Classical ENP Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture
Operatic extracts - pejoratively known as "bleeding chunks" - used to be a regular feature of our concert programmes. The practice all but died out decades ago, possibly because critics just as regularly grumbled about it. But the three short chunks from three very big operas included by Paul Daniel and the English Northern Philharmonia in their Barbican debut last week were a treat, partly because they allowed us to hear the bass John Tomlinson on fine form, and partly because this is home ground to the ENP - they are, after all, the house orchestra of the excellent Opera North.

Great bass roles tend to be gloomy and introspective, and Verdi's Philip II, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Wagner's Wotan are no exceptions. All three scenes concentrated on an idea we don't hear so much about these days: the burden of power, the anguished human side of the omnipotent ruler. Today, it seems, there is just one theme: the intoxication and corruption of power - not too surprising, perhaps, in the century of Hitler and Stalin. But Tomlinson showed that there's still life in the old idea. Boris's great monologue, "I have attained supreme power", showed a man caught between ambition and guilt, but with guilt apparently gaining the upper hand. In the opening scene from Act 4 of Don Carlos, Tomlinson gave us a truly compassionate Philip II, full of pity for his young wife: "I can still see her, gazing, sad-faced, at my white hair the day she came from France." Wotan's farewell to his favourite daughter Brunnhilde from Die Walkure was full of tenderness and sad dignity.

Dramatic penetration plus an outstanding voice and intelligent musicianship - it's the ideal combination, nowhere near as common in the opera house as it should be. And how many singers could move effortlessly from Russian to Italian to German, allowing us to hear every word? Daniel and the ENP can take some of the credit: their pacing was just right, and the voice-orchestra balance well calculated, even in the unfamiliar setting of the Barbican stage. But ultimately this part of the evening belonged to Tomlinson. I'm not sure I want such operatic samplers to become commonplace again, but with a singer of his calibre, we might make exceptions.

The programme had begun with 23-year-old Andrew Sallis's Dancing for Cormorants, inspired by a television documentary about a Chinese peasant who induces cormorants to fish for him by dancing. It was an attractive piece, imaginative but restrained, but it stopped just at the point when I felt it was getting really interesting - quietly chugging string chords which, for a moment, seemed to be preparing for a sustained melodic flight. Or perhaps this is another case of the critic's expectations getting in the way.

Finally came Mahler's First Symphony - a performance that showed more evidence of thought, and less of conductor's egoism, than many I've heard. But wasn't there just a hint of, oh dear, "worthiness" about it? I can't help wishing they'd tried something less obvious, not so dangerously over- exposed. The romantic literature is full of symphonies that sell well on record but, for various unmusical reasons, rarely reach the concert hall - what about Walton's Second, which Daniel and the ENP recently recorded, very impressively? As a showcase for the orchestra, though, the evening more than served its purpose.