Beethoven symphony cycle from Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican review *****

beethoven_sym_6_script

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor), Nicholas Hodges (piano), Joshua Bloom (bass)

Barbican Hall, 22nd and 24th May 2018

  • Beethoven – Symphony No 4 in B flat major Op 60
  • Gerard Barry – Piano Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 5 in C minor Op 67
  • Gerard Barry – The Conquest of Ireland
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F major Pastoral Op 68

The latest instalments of the Britten Sinfonia’s Beethoven cycle under the baron of Thomas Ades, (alongside the valuable accompanying survey of Gerard Barry large-scale compositions) ,was as superb os the two concerts last year. (Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****) (Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****). That Mr Ades, and his friend Mr Barry, adore the music of Beethoven was never in doubt. That Mr Ades understands it, and can conjure up performances of the symphony that are as good as any that I have ever heard, is what makes this cycle unmissable in my view. I urge you, no I beg you, to come along to the final concerts next year of the last three symphonies. The Hall was no more than half full which is near criminal. If Gustavo Dudamel and his well upholstered LA Phil can fill the house with a big, if not particularly insightful, version of the Choral Symphony, then the Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades deserve at least the same. If you hate all the bombast that others bring to Beethoven please look no further: conductor and orchestra have binned all that sickly vibrato, endless repeats, glum grandiosity, and started afresh.

If you can’t go then look out for the recording of the cycle which should appear,God and finance willing. This is how Beethoven should sound. The right orchestral forces, the right tempi, to my ears at least, every detail revealed, and every detail in exactly the right place. Strings never thick and slushy, woodwind given enough room to breathe, brass precise, timpani rock hard. It is the difference between the way you might see an Old Master, badly hung, in the wrong room, of some C19 artistic mausoleum, centuries of filth accumulated on varnish, cracked, colours faded,  and the way you might see the same work, restored rehung, with space and light aplenty, and notes which illuminate not patronise. The joy of rediscovery. The difference between a mediocre and a great performance in a concert hall is easily to tell even if you know nothing about the music. The audience will be still and silent. Sometimes though there is something more, a connection between music, performer and audience that fills the very air.

I felt this here. Or maybe it was just there were fewer people with more invested in the performance. Either way it was a triumph. The Fourth, like the Second last year, couldn’t be dismissed as a happy-go-lucky, lithe cousin of the muscular, growling, Eroica hero that they sandwich. The first movement, marked Adagio-Allegro vivace, is, for my money, one of the finest passages of music Beethoven ever wrote. The painful opening, the booming timpani and giant string chords which conclude it, the uneasy Adagio which follows punctuated by more big chords, the double repeated scherzo theme, a dance but with something lurking in the woodshed, and then the perpetuum mobile finale, which is almost too jolly. Indeed Beethoven scores it that way, a palpable sense of anxiety pervades the whole symphony. It needs a conductor alive to the Goth inside the symphony’s Pop, and its subtleties cannot contemplate too big a sound. Mr Ades is that man. The slow movement Adagio was, and I didn’t expect to use this word about these interpretations, sublime.

I get why 2, 4 and 8 are see as lightweights compared to 3, 5, 7 and 9, the keys, the structures, the moods, the context, but I think it is a shame to get caught up in this convention. The Fourth symphony in particular is as great as its more famous peers. So how would this conductor and the BS render the Fifth anew. Remember the Fifth, (once it got over the infamous disastrous first night, alongside the Sixth, and a whole bunch of other stuff), changed the face of Western art music. Composer, and the performer from now on could be Artists. Everything would be bigger. More emotional. More, well, Romantic. Audience and commentators were now at liberty to hear, think and write all manner of the over the top guff about “serious” music. For that we should probably throttle LvB but the Fifth is just so extraordinary, however many times you hear it, that we’ll permit him the excess.

I expected the BS and Thomas Ades to absolutely nail this and they did. Familiarity can breed contempt. Or it can, as here, promote shared understanding. Everyone on and off stage was able to revel in Beethoven’s astounding invention. If I ever hear a better interpretation I’ll be as a happy a man as I was here. The opening allegro, four notes, infinitely varied, needs no introduction, tee hee, it being the most famous introduction to a piece of music ever. I suppose some might tire of the repetition. Not me. Especially with no unnecessary repeat. The double variation of the Andante, which fits perfectly together ying and yang style, was ever so slightly less impressive but the Scherzo and the magnificent finale were glorious. As in the prior performances you hear everything, no detail is obscured, nothing is too loud or two soft. This means that, along with the “classical-modern” sound of the BS and the “right” calls on repeats that the architecture of Beethoven’s creation is fully revealed, from micro to macro scale.

