Tuesday 27 May 2008

Verdi and Strauss all'Abruzzese

Scenes like this greeted us late every afternoon as we drove in our hire car back from our daily hikes in the Maiella mountains of Italy. At that time of day, having otherwise resolved to have a break from music, we'd resort to one of the three CDs I'd brought with me, sounding very good indeed on the car stereo. On the long drive back from Pescocostanzo we squeezed in the Prologue and Act One of Simon Boccanegra, with the peerless Abbado recording ensuring that memories of last week at the Royal Opera weren't too overwhelming (and with much more vivid conducting, of course). And after a high walk along the ridge of La Maielletta until snow blocked our way and the clouds rolled in, there was a serene spotlight on Daphne's transformation followed by Harteros in the Four Last Songs - whereupon a rainbow obligingly appeared between a heavy shower and blue skies:

After this we had to sit in the car back at our destination and wait for 'Im Abendrot' to sink to its final rest, the car windows wide open on all kinds of birdsong to complement Strauss's two larks.

The camera does not lie: this dramatic corner of the Abruzzi really is an earthly paradise, a land of milk and honey(and by night a feast of nightingales and fireflies). Home-cooked food and home-grown wine overwhelmed us, as before, at our simple but ever-hospitable agriturismo; having decided to return when flights to Naples, a hopping-off point to explore the Matese, proved much pricier than Ryanair to Pescara, three of us had no regrets at all (and the fourth member of our party, new to our annual Apennine experience, was so captivated she thought of holing up there to work on a project for a month or so). So friendly are the Abruzzesi - we ascribed it to the Allies' help in WW2, but it may just be in their nature - that they welcome the relatively few homebuying Brits who've settled in the area. Even by Italian standards this is as good as free and easy human relations can get.

As with Mali and Cyprus, I can only justify one more holiday snap in this context, so I'll take my leave now with a jolly shot on top of the world:

Tuesday 20 May 2008

The real thing

Having decided not to bother with another Royal Opera revival of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, I changed my mind on two accounts. I toyed with the discovery that this was not the handsome-looking but action-wise rather pallid Moshinsky production yet again, but Ian Judge's staging of the original version with a new Council Chamber Scene to fit the stunning, Boito-led revision. The decisive factor, however, was that Nina Stemme had been replaced as Amelia by the half-German, half-Greek soprano Anja Harteros, whose Strauss Four Last Songs on CD I often play as the most opulently phrased, dramatically vivid account I know.

Pictured above by Catherine Ashmore in the very lovely crinoline designed for Amelia by Deirdre Clancy, which she uses to inform her eloquent movements, Harteros is the real thing, that rare bird the true Verdi soprano. Not since Freni and Scotto, I'd dare to say, have we heard the like (and Rupert Christiansen, whose opinion I often share, declared in the Telegraph that she excels Freni in this role). There's real spinto urgency to the big lines, but Harteros can also float exquisite pianissimos, perfect trills and that stylish swelling and diminuendoing on a note known as messa di voce. She looks a bit like a youthful Baltsa, which may be why one soprano I met in the audience thought her chest voice wasn't as impressive as it might be; but I'd already wondered at how true and unforced it seemed, and she's still young (in her mid-thirties).

Of course the opera is Simon Boccanegra and not Amelia Grimaldi or Maria Boccanegra, and a better line-up of Verdi singers I've never heard, even if Eliot Gardiner's strings lacked focused fire (the quieter, more dreamlike passages on the other hand were perfection). Gallo's troubled, peace-making Doge could be a bit coarse at full pelt, but like Harteros, he's a sensitive musician, and the quiet stretches of the best of all father-daughter duets were deeply moving. The tenor inhabits a relatively thankless part, but Marcus Haddock, whom I've admired as the perfect Don Jose and Don Carlo, sang as ardently as needed and helped to make the Act Three trio a real pleasure. Everyone was unanimous about Furlanetto's Fiesco - a true bass with emotion shaking the voice, and such presence. We shall be spoilt by his Philip II in the forthcoming Don Carlo - but will the Elisabetta be a patch on what Harteros, making an all too belated Covent Garden debut here, might have made of the regal lady, and is Keenlyside as much up to filling a Verdi baritone role as Gallo? Vedremo. Anyway, here are all four Boccanegra principals in the quiet, dignified final scene (photo again by Catherine Ashmore for the Royal Opera):

