From the Grammar of Dreams, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; <br></br>Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall, London

If this is the new Sibelius, I'm a jojoba plant
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The Independent Culture

What do you want from music? Stopping short of standing outside Sainsbury's with a clipboard, I've been asking people this question all week. The answers vary - no surprise in a medium of such compass - but the common thread is transport.

Now whether this transport is to someone else's culture or to different engagement with one's own is a matter of personal taste. But at the high-end of the process something truly remarkable can occur; synthesis of thought and emotion that not only holds the listener for the duration of the performance but continues to colour their perceptions after its close.

This is the stuff that sticks in your brain and your heart, making it possible to recapture the first time you heard Sarah Vaughan or Gustav Leonhardt or The Clash. This is the stuff that causes rows, that binds and breaks affairs and friendships. So why settle for anything less? Because there's an wful lot of it out there and the bottles it comes in are seldom clearly labelled.

Do you know the kind of stuff I mean? I 'm talking about the sort of music commonly termed "transfixing" or "hypnotic" (both very passive states). The sort of music that claims to appeal to one's soul (rather than one's brain) and is only ever performed in an obfuscatingly reverberant acoustic or with the benefit of artificial echo. The sort of music which lifts its audience a few inches from normal activity and then leaves them there;suspended in meditative nothingness like musical flotation tank. The sort of modish mood-music the Contemporary Music Network is currently pushing.

Perhaps the way in which this tune-in zone-out aesthetic was applied to Fretwork's CMN programme of two weeks ago should have served as a warning, but I was still taken aback by the sheer blandness of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's From the Grammar of Dreams. Hailed as the natural successor to Sibelius - a statement as ludicrous as likening the breathy platitudes of Irish chanteuse Enya to John Field's Nocturnes - Saariaho's music and its presentation reek of the aromatherapy salon, or, more precisely, the aromatherapy salon some minutes after the departure of an oiled and perfumed Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Save for a somewhat prettier staging, the intertwinings and coyly dissonant trills of her two sopranos, flute, harp and viola owe much to Stockhausen's tedious Licht. Saariaho's few distinctive ideas - the chain of descending scales in Il Pleut and the guttural gasps of the two sopranos in the title movement - are blurred by wash of superimposed echo and electronic filler.

The overall effect is one of diffuse semi-seriousness. Which wouldn't be so bad had she chosen diffuse, semi-serious texts rather than Plath and Apollinaire's urgent, hyper-intellectual tussles with oblivion and identity. God knows there's plenty of bad poetry ready to be set, but texts like these deserve more astute interpretation.

Hand on heart, this event is not one I can recommend. The performance - with the exception of the excellent harpist Ulrike von Meier - is one that could be bettered by finalists from any reputable conservatoire, the music too.

Maurizio Pollini's solo piano recital of the following evening probably did more to spread the cause of (relatively) modern music. It's simple really: lure people in with the promise of the Appassionata, loosen them up with Brahms and stick in the tricky stuff just before the interval. Guess what? The audience was excited and apoplectic in equal measure." This is infantile music!" roared the tipsy, posh saxophonist at the bar, "I am really suffering!".

So was I. For while Pollini played with delicious care and exquisite concentration throughout Webern's Opus 27 Variations and Stockhausen's Klavierstücke V and IX, he splashed his way through Brahms and Beethoven like an angry fisherman with waders on. Is he bored with Beethoven after all these years? Not completely.

There were moments when he slowed down to langorous pace, seemingly attracted afresh to Beethoven's harmonic invention, but on the basis of this recital it seems Pollini's heart is in the radicalism of the 20th - not the 19th - century. And if Stockhausen and Webern can still engage and enrage an audience some 50 and 60 years on, who can blame him. Relaxation? Pah! Give me stress anyday.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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