Park Lane Group New Year Series, Purcell Room, London – review

Following the format of the past two years, the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series is spotlighting five contemporary composers this week, beginning with George Benjamin. The programme he curated on Monday made sense on two levels. First, it made a more compact package than some of the others on offer in the series, comprising six works in total, with only one composed by Benjamin himself. Second, it played to the strengths of the young performers on the platform: the Jubilee Quartet and the pianist Leanne Cody.

The last item in the concert, however, was a surprising choice. This was Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat, Op 44, which, after a menu of entirely new and recent works, went down like sushi in an Italian restaurant: refreshing, but out of place. Nevertheless, it highlighted the players’ sense of refinement, a recurring feature in this programme.

There was oodles of it in Edward Nesbit’s impressionistic Night Dances for String Quartet, a UK premiere and a delicately perfumed work that superimposes four dances on to one another before fading, ever so gracefully, from the memory. And the world premiere, Blai Soler’s fragmentary Imaginings – Six Pieces for String Quartet, relied on the musicians’ considerable versatility. Sudden changes of mood and direction constitute some of this work’s main challenges. The Jubilee Quartet handled them deftly, but seemed reluctant really to get stuck in.

The highlight, however, was the performance from Cody, who first proved herself in Benjamin’s six tautly structured, colourful preludes, Shadowlines for Solo Piano, dedicated to the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Cody hammered, caressed, poked and coaxed the keys to achieve the exact shade she was after, before going on to dispatch Ligeti’s ferociously virtuosic Etude No 10, Der Zauberlehrling, as if it were child’s play. Best of all was her handling of Joe Cutler’s On the Edge, a solo piece that sounds like Messiaen’s Turangalîla might have done had it been written by an American jazz pianist. In Cody’s hands this quirky cocktail of haunting bell-like sonorities, thumping jazz and even some elements of birdsong sounded mesmerising.

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