With Mr Ades and the BS having nailed the detail, shape and rhythm of the symphonies to date, I wondered how they would cope with the Pastoral. Maybe this, with its plain programmatic elements, wrapped its more gentle cloak, expressing all that utopian, Arcadian, rural idyll fluff that art conjured up as a salve to assuage guilt about industrialisation and urbanisation, would be the symphony where Mr Ades’s precise, vigorous approach might come unstuck.

Nope. For choice this might have been marginally less exciting than the rest of the cycle, the precision and heightened differentiation between instruments robbing a little of the warmth from LvB’s narrative. I’ll take the trade though when it results, for example, in the most thrilling storm I have ever heard, double basses thrumming, timpani thwacking. It also means the opening Allegro, which can doodle on a bit, saw variety emerge from the repetition. Nature untroubled by Man. Messaien would have purred at the birdsong emerging from woodwind in the Andante. And, in the finale, we heard the relief of real shepherds, not a bunch of embarrassed house servants dolled up by their lords and masters. Most Romantic plastic art is as schmaltzy as the Neo-Classical flummery that proceeded it, but there is some which sees the world for what it is, not want artist and patron wanted it to be. And some of it, Constable, in his sketches and watercolours, and, in his own darker way, Goya, could eschew history, violent nature and dramatic landscape, and showed more of the working reality of rural life. This Pastoral was in a similar vein. I now this all sounds like a load of poncey bollocks, but hopefully you get the gist.

Moving on. You remember those nights out in the pub, with your mates, talking sh*te and putting the world to rights. Of course you don’t. You were hammered. But you do remember it was a bloody good night out and things might have got a bit raucous and out of hand. Argument and love. Well Gerard Barry’s Piano Concerto, here receiving its London premiere, is the musical equivalent of one of those nights. Nicholas Hodges was basically asked to man-handle, (at one point literally, playing with his forearms), the piano and to get into a scrap with the orchestra. As the punches swung it got funnier though 20 minutes was probably enough. Some of the piano passages were more conciliatory but only in the way a drunk bloke (the woodwind) tries to calm his even more drunk mate (the brass) down a bit. It ends with some childish tinkles. It isn’t in Romantic concerto form, played straight through with no obvious structure, it has two wind machines, (here not amplified as expected, a shame), there is no real interplay between orchestra and soloist, just opposition, it is abrasive, chromatic and gets pretty loud. I reckon Vivaldi might have come up with something like this if he were around today.

In short it is a piece of music by Gerard Barry. I am sure he is nothing like this is reality, and I am being borderline xenophobic, but I see him as the musical equivalent of Samuel Beckett, the very definition of cussed. I am going to have to find a way into recordings of his music, probably after this time next year, as it is just too funny and punk to ignore. Mr Hodges is an expert in this dynamic modernism, having recording and performed the likes of Birtwhistle, Rihm, Carter and, indeed, Thomas Ades himself.

Mind you if I thought the Piano Concerto was a bit in-yer-face bonkers I was in for an even bigger surprise with The Conquest of Ireland. This is set to a text from Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrinus translated by A. Scott and F.X. Martin. Cambrinus was a Welsh writer and cleric in the twelfth century who hooked up with the army which invaded Ireland. The piece is marked quaver = 192 which I gather is pretty enthusiastic but Mr Barry then marks it “frenetic” and “NOT SLOWER” just in case we missed it. The brave soloist, here Joshua Bloom, is nominally a bass but he gets up to all sorts of pyrotechnics as he sings/speaks/growls/squawks the entirely unmusical words. It is basically detailed descriptions, written in a somewhat pompous style, of the bearing and appearance of seven Welsh soldiers. There is just one short throw-away line which dismisses the native Irish as barbarians. Mr Barry has composed intense, passionate, exuberant music to contrast this prosaic prose (!). Bass clarinet, marimba, winds and brass in combination, percussion, all got a work out. It is sardonic, in the way that I now see that so much of Mr Barry’s music is, but it certainly provokes a reaction and makes you think.

Anyway back to the performers. The Britten Sinfonia are my favourite musical ensemble. The others I regularly get to see, the LSO, the LPO, London Sinfonietta, the AAM and the OAE, are all, of course, excellent, and there are international orchestras that can blow my socks off when they visit, but it is the BS which consistently educates and surprises me. And Thomas Ades, IMHO, is now the closest thing to the immortal Benjamin Britten, that I can think of. Composer, performer, conductor. Equally gifted.

Oh and a final plea. This time to the ROH or ENO. A Fidelio. With Thomas Ades conducting. And Simon McBurney directing. I’ll wait.

