BBC SO / Gamba, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Come back, Lord Hutton. The BBC's up to it again. Lambasting war, prodding politicians, doubting the sanity of our most sacred institutions. If you want subversion, switch over to Radio 3.

Thirty-five years ago, a young Dorset-based Mancunian composer and his Accrington-born contemporary turned British music-making on its head. Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle hit London like a meteor. Birtwistle's Punch and Judy went one further, sending shivers down spines at, of all places, Aldeburgh. Davies wheeled out shocker after shocker: "Revelation and Fall", "Eight Songs for a Mad King", "St Thomas Wake (Foxtrot for Orchestra)", "Worldes Blis". Walkouts, even at the Proms, were legion.

Just two refugees made it to the Barbican door when the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its gifted rising star the conductor Rumon Gamba, served up the last three in a single 70th birthday concert. The baritone Roderick Williams made it to the door, too, and disappeared howling round the Barbican's foyer (its echo, we now know, outdoes St Pancras, near which Davies once lived). "Eight Songs", with its vision of the agonised George III, never ceases to chill the marrow. Neither Williams or anyone can match the astonishing Roy Hart, who could screech whole chords, but looked regal to his fingertips. Williams scored bullseyes when trying less to mimic Julius Eastman's eerie recording than simply being himself. That's what's so fascinatingly good about the work: it's big enough, shivering enough, for each performer to reincarnate himself in the role.

Earlier on, at the adjacent St Giles Cripplegate, the BBC Singers had yielded some thrilling results under Nicholas Kok: they seem to take Max in their stride; a brand new work, "Angelus", a setting of Ficino and Michelangelo that - like Davies's "Leopardi Fragments", "Tenebrae super Gesualdo" and "Roma, Amor" - recalls his Italian affinities, but which also touched on some of his Sixties good/evil obsessions, suggested Davies's choral style, from "O Magnum Mysterium" to "Lullabye for Lucy", has emerged as a kind of intriguing neoclassicism in its own right. More challenging is "Westerlings", his Mackay Brown setting for Uppsala, which dates from 1977 and more than ever, in the superb seascape vocalises, revealed its affinities to his opera The Martydom of St Magnus. The Orkney Pater Noster that concludes is one of many earlier instances of a Davies litany, pre-empting his own recent addressing of the Catholic liturgy.

The excitement of catching "St Thomas Wake" and "Worldes Blis" was almost too much for the many Davies devotees who had gathered. Both works, terrifically played, achieved what Davies aspired to: the first an ironic prism of historic associations and awfulness (war juxtaposed with dance hall), the other an astonishing continuum that laid the groundwork for his symphonies to come.