26 NOVEMBER 1983, Page 34


Points of view

Peter Phillips

The Great British Music Festival has now presented three of its six concerts in this its first ever season, and a second round for next year was announced at a recep- tion before the opening concert. That an- nouncement was premature. It was made 'in spite of the fact that the Arts Council have not yet committed themselves to fund-

ing a further festival', and to a roomful of critics who subsequently and collectively

have had little good to say about the con-

certs. The overriding impression left by this exercise so far is that it is an utterly bootless task trying to arrange anything connected with modern music. Everyone has their favourites amongst living composers, whom they usually know personally, and any other composer can be treated with considerable scorn. It's the old story of conflicting trends and -isms.

Still, since the original purpose behind the festival was useful, one must nerve oneself and persevere. This original purpose was to present a slice of British music which is rarely heard, from the years 1925 to 1975. It was to be played by the four independent London Symphony Orchestras who are col- laborating for the first time ever. They are not, incidentally, collaborating with the BBC SO who have their own rival series Music of Eight Decades. The best of several reasons for taking music from those par- ticular years is that they encompass a large school of composers, reckoned to be talented, but who have been overshadowed by two or three big names (Britten and Vaughan Williams especially) whose music has tended to dominate concert program- mes. A rich profusion of lesser figures have been pushed into obscurity. This is often the way, of course, and is in varying degrees regrettable. Since we are dealing here with recent music by British composers, many of whom are still alive, this festival certainly

should not be wasted effort.

The principal complaint has been that nothing thoroughly up-to-date has been in- cluded: this is perfectly true, but why should it be? To make a retrospective survey is not the same thing as encouraging young burgeoning talent, and shouldn't be confused with it. All the pieces in this festival have had time to mature in the ,minds of the planners, and can be chosen deliberately for their worth. The Arts Council spend most of their grant supilor- ting young composers: this festival is sup- posed to be doing something different.

I'm alarmed to read therefore that next year's putative festival will 'not necessarily be confined to the period 1925 to 1975' and will 'take into account those composers who unfortunately had to be omitted this year — Britten and Rubbra to take two ex- amples'. This sounds very like bowing to pressure. This year's concerts have hardly begun to give a coherent picture of the repertoire in question, and to extend the qualifying date further than 1975 — which is what my first quotation is really saying — will make it a great deal less coherent. The repertoire, without eight years of sifting, becomes almost endlessly larger. Apart from that, Britten is just the kind of corn- poser who should not appear in this series, though there has been vociferous lobbying that he should. Edmund Rubbra certainly deserves a hearing — having to leave him out this year is as good a reason as any for having a festival next year.

Whether the organisers have made the right choices of repertoire in these first six concerts, is a subsidiary issue, and one which may be argued indefinitely. There has been no fundamental error, but some of the pieces seem to have been included for insubstantial reasons. Vaughan Williams's i Sixth Symphony is a masterpiece and s

quite widely recognised as such. The time filled by this piece and those by Sir Michael Tippett might have been better used, without serious loss of audiences (which have so far been very reasonable). It was wholly bewildering to be confronted with, two pieces which even their composers had been content to forget about — Berkeley s Cello Concerto of 1939 and Bax's Corteg! of 1925. Some arcane operation of senti- ment retrieved these two from the bottom of the pile. We may trust a composer's in- stinct with regard to his own work a little further than has been shown here. It would have saved a certain amount of embarrass- ment. Apart from these few cavils, the selection is as good as any can be. The temptation to give Bax a bonanza in his centenary Year was sensibly resisted, and instead an unusual side of him was shown up by the Concertante for Three Wind Instruments. This piece is full of warm impressionistic sounds, where his more famous sym- phonies, equally impressionistic, can give .° cold effect, principally through their orchestration. Impressionistic in a more modern idiom was John McCabe's Plan° Concerto No. 2 which reminded me of aa incident recounted of William Turner when he and Constable were working side by side on exhibition canvases. Seeing that Con- stable's was colourful and attracting a great deal of attention, he turned to his own subtly toned painting, took his palette knife and impressed a brilliant red blob on the middle of the composition. He then strode off amidst great excitement, leaving Con- stable to further hours of painstaking work. So McC.abe's piano flashed against the deliberately dour background of the or- chestral writing, very effectively played by the composer himself. Friendship with John Tavener prevents me, of course, from discussing The Whale: which is a great pity.