 

Van Gogh and Japan exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum review ****

van_gogh_-_blc3bchende_mandelbaumzweige

Van Gogh and Japan

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, 18th May 2018

There is an episode of the recent excellent BBC series Civilisations, on the history of art, where the presenter Simon Schama explores Japanese woodblock prints from the C!8 and C19 and shows their impact on the Western art canon. We often assume that the revolution in figurative art that came with Impression, Neo-Impressionism and Post Impressionism was born from the societies in which it flourished especially France, (VvG came to Paris in 1886), with some link back to greats  from the past, Turner, Delacroix and Courbet. Subjects changed, colour and and the depiction of light intensified, artist got out a bit more. You don’t normally hear about how the flood of art from Japan influenced the way these chaps, (mostly chaps as always), saw their world.

This exhibition seeks to show the link between Van Gogh specifically, (it being the Van Gogh museum), and Japanese art but it does rather ram home the connection. Van Gogh collected Japanese prints like they were going out of fashion, which they so weren’t Japonisme being all the rage, so you get to see plenty of his 600 strong own collection, augmented with other jewels from the likes of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, contrasted with van Gogh’s own landscapes and other work. There’s even some fascinating direct copies by VvG of Japanese subjects, a bridge and, you guessed it, some blossom on a plum tree. And the exquisite van Gogh shown above is topped by its near neighbour in the exhibition, a bull finch hanging upside down on cherry tree branches by Hokusai. It is breathtakingly beautiful. You can get it as an I-Phone case. Not quite the same.

Oil paint might substitute for woodcut print ink but the same notion of perspective and dynamic, panoramic landscape leaps out. The thoughtful look in portraiture. The attempts to capture the detail of nature. Bold colours, uncluttered composition, clear lines, cropping. Your response might not be quite the same, reflecting the cultural history imposed upon you, but the ideas and impulses that underpin Impressionism, and the reasons why we can’t get enough of it, are uncannily similar. Van Gogh may not be as pretty-pretty as the generation that proceeded him but we punters can still intuitively grasp what he was about even when he had a bad day, which was most days poor fella.

The famous Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear which we lucky Londoners can normally see in the Courtauld Gallery has a Torakiyo print of Mount Fuji on the wall. Van Gogh wasn’t alone. There is a Manet portrait of Zola with a sumo picture lurking in the background and Whistler brought the craze to London and copied it in his nocturnes.

Yet the differences are also striking. Oil paint adds texture. The woodcuts are flat. Van Gogh’s world is filled with unease, the Japanese masters exude calm (or am I just lazily stereotyping). Style contrasts with substance. Japanese art is steeped in the collective, in reverence for history and nature. Van Gogh peers at the individual and confronts head on the past and the world around him. Van Gogh is utterly devoid of irony or humour. He was, as we know, a serious fellow. The Japanese work was made to sell, (especially to us gullible gaijin), without his brother VvG would have been f*cked economically and artistically. That is why he is tortured genius personified. That, and the mental illness, a source of prurient audience fascination even as his descendants stewarded his work.

So the exhibition succeeds in showing the historical link between the two artistic cultures and the part Japan played in changing the direction of Western art. The questions art poses are universal even if the answers can vary through time and place. That is why VvG was taken with the idea of bringing his fellow artists together in some sort of Zennish brotherhood collective. The Occident and the Orient has been patronising each other for many hundreds of years. It also shows both the socio-economic and historical differences between the two worlds.

What it doesn’t do is show the actual art of either Van Gogh or the Japanese masters to best effect. Van Gogh, perhaps more than any other canonic Western artist, jumps off the canvas and wrestles the viewer to the ground. Old boot, chair, field, self, man, woman, flowers, vase. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you cannot not stare. Of course you can whizz through like so many punters were doing in the main collection as it filled up. (I got in the queue on the opening – they have slot times now – and bounded up – well took the lift actually – to the top floor which I had moreorless to myself for twenty minutes or so). Even the cultural tickers and phone clickers though get pulled up by something from van Gogh.

In contrast the Japanese prints need a bit of proper looking. That takes time. When some hulking VvG landscape is lurking nearby they get pummelled. No matter. There are just so many astounding things to see in this exhibition that it doesn’t really matter if you accept or reject the message of cultural globalisation. Just enjoy.

