MUSIC / Mixed but not well matched

Click to follow
HISTORY, the alphabet and now the BBC Symphony Orchestra have all conspired to pair Richard Strauss with Igor Stravinsky, and neither composer would have liked it. In most music dictionaries the two lie side by side; in the chronology of European music they share something like a joint reign (thanks to the early death of Mahler); and the BBC SO's cleverly programmed concert series at the South Bank is given over to them as a pair. But their personalities were radically dissimilar. Stravinsky was the herald of the new order, Strauss the guardian of the old, and they had no time for each other's work. Strauss behaved as if Stravinsky hadn't happened. Stravinsky wanted to dispatch all Strauss operas 'to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant banality'.

But one thing they did share was an interest in classicism. Strauss was a confirmed Hellenophile. Five of his operas are on classical subjects, and the BBC's series began on Monday with a concert performance of one of the lesser known: the 'bucolic tragedy' Daphne, premiered in 1938 but never secure in the Strauss canon, perhaps because of its awkward length. Short for a full evening, long for a double bill. It is also a fragile story (Daphne has an unhealthy interest in trees and finally turns into one) and doesn't carry Strauss's most compelling score. Its climax is a heady scene between Daphne and Apollo that revisits the encounter between Ariadne and Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos but with a worn and overly Wagnerian luxuriance.

That said, there are marvels of orchestral colouring in Daphne; and although its heroine may be the silliest in serious opera, her vocal writing has the exquisite switchback contours of the finest Strauss soprano roles. Janice Watson, who sang the closing scene in this year's Proms and did the whole thing at the RFH, negotiates them gloriously, confirming the impression of her recent work for WNO that this is a superlative young voice, destined for great things.

Andrew Davis conducted here with energy and insight, although the playing of the BBC SO was messy in detail. From the rest of the cast the outstanding figure was the Apollo, Jon Fredric West, an American heldentenor whose top reach was effortful but clean and fierce. Why he appeared in make-up and a golden-locked wig when this was an unstaged concert, I wonder. Fine as he sounded, he looked like a glove-puppet.

The question that always surfaces in Straussian repertory of this vintage is moral rather than musical. How could Strauss - whose name, in German, means 'ostrich' - have buried his head in a decorative fantasy like Daphne at a time when the horrors of the Third Reich were demanding serious response? There are answers of a sort: Strauss was an old man and, as Stefan Zweig observed, cared only about one thing - keeping his work alive. He also had a Jewish daughter-in-law and two half-Jewish grandchildren to keep out of the camps. Compliance has its reasons.

But while Strauss complied, other German composers were forced to flee. One was Berthold Goldschmidt, who had emerged during the 1930s as a major talent and whose opera Der Gewaltige Hahnrei was the last opera by a Jewish composer to be premiered in Germany before the Nazis took power. Goldschmidt fled to Britain, where - adrift in the climate of post-war modernism - he finally abandoned writing altogether. But in the 1980s he began again; and now, in his 90th year, he finds himself 'rediscovered' and feted - partly, no doubt, as a conscience figure but equally on the strength of his work.

What we heard in the Purcell Room was a programme of chamber works produced since his return to writing in the 1980s - a remarkable Indian summer of music mostly stronger in form than in invention. But at its best it rose to moments of unnerving beauty (a defiant lyrical riposte to modernism) and to flashes of endearing, oddly Russian-sounding wit.

Leonard Bernstein never, thank God, had to wear a yellow star on his sleeve but he wore his heart there: noisily, and with an awful lot of chutzpah that gave his music-making a dynamic (if exhausting) directness. He would have been 75 this year, and the event was marked last Sunday with a Barbican concert by Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO that illustrated the voraciously acquisitive nature of Bernstein's writing. He was, to be frank, a musical joyrider in an overloaded car not necessarily his own. But what he took he energised, celebrated, and rolled into packages of schmaltz, charm, sheer joy and banality such as Arias and Barcarolles, heard at the Barbican in a new orchestral version that overwhelmed the delicacy of the texts. Thomas Hampson and Frederica von Stade were the soloists, and seemed lost in the barrage. But the LSO was on good form and better still in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story that are more properly definitive of Bernstein's lyrical and rhythmic genius.

I've seen ENO's Rape of Lucretia so often that I feel competent to climb on stage and do the deed myself. But it comes back time and again because it's good and fulfils Britten's expectation that the piece (written for just eight singers and 12 instruments) be done with simple intimacy. Lucretia is not Britten's greatest opera and it undervalues the potency of the characters. Tarquinius's pre-rape aria is too beautiful to be appropriate to the singer or the circumstance. But Lucretia is strong on atmosphere - the cumulative tension of waiting for something terrible to happen - and this production builds a powerfully atmospheric context for intelligent performances. Peter Coleman-Wright's Tarquinius is beautifully sung, not very sexual, but credible. Jean Rigby's Lucretia is, as before, a reading of stature. And Yvonne Barclay's Lucia is adorable. I have just one complaint and it's the conspiratorial stance of the male and female chorus who interact like dual presenters at an awards ceremony ('. . . yes, Roger, and we've got a fabulous surprise now for Lucretia . . .'). Better they stood still, and didn't feign emotions that the music doesn't really suggest.

'Lucretia', 071-836 3161, Wed & Fri.

(Photograph omitted)