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MUSIC / Poetic fervour: Anthony Payne on the RPO at the Royal Festival Hall and the ECO at the Barbican

At a time of increasing specialisation in the art of musical performance, Sir Charles Mackerras has pursued a career of astonishing catholicity of taste. He was looking anew at the problems of baroque performance before the authenticity movement established itself; he established the operas of Janacek in this country; and, more recently, has performed and recorded Delius with poetic fervour - all this while continuing to conduct the standard symphonic and operatic repertories of the last few centuries.

But Sir Charles is far from a jack of all styles, as his splendid Festival Hall programme with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra last week proved. He gives the impression of being a specialist in whatever he does, and Janacek, Sullivan, Tchaikovsky and Brahms were all focused with the most precise care. Sullivan's cello concerto was performed with affection by Raphael Wallfisch, but remains something of a curiosity, lacking the memorability and structural mastery of that other product of the composer's early years, the Symphony in E minor.

Typically, the programme opened with Janacek's Taras Bulba, and Sir Charles drew a fresh sound from his players - wild dancing, heroic strife and final jubilation were all brought vividly to life. Local incidents were characterised with intensity, and Janacek's extraordinary continuities were well mastered.

Sir Charles and his players underlined Wallfisch's poetry in Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations with elegant, vivacious playing, and then crowned the evening with a splendid Brahms Third Symphony. Once more, Sir Charles created a new sound world, clarifying thematic substance and harmonic ground swell, judging tempos unerringly to provide swift purpose without disrupting Brahms's autumnal


Brahms's textural requirements were again met with clarity and warmth in the opening programme of the English Chamber Orchestra's series Schumann & friends at the Barbican on Monday. Raymond Leppard characterised the Variations on the St Anthony Chorale with charm, and his players created a glowing range of colours, attacking Brahms's rhythmic complexities with precision and due weight of tone.

The links in Brahms's subtle chain of tensions and contrasts were forged with a symphonic cogency which was only partly recaptured in Schumann's Spring Symphony. Tempos were kept briskly moving without missing the tenderness of the music's many lyric side-paths and intimacies. But the orchestral sound was not always as well integrated as it had been earlier, with strings intermittently scrappy and wind timbres not always blending.

Finally, we heard playing of considerable joie de vivre from Richard Stoltzman in Weber's Second Clarinet Concerto and Mendelssohn's Concertstusk in F minor for clarinet and basset-horn where he was partnered by Thea King. His big vibrato made tonal integration a little problematic in the Mendelssohn, but the virtuosity and generosity of spirit were infectious.