MUSIC / The ghost at the musical feast: Jan Smaczny on the third part of Simon Rattle's retrospective festival, Towards the Millennium, in Birmingham; plus education all around

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Coming round for the third time, Towards the Millennium's yearly cycle has now reached the Twenties. Tuesday's CBSO concert exposed the giddy as well as the more angst-ridden side of that post-war decade. Shostakovich and Berg in the first part seemed unlikely bed fellows, but not half as odd as Varese and Gershwin in the second. Connections are fun to spot in all this variety; one of the most obvious is a source of mutual influence. In the case of three out of four of the composers represented the ghost at this particular banquet was Stravinsky. In Varese's Ameriques he threatened to become an almost corporeal presence.

Given the sharply observed colours present in Rattle's interpretation of Shostakovich's Symphony No 1, Stravinsky began to emerge in the opening trumpet and bassoon solos. Even more entertaining was an East-meets-West approach that gave the brassy tuttis of the first movement a Stars and Stripes quality. Written around Shostakovich's 20th year, this symphony can sound too precocious for its own good, not least in the brisker passages. Not all was well in these: the strings almost missed the woodwind in a fiercely up-tempo performance of the Scherzo, and quite a lot of the rushing around in the finale was not as neatly dovetailed as it could have been. But, on the whole, there was more of the ardour than the unctuousness of youth: Rattle and the orchestra were unashamed in the overblown passages and suitably tender in the gentler ones.

If Stravinsky seemed to nod occasionally from the distance in the Shostakovich, he positively glared at us from the Varese. Ameriques sounded like the wish-fulfilment of a composer who really wanted to have written The Rite of Spring. Sounds, rhythms, thematic fragments and compositional gestures familiar from The Rite abound in this weirdly atrophied score. Varese covers his tracks with some idiosyncratic gestures, a strangely oriental style in the later parts and an ever-present siren, which threatens to subvert the earnestness of everything else around it on grounds of sheer hilarity. Conductor and orchestra refused to give in, flinging themselves into each new outrage and generating a terrific climax.

The CBSO followed the work of a Frenchman in America with that of an American in Paris. Gershwin's beguiling fantasy saw the orchestra opening up like flowers in the sunshine after rain. Rattle and his players are seasoned hands with Gershwin's particular brand of jazz-inflected symphonism and they gave themselves up to the elegant boulevarderies of An American in Paris as enthusiastically as they wallowed in its 'bluesy' passages.

The odd composer out - Stravinsky does, after all, wink at us once or twice from the pages of An American in Paris - was Berg. With Elise Ross as a committed Marie, the players pumped a massive injection of drama into the Three Fragments from Wozzeck. The stray Mahlerian lines were greeted like old friends and, without surrendering an ounce of theatricality, the whole was a study in sustained lyricism.

The real joy of the concert was the way in which the band adjusted to the differing sound world of each work. The result, as befits such a varied decade, was that more questions were asked than answered.

Concert repeated tonight, 7.30 Symphony Hall, Birmingham (021-212 3333), and live on BBC Radio 3