Robin Holloway

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As if to answer my recent complaints (Arts, 30 October) concerning the dumb deserts of Radio Three between the end of the early-evening concert and the wall-to-wall small-hour tapestry of Through the Night, two weeks in succession have provided high seriousness, requiring committed attention, yielding deep artistic rewards, reminiscent of the great old days (let’s hope this is a trend; not all trendiness need be derogatory!).

Both were anniversaries. We live in a culture wherein ‘minority’ interests seem ignitable only by a birthday or deathday. First the former: Luigi Dallapiccola (given two whole sessions — three one-act dramatic pieces; a long succession of variegated smaller work interspersed with authoritative commentary, including the composer’s own fierce guttural voice). Born in February 1904, he reached a plateau of recognition in the mid-century, only to vanish almost without trace, together with most other composers who followed on from the modernist pioneers in more recent years. Of this lost generation, Dallapiccola is in some ways the most attractive as well as the most admirable, not so much for his impeccably correct credentials — anti-fascist, pro-freedom, humanity, classical stance with up-to-date techniques — as for the quality of his musical invention.

The first evening confirmed the implied reservation. Volo di notte (1937–9), after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s celebrated novel of heroic nocturnal aviation, had moments both of radiance and of grandeur, but seemed deficient in operatic pacing and variety. Il Prigioniero (1944–5), after a conte cruel of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (itself deriving heavily from Poe), goes too far the other way, incongruously mating blatant Puccini-isms with an intricate mesh of purely instrumental polyphony out of Webern, the mix then smothered in luscious syrup sauce out of Strauss and Berg, disconcertingly inappropriate to the bitter subject: hope kindled, teased, deferred, betrayed. After which Job (1950) seems like expressionist rant’n’rhetoric out of Schoenberg at his corniest. Its self-conscious sublimity foretells Dallapiccola’s testament, a full-length opera on Ulysses’ return to wife and patria (1965–8) where ‘visionary/humane/profound’ are stamped across every page, vitiating the many stretches of rare exaltation.

Alongside this first-to-final trajectory lies a lifetime of smaller delights, mostly instrumental; and at least one larger work — the once-repertory Canti di Prigionia setting words from Mary Queen of Scots, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and Savonarola’s farewell prayer — wherein the spare luminosity is perfectly matched to the nobility of the sentiments. And, above all, the settings of lyrics with piano, or, better still, instrumental ensembles, to poems by Anacreon, Sappho, Alcaeus Goethe, Machado and others; a piccolo mondo of ravishment; Webernian rigour softened with Italian grace; Stravinskian dryness ameliorated with almost French efflorescence. That the dreaded 12-tone technique could so shine and twinkle was not lost on Stravinsky himself, whose move towards such a sound-world in his last years was predated by Dallapiccola, and surely influenced by it.

The second return to standard was the four-hour evening devoted to Wilhelm Furtw