Classical: Time for clocks and Mahler

PROMS 25-28 ROYAL ALBERT HALL/ RADIO 3 LONDON

GIVEN THAT "the end of things" serves as a principal theme of this year's Proms, it was hardly surprising that for his Halle presentation of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, Kent Nagano limited himself to the one major movement that the composer himself completed. Thursday's Prom programmed just the opening Adagio, and yet the problem was less a matter of symphonic balance (or a lack of it) than of executive imprecision and an orchestral sonority that called heavily on the brass but fought shy of the strings.

Mahler's younger soul-mate Alban Berg was represented by an intimately lived-in account of his Violin Concerto. Once she had conquered what seemed like first-minute nerves, Kyung-Wha Chung gave a performance that was both passionate and eloquent - especially in the second movement, where Berg turns to Bach for consolation.

As to Beethoven's Seventh, the first movement was a bit of a trudge, but the Allegretto was swifter than most and the furious finale upped both the tempo and the temperature.

Later that night, a dedicated gathering stayed on for a concert by the ensemble Lontano, under Odaline de la Martinez. Varese conjured pre- Messianic birdsong with his seven-minute Octandre then showered us with percussive colour in Integrales.

Between Stravinsky (his entertaining Octet) and Varese, came the London premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Harrison's Clocks, or a "tribute to the clockmaker John Harrison", where pianist Joanna MacGregor set five separate "mechanisms" in motion. Each opened to a downward flourish, then settled on its own individual course, be it symmetrical or asymmetrical, constant or interrupted, loud or soft. It was a colossal undertaking, the sort that - if it's to be fathomed in detail - needs the repeated scrutiny that a good recording affords.

Lastly, Lantona returned for an extraordinary Octet by Galina Ustvolskaya where the closing movement alternated weeping string motives with loud volleys from the timpani. It was like hearing a firing squad, then eavesdropping on the grief of the newly bereaved.

The two Proms that followed both included memorable premieres. Friedrich Cerha's 1989-96 Cello Concerto was the absorbing centrepiece of Friday and Heinrich Schiff played its UK premiere with obvious emotional engagement, ably supported by the BBC Symphony under Jiri Belohlavek. The overall plan was to tail delicate instrumental activity (including an interesting use of steel drums) with a gradual calming, whereas on Saturday Mark-Anthony Turnage's more recent - and rather more instantly appealing - Silent Cities cued seething climaxes from the thematic "core" of a tune called "The Nag". Inspired by a visit to the Somme and dedicated to Tippett's memory, Turnage's gripping essay was given its London premiere by a generously manned National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Ivn Fischer.

Both of these recent works enjoyed "standard rep" for company. But while Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony presented us with sturdy, well-thought- out readings of Brahms's Tragic Overture and Fourth Symphony that hardly differed from other well-thought-out Brahms performances (save perhaps for some shaky brass playing), Fischer's NYO was refreshingly individualistic in Bartok and Dvorak. Leonidas Kavakos brought lashings of lustrous tone to Dvorak's lilting Violin Concerto, though you could only actually hear him if he was facing in your direction (listeners to Radio 3's broadcast will probably have enjoyed a more consistent aural picture).

But the high-spot of last week's Proms, playing-wise, was the NYO's white- hot account of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Many readers will already know that Fischer is peerless among living Bartok conductors, but Saturday's performance showed how he can inspire young players to colour, shade, inflect and shape phrases with a degree of spontaneity that eludes many a seasoned orchestra. And they make a pretty good choir, too. Saturday's unexpected encore was Gibbons's brief but glorious "The Silver Swan".

The Thursday (early evening), Friday and Saturday Proms will be rebroadcast by Radio 3 at 2pm today, tomorrow and Wednesday respectively. www.bbc.co.uk/proms

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