Music: Why Lorin Maazel leaves me cold

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Lorin Maazel/LSO

Barbican, London

Alfredo Perl

Brandon Hall, Warwickshire Britten Sinfonia

QEH, London

I forget the provenance of that piece of schoolboy doggerel, "I do not like thee Dr Fell/ The reason why I cannot tell". But it sums up a problem I have with Lorin Maazel - gut response, resistant to analysis - that resurfaced on Wednesday when he was at the Barbican for the start of a short residency with the LSO.

I should say at the outset that Maazel is one of the most eminent conductors alive, with a remarkable career that stretches back to his childhood. He was conducting at the age of nine. By his early teens he was a seasoned veteran of several major orchestras. Then, instead of vanishing into obscurity like most adolescent novelties, he matured into one of the great power-brokers of the world concert circuit.

He was drawn persistently to Germany (where he set his sights on being Karajan's successor but fell at the last fence), and he ran the Deutsche Oper and Berlin Radio Symphony in the 1960s, Cleveland in the 1970s, the Vienna Staatsoper in the early 1980s. Today, at 68, he is the archetype of the supremely cultivated Europhile American: a polymath who not only conducts but composes, arranges, and plays the violin to concert standard.

You might ask what this man cannot do. And the answer is that he cannot move this critic with his music-making. Naturally I admire him. I acknowledge his technicianship, his ability to get distinctive sound from an orchestra. And the sound of the LSO on Wednesday was exemplary: it had a polished richness, with the strings magnificently silken and the wind immaculate. But all the same, it left me cold. I felt as I did when I heard his last recording - a Stravinsky disc - that it came with presence of mind but not of soul, and with a hauteur that was all too obvious in a concert specially designed to show off his renaissance attributes.

The first half was given over to him playing violin solos with the LSO in tow. It included a piece of his own which was a fluent synthesis of Viennese Expressionism and American Romanticism but didn't amount to much. The most I can say is that it was colourful, with prominent parts for cymbalom and something called a flute a coulisse that looks like it came out of a Christmas cracker. It is in fact the sliding whistle you hear among the forest murmurs of Ravel's L'enfant et les Sortileges. Maazel's violin playing had an attractive, strong, high-gloss tone but was aimless in its elegance. And the whole of this first half felt as lightweight as a Viennese New Year - not helped by an ineffectual assistant conductor wheeled on to beat time in the maestro's shadow.

The second half was more substantial, but even then it was a Tchaikovsky 6 that had everything - poise, polish, preparation - except the ability to touch my heart or make me feel involved. And there you have it. Maybe the problem is Maazel's stick, maybe it's my ears; but what he does just doesn't work for me.

Something that does work for me is the pianism of Alfredo Perl, who is, in many ways, the opposite of Maazel: short on polish but big in appeal. Perl is the Chilean who last year gave a memorable Beethoven Sonata Cycle at the Wigmore Hall. It ran at the same time as a rather grander cycle from Pollini at the RFH, but stood its ground with playing of commitment and integrity. And the sheer pleasure of it made me want to follow his career more closely - which I did last weekend, to a Midlands hotel called Brandon Hall where he was in residence.

It was one of the long- standing series of "Music at Leisure" weekends which have been running in Forte hotels up and down the country for years. Obviously, they are intended to sell rooms and meals. But they are also a significant example of patronage in that the artist's fees eat up the profits. Their chief interest is that they observe a different psychology to that of normal concerts.

The them-and-us divide between artists and audience dissolves into a sort of old-time houseparty where people get up and play. It's just that in this case the people in question are players of international renown. And I should add that it isn't easy for them to be at their best in such circumstances. The formalities of concert-giving survive because they help to generate intensity and focus. A piano in the corner of a hotel lounge doesn't quite do that.

But what you lose in concentration you gain in intimacy, and I enjoyed the close-on experience of Perl's playing very much. Perhaps he hasn't the technique of a Pollini or a Kissin, and just at the moment he's easing himself back into performance after three months nursing a broken finger. But the sequence of Beethoven sonatas he played during the weekend had strength, life, and dimension. The Liszt Preludes that accompanied them were engagingly unaffected. And always, there's a human quality in Perl that lets you feel the challenge of his repertory: you share the effort, and the muscle. Not so many players are so honest.

Much of the efforts of the Britten Sinfonia and its director Nicholas Cleobury are geared these days toward the proposition that contemporary music can be painless; and there were times in their QEH concert on Monday when a spot of pain might have livened things up - starting with the premiere of an all too innocuous piece by Debbie Wiseman (principally a film composer) called Conversation for Orchestra. But Richard Rodney Bennett's Partita was, for all its Radio 2 demeanour, beautifully scored: a kind of haute- couture caught halfway in its metamorphosis to streetwear, with the class still showing.

There was an attractive new piece by David Matthews, Burnham Wick, that developed the composer's long preoccupation with translating landscape into sound. Written in memoriam to Michael Tippett, it observed the synthesis of the exotic and the pastoral in Tippett's music, and those bounding, interrupted dance-figures that sometimes do but sometimes don't take off into sustained flight.

As always with Matthews, there was a mildness of manner in the writing that qualified what I assume to be a final image of wild nature ready to erupt beneath the rural calm. But I enjoyed this piece. It worked. It pleased. And that it happened to be painless was a bonus rather than a point of principle.