MUSIC / Simple folk dressed for Crossover Night

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The Independent Culture
THE TROUBLE with a folk song, complained Constant Lambert in Music Ho], is that 'once you have played it through there is nothing much you can do except play it over again and play it rather louder'. He was striking an attitude against the English Pastoral School, which, to any British composer in the 1930s who wasn't part of it, must have seemed more like an enclosing wall than a vision of blue-remembered hills. But folksong isn't just repetitive nostalgia. It is a vernacular that connects an artist with the narrative experience of his audience. And the Proms last week threw up some good examples of new music making that connection, through the vernaculars of folk- based nursery music, jazz and the pastoral resonance of landscape.

Two of them came from Richard Rodney Bennett on what a record company would have called Crossover Night: Radio 3 en travestie, dressed up as Radio 2 and playing host to the BBC Concert Orchestra, which spends most of its time peddling MOR repertory to easy listeners. This year is the Concert Orchestra's 40th anniversary, so the BBC gave it a Proms treat with a pair of world premieres in the same programme. The first was Bennett's Variations on a Nursery Tune, a straightforward piece of light music with no great claim beyond the fact that it demonstrates the craftsmanship at which Bennett, who slips like a fish through the nets of high and low culture, excels. Whether it's film, jazz or opera, his writing is always fluent and well-ordered, ideally suited to a variations format. In fact the nursery tune here, 'Over the Hills and Far Away', is not subjected to rigorous treatment, but it does sweep neatly in and out of waltz time and through the quotes from Ravel, Chopin and others: good material for variations, with a strong repeating shape that fixes in the ear but gives the composer something to play with. What I liked about this piece was that, however limited its brief, it did its job - introducing an evening of popular classics - in an appropriate and effective manner. A model of functional musicianship.

The other Bennett premiere was a Saxophone Concerto originally written for the jazz player Stan Getz but transferred to John Harle on Getz's death. The idiom is jazz-like. Cascading strings signal a note of self-parody that Bennett seems to use as licence to indulge the full, vernacular associations of the tenor sax, but always with a point of reference in concert repertory as well. The slow movement, which is seductively American and one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard from Bennett (beautifully played, too, by the phenomenal Harle), moves with the soulful lethargy of late-night cocktail music. But its insistent accompaniment figure is Satie: a two-note rising motif, short-long, short- long, that advertises Bennett's Janus-like ability (as a European based in America) to look both ways across the Atlantic.

John Casken's Still Mine, by contrast, is an orchestral song cycle rooted deep in North Country soil, a landscape revealed itself before in scores such as Orion over Farne and To Fields We do not Know (a 'Northumbrian Elegy'). This piece was premiered by the BBCSO under Matthias Bamert, with the echt North- countryman baritone Thomas Allen as soloist. The poems, by various authors, have been pieced together by Casken to suggest a Schubertian lieder-journey (a miner leaves his wife for an alien land, where he pines for home) although it doesn't make as coherent a story as Casken assumes.

It does, however, offer some striking imagery that recalls the grit-skinned but soft-centered social realism of English cinema in the Sixties. And the score does the rest, holding the texts together in a continuous span that follows a pattern I've noticed in Casken before: of tough, texturally rather dense tensions held until the closing section when they release into much freer music of resonant beauty. Tom Allen sang it with feeling but not, I thought, his usual security. He doesn't appear often in new music (not, at least, post-Britten) and it may not be his ideal metier.

I found something close to mine this week at the Gstaad Festival, which Yehudi Menuhin set up in the 1950s and continues to run. The proceedings, partly a Swiss Salzburg with chic international stars, are equally a platform for young players - especially those from the violinist's own teaching institutions, the Menuhin School in Surrey and the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad itself.

For a listener the academy is the more interesting because its students are more advanced: an elite corps of no more than 20 string players, intensively tutored by the violinist Alberto Lysy and becoming for concert purposes the Camerata Lysy - which lived up to its formidable reputation in a basically 18th-century programme centred on Mozart's Piano Concerto K415 (soloist Jeremy Menuhin). Lysy isn't an authenticist. He encourages a chewy, spiccato-laden sound from the players, and their collective virtuosity isn't so tidy. But virtuosic it certainly is, and delivered (standing up) with a driven energy that leaves the audience (let alone the players) breathless.

The best thing I heard, though, was the Skampa String Quartet: a young Prague-based ensemble over-dominated by its leader but on the brink of greatness in its reading of Mozart's Flute Quartet K285 with Samuel Coles, a British flautist of remarkable potential: animated, brilliantly articulate, but warmly lyrical and colour-sensitive. It takes a name like Menuhin's to pull together talent at this level from around the world. In his old age he has become a grand facilitator for the gifts of others. Sub specie aeternitatis, it may be his finest performance.