Music: Mirror, mirror, in the concert hall

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Mirrors of Perfection


St John Passion

St John's, London


ENO, London

Hae-Jung Kim

Wigmore Hall, London

Bridge Quartet

Wigmore Hall, London

When Benjamin Britten famously declared his intention to be "useful, and to the living", he threw down a gauntlet that not many - and not enough - composers of our century have taken up. There has never been a time when serious new work has seized the interest of so small a segment of the listening public; and never a time when composition was so specialised in its address.

And yet, there are composers around who have thought about what it means to be of "use", and about what it takes to reach a wide, "living" audience without resort to doggerel. One of them is Richard Blackford: a composer who is neither at the hard edge of the avant-grade nor the gilt edge of fashion, but someone who picked up Britten's gauntlet at an early age and has run with it.

Like Britten, Blackford is a literate composer, drawn to words and drama. There have been operas, including a treatment of the Gawain legend before Birtwistle got there, and an ill-fated musical on the life of Martin Luther King. More recently, there has been a lot of what you might call high-caste commercial music: film collaborations with the likes of Roland Joffe and Tony Harrison. The score for Harrison's Prometheus is by Blackford, as is all the music for a 10-hour TV series called Millennium, which the BBC will run early next year. You can guess the subject-matter.

But he is also the composer of a cantata called Mirror of Perfection, which sets texts by St Francis of Assisi with a simple eloquence. It touched my heart when I first heard the piece - when it was premiered at the Royal College of Music - and did so again when I watched the TV film the BBC packaged around it on Easter Sunday.

It's a large score, 40-minutes long and structured as a sequence of seven "canticles" for soloists, chorus and orchestra. On film (and an accompanying Sony CD which has just been issued) the soloists are Bo Skovhus and the Chinese soprano Ying Huang, with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Sinfonietta. Though the music they give you is easy on the ear, with discernible moments of Faure-cum-Rutter (in the "Canticle of the Birds") and Mahler (in the "Canticle of the Furnace"), it is not for any of those reasons to be despised. It's beautifully well written, with a curious melodic individuality. It's also memorable, instantly attractive, and a sure-fire hit for Classic FM-listening taxi drivers.

I'm not saying that Blackford is in any way a populist - if he were, he'd be less interesting. But he is a composer who wants to be enjoyed by a wide audience. And he knows how to achieve it, with integrity. If more composers had that talent, the future of music would be brighter than it sometimes seems.

Easter was otherwise, for me, a date with Bach; and notable in that the St John Passion at Smith Square over the Easter weekend was the finest live choral performance I've heard in ages. I specify "choral", because the quality of the baroque band Canzona was variable. But Stephen Layton's choir, Polyphony, were stunning: disciplined, alert, dramatic, with a motivating (but not mechanistic) sense of engine-driven counterpoint.

As for the soloists, Layton used six, and their undoubted star was John Mark Ainsley: an evangelist in whom, like Pilate, you could find no fault. It was perfection: finely phrased and coloured, beautiful in tone, immaculate in diction. Probably the most distinguished singing you could hope to hear, these days, in such a role.

ENO's Easter offering was a revival of Salome (well, it's New Testament, just). David Levaux's stark, semi-revisionist production is a retreat from the exotic excess of ENO's previous staging, which dazzled the eye with leopard-skinned extras and Julian Clary lookalikes. Levaux's treatment is neither opulent nor camp, and not particularly passionate, in that it has (this time) a Salome who's not much of a temptress: Vivian Tierney.

But Tierney has other qualities which this revival puts to good use. Her Salome is a psychotic Sophie: a child forced brutally into adulthood. She cradles the head of John the Baptist like a toddler with a teddy bear. And if you listen to the music Strauss intially gives her, much of it is like Sophie. It chatters. In her first scene she might just as well be chattering to Octavian in a Viennese palace as to a hairy prophet in a cistern. Strauss somehow rose above such details of differentiation.

What makes this reading, though, is that it carries the self-knowledge of the damned. There's a wonderful moment during the dance when Salome is suddenly confronted by a real little girl: a fleeting vision of innocence that stops her dead in her tracks. At such moments Tierney is a fine actress. And in most of the others she's a fine voice, strong and forcefully projected.

I'm not wild about her diction and, in the whole cast, only John Graham Hall's youthfully dissolute Tetrarch gets the words across. But there's an impressive cameo from Mark Le Brocq as Narraboth. And though his death doesn't really register, does it ever in this piece? It's just another of those Straussian details - which the conductor here, David Atherton, holds onto as best he can.

Finally, two trips to the Wigmore Hall: the first to hear a Korean pianist called Hae-Jung Kim fall victim to her own intensity in a sequence of Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn. It was impressive but uncomfortable: hard- hitting, fierce, and so absorbed in technique that the simpler needs of the music - to breathe, to smile, to charm - weren't noticed. But it was a powerful technique, and it sold me the Ginastera First Sonata with a conviction that changed my feelings about the piece. I'd never thought much of it before. Now I do.

My second Wigmore trip was for the UK premiere of the two surviving movements from an early (1888) piece by Delius. The players were the Bridge Quartet, who specialise in British chamber music. And they did this music more than justice in that it turned out to be of modest interest: aimiably Grieg-like juvenilia (for a 26-year- old) without the integrated part-writing or the Francophile sophistication of Delius's mature, 1916, quartet. But still, it's recognisably the work of its composer. You can hear his voice. And dedicated Delians will make the most of it.