MUSIC / Old boys will be boys

London Sinfonietta - Barbican, London

Oh, the fun and games of the new music scene. The London Sinfonietta takes itself off to the Barbican, and the South Bank pointedly labels its own latest contemporary series "21st Century Culture". At least you know you're firmly in a 20th-century mindset with the Sinfonietta's unrepentant brand of rather macho programming. There was a brief flirtatious interlude a couple of years ago when it looked at more playful Americans like John Adams and Michael Torke. Now it has a new principal conductor, MarkusStenz, and for the "Stenz Stamp", as it called its December concerts, it has pulled its big boots firmly back on again.

Well, boys will be boys (there never was much room for the girls here), and after the toyboys of a few days ago it was the old boys' turn on Friday for a night consisting mostly of UK or London premieres. Not yet grand old men, the Continental sixty-somethings are perfectly eligible to rest on their laurels. Yet they don't. Take Xenakis, first-born of them by the calendar but still the youngest in spirit: Plekto, for a small mixed group with occasional pounding percussion, has thrown off the stolid, block-like movement of some recent pieces and recalls the strident and passionate awkwardness of earlier times in its interweaving, sometimes colliding lines and punctuating piano crashes.

Or Ligeti: the concert's climax was a second London hearing of his Violin Concerto, played with energy by Saschko Gawriloff. This piece patently, and often hypnotically, continues the synthesis of his various zany, modernist and allusive phases that he had started with his Piano Concerto just when he seemed to have sunk into gloomy retrospection. The Ligeti novelty didn't count - four early folk-song settings from nearly 50 years ago. Efficient and effective, they could never have been exhumed without the prestige of their author's name. However neatly sung, all they did was block time that could have gone to better works by composers who need the exposure.

Even Boulez was represented by a continuation of his unlikely mellowing process: the end of . . . explosante fixe . . . The programme's major exception to the rule was by Kurtg. Samuel Beckett: What Is the Word sets a translation of Beckett's last, pared-down text for a reciter whom Kurtg had heard struggling, literally, for words - the actress Ildiko Monyok, who had lost her powers of speech in an accident. Players are set out around the hall, and begin with a dramatic full-toned gesture. It is decep tive: the music becomes thinner and more drawn-out as it proceeds, however startling the reciter's delivery. It moves its listeners more through her sheer presence than by freshness of musical feeling.

Do you admire the composer's integrity, or chafe at his clinging on to past ways? It's typical of our equivocal musical times that the question seems to matter, and neither option is really adequate. For me, the fire of Xenakis and the quirks of Ligeti are worth many times their weight in mere consistency. But they are still the great names of an age that is passing. In retrospectives 50 years hence, this lucidly played programme could define that vanished time on its own.

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