MUSIC / Romantic jamboree in duff start

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE SOUTH Bank is celebrating German Romanticism - Deutsche Romantik as the posters have it - with a concert series that began on Thursday, runs to mid-November, and raises more questions than it is likely to answer. Starting with the South Bank's idea of who counts as Romantic.

This is no easy matter. Many a supposedly Romantic composer would have thrown up his hands in horror at the label. Mahler, for example, cited with approval Goethe's dictum that Romantic art was sickly compared with the Hellenic health of classicism. Schumann claimed he hadn't used the word 'Romantic' 10 times in his life.

But by common consent, Romanticism was a phenomenon of the 19th century: idealistic rebellion against the established order (political or aesthetic), sparked by the upheaval of the French Revolution. That it found peculiarly intense expression in Germany is explained by the rise of German national consciousness. And by the late 19th century it was in effect over. As the latterday German composer Hans Werner Henze said in a speech to open Deutsche Romantik: 'When the hunting horns of (Weber's) Der Freischutz were replaced by Wagner tubas, it had breathed its last'.

But not according to the South Bank, whose broader view of things was signalled in the concert that followed: an odd and unsatisfactory piece of programming that offered Beethoven's 5th, Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder and Henze's orchestral fantasy Heliogabalus Imperator, in that order. Chronologically it made sense, but this is all you could say for it. Whatever qualities in Beethoven's 5th tend toward Romanticism, they didn't leap from the page in Franz Welser-Most's clipped and barely punctuated reading with the LPO. The Wesendonck songs more obviously belonged but, with the same forces, weren't very secure and lay too heavy in Amanda Roocroft's otherwise alluring voice. The Heliogabalus, a supposed orchestral showpiece, just fell flat - all clarity but no panache - and should never have been expected to round off this kind of programme. Not a bright beginning for so big a project.

Covent Garden's revival of La Cenerentola could have done with a touch of Romantic rebellion. Remembering its decorous sets and porcelain manners, I didn't expect much. But there was the new ingredient of the Russian mezzo-of- the-moment Olga Borodina. And although it was risky to cast a heavy Russian voice in a bel canto coloratura role, it might have worked - as Agnes Baltsa's rasping Greek sonority had in the past. But no. Where Ms Baltsa shone with fiery brilliance, Borodina is lugubrious: she doesn't sparkle. Nor does anyone else, short of a brave but faltering effort by Francois Le Roux as Dandini.

There was more bad news at the final of the National Power World Piano Competition at the Festival Hall, an event that seems to have been set up entirely for its own sake and the glory of its sponsors. Packaged with glamour - the Princess of Wales gave the prizes, Dirk Bogarde announced them - it amounted to the Philharmonia Orchestra hacking through three pot-boiler concerti under a not very distinguished conductor. The three young finalists were promising, but painfully under-rehearsed. I can't believe that this exposure did them any favours. The world has enough piano competitions without this one.

For a better example of how to spend money on developing talent, consider Powergen's sponsorship of the Walton Foundation Summer School: an annual event that airlifts a select group of singers to the composer's former home in Italy and coaches them in the dramatic aspects of opera. I joined them last weekend when the course material included Act II of Troilus and Cressida, the opera that dominated Walton's life in the late Forties and early Fifties but never held the stage. For years it has been relegated to limbo status. But Opera North is to bring a new touring production to Covent Garden in January, and the summer school offered a useful preview of its potential. Troilus may not qualify as a neglected masterpiece, but it has moments of mastery, contained in closed- form arias, and a succulent lyricism. In 1976, when last heard at Covent Garden, it must have sounded like something out of the ark but it might just win over post-modern ears in 1995.

It seems to have touched the Walton Foundation singers, who did it with searing commitment. The stars were Elena Ferrari, a precise, high-tension Violetta, and Hilton Marlton, who has the clarity and refinement to become a first-rate Mozart tenor. You can hear them in London when the Foundation brings a Troilus/Traviata package to the Royal College of Music.

Walton and his record producer Walter Legge fell out over the original Troilus, but at other times they were a formidable recording partnership, working with the crack orchestra Legge himself created, the Philharmonia, under the aegis of EMI. They produced a fine series of Walton Conducts Walton recordings through the Fifties. The achievement of those years - before the Philharmonia stooped to knocking out World Piano Competitions - forms the basis of a new EMI Walton Edition, a substantial overview on four mid-price discs. Some of the contents enjoy classic status but the scenes from Henry V (narration by Laurence Olivier) have music not heard since they were issued on 78s in 1947. The 1951 recording of the 1st Symphony has been cleaned up and turns out to be a far better performance than history judged. Hearing all this, you realise that Walton was not only a remarkable composer, but also a conspicuously good conductor.

'Cenerentola': ROH, 071-304 4000, Tues, Thurs. Walton Foundation: RCM, 071-589 3643, Wed.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments