Friday, 20 January 2012

Hamburger Comes to North London


The spirit of Johannes Brahms has taken up residence in London’s Kings Cross, an improving red light district of brothels and seedy bars. He is the subject of a number of concerts at King’s Place, the three-year-old subterranean venue beside the Regent’s Canal and beneath the offices of the Guardian newspaper. I am reminded of the composer’s youth playing piano in the sailors’ pubs of Hamburg, which his father the bass-player introduced him to. Three members of the Schubert Ensemble take the stage and perform Brahms’ Trio Op40 with piano, violin and viola instead of the original valveless horn. They blend warmly in the hall whose oak panels were taken from a single tree in the composer’s homeland. The viola is a soft substitute and the speeds are those of a gentle stroll in a harmless wood rather than the breezy muster of the hunt. The players inject more energy into the scherzo’s syncopated phrases though the panic of bereavement which Brahms experienced at his mother’s passing during composition is absent. The adagio is dark and mournful, the rich tone of the strings lending solemn weight to the bleak rendition of the nursery song towards the end which then becomes the galloping theme of the finale. Hunter and hunted pound through the last movement but the fear was no more than mild apprehension under their light, pattering hoofs. It wanted more growling awe.

Violin switched with mezzo Sally Bruce-Payne who arrived to blend anew with the moody viola and embracing piano. She sang a Rueckert setting Gestillte Sehnsucht with natural depth which made the viola glow in kindred-soul agreement. Just occasionally she lost focus on the sense of the song nd one became of the mechanics of her singing but her sound was pleasure. In Geistliches Wiegenlied she sang the rocking theme a little too loud for a cradle song and encouraged the piano to do the same. There was a tendency throughout the concert to underplay the dynamic extremes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Library Book Twenty Years Late


In 1991, the writer Anthony Burgess celebrated the bicentenary of the death of Mozart with a book horrendously entitled Mozart and the Wolf Gang which I discover in the Barbican library. Despite the name, it is witty and thoughtful although the central passage in which Burgess eccentrically attempts to give a prose representation of the Symphony No40 in G minor is a heroic failure. Text cannot repeat itself as music does without boring the reader. Five chapters are written in verse as if they were an opera libretto. Only in these does the character of Mozart appear. The amanuensis Suessmayr gaily lists the young master’s works in rhyming couplets: Now come the symphonies. One to 24 / The non-Mozartian safely can ignore…’ and so on. The bicenturion remains a distant figure beyond the footlights, never engaging in the fruity arguments between Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Wagner or comparing himself to the other anniversarians pottering about Paradise, Prokofiev and Bliss both born 1891 From on high, the dead can hear the Gulf War guns then booming in unending raids on Baghdad. Mendelssohn points out to Beethoven that he, Haydn and Mozart did not take the Moslem world seriously 200 years earlier with their jokey imitations of janissary bands. Mozart is discussed in his absence by dead composers and in dialogue by the author and would-be composer himself in whimsical split personality as two characters Anthony and Burgess, the surname more pompously analytical than the forename. Agreement is reached that Mozart is as godlike an artist as any could aspire to be and it later it transpires that God has been acting as his page-turner. The book is not only homage to Mozart, but also Burgess’ personal credo on the history and function of music, which if not so profound, is certainly witty and full of interest. His observation that none of the characters called either Edmund or Richard in Shakespeare are sympathetic and that the Bard had brothers with those names is one I shall probably use so it is worth paying the fine for when I take Mozart and the Wolf Gang back to the Barbican late.