MUSIC
Massenet's Cherubin is the sort of wafer-thin confection only the French would come up with: all decorative nothing, like a Folies Bergere where no one gets to take their clothes off. Silly, shapeless and plotless, it sets out to be a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, taking Cherubino (now 17 and irrepressibly libidinous) as the central character. For good reason it's almost never done - there wasn't one staging between 1908 and 1989 - and when the Royal Opera introduced it to British audiences in 1994 it was memorable for very little besides the UK debut of the enchanting American mezzo Susan Graham, trousered-up in the title role.

Graham is back in trousers for the current revival, which opened on Wednesday as Covent Garden's answer to a post-Christmas panto. Once again she's lovely, proclaiming at every opportunity the one strength Cherubin possesses: charm. She also has the support of Elizabeth Futral, the American soprano who was the star voice at Wexford last year, and who brings a touch of pathos to the otherwise brittle role of L'Ensoleillad.

But were these two enough to keep Cherubin going until 10.35pm the night after New Year's Eve? Pas du tout. It floundered - empty, under-energised, and flat. Tim Albery was always an unlikely choice of director for this problem piece; and although his pretty, semi-surreal staging offers the odd moment of Grand Meaulnes-like magic, it just doesn't get off the ground.

John Eliot Gardiner is an unlikely choice of conductor, too. But a period-performance specialist who can turn his hand to Percy Grainger and Franz Lehar ought to be able to make something of Massenet - and he does, coaxing from the ROH orchestra fragrant sounds that can be endearing. But for Cherubin to begin to work, it needs to persuade your ear that there's brilliance in the froth. Nothing I heard persuaded me of anything except that, on balance, I'd rather have been at home.

Alfredo Perl's Beethoven sonata cycle at the Wigmore Hall is running neck-and-neck with Maurizio Pollini's at the RFH - and holding its own. Last weekend Perl played the opus 14s and opus 13 that Pollini reached just before Christmas; they confirmed my earlier judgement that although Pollini is the finer technician, Perl is more likeable - and certainly the more approachable all-round interpreter. His playing can be rough- edged, but it has a candour and liveness that makes an engaging alternative to the studio-trained sense some pianists give of being focused beyond the here and now towards a distant grail of perfection. Perl seems to play for the moment, addressing a particular audience at a particular time, and absorbing the odd flaw or miscalculation into the uniqueness of the encounter. There are two more instalments to go, and I recommend them.

Last November I was one of the judges for the Sainsbury's Choir of the Year competition, and was sworn to secrecy about the outcome until it was shown on BBC2 last Sunday. Given the vast numbers in on the secret (it starts with some 10,000 entrants), I don't know how it keeps; but the vast numbers certainly prove the competition's incentive to amateur music-making, and that can't be a bad thing. Choral singing is the easiest access most people have to active involvement in music, but it's under threat from the even easier access to passive involvement. When you can hear what you want at the touch of a button, there's little incentive to make the sound yourself; and the fact that choral singing has strong cultural links with church-going - another declining industry - doesn't help.

One depressingly notable thing about the competition this year was the absence of any ecclesiastical choir at the final stages. Cathedral and collegiate groups you wouldn't expect - they don't count as amateur - but parish groups you might, and there were none. It was completely secular, with strong leanings towards the completely showbiz, in the case of the barber-shop choirs that entered. And they, I readily admit, were a problem for the jury. Given our make-up - composer Judith Weir, soprano Rosa Mannion, Harry Christophers of The Sixteen, Terry Edwards from the Royal Opera, me - it's unsurprising that we felt at a loss with the stylistic dictates of the barbershop culture. Not to say the wardrobe and the choreography. When we had to make our final choice between a serenely engaging children's choir (Highcliffe Junior), an ambitious young-adult mixed (Berkshire Youth) and 40 feisty ladies dressed like extras from Hello Dolly (Chiltern Harmony) it was hard to find between them the common ground you need as a basis for judgement.

But there is common ground: musical imagination, or the power to invest notes with personality and life. Whatever you feel about barber-shop presentation, it puts personality to the fore: sometimes too much so, but sometimes with results that any mainstream choir could learn from.

As it was, we went for the Berkshire Youth Choir because they seemed to have the right qualities in the right proportions. But it was a near thing, and what tipped the balance for Berkshire Youth - apart from their general vitality, security and commitment - was the excellence of the teenage boys in the ensemble: a vanishing species in British choral singing and, we thought, in need of encouragement.

The New Years Honours offered scant encouragement to music this week with only one serious performer, John Tomlinson, on the list, and the elevation of Andrew Lloyd Webber to the peerage. To my knowledge there have only been two life peerages given to musicians before: one to Britten, one to Menuhin. Beyond that observation, words fail me.

Alfredo Perl: Wigmore Hall, W1 (0171 935 2141), 14 & 28 Jan. `Cherubin': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Tues & Fri.

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