MUSIC / A marriage remade, not yet in heaven

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The Independent Culture
Orchestras like to talk about building relationships with conductors, conductors about building relationships with orchestras, and sometimes it actually means something. For 11 years, from 1968 to 1979, Andre Previn was principal conductor of the LSO, a partnership that at first looked suspiciously lightweight - comparing the diverse talents of Previn (composer, pianist, jazzman, Morecambe and Wise stooge) with the seriousness of mainstream European rivals - but matured into distinction, not least in the recording studio where many of the 100-odd discs that Previn and the LSO produced still hold their place in the catalogue. It established the orchestra's special rapport with American repertory. And it gave a lift to London concert-going, in a way that Previn's later, briefer time as music director of the RPO (1985-87) never did.

Now Previn and the LSO are back together. And last week he took up the baton as Conductor Laureate in a Barbican 'debut' which, alas, was underwhelming in quality of performance although striking as a statement of intent on future repertory. There was a Mozart symphony, reclaiming territory the big orchestras have largely conceded to period bands; Tippett's Triple Concerto, with in-house soloists; and the closing scenes from Strauss's Capriccio with Kiri Te Kanawa.

The Tippett was unatmospheric, its exoticism drily underplayed and with dodgy intonation. The Strauss was bland and, despite the velvet tone of some beautifully poised vocal pianissimi, unremarkable. Dame Kiri might as well have been vocalising her appointments diary. By the end, you felt: is that it? And it was. Perhaps it's going to take some time for Previn and the LSO to re-ferment their chemistry.

Meanwhile, another Conductor Laureate (of the LPO), Klaus Tennstedt, filled his Wednesday night performance of Beethoven's 9th with ideas of extraordinary and penetrating substance. It was a Royal Philharmonic Society concert celebrating the anniversary of the LPO's very first appearance, in 1932 at the old Queen's Hall. Sixty years on, the orchestra has not quite been living up to the profile of its new home at the Festival Hall, and was not on outstanding form on Wednesday. But so far as you can distinguish between input and output, it was clear that Tennstedt fed into the performance an incisive quality of thought, stripping down the sound in favour of exposed sonorities (bright brass, forward percussion) and arrestingly unfamiliar perspectives of an all-too- familiar musical landscape.

It takes a Tennstedt to remind your ear how curious are the contortions of the final movement as it tries to build a bridge between the traditional symphonic structures and the alien element of voices. Or how disconcertingly post-modern is the interruption of the solo bass with the bizarre text (Beethoven's own): 'Friends, not this music] Let's have something jollier]' Tennstedt springs it on the audience like a crude surprise, as though the singer had been wheeled on in a cake. And what a singer he had in the mellifluous Renee Papp, a young voice that eclipsed the other soloists here (including an off-colour Lucia Popp, struggling for altitude).

Overall, Tennstedt was not given the performance he deserved; but it was still a masterly achievement and memorable not least for the sight of his broken-looking figure, its knees sagging inward like a puppet with the strings cut, suddenly invigorated and injecting such vitality into the home- stretch bars.

Music Theatre Wales is a commendable little company which inherited the props, repertory and something of the rationale of the defunct Fires of London. Dedicated to challenging, new, touring works, it deserves encouragement; and I'm sorry I can't provide any for the misbegotten venture it brought to London on Monday: an opera by Andrew Toovey called Ubu, based on Alfred Jarry's cult play but linguistically enriched (if that is the word) to the point where it resembles a lavatory wall set to music - 90 minutes of expletives, defecation jokes, and slapstick with a member of unnatural dimension which Pa Ubu wears between his legs and waves around a lot.

I hesitate to say I've seen it all before, but I would guess that Jarry's work lost its power to shock 30 years ago; and reconditioned Jarry has a dismally stale smell about it. Toovey's music is not all bad. It meets its subject head-on with Varese-like barbarism and the fleeting promise of amusing operatic parodies - largely, I thought, from Britten, although it was hard to tell amid the amplified melee of what was happening on stage. The orchestra and its conductor, Michael Rafferty, seemed capable enough. The performances had what you might call rude energy. But in 90 minutes of music there was maybe 15 minutes' worth of viable ideas. No more.

The Glyndebourne Tour revived its Figaro this week at Sadler's Wells with simplified new sets that begin by looking dangerously MFI (Figaro and Susanna seem to be living in a self-assembly cupboard unit) but get better. The old sets were destroyed in a fire; and the Peter Hall staging that went with them has largely gone too, remodelled with some intelligent ideas by Stephen Medcalf for a good ensemble cast which absorbs rather than profiles Nicholas Folwell's Figaro. Julie Unwin's Cherubino is delightful, and there is a superb young bass- baritone, Ralf Lukas, as the Count. The nervous energy of the conductor, Marco Guidarini, keeps things moving.

Finally, a commendation for a concert series running at London Lighthouse, the Aids support centre in Notting Hill. The concerts are on Sunday afternoons. They feature substantial artists, giving their services free. And the first two - the Brodsky Quartet a few weeks ago and oboist Nicholas Daniel last Sunday - have been occasions for intimate and thoughtful music-making in a venue which is in its own way inspirational: off-circuit, but effective and affecting. Next in line is Steven Isserlis, purveyor of The Protecting Veil, on 1 November. Rumours that John Tavener's cult score is really an advertisement for safer sex remain unfounded.

'Figaro' continues Wed (071-278 8916). Lighthouse: 071-792 1200.

(Photograph omitted)

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