At first encounter, the Purcell Room at London's South Bank Centre is rather stern and forbidding. Then you notice the beautiful wood grain and knots in the concrete, imprinted by the frames into which the liquid rock was poured during construction. Amazing invention, concrete. All you do is add water, and lo, a multi-storey tower-block or a 200-seat auditorium.
Purcell's concert hall is like Purcell's music. People steeped in contemporary culture find the baroque heavy, stultifying, overdone, but there is a fine detail, a lightness and a brilliance of conception which one discovers in this music on closer listening.
First one admires the ground bass lines and the subtle overlapping by which the sensuous melody never cadences with the bass. Next one loves the running counterpoint with each part both independent and co-operative in a consort of three, four or five viols.
This quality is also the attraction of the Park Lane Group concerts, an annual ten-concert festival of contemporary music played by young, keen, professional musicians who have been perfecting their programmes for months. Pianist Benjamin Powell gave an intense account of Stockhausen's Klavierstueck IX last Friday, hammering at the same chord until we could hear every delicious note in its make-up. It was exciting to hear Elliott Carter's Catenaires again. One had last heard it in the opening night of the 2008 Proms, a tribute to the composer in his centenary year. He wrote it at the age of 98 yet it spins round the keyboard with alarming speed. In fact Powell, perhaps over-conscious of the piece's celebrity, took it a little too fast and the subtleties sounded automatic. He finished with Scriabin's Sonata No7 White Mass which is based on a chord later common in jazz blues. Powell glided almost guiltily over its naughty chords like one who has opened a Christmas present early. The Purcell Room became the coolest place in London which is not what you'd expect from its concrete.