live review: Robin Holloway premiere Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Robin Holloway's Second Concerto for Orchestra was, in its composer's own words, "a hard act to follow". But follow it he has, after a long, and apparently painful, gestation; and the new Third Concerto for Orchestra, Op 80, was given its premiere by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican on Tuesday.

For those who know the Second Concerto (thanks perhaps to the Gramophone Award-winning NMC recording), comparison will be unavoidable - but it won't be to the new work's disadvantage. Interestingly, both were conceived while travelling abroad. The Second Concerto partly stems from a North African holiday, and some of the bizarre and wonderful sounds Holloway heard there (eg "the polyphony of hammering, tapping, thudding, tinkling, bashing" in the workshops of the old cities) found their way into the score. Ideas for Concerto No 3 arrived "on the spot" during a trip through South America - musical impressions of the Great Brazilian Swamp, the Silver Mountain of Potosi, Lake Titicaca and the Bay of Bahia are, respectively, the basis of the four linked movenents.

But while Concerto No 2 seems to hurtle forward, despite meditative pauses and parentheses, the prevailing tempo of No 3 is much slower, even when the surface is animated. The opening is sombre, bass-heavy, its cultivatedly muddy textures enriched by contrabassoon, contrabass clarinet, low piano and tuba. Just as in nature, many of the work's leading ideas can be felt to evolve fron this primal soup. As in No 2, that evolution can be dream- like rather than dialectical in the traditional symphonic sense; and yet it is felt - there's a powerful psychological undertow that carries the listener even when surface events are momentarily confusing.

The Third Concerto was written for the LSO, and in a sense one could say they got the work they deserve. How many other British orchestras could have made so much of Holloway's sumptuous colours and textures and sonorous climaxes? This is the most obvious sense in which the work is a "concerto" for orchestra. Scintillating virtuosity (another LSO speciality) is much rarer, though, and the passing of the spotlight from flutes to clarinets, oboes to bassoons at the start of the third movement is one of the few passages in which Holloway goes in for sectional display in the manner of Bartok or Tippett.

So Holloway's Third Concerto for Orchestra has no obvious ancestors? So much the better. This is a unique sound-world, so individual in essence that it can echo other works in passing (including, strangely, a version of the "fate" rhythm from Berg's Violin Concerto) without compromising that individuality for a second. And while this is in many ways a true product of the very-post-modernist Nineties, there are "untimely" aspects too - notably Holloway's use of silence (something that many composers today seem desperate to avoid). Not all the silent pauses worked here, but they will surely improve as the players get to know the work better, which - it goes almost without saying - they must do. Critics often write that it would be "useful" or "valuable" to hear a work again, but I wonder how often we mean that we would really like to hear it again? In this case, very much so.

STEPHEN JOHNSON

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