While I’m still hot on the Italian trail, I hope I can justify sweeping art and film into the same entry, since recent experiences in both spheres have been so invigorating. On Sunday afternoon, urged by a picture-restorer friend who works at the National Gallery, I caught the Sainsbury Wing’s Pompeo Batoni exhibition before it closed. Batoni was seduced away from his native Lucca to Rome, where he started out in the 1730s with a series of cheerful mythological and allegorical pictures. He’s best known, however, for his swagger portraits of British milords who dropped in to his studio during their Grand Tours. Every room of the exhibition had at least one gem I wanted to take home, but I was very much struck – especially after all the saturated reds and blues – by an exquisitely coloured Biblical scene of Hagar being directed by an angel to the desert spring which will save her son Ishmael’s life. Opposite it was a tender Sacred Family on loan from Rome's Capitoline Museums, the braided Madonna caressing the foot of her awe-struck son and watched equally adoringly by an aged Joseph:

In the last room there were several more intimate portraits, including one of the bachelor Sir Humphrey Morice surrounded by the dogs to whom he would leave his fortune, and a humanistic study of David Garrick.

Neither of these was available to reproduce here, the exhibition having just finished and most copyright holders reasserting their rights, but I’m happy to display a thoughtful picture in the National Gallery’s own collection (and also seen in the exhibition), of Time instructing his daughter Old Age to spoil the features of Beauty, one of Batoni’s characteristic fresh-faced young girls:

‘Youth's a stuff will not endure', or 'gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, was also the theme of a wonderful film we watched at home thanks to the recommendation of a waiter at the Groucho Club and delivered by the ever-reliable Lovefilm, Le fate ignoranti (Ignorant Fairies, made in 2001). It’s set, I’m fairly certain, in the Testaccio district of Rome and directed by a Turk who also made the equally subtle Hamam, Ferzan Ozpetek.

The plot could be open to obvious developments and sentimentality - a newly-bereaved wife finds out that her late husband has been having an affair for the past seven years,further discovering that the love-object is a man – but always avoids the expected. It seems like a sombre melodrama to begin with, set in a rather frigid bourgeois Roman house, but opens up to surprising laugh-out-loud humour and great pathos as the wife cautiously embraces the lifestyle of the gay lover and his alternative family. All the characterisations are beautifully observed - among the minor characters, there’s a particularly unpredictable plump Turkish woman with blue hair – and the cautious optimism of the film is very refreshing. I’ve not seen a better Italian (based) film since the heyday of Rossellini and Fellini.

Friday 16 May 2008

Juliet lives, Pikovaya Dama tries to dance

Here are two winsome Juliets, Maile Okamura and Rita Donahue, about to play a crucial role in Mark Morris’s forthcoming Prokofiev magnum opus. Last Saturday we learnt more about the radically different original version of the complete Romeo and Juliet, with its final scene of lovers reconciled to life which Morris is choreographing probably even as I write, from musicologist and fellow Prokofievian Prof. Simon Morrison. He took the above photograph and has pieced together the composer's first thoughts from manuscripts in Moscow archives. Simon's talk was the centrepiece of a Goldsmiths’ Prokofiev Study Day, fluently put together (with Christina Guillaumier) and personably steered by Noelle Mann’s successor at the Prokofiev Archive, Fiona McKnight.

Simon not only clarified the musical and dramatic nature of the original ‘happy end’ on which Prokofiev, not the Soviet state, had insisted in 1935 – Friar Laurence intervenes to rouse Juliet before Romeo can kill himself, the crowd rejoices, the lovers are left alone to dance – but also played us portions of the score as recorded by the repetiteur of Morris’s rehearsals. As well as a much extended final scene, where it is the rejoicing that rather oddly occasions the music we know as the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, not a scene for Juliet’s nurse as I had originally believed, we heard a completely new ‘Dance of Three Moors’, part of an over-extended divertissement in front of the drugged Juliet in Act 3 (the other dances, for pirates and Antilles girls, became respectively the 'Dance with Mandolins' in Act 2, a romp which several of my godchildren adore, and the ‘Dance of the Girls with Lilies’). The weakest part of the score as we currently know it, those multiple reprises of the crowd dances in Act 2, were inserted at Lavrovsky’s insistence for the 1940 Kirov production. Juliet’s variation from the final sequence became an extra number at the Capulet Ball, and Romeo’s dance was subsequently stitched – unconvincingly, we agreed – into the so-called Balcony Scene. Morris will, Simon assures us, treat the final resurrection as a love-dance outside the frame of the story; and since it is the same rather sad music used for Juliet’s death in the revision, it merits sensitive handling. I can hardly wait for the Barbican performances in November; sadly, its Bard Festival premiere doesn't coincide with the Prokofiev events I’m attending as speaker in August.

The rest of the Goldsmiths day was taken up with papers from home and visiting academics. We heard a masterly 20-minute summary of the musical structure of The Fiery Angel from Stefan van Puymbroeck, a lively talk about Prokofiev’s relationship with Glaswegian new music champion Erik Chisholm (I had surveyed their correspondence in the Archive for the biography) from Fiona McKnight and new light on the making of the Lieutenant Kije film from the absent Kevin Bartig.

A perfect conclusion was the jeu d'esprit from forthright Serb Ivana Medic on Prokofiev’s many ‘appearances’ in rock and pop music. She is clearly an Emerson, Lake and Palmer fan, but hates Sting’s use of the Romance from Kije – ‘it makes me want to puke’. Afterwards, I asked Ivana where she acquired her idiomatic English, since she’s only been in Manchester for two years. It’s a curious story. She and her identical twin sister were so anxious to exclude a pestiferous younger sibling that they spoke English to each other as children in Serbia. The troubling question of what happened to the outcast one was happily resolved: such was her determination not to be left out that she became (if my memory serves me right) a lecturer in English.

After six hours, we were ready to drop, as you might be now after a description of such length (but also, I think, of great importance – you read the R&J stuff here first). But after a cooling interlude under the trees around the Goldsmiths field with Simon, Stefan and Daniel Jaffe, we marched back to attend a reception for Anthony Phillips and his new translation of the Prokofiev Diaries Vol. 2 (see below). Anthony is a real djentlman (as Prokofiev himself might say in Russian) and flattered me enormously by saying he enjoys the quirkiness of this blog. The gathering was more than just jawing: that not-so-old man with a beard Rex Lawson and his fellow-pianola-ist Denis Hall demonstrated Prokofiev’s Duo-Art (mechanical reproducing piano) recordings, and Sergey Sergeyevich lived again. I resolved to learn the first of the Myaskovsky Prichudy, which were the only rolls I hadn’t heard, and we all felt SSP was there in the room with the piano transcription of the Three Oranges March.

Now, I have every confidence in the super-poetic Morris’s ability to do something memorable with Romeo and Juliet. But I’d been a little more doubtful about what would result from choreographer Kim Brandstrup’s very vaguely Dostoyevskyan take on Prokofiev's music for the abandoned film of Pushkin's Pikovaya Dama (Queen of Spades) pieced together and (oh dear) expanded by Michael Berkeley, Rushes: Fragments of a Lost Story. I once met Brandstrup at lunch and proceeded to tell him how I found ballet couldn’t really develop an emotional narrative. I used as my example, foolishly as it turned out, a choreography of Othello, vigorously executed by Irek Mukhamedov, in which I said I felt that the Moor’s jealousy didn’t really rise to a peak. ‘That was my ballet’ came the answer.

