<preform>CBSO/Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham</br>Winterreise/Opera North, Linbury Studio, London</preform>

A letter? A poem? Just add music...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Whatever happened to the distinctive Gallic tradition of allowing a sensual appeal to cover the surfaces of musical works? Where will you find the modern equivalent to the translucent externals of Debussy's and Ravel's orchestral masterpieces? Well, something of that tradition continues in the work of Henri Dutilleux. He's 89 now, and there's a continuity between his latest work, the orchestral song cycle Correspondances, and all those rich and gorgeous scores everyone used to relish in the first decades of the 20th century.

Whatever happened to the distinctive Gallic tradition of allowing a sensual appeal to cover the surfaces of musical works? Where will you find the modern equivalent to the translucent externals of Debussy's and Ravel's orchestral masterpieces? Well, something of that tradition continues in the work of Henri Dutilleux. He's 89 now, and there's a continuity between his latest work, the orchestral song cycle Correspondances, and all those rich and gorgeous scores everyone used to relish in the first decades of the 20th century.

Orchestral colours glinted brightly in Birmingham's Symphony Hall last Saturday, when the CBSO gave its UK premiere under its music director, Sakari Oramo. He's one of those conductors who doesn't impose his own personality on the music, but gives it every opportunity to speak for itself. And right from the sweeping string chords and fiery woodwind cascades of the opening movement, "La danse cosmique", Correspondances did so with eloquence and panache.

The basis for this song cycle is letters - extracts from Van Gogh's to his brother Theo, and a lengthier portion of one written by Solzhenitsyn to the cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, around the tenth anniversary of his exile. The Indian poet Prithwindra Mukherjee's poem Cosmic Dance precedes Solzhenitsyn's text, and Rainer Maria Rilke's Gong separates that from Van Gogh. If in purely literary terms this seems an odd arrangement, it provides Dutilleux with material that he musicalises into something vivid and immediate.

There are many striking moments - when the accordion adds a down-at-heel touch to the veiled strings and muddied harmonies of Solzhenitsyn's prison camp, and then returns in more sensuous mode to help conjure up Van Gogh's nocturnal café. A quotation from the Simpleton's threnody for Russia from Musorgsky's Boris Godunov adds historical perspective to Solzehnitsyn's despair. But above all there's the elegant use of the soprano voice - here Claron McFadden's crystalline, high-flying coloratura - that swoops and soars around the texts, underlining their personal content.

Also enlivening the programme was Julian Anderson's 1994 Khorovod, a raucous and exhilarating treatment of not only the Russian round-dances that give the piece its title but also extending to the Spanish malagueña and even house music. The CBSO's specialist offshoot, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, gave a virtuoso account of this tightly-composed, uproariously energetic collision of dance styles.

With some formidable singing from the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus in Bernstein's Chichester Psalms at the start of the concert, and a knockout performance of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony at the end, this programme showed the city's main musical forces and its leading conductor on resplendent form, basking in the miraculous acoustic of Symphony Hall.

Much smaller forces were on display at London's Linbury Studio Theatre last Sunday, when baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould performed Schubert's song cycle Winterreise against the backdrop of a sequence of films by Mariele Neudecker, a collaborative venture sponsored by ever-imaginative Opera North.

These days, of course, people are falling over themselves trying to stage song cycles and oratorios, as if there weren't already enough musical works intended for the stage to go round. The results are inevitably mixed, if only because the composers concerned didn't imagine such visual and dramatic elements being added in, and presumably would have written their music quite differently if they had.

There's also the purist view that Bach, Schubert, Tippett or whoever, wrote music sufficiently complex not to require anything to distract our attention from it. Then you remember that Winterreise - which would probably win the award for Greatest Song Cycle Ever Written, by The Greatest Song Composer Ever - is already a mixed-media event. Wilhelm Müller's poems might well be forgotten had Schubert not decided to set them to music, but they had their own independent existence first.

In any case, you can only judge by the results, and Neudecker is clearly an intelligent artist as well as a sensitive one whose films match Schubert (and Müller) with keen observation and imagination. Shot on locations in and around Shetland, Oslo, Helsinki and St Petersburg in the winter of 2003, Neudecker's chosen imagery almost entirely avoids (as does the cycle) humans and concentrates on landscape, waterscape, townscape and - above all - snowscape. In front of these northern wastelands stands Foster-Williams, with just a small pile of suitcases to indicate travel.

The central character in Winterreise, smashed up by the ending of a relationship, goes wandering in winter, and his bleak external journey is mirrored by an even more terrible inner one through isolation, alienation and despair to something worse. By the end he is destroyed inside, one of those people you see talking to themselves on the Tube and move away from in case they bite you or - worse - speak to you.

It's a huge challenge for any singer, and Foster-Williams confronted it honourably, avoiding the temptation to add histrionics to Schubert's resonant notes. His voice had plenty of power and range, though he might have used his softer tones more in places. Christopher Gould played with assurance, though he needed to seize the musical initiative more in a piece that requires absolute equality of partners. But from both it was a worthy attempt on one of the peaks of the repertoire.

'Winterreise': All Saints Church, Leamington Spa (01926 645500), 3 May; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (01242 227979), 6 July

Anna Picard is away

Comments