MUSIC / Reasons to be cheerful: LSO Mahler Festival - Barbican, London

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The Dvorakian idea of 'Nature, life and love' served as an unwritten subtext for Wednesday's Mahler Festival concert: Brahms in a garden or weeping among the rocks, George Benjamin with what sounded like an exotic ocean cruise; and then Mahler's Third, that vastly ambitious world- within-a-world where 'summer marches in' and a child's vision teaches us simple love.

Brahms's Four Songs for women's voices, horns and harp transported us among some of the composer's most luscious harmonic progressions; and the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus effected a clean and musicianly interpretation.

The Brahms closed with an image of silence, and so when the LSO players multiplied on stage for what Benjamin describes as 'a celebration of youth and music', I wondered how the contrast would work. In the event, it worked rather well. The line-up for Jubilation is formidable almost to a fault: two brass ensembles either side of a sizeable main orchestra, with an extra recorder band to the left, and a steel band to the right. The score opens to an insistent, Reichian pulse, before high-reaching strings conjure up an aural mist and louring brass suggest massive ocean liners close to hand. Might not the murmuring steel band even be the approaching Caribbean coast? Benjamin's versicoloured language often recalls Britten, although his catalogue of musical effects - which includes soft stamping and cymbals hissing like waves - seems wholly his own.

After all this, Mahler's longest symphony. It was a brave juxtaposition, especially as Michael Tilson Thomas maximised its epic dimensions. The opening provided a spectacular curtain-raiser, with its commanding brass, fiercely responsive lower strings and bruising percussion.

The combination of an analytical acoustic and Tilson Thomas's acute ear made for much telling clarification, although I would have welcomed a more jaunty approach to the first movement's raucous central march episode and closing pages. In the Tempo di Menuetto, the smiles were more implied than realised, but the Scherzo was extraordinarily characterful - a mischievous burlesque suggesting clowns among the trees, with a particularly fine lead clarinet and an eloquent off-stage posthorn solo. The high spot, however, was Nathalie Stutzmann's sonorous projection of Nietzsche's haunting 'Midnight Song'.

The last three 'episodes' were played without a break. 'What the morning bells tell me' found a patient chorus gratefully - if briefly - employed. Stutzmann took her study score and followed the musical text of the closing langsam, one of Mahler's finest symphonic farewells and a potent reminder that, in certain repertory, Tilson Thomas seems closer than ever to his adored Leonard Bernstein. And if any work serves to pinpoint the interpretative similarities between these two charismatic musicians, Mahler's Third is it.

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