A shrug of the shoulders and a vision of paradise

Classical Music
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The Independent Culture
THE WAY Sir Michael Tippett acknowledges applause is like a small boy not quite owning up to something wrong. He shrugs his shoulders, pulls a face and opens out his arms in abdication of responsibility. The message reads: "Well, there it is. What can I do about it now?" There's been a lot of shoulder-shrugging in the past few weeks on London's concert and opera stages as Tippett has been doing the rounds for his 90th birthday. Most of the events have been at the Barbican where the LSO under Sir Colin Davis (a long-standing Tippett champion) is running a birthday festival called "Visions of Paradise". But we've also had Tom Cairns' visceral and visually stunning production of King Priam at the Coliseum (conducted by Paul Daniel with a purposeful command that doesn't surface very often these days from the ENO pit). And it was during Priam that I realised - late in life no doubt - how Tippett's shoulder-shrugging is in fact the natural posture of his art.

The story of Priam describes how personal choice, and therefore responsibility, is overriden by fate. The characters may rage and machinate but they are ultimately powerless subjects of a will beyond their own, to which they can do nothing but surrender. And the music embodies a comparable surrender to the way things are - because with Priam, Tippett introduced into his work a new, almost non-interventionist kind of structure. There is no cohesive, logical development, no sense of seeing something through from A to B. Instead he gathers his material into solid blocks and merely places one against the other, generating contrast, conflict and friction rather than relationship.

You hear the way this works most clearly in the Concerto for Orchestra (a satellite piece written in the shadow of King Priam) which the London Sinfonietta played at the Barbican on Wednesday. The rationale of a concerto for orchestra is to give everyone the chance of 15 seconds' fame under a roving spotlight that illuminates the instruments department by department; and Tippett's block- structures suit that purpose very well, cleanly laid out and straightforward to follow.

But like so much of Tippett's work, the Concerto is also a drawerful of fabulous objects that haven't quite been catalogued and sorted. He just pulls them out, one after the other, and relies on their individual allure to charm the ear. As, of course, he can. Tippett has always been the grand wizard of English music, casting rich and potent spells from the sheer abundance of his imagination. But it's one thing to beguile your listeners, another to beguile yourself; and there is often, I think, in Tippett, a sense of un-self-critical surrender to his own gifts. Shrugging, pulling faces, he delivers all his goods without selection or evaluation. "There it is. What can I do about it now?"

I feel the same way about Songs for Dov (another Priam satellite) which Nigel Robson sang with the Sinfonietta on Wednesday; and about the Triple Concerto which Colin Davis conducted last Sunday. Both scores accommodate music of ravishing and sumptuous beauty; both present the tantalising vision of some distant (inner?) place of magical enchantment, glimpsed through opening and closing doors. But both package the vision too contentedly among banalities and clichs - Dov especially. I love these pieces, but they disappoint me. They suggest that Tippett's art is indiscriminate, too readily accepting of the random and the second-rate. Tippett supporters will point out that this conforms with the holistic credo of his life's work: the famous quote from A Child of Our Time about embracing the shadow and the light. But that's a dangerous policy, applied to art. Tippett's light is radiant, life-enhancing and the reason why he is, at times, a great composer. I don't want his shadows.

In the former Soviet Union, composers could be tougher and less compromising; and they don't come much tougher than Galina Ustwolskaya, a pupil of Shosta- kovich (reputedly his lover) who for 40 years has lived reclusively in St Petersburg writing spare, severe religious scores unfavoured and unplayed by the authorities. Her work is only just beginning to be known; and the latest of the Philharmonia's early-evening new- music concerts at the RFH, organised by James MacMillan, was devoted to two of her chamber scores: the so-called Symphony No 5 - Amen, and Composition No 2 - Dies Irae. I can't pretend to have been excited by either. But they have an impressive, stone-faced integrity, grinding through slow, semi-tonal figurations over deep-held pedal notes and memorable for the muted percussion of a wood cube struck with hammers that sets up a dull, tense ostinato. Bleakly, painfully, the music edges towards resolution in a healing calm: an image, we are told, of suffering with purpose. Given the popular appeal of holy minimalism, we'll probably be hearing more of it.

Staying with Mother Russia but more cheerfully, the joint vocal faculties of the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music ran a new production of Mussorgsky's Sorochintsy Fair this week. It was wonderful: a bright, inventive, vigorously well-presented show directed by Keith Warner on Chagall-esque sets, with fine student performances that sounded genuinely Russian. In the cast that I saw, there was some cherish- able comedy from Louise Mott as the passionate housewife; some refined vocal inebriation from Paul Robinson as Kum the drunkard; and a truly outstanding lead from Tomas Tomasson, a big Icelandic bass whose resonance and fullness promise great things. It was a treat to find this rare, unfinished piece (done here in the comple- tion by Tcherepnin) so handsomely delivered; and, especially, to have the Russian conductor Gennadi Rostdestvensky as a star guest in the pit. His presence raised the stakes of the performance beyond normal student currency. The orchestra played like professionals; and I mean that as a compliment.

The Royal Opera revival of La Bohme is a thoroughly professional business, too, with solid company performances from Anthony Michaels-Moore, Alastair Miles & co, as room-mates who don't overdo the male-bonding-camaraderie routines in the garret. But this time round Musetta's dog has some competition as the star of the show - in the person of Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian soprano who coughed herself to death so charmingly in the Covent Garden Traviata last autumn and who seems to specialise in phlegm roles. Lyric sopranos are by definition everybody's girlfriend, but Ms Gheorghiu really is. Poignantly fragile, fresh and beautiful, with the endearing vulnerability of that slight, central-European shake in an otherwise unblemished voice, she makes as perfect a Mimi as she did a Violetta. And behind the pale, consumptive frailty resides a powerful actress who translates emotion into gesture with exacting skill. Some singers merely take up space on stage. Ms Gheorghiu doesn't waste a movement. And she totally eclipses her Rodolfo, the unglamorous and dry Jan Botha. With the brisk but strong Australian conductor Simone Young in the pit, Bohme is definitely a ladies' night.

`La Bohme': ROH, WC2, 071-304 4000, continues Tues & Thurs.

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