CLASSICAL MUSIC / Earth moves on South Bank

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The Independent Culture
MOST of the great traditions of the Vienna Philharmonic are to do with being Viennese, and most of us wouldn't have it any other way. But even cultural icons can move with the times, and there are signs that the orchestra is reappraising its mobility. In the summer it arrived at the Proms with, of all people, Pierre Boulez conducting his own work; and last week it came to the Festival Hall with James Levine to play Debussy, Brahms and Schoenberg.

Something is afoot here. The Vienna Phil has never been conspicuously Francophile. When Otto Nicolai (composer of The Merry Wives of Windsor) founded the orchestra 150 years ago, the objective was to play Beethoven: and Beethoven-based it has remained, to the exclusion of whole categories of repertory outside the Viennese classics. But this season its subscribers get no more than one Beethoven symphony. The repertory is broadening out.

What's more, the Philharmonic has developed wanderlust. It used to be umbilically attached to the Musikverein, its home-base concert hall, but now it wants to be more European. And this concert was the first of what it calls a 'Euro-Cycle', an itinerant series that will shunt the orchestra around each year between Berlin, London and Paris. We'll see more of it in future; which can only be a good thing because, even in the Festival Hall where nothing sounds particularly sumptuous, the Philharmonic has a cultivated tone that sets a standard for its British counterparts. To some extent it's the result of using different instruments: the Viennese winds are not the same as ours. But with the strings (which are the same) the sound comes purely from technique: a saturated eloquence, warm and clean, and weighted with a sense of purpose.

That said, nothing in this concert had me on the edge of my seat. James Levine, who was re-introducing himself to Britain after a 17-year absence, turned out to be a surprisingly elegant conductor (surprising from his pug-dog looks on record sleeves), with an almost bel canto approach to Brahms's 3rd Symphony and a fluent, lightly applied control overall. There was an interesting redistribution on the platform, with the lower strings to the left rather than the right; and to hear Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces played with such polish was a rare pleasure. But none of these performances quite hit the target; not, at least, until the encore, when a radiance filtered through the strings and suddenly the spirits lifted. It was Johann Strauss.

The high point otherwise was smuggling on a female second harpist for La Mer. The Vienna Phil is resolutely male. I assume she is a casual hired for the tour, but even so: the earth moved.

The Barbican's Scandinavian festival reached the point last week where Simon Rattle's Nielsen symphony cycle wound up and Colin Davis's Sibelius forged on. It has been good to hear these two composers side by side, if only to refute the old idea that two Nordic giants born in the same year (1865) must have something in common. They haven't, beyond the fact that they emerged as classical temperaments from romantic backgrounds.

One of the reservations I have about Colin Davis's ultra-urbane approach to Sibelius is that it melts some of the chill. His wonderfully considered readings in this cycle - so far, of symphonies 1, 3, 5 and 6, all well played by the LSO - smooth their craggy textures and illuminate their bleakness far too throroughly. He strips them of the shadow play Sibelius uses to cast epic images with modest forces and concise ideas.

The good thing about Simon Rattle's Nielsen is that it is not at all urbane. The CBSO hurdle through a lot of detail, Rattle puts them to a lot of risk, and injuries are sustained. But it's exciting; and it holds together because Rattle has a captivating vision of these symphonies to which the orchestra responds committedly, down to the back desks. Following his cycle was a memorable experience - I feel as if I've eaten, slept and dreamt with Nielsen for a fortnight - and no doubt it was the same for audiences in Birmingham who had the cycle too.

The London Sinfonietta's 25th anniversary resume of its own commissions rolls on at the QEH, and Tuesday's instalment pricked the myth that its commissioning policy has favoured only a certain kind of composer. What 'kind' of composer embraces Boulez, Xenakis, Colin Matthews, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Lloyd I can't imagine. But the pieces did cohere in that they mostly showed a composer struggling with the eternal problem of form: of how to move music through time in a convincing way, so that whether it goes from A to B, or back to A, or gets rerouted via Nuneaton, the ear is satisfied that it's gone somewhere.

Lloyd's Waiting for Gozo is a frustrated journey that escapes into salon jazz after the repeated statement, development and termination of an idea. Turnage's On All Fours crawls through the abstracted movements of a baroque dance suite. And Colin Matthews's Contraflow, a new score, was not a narrative on traffic jams but the slow-motion reversal of material that passes first through the classic process of a scherzo and trio. Clearly, old routines die hard; and so long as there are composers with the invigorating re-creative ear that Matthews shows in this 12-minute piece, they needn't die at all.