Arts: Conduct most becoming

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NOT THE least impressive aspect of the Brunel Ensemble's Elgar festival has been the superb conducting of its artistic director, Christopher Austin. Austin has calmly programmed two of the most complicated recent British orchestral works as a foil to the excesses of the "Duc d'Elgar", as one waspish historian christened him a while back, and he has done them brilliantly and with resounding commitment.

Saturday's second concert, in the Victoria Rooms, took the Elgar-Payne Third Symphony as a pretext for putting in a 25-minute work by Anthony Payne himself, Time's Arrow, a piece so forbidding (and presumably so little to the BBC's taste) that this was only its second performance.

Austin's thumping, uninhibited reading and the fiery playing of his "ensemble" gave fair warning of his Elgar Third, which from the first page had a ferocity quite new to this music, at least in my experience. Even he couldn't make the too-decorative scherzo or the Adagio, with its groping half-formed ideas, fill the yawning space between the brilliant outer movements.

Still, playing of such calibre is the best possible challenge to those who, like me, take theoretical exception to restorative exercises of this kind. After all, if something is beautiful and harms nobody, why not enjoy it.

The previous Saturday, in Clifton Cathedral, Austin had conducted an amazingly assured and convincing performance of Diana Burrell's Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals. Here the big test is orchestral balance and ensemble, in music where the antiphonal spacings and the voicing of individual groups are the most daring and arresting features. All this was wonderfully well-managed, in far from helpful acoustics.

Austin is a coming man Bristol will do well to hold on to.

Stephen Walsh