MUSIC / New morality: Stephen Johnson listens to Beethoven's Ninth and five new pieces

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The Independent Culture
Robert Cowan's interview with Richard Goode in Saturday morning's Independent was, said James MacMillan, timely. The questions it raised about music and morality, music and idealism, were exactly those he'd discussed with the five composition students he was about to introduce to a Royal Festival Hall audience later that same day. The evening's main event, Giulini's performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, provided the pretext. In this age, MacMillan asked, which had seen the 'dehumanisation of art', its 'deconstruction, isolation, objectification', was it possible to reassert the 'human, even moral' dimension of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy'?

MacMillan's answer to that question is, famously, an impassioned yes. Whatever his critics say, there is nothing glib or forced about his statements of belief. But the impression left by the recital of student works that followed was that his faith is not widely shared. Two of the young composers selected chose texts with a pronounced moral dimension: e e cummings's 'A Thunder of Oneness' (set by John Evans), and a quotation from D H Lawrence, 'What do we call being freed?' (Shinuh Lee). Jane Mielniczek took headlines from newspapers from the time of the British premiere of Beethoven's Ninth and its anniversary last year for a piece simply entitled Phil.

But in each case the treatments strongly resembled what early Soviet theorists called 'defamiliarisation'. Lee and Evans's settings broke the text down into sounds, to be stretched, clipped or otherwise distorted on familiar, modernist lines. Lee's claim that 'all the musical material and ideas come from the meaning and nuance of each sentence' was, to me, frankly baffling. Only in Mielniczek's piece was the text-music relationship audibly significant. The wild coloratura setting of the newspaper headlines, against an ironically lively accompaniment, made an highly original commentary on how important current events can themselves become defamiliarised and trivialised by the media.

Framing these three pieces, Jan Feddersen's Aber die AUSHAUCHER and Marc Fortier's le peu pouvoir treated elusive texts in less obviously analytical ways, and both works carried a relatively high expressive charge. The quality of the writing itself was, on the whole, encouraging, and it gave weight to MacMillan's claim that British colleges and universities are still finding talented students, however grim the future may look for them once they get out into the real world.

All credit to MacMillan and the Philharmonia for showing this kind of interest in our musical future. I only hope that subsequent events will be a little better organised - more programmes would have been a great help.

This was still, for me, a rather more uplifting experience than the much-heralded Giulini Beethoven Nine that followed. In some ways this was a Rolls Royce of a performance - rich, deep, big-boned sound, securely controlled and shaped. But, in terms of what Sir Adrian Boult used to call 'candle power', it was a low-radiance event. The stolid, slow-jogging tempo for the scherzo might have worked if it had had one-fifth of Klemperer's intensity, but it didn't. The hoary old device of linking the Adagio and the finale's introductory dissonant fanfare might just have shocked again if the fanfare itself had packed the necessary punch, but it was much too suave and comfortable. This was the traditional grand manner at its least appealing - all the trappings, little of the inner conviction. It made me ache for Roger Norrington.