CLASSICAL PREMIERES: Maxwell Davies, McPherson, Clapperton Barbican / RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
You probably write a piccolo concerto only if, like Peter Maxwell Davies, you've written concertos for every other instrument under the sun. His Piccolo Concerto received its London premiere last Friday at the Barbican, two days after its first performance in Nottingham. Stewart McIlwham played the solo part, and the composer himself conducted the RPO.

It could all very easily have been just fun, of course. And given Davies's record, good Scottish fun, with lots of piping and drumming and squealing and screeching in evocation of some celebration or other. Such treble threat was, however, not on offer; the mention of Tom and Jerry in the programme-note seemed merely a fantasy of that note's author, Stephen Pruslin. Yet the important secondary role played by a bass clarinet in the second and third movements, which provided Pruslin with the "Tom" to the piccolo's "Jerry", was but one demonstration of the skill which Davies brought to the tricky tasks of balancing and varying a concerto with such a timbrally and expressively limited protagonist.

The three-movement, fast-slow-fast, 15-minute scheme was assembled with remarkable ingenuity from a sequence of cleverly contrasted orchestral combinations. The overall effect, however, seemed little more than the sum of its disparate, inevitably short-winded parts. And the generally sober air almost made one long for what the Mad Max of 25 years ago might have made of such a project. McIlwham's somewhat cautious playing no doubt had something to do with it.

Sir Peter the conductor can draw large audiences for predominantly classical and Romantic programmes. The performances he offered on Friday of Mendelssohn, Bruch and Sibelius were, however, at times rough and often leaden. Tasmin Little, the soloist in Bruch's First Violin Concerto, is almost incapable of playing unpersuasively. But the stodginess of the accompaniment here was also reflected in a Sibelius Seventh Symphony lacking all mystery and grandeur. Davies the composer has translated real insights about Sibelius into his own symphonies, but he shows little ability to translate them into performances of Sibelius's works themselves.

Early on Sunday evening, the latest progranme in James MacMillan's valuable "Music of Today" series consisted of works by two of his compatriots, ably conducted by Nicholas Kok. Two movements from Gordon McPherson's curiously and controversially named Handguns suite proved bland warm- overs of John Adams and others.

James Clapperton's The Preiching of the Swallow for solo violin and 12 players, on the other hand, inspired by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson, expertly transmutes half-remembered tunes from the repertoire of the violinist who gave the work's original premiere in 1993. While the soloist (here Maya Iwabuchi, a nicely lyrical player) spins a contrasting sequence of melodies and figurations suggestive of everything from New Complexity to Bergian lyricism, the ensemble's evocative and imaginatively sustained backdrop sometimes moves centre stage; there is one biggish climax.

Clapperton was once mainly known as a pianist specialising in New Complexity. Performers transferring their attentions to composing are usually even less successful than composers who take up conducting, but Clapperton seems an exciting exception.

Keith Potter

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