An evening of Mutter magic

CLASSICAL Do Not Disturb Barbican Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
When Piers Hellawell showed us "Ways through Bracken" on Wednesday night at the Barbican, we could virtually feel peat underfoot, sense clouds scatter on the heels of a breeze. It was the first section of Do Not Disturb, an LSO commission where Thomas A Clark's haiku-like poetry was tossed in youthful antiphony between sections of the Finchley Children's Music Group. Sir Colin Davis conducted and the performance certainly conveyed feelings of "mountain landscape" and "the privacy of solitude" (I quote the composer's own notes). Hellawell's spacious orchestral canvas conjures illusions of depth and height, with the excitable pecking of wood-blocks, an off-stage trumpet, strings veering off in all directions and a pulsing harmonic pungency redolent of Martinu, Britten, even Steve Reich. Orchestral textures shimmer with startling surreality (Berg's ghost hovers somewhere among the opening measures) and the overall effect is of a rugged wonderland tailor-made for the jaded victims of city life. I loved it.

Do Not Disturb was preceded by a yawningly legato account of the National Anthem (just one verse), given in honour of the Royal guest, His Royal Highness Prince Andrew. Thereafter, once released from Hellawell's action- packed private world, Davis and the orchestra were joined by a chic Anne- Sophie Mutter for a luxuriant saunter through Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

Davis set the scene with a genial, pliantly phrased opening tutti (the rising woodwind motive was subtly accelerated) before Mutter took over with a sugar-coated tone, immaculate trills, well-oiled slides and a seamless delivery of the solo line. She played as she looked, regally, glamorously and with an almost intimidating sophistication. Davis provided a velvety backdrop, but when it came to Fritz Kreisler's inspirational cadenza, Mutter cast off her glad rags (metaphorically, of course) to embark on one of the most daring and original re-creations I've ever heard.

That miraculous passage where the first movement's two principal themes converge - each taking its turn to dominate - was vividly differentiated, and when the cadenza drew to a close and the "main tune" sat waiting in the wings, Mutter coaxed a dark, trance-like tone for its return. She achieved parallel wonders in the Larghetto, veiling her sound perceptibly for the song-like central section, then welling with emotion for the return of the first idea. The finale was refreshingly brisk, the second cadenza full of fun and the overall effect, a humbling journey from lofty aloofness to compelling spontaneity.

The concert concluded with a broadly stated account of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. Davis launched into the opening motive without fuss or exaggeration, but come the first big string tune (about a minute and a half in and marked merely forte), and he indulged the sort of lavish rubato that characterised the rest of the performance. The Andante featured some lustrous string- playing, the heavyweight Scherzo impressive horns and the finale, a comprehensive grasp of musical structure; but, for me, Davis's lingering and languishing spilled into overkill. It was a heartfelt production, no doubt about that, but too well-padded for a symphony that ends in catastrophe.

'Do Not Disturb' repeated 21, 22 May. Booking: 0171-638 8891

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