MUSIC / Jingo bells: Nicholas Williams welcomes a season of nationalism without the politics

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The Independent Culture
While Arts Council favours made headlines this week, musical events in London have recently been reflecting a broader topic of current interest - nationalism.

The musical variety is benign, happily, unlike the political. National styles are basic to musical identity and regional traditions of performance survive. The Budapest-trained Takacs Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on 25 November played Brahms and Haydn like a dream, with a Bartok Sixth Quartet as perfectly shaped and soulful as only Hungarians know how. Six days later, the jet-setting Kronos gave a RFH programme that was its exact opposite, with playing that was anonymous and bland.

Foday Musa Suso's Song for a Crowd, featuring kora and other Gambian instruments, was strong on local colour but short on ideas, with little of the challenging interplay between Africa and the West heard, for example, in Geoffrey Poole's recent Two-Way Traffic at the ICA. Andriessen's Facing Death, lacked nothing except a confident performance.

Grigory Sokolov's Wigmore Hall debut on 30 November stayed in the memory as another example of national style: fierce Russian pianism of a kind rarely heard save in ancient recordings. With a pianissimo that could fill the Hollywood Bowl, and an accordingly tough fortissimo, he is clearly among the heavyweights, yet brute force had little to do with the solid tone he creates. There was abundant tenderness to Brahms's Third Piano Sonata, with a strong sense of line, while under his tensile fingers Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata evoked the horror of total war as its composer imagined. Rubato and phrasing were no less personal in Chopin's Polonaise-Fantaisie; surprising at times, but always essentially Russian.

Nothing comes more so than the Kirov Opera. The RPO's Mariinsky-Kirov series made a defiant start to a fraught week on Monday, with a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's rarely heard Iolanta. Soprano Galina Gorchakova sang the role of heroine with passion and precision, and won spontaneous applause; likewise Gegam Grigorian and Sergei Leiferkus as Vaudemont and the Duke of Burgundy.

French clarity was the Boston Symphony Orchestra's implicit theme at the Festival Hall on Saturday. Truly a world-class super orchestra, they took on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique as an ideal showcase for playing that was at once both transparent to the music, yet defined by individual strengths. Brass were smooth, golden and flawlessly accurate. Trumpets were outstanding, sharp-toned to the point of bitterness. A pity that plans to move straight into Lelio, the sequel to the symphony, were abandoned. Was an interval so necessary?

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