MUSIC / Modern, but a classic all the same

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The Independent Culture
FOR ALL their personal motives, those Hecklers tweaked a nerve with the opera public. Must new music always provoke knitted brows and bafflement? The reactionary fogeys were notably absent from the world premiere of Judith Weir's opera at ENO on Wednesday. Perhaps someone had tipped them off. Blond Eckbert is dramatically riveting, not a minute too long, and you come away haunted by the plot and - here's a thing - snatches of tune. In short, the Coliseum has found itself an accessible modern classic.

It is the 39-year-old Scot's third opera, and while its predecessors - A Night at the Chinese Opera and The Vanishing Bridegroom - may not have won repertory status, they established Weir as one of the few young composers with real dramatic flair. Again in Blond Eckbert, an ENO commission, she provides her own libretto: spare, yet packed with psychological complexity. We hear almost every word - an achievement both literary and musical.

Weir takes her plot from a short story of the early 1800s by the German Romantic Ludwig Tieck. Fate, witchcraft and incest stalk this dark fairytale, foreshadowing the work of the Grimm brothers and even the symbolism of Jung and Freud. Eckbert and his wife, Berthe, live secluded in a forest. When their only friend, Walther, comes to visit, Eckbert persuades his wife to tell him the story of her youth, a story of theft and betrayal.

When Walther supplies a missing detail of Berthe's tale (comically, irrelevantly, she cannot remember the name of her little dog), the couple are panicstricken. Their guilty past engulfs them. Up to this point Weir's score has a rich vernal quality, playing on the Romantic notion of Waldeinsamkeit, a state of bliss being at one with the natural world. This word is sung over and over in lark-

ascending arpeggios by the bird (sung by a chirpy Nerys Jones, suspended on wires). But the mood is far from serene. The Act I overture, which contains passages of swooning loveliness, overlays evocations of the forest with an indefinable tension. In Act II the coils of fate tighten: Eckbert kills his friend and descends into madness.

If Weir has musical heroes she has assimilated them completely. The woodland setting and sense of foreboding bring Pelleas to mind, and Weir exploits myriad colourings from Debussyan groupings: a horn quartet, a solo harp, a plaintive trumpet motif. The texture melts away miraculously to let vocal lines through. Sian Edwards conducts with authority, spirits high following the band's Olivier award.

The masterstroke of Tim Hopkins' direction is to stylise and pare down the acting. The hovering bird moves only her claws; Eckbert (Nicholas Folwell) maniacally repeats isolated gestures; Christopher Ventris is a balletic caricature as the disturbingly smiling friend; Anne-Marie Owens as Berthe simply stands and delivers.

With a score of any lesser quality, Nigel Lowery's superb Expressionist sets would have stolen the show. Most memorable is the Act II scene when Berthe is dying in bed, singing through a cut-out where the pillow should be, slithering horribly out of sight as her life ebbs away. Later we find Eckbert as a down-

and-out beneath a painterly Hammersmith Flyover, mobile strands of headlamps signalling urban and spiritual dereliction. Unusually for new opera, Blond Eckbert is to get a second, fresh production (in Santa Fe) very soon. Judith Weir deserves global recognition.

When Kurt Masur climbed the podium at the Barbican one wondered at first if King Lear hadn't wandered in. Imposing, grizzled, he conducts without baton or score, shaking whiskery jowls at the violins and punching the air with his fists. Yet if his gestures seemed imprecise to the audience, they spoke volumes to the players of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, who have had plenty of time in the 25 years of his conductorship to learn their meanings. Mendelssohn's Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream, too often thought slight, can rarely have been treated to such devotion to detail and line. Even the donkey's braying and rustics' stomp had exquisite elegance.

Reverence for the German masters is bred into these players: Mendelssohn himself ran the orchestra for 12 years, and it gave many first performances of Schumann, Schubert, Bruckner and Brahms. This concert was part of a tour which celebrates its 250th anniversary and, less officially, its emergence into the world arena after being cloistered in the GDR. This was a chance to show off the celebrated 'Leipzig sound', and scotch the traditional wisdom (or envy) that it had been cultivated at the expense of virtuosity.

Perhaps the choice of Viktoria Mullova as soloist in the Brahms violin concerto was a reaction: all hard brilliance but utterly unyielding. She strode on half-clad in a strapless, backless bodice with scraps of skirt. Even the way she manoeuvred her instrument, as if it were some lethal crossbow, was of a piece with her performance. She negotiated the diabolical double-stopping with frightening ease; the tuning of her top notes, even at speed, was impeccable. Saint-Saens once said that a difficulty overcome is a thing of beauty. I'm not so sure: Brahms asks for a tender heart too, and mine was untouched.

Schumann in his studious symphonic mode can produce unmemorable material, but in the little-played Second Symphony the dreams and fireworks are worth waiting for. The serenely flowing lines of the Adagio, were wondrously drawn out by Masur and the

tumultuous con fuoco of the last movement made a stunning climax. Before the Kappellmeister took his applause, he shook the hands of all his front-desk players - a wholly convincing gesture of paternal pride and democratic solidarity. This orchestra really is, as he claims, an ensemble like no other.

All the Gewandhaus lacks, in the unaccustomed insecurity of post-Communism, is Deutschmarks. There were plenty in evidence at St James's Piccadilly when Theo Lieven, chairman of Vobis, the German computer firm, threw An Evening with Mozart. Star billing went to the chairman himself and Louise Price, a 'PR girl' he met at a press conference. They played the Mozart double piano concerto with a conductor and orchestra hired for the night. And they played it . . . very nicely. Afterwards most of the audience turned up for champagne at the Ritz to be informed of Herr Lieven's other little project: a year-long intensive piano school for exceptional talents in a palazzo on Lake Como, coached by world-class pianists. Imperial patronage lives.

'Blond Eckbert': Coliseum, 071836 3161, Tues and Fri. Leipzig Gewandhaus: St David's Hall, Cardiff, 0222 371236, tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)

Michael White returns next week