Describe the Night at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

nonperson

Describe The Night

Hampstead Theatre, 23rd May 2018

In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Describe the Night hasn’t gone down too well with the London critics. The SO and I think they might have missed a trick. It is ambitious, ranging across several periods of Soviet and post Soviet Russian history, with a fairly cavalier approach to naturalism, and mixes fact and fiction, real and imagined events. Its workshop-py creative methodology shows through, but it was for us highly effective and enlightening. We’ve seen a fair few other plays that have fallen far shorter, despite their more limited intent. So hats off to Rajiv Joseph the writer for giving this a go. I see he won an OBIE, off Broadway award, for best new play with this. That’s probably a bit generous, (or New York is lamentably short of new work which I refuse to believe), but it’s proof that this isn’t the disappointment some have claimed it to be.

Polly Sullivan’s design sees a cliff wall of grey metal filing cabinets punctuated with a raised corridor and spiral staircase down to a dark open space with a couple of spindly birches. This, with some nifty work from Johanna Town’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s sound, serves as backdrop for an underground KGB/NKVD filing room, an interrogation room, a minicab office, a plush Moscow apartment, a sparsely furnished flat and a forest exterior. The action kicks off in Poland in 1920 during the Russo-Polish war, (a conflict itself near forgotten), where we meet Isaac Emmauilovich Babel played by Ben Caplin and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov played by David Birrell. Both actors are superb by the way.

Now Babel was a writer whose stories about his childhood and this war were initially feted by the Soviet authorities but who was eventually arrested, his work confiscated, and he was executed in 1940. Yezhov was a small man, a party functionary, who drank to excess, but rose to become a favourite of Stalin and head of the NKVD through the Great Purge. Eventually though he fell foul of Stalin, his wife Yevgenia Solomonovna Feigenburg (Rebecca O’Mara) was arrested, and he too was executed in 1940, despite trying to save his skin by ratting on his friends including Babel. The photos above show how he was famously “non-person-ned” out of history.

The two meet in a forest near Smolensk as Babel is trying to “describe the night” around him. The literal Yezhov has very little of the poet about him, Babel relishes metaphor,  and the two debate the nature of facts and truth. They strike up a firm, if unlikely, friendship. We move forward to 1930s Moscow where we see Babel, whose estranged wife is in Paris, begin his affair with Yevgenia, (which, in reality, had started earlier before she married Yezhov). In the next scene we have whizzed forward to 2010 and Smolensk, where the plane taking the Polish president, his wife and various political and military elite to the commemoration of the Katyn massacre of 1940, has just crashed. Journalist Mariya (Wendy Kweh) is looking to evade the police and enlists the help of Feliks (Joel MacCormack) to made good her escape so she can tell the story.

For those that don’t know the crash is still the subject of conspiracy theories, despite the Polish and Russian authorities concluding it was down to human error, and the Katyn massacre saw the murder of some 22000 Polish military and intelligentsia by the NKVD, although Soviet authorities only finally admitted this in 2010 having previously blamed the Nazis.

We also seen Wendy Kweh as cantankerous Mrs Petrovna and her “daughter” Urzula, played by newcomer Siena Kelly, living in Dresden in 1989. Urzula wants to escape to the West. They have come to the attention of Vova, extravagantly played by Steve John Shepherd, who you might know as one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We see our putative Putin rewriting his own history in a confrontation with Yezkov, who has “lived on” to control the files of the NKVD/KGB. The real Putin’s early history is somewhat uncertain. Urzula may be the grand-daughter of the illegitimate child of Babel and Yevgenia, who ended up in an asylum thanks to Yezkov, unable to distinguish Babel’s stories from her own memory. Vova also interrogates, unpleasantly, Mariya, mirroring Yezkov’s interrogation of Babel.

And so the stories weave together and what is true and what is fiction becomes ever more uncertain. Babel’s diary, started in 1920, becomes the physical link between the “scenes”. Some have seen parallels in th eplay with other contemporary regimes alongside Russia where the truth is routinely manipulated. Rajiv Joseph is after all an American playwright. There is certainly much to ponder on from Mr Joseph’s particular narratives. and from his mix of fact and fiction, with even some magic realism thrown in, (never be tempted to drink leech soup). History has always been uncertain, from the moment it is “made”. Leaders and states have always sought to confound “truth”. limited only by their shame and intelligence, or lack thereof. The multiplicity of viewpoint that curses our contemporary digital world might seem like it has “never been as bad as this” but it has, as this century of Russian “history”, shows us. People lie. History is rewritten. Truth is fiction and fiction truth where only art might be trusted. The scale of Russia’s current strategy of disinformation may be exaggerated by technology but it certainly isn’t novel.

