Scarpia: Shining lost generation: Robert Maycock on lost links and fresh influences in new music

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Most listeners sooner or later find themselves playing the 'what if?' game. Suppose Mozart lived to 80, or Schubert kept his health, or Mussorgsky dried out. Then imagine the course of music history if Brahms started writing symphonies when Schubert had reached his 15th, or Debussy and Mussorgsky became close friends and the influence flowed both ways. This week, the object of the game has been the so-called lost generation of European composers who were held in Terezin during the Second World War and allowed to make music, all too briefly, before being packed off to Auschwitz. What would modern music be like if they had survived?

Last Sunday's concert on BBC2 and Radio 3 consisted of pieces that four composers had written in Terezin. It made a strange test of the sympathetic ear. You couldn't avoid 'hearing' the circumstances of the music's origin, and slightly demented or desperate moods would loom large. The playing of the Group for New Music, from Israel, and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Israel Yinon, had much fervour, and all the music carried a heightened charge of emotion.

Three of the pieces fell broadly into the 'after Janacek and Bartok' category, full of humane melodic phrases and vigorous dancing rhythms. Hans Krasa's Tanz and the Trio by Gideon Klein were deftly written, lithe, uneasy. Pavel Haas's Study for Strings got itself bogged down early in a laborious fugue, and manipulated its way back to full vigour with a copious but rather academic supply of ingenious ideas.

The odd one out was Viktor Ullmann's 'Symphony' in D, really an orchestration (by Bernhard Wolff) of his last piano sonata. At first this was a bit like straight Poulenc, classical and poker-faced, but it soon emerged as part of the Mahler succession, and its ability to be perky and sardonic at once came close to Weill. The scoring was expert, full of lurid period character, although the proportions still sounded as if they were meant for smaller forces. But this was a mature work by a composer of wide experience and real individuality.

None of the others sounded as complete, but all had flashes of brilliance, sometimes more. It's harder to guess what might have become of them, but irresistible to speculate that they, and others who never surfaced at all, would have made a difference to what followed. All the music had a directness, a closeness to the vernacular, that was lost in much post-war music and that might have made a mighty reinforcement to the central, slowly evolving tradition that hung on in the music of composers elsewhere - Honegger, Martinu, Milhaud, Martin. Would it have been enough to tip the balance of influence away from the two figureheads who escaped to the United States, Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Would the European centre have held out against those opposite extremes? Maybe, too, British composers would not have pulled up the island drawbridge quite so hard. Britten, after breathing fresh air in America for a while, still had a cosmopolitan openness when he came to write The Rape of Lucretia in 1946; as everybody remarks, it's the words that restrict it, not the music.

Currently at the English National Opera, in a revival of the 1983 Graham Vick production, with David Parry conducting, the score alternately dazzles and moves, its heart and head clearly at ease with the mainstream that runs from the Bach Passions, in its great 'aria without voice', to the spiky vigour of the then contemporary Terezin generation. This is a revival to catch for its singing, notably Jean Rigby's Lucretia, her voice's lower registers more eloquent than ever.

Once established back home, Britten cultivated his own garden. That seems to be the way here: go out and grab your exotic ideas young, then settle down. But with two older composers whom the Lindsay Quartet programmed together at the Wigmore Hall, the openness has lasted. From Tippett in his eighties - the almost-new Quartet No 5 - you expect it. Geoffrey Poole's Quartet No 2, though, is the product of that rare thing, a composer in his mid-forties with questing instincts still intact. Africa was his stimulus; not for 'exotic' superficial colour, more as a means of extending scope and technical range. There are those who scorn mixed cultural influences; here is a reminder that when a once-dominant culture is unsure of itself, an injection of outside vigour may be just the prescription.