4 stars Prinzregenten, Munich

Andrew Clements
Friday May 28, 2004

The Guardian

Brian Ferneyhough, who turned 60 last year, is increasingly the prophet without honour in his own country. Born in Coventry, he has lived abroad for more than 30 years, first in Holland and Germany, and since 1987 in California. That's the main reason why British performances of his demanding works have been sporadic, while across Europe he is recognised as one of the most important composers of our time. The premiere of Shadowtime, Ferneyhough's first stage work, was the most eagerly anticipated event in this year's Munich Biennale, the festival of music theatre founded by Hans Werner Henze in 1987.

Whether Ferneyhough has produced a theatre piece at all, though, let alone an opera in any conventional sense, is doubtful. There's a libretto, by the American poet Charles Bernstein, and also one scene, the prologue, with the outlines of a realistic narrative. But the rest of Shadowtime is a cycle of independent pieces - the second a guitar concerto, for instance, the fourth a work for reciting pianist - most of which have already been performed in concert. All relate in some way to the death and legacy of the Frankfurt-school philosopher Walter Benjamin, who killed himself on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 after fleeing the Nazis and being prevented from crossing into Spain.

The composer compares the two-hour work to a 17th-century Rappresentazione, in which dramatic scenes, philosophical or religious meditations and musical interludes were all interleaved. But only two of his seven sections are dramatic in any sense. Apart from the prologue - New Angels/Transient Failure - which ends with Benjamin's death, only the sixth part, Pools of Darkness (11 Interrogations), has real theatrical content, as well as some vocal writing that is almost conventionally operatic. The rest is a typical Ferneyhough labyrinth of impacted musical surfaces, intricate structural conceits and literary allusions bound together by music of wonderful detail, with sometimes an extraordinarily powerful charge. Beneath his tangled modernist rigour Ferneyhough hides a passionate commitment to expression.

The Munich production by Fréderic Fisbach (due to come to Sadler's Wells in September next year) works hard but not always successfully to create a theatrical context for the whole work, but then an opera house is the wrong place for it. Shadowtime's future is in the concert hall, where most of its elements sit most comfortably, and where the theatrical moments could be introduced quite naturally. That environment, too, would point up the superb quality of the musical performances under Jurjen Hempel - the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart singing the vocal roles, and Nicolas Hodges as the reciting pianist revealing a unsuspected gift for dead-pan humour.

· Further performance tonight. Box office: 0049-89-54 81 81 81.

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