Rushes was surely the dullest thing the Royal Ballet must have had to go through for a long time, though curiously not all the dance critics seemed to think so. How do you give three charismatic dancers, Carlos Acosta (whom I was seeing on stage for the first time), Alina Cojocaru and Laura Morero, so little to do? Anyway, Acosta and Morera maintained a certain style, though not quite enough erotic charge (production photo by Bill Cooper):

Rushes tells some hazy tale about a tortured young man torn between a perverse woman in a red dress and a more homely lady in grey (shades of Lifar’s hasty scenario for On the Dnieper). There wasn’t enough real dance, and the movements were unoriginal (though the red lady was dragged around the stage rather effectively). Berkeley followed Prokofiev’s indications for scoring, but then in the ‘original’ bits made some (deliberately?) ungainly counterpoint, and ruined the spare music for Hermann and Lisa which reappears in the Fifth Symphony by extending it – on Brandstrup’s command, no doubt, to suit an interminable Pas de deux – with the symphony’s scoring. To end with a recently-unearthed, and clearly of-the-sameish period, but relatively undistinguished piano piece, Dumka, was a mistake (Brandstrup's idea, not Berkeley's).

The triple bill didn’t do this murky centrepiece much good, either. Just as in Friday’s concert, where a great masterpiece, Vaughan Williams’s Sixth, closed the first half, only to be followed by a workmanlike Royal Philharmonic Society commission, Dominic Muldowney’s Tsunami, so nothing was going to match the ethereal poetry of Balanchine’s choreography to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. How effective the ladies in their blue-and-white dresses looked against a simple blue cyclorama...

...and what an inspired idea to place the Elegie, heart and soul of Tchaikovsky’s score, last, as a much more successful love-triangle than Brandstrup's. Here are Marianela Nunez, Rupert Pennefather and a barely-visible Mara Galeazzi in the second of Bill Cooper's production photographs:

The Ashton-originated Homage to the Queen made a flamboyant finale, with noisy but characteristic music by Malcolm Arnold, yet how, as so often in ballet, one thought, ‘not another variation, please! No more Pas de deux!’

Even so, what a line-up of the Royal Ballet’s best – in addition to Cojocaru and Acosta, we had Benjamin, Kobborg, Rojo, Bonelli, Lamb, Nunez… Neither the ethereal Romanian nor her consort, Kobborg, shone quite as brilliantly as they had the previous week in a gala for her homeland’s Hospices of Hope. Galas are usually disappointing – again, a string of variations and pas de deux in a law of diminishing returns – but this was brilliantly planned (and only an hour and a half in toto before we rushed off to a charity banquet). These wonderful images of both stars in action at the Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall were taken by Ryoichi Hirano:

First came Cojocaru, Kobborg and a lone pianist in Robbins’ exquisite and gently playful Other Dances, to Chopin Mazurkas. There was pure but well-executed choreographic conservatism in the Pas de Deux from The Flames of Paris (Yuhui Choe and Marian Walter). I’d been wanting to hear Asafiev’s score, or part of it, since I found out that Prokofiev researched French revolutionary tunes for him; but both the orchestration and the ideas are threadbare. This would sound bad in a ballet score of the 1860s, let alone the early 1930s.

Kobborg danced an interesting choreography by Tim Rushton to Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres midi; Kojocaru premiered Brandstrup’s interpretation of Schumann’s Bird as Prophet. The moment in the evening when my eyes pricked – and they don’t very often in ballet – was for the transcendental demeanour of Roberta Marquez (a perfect Juliet last year) and Daniel Ulbricht in the Coppelia Pas de deux - though I must say that even these two lost my attention for a minute or two in favour of the Manning Camerata’s viola soloist in one of Delibes’s purest inspirations. The grand finale was a riot: ALL the previous dancers plus a few more joining in the Don Quixote Pas de deux/divertissement. A triumph, and Cojocaru seems like such a genuine and delightful person. I liked the elegant Canadian-based, Romanian-born presenter, Princess Marina Sturdza, too; she managed to talk interestingly, and interestedly, to just about everyone at the dinner afterwards. Well done to the Romanian Cultural Institute for backing such a well-orchestrated show.

