Classical: A little rain on the Parade

It may claim to be a celebration of the best of British music since the War, but will Nicholas Kenyon and George Benjamin's `Endless Parade' series of concerts really do our composers justice? By Bayan Northcott
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No doubt planning concerts and festivals is a mixed pleasure at best, in which the satisfaction of setting up contrasts and connections, devising ideal programmes, bringing forth fresh talent, and so on, is ever-threatened by practical problems over performance, venues and funding - not to say by anxiety as to how press and public may ultimately respond.

Which are just some of the reasons why Nicholas Kenyon, BBC Controller of Millennial Projects, and George Benjamin, Artistic Consultant to the Sounding the Century project on Radio 3, are unlikely to get much fun out of what follows.

But some critical questions need to be asked about the culminating series of the 20th-century retrospective they have been presiding over these last three years, and which opened at the Royal Festival Hall two nights ago as Endless Parade: Classics of British Music since 1945 - or, as they put it in the April edition of BBC Music Magazine, "a month-long celebration, around the country and on Radio 3, of the best of British music since the war".

Of course, this could be disregarded as the kind of marketing flim-flam that producers evidently have to put up to BBC management these days to get their programmes out at all. But Kenyon and Benjamin are not cynical types: they manifestly care about all of the music that they have selected for the 15 live and broadcast events scheduled between this week and 3 May.

So that one has to ask how a series can claim to represent the "best" of British music since 1945, when it is exclusively concerned with concert music and opera - disregarding not only chamber and instrumental works, film scores and light music, but also jazz and the kind of esoteric pop featured in Mixing It, which are also residual concerns of Radio 3?

How can it claim to comprise "classics" when a commendable proportion of the choices are of recent stuff by the up-and-coming young? (Classics in 30 years' time, perhaps.) And how can it claim to be comprehensively "British" when the programmes include only a handful of Scottish composers and virtually nothing from Wales?

Now, the planners might riposte, it is easy for a critic to carp from the sidelines, but 15 events, amounting to some 35 hours in all, is not that much in which to encompass the multifarious developments of some 54 years. Moreover, the public concerts in the series, on the South Bank, in Manchester and in Belfast, need to include the odd lollipop - Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, say, or Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances - if they are to attract larger audiences, and complaining that less hackneyed works by these composers should have been preferred is beside the point.

In the event, there are four Britten choices, including the Four Sea Interludes - since the impact of Peter Grimes was the starting-point for the whole concept - and a complete concert performance of Death in Venice. Tippett also gets a full-length opera, King Priam, and no fewer than seven other items, thanks to the incorporation of a Nash Ensemble Tippett concert (in fact recorded last month). Of the other big names, Vaughan Williams has three works and Walton and Birtwistle two apiece - the latter's Trumpet Concerto, Endless Parade lending its title to the whole series. But the remaining figures are strictly confined to one work each. And what, Kenyon and Benjamin might ask, could be fairer than that?

Well, it depends. Broadly speaking, there are three different principles upon which such a retrospective could be structured.

The first is simply to collect together those pieces that have most successfully survived in the repertoire, thus implicitly endorsing current views of the whole period. The second is more historical: to focus, say, decade by decade, upon what seemed the most typical and significant at the time. And the third would be to take a critical look at both current and historical views, reviving unjustly neglected or misunderstood pieces and aspiring to a fresh vision of the entire era.

On the whole, the planners seem to have plumped for the first approach which, in so far as it also runs to taking in some noteworthy recent arrivals, is fine; less so, in that it has meant assigning time to works such as Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony, Walton's Second and Tippett's Triple Concerto, which are constantly heard anyway.

So how might the alternative approaches have worked out? Historically, it would have been salutary to revisit the British milieu of the mid- Forties in which the young Britten was widely felt to be brilliant yet somehow lacking in substance and Walton was still regarded as the acceptable face of modernism: in which the Gallic turns of Lennox Berkeley represented the permissible limit of Continental influence and the conservative symphonism of Edmund Rubbra stood for a continuing mainstream.

Neither Rubbra nor Berkeley features in Endless Parade, nor any of the more modernist young men who made the running in the Fifties - Peter Racine Fricker, Iain Hamilton, Humphrey Searle - though the most substantial arrival of the decade, Robert Simpson, should have been included on any count.

Of the still more adventurous generation who rose with the accession of William Glock to the BBC in 1959, Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle and Richard Rodney Bennett are included, but not Nicholas Maw or Hugh Wood, and a chance has been missed yet again to reassess the tumultuous early output of Malcolm Williamson. Some notable arrivals of the Seventies and Eighties are also missing: Michael Finnissy, Simon Holt, Mark Anthony Turnage and, not least, Judith Weir.

But then the inclusion of only six women composers in the entire series would be grounds for yet another black mark were it not for a welcome act of restitution. One of the most finely sustained and austerely lyrical scores of her entire vast output, Elisabeth Lutyens's Quincunx for voices and large orchestra, was rapturously received at the 1962 Cheltenham Festival and subsequently released on a too-long-deleted LP - and yet it has never, ever received a London performance.

Its inclusion in the concert at Maida Vale studios on 9 April (to be broadcast on 3 May) should serve to remind listeners that the international post-war enterprise to create a serialist lingua franca for new music - utterly discredited though it may currently seem - was capable in the right hands of yielding a haunting distinction, and no wonder Lutyens proved such an influential mother-figure to the subsequent Glock generation.

A few more rediscoveries of this calibre would surely have spiced up Endless Parade no end. Yet a critical reconsideration of a whole period involves more than just individual finds; it depends crucially upon what is programmed with what. We are, after all, supposed to be living in a post-modern flux in which the old notions of modernism and conservatism, of style and genre, of what makes a balanced concert programme even, have dissolved in a new relativity.

Thus, while some continue to exalt the transcendental modernism of a Brian Ferneyhough, others no longer feel shy about confessing to an affection for a long-disregarded ultra-conservative such as Gerald Finzi (a composer, we now discover, from Stephen Banfield's searching recent biography, who was working from as carefully formulated an ideology as any Ferneyhough).

Indeed, it is now possible to find individual listeners who respond to both composers, though to suggest that a Finzi-Ferneyhough concert might throw up some unexpected affinities, would doubtless still be regarded as a bit much. Yet the psychological shake-up that is almost upon us should not be underestimated: within but a few months we shall be talking about all this stuff as music of the last century.

Endless Parade: Royal Festival Hall: 0171-960 4242; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester: 0161-907 9000; Maida Vale Studios: write to the Radio Ticket Unit, BBC, London W1A 4WW; Ulster Hall, Belfast: write to the BBC Concert Ticket Unit, Broadcasting House, Belfast BT2 8HQ. All concerts broadcast on Radio 3