Music: There once was an old man of Oldham ...

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Very possibly you didn't know that this year marks the 150th anniversary of Oldham, but in Oldham, every street proclaims it. Anniversary lights shine from the town hall. A special exhibition celebrates the borough's greatest sons - not least, the man who put the lettering in seaside rock, and Mr Rennie of the indigestion tablets.

And the star son of them all is William Walton, who gets not only a display cabinet in this exhibition (next to the Widow Twanky frock worn by Christopher Biggins in a touring production of Aladdin) but a festival. All to himself, and every year. It ran last weekend, fondly and enthusiastically, and with a touching disregard for Walton's not so fond feelings for his home town. When people asked him why he first began composing he used, wryly, to say: to get away from Oldham. And he got away spectacularly: first to Christ Church Oxford, then the salon circuit of Belgravia, then to Ischia in the Bay of Naples - where his widow Susana still presides over the paradise domaine they built together in the 1960s.

Festivals devoted to the music of one composer can be wearing, especially with a composer like Walton who, early on, forged a distinctive idiom and stayed with it. But the weekend span of the Oldham Waltonfest is just right. And if last weekend proved one thing it was the variety that Walton managed to achieve within the framework of a constant language. In the Werneth Park Music Rooms at the bottom of the road where Walton was born (and now in a sadly shabby state of decay) the Italian guitarist Emanuele Segre played the Five Bagatelles, originally written for Julian Bream, and steeped in the atmospheric balm of a warm Mediterranean night. By contrast, in Oldham's Queen Elizabeth Hall, the English Northern Philharmonia (aka the orchestra of Opera North) played the 1st Symphony: a tough, relentless landmark of symphonic writing in the 1930s, somewhere on the axis between Shostakovich and Sibelius. It made a fierce impression - like a dance on broken glass - under an up-and-coming young conductor by the name of Richard Farnes. The sheer excitement of it had me on my seat's edge and half-inclined to believe John Ireland's OTT but understandable insistence that this score established Walton as "the most vital and original genius in Europe". At the time of the premiere (1935) and from a British perspective, it must certainly have looked like that. And the small matter of competition from Stravinsky, Bartk and a few others doesn't alter the fact that this piece is one of the most powerful symphonic statements of modern times.

The ENP's other contribution to the festival was a collection of scenes from Walton's opera, Troilus and Cressida, ravishingly sung by Susannah Glanville who, I predict, will resurface as Cressida when Opera North revive their Matthew Warchus production in 2002, Walton's centenary year. But the focus of the festival was really choral, starting with a concert by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge and its music director Timothy Brown, who has just edited the Choral Works volume in Oxford University Press's new Walton Edition. Anglican cathedral music was in many ways the cauldron of Sir William Walton's genius. He wasn't spiritually motivated; he despised the organ and avoided writing for it. But the only formal training he had in music came from his experience as a boy chorister: first at the church in Oldham where his father was the choirmaster, then at Oxford. His earliest works were anthems. Just before his death he rediscovered Palestrina and was planning a motet. And you might argue that the robust, rhythmically inflected and harmonically astringent manner of his choral works are the definitive expression of Waltonian style.

The chief discovery of the new Edition is a previously unknown setting of his Litany, "Drop, drop slow tears". Unlike the published SATB version, this one is for four trebles and was written by the age of 14 for his fellow choristers at Christ Church. That makes it the earliest Walton manuscript in existence; and from last weekend's performance in Oldham - probably its first public hearing - it was clear that even at 14 the Walton sound was virtually there. With later classics like the racy Jubilate and the sultry Set me as a seal in the programme, this was a telling concert by a fine choir that should give some thought to taking this repertory into the recording studio. Perhaps the thought is there already.

Michael Tippett developed so late and lived so long that he feels like a generation down from Walton, but they were actually contemporaries. On Tuesday he had a tribute concert from the Nash Ensemble at the South Bank Centre, following on from a similar tribute to Harrison Birtwistle two weeks ago. For Birtwistle it was described as a "focus". For Tippett it was a "celebration", such is the elevating power of death. And the Nash certainly spared no expense in crowding the platform with some of the finest solo-status musicians currently in Britain. Everyone played well - and in the case of the guitarist Craig Ogden, supremely well: I've never heard the accompaniment to Tippett's Songs for Achilles, or the intricacy of his quasi-sonata The Blue Guitar, handled with sharper or more brilliant style. But I didn't thrill to the two core items on the programme: well-intentioned suites arranged from Tippett's music by his friend Meirion Bowen. One was fashioned from The Ice Break, Tippett's 1970s race-riot opera; and although it did us all a favour in releasing the score from its attachment to a dire libretto, the loss of voices left the music oddly empty, like a karaoke tape without the tune. With poorly balanced scoring, it gave little sense of the original. And I'm afraid the same goes for the Tempest Suite which cobbled together an assortment of Tippettiana in a way that doesn't make much sense, or convey much integrity, as a complete work.

Finally, two cheers for University College Opera whose production of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa at the Bloomsbury Theatre is a brave try. Mazeppa is effectively Eugene Onegin enlarged to encompass the historical patriotism that Russian opera by anyone other than Tchaikovsky took on board as a matter of course. Like Onegin it follows a story by Pushkin. But the result is a blood-and-thunder yarn whose blood element will be recalled by anyone who saw the famous Coliseum chainsaw-massacre production in the 1980s. Netia Davan Wetton, the director here, presumably saw it too, because her staging is pure ENO powerhouse style: aggressive, stark and full of cliche-communists in steel-clad factory sets. In other words, it's off- the-peg. But that said, it's emphatic and strong: the punchiest student show I've ever seen. And there's some decent singing too, from Julian Jensen and Andrew Slater. How strong a piece it is, I'm not sure. But it's the closest Tchaikovsky ever came to Puccini; and if Russian verismo is your desert island dream, here it is. On a plate. Steaming.

Comments