Classical: Nyman Premiere BBC SO / Hickox Royal Festival Hall, London

`Nyman's Trombone Concerto has new things to say and lifts the spirits'
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The Independent Culture
There was a neat touch of getting his own back about Michael Nyman's Trombone Concerto. "A rude cacophony - mockery against individuals who offended against certain community norms": that, he wrote, was the old English social ritual that inspired him. Now look at him, suddenly asked to write something for the BBC, which always used to lead the way in Nyman put-downs. Did they expect a tugged forelock?

Nyman followers will be glad to know that the "trombonist / offender" came out unbowed from a confrontational concerto. The BBC didn't quite get its comeuppance - in fact, it won itself a busy Festival Hall - but down in the bowels of Radio 3 there must have been a few sphincters tightening. This well-loosened-up piece transfers much of the driving momentum of the Michael Nyman Band to the stately medium of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and adds an acoustic glare of its own. The trombone's offence is evidently singing Victorian-style melodies with luscious vibrato. For this, it is set upon by a pulsing, glittering mass of brass and percussion which provides the main impetus of the single-movement work.

As it proceeds through Nyman's characteristic expansions and shifts of direction, the trombone is forced to think out an escape route at full speed, and at the height of hostilities has to see off a hooligan-like onslaught of thrashed metal. The tune remains, supported by equivocally swirling woodwind to a subdued cut-off: unfinished business here. Christian Lindberg, the soloist, delivered a virtuoso mix of freewheeling technical tricks and straight-faced sentiment. In the orchestra, the very density of the shrill high textures prevented other lines from cutting through like, say, the Nyman Band does in MGV. For long-standing Nyman admirers, MGV's grandeur and exhilaration will keep it as the high point in his orchestral work, but the Trombone Concerto has new things to say and lifts the spirits.

It was unintentionally neat of the BBC in return to programme Elgar's The Spirit of England alongside the composer who had just pinned down a less flattering version of that very quality. Elgar, setting Laurence Binyon at the height of the First World War, was writing urgently of what might survive the carnage. The poetry combines a sense of unbearable loss with appalling wishful thinking. For all who feel that the world destroyed in 1914 was a world well lost, the work's consolatory passages carry an unacceptable flavour of warm beer. But direct shock and grief fuel its strengths, and Elgar's charged, sometimes fiery music has an immediacy that can even now create a sense of occasion.

No-nonsense orchestral energy and bite, which had earlier enlivened the Suite on English Folk Tunes by Britten, kept the audience galvanised. With the broad-brush conducting of Richard Hickox backing Judith Howarth's steely soprano and the BBC Symphony Chorus, the climaxes would have knocked the hardiest cyclist on John Major's village green right out of her saddle.

ROBERT MAYCOCK

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