A far, far better thing

Radio 3 round-up

The history of English opera is a chequered affair, and despite the emergence of such works as Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet and Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, a native tradition was not truly founded until the operas of Britten began to appear after the Second World War, along with the establishment of two London opera companies in permanent service. Lacking the support of such a tradition, more than one deserving work dropped from sight in earlier times, and one of the most arresting series of programmes to have emerged during BBC Radio 3's "Fairest Isle" year, Britannia at the Opera, is reminding us of what we have lost in this respect.

The early-romantic Edward Loder (1813-1865) furnishes a worrying instance. How he might have flourished if only we had possessed a vigorous operatic tradition to foster his work. As it was, he proceeded fitfully, forced to produce theatrical hack-work for a living, and eventually ending his life in penury and neglect. Just one work tells us what an unexpected talent we possessed in Loder, the opera Raymond and Agnes, excerpts from which received a repeat broadcast last Friday.

Loder clearly possessed a complete working knowledge of the current Italian tradition, and this, together with his German training, yielded a totally professional, cosmopolitan style. There is little, if any, trace of the ballad opera which dominated English music theatre at that time; instead, there are through-composed and impressively flexible dramatic structures, incorporating arias, duets and ensembles of all kinds.

The plot is a typically early-romantic farrago, with a superbly drawn villain, a ghost and two lovers, but the music transcends through its compelling dramatic flux and orchestral mastery. The tone is personal, if not deeply so, and there is perhaps a certain sameness about the vocal writing, but who knows how Loder might have developed if given more than the half-chance he received. The performance by Judith Howarth, Justin Lavender, Gidon Saks, with the BBC Concert Orchestra under James Lockhart, was a spirited one.

As well as repeating their initial series, Radio 3 is launching a fresh one, and on Monday we were able to hear music from Arthur Benjamin's A Tale of Two Cities, which (together with Berthold Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci and Karl Rankl's Deirdre of the Sorrows) was awarded a Festival of Britain prize in 1951 but not staged for six years, whereafter it was largely forgotten.

Benjamin makes up for a certain lack of melodic distinction and precision in characterisation with a powerfully atmospheric use of texture and colour, and the melodramatic aspects of the story are memorably realised. A peak of dramatic intensity is reached in the final scene, where the baying of the crowds, Mme Defarge's frenzied hate and Sydney Carton's visionary death (with Dickens's unforgettable "It is a far, far better thing...") provide a stunning curtain.

If Benjamin's romantic blockbuster is not destined for the repertory, it certainly deserves further staging, and one hopes that Anne Manson's full-blooded reading with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and a strong solo team headed by Russell Smythe, Lisa Milne, Phyllis Cannan and Justin Lavender will re-awaken interest.

Little might be thought to be communicable in a five-minute talk with music examples, but Radio 3's occasional series, An Outside View, proves otherwise. Eminent foreign musicians have been outlining, often in touchingly flattering terms, what they think of British music and its institutions, and last Friday the American composer and conductor Lukas Foss revealed how much Purcell, Britten and Vaughan Williams mean to him. In past months, both Leonard Slatkin and Steve Reich have wondered at the speed with which our players assimilate the most complex music and make it expressively meaningful (albeit this enviable facility stems from less than ideal rehearsal conditions), while the anglophile Andras Schiff has warned us that increasing materialism is eroding our standards and Vladimir Ashkenazy has implored us not to undervalue great composers like Elgar, VW and Walton. There are lessons to be learnt and attitudes to be re-examined.

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