CLASSICAL MUSIC / We know it's his 150th, but let's not get too excited

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The Independent Culture
THE MEGA-HYPE of Mozartmania in 1991 cast a long shadow over the anniversary business and, despite the efforts of the Norwegian government, there hasn't been much dancing in the streets for Grieg, whose 150th birthday fell on 15 June. A few weeks ago when I asked the Oslo Philharmonic what they were doing about Grieg, the answer was a Nordic variant on 'As little as we can get away with', and the Proms have taken a similar line.

Monday's concert at the Albert Hall had Karita Mattila, the glamorous Finnish soprano and first winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, in orchestral versions of some Grieg songs. Tuesday's concert programmed the Piano Concerto, in a performance by Martin Roscoe of determined good taste that set out to unsaddle its warhorse image. And that was it. The Proms' salute to Edvard Grieg, complete.

The issue here is not that anyone thinks ill of Grieg, but rather that a little of him has already gone a long way. His output was modest - enlarged only by the fact that he often rewrote the same music for varying forces - and mostly on a chamber scale. The Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt are exceptions in an essentially miniaturist oeuvre; and it's ironic that the more truly characteristic world of Grieg's song settings and solo piano writing is little known outside Norway. Part of the problem, of course, is language. Most of the texts Grieg chose to set are either in riksmal (high, literary Norwegian) or landsmal (its dialect variant) and a struggle for singers with no local knowledge. But the low profile of the piano repertory - the 10 entrancing books of Lyric Pieces - is harder to explain.

One positive result of the anniversary, though, is that pianists and singers have been slipping Grieg into recital programmes, encouraged by the success of recording projects like Anne-Sofie von Otter's recent disc of songs. Lief Ove Andsnes and Stephen Hough, among others, have emerged as persuasive champions of the Lyric Pieces. And there is, I think, a growing responsiveness to the integrity of Grieg's keyboard style - exemplified the other night by Martin Roscoe, whose approach to the concerto was all reason and intelligence rather than epic virtuosity.

He was well partnered by the BBC Welsh SO under the conductor Tadaaki Otaka, who has singlehandedly liberated this orchestra from its old poor-relation status since he took control six years ago. Karita Mattila didn't get such committed support for her songs from Alexander Lazarev conducting the BBC SO; but she sang them with striking beauty and a richly weighted texture in the vocalise of Solveig's Song that stirred the wordless notes like double cream.

The second half of the Otaka concert had an exhilarating but uncohesive account of Walton's First Symphony, which prepared the ground for a night of English music on Thursday when Vernon Handley, in another Prom, conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Bliss: a progress into and out of the high renaissance of English Pastoral, with the orchestral version of VW's On Wenlock Edge at its pivotal point.

That Wenlock Edge was an immediate product of a period of study with Ravel in Paris and has (in its original scoring for voice and piano quintet at least) a Francophile conciseness doesn't make it any the less a paradigm of Englishness. Nationalism is not uncommonly fostered by a distant perspective, and VW's decision to set these Housman texts (from the Shropshire Lad collection) was itself a statement of intent. A Shropshire Lad was the bible of turn-of-the-century Englishness: a paean of fantasy for a departing way of life. And fantasy it surely was, because Housman's knowledge of Shropshire was limited and Vaughan Williams never visited Wenlock Edge until just before he died half a century later.

But Wenlock Edge is powerfully imagined and it had a superb animateur of vocal imagery here in the tenor Robert Tear, singing against rather slow speeds from the orchestra. They picked up in the Colour Symphony of Arthur Bliss, a classic statement of spangled 1920s English modernism which pulls defeat out of the jaws of victory with a glaring, cliched cadence at the end. That said, I am inordinately fond of it; and it was well played, well conducted, and a rare pleasure to hear.

All opera enthusiasts should go once (and once is probably enough) to the Verona Arena, the stadium built by the Romans for bloodsports and now, by natural extension, used for opera at its grandest, bloodiest and most Italian. I went last weekend and sat with 17,000 close friends (as they seemed) through three arrestingly inept productions that took place on the world's largest open-air stage and staggered on from 9.15 until the early hours of the morning. They were Carmen, Cav & Pag and Traviata, and demonstrated the Arena's principal artistic goals: to get as many people on stage as possible, and haul the animals on quick before the audience becomes restless. The Arena is hugely resourceful in the way it finds good homes for animals in standard plots. You want an elephant in Madam Butterfly? Have two. And maybe an orang-utang.

The end result is that the spectacle and the menagerie crowd out whatever possibilities remain for serious theatre or musicianship. I heard a handful of acceptable performances - Daniela Longhi's Violetta, Silvano Carroli's Tonio, Giorgio Zancanaro's Alfio - and some seriously bad ones. The rest were nondescript; which is sad because the Arena has, in its 80-year history, been associated with some of the greatest Italian-repertory voices around, from Callas, Simionato and Cossotto to Pavarotti.

In fairness, it does still attract major stars at the beginning of its season (I was there at mid-point). And though it may not be a great artistic experience, it is a cultural phenomenon, with a life and passion supplied by the audience, if not the stage. Seventeen thousand Italians are their own performance, governed by the electricity of mass response. The boos and cheers are indiscriminate; but they're a healthy antidote to the polite decorum of the Covent Gardenstalls.

Opera at the Verona Arena continues to 31 Aug (010 39 45 596517).