An exquisite game of follow my Lieder

MUSIC

When I first started going to concerts, song recitals were an endangered species supported by the elderly, the erudite and Mittel-European exiles steeped in fur-coats and nostalgia. Songs were marginal, recherche, hard to sell without a star name; and the sheer particularity of the art of recital singing tended to freeze out new audiences. Lieder evenings at the Wigmore Hall felt like a members' club where access depended on already knowing what you were about to hear. It wasn't what you'd call an evangelical environment.

Then came a minor revolution: the rise of the impresario accompanist who took charge of the programme and acted as presenter/ proselytiser. It wasn't a role that every pianist wanted, but one who did was Graham Johnson; and 20 years ago he founded Songmakers Almanac as a new way of building recitals around a theme, with linked readings and a group of singers to inject an element of theatre into the delivery. The objective was to set the songs in some illuminating context; you could say it was really only a development of what composers since Beethoven had been trying to achieve by writing songs in cycles. But it was also an attempt to invite the listener into what can be a closed world; and that's exactly what Songmakers has done, nurturing some distinguished vocal careers in the process. The first four Songmakers were Felicity Lott, Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Richard Jackson; and Graham Johnson got two of them - Lott and Jackson - back to the Wigmore on Monday for a 20th-anniversary reunion that proved strange but special.

It could have been a night for looking back, but Johnson used it as an experiment. He took the basic storyline of Richard Strauss's opera Capriccio, semi-staged it, and wove into fragments of the original libretto a sequence of Strauss songs which had been carefully chosen to embellish the plot. Capriccio, of course, hasn't much of a plot to start with. Two men, a poet and a composer, are competing for the love of a countess who can't decide between them; the whole thing gets abstracted into an exquisitely uneventful debate on the rival claims of words and music when they join together. The danger was that Johnson's embellishment would just inflate the exquisiteness of it all; and in the first half the singers, too, seemed inhibited by the artifice, turning in bloodless performances. But by the second half, things fell into place and felt more comfortable. Felicity Lott, recreating her soignee Countess of past seasons at Glyndebourne, warmed into an amber radiance for songs like "Wiegenlied" and "Morgen!"; and Adrian Thompson (not one of the orig- inal Songmakers but drafted in for the night) tamed the fruity bluster of his wide vibrato into resonant and rather beautiful accounts of "Befreit" and "Kling!".

Whether this Lieder-Capriccio experiment has much future I'm not sure: it creates as many problems of comprehension and accessibility as it addresses. But as a one-off it made telling points about the relationship between Strauss's song and opera-writing, and it was engagingly clever - yet another example of Graham Johnson's encyclopaedic mastery of the Lieder repertory, and his genius for translating academic expertise into the realities of performance. For much of Monday's programme he played the part of an orchestra, with a richness in his pianism that really did suggest the weight and colour of massed instruments. And as someone who has always admired and occasionally stolen his ideas about songs, I'm pleased to see that he produced an anniversary book, Songmakers Almanac: Reflections and Commentaries. Published this week by Thames (pounds 20), it tempers Biblical authority with stylishly subversive wit. Someone should give it to Bob Hoskins, who is currently playing the part of a Viennese singing teacher in Old Wicked Songs at the Gielgud Theatre. It won't improve his Austrian accent, but it might suggest a way of responding to Schumann's Dichterliebe that aims deeper than Walt Disney.

One of the younger singers who has appeared under the Songmakers banner is the tenor Ian Bostridge, who sang an oddly conversational but still haunting Britten Serenade last week as part of the St Ceciliatide Festival - an ancient fixture at Stationers Hall, London, which has been resurrected as a platform for up-and-coming performers. Not that Bostridge needs any help - the light, clean beauty of his voice, dusted with pathos, is already established at the front rank of British singers - and Daniel Harding, who was conducting, isn't exactly short of offers either. But the combination of these two emerging stars was very striking: wiry, focused, to the point. And Harding went on to prove his mettle with a reading of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia that in any other circumstances would have been absolutely wrong but, in these, was absolutely right. An ideal Tallis Fantasia floats on a fat cushion of sound through a cathedral acoustic; but as the forces here, the Britten Sinfonia, were a small chamber group with no acoustic to float in, Harding decided to drive the pace and go for muscle rather than atmosphere. It was outrageous, but done with such conviction that you couldn't object.

Harding's mentor Simon Rattle was trying something new at the Barbican last weekend - Wagner - and approaching with care. It was a concert performance of Act III of Parsifal, which was a big enough undertaking but still considerably less than the whole thing; and the performance was effectively a preparation for when he does tackle the whole thing, on stage, at the Netherlands Opera in January. I found it lightweight and inhibited, as though he wasn't ready to surrender to the intoxication of the score. It felt like a young man hesitating over his first joint and not quite inhaling; and it certainly hadn't the solemn grandeur of a Reggie Goodall. But that said, its freshness and transparency had something else to offer, along with the encompassing, cinemascopic vision a vast structure like this needs to keep on course. Rattle's singers, led by Poul Elming, were fine and didn't have to bellow. But the visceral attack was slight. Maybe next time.

Talking of stomachs, Jigsaw Music Theatre has been touring a wickedly jolly triple-bill about eating, dying and the sheer nonsense of opera called Perfectly Poisonous. What Samuel Barber's 10-minute treasure A Hand of Bridge is doing there I'm not sure: it doesn't quite fit under the umbrella. But Stephen Oliver's wordless musical marriage of Mr Bean with Fawlty Towers, The Waiter's Revenge, does; and so does Seymour Barab's riotous bel canto parody, Pizza con Funghi. Only the Barber has an ounce of musical worth: the Oliver is merely clever, the Barab merely slapstick. But the stagings have a rough charm; the voices cope; and Pizza con Funghi strikes a disturbing chord in that its spoof, just-about-English libretto isn't much worse than you sometimes hear at ENO for real.

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