The Holywell Music Room, which boasts a rich cultural history that pre-dates even Haydn’s famous visit to Oxford in the late eighteenth century, hosted a very impressive performance on Wednesday from recently formed professional new music group Radius (www.radiusmusic.org). The ensemble — brain-child of composer Tim Benjamin, of Christ Church — aims to perform canonical twentieth century works as well as those by living composers and benefits from a maintaining a close working relationship between the composers and internationally acclaimed performers that form the full-time line-up. But how does the modern audience, which for the most part is better acquainted with works written at the time of the Holywell’s creation, react to a concert of music which “does not sound like Haydn”, as Louis Andriessen describes his featured work Tuin van Eros?
We were immediately drawn into the performance by the exposed and sparse musical texture that begins Ian Vines underpaintings, as the composer depicts the dauntingly bare canvass of an early stage in the sketching of a painting. Such textures, as were also found in John Cages Five, among other of works presented, were delivered fluently and were never allowed to lose their mesmerising quality, or to stagnate. The programme, which was well structured and varied, saw these delicate moments juxtaposed with some explosively extrovert performances. Daniel Rowland’s rendition of Berios Sequenza VIII for solo violin stood out as notably impressive as did Berenika’s reliably dramatic performance of Benjamin’s Prelude, for solo piano, of which she was the original commissioner.
The finale to this nigh-infallibly performed programme was Benjamin’s Five Bagatelles which, along with underpaintings, enjoyed its world premire only five days earlier at London’ celebrated Wigmore Hall, at which Radius performed the same programme for their debut concert. Benjamin weaves engagingly pithy poly-stylistic textures whose surface disruptions work in a very different way to the inharmonious discussions near the beginning of the Prelude. Juggling these multiple styles and short formal units, Benjamin does not allow even the openly comic incongruity of the hymn tune in the fourth movement to disturb the continuity of the work. Movements four and five have the feel of a double epilogue after the climax in the third, and play on the expectation of having a climax at the end of the piece (and concert). Perhaps this indicates that Benjamin does not feel that the bagatelle need always be a resoundingly light-hearted affair; perhaps there is a deeper analogy to be found?
Those who attended both nights of Radius mini-tour felt as though Wednesday’s performance matched the grandeur of the Wigmore Hall concert, Anthony Gilbert describing the performance of his Moonfaring here as “very imaginative” and among the best he had ever heard. He had particularly high praise for the undeniably impressive sound that cellist Oliver Coates conjures.
Among the audience there was a relatively large number of established composers, performers, and students of new music and I could not help but wonder about the extent to which contemporary “classical” music is restricted to “preaching to the converted”. I hope that engagingly dramatic performances such as Radius offer will challenge the all-too-prevalent general attitude towards this repertoire as merely character-building rather than genuinely exciting. Look out for Radius at their next concert, at London’s Royal Festival Hall in September.