Crying Wolf once again

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The Independent Culture
Early in the century, opera audiences in Brussels were polled for their favourite works and voted Ernest Chausson's Le roi Arthus fourth, preferring it to La Boheme and Die Zauberflote. Chausson's three-act drama was broadcast in a rough and ready performance from Dortmund last Thursday afternoon. It's half as long as Tristan, the model with which its reputation is burdened, even though Chausson announced his intention to "de-Wagnerise" his music well before completion. Chausson's distinctive character - or perfume - can be identified as a variety of the Wagner species: you recognise the pattern of Wagner behind a turn of phrase, but something new changes it and results in quite a different expression. Though considerably less over-heated than Chausson's wonderfully oppressive Symphony in B flat, composed during the same period as Le roi Arthus, the opera ends in a similar manner, boiling passion left to cool, Guinevere having strangled herself with her own hair, Lancelot mortally wounded, and the king transported to a better world.

Le roi Arthus might be a candidate for concert performance at the Proms. It would certainly make a more satisfying evening than Kurt Weill's The Silver Lake, conducted by Markus Stenz in last Sunday's Prom. Not that the music isn't good - it's vintage Weill, in the line that stretched from Mahagonny, the Second Symphony and Seven Deadly Sins. We've heard it all before, the three or four musical types in this cantata-like collection of numbers, but they are all admirably pithy and none lasts longer than it should.

That cannot be said of the evening as a whole, which was both too long and at the same time too short. Too short, because Jeremy Sams's English dialogue gave no inkling of what Georg Kaiser's play was really like, and too long, because it was fatuous and boring. The Prommers may have laughed, but then, in any audience, a lot of people will react vocally as they think is expected. Patronising is an over-used epithet, but this silly story, as it seemed when boiled down, and its style of delivery, certainly deserved it.

Nor did Radio 3 provide an adequate context. Instead, the previous day, there was a 40-minute documentary, Weill Style, in which Patrick O'Connor trawled through singers of Weill's music. The revelation, as far as I'm concerned, was that some of the best have been French. It also suggested, though not explicitly, that the example of Lotte Lenya, the woman who inspired Weill, has been a distinctly mixed blessing. After all, any music worth repeating will admit of countless interpretations. Lenya has inhibited performers, and when she said she "passed on the crown" to Teresa Stratas, declaring that she alone among the younger singers knew instinctively how to sing Weill, she was talking rubbish.

During the interval of The Silver Lake, there was more Lenya, in readings from the newly published correspondence between her and Weill. More to the point would have been a solid talk about Georg Kaiser and his ideas in Twenties and Thirties Germany. We didn't even get that in the first programme of Composer of the Week, which was meant to explore his collaboration with Weill. What did emerge, though, was that Weill's music in Der Protagonist and Der Zar lasst sich photographieren was much more acerbic than in The Silver Lake. Downright unpleasant, in fact, and it was reassuring to learn that Hindemith, who played in the first performance of Weill's String Quartet, of which we heard just one movement, disliked the work.

String quartets filled the first of eight lunchtime "chamber" Proms from the Royal College of Music on Monday - an innovation this year. The Arditti String Quartet gave the first British performance of Elliott Carter's Fifth String Quartet, written for them last year. The four players' distinct characters shape their part, Carter claims, though frankly character has never been his strong point. Delve beneath the bramble-like thickets of counterpoint and the expressive agenda is fairly familiar, as his own comments on the new piece explained. As a construction in sound, the continuous 20-minute time-span seemed diligently engineered, as usual, but the elaborate mechanics served only their own purpose.

Oh to be as brave as Hugo Wolf, not just a great composer, but something still rarer - an honest critic. He admitted that Beethoven's Grosse Fuge made no sense to him. It's still an ugly, gawky piece, and the way the Arditti sorted it out, with all too apparent fore- and hindsight, defeated the whole point.

One wish: that they would throw out that stomach-churning collage which introduces Proms trails on Radio 3. It sounds like someone going "Yuk! This is what you don't want to hear".

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