Wednesday 14 May 2008

Remembering Slava

A little late, this, I'm afraid, since the picture by Suzy Maeder I'd been waiting for last week was lost in cyberspace, but it's still only just after a year since the greatest performer I've ever met, Mstislav Rostropovich, shuffled off this mortal coil. We were reminded of the fact by Natalie Clein, in a Cadogan Hall recital dedicated to Slava and intelligently planned with his inspiration to several great composers in mind (incidentally, her pianist, Kathy Stott, rather eclipsed the inward-looking impression left by the cellist).

So I recall how at the end of last April, after a hyperactive day rushing off to Bush and Broadcasting Houses to pay tribute, I dissolved in tears at every recording of Slava's I listened to (and I dug out a great deal then, believe me). Of course it's hard to banish from pride of place his close friendship with the men he told me in interview were his 'three gods above all the rest', Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But I shall also never forget his Strauss Don Quixote, his surprisingly sensitive piano-playing for wife Galina Vishnevskaya, and the way he gradually got the London Symphony Orchestra to understand him as a conductor in spite of his somewhat questionable stick technique. The Shostakovich Eighth Symphony at the Barbican, which must have been one of his last performances with them, if not the last, is branded on my memory as the deepest, most layered interpretation of a symphonic work I've ever heard (and thankfully preserved on the LSO label, though it's not quite the same experience, of course).

No more tears now: his energy and force for the good, in world affairs as well as in music, remain vitally with us - though what on earth would he make of the new Russia?

Friday 9 May 2008

Waging war on war

On this especially horrible day, when the Burmese military regime lets thousands of cyclone victims die, as tanks rumble across Moscow's Red Square for the first time in years and Hezbollah decimates a once-peaceful Beirut, the serious issues raised by Shaw's Major Barbara seem stronger than ever. I went to see Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre production on Tuesday, and was stunned as so often by GBS's complex dialectics lightly presented as well as by the sheer warmth and humour of so much of the text. And all this in 1905 (the year The Merry Widow was also premiered)! The show boasted two superb tours de force from Simon Russell Beale, less like himself than in any other performance of his I've seen as the Machiavellian 'Prince of Darkness' arms dealer Andrew Undershaft, and Clare Higgins, newly graduated to grande dame status and a mistress of comic timing as his estranged wife Lady Britomart. Alongside her assured delivery, the ingenue playing Barbara, Hayley Atwell, came across as rather weak of voice, but she wasn't bad either. Otherwise, the ensemble was flawless. Here's Paul Ready as Adolphus 'Dolly' Cusins, wondering if he still be able to 'wage war on war' in Undershaft's employ (photo, as above, by Catherine Ashmore):

By pure serendipity, the morning of the day we were due to visit the National was taken up with reviewing Britten's Owen Wingrave, in which the protagonist of the James story on which the opera is based also wages war on war. It's a relatively one-dimensional paean to pacifism, but the music is so much more remarkable than I thought when I saw it in action at Glyndebourne some years ago. I'll save any observations about the new recording for the BBCMM review, but this is the chance to underline how inventive Britten is in his late spare style, from the arresting gamelan-style military parade at the beginning to the haunting chords of time suspended towards the end. There are embarrassing bits, like the easily-parodied 'scruples' ensemble, and Myfanwy Piper's libretto lacks the irony of James's marvellous story. Perhaps, too, it should be in one act rather than two (James adapted it as a one-acter for the stage called The Saloon). Yet once more it's clear how many more striking ideas catch the ear than at any point in The Minotaur. Time, though, to lay that poor beast to rest.

Further war thoughts, finally, were soberly provoked by our Morley look at Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. What a superbly-constructed masterpiece, chilling to the bone and equal to Shostakovich 8 and Nielsen 5 (and I never thought I'd say that). Sir Andrew Davis performs it tonight in an amazing programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra: can't wait, though emotionally it might be too much. Incidentally, we were all amused to see that the forthcoming RPO concert in which the great Tod Handley conducts the nasty, aggressive and totally bracing Fourth Symphony is titled 'Green and pleasant land'. We fear the cow-pat lovers, pastoralists and UKIP supporters will be in for a bit of a shock.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

A more than competent beast

Our man from the Garrick had the temerity to approach Hans Werner Henze, in the audience for the last performance of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur (pictured above by Bill Cooper for the Royal Opera), and ask him what he thought. Very competent, came the reply, and (which was more like a ‘but’) extremely well performed. I’d say it was a little more than competent, but the extraordinary level of the performance was never in doubt for a moment: Sir Harry could not have done better by the staging, the conducting or the singers.

