MUSIC / Master Barber: Anthony Payne on the RPO at the Festival Hall

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IN THE late 1930s, when Samuel Barber established his name with the orchestral arrangement of the Adagio from his String Quartet, performances of the American composer's recently completed First Symphony were also making a considerable impression. But it was the famous Adagio for Strings that ultimately stood the test of time in this country, and indeed none of Barber's other orchestral pieces has become really familiar to British concertgoers. This is regrettable, especially as the tide of fashion now seems to be running strongly in favour of his kind of post-romantic modernism.

The First Symphony, for instance, which received a rare performance in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's enterprising concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday, is most passionately committed to this particular emotional world. It was not a fashionable one for a composer of Barber's generation, and indeed many found his language a little outmoded during his lifetime, failing to appreciate the compositional mastery and sincerity of feeling he commanded.

Walton is perhaps the figure who springs most readily to mind as pursuing a comparable stylistic and emotional course, but hearing the Barber symphony again after a number of years, one was struck by the unfocused nature of its thematic material, an area where Walton succeeds most notably. The flooding emotion is palpable, but it is carried forward by generalised melodic gestures.

This flaw was magnified by a performance under Vladimir Ashkenazy which, though vigorous and wholehearted, did not always seem able to clarify texture and process. A certain unfamiliarity on the orchestra's part with this infrequently performed work was probably to blame, but its bold three-movement, single-spanned structure still made an impression of touching honesty and the performance was nothing if not emotionally committed.

In contrast, it was the orchestra's familiarity with every aspect of the music's complexity that played such an important part in making their subsequent performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring a memorable one. During the increasingly rich collages of the atmospheric introduction, all the sections of the orchestra seemed to listen acutely to the overall balance, and the result was an audibly teeming activity.

The rhythmic attack in the subsequent dances was also impressively sustained, and Ashkenazy was able to build the whole of the ballet's Part One to a breathtaking climax. After a hauntingly poetic opening, Part Two somehow just failed to generate the same savage tension, but this was still an exhilarating and brilliantly coloured reading.

Earlier, Dmitri Ashkenazy had given a charming performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, characterised by a fluent sense of phrase and a bright, open sound. There was a chamber music-like quality to the playing, and indeed one could have wished for a bigger sonority and a more extrovert projection at times. In fact, the whole interpretation seemed geared to a smaller auditorium, but within these limits control and expression were beautifully sustained.