SCARPIA / Beauty without nearly enough cruelty: A week on the London concert scene - from mature-sounding Mendelssohn to muddy modernism

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The Independent Culture
The young German soprano Christiane Oelze is ready to join the likes of Barbara Bonney and Kathleen Battle. She'll be heard at the Proms this year, but her Wigmore Hall recital on Tuesday last week caught the London public on the hop.

Whether it was the sultry weather or the apparent artlessness of Oelze's performance, the audience seemed underwhelmed until the very end. Oelze's voice trilled like a skylark's and she sang settings of Goethe by Schubert, Schumann and Wolf completely without mannerism or affectation. Yet even the miracle of a lovely young voice completely without technical problems can pall, and by the end of the evening one was craving some sign of suffering and experience. Oelze became more like flesh and blood in her encores, simply because she relaxed and spent twice the energy she'd risked earlier.

The New Budapest String Quartet is still undervalued in this country, if the empty seats at its Queen Elizabeth Hall concert in London last Friday are any indication. Far from 'new', it adopted its name a few years after the old Budapest Quartet disbanded in the Sixties and, in artistic terms, no quartet is more mature.

As a group the four players are unusually unified and their sound is as mellow as old mahogany. There's also something intensely private about their music-making, which in Mendelssohn's E minor Quartet was not so much reserved as understated, belying the expectation of an extrovert piece which the programme note prompted.

This month Hyperion releases their recording of the complete Bartok Quartets, but they played Kodaly's less well- known Second Quartet on this occasion, before the English cellist Andrea Hess joined them in Schubert's C major String Quintet. She fitted in perfectly with their serene yet concentrated conception. The still moments, like the transition out of the disturbed middle section of the slow movement, or the fathomless Trio section of the Scherzo, were spellbinding, while the finale danced with a subtle spring that made other performances seem galumphing.

Some years ago the Royal Opera reclaimed Berlioz's early opera Benvenuto Cellini from the compromises of productions in the composer's own lifetime. A similar version was performed in concert form, in French, by the Chelsea Opera Group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday. Though it ended at 11pm, the evening felt much shorter zzthan it was. With small amounts of spoken dialogue and no recitatives, there was hardly a dull moment. The opera turned out every bit as good as the famous overture, with ecstatically athletic writing for Cellini, his sweetheart Teresa and apprentice Ascanio, and outrageously original orchestral music boasting saucy string effects for the carnival and preposterously deep brass choruses accompanying the Pope.

Under Adrian Brown, the whole thing went with great verve, even if some of the wind and string tuning was rough, and the energetic choruses often ragged. The cast was strong: Justin Lavender, with his dark yet lissome tenor, was superbly ardent and accurate in the title role, well contrasted with the sensuous warmth of Teresa Cahill as his sweetheart and complemented by the boyishly dashing Margaret McDonald as his apprentice.

Being a literary type (and an effective music critic), Berlioz developed the art of the musical 'programme'. By the end of the 19th century, scenarios had come to seem like justifications, or at least ploys to woo an audience. Today's equivalent are technical explanations, such as Dominic Muldowney gave the audience before the first performance of his Trumpet Concerto at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday.

He did at least explain why the soloist John Wallace, the pianist, clarinettists and percussionists of the Premiere Ensemble, as well as the conductor Mark Wigglesworth, all wore headphones while the strings and woodwind did not: they were playing in three different tempi simultaneously and kept in time with click-tracks.

At isolated moments I think I perceived that; but for most of the piece's 20 minutes the effect was of tricky syncopations within tricky time signatures common to everyone, even though the three layers had clearly differentiated musical characters. The Concerto was partly derived from one of Muldowney's own songs, and sounded jazzily beguiling, like a clever juggling act in rhythm, but also sharply inventive in terms of instrumental colour; vainglorious soloists might have felt there was too much to take attention from them.

Muldowney's syncopations were elite compared with those offered by the raucous all- electric band Icebreaker at the Purcell Room the following evening. Graham Fitkin's Mesh had a sense of shape and harmonic warmth not shared by anything else in the programme, most of which relied on crude impact with diminishing returns.

The news was the world premiere of Slow Movement by American flavour of the month David Lang, a 30-minute exercise in sombre, very slow and slightly shifting harmonies. The idea is a challenge simply because it's so hard to make compelling, and with Icebreaker's muddy sound, Lang's piece seemed merely like vamping.

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