Music: Three Bs are the bee's knees

THE THREE Bs of music underwent a slight revision this week at the Festival Hall where Bach, Beethoven and Brahms became - for one of the most prestigious concert series London has seen in ages - Barenboim, Beethoven and Berlin.

The Berlin here is the venerably ancient Berlin Staatskapelle from the old East sector of the city. The Beethoven is a mega-cycle of all the symphonies plus all the piano concertos. And Daniel Barenboim is the trump card: a wanderer returning to the city where he was once dazzlingly resident but is now seen only rarely - especially at the keyboard. So in every sense this cycle is an event, and it started on Tuesday with performances of the 1st Concerto and 3rd (Eroica) Symphony that Barenboim's unflustered, all-controlling presence as conductor/pianist made look all too easy.

Directing the concerto from the keyboard, he was on his feet for almost as much time as he was sitting down, but with the cool self-organisation of a man who mastered this sort of double job back in the 1960s when he was directing the English Chamber Orchestra in Mozart cycles. And a stance more obviously intense or driven would in any case have been alien to the Staatskapelle, which is one of those old Soviet-bloc orchestras whose distinctive, local style of playing has been preserved by decades of closed borders and cultural isolation. While Western ensembles edged towards a standard international sound, dictated by the record industry and favouring brilliant, clean, precise attack, the Eastern orchestras maintained a warmer, softer, more caressing sound which, in the case of the Staatskapelle, not only survives but has been positively nurtured by Barenboim since he became its music director in 1992.

So what we heard this week at the Festival Hall was Beethoven at its most mellow, without "edge" and with legato- smoothness a priority: the antithesis of the super-charged Beethoven you'd hear from someone like John Eliot Gardiner, whose approach (Barenboim would argue) desensitises audiences to the linear, tonal journey which is the chief concern of classical symphonic writing. Percussive brilliance (he'd continue) is all very well as short-term, "vertical" stimulation, but in the broader scheme of things it's a distraction from the more important "horizontal" tour through tonal schemes.

This argument has force, and it was borne out by the beauty, interest and warmth of what we heard on Tuesday. We were not desensitised by brilliance. But the endless dolce had its limitations, and there were moments when a touch of Gardiner sharpness would have been welcome - not least, to keep the ensemble together and more accurate. With sometimes thin sound, blowsy horns and questionable intonation, it was what I'd call a night of compromise. Worthwhile but not ideal.

That said, I liked the physical commitment in the Staatskapelle playing here. And Barenboim's own playing was a model of legato style without the drawbacks, beautifully tempered and balanced against the accompaniment. The symphony could have been more fun in the finale but otherwise wore its grandeur with engaging lightness. And if the audience missed the bite of "period" attack, they didn't show it. The response was rapturous.

Last week, in a fascinating piece of social archaelogy, the surviving heads of the great Central European dynasties were brought together in Vienna for a concert to mark the bicentenary of Haydn's oratorio Die Schopfung (The Creation), first performed before a private audience of their ancestors in 1798. The venue for this bicentennial performance was the Palace at Eisenstadt, an hour's drive from Vienna and one of the two Esterhazy houses in which Haydn spent some 30 years of his life as resident kapellmeister.

The conductor was Adam Fischer. And the forces involved included the specialist Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra which Fischer set up 12 years ago as an exercise in cross-border cultural politics. In Haydn's time, of course, there was no border, and this part of central Europe where the composer lived and worked was a productive melting-pot of East/West cultures. Now, a frontier cuts the area in two, leaving the Esterhazy houses in separate countries. Fischer's idea was to reunite them in a shared Haydn Festival with its own ensemble diplomatically drawn from players in Budapest and Vienna. And since then the Haydn Orchestra has established itself as a conspicuous curiosity of European music- making, with a growing discography and a rolling contract to record the complete Haydn symphonies - all 107 - for Nimbus.

I say curiosity because the orchestra is itself a melting-pot, of styles and cultures. The Hungarians contribute their old-tyme Central-European ways, the Austrians their 19th-century glamour; and to that volatile mix Fischer adds a sprinkling of period instruments and period disciplines, holding everything together with a strong, incisive emphasis on drama. This Creation was electrifying: bold in scale and handsome in the rich acoustic of the great assembly hall at Eisenstadt. That Haydn would himself have known the space and sound so well gave it an added resonance. A sort of imprimatur, and material for the imagination.

I wish I could say something similar for Brighton Pavilion where the baritone Christopher Maltman gave a recital on Monday as part of the Brighton Festival. But I can't. The Pavilion is of course an extraordinary building, but its music room makes an oppressive concert space, stifled by chinoiserie, dead in sound and spirit - all of which made it hard for Maltman to project the star quality you'll know he possesses if you heard him win the last Cardiff Singer Lieder prize on television. It's a lovely voice, intelligently used and with a keen, engaging personality. At Brighton, with the masterly accompaniment of Malcolm Martineau, it worked particularly well in songs by Faure and Ravel, catching the mood and colour beautifully and marking Maltman's card as someone destined for French repertory. But in that ghastly room he couldn't float a line with ease; and as he tried, his focus tended to retract into the middle-distance, losing contact with his audience. A better venue and I'm sure he'd give us all a better show.

Barenboim: RFH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), Fri, Sat & Sun 17 May. Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), 22 June. Brighton Festival (01273 709709), to 24 May.

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