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A fight of titans

Messiaen and others give London's new concert venue an auspicious launch

<strong>Opening Festival<

Large numbers visited Kings Place, London's beautiful new concert venue, during its opening week. They ambled about in the bars and restaurant, lounged in the armchairs by the ticket desk, snacked at the 60ft-long refectory table, took the air beside Regent's Canal and rode the escalators to the basement, where they could enter either of the lofty concert halls. One hundred performances were put on in the first five days, beginning daily at 9.30am. None of these lasted more than 45 minutes or cost more than £2.50 if booked online. As the mini-festival progressed, the venue assumed an increasingly relaxed, familiar and informal atmosphere.

Both halls are chamber music venues. The interior of Hall One uses an impressive amount of wood. The walls, columns, chair backs, ceiling and doors are lined with an oak veneer sliced from a single 500-year-old oak tree nearing the end of its life in Germany, whose foresters, having assured themselves that it was to be used in just one project, felled it, cut it into five-metre lengths and immersed it in water simmering at 80°C for a week. It was an acorn when Tallis was alive. Its ancient grain yields a delicate, clean acoustic with absolute clarity in all parts of the 420-seat hall.

It is particularly kind to song recitalists, as the baritone Roderick Williams showed once he had discovered how easy a space it is to speak in - performers had to say what they were about, as there were no programmes. He had rather oversung the Schumann Lied which began his "Viva España" mini-recital, swallowing vowels and distorting his diction, so concerned was he to project and put the song across. His speech served as echo-location, so that he loosened up and, with the pianist Iain Burnside, floated through Shostakovich's Spanish Songs, Op 100 with the intimate charm and wit of a song recital at its best.

Hall Two is smaller, and has movable seats and no stage. Its wood panelling has no special provenance. The Duke String Quartet gave an unnecessarily amplified rendition of Steve Reich's Different Trains, and their poignant train-whistle chords and melodic imitations of the intonations of speech emerged too loudly from the same speaker as the voices reminiscing about the destruction of families by divorce or fascism. Performed live, this work has the potential to contrast acoustic with recorded sound, as was Reich's intention, so it was disappointing that the Dukes turned down this opportunity in favour of the crude thrill of amplified volume. It seems, when amplification is available, the temptation to turn the knobs up proves irresistible.

The violinist Peter Cropper, former leader of the Lindsay String Quartet, now a mature soloist of increasing prominence, had the measure of Hall One, standing on the edge of the stage and addressing the audience with the ease of an affable college tutor discoursing on a favourite theme. With the pianist Martin Roscoe, he played individual movements from 20th-century sonatas including the Adagio con moto from Janácek's Sonata, in which Cropper's barely touched pizzicato pinged resonantly off the walls to the surprise even of himself, and the finale of Prokofiev's Sonata No 1, which the fiddler called "a fight of titans" as he fired his opening phrase at the pianist already braced for his response.

London Sinfonietta, the nation's leading contemporary orchestra, has taken administrative residence in the offices at Kings Place (as have the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and, soon, the Guardian and Observer newspapers) and, at the festival's halfway point, despatched four players to perform Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia and premiered before transfixed guards and inmates in the depth of winter on a piano with sticky keys and a three-stringed cello. The pianist John Constable's hands bounced the gentle pulse of the opening, while Clio Gould's violin chirruped plaintive stutterings with the tone of a kiss. The clarinettist Mark van de Wiel, tensing his face, conjured the thinnest, purest notes from nothing in his long birdsong solo, "Abîme des Oiseaux". Tim Gill's cello sang like a hearty tenor in front of a shaving mirror. The quartet is a masterpiece created in the most dismal surroundings. And that, in King's Cross, with its history of sleaze and prostitution, is exactly what Kings Place is. This was an auspicious opening.

Pick of the week

Aviv String Quartet
12 October, Wigmore, London W1
Stunning young Israeli group.

The Hallé
15, 16, 19 October, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
UK's oldest orchestra plays Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mozart.

Messiaen: La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ
16 October, Festival Hall, London SE1
Kent Nagano conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks