BBC Festival of Britten, BBC Radio 3

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The Independent Culture

The GPO (and Paul Bunyan) apart, happily Benjamin Britten never felt constrained to "embody in musical form enthusiasm for the new five-year plan". Shostakovich, pilloried by Zhdanov, had little option. Even then, his Festive Overture only finally dazzled after Stalin's death, coinciding with his DSCH-riddled, dance-on-the-grave 10th Symphony.

Shostakovich, Mahler, Copland: John Evans's worthwhile 25th anniversary Festival of Britten in Birmingham emphasised context, if slightly at the expense of Britten himself. Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, like Mahler's Fourth, seemed less integral than Bridge's The Sea or Britten's own wonderful Sinfonia da Requiem: a Cantata Academica or Misericordium, a Violin Concerto or Phaedra might not have gone amiss.

Shostakovich's overture begins like Bliss, waxes like Parry, sports an Eric Coates cello theme and explodes into a filmic crowd scene, Moscow trams and all. Snare-like, sizzling side drum, dervish-like clarinets and a glorious unison in violins one and two set the tone. Symphony Hall's echo chambers – superb for the Remembrance Day War Requiem (a natty bit of timing) – created a sound-wash costly to detail, however, especially amid some over-legato marcati.

German Alban Gerhardt was soloist in Britten's l964 Cello Symphony, written for Rostropovich. A bit shrouded in the tutti, his opening was awesomely Grimesian, the scherzo "inquieto" feverish yet confidential, and the slow movement (Schnittke-like, desolate horns against low cello harmonics) and pre-Passacaglia cadenza, utterly spellbinding. Latterly, Britten almost tumbles into Copland or Bernstein – an appetiser for the next day; while Shostakovich l0, the first movement beautifully sustained by Tortelier's BBC Philharmonic, launches in precisely those mid-ranges Britten shrewdly skirts. There were glorious moments – dark bassoon and contra bassoon yielding to phenomenally low clarinet, capable second violins descanting above the firsts, a gutsily Jewish-sounding solo from leader Yuri Torchinsky. Shostakovich underlines the Mahler-Britten link even better than Mahler himself.

Like McKellar or McCormack, Sir Thomas Allen has the common touch: memory glitches aside, the voice weaves the old magic. The weakness was letting him select from Copland's Old American Songs: Allen's five (no "I Bought me a Cat") rather bumbled from key to key. But "Simple Gifts" and "At the River" were heavenly. And a bonus, Britten's "Down By the Salley Gardens": what instrumentation – divisi cellos, pizzicato versus legato. Brilliant orchestrations, too, in Britten's Matinées Musicales – his Rossiniana, for Balanchine: Britten constantly floors his critics with a single bar. Barry Wordworth, now on home territory with ballet (including Copland's Rodeo), went on, with the razor-sharp BBC Singers and an underused Allen, to deliver Paul Bunyan extracts with aplomb: Robert Johnston's bulky Slim was the star. At Auden's words, "Every day America is destroyed and recreated," a lump comes to the throat: Mayor Giuliani is the modern-day Bunyan.

Britten's War Requiem spoke for itself. Leonard Slatkin's front-rank soloists (John Mark Ainsley, superb in the Pears role; the Kirov's Elena Prokina, smart mit Schmerz, and the stunningly lucid Thomas Mohr, whom Fischer-Dieskau couldn't have bettered.) The choruses (including Ron Corp's New London Children's Choir) were terrific. Leonard Slatkin, the BBC SO and especially Michael Davis's chamber group cherished it as if today's Armistice hung on them alone : how long until we hear it sung by an American, a member of the Taliban and an Iraqi?

Roderic Dunnett

Radio 3's Britten tribute continues to 4 Dec (



OCCASIONALLY, LONDON'S concert "planning" can make festivals by accident. This week brought a Beethoven-and-Lutoslawski theme, thanks to a coincidence more revealing than most programmed series, such as the ones that both concerts were separately part of. More typical was that it put Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 5 on the South Bank for the second time in five weeks, but let that pass, because both orchestras made a feast for the ears.

The London Symphony, still relishing its subtly improved acoustic at the Barbican, had the edge on delicacy and brilliance; the Philharmonia on vigour and dash. That was the right way round for the Lutoslawski, since the LSO had the more fastidious work, his late Piano Concerto. It was the most appealing prospect in the current group of LSO concerts featuring the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes: allusive and teasing music, full of hard-won, lightly worn affection for the art and for the magic of sound. All it lacks, in its fruity apology for a big tune, is material of real character. Andsnes, who invariably performs with extraordinary deftness, imagination and warmth – he made his Janacek encore sound like Schubert – produced one of the finest realisations of a difficult work you could wish for.

For the Philharmonia it was early Lutoslawski, his flamboyant Concerto for Orchestra, one of the great orchestral spectaculars of all time, yet still underrated. The composer patronised it, probably because it came from a time when Polish composers only got work if they used folk-style material, whereas his own tastes were Francophile. But sometimes being made to temper your much-vaunted integrity can produce better results. The music is good at precisely what Lutoslawksi always did well: fine sounds, neat form, ingenious takes on tradition, dazzling surfaces. But its basic stuff is stronger than his more personal inventions. With its skilful fusion of vernacular and art, it now sounds more contemporary than his mature pieces.

It is also very noisy, especially with the hell-for-leather conducting it got from Christoph von Dohnanyi. Whatever the Queen made of it – this was the annual royal fundraiser for the Musicians Benevolent Fund – we are not to know. Afterwards, she listened to a concerto called "The Emperor". Who says the age of quirky Beethoven has passed? Mikhail Pletnev, rounding off a series featuring all the Beethoven piano concertos, made his playing so full of surprises, sudden attacks and pianissimos, daring pauses, that it had the feel of an improvisation. Only a pianist of such intense musicality and technical aplomb could get away with it, but this was love-it-or-hate-it playing of huge confidence and real fascination, which quite effaced memories of Lars Vogt's performance last month.

Just as quirky, in a very sophisticated way, was the Symphony No 3 as conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Starting at a lightweight, high-caffeine pace, it achieved the apparently impossible feat of sounding like a waltz. The music's weight and breadth then crept up on it by stealth, as though surprising itself in the act of composition. Here and in the Funeral March, you could pinpoint the exact moments at which the evolution of the symphonic art turned from Classical to Romantic. Indeed, the latter's climax sounded as though it belonged more to Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, and there were other episodes to please collectors of "MTT goes OTT" moments, such as the outrageous pace of the finale. But as a presentation of Beethoven the impossible risk-taker, freed from the heroic baggage that surrounds this symphony and its one-time dedication to Napoleon, this will take some beating.