Get Carter, Barbican, London

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Pity the person whose job it is to create snazzy titles for a BBC Composer Weekend. I suppose that Get Carter was irresistible for the Elliott Carter retrospective. (He's a small man, but he's in good condition.) And perhaps we should be grateful that 1960s movies have more cachet than 1980s pop, or else last week's celebration of the tireless 97-year-old American modernist would have rejoiced in the name of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.

Retrospectives, however named, have a double purpose: to satisfy existing fans, and to win new ones. But intensive exposure can curdle nascent admiration. Conventional wisdom has it that Carter is a late-flowering genius. Yet the problems in his earlier works reappear in his later works, and the most persistent of these is a lack of bite and balance in the core of the orchestration. Carter's delicate - and indelicate - melodic gestures can be ravishing, viz The Minotaur (1947) and What Next? (1998). Rarely, however, does their relationship to the inner texture wholly convince. Contextualizing one man's music by programming that of his idols - in this case Ives, Schoenberg and Bartok - invites negative comparison. Furthermore, the more complex a work, the harder it is to evaluate its performance. In the end, it comes down to instinct: a feeling that the musicians have produced something more expressive than a blunt realisation of the notes on the page. You look for strange beauty, nuance, and a sense of ownership.

Of the seven "main-stage" Get Carter concerts - several more were given at the Guildhall School of Music - four had that sense of ownership: Michael Collins's poised performance of Carter's Clarinet Concerto with the London Sinfonietta, the Arditti Quartet's String Quartet No 5 (lovely cello, abrasive violins), Rolf Hind's elegant Night Fantasies, and Nicholas Daniel's electrifying Oboe Concerto with David Robertson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are two ways to make modernism sing: by specialising in it, or by bringing your experience of other repertoire to polish and intensify its effects. Daniel's infallible sense of line and rich dynamic range made this most successful of Carter's late concertos the antidote to the assault of Friday night's Piano Concerto: a work in which the weight of instrumentation is too great for the harmonic skeleton, and in which six- sevenths of the supporting septet were overwhelmed by soloist Nicholas Hodges and a frantic BBCSO.

Performances in which the musicians are desperately counting the bars until their next entry make for uncomfortable listening. Should we applaud an orchestra for simply getting through a difficult score? And if we do, what distinguishes art from a decathlon? Despite the standing ovations for Carter, I left the Barbican wondering whether this was the best way to appreciate his music. Before last weekend, I thought I had "got" Carter. Now I'm not so sure.