Classical Music : It's goodbye from him: Tippett goes plop

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The Independent Culture
SEVERAL years ago the South Bank ran a festival devoted to "late works" which raised the interesting question of what, if anything, identified a late work - other than its nearness to the author's death. A sharper sense of focus? Heightened wisdom? Sometimes it seems so - and then composers like Michael Tippett fool everyone by living so long that their late works turn out not to be late after all. It follows that you have to be careful what you read into Tippett's The Rose Lake, which has just had its world premire from the LSO and Colin Davis at the Barbican. But it is almost certainly his last work, the final statement in a long and sometimes great creative life. And you'd be hard pushed not to hear in it a note of valediction.

Subtitled "a song without words for orchestra", it is effectively a quiet coda to the all-embracing song that Tippett's work collectively comprises. Sparely written, it demands large forces but deploys them in vignettes of separated, soloistic instrumental colour - a bit thin compared with the richness of his past music, and stretched translucently across 25 minutes. But then this lake is rose, not blood-red or deep blue.

The lake in question actually exists in Senegal - it turns rose-pink with the reflection of the midday sun - and Tippett visited it on one of his globe-trotting excursions. But The Rose Lake is not pastoral exotica. In a newcollection of essays, Tippett on Music (OUP, £35), the composer associates it with Debussy's La Mer as an expression of feeling rather than pictorial reportage. What really interests him is the relationship between the lake and the sky, prompting important structural features in the score. Reflections become echoes and embellishments of a pre-stated "song" that passes back and forth between the (notional) air and water; it plays itself out in a final, muted quaver-chord marked "plop". An odd but idiomatic sign-off to a life's work.

To anyone who knows the life and work, The Rose Lake may sound reticent: under-composed and distantly imagined. But attune your ear to its fastidious scale of statement and you'll hear an eloquent, refined voice, unmistakably "late" in its pared-down sense of the specific, but still beautiful. And beautifully played here by the LSO, who deserved better than they got. The miserable band of failed musicians known as "The Hecklers" tried to ruin the performance with outbursts of abuse the moment the last chord had played. Freedom of opinion is one thing, but this was not a response to the music: it was callous, premeditated self-display, a species of vandalism, and the most contemptible behaviour I've encountered in a concert hall.

Dawn Upshaw's CD of American Broadway-into-art songs, I wish it so, was for me the most purely enjoyable release of 1994, and I wasn't alone. Her recital last week at the Wigmore Hall was packed, and we all wanted to hear her sing Blitzstein, Bernstein and the rest. Ms Upshaw, though, had other ideas, geared to presenting a more rounded picture of herself as an artist comfortable in European mainstream repertory. I wish she hadn't, because these things are not her greatest strength. Technically, everything is in place: that high, light soprano has an immaculate precision and a gracefully agile purity of tone. Upshaw also has a delightful personality. But it's a forcefully American personality and tone that doesn't yield as readily as some to European style. Songs that require specific colouring and weight come over as didactic. Worse still, winsome. Her Copland settings of Emily Dickinson were far more persuasive; and when Blitzstein's "I wish it so" came as an encore, all hearts melted on the spot. For this alone it was a memorable recital. But we wanted more.

English Touring Opera's new Barber of Seville at Sadler's Wells ends with an orange sunset - literally, as a juicy great Seville job drops out of the sky - which sums up the marmalade romp that Martin Duncan, directing, makes of the piece. The setting is turn-of-the-century, the humour music-hall. Done by Denise Mulholland as a cannily Hispanic Molly Weir, Berta is almost the star of this show, though she has competition from a pertly bright Rosina (Debra Stuart) and a wonderfully original, Edwardian-whiskered Figaro (Adrian Clarke). Not all the cast are so accomplished. But there's plenty to enjoy, especially as the characters edge closer in Act II to an approximation of their later Marriage of Figaro selves. With fine - though slow - orchestral playing under Jonathan Darlington, it is on tour until early summer.

`Barber of Seville': Poole Arts Centre, 0202 685222, continues Tues, Thurs, Sat; then touring.

Michael White, classical music and opera critic of the IoS, has been awarded top marks in a survey of readers' views on opera critics conducted by the new Classic FM Magazine. His reviews are described as `truthful and illuminating ... highly amusing and to the point'.