Classical: On The Air

Click to follow
TO CHOOSE Elgar's Cello Concerto as one of six landmarks of British 20th-century music smacks of opportunism, after all that fuss about Hilary and Jackie. At least, on BBC2 last Saturday, it wasn't du Pre playing it, but the much subtler Paul Watkins. Masterworks: Six Pieces of Britain is BBC2's new "landmark" series about this country's musical renaissance this century. One composer and one work feature each week, related to a place - though last Saturday it was several places, as Michael Berkeley wandered around the Worcestershire countryside with a disconsolate and grizzled mongrel (Elgar loved dogs), recalling no one so much as Bill Sikes.

Anthony Payne, filmed in the dark little cottage in Sussex where Elgar wrote the work, offered some bracing apercus about Elgar in general and the Cello Concerto in particular. Elgar was more cosmopolitan than his British contemporaries, he said, deriving his language from Schumann and Wagner. The concerto was "elusive, withdrawn" - and, inevitably, "autumnal". It was, after all, his last major work.

The thinking behind the series seems to be that British music has become less insular as the century has worn on. The press blurb about the programme claimed that the last vestiges of provincialism vanished only in the Sixties and Seventies. This is the kind of historical generalisation that is just asking to be demolished.

First, it presupposes that being in tune with the international avant- garde was desirable, whereas many would say it was a blind alley, against which many composers have reacted. Secondly, the way British composers absorbed the sound worlds of "international" pioneers such as Varese, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and the canonical composers of Darmstadt such as Stockhausen, Boulez and Berio, surely echoes the way in which their predecessors, Parry and Stanford, took on board Wagner and Brahms.

Besides, a list of Stanford's pupils includes such cosmopolitan luminaries as Holst, who in The Planets produced a work that was a beacon of its period (1914-16) and has survived as a popular masterwork; then there was Arthur Bliss, whose field of reference might have produced something comparable but who lacked Holst's focus, and Frank Bridge, who evolved from the British lyrical tradition into something more European and cerebral.

Returning to Elgar, another interesting thing that Payne observed was that he really took off when, in the Enigma Variations, his first big success, he imagined what his friends might have done with the theme, and so could lose himself by assuming disguises, and reveal himself, as it were, incidentally. This was altogether more modest than tackling important symphonic forms out of a desire to be taken seriously. Elgar was reluctant to do that - but triumphed, at least sometimes, when he eventually did. He was 43 when he wrote The Dream of Gerontius, and about 50 when he wrote his First Symphony. But these are works written from an inner compulsion, never mind their considerably public success. William Walton, by contrast, is the epitome of a composer with nothing much to say, who had a spurious greatness thrust upon him. His great choral work, Belshazzar's Feast, written in 1931 to satisfy the appetite for licensed civic rowdiness, is the subject of tomorrow's Masterworks.