My problem with the music is that, while it’s shaped with plenty of instinct for dramatic contrast, and interestingly – if often thickly – orchestrated, including haunting roles for cimbalom and saxophone, no ideas leap out at you, either from the pit or in the vocal lines, and stick in the memory; and I’m not necessarily talking about tunes, just phrases of striking individuality. The Birtwistle sound world is as mired as it ever was in the thick paste of the 1960s avant garde. So it often becomes incidental, a mere prop of music theatre. There are some virtuoso fast, violent passages – Ariadne’s narrative of her half-brother’s birth, or the slaughter of the innocents – but even here you are reminded that the model without which none of this would have been possible, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, boasts melodies as well as rhythms.

Certainly it’s a compelling story, the stuff of nightmares. Harsent, for all the occasional banalities of his libretto, makes us feel immediately for the man-beast locked away and pre-destined to do what he does, and there could be no more persuasive advocate of his torment than John Tomlinson, still in magnificent voice. Is this so very far from the world of the Austrian horror which has hit the news?

No-one is loveable. Ariadne and Theseus unite through need and convenience. Christine Rice is utterly compelling to look at as well as to hear, the very image of an archaic Kore (this production photograph is also by Bill Cooper):

It’s probably thanks to Pappano, and the fact that director Stephen Langridge keeps most of the singers firmly downstage, that you hear every word from her and Johan Reuter. The harpy-like Keres, ripping the hearts out of the newly-dead, were perhaps a step too far - their second manifestation at the end of Act 1 made me want to laugh – but they are splendidly led by Amanda Echalaz (not singing all the right notes, I’m told, but doing so with utter conviction). There were some promising voices among the Innocents, and the orchestral playing was confident and powerful without drowning out the singers. So Pappano now adds a tough new work to a versatile list in which he has already proven his supremacy - Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Shostakovich and Britten (and his Wagner is getting there, I’m told).

After the pagan ritual of Saturday night, the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend was holier. For the first time I joined the splendid choir that meets once a month for festival evensong at the church around the corner, St Andrew’s Fulham Fields. Father Martin Eastwood, whom I remember from his wilder Edinburgh days, is a dynamic force for all sorts of activities. There’s even to be a music festival over the weekend of 20-22 June including a premiere by a young composer called Jonathan Coffer (I felt for Humphrey Clucas, sharing that evensong, whose biography tells us that ‘his best-known work is still probably his earlier set of Preces and Responses, written as an undergraduate in 1962’). This Sunday’s evensong included the robust Walmisley in D minor and Finzi’s ‘God is gone up’ (for Ascensiontide), which I used to love when we sang it at All Saints’ Banstead. Foolishly, I’d opted to sing tenor rather than bass, and the Finzi has some treacherous full-pelt high notes, not helped by the fact that the organ is a semitone sharp. How juicy, though, is the richly-harmonised central sequence about 'Heaven's sparkling courtiers' - enravishing indeed. Since I wrote this up, I discovered that we'd been snapped; this picture by Ryszard Rybicki was on the St Andrew's website, and shows the altar in all its Victorian excess as well as us (I'm very far back on the right):

Afterwards the congregation and choir, which includes a few visiting professionals, gathered for sausages and wine at the extremely hospitable Eastwoods'.

