Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review: An Absorbing Schubert "Great" from Bavaria



Schubert: "Great" Symphony in C
Jansons/BRSO
BR Klassik

Here’s another live Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recording that makes you wish you’d been there. Schubert’s 7th, 8th, 9th or just “Great” Symphony (depending how you count) is given a straight forward but absorbing performance, very well played, bar an uncharacteristic moment of confusion in the acceleration out of the first movement’s introduction. Mariss Jansons chooses quick tempi, and it’s a sign of his good judgment that the fast movements move swiftly by without feeling hurried along, though the Andante is a little harried. This “Great” is light and cheery where others are burdened by darker things; it’s more like a massive escalation of Haydn than a premonition of Bruckner. And if that all sounds like the point has been missed, it hasn’t. It’s just that they’ve found a different point in this big box of possibilities.


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Read previous record reviews here.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Stalin's Favourite Stalin

The actor Mikheil Gelovani as Stalin in the film The Fall of Berlin (1950)

At school, I run a film club, and our most recent film was The Death of Stalin. The text that follows is from my introduction to the movie:

As chance would have it, I was just the other night at the first performance of Welsh National Opera’s new production of Sergei Prokofiev’sepic opera War and Peace. War and Peace caused Prokofiev no end of trouble: he had been lured back to the USSR in 1936, after almost two decades away in Europe, with the promise of artistic freedom and of a position as the Soviet Union’s leading composer. But in reality he found he was not free at all, and he spent the last 13 years of his life trying to get his mega-opera staged in its entirety. He thought he’d hit upon a winner: Tolstoy’s story of heroic Russian victory against Napoleon seemed totally right for the 1940s, just when the USSR was taking on Hitler’s army in the greatest war in history. It was potentially tricky, because the book and the opera commemorated one of the great triumphs of Tsarist Russia, but history was too important a weapon in the propaganda war to be ignored entirely. The audience could forget about the Tsar and instead focus on the great military hero of 1812, General Kutuzov, and make the obvious connection with their leader and teacher, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet government, though changed its mind very often about what was acceptable and what was not, and Prokofiev’s opera never quite made the cut. A second, much sadder occurrence of chance was that Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day in 1953. Apparently, there were no flowers at Prokofiev’s memorial, because they had all been taken for Stalin’s funeral. But Stalin had, after all, spent two decades terrorising the Soviet people, liquidating millions of them in his slave labour camps and deliberate famines. Even in death, the fear lived on. No one was brave enough to steal so much as a rose from Stalin to offer to a mere composer.

It’s difficult for us now to imagine how powerful Stalin was, or what it would have been like to live under his rule. One well-known musician, who grew up in those days, told me that it is simply not possible for westerners to understand. You cannot imagine, he said. In the 1930s, Stalin had terrorised his population with arbitrary executions and deportations to Siberia. It didn’t really matter who died; Stalin wanted to eliminate his opponents, but he worked out that you could just kill anyone and the effect was the same. City authorities were instructed to round up and kill so-many thousands of people, regardless of their identity. If you introduced enough fear into people’s minds, they just stayed in line. Husbands or wives would be taken in the night by the secret police, and at work the next day, the remaining partner would have to make sure they smiled. To shed a tear for your disappeared spouse was to cry for an enemy of the people.

