Gallic sang-froid eclipsed by the deb's delight

Classical Music
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The Independent Culture
LIKE a grandly ageing pair of Second Empire bookends of uncertain but impressive taste, Mesdames Jeanne and Yvonne Loriod sit facing each other across the conductor - one at the piano, one at the ondes martenot, that peculiarly French musical invention (I hesitate to call it an instrument) whose quavering electronic squeal is so suggestif. And if you know the genre, you'll have guessed that I'm describing a performance of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony: deeply French and indelibly associated with the Loriods - not only Messiaen's chief interpreters but his wife and sister-in-law.

After all these years they are still at it, a Gallic institution. And on Wednesday they packed the Festival Hall for a Turangalila with Andrew Davis and the BBC SO, evincing a conspicuous sang-froid amid the music's brazen blowsiness. Turangalila is a heavily upholstered score with all the buoyant but affectionate vulgarity of seaside postcards. You could caption much of the orchestral imagery with lines like "Goodness, what a whopper" or "I've never seen a pear like that". And it's a gift to Andrew Davis's spring-loaded, schoolboy bounciness. I've rarely seen him bounce so fulsomely, inciting the BBC SO woodwind to extremes of raw, abrasive flatulence (though not the richness or the confidence of an ideal performance). But what made this Turangalila was the awesome impassivity of the Loriods, sitting rock-like and for all the world as though this were a Mozart chamber work. Perhaps that's how it ought to be. Madame Yvonne, the pianist, certainly delivers the softer sections of the solo writing with a persuasive delicacy that other, racier interpreters tend to miss.

For Messiaen collectors this programme also included the UK premire of an occasional piece, Chant des Deportes, written in 1945 to mark the end of the Occupation. A Radio France commission, it is a thriftless concentration of large choral and orchestral forces into a short time-span, with the voices moving in blocked chords against a spangled wash of contra-rhythms from the instruments. The score was lost after the first performance and didn't surface until two years ago, to the reported delight of the composer. But I fear Messiaen had an inexhaustible capacity for delight: in the case of Chant des Deportes it was misplaced. The piece is of breathtaking banality - a sort of 1812 Overture without the tune - and is best forgotten. Now we've heard it, I predict a quiet life on the shelf.

Anthony Payne had a new piece in the Nash Ensemble's South Bank concert on Tuesday. A sextet for wind and strings, it bore the evocative title Empty Landscape - Heart's Ease. This only told you half the story, because the score's chequerboard construction alternated between tranquillity and agitation. But at the same time there was a broad sense of transition towards "ease", as the busy sections decreased in length and the calm ones increased. This was an engaging refinement, which gently steered the piece towards what sounded like a revisiting of English Pastoral, haunted by reminiscences of the distant horn-calls in Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream. What "Englishness" means in music is endlessly debatable, but the imprint of landscape and temperament does leave a territorial mark on some composers, at a deeper level than technique or harmony. And it's certainly there in Anthony Payne, whose quiet but thoughtful presence in British music always strikes me as a kind of anchorage in sanity, confirming the continuing life of trusted values.

Australian music has a territorial agenda, too, within a culture which is busy checking out of Europe and into Asia. I was there last week to see it for myself, and marvelled at how music (usually the slow-mover in the arts) seems for once to have set the pace for other disciplines. Decades ago the doyen of Australian composers, Peter Sculthorpe, was exploring the non- European possibilities of static structures built without development from small, repeating cells. Now there is around him something that he jokingly (but not entirely jokingly) refers to as "the Sydney School". One of its most prominent members is Carl Vine, whose new Percussion Symphony was premired last week by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, on home ground under Edo de Waart. Vine's music doesn't often get to Britain, but if you caught the Third String Quartet premired here last year you'll have heard what seems to be a common feature of his work: tripartite form, with a meditative middle section of disarming, melancholic beauty framed by less rewarding movements of up-tempo energy. The Percussion Symphony follows suit, and I had mixed feelings about it. But I'm sure that Vine is a major talent just waiting to be discovered here in the Old World. "Radically tonal" (his phrase), the music is accessible but vital, richly coloured with a true, distinctive gift for melody, and somehow fresher than most current European writing. I would commend his recordings - except that you'll be lucky to find any, at least until the ABC Classics label gets a new distribution agreement for Europe in the autumn. Until then, they're worth the hunt.

You could probably count on one hand the number of pianists in Britain available to play Schoenberg's Piano Concerto at short notice. So when Alfred Brendel pulled out of his advertised performance on Thursday, the promoters pulled in a third-year undergraduate from Cambridge to substitute. For Tim Horton, a 21-year-old finalist in the 1992 BBC Young Musician competition, it was as lucky as breaks get, sharing such a high-profile platform with Simon Rattle and the CBSO. He just happened to know the piece. But more importantly, he knew it well, and played it with a cool, technically clean command. The Schoenberg isn't an accommodating vehicle for personality: it's hard to shine through its formidable requirements. But Horton's reading was immaculate and musical, sustaining the quasi-programmatic narrative of the four movements which run together like sub-clauses of a larger sentence. It held its own in a programme with one of the most searing accounts of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony I've ever heard (variable ensemble quality but dazzling solo work) and will do Mr Horton's career prospects nothing but good. Not to mention his reputation for sheer nerve. If he doesn't end up a professional pianist, I'd suggest banking.

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