Classical: The fickle hand of fado

Its momentum is not for dancing to, but merely listening gives a powerful charge
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The fate of Portuguese fado - which itself means "fate" - seems, at first blush, cruelly appropriate. Delivered in doom-laden tones, these cafe-songs of loss and absence are perennially written off as a deglamorised variant of flamenco. But the two forms could, in fact, hardly be more different. With a Barbican concert next Wednesday, new records appearing each month, and the publication of the first-ever English book on the subject, the sudden resurgence of fado will now allow us to check that difference out.

Where flamenco is wild, fado is the soul of decorum. Nobody knows where it came from - Arabia? South Africa via Brazil? - but since the mid 19th century, its form has remained astonishingly constant. Dressed up to the nines, the singer is accompanied by a Portuguese guitarra (pear-shaped, with 12 strings, and used for filigree improvisation), plus a Spanish guitar.

Each ballad lasts three minutes, and each set consists of three songs, each of which builds to a climax of such intensity that the audience is compelled to join in. Fado's lugubrious momentum is impossible to dance to, but merely listening provides a powerful physical charge. Try any fado house in Lisbon - or one of their London counterparts - and you'll find exactly the same routine.

Politically, fado has had a chequered career. From proletarian beginnings, it moved steadily up the social scale, until Salazar espoused it, whereupon the 1974 revolutionaries felt obliged to cast it aside. Artistically, it has been dominated for the last 60 years by one electrifying singer, Amalia Rodrigues, who both created a style and - through the poets who wrote for her - gave it literary credibility. Listen to The Art of Amalia (EMI), and you will see why she has so many devoted imitators, some as far away as Japan.

It is strange the way that fado grips foreigners - and sometimes lucky, as witness what happened to two British record collectors, Paul Vernon and Bruce Bastin, when they were tipped off a few years ago about a garage- full of fado 78s in Oporto. It took them five days to sift through the hoard, which proved - as the great fire of Lisbon had destroyed EMI's archive - to be the biggest collection of its kind in the world. After extensive remastering, the fruits of this harvest are now appearing - not too fast, so as not to flood the market - on the Heritage label.

All the great voices of the Twenties and Thirties are there, and one can thus trace the sub-traditions of the art: the Coimbra variant, for example, has none of Lisbon's morbidity. Now Vernon has published A History of the Portuguese Fado (Ashgate pounds 39). This is ludicrously overpriced, and more than a bit slipshod, but at least it has the story.

Is fado fossilised? In some ways yes, because all the tunes are standards. But successive generations remake them, and there is a New Fado school of which Misia - aka Susana Maria Alfonso de Aguiar - is a leading light. Misia's latest CD (Erato) is full of instrumental experiment, and her lyrics reflect a dark and dislocated world-view, but her singing is in traditional style.

"I'm not renovating fado," she tells me. "Fado is renovating itself, as it always has." That renewal will be evident at the Barbican next Wednesday, when Argentina Santos and Carlos Zel are joined by two young heroes of the Lisbon club circuit. Listen out for Rodrigo Costa Felix, and for 22- year-old Ana Sofia Varela, whose artistry already has a timeless perfection.

THAT QUESTION of fossilisation in music has wide implications. You could argue - many do - that jazz has become fossilised, in that the best jazz is on record now and for evermore. Classical music is also claimed to have run its course: several top pianists I have quizzed about it indicate as much. Richard Goode says he just can't get his ears round atonal music. Murray Perahia says bluntly that "if tonality goes, the whole basis of music is gone".

In other words, the only way forward is to go back. So when Mitsuko Uchida claims - as she recently did on Radio 3 - that Schoenberg is easier than Mozart for the modern ear to grasp, it seems sensible to press for further explanation.

It's primarily a question of emotion, she tells me. "When you work at Schoenberg, you find he is closer to you, and less complicated, than Mozart. Finding the heart of Mozart is horrendously difficult."

More surprisingly, this arch-Mozartian actually finds Schoenberg easier to play. "It's your intentions which shape your hands. If you have a desire for a certain sound, your hands adapt to suit it."

We should be grateful for Uchida's dogged open-mindedness. She may regard minimalism as a dead end, and Philip Glass's music as "wallpaper", but she won't condemn any serious new work until she has played every note. "Provided someone is trying to find a way - and provided it is done through the human mind, not through a machine - I will always try to understand."

Next Thursday, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, she will tackle, in addition to Chopin's "Preludes" and a Schubert sonata, a rebarbative work by the composer she still regards as the most daunting of all.

Beethoven's Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor have got, she says, "at the same time the rigidity of a passacaglia and the absolute freedom of a large-structured work".

When we spoke she hadn't yet decided whether to take pot luck with a South Bank piano, or whether to wheel on one of her own thoroughbreds for the occasion. "But I hate doing that, because it's very stressful for them."

She currently has six, including a 1790 Longman which she uses "for opening windows, and finding new horizons". Back to the future.