MUSIC / Watchmaker Goehr flexes his muscles

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THE DRAW in Tuesday's Prom - not that it drew very many people - was the British premiere of a big orchestral score by Alexander Goehr; of which, more below. But it was a Prom to remember not so much for individual items as for how they fitted together: a shining example of the Well-Made Concert, assembled with the musical equivalent of gourmet instinct and suggesting, in a nicely understated way, the theme of music as a pseudo-visual art.

Oliver Knussen was conducting the BBC SO, so the repertory was modern - hence the empty seats. The outer points were two works by Stravinsky, from the time when he lived in Hollywood, recycling music which had been commissioned but not actually used by the local film industry. The memorial Ode of 1943 incorporates hunting-horn calls originally intended for Orson Welles's Jane Eyre; and the Symphony in Three Movements of 1945 absorbs a whole scene written for The Song of Bernadette, as well (Stravinsky tells us) as the memory of newsreel images of war, which is why the piece came initially to be known as the composer's War Symphony.

But Stravinsky also told us not to search in this most vividly coloured of all his later orchestral writing for narrative detail. 'The Symphony,' he said, 'is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all.' And I suspect that Alexander Goehr, if pushed, would make much the same statement about his Colossos or Panic, which was the new piece being heard here for the first time. Written for the Boston SO and premiered in America last year, it takes its title from a Goya painting in the Prado; and in the programme, Goehr supplied a very particular description of what the painting shows - a giant figure towering over a confused tumult of smaller ones. Another image of war?

But Goehr's interest in this picture is not, primarily, narrative. What interests him is the outsized scale of the image in relation to the frame. In Colossos he has tried to recreate through music the way your eye might read that relationship if you were looking at it: overwhelmed by the assertive central figure, glancing down to take in the contextual detail, but repeatedly pulled up again to the colossus, whose size and substance becomes subtly enhanced by more considered observation. For Goehr, who calls himself a 'watchmaker' composer, working to large canvases but not easily able to fill them, it has been approached as an exercise in big gestures: a flexing of muscle, refined by a complex timing structure that divides the duration into what are effectively one-minute soundbites set to different tempi.

In performance, though, it was the refinement that registered rather than the muscle: a fascinating statement of orchestral craftsmanship, but still the watchmaker not filling his canvas. And given the objective of impact, it's hard to understand why Goehr tacks on a second movement which has no obvious relation to the first and is effectively a wry (though slow- moving) module of neoclassicism, unfolding with the potentially scurillous but actually circumspect erudition of a high- table raconteur. I liked it; and I enjoyed the clarity of the BBC SO performance. I just couldn't figure out why it was there.

There was no issue about why the Halle Orchestra was at the Proms on Friday: the programme was a tribute to Sir John Barbirolli, and the Halle was Barbirolli's orchestra for nearly 30 years, from 1943 until he died in 1970. I wish I could report that this performance did his memory proud: it wasn't such distinguished or responsive playing, even though the Halle has a technically impressive chief conductor now in Kent Nagano. But again, the programme planning won the day: a daring concentrate of Barbirolli's broad enthusiasms (Elgar, Mahler, Berg, Vaughan Williams) that on paper looked uncomfortable but in performance came together with an almost rational coherence. How the human ear can be cajoled.

Remembering Trevor Nunn's production last time round (it was like The Archers with music) and not being a fan of Franz Welser-Most, I hadn't expected much of the revival of Peter Grimes at Glyndebourne, and was surprised by how improved it is. The rustic accents have more or less gone; so has the scrawny-voiced American tenor in the title role, replaced (hooray) by Anthony Rolfe Johnson; and Rolfe Johnson himself is more impressive than he was in the recent Scottish Opera Grimes - stronger, more focused, more assertive.

To put things into proportion, what you see here doesn't aspire to the stature of the current ENO staging or the mesmerising mania of Philip Langridge, who has to be the most dramatically compelling Grimes around. And Nunn's production is still too West End, lifting (with some effort on the first night) the roof of the pub to reveal a twinkling starscape for the 'Great Bear' solo (why not a Busby Berkeley staircase for good measure?), and inflating Bob Boles and Mrs Sedley into balloon-like caricatures. I'd have taken a pin to them both. But it does smoulder with a sense of small- town claustrophobia. It has the supreme benefit of Alan Opie and Robert Poulton, who are respectively the best Balstrode and Ned Keene in the business. And Welser-Most, conducting, really shows his mettle, with cautious speeds (the famously extended Glyndebourne rehearsal periods didn't extend to this Grimes), but a cumulative tension. He draws chiselled playing from the LPO and lets some fresh, unmannered air into a score I'm always interested (sometimes relieved) to hear in non-English hands.

A few weeks ago I wrote slightingly about pint-sized, packaged Stately Home opera, and I'm not rushing to eat my words. It can be shabbily offhand, a misrepresentation of what, even in the 17th century, was never quite a salon entertainment; and there aren't many operas that survive in piano accompaniment. But for all that, I've just seen two little, piano-accompanied shows by Pavilion Opera and enjoyed them very much. I knew Pavilion Opera had a long and successful track record, but I hadn't realised the extent to which it tours abroad; and these two shows - L'Elisir d'amore and The Barber of Seville - were in the grandly old- colonial Reid's Hotel, Madeira, as part of what is intended to become an annual opera festival. There are worse places for such things . . . and it all got off to an auspicious start with Pavilion's surprisingly good young voices, and productions that were basic, conventional, but not without moments of real theatre. They certainly had pace; and for excitement, I can vouch for the fact that there's an almost shocking, confrontational proximity when you find yourself in a small audience in a smallish room with Figaro's larger-than-life machinations happening in your lap. Encounters do not come much closer. And if Alexander Goehr is looking for his next Colossus / Panic model, may he look no more.