Pushing Janacek's weird sonorities to extremes

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Mackerras | Barbican Hall, London
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Bill Viola's installation in the Barbican foyer on Tuesday evening showed three people peacefully sleeping. Obviously they hadn't been in the hall. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was opening its season with a hyperactive session of East European music, and raising as much sound and fury as in the whole Proms season.

Bill Viola's installation in the Barbican foyer on Tuesday evening showed three people peacefully sleeping. Obviously they hadn't been in the hall. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was opening its season with a hyperactive session of East European music, and raising as much sound and fury as in the whole Proms season.

It was a 75th-birthday concert for Sir Charles Mackerras, the conductor who is held in higher regard than any of his current British colleagues yet appears here at rare and seemingly random times. That's because he'd rather be doing his homework. For much of his life he has gone where the need takes him for realising the proper performance of the Czech and Baroque music that he's devoted to. If that means tracking down original scores around the world, and working with orchestras that know the old traditions, so much the better for cosmopolitan London when he turns up in the capital to show us what's what.

Nearly half a century ago he made a pioneering recording of Leos Janacek's Sinfonietta, and this rousing and intense score, with its dozen trumpets, gave the celebration a fitting climax. Mackerras's way of ageing is to make his music ever more urgent and immediate. Typically he found fresh perspectives (getting a clarinettist to stand so that a usually half-heard line can emerge with operatic power), but the true character of this performance was in confidently pushing Janacek's weird sonorities to extremes. The woodwind sustained their high lines at high tension, and the BBC violins sounded almost hot.

With the violinist Pamela Frank, Mackerras has also made an outstanding recording of the Dvorak concerto. Frank's tone has a sheen and warmth that need to be heard live, so that the finely sustained lines and virtuoso accuracy can sing out in full immediacy. For all its burgeoning melody and verve, the concerto is still underperformed - maybe because its unusual opening is hard to follow at first - and by securing her own reputation with it, Frank is doing Dvorak a valuable service. Although the solo dominates, the orchestra responded with flair and imagination in exchanges with the horns and in making the finale's plucked cellos dance.

In the first half, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra had been just as tautly delivered, though sheer speed worked against the music's rhythmic definition and the most powerful parts were the slow ones, the most piquant the windows of quiet that illuminate the finale.

This being the BBC, every piece of sugar has to have its pill, and there was a Harrison Birtwistle UK premiere to do the job. And, evidently, reduce the audience. They should have said that the portentously named Sonance Severance 2000 was only two minutes long. With two massive pile-ups, a climax like tearing metal and an epigrammatic afterthought, this was an anti-fanfare - more a mini-tone poem. As usual, you couldn't hear half of what was going on in the big moments, and what you could was ugly. The night's real "sonances" belonged to Janacek.

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