Pierre Boulez

The Barbican, London

Once upon a time, was the world's most controversial conductor. Hans Keller complained about his "non-phrasing". Others dismissed him as "dry", "clinical"; his first recording of Debussy's La Mer was, according to one critic, "cold and grey as a remote northern sea".

Now Boulez is a Grand Old Man of the Baton, widely recorded and currently receiving almost as many decorations as he once attracted brickbats. At Sunday's London Symphony Orchestra Barbican concert he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal, and generously praised by Alfred Brendel.

It came, paradoxically, in the middle of a concert that was neither vintage Boulez nor a return of the wilfully detached sound-director of the Sixties. Parts of the first movement of Bartok's Four Orchestral Pieces were surprisingly, voluptuously beautiful - even if there was still a slight sensation of the beauty being enjoyed at a full arm's length. Every now and again a woodwind or string phrase stood out with telling clarity. But between the flashes of colour were stretches of greyness where the notes simply seemed to run according to some pre-conceived master plan. The Scherzo was loud, flashy and brutal (as it plainly should be), yet Bartok's finale, the strangely negative Funeral March, was merely efficient.

There was a similar feeling for me at the end of the final item, Debussy's La Mer. Not cold, grey and remote this time, and with more revelatory or physically exciting moments than the Bartok, but still a collection of fine moments linked by a kind of Apollonian machinery. The climax of the central "Jeux des Vagues" was superb: a great wave breaking, with every level of Debussy's rich texture clearly audible. Other passages, however, were dispatched with a brisk, Gallic matter-of-factness. By all means cut out sentimental poeticising, but only if you can put something equally strong in its place.

But the performance of Elliott Carter's A Symphony of Three Orchestras was sheer virtuosity. Listening to this piece can be like standing in the middle of a whirlwind, but Boulez steered it all effectively, allowing us to hear the odd motic cross-reference as the lines and shapes flew past - a fleeting echo of the opening trumpet solo, or of a once wide- arching string line.

Then there was Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, conceived by its composer with at least a partial hope of popularity. It is now a rarity. Emanuel Ax's performance, excellent as it was, gave some idea why. The music seems to court the ear with lush melodic writing and promise of tonal harmony - only to reject it violently again.

Accept this as the work's expressive premise, however, and it has a great deal to offer. Boulez could perhaps have restrained the LSO a little more; from the left hand side of the stalls not all Ax's solo detail emerged with ideal clarity. But as an overall conception it packed a strong punch. If Schoenberg's Piano Concerto becomes a repertory item in the next millennium, there will be only one conductor to thank: .