Commentary Magazine


Enjoyable Brit Moderns

Readers of this blog have repeatedly expressed distress at the way classical music is going. Indeed, in February, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it has commissioned two new works from the Argentinean composer of specious tourist kitsch, Osvaldo Golijov, as well as the trite, repetitive, and opportunistic headline-grabber John Adams, who notoriously found inspiration from terrorists in his deeply offensive opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1981).

The ballyhoo of journalistic support around Klinghoffer shows not merely that most of America’s salaried music critics are tone-deaf; they are also stunted as human beings. Still, even while such egregious composers are cosseted by the Met’s box office-obsessed director Peter Gelb, there are signs that neglected modern composers can offer genuine listening pleasure.

An affectionate new biography of Australian-born British composer Malcolm Williamson (1931–2003) by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris points out that by disdaining the desiccated modernist approach, Williamson was able to create accessible works like a wistful, moody “Organ Concerto,” a 1974 recording of which, conducted by Adrian Boult with the composer as soloist, has just been reissued on Lyrita. The same doughty small label (devoted to lost classics of modern British music) has transferred to CD a 1971 recording of a piano concerto by Williamson’s friend and colleague Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936), a wry, elusive talent of considerable braininess. Bennett, like Williamson, was successful in a wide variety of genres, including choral music, despite being generally remembered for his delightful film scores to hits like Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express. A mentor to Bennett and Williamson is Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), whose spry, deft “Piano Concerto in B flat” and elegiac “Concerto for Two Pianos” are also reprinted by Lyrita. Likewise, the music of Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) inspired generations of British musicians, especially his vocal works like “Intimations of Immortality” and “Two Sonnets by John Milton.” Recordings of these works from the 1970’s, by the sublimely mellifluous British tenor Ian Partridge, are also reissued on Lyrita.

Why are such enjoyable composers so rarely performed on our shores, while a more recent, omnipresent name like Magnus Lindberg, who writes heartless music that sounds like an explosion in a glass factory, is everywhere? Then, as now, so-called classical music “experts” are suspicious if they find concert-going fun. In 1966, the Spectator pointed out that Williamson was despised “a) for writing tunes in Richard Strauss-Puccini idioms; b) for writing tunes that aren’t good enough; and c) for being so archaic as to write tunes at all.” Another composer in the Lyrita series, Constant Lambert (1905–1951), wrote Music Ho!, a 1931 study of “music in decline,” as well as the zesty, Poulenc-like ballet Romeo and Juliet. Most of these composers let their music do the talking. After years of heavily-promoted (although all-too-often sterile and soulless) contemporary music, many works reprinted by Lyrita sound better and better.