Classical: Mary, Mary, cool and scary

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Mary Stuart


Stockhausen at 70


Spirit Garden


Donizetti's has a special place in the history of English National Opera. Through the 1970s and early 1980s it was one of ENO's flagship shows, with Charles Mackerras at the helm and Janet Baker in the title role: her farewell to the London stage. It was recorded - disc and video - and it remains a classic. So to make a new production is to tread on hallowed ground. It's a mark of ENO's current confidence that its new treads with such security and strength of purpose.

With a cool, spare, stylish staging by Gale Edwards - darling of the RSC and making, here, her UK opera debut - it comes etched in hard, sharp outline, with the story-telling crystal clear. The set is simple but effective, based around an outsized Tudorbethan gallery table that (inevitably) becomes Mary's scaffold. The costumes (Jasper Conran) look to Hollywood but are appropriate to a piece which plays as loose with history as anything that Errol Flynn squeezed into tights for. And though you might question the wisdom of casting both the female leads with mezzos, they turn out to be distinct vocal personalities: Susan Parry, a stiff icon of an Elizabeth who crumbles into fragility in Act II (ENO uses the new, two-act edition), and Ann Murray in magnificently fluent form as Mary. That she barks rather than spits her "vil bastarda" temper tantrum doesn't matter. She's a Queen of Hearts to reckon with more modern claimants to the title. And the pathos of her ultimate defeat comes with a wonderfully observed nobility.

I wish that Jean-Yves Ossonce gave more bite to the attack. But he's a fine conductor. It's a fine show. And God knows, we need it in these dismally depleted days of London's operatic life.

Two composers had what passed for celebrations of a lifetime's work this week: one a westerner looking East, the other an Oriental looking west. Neither of them quite get away with it. The westerner was Stockhausen, whose 70th birthday was marked on Wednesday by the London Sinfonietta in a South Bank concert that purported to survey his output, past and present. Had it actually attempted that, we would have been there all night. We'd have followed the composer's progress from control freak (every aspect of performance scrupulously predetermined) to cloud-nine libertarian (whose scores are no more than suggested possibilities), from technical geek to New Age guru, from minutely observed, Webern-like miniatures to vast, colour-washed cathedrals of sound. And from comparative sanity to neo-Wagnerian megalomania in the epic cycle of seven operas which seem largely to be about himself, his family, and their place in the cosmos.

In fact, the Sinfonietta offered no survey at all. They played three works from 1959 to 1977, linked by an interest in the non-linear process and exotic sound-world of oriental music. And in the case of Refrain (a rondo-like meditation for three players) and Telemusik (a purely electronic tapestry of actual and invented sounds), it sounded dated to the point of staleness. Uncle Karlheinz isn't ageing well.

The third piece, Der Jahreslauf, was more diverting: a reinterpretation of traditional Japanese Gagaku for Western instruments and electronics that moved with a slow, processional tread - heavily accented and dragging in its wake the whining glissandi of a woodwind trio above the drone of a small phalanx of synthesiser keyboards. But its spell was broken periodically by pre-taped interventions - featuring the voice of the great man himself, declaiming fatuous poems and, at one point, the intriguing line "ho, ho, stark naked". As the score is marked in dedication to one "Jaynee Stephens for her 20th birthday", I suppose this comment is addressed to her; and it exemplifies the autobiographical in-jokery which can be one of Stockhausen's more tiresome qualities.

That said, the 50 minutes of Der Jahreslauf passes in a flash. It holds together well and justifies the composer's enthusiasm for long, unbroken durations. He has the technique, and the vision, to sustain them. But the very fact that this was the UK premiere of a piece written in 1977 tells you something. Stockhausen has been a great, fermenting crucible of influence. But the work itself, I'm not so sure about. Perhaps it's not addressed to us. Perhaps it's music for the spheres.

The Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, by comparison, is earthbound - though on rarified, rather exquisite terms suggested by the title "Spirit Garden" which adorns the current South Bank festival of his creative life. His music doesn't move from A to B. It plots a space in which the listener lingers here and there over some pleasurable sound or texture. It's an Eastern attitude and yet the language he deploys is of the west, its antecedents Messiaen, Ravel, Debussy: which is why this festival has programmed him alongside French composers, and why he is the only Japanese composer to have broken through the barriers of Western consciousness.

Until his death two years ago, he was a constant presence in the London concert world, delivering scores that spoke with haiku-like particularity, but none the less remained a Japanese response to Europe. So they must be judged by European standards. As such, they don't always succeed. Star Isle and A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, which featured in the BBC Symphony's opening concert under Andrew Davis, feel too much like the accompaniment to an imagined film: Wagner would have called them effects without causes. But their eloquence is undeniable; and you can't help admiring them in the way that Oscar Wilde admired his blue-and-white china. Something, somehow, to live up to, like a rule of life.

The only rule determinable from the Gramophone Awards on Monday was that in the record business people come and go. And at the moment, it's more go than come. The place was full of former executives, reflecting the demoralised state of the classical CD market at the moment. Sales figures are sustained largely by compilation discs and issues that are hardly "classical" at all, like James Horner's Titanic score. Companies are folding. New product is being stifled by the endless re-release of old catalogues. And the biggest companies seem to be taking the hardest knocks. Deutsche Grammophon - once the classiest name in the industry - got a Special Achievement Award on Monday, in recognition of its 100th anniversary, but not a single prize for any of its discs from the past year. A touch embarrassing; and you could see it on the DG faces.

On a happier note, it was good to see the pianist Stephen Hough take the Best Instrumental award for his Hyperion release of the obscure but mesmerising Mompou (my choice last Christmas as disc of the year). It was encouraging to see the Best Concerto go to Joshua Bell's Decca disc of the Walton and Barber, and interesting to note the new-found strengths of French and Italian ensembles in period performance. And it was a delight that the overall Record of the Year was the Hyperion coupling of Martin and Pizzetti Masses by the choir of Westminster Cathedral under James O'Donnell: due recognition for what is arguably now the finest ecclesiastical choir - and choir director - in Britain. My one disappointment was that the NMC disc of the Elgar-Payne 3rd Symphony got nothing. But more of that next week.

'': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), in rep to 10 November. 'Spirit Garden': RFH, SE1, (0171 920 4242), to 28 October.