Music Theatre

Kagel's Variete Sciarrino's Vanitas Almeida Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
The reputations of contemporary composers rise and fall. Or perhaps it's just their marketability. Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and Ligeti have all had their moments of glory in this cautious land, though you hardly hear their music regularly. Awareness of Mauricio Kagel has been even more intermittent - his work baffles the critics and has never been heard at the Proms.

Kagel wrote Variete back in 1976-7, and it had its belated British premiere at the Almeida the Friday before last. A sort of suite lasting 40 minutes, scored for six players, it's one of Kagel's reconstructions of, or commentaries on, cultural phenomena: he's also done Early Music, World Music, Country Music, the life of JS Bach. Kagel suggests possible circus and variety acts to go with the music, but leaves it at that. Almeida Opera got Circus Space to provide a show, and the clowns ushering in the audience did not exactly raise hopes. As it turned out, that was the only false note, for most of the evening was played straight. As a recurring motif, there was a pale and vacant man with a suitcase and bowler hat which wouldn't always do what he wanted, a Mignon-like assistant and folding chairs; that was your genuine dumb-show. Then there were acrobats in breath-taking feats of balance and agility, dancers with hoops and luminous umbrellas, and a suicidal rope-climber. It was innocent and enchanting. And it all formed an effective counterpoint to the music, which is less innocent, but equally charming, in a dour, pawky kind of way.

Variete has been recorded on Disques Montaigne, and repeated listenings prove that what seems unobtrusive and casual at first is actually very precise. Kagel may toy with popular styles, but he doesn't produce pastiche, and he still thinks of himself as a serial composer. The serial factor won't bother anyone but an academic analyst. The style could be described as surreal and absurd - in a positive sense. Getting it on, at long last, was something of a triumph. One might wonder why it took so long: the requirements are not so very extravagant, though the percussionist's wares do comprise a multiple harmonica that plays in six keys, and the Almeida Ensemble (including an accordionist from one of the London Colleges), conducted by David Parry, here managed on very little rehearsal.

The Sicilian composer Salvatore Sciarrino calls Vanitas, which had its UK premiere at the Almeida on Tuesday, a "Still Life in One Act". It's a compilation of texts in several languages about roses, the colour red and associated images, arranged in an instrumental prologue and five "songs". Sciarrino is particularly identified with highly virtuosic music, very often intangible, evanescent and employing delicate, ghostly harmonics. What was unusual, for Sciarrino, in this 15-year-old piece was the sweet, almost jazzy chords on the piano, played by Rolf Hind - they were "still" in the sense of static. The singer was the mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, who sustained a quiet, rapt mood with impressive sang-froid, echoed by the equally poised cellist, Frances-Marie Uitti. Her part was a severe test of technical control, since it was entirely in spare, exposed phrases, tremoli and glissandi, mostly, if not entirely, in harmonics. There was no staging beyond changes of lighting, all quite restrained, to mark the movements, and an eerily illuminated column of suspended flowers.

One of the title's meanings is "emptiness" and the commercial CD includes a highly polemical programme note playing with this idea. The music is not, in itself, empty at all - it's hypnotically beautiful, but you needed to be bound by its spell not to find 55 minutes rather long.