Arts: The long and winding road

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"ENDLESS PARADE" is an upbeat title for a concert series featuring British music since 1945. It's also the name of one of Harrison Birtwistle's less interesting pieces from the 1980s, so it had, in all decency, to be included in the first concert on Wednesday.

The title tells us the music (for a solo trumpet and strings) is like a frieze rather than a conclusive form. It doesn't tell us the effect is aimless or the material undistinguished. The soloist's little four- note motif punctuating the proceedings ought to be arresting, but seems lame, and the string writing sounds haphazard. Hakan Hardenberger, for whom "Endless Parade" was written, at least had the reward of showing off his flawless technique, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra's strings under Sir Andrew Davis got no evident joy at all.

The concert opened with "Millennium Scenes" by 28-year-old Richard Causton. His programme note described it as a response to the apparently empty triumphalism of the official festivities and invoked the analogy of fleeting images or cinematic scenes - a model of continuity, or discontinuity, that Debussy adopted near the beginning of the century.

By now we're probably immune to shock from the bombardment of diverse information - it all tends to coalesce - and though Causton built his 14-minute piece from short sections, they were quite respectably stitched together. The sound-world was harsh and cold, with a lot of piercing woodwind (and even whistles for the percussionists), and in the most subtle section, where the strands of eerie harmonies (the jargon is "spectral", which also happens to be poetically apt) shifted apart, the music's climate was still unfriendly. Which is precisely my feeling about the future.

And what of eternity, which is the subject of Michael Tippett's ambitious cantata (oratorio, if you like), The Vision of St Augustine? If it seems strange that just as he turned 60 Tippett completed a work setting words (in Latin) he couldn't believe, then perhaps the point was to address a question that was - is - there. Similarly, Tippett's music strives rather than achieves. One of his musical starting-points was the sort of struggling polyphony you find in the finale of Beethoven's Choral Symphony or the Grosse Fuge, which wells up in the middle section of the cantata as Augustine touches on the nature of eternity itself. Tippett's music is nothing if not courageous, and at least some of its ugliness is deliberate - as when the choral sopranos sing the words "O aeterna veritas et vera caritas et cara aeternitas!" ("O eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity") to notes set apart by wide intervals.

The women of the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus were clearer than the men, while the baritone Alan Opie struggled manfully, not sanctimoniously. I noticed most of the audience didn't even attempt to follow the words in the programme book. No doubt they all coalesced nicely.

Adrian Jack

Further concerts in the series: Saturday 24 April, Thursday 29 April, RFH. Booking: 0171-960 4212