LSO / Franck, Barbican Hall, London
People often notice how many successful composers Finland has produced. But the number of internationally active conductors is just as remarkable: Berglund, Kamu, Segerstam, Salonen, Saraste, Vanska, Oramo, all in a few decades. That's more than Germany, for heaven's sake. And the latest phenomenon is in his early twenties.
Mikko Franck has just started to occur outside the Nordic countries. He is lined up to be music director of the Belgian National Orchestra, an irresistible and ear-catching link for somebody who shares his surname with Belgium's most famous dead composer. At his age, flair and a quick mind usually come before individuality, so it was bold to make his London Symphony Orchestra debut with a symphony, Mahler's No 5, that the musicians have played with some of his most distinctive predecessors.
He laid out his more subtle credentials of musicality first by accompanying Alice Coote in Mahler's song cycle Kindertotenlieder. This he did immaculately, with just a few hints of quirks: sharply moulded woodwind lines and a certain freedom of pulse, especially for the horn solos in the first song. Any wise conductor would realise that all ears would be on Coote's astonishing voice, and he kept with her as closely as you could wish.
With contralto-tinged tone and a maturity of phrasing beyond her young years, she can convey great emotion – the songs are about children who have died – by variation of colour and weight and by simply letting the words speak. The gamut from sorrow to despair to acceptance was run with directness and, when chosen, vocal power. It would be too parochial to call her a fine successor to the British contralto line, because her idiomatic awareness and repertoire are far broader – shame that she claims to sing nothing later than Britten, though.
The symphony certainly had a performance unlike anybody else's. Franck knows what he wants and how to get it, and it's only fair to point out that he won the orchestra's vigorous applause. But is it what anybody else wants? He seemed out to make his mark by the tried and tested route of getting in the way of the music. The beginning was very slow, with over-emphases in the main melody. This gave a grandeur like the outset of Mahler's No 3, much younger music, but it meant that the performance reached its peak of intensity in the first few minutes. It was destined to last nearly as long as No 3, too.
There was no way to go but slower. The dragging effect of the melody's return was impressive, but when it kept coming back at the same pace in the next movement, the tension began to sag, continuing through the cellos' meditation and its sequel, to one of the longest-drawn climaxes since the last days of Leonard Bernstein, only without the latter's drama and daring. Extreme, sustained demands on the brass were heroically met, especially by the principal trumpet.
The Scherzo's stodgy pace slackened again until it nearly stopped dead. Best, because simplest, was the start of the Adagietto, which was allowed to sing freely, though the later stages turned stiff and then static. Plenty of redeeming features kept interest alive through the mannered phrasing. Franck kept a clear balance among the teeming, superimposed musical lines, and made the lines themselves eloquent. He had a good sense of timing, as when he managed to bring the Scherzo back to life.
The finale's easy-going pace would have sounded just right after a more frenetic approach to the symphony's first half-hour. If everything had shown the vitality of the end, it would have been quite something. As it was, this was a performance whose ideas didn't add up. But at least it had ideas, and that makes Franck a musician to watch.
Stan Sulzmann Quartet / John Taylor, Vortex, London
The roots of jazz are planted so firmly in black America that other influences are sometimes seen as grafts that fail to take, or simply distractions. But seeds from the great tree of jazz produced saplings in this country long ago, and grown in the different earth of these isles they have developed into a distinctly British variety. Stan Sulzmann and John Taylor are among the foremost exponents of this tradition, notable for a harmonic edginess, pastoral shades, and a strong streak of melancholy. Their natural home seems to be somewhere like the Vortex, a slightly shabby Stoke Newington venue resolutely wedded to content over style, where the uncompromising pursuit of jazz will always be the raison d'être. Taylor looks rather like Bernard Cribbins, and Sulzmann is not likely to trouble the pages of men's magazines, but they are far more worthy of praise than some other musicians who have been granted entry into the hip club by self-appointed cultural commentators.
Taylor's compositions were strongly featured in the concert. They have an unsettling quality to them, the harmony moving unexpectedly, restlessly, defying the listener to work out how it is going to resolve. In one, "Quatorze Two", his piano-playing contained much that would be familiar to followers of modern classical music, and then surprises such as a discordant, jagged rag. The piece swirled around the group (John Paricelli on guitar, Martin France on drums, Steve Watts on bass and Sulzmann on tenor saxophone), the disparate elements coming closer, as though they were bodies orbiting round an inner core that anchored them no matter how far they drifted from it.
In another, "Ambleside", the whole band seemed to be taken over by a force that drove them on: they were not interpreting the music, the music was speaking through them.
On tenor saxophone, Sulzmann was measured, occasionally letting us glimpse the power he has over the instrument. He has the maturity to say only what he wants to, making the spaces between the notes speak as much as the notes themselves. On soprano saxophone, he showed mastery that few possess on a horn that can sound shrill. His plangent tone was so thick that one wondered how it could escape from the soprano's tiny bell.
John Paricelli's "Noah" deserves a special mention, a molten, anthemic tune reminiscent of Coltrane's religiously inspired compositions, and the band had the audience silent and entranced in a stunning rendition of Kenny Wheeler's "Old Ballad".
The Vortex is simply the best place to hear this kind of music, but this cramped, out-of-the-way, wonderful venue will shut for good in the summer if it does not raise a six-figure sum. It cannot be allowed to happen.
Vortex Jazz Benefit Spectacular at Ocean, London E8 (box office: 020-7314 2800), on Thursday, will feature John Williams, John Etheridge, Mornington Lockett and othersReuse content