When breast is not best

MUSIC CBSO / Simon Rattle Symphony Hall, B'ham
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The Independent Culture
CBSO's survey of the 1940s for this year's "Towards the Millennium" festival has an almost chameleon quality: each one of that fractured decade's poses has been adopted with conscientious virtuosity. A fortnight ago, audiences were confronted with the horror of war; last week, CBSO opened the door on the 1940s escape route into various forms of idealism: Copland, retreating towards the simple, sunny virtues of the Shakers in Appalachian Spring, rubbing shoulders with Strauss, at home in his study, affecting mature reflectiveness in the last scene of Capriccio. Neither as sharp nor as sophisticated, though just as valid, was Vaughan Williams in mystic mood in the Fifth Symphony.

Building on their experience of the sharp colours of Stravinsky's ballets, Rattle and the orchestra dealt with the clear air of Appalachian Spring with a keen sense of drama. By comparison, Capriccio was a little deadpan, but a healthy conspiracy between Felicity Lott's Countess and the conductor meant that none of the sentiment was unduly inflated. In both these performances there was a feeling of expectation fulfilled.

At first sight, Rattle and Vaughan Williams might not strike everybody as a "dream ticket" where interpretation is concerned. In the event, Rattle's way with the composer's Fifth Symphony was as idiomatic as they come. Indeed, his careful nurturing of the long, underlying bass patterns in the first movement added something memorable and new to a distinguished native line of performances of this symphony.

There was little opportunity for mystic contemplation in the London Sinfonietta's contribution to the festival. Poulenc may well have admired Boulez's Le Soleil des Eaux, but there is a deal of clear water between the younger composer's confrontation with nature and the sensual anarchy of Les Mamelles de Tirsias. Oddly enough, Le Soleil could do duty in two future festivals since Boulez revised it in the 1950s and 1960s. In its final form the cantata offers the ear plenty of substance, even if Boulez is a little hard on the text in the second part of the work. Rattle and the Sinfonietta gave us the piece twice; if this seemed a little too much like a high- fibre diet, Poulenc's unbuttoned Les Mamelles provided almost too much froth.

This bizarre comic opera treats with commendable lack of seriousness a silly problem - namely how to increase the population in time of war. Poulenc dresses up Apollinaire's play with plenty of naughty, neo-Offenbach touches and lashings of full-throated melody, shamelessly plundering the treasure-trove left him by Debussy and Faur.

It's all good fun, even if the joke is stretched to breaking point in places. Barbara Bonney was peerless as the sexually mobile Tirsias and Philip Langridge did excellent things as her reproductively prolific husband. Aided and abetted by a knowing troupe of supporting singers, and wrapped up in a reading of the score from Rattle and the London Sinfonietta which was neat as a pin, the product was both admirable and inadequate. There were chuckles aplenty, but not the belly laughs that Poulenc's absurd parody deserves. Surtitles and well-meaning gestures don't really make up for the thorough-going invasion of body space Les Mamelles demands. For all the witty manipulation of balloons and funny hats, this remained a concert performance.