Music; Philharmonia, RFH, London YMSO, Barbican, London
Thursday 26 October 1995
We do things differently here. When UK companies commission new works of art, they seem on the whole to want heritage, nostalgia and, of course, accessibility - something about as culturally relevant as John Major's famous vision of Britain ("village cricket, warm beer, old maids bicycling to evensong").
If that was what British Telecom wanted, they made a shrewd choice in commissioning Richard Rodney Bennett - a chameleon composer, equally at home in the cinema, the night-club and the concert hall. Bennett's Partita, given its premiere by the Philharmonia and Christoph von Dohnanyi last Thursday, was tuneful, sentimental and firmly tonal. At its best, it recalled the lighter Walton or Malcolm Arnold, but without the irony. If there was a deeper affinity, it was with the film-scores of John Williams. It was the kind of piece that could have been written to reassure the heads of a wealthy privatised utility that in gaining the whole world they haven't lost their immortal souls.
As far as it went, it was well done. The mistake was in playing it next to Mahler's Fifth. Though over 90 years old, the latter actually felt more "modern" than Partita. Mahler knows all about nostalgia, about "how potent cheap music is" (as Noel Coward said). He loves the urban and rural pop music that fills his symphonies, but at the same time he knows it won't do. The Fifth thrashes out hugely complicated emotional problems with a brilliance, directness and sheer verve that put Bennett's wistful cleverness firmly in the shade. To make matters worse, it was an outstanding performance - a little slick and clean perhaps, but powerfully thought through, making one wonder how the work could ever have been considered disunified. Everything - the Funeral March, the bitter-sweet Adagietto, the crazy Scherzo and the ambiguous hymn-like apotheosis - belonged to a single, complex vision. The capacity audience roared its approval.
Another Mahler Five, given by the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra under James Blair at the Barbican on Tuesday, couldn't compete with Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia when it came to refinement and intellectual wholeness. But the young players brought something different: raw energy - a touch unfocused in places but very exciting. As an extra, Susan McCulloch sang Strauss's Four Last Songs with ever-deepening understanding and beauty of tone. Why don't we hear more of her?
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