26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 56


Feeling tempted

Robin Holloway

Curious but true how faint the impulse to listen to classic works in one's record collection however wonderful the perfor- mances. Especially for the monuments of symphony, opera, oratorio I'd always rather sample something new than re-hear the familiar. Especially if the new is live. Here Radio Three is still, despite ongoing fur- ther depredations, of inestimable benefit in its transcription tapes of such things as Bayreuth and the direct transmissions from the New York Met.

Best of all is nearer home: the Proms. Quite apart from novelties, standard reper- toire too, live night after night for nearly two months, is a temptation that I can't often resist. I'd never dream of putting on my records of Brahms 4, Mahler 5, Beethoven 9. But come 7.30, 'let's see what X will do, or how the orchestra from Los Angeles, Chicago, Prague (etc.) will sound . . . ', and usually I am swept away by music I know inside out because it is being recre- ated anew.

Accidental circumstances prevented complete submersion in two supreme choral works, Bach's St Matthew Passion (23 Aug.) and the Beethoven Missa Solem- nis (11 Sept.). Interestingly, both were con- ducted by names famous in the 'authentici- ty' movement. I've long regarded Phillipe Herreweghe as one of the two or three who infuse period practice with manifest sensi- tivity to sound and a profound feeling for expressive content. To happen in remote Norfolk upon the final stretch of the Pas- sion was to recognise at once his sweet grave seriousness, with an unerring blend of agonised involvement, detached contem- plation, and business-like narrative pacing. Fast tempi, but persuasive in supple intensity.

More surprising, given the excruciating affectation of his earlier years, was Nicholas Harnencourt's way with the Beethoven. This problematic work, usually something of an ordeal, received the most convincing balance and sonority I've ever heard in it. Old style grand manner and large forces simply don't work, though the heroic and transcendental score can't help but suggest them. The first prerequisite is to clarify the textures. Authenticity has always done this much. The complaint is that it has done nothing more, sacrificing the real if unquantifiable musical substance — just as poetry is what gets lost in transla- tion. Not so here. The clarity, helped by outstandingly good solo and choral singing, was moulded with passion, drama and sure sense of architecture and journey; the mon- ument was as intelligible, and pleasurable, as it can and should be. Arriving home in the middle of the Gloria, I'd switched on muttering, 'Oh God, the Missa Solemnis.' By the end, transfixed, I muttered the same words with a different meaning.

Another late Beethoven masterpiece, the first of the last string quartets (op.127) sounded perversely less happy than cus- tomary. Colin Davis conducted (6 Sept.) a transcription for string orchestra that he had instigated, then made jointly with David Matthews. From bar one it failed to compel. The quartet's sonorous opening sounded flabby and pompous on massed strings. Busy places were occluded, the scherzo had to be absurdly slow and the sublime adagio sounded tacky, as if aspiring (but failing) to the condition of Mahler's adagietto. Sir Colin's audible groans of agony and ecstasy didn't disabuse. The vibrant linear immediacy of the original actually one of the master's most perfectly euphonious pieces, never for a moment evincing the strain and struggle that make some kind of reason for giving the Grosse Fuge or the C-sharp-minor quartets on full strings — was swathed in pious swaddling bands. Imagine the quartet from Rigoletto or any ensemble from a Mozart opera, on full mixed chorus!

Only one new work struck the imagina- tion in these final weeks, Harrison Birtwistle's Exody (3 Sept.). Rather churl- ishly I must confess that it didn't strike the imagination quite enough. It is notably more skilful in mainstream terms — conti- nuity, scoring, motivic impulse, harmony than earlier pieces on which his reputation was made. Yet in this apparent advance something vital is lost: the grainy primitivi- ty which communicated so powerfully via its minimalistic means, its violent aggres- sion equally with its rarefied melancholy growing ineluctably and inevitably from the compositional nucleus. With smoothness comes something which, in being rather more like other music, is also more conven- tional. It retains violence, but predictably, by habit lacking the primal thrill. It is sure- ly out of chaiacter for Birtwistle, even in his recent canonisation as (what Eliot said of Blake) 'a wild pet for the supercultivat- ed', to write the expected? Finally, a great work from the past mak- ing its first-ever Proms appearance. Franz Schmidt's 4th Symphony, while unim- pugnably and subtly of its time (1933), belongs spiritually to the earliest years of this century or even the last decades of the 19th. It is a work of ripe and masterly cul- ture, individual in turns of detail yet nor- mative in the whole, deeply charged with personal elegy contained and burnt into the form rather than detachable rhetoric to wring the withers and raise the rabble. Yakov Kreizberg and the Bournemouth orchestra shaped every turn with love and understanding. Let us hope that Schmidt's wider success in this country will be datable from 9 September 1998.