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