CLASSICAL MUSIC Moses und Aron RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
An ugly little scene prefaced the Festival Hall Moses und Aron on Sunday evening. The conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi, had taken his place at the rostrum; then, as the houselights went down for the first scene, there were increasingly angry cries of "Lights!" from the back of the stalls. Finally, someone spelt it out: "How are we supposed to read the text if we can't see it?"

As it turned out, there were surtitles, though nothing was said about that in the programme, or anywhere else. Anyway, many of the audience were having difficulty finding a programme at all. It seems that someone at the South Bank had seriously underestimated the pulling power of Schoenberg's great 12-tone opera and had too few copies printed. General irritation must have been running high, especially since we'd just heard that one of the evening's star attractions, the tenor Philip Langridge, had pulled out at the last minute. One can understand why people were moved to protest. Still, there was something surly and petulant about it. Was this the first London manifestation of Concert Rage?

It would be nice to be able to say that the rest of the evening made up for the unpleasant start. But this Moses und Aron was a mixed experience: successful in parts, but a very long way short of the devastating impact of the Boulez / Stein staged Moses in Amsterdam last year. That in itself is significant. Moses is sometimes criticised as "unoperatic", "oratorio- like"; but in Amsterdam Schoenberg's score was richly enhanced by Peter Stein's splendid and very musical staging. The Philharmonia's playing may not quite have matched the Amsterdam Concertgebouw's in energy and textural beauty, but it was impressive enough. So too was the singing of London Voices in the crucial choral parts. But Dohnanyi's direction placed too much emphasis on the stop-start nature of much of the writing, especially in Act 1, thus robbing the drama of its tragic impetus. A shame too that the splitting of the chorus (some voices off-stage, amplified) meant that parts of the choral writing weren't ideally clear - and, more devastatingly, that the sung elements in the incredible Voice of God section (Schoenberg blends singing, speaking and speech-song to suggest an awe- inspiring plurality of divine voices) were largely drowned by Sprechgesang; those eerie harmonies are worth hearing.

Fortunately there was Aage Haugland's Moses, a performance of great dignity and expressive power. His first scene, in which he realises that his "God" (or is it his "Idea"?) cannot be communicated to the people, was deeply moving. There was some fine singing in the small parts too, especially from bass Laszlo Polgar and soprano Catrin Wyn Rogers. If Langridge had been there as Aron, the evening might have been redeemed. As it was, his last-minute substitute Hans Aschenbach made a heroic effort - unfortunately too much of it was just that. However, all the singers, solo and choral, earned their applause at the end. The bestowal of flowers upon women only seemed more than usually absurd.