Classical Music Buzz > Classical music | The Guardian > Melvyn Tan/Schubert Ensemble – r...

Spitalfields festival, London

Does Huw Watkins have a secret twin? New works spring up like dandelions amid the meadows of Britain's festivals, while his busy performance schedule – not least as the Britten Sinfonia's resident pianist – would put many soloists to shame. In addition to composing an opera this year, he has found time to write an exquisite piano quartet, a slight, single-movement work in which ambiguous harmonies ricochet across the string instruments, creating breathless melodies on the fly. The interaction between piano and strings is also beautifully achieved, the pianist harrying the strings into the busier and more unsettled reaches of the middle section before easing off again.

Commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble (who will perform it again at their 30th-anniversary concert next year), the premiere at Spitalfields festival almost didn't happen after the tailpiece dramatically snapped loose from the base of Simon Blendis's viola during a thrilling performance of Martinu's first piano quartet. A replacement instrument eventually arrived, and though Blendis was somewhat underpowered, the Ensemble fared well in the Watkins and in the second Dvorák quartet, recently recorded using the players' preferred instruments.

If one world premiere adds excitement, the previous evening saw no fewer than 11, as some of the composers who worked with Judith Serota during her many years as Spitalfields' executive director got together to compose responses to Bist du bei mir, famously arranged by JS Bach. Serota's variations are also intended for amateur performance and have some lovely, eminently playable things among them. Highlights from the first performance – given by Melvyn Tan between exquisite performances of two of Bach's English Suites – included Judith Weir's witty For Judith, From Judith, the exquisitely balanced lyricism of Richard Rodney Bennett's Little Elegy, and Tarik O'Regan's elegantly conceived Diomedes, in which the broken strands of the original theme's harmonies dovetail to create cleverly voiced lines and counterpoints.

Rating: 4/5

Guy Dammann
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