Music: Nothing to shout about

Faur Festival Manchester
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The Independent Culture
A Requiem of touching restraint, a dozen of the subtlest songs in the repertory, an exquisite Pavane, Berceuse, and Elgie, and a brace of master-crafted Piano Quartets: the familiar Gabriel Faur is a good basis for a celebration of his 150th anniversary. And with 121 opus-numbered works, overlapping the last compositions of Berlioz and the first of Messiaen, there is a wealth of unfamiliar territory to uncover.

How to sum him up? "The Quiet Revolutionary" is Roger Nichols's formula in his programme essay. Quiet, yes. A loather of brash emotionalism, Faur prefers shyly to probe the interstices of Romantic harmony, teasing out modal turns of phrase like nothing else in music. But revolutionary? Surely not.

Introducing the opening orchestral concert, Yan Pascal Tortelier dubbed Faur the most intimate of French composers. Perhaps better to say the least demonstrative? Certainly there was nothing very intimate in Tortelier's conducting of the gravely beautiful prelude to Pnlope, and he seemed entirely at home only in the most exhibitionist pages of Debussy's La Mer (the opening movement was curiously matter-of-fact) and Chabrier's Marche joyeuse (a well-earned encore for a vibrant BBC Philharmonic).

It's not easy to build a 14-day musical celebration without the mass- appeal genres of symphony or concerto (Faur composed none) or stage works (there are a couple, but they're not highly rated). His chamber music makes a good point of reference, but even this is dangerously uniform in tone. For much of the time Faur applies Brahmsian formulas of extension to his favoured modal turns of phrase, producing a paradoxical kind of lukewarm ecstasy. Yo-Yo Ma showed that there is much to intrigue both mind and ear in the two late Cello Sonatas - hard to imagine a more persuasive exponent - but the context of Debussy and Franck showed how much more compelling the late-romantic sonata medium can be.

Unlike other recent Manchester festivals (Tippett and Debussy, Expressionism, Northern composers), this one prefers imports from London and Paris to the city's own resources (the admirable BBC Phil apart), and makes no attempt to explore neglected corners of Faur's oeuvre. Yet Kathryn Stott's initiative in conceiving it, and achievement in planning it, must be saluted.

Certainly if all the imports are as charismatic as Yo-Yo Ma, there will be few complaints. Whatever might be said against his manner - his pursuit of intensity at all costs, the impression he can give of being more in love with the instrument than the music - he is a cellist of supreme accomplishment. And Stott's more emotionally distanced but stylish, well-prepared accompaniments provided the ideal foil.

n To 6 May, Free Trade Hall and RNCM (booking: 0161-834 1712)

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