MUSIC / Casualties of war: Robert Maycock reviews the BBC SO at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
As they used to say about police work, dull it isn't. The BBC Symphony Orchestra's unceasing patrol around the boundaries of the repertoire took it last week to collector's- corner Copland and Holloway, and three days later to a band of sometime outlaws called Ives, Skempton and Bryars. It's a manor that would have shocked the new-music guardians of 20 years ago, when the orchestra belonged to Pierre Boulez, and Gavin Bryars was a notorious perpetrator of outrages. No doubt it tickles Bryars' sense of irony to deliver a commission to the heart of the music establishment for the time-honoured forces of soloists, chorus and orchestra. But then it's amazing how young the music police look these days.

The times have caught up with Bryars, who was writing gentle pieces with a steady hand and a strong nerve long before the public discovered a taste for new music with heart. His music now sounds, well, comfortable and familiar. The War in Heaven, his new cantata, has words that locate it precisely at the edge of solitary, wounded existence. It clothes them in music of relentless beauty.

Soloists soar over the choir - or more often disappear within a quiet but saturated orchestral sound, sometimes animated from the bass upwards. The music moves through cogent harmonic patterns, rooted in one basic flowing tempo and in a characteristically English fusion of the sad and the sensuous. There is nothing violent or spirited for it to kick against, or hide from. The outcome is initially touching, but over some 40 minutes it loses its hold. Sarah Leonard, the more penetrating David James, and the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus, guided by Simon Joly, did their best to make the surfaces ravishing.

Howard Skempton's Lento, a welcome (and better played) revival of an earlier BBC commission, made an intriguing upbeat. This is music that doesn't strive to go anywhere; it simply exists. It shapes orchestral sound as a sculptor might carve wood, with love and respect for well-differentiated tones and colours.

At the opposite extreme, Robin Holloway's Second Concerto for Orchestra explodes with a profusion of goal-seeking activity, sustained at astonishing lengths and levels of intensity (and brought to passionate and precise life under Oliver Knussen's conducting). It's as though a mind crammed to bursting point with 19th- and 20th-century art has been sent on holiday and told it can do what it wants. Like anybody might, it goes wild. Out tumble hints and snatches of half the music you've ever heard. Two of its bigger pile-ups peak on 'Jerusalem' and 'Arrivederci Roma', and the moaning brass and bonking kettledrums of the ultimate climax make the bedroom scene in Strauss's Sinfonia domestica sound like a case of premature ejaculation. I've heard nothing else of Holloway's where the blood runs so freely.

Americana linked the concerts as well. Joly's fine, lyrical conducting of Three Places in New England by Ives made it like a counterbalance to Holloway: free, almost improvisatory means, serving exactly imagined poetic ends. Knussen paired the first and last big pieces by Copland. Inscape, premiered in 1967, may have lost the old physicality and facility, but it emerged here with a bold concentration that defied its neglect. The recently rediscovered ballet Grohg, from 45 years earlier, is so inventive that its first few minutes seem diffuse, but it just gets better and better as it goes on. Given Copland's prolific output these two will probably remain buffs' pieces, but they helped turn a dry-looking programme into a concert of rare orchestral exuberance.