Greek/ Music Theatre Wales; Proms 67, 68, 70 – review

Traverse, Edinburgh; Royal Albert Hall, London

In Greek the thuggish hero Eddy commits murder, inadvertently sleeps with his mother and gouges his eyes out. When the young Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote his first opera, he spotted early the power of ancient myth, especially when cast in the image and song of contemporary Britain: football-chant rhythms, East Enders' slang, pub-brawl fury and, driving the drama to its merciless yet merciful conclusion, greedy-yuppie ascent and downfall.

That was in 1988. This brilliant chamber opera, which opened its UK autumn tour in Edinburgh last week, still retains all its excoriating force in Music Theatre Wales's compact new staging, directed by Michael McCarthy and performed at the Traverse in collaboration with Scottish Opera.

Written for 18 players and four voices, the score flashes and glints with the jazzy colours Turnage (b 1960) has made his own. This composer grew up listening to Miles Davis and the Beatles, as well as Shostakovich and Stockhausen. Initially his music may appear harsh and alienating, yet quickly a soulful lyricism, so ripe you hardly dare trust it, proves the active ingredient.

All the singers play multiple roles except Eddy, affectingly portrayed by the baritone Marcus Farnsworth. Fearful and unpleasant at first, spitting his angry adjectives, Eddy ineluctably wins our sympathy. I've no idea what the talented Farnsworth's glottal stops are usually like – his biography suggests he wasn't born within the sound of Bow Bells – but he negotiated the tricky task of singing cockney without sounding fey.

Turnage's libretto is a reworking of the Oedipus myth refracted through Steven Berkoff's brutal stage play. The backdrop is "Thatcher's Britain", an ideal punchbag for an edgy young composer from urban Essex, though Turnage's own working-class upbringing, he would be quick to say, was nothing like that of his hero. Eddy argues with his mum and dad, finds love and tries to save his city from the plague. He is defeated by his own terrible ignorance.

Yuppies may now be drawing pensions, Aids less of a virulent threat, the woolly politics of coalition a more elusive target than the easy right. Yet Greek, which finally turns into a love song, still strikes a blow in the solar plexus.

Turnage began as a reluctant opera composer. Since then he has found his own, nonconformist route into the operatic inner sanctuary, first with The Silver Tassie at ENO, then earlier this year with Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House. Of the three, Greek remains the most assured. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble, conducted by Michael Rafferty, together with the other three versatile singers – Sally Silver, Louise Winter and Gwion Thomas – gave an outstanding performance, fierce with raw immediacy. The tour continues until 10 November.

In the last week of the Proms two American orchestras, from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and therefore both from Pennsylvania, injected transatlantic flair and sleek playing. I attended the first Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert and listened to the others. Manfred Honeck, conducting without a score, conjured a tempestuous account of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The characterful brass were volcanic, endowing this quintessentially Russian score with thrilling bluesy gutsiness and hints of louche glissandi, as if the entire section would rather have been dressed in big-band blazers and on their feet, shiny bells pointed up to the rafters.

To English ears it may have sounded a jot vulgar – I loved it – and certainly not for everyday listening. But Tchaikovsky's Fifth is always a journey into the unknown, bursting with risk, joy and tears. In a packed Albert Hall hungry for excitement this performance delivered handsomely. In an encore, Khachaturian's Galop, the brass had a chance to indulge in the dazzling aural pleasures they had hinted at all evening.

Various moods of English pastoral shaped Wednesday's Prom. By programming Harrison Birtwistle's Violin Concerto before Holst's all-time hit, The Planets, the controller of the Proms ensured a full house for a supposedly difficult UK premiere. Only a few usual suspects were to be seen rushing for the door before a note of the Birtwistle, a lambent work of delicacy and beauty, was played.

Premiered in Boston, USA in March, by the same formidable soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, this is the composer's first work to call itself a "concerto". Birtwistle exploits all the traditional virtuosic violin techniques, from double stopping to percussive spiccato (bouncing the bow in rapid passages) to fast string-crossing, flowing cantilena melody and ethereal harmonics. Not once is the player required to force an ugly or unnatural sound.

In addition to duets between soloist and various wind instruments, a feature of this single-span work is the way the violin sings upwards to the high, glistening percussion – glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone and marimba – and down to the low murkiness of the tuba, all pouring out in rhapsody. David Robertson conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a detailed, warmly received performance. I can report happily, after last week's Beethoven's Ninth, that the BBCSO sounded back on form.

Sir Colin Davis was also back, in a magisterial reading of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, a colossal work in which the composer pays no heed to the normal capacities of the human voice, forcing choir and soloists alike to turn into instruments of his cruel bidding. Usually written off as a nonbeliever, Beethoven announced his aim in writing the work as "being to awaken and permanently instil religious feelings not only in the singers but in the listeners". Whether this translated into a belief in God, who can say, but it makes the Missa Solemnis, in which the guttural cries in the "Agnus Dei" chill mortal hearts where normally redemption is expected, an unsettling enigma.

The combined choirs of the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony gave a fabulously daring account. The orchestra shone, with only a blip in the violin solo, which was unusually – and in this case uncomfortably – played standing up. The soloists (Helena Juntunen, Sarah Connolly, Paul Groves, Matthew Rose) entered the mood of spiritual crisis with impassioned performances. Colin Davis looked mystically drained, as well he might, by the end. This was one of the highlights of a strong season: the work which Beethoven considered his greatest given a performance of shattering power.

As the closing sentences of this column were being written, word came that the 2011 season has once again broken records: the average attendance for main evening concerts at the Royal Albert Hall rose to 94%, up from 92% last year; 70% of concerts (52 out of 74) in the RAH were sold out, compared with 64% (49 out of 76) in 2010. More than 300,000 people attended the total 86 concerts, including those at Cadogan Hall.

What does all this mean? That it rained more, or there was nothing on telly or that no one went on holiday? For some darkly hidden reason I broke my own record and notched up more Proms this season than ever before, including, would you credit it, some I had no obligation to attend. So I'll settle for the possibility that it was, indeed, a very good year.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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