Barbican; Purcell Room, London
Lady Bracknell is sung by a bass. Miss Prism is a Teutonophile composer as well as a sentimental novelist. Algernon and Jack duet sweetly to a splintered, expressionist-style "Auld Lang Syne". Cecily and Gwendolen converse through megaphones, throw at least 40 dinner plates and shoot each other. Apart from that, all achieved through musical suggestion rather than verbal perversion, Gerald Barry's operatic version of Wilde's 1895 farce The Importance of Being Earnest remains intact. The text has been shorn by the composer – losing about two thirds – but the best jokes are still there, from a collective manic obsession with cucumber sandwiches to that dangerously over-exciting topic, the fall of the rupee.
Barry (b 1952), who has always freewheeled joyfully and devilishly, ignoring rules, fashion or sensible career signposts, has come of age – he was 60 yesterday – with his fourth opera, first seen in Los Angeles last year and given its European premiere at the Barbican (and in Birmingham) by the virtuosic Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Thomas Adès conducted with a composer's understanding, clockwork precision and combustive flair. The musical variety and expertise of the cast, not least the exceptional Barbara Hannigan leaping nimbly up to top Ds as the winsome Cecily, provided enough action in this concert performance to keep you gripped.
The music, as anyone who has encountered Barry's glittering, sharp-edged work will know, combines absurdity with grand statement, mosaic-like borrowings with reinvention, rhythmic regularity with harmonic anarchy. Trills en masse, multiple glissades of scales, chord clusters and strange, tipsy serenades of low brass and woodwind colour the score. Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra are pilfered for bathos, Beethoven's Ode to Joy for – of all things – wit, Scottish folk song for good measure. This aural roll, pitch and yaw are as bewildering to the ears as a motion simulator to the brain: you respond to every gravitational force only to find it was illusory after all.
No doubt those who stormed out of the successful LA premiere, or the noisy grumbler a few rows behind me at the Barbican, may not have realised that the shrill, fragmented vocal lines were pastiche serialism. Barry, who studied with Stockhausen as well as that unmatched musical humorist, Mauricio Kagel, knows what he is doing. He has spoken of giving Wilde a Pinteresque makeover. He has, and it works. The music smiles scurrilously; the audience laughs back.
The handbag moment, lest you wonder, had Alan Ewing (Lady Bracknell) exhaling with sprechstimme angst. In a strong ensemble, Peter Tantsits (John Worthing) negotiated his hysterical vocal contortions with aplomb and Hilary Summers revelled in the prunes and prismatics of the governess. Wilde wrote Importance, his last play, at the peak of his career. Even as it was being staged he was staring, or being made by others to stare, into that moral abyss hinted at in the play. Weeks later he was in prison.
"The starry heavens above me, and the moral law within me." This was the paraphrase of Kant which Beethoven scribbled down when he was working on the Missa Solemnis Op 123. It sums up the dichotomy in this transcendent masterpiece in which martial horror and celestial hope are enveloped in an outpouring of near-impossible choral music and extreme contrasts of mood, register and style. If a performance does not blitz the nervous system it has flunked. Fortunately with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Radio Choir, this account was pulverising as well as revelatory.
Nothing was predictable. The opening Kyrie was expansive, the enormous Credo a series of ascents and descents culminating in the explosive "Et vitam venturi" fugue, the sinewy violin solo in the Sanctus emerging from dark, murky string depths which might have expressed the early stirrings of Chaos itself. The Agnus Dei, with its dry, death-rattle drum rolls (played using wooden-headed sticks) and barely controlled outbursts of "Miserere", made a shattering impact. The soloists, Marlis Petersen, Elisabeth Kulman, Werner Güra and Gerald Finley, had exactly the right relationship to choir and orchestra, soaring as if carried aloft by the surrounding singers and players.
The 74-strong professional choir, which together with most Dutch arts organisations is facing cuts of up to 50 per cent and a threatened loss of numbers, was alert and accurate. Afterwards, Harnoncourt was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society gold medal, first struck in 1870 in honour of Beethoven's centenary and wholly deserved. The illustrious Concertgebouw's three-concert Barbican residency continues with an all-Richard Strauss programme with Mariss Jansons on 12 May and Bruckner's Symphony No 5 with Bernard Haitink on 20 May.
In his compulsion to push music to the limits of human endeavour, Beethoven would have empathised with Conlon Nancarrow (1912-97), the American innovator and friend of John Cage who was the subject of the Impossible Brilliance weekend at the Southbank, of which I heard a representative fraction. A charismatic figure with a cult following, who fought in the Spanish civil war and then left anti-communist America to live in Mexico City, Nancarrow wrote most of his music for the mechanical player piano, punching his compositions out as holes into rolls of paper. The result was a series of spangling pieces, unplayable by even the best musician, dense with canons, logarithmic-based speed relationships – sensed, if not necessarily perceived by the listener – and a riotous splash of boogie-woogie and other jazz-inspired effects. In his Study for Player Piano No 25 the final 12 seconds contain 1,028 notes, which gives you an idea.
If the interpreter is all but redundant, Nancarrow's work nevertheless requires musical mechanics of formidable dexterity. Rex Lawson, he of the navel-length beard, has been keeper of the pianola flame for the past 30 years and compares it, broadly, to controlling a car's windscreen wipers. If it were that easy, Nancarrow would be on every concert schedule. Long live Mr Lawson, as well as the London Sinfonietta, with conductor Baldur Brönnimann playing arrangements by Nancarrow devotee Yvar Mikhashoff, and the Arditti Quartet, all brilliant and loving exponents.
Friendship saved the memory of Ivor Gurney, soldier, poet and composer, who spent his final years in a mental hospital in Dartford. His work might have been lost without the efforts of the musicologist Marion Scott and the composer Gerald Finzi. Seventy-five years after Gurney's death, interest has never been greater. His singular talent, in which pastoral idyll and trench warfare fuse in short, potent lyricism, is at last being appreciated.
In A Soldier and a Maker, an amalgam of songs, poems and archival material devised by Iain Burnside, students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama tell Gurney's poignant story, from his early years as the misunderstood son of a Gloucester tailor, to mustard-gas attack on the Somme, to the tortured asylum years. Nineteen performers, including pianists Justin Snyder and Gavin Roberts, shared the roles of family, musicians, soldiers and medical staff. Ex-Guildhall actor Richard Goulding played Gurney, tenderly negotiating the shadowlands between sanity and madness. Jennie Witton, Bethan Langford, Samuel Smith, Alex Knox and, as the querulous composer Herbert Howells, Nicholas Allen led a versatile cast. Catch this heart-rending exploration of war, peace and music at the Cheltenham festival on 13 and 14 July. Next a UK tour?
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