London Symphony Orchestra / Adams, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The intimations of Ravel and Stravinsky in Colin Matthews' opulent orchestrations of Debussy's gusty Préludes, "The Wind in the Plain" and "What the West Wind Saw", made for a quite incestuous feel to the second of John Adams' cunningly devised concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. Five composers cross-fertilised in interesting ways.

Matthews' take on the Debussy Préludes was governed by a desire to make them as far removed from the piano as possible. That is what the best orchestral transcriptions do and it is why Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition feels as though the piano original came after it. Flickers of "Gnomus" and "Baba Yaga" breezed through the Matthews, Ravelian rather than Debussian colours making for an exotic palette.

Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales generated their own turbulence of sensuous, swirling bodies. The problem was that Adams, the conductor, slightly short-changed us on the swoon and salivation of these hedonistic morsels, failing to exploit through phrasing and rubato the variety of pleasures that they offer. In short, they were rather stiffly dispatched.

This sometimes happens when a conductor's musicality exceeds his technical capabilities. Adams has the understanding but not the natural ability to communicate characterisation and subtext. He was hanging on for dear life when negotiating the brittle urban counterpoint of Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. Jeremy Denk led by example, lending a distinct touch of the Oscar Petersons to the central diversion of Stravinsky's exquisitely Bachian Largo.

That illicitly languorous jazz of the wee small hours lies at the dark heart of Adams' neon-lit City Noir, here receiving a stonking European premiere. It's the stuff of sleazy LA nights, of dreams and delusions, of dangerously sensuous high-lying strings, yearning alto sax laments and nighthawk trumpets. You could argue Adams is apt to repeat himself. But what a talent he has for the big orchestral gesture and what an amazing ride he takes us on in the frenetic final pages of this triptych. It's Hollywood's answer to The Rite of Spring, it's David Lynch on heat, careering down Mulholland Drive. I reckon the LSO came pretty close to meltdown; what a dazzling display.

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