MUSIC / British fail to rise to the occasion of genius

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The reluctance of a British audience to rise to its feet in response to transcendent musicmaking was never so marked as at Thursday's Prom. Standing is of course what some were doing throughout - shoulder to shoulder in the arena - and the notion 'we paid for these seats and we're going to sit in them' might have accounted for so many bottoms on plush when it came to the applause. But this was that rare combination of performing and compositional genius: grand-old- man Haydn at the height of his powers (Symphony No 100, the 'Military'), the fervent young Mahler (Symphony No 1, the 'Titan'), and the Vienna Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado. The audience knew it, they raised the roof, but remained fixed; anywhere but London we would have been climbing the walls for the sheer joy of it all. How can one cheer without standing up?

The concert presented two composers utterly confident that great art can also be popular. Abbado had, in this respect, an easier task than Pierre Boulez the following night with the same orchestra in a programme of Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Boulez himself. Yet it wasn't just accessibility that contrasted the two concerts. On the rostrum Abbado creates, while Boulez constructs - perhaps also the broad difference between 19th- and 20th-century attitudes to composition.

Abbado's commitment to the score - a form of humility, in fact - combines with an artistry and virtuosity which turns the orchestra into a unit so pliable he can play it like an instrument. The rhythmic nuances in the Minuet of the Haydn seemed almost miraculous: this was not just a delayed upbeat, it was the very life of Vienna, a breath of flexibility impossible to notate. You wonder if Papa Haydn himself, conducting the fine orchestras he found in late 18th-century London, could have drawn out this quality.

It was also a mark of Abbado's greatness, as well as Haydn's, that the comparatively tiny 'Military' stood up to the 'Titan'. Haydn would have appreciated Mahler's remark that 'a symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything'. Georgian London - for which Haydn wrote his 12 symphonies - would have come to recognise it too. As each work appeared the audiences grew more delirious - within the bounds of British propriety of course.

Propriety is what Haydn is such a master of: he knows the chalkline he must not cross, while hopscotching it constantly with the utmost wit and urbanity. Only he could have introduced an extended part for triangle without stooping to the banal. Mahler, 100 years later in the last great gush of Romanticism, throws propriety out of the window. His first symphony is not, as it might have been, a young person's guide to the orchestra (he was only 24), but an adult's guide to the emotional storms of the world.

His friends were embarrassed, and the first performance was a flop. Mahler then made the grave mistake of adding a descriptive programme for the second performance - just as Debussy was shortly to do with his Nocturnes. Never tell an audience what your music might be about - they won't let you forget it.

So it is partly his own fault that Debussy has been an 'impressionist' ever since. Most people have only a vague idea of what Impressionist painting is about, let alone impressionist music. We are led to expect some kind of misty approximation, when in fact both were disciplines of the greatest precision.

'It is time to burn the mist off Debussy,' Boulez has declared, and nowhere could this have been better demonstrated than in his conducting of Nuages, the first of the orchestral Nocturnes. It brought a crystal eye-glass to the originality of Debussy's writing, startling even today. Take a Debussyan pianissimo, in which there seems to be almost as much going on as in a whole movement of Mahler; the art of constructing with fragments, in a way which looks forward to Cubism rather than back at Impressionism; all this Boulez presented in a way which defied argument.

So what went wrong in Fetes? Where was the thrill, the underlying menace, where even the colour? Was it some acoustic trick of the cavernous memorial to Albert that made the side-drum come in too loud and too fast? Surely it was not only the hall that, in Sirenes, prevented the female voices of the London Choral Society from hearing that they were constantly, wincingly, flat. They should take heart: the very first reviewer of this piece in 1901 made a meal of the 'diminished semitones' of the luckless chorus.

It is a devilishly hard piece to bring off, yet one was left wondering whether Boulez, for all his undoubted grasp of Debussy's chimeric idiom, had really attempted to convey it to his Viennese players. Where Abbado had brought out something that made them go beyond their virtuosity, Boulez allowed them to pirouette through the score in blindfolds.

This impression persisted into Boulez's own Livre pour cordes, a work for strings which remains as baffling an example of musical, almost mathematical, abstraction as when he wrote it in 1968. The programme note shed little light, and there was palpable relief when we moved on to Bartok's ballet music for The Miraculous Mandarin, albeit one of his most uncompromising scores.

Composed in 1919, it was not performed until 1926, when the ballet was immediately banned. The scenario is certainly strong stuff: a prostitute is held captive by three thugs who use her as bait to attract victims for them to rob. She lures first an old beggar, then a penniless youth. Her third catch is a mandarin, an inscrutable creature whose ardour she arouses from icy indifference to fever pitch. Set upon by the thugs in flagrante, he endures throttling, stabbing and hanging, but refuses to die until the girl yields to him.

While one hopes for a religious subtext to this horrible story, this is the world seen as nightmare, and Bartok brings to it a fulsome repertoire of barbarous and graphic gestures. There is little light relief - even the trombones' suggestive glissandi are grimly sardonic. It would have helped to see the ballet. The music is, after all, only half the work. The Rite of Spring succeeds without the dance element because we know it so well. (Would we submit to hearing opera in concert and almost never on stage?) Perhaps John Drummond would make a note.

Michael White returns next week.