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