MUSIC / Please, no anaesthetic

Nash Ensemble; LSO Purcell Room; Barbican
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The Independent Culture
The Purcell Room is not the world's happiest listening space. The acoustic is dry and oppressive, and there's something about the shape of the room and the colours that can make it depressing simply to sit in. Attempts to brighten it up somehow only made it worse. It says a lot for any work premiered there if it can make you forget where you are. Elena Firsova's Before the Thunderstorm (premiered by the Nash Ensemble last week) managed it.

A setting of five poems by Osip Mandelstam, one of many Russian artists to disappear in Stalin's purges, it is not designed to lighten the spirits. As Firsova says, the texts seem to dwell in advance on the catastrophe to come, and her score only heightens this atmosphere, alternating between angular, fragmentary modernism and something much more lucid and directly expressive - with clear echoes of the Mussorgsky song-cycles, or of Mussorgsky-saturated late Shostakovich.

What prevents the work from being merely depressing is that very directness, and the beauty of the vocal writing - singable intervals, rhythms clearly springing from the sinew of the words, and haunting, simple phrases. The soprano Patricia Rozario seemed to relish it all; as did the audience: one of the most enthusiastic responses to a new work I've heard in the Purcell Room in some time.

Simplicity is very much the name of John Tavener's game. In some of his works the results have been radiant, and the second of his Akhmatova Songs had a wonderful folk-like naturalness (the two stratospheric climaxes perhaps excepted). In the first song, however, it was back to familiar Tavener devices: the favourite major-minor mode, the quasi-Eastern melismas, the drone-like background. Novelty for its own sake is facile, but we are hearing Tavener pieces now in which virtually everything is familiar. If creating new sounds, or at least new perspectives on old sounds, has no more significance for him, why does he still compose at all?

Edison Denisov's Ddicace, for flute, clarinet and string quartet, was harder to penetrate on first hearing - which doesn't necessarily make it "better". But the juxtaposition of "horizontal" and "vertical" sounds (Denisov's words) suggested more than an abstract idea. As with Firsova, the harmonies seem to be heard, not merely devised. Ddicace needs to be heard again, though it would reveal more of itself in a more atmospheric acoustic.

On Wednesday, the violinist Gidon Kremer and the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas gave the UK premiere of the Concerto Grosso No 5 by another Russian, Alfred Schnittke. In these times of musical super- simplicity, Schnittke's popularity is surprising. Some of the scores teem with frenetic detail. There's another side, too, a kind of epicureanism of pain - late Mahler gone mad. It reminds me of the compulsive dentist- visitor in Little Shop of Horrors ("Please, no anaesthetic!"). But behind the theatrical surface is something else, something mysterious, which can emerge in a sympathetic performance like this. An inner purpose could be felt, magically culminating in the solo violin's strange skywards flight at the end. It will be a while before we can make sense of Schnittke, but playing like this certainly helps.

Stephen Johnson