Steven Isserlis/Robert Levin, Wigmore Hall, London <br/> LSO/John Adams/Leila Josefowicz, Barbican, London <br/> Early English Organ Project, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Music to die for
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Very occasionally, one hears a phrase so ravishing and truthful that everything else ceases to matter. All those unresolved arguments and nagging regrets fade away, and suddenly it seems that if this is the last sound you will ever hear, then frankly, it's a pretty good way to go.

Steven Isserlis's survey of Beethoven's complete works for cello and keyboard with fortepianist and musicologist Robert Levin was so extravagantly blessed with hear-this-and-die-happy phrases that if I were the Wigmore Hall subscriptions manager, I'd be ringing round the more elderly patrons nervously enquiring after their health. Aside from the luminosity of Isserlis's sound, the most remarkable aspect of this event was the absolute attention to detail. Every note ending, however sharp the decrescendo, however slight the duration, had been considered, every slur shaped, every nuance mapped.

Repeated notes had individual and collective purpose, revealing a thoroughness of preparation few performances enjoy. The variations on "Bei Männern" and "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" are often presented as elegant toys, though, as Levin and Isserlis suggested, Beethoven recognised the loneliness of Mozart's bird-catcher. Through these, and through the Opus 5 and Opus 69 sonatas' play of light and shade, merriment and tragedy, revolution and reflection, this was a strikingly unified, serious performance. But while Isserlis has complete expressive confidence, Levin's understanding of these works is greater than his ability to play them.

A playful, eloquent Mozartian, his technique was sorely stretched, and the sound was either sweet-and-soft or harsh-and-percussive, most notably in the athletic scherzo of Opus 69. Of course, Beethoven calls for both effects, in addition to more subtle or pungent combinations of attack and dynamic. But the tonal range of Christopher Barlow's magnificent copy of an 1826 Graf fortepiano was under-explored and I found myself wishing for Ronald Brautigam or Imogen Cooper instead. Despite this, I feel honoured to have heard as much of this heroic marathon as I did. When it is broadcast on Radio 3 tomorrow, I shall be listening avidly, with the GP on speed-dial.

With some regret, I abandoned Opus 102 for the first of John Adams's two concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. At his very best, Adams is this century's Beethoven, a composer who has consolidated and revolutionised musical style, but he is not a natural conductor. Slonimsky's Earbox needs more assured midwifery than Adams could offer the LSO. And with due respect to The Lexicon of Musical Invective, Nicolas Slonimsky's wince-making history of first-night drubbings of now-canonic works, I wonder how durable On the Transmigration of Souls will be. Put crudely, the orchestration is too plainly symbolic of conflagration and release, the syllabic choral writing too "of the moment" to say as much today as it did in 2002. Nonetheless, the quiet recitation of the victims' names remains startling - not least because the majority of artistic responses to 9/11 have instead focused on those who killed.

By happy contrast, The Dharma at Big Sur, Adams's opulent, melismatic concerto for violectra (a six-stringed electric violin of extraordinary tonal beauty), matches Klinghoffer and El Nino in its technical brilliance, and is as dazzling and evocative a portrait of the Pacific as Debussy's portrait of the Atlantic. Leila Josefowicz and the LSO shimmered like a heat haze, looping long and low over California's cliffs, probing the curious curves of the spaces between the notes in oriental slides and shivers, and dancing in the sunshine like tiny birds. Highly disciplined yet seemingly improvisatory, this was a sensational performance, with a Beethovenian sense of joyful revolution. Pace Slonimsky, I have no doubt it will still be played in 2207.

So from the amplified glamour of the violectra to the meantone fluting of two exquisitely reconstructed Tudor organs. Patrick Russill's calm, dextrous performance of devotional music by Redford, Preston, Blitheman, Tallis and Byrd, with choral interpolations from The Sixteen, was not the intellectual sorbet I had expected. Instead it was a poignant portrait of an age in which rural Britain was full of organ builders and congregations who could de-code musical references to the imperilled Sarum Rite. For a full history of the Wingfield Organ, whose soundboard was found in a coffin house, and its robustly reedy cousin, the Wetheringsett Organ, whose soundboard was recycled as a door, go to rco.org.uk/eeop.

Isserlis and Levin perform all five Beethoven cello sonatas on Radio 3 tomorrow at 7pm

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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