Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Monday, 10 October 2011

Wrong Trousers

Tuesday 11th October War Requiem
Although it is the eleventh day, it is not the eleventh month but only the tenth, yet still I attend a performance of Britten's War Requiem at the Barbican, taking a friend who has just published his first book, To War With God (Mainstream), which accounts for his grandfather's experiences as a chaplain in the First World War. Both he and Britten quote Owen's twist on the Biblical tale of Abram and Isaac - But Abram would not so and slew his son / And half the seed of Europe one by one - which makes little impact in the Barbican because conductor Gianandrea Noseda fails to quieten the London Symphony Orchestra enough for the blasphemy to stand out. 

The stage is packed, the chorus six rows deep, the orchestra, enlarged by a chamber ensemble (conducted separately at the 1962 premiere, but not here), seems hardly to fit round the conductor, and tenor and baritone soloists, Bostridge and Keenlyside, huddle together as if in a dug-out in a small area at the front. In Out There We've Walked, they stand like cockney privates, joking darkly about death. The Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak rises out of the chorus like an angel, albeit a slightly flat one in the Lacrimosa. The semichorus of boys from Eltham School sing from the gallery, bright toned and fresh as new recruits. The hungry chorus sings the whispered opening with tense anxiety and the balancing close with tired resignation. Their Dies Irae has energy but could have gone at a more dangerous speed. They toiled out the churning five-note motif in the Agnus Dei and Bostridge sang clearly enough his chilling top line, but the bleak unison strings and hollow woodwind played too loudly for the moment to bite. It's ppp in the score. The cushioned concert hall is not conducive to the sort of sorrowful, uncomfortable penitence that this Requiem demands and performers have to work doubly hard to achieve it. There were no extremes: the Dies Irae wanted reckless speed, the Agnus ponderous inertia and in this the animated Noseda was at fault. War is not like this.   

Monday 10th October Wrong Trousers 
At the weekend, early in the morning, I put on the wrong trousers and so set off for the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, Germany, with no wallet.  I realise this only on arrival at Liverpool Street Station when it is too late to turn back. I board the 5.55am Stansted Express without a ticket and no inspector comes. Although I have neither money nor credit cards, I do have a banana which I eat for breakfast before the flight. I am met at Cologne Airport by Jana from the Bethovenfest press office who drives me to my interview with festival director Ilona Schmiel at the offices of German Radio where the receptionist offers me a sandwich as if she knew. I spurn the offer, perhaps rashly. Schmiel tells me about the future - 2012 Cage, 2013 Wagner - before a PR takes me to the Beethovenhalle concert hall for another interview, this time with conductor Ivor Bolton who is an old friend. We hug as we have not seen each other for ten years and he says I must come to the party after the concert. I think, there is bound to be nosh there.

I am booked at the Koenigshof Hotel where there are glass jars in the lobby containing apples for anyone to take. These see me through. I read, take a nap and walk half a mile along the west bank of the Rhine, past the Synagogue memorial, to the concert hall. Bolton handles the period instruments of Concertus Koeln masterfully. He does magical pianissimi and the authentic rich-toned woodwind blow what the composer would have heard had he not been deaf. The programme is a reconstruction of one that Liszt conducted at the first Beethoven Festival in 1845. The last piece is the Emperor Concerto played by Alexander Melnikov on a pinging, thunderous fortepiano built by La Grossa, brought by van from The Netherlands which is where Beethoven came from originally. Hence the Van.

Bolton, on a high and talking ten to the dozen, is last to leave the concert hall. I accompany and we arrive to an ovation at the Restaurant Im Stiefel where Beethoven's bibulous father is known to have drunk. The orchestra loves him and Schmiel is pleased with the result of her penultimate concert. I help myself to a large plate of food from the buffet and drink every beer that comes my way. I walk Bolton back to his hotel and we hug again and promise it will not be so long next time.

I have a massive breakfast in the hotel and take an apple and a packet of Ryvita for supper later. I borrow an umbrella from the reception and visit the Beethovenhaus for which I have a press ticket. The exhibits cover his life both in Bonn and in Vienna and I am especially interested in the early pianos, the 1817 Broadwood and the 1825 Graf which Beethoven left behind at the Spanierhaus, his last address in Vienna. I have been interested in early pianos, since rediscovering Finchcocks, the living keyboard museum, this year. I remember persuading Melnikov to visit it at the party last night, over my plate of sausage and salad.

At the Kunsthalle art gallery where another press pass awaits, I make notes about some of the artworks on a Koenighof notepad until a surly attendant admonishes me for using the wrong writing tool. 'Kugelschreiber nicht erlaubt,' he bluntly states. Biros not allowed. 'Bleistifte sind unten zu kaufen.' Pencils are for sale downstairs. I cannot be bothered to tell him ich habe kein Geld. I make an exhibit of myself in one of the rooms by lying down on the twenty tennis balls in Feldmann's One Minute Sculpture. The attendant, who has followed me to make sure I do not continue to contravene the gallery rules, tells me I am only the third person to attempt this today. The sculptor writes that no part of the anatomy should touch the ground, but I find this impossible to achieve alone. Not even the  attendant will help.

I walk several miles to the suburb of Dransdorf to hear an evening concert given by a dozen noisy Romanians on trumpets, reeds and tubas in the tram station. They play crude, blazing circus music and though I first react against them, I warm to the tireless, fighter-pilot trumpeters in the end. I walk back on sore feet and eat the crispbread in the hotel room. Next morning I have another multi-course breakfast, and walk through a city resounding to Sunday morning church bells to the mental hospital at Endenich where Schumann died and a prizewinning horn player is giving a morning concert.
Jana drives me back to Cologne Airport and I have almost made it. I spend the afternoon reading and writing by a window overlooking the runway. It starts to rain. The PR company has given me a voucher for a sandwich and a coffee on the plane which I have been looking forward to since breakfast. We touch down in Stansted in warm darkness and I wonder whether I will get away with fare-dodging a second time. But engineering works have stopped all trains to and from the airport and I cannot board a coach without a ticket. What a blow. I ring Mrs Jones who wants to go to bed but agrees to book me a ticket by computer. My bicycle is still where I left it at Liverpool Street and I have been to Germany and back, just about, without a bean.