THE CRITICS: MUSIC: Cheltenham respects its Elgars and betters

Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations; Mark-Anthony Turnage: Silent Cities Cheltenham Festival Tobias and the Angel Christchurch, London

There used to be a joke in British music about "Cheltenham symphonies". It wasn't funny, and I never really understood its implications. But in broad terms it derided the sort of new (in date, not spirit) music favoured by the Cheltenham Festival in the 1940s-1950s and written by the sort of composers Elizabeth Lutyens (scourge of all that wasn't cutting edge ) dismissed as the "Wenceslas Generation": those who followed in their masters' footsteps.

It was clearly a mixed blessing to be patronised by Cheltenham then. In truth, there's still something rather genteel about what happens there: the morning concerts in the Pittville Pump Room, tea and cake from local ladies in the interval. But these days, it's something to be reckoned with, and feels like Edinburgh before it grew out of hand. The programme is as good and interesting as that of any festival I know. It balances the old and new, the genteel and the radical. To prove the point, this year's featured composers - paired together with a degree of comfort you might not expect - are Edward Elgar and Mark-Anthony Turnage: the voices of early-20th-century English optimism and late-20th-century English trouble.

But then, I over-simplify, of course. Scratch the pomp-and-circumstantial surface of almost any Elgar score and you find that those nobilmente markings hide a world of elegaic doubt and insecurity. And Paul Daniel did just that on Sunday night, when he conducted the BBC Philharmonic in a reading of the First Symphony that went out of its way to challenge the Edwardian bluster of the score, stressing its non-triumphal qualities. It was much the same when Mark Elder (who once refused to conduct all that flag- waving nonsense at the Proms) took the BBC Philharmonic through a none- too-conventional performance of the Enigma Variations.

Elder's line on Enigma was in fact governed by touches of what you might call "authenticity". He restored the organ part in the final section, and he introduced a modest but revealing novelty to Variation 13. All the Variations are musical portraits of Elgar's friends with, in every case but one, the friend identified in the score. The exception is that of No 13, who is generally thought to be a woman - Lady Mary Lygon - for whom Elgar felt some extra-marital affection. The clue is a veiled musical reference to an incident in Mary Lygon's life, a sea voyage. Elgar included a repetitive figure for the timpani which he meant to evoke the distant throb of a ship's engine. After an early performance, the timpanist suggested to Elgar that the throbbing could be better conveyed by two coins tapping on the drum-skin rather than two sticks. So, last weekend, coins it was, no doubt pre-decimal. It worked: the sound was spot-on. Musicology had triumphed.

Ian Bostridge triumphed too, in his recital with Julius Drake at the Pump Room: flawless in the German texts of Hugo Wolf, and encouraging my belief that Poulenc's Tel Jour Telle Nuit counts among the half-dozen greatest song-cycles of all time.

But the real test of Cheltenham has to be its ear for the new and its ability to shrug off the old. Andrew Simpson's big new choral piece, The Earth's Embrace, was premiered by the BBC Symphony Chorus in the opening concert. It didn't quite strike out toward untrodden ground, but it was strong and memorable and motivated: good enough to make me want to hear some more by Simpson. The other new choral work, Alpha et Omega by Carl Rutti, was a hugely accomplished piece by someone who clearly understands how voices work together.

But, as I said, the main focus of the festival is Turnage. Monday's Pump Room recital by Natalie Clein, the former BBC Young Musician of the Year, included Turnage's Sleep On, a haunting 15-minute lullaby, which has just enough of the composer's characteristic American-jazz colours to suggest that one of his equally characteristic saxophone riffs would come wafting in at any minute. But the piece is actually confined to cello and piano - the accompaniment played here by Itamar Golan.

The Turnage sax, though, never stays away for long. It was back in his brand-new score for orchestra, Silent Cities, which had its UK premiere in the Daniel/BBC Phil concert. Silent Cities is a 20-minute work with a title that reflects a visit to the First World War cemeteries in France. But actually, it's more about the recollected noise of battle than the quiet of the grave; and the dense textures of the writing are loaded with the streetwise, syncopated figures which the composer likes to write. But to my ear, it's less raunchy than most Turnage scores. It doesn't fire from the hip, and it sounds more "worked", more crafted - though correspondingly less glamorous and immediate - than his music of the recent past. Whatever else, it wasn't silent. But then nothing was last weekend.

The opening choral concert was supposed to have been in Tewkesbury Abbey, but was relocated when the festival discovered itself in competition with a carnival. Instead, the concert played in downtown Cheltenham - where it found itself in the middle of a Harley-Davidson convention, with ageing bikers roaring round the streets in military convoy. Cheltenham-in-Bloom it used to be. These days the word is Boom.

In Islington on Wednesday, the Almeida Opera festival premiered Tobias and the Angel: a small-scale music-theatre piece written by Jonathan Dove for professionals and amateurs. Dove served a long apprenticeship doing this kind of thing for educational projects and graduated to the big time last year when Glyndebourne premiered his full-evening airport comedy Flight. I didn't much enjoy Flight, which was too long for the substance and invention it delivered. Dove has great facility but it's in the borrowed way of TV music. He's what Lutyens would have called a "Wenceslas", pursuing Britten, Sondheim and John Adams. Dove's music is all wonderfully adroit pastiche, with not a lot to tell you on its own behalf. But for an hour or so, with children, in a church, it finds a natural home. And that's exactly what you get in Tobias, which follows Britten's lead in being a "church" opera (its story taken from the biblical Apocrypha) but in the singalonga churchmanship of All Souls, Langham Place rather than that of Britten's austerely gorgeous All Saints, Margaret Street.

The premiere was well done, with some stalwart singing from the pros, particularly Andrew Burden's Tobias and Omar Ebrahim's athletic evil spirit Ashmodeus. Christchurch in Highbury Grove was cramped as a performing space; but then finding yourself in the show is what attending this sort of opera tends to be about.

Cheltenham Festival (01242 227979) to 18 July

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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