Music: A little sanity in a country gone mad

The critics
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Israel is a land of statements - you can barely blow your nose in some quarters of Jerusalem without politico- religious implications. And the Leonard Bernstein Song & Oratorio Competition which ran there last weekend was a statement of magnitude: not for what happened, but for the fact that it happened at all, amid potentially the most explosive crisis Israel has known since the Six-Day War. With scenes of carnage screened around the world the week before, it was hard to believe that the competition would go ahead; but the Israelis were so determined to make it a proof of how normal life somehow obtains in Zion's City, whatever the competing odds, that they invested enormous effort in seeing the thing through, even producing the Mayor of Jerusalem (who looked only slightly distracted) to announce the winners. Two of the more glamorous names on the judging panel, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, cancelled, but all the contestants showed up, along with a small but stalwart band of music critics wondering if their insurance covered war-zone work.

The idea of the Bernstein Competition is to link together worldwide music organisations with which Bernstein - who died six years ago - had a close relationship, and lean on them to provide the competition winners with an international platform. Accordingly the jury includes representatives from the London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw and so on - all of them expected to return home to their boards with news of newly sighted stars. One enlightened feature is that instead of a fixed ranking of first, second and third, the judging produces a pool of equal-status "laureates", whose number is however many the jury find deserving: something as humanely far removed from the blood- sport element of normal music competitions as you can get.

This year produced two laureates, both exceedingly attractive voices and likely to be heard here at the Barbican, courtesy of the LSO, before the season is out. Kelly Nassief, a statuesque American soprano with ethereal fluency was one; Carmen Oprisanu, a Romanian coloratura mezzo, slightly watery in texture but with an up-front personality, the other; and with an honorary mention came Anna Larsson, a Swedish contralto who to my ears had the most purely beautiful sound of all, but who was inhibited by an ungiving platform manner. None of them was an entirely "finished" voice, and collectively they illustrated the problem singers face in combining quality of sound with truth of meaning: Kelly Nasseif, for instance, had ravishing quality, but I didn't believe a word of what she sang. They mostly needed grooming in the presentation department, too. But that said, their appearances at the gala concert after the final - with the Jerusalem Symphony under British conductor Martin Andre - were a credit to the name of Leonard Bernstein and promised serious careers. I just wish that in Bernstein Competitions to come the competitors could have the benefit of a better, more atmospheric space than the dead acoustic of the Jerusalem Theatre. And preferably without off-stage machine guns.

For two decades Dame Margaret Price has exemplified the "finished" voice: everything in place, the technique absolute, and with a purity of tone that ranked her among the most attractive of Mozart and Verdi sopranos. But nothing lasts forever. Recent hearings have been unpredictable, and by half-time at her Wednesday Wigmore Hall recital it seemed like an evening best forgotten: the voice stripped of all lustre and left childlike, raw, uncertain. Then came the second half. Along with everyone else in the packed hall, I held my breath as, gradually, like some slow but miraculous transformation of nature, things came right. The old-remembered glistening liquidity returned; by the encores it was glorious - a dead voice resurrected into life. "There you are - she just had to warm up," said my neighbour, who clearly thought three- quarters of a programme not too long to wait. For what we ultimately got, perhaps it wasn't.

Most music festivals are cults of place as much as music, with a centripetal energy that sucks projects into a specific location. But the Niedersachsische Musiktage in Germany is an exception, organised from Hanover but scat- tering concerts like grapeshot through 75 ven-ues across the rural expanse of Lower Saxony. It's run by a confederation of savings banks, which invite the local communities they serve to join in, offer venues, and agree programmes; this year's theme was new music from Scandinavia and Finland, with programmes which shed some light on the creative side of Nordic musicians we only really know in Britain as performers. For me, the most memorable was a bizarre Toccata for string quintet and piano by Olli Mustonen, written seven years ago and effectively a waste disposal of everything the then 22-year-old composer/pianist needed to flush through his system before he could claim to be his own man: a gushing torrent of contemplative cod- Janacek, turbulent neo-Bach and film-score Shostakovich - played here by Mustonen himself, plus an enlarged New Helsinki Quartet, like madmen on day release. Indulgently, but with engaging passion.

More sins of youth came in a Lower Saxon performance of the Violin Sonata by Korngold: not exactly Nordic, music but played by the Swedish duo Nils Erik Sparf and Bengt Forsberg. The piece has fallen out of repertory, but it bears witness to the genius of a composer who wrote it as a wunderkind 15-year-old under the spell of Richard Strauss. That it was first performed (in 1913) by no less than Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel demonstrates the esteem in which the young Korngold was held at the time; and if today it sounds like a precocious, purple-tinted billet-doux to Strauss, there's something in its youthful candour that speaks truer than a lot of the composer's later work. I'm surprised some A&R man hasn't taken up the early Korngold as a cause.

There weren't so many surprises at the 1996 Gramophone Awards announced this week in London (Lifetime Achievement - Yehudi Menuhin; Artist of the Year - Anne Sofie von Otter; People's Choice - Bryn Terfel) but it was interesting that Stephen Hough's disc of profoundly obscure piano concertos by Scharwenka and Sauer made overall Record of the Year, and I can't think of a musician or a record company (Hyperion) who deserve it more. Other winners heartening to see were Birtwistle's Gawain (Collins Classics) for Best Contemporary, and the Ian Bostridge/Graham Johnson Schone Mullerin (Hyperion again) for Best Solo Vocal. It was certainly no surprise that most of the gongs went to smaller companies like these which, for all their budget limitations, are the real, risk-taking pioneers of our time. They shall have their reward, in critical esteem if not the cash till.