MUSIC / Rattle on a daring triple roll: Jan Smaczny reviews the London Sinfonietta and CBSO at Symphony Hall, performing as part of the Towards the Millennium season

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The Independent Culture
Expectations of Towards the Millennium vary, and though some may be disappointed by the balance of relatively familiar repertoire, few could complain this year about the variety on offer.

Cute contrasts and unexpected juxtapositions abounded last month. London Sinfonietta's daring mix of Vaughan Williams at his most distantly mystical in Flos Campi with Stravinsky at his most earthy in Les Noces seemed enough of a challenge. But even this was gazumped by Ex Cathedra, also sporting Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams, but this time preluding a staged performance of Les Noces with Vaughan Williams's Mass in G minor, and this wrapped around a sonata by Milhaud.

The London Sinfonietta's concert in Symphony Hall promised much, but failed to deliver. Bartok's Three Village Scenes suffered from muffled soloists placed behind the band, and Villa Lobos's Choros No 3 from strained tenor sound. Janacek's nursery rhymes fared better, despite dismal Czech diction, and Simon Rattle, aided by Paul Silverthorne's passionate viola solo, succeeded in searching out some unexpectedly fibrous lines in Flos Campi without destroying its elusive atmosphere.

The main disappointment was Les Noces. The instrumental accompaniment was superbly pointed and vigorous, the solos characterful, but the chorus - noses buried all too frequently in the score - sounded at times flabby and underprepared.

The contrast with CBSO's performance of Janacek's equally elemental Glagolitic Mass could hardly have been more extreme. The chorus repeated their feat of last year by singing the work without vocal scores, and the result was shattering. Rattle's changing view of the Mass and his growing experience as one of today's most perceptive Janacek conductors has kept the work fresh.

Richest of all the programmes was CBSO's last offering in the festival. The lush, post-romantic sounds of Busoni's Doktor Faust studies, Sarabande and Cortege, have little in common with the unabashed brutalism of Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin. And yet there were points of contact audible most frequently in the sonorities. To complain about the ordering of the second half inevitably seems churlish when both Sibelius's Seventh Symphony and Szymanowski's Stabat Mater were dealt with so successfully. The problem was that the Sibelius, replete with magnificent lower brass and logic enhanced by dramatic flair, was a near-impossible act to follow. The chorus, performing in Polish, coloured their lines with credible Slavic darkness. The three soloists, led by the glorious soprano of Elzbieta Szmytka, were all excellent. But after the burnished glories of Sibelius, Szymanowski seemed a little too pallid.