MUSIC / The art of profound exhaustion: Robert Maycock on Wednesday's Proms by the BBC Philharmonic and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, on Radio 3 and at the Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF this year's tricks is to run two similar Proms on the same night. Does it tempt people to stay on - more, say, than making the late-night concert a complete contrast? Or is it too much of a good thing? If I had been a speculative promenader I would have been content to go home well-satisfied with Wednesday's first round of classical and 20th- century orchestral music, and especially with the steady, sombre view of Shostakovich's Symphony No 15 that Sir Edward Downes drew from the BBC Philharmonic.

The season has proved a good one for this orchestra, though the playing here showed a different kind of distinction from the sensuous and dynamic performances given with Yan Pascal Tortelier. Programme notes and radio commentaries made, as usual, much of the music's enigmas and secrets. This time it sounded different again: the quotes from Rossini's William Tell were subdued and puzzled rather than satirical, and the symphony's lack of fire - only one big moment, and even that is not sustained - turned into an asset. One way or another, this seemed the art of profound exhaustion. Its static ending in vast quiet string chords was not serene but simply inescapable, and its ear-tickling self-quotations like a reminder of what might have been.

A more biting tone for the Britten Piano Concerto brought it near to the brittle and wry impact of earlier Shostakovich. Heard on Radio 3, a pianist who has the weight to project into the hall can sound larger than life, but the excitement and precision of Leif Ove Andsne's playing came across as surely as the power. Andsnes, who fell for the piece after hearing Richter play it, said on air that he could not understand its neglect - a view easy to sympathise with on the night. The morning after, though, the concerto seems long for what it has to say, with at least one waltz too many. Still, the poses it strikes are full of the young composer's fresh discoveries, and the swaggering climax straight out of Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges makes a splendid theatrical coup.

Nicely built from this centrepiece, the programme had begun with the William Tell Overture, in which the principal cellist, Peter Dixon, set up what was to be an evening of fine cello solos. Those who stayed on (or, like me, arrived) for the Australian Chamber Orchestra found a brilliant and sensitive ensemble at the end of a long European tour and sometimes sounding it. The playing lacked the intimate spontaneity that is one of the chief joys of chamber-orchestra concerts. But it phrased with consistent finesse as it ran through an impressive repertoire of styles: stylised and a touch fussy for early Haydn, full-toned and free for Peter Sculthorpe, and in Mozart's Symphony No 40 finding at times as neat a poise between personal expression and classical formality as you could hope to hear.

Taking all the repeats, Richard Hickox kept speeds unhurried but lively (except in a sleepy Andante), so that the peak of intensity arrived when the finale's ending plunged straight back into the disruptions of mid-movement. Lucid textures were a strong point - Mozart's bassoon lines could float through without having to be pushed into the foreground - and lucidity marked everything the orchestral strings played beforehand. Steven Isserlis, in Haydn's C major Cello Concerto, found dimensions of robustness and feeling to complement the orchestral style, and during the finale gave a superb display of unforced virtuosity.

Sculthorpe's Lament for Strings, a UK premiere, reworks music from 20 years ago into a little double concerto: haunting melody in dialogue between violin (Richard Tognetti) and cello (Cameron Retchford) over distinctively flavoured harmonies and long-held bass lines, with a central episode of freely revolving figures. The piece's tenderness and lyrical intensity recall another arrangement for string orchestra, the Barber Adagio, whose success it could easily share. Sculthorpe must be overdue to start reappearing in European programmes. No doubt his music has seemed too lush and approachable for critical correctness here, but times have caught up and this distinctive voice from Australia ought now to be commanding the same attention as his equally engaging American contemporaries.

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