CLASSICAL: Music on Radio
Friday 11 April 1997
Only twice staged in this country, at Covent Garden in 1972 and 1983, never yet commercially recorded and sometimes latterly described by the composer himself as a prentice work, the score re-emerged as the major synthesis of his first period. Not only does the opera's treatment of the theme of the creative individual under ideological duress combine a profoundly English vein of allegory with a Continental tradition of "philosophical" opera, represented by Pfitzner's Palestrina and Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, but its music exemplifies a fascinating period in the 1960s when the rediscovery of early music and the latest techniques of new music seemed curiously close. And the libretto, skilfully collated by the composer out of letters and accounts from the Reformation period of the historical John Taverner, at once exemplifies Maxwell Davies's abiding personal obsession with the subject of self-betrayal and the Cold War atmosphere - with its fears of subversion and brain-washing - of the 1950s and 1960s when it was composed.
There are hitches in dramatic pacing, of course - in what first opera are there not? - and places where catching the harmonic drift of Maxwell Davies's darkly convoluted counterpoint sets the ear a severe test. No doubt it takes performers of the expertise of Fiona Kimm, Martyn Hill and David Wilson-Johnson, an orchestra of the virtuosity of the BBC Symphony and, above all, a conductor as well-prepared, accurate and insightful as Oliver Knussen to triumph over the score's sometimes fearsome problems of rhythm and balance - as last week's balefully authentic reading so strikingly did. But it has to be said that, as long as Radio 3 retains the resources and, yet more important, the will to present performances of this uncompromising quality, then any quibbles about the network's style of presentation or whatever should be taken as quite incidental.
Meanwhile, Radio 4 has launched an all too timely gloss on the issue raised by Taverner in the form of Music under Dictatorships - four programmes in which the imperturbable Michael Oliver is investigating the fate of music and musicians under 20th-century tyrannies. On Wednesday, it was music and the Nazis - a regime, John Deathridge reminded us, rooted in Wagnerian myth. Hitler had little time for Schumann and none for Bach, we were told, but Wagner he could whistle perfectly in tune. Deathridge and Erik Levi, author of Music in the Third Reich, duly conducted us through the oppressions, compromises and absurdities of those years: the banning of modernism as "degenerate", the attempt to suggest that black ("animalistic") jazz was also somehow Jewish, and, of course, the terrible tormenting of Jewish musicians themselves. As if to epitomise the famous phrase about "the banality of evil", even popular biblical oratorios were rewritten as Pagan myths - Handel's Judas Maccabaeus becoming The Mongol Fuhrer.
But there was also the quiet voice of Hans Werner Henze with a personal testimony: how puzzled he became as a boy that certain great composers mentioned in old textbooks never seemed to get performed and, later, how he would covertly press his ear to his radio speaker to catch BBC broadcasts of Stravinsky and Schoenberg - an offence for which, if caught, he could have been imprisoned. By the end of half an hour, enough anecdotal information had been assembled for a broader argument; a pity Radio 3 could not find another 15 minutes or so for this to be followed through. Next week, on to Stalinn
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