Towards the Millennium Royal Festival Hall
The mirror ball on the programme cover for the 1970s slice of the South Bank's Towards the Millennium series is a well-chosen emblem. "All that glitters" is the subtitle, and in Saturday's opening concert at the Festival Hall, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra shone with Sir Simon Rattle in a tinsel sea of tuned percussion. The reminder, of course, is that not much of the Seventies turned out to be gold, though musically speaking it yielded some treasure. Certainly, Saturday's offerings, by Takemitsu, Lutoslawski and Shostakovich, were the real thing, if reflecting their composers' lights in very different directions. The evening's pleasure lay in its sheer diversity. Apart from a sense that both Takemitsu and Lutoslawski wanted to recreate electronic sounds in orchestral terms, there was not much else in common linking the pieces.

The swooning lines of Takemitsu's A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden were novel at their 1977 premiere, and remain unique even today - though now we're used to hearing the complex chords of Messiaen and Skryabin laid in a chrysanthemum bed. This is Rattles' kind of music, French by instinct, with expressive nuances that draw out his personal best in matters of timbre and phrasing. Towards the end, like a cloud of birdsong, all the strings played separately, recalling the sort of chance-based techniques favoured by Lutoslawski. Mostly, however, the labour rested with CBSO brass and wind, who balanced Takemitsu's glowing, floating clusters with ravishing precision.

They proved no less devoted to the refined austerity of Lutoslawski's 1975 setting of Robert Desnos' surreal Les espaces du sommeil, with Francois Le Roux's dreamy baritone their prefect partner. (Not content with this, Rattle himself played piano for Le Roux in an encore, Ravel's Le Martin Percheur, a welcome intrusion from the Histoires naturelles of 1906, and by no means discordant with the fractured sense of the evening.) Mannered in form and with word-setting often too true to be good, Les espaces can sometimes seem to be all surface, lacking depth. Not so in this performance, however, where the poise between its calm, immobile opening and later frenzy was ideally struck. Le Roux knew just how to colour the tiny refrain, Il y a toi; and in the closing line, mais il y a le sommeil, he left his listeners with a distinguished melisma.

However divergent, both Takemitsu and Lutoslawski knew their purpose; but what exactly did Shostakovich have in mind when he wrote his 15th Symphony. Its toy-shop music, its quotes from Wagner and Rossini and quirky tonal cadences, appear an inversion of sense, until, in the finale, the theme form the Leningrad Symphony is belted out together with an evil tam-tam stroke. This is reality; but if so, is the rest a joke? Solos with ready-made meaning - comic trombone, mournful cello - only confuse the issue. Not even the finest performance, perhaps, and this was a fine one, can reveal its secrets.

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