MUSIC / White males, dead or alive: London makes amends to Janacek with a long weekend at the Barbican, and Boulez comes to Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
IF ONE has to spend time with two 20th-century musical radicals it's as well to make sure that they come from opposite ends of the spectrum. Luckily, Janacek and Boulez could hardly be further apart in attitude or production. With Janacek, every note is a means of expressing the things that move man, while Boulez, with Gallic detachment, goes in search of a purity untrammelled by emotion, in both composition and performance.

The BBC's policy of featuring dead (as opposed to live) white males at the Barbican Centre paid handsome dividends in last weekend's Janacek mini-festival. The focus of the weekend was the composer's least audience- friendly opera, From the House of the Dead, in a concert performance. A nice touch was the reconstruction on Sunday afternoon of the concert of Janacek's works that was performed in honour of the composer's visit to London in 1926 - an act of restitution, since Britain was in the grip of the General Strike at the time and the audience at the Wigmore Hall reflected the lack of public transport.

The first concert of the festival gave everyone an idea of the range and commitment of the planning. Not only was there the emotionally draining song-cycle, The Diary of One Who Disappeared, but the evening concluded with three orchestral works from Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Caution is never a quality to deploy in a performance of Janacek, and here it sapped the Diary of genuine impact. It didn't seem the best of ideas to put the work in the first half, either: there is not a lot that can follow the tenor's final, triumphant shout as he goes off with his gipsy lover - least of all a gin and tonic in the bar and a return bout with a symphony orchestra.

Leo Marian Vodicka sang with more than enough passion but projected little feeling of the life- changing events that happen to the One before he disappears. This may have had something to do with Sarah Connolly's Zefka, with bare feet and vaguely gipsy shawl - attractive enough, but not exactly alarmingly seductive. Her contributions felt more like a chat about the facts of life with your older sister than the promise of dark and rich experience.

No one could accuse Andrew Davis of failing to deliver in Taras Bulba. The crunching cadences at the end can rarely have sounded so impressive. The BBC SO supported superbly at the climaxes, but they seemed less happy in the more frantic stretches of passage work: string lines were at times fractured and wind intonation was variable. They may, after all, have had their eye on the operatic main event of the weekend, and the realisation by Faltus and Stedron of the incomplete Danube Symphony is by no stretch of the imagination familiar repertoire.

Although it is virtually plotless, From the House of the Dead can generate almost overwhelming power, particularly when played as an almost continuous whole. Davis's way with the score, as we should expect from a seasoned Janacekian, was for the most part impressive; the only major failure was in not quite conveying the full import of the hideous march at the end - audiences should be reduced, if briefly, to stunned silence after this ghastly conclusion.

Elsewhere, he shaped the substantial stretches of orchestral music with care and feeling for the frighteningly realistic drama that suffuses the work. The delivery of the solo roles was much more variable, though, and Welsh National Opera's chorus, without a stage on which to project their considerable talents, seemed strangely muted. The singers who were prepared to ignore the concert setting got far more out of the drama than the ones who simply stood and sang. The roles of the Young Prisoner and the Prostitute are minimal, but a determined effort by Paul Harrhy and Fiona Kimm to act them out produced a moment of telling pathos. Among the more substantial roles, Stefan Margita's Shapkin emerged with enormous strength, though no one equalled Russell Smythe's Shishkov for clarity and passion.

CLARITY without the passion is on the menu in Birmingham for Pierre Boulez's visit. Undaunted by a chaotic wave of minimalism, neo-tonalism and frank reaction to his theories, Boulez has been preaching the word, zapping the intellectually lazy and generally charming all those with whom he comes in contact. His breathtakingly straightforward approach to the Five Orchestral Pieces by Schoenberg in Symphony Hall last Thursday night left me wondering why they should ever have posed problems for the listener. His advocacy of Webern's two cantatas, notwithstanding a somewhat vibrato-laden contribution from the BBC Singers, was also persuasive. But his way with the 1911 Petrushka was an altogether different matter. At first the eidetic lucidity he got from the orchestra seemed something to marvel at, even if the CBSO was not exactly on top form. But as the work progressed and incidents came and went with an astonishing lack of dramatic emphasis, the performance felt more and more like a lesson in orchestration: of Stravinsky's narrative there was barely a trace.