Classical: The Eighties in all seriousness

WHILE SOME were debating the extent of our dumbed-down state at the Culture Wars conference at the weekend, others of us were getting down to the serious study of music in the Eighties: the decade on which much of the blame seems to rest for whatever dumbing down we might want to argue has subsequently been our fate. Like all the major concerts of 20th-century music which I have been to so far this year, these two opening programmes of compositions from the previous decade in the Towards the Millennium project were attended by large and enthusiastic audiences. So much for dumbing down.

On Saturday at the Royal Festival Hall, Sir Simon Rattle made a welcome return to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra whose musical directorship he relinquished last summer. The long and fragmentary early stages of Witold Lutoslawski's Third Symphony here lacked the incisiveness and timbral sheen to make their, to me, too contrived utterances more compelling. Things subsequently improved; the conclusion felt unearned, but that's probably the composer's fault.

Toru Takemitsu's guitar concerto, To the Edge of Dream - like John Adams' Harmonium - was given its British premiere back in the Eighties by CBSO forces. John Williams and the orchestra offered a ravishing account of it, as - joined by Christine Pendrill on oboe d'amore - he did of Vers, L'arc-en-ciel, Palma. Harmonium, for chorus and orchestra, is early Adams; its responses to familiar poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson lack the persuasively moulded word-setting, allied either to ironic bite or to affecting, ambiguous harmonies, of his later scores. The work is hard on the choir; the climaxes were powerful, but the rapt concentration needed for the quieter music wasn't there.

It didn't help that Rattle had to read out the poems, absent from the poorly-produced programme book, before the performance. Steve Reich's Tehillim - a work wrongly charged, in my view, with dumbing down - demands sheer stamina and utter security in its relentless tricky rhythms. On Sunday in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the London Sinfonietta, conducted by James Wood, was joined by the four founding female members of Synergy, the British vocal group formed as a consequence of these singers' participation in a brilliant performance of Tehillim at the Barbican three years ago. Here, though, Wood and his admirable musicians couldn't score the same success; the relaxed control of phrasing over and around the pulsing grid eluded them, and occasional lapses in ensemble, intonation and tempo didn't help.

It was good to hear Bhakti, Jonathan Harvey's highly sophisticated integration of live ensemble and tape sounds into an extended composition of sometimes compelling beauty. Wood's performance appeared to be a good one, but for all Harvey's ability to conjure his own sound-world out of materials as simple, in their own way, as Reich's, this performance did seem too long.