CLASSICAL MUSIC / Great boars of today: H K Gruber's pigtale

Gloria: a Pigtale
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The Independent Culture
BESTIAL operas are in vogue this autumn, last month with a gorilla at Glyndebourne and now a singing pig in Huddersfield. Her name is Gloria and she is an uncommonly pretty pig who sits in her sty waiting for a handsome prince to sweep her off her trotters. He arrives, she swoons . . . and he turns out to be the butcher. And if all this has a familiar ring it's because the story is, if you think about it, Ariadne auf Naxos in reverse. Ariadne pines for death and gets Bacchus; Gloria, more true to life, pines for Bacchus and gets death. It was ever thus.

But far from being Richard Strauss, Gloria: a Pigtale is a new theatre piece commissioned for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival from the Austrian composer H K Gruber. It had its world premiere on Thursday in the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, a superb new resource which the Festival has needed for years to accommodate its growth into a major international event; and perhaps it's just my puerile sense of humour, but I found the pathos, pantomime exuberance and sheer silliness of Gloria enchanting. Like a long (if, maybe, over-long) Flanders & Swann song.

Gruber's score is, in the manner of his previous theatre music, a robust rehearing of pre-war German cabaret. Set for five voices and the basic brass-heavy ensemble of a Bavarian polka band, it moves with an anarchic busy-ness. The numbers tend toward a solid, four-square rhythmic framework of the oom-pah genre, but filled in with complicated webs of jazzy syncopation. It's a hard sing; and probably the more so because the voices are required to jettison their operatic instinct for bel canto in favour of a gutteral directness that some manage with more conviction than others. Stefan Asbury, conducting, did well to keep them all together without a sense of being leashed. This, after all, is pantomime.

Gloria suffers, though, in being German pantomime packaged for a British audience, with some resulting crises of cultural identity. Nominally it's an Opera North production and the text you hear is (very) English: a delightful entertainment by Amanda Holden that throws in every sausage joke you can imagine, and a few you'd rather not, with relish (there's another). But the whole flavour (sorry) of the piece is Bavarian: it's meant to be a satire on south German philistinism - not that you'd notice when the text introduces Gloria as ``the prettiest pig in the Pennines''. And with an imported German production team, the staging is all Teutonic hysteria: knockabout nursery routines where something more considerately charming - like the Maurice Sendak touch that saved Oliver Knussen's operas - would have worked better.

On the subject of salvation, I should add that Gloria's bacon is ultimately saved, in the nick of time, by a good old-fashioned deus ex machina: the intervention of a wild boar who marries her and becomes a domestic bore. I suppose you could call that a happy ending.

The world beyond Huddersfield is celebrating the 60th birthday of Alfred Schnittke; but not, alas, with Alfred Schnittke. For months he has been in hospital in Hamburg recovering, barely, from yet another stroke; so he is being celebrated in absentia by a touring coterie of Schnittke champions such as Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Mstislav Rostropovich. And in that respect, not much has changed. Schnittke's reputation was largely formed in absentia by friends who carried his music abroad while he remained in Moscow, gated by a disapproving Soviet regime. And his isolation is surely the key to his work from that period: the Sixties to the Eighties when Schnittke was synonymous with the patchwork process known as polystylism. Like someone turning out a drawer to find a lost sock, he was raking over disparate languages of the past to find a fit: to fix his place in the continuum of European music history.

But that was then. More recently the frantic, pseudo-baroque exuberance has gone, leaving just the foundation of hurt that was always present in his personality, though never quite so nakedly as now. And it was very naked indeed in the little glut of Schnittke premieres - pieces stockpiled from before his illness - that took place last weekend.

The most important was the world premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Stockholm, given by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky. Sweden can fairly claim to be the world centre of Schnittke performance, partly because geographical proximity has always encouraged an interest in things Russian, but specifically because Rozhdestvensky is now in his second term of office as the Stockholm Philharmonic's chief conductor. And Rozhdestvensky is the Schnittke champion sans pareil. He was the one who, in 1974, steam-rollered through the premiere of the First Symphony after the Moscow authorities said no. He was the driving force behind the massive Stockholm Schnittke Festival of 1989 which was the composer's ultimate endorsement as a central figure in world music. And the Eighth is effectively his symphony. But it's an austere possession, taking to extremes the thin and separated textures that characterise Schnittke's later work. Themes pass like relay batons from department to department in the orchestra, with no sustained ensemble playing. Nothing comes together. Tempi are all slow, dynamics all soft; and you'd be tempted to call the paring-down of resources valedictory but for the fact that Schnittke is only 60 and he has been writing in this empty, spatial manner for some years.

On Sunday night at London's Barbican, Rostropovich and the LSO gave the UK premiere of the Sixth Symphony and it was much the same: a stronger, more assertive score than No 8 but still largely a process of bare exchanges between groups of instruments; of portended conflicts that the score sets up but never actually delivers. It's uneven: there are times when Schnittke seems to be sustaining his ideas uncritically and without real development, beyond their natural life. But at its best the writing still projects a deep and curiously Russian expressiveness. However thin the textures, they come darkly coloured. Black as a December night, and twice as bleak.

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