Sunday, 31 May 2009

Claudio and the magnolias


There are two reasons to rejoice in Abbado’s long-awaited return to Milan, set down for June 2010 as outlined in this widely-circulated news item. The work he will conduct is to be Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and in his honour the city is planting 90,000 magnolia trees (the one above frames not La Scala but the more graceful neoclassical façade of Kenwood).

Prima la musica: I only hope this doesn’t preclude Abbado conducting a ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ in Lucerne with the unsurpassable Festival Orchestra. This year the lakeside dream team is giving us the First and the Fourth – not quite enough to lure me out there again. Well, the Fourth would be, but I don’t want to hear it crowned by angular Magdalena Kozena’s childlike heaven. Memories of the Seventh several years back, and all those invigorating DVDs, will tide me over.


It was this release, along with a Debussy double, which first alerted me to the uniqueness of the LFO/Abbado 'love-in' (as Daniel Harding described it in our Lucerne interview), had me overdoing the superlatives for the BBC Music Magazine and led me to pack my bags for Lucerne. Not this year; Milan 2010 it will have to be, if at all possible.

Poi le magnolie: I gather from the rather vaguely worded news that the Milan trees were the Podesta’s idea, and that the environmentally friendly Abbado brought up the subject of magnolias. I don’t remember Italy as a land of magnolias, though Judas trees abound in town and country during the late Spring. And nothing becomes the Italian mountains so well as those beech forests, which make me dream of that haunting Calvino story Baron in the trees.



Ah, memories of the Maiella from this time last year – how I wish we were there again. I never heard whether the earthquake wrought any havoc that far from the Gran Sasso – I’m guessing they experienced tremors, no more.

Anyway, I must also confess I didn’t know magnolias were city-hardy trees, even though we have a good display of them in the posher bits of London – Hampstead and Chelsea – every spring. A few more would be a better option than Boris’s better-than-nothing aim for yet more boring but resilient London planes.

Our royal parks’ gardeners are getting a little more eco-friendly in their formal planting. On Thursday I cycled past a splendid display of foxgloves in Hyde Park, and the bees adore them.



One final shot from the same homeward journey, to see if Sophie’s dropping in. As she can’t open photo attachments in Mali – and maybe not in Casablanca where she is at the moment, helping Keita out with his treatment - I thought she might like to see that the great man she briefly had the right to call Hotel Djenne Djenno’s house photographer, Malick Sidibe, has an exhibition in Kensington’s HackelBury Gallery. The photo in the window, of a young Malian couple at a dance, lifts the spirits.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

From funeral to jamboree, songfully



Two hours with my Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra students on Tuesday weren't enough for Mahler Five, so I was a little worried about how I was going to whittle it down to forty minutes in the Barbican pre-performance talk on Saturday AND squeeze in something about Haydn's D major Cello Concerto.

Well, there are at least two ways of approaching this many-headed hydra among symphonies. You can believe Bruno Walter when he wrote that 'nothing in my talks with Mahler, not a single note in the work, suggests that any extrinsic thought or emotion entered into its composition' and simply follow the line of the 'heightened polyphony' which, Mahler declared, called for a renewed power of orchestration. Or you can trace the connections with the songs Mahler composed at the same time, over those two incredible summers of 1901 and 1902, and suggest more of a programme as the music moves from darkness to light than the ambivalent composer ever liked to admit.

That's the line I took, starting with that incredible solo-trumpet fanfare


which is to the world of the funeral march what Mendelssohn's Wedding March is to nuptial formalities (Mahler's in C sharp minor, Mendelssohn's in a garish C major). Interesting link, maybe: in February 1901 Mahler nearly died of a haemorrhage, while in March 1902 he married Alma Schindler. We heard Mahler's piano-roll performance of the opening before tracing it back to the Fourth Symphony when the unruly troops are marshalled back into neoclassical shape (the fanfare is at the same pitch).

Then it was the turn of the more inward march-proper for strings, connected with the most painful of the Knaben Wunderhorn songs about the drummer-boy on his way to execution, 'Der Tamboursg'sell' and the first of the Kindertotenlieder; both the songs in question were among the eight composed in 1901. That fraught second movement squeezed in by virtue of the vocal quality in its all-encompassing minor ninth, and the way Britten re-worked the whole theme in Grimes's 'We sailed into the wind' (what a performance from Pears).