We thought that Rajiv Joseph’s text and Lisa Spirling’s (AD of Theatre 503) unhurried direction turned into an invigorating display of these “realities”. The cast all seem to have adopted a slightly forced quality in their delivery, which is though entirely consistent with the structure of the play and the world it inhabits. The “workshopped” construction, this version is different from its NYC cousin, does sometimes mean the pace eases ever so slightly, and the play is, perforce, disjointed, but the rewards more than justify this. (I am much happier saying this about Describe the Night than Maly Theatre’s Life and Fate, a similar dramatic exploration of Russian history). There is dark humour throughout. I can imagine a more fleet-footed production, (Stoppard and Kushner, also writers who relish the interplay of ideas and theatre, similarly need momentum), but the play is already asking a fair bit from its audience, (there is definitely a case for reading the excellent HT programme in advance), so a less stagey approach might risk confusion.

For the moment though this is well worth the effort. There are a few performances left at the HT but I have a feeling this will come back in some form or other and will be a “grower” whose reputation will grow with time. Not everything is what it initially seems maybe.

PS. The foyer of the HT contains some of the material from David King’s splendid collection of Soviet graphic art and photographs which formed the backbone of the recent excellent Tate Modern exhibition. There are a few links below to reviews of other cultural events that plough a similar furrow. Treat yourself.

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****

Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

The War Has Not Yet Started at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

The Death of Stalin film review ****

Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****

 

 

 

 

 

Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre review *****

mayfly_2

Mayfly

Orange Tree Theatre, 21st May 2018

A play set in a rural location about a family processing grief. Not a million miles away from the not entirely successful Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre I hear you clamour. (Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre review ***). Well yes after a fashion. Joe White’s debut play though benefits, unlike Nightfall, from its location, in the round in the intimate OT space, and because its writing is tighter, funnier and more affecting. This may not be the most innovative play in terms of form and subject that you will ever see but it is a mightily polished effort which marks Joe White out as another talent to add to the list of young British playwrights.

Harry, (a disarmingly genuine performance from Irfan Shamji), works in a rural pub that is closing down. He encounters the plainly damaged pig farmer Ben (Simon Scardifield) trying to take his own life in the river. It is a Sunday in early May in Shropshire. (There are allusions to Housman, Auden and even Breughel through the play. Mr White clearly knows his elegiac English, and Flemish, onions). Loops, played superbly by Evelyn Hoskins, “hard as fuck me”, remembers Harry from some school cadet trip and means to make him her boyfriend. Cat, played by Niky Wardley, completing the quartet of marvellous actors, is lonely and makes an embarrassing pass at Harry in the pub. We soon see that Ben and Cats marriage is stressed to breaking point and immature daughter Loops is trapped. Their pain stems from the death of their young lad, Adam, son and brother. Harry gets sucked in when he comes to eat with them. He too is grieving. Some, limited, catharsis follows. The End.

All in one day. Like the life of the mayfly. The play works because Mr White is neither afraid of, nor forces through, the emotional core at the heart of his story and because it is very funny, more so than many comedies you might see. The naturalistic lilt of the character’s speech is expertly captured but there is still room for telling metaphor. The crumbling of the social and economic fabric in rural areas lurks in the background mirroring the household’s breakdown. When the pub goes all that will remain will be a Spar and a betting shop.

Mayfly is sympathetically directed here by Guy Jones, one of Paul Miller’s proteges at the OT, and the set from Cecile Tremolieres is inventive, (as it was for Suzy Storck at the Gate last year). I’d be surprised if this play doesn’t pop up again elsewhere and I certainly recommend tracking Mr White’s career. The plot here is just occasionally derivative. With a bigger and more complex idea I reckon he might surprise, big time.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Barbican Hall review ***

beethoven-missasolemnis-manuscript

London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas, Camilla Tilling (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone)

Barbican Hall, 20th May 2018

Beethoven – Missa Solemnis

Hard to believe that the scruffy scrawl above is from the hand of the greatest ever composer in one of his greatest ever works. At least he thought so. And so does Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor Laureate of the LSO, judging by the number of times he has taken it on.

I am not so sure though and find myself siding with Adorno on this. This will probably be the one and only time I can make this absurdly pretentious claim since, however hard I try, I cannot understand a word of what the Frankfurt School of Marxist critical theory was about, though the intellectual posturer in me dearly wishes I did. I would love to know a lot about a lot, or even a lot about a little bit of what there is to know. Instead I am doomed to know a little bit about very little.

The thing is there isn’t much of the theme and variation repetition thing than Beethoven took to unparalleled heights (at least until The Fall and Wire came along) in the Missa Solemnis. The giant fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo provide me with some structural understanding, and connect with other late works like the piano sonatas and string quartets, but otherwise there is quite a lot of, well, Romantic meanderings.

