MUSIC / Sound the counter-revolutionary counterpoint: BBC SO / Davis - Royal Festival Hall / R3

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The Independent Culture
The uncluttered emotion and questing spirit of Berlioz's art allows his music to sit happily beside that of our own age. Capitalising on this element, the BBC has just presented a thought-provoking series of concerts, entitled 'Reinventing the Orchestra', in which his radical instrumental style offered the context for three works by living composers.

The importance of timbre in Berlioz's music - as a profoundly symphonic and not merely decorative element - has been of far- reaching significance: its influence can be traced to today's 'texture' composers. Whether the deeper implications of his explorations were realised in the new pieces is a moot point. With one exception, the new works treated the orchestra fairly conservatively, if often with an enjoyable panache, so that the pieces by Berlioz ended up sounding more truly revolutionary than their modern counterparts.

The Symphonie Fantastique, given a brilliant performance under Andrew Davis in the opening concert (1 Oct), is of course a classic example of Berlioz's orchestral originality. But no less astonishing in its newly minted sonorities is the 'Funeral March for the Final Scene of Hamlet', one of the three rarely heard Tristia which received marvellous performances in the second programme (7 Oct). With its evocation of grieving crowds and cataclysmic events, this music still amazes, as, indeed, do the searingly muted colours of Les Nuits d'ete, superbly realised here by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Ann Murray's heartbreakingly lovely voice.

Of the contemporary pieces only Kaija Saariaho's Du Cristal, on Monday night, really adopted a new attitude to the traditional symphony orchestra. Its use of timbral transformations in a structural context, and its meticulous merging of various textural strands, likened by the composer to her work with synthesisers, do indeed create a fresh range of sonic imagery; and Saariaho's composerly control of her material produced a 20- minute structure of great poetic resource. It was as if some process of nature was inexorably unfolding, and inevitably reminded one of Sibelius's Tapiola.

Similar links could perhaps be felt in Magnus Lindberg's Corrente II (7 Oct). Accepting a more traditional orchestral usage, but thrillingly single-minded in pursuit of its aims, this one- movement structure focuses attention throughout. Its broad harmonic progress, underpinning brilliant toccata-like figurations, achieves a breath-taking impetus; and, if unrelievedly dense in texture and obsessive to the point of lacking contrast, Corrente II is still a splendid achievement.

By contrast, Tristan Keuris's Concerto for Saxophone Quartet (1 Oct) became texturally bogged down by using the lower members of the saxophone family. Its rhythmic progress was lively, however, and there was some fun to be had in its wallowings and bumpings. The Rascher Quartet played with style and, as in all the new pieces, Davis and the BBCSO performed great feats of concentration and dedication. There is surely no finer orchestra in London.