Orchestral manoeuvres in the dark

`Die Soldaten', Zimmermann's militaristic masterwork, gets its London premiere after 30 years; plus Tricky trips up at the Fridge
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The South Bank's American Independents series has just finished its month-long celebration of transatlantic difference, surveying the composers Over There who have gone looking for their roots and been determined to find them anywhere but Over Here. If the series has proved one thing, it's that the chief American contribution to 20th- century culture has been a radical alliance between staying serious and hanging loose. In European music the pursuit of the new has been an exclusive quest for purity and control, with 1950s total serialism as its Holy Grail. If cutting-edge composers asked a question, it was "Why?". In America the question has been "Why not?", framed by the blissfully inclusive terms of John Cage's dictum that music is "everything we do". The function of a composer, said Cage, is to affirm life: not to waste time making order out of chaos, but to let things happen of their own accord. It was the artistic creed of a pluralist society, and it echoed through every measure of William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and Experience, which was the big event at the Festival Hall last Sunday and an example of "Why not?" American independence on the grandest scale.

Without ever having been performed here before, Bolcom's Songs have acquired a legendary reputation. Scored for massive forces (nine soloists, extended orchestra and chorus, children's choir, jazz singers, et al), they set the entirety of William Blake's "Innocence and Experience" poems in 165 minutes of music which took 25 years to write. The whole thing feels like an entry in the Guinness Book of Records, and parodistically embraces every modern musical style going, from Seventies avant-garde to country & western, off-Broadway rock, and Viennese expressionism. The result is a spangled reflection of the American melting pot - conducted here by Bolcom's champion, the admirable Leonard Slatkin, with the BBC Symphony and Chorus, the Swingle Singers (remember them?), and soloists including Bolcom's wife, Joan Morris, who did the country numbers with maternal charm.

The only thing I know to compare with it is Bernstein's Mass; and like that piece, the Songs are an uncomfortable compote of sublimity and schmaltz, with too much of the latter and too little quality control. Parody-writing only works if it's at least as good as the real thing. Bolcom's parodies are thin; they don't dig deep into their texts; and they completely misread the poem Bolcom adopts as his grand finale. "Cruelty has a human heart" could be set in many ways, but not - please - as an Andrew Lloyd Webber show-stopper. It stops the show all right, but on a note of desolate vulgarity.

That said, these Songs are a phenomenon: a modern American equivalent of Mahler's old European attempt to compose the world; and to do that truthfully, I guess you have to get McDonald's in the soundscape somewhere. If the Songs weren't good they were at least fun - which is more than you could say of the week's other phenomenon, Die Soldaten, which had its London premiere at ENO on Tuesday.

Like Bolcom's Songs, Soldaten is music which has gathered fame here in (and by) its absence. One of the major artistic products of German post- war trauma, it was written in the late Fifties/early Sixties by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, a composer who initially subscribed to the purism of Darmstadt but then rebelled. Loudly. By reputation, the score is a wild and striking European response to the American melting pot, throwing everything into the brew just like Bolcom, and overlaying jazz, Bach, bits of serialism and blasts of electronics in one massively anarchic sound-collage. But at ENO it proved largely the sort of brittle Sixties avant-gardism which long ago lost the respect of anyone not old enough to feel nostalgia for such things. The big, brutal attack of the amplified sound was impressive, and magnificently handled by the conductor Elgar Howarth, whose ability to comprehend and realise a score like this is an extraordinary achievement. But the fact remains that Zimmermann wrote to shock, after the precedent of Alban Berg in Wozzeck and Lulu; and while Berg's punches still hit hard, these don't.

Die Soldaten actually attempts much the same as Wozzeck and Lulu in underpinning a bleak story - of a socially ambitious girl degraded by affairs with soldiers - with music that for all its brutalistic manners is built on strict, near-academic, formal principles. But it seems to me that Zimmermann never really gets from the piece what he wants. The idea, clearly, was that Soldaten would live up to its title and make some statement about militarism; David Freeman's production - which takes place very strikingly on a bomb site set in vaguely modern times - misses no opportunity to fill the stage with marching squaddies and machine guns. But the 18th- century Jakob Lenz play on which Zimmermann bases his text is a play about the exploitation of women by men. That the men happen to be soldiers is comparatively marginal.

Still, it's a good production: busy and raunchy, and scaling up to the huge demands Zimmermann made for multi-screen film-projection and divided acting areas, so that different parts of the story can run at the same time. There are also several good performances, especially from Lisa Saffer, an ethereally bright American coloratura soprano in the central role, and Marie Angel as the Countess who adopts her as a cause. Distinctly Lulu.

Everyone knows the Bath Festival, a venerable institution with a distinguished history and a fine, if not always acoustically brilliant building to play in. Not everyone knows the Bath Mozart Festival, established six years ago with a legacy from a wealthy Mozart-lover; and the Mozartfest's efforts to get known have, in the past, led to an uncomfortable relationship with its big brother. But time heals; and with a new artistic director in Amelia Freedman (who used to run the main Bath Festival) the Mozartfest has mapped out a distinctive territory for itself that looks very promising. The programmes are conservative but thoughtful, focused around, rather than steeped in, Mozart. The artists are well-chosen. And last weekend I heard an impressive Beethoven Mass in C under Richard Hickox, and a vigorous core-Viennese night (sponsored by Konica West) from the Lindsay Quartet, whose crusty Stilton texture and muscular playing always strikes me as such an admirably English alternative to the high gloss of Euro-rivals like the Alban Berg. But the weekend highlight was Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper at the Bath Assembly Rooms, with a programme of Schubert and Mozart that made probably the finest recital I've heard all year. The content was similar to their appearance at the Wigmore a few weeks ago, with a long sequence of Schubert's Seidl settings. But at Bath it worked better (even) than in London, the accompaniment masterfully idiomatic and the voice entrancing, with lighter inflexions that may well be traceable to the increasing part French song now plays in Holzmair's repertory. Whatever the reason, it came with interpretative musicianship of the highest order: "Und das," to take a sliver of Seidl out of context, "ist doch gewiss ein Gluck." And that, for sure, is happiness.

`Die Soldaten': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8000), continues Tues & Thurs.