MUSIC / Still all mouth: Nicholas Williams find Larry Alder undimmed by age

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The Independent Culture
The mouth organ, according to the fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music, is a 'questionable blessing', a statement which seems all too true when you think of Bob Dylan, but which ordinary folk might consider a mite too purist.

After all, as with sex and Alan Clark, the issue is really one of class. A proletarian hero, the instrument has a mellow soul and low-brow associations. Though ignored in the colleges of music, it keeps appearing in unlikely places, proving the old adage that where a thing comes from is less important than what you make of it.

Enter Larry Adler, who as everyone knows has been making the most of it professionally for nearly 60 years. His evening with the New London Orchestra at St John's Smith Square last Thursday featured no less than two major works, plus an encore of Bach's Gavotte en rondeau that was followed by a standing ovation.

Those mightly lungs certainly deserve praise, whether for playing the harmonica or delivering a well- turned anecdote on Radio 4's Start the Week. Quite rightly, the main topic of interval conversation among the audience was astonishment that so much puff should belong to a man who's just turned 80.

But what of the music? In a negative sense, Bach's unaccompanied lines are strong enough to withstand any transcription. But the joy of Adler's encore reading was a marvellous subtlety of phrasing and intimate dynamic pallette that could serve as an ideal for violinists learning the original piece.

Vaughan Williams' infrequently heard Romance of 1951 was another treat. Undoubtedly the finest of its composer's late-period offerings of repertoire for unusual instruments, this atmospheric blend of strings, harmonica and piano searched the Second Quartet and the desolate world of the Sinfonia Antartica, to find the instrument's essence in a mood of nostalgic soliloquy.

Less to the point were the gigues and hornpipes of Milhaud's Suite anglaise; their specious jollity seemed a poor substitute for genuinely musical invention. An ingenuous 'Sailor Song' contrasted straight and vibrato harmonica tone in a tranquil interlude.

Even so, the overriding message from the piece was a sense that young composers must write something new for the instrument; and that younger players, wherever they may be, must follow Adler's example and encourage them.

The rest of the concert pursued the Anglo-French theme through some unexpected quarters. There was more Milhaud, at second degree, in his orchestration of Satie's Jack-in-the-Box.

Jacques Ibert's Divertissement, less often heard these days, was a splendid finale, with its vaudeville romp of Mendelssohn quotations from A Midsummer Night's Dream and quirky discords making a suitable finish to this occasion.

The pinnacle, however, was Berkeley's Serenade for Strings in a powerful performance by the orchestra under their conductor Ronald Corp. While the Andantino boasted an enviable refinement of style, the slow conclusion rose to moments of passion in a moving recessional from the tense, wayward Scherzo. Echoes here of Britten and Tippett can be disturbing. But Corp marshalled them into a broader, symphonic view that made the most of this gifted yet still undervalued composer.

Thursday's concert sponsored by Chevron UK Ltd

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