Friday 2 October 2009
Martinů: his time is ours
Sorry to sound portentous, but there it is: three weeks of intensive listening have convinced me that everything Martinů has to say about memory, nostalgia, the horrors of war, the pain of exile and the ecstasies of love speaks to us more strongly than ever. There he is above in 1943, in his New York apartment with a photo on the mantelpiece showing (if you look closely enough) the tower in which he was born in the small Moravian town of Polička. Its Martinů Centre, which I can't wait to see, provided the photo for the BBC.
More I won't add, except to say that more detail will be unearthed in my ubiquitous appearances tomorrow (Saturday), Big Bohuslav Day. The Radio Three chunk starts at 9.30am with Building a Library on one masterpiece among at least a dozen, the Fourth Symphony, and continues with Music Matters*. Towards the end of the 12.15 slot, you can hear me in conversation with Tom Service and Norwich-based Martinů scholar Sharon Choa. If you can't catch one, t'other or either at the time, the Radio 3 Listen Again facility will be at your disposal for the following week.
Jiří Bělohlávek's first Martinů concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra won't be broadcast until Monday evening, but go and hear it live at the Barbican, it's a stunning programme (Mozart Symphony No. 29, Mahler songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn and the Musorgsky/Shostakovich Songs and Dances of Death with Gerald Finley, Martinů Symphony No.1). I'll be trying to cover all four works in the pre-performance talk in the Fountain Room at 6pm. That, of course, won't be included in the Monday broadcast.
Last night I saw Jiří at the new ENO production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (seen at its Brussels launch in the first two photos below by Bernd Uhlig). As we took our seats, he wished me a 'nice evening' and I said that 'nice' wasn't quite what I was expecting.
Still, I was expecting a lot, and I wasn't sure if my memories were serving me right in the first half. I saw the Big Mac's UK premiere at the Coli back in 1982. Eight years later, asked as part of a BBC World Service panel to give my thoughts on the outstanding new work of the previous decade, I cited Ligeti's magnum opus, and Nick Kenyon (now Sir Nicholas, no less) replied that even Ligeti had doubts about it, so if he no longer believed in it, who else would?
Well, many of the world's opera houses still do. Does the Big M deserve its frequent resuscitation? The libretto hasn't worn well, the noises are less naughty than they were in the 1980s, and the first two scenes, where death-lord Nekrotzar begins to establish his rule of terror in Brueghelland, don't seem to be going anywhere. The undeniably brilliant, and dazzlingly executed, idea of Valentina Carrasco and La Fura dels Baus is to try and draw the cartoon characters together as emanations of a body in revolt, the body of a young woman who seems to be suffering a heart attack in the film at the beginning and who then fills the stage as a vast model out of whose every orifice the characters pour or sing. This is Pavlo Hunka's Nekrotzar making his first appearance in one of two photos by Steve Cummiskey for ENO.
I remembered that it all comes together in Nekrotzar's ultimately botched doomsday scenario, and the production rose to the necessary heights here. It's a shame that in rightly praising the originality of the show, critics seem to have forgotten that ENO have given us two equally compelling stage pictures with similarly imaginative use of video projection in last season's Luonnotar and L'amour de loin. The video here carries the apocalypse-that-isn't very well, and the principals then take centre stage for the inevitably glib moral, which is totally satisfying musically at least (Ligeti gives us a passacaglia of far flung chords that knocks spots off the one in Ades's The Tempest).
The singers, inevitably given their ungrateful writing, make less of an impression than the orchestral sounds - some of them, especially the fantastical bourree, rather smothered - under Baldur Bronniman. Sue Bickley (Mescalina), Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss as the scatalogically-minded White v Black Ministers - seen below in the second of Steve Cummiskey's photographs with Susanna Andersson as the Chief of Police - and the astonishingly full, clarion counter-tenor Andrew Watts as pettish Prince Go-Go all made me laugh.
Andersson is a fluttery coloratura, not a patch on the last production's Marilyn Hill Smith (I think it was), though she does sound amazingly like a theremin when she shuffles on a second time under a camouflage net.
As always, the most striking component in Ligeti's purposeful ragbag of styles is his own chord-cluster skyscape for the morning after, almost as well done here as it was in the haunting adoption of the Albert Hall cavern by Jonathan Nott and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra for Atmospheres at the Proms. Gosh, someone has actually posted that performance on YouTube. So here it all is.
*both available to hear online until the end of Friday 9 October.