Chips off the old Bloc

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WHEN T S Eliot wrote about shoring fragments against his ruin he could - with half a century of prescience - have been describing the music of Gyorgy Kurtg, the Hungarian composer whose 70th birthday was marked at the South Bank last weekend with a small but significant festival from the London Sinfonietta.

Kurtg has only been known in this country since the 1980s, and his stature as one of the leading figures in central-European music has still more recently become apparent. For understandable reasons. Kurtg is gaunt, austere, withdrawn: an archetype of the creative artist on internal retreat from the pressures of the old Iron Curtain regimes. His writing has the charged intensity of great matter reduced and concentrated into tiny surface areas. And it speaks, almost invariably, in fragments: short- duration cells of haiku-like integrity that build - despite their independence - into an accumulative, larger whole. Hearing (and playing) Kurtg asks for constant sensitivity to these two levels of address within the music, individual and collective. And it isn't easy.

At his most attractive Kurtg is a nesting squirrel, weaving foraged objects into fascinating structures half way up a tree. But at his most demanding Kurtg is a Webern, programming a world of often desolate experience into five or six notes. Undiluted dealings with him are accordingly a test of staying power.

But there are few musicians in the world better equipped to host a Kurtg weekend than the London Sinfonietta, whose massed virtuosity turned the whole birthday bash into the most bearable and enjoyable of burdens. We didn't, alas, get Kurtg himself playing piano duets with his wife as advertised: the composer was ill and had to stay in Germany. But we did get a broad cross- section of recent works with, as they now seem, established classics. The two major song cycles - The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza and Messages of the Late Miss R V Troussova - were both programmed, along with the UK premieres of two exercises in spatially separated sound: the Double Concerto and Grabstein fur Stephan (a kind of guitar concerto whose initial innocence lulls the ear into complacent ease, only to batter it with sudden, mercifully transient, violence).

The chief interest, though, was the London premiere of Ruckblick: an hour-long resume of Kurtg's creativity which recycles fragments (no escape from that word this week) of old pieces into fragments of new. They number 46 in all, scored for seven keyboards (shared here between John Constable and Thomas Ades), trumpet (John Wallace) and double bass (Enno Senft), but sparingly, with scrupulous concern for how the instruments are mixed and matched, and detonating every fragment like a miniature explosion from and into silence. Whether you hear it as autobiography or self-plagiary, Ruckblick is an Everest of aphorisms, awesome in the way it yields no bridge material to let the level of intensity diminish or the focus gravitate toward the next event. The focus in this music is perpetually now; and to sustain that in performance is an almost spiritual discipline - the sort of thing they teach Tibetan monks. After an hour, I'd say that Ades, Constable et al had earned a life or two off somebody's eternal cycle. It was playing of extraordinary accomplishment, a throwback to the halcyon days when Michael Vyner ran the Sinfonietta and much of the contemporary music world besides. In fact the quality of the entire Kurtg weekend, conducted by Markus Stenz, felt like a reconnection with those old, not always enduring standards. Dynamic, intelligent, serious, Stenz has been in musical charge of the Sinfonietta for 18 months now, and is doing well as the Esa-Pekka Salonen of SE1. I hope he stays around.

London opera this week saw revivals of two productions which had a bad press first time round - and deserve to again, although they do show signs of settling in. Keith Warner's Tosca at ENO is not distinguished, but is interesting in its attempt to escape from verismo into symbolism and the boulevard style of melodrama from which the opera derives. The story plays throughout as theatre (Tosca as The Stormy Diva, Scarpia as The Evil-minded Villain ...), with a grand finale (Cavaradossi as The Martyred Libertarian) that delivers a fiercer than usual sting-in-the-tail when it proves to be for real. But the symbols get tiresome (once is enough for the descending gold proscenium that haloes Tosca's grandest scenas) and Janice Chapman's grotesque parody of Callas and Bernhardt at their respective worsts in the title role is - well, grotesque, no other word for it. But at best the show is bold and fresh, its moments of absurdity (like Tosca taking a bow after the death of Scarpia) somehow redeemed by daring. And Scarpia's Genet-esque fantasies of sex and religion are vivid, if raw: rather like the personality and voice of Philip Joll, who sings the role with such spread that ENO should offer an audience prize for guessing what note he's on. David Rendall's Cavaradossi comes far cleaner, with a nicely arrogant, impetuous strength. And better still, the whole show is alive with energy, thanks to conductor Alex Ingram - an ENO staffer who, on the strength of this, deserves more profile.

The Gotterdammerung revival at Covent Garden has an intermediary feel about it, as though the show has been slipped into the schedules to keep it warm between last year's opening and the full, assembled Ring this coming autumn. Second time around, more detail wins through and I suppose I have to admit that Richard Jones's staging - obsessively ephemeral in its determination to replace Wagner's metaphors with 20th- century comic-strip alternatives - is not beyond redemption. There is something oddly touching about Brunnhilde being brought to Gunther with a paper bag over her head, however risibly close it brings her to a prototype of Baba the Turk.

But it's still a second-rate production, shackled like a ball and chain to what would otherwise be a considerable performance. Bernard Haitink hasn't the sharpness of attack of a Solti or the muscular punch of a Barenboim in this music, but he has majesty, a steady sense of purpose, and you sense a conscientious effort to confront the sheer dimension of the piece (something that Richard Jones avoids). Anne Evans is the Brunnhilde this time, less impactfully than Deborah Polaski but radiantly lyrical and warmly sympathetic. The new Siegfried, Wolfgang Fassler, has a thin and unattractive tone, although the voice is agile. And the star of the evening is Kurt Rydl's Hagen: a magnificently sung but deeply human per-formance from the one person on stage who really seems able to handle - not to say transcend - Richard Jones's brutal-chic approach.

'Tosca': ENO, WC1 (0171 632 8300), continues Tues & Sat. 'Gotterdammerung': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Tues.

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