw Watkins’ Five Larkin Songs, the wit of Lord Berners’ Three English Songs or the French-language languor of Matthews’ delightfully retro Baudelaire settings. She even found something soulful and wondrous in Oliver Knussen’s Whitman Settings. Alder is a radiant performer and a composer’s godsend.