Of the two major composers to have had anniversaries in 2012, maybe it’s ironic that it has been the 150-year-old Claude Debussy, rather than the 100-year-old John Cage, who has largely been celebrated with silence. But despite a fairly mild year of Debussy festivities (in London at least), Kings Place was host to a significant commemorative event on Monday night, with an evening of new works “Inspired by Debussy”, performed by the Mercury Quartet and guests.

The Mercury Quartet
The Mercury Quartet

Four composers from four different countries – Poland, Cyprus, Estonia and France – had new works performed, mostly drawing some sort of link with Debussy. The connections were generally quite hard to pin down, to my ears at least, but this is arguably quite appropriate when dealing with a composer as keen on ambiguity and vagueness as Debussy was.

Debussy himself featured in two pieces, one opening each half of the concert. First off was his song Flots, palmes, sables (1882) for soprano, piano and harp – a noticeably early composition, still somewhat shadowed by Wagner but with a clear “Debussian” feel to it all the same. Patricia Rozario gave an impassioned, old-school performance, especially impressive given the mere 48 hours she had had to prepare for this concert. The Cello Sonata (1915), performed later, offered an opportunity to hear a piece from the other end of Debussy’s career, and the Mercury Quartet’s Colin Alexander (cello) and Antoine Françoise (piano) gave it a spirited performance, with Alexander shining most brightly in the second movement, with its playful pizzicato effects.

Inspiration is a difficult concept to define, and it seems that these four composers took inspiration from Debussy in very different ways. Dobromila Jaskot’s Aeshna was a single gesture of a piece, beginning with a wash of Debussian harmonic colour in the piano part which then filtered softly through to the violin, clarinet and cello. These three parts all had a coarse edge to them, with a variety of extended playing techniques such as breathing air unvoiced through the clarinet. I enjoyed the force of the piece but found its sonic palette disconcerting, and it seemed a strange tribute to a composer so concerned with finding pleasure in sound. Malle Maltis’ Nocturne for flute, harp and voice went in perhaps the opposite direction as far as Debussy inspiration was concerned, with a rich, lush, tonal focus throughout which reminded me of some of Björk’s early songs.

Debussy compatriot Thomas Oehler’s Cirrus, a piece for sextet, was the Debussy-inspired work I found most convincing. It adopted a discernibly Debussian turn of phrase, but gave a pensive, open impression, very carefully scored for its ensemble with an exquisite sense of instrumental colour. It seemed to end on a question mark, which left me wanting to hear more.

Metioron by Evis Sammoutis was written, rather than for the Debussy anniversary, to celebrate 50 years of the independence of Cyprus. While I was unable to spot any particular musical link to this event, the piece was an enjoyable, virtuosic voyage through swooshings, tappings and sweepings as well as notes, and it made for a compelling addition to the programme despite its lack of tangible influence from Debussy.

As enjoyable as the music itself, perhaps, was its context: it’s fantastic to see new commissions receiving the support they deserve. This pan-European concert was presented in association with both the European Commission’s London office EUNIC and the embassies of the four composers’ countries, and more of the same in the future would be great to see and hear.