Now it is Beethoven with massed choral forces offering up a Mass on a scale comparable with the Choral Symphony so it can’t all be bad. And it isn’t. There are stills scraps of cracking tunes which are explored in imitation to conjure up the goose-bump feel that the earlier masters of polyphony managed. Especially in the second half of the Gloria, the middle of the Credo and the beginning of the Sanctus. But there just isn’t the overarching structure to help my little head stay happy. LvB intended to complete the MS for his patron and mate, Archduke Rudolph, who was receiving some honour or other in March 1820. He missed the deadline so didn’t actually complete it until 1823 just ahead of the Ninth. Maybe that changed it.

The LSO chorus is now so bonkersly brilliant that it sort of didn’t matter when they were belting it out. Especially in the soprano section. And, like I say, MTT knows his way around the score. The soloists seemed well matched to me, though I would marginally take Sasha Cooke’s mezzo and Toby Spence’s tenor over Camilla Tilling’s soprano and Luca Pisaroni’s bass-baritone.

I will keep trying but I don’t think I will ever fully succumb to the MS. Whisper it but I am happier listening to the Mass in C which, as Beethovian experts will tell you, leaves me on the nursery slopes and forever banished from the pistes. So be it. Vita summa brevis.

 

 

Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

vasilij_grossman2c_1945

Life and Fate

Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 20th May 2018

The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg was founded in 1944 and is one of just three European theatre companies to have been awarded the title Theatre of Europe from the EU. (No I didn’t grasp the geography of that either). The company has been led by Lev Dodin since 1983 and is renowned for its Russian adaptations of theatrical classics and for its examination of the paradoxes and realities of culture, society, life and politics in the Soviet Union. The relationship between culture and government in Russia continues to fascinate me and I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see Theatre with a capital T come to London.

Life and Fate was premiered in Paris in 2007 and is based on the epic novel by Vasily Grossman, pictured above, which documents the life of the Shtrum family through the 1930s and WWII in Soviet Russia. Vasily Grossman was born in 1905, a Jew in Ukraine, and initially trained and worked as a chemical engineer. He took up writing full time after his one of his short stories In the Town of Berdichev attracted attention. In the 1930s he just about managed to stay the right side of the authorities, in contrast to many of his peers, but in 1938 his wife was taken into custody following the arrest of her ex-husband. He became a renowned war correspondent and was one of the first to enter Ukraine following its liberation, only to find his mother, and indeed the whole Jewish population of his hometown Berdichev, had been murdered by the Nazis. Ukrainian complicity in the genocide was covered up.

This personal history provided the material for Life and Fate which VG sought to get published in the thaw that followed Stalin’s death. However the manuscript was seized by the KGB and pronounced unpublishable for at least 200 years. After VG’s death in 1964 a secret copy was smuggled out and eventually published in Switzerland in 1980 and, finally, following Glasnost, in Russia though still with some passages removed.

It is then a Book with a capital B of immense significance. It is also a whopper extending to near 800 pages, echoing War and Peace. In another of the now not uncommon marital coincidences chez Tourist the SO has it near the top of her to-read list having been recently drawn into the world of investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who also shines a light on Soviet and post Soviet life, albeit more recent decades. Unusually it was me that recommended her books. The cultural division of labour, with the SO doing the hard work of reading and writing, and me the easy jobs of seeing and hearing, art, theatre and music, is thus alive and kicking in the Tourist household.

Condensing down this work into three and a half hours of theatre must have been some undertaking, taking time (3 years in fact), effort, research and immersion. The play starts in 1943 after a prominent physicist, Viktor Shtrum, returns to Moscow and the Institute he works in. He lives in a flat with wife Lyuda, and schoolgirl daughter Nadya. Lyuda’s son from her first marriage, Tolya, has been killed in the war. Her first husband Abarchuk is a political prisoner in the gulag along with Krymov, the ex-husband of Lyuda’s sister Zhenya who comes to stay with the Shtrums.

The Soviet labour camp also houses another political prisoner Monidze and criminals Barkhatov and Ugarov. Their plight is contrasted with the prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, Mostovskoy, Ikonnikov, Ershov and Osipov, overseen by SS officer Liss. There are scenes set in the Battle of Stalingrad with tank Colonel Norikov who is Zheya’s lover, his number two Getmanov and a runner Vershikov, and in the Moscow Institute with colleagues of varying political committment, Sevastnov, Sokolov, Shishakov and Kovchenko.

