Magazine article The Spectator

Charm Is Not Enough

Magazine article The Spectator

Charm Is Not Enough

Article excerpt

It seems unfair that Gorecki and Arvo Part should be credited with, if not the invention, then the major exploitation of `holy minimalism' when Benjamin Britten not only got there first, but might even be thought to have exhausted the possibilities of the medium. Have those who sit and listen to the fashionable contemporary purveyors of it never heard or witnessed the three church parables, now three decades old? There are some things that these composers have in common, plainchant for instance, which is guaranteed to make a modern audience of non-believers feel spiritual and to lead them to think that they know what timelessness means. A procession of monks and choirboys singing it as they make their way to the performance area is an infallible recipe, even if that area is not in the centre of a well-lit Suffolk church, but the stage of the Albert Hall, dimly lit for a late-night Prom in steamy conditions.

Actually, I found the atmosphere, though in the literal sense extremely enervating, figuratively just right, with a small group of performers enacting the drama in the huge old barn, sending their eternal message off into invisible corners of the auditorium. Paradoxically, these parables seem more churchly when they aren't being performed in one: the claustrophobia that some of us, still a truculent minority, feel in the face of Britten's music and its cult is somewhat relieved by these less copyrighted places.

One of my favourite moments in John Lucas's excellent biography of Reginald Goodall is that in which the composer's one-time champion rails against his giving way to `that East Anglicanism'. Almost certainly a slip of the tongue, but all the more sublimely accurate for it. The setting, the adulation, the exact tailoring of what Britten produced to what his devotees wanted him to produce, all reached a culminating point in the church parables, and it is important to see to what extent those pieces can survive without the framework into which they fitted so snugly.

It would have been easier to tell at the Prom if the director Mark Tinkler, himself once a distinguished Billy Budd, hadn't decided to set the Birmingham Music Group's production in the 1930s, with the 'monks' looking like extras from Brighton Rock. Both the Father and the Elder Son wore thick tweed suits, while the Younger Son, who should bear at least a mild resemblance to Tom Rakewell, surely, was altogether too plump and jolly-looking to head for vice. The Tempter, on the other hand, played by Ivan Sharpe as a short-haired executive type, was disconcertingly right and the triumph of the evening. …

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