CLASSICAL MUSIC / Why Britten is still great

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RECENT DEATH is a handicap that few composers survive. Once the ink dries on the obits, reputations nose-dive into a limbo of doubt; critics hedge their former eulogies with cautious statements about judgement over time; and we all take a collective gulp in preparation for being proved wrong yet again.

But after Benjamin Britten's death in 1976 it wasn't like that. On the contrary, the doubts that had threatened to marginalise him in the early 1970s, as a conservative clinging to tonality against the tide of modernism, began to look less troublesome; and 17 years on, his stock has never been higher. Most of his major works are in repertory; and when Decca brings out Gloriana and The Beggar's Opera in the summer, along with a reissue of Owen Wingrave, the entire canon of his stage works will be available on CD.

So he doesn't exactly need the Festival of Britten which began in earnest last weekend at the Barbican and runs on through March; nor are the LSO treating it as a rehabilitation. There's no special focus on 'neglected' works, no axe to grind. Just a celebratory survey of the Britten catalogue by one of the composer's few still- active close collaborators: Mstislav Rostropovich whose legendary exuberance will be tested by the punishing turnover of concerts in which he appears both as conductor and cellist. At nearly 66 and among the top fee-earners in classical music, he could take life easier.

But ease isn't Rostropovich's style. Not, at least, as a conductor. Directing the LSO on Sunday, he gave Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem one of the strongest readings I've heard - expanded to a scale of terrifying grandeur in which the calculated breakdown of musical logic in the Dies Irae section reclaimed much of the shock it must have presented to its first audiences in the 1940s. But where heavy grandeur worked for the Sinfonia, it didn't for the Simple Symphony, where some over- groomed Russian bear seemed to have been let loose in the nursery, crushing with love the arch and sickly scraps of juvenilia that comprise this least commendable of Britten scores. Or for the Piano Concerto which Britten wrote to be virtuosic but popular, at a remove from the serious implications of concerto form. In both cases the tempi were slow, and slower still in the storm music from Peter Grimes that followed as an encore. If Rostropovich conducts the whole opera at that speed when he does it at the Barbican next week, we'll reach the terminal dawn chorus just about on cue with nature. You can take verismo too far.

Speeds and weight aside, Rostropovich does have an intuitive response to Britten, and a depth of involvement that would feel conspiratorial but for the effusive generosity of his musicianship. A true enthusiast, he pulls you into the experience and does the same with his collaborators. Barry Douglas, the soloist in the Concerto, played heroically. The LSO were in good form, especially the strings which came under scrutiny in this programme and had (for once) a commanding Leader with the temporary return of John Georgiadis to the top desk.

But to understand why Rostropovich is a great musician you have to hear him with a cello rather than a baton in his hands. On Thursday he played two of the recital pieces Britten wrote for him, the 3rd Suite and the Sonata, with a presence that held the Barbican Hall spellbound. Britten had a particular response to the cello as a solo instrument. It became the vehicle for his most abstracted thinking, hard to grasp and darkly introspective; and Rostropovich ministers to those qualities like a priest. If ever music had a sacerdotal function, Rostropovich finds it here - in readings which have become more mellow, more withdrawn (and, yes, slower) over time but with a calm precision that belies the bluster of his offstage personality.

If death can be hard on composers, so can being 50 as David Matthews was this week: another time of reckoning, and one that should take account of Matthews' two abiding problems. One is having a composer brother, Colin, with whom he is persistently compared although their work is dissimilar: Colin's more assertive and high-profile, David's more reticent and quietly conventional. The other is that David's musical language derives from English Romanticism, a club largely discredited by the feebleness of its surviving members. On all sides, he gets damned by association.

But I don't know of a living British composer whose work is so consistently well-crafted, lyrically resourceful, or satisfying in the structural security of its symphonic thought. David Matthews is one of the few who can think symphonically, and who can apply the traditional processes of sonata form to standard contexts - string quartet, piano trio, string ensemble - without it sounding second-hand. Or distanced by irony. The Romanza for cello and orchestra which had its public premiere at the Barbican on Monday (Raphael Wallfisch with the ECO) was a case in point. Originally commissioned by Rostropovich (no escaping him this week) as a birthday present for the Queen Mother, it was necessarily a lightweight score. But the adroitness with which Matthews works vernacular melodies (and a buried reference to a well-known birthday song) into the argument is delightfully subtle. It made a nice gesture for Matthews's own birthday; but the serious retrospective he deserves won't come until October when the BBC Philharmonic devotes itself to a Matthews Week at the RNCM.

Two years ago Donizetti's Siege of Calais was the big discovery of the Wexford Festival. Now the piece has come to London, its UK premiere; and although Stephen Medcalf's production at the Guildhall School has a student cast, it shines with quality. Compactly powerful choruses, stirring ensembles and spectacular duets for soprano and mezzo coupled in thirds meet all the essential requirements of a Donizettian night out. The performances are impressive (Nathan Berg a cultivated baritono nobile, Helen Lothian a mezzo of extraordinary compass) and the orchestra smacks out the tunes. My only reservation is the ballet, incorporated by Donizetti to attract Parisian audiences and observed here with choreography that turns 1340s soldiers into 1960s go-go girls at what is, in any event, an unsuitable moment just before the executions. Donizetti, of course, wouldn't have given a damn.

(Photograph omitted)

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