Music: Rach is seen to shine at last

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The Independent Culture
Hidden Perspectives

Royal Festival Hall, London


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh


Cambridge Handel Opera Society

Jimi Tenor

Improv, London

You only have to see the posters for the South Bank's new Rachmaninoff series, "", to appreciate how things are changing for the composer who was caricatured (all too memorably) by Stravinsky as six feet of Russian scowl. To start with, there's the name - which, after decades of transliteration with a "v", now ends more accurately with a double "f", the way it reads on the composer's tombstone. It may seem like linguistic marginalia, but it bears sacramental witness to a grand redefinition of the way we read his music.

As with most re-readings, it's the culmination of a process that goes back in time: to revelatory performances by Ashkenazy under Previn in the 1960s and 1970s. But what is new is the redoubled effort to explore beyond Rachmaninoff's two gilt-edged problems: the contemptible familiarity; and dear, oh dear, those endless tunes.

The tunes, of course, supplied the soundtrack to our mothers' tears in Brief Encounter, and they've blinded several generations since to the existence of any other qualities in Rachmaninoff - like structure, rhythm, or harmonic discipline. We've been content to wallow in their damp nostalgia. And performers have been all too happy to oblige us with the sort of shabby, drooling, half-crazed nonsense that received its imprimatur at the hands of David Helfgott in the movie Shine. Things, now, have reached the point where no one goes to Rach nights (as musicians call them) expecting performances of probity. Rach nights are family entertainment, usually supplied by Raymond Gubbay with a B-list team of struggling young artists. And struggle is the word. The Rach concertos are a tough play with a lot of notes - a fair percentage of them faked in most I've ever heard. They were designed to fit Rachmaninoff's own legendary stretch, which modern pianists tend to meet half-way with armour-plated applications of digital camouflage. Not for nothing is this music known as warhorse repertory.

But the concertos are so central to Rachmaninoff's output that they are the place where any true, revisionist voyage of discovery begins. And so it was that the centrepiece of the "" launch concert last Thursday was the Piano Concerto no 2, graced by the starry partnership of Vladimir Ashkenazy, conducting, and Evgeny Kissin at the keyboard. To hear one master-pianist play for another is always interesting. But there was an especially striking sense of a platform shared between two generations of a common culture - three, if you include Rachmaninoff himself. It wasn't a perfectly synchronised partnership: as tempi (set, initially, quite slow by Ashkenazy) surged and sank, the two men sometimes took each other by surprise. But they were perfectly ad idem in their sense of where this music comes from. It was true, Russian Rachmaninoff, not MGM or Pinewood Studios. It was also rich in Russian paradox: hard- edged but gracious; melancholic but with lean, young muscles.

That a Rach 2 could be so alive with a sense of occasion said something in itself. With brilliantly committed playing from the Philharmonia orchestra, which carried through to Rachmaninoff's choral symphony The Bells, it promised great things for the rest of "" in the coming weeks. For once, a festival that lives up to its catchy title. Go. And be impressed.

The front drop of Scottish Opera's new Aida, which opened on Wednesday in Edinburgh, helpfully shows a pyramid. It's just as well, because you might otherwise assume from the atrocious, jokey, misbegotten packaging of the production that the action alternates between a Balkan refugee camp and the bargain basement of a Sixties-retro fashion store. The female chorus seem to be in training for a Dusty Springfield convention, tottering about in beehive hairdos and running Tupperware parties on the banks of the Nile. The men stride back and forth across the stage with bits of cars and TV sets and vacuum cleaners. Spoils of war, I guess. It was framed by limp, cheap imitations of the sort of abstract sets we used to see at ENO 10 years ago: a second-year design-school exercise by someone heading for a scrape pass, with an aegrotat.

It's not that I was after elephants, or the touristic kitsch of Earl's Court Egyptology - a breath of fresh air in Aida is a welcome thing. But this shambles of a show by Antony McDonald (who directs and designs, albeit with assistants) is hardly fresh. It's stale old tosh: badly conceived and miserably realised. It's not even up to much as music, although in that department it does have its moments. Most of them come courtesy of Rosalind Plowright, whose descent to the low-flying, mezzo realm of Amneris doesn't give full value to the bottom notes but leaves plenty of scope for handsome sound in the middle and top. Her statuesque and stylish singing was easily the best thing of the evening.

That the rest of the cast was largely Eastern European was another of the geographically unsettling qualities of the production. Lada Biriucov's Aida was impressive, in a bottle-toned, deep-throated way, but so intensely Slavic that no trace of the Italian text (or idiom) came through. The general impression of being on the banks of the Volga rather than the Nile was reinforced by many of the smaller roles. Only Vladimir Kuzmenko's Radames aspired to anything Italianate; and then it came in a big, loud voice that was exciting but not wildly subtle. The conductor was Emmanuel Joel, little known but with a track record at ENO; his erratic tempi made the whole thing last 20 minutes more than promised.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the new(-ish) breed of directors who have rethought and revitalised the staging of Handel's operas. Unfortunately their influence is not universal, and last weekend I saw a Cambridge Handel Opera Society staging of Admeto that was of the Old School: decorously museological, with big frocks, effervescent wigs, and not much inspiration. The CHOS is a part-professional, part-student undertaking - run by the distinguished Handel scholar Andrew Jones, whose edition of Rodelinda is in repertory at Glyndebourne - and it has an honourable list of credits for its good work in the past. But its approach is desperately earnest. Not a note is cut - which meant that the Admeto lasted four long hours. They were four hours of slow, static, stand-and-sing delivery with Baroque Gesture, which for the most part meant standing with one leg in front of the other, and an arm in the air.

No doubt there were good historical reasons for it all. But you can only get away with this kind of staging if you offer: (a) a cast of dazzling singers guaranteed to hold your audience spellbound, and (b) a depth of reading that enriches every movement with the wrapt intensity of a Noh play. This Admeto offered neither; and although I rather liked the amber, Janet Bakerish tone of Catherine Griffiths in the title role, as well as the orchestral playing under Jones's baton, it was not enough. A sharp semi-staging in black T-shirts would have served Admeto better. Some 30 minutes off the running time would have been better still. To stand by every note in Handel, defensive of the author's feel for "architecture", is to ignore the fact that Handel cut and pasted his own work as readily as any Broadway hack. For one revival of Admeto he deleted a complete role, with what was probably no great loss. That stands as precedent. If he could do it, so can we.

: South Bank Centre, SE1 (0171 960 4242) to 23 May.