CLASSICAL MUSIC / It's his party, but he'll cry off if he wants to

THE ROYAL Academy of Music was, in a manner of speaking, Schnittke'd this week when the star of its 1994 composer-in-residence festival cried off. He was unwell; and after weeks of preparation it must have been a terrible disappointment to the organisers. But the Schnittke Week went on regardless, and did very well, effectively presented by student performers and providing audiences with a portrait of Schnittke's life and works that was at least as valuable as past professional retrospectives.

Sixty this year, Schnittke is a grateful candidate for retrospection. His output is large and diverse, and although the Academy's programme concentrated on the core works of the 1970s, it took in early forays into modernism and several UK premieres - including the 1980 Gogol suite, a lightweight orchestral fantasy that makes a useful point of entry into Schnittke's sound world. And what is this world? It's a Rocky Horror empire suspended between past and present, sophistication and banality, the sublime and the grotesque, where the same score might originate an idea in the form of a maudlin cafe-piano solo, insert some jokily surreal quotations, add a rock guitar and drum set, and then marshal the whole thing into a regimented piece of psuedo-

baroque. The technical term is polystylism, and the principal objective seems to be to integrate the unintegratable. This is a task Schnittke tackles with particular success in Concerto Grosso No 1, which opened the Academy's festival and featured one of its most gifted current students, violinist Daniel Hope. Flamboyant but evasive, hard- to-pin-down music, it came off with impressive flair.

It's also music that lends itself to 'explanation'. You can hear Schnittke's patchwork technique as the multi-cultural collecting instinct of a composer who, although a Russian convert to Catholicism, was born in Vienna of German-Jewish parents. You can also hear it as the geo-political yearning of a man who has spent most of his life confined to barracks by Soviet socialism. Or as a challenge to the severity of modernism, building an alternative newness from the listener-friendly materials of old regimes. Or, indeed, as plain old Mahlerian neurosis: nostalgia self-defensively tempered by sarcasm, and looking back with what Pierre Boulez calls an X-ray vision that

exposes not the flesh of the past but its rattling bones.

Whatever line you take on Schnittke, there is no denying that his work is fascinating and attractive. My abiding reservation, though, concerns its substance: the more you hear of it in a packaged festival, the more it suggests a kind of musical transvestism. The frocks come out of the wardrobe of history with too rapid a turnover to be entirely credible.

Peter Maxwell Davies is also 60 this year, and also keeps a few frocks in his wardrobe (if he'll pardon my saying so). There are many Maxwell Davies scores that rehabilitate the music of the past; but they do it, I think, with a greater depth of seriousness than Schnittke - and never deeper than in the Second Fantasia on John Taverner's 'In Nomine' which Davies himself conducted as part of a programme of his works with the RPO at the South Bank. The Second Fantasia is a Sixties classic, and like many Davies scores it has two skins - an outer surface that contains an inner, almost secret substance - although in the Fantasia the secret escapes at the very start (it is the borrowing from Taverner) before the complex argument of the piece gets wrapped around it. In the following clarinet concerto, the secret is held back until the very end - when it turns out to be a Scottish folk tune that emerges with radiance (and some relief) in the final bars. And it's the same in Orkney Wedding with Sunrise: a pop piece whose jokey narrative resolves, spectacularly, into music theatre, with the entrance of a Scottish piper in full regalia. On Wednesday the piper - one George MacIlwham, who seems to make a career out of the piece - strode through the hall with an endearing panache that wiped the frowns off the faces of the most hardened avant-gardists.

Mr MacIlwham would have been an asset on Monday at the QEH when Edward Downes conducted the Docklands Sinfonietta in the world premiere of Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin. It should have been memorable but wasn't. In case you think there's some mistake here, I should say that I do mean Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin and not Tchaikovsky's. Written in 1936 as part of a Pushkin series (the other pieces were Boris Godunov and Queen of Spades) it was a risky undertaking, because all these works were deathlessly associated in the public mind with other composers. Prokofiev himself acknowledged it as a thankless task. So it was - none of the pieces was ever performed.

But the intention was to produce something notably different from the previous settings. So, in Onegin, he concentrated on the scenes that Tchaikovsky ignored, and tried to recapture the ironic tone of Pushkin's verse. The result was a melodrama, a fusion of dramatised speech and music. As Monday's performance proved, it sounds like an adult counterpart to Peter and the Wolf which was written in the same year, in a similar stylistic voice, but with a greater level of invention.

And there you have the problem with Prokofiev's Onegin - it's thin. There is one attractively antiseptic waltz, but most of the music is disengaged from the story. Timothy West's staged adaptation of the text was also less than riveting. All it proved was that Charles Johnston's widely admired English translation of Onegin sounds, when read aloud, like Rupert Bear couplets, stuck forever in the present tense. 'No doubt about it, it's Eugene / How long has he been on the scene?' was typical. However you applaud the initiative of Downes and the Docklands players for giving this a try, you'll probably agree that it's not worth perpetuating on disc. Otherwise, you'll be pleased to find it on the Chandos label at Christmas.

Finally a brief tribute to Donald Swann who died this week after a long illness, which he endured with characteristic fortitude and saintly good humour. He will always be remembered for his cabaret songs, with their throwaway brilliance and effortless pastiche. Swann was a masterful pasticheur, at his best in numbers like the 'Guide to Britten' (not warmly received by Britten himself). But there was an underlying sense of purpose in Donald's output. When his partnership with Michael Flanders ended, he sat at home in Battersea writing chamber operas that never quite worked, but which contained a kind of epic heroism (and greatness of heart) within their small scale. And no one who loved the serious Flanders and Swann songs, like the radiantly melancholic 'Slow Train', will be surprised to know that Swann wrote several excellent cycles to texts that deserve an honourable place in the history of British song. His music meant a lot to me and I shall miss him.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor