Classical: Pleasure without the pain from Spain

OXFORD FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
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The Independent Culture
"LA VOCE di Farinelli," cried the Neopolitan press, writing about Nicholas Clapton - and indeed, if one wondered what this remarkable counter- tenor, whose range and power truly recall accounts of the great castrato, was doing in a concert called Lorcas's Spain, let's remember that Farinelli himself spent nearly 20 years in the country as virtual prime minister to Philip V, diverting the Tagus, and building the opera-house, when not simply singing to the deluded monarch.

As for Lorca, the programme entered his world more deeply and with greater refinement. I felt that the Ballet Rambert's (recently revived) Cruel Garden was over-theatrical. The seven de Falla "canciones populares" (written in Paris in 1914) are, of course, part of the impressionist ambience surrounding Debussy, and precede the composer's great friendship with Lorca in the Twenties and Thirties. (The composer even paid a visit of respect to Lorca's family after his murder in the Civil War, probably at great personal risk.)

As with so many works by Spaniards living abroad, these "canciones" express the most intense love and nostalgia for an earlier, perhaps idealised Spain. Clapton brought a truly startling diversity to all seven little popular songs; idyllically gentle in the lullaby "Nana"; witty, ironic and thoroughly macho in "Jota".

Ton Kerstens (guitar) accompanied with great refinement; classical guitarists are like harpsichordists, ranging from brittle elegance (George Malcolm) to a full use of the instrument's percussive force (Gernando Valento). With Kerstens we could have done with more of the latter. He was at his best in three Catalan folk songs arranged by Miguel Llobet (a guitar master who died in 1938); "El Testament d'Amelia" with the melody played entirely in harmonics and then repeated on the bass strings, had a uniquely haunting grace (and what a technical feat.) However, in his other pieces, especially the well-known Albeniz "Asturias", I missed the fire of Segovia, or John Williams: after the (beautifully played) pattering fountain drops, the sudden chords should come with gunshot force.

Clapton again won the honours of the two modern premieres - first, Simon Holt's difficult "Seis Caprichos" (immensely helped by Xon de Ros's beautiful reading of the poems beforehand). Clapton can emit the most extraordinary sound, trilling in the throat like birdsong; he also gave a vivid, dangerous impression of the crotolo (both a castanets and a rattle-snake). In the second premiere, David Bedford's "I Thirst for Shadows" (which I much preferred - words are from Lorca's 1921 "Libro de poemas") he actually took up the castanets, and also accompanied some of the verses with a highly effective zapateado (foot-dance).

Best of all was his inspired performance of Lorca's own collection of early Spanish songs (what a musician he was, as well as a poet and dramatist). In "Anda Jaleo", Clapton achieved a quality of pure duende; marvellous too was the entry of Xon de Ros's speaking voice against the guitar in "Las tres hojas." The last piece, an ecstatic "Sevillana', had Clapton sounding more like Placido Domingo than a counter-tenor. Is it really true he can sing the Schumann Dichterliebe? I can't wait.

Wednesday night's performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was much more elaborate, but less effective. The main work, Simon Bainbridge's Guitar Concerto (world premiere) again inevitably suggests Spain, but he is less concerned with incidental atmosphere than with an exploration of the sonority of the instrument itself, when set against a small but very varied ensemble (English horn and harp, for instance, as well as string quartet - virtuoso playing in all departments). The guitarist David Starobin (excellent) found logic in the ever-richer kaleidoscope; at times he seemed to be leading the other instruments,

However, I thought the Concerto was a trifle overshadowed by a splendid little piece, "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere", by Judith Weir. Not a dull moment in her 13 minutes of sound. She has a fine ear - some lovely passages for solo cello (Ulrich Heinen) momentarily halted the vital rhythm she develops (unlike Bainbridge, I fear - there were moments in the Concerto when I wondered why the conductor was bothering). She used only 10 instruments, with great feeling for each; Colin Matthews "Hidden Variables" had many more, but this was a satirical piece, really only for those who enjoy poking fun at Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

After the interval, we moved into modern Vienna, with our conductor, H K Gruber, coming into his own. Kurt Schwertsik's "Twilight Seranada" is a gentle piece, with some touching memories of Richard Strauss in the background. But how to describe Gruber's own "Frankenstein"! At its best, this piece of "pandemonium" (his word) achieved a level of inspired vulgarity. But isn't there something just a bit dated, a bit Twenties, about the orchestra donning funny hats? Easily the best aspect was Gruber's own performance: apart from conducting, he ranted, he roared, he crooned like a Lieder singer and let fly like a Wagnerian bass. At one point, he even had the entire orchestra singing along with him (remarkably well, I thought). Tremendous stuff.

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