MUSIC / Colours to catch the ear: David Fanning on Stravinsky at the Halle and the BBC Philharmonic's Judith Bingham premiere

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The Independent Culture
Kent Nagano's Philharmonia recording of The Rite of Spring was cited in a recent radio documentary as an example of a conductor unashamedly using studio technology to heighten clarity of orchestral detail. But with his own orchestra, in its own by no means ultra-analytical Free Trade Hall, he proved that most of that detail is achievable without recourse to artificial aids.

This was a gourmet Rite: every timbre subtly spiced, every rhythmic nuance savoured, every detail of balance fastidious to the point of over-refinement. And it was fast, at times beyond the point of excitement. What lies beyond excitement? In this instance, a kind of streamlined aquaplaning, a sense of skimming the character of the music rather than allowing it to register fully.

All the same, Nagano's conception was so meticulously prepared and so faithfully executed, and the new sonic perspectives it opened up were so fascinating, that it largely succeeded in setting its own terms. It certainly held the attention more consistently than his musically shaped, but less than ideally atmospheric account of the Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica. Forty years after its Halle premiere this remains a problematic piece, all too easy to make sound nave. It needs the Nagano Rite of Spring treatment, arguably rather more than does the Rite itself.

Down the road in BBC Manchester's Studio 7, the BBC Philharmonic gave the premiere of Judith Bingham's Chartres. This is a 35-minute work in seven continuous movements, conceived as a kind of guided tour bringing to life various images and symbolic associations from the interior of Chartres Cathedral. It abounds in ear-catching ideas, many of them having considerable rhythmic gusto, all well heard in a rich harmonic idiom and attractively scored.

Not surprisingly, Messiaen looms large as an influence. But the colours are less vibrant than his stained-glass effects, and the contrasting textures unfold more rapidly and seamlessly. Perhaps that's what provoked thoughts of Andre Jolivet, Messiaen's colleague in the Jeune France movement. Perhaps it's also why the ultimate impression was of a rather diffuse structure - so many promising ideas seemed to be dropped before having their mettle tested and without the chance to generate a strong sense of overall accumulation.

The performance, energetically conducted by Jane Glover, offered every incentive towards repeated hearings. There was an educational dimension: seven inner-city schools took part in projects creating their own musical responses to the images used in Chartres. The remainder of the programme was well chosen, although Roussel's Pour une fete de printemps emerged as a rather harmonically constipated piece, and the highly talented young Swedish pianist Peter Jablonski is clearly as yet still feeling his way into the idiom of Ravel's Concerto in G.

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