Robin Holloway is a singular composer. He was born "out of his time" and listening to him speak before his 60th Birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall, one was reminded of how difficult it was to be a composer (particularly a young one) in the late Sixties/early Seventies with a yearning to express feelings in passionate, tonal utterances. Darmstadt, Donaüschingen, Boulez, Stockhausen, "totalitarianism" to the cause of serial and post-serial modernism, cowed even the strongest (in continental Europe, the merest hint of a triad could cause a walkout or at least loud booing).
Holloway was not the only composer stuck with a talent and nowhere to go but his solution was to go into denial, seeking refuge in the arms of the likes of Schumann, Wagner, Chabrier and Debussy. Even in his modernist works of the late Seventies and Eighties, ghosts of the greats are at hand.
Holloway now explains this as "cubism" in his music where material by other composers becomes scraps to be "devoured, manipulated, teased, cut and pasted". But it comes as a shock to find an entire masterpiece "embedded" in a composition as is Schumann's Liederkreis in Holloway's Fantasy-Pieces on the Heine Liederkreis of Schumann, Op 16 for piano and 12 instruments written in 1971.
The Birthday concert opened with this work, with the members of the Nash Ensemble and the singer Toby Spence - deputising for the indisposed John-Mark Ainsley - packed like sardines on the small stage and conducted by Lionel Friend. Spence's performance was young and ardent, stepping on the gas when intensity was required. But with its five movements of paraphrase, the work is long. Homage, indulgence or theft?
Length was again a problem with the new work: Spring Music for flute, harp and string quartet. This is the third in a projected set of four concertinos (Holloway's Seasons), each for a different selection of six instruments, and each dedicated to composer-friends - this one to the master of brevity: Howard Skempton. Holloway's astonishing harmonic fluency is not matched by rigor of form. Spring Music feels as if a formal scheme - duos, trios, tuttis - had to be filled regardless of cumulative effect. There is some marvellously expressive writing - in particular for cello and harp (excellently performed by Paul Watkins and Bryn Lewis) - and about 12 minutes before the end a spectacular climax on the "wrong" triad. If only the work had ended there (or shortly after) rather than filling a full 35 minutes.
At the Royal Festival Hall a week later, Martyn Brabbins conducted a select group of Philharmonia players in two more works of Holloway for the kick-off of the Music Today new season. Both pieces - Aria op 44 (1979/80) and Showpiece op 53 (1982/3) - are of a modernist turn and both were commissioned by the London Sinfonietta. If tonal works could be written for the Nash Ensemble, the Sinfonietta's aesthetic profile then was a very different one. Without the tonal crutch, however, brevity was evident. What does that say?