CLASSICAL MUSIC / An old battleship rescued from a watery grave

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The Independent Culture
SOME BLISTER on the dark side of my soul always smarts at the prospect of stylish, sleek performances of Gilbert and Sullivan: partly because the genre seems unsympathetic to a high degree of cultivation, but largely (and Savoyards everywhere will stone me for saying this) because the music isn't worth the effort. So I was particularly put out by the London Philharmonic's HMS Pinafore at the Royal Festival Hall, which was far better than this dreary old pot-boiler deserved. I'm not sure why the LPO was doing Pinafore; still less, why it was being conducted by - of all people - Roger Norrington. Unless he was reliving the carefree, period-consciousless days of his early career with Kent Opera when, I believe, G & S featured prominently in his repertoire?

I can only report that he obviously enjoyed it, dancing nattily about the platform as he cued the numbers, while the orchestra laughed along with the jokes (they also supplied a few of their own - in G & S the jokes are in the score as well as on the stage). Sullivan's surreal marriage of silly lines to a deadpan Victorian pastiche of Handelian recitative is one of his more inspired creations; and the LPO delivered it all with a meticulous and crisp response to detail that was worthy of the real thing. They might have been in the pit at Glyndebourne. They certainly had a distinguished cast for company, with leading British singers such as Benjamin Luxon, Sarah Walker and David Wilson-Johnson in the main roles. It was all so elegantly put together that I feel churlish to complain.

However . . . Pinafore is, even by Savoyard standards, weak. It's a confection of deathless tunes that don't collectively amount to much, and merely support Vaughan Williams's observation that Sullivan was a jewel in the wrong setting. The salvation of Pinafore is its main characters, who need to register with cartoon-like boldness to be effective. And here they were cramped: physically, by the limited performing space they had behind the orchestra (the LPO should have learnt from last year's dodgy Glyndebourne-in-London season that it's bad news to do a concert opera this way); and artistically, by the sheer refinement of the enterprise.

Raymond Leppard's Schumann and Friends series at the Barbican wrapped up this week with some more refined performances from the English Chamber Orchestra. They included Schumann's 3rd Symphony, the 'Rhenish', which by coincidence I also heard in Zurich on Tuesday. Here it was played by the venerable Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman, the American conductor who made it big last year with Gorecki's 3rd on disc. They made an interesting comparison. Leppard's Schumann was clean, buoyant and airy, but with short breaths that clipped short the ends of phrases. Zinman's was more indulgent, more conventionally romantic: thicker and darker, it was geared to the glorious resonance of the Tonhalle.

But there was a more telling comparison between the orchestras themselves. The ECO is a better band, with instrumentalists of infinitely higher calibre. But here I felt them playing by their wits, without an obvious absorption in the life of the music - I wondered how much rehearsal time they had allowed themselves. The Tonhalle couldn't match the ECO's finesse and discipline; but it produced a Schumann 3 that sounded loved, with an intensity that was exhilarating. To my ears, it was the preferred account.

Similar considerations arose with the New Queens Hall Orchestra at the Barbican. The NQHO is a sort of late- start early music band set up to play turn-of-the-century music on turn-of- the-century instruments. I've said before on this page that I don't think its work lives up to the extravagant claims of its publicity. For all the NQHO would have you believe, there isn't that much difference between orchestral instruments of 1900 and those of 1994, beyond the fact that century-old brass and woodwind tend to be in poor condition and belong in jumble sales. Not for nothing do hard-core period wind executants - followers of Pinnock, Gardiner, Norrington et al - play on reproductions rather than originals.

But that said, the orchestra stood its ground this week and delivered an all-Elgar programme of such glowing radiance that I suppose I'll have to reconsider my resistance to the NQHO rationale. It was conducted by James Judd, an undervalued British conductor who no longer works here very much, but who runs Florida's regional orchestra and opera company. Judd is - in an unassuming, unfussed and decidedly unpompous way - a marvellous Elgarian. His beat is clear but yielding; his speeds are well-judged; and he lets the phrases sing with a cantabile that (I'm eating my own words here) the gut strings of the NQHO cosset in a glorious halo of warmth. The NQHO sound is broad and blousy, not cleanly articulated or precisely on the note. But, like the Tonhalle's Schumann, these readings of Elgar's 2nd Symphony, the overture Alassio, and the Cello Concerto (with Robert Cohen as a more poignant than fervent soloist) were rich and loved and played as though they mattered. What more can you ask?

The London Sinfonietta's Barbican programme on Friday was re-arranged to accommodate a tribute to Witold Lutoslawski, whose death last week deprived contemporary music of one of its most revered figures: a composer whose mix of humanity and charm with a fastidious technical finesse is all too rare. Squeezing his classic Chain 1 into a concert otherwise devoted to emergent writers in their twenties and thirties made the point.

But the Sinfonietta's quality control is good; and there were some striking pieces here - especially from Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentine, whose Ballad of the Drowned Solitude had a memorable command of space and texture. Britain was represented by two Cambridge composers: Julian Anderson, whose Sea Drift proved a bracing antidote to Delius's, and Thomas Ades, whose Living Toys was a nursery Heldenleben - a child's fantasy of heroic adventures, overloaded with ideas and just a bit pretentious but undoubtedly a virtuosic feat of writing. The sort of thing you'd call too clever for its own good if you didn't know that critics said as much of Britten in the Thirties.