The Critics: Classical: From baroque to banality at the Barbican

Thesee Barbican, EC2 John Cage Barbican, EC2 Shostakovich cycle LSO, Barbican, EC2
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The Independent Culture
The French have long pursued a pristine self-possession of their culture, repelling all potential boarders with whatever intellectual weapons they could muster. But it hasn't always worked. French baroque opera was largely the invention of an Italian, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who caught the ear of the young Louis XIV and rose to unprecedented power until succumbing to perhaps the most prosaic death in the catalogue of Great Composers' Final Moments: a stubbed toe. And in our own time, the rediscovery of French baroque opera has also largely been the work of foreigners, like the American William Christie. Some 20 years ago he set up his period band Les Arts Florissants and began a series of touring projects (recorded on Harmonia Mundi, then Erato) which have played a major role in restoring Lully, Charpentier and Rameau to the repertory. On Monday his latest arrived at the Barbican. But instead of Les Arts Florissants, the performers here were a multi-national collection of students from the new European Baroque Academy at Ambronay, with which Christie has been associated from its inception. In 1994 he toured a student semi-staging of Charpentier's little-known David et Jonathas, with huge success. This time it was Lully's Thesee, written in 1675 and "resting" since 1779, its last documented performance.

Thesee is Theseus, seen here not in his monster-slaying mode but as the lost son of Aegeus, re-establishing his claim to the Athenian throne and, in the process, getting embroiled in a love- tangle that involves the sorceress Medea. Medea is in fact the main role (Theseus doesn't show until a fairly late stage of the plot) and for anyone familiar with her other operatic engagements (notably in Cherubini's Medee) her treatment by Lully will seem tame - more devious than passionate. What's more, a semi-staging like this can't begin to convey the intended spectacle of her magic. And spectacle was critical to the presentation of French court opera of the period. It was how Louis - who took a keen personal interest in these things - polished his image as the Sun King. Cultural propaganda. And without it, any reading of the repertoire is bound to come across as thin.

The Barbican performance tried to compensate with other things. A lot of movement, and a busy chorus whose self-conscious laddishness (in black tie) made them all too like the drunken remnants of a May Ball. Pas pour moi. But as a group of voices (out of which the soloists were drawn) they were outstanding. And though the solos themselves were variable, there was cleanly focused, light but musically expressive singing from Kimberley McCord as Medea, Andrew Hewitt as Theseus, and Sophie Karthauser as Aegle (Theseus's beloved). Christian Immler's elegant Aegeus and Blanka Ildiko Mester's bright, flute-like Dorine were attractive, too, and agile in their articulation of the long recitatives that form the greater part of the vocal writing. Unlike Purcell, Lully wasn't a distinguished melodist, and his work comes packaged in sustained declamatory lines rather than set-piece arias.

Christie's band, though, was the evening's chief joy: buoyant, fluent, tripping lightly through the dance-rhythms that dominate the score, and held by the conductor in a sharp ensemble that for all its discipline felt free and unfettered. A delightful sound and nobly pure in spirit.

Anyone who met John Cage - as I did, a few times in New York - would testify to a pure, nobility of spirit that underlay even his wildest schemes, and I wish I could report that something of it had been present in the Barbican's day of Cage last weekend. But alas, it was a dismal business that did his lasting reputation no good at all, and only served to question what Cage's lasting reputation might be.

A West Coast crazy who matured into an East Coast guru, Cage was famous for capitalising on his limitations. He had no sense of harmony, so he developed an approach to writing where rhythm and proportion were all, and harmony unimportant. Struggling with the attempt to translate emotion into sound, he developed a kind of music that avoided self-expression and regarded the composer as a mere conduit rather than a true creator. The music of chance and silence. Unskilled in the building of timbre and texture, he produced pieces for "any number of players on any instruments". And though, in the process of all this, he undoubtedly contributed to the musical landscape of his time, extending the possibilities of what listeners in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s could consider to be music, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that his work belonged to a moment in time which has passed, an experimental avant-garde which is already history. Worse still, any value in that work seems now to be confined to process rather than result. It's like a commentary on music, rather than the thing itself. All Cage's pieces make a point. And once you know it, is there any purpose served by listening to them through their often long (and tedious) length? I've often wondered. Last weekend encouraged me to the conclusion, no.

The concert didn't offer any of the seriously controversial theory pieces, like 4'33" or 0'0" (originally performed by Cage himself on a vegetable-juice extractor). But we did have the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, a medley of sweet oriental nothings extended to interminable length and played with a half-naked man of Asian origin beside the piano, beating his stomach and groaning (an understandable response). The centrepiece was a grand amalgam of Aria, Fontana Mix and Concert For Piano and Orchestra (with no sign of the piano or the orchestra) played simultaneously by a lacklustre ensemble called The Brood. And the best I can say is that it could have been worse. The performances might have been consecutive.

But while the Barbican has been making houseroom for a such a lamentable celebration of the second-rate, it has also been wrapping up one of the most prestigious concert series in the world today: the LSO's Shostakovich 1906-75, which started in February and finally finished on Wednesday. I've written about this marathon project at length before, and I can only repeat that it has been a staggering achievement. Fifteen symphonies, plus various concertos, chamber scores, sonatas, film and theatre pieces - almost every one a narrative of pain and darkness (these have not been fun-filled months in EC2) but building into a compelling portrait of creative genius following its instinct through political and social minefields. Of course, the series has also been a portrait of the interpretative genius of Mstislav Rostropovich who has conducted and/or played in every concert. But in recent weeks, it's turned into a double-act, the spotlight shared by Maxim Vengerov, whose dazzling fiddle-technique is perhaps the miracle of music in our time. Last week he led what can only be the world's most expensive ad-hoc quartet (with Rostropovich, Yuri Bashmet, and the LSO's Alexander Barantschik), outshining everybody on the platform in the Shostakovich Quartets 2, 7 and 8. This week he played the 2nd Shostakovich Violin Concerto with a sure, decisive brilliance even Oistrakh (dare one say it) would have envied. And he's only 24. Which means there's time for his apparent love affair with London to develop. Let's hope someone at the Barbican is making plans.