I spent most of this week in circumstances that couldn't be further from what Lebrecht parades as the music world: at Dartington, mother of all summer schools and a haven of idealism where amateurs and professionals - some extremely distinguished - meet to make music on terms that Mr Lebrecht probably wouldn't understand. In fact, they are hard to explain without resort to the language of woolly middle-class utopianism; but essentially, Dartington is the surviving relic of an experiment in how to live - begun in the 1920s by a wealthy couple, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, who set out to create a community where agriculture, craft and art would coexist and where, during the summer, musicians and music- lovers could find common ground. As they still do. By day there are masterclasses, choirs, impromptu chamber groups, and makeshift orchestras; by night, serious concerts, hurriedly and maybe not so elegantly put together but done (and listened to) with a unique commitment. And, yes, it is peculiarly English.
But the idea behind Dartington came out of India. As a young man, Leonard Elmhirst had been secretary to Rabindranath Tagore, working on rural reclamation projects which the polymath poet had established on his own Bengal estates. Dartington was effectively a spin-off; and one theme of the summer-school programme this week was the Tagore connection, pursued through settings of his poems.
Tagore, of course, is unfashionable in the West. His star waned after his death in 1941 and went out with a vengeance when Philip Larkin, asked what he thought about the prince of modern Indian poetry, famously replied "Fuck all". Tagore's own translations from his original Bengali read with the insipid, decorative vagueness of a post-Victorian Mystic Meg; and whatever it was about the Gitanjali Songs that in 1913 commended their author for a Nobel Prize and knighthood has worn thin. But with new, more muscular translations published in recent years by Penguin and Bloodaxe, the qualities in Tagore that straddle East/West boundaries have begun to attract new interest from Indian composers based in Britain. Param Vir is one; another is Naresh Sohal, a featured composer at Dartington this week. On Wednesday, Jane Manning sang two of his testingly exposed Tagore settings for voice and cello, the second of which was a premiere and eloquently memorable, with fine accompaniment by Adrian Bradbury. The cross-cultural lesson of both was how far it's possible to meet the atmospheric implications of an Eastern text with the applied musical grammar and syntax of the West.
Learning that lesson from scratch at Dartington was a group of semi-professional composers working on their own Tagore settings for performance by Ms Manning and her contemporary music group, Jane's Minstrels. The results I heard made conscientious stands against cod-Asianness but fell into line with the idea that Tagore invariably demands contemplative serenity and gossamer textures.
But there was a more robust Western response to the East from another of Dartington's featured composers, Lou Harrison. Harrison is the last of the American Pioneers: born in 1917, a co-experimenter with John Cage, and a living legend whose beatifically bear-like presence this week in the collegiate precincts of the school - complete with cowboy clothes, white hair, white beard and pony-tail - was one of those Dartington phenomena you don't forget. His fame rests with attempts to clone the sound of Javanese gamelan music on home-made or adapted Western instruments, especially the "prepared piano"; and his locus classicus of the genre is a Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra which came over in a Dartington concert on Tuesday as orientalism without the delicacy - lassoed into a big-boned prairie rawness and a bit too obviously awash with parallel fourths. The innocence of Harrison - absorbed perhaps from Virgil Thomson, an early influence - is a limiting factor and one reason he'll probably be remembered more for his quests than his arrivals. But the consequences of his experiments in tuning - reviving the baroque method of "just" as opposed to "equal" temperament - have been a catch on the ear; and here they provided a connection (of sorts) with that most cerebral of Shostakovich scores the 24 Preludes and Fugues, which was spread across two recitals by the pianist Steven Gutman.
Like Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, which they echo, the Preludes and Fugues are demonstration pieces, designed to make a point about tonality. For Bach in the mid-18th century it concerned ways of tuning instruments. For Shostakovich in the mid-20th it was a broader issue of the viability of tonality itself after the assault of Schoenbergian serialism. And the way to make this music live in performance is to bring out the distinctive character Shostakovich allots to each of the 24 major and minor keys - which Steven Gutman did impressively, with colourful, imaginative playing and a forceful technique.
But the best playing I heard at Dartington came in unknown works by John Adams and John Corigliano that dominated a late-night recital by the violinist Susanne Stanzeleit and pianist Julian Jacobson. The Adams was the UK premiere of Road Movies, written late last year in a style that returns to the fixated, driven (hence the title) minimalism we all thought Adams had progressed beyond, but with transcending brilliance. The Corigliano was a Violin Sonata from the 1960s which sounds like Hollywood Salutes Prokofiev but makes a dazzling showpiece with its fractured, dancing rhythms and sub-Bernstein razzmatazz. Why no one plays it over here I can't imagine, but it has two powerful champions now in Jacobson and Stanzeleit. A recording wouldn't go amiss.
Dartington continues to 24 Aug. Concerts are open to the public (01803 863073).Reuse content