CLASSICAL MUSIC / Making minimal progress

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IT DOESN'T take the ears of Mozart to appreciate that minimalism is to music what all-in wrestling is to sport: a showbiz subculture where the moves are fake, enlarged by effortful but empty grunts and groans into a parody of what defines the real thing - conflict, tension and release. And no one, it seems, wants to be a minimalist any more. Not, at least, by name.

The term that was coined (reputedly by Michael Nyman) in the 1960s to dignify the common ground between composers such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass - a 'downtown' collective, mass-producing cyclic mantra music in their New York lofts as opposed to the 'uptown' avant-garde of Elliott Carter and the Ivy League intelligentsia - has become, almost, a term of abuse.

It never properly described us in the first place, complains Philip Glass, with some justification given the far from minimal tedium of his operas. I've never applied it to myself says Nyman, whose recent work retreats from the pump-action pulse and pseudo-period repeating processes of his old Draughtsman's Contract style. And as for John Adams, the most successful minimalist of them all and the most frequently performed living American classical composer, he is persistently reported to be bored by it and looking for ways out.

The encouraging thing about John Adams is that among the minimalist circle he is the most gifted and best technically- equipped to take what minimalism actually had to offer (a clearing of the air after modernism turned stale, and a rapprochement with the popular audience for music) and move on. He has been the one to take minimalism uptown with scores such as The Wound-Dresser, an evocatively Barberesque bite of Americana; and his appearance last week at the Barbican, conducting the London Sinfonietta in a programme of new American music, including his own new Chamber Symphony, carried the promise of The Latest Development.

Unfortunately, what the Chamber Symphony delivered was a strong suggestion that the progress of minimalism is one step forward, two steps back. It was a score determined after Schoenberg's of the same name: dense, exuberant, requiring 15 players (one on synthesiser) and dividing a 20-minute duration into three movements that, as you would expect from a serious tribute to Schoenberg, bristled with erudition. If articulate complexity were all, it would have been a fine work. But this was a case of superior technique sustaining tired ideas - the same old fixed pulse, closed forms, pseudo-baroque repetitions - over too long a time span. The best thing I can a say of it is that the Symphony must be the ne plus ultra of its kind, so next time the thinking has to shift.

It was, needless to add, played superbly by the Sinfonietta, alongside two other quasi-minimal works: eight minutes of soulless but seriously argued exuberance in Peter Lieberson's Raising the Gaze, and an eclectic part- concerto, part-verse setting by Tod Machover called Song of Penance that built with curiously emotive power into something like a computerised, high-energy equivalent of The Lark Ascending. The solo instrument was a 'hyperviola', wired up, synthesised, and played by Paul Silverthorne.

You couldn't hear much of it because the writing fed into an aural fog of amplified and unspecific sound; and you heard still less of the verse, mixed in on pre- recorded tape. But this was not a piece that depended on detail so much as an accumulative corporate ecstasy. A rather messy ecstasy at times, but captivating on the whole. As was George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children after the interval: a classic of the early 1970s whose spacious and compassionate experimentalism (the kind where every note is heard and every nuance registers: the diametric counterpart of Machover's) was served here with exceptional dexterity by the American soprano Christine Whittlesey.

Soprano of the week, though, was Felicity Lott, whose all-Poulenc recital at the Wigmore Hall was more substantial than the three courses of confectionery its menu might have suggested. Poulenc's songs have salon chic, but it's a chic sustained by pathos, by tendresse, and by a quiet wisdom that touches the sensibilities of his favourite poets, Apollinaire and Paul Eluard, at exactly the right level. There are few among the 150 or so settings in his output that could be said to fail.

The judgement is immaculate: he knows when to discharge a line prosaically, when to inflate it romantically, when to transfer the argument to the piano (which has an almost equal role, especially in its supply of wistful-pungent codas). But the judgement of the performers needs to be immaculate, too; and I doubt if even in France you could improve on Ms Lott and her accompanist, Graham Johnson, in what turned out to be a survey of Poulenc's entire career, from the profound squibs of the early Bestiare (a Flanders and Swann-ish animal collection written at 19) through landmarks such as Tel jour telle nuit to the extended scena (1961) La dame de Monte Carlo, a sister piece to La voix humaine and similarly a study of disintegrating womanhood,

with text by Cocteau. Throughout, the irony was discreet, the gestures elegant and tasteful (not a nod, wink, grimace or hint of camp), and the technique flawless in a classically understated way - especially impressive in the high- reach-and-cushioned-descent manoeuvres that Poulenc favours. In an ideal world her tone colour would have varied more; but Graham Johnson's infinitely expressive playing made good there; and I have rarely seen an audience leave so radiant with pleasure.

Except, perhaps, on Thursday when the Alban Berg Quartet appeared at the QEH in the South Bank's new Schubert series and delivered two great, late favourites (if anything in the life of a composer who died at 31 can be called late) as masterfully as I shall ever hope to hear them: the G Major Quartet, D887, and C Major Quintet, D956, with Heinrich Schiff (no less) as the additional cellist.

True, their sound is polished to an almost disconcerting gloss, and their balance sometimes weighted to allow concerto status to the first violin. But what incredible musicianship. What marvellous ensemble playing. What a Viennese blend of strong, rich, creamy string tone. And what a perfect guest they had in Schiff, whose vibrato-sustained pizzicati really do sustain (most don't). The Alban Berg Quartet return on 25 February, with Haydn, Lutoslawski and Ravel. On current form it ought to be unmissable.

(Photograph omitted)

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