Records: Sitting on top of the globe: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on English idylls and Austrian audacity

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KRENEK: Jonny spielt auf

Soloists, Leipzig Gewandhaus

Orchestra and Chorus /

Lothar Zagrosek

(Decca 436 631-2: two CDs)

THERE can't be many operas that feature a singing glacier, or an aria sung through a loudspeaker 'bathed in ghostly purple light'. But it is the combined effect of these two utterances that convinces Ernst Krenek's composer-hero Max that it's time he thawed out and let love into his life. It has to be said that it takes him a long time to get there, and I'm not surprised to read that early audiences were more interested in the liberatingly amoral adventures of the black jazz musician / anti-hero Jonny.

Certainly Jonny has the best tunes. The Max-Anita scenes are set largely in a musical idiom that recalls sometimes Weill, sometimes Hindemith, occasionally Berg and even in one or two places Puccini. But, a few atmospheric later moments apart, it's light stuff beside any of those big names. There is an increasing dramatic pace, though, and the climax in the final station scene is deftly handled. Will Max find Anita before the train carries her away? Will he swing for Jonny's crime - or can Jonny pull off an amazing coup de theatre?

He does, and the sight of him atop a lighted globe, stolen fiddle in hand, leading the main characters and three thuggish policemen in a quasi-Dixieland hymn to the triumph of the New World must have been acid to any Nazi's digestive tract. This time the 'Degenerate Music' label makes artistic as well as historical sense, and I can only admire Krenek for his splendid cheek - and Zagrosek and his excellent singers and players (and the recording team) for bringing it so pungently to life. Krister St Hill is a real charmer as Jonny - any chance of putting his performance on the stage? SJ

IT MUST indeed have seemed like an audacious cocktail, a breath of naughtiness, at the time. Vienna wasn't exactly roaring in the 1920s, and there was Krenek proclaiming the demise of European musical tradition with a symbolic blast of Dixieland stomp from the New World. To the Nazis it was subversive, degenerate, of course - wasn't everything? But one man's degeneracy is another man's camp. Nowadays we're far more likely to raise eyebrows over stage directions that read 'nigger-minstrel fashion'. The fact is, Jonny spielt auf is very much of its time. The world has left it behind. All that remains for us is a satirical curiosity, a faded cartoon, a screwball farce with pretensions.

Admittedly it wears its pretensions lightly: the musical mix may be awkward at times, the 'Jazz' infusions creaky, the cheeky burlesque elements dated, the fractured 'parlando' of the day overworked. But there are flashes of genuine wit and invention, the odd catchy tune (Anita's heart-to-heart in Scene 6 and Jonny's sugary hymn to his homeland), and Krenek scores a perfect six for his merciless parody of overripe, overheated, post-Wagnerian angst as voiced by the hero and heroine - Max, the composer (spiritually betrothed to a glacier), and Anita, the diva (suitably hefty performances from Heinz Kruse and Alessandra Marc).

To my ears Krister St Hill's Jonny is not distinctively 'New World' enough (or is that a fault in the writing?), but Decca can pride themselves on the no-expense-spared theatricality of their production, not least in the mad, 'silent movie' dash to the finish - effects galore, just close your eyes for the visuals. Jonny strikes up, all right - but even so, once is more than enough.

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR:

Symphonic Variations on an

African Air.

BUTTERWORTH: Banks of

Green Willow. A Shropshire

Lad. MacCUNN: Land of the

Mountain and the Flood

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic /

Grant Llewellyn

(Argo 436 401-2)

THERE's a somewhat depressing common denominator between these three composers - they all died young: Hamish MacCunn at 48, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor at 37, and George Butterworth at 31. While it's unlikely that MacCunn was ever going to repeat the triumph of his early Land of the Mountain and the Flood, Coleridge-Taylor was still a growing, exploring composer, and Butterworth died with his powers on the ascendant - though how he would have coped with his terrible wartime experiences if he'd survived them is a good question. It's doubtful whether he could have gone back quite so effortlessly to his arcadian rural dreams.

It's good to hear all these pieces so well performed. Grant Llewellyn directs with authority and plenty of feeling, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmomic Orchestra play all these works as though they'd had them under their collective belt for years. Coleridge's mature Symphonic Variations on an African Air comes over particularly well, though the combination of African substance (however diluted) and Victorian English dress can't have been easy to get to grips with. Not soul-stirring perhaps, but very enjoyable. SJ

SPOT the outsiders in this English idyll. The title Symphonic Variations on an African Air may do more than hint at Coleridge-Taylor's origins, but does the music? Is the proud but burdened theme, tentatively stated in low horns and tremulous strings, in fact a spiritual? The answer is in the subtext, the still, sad moments of reflection that spring naturally from these subtly integrated variations-cum-ballade.

Hamish MacCunn's Land of the Mountain and the Flood is altogether easier to place with its wee dram of Scottish fancy in the well-aired big tune, though there's more student than Highlander evident in his galloping development section. Likeable, though - sub-Dvorak with a Scotch snap.

No introduction necessary for Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad. The lad in question is surely Butterworth himself, the gay loner. I had forgotten how much heartache and isolation there is in this piece. We emerge from tranquillity (breathtaking stasis from Llewellyn's RLPO strings) and return there - but an emptiness prevails. Resourceful playing, exemplary recording, an altogether lovable disc.

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