Bank Holiday Monday was perfect in its way: another holy friend, Andrew Hammond, took us to Cambridge to meet one of my heroines, the author of the most striking libretto since Rosenkavalier and Rake’s Progress, Nixon in China. Alice Goodman is now Chaplain of Trinity College, and she sports a splendidly feminine clerical outfit. It wouldn’t be fair to reproduce what was said over a private lunch about Nixon, Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic (on which she worked for a year before parting company with Adams and Sellars over the presentation of Oppenheimer as a Jewish Faust). I will say that she was a delightful, warm and enthusiastic companion around the Victorian extravaganza of All Saints’ and the loveable Jesus College - though I fear I shall be remembered by her as the Man Who Stepped on Jesus’ Lawn. Here she is with Fr. Andrew in the courtyard of his theological college, Westcott. The scent of wisteria is everywhere in Cambridge at this time of year:

After we parted with the Chaplain, Andrew took us around Clare, his alma mater, and Kings, which I haven’t seen for years: is the Chapel the most opulent and beautiful building in the world, both inside and out? I think so. The photo is a conventional one, but I couldn't resist it:

Friday 2 May 2008

Show me the corpse

Apparently one of the unspeakables on Newsnight Review, that slough of anti-musical (and sometimes anti-everything) philistinism, said of The Minotaur something along the lines of 'if you think classical music is dead, go to Covent Garden and view the corpse'. Well, I can't speak for Birtwistle until I've seen the show, which I'm due to do tomorrow, though some reports suggest these might well be the death-throes of the 1960s avant-garde. But I'd respond to this lofty pundit by saying 'if you think classical music is dead, go hear the Britten Sinfonia and see a healthy body bursting with vitality'.

This band seems to have its finger on the pulse without resorting to any trendy gimmicks. The audience is a bigger mix than any to be seen over at the Festival Hall concerts, with plenty of young people and quite a few kids, and as the lights dim and the players come on stage, they're received with all the ecstasy usually reserved for a cult group. The BS programmes are inventive in the extreme, though not always esoteric: you could take from Wednesday's Queen Elizabeth Hall programme the excerpts from Don Giovanni and The Rake's Progress as well as the more outlandish numbers from the complete Pulcinella and insert them into one of those quasi-club evenings which have sprung up in Berlin and are now being tried out at the RFH. One of the nice girls who work for the Sinfonia told me that they will be participating in just such an event this October, playing Tchaikovsky which will then be 'remixed' by a DJ (!)

Yet this was a programme to be taken in the round. They started with Britten's early, and apart from its finale not terribly memorable, Sinfonietta and Stravinsky's very late and simple arrangement of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor. The Fugue, scored for three clarinets and two bassoons, was an especially phantasmagorical event in the hands of the BS's world-class wind department. In that respect, the group is like a mini version of Abbado's super-band Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and it boasts perhaps the finest oboist in the world (at least I think so, because as a player I'd always aspire to his beefy, full-blooded sound), Nicholas Daniel:

He shone so much in the Theme and Variations of Pulcinella that even friends who didn't know him as one of our greatest oboe soloists - second only, surely, to his teacher Maurice Bourgue - were startled by his brilliance. But this was an evening of great solos from this army of generals. The vocal trio included Roddy Williams, who gave the most relaxed and focused performance of Don Giovanni's Champagne Aria I've ever heard, and Toby Spence, again unusually virile and full-toned (and phrase- and breath-perfect) for Don Ottavio's 'Il mio tesoro'. The soprano, Rachel Nicholls, was a last-minute replacement for the sublime Carolyn Sampson, whom I've been longing to hear live since listening to her Bach Cantatas on CD. Nicholls is intensely musical, but in this company her voice seemed a shade lacking in individuality, and the cruel top C of Anne Trulove's aria was not her strongest asset. What a nice idea, though, that they all came back for Pulcinella, and seemed to enjoy its purely orchestral passages so much (how could they not?). Masaaki Suzuki was in his element here, but wanted just a little human sympathy in his early-music view of Mozart. Still, it was a deliriously happy evening.

I've been taking the Morley/BBCSO students through the Vaughan Williams symphonies (4 and 6 especially). How easy it is to overlook their unusual shape and originality of expression - even the Pastoral Symphony, which I haven't heard in concert for many years now, took me by surprise in its more tortured passages. Here's real individuality, even if one sometimes tires of the over-used folksy intervals.