CLASSICAL MUSIC / Too tasteful to be great

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The Independent Culture
WAGNER'S Lohengrin aspires to the grandeur of epic myth but is otherwise a standard opera story of frustrated marriage; and it's ironic that the Act III Bridal Chorus has become an icon of Western matrimony, because the Bridal Chorus is actually a portent of disaster. Within 50 minutes comes what any divorce lawyer would recognise as irretrievable breakdown (husband carried off by bird); and on the first night of ENO's new production the portent was realised with uncommon vividness as the bridal choristers trooped on to find that the front curtain had stuck, leaving them invisible to much of the audience from the waist up. Like an LP in a power cut, the score ground to a halt . . . and of such memories are operatic legend made.

But this Lohengrin will be remembered, I hope, for other reasons. First, that it happened at all: Wagner is an expensive composer, and this is the first new Wagner staging the Coliseum has attempted in nearly a decade. Second, that it was a great achievement for the ENO orchestra which provided a performance of world-class stature for its former music director Mark Elder. From the brilliant vigour of the Act III Prelude to the chamber intimacy of the vocal duets, the playing shone with confidence and care and a concern for detail that sustained the interest of scenes where Wagner's writing isn't - in all honesty - compelling. Lohengrin is an intermediate work, strung between the immediacy of the early operas and the substance of the later ones. Its scenes of ponderous ceremonial take some special pleading, and Mark Elder is an advocate who knows how to build a theatre of pure sound across long time-spans.

Third, there is an electrifying vocal performance from Linda Finnie as the evil Ortrud, icy with malevolence but by no means a caricature. She eclipses the other voices, although there is much to be said for the note- pure lyricism of American tenor John Keyes as Lohengrin (on the light side, but then Lohengrin is what the Germans call a jugendlicher Heldentenor: it doesn't need the full weight of a Tristan or a Siegmund) and for the pleasing if pale innocence of Linda McLeod's Elsa.

Fourth, the sets are unfussily impressive - open, abstract, but lending themselves to handsomely lit choral tableaux. And fifth, Tim Albery's production is undogmatic, free from the constraints of Concept Opera. He lets the myth speak for itself and leaves the audience to make their own connections out.

The problem, though, is that the mildness of the staging misses textual points that demand strong visual expression. The fight with Telramund is one. The swan is another - a great, gilded, but necessary cliche of opera that Albery refines into a male dancer, squandering the secret we're not meant to know yet: that this bird is actually a youth under enchantment. Such things suggest a failure of nerve in the misguided interests of good taste.

There were no such inhibitions in the hearty semi-staging of The Fairy Queen which was the centrepiece of the Purcell Experience organised by Roger Norrington at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Fairy Queen is that peculiar post-Restoration genre, semi-opera, where none of the principal characters actually sings. The music comes in self-contained masque scenes which are interpolated into an otherwise straight play; and the result is long and often dull because the text is poor, a bastardisation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream by unknown hands. For good reason (not least, that the score was lost) it has had a limited performing history in the past 300 years, and Norrington's performance was polemical: designed to demonstrate that the piece is viable and strong in its entirety.

I'm not sure that it is - and certainly not with the treatment it had here from an under-rehearsed collective of coarse actors, reading from their scripts. Fairy Queen, I think, demands considerable resources (and spectacle), or a reduction to concert terms with just a token text. But Purcell's music is another matter. Norrington delivered it with a mellow, laid-back pleasure and a well-contrasted range of solo voices led by the sopranos Catherine Pierard (bright and glassy) and Lorraine Hunt (an American en debut with a rotten memory but a milky-rich tone that was singularly beautiful). It promised well for the recording Norrington is about to make with the same singers, same instrumentalists but (hurrah) no actors.

Benjamin Britten would have been 80 last Monday and the date was marked as usual by a birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall. This year it looked at the Vienna connection that Britten might have pursued had he been allowed to study with Alban Berg as he wanted: one of the great What Ifs of modern music history. As things turned out, the closest he came to the 2nd Viennese composers was friendship with Erwin Stein, a pupil of Schoenberg who fled to England just before the War to become Britten's editor at Boosey & Hawkes - and resident in the unlikely menage of Britten, Pears, Pears's parents and the entire Stein family that for a while shared a house in Bayswater. You can imagine the scenes outside the bathroom.

This concert featured Erwin Stein arrangements of Schoenberg, Mahler and Busoni, made to give the music greater performance possibilities in inter-War Vienna. The main item was a reduction of Mahler's 4th Symphony for string quintet, woodwind band, percussion, voice, piano and harmonium (]); and it begged the question why we need to hear Mahler in reduction now that, 70 years on, we can easily hear the real thing. The answer, I think, is that Stein's miniaturisation stands in its own right as an eloquent critique of the original, accentuating Mahler's blend-less isolation of sonorities and strident love of street- vernacular, but with a touching, affectionate wit and a toy-like brightness absolutely right for the child's vision of heaven in the last movement. It also mirrors in its method the stylistic finds that Britten made in Mahler not long afterwards; and there is as much interest in how Stein avoids certain instruments (not least the trumpet) as in how he uses what he has. This performing edition was made from Stein's manuscript by an impressive American conductor, Alexander Platt, who directed the Britten-Pears Ensemble: good young players, some of them exceptional - especially their cellist.

But the true young star in London this week was Sarah Chang, the 12-year-old who played Paganini's 1st Violin Concerto with the LSO on Thursday and transformed a thinly decorative playpiece into a half-decent work. Infant virtuosity is usually a matter of technique, a foundation for musicianship that follows; but Ms Chang has an extraordinary musicianship already. The intelligence and radiant fullness of her playing is bizarre, unfathomable, almost frightening. I had never heard her live before; and I have never heard her like before. Even Midori didn't have so great a gift as this.

'Lohengrin': Thurs, and 8, 11, 18, 22, 29 Dec (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)

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