Fortunately there is no doubling up and the programme notes are excellent in providing context. For the scenes do deliberately mesh into each other, with some very well choreographed rearrangement of the set, and actors from one location often remain on stage when others take the lead. The chronology is also fluid and the presence of Victor’s dead mother Anna is made flesh in the most moving laments in between key scenes.

All this is intended to point up the equivalence between the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and in this the play overwhelmingly succeeds. Viktor is Jewish and this leads to his ostracism and expulsion from the Institute as the policies of nationalism and anti-semitism infect Stalin’s regime in ways that mirror the more overt ideology of its enemy. If Viktor repents and confesses he might be able to save himself and his family, and continue with his work, but only if he abandons the truth and his identity.

And then along comes the fickle finger of fate as Stalin himself rings up and “wishes him success in his work”. It seems Viktor is the key to unlocking a nuclear bomb for the Soviets. He is safe. Life goes on. Except that the horror around him doesn’t stop. And Viktor is eventually faced with signing a letter that he knows will condemn dissidents to death.

It is an immense journey which in many ways is cleverly captured on this smallish proscenium stage. BUT it is very Actorly and very Speechy. Declamation is the go to style of delivery and this, compounded by the subject, makes for a gruelling evening. I was fortunately promoted to a much better seat, sightlines being untenable in my normal cheapskate TRH perch This exaggerated the staginess and meant a fair bit of my attention was lavished on the sur-titles for Francine Yorke’s translation. Now, I hear you cry, what did you expect going to see an epic set in the darkest period of the C20 delivered in Russian. Elf the Musical? Well no, I get that this did, to all intents and purposes, do exactly what it said on the can but I do think the production, not the material of course, tended to the overly grandiose.

I would find it invidious to pick out any of the cast or creative team for particular praise though you cannot deny the sheer presence of Sergey Kuryshev as Viktor and Tatiana Shestakova as Anna. I was also struck by Daria Rumyanantseva as Nadia, Alexander Koshkarev as Shishakov and Oleg Dmitriev as Liss but like I say this is large-scale, and I mean large, ensemble acting which I rarely see.

I feel unworthy saying this but the point of this blog is to record what I see, hear and learn. I have no doubt though that the next time one of the major Russian theatre companies comes to London I will be there. As with the visit of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia last year (Smile Upon Us Lord review at the Barbican Theatre review ***) the style may not grab me, the stories obviously do. And I am grateful to those who financed this visit. Anything that promotes mutual understanding of our histories must surely be valuable.

Christoph Sietzen and the Wave Quartet at the Concertgebouw review ****

11611295963_46a7279b5a_o

Christoph Sietzen, Wave Quartet (Bogdan Bacanu, Vladi Petrov, Emiko Uchiyama, Christoph Sietzen)

Het Concert-Gebouw, Recital Hall, 16th May 2018

  • Emmanuel Séjourné – Attraction for marimba, vibraphone and tape
  • Iannis Xenakis – Part B (from ‘Rebonds’) for percussion
  • J.S. Bach/Brahms – Chaconne (from Second Partita in D, BWV 1004) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimba
  • Stewart Copeland – Sheriff of Luxembourg for marimba, percussion and tape
  • Ivan Boumans – The Cloth, op. 140 (encore) for percussion
  • Josh Groban – The Wandering Kind (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • J.S. Bach – Allegro (from Concerto in C, BWV 1061a) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – La muerte del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Oblivion (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Reentko Dirks – Danza non Danza (arr. The Wave Quartet) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Milonga del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Libertango (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Tamacun (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Juan Loco (arr. The Wave Quartet) (encore) for marimbas

OK so I confess I was a captive buyer for this. This was what was on in the Concertgebouw on the night I was there. There were a few other tourists in the same boat, and a healthy contingent of local Amsterdammers. Which, even in the smaller, though still resplendent recital hall, made up a full house. The recital hall, in full blown neo-classical style, is topped by a rotunda with the names of the Romantic greats immortalised, and some not-so-greats as well.

Anyway whilst I didn’t know the percussionist Christoph Sietzen, and the crack marimba team of which he is a member, the Wave Quartet, this programme intrigued. In particular the Xenakis, who is near the top of my further investigation list, the Bach and the Piazzolla. The programme consisted of the first five pieces for solo percussion with Mr Sietzen and then the pieces for the entire quartet, largely arranged by Ms Uchiyama. Bogdan Bacanu, who might just be the most accomplished marimba player ever, and certainly its greatest advocate, was a child prodigy and went on to teach the other three members, amongst others, in Linz and Salzburg I believe. He is also responsible for the Bach arrangements, which are completely faithful to the originals.

