Arts: Classical: Ear, brain, intuition and gut

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FIVE SUCCESSIVE generations of Martineaus were mayors of Birmingham: a feat worthy of a place in the Guinness Book of Records, and one that eclipsed even the Chamberlains - Joseph, Austen and the hapless Neville.

As CBSO chairman, Denis Martineau presided over the splendid - and nowadays unfairly forgotten - Louis Fremaux years. Indeed, postwar Birmingham was running 50 children's music days a year when Simon Rattle was still in his nappies - decades before the Arts Council could even spell "Education".

The CBSO's latest two concerts formed a fitting tribute to Martineau, who died last June, and featured one of the most prodigious, intriguing personalities on the current international piano circuit, Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hamelin remains a master of elusive repertoire: Reger and Roslavets rub shoulders with Medtner and Alkan in his discography: who else nowadays plays Joseph Marx?

Hamelin's two Birmingham concerts focused on Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto: aptly enough for someone at home with big-boned Ogdonian repertoire such as Busoni and Sorabji. Hamelin doesn't exactly look like John Ogdon. At 38, his ample frame is contained; comfortable, but not shambling. He has a kind of osmosis with conductors (the one moment where he looked up brought a marked loss of tension). He inhales pace and dynamic by a rich amalgam of ear, brain, intuition and gut. He has a gift for telegraphing: time and again, audiences sense a twinge in the air, heralding an unexpected musical occurrence; when the moment comes, it feels just right.

That, of course, is what Beethoven is all about. Hamelin was fortunate to have an accompanist endowed with particularly fine-tuned antennae, the Swiss-born British-based conductor, Matthias Bamert. Bamert's talents, happily free of a lubricious publicity machine, are legion. The non-mainstream repertoire he dares bring before the public with his London Mozart Players and or with full-size orchestras (on Chandos) ranges from Vanhal and Pleyel to Parry, Frank Martin and Patrick (Paddy) Hadley. He has a Midas touch with it, too.

The chemistry worked here, too. Hamelin was mesmerising: not just in endless tiny pianissimo details, but in the way he yielded up the whole gamut of Beethoven moods - febrile, fickle, fey, inquisitive, insistent, jokey, puzzled, surprised, declamatory.

The CBSO team under Bamert had honed much in rehearsal: microscopic ritenuti; a whisper of inverted cello counterpoint, lightly marcato-ed; the twitchy viola figure heralding the Allegro's recapitulation (with some inspired pizzicato in the three upper strings to follow); or an alluring, infinitesimal pianissimo prised from seven double basses. Bamert's baton work is minute and precise. If his face is sombre, at key moments the eyes twinkle. Not a screaming skull, but an inspired one.

Peter Hill, the CBSO's sympathetic tympanist, ensured every crucial link in the "Emperor" was acutely, sensitively controlled. An opening whiff of rhythmically lax woodwind was atoned for by the solo flute and oboe interchange that followed, plus the triple woodwind playing (including three enchanted oboe solos) in Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, whose final Adagio seemed suitably searing for a city in mourning - before the replay was announced - for Aston Villa's Cup demise earlier in the week. The brass took the cheers, though their sense of dynamic seemed pretty brash to me. It was the strings, and Matthias Bamert, who had earned them.

Marc-Andre Hamelin & Friends, Blackheath Concert Halls, London SE3 (0181- 463 0100) 13 and 14 May 2000. Hamelin's CBSO recording of Busoni's Piano Concerto has just been issued by Hyperion