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Classical Review: Sir Les on song

Steven Isserlis / Barry Humphries

Wigmore Hall, London

Do not adjust your senses. It's Sunday evening at the Wigmore Hall, with cellist Steven Isserlis, a mixed bag of composers, and comedian Barry Humphries. Odd though it sounds, this was the prospect on offer for serious audiences to close a dull November weekend. Do not adjust your senses; do not adjust your sex.

Which is, perhaps, by way of suggesting that the guest of honour was not Dame Edna but Sir Les Patterson, that bibulous comic illusion, dredged up from the deeps of our willing capacity for national prejudice and humorous self deception. In a shiny carapace of an electric blue jacket, Sir Les rounded off this slice of the Wigmore Hall's current Australian season by intruding into an encore of The Swan. (At last: a marsupial in The Carnival of the Animals!)

With Isserlis and pianist Susan Tomes in supporting roles, he sang an ode in praise of great Australians. It was, no doubt, a demeaning three minutes for his fellow compatriots, but his British audience loved it. Did they also grasp, in the soapy scenes of the "old country" painted in an earlier work, Cries of Australia, how as dotard "Sandy" Stone, Humphries satirised heritage views of Britain, and our own nostalgia for how and why Australians should still love us.

Ross Edwards' music for this piece was more ballad snatches than dreamy lullabies. There were plenty of the latter, however, in James Helme Sutcliffe's Avatar and David Fanshawe's The Awakening both for cello and piano. Though clearly no pseudonym for Humphries' own compositional activity, Fanshawe, intrepid composer and ethnographical researcher, could be a Humphries creation. To prove otherwise, however, he was there in person to take justified applause for his music. Inspired by the flight of frigate birds, it was a perfect vehicle for the soloist's power to wax lyrical over piano arpeggios with flowing, round-toned melody.

In contrast, ...though now we sleep... by the Canadian composer David Duke, gave Isserlis a score that seemed perfectly written for cello technique in contemporary terms. A shame, then, that the most original music it contained was heard in snatches of native folksong projected on the accompanying tape.

As a viable medium, tape and cello solo were more artfully used in Carl Vine's Inner World, a weighty, sonata-like structure by one of Australia's leading international composers. In a maze of darting, daring electronic sounds, Isserlis projected a flow of ever-increasing momentum, with a final dash for the finishing line in a riot of C major triple stopping. You were on the edge of your seat for the first and only time in this evening of humour and fine playing - but otherwise variable musical quality.

Nicholas Williams