MUSIC / Safely in the past: Robert Maycock on Soviet Realism and Taoist ritual

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The Independent Culture
Of the last week's essays in culture shock, the Symphony No 4 by Nikolay Karetnikov takes some beating. The composer, who belongs to the same generation as Schnittke, is a rare Russian example of a common Western phenomenon: discovering Schoenberg and undergoing a conversion. In the USSR of the Sixties that meant social death. He was never promoted, and Monday night's Barbican performance was the work's UK premiere.

Imperious horns and a spiky trumpet invoked Mahler at the start. A tenor sax shifted the orchestral colour, along with the turbulent invention, towards the world of Berg. Yet this was Vienna heard with Russian ears. The work's broad, dramatic outlines, its hammered climax and descent into distant rumblings, belonged back home. As a fusion exercise, which it was presumably not meant to be, it demanded respect for its integrity.

But as a musical encounter? For listeners who had not lived through the age of modernism as radical defiance, it must have seemed worthy and a little grey - like early Maxwell Davies with trousers on. For those of us who have seen this way of writing, in turn, become ossified and academic, the effect was sad. It is almost impossible to hear, except with historical imagination, the freshness and excitement the music would have had when new. Along with the polished playing the BBC Symphony Orchestra can now give it comes an alien quality: safety.

So the outcome was just as much a period piece as the music of Socialist Realism that it reacted against. The irony was given a final twist by programming two products of the Soviet era that tower over their circumstances. Dmitri Sitkovetsky's ice-hard brilliance, poker-faced wit and shapely melodic lines showed exactly what gives Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto its stature.

Alexander Lazarev then went on to conduct the Symphony No 6 by Shostakovich. After the Euro-Russian voice of Karetnikov, this was a reminder that Russia is Asian too, as the long ornate woodwind lines unwound and the finale went its wild and raucous way.

If you expected a culture clash when the Suzhou Taoist Music Troupe played in a church, you would have been surprised. This group of priests from south-east China is currently on the Asian Music Circuit with a rousing mixture of ceremonial and liturgical music which they play on a spectacular assortment of mainly wind and percussion instruments. As is the way with touring packages, any ritual context doesn't really come across: a prayer might be followed by a sensual dance, and then a braying military trumpet. Instead, the players stamp their own engaging personalities on the evening and bring it all together through sheer panache and flair.

They played the South Bank on Saturday, but I heard them the night before at St Mary-in-the-Castle, Hastings, a long half-derelict seafront landmark which is about to enter a new life as a cultural centre. Even now, entering its theatrical, semi-circular space brings a thrill that recalls the early days of the Almeida - and it has better acoustics. It is going to be a major asset for smaller music groups of all shapes and conditions.

Suzhou Troupe: Kingsbridge tonight (0548 821232), Farnham tomorrow (0252 859789)

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