Mahler minus the magic

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Ingo Metzmacher and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra

South Bank, London

Ingo Metzmacher is one of Germany's hottest young, or youngish, conductors. Barely 40, he's Musical Director of the Hamburg Opera and Principal Guest Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he brought to the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. Together they have recorded the eight symphonies of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, whose first orchestral work, Miserae, opened the concert. It's a remarkably courageous protest for its time (1934), funereal, though not all at a slow tempo, and often brittle, with a slightly burlesque contrapuntal episode for trombones and tuba, and another strange passage for violins in harmonics and a solo bassoon, beautifully played by Seylim Aykal.

Hartmann came into his own after the war, having made himself a sort of internal exile when Hitler was in power. No doubt he would have been proud to find his work programmed with Bartok's Second Violin Concerto (the well-known one), completed in 1938, a year or so before the composer made himself an external exile, and packed his bags for the United States. Victoria Mullova was a magnificently assured soloist, with a remarkably strong, even tone and perfect tuning. She made less of opportunities for tenderness than she might, but the sweep and stoic character of her playing defied criticism.

Metzmacher's way with Mahler's Fifth Symphony after the interval was less compelling. Mahler left as little to chance as possible, filling his score with precise indications of character. But there's still a lot that can go wrong, and Metzmacher pushed the orchestra through the work with only nominal observations of the letter, and little feeling for its spirit. The music didn't breathe.

Nor did Metzmacher capture the magic of Debussy's Iberia with the London Philharmonic on Friday. The first part ("Par les rues et par les chemins") was uncommonly rigid and unsubtly blended, the central, scented reverie too heavy and loud. The concert opened the South Bank's series featuring music by Mark-Anthony Turnage, with his Beckett-inspired saxophone concerto, Your Rockaby, commissioned by the BBC in 1994, in which the soloist was Martin Robertson. With its striking, slightly threatening orchestral invention, big-band frenzy, and very tangible succession of incidents, you can see, or hear, how Turnage has been cast as an accessible chronicler of contemporary angst, or whatever. There's even a spooky, rotating bass (in the time- honoured mould of a passacaglia) underpinning Your Rockaby's later stages, though the ending is downbeat, even inconclusive, as, perhaps, endings can only be today. With newish works, attention is directed to the music rather than performance because there's little to compare it with, but Metzmacher finally made his mark in Stravinsky's Petrushka, which was brilliantly effective, with a galaxy of orchestral soloists, among them, pianist Elizabeth Burley and trumpeter Paul Archibald.

'Fractured Lives', featuring the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage, continues on the South Bank on 6, 7, 8, 17 & 18 April. Box office 0171-960 4242.

Adrian Jack

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