Music: A celebration of the English spirit

Music history is littered with great composers who dedicated large parts of their lives to opera, largely in vain. Schubert and Haydn are obvious examples, unless you thrill to the experience of overlong, unstageable scores. Another is Vaughan Williams, whose five operas never made it into repertory and seem to have been bypassed in the sudden, New Age scramble to rediscover the affirmative Englishry of his orchestral works. According to the textbooks he had no dramatic muscle, which isn't true. He just had no real chance to flex it. English opera wasn't a serious proposition until 1945, when Britten turned the tide of opinion with Peter Grimes; even a name like Vaughan Williams had to be content to see his operas given student premieres - a start in life that marked them, damningly, ever after as Suitable For Amateurs. That, certainly, was the case with Sir John in Love, Vaughan Williams's affectionate adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It had its first performance in 1929 at the Royal College of Music, and hadn't been seen or heard for nearly 30 years. Until last weekend, that is, when the British Youth Opera gave it a revelatory exhumation at St John's Smith Square - proving that if the piece doesn't quite hit the target, it's a tantalising near-miss.

Sir John is a good piece for students, fielding 20 noticeable roles in what is very much a company spirit. Falstaff dominates, but doesn't overwhelm. You almost wish he did, because the democratic, pageant-like spread of interest combines with a near-seamless regularity of pulse to flatten the dramatic contours. What's more, the orchestration persistently looks beyond the text into a middle distance of English Pastoral that charms the ear but doesn't really make the point of the story. And, of course, The Merry Wives of Windsor is already charted territory in opera. Verdi (among others) was there before, and you can't forget it.

But that said, Sir John is music of abundant lyricism (Vaughan Williams's gossamer treatment of the "Greensleeves" theme made its first appearance in this score), and a celebration of Englishness so touching in the Fenton scenes, so mystical in the night vision of Windsor Forest, and so benevolent in the robust folk-balladry which pervades the writing, that it transcends its limitations. Almost every bar comes radiant with a generosity of spirit; and the BYO performance was a joy: beautifully done, with some auspicious young voices (above all, Geraldine McGreevy's clear, pure Mrs Page) and the superb, honorarily youthful Andrew Shore delivering buffo-without- bluster in the title role. Timothy Dean conducted the accomplished Oxford University Chamber Orchestra; and if their performance doesn't squeeze Sir John into at least the margins of British opera repertory (a BBC recording? an Opera North production?) there's no justice in the world.

Vaughan Williams is an annual feature of the Clerkenwell Music Series which I mentioned last week as something to watch out for: a fascinating festival which, like the corner of London it inhabits, is still finding its feet while holding the promise of becoming something special. Every year the theme salutes whichever country is host-ing the Euro Capital of Culture (a clever way to get funding). This year it's Denmark, whose thriving New Music industry has offered Clerkenwell some fine premieres, including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: a choral anthologising of William Blake by Bo Holten that treads on Britten's toes in its choice of material (including an adaptation of the Tallis Canon theme that Britten used in Noye's Fludde), but is masterly in its cumulative handling of vocal textures and its striking approach to what you might call New Tonality. Holten is clearly an anglophile composer: another of his pieces heard at Clerkenwell was a brilliantly imagined set of Tallis Variations for choir and orchestra which Holten himself conducted alongside Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia - the sort of programming coup that makes Clerkenwell interesting. But the added interest here was that this whole concert - on Thursday, at Clerkenwell's Holy Redeemer Church - celebrated the 85th birthday of a very remarkable woman: Vaughan Williams's widow, Ursula.

Ursula Vaughan Williams is a poet rather than a musician, but she has become an iconic presence in British music: one of a few surviving contacts with the pre-war world of what we now recognise as an English renaissance. Her relationship with the composer grew from a professional collaboration on a masque, The Bridal Day, in 1938, and their joint works accumulated into a modest but significant oeuvre, including Silence and Music, which was sung at Clerkenwell by the Danish choir Musica Ficta and made a telling impact. With the right inspiration, Vaughan Williams's writing had transcendent, seer-like power. And though she came to him late in life, Ursula was in many ways the same sort of inspiration to her husband as Kamilla Stosslova was to Janacek: the guarantor of an enduringly productive Indian summer.

There was still more Vaughan Williams this week, at the Wigmore Hall, where Roderick Williams - a baritone of the Stephen Varcoe school, earnest, stiff, but musically intelligent - sang the early song cycle The House of Life: a mild-mannered setting of Rossetti that's no competition for Vaughan Williams's Songs of Travel written in the same year, 1904. But it was a shared platform, and for me the lure was a new piece for clarinet and piano by David Knotts, a Cambridge composer of the Tom Ades generation. Called Washed Among the Stars, it swam in notes like late-Romantic Tippett, pleasurably self-assertive and extremely memorable (which is more than you can say for most new work). The players were Andrew Webster and Suzanne Cheetham.

Two orchestras visited London this week, selling unrelated cultures. From the old world came the Vienna Philharmonic: cultivated, stylishly patrician, with its deep-pile string sound and its sense of having Been There when the music was first written - and, for all that, disappointing at the Festival Hall under Sir Georg Solti, who denied most of the emotionality of the main work, Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. If you can imagine a prim performance of this score, here it was: at best mercurial rather than exhilarating, like a great bird with its wings clipped.

By contrast, the San Francisco Symphony at the Barbican held back nothing. It was the biggest sound I've ever heard in the hall - up-front, direct, with the ballistic brass assault that defines American orchestral balance - and dazzling in two cinemascope items of Americana: Copland's Symphonic Ode and a new piece d'occasion by Lou Harrison, Parade, whose spangled, separated colours took a festive sound-bite at the candy-floss unseriousness of the West Coast. Debussy's La Mer, though, wasn't so easy an idiom for the orchestra to grasp. France, Eastbourne, the Channel had nothing to do with it: this was A Bigger Splash, relentlessly hard-edged and over- bright, and somehow too raw a response to the dynamism of the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. In his old days with the LSO it would have tempered size with subtlety.

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