Vengerov & Vanessa-Mae Royal Festival Hall, London Robert Cowan

"Vengerov's tonal silver contrasts with the gold of Itzhak Perlman. In Mae's case, however, the precious metal is still in the making"
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The Independent Culture
Basking was clearly banned In the South when John Eliot Gardiner lunged headlong into Elgar's bracing concert overture. Lean, mean and with some brilliant orchestral playing, Gardiner's swashbuckling survey calmed to accommodate a particularly transparent account of the central "Canto popolare", with warm-toned solo viola work underlining palpable recollections of Berlioz's Harold in Italy. Elsewhere, the pace was swift, textures were keenly attenuated, and Elgar's extravagant structure kept firmly in check - too much so, perhaps, to release the score's potential welter of southern heat (compare Barbirolli). But it was impressive in its own way, as indeed was Gardiner's performance of Mendelssohn's much- underrated Reformation symphony, especially its latter half, where a serene Andante raises the curtain on "Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott" and a joyous Allegro Vivace. Gardiner affected artful transitions; he brought touching simplicity to the slow movement, great exuberance to the Allegro and majesty rather than pomposity to the closing pages. If only he'd relaxed his grip in the first two movements (where Mendelssohn's gossamer turned brittle and the Scherzo was comparatively charmless), all would have been near- ideal.

After aerated Mendelssohn, Bruch's first Violin Concerto provided something of a musical flambe, with Maxim Vengerov fuelling a white-hot solo line against Gardiner's insightful but rather cold accompaniment. Still, the sparks certainly flew, with brilliant trills galore, seamless bowing, aristocratic phrasing and a consistently shimmering E string.

Vengerov is a master fiddler whose tonal silver contrasts with the gold of, say, his older contemporary, Itzhak Perlman, though one suspects that before long he'll be musically rich enough to afford both. However, in the case of Vanessa-Mae, precious metal is still in the making. Mae's Wednesday appearance attracted scores of children and a host of mums and dads, although the hall was by no means full - significantly, given her "pop" status and the supposed pull of so-called "crossover". (Vengerov and Gardiner had virtually packed the house.)

And yet Mae's tender-hearted account of Bruch's adorable Scottish Fantasy had many admirable qualities, including firm, though occasionally rigid, chording, a notably sweet tone and a genuine sense of poetry, most especially in the mini-cadenza just before the work's closing flourish. Diminutive, almost bird-like, she was very much the kid on a high, singing along with the music, adjusting her hair, glancing round the hall, fidgeting and smiling; and when her first solo passage gave way to an orchestral tutti, she visibly sighed with relief. It was no wonder that the first movement prompted spontaneous applause, and what a pleasure it was to observe this youngster away from the junk music and naff videos. Certainly, it was the high-spot of an otherwise worthy but somewhat provincial-sounding concert by the English Sinfonia under Oliver Gilmour, where Schubert's rarely heard overture Des Teufels Lustschloss served as a vigorous opener, Malcolm Arnold's versi-coloured Variations for Orchestra (Op 122) provided plenty of meat for timpani and oboe, and Schumann's Fourth Symphony emerged as notably brass heavy.

The orchestra's greatest strength is its enthusiasm (due, at least in part, to Oliver Gilmour's earnest prompting), a virtue that goes some way towards compensating for an imperfect tonal blend. Still, it was all very splendid, well-meant and warmly appreciated - basking no doubt in the reflected sunlight of Vanessa-Mae's charm.

n Vanessa-Mae plays tomorrow night at Wolverhampton Civic Hall (01902 312030)

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