CLASSICAL MUSIC / Greatest of late starters: Anthony Payne feasts on Chabrier

No more joyously entertaining and invigorating festival could be imagined than the celebration of Emmanuel Chabrier's centenary staged this week by the South Bank. Chabrier's status in this country has always been odd, his critical standing extremely high, his very real popular following based on a fraction of his output.

Although viewed by his contemporaries as partly amateur - he did not compose full-time until he was nearly 40 - he is quickly able to impress everyone with his extraordinary originality of style and vitality of invention. A reputation was born which was never subsequently challenged, and composers as different in temperament and vision as Franck, Debussy and Ravel found in him a figure of great significance, a pioneer of many of those musical elements which the next generation of French composers would employ to establish a newly independent national identity.

It is the short orchestral pieces which have largely kept the composer's name before the public in this country, and it was appropriate that the festival opened at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday with a concert by the English Northern Philharmonia which included such dazzling little masterpieces as Espana, Joyeuse Marche and Fete Polonaise. Chabrier's utterly original ear for orchestral sonority has always been an admired trait along with his daring rhythmic invention, and these characteristics were specially welcome in the Bourree fantasque. This late piano piece, left in an incomplete orchestral version at the composer's death, had been completed for the occasion by Robin Holloway, and it made an absolutely authentic impression.

We also heard the enchanting Gwendoline Overture, indebted - but by no means slavishly - to Wagner and, with the mezzo Ann Taylor-Morley and the ladies of the Opera North Chorus, the sumptuous cantata La Sulamite, precursor of Debussy's early choral pieces. Much of this music must have been unfamiliar to the performers yet Paul Daniel drew singing and playing of infectious enthusiasm. Taylor-Morley sang two groups of songs with the pianist Roy Laughlin, and Roy Howat and Roger Nichols provided four hands at the piano for the droll Souvenirs de Munich - quadrilles on themes from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

The many-sidedness of Chabrier's creative genius has often been overlooked in Britain, especially as exemplified in his operatic music, both comic and serious, and it was enterprising to present Opera North's production of L'Etoile on the following evening. Semi-staged by Phyllida Lloyd under Valentin Reymond's musical direction, it made a hilarious impression. Infinitely more subtle orchestrally than most French operetta and more distinguished on most other levels, the work raises laughs through musical as much as verbal means, and therein lies its special quality. Paul Nilon, Jonathan Best and Alan Oke scored comic points, as did Kate Flowers, Mary Hegarty and Pamela Helen Stephen.