CLASSICAL MUSIC / Hearts and flowers

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The Independent Culture
THE SUBJECT this week is Words and most of them are German, although the number required to tackle an average Schubert song is not great. A vocabulary of about 50 nouns would do, so long as it encompassed the formulaic scenario of a lonely wanderer whose heart (Herz) bears the pain (Schmertz) of longing (Sensucht) for the return of love (Liebe), while spring (Fruhling) returns and the little brook (Bachlein) flows indifferently on.

Of course, I exaggerate; but not hugely. The miracle of the better texts that Schubert chose to set - by poets such as Heine and Goethe - is that they excavate uncommon depths of feeling from a modest repertoire of Romantic imagery. The task of a Schubert interpreter is to reassemble those images of the lonely wanderer, the stream and spring with such commitment and immediacy that when the picture is complete it takes the listener's breath away. Again.

And so it was that although I have heard the Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and the British pianist Imogen Cooper perform Schubert's Schwanengesang before, I was transfixed by the sheer artistry with which they did it again at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday. Rarely have I heard so sensitive, intelligent and gloriously musical a partnership. Cooper is a fine Schubertian in her own right. As for Holzmair, if there is another lieder singer who is as well equipped to command the repertory post-Fischer-Dieskau, I have yet to hear him.

The voice is not big, but it has a beauty comparable to that of Olaf Bar a few years back. It also has the genius of Fischer-Dieskau's textual detailing, without the negative corollaries: an extraordinary ability to spot-colour individual words (such as the charmingly lightweight Sensucht at the end of 'Die Taubenpost', or the emotionally loaded Heimatland - in 'Der Wanderer an den Mond') which doesn't undermine the broader phrasing. Where Fischer- Dieskau's verbal dramas were disfiguring and fragmenting, Holzmair's integrate into a gracious sense of line.

Those who know Schwanengesang will know that 'Wanderer' doesn't strictly belong to it. But Schwanengesang is not a real cycle: merely a basket of late and largely dark songs tidied together for publication after Schubert's death, with the lighter 'Taubenpost' tacked on the end because it happened to be written last. This is a problem to which singers offer varying solutions, but Holzmair's is especially ingenious. He relocates 'Taubenpost' to the beginning and beds it in a supportive context of other settings of the same poet, Seidl: hence 'Der Wanderer'. The cycle then ends, grimly, on 'Der Doppelganger'; and to satisfy ears that ache for tradition he brings back 'Taubenpost' as an encore - demonstrating how the placing of a song can influence its character. 'Die Taubenpost' sounds very different second time around - though just as good, and just as loveable.

Less loveable is the German word entartete, which means 'degenerate' and was the term applied by the Third Reich to art that undermined the purity of the Aryan race. Art, that is, with no common feature beyond the fact that it was created by or associated with Jews, homosexuals, blacks and the liberal avant-garde - including jazz, on the grounds that jazz was black music. Composers whose work fell into any of these categories were silenced and either perished or fled. Some, like Schoenberg, managed to maintain their reputation; others, like Kurt Weill, found a different kind of fame in American showbusiness; but many more just disappeared, taking a lot of music with them.

Last weekend I was present at the launch in Berlin of a massive project to trace and reconstruct the music of this lost generation. Over the next four years Decca will issue a series of recordings, largely opera, starting with Krenek's jazzy Jonny spielt auf and Korngold's ravishingly Straussian (but Jewish) Der Wunder der Heliane which both come out this month. It's an important project that could change our reading of 20th-century cultural history. But it will also wring some nerves.

It was clear from the launch proceedings that some Germans see it as an attempt to perpetuate collective war guilt. Others object that it legitimises the epithet entartete into a neutral definition. 'To produce records, books and posters with this word across them to identify the subject matter is the final victory of the Nazis,' I was told by one angry Berlin critic. That so many neutral words in music - 'baroque' for example - began as insults will not pacify him. This is recent history, and its wounds are open.

Not, though, to someone like Graham Scott who was born long after the war. The wiry 26-year-old pianist from Chester graduated from the Royal Northern College in 1989 and was immediately adopted by the Young Concert Artists Trust scheme which sniffs out, promotes and manages outstanding new talent until such time as a commercial agent steps in. YCAT made a wise choice in Scott. His Purcell Room recital on Monday was nothing less than exhilarating - when it got through to the repertory he seemed most comfortable with: Franck and Rachmaninov.

Fiercely alive, intelligent and fresh, it was the sort of playing that takes nothing in the score for granted, that explores familiar problems unfamiliarly and has you straining in your seat to catch the detail, which is curious and interesting as well as virtuosic and musicianly. A heavy programme - Berg and Beethoven to start - it never flagged or tired: it just got better. I was mightily impressed.

The good thing about David Pountney's Queen of Spades production, now revived by ENO, is that it exposes this pseudo-love story as a tale of screwball psychotics told through the superlatively screwball mind of Hermann - which is presumably why the set is so ethereally unspecific: a thing of net curtains and not much else. Otherwise there's almost nothing good about it. It looks shabby, empty and impoverished. With the exception of Anthony Michaels-Moores's Yeletsky whose Act II aria steals the show (without much competition), the singing is undistinguished. Even the translation is conspicuously poor. The critically insistent phrase 'tri karty' cannot be translated as 'three cards': it needs another syllable.

Sian Edwards, ENO's music director-designate and now perilously close to takeover time, conducted well and stylishly: the orchestra was sounding strong. But it was nothing to compare with Andrew Davis and the LPO last year at Glyndebourne.

'Queen of Spades' continues at the Coliseum (071-836 3161), Fri.

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