Classical Music: 'Vanessa' goes on a diet

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The Independent Culture

Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, W6


Barbican, EC2

Julian Lloyd Webber

Wigmore Hall, W1

Whenever Classic FM produces its periodic listener survey of who's in and out of the world's- most-beautiful-music league, the top placings are much as you'd expect, with only one close-to-contemporary composer in the running: Samuel Barber, there for his Adagio for Strings. He gets a second shot (position 167 in the current chart) with Agnus Dei, but that's only because Classic FM's music staff haven't woken up to the fact that it's the same piece by another name. Apart from the Violin Concerto (crawling meekly in at 285), you'll find nothing else. And that's surprising, because Barber isn't "difficult". His work is lyrical and approachable, conservatively rooted in tonality, but also elegantly crafted, sharp and intelligent. In other words, it should appeal to audiences at every level of sophistication. And what's more, it ought to be a gift from God to concert promoters under pressure to do the decent thing by modern music. Barber is modernity without tears. He's spent a long while on the waiting list of many a British critic as the next big news about to break. The wait goes on.

Above all, we've been waiting for his operas to arrive in Britain. They're important. They're substantial. In the USA, they have been guiding beacons for a generation of composers. But apart from a wry little one-acter called A Hand of Bridge, they have suffered the fate of so much serious American music and never survived the Atlantic crossing. Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1966 for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera in New York, has only ever had a makeshift, semi-professional concert performance in this country. And , written in 1958 for the old Met, had never been done here at all until last week when the Lyric Theatre at long last gave this major piece a belated UK premiere.

It should have been a big event. But in fact it was a modest one, giving the barest sense of what the score can offer. We'd been told to expect a reduced orchestration, commissioned from composer Julian Grant to accommodate the Lyric's budget. What we actually got - with no warning and thanks to what was described to me as "a complete cock-up" over publishing rights - was a piano. So the ravishing opulence of Barber's score, which in theory comes complete with orchestra, chorus and ballet, disappeared to nothing. The result was like hearing Rosenkavalier with seven singers and two hands. Not quite the thing.

But at least it happened, with a staging that was limited but stylish. And at least the core narrative of is intimate enough to survive the sacrifice of ball scenes and the like, which serve a largely decorative function. A gothic romance with Chekhovian resonance, it involves two women - aunt and niece - festering in a northern European country house and rivals in love for the same philanderer. The aunt () gets him, but not before the niece (Erika) conceives his child. Chekhov aside, it could be Janacek, or Hitchcock. But in fact the libretto is by Barber's colleague and companion, Gian Carlo Menotti: a rare example of two composers collaborating on the same stagework, and a similarly rare example of words and music working seamlessly together to the same end. When it premiered, 40 years ago at the Met, it was a huge success. Menotti directed, Cecil Beaton designed, Mitropoulos conducted. And although Sena Jurinac withdrew from the title role at a late stage, her place was taken by Eleanor Steber, with Nicolai Gedda and Regina Resnik in support. You couldn't ask for more.

At Hammersmith - well, it just isn't like that, and it's disappointing for the mannered shrillness of Meryl Richardson who plays the lead like a psychotic pixie rather than the ageing, insecure but still alluring woman she is meant to be. But otherwise, it's not a bad cast. Louise Mott is intense as Erika and a direct, secure American tenor, Evan Bowers, makes his British debut as the philanderer. I just hope their efforts will be enough to persuade some better-organised, better-funded company to take up the piece and do it properly. It's tailor-made for Glyndebourne, Garsington, or Grange Park. Somewhere with a country house. And money for the odd violin.

Meanwhile, we're about to yield to cello fever with the opening of the new Jacqueline du Pre film, Hilary and Jackie. It may (or may not) have been a coincidence that London concerts this week were dominated by that same instrument. On Wednesday at the Barbican, Rostropovich defied his 70 years by delivering three concertos (or quasi-concertos) in succession, with very little of that artist-in-the-home-stretch compromise you expect from string players of his age. Time values can be vague; and although he never loses the thread of an argument, he does sometimes fail to pull it tight enough. But this very elasticity is attractive, and his intonation is still secure enough to encompass passages of featherweight delicacy, stripped of tone and without the insurance of vibrato. Both the Saint- Saens 1st Concerto and the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations floated with a souffle lightness. And so, in its way, did the third "concerto": a new piece, Canticle of the Sun, by the woman who on Schnittke's death became the leading Russian composer, Sofia Gubaidulina. Oddly scored for cello, voices and percussion, it portrayed the soloist's "sunny personality", according to Gubaidulina's programme note, and I can only say that her response to climate isn't mine. It struck me as all solemn spareness, building slowly out of blocks of chant, glissandi and harmonics, and a mite pretentious in the theatrical manoevres which it asked the cellist to perform. Thankfully, the inspection of the chorus he was supposed to undertake midway was quietly dropped.

The week's other cellist was Julian Lloyd Webber, whose Wigmore recital with John Lenehan included a short, rhapsodic piece called "Jackie's Song", written by JLW himself, in protest at what he believes to be the misrepresentation of Jacqueline du Pre in the forthcoming film. The song is his personal portrait of what she was like, and I can't comment on its accuracy. But the wistful charm of its appeal suggests that he considers her screen potential more Celia Johnson than Emily Lloyd. Perhaps he's right.

'': Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, W6 (0181 741 2311), to Saturday.