CLASSICAL MUSIC / All the better to bite you with

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE ARE reasons why writers of stature tend not to be librettists - why Isherwood refused Peter Grimes and Eliot said no to A Child of Our Time - and one is that the abstract energy of music practises a kind of rape on the precise intelligence of words. But in Terrible Mouth, a new opera by Howard Barker and Nigel Osborne, the rape is reversed. The score surrenders to the words, which pound out like a slow-motion machine gun, in a way that makes most recent opera seem tame.

The central character is Goya, who has surfaced in Osborne's work before. But the piece is not biography. It looks at where an artist stands in relation to the subject of his art: in this case the savagery of the Napoleonic wars. As Goya captures it on canvas, suffering becomes a tool of creativity; and if his attitude to suffering is voyeuristic, it has no less to offer the wounded than that of his interventionist counterpart, a surgeon who explains that before the revolution he was a chiropodist.

Barker presents all this with gestures that stray into comedy: a lot of severed limbs and babies dropping from the sky like debris from a Punch and Judy show, dead on arrival. Osborne's score has no equivalent: it holds back from the raw shock of the text. But as a coherent music of pain, where motifs slash like knives through dark and long-held textures, it does what it needs to do. A cohort of cellos, prominent in the scoring, and the staging, looks poised to launch into Villa- Lobos, but supplies what I take to be the muzak of Goya's deafness.

Memorable roles, mixing speech with sound - including exploratory vocal techniques for a small chorus that gargles its way into definite pitches like a testament to oral hygiene - are played with conviction by Richard Van Allen, Elizabeth Laurence, and Omar Ebrahim/Ian McDairmid who as singer/actor double the part of Goya the deaf but seeing presence and Goya the voice, the terrible, all-telling mouth of the title. David Pountney's staging is perplexingly abstract, and I came away baffled by much of it. But this is opera at the edge of operatic culture, and you can't expect it to sit comfortably in easily absorbed conventions.

Apart from assertive librettos, this has been a week of prominent accompaniments. Thursday brought a recital in the Great Hall of St Bartholomew's Hospital where the violinist (aka conductor) Bryan Fairfax hadn't a lot to say, but the pianist Michael Shak did. I've never heard a performance of the Franck Violin Sonata where the interest was so totally thrown on what was happening at the keyboard.

Then there was the premiere of a new Cello Concerto by Michael Blake Watkins where the cello part was almost optional. It was the centrepiece of the closing concert in the Lichfield Festival, given by the BBC Philharmonic and its new principal conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, with Tim Hugh as the soloist; and both piece and performance were impressive. Blake Watkins is a skilled manipulator of large orchestral forces, with a fine ear for colour. His work is not radical the concerto sparkles with a warm, Waltonian lyric urgency sustained over long durations - but it does challenge the ear and makes a very viable piece for a mixed programme. The problem is that you barely notice the cello - a difficult instrument to profile in any circumstances but especially here where the orchestral texture is unyieldingly consistent and the passion of the solo writing is more crafted than heightened. A drier acoustic than Lichfield Cathedral might help in future performances.

The Chilingirian Quartet have been running a cycle of the six Bartok quartets through the Cheltenham Festival, and most of the supporting items have been Haydn, except on Wednesday when they premiered John Tavener's 2nd, otherwise entitled The Last Sleep of The Virgin. The piece abandons the traditional burden of the quartet as a purveyor of rigorous argument and is instead contemplative, 'applied'. The 'application' is a set of hand-bells which lays a constant melody, evocative of the pentatonic pattern of the plainsong Dies Irae, over the strings at the top of a tiering which allocates pace according to pitch: the higher the faster, the lower the slower.

It's the principle on which Russian campanology works and, like all Taverner's current music, the austere serenity of Orthodox religion is pervasive. But this is a more personal piece than his usual ikons in sound. He wrote it last year, when he was seriously ill, and describes its content as a mystery - 'All I know is that, when it came to me, I couldn't quite hear it' - which is why he asks it be played some distance from the audience. At Cheltenham this eccentric request was observed by putting the players in an upper gallery. Eccentrically, it came off.

Which is more than can be said for the first week of the new, accessible Radio 3 as it limped through its 'drivetime' schedules in a lacklustre void of interest and energy. The old regime, for all its arrogance, had a patrician strength. I'd hoped the new regime would substitute an evangelising zeal. So far, it hasn't. But things cheered up when the Proms began on Friday with a big, but discriminating, Verdi Requiem that showed off Andrew Davis's dynamic form as a conductor of massed forces. The soloists were badly matched for voices, and only the mezzo Marjana Lipovsek made a real impression. But the night belonged to Davis. May he never be reduced to drivetime.

The Proms: Albert Hall (071-823 9998).