Terror was only one tool of the tyrant, however. Stalin controlled all information. Had you visited Moscow in the middle of the last century, you would have seen giant banners of the gods of Communism: Marx, Lenin and Joseph himself. The food on your table was put there by Stalin. The wage in your pocket, the school where you studied; thank you, Stalin. He may as well have been the sun in the sky. The films in the cinema celebrated all the wonderful things about Soviet life. They told you that Stalin had brought order to the chaos of Tsarist Russia. They told you that Stalin had led the nation against the greatest evil in history, and won. They didn’t have to tell you this; they showed you. More than one actor played Stalin on screen, but he had a favourite. Mikheil Gelovani was so good at it that he wasn’t allowed to play anyone else. Once you’ve played a god, you don’t act the part of mere mortals. European history was rewritten for the epic propaganda film The Fall of Berlin in 1950, which shows the saintly Stalin (dressed in white) leading the good fight while his supposed allies scheme and plot. It’s actually a lot like Prokofiev’s War and Peace, which the composer was still fiddling with at the time, though it was Shostakovich who got to write the music for the film. There’s a love story, the lovers are separated by war, and then Stalin leads his Soviet people to victory. At the end of the film, Gelovani’s Stalin flies into Berlin to give a speech to the Russian victors. It didn’t happen, but Stalin liked the scene so much that he regretted not having done it for real.

A lot of people smile in The Fall of Berlin, but the smiles were only for the camera. When the film was released, Stalin was in the middle of unleashing a fresh wave of terror, which culminated in the supposed Doctor’s Plot, a fake conspiracy which was used to purge Jews from the medical profession. All of this was carried out by Stalin’s right-hand man and secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, who in his spare time liked to cruise round Moscow in his limousine in the small hours and pick up young ladies to drug, rape and bury in the garden. But the terror and fear and executions finally did it for Stalin. When he fell ill, in 1953, it took hours before anyone was brave enough to enter his bedroom. There weren’t any doctors left; they were all in prison. And without the boss to tell them what to do, his deputies ran around frantically, suspicious of each other and trying to stay alive. It would have been funny had it not been so awful.

There’s a fine line, though, between funny and awful. Armando Iannucci saw as much in Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel La mort de Staline, and he’s made it into a funny and horrible film. If, at the end, you wonder how much of it is true, the answer is: the broad strokes. They’ve compressed the timeframe; what appears to take days in reality took longer. We don’t really know all the details, and that suits the storytellers just fine. It works as a comedy, because the way in which people behave in awful situations is often so absurd. Not everyone saw the funny side – one leading historian wrote a rather po-faced article, counting the historical errors and referring to the film as “Carry On Up the Kremlin”.

Jason Issacs in The Death of Stalin

But the joke really fell flat in Moscow, where The Death of Stalin has the dubious honour of being the first film to be banned since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Public figures called the film “vile, repugnant and insulting”, and although the banning was partly an attempt by the Russian government to put behind it an embarrassing episode involving the release of Paddington 2, it was also clear that the film did not fit a particular version of history which Putin’s government is keen to impose. Like General Kutuzov before him, Stalin is a figure who suits the aspirations of the current leader of Russia. In Stalin, if you ignore the killings and the torture, rests the image of strong leader who, if you tell the story right, united the Soviet state behind the single purpose of defeating fascism. Stalin was not the only person who could cherry-pick from history. And so, the Russian film industry is very busy producing sumptuous films which glorify the Second World War and the heroism of the Russians who fought in it. A notable example is Panfilov’s 28 Men, a 2016 war film telling the story of a group of Russian soldiers who held out against overwhelming German forces during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. At the time, the Soviet newspaper Pravda carried a report detailing the noble self-sacrifice of the troops; the problem was, it was only partly true. It happened over 70 years ago, but when the distance between the legend and the reality was brought up recently, the Russian culture minister retorted angrily that the story was “a sacred legend that shouldn’t be interfered with. People that do that are filthy scum.”

Of course, it’s easy to point out the holes in other people’s national myths. We certainly could ask where all the successful British films are that properly interrogate the complex legacy of colonialism. And it is true that Putin is no Stalin. There are no untold millions languishing in secret prison camps in Russia today. There aren’t long lists of names being issued by the Kremlin for immediate liquidation, though here in Wiltshire, we know they’re dabbling. But Putin’s government demonstrates the familiar irritation that authoritarians usually show for those who fail to treat the useful bits of history with the required respect. 

Image(s) are used under the principle of fair use for the purposes of review and study and will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Friday, 31 August 2018

Review: Mariss Jansons's extraordinary Bruckner 8



Bruckner: Symphony No. 8
Jansons/BRSO
BR Klassik

I had thought Bruckner a closed book to me; all that repetition, all that alienating monumentalism. This, though, is a record to challenge prejudices. Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have produced an extraordinary, flowing performance, filled with the kind of playing and thinking needed to make sense of this vast symphony. It’s all beautifully recorded – only the concluding applause gives away that this is a concert performance. Bruckner fans are talking about this as one for the ages; it’s certainly one to convince the cautious and sceptical.

For regular reviews and blog posts, follow this blog using the bar on the right, or on Twitter at @devilstrillblog.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Five Glimpses of Gennady Rozhdestvensky


In memory of Gennady Rozhdestvensky (1931-2018), who died one month ago today.

1

Gennady Rozhdestvensky is watching a student closely. The young conductor in the loose suit clasps the air, and maestro’s onto him. “What was that gesture with your left hand?” he snaps. “To stop” says the student, apologetically. “Stop what? A draft? What’s the point of stopping those who aren’t playing?” Movement is an anathema to Rozhdestvensky’s conducting. Not show; barely moving can become a show, as he spends a lifetime demonstrating. But a grand arc of the arms, when a turn of the head or a shrug of the shoulders will make the point? A waste.  Upon his death, this June, his friend Gerard McBurney tells the BBC about the habits of Rozhdestvensky’s craft. “He had an extraordinary gift for conducting the way musicians want conductors to work – without words. He never talked about the music. He just did everything through his eyes, his eyebrows, his smile, and his hands and his baton.” And if the movement tells all, why spend the afternoon labouring the point? “He didn’t rehearse much and they were all really delighted because they’d knock off early and go home,” says long-time Rozhdestvensky-watcher David Nice, of the conductor’s BBC Symphony Orchestra years. “They loved him for that. What he brought to the actual performance though was something completely different and inspirational, which hadn’t ever happened in the rehearsal.” His musical appetite is voracious. Have you ever heard a Russian orchestra play a Vaughan Williams symphony? Rozhdestvensky recorded them all. A shark must keep moving through the water in order to breathe, but no more than that.


2

Gennady Rozhdestvensky is old before his time. He is barely twenty years of age, but his hair is thinning, almost gone. He leads the Bolshoi in a performance of The Nutcracker and from this moment on, he will be a conductor of ballet. Where others will scorn it as menial stickwork, he will take the great scores of the ballet repertoire to his heart; he will blow the dust from their covers and dance them with his hands. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, the youthful ballets of his friend Shostakovich come down from the shelf and move once more: The Golden Age; The Bolt; The Limpid Stream. Bright jewels from days of possibility, before the scales fell and terror enveloped all. Rozhdestvensky bears witness to most of the Soviet era, but not its beginning. His father was there, with the Red Army, putting down the sailors’ revolt at Kronstadt, near Petrograd, in 1921. His father, Nikolai Anosov, a conductor. Mikhail Tukhachevsky led the forces of the Bolsheviks that day, leaving 10,000 rebel bodies strewn across the wreckage and the winter ice. Tukhachevksy, the patron of Shostakovich during his ballet days. Tukhachevsky, the name no one dared speak after he was swallowed by Stalin’s purge. Time passes and the fear recedes, but never completely. The young man learns the choreography of professional and political survival, but from a comfortable distance, they’ll ask, as though it were really that simple: “but he wasn’t for the communists, surely?”


3

He crouches, in conference, with his greatest compatriots. The Royal Festival Hall, London, 1960. Mstislav Rostropovich with his cello and Shostakovich talking around what he really means. “Good! Very good! But could it be a little quieter?” Two years later, Rozhdestvensky will bring to the West an earthquake, on paper, in the form of Shostakovich’s long-dormant Fourth Symphony, put away in more difficult times. And every time he brings a Soviet orchestra as news of Red culture, Rozhdestvensky will enter into battle with the bureaucracy, with the swamp of officialdom that doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, and has its instructions, comrade. Much later, he recalls, for Bruno Monsaingeon’s film The Red Baton, going to an official’s office and being informed that 10% of his orchestra would not be authorised to travel abroad. Which 10%? Well, that’s to be decided later. The list, when it arrives, pulls 9 wind players and 3 strings. “You knew you had to plan replacements!” hisses the official. Rozhdestvensky continues:

“Yes”, I said, “But how can I explain it? There are nine woodwinds and three strings, but you see, these people play different songs. Those with bows play one song, and those with whistles play other songs. Put them all together and you get a symphony. The bows can maybe be replaced because they basically all do the same thing. As for the others, I can’t replace them. How can we wave the flag of Soviet art if songs are missing from the symphony?” His eyes popped out as if he’d discovered America. He’d obviously never heard an orchestra. Six months later, another tour, another 12 musicians banned from traveling. But this time it was nine strings and three woodwinds! I went back to the same functionary. He was flabbergasted. “What’s wrong now? We hardly touched the whistles! Only three. We have to eliminate people, that’s our job!”


4

Gennady Rozhdestvensky is surrounded by books. In a century in which knowledge has burned so easily, he has treasured it, acquiring so many volumes that he needs a second apartment to house them all. He emerges from his reading, and he sparkles. “Imagine an amalgam of Sir Thomas Beecham, Peter Ustinov and Isaiah Berlin,” recalls his agent, Robert Slotover, for the BBC. “An hour with Gennady Nikolaevich is like a year at university”, comments the writer Viktor Borovsky. He is sage, but elusive. “He was a bit teasy and whimsical”, says David Nice of interviewing Rozhdestvensky in the 1990s. “You thought you’d got very little, but when you played it back you’d got quite a lot, because he tended to express himself aphoristically.” But he is vulnerable and ever-so-easily bruised. One afternoon, he sits in his dressing room at the venue of a west-European orchestra with whom he has had an occasional association, and notices that his name is not mentioned in the ensemble’s brief biography. Rage and accusations follow. And this is not the only such outburst. His face so often settles into a knowing smile, but sometimes the play and the lightness will fall away.


5

The old order is gone; the new one is not so very different. Vladimir Putin reaches out to grasp the hand of the beaming maestro, the People’s Artist of the USSR, Hero of Socialist Labour and, in 2017, recipient of the Order of Merit to the Fatherland (1st Class). Rozhdestvensky’s walking stick leaves the ground as he turns to the cameras, hand-in-hand with his president. A month later, he is in the German town of Gohrisch, leading the Dresden Staatskapelle in a last performance of symphonies by Shostakovich. There are nerves. Mistakes are made, some very large. But something remarkable happens during the 15th Symphony, Shostakovich’s enigmatic valediction to the form. Where it can seem light and flippant, the Dresedeners and their octogenarian time traveller draw from it solemnity and grim conviction. The chilly air of a tomb inhabits this performance, and it proceeds slowly – very slowly indeed – as though the man on the podium, a man nearing the end of a long life, is looking back to his friend whose own life was not nearly long enough, but who lives still for as long as the notes are ringing. Eventually, the stick goes down, and there’s only quiet.



The top image shows Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle at the 2017 International Shostakovich Days festival in Gohrisch. Image(s) are used under the principle of fair use for the purposes of review and study and will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Violinist and Auschwitz survivor Helena Dunicz-Niwińska has died, aged 102


Image result for helena dunicz niwińska
Helena Dunicz-Niwińska in 1964 (Photo: PWM)
I'm saddened to hear of the passing of Helena Dunicz-Niwińska, at the age of 102, in Krakow. She was born in Vienna in 1915, and grew up in the then-Polish city of Lwow, where she studied as a violinist. Helena was arrested in 1943 by German occupying forces and deported, with her mother, to Auschwitz. There, her musical abilities saved her from brutal slave labour; instead, she was recruited for one of the camp orchestras, led by Gustav Mahler's niece, Alma Rosé.  Rosé was a demanding conductor, but Helena came to understand that her high standards helped keep her and others useful to the Nazi authorities and, crucially, alive. Helena survived the march to Ravensbruck camp in Germany and, after liberation in 1945, settled in Krakow, where she went on to work for the Polish Music Publishers (PWM). She only came to write about her experiences in 2013, and they are related in a book published by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.


Image result for helena dunicz niwińska
Helena meeting Pope Francis at Auschwitz in 2016
I first discovered her story during a visit to Auschwitz in 2016, and I wrote a blog about it soon after. I reproduce a portion of that blog here:

I have a chance this time to visit the bookshop, which reveals the admirable continuing efforts of the State Museum to shine the light of scholarship onto areas still offering fresh perspectives. For obvious reasons, I’m drawn to a recent publication by Helena Dunicz Niwińska called One of the Girls in the Band: The Memoirs of a Violinist from Birkenau. Helena only published these memoirs in 2014, at age 99, and given that she saw the camp through adult eyes (she was 28 when sent to Brikenau in 1943), her account of Auschwitz’s strictures and realities is a particularly direct and prosaic. There’s also the sense of a story being set straight: Helena refers to a few previous published accounts of musical life at Birkenau that fell short of real veracity.

Helena’s account also reveals an undimmed admiration for Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler and director of the women’s orchestra (one of a number of ensembles at Birkenau). Rosé did not survive Auschwitz, succumbing to a sudden illness in April 1944, but Helena paints a portrait of a hugely accomplished musician for whom the highest musical standards in the most degrading conditions were a matter of dignity and survival. Rosé worked tirelessly on arrangements of music for the orchestra’s motley assortment of instruments (including lots of violins, mandolins and guitars, but few bass instruments), though much of that work is lost to time, living only in the memories of the few remaining witnesses to this ray of light in a hell on Earth.

I’m an inveterate botherer of tour guides, and as we wend our way through Birkenau, our expert guide Renata tells me about her friend Helena’s book. I admit to having bought it earlier in the day, given my interest in all things violin. “Well”, she says, “I have something for you”. At the end of the tour, Renata retrieves from her car one of a few remaining discs made recently featuring a reconstruction of music arranged by Alma and pieced together again from Helena’s memory. It’s Chopin’s Etude Op10/3. As a Pole, Chopin’s music was forbidden, but this piece was played only in rehearsal for the enjoyment of the musicians. Rosé’s instrumental ingenuity is here, in the careful use of violins and mandolins and the voice soaring above the bass-light texture. It must have seemed like a warm bath of memory and humanity to those who heard it, a momentary relief from fetid reality. And on this crisp sunny February afternoon, it’s another fleeting connection to the individuals who came to this place and, in most cases, did not leave.

Helena Dunicz Niwińska (1915-2018) died on June 12th. Any images used here fall under "fair use" and are reproduced for the purposes of review and study. They will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, great Russian conductor, is gone.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Mstislav Rostropovich and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
at London's Royal Festival Hall in 1960
Today feels like the end of an era. It was announced that, after a long illness, the great Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvesnky died this morning. He was born in 1931 and was one of the last remaining and active musicians to have had a substantial career in the Soviet period. He was particularly associated with the music of Shostakovich, whose early opera The Nose he revived in 1974. His association with Shostakovich actually began in the 1950s, and he became a champion of the 4th Symphony when it was finally premiered in 1961 - although Kirill Kondrashin conducted the first performance, Rozhdestvensky brought the piece to the west, in 1962.

He was also a great promoter of contemporary music in the later Soviet period, and worked hard to secure a performance of his friend Alfred Schnittke's radical First Symphony in the 1970s. He had a particular passion for English music and even recorded a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams's symphonies.

With his passing, we lose one of the last links to a remarkable, difficult and fascinating part of music history. He worked until his last months, and everyone who loves Russian music must hold him dear.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

My Teacher, Tony



My teacher, Tony Ward, has died. I think it’s fair to say he changed my life. I was always a curious child (yes), but Tony’s A Level Politics lessons opened my eyes to worlds of thought that were totally unknown to me. He taught me about human nature, and the idea that you could argue about what exactly it was. He taught me that it was possible to imagine the world operating in a completely different way to the way it does. In all of this, he expounded these world views (all of them) with the conviction of a believer. What would it be like to have an anarchist in the room? Or a socialist? Or even a fascist? Tony made these things living ideas, and opened us to the exciting and troubling possibilities that followed from this.

Tony was one of those teachers who didn’t condescend to his pupils. He spoke to us as though we were on his level. He had left school at 16 with no qualifications, but had pursued education thereafter with a special appetite. He took my interest in music seriously and would listen to my latest enthusiasms with interest. He understood that the spark of curiosity and interest in young people is where all the really valuable thinking comes from, and for that I will forever be grateful.

I am a teacher now, but he didn’t know that. Like many of us, I thought of him fondly but never quite got around to dropping him a line and telling him that. His partner, Chris, was my History teacher, and an obituary has been posted on the Guardian website by Tim, my English teacher. It reminds me that we should get on and thank our teachers for what they probably don’t know they did.

The header picture is from the Guardian obit, and he's looking as much like Lenin as I remember. I do not own the copyright for this picture and it will be removed at the request of the copyright holder/s.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Music in the age of YouTube



I have a certain wariness of just recycling classical PR. The decision to make this blog contactable by email means I receive a lot of press releases, and I'm often left wondering what exactly the senders of these things imagine I'm going to do with them. But the stuff that some organisations put out as "PR" does transcend the bland norm, and some London orchestras are getting pretty good at using YouTube to spread the message and offer something genuinely interesting.

The Philharmonia is one such group whose marketing department have come up with things that are actually worth watching, including the lovely video from Pekka Kuusisto, talking about the indefatigable Vladimiar Ashkenazy. I must own up to a special fondness for both these men, who came to my local concert hall when I was sixteen and gave one of those concerts that propels you towards a life-long infatuation with this wonderful thing called music. I can also concur with Kuusisto's assessment of him, that he's "a really cool dude". It's been my pleasure to have met Ashkenazy a few times, and I can only say that, in his case, "never meet your heroes" is a piece of advice I was happy to have ignored.


There's a lot more to watch on the Philharmonia YouTube page. They're showing the way on this. 

In addition, if you can, do watch the London Symphony Orchestra's live stream on Sunday April 22nd (7.30 BST) - Simon Rattle conducting Tippett and Mahler. Free. And live. What an age we live in.

Header picture screencapped from the Philharmonia's linked video. Images used are done so in line with "fair use" and will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Prokofiev for Two



I’ve been enjoying a new release from pianists Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan entitled Prokofiev for Two, made up of arrangements for two pianos by Babayan. There’s familiar numbers from Romeo and Juliet, but also some real rarities, including incidental music to Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades and Hamlet. I must admit that, to my shame, I hadn’t realised that Prokofiev had written music for these plays; before hearing them, I had to check that these weren’t some Tchaikovsky arrangements thrown in for good measure. Best of all is a waltz from Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace which, rather excitingly, is to be staged by Welsh National Opera in the autumn.

The internets led me then to the next in Doremi’s series of Argerich recital releases, pairing her with violinist Ruggiero Ricci, in a concert given in Leningrad in 1961. I’ve been listening to the second recital (Doremi released a previous one already), the highlight of which a blistering account of the Franck Violin Sonata, much better than some rather relentless solo Bach from Ricci at the recital’s start. There is, for a Soviet music fan, an added thrill in imagining who might have been in the audience that night.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sign Of The Times



They never did correct his name. I'm starting to wonder if the problem really is that no one cares.