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S & H Concert Review

Gerald BARRY Chamber Music & Johann STRAUSS Waltzes
HANDEL/BARRY The Triumph of Beauty & Deceit
The Composers Ensemble/Richard Baker with Gillian Keith, Christopher Lemmings, Andrew Watts, William Purefoy, Stephen Richardson, Roderick Williams. Almeida at King's Cross, London July 3 & 4, 2002 (PGW)


Never one to be taken at face value, Gerald Barry, who studied with Stockhausen and Kagel, responded to his briefing for a portrait concert with three of his own chamber works and three Strauss waltzes - "I've always been in love with Johann Strauss". These were given in transcriptions by Berg & Schoenberg for their private concert society, arranged for small ensembles of strings, winds, harmonium/piano. One or two might have been enough and, for a fuller portrait of this maverick and idiosyncratic composer, other influential works would have been welcome. Of his own pieces, the hectic 1995 Octet ("melodies with a storm") was the most rewarding, with its tumultuous piano solo for which, I think, Stephen Gutman wore protective clothing for his hands!

Richard Baker (not "the" Richard Baker) steered these with assurance and was entrusted with the final performance of the Handel/Barry juxtaposition of The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, which had not been well received at Aldeburgh in a jejune staging - schoolgirl uniforms and rabbits etc. Handel's arias were accompanied by a period-aware band directed from the harpsichord by Gary Cooper (not "the" Gary Cooper - two first names are becoming essential) and well sung, notably by Gillian Keith, winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Competition 2000. The other schoolgirls, and everyone in Barry's frolic, were burly males with the full range of vocal registers.

I came dutifully and prepared to endure, but was intoxicated by the score, even though less than enchanted by the helpfully surtitled, and uncensored, sung text and staged excesses (Beauty, Christopher Lemmings, ended up covered in simulated faeces, as was poor mad King George III in Opera Factory's staging of Maxwell Davies' eight songs).

Barry's music is special for its stupendous, driving energy and his disinterest in 'nice' orchestration. Sustained rapid articulation is often demanded, sometimes with unison doublings and no concern for limitations of instruments or their players. Barry uses a number of recurring 'tunes' (eight of them printed in the programme), which rotate until they worm themselves into your mind, and they are treated to inversion, reversal and 'an abundance of musical mechanisms'. It brought to my mind Bach (the whirling music of Brandenburg No 3), the Stravinsky of Les Noces (no respect for syllabic niceties) and Varese (for the unremitting violence which beset the ears).

Yet, as with all those, there was beauty in plenty to be perceived too, once one had become accustomed to the melée. The Almeida's temporary home at King's Cross provided just the right sharp, focussed acoustic; I am sure that it sounded better in London than in the warmer Snape Maltings, and far better than did Barry's Bob recently at Islington's Union Chapel. I loved it and hope Barry may consider extracting an orchestral suite around the "long and obsessive orchestral passages" of The Triumph of Beauty & Deceit, which are a characteristic of this opera and its exhilarating score.

Two of Gerald Barry's chamber works from this concert can be enjoyed on NMC D022 and the Strauss/Schoenberg waltzes on Disques Montaigne Arditti Quartet Edition JM 01.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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