Psappha review – new music group celebrate with shrieks, ceramics, poetry and piano | Classical music


Thirty years ago percussionist Tim Williams formed a new-music group in Manchester. Williams has remained the artistic director of Psappha ever since, but later this year steps down from his role, so the group’s current tour is both a celebration of its 30th birthday and an extended farewell to its founder.

The list of Psappha’s commissions from both established and fledgling composers over its history is prodigious and, characteristically, the programme it is touring also includes a brand new work. Like a number of Simon Holt’s recent pieces, The Sower, for alto flute, cello, piano and cimbalom, is inspired by the poetry of Antonio Machado, in this case by a text found on a bronze plaque in the Andalusian town of Baeza, where Machado taught French between 1912 and 1919.

Holt’s 20-minute single movement is threaded through with long solo lines for the flute and the cello, to which the other instruments add flurries of commentary or combine with them to create passages of machine-like insistence. The sound of the cimbalom sometimes blends into that of the piano but more often adds its own distinctive twang to the textures. It’s a piece that seems by turns elegiac and hopeful, full of the crisp, vivid instrumental detail that is so typical of Holt’s music.

Williams and the pianist Benjamin Powell also took on The Axe Manual, Harrison Birtwistle’s 2001 workout for piano and a vast array of percussion, in which the two protagonists are either locked in musical combat or into manic toccatas. The technical challenges these confrontations throw up are immense but this was a performance of fabulous assurance. And between these substantial scores were two works that came out of Psappha’s scheme to foster composers at the starts of their careers: Joanna Ward’s Translucent, for a solo cellist (Jennifer Langridge), who has to hum, sing and shriek as well as play her instrument; and Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade’s Three Etudes for Piano and Flowerpots, in which the tuned ceramics produce sounds somewhere between a Javanese gamelan and John Cage’s prepared piano.

At Imperial College London, 10 March. Then touring.

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