Edinburgh Festival 97 / EUYO/ Haitink (Mahler, Shostakovich); BBC SSO (Nono, Carter) Usher Hall

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Modernism can sound very old-hat nowadays. But the best scores of the 1950s and 1960s still sound fresh; and in the case of Luigi Nono, that freshness is pretty horrifying.

Terry Eagleton has called the modern movement a kind of "terrorism". What is immediately striking about a work like Intolleranza 1960 (the Suite from this stage piece was performed in Edinburgh by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) is the predominance of military instruments, brass and drums. Any composer who conscripts 12 cymbals and 12 side drums to proclaim the folly of war is open to suspicion. Why did Nono so like to batter us with salvos of percussion?

The Suite had its premiere, in fact, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1969. Now repeated on Tuesday in the context of a "modern music" concert, with the chorus relegated to tape and a bijou audience, its ferocity reminded us of the intolerance, not of Fascism or capitalism, but of modernism itself. The anger, the ugliness and blackness send out a jackbooted message: join us at Darmstadt, or perish.

The dreamy vocal conclusion, magically sung by the soprano Natalia Zagorinskaia, could not dispel this feeling, though her celestial, denatured voice revealed Nono's lyric side. This was more obvious in Sul Ponte di Hiroshima, which answered the horror with a long unaccompanied vocal passage, in which Zagorinskaia, declaiming like a sorceress, foresaw a new world without war. She was joined at last by the tenor Charles Daniels. His warmer tone felt like the voice of humanity itself, the soprano interweaving a commentary in her icy, other-worldly tones. Yet still the orchestra voiced military threats, Nono flexing his muscles to warn us against ideological backsliding.

Emilio Pomarico was the animator of these highly effective performances. He also conducted Elliott Carter's Variations for Orchestra, a work which is atonal but not modernist in any true sense; its intelligence, rich invention and clarity of thought were clearly shown.

Earlier in the evening, there had been a performance of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony by the European Union Youth Orchestra. This was not the best preparation for Nono's fierce advocacy of Marxism; its relentlessly grim rejection of Stalinism, of inhumanity and the machine, made Nono's black passion sound adolescent. The Russian's jolly bassoon tunes, fiddlers' reels and caricatured battle-pieces were no longer benignly ironic. Humour sticks in Shostakovich's throat in this work.

This orchestra is devastatingly able - the strings have all the intensity of a great adult ensemble - but somehow characterless, in spite of Bernard Haitink's forceful conducting. The woodwind chorus has a ringing clarity, the brass is spirited without sounding brutal, and there are a few good soloists - notably a nicely projected cor anglais. But this was everyman's Shostakovich and, earlier in the evening, the Five Ruckert Lieder came across as everyman's Mahler, especially as the soloist, Catherine Wyn- Rogers, was off form, monochrome and out of tune. Nono was the adolescent in this extraordinary evening in Edinburgh; the clever youngsters of the EUYO sounded like good girls and boys.

Raymond Monelle

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