MUSIC: A few well-rounded suicide notes

World premieres Blackheath / South Bank The task was to arouse the audience's compassion, whatever the facts
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At one point in the world premiere of Shameful Vice, Michael Finnissy's new stage-work on the death of Tchaikovsky, premiered by Vocem Electric Voice Theatre and the Endymion Ensemble at the Blackheath Concert Halls on Wednesday, it seemed as if the piece might be a parable against outing. Hostile persons confront sensitive composer with revelations of his true nature: composer commits suicide.

Of course, the court of old students that accused Tchaikovsky was itself fearful of scandal, so the story goes. But with Simon Bainbridge's Ad Ora Incerta - settings of Primo Levi's Auschwitz poems - unveiled the next day, it gave pause for thought on the myriad ways in which suffering is bred of intolerance.

Of course, the suicide tale itself may be untrue; Alexander Poznansky thinks so in the latest issue of the Musical Times. Besides, being art, not history, the task of Shameful Vice was to arouse the compassion of the audience whatever the facts. Andrew Gallacher's stern yet sympathetic portrait of the composer was helpful here, though Finnissy's score was more of a psychological case study - the dreams, the urges, the mother love - than a rounded characterisation. A seamless and abundant flow of ideas, it kept up the suspense through 14 scenes that felt just the right length, using a mime troupe doubling as chorus for depth and illusion. Tchaikovsky dancing with Saint-Sans (more in common than their beards?) was a wicked fantasy, complete with background ripple of harp.

With Judith Weir's Scipio's Dream making a double-bill, it was an evening of contrasts. In preview, Finnissy had mentioned the web of Tchaikovsky quotations in his music. Future audiences are as likely to be gripped by its honest depiction of a creature in thrall to a powerful compulsion.

How strong that power might have been was shown the following evening in the Festival Hall by the sheer energy of Manfred, Tchaikovsky's symphony in four scenes after Byron. Neglected on account of length and complexity, it was brought to life by Alexander Lazarev, principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who also directed a lively reading of Rimsky- Korsakov's overture May Night.

In between came the Bainbridge: a full half-hour of music, though seemingly more compact, and surely his finest achievement to date. The last song, "Buna", had a symphonic breadth and trajectory that was a major compositional tour de force in itself. As the focus of three preceding shorter movements, it gave the piece a rock-like consistency, though spun from the pristine, whirling textures Bainbridge has made his own. Grim sounds - the rumble of a train, the shriek of a police whistle - added menace to an aural landscape haunted by Kim Walker's bassoon obbligato and the subtle mezzo of Christine Cairns (bravely replacing Brigitte Fassbaender). Restrained yet incisive, Bainbridge conducted, a brave act in itself for a first night, but fully justified by the triumphant outcome.

n `Shameful Vice' is at the Brighton Festival on 23 May (01273 709709). `Ad Ora Incerta' is repeated tonight at 10.05pm on R3

Nicholas Williams