Voices of Women and Whales

Avant-garde instrumental techniques conjure up oceanic soundscapes for RUTH MARINER

ades anthony friend chris roberts george crumb granchester quartet joe bates Kettle's Yard lliam paterson lucy cronin NEW MUSIC New Music Group NMG rhiannon Randle stephen craigen String quartet

Kettles Yard, Wednesday 29th February, 8pm, £7/£4


Cambridge’s New Music Group joined forces with the newly formed Granchester Quartet to deliver Lent Term’s portion of eclectic contemporary composition.

Seated in Cambridge’s only setting for the avant-garde – Kettles Yard – the Granchester quartet kicked off the evening a selection of movements from Adès’s Arcadiana. After a rather timid start, the first movement gradually began to materialise out of the musical material; drunk, slurring phrases swinging back and forth and into one another. The following movements were definitely the strongest and quite enjoyable: exciting, electric wispy harmonics flew of the strings through the second movement; bouncy, pizzicato bass lines and wonderfully macabre melodies, careered through the fourth movement like malformed, parodistic tango.

The other movements, however, were not very impressive. The timbre of the instruments was frustratingly scrappy, there was little drama or emotion, and the whole thing lacked a sense of cohesion. The performance was a little too lackluster to be believable as experimental or avant-garde. This wasn’t surprising when we consider and sheer technical demand of the piece. The amount of coordination needed to execute the complex overlapping rhythms would be difficult for any quartet to perform, let alone one a group recently formed by students. Unfortunately, the performers had bitten off a little more than they could chew.

Adès’s Life Story made an enjoyable and entertaining headline item: the voice of a woman. The piece was jovial, but with dark undertones that carried a hint of truth. Lucy Cronin made a perfect sexy soprano, keeping vocal poise whilst letting the occasional breathy sound colour the melodies with evening-allure. Stephen Craigen was a dynamic conductor, almost violent in his timekeeping; Josh Borin and Anthony Friend’s bass-clarinet sleaze was complimented by Chris Robert’s disjunct double bass chords.

The concert also showcased the world premiere of a String Quartet by Rhiannon Randle by the Granchester Quartet. The opening melodies rang through warm and rich on the cello, under a light layer of quiet high pitches from the violins. Generally, the playing was more relaxed and expressive than we saw in the Adès. The ensemble benefitted from the clearer, more varied mood sequence of the quartet – there were plenty of dynamic contrasts, tensions and climaxes that the players could really get their teeth into to shape the performance.

However, the real gem of the evening, was George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale). Played wearing masks to distance the performers and veil their humanity, the piece uses a full toolkit of extended techniques to create the impression of an oceanic soundscape. Rosie Bowker’s flute opening was particularly animated; each of her flutterings, tappings and purrings were bursting with life. Pianist Lliam Patterson violently broke the initial flute textures with a magnificent set of full chords. Then, by using the  technique of strumming the lower strings inside the lid of the grand piano, he sent a low mass of pitches rumbling around the with a colossal amount of reverb, like shock waves after an earthquake. This, combined with the wild swooping ‘whale cry’ harmonics from the cello (Joe Davies) created a unbelievably realistic and evocative sound imagery. The depth and breadth of the ocean was made entirely vivid, shifting slowly through different textures and watery scenes.

All in all, it was an engaging evening of diverse and interesting works. However, it was unfortunate that the overambitious opening number dulled an excellent rendition of Adès’s Life Story and a five star performance of The Voice of the Whale.