MUSIC / Bringing the dead to life: Philharmonia - Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
A CRITIC once described Ligeti's Horn Trio of 1982 as a sign of 'the death of the avant- garde'. If so, then Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, begun the following year, is its wake. Just about every item from the cuisine of modernism is there, including the kitchen sink. The orchestral resources are riotously diverse, though hardly less so than those of the concertante percussion and amplified cello plus clarinet section. The conductor sings, musique concrete pays its last respects, discreetly on the whole, and from time to time performers get up and station themselves in different parts of the hall, all the better to deafen us.

What makes it really like a wake is the abandoned, blurry high-spiritedness of it all. To be informed that, as the biographical note put it, Lindberg 'spent a year preparing the computer program for Kraft' is rather like being told that a rowdy rugby match has been choreographed by the late Sir Frederick Ashton. There is no audible evidence of minutely calculated planning, but as a hit-and-miss extravaganza it can be bracing, and in places even rather beautiful. At the Festival Hall last week, the Finnish ensemble Toimii and Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen played it with superb vigour and confidence - and accuracy? I can't believe that matters much.

Before that the pianist Olli Mustonen gave a superbly accomplished, staggeringly mannered performance of the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto. Some of the sounds were wonderful; others, like the kangaroo-punch accents in the finale's main theme, reached rarefied heights of insensitivity. After that, nothing Kraft did could shock - strain as it might.

For a deadly combination of energy, brilliance and concentrated effectiveness these two experiences were eclipsed by Salonen and the Philharmonia's surging performance of Pohjola's Daughter by Sibelius, and the second of two Poul Ruders pieces played in an earlier concert the same evening. Ruders' Nightshade, evidently taking as its starting point the sounds (and even the pitches) of the opening of Sibelius's Fourth Symphony, had its effective moments. But the following Corpus cum Figuris brings together dark lyricism and dancing, dislocated repetition in a way which manages to be dark and uplifting at the same time. The 20 members of the Philharmonia under Stefan Asbury played it magnificently - a shame there weren't more people there to hear it.

It was also surprising to find a rather less than full house for Hugh Wolff's Philharmonia concert this Wednesday. The ingredients looked commercial enough: a visiting young American conductor with a good reputation, a teenage Russian virtuoso, and the winner of a recent British piano competition. The latter, Chiharu Sakai, played less self-consciously than she did in the final of the 1991 National Power World Piano Competition, but what can one say about a performance of the Ravel G major Concerto in which the most memorable moment was the cor anglais solo in the slow movement?

Sergei Nakariakov, the young Russian trumpeter, played ably enough. His main choice, Jolivet's Concertino for trumpet, strings and piano, is not a thrillingly individual piece, but Nakariakov could certainly have brought more life and style to it. He seemed to put much more into the ghastly trumpet and piano version of Carnival of Venice he played as an encore. It was Wolff and the Philharmonia that redeemed the evening. Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra was brilliant, assured and well thought- through, if a little cold; but the Bartok Two Pictures were full of feeling and colour. Wolff's podium manner may be a touch balletic, but he gets results.

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