Magazine article The Spectator

Good, Bad and Drab

Magazine article The Spectator

Good, Bad and Drab

Article excerpt

A halfway round-up of such Proms as I've been able to catch from an intelligent, well-balanced season deftly framing diversity within several loosely interconnected themes - the anniversaries of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Korngold, a weekend tribute to Britten, and an exploration of the folk strain that permeates Western musical culture.

New works have been largely disappointing so far. Two distinguished semi-old masters produced novelties so feeble as to amount to virtual self-parody. Maxwell Davies's Sails in St Magnus (25 July) sounded like an unskilful attempt to revive the idiom of yesteryear's British Light Music in its more serious, picturesque vein. It is ominously scheduled as the first of 14 such evocations; let us hope that the 13 to come will not be so dour and drab. Sadder because unexpected was the soft-centred, short-winded Sea-Change of Iannis Xenakis (23 July), who is usually good for an electric charge of thrilling aural brutalism. Both these pieces were brief but not to the point, yielding evidence of exhausted over production rather than a summa drawn from strength.

The Red Act Arias by the 63-year-old American Roger Reynolds (4 August) was neither feeble nor brief. Advertised for around half-an-hour, clocking in at over three-quarters, it was lavish in resources too - the BBC Singers, a large orchestra, elaborate electronics, and an annunciatress portentously introducing the scenes from life and death of Clytemnestra that make its subject. The overall effect, despite mod. cons., was dated and slightly absurd radiophonic workshop sound-effects backing up old-style 'maximalist' modernism with plentiful melodramatic onomatopoeia matching the manner of the words as well as their matter. It is difficult to be fair to this academic fustian after so complete a rebirth and transformation of the Greek ideal as Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus: for there were, beneath the self-defeating complication and palpable aura of auto-significance, moments of eloquence, even passion, choked in their context as surely as was Agamemnon in the barbed bathrobe.

Effortlessly, insouciantly superior to all these was the unpretentious novelty by David Sawer (31 July) entitled the greatest happiness principle. Its bizarre inspiration from Jeremy Bentham's all-rational prism design notwithstanding, one retains from it a sense of sharp, quirky, colourful exactness - flat words for routines that in their distinct individuality are anything but.

Presumably Sawer's piece could be described as 'minimalist' -- which for me doesn't imply the contempt widely felt for a tendency which, in fact, has proved the most thoroughgoing short-term success in the whole history of classical music. …

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