MUSIC
William Walton was born in Oldham and used to say he became a composer so he would never have to go back there. Nor did he. He escaped early, to become a boarding chorister at Oxford. Then, adopted by the Sitwells as their in-house teenage prodigy, he found himself ushered through the salons of aristocratic London in their last, between-the-wars gasp of grandeur, and on to Italy where he settled in the Bay of Naples. Socially and creatively as well as geographically, it was a long journey, with no looking back.

But Oldham doesn't bear grudges. It has never forgotten its most famous child, and honours him with memorial windows in the shopping mall (more than Aldeburgh has ever done for Britten). It also runs an annual Walton Festival, done on a small scale, but with love and pride. And to underline the absence of hard feelings, the centrepiece of last weekend's 1997 programme was the Cello Concerto: a score of spangled, starlit reverie whose orchestral colouring makes it probably the most Mediterranean (and least Oldhamesque) of all Walton's works-in-exile. Tim Hugh was the soloist, with the English Northern Sinfonia (aka the orchestra of Opera North) under Paul Daniel; and his heartfelt if slow-moving performance confirmed my belief that this concerto is the best of Walton's later (post-1950) scores.

But early Walton was where the Oldham festival made its mark this year, with a chamber recital in Werneth Park Music Room: the surviving fragment of a cotton-baronial pile, just down the road from the un-baronial terraced house where Walton was born in 1902.

Early Walton to most listeners means Facade in all its salon chic; but in the same period, the mid-1920s, he was also writing music of demanding seriousness, without the eagerness to please that came later. A prime example is the String Quartet, started as a student in 1919 and finished in 1922. The premiere failed and the piece was shelved, with only one public performance between then and the superb reading given to it by the Divertimenti Ensemble last Sunday morning.

Yet it's a formidable piece, with a massive tail-end fugue in which Walton takes on Beethoven like a prizefighter, and otherwise flexes well- toned muscles in the direction of Bartk, Berg and the central European avant-garde of the time. The academic severity of the middle-section Scherzo is a limitation, and explains why it has never achieved repertory status. But as a document of Walton the precociously angry young man, declaring his distance from all things folksily homegrown, it's compelling. And so is the Toccata for Violin and Piano, which Paul Barritt and Catherine Edwards played in the same concert. Written in 1923, it lay dormant until recently, when the manuscript was rediscovered and recorded - but without the first page, whose absence nobody noticed.

You might wonder how that happened, and the answer is that the opening section of the piece is a free, improvisatory cadenza alternating between the instruments. Where it begins isn't so obvious. But now the page has been retrieved, it makes (again) a powerful piece: Varesian in its violence, uningratiating and uncompromising. What tamed Walton? Salon life? The warmth of Italy? Who knows? But few of the mature scores mined this coal- black vein of passionate aggression.

John Eliot Gardiner has a new project at the Barbican called Schumann Revealed. The only revelation of the opening concert was that Schumann's large-scale works aren't necessarily as fascinating as Gardiner would have us believe. The Violin Concerto, for example, is a damp squib, with what Mozart's Emperor Joseph II could reasonably have called "too many notes" in the last movement. It demands a lot from the soloist for little return; and although the soloist, Thomas Zehetmair, was an agile and expressive player with ideas, his tone was thin and full of physical mannerisms reminiscent of the sort of people who sell crack on Hamburg Hauptbahnhoff. If he could only stand still ... as the accompanying Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique had to for most of the night.

The ORR is Gardiner's 19th-century period band, and although it sat for the concerto, it stood for Schumann's Symphonies 1 and 4 - partly on the grounds of period practice, partly to increase the dynamism of the playing. And it certainly did that, with tempi that were urgent to the point of rudeness. The string texture was poor, the brass blaring. From someone of Gardiner's stature you would expect better.

Two nights later it was better, in Das Paradies und die Peri: the rarely heard and ravishingly beautiful score for voices and orchestra which Schumann called a secular oratorio "for happy people". What he meant isn't obvious, but since he tried to drown himself a few years later, the consequences clearly weren't long-term.

Taken from a Romantic verse epic, the text tells the story of a fallen spirit, whose admission to heaven depends on finding a suitable gift, which turns out to be the tear of a repentant sinner. Charming, exotic, flimsy, it inspired from Schumann a hybrid score that works like an orchestral song-cycle on the grandest scale: a precedent for Mahler. One reason why we never hear it is that it demands seven Lieder-quality soloists, capable of projection with refinement. Eliot Gardiner's line-up included Christoph Pregardien, Gerald Finley, and (as the Peri) Barbara Bonney - the prettiest of Lieder voices, brightly-lit, but with a radiant halo softening the edges. You could hardly wish for more. The chorus-singing was exemplary. And this time, Eliot Gardiner didn't drive the pace so hard. The motivation was more sympathetic: it allowed for breath. And in response the ORR became a different animal, with subtler, more considered, altogether happier playing. Such is authenticity.

The princes of period performance have become more modest in their claims to recreate the past recently. They are ever readier to help the old, conventionally symphonic empire strike back for the repertory it seemed to have lost - which is what has been happening in the London Philharmonic's Haydn Festival at the South Bank.

In partnership with Roger Norrington, Serge Dorny, the orchestra's new artistic director, has attempted to liberate Haydn symphonies from the "filler" status they've come to occupy in concert programmes. To do so is the musical equivalent of asserting national rights over disputed territory, with a guide (in Norrington) who knows the opposition well. The focus of this series has been Haydn's late "Paris" symphonies, which are bigger, more public works than the earlier Esterhza ones and easier for an ensemble like the LPO to approach. Schooled by Norrington in the hermetic codes of 18th-century performance practice - largely a matter of determining which notes matter most, and prioritising shape rather than sound - the concerts have persuasively endorsed the argument that using period instruments is less important than mastering period style.

They have also given houseroom to a worthwhile Haydn rarity: the opera Orfeo e Euridice which doesn't respond very acutely to the dramatic possibilities of the text (Haydn operas never do) but does contain some glorious music - not least in coloratura writing of Queen-of-the-Night- like brilliance for the Amor character (here called Genio). Concert performance is surely the best way to deal with it all; and this one - conducted not by Norrington but by the impressive Frieder Bernius - was a joy. William Dazely, Christiane Oelze, Kurt Streit and Claron McFadden were fine soloists; though the collective coloratura could have been stronger, I have no complaints.

The Haydn Series was Serge Dorny's first big project in his LPO job and a singular success. More of the kind and we'll soon forget that this was ever an orchestra in trouble.

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