CLASSICAL MUSIC / Undisputed lieder of the pack

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The Independent Culture
THE COMPOSER Elisabeth Lutyens used to talk witheringly of 'Cheltenham Symphonists' - a species easier to define by exclusion than otherwise, but broadly encompassing a generation of post-war British composers whose musical language was less rigorous, more tonal, more obviously English than her own. They were people you'd find championed by the Cheltenham Festival; and Cheltenham, then as now, was a respectable borough. No place for frightening horses.

But on its own terms, the festival has built a reputation for new work - not least Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera - and the opening orchestral concert of its 50th season had another new piece by Weir called Heroic Strokes of the Bow, after a picture by Paul Klee. The bow is a violinist's rather than an archer's, and the focus of the scoring is the strings, who sound in high-tension, off-the-beat configurations that repeat the same ideas through different textural groupings. It is not conspicuously 'English' - more a cross between Stravinskyan neo-classicism and the wide-open spaces of American vernacular - and I'd hesitate in any case to call Judith Weir an English composer; Scottish would be closer. But there is a genre of string writing that filters through early Britten from the English Pastoral composers, and for all the enigmatic, tight-lipped wit and curious perspectives that characterise Weir's work, something of it feeds into Heroic Strokes. Or so it seemed from a not-so-accurate reading (I had a score) by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis. Whether it justifies its 15-minute length (a fair time, these days, for an orchestral piece) I'm not sure. But the basic ideas are strong. It certainly merits more hearings.

Monday at Cheltenham was the third time that I've heard Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper in Schubert's Schwanengesang; and although the atmosphere was perhaps less charged, the tempi more extreme and Holzmair's gestures edging toward mannerism, I'm as sure as ever that this partnership is potentially the supreme lieder experience of the apres-Fischer-Dieskau era. No pianist could play the staccato ostinato of the Schwanengesang 'Standchen' more musically than Cooper, or sweep forward the line of 'Fruhlingssehnsucht' with more delicacy - like skating on a breeze; no baritone could judge the mood of 'Die Taubenpost' more finely, or place the penultimate line ('His name is - Yearning]') more winningly than Holzmair. In the miniaturist art of lieder, these are the things that elevate a good performance to the realms of the miraculous.

So many little miracles happen in a Holzmair-Cooper concert that you wouldn't be surprised if someone stood up and threw aside his crutches. At the Cheltenham Pump Room there were a good few of us who crawled to the door, crushed by the sheer intensity of the performance: above all, by the response to the text, which was exacting and as keenly felt in the piano as in the voice. I should explain that Holzmair, who is scrupulously literate, takes the view that Schwanengesang has no inviolable status as a cycle (it was put together after Schubert's death by a publisher) and expands it with the insertion of other songs to texts by the same poets. Other singers have done as much; but Holzmair's ordering is his own, and peculiarly effective. He sets himself a challenge in placing 'Die Taubenpost' first: it demands a rapport with the audience hard to effect straight off. But if anyone can do it, Holzmair can. And as an insurance policy, he pulls the charming trick of repeating the song at the end, unannounced, as his encore. You can judge the effect yourself when Philips issues its long-awaited Holzmair-Cooper CD later in the summer.

Gustav Holst was not a symphonist (beyond an early and unpublished Cotswold Symphony), but he was born in Cheltenham and featured prominently there last weekend with a BBC SO performance of The Planets: lovable music, badly written, coarsely played.

There was more Holst on Thursday at the City of London Festival, when the choir of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London sang The Evening Watch: a big, austere motet dismissed when it came out (the 1920s) for its greyly modernistic dissonance but remarkable now for the very same reason. Had it been better-known it might have saved Holst from Ms Lutyens' conceptual dustbin.

Westminster Abbey had a 50th-birthday concert for John Tavener on Tuesday, given by the Abbey Choir under Martin Neary and endorsing Tavener's status as our leading supplier of ecclesiastical services (music) to Christendom. Jonathan Harvey is his only serious rival; but Harvey would never get the popular vote, because he achieves transcendence the hard way, by complex processes. Tavener's simple, direct, drone-based repetitions speak like a child before God; and what gives their innocence credibility is the sense that underneath it lies a solid technical resource.

This is why his scores convey security and confidence; and it contrasts with the specious, empty confidence of Philip Glass, whose latest world-touring blockbuster, La Belle et La Bete, played in the South Bank's Meltdown Festival. The idea - adding a live soundtrack to Cocteau's classic film and turning it into opera - was interesting. The result - another relentless drag of amplified scales and arpeggios, indistinguishable from the rest of Mr Glass's output - was not. Insensitive to the images it supposedly accompanied, it was brash, shapeless, wretchedly played and reminded me that I've often criticised John Tavener as showing no capacity for growth. Compared with Glass, he's covering more ground than Russian Vine.

The little mishaps at the opening night of Covent Garden's Manon revival (collapsed baritone, makeshift substitutions, truncated last act) have been exhaustively documented and need no further comment, except that it was remarkable that the show survived as well as it did. This was never a distinguished production, even when the cast stayed standing, and it relied on the vivacity of Leontina Vaduva in the title role. Here she was again a star, and so was Colin Davis in the pit: as ever, a supreme French stylist. Otherwise, it was a reasonably sung but spiritless occasion. Good for dinner parties, not for art.

'Manon' continues Wed, 071-240 1066.

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