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The law of diminishing returns

MUSIC LPO / Zubin Mehta RFH, London
"You might say that Richard Wagner was the Queen Victoria of Europe..." said Zubin Mehta in a delightfully off-the-cuff pre-concert chat. "He had musical children everywhere!" Sunday night's audience laughed and applauded, relieved no doubt that a mini-exodus prior to a Webern sequence hadn't spoilt the atmosphere. And Wagner did indeed provide the linchpin for both Mehta's LPO concerts at the Royal Festival Hall - with a disciplined, neatly inflected Rosamunde overture as Thursday's curtain-raiser.

Mehta then went on to conduct a structurally sound performance of Berg's Violin Concerto where Pinchas Zukerman's echt-Viennese handling of the first movement's lndler sections offset the occasionaltonal abrasiveness. It was a worthy account of the score, sweet, even a little cloying, but hardly the meeting of minds one needs in this work.

Elgar's First Symphony, however, was something of a revelation. Mehta chose a controversially broad tempo for the first movement, with dark, expressively weighted phrasing that suggested symphonic logic rather than dramatic inevitability. The Scherzo had real swagger; the Lento, a Brahmsian glow; and, if the finale took time to ignite, its final pages fair leapt from the stage. Mehta himself retained relative physical composure, leaning rather than leaping; whereas, on Sunday, he all but swam the Rhine for a plush and rhetorically distended Gtterdmmerung suite.

The soprano Jane Eaglen was indisposed, but vocal compensation arrived courtesy of Bryn Terfel, whose grainy bass-baritone and interpretative intelligence suggested fatherly compassion in Mahler's disquieting Kindertotenlieder. Mehta and the LPO provided a warmly accommodating accompaniment, making chamber music where othersoverstate the case. Still, the last song's bluster and regret were more than enough for some.

Come the Webern, and a faint-hearted minority left. Had they stayed, the LPO's advocacy might have changed them for ever. First, Webern's Op 1, his Passacaglia, revisited virtually everything worth hearing in fin de sicle musical Germany, raging with all the heat of Valhalla but tempered by impressive instrumental economy. Then came the Six Pieces, Op 6 - eerie, furtive, inwardly dramatic music and with a central Marcia funebre that initially whispered among quiet gongs, then tensed for what proved the evening's most terrifying crescendo. A veil of silence surrounded the final Langsam, then - beyond some grateful applause - the orchestra retired and the stage was re-set for Webern's "difficult" Concerto for nine instruments, Op 24.

Back on stage, Mehta edged over to a microphone. "I'm glad there are more than nine people in the audience!" he laughed, before going on to explain the tapering process from Wagner to Webern, to illustrate the music's "tone rows" and to provide some useful pointers for the uninitiated. And, yes, the exegesis worked: Webern's Concerto not only sounded meaningful, it was actually cheered. Could even Bernstein have achieved more? Or, to quote one audience member, "Versatile guy, this Mehta. First he gave us The Three Tenors, now it's The Three Tone Rows!"

Robert Cowan