Classical Music on Radio 3: Works in progress

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A number of recent operatic broadcasts have constituted a powerful rebuke to those who pander to the laziness of much popular taste, and play safe by building repertories from over-familiar fare. How could Martinu's Julietta have been so long ignored, for instance. BBC Radio 3's relay last month of Opera North's new staging confirmed that it is one of the most fascinating works of its time. This week has seen broadcasts on Radio 3 of two further operas which have never entered the repertory yet unquestionably possess qualities of greatness and deserve to appear regularly before the public.

Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress, performed at the Barbican on Monday, has already been reviewed on these pages, but it is perhaps worth adding that Radio 3's live relay of the event went some way towards contradicting the composer's feeling that the work would only reveal itself in a full staging. He discouraged church and concert performances, for instance. In fact, the theatre of the mind proved an excellent setting, and this ritualistic morality was able to make its points without any distractions over the air.

Enescu, whose symphonic output was recently focused by the BBC Philharmonic to great effect, could be heard as opera composer last Saturday when a recording was broadcast of the Vienna State Opera's new production of Oedipe, thought by many eminent musicians to be one of the century's great works. Enescu's vision of the Oedipus legend is an expansive, humanist one, dwelling at length on the early years and only reaching the subject matter of Sophocles's plays in the second two of its four acts.

Enescu's language at the time of composing his opera during the 1920s had achieved total refinement and integration of a number of contrasting stylistic strands, from French and German to ethnic Eastern European, and the tragic power of his utterance re-confirms that music historians of the future will have to take a wider view of this century's musical developments than some of their forebears if works like this are to be given their due.

The worlds of feeling which Enescu manages to encompass range from the ethnically-inclined pastoralism of the opening, with its unearthly harp, oboe and ladies' voices, to the agonised intensity of Oedipus's self-discovery and the final act's philosophical serenity, outlined in a glowing polyphony for which there seems no precedent. All of this music proclaims genius of the highest order. Enescu put his whole self into this opera, and after composing Act 2, where he felt he was imagining the unimaginable, he came close to mental breakdown. Radio 3's broadcast proved that we can ill-afford to neglect such music.

This week saw the broadcasts of works by two of the semi- finalists from Masterprize. Sponsored by the LSO and BBC Music Magazine among others, the prize has been the subject of some controversy. Launched as a search for new pieces of tuneful accessibility, it has been seen as a criticism of many serious modern styles, and a step back into the cloud cuckoo-land of neo-simplicity.

Some of the greatest works of Western music would have failed to meet those criteria at the time of their composition. It sometimes takes time for apparently meaningless collections of notes to become recognised as melody and harmony, and hence accessible; while the immediately accessible can quickly become insufferably one-dimensional.

John Luther Adams's post-minimal The Time of Drumming, despite orchestral brilliance, will probably end in the latter category. Its uniformity of process quickly forfeits our interest, and one hopes the prize may reveal more substantial work.