The Nash Ensemble, Purcell Room, London <br/>Der Rosenkavalier/ENO, Coliseum, London

When 20 seconds, four players and a soprano is enough
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Nash Ensemble

If modern music can sometimes seem quite unrelated to music of the past, Elliott Carter – whose 95th birthday was celebrated by The Nash Ensemble this week – provides the crucial link. Encouraged by Charles Ives, taught by Nadia Boulanger, intimate with the protagonists of neo-classicism and musique concrête, and still turning out commissions whose wit and perceptiveness and concision elude many a younger composer, Carter is a living testimony of the rich relationship between music and the wider culture of the last century. Small wonder that in a field often miserably low on polish, this veteran composer writes the best endings in the business. Small wonder that his work is so very pleasurable to hear.

The Nash Ensemble's anniversary conspectus at the Purcell Room revealed two common threads in five decades of Carter's chamber music. The first of these was grace: though outwardly modernist – Esprit Rude, Esprit Doux, which Carter dedicated to Pierre Boulez in 1964, was the only work played that belonged in that period's uneasy musical cul de sac – Carter's compositions combine the radiance of Ives with the openness of Copland and the stimulating complexities of Kurtag. The second was economy of gesture; whether in the 1948 Cello Sonata – the last of Carter's works to use a key signature and the earliest to realise his capacity for dialogue – or the 1999 sequence of verse settings, Tempo e tempi, some of which last barely 20 seconds. But when 20 seconds, one oboe, a clarinet, a violin, a cello and a soprano is all you need to intimate the last cathedral-like flourish of light before sunset – Salvatore Quasimodo's Ed è Subito Sera – why use more?

It's regrettable that more people weren't present at this concert; firstly because the singing and playing of cellist Paul Watkins, soprano Valdine Anderson, flautist Philippa Davies, clarinettist Richard Hosford and the rest of the ensemble was a model of unpretentious, thoughtful music-making, and secondly because there is nothing "difficult" about this music. As those who heard the London premiere of Carter's 1999 opera What Next? already know, there's too much beauty here for any difficulties to be more than a fascinating provocation. But, like relative youngsters, Poul Ruders, Oliver Knussen and John Adams, Carter is a modernist with good manners; the kind that opens ears rather than boxing them.

At the second performance of the current revival of Jonathan Miller's 1994 English National Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier, one colleague teasingly referred to me as "the Strauss-hater". True enough, Strauss in whimsically programmatic ( Don Quixote, Don Juan) or tub-thumpingly phallocentric mode ( Also Sprach Zarathustra) is not my cup of tea, but the older I get the more I'm coming round to Rosenkavalier – which is, I suspect, exactly as it should be.

In common with Ariadne, Rosenkavalier allows the listener to draw whichever message seems most apt at the time. (And a clearer contrast to the above mentioned orchestral works you could not get.) Thus for the young, this generous, forgiving work represents idealised romance; for the middle-aged, the passing of youth and youthful ideas; for the old, an affectionate memory of their younger selves in both incarnations. Balancing its multiple themes – which include the brutality of institutionalised sexual slavery, the impossible sweetness of love at first sight, the moral incontinence of an inbred aristocracy, the profound loneliness of a loveless marriage, and the painful acceptance of ageing – to allow this choice of personal focus is far from easy within a satirical framework, but Miller has managed it. And, with the exception of a cluttered third act, this beautiful, spacious staging of Rosenkavalier suggests a momentary intimacy that we are privileged to witness.

With Vassily Sinaisky's urgent, tender reading of the score reinvigorating the ENO orchestra, minus points in this revival are few. Too many words are lost and too many crotch-jokes made – as if the girl-on-girl, boy-on-boy double-drag frisson between Octavian (Diana Montague) and the Marschallin (Janice Watson), Octavian and Sophie (Susan Gritton), and Octavian and Baron Ochs (John Tomlinson) needed further emphasis – while Montague's Octavian is terrific in all but one respect: the maturity of her voice in comparison to Gritton's. But these are minor niggles, not a single member of this large – – cast stops acting when they stop singing. Which brings me to the Marschallin; whose story is told less through the lines that she sings than the lines she doesn't. Watson's voice is now at a pinnacle of beauty and health – easy, rich and ravishingly clear – but her acting is, if anything, even more impressive; poignant and glorious in her graceful capitulation to the younger woman. A world-class performance from Watson, albeit one that should come with a health-warning to any women in the audience who are the wrong side of 30 and feeling less than thrilled about it.

'Der Rosenkavalier': English National Opera (020 7632 8300) to 29 March