MUSIC / Retracing the tracks

London Philharmonic - Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
New works for tuba are rare, so the London Philharmonic was lucky to have one by its composer-in-residence, Harrison Birtwistle, to conclude its "Brass Blast" festival on Monday. But the real triumph was the concert itself: warmly received in a pa cked QEH with a programme that both challenged and charmed through the medium of recent and early music.

One bonus was the conductor Elgar Howarth's stunning brass version of Byrd's suite The Battel. Another was Hakan Hardenberger, trumpeter by appointment to today's composers, and prime exponent of Birtwistle's Endless Parade. If his presence brought in the crowds, so much the better. Getting the message across involves manner as much as matter, and Hardenberger's platform grace, and joy in what he plays, guides and beguiles the wary newcomer. His entry after the interval, when we had already heard The Cry of Anubis, and Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind in the later, 1947 version, quickened the pulse and strengthened a sense that the entire evening was a Birtwistle scenario: not moving from start to finish with terminal exactitude, but turning in elipses that retraced earlier moves from different angles.

Endless Parade, a fantasy for trumpet, vibraphone and strings inspired by a carnival seen from the narrow streets of Lucca, implies this in a single work. The Cry of Anubis, with bells and harp in close harmony with Owen Slade's delicate and poetic tuba tone, made the same point in relation to the output as a whole. Here was another of Birtwistle's ritual journeys enacted by a mythic archetype: this time, the jackal-headed guardian-god of the Egyptian dead who was also a key figure in his recent opera, The Second Mrs Kong.

The material turned out to be independent, not only from the opera itself, but also in the way that the composer often uses simultaneous strands of different musical substance offset by overlaps. An important thematic trail of plucked cellos and basses and a surge of woodwind like the cry of a sacred ibis were recurring elements. Meanwhile, the god himself, the tuba, sang in craggy melodic spans, rising and falling by jagged steps over a wide compass, or lingering on deep, repeated notes. On this leisurely progress a haunting phrase of plainsong simplicity seemed an important landmark. But the most conclusive gesture came last: tuba and timps in stark duet before a close for whispering strings.

If Birtwistle's strength lies in tension between provisional foreground and half-glimpsed epic form, Stravinsky's lies in the fine measurements that encompass every aspect of a piece; which makes the two versions of the Symphonies of Wind an intriguing case of creative revisiting. Not all the detail of the 1920 score was here fully grasped, but it was good to hear the opening, less plangent and spiky than usual, and the subtle duets for alto flute and basset horn. Stravinsky's revisions involved both loss and gain.