BBCSO / Belohlavek, Barbican Hall, London
Take the Risk, Purcell Room, London

We could have held a party for the composer's friends, but we just had a bag of M&M's

The long, wry face of Bohuslav Martinu gives little away. Posed for a studio portrait, cigarette clamped between his fingers, standing to the side of a concert poster in Boston or strolling through Central Park, here is a quiet man from a small, distant country.

Neither a forgotten genius nor an also-ran, he is a hard sell: fluent in several musical languages, yet somehow voiceless. Forgivable then, if regrettable, that instead of using their six-concert cycle of Martinu's symphonies to provide a context for this Czech chameleon – programming works by Pavel Haas, Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krasa or Martinu's pupil and lover, Vitezslava Kapralova – Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra launched their Barbican series with three other composers whose names begin with M.

Are there hints of Mozart, Mahler or Mussorgsky in Martinu's First Symphony? No. Premiered in Boston in 1942, the symphony sounds exactly as it is: a work by an experienced Czech composer writing for a large American orchestra. Rarely is there a phrase without some "added value", be it the skittering of a harp in high register, or the sparkle of a cymbal, like the nervous flourish of a chef who cannot serve a salad without garnishing it with a slice of orange and a snipping of chives. Yet the writing is undeniably polished and attractive. Moravian dance rhythms jostle with the melancholy flutterings of water and wood nymphs, ancient subjects distorted through the crazy-mirror sonorities of Expressionism and the smart syncopations of Broadway.

Big-bosomed, vampish melodies for horn and long-legged oboe solos cede to hazy, pastoral string writing, while snare drums signal Czech resolve under Nazi occupation. There's sorrow here – most evident in Belohlavek's meticulous sculpting of the Largo – and nostalgia too. But tempting as the parallels are between this and Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, Martinu, who had left Prague back in 1923, was suffering from something more complex than the homesickness that dogged his forebear in America. By the time his symphony was premiered, Kapralova, who had conducted the BBC Orchestra in 1938, and Schulhoff were dead, while Haas, Krasa and Ullmann had been interned in Theresienstadt. By the end of the war, Martinu would be the only leading Czech composer of his generation left alive.

Those anxious to hear the music of Martinu's contemporaries will have to search elsewhere. In the meantime, one has to hope that the insurance policy pieces in the BBCSO's performances of his Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (the Second was given this Friday) are better rehearsed than those here. Gerald Finley sang four songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn with unusual delicacy and restraint, saving himself for the tar-boiling malevolence of Shostakovich's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death. Michael Cox's sensitively shaded flute playing was a welcome distraction from the diffident strings, whose lacklustre sound and scruffy entries of Mozart's Symphony No 29 indicated they might need m-m-more than two weeks' holiday after the Proms.

Renamed Take the Risk and curated by lutenist Paula Chateauneuf, this year's Early Music weekend at the Southbank Centre saw a convocation of chitarrones, cornetts, viols, harps and hurdy-gurdys explore historically informed improvisation from several centuries. At one end were the first parallel fourths of organum plainsong, from the Orlando Consort, and at the other the the bowed accompaniment of dramatic laments from 17th-century Rome, from Atalante. In-between we were acquainted by Crawford Young and Friends with the oral traditions of Sephardic song, and witnessed The Division Lobby's on-the-spot creation of an aria over a passacaglia.

As passionate as the Wagner Society, though more polite, the audience was as international as the performers. And for those who quibbled over what improvisation means in the context of figured bass, historical treatises and music stands, there was a chance to try it for themselves in Chateau-neuf's workshop.

If my hard-nosed self would have liked to have heard some improvisations in the style of Mozart, Liszt or Rachmaninov (the tradition lasted past the conventional Early Music cut-off point), Chateauneuf's gentle shepherding of 10 amateur instrumentalists through their first collective bergamasca was very nearly the highlight of this provocative, fascinating weekend. For extravagant, exotic beauty, however, it has to be the funerary soundworld of Atalante's lirones, viols, lutes, harp and organ playing Rossi and Marazzoli's opulent "vanitas" laments.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all