Plucked from obscurity

Music on Radio

Mahler defined tradition as being merely an excuse for laziness, a truth which experience in general proves pretty self-evident. In music, tradition freezes attitudes to performance and, above all, to reputation. For example, we take Schubert's mastery of song for granted, assigning Hugo Wolf to the domain of specialists and leaving the matter there. But what of Carl Loewe, one year Schubert's senior but, unlike him, destined to die quietly at a considerable age?

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth last Wednesday, Radio 3 considered the matter deeply, for as presenter Richard Stokes explained, Loewe was admired by Liszt, Schumann, and by Wolf himself. Like worthy letters in support of barren causes, these testimonies have cut no ice with history. What counts is the chance to hear the music, which was sung on this occasion by tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Gerald Finley, with Julius Drake the ever-sensitive accompanist. And there was certainly something worth hearing: a technical control that sounded as secure and flexible as Schubert's, plus a matching sensitivity to the texts that added depth, musical insight and powerfully dramatic expression.

This was, moreover, a recital of lieder. The books briefly tell you that Loewe excelled in ballads. Finley, Bostridge and Drake told you otherwise. Starting from the premise that he was equally at home with the through- composed song, the programme made its point with Herr Oluf, a song of supernatural violence that Wagner praised as among the most important works of musical literature. Its supple vocal line and register of changing moods neatly explained the hyperbole. There were also bewitching, tender solo items, with romantic preludes and codas. And there was Loewe's Erlkonig setting, better than Schubert's according to Wagner; again, not without a grain of truth in the judgement.

Yet, for all this lasting obscurity, Loewe was no mute inglorious Milton. Thankfully, few of those exist, though for a composer of special gifts like the octogenarian Henri Dutilleux, whose work was heard in five concerts relayed from October's Manchester Berlioz / Dutilleux festival, many years can pass before appreciation arrives. In contrast, the list of American symphonists featuring as composers of the week included one, Roy Harris, whose name depended on his mute, inglorious aspect. Born in a log cabin on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, he was the very image of a musical backwoodsman. It enabled him to get away with the writing of a rousing overture on the civil war tune, "When Johnny comes marching home", and a portentous Fifth Symphony of 1943 that was full of public optimism.

If memory serves correctly, most other Harris symphonies sound not dissimilar to this one. Do composers rewrite the same piece over and again, in different guises? Though it couldn't be proven, it might explain the steadfast devotion of a composer like Loewe to a single medium, composing, in his case, over 400 songs. Brassy and bracing, William Schuman's 10th and last symphony, an American bicentennial commission from 1975, seemed to have been through many mills, the result of formulae applied from years of practice. Subtitled "The American Muse", its character suffered from proximity to Copland's early Short Symphony, a work that still sounds fresh and newly minted. A darkly romantic Symphony No 1 by Christopher Rouse showed the symphonic tradition still breathing in America. But Schuman, Copland, Harris and Sessions were the musical equivalent of our Tippett, Berkeley, Rawsthorne et al, whom time is swiftly judging. Come the millennium, they will be as distant from us as Mendelssohn and Brahms were from Elgar. Then they, too, like it or not, will also be part of tradition Nicholas Williams

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