MUSIC / Learning French: Jan Smaczny on Bridge, Britten and Ravel moving 'Towards the Millennium'

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The Independent Culture
The CBSO's romp through the Twenties elegantly manages to balance enjoyment and learning. In a seductive programme of Bridge, Britten and Ravel the message coming through scented air seemed to be the wholly benevolent impact of French music on the English; a corollary was that the musical innovations of one decade take another two to play themselves out. There was abundant evidence of this process in Frank Bridge's jumbo 'Rhapsody for Orchestra', Enter Spring. Despite the title's Mahlerian overtones, the prevalent feeling is of a composer giving himself up to a bout of French fever: the emphasis, however, is not on the cabaret-soaked 1920s but on the heyday of Impressionism.

The surface sounds of this extraordinarily compelling piece are headily French in inspiration, but Bridge stamps his own personality on the sonority with an orchestral virtuosity that transcends even that of Arnold Bax. Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony, another Twenties work, would have made the point about French influence well enough, but Bridge's work is a genuine rarity with a confidence that sweeps all before it. Underlying the highly coloured exterior is a firm, almost Brahmsian control of form. Together, the two impulses sum up warring forces in English music in the early years of the century: Germany meets France, striding across the Sussex Downs. The result in the end is an English compromise which persuades by its good sense and amiability.

No wonder the 14-year-old Benjamin Britten was 'knocked sideways' by the work. As a composer, Britten makes it into an appraisal of the 1920s by virtue of sheer precocity. His Four French Songs were written when he was 15, and frighteningly competent they sound. These settings of Victor Hugo and Verlaine show Britten's sensitivities to be all atremble but still capable, perhaps as a result of the tutelage of Bridge, of providing bite. Using a much smaller orchestra than his teacher, Britten supplies similarly Impressionist sounds. Having played Enter Spring with passionate commitment to its syntax, Rattle and the CBSO - despite some ravishing solo oboe playing - seemed less at home with the Britten. Not so Lynda Russell, who, standing in for two indisposed sopranos, injected bags of character into the work's fragile frame.

Opera can be a problem in Symphony Hall, usually because orchestras, inspired by the acoustic, tend to take over. There was little sign of this in CBSO's performance of Ravel and Colette's L'Enfant et les sortileges. Accompaniment was everything in an acute, highly-coloured reading of the score: not all the dovetailing of parts works yet, but this was already a formidable, and affectionately hilarious, performance. Given the concert setting, Elise Ross projected the part of the horrible enfant with consummate skill, assisted by a host of camp cameos from her fellow soloists. No one disappointed: Mary King was a wicked She-Cat, matched superbly by David Wilson-Johnson's Tom. Opera cannot truly exist without grease paint and set design, but this magnificent assemblage of clocks, crockery, creatures and caricatures brought as credible an operatic experience as this audience is likely to see.