CLASSICAL MUSIC / Vaughan Williams goes to Broadway

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The Independent Culture
THE NEW Oboe Concerto by Dominic Muldowney is not the 'yuppie trash' I heard it summarily branded after its premiere at the Barbican on Wednesday. Yuppies, if they still exist, would be confounded by the ceaseless rhythmic displacement of a 25- minute score that rarely gives an unequivocal first beat in the bar. But easy listening isn't far from its agenda, and it must have disappointed anyone who came to the performance - by the LSO, with its own Roy Carter as the soloist - expecting epic virtuosity. What they got instead was a temperate cantabile in something like the light pastoral tradition of Vaughan Williams but with a French refinement in the scoring and a background tapestry of objets trouves: fleeting resonances of Broadway tunes, waltzes, cabaret vernacular that catch the ear like conversations in a crowded room but retreat into the hubbub before you can make sense of them.

Objets trouves are Muldowney's trademark. He is not a purist. For some 15 years he has been the music director of the National Theatre, writing incidental music with a robust eclecticism that transfers, rationalised, into his concert work - where the objets lead the listener beyond the surface simplicity of the score into the complexities that support it. To use his own simile, it's like the guitars and newspapers in a cubist still life whose familiarity settles you into the picture before all hell breaks loose - as it certainly did in his earlier (and so far most successful) works such as the Saxophone Concerto written in 1984.

But now he has refined the process. The objets, once so boisterously assertive, are distilled into more abstract sound-bites that surrender to the current of the writing; and the result is a rather thin profile - especially in such a simply structured piece as this concerto, organised as a cycle of 'songs' (giving the oboe the role of a soprano voice) linked by recitative. The solo line is prominent, because the orchestration clears its path; but its material doesn't make much impression.

I don't dismiss the piece: it strikes me as engaging, lyrical, well crafted and well played. But it's perhaps mistitled: more a concertino than concerto.

The rest of the programme was Mahler's 5th Symphony, another non-purist score where the conductor's task is to collate a daunting diversity of tempo, mood and vernacular incident into some kind of coherence. By the end I was persuaded that Michael Tilson Thomas had done it successfully; but if you'd asked me during the Scherzo or Adagietto I might not have been so sure.

The problem always with Mahler, where musical scenarios shift suddenly and often, is for conductor and orchestra to be of one mind about what happens next - otherwise, in the moment of uncertainty, the tension dies. On the whole I find Tilson Thomas an inspired scene-shifter, alert and quick; but there were times, here, when the pick-up was slow and definition of new ground hesitant.

As for the Adagietto, where the scene doesn't shift at all and the objective is quite the opposite - to take a long bath in luxuriant, saturated string sound - the LSO strings weren't luxuriant enough, or given long enough to soak through. But then, there is an issue about how long this bath should be. Gilbert Kaplan, the American maverick Mahlerian, has just brought out through Faber a lavishly packaged monograph on the subject, complete with a CD of his own performance - conducting, as it happens, the LSO. His argument is that recent interpretations - not least those encouraged by the soundtrack of Visconti's Death in Venice - read the Adagietto in valedictory terms with speeds to match, taking up to 14 minutes (Bernard Haitink) to encompass what is, after all, marked sehr langsam, very slow; but, says Kaplan, they overlook the very title of the section - Adagietto not Adagio - and the evidence that Mahler intended the Adagietto as a love song for his intended wife. Not an epitaph. Tilson Thomas on Wednesday was certainly conscious of the need not to be lingering funereally and it became, for me, an obtrusive concern. A casualty of what can otherwise be the invigorating influence of Big Issues on performance.

Covent Garden's revival of Fidelio is a casualty of a different order: boredom. Adolf Dresen's staging was, despite its agreeably Corot-like design colours, dull enough last time round when it at least had Christoph von Dohnanyi injecting life into the score. Now, with Jeffrey Tate conducting an unremarkable cast, it isn't worth the ticket. Gabriela Benackova's Leonore comes with grating gear-changes across its vocal range; Thomas Sunnegardh's Florestan is more starved of tone than the plot demands; and Judith Howarth's Marzelline is plummy and unyielding, offering a poor lead into the Act I quartet which, like all the key ensemble numbers in the score, is shabbily done. The frozen stillness of the moment is, moreover, shattered by a hyperactive budgie in a cage. But as this bird is about the only thing on stage with any energy, you're almost grateful for it. Fidelio should swell with a sense of prophylactic containment through its first scenes and then explode into the Leonore/Florestan duet 'O namenlose Freude' and ensuing jubilation. This Fidelio has no explosion, and resolves on to a stiffly oratorio- like finish. Dresen, incidentally, rewrites the spoken dialogue to sort out supposed problems in the narrative. But it makes no odds.

There's a happier story at ENO where Don Giovanni has two new women in the revival of Jonathan Miller's production, and they set the seal on an unusually strong cast. Helen Field's Anna and Linda McLeod's Elvira are similar voices - glassy-textured, light, white-toned, but forceful - which restricts variety of colour, although McLeod has a softer edge (perhaps a relic of her days as a mezzo) against Field's wiry lyricism. Both are accomplished, and join a new, engagingly tough Masetto in Christopher Purves. Peter Coleman-Wright still plays the Don like a petulant schoolboy but is vocally distinguished with a clean, firm line. If he could only look as sexually authoritative as he sounds.

'Fidelio' continues on Wed (071- 240 1066); 'Don Giovanni' on Tues, (071-836 3161).