Review: Musical scoring against oppression

Martinu: Out of Exile Barbican Hall, London

The temporal dustsheet that for so long kept Mahler under wraps has folded back further to reveal a Czech master whose directness rivals Copland, whose tonal palette recalls mature Janacek and whose emotional clout has a humbling impact that Mahler himself might have envied. And while "Martinu: Out of Exile" will surely be crucial to our understanding of the century's music, the sheer consistency of Martinu's style - its teeming textures, bright colours, energetic rhythms and meaningful repetitions - makes for a modest roster of spices that flavour a huge menu. Martinu was prolific, and one needs to cherry-pick with care.

Sharing the programmes between the BBC Symphony and Philharmonic was sensible, though both orchestras must take equal credit for some first- rate music-making. Friday's BBC SO concert under Jiri Belohlavek was initially threatened by backstage flooding and limited rehearsal time, but you'd never have guessed it from the playing. It opened with Memorial to Lidice, a compact orchestral essay in short paragraphs that commemorates the Nazi destruction of an entire Czech village - brave music, strong and tear- stained, but never over-stated.

The 1939 Field Mass that followed was originally intended for open-air performance by the Free Czechoslovak Army, though Martinu's striking instrumentation - a homely harmonium joined piano, percussion, winds, the BBC Chorus and baritone solo Roman Janal - breathed comfortably within a controlled acoustic. Again, personal contemplation and public defiance co-existed, with countless stylistic cross-references, not least the distant spectre of Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata that echoed before the central "Kyrie eleison!". Raphael Wallfisch revelled in the challenging but by no means unpalatable complexities of the revised First Cello Concerto, playing without a score and summoning an impressive arsenal of expressive devices for the finale's lyrical central section. The first movement struck me as over-long, a criticism that might also apply to the Brahmsian Third Piano Concerto that Boris Berezovsky played the following night with the Philharmonic under Vassily Sinaisky. Restless key-shifting, elegant neo-Baroque figurations, barn-storming cadenzas, all were present and correct, though even Berezovsky's Richter-like pianism (absolute command of breathtaking dynamic extremes) couldn't mask a certain degree of note-spinning busyness.

The symphonies came off wonderfully well, the Sixth (on Friday) full of dense, swarming textures and blinding beams of light, the Fifth - a more thoughtful piece - with a gently pulsing second movement that constantly switches from strings to winds and back again. Belohlavek's Sixth was forceful and well drilled, while Sinaisky's Fifth (Saturday's principal treat) homed in on the music's oscillating mood-swings, its ardent cello lines and jaunty rhythms. The translucent Fourth brought Sunday's concert - again with Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony - to a head spinning climax; the Scherzo was a sorcerer's apprentice run riot and the finale climaxed in a mood of unbridled exuberance. Earlier on, mezzo-soprano Marta Benackova had offered seven Debussyan Nipponari based on translated Japanese lyrics.

Jazz was another influence; even the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca - a late work and one of Martinu's best - managed just a hint of a shimmy for the last fresco, and Sinaisky's Saturday performance never allowed the tension to flag. Likewise in Half Time, a soccer spectacular with Petrushka as centre-forward, he kept things on the move without compromising detail. But the masterpiece that secures Martinu's place alongside Bartok and Stravinsky - albeit with a rather smaller catalogue of great works - is the Double Concerto (1938), with its furious crossfire between two string orchestras. Belohlavek's Sunday-night performance graduated from confusion to genuine distinction, reminding us that defiance against oppressors can, on occasion, inspire great art.

Saturday's concert can be heard on Radio 3 this Thursday at 7.30pm.

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