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
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...