Chroma play Crumb and Cashian

Although the animal kingdom has always been a prominent source of musical inspiration, the whale is a relative newcomer. Inspired by recordings of humpback whales, George Crumb's 1971 Vox Balaenae, which requires its performers to wear masks, broke muzoological boundaries using an amplified trio of flute, cello and piano. It also calls for a range of techniques novel at the time of its creation, including the simultaneous playing of and singing into the flute in a kind of free imitation of whale song.

On paper it sounds like a deeply suspicious exercise in hippy kitsch, but heard live it rarely fails to bowl one over. This is less due to Crumb's success in depicting the ancient sadness that runs through our encounters with whales than the work's seamless musicality: peel away Crumb's web of symbols and you are left with a beautifully proportioned and beguiling set of variations, and a powerful sense of flow between instruments.

In this respect, Vox Balanae proved an excellent partner to a new trio for piano, violin and cello by Philip Cashian. Entitled Aquila after the swooping eagle found in John Flamsteed's 1729 Atlas Coelestis, its merits do not really derive from any imitation of eagles actual or imagined (perhaps luckily, given that Flamsteed's eagle resembles a grouse). Instead, it thrives ona thrilling combination of precariously balanced mechanical processes, an intuitive chamber dynamic, and occasional fleeting but hard-won moments of rhapsody.

Like much of Cashian's music it makes extreme demands on its players, but the Chroma ensemble were equal to them. Particularly impressive, both in Aquila and the earlier Caprichos, was the way the players skated so lightly on Cashian's many-layered syncopations, allowing the music to exude a tantalising playfulness.

It leaves you feeling exhilarated, if a little clumsy by comparison.

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