MUSIC / Romantic ironies: Robert Maycock reviews the opening of 'Alternative Vienna' at the South Bank

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The Independent Culture
REMEMBER 'light music'? A fetching few minutes of it turned up in the London Philharmonic's Thursday programme. Disguised as a Violin Concerto by Kurt Schwertsik, it had a captivating way with tunes, which it floated in a mild romantic idiom spiced with friendly 20th-century touches: some Bartok-meets-Hindemith bustle here, a rhythmic subtlety there. The last two movements ended with music of poetic delight: a horn leading simple but artfully timed chords, reiterated as the violin twittered above, and a pounding build-up that threatened to frown but just dissolved. There was enough irony to intrigue, not to disturb.

Expertly written, it went down well at the Royal Festival Hall. Goodness knows why it was given pole position in a heavyweight themed festival, decked out with the usual rationalisations and the title of 'Alternative Vienna'. Viennese, yes, to a smile; even the fine violin soloist, Sergej Stadler, looked as authentic as a cream cake (he actually comes from St Petersburg). There is a serious and thriving Alternative Vienna, not on show here: it was displayed last month in a festival that ranged from bhangra to the Balanescu Quartet. When the music of H K Gruber, the festival's other featured composer, started to turn up in Britain around 1980, it added a welcome freshness to a stifling new-music scene. But if this, now, is alternative, so is Eric Coates.

Franz Welser-Most, conducting the Symphony No 9 by Mahler, followed some dauntingly distinguished London Philharmonic Mahlerians - Haitink, Tennstedt - but gave the music his own stamp. It was not a pretty sound. After three movements, the effect was like taking off a Walkman that has been turned up too high. The end of the symphony was a lightening and a release; the quiet hesitations almost joyous, and unexpectedly convincing.

What went before had been raw, unsubtly shaped (though carefully prepared) and electrifying. The long first movement was hyped up too soon. A certain rigidity worked well in the deadpan ending of the second and the sudden transformations of the third; better than going flabby, but pretty ruthless. Conductors of this symphony need to know about life's batterings and let-downs. Welser-Most is getting there, but he has a dimension to discover.

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