Double Play: Ghosts and visions

MAXWELL DAVIES: The LighthouseNeil Mackie, Christopher Keyte, Ian Comboy BBCPhilharmonic / Peter Maxwell Davies (Collins 14152)

THERE'S NOTHING like an unsolved mystery - preferably a real one - for capturing the imagination. What did happen to the three lighthouse-keepers who disappeared from the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides in 1900? Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's chamber opera The Lighthouse has been posing the question for 14 years now. The drama is in the psychology.

In the theatre, it's the unseen, the unknown that grips. It should be the perfect gramophone opera. The resource of the moody instrumental writing keeps intrigue alive and creeping. The sea is omnipresent, and Maxwell Davies knows about the sea - 'a dead expanse of lead' - his words painted in steely harmonics and eerie, lachrymose flute glissandi. Chills come in shivery sul ponticello strings, death-rattling percussion, and the alien wail of saxophone and flexitone.

If only the vocal writing were as consistently intriguing. Monotony is often not more than a syllable away. And the old mad Max favourite - wild falsetto leaps in moments of high anxiety - is too easy, a bit of a cliche. All of which does admittedly pull focus on the three brilliant character songs at the heart of the score. Now this is vintage Maxwell Davies - wicked, lacerating parody. Blazes's violent life, chronicled in a jolly fiddle- and banjo-led pub song, is the kind of theatrical shock-tactic that keeps Lighthouse burning. ES

THE STORY is pure Twilight Zone. Three naval officers report how they arrived at a lighthouse to find it neat but deserted, no trace of the three keepers. What happened? Did prolonged solitude drive the keepers mad, could there be a horrifying supernatural explanation, or are the three officers lying? And what are we experiencing - a dream-like reconstruction of key events, or a kind of hell, in which the characters re-enact the catastrophe over and over again?

Maxwell Davies's libretto is in the best British ghost-story tradition. And while the music doesn't quite rise to the imaginative heights of the Sixties and Seventies, The Lighthouse sustains its hold: the chill factor can be startlingly high, and there's some fine black pastiche in the lighthouse-keepers' three songs. It certainly comes off in this performance. The 14 members of the BBC Philharmonic (surely it ought to be 13]) provide plenty of tense, gloomy atmosphere, while the soloists effectively register mounting terror; in fact listening to this alone, late at night, I felt I'd have welcomed a little company. For sheer depth of darkness and psychological penetration The Lighthouse doesn't quite rival The Turn of the Screw but it deserves its popularlty. SJ

TIPPETT: Symphony No 2; Suite from New Year

Bournemouth Symphony / Richard Hickox

(Chandos CHAN 9299)

AS THOSE pounding C's kick-start the opening Allegro vigoroso, the first thing you'll register is the big- boned sound. What a difference the wider dynamic range makes. That's one advantage Hickox has over the near-definitive Colin Davis recording of 1968. The only advantage? Well, let's just say that Davis grasps the piece as if it were his own; Hickox is still very much the admiring outsider.

I miss the taut, sinewy playing of the LSO: athletic violins leaping to Tippett's wiry figurations. But Hickox's players are nothing if not wholehearted. Those aromatic departures into the verdant world of A Midsummer Marriage - the slow movement's nocturnal trumpet 'blues', the divided cellos opening up one of Tippett's eternal lyric inventions - these and other special moments duly cast their spell. The Suite from Tippett's most recent opera New Year at least frees us of that potty libretto: urban politics meets Dr Who. The rock music elements still sound to me like the last gasps of an ageing hippie. But you've got to admire the vitality. ES

TIPPETT's Symphony No 2 is an exhilarating work - one of the few truly joyous things to come from the post-war years, with a slow movement that for once merits that over- used tag 'visionary'. It's hard to see why there has been no new version in the catalogue in over 25 years. Perhaps the problem is that Davis's 1967 premiere recording was a near-miraculous achievement, bringing clarity, freshness and inner intensity to a work previously thought over-complex, even unplayable. It's a hard act to follow, and I don't think Hickox and the Bournemouth players quite match it, especially not in the Scherzo, where Hickox can sound leaden after Davis's taut, dancing rhythms.

But there are good things too - the lovely, bluesy string tune at the heart of the slow movement, or the slow, lyrical descent from violins to cellos in the finale - at which Hickox is very persuasive. It's beautifully recorded too, with plenty of atmosphere, making the older version sound a little studio-ish in one or two places. After this I found the New Year Suite depressing: magical fleeting sounds, but could the composer of the Second Symphony really have fallen so far into mannerism and self-repetition? What a bafflingly inconsistent composer Tippett is. SJ

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor