Ensemble 10/10 explore Europe’s 20th century fault lines

Ensemble 10/10 explore Europe’s 20th century fault lines

In the gilded elegance of the Concert Room in St Georges Hall last week, Ensemble 10/10 led a small but enthusiastic audience on a journey through the aesthetic and  political fault lines that shattered 20th century Europe.

As always, Ensemble 10/10 – a splinter group from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – was led by Clark Rundell, who always communicates energy and enthusiasm for the pieces on the programme. I like these occasions for Rundell’s concise, informed introductions to each work, and because I get to hear music that is challenging and which I met never otherwise get to hear.

For example, the main event at last week’s concert was to be the world première of Bosnian Voices by Nigel Osborne, unknown to me at that point, whose new work sets to music verses composed by people of all faiths and backgrounds from the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia. Continue reading “Ensemble 10/10 explore Europe’s 20th century fault lines”

The Rest Is Noise: Britten and Shostakovitch cornered

The Rest Is Noise: Britten and Shostakovitch cornered

shostakovich and britten

Dmitri Shostakovich (left) and Benjamin Britten in 1966

Last Friday evening Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic treated Liverpudlians to a preview of a concert that was to be repeated two nights later as part of The Rest is Noise festival, the series of concerts and events bringing to life Alex Ross’s survey of 20th-century music that has been running at London’s Southbank Centre throughout 2013.

The concert featured three pieces, all from the  early 1970s – Luciano Berio’s Four Versions of the Retreat from Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid, Benjamin Britten’s Suite from his opera Death in Venice, and Dimitri Shostakovich’s last Symphony, the Fifteenth.  Britten’s opera was first performed in June 1973, and the programme notes helpfully highlighted some musical landmarks of 1973 (including the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon on 1 March) and provided a box headed, ‘1972 in context’. In that year, the context included such milestones as: British unemployment exceeding 1 million for the first time since the 1930s, the introduction of Access credit cards, and the UK joining the EEC.

The implication of this information was that the pieces we were hearing somehow reflected their time.  It’s possible, I suppose, though not in the sense of commenting directly on current political or social concerns in the way that Pink Floyd’s album set out to do.  A more likely way in which these works by Britten and Shostakovitch suggest their time might be found in the observation by Alex Ross that:

Both men seem almost to have been born with a feeling of being cornered.  Even in works of their teenage years, they appear to be experiencing spasms of existential dread.  They were grown men with the souls of gifted, frightened children.

The two composers had been firm friends since the mid-1960s, each living a marginalized existence within his own culture and wrestling with an acute personal dilemma.  For Britten, pacifist and homosexual who lived openly with Peter Pears his personal and professional partner, this was not his sexuality per se , but his longing for the company of underage males. For Shostakovitch, it was his precarious position in relation to Soviet cultural demands and a lifetime of denunciations by and personal accommodations with the Soviet communism that tormented him.  Ross remarks:

Britten’s psychological landscape, with its undulating contours of fear and guilt, its fault lines and crevasses, its wan redeeming light, made Shostakovitch feel at home.

1972 was the year in which Britten was composing the opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice; it was the year, too, in which Shostakovitch – then 66 years old and in constant pain from various illnesses that included heart trouble, lung cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease – finally made the journey to the Red House in Aldeburgh, where Britten and Pears had lived and worked from 1957.  In his book, Ross tells how Britten allowed his friend and fellow-composer to see the score of what was to be his final opera, Death in Venice, something that Britten usually kept utterly private.

Britten and Pears

Benjamin Britten (left) with tenor Peter Pears in 1946.

So, what of the music and the performances?  Each one of these three pieces was entirely new to me, but it was clear that the evening was another triumph for Vasily Petrenko as the Phil’s Chief Conductor, and there were excellent performances by the RLPO musicians, especially from those in command of the extensive battery of percussion and timpani ranged across the stage.  For each of these pieces require a lot of percussion (I realised that in programming a concert, making economical use of the soloists you have marshalled is as much a factor as thematic or musical considerations).  There were castanets and kettle drums the fore in the opening piece by Luciano Berio, written in 1975 but modelled on an 18th century work by Boccherini that depicts the Madrid city watch at midnight curfew hour, the music growing louder as the watch draws closer, then dying away as the parade passes (reminding me of ‘Saeta’, the processional piece from the Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain.

Percussion in the form of bells, vibraphone, glockenspiels, xylophones, gong and timpani – pervaded the score of the Britten piece, reflecting the powerful impact which hearing Balinese gamelan music had had on Britten a decade earlier.  The Suite from Death in Venice is accepted as being one of the most impassioned and poignant pieces of Britten’s career:

Death in Venice, Britten’s last opera (1971-73), is in many respects his most personal, even confessional. Based on the novella by Thomas Mann, it tells of Aschenbach, an internationally-celebrated writer of austere lifestyle, who has dedicated himself to the Apollonian pursuit of beauty but seems to have lost inspiration and the capacity for feeling. He takes a holiday in Venice, where he becomes fascinated and obsessed by a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio (a non-singing role, portrayed by a dancer), whom he observes from afar. Although he learns that a fatal epidemic is rife in the city he stays on, giving himself up to his long-suppressed Dionysiac impulses and dies of the disease, finally admitting to himself that he loves the boy. Aschenbach recognizes and confronts his hitherto latent homosexuality in terms of anguish and eventual decay, and the opera – deeply effective and moving – appears as Britten’s own most direct statement concerning his own sexuality. As Britten was having heart surgery by the time of the first performances in June 1973, he was unable to attend, and responsibility for final realization of the score devolved onto the conductor, Steuart Bedford.
– Philharmonic programme notes

The opera was Britten’s most public statement of his long-term relationship with tenor Peter Pears, who originally performed the demanding lead role.  Like the character of Aschenbach, Britten died in middle age – in December 1976 – from heart failure brought on by tertiary syphilis, according to Benjamin Britten: A life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea, who records that as Britten exhausted himself on research for Death In Venice in 1971, he said to his assistant: “First of all I’ve got to finish this one, then there’s a big work, then an opera, and then I’ll be ill.”

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Britten’s great friend Shostakovich also died in middle age, writing his final symphony in 1971 at the age of 65 following a heart attack. The work is generally interpreted as the composer’s reflection on his life and music, which had been repeatedly – sometimes oppressively – overshadowed by Soviet politics. There are quotations from his earlier symphonies and other works by Rossini, Mahler and Wagner, and great opportunities for soloists to shine  – from the trumpet quoting the William Tell overture in the first movement to a beautiful cello passage in the second movement (that reminded me how much I love Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto) and clarinet and violin solos in the third.

Shostakovich’s last symphony was composed in July 1971 at a composers’ rest home in Repino, 20 miles north-west of Leningrad, and first performed in Moscow on 8 January 1972. Shostakovich died of lung cancer on 9 August 1975.

We had heard music by two composers, each one ‘born with a feeling of being cornered’ and living a marginalized existence within his own culture.  If there are any parallels with Pink Floyd’s phenomenally successful Dark Side of the Moon, they lie in the album’s central theme that flowed from the band’s loss of founder member and lyricist Syd Barrett as his mental state deteriorated.  An extended meditation on conflict, greed, insanity and death, the album contains the song which might be considered the theme for the decades to come:

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and your O.K.
Money it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviare, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team
Money get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off my stack.
Money it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the hi-fidelity first class travelling set
And I think I need a Lear jet
Money it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re
giving none away

And, finally, the album asks, who is sane, and who is really mad?

The lunatic is in the hall.
The lunatics are in my hall.
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more.

Rostropovich conducts Shostakovich Symphony No.15

Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten play Balinese Ceremonial Music

The Habit of Art

A disappointing evening at the Lowry, seeing Alan Bennett’s play, The Habit of Art, a theatrically complex piece, structured around an imagined late meeting between Benjamin Britten and WH Auden. Although there were flashes of laugh-out-loud humour, overall we found the play sprawling and rather tedious, with a particularly clunky last scene.

On stage we see a set within a set for a play within a play: in a rehearsal room, watched over by a playwright, observed and explained by a biographer of both Britten and Auden, we see the actors performing the inner play (called Caliban’s Day) on a set whose centrepiece is Auden’s study in the Brewhouse, a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, Oxford in the early 1970s.

This is a National Theatre touring production, directed by Nicholas Hytner (as was the much better play, The History Boys).  Benjamin Britten, played by Malcolm Sinclair, is struggling with his new opera, Death in Venice, that he fears might be sailing too close to the wind for his Aldeburgh audience with its theme of older man attracted to young boy (14 years old in Mann).  Britten seeks advice from his former collaborator and friend, Auden (Desmond Barrit). During this imagined meeting, their first for twenty-five years, they are observed from the wings, and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer (Humphrey Carpenter), the playwright and a rent boy hired by Auden.

The play promises to deal with many questions – being an artist, growing old, the ethics of biography, coming to terms with your homosexuality in a judgemental society, and the overlooked ‘Caliban’ ignored in accounts of great artists’ lives. But it doesn’t really work – the ‘Caliban’ idea seems particularly tacked on and undeveloped, while scenes in which Auden’s furniture – and even the lines on his fissured face – talk are, frankly, risible, even within the framing device.

It’s almost as if, having decided that his play has too many problems to solve, Bennett erected protective scaffolding around it by showing his initial playscript being rehearsed and commented upon.  Thus, any problems that the play has become opportunities for comedy; clunky lines, clumsy scenes or devices that don’t come off, can be passed off as ridiculous. Bennett seems to have admitted as much in an article in the London Review of Books.

The second act has the best scene, in which Britten and Auden discuss their varying approaches to their creative work. But even here, the issue ultimately turns upon the less universal and more inward-looking question of how they each deal with being gay, both in creating their art and in their personal lives.  The play closes with a deeply unsatisfying and clumsy final scene which suddenly brings the previously undeveloped character of Stuart the rent-boy, the ‘Caliban’ figure, centre stage in what Bennett has called a plea for recognition and acknowledgement of the outsider, the uninvited guest.