LSO/Davis, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

It perhaps seems churlish to complain again about the London Symphony Orchestra's (LSO) policy towards new music, when the capital's premier band is about to embark on two weeks with Pierre Boulez.

It perhaps seems churlish to complain again about the London Symphony Orchestra's (LSO) policy towards new music, when the capital's premier band is about to embark on two weeks with Pierre Boulez. But even with the greatest champion of modern music alive today, the LSO is playing works predominantly from the early and mid-20th century, which Boulez has conducted in London many times before.

In its Barbican season, which began with the concert under Sir Colin Davis, the orchestra is offering no music by living composers of major significance, of any persuasion, apart from Boulez himself. Almost all the premieres this year form part of an ongoing series of concertante works composed for the LSO principals. This scheme is a laudable one, giving new works to these outstanding players, who get insufficient opportunities to shine as solo musicians. But the choice of composers to fulfil these commissions is frankly bizarre.

Richard Bissill, whose Sinfonia Concertante for trumpet, horn and clarinet was premiered in London, is the long-serving principal horn of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He writes idiomatically for each of his three solo instruments and very effectively for a large orchestra.

But Bissill's basic materials, drawn from mid-20th century mainstream styles and familiar from much film music of that period, is banal and unmemorable, and - in elaborating it into three movements lasting just more than 20 minutes - he almost always settles for the most obvious, even cheesy solutions. The trumpeter Rod Franks, horn player David Pyatt and clarinettist Andrew Marriner played marvellously. But I could name 50 - perhaps 100 - British composers who would be pretty much guaranteed to have made a more interesting job of this high-profile commission for the Lord Mayor's Concert.

Maxim Vengerov and Davis's account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto was, on a technical level, almost faultless. Davis took the first movement at a sedate tempo, and his soloist later hinted that he just might be finding it too slow. But while Vengerov's penetrating clarity secured moment-to-moment detail and a sense of symphonic evolution, the performance had about it the air of passion relentlessly contained. I had the feeling that, next evening, when the concert was to be repeated, this interpretation would be exactly the same.

Strangely unmoved by the first movement, I was relieved to find the second more flexible in tempo and phrasing; while the finale, though still a bit heavy-handed, at last offered a real sense of immediacy and of give and take between soloist and orchestra. Davis and his players concluded proceedings with an enjoyably characterful reading of Dvorak's most genial symphony, the Sixth; the silky strings and creamy woodwind in the slow movement provided a particular pleasure.

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