SCARPIA / A call to arms: New music by older composers at Lichfield Festival and the Proms, plus Dvorak's Dimitrij

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The Independent Culture
IT'S good to see that the juicy commission is not just the prerogative of youth. The 'new work' business can often seem a closed shop inhabited by bright young things under 40. Thus it was a pleasant change to find Thea Musgrave, who now seems something of a seasoned veteran, fielding an important new work at the Lichfield Festival and John Buller providing the first Prom commission of the season.

Musgrave gave us that relative rarity, a contemporary work written for early instrument performers, in this case the viol consort Fretwork and the vocalists of Red Byrd. 'Wild Winter' is a series of laments commemorating the 350th anniversary of the first Civil War siege of Lichfield. The cycle goes beyond the merely soulful to encompass the agony of war, in striking musical language not at all compromised by a healthy affinity with Britten in the word setting. Musgrave's handling of a five-part viol consort was for the most part sensitive to its strengths and limitations; only the use of rapidly changing extremes of dynamics suggested a composer seeking a more modern string sound.

Against the solid emotion of Musgrave's new work, Dering's City and Country Cries flatly refused to come alive in the big acoustic of Lichfield Cathedral's Lady Chapel. Having put so much into the premiere, Fretwork seemed less happy with the repertoire in which they normally excel.

Passion and a certain amount of fractured ensemble was also to the fore in the BBC Symphony Orchestra's all English prom on Monday. Andrew Davis moulded an exhilarating performance of Delius's 'A Song of Summer', but there was no concealing some less than unanimous playing. Elgar's cello concerto, with Paul Watkins, began by promising riches with a superbly inward-looking introduction, but creative tension gave way to limpness in a very long half hour. John Buller's orchestral 'Bacchae Metres' grew out of Euripides's lyric metres exploited in his opera for ENO. Despite this connection, 'Bacchae Metres' is neither an amplification nor a meditation on its subject matter. Nor does it seem entirely abstract: melody is often sent scampering into the undergrowth by batteries of percussion. The result is ear-catching, though occasionally the more fragile detail was obscured by overly-dense undergrowth. No such problem attended an ebullient performance of Tippett's fourth symphony, in which not a note seemed out of place: lyricism, humour and sheer drive combine in an argument which challenges and rewards the listener at every stage. Indeed, the only difficulty with the piece was the prescribed heavy breathing, which sounded as if someone had dropped off close to a microphone.

Astonishingly, the same month saw the London premiere of Dvorak's seventh opera, Dimitrij, some 100 years after plans had been laid for its introduction there. Unbound at last, if only in a concert performance, Dimitrij proved to be pure gold. All the familiar critical nostrums that Dvorak did not understand drama vanish in the face of this masterpiece, the first time he had the libretto he deserved. There are debts to both Verdi and Wagner here, but neither obscures the virtues of Dvorak's superbly sustained lyricism or clear sense of dramatic pace - the finale of each act is a winner and the last is the best.

Russell Keable, with the Kensington Opera chorus and orchestra, had the occasional wobbly moment, but produced a performance which moved with real assurance and dramatic presence. Blistering characterisations from Maria Moll as the perfidious Marina, Pauline Tinsley as the matriarch Marfa and Graeme Matheson-Bruce as Dimitrij himself demanded full concentration: their numerous confrontations left no doubt as to the work's power and, still more important, viability for the opera house. If Dimitrij is not given stage space by a major company in this country in the next few years, it will be to the nation's eternal shame.