THERE was a time when Nordic music meant Sibelius, Nielsen, Grieg, perhaps a bit of Berwald for the curious. And for the concert-goer on the Clapham omnibus it may still be so. But the landmark "Tender is the North" festival at the Barbican in 1992 opened many British ears to the fact that Sibelius & Co were an overture, not an aberration; that creative music-making in Scandinavia thrives with a vigour you won't find at the moment in many other parts of the world; and that the Nordic perspective on the South is worth studying - not only for itself but as a critical response to what we Southerners are up to. I'm not saying that some great, judgemental school of Midnight Sun composers has suddenly descended on us; but there is an identifiable group of names with shared concerns about being on the edge of European music-making. In their work you hear a tension between inclusivity and separation, serious rapprochement and whimsical detachment. You'll be hearing plenty of it in the coming months because the longboats have landed again, with a successor to "Tender is the North" called, more prosaically, the UK Nordic Music Season. Financed by the governments of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - who promote their own with a zeal that British artists can only envy - it opened in London last week with a South Bank concert by the Nash Ensemble. There were three featured composers: Arne Nordheim, the founding father of Norwegian modernism, whose Partita for Paul electronically confronted a solo violin with the sound of itself recorded and fed back through a digital delay system; Jan Sandstrom, a next- generation Swede, whose Wahlberg Variations (world premiere) were an engaging confection of jokey neo-classicism, cabaret jazz and evocative beauty; and Anders Nordentoft, a younger Dane whose Hymne (another world premiere) was an incantatory exercise in solemn chordal textures. All three works had strong pictorial agendas, relating the sonic to the visual. All three made a definite impression, and contributed to one of the most enjoyable new-music concerts I've heard for some time. The season continues on Thursday with a South Bank visit from Finland's Avanti, the dynamic frozen-north equivalent of the London Sinfonietta. Chill-out guaranteed.

The LSO's Bruckner-Mozart series at the Barbican has been running for two months now, and hasn't proved such a shotgun wedding as expected. Bruckner and Mozart haven't much in common beyond the innocence of genius and a striving for the sublime, but in the past months they've been sitting together comfortably enough to stifle the objection that you can't, in these period-conscious times, serve two such different masters from the same dish. Sir Colin Davis, who has conducted most of the concerts, isn't sympathetic to the "period" lobby; but he's sensitive to style and has certainly encouraged the LSO to confront the separate performing requirements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

But that said, this hasn't quite matched up to LSO projects of the recent past. Davis's Bruckner has been mature, considered, eloquent but underpowered, and with some questionable decisions on the texts - including a reversal of the 7th Symphony's Scherzo and Adagio, and observance of the controversial percussion climax in the latter. The Mozart has been patchy too: sometimes distinguished - as when Mitsuko Uchida played the Piano Concerto K456 - but undermined by other soloists such as Yuri Bashmet and Dmitri Vassiliev, whose joint reading of the Sinfonia Concertante was grim. On Thursday Sir Georg Solti turned in an account of the Piano Concerto K466 that wasn't much better - overblown, overdriven, over-fierce - with a decidedly uncomfortable Murray Perahia looking (and sounding) as though he wished he were somewhere else. The Bruckner Four that accompanied it was handsomely played, but directed by Solti like a sustained mortar attack: bombastically. Cross Solti's aggression with Davis's thoughtfulness and you'd probably get a first-rank Brucknerian. As things stand, neither conductor has quite what it takes.

I can understand what prompted the Guildhall School to stage Wolf-Ferrari's rare comic opera Il Campiello, which has curiosity value and a balanced cast of 11 principal roles. In theory it gives plenty of singers a chance to shine. But not, alas, very brightly, because it turns out to be a piece of wafer-thin inconsequence: a plotless soap opera of everyday life in a Venetian square, whose music has at best a limp charm and at worst an acreage of nothing. It would take an experienced cast bursting with personality, and an inspired director, to bring it off. At the Guildhall it has neither. But there are some good student performances, led by an enchanting Norwegian soprano, Adele Eikenes, and a bright Welsh tenor, Wynne Evans, whose Venetian take on a pantomime dame (complete with mobile bosom) owes enough to Les Dawson to be truly funny.

ENO has revived Don Pasquale in the sharp Patrick Mason update, which has the Don as a 1950s property developer and Norina as a pert young thing on a Vespa. But it's not so sharp this time around. The energy is low, the speeds are flaccid, and the veteran Donald Adams hasn't the sparkle or attack of Andrew Shore, who took the title role before. The best thing about it is Mary Hegarty in ice-cool, aerially bright voice as Norina, supported by the boy-smooth tenor of Neill Archer and that unfailing resource of English opera - what would ENO do without him? - Alan Opie.

Covent Garden, meanwhile, has revived its Traviata, and although the solid, staid sets have been simplified, they still take so long to change that there seems to be more interval than opera. I wouldn't complain if they were worth the wait, but they're not. Nor, frankly, is Richard Eyre's solid, staid production. But the intervals at least facilitate extended crush-bar arguments about Andrea Rost, the new Violetta. As an agile, lithe and fiercely beautiful young central-European singer, she begs comparison with Angela Gheorghiu ,who leapt to stardom on the back of this production in 1994. Rost isn't quite as purely beautiful in sound as Gheorghiu, but she's singing infinitely better than she did as Covent Garden's last Susanna. And she has the two Jekyll-and-Hyde voices needed for this hidden killer of a role: a keenly chiselled coloratura and a richer, weighted lyricism. She can act - her final scene was thrilling - and in Ramon Vargas she has an altogether finer Alfredo to act to than Gheorghiu's Frank Lopardo. She also gets a more considerate conductor. Gheorghiu had Solti stabbing feverishly away. Rost has Carlo Rizzi, who may not draw the richest sound from the Royal Opera strings but does at least know what legato means.

`La Traviata': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Tues & Sat.

Comments