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MUSIC / The last of the romantics?: New romantic, old constructivist, young fogey? Robin Holloway has been called the lot. Bayan Northcott seeks out the real composer

It is rather ironic that Robin Holloway's earliest musical memory should be of running round the garden in ever-decreasing circles pretending to be a gramophone record. When he celebrates his 50th birthday next Tuesday he will be able to take real pride in a catalogue of almost 80 works (not counting occasional pieces); satisfaction, too, in the warm regard of over 20 years of composition pupils (including Judith Weir and Robert Saxton), and in an established reputation as a writer on music, ranging from his regular Spectator columns to his pioneering book Wagner and Debussy.

What he will not be able to savour is much in the way of recordings. Chandos has just re-released his leisurely, but often exquisitely iridescent Wallace Stevens cantata Sea Surface Full of Clouds (1975) coupled with the fine-spun mini-violin concerto Romanza (1976) on CD (CHAN 9228), while the new-music label NMC wil shortly be launching a CD single of the tumultuously poly-textural Second Concerto for Orchestra (1979) under his devoted advocate, Oliver Knussen (on NMCD 015 M). Yet compared with the burgeoning discographies of younger contemporaries, Saxton included, it remains a pretty slim selection of so widely performed a composer. At the very least, one might have hoped for discs of the alternately atmospheric and balletic Scenes from Schumann (1970) with which he first attracted attention; or extracts from his fiercely impassioned opera Clarissa (1976), which finally reached the London Coliseum to five full houses in 1990; or, on a cosier level, of the chamber serenades the Nash Ensemble has premiered so lovingly over the years.

But since it transpires that even the great Barry Tuckwell was recently baulked of his desire to record the approachable Horn Concerto (1980), one suspects the commercial companies must feel even less certain than some of the critics over where exactly to 'place' Holloway. What, indeed, is one to make of a late-20th-century composer whose output ranges from an austerely colossal setting of Ibsen's Brand (1981) to a fragrant morceau for recorder entitled A Wayside Daisy, and whose attempts to encompass modern developments without relinquishing classical tradition have sometimes resulted in the starkest juxtapositions of the grindingly constructivist and the swooningly romantic? What of a musician who often sounds most 'himself' when his music comprises a tissue of disparate cribs and quotes from others, and whose intense love-hate relationship with kitsch has driven at least one sympathetic colleague to the despairing admonition, 'I just don't understand a composer actually wanting to write bad music]'? And what of an artist behind whose labyrinthine ambiguities of tone and taste it is sometimes possible to discern an implacable psycho-social allegorist determined to diagnose the world on a positively Wagnerian scale?

It may be that the extent to which he evades current categorisation will eventually be heard as the measure of his achievement. It would certainly be rash to pronounce conclusively upon a composer who probably has two, three, or - if Tippett is any portent - even four decades of manic creativity still ahead of him. Nor does anything in his background - the years as a St Paul's Cathedral chorister, the composition studies with Alexander Goehr, or the Cambridge University lectureship he has held since 1975 - quite account for his singularly polymorphous sensibility. But one can observe it in the emergence, even when he is ostensibly dealing with music pure and simple. Holloway has dated his first compositional stirrings to the age of six, when he discovered a delight in altering the little piano pieces he had been given to practise and 'making them take a different direction'. After a period in his early twenties failing to convince himself he liked the strict methodologies of modernism as much as its free sounds, he duly submitted a set of Schumann songs to the same recomposing process in the hope of discovering a more congenial self.

As an exercise in focusing a set of personal harmonies and textures for future development, Scenes from Schumann proved remarkably fertile. Likewise, it convinced him that the 'slanting' of traditional genres could still yield something new - the immediate result was a spate of songs and cycles of his own. But he also found himself enriching the Schumann numbers with kindred quotes from later composers - Wagner, Debussy, Schoenberg - to suggest the provenance of a potential 'new romanticism'. In fact, given the modernist orthodoxies that still prevailed around 1970, the work represented an act of real artistic courage which those who have more recently attacked Holloway as a young fogey tend to forget. He pressed on with a longer Schumann-based sequence in his Fantasy-Pieces (1971), which can be heard twice next week - Tuesday on Radio 3, Friday at the Barbican - and still a third in the vast, picturesque-cum-mystical tone poem, Domination of Black, which nonplussed the Proms in 1974.

By now, it was clear Holloway was seeking to transcend the old aesthetic controversy of absolute versus programme music in a notion of composition as at once matrix and emblem of the most ramified literary, visual, psychological and even religious associations. His revealing article Word-Image-Concept-Sound (in Contemporary Music Review, December 1989) shows how even the apparently straightforward concertos, odes, idylls and whatnot of the 1970s and 1980s, in which he anticipated current injunctions to make it accessible, are often founded upon complex extra-musical schemes. The danger is that, loaded down with such freight, the notes may fail to sustain their own coherence and continuity - especially given a composer often working so speedily in an era so lacking in stylistic norms.

Yet any attempt to sort out the dozen or so consistently personal scores from the more intermittently effective amongst Holloway's works is stymied by the fact that several of the most ambitious remain unperformed. The earliest of them, an hour-long, Nietzsche-inspired Cantata on the Death of God (1973), already tackles the decline of Divine authority, no less, in a mosaic of quotes from Schutz to 'Abide with me'. Then there is the evening- length 'dramatic ballad' Brand for huge forces, treating Ibsen's theme of the deluded hero confronting the evils of the age. And since 1986, Holloway has been at work on a still more elaborate 'concert opera' on Ibsen's Peer Gynt, complete with a visual scenario so volatile that he admits only a film director such as Fellini could bring off.

Friends are liable to ask why he persists with such white elephants when his catalogue as yet shows a surprising paucity of music in the standard chamber genres of piano trio and string quartet. To which he replies: 'Oh, but I still think some of my white elephants will turn into swans,' and promises, St Augustine-like, to write quartets - but not yet. For it seems, beyond Peer Gynt, there looms one more white elephant. The libretto will apparently involve the apocalyptic deluging of a wickedly decadent Garden of Earthly Delights by a Hokusai- cum-Debussian Great Wave, upon whose crest, however, the passengers of the Ship of Fools, saved by their Holy Folly (and accompanied by polyphonic schools of white whales), will eventually be washed up in the New Jerusalem, where St Martha bakes the Sachertorte and everyone 'fay ce qu'ils voudraient'. Whether this sounds more like the ultimate donnish whimsy or a fundamentally serious fantasy of eco- theology, enthusiast and detractor alike might be tempted to cry: 'Who, but Robin Holloway . . .?' That, however, is surely the point.

Holloway Birthday Concert: tonight, 7.30pm, Concert Hall, Music School, West Road, Cambridge: tickets pounds 6

(Photograph omitted)