Music: One out of three's pretty good

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN PUCCINI first resolved to write a Trittico of three one- acters to be run together on the same night, his publisher dismissed the idea as crazy - or words to that effect in Italian - and history has tended to agree. The triptych is rarely done complete; it makes a long night; and although the components could be said to mimic the cohering architecture of a concert score - a meaty opening drama, a contemplative slow movement and brisk scherzo-finale - they never in practice fit together, not least because their quality is so uneven. The scherzo, Gianni Schicchi, is comedy of genius, no question there. But Il Tabarro, the drama, is equivocal, and Suor Angelica, the middle movement, dire - unless you enjoy sentimental tosh about singing nuns that plays like The Sound of Music minus Julie Andrews.

ENO's new production at the Coliseum - London's first new Trittico since 1920 - is uneven too, but in a different way. Angelica is grim as ever, and resists the best efforts of Patrick Mason's sharp, bright staging. Schicchi is guaranteed fun with Andrew Shore, the best comedy turn in British opera, bouncing through the title role; but qualified by slow pace. But it's Il Tabarro that carries the evening, in a revelatory presentation that proves what a considerable, atmospheric and precisely pointed piece this 50 minutes of adultery and death can make.

The precision isn't faithfully observed at ENO. For example, Puccini specifies the ages of the protagonists - a 50-year-old man, his 25-year-old wife, her 20-year-old admirer - which tells you all you need to know about what's going to happen. But at ENO the wife (Rosalind Plowright) and admirer (David Rendall) are older, so the dynamic of their passion is accordingly reduced to a variant on Brief Encounter: rougher-talking, without nicely rounded vowels, though with a similarly vestigial clinging to propriety. In purely vocal terms, however, Plowright and Rendall make a handsome pair. And they get plenty of space to be handsome in, courtesy of the conductor, Shao-Chia Lu (Taiwanese, curently based at the Komische Oper, Berlin) whose unhurried tempi take the fizz out of Schicchi, but allow for a long, leisurely consideration of just how beautiful a score Tabarro is. The orchestration is uncommonly transparent, lithe with lilting Debussyan subtleties and an oddly modern charm. I've rarely heard the ENO strings sound so silkily seductive.

With a cinematic, film-noir stage style which uses clever lighting (Nick Chelton) to turn a basic set (Joe Vanek) into a believable approximation of the River Seine by night, the show outclasses what comes after. And the pity is that Patrick Mason hasn't done more to try and bind the three pieces together - shared motifs? Shared singers in lead roles? - in some way that would allow the strengths of one to vitalise the others. But of course, he's grappling with the nature of the beast there, and the beast is unaccommodating. Ask Puccini's publisher.

The problem with new music is that no one wants to listen to it - or no one by comparison with the numbers who devour new films, new books, new art shows, and new anything that doesn't demand a sustained effort of purely aural concentration. As music has progressed through this century away from the familiar tonal givens of its past, it has unarguably failed to take its audience with it, leaving serious composers pretty marginal in public life. So we should be grateful to the much-hyped Masterprize, which reached its finals at the Barbican on Tuesday and, if nothing else, rescued contemporary writing from the 20-second whimsy slot on the Today programme. Albeit fleetingly.

Masterprize was the initiative of a businessman, John McLaren, who managed to pull together a host of star names, a lot of money, the LSO, the BBC, and half the broadcasting organisations in Europe to create the grandest competition for new music since the Prix de Rome went out of business earlier this century. Launched last year, with Mstislav Rostropovich as a presiding presence and celebrity judges like Riccardo Muti and Vladimir Ashkenazy, it invited composers of any age, status or nationality to submit a short orchestral score. A thousand entries from around the world were whittled down to six, which were then recorded on CD and widely circulated so that the general public could contribute to the judging process. And for all this, John McLaren is a hero. The administration must have been a nightmare.

But alas, the grand finale, when the six scores had their concert premieres and ultimate assessment, proved to be a night of empty glamour and hostesses. Musically, it wasn't up to much. And from what we heard, I can only assume that Masterprize didn't attract enough high-calibre competitors - perhaps because the terms of reference required the entries to "engage a broad range of music-lovers" (innocent words widely interpreted as meaning "tuneful"), and because the entries had to be submitted by a nine-month deadline. Nine months sounds a long time, but for an established composer with pre-existing commissions to fulfil, it might as well be yesterday.

As things turned out, the finals pieces weren't conspicuously tuneful or even tonal, but the search for broad appeal had sent them trawling through the precedents of Britten, Bernstein, Shostakovich and Stravinsky: nothing very new. And it was presumably the Debussy colour-wash of Andrew March's Marine - A Travers les arbres, combined with the popular vote, that won him first prize for a score that was pleasing but hardly of sufficient substance to merit pounds 35,000 in prize money, or to visit lasting honour on the competition: the expected quid pro quo. My own preference would have been for the Messiaenic exuberance of Stephen Hartke's Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon, but I can't admit to strong feelings for any of these scores. The only finalist I'd rated, the Australian Carl Vine, turned in an occasional piece written for other purposes which undersold his strengths. And all that left to thrill to in these finals was their young conductor Daniel Harding: 22 and a complete star who knows what he wants and how to get it.

One composer who almost certainly didn't enter Masterprize is Mark-Anthony Turnage; and with a major South Bank series currently devoted to him, he hardly needs the profile. His distinctive, streetwise, urban soundscapes register with audiences who wouldn't necessarily consider themselves "classical": hence the full house at the QEH on Monday for Blood on the Floor, which is an extended, nine-movement essay in symphonic jazz, written for large, mixed ensemble (mostly wind and brass) with solo guitar, saxophone and drums. Monday's performance featured the Ensemble Modern (Germany's answer to the London Sinfonietta) with the jazz musicians John Scofield and Peter Erskine; and I suppose you could call it a crossover experience. But that would discount the power of this extraordinary music with its strutting, riff-like rhythms, its assertive (OK, lurid) colours, and disarming ambiguities of tone: half-sour, half-glamorous, half-agony, half-joy. Perhaps its strength lies more in texture than in structure, and perhaps it doesn't wholly meet the expectations of a piece designed to fill an evening's programme. But its punchy/plaintive narrative appeal is irresistible. And there's a sense in which Mark Turnage is the Mahler of our times: composing the late 20th-century world, and finding beauty in its bleakness.

'Trittico': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Thurs, Sat, 22, 24 & 29 Apr.