Music: Tale of the century

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was bold of BBC Radio 3 to broadcast the latest opera in Karlheinz Stockhausen's massive cycle Licht last Saturday. Two of the projected sequence of seven operas, one for each day of the week, still remain to be completed, and the composer even has plans to build seven theatres in the grounds of his estate to perpetuate his work, yet Freitag aus Licht ("Friday from Light"), as recorded on this occasion in Leipzig Opera House under the composer's direction, leaves us with not a few doubts about the enterprise.

It is, of course, virtually impossible to gain more than a partial glimpse of Stockhausen's vision over the radio, depending as it does on a hugely important lighting element and on spacially-deployed electronic sounds mixed with the more normal trappings of opera.

In fact, the BBC was fighting a losing battle from the outset, as one desperately tried to memorise facts from the announcer's opening commentary about the plot, with its mythic complications, and the musical treatment and staging. In a moment of hilarity, I recalled a BBC programme from my school days in which a commentator would go to a cinema and describe the action from a back row in the stalls as we overheard the soundtrack. Hardly radio, but at least we knew what was going on.

None of this would have mattered, though, if the music had gripped the imagination more firmly. There simply was not the richness, variety and memorability of material to flesh out a grand scheme that is clearly of more than Wagnerian intentions. And, for the most part, we were swimming around inside a sound continuum, which, while often poetic and evocative in a general sort of way, eventually seemed to take on a merely background function.

I have always felt that one of the rewards of living on into great old age would be to observe what subsequent generations think about the music of this century's latter decades. What will happen to Stockhausen's reputation, for instance? Will our era's maximal and minimal stylistic strands, and all that lies in between, seem equally valid and important? What of a composer like Robert Simpson, who seemed for a long time to be way out on the sidelines of history and, if admired in certain respects, not of seminal importance.

Simpson, who died last year, was the subject of last Friday afternoon's edition of The BBC Archive, presented with touching enthusiasm and insight by Stephen Johnson. Simpson himself was heard giving an inimitable talk about Bruckner, colourful in narrative, salty in its humour, and full of those gruff insights that made us hang on his every word; and the programme ended with a recording of the "devastating" premiere of his Fifth Symphony - Johnson's own choice of words and how true they were.

If ever there was a work of true expressive originality and technical mastery, it is this unnerving symphony. The creative mind seems to be grappling with the most shattering events, experiencing little time for tenderness or sentiment - although miraculously they are occasionally sensed in the background - and, in the end, it generates against all the odds the power needed to sustain life and process. This must surely be a work that will outlive its century, and it may well be that its composer will be seen to occupy a more central position than many of his contemporaries realised.

Finally, a welcome for Howard Goodall's new Sunday-evening Channel 4 series Choir Works. Goodall combines the functions of educator and entertainer with disarming ease. Jolly, but not cheap, he introduced us to the exhilarating worlds of Bulgarian and Estonian choral singing in a programme that warmed the heart. Further editions thoroughly recommended.