Remember there are a lot of works by Bach that weren’t necessarily written for specific instruments but its a fairly safe supposition that he didn’t have a percussion instrument in mind when he set down the pieces here. On the other hand the marimba, which is by some way the most expressive and dynamically sophisticated of the percussion stable, ranging across 4 or 5 octaves, even if its timbre is so particular, isn’t too far away from the harpsichord in terms of effect. It is, as we see here, becoming increasing popular in contemporary classical music and the technical proficiency of playing has come on in leaps and bounds in part thanks to Mr Bacanu.

The first piece was by Emmanuel Sejourne who is the pre-eminent composer for marimba and vibraphone and a world renowned player. It was originally written for violin and marimba but here Mr Sietzen substituted violin with a vibraphone. I have to say it was impressive though I might have preferred to here it later on once I had adjusted to the marimba sounds. Even so it is breathtaking to hear what is possible for these instruments.

Xenakis composed two pieces for solo percussion, this piece Rebonds, and Psappha. It isn’t much of a surprise given the composer’s mastery of rhythm and structure but it is genuinely mind-boggling in its complexity. There are two movements in Rebonds. Mr Sietzen only played Part B, a shame as I would love to have heard Part A as well. It is scored for two bongos, one tumba, one tom-tom, one bass drum and a set of five wood blocks or wooden slats. Xenakis leaves some decisions on the score to the performer, all part of the mathematics of his music, (remember he was architect, engineer and mathematician as well as composer and not averse to shunting the laws of physics into his work). Xenakis is so far beyond what I understand in music but, trust me, the intensity of the rhythms here, despite the abstraction, still provokes a basic, primal reaction which needs no maths degree. You will laugh at me, but if you have listened through a John Bonham drum solo in Moby Dick (Google it kids), you will understand, though this is way more sophisticated than Bonzo thrashing away.

I took the opportunity to listen to Psappha. Amazing.

You will likely know the Bach Chaconne from the Violin Partita No 2 which Brahms amongst others transcribed for the piano left hand. (There is a YouTube performance by Danile Trifonov no less if you are interested and if you want the violin original please listen to Rachel Podger’s recording). I am not going to pretend that this marimba version matches that but it is still absolutely the same beautiful piece of music and shows astonishing virtuosity.

The Stewart Copeland piece, which was commissioned for Mr Sietzen, was a little less convincing by comparison to what else was on offer in this recital but was pleasant enough. Mr Copeland, for you youngsters who regard this as ancient history, was the drummer for popular English beat combo The Police in the 1980s, whose cod-reggae sound should never have worked, and never have been as popular, but it did, and it was. Mr Copeland has gone on to write film and game soundtracks and some classical compositions including this. Prior to the Police he was manager and drummer for Curved Air for those of you with an unhealthy interest in progressive jazz-rock. (Never ever get into conversation with me about Soft Machine).

After Mr Sietzen’s marvellous show of musical, and physical, prowess in the first half we might have expected something more sedate after the interval. No way Jose. (That being a reference to the Latin fuelled energy of the last few pieces). The Wave Quartet were decked out in bright red shirts, think Kraftwerk circa Man Machine without the black skinny ties and Fascist undertones.

There are many areas of music which are a complete mystery to me. I had never heard of Josh Groban before. Apparently he is a big noise though in the popera world. I can happily maintain my aloof indifference on the basis of this piece.

The second Bach piece is arranged from the first movement Allegro two harpsichord version of the Concerto BWV 1061 for the same instruments. So each of the four marimbas players with their two mallets (called knobs) in each hand is effectively one hand of the score. Given that the harpsichord notes can’t really sustain there is sound logic (literally) to transcribe to marimbas. It works, though I am not sure I would turn to this again in a hurry. I can’t deny Mr Bacanu’s dedication in adapting Bach in this way. I see the Wave Quartet have recorded the other harpsichord concerto arrangements with orchestra.

Astor Piazzolla was the genius Argentine who meshed the tango, the Baroque and jazz into a fresh and exciting musical world in the 1950s and 1960s. I can see exactly why the Wave Quartet would want to play these pieces. You will definitely know the Libertango. (I first heard in I’ve Seen That Face Before by Grace Jones). You will think you know the other pieces. The arrangements didn’t seem too complex which meant the Wave Quartet could pull of all sorts of flourishes. They were having a ball and so was the audience. The Reentko Dirks and Sanchez/Quintero pieces, originally for guitar, have similar heritage, with the final Juan Loco seeing young Vladi Petrov showing off on a simple beat box drum. Cheesy but undeniably joyous.

There you have it. A celebration of just what percussion can do and a salutary reminder not to get bogged down in serious classical music.