Radius, Wigmore Hall, 8 Jan 2008

Following their debut last year, this was Radius‘s second show at this prestigious and traditionally conservative venue. As before, they brought an eclectic collection of works by established modernist masters and younger British composers. Last night we were treated to pieces by Feldman, Xenakis and Vivier, as well as works by Radius’s co-founders Tim Benjamin and Ian Vine, and five short pieces composed in honour of Simon Holt’s 50th birthday. And, as before, what looked like a great programme on paper sounded surprisingly bitty in practice.

Piece by piece I had few complaints, although the Vivier (Paramirabo, 1978) really didn’t click. But then Vivier hasn’t yet done it for me in general, and this piece – of his earlier style, rather rambling, a little gimmicky, and sounding oddly like a lost English modernist – may not have been the best occasion to figure him out. Benjamin’s In memomoriam Tape Recorder didn’t quite work either, unfortunately, but this appeared hamstrung by some on-stage technical difficulties. His Three Portraits (2007, wp) were pithier and came over rather better.

Grouped compositions written for a special occasion are tricky things to review; they’re often an opportunity to hear some things by composers who have previously escaped your attention but, like free sampler CDs, they rarely give you enough to make a proper judgement. Five Birthday Cards for Simon Holt (2007, wp) was, in two instances, an exception to this rule. Larry Goves’s riviniana made more of an impression on me than his My name is Peter Stillman. That is not my real name, which I heard last month (and from which riviniana is derived). And Laurence Crane’s impossibly simple, extremely beautiful music seems perfectly suited to these things; his Simon 10 Holt 50 also best negotiated the formal difficulties of composing with such brevity.

It is a pleasure to hear an ensemble of Radius’s quality testing the Wigmore’s acoustic with some experimental repertoire, and Feldman’s Durations I (1960) was a gift in this respect. Still more successful was Xenakis’s Kottos (1977), given a powerful rendition by cellist Oliver Coates, every detail of the composer’s sonic imagination ringing clear. The other solo piece, Ian Vine’s X (2007, wp) for percussionist I thought was outstanding. I spent the first half without a programme, and could only remember the composer names, not any of the works to be performed, and I intend it as a high compliment when I say that I was pretty sure that this must have been the programmed Xenakis.

Something of an evening for individual rather than collective efforts, then. But at its core, Radius is a gifted and ambitious ensemble, playing music that few others dare touch. Once they iron out the bumps in programming, they should become a force to reckon with. Keep watching this space.

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