MUSIC : Whirlwind tour

RPO / Mackerras Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
A dozen trumpets cleaving the sound barrier; timpani skins tightened to their topmost register; woodwind and string trills throwing a dazzling glaze over it all. On Friday at the Barbican, Sir Charles Mackerras rode the final crescendo of Janacek's Sinfonietta like he was making one last bid for the freedom of the Czech nation.

Such advocacy, indeed such programming as this (a full house of Czechs: Martinu, Dvorak, Janacek) is rare in Prague now, leave alone London. All credit to Mackerras and the Royal Philharmonic for that. But challenging work needs time - for preparation, for familiarisation. A piece like Martinu's The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca does not fall readily under the fingers, and to get beyond the fundamentals to the fine-tuning takes a good deal more than bravado. All those wondrous sub-divisions, the complex interaction of detail, the play of colour and light, need more than they received here. Only then can you step back and see the whole picture without feeling, for instance, that those radiant effusions and the close of the first and last frescoes are no more than an orchestra's relief at having finally arrived there in one piece.

But at least the manner was never tentative. Mackerras, master of so many styles, knows all about Slavic plain-speaking. Dvorak Overture In Nature's Realm was ripe and ruddy, even a mite overblown in the brasses. If only more of those earth-tones had rubbed off on Tasmin Little's reading of Dvorak Violin Concerto. She bowed it with her customary honesty and good taste, touching in her fragrant exchanges with solo flute at the heart of the piece. But she is under-selling, under-projecting the bravura elements. The expressive range is too narrow for this repertory. Her playing has potentially much greater reach.

Like the intrepid piccolo and E-flat clarinet and first horn, all of whom go romping right off the top of the stave in Janacek's amazing Sinfonietta. What a performance this was, a whirlwind tour through the Czech heartlands, all the grit and husk and primitivism of the piece back in the musical mix. And such trumpetings as would have saved Gabriel.

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