Review: York Late Music, Fairfax Ensemble & Atéa Wind Quintet; St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York, April 7

INDIGESTION can understandably set in at the prospect of pieces by a baker’s dozen of living composers, more than half of them world premieres with the ink barely dry on the page. But such worries proved unfounded during last Saturday’s two events: Late Music’s organisers run a tight kitchen and only tasty morsels found their way on to the listener’s plate.

The three York stalwarts of the Fairfax Ensemble – Amanda Crawley (soprano), Edwina Smith (flutes) and Josephine Peach (piano) – galloped through no less than nine works in hardly more than an hour. Nothing to do with their tempos, however, merely a whirlwind tour of Late Music since the early 1980s.

There was plenty of fun here, not least in Tim Brooks’s new Pixel, hundreds of piccolo and piano dots combining in a minimalist picture. Nick Williams was similarly witty in his six brief songs for would-be pirate-girls. Michael Parkin teased Iberian tints from his variations on a Galician theme for baroque flute, Where the Waves Rise. There was throwaway humour, too, in three of Steve Crowther’s Morris Dances (2010) for piano alone and Roger March’s skittering Yarn.

Emily Rowan’s Pankhurst tirade, Awake, Women, Awake!, boasted word-clarity; Natalie King’s moody tonalities reflected Auden. Song-cycles by David Power and David Lancaster completed this heady mix.

The Atéas played standing up, bringing sparky devilry to their potion of Antiques, Curios and Grotesques. Again, humour was rarely far from the surface. Gary Carpenter’s brilliantly chameleon dance-suite Antiques & Curios (1997) – sarabande and hoochy-coochy rubbing shoulders, for example – proved no obstacle to this talented group; they were equally versatile in David Lancaster’s intriguing Grotesques (Book 2), inspired by York Minster carvings.

Angela Elizabeth Slater’s busy new Sun Catcher shimmered, shifted and shone with growing intensity, in six fetching minutes. Not all the big hitters came off as well as this. Birtwistle’s Five Distances (1992) sounded stilted, although beautifully delivered, and the humour of Berio’s animal music-theatre, Opus Number Zoo, owed more to the variety of headdresses than to the score. Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles (1953), however, came up fresh and gleaming, the Atéas revelling in their variety.

The meatiest music of the day, celebrating its composer’s 90th birthday next month, was Thea Musgrave’s Wind Quintet of 1992. Here the clear part-writing played to the Atéa’s strengths, so that the individual voices drew maximum drama from the narrative flow. I can’t remember when I have enjoyed a day of new music more.

Martin Dreyer