The Scherzo, even though Mahler declared that it had nothing vocal about it, needed a bit of singing, from Deryck Cooke's examples. He uses them, as I did, to show how the opening Landler is more original and lopsided than it seems - how, in fact, it would sound as a regular 16-bar strain. The Adagietto: well, loads to say there - for a start, the love-lyrics which Mengelberg fitted over the melodic line, which you could sing at the speed of Walter's 1947 recording (7m35s) but not at Scherchen's (15m12s - that's the 1964 Philadelphia recording which also gives us a five-minute Scherzo; go figure). If it's a song without words, is it more about the retreat of 1901 ('Ich bin der Welt') or all for love of Alma in 1902 (connection between the end of the 'private' Ruckert song 'Liebst du um Schonheit' and the strings' final grand descent)? Is the radiant melody in the middle of the movement another lovesong, and if so, when it returns in the finale, is this Alma keeeping Mahler company in the Viennese hurly-burly? Why is the fugal tumult based partly on the Wunderhorn song about the donkey favouring a cuckoo's song over a nightingale's? And what about the chorale which finally conquers all, and which Alma didn't much like?

As for the Haydn D major, I handed over to Alban Gerhardt, who in a recent blog entry gives a cellist's perspective on why the work is so delightful to listen to but such a bugger to play. Came the performance and Jean-Guihen Queyras, photographed below by Yoshinori Mido, did indeed make it sound mostly easy and ineffably charming, with a radiant mid to upper range that projected sweetly in the Barbican (so, too, did the stylish body of strings - this hall is often more favourable to the smaller-scale).


Though I'd noticed the fun interplay in the rondo between soloist, oboes and horns, I hadn't registered the slow-movement reprise with the leader, which Queyras played with introspective beauty. There's a relaxed suavity about the first movement which for me sets it above the C major, though I wish I'd heard that when Queyras played it the previous week.

Belohlavek's Mahler, unfolding over the years rather than crammed into a single season like Gergiev's, continues to astonish. His apparently laid-back spaciousness gave way to sheer adrenalin rushes at the ends of scherzo and finale, and he really knows how to let that awkward chorale make its mark on both appearances. Here he is in action as photographed by Clive Barda.


The brass playing was out of this world. You can usually tell whether the whole performance is going to work from the opening fanfare, and Gareth Bimson was unusually faithful to Mahler's injunction to make a quasi accelerando on the upbeat triplets, true to military style, before opening out to a penetrating brilliance. That was the hallmark, too, of Martin Owen's horn obbligato in the Scherzo; I've never heard the panic cry that temporarily stills the action more full-throated.

The more incisive the brass lines in the first three movements - and there are points where one can't help feeling Mahler has stuck in one episode too many for human comfort - the more impact comes from the strings and harp of the Adagietto. Sioned Williams's contribution as chords hung in the air made the music sound especially novel.

Yet there was one horrible shock as the final string pianissimo died away. I'd spoken at the talk about a frightful Scottish National Orchestra performance in which the conductor (Peter Eros) let the audience clear its collective throat before what, if Mahler's attacca is followed, should be the most magical horn note in the history of the symphony, ringing out in the silence. Having impressively created an expectant hush before Mahler's 'Part Two', Belohlavek now inserted the same break as Eros between Adagietto and Rondo-Finale. Why, I wonder? It seemed especially perverse as everything else breathed a clarity and a confidence you rarely hear in a Mahler symphony. Radio 3 is broadcasting it all on Friday 3 July.

One thing's for sure: Belohlavek's training over the past few years has given the BBCSO a focused identity it often lacked before. At its best - and this was certainly the best - it's easily comparable with the other London orchestras. Next season looks good: at last London gets to hear all six of Martinu's symphonies over the concert year - a chance missed at the last anniversary - and because none of them is much over half an hour long, that gives the cue for some intriguing balancing acts in each concert (four works for the first two in the series). I have to say that this excites me more than most of the latest Proms programmes - a marked contrast, or so it seems from my perspective, to the brilliantly successful risks of last year.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Mawnful

Sorry to learn that Nicholas Maw has died aged 73. This New York Times piece captures more than the London obits I’ve seen. Even past the decades-long stranglehold of the twelve-tone boys which cast Maw in the shade, our contemporaryites remained for the most part resistant to his long lines and lush scoring. Sophie’s Choice at the Royal Opera was not a great success with the press, despite the imprimatur of Rattle and Kirchschlager.

I wonder if this has something to do with the critical mentality that makes up its mind early on. For me, there were a few striking ideas in the first act – especially in the library scene, very touching (remember Meryl’s request for ‘Emily Di-ckin-son’ in the film?) – then a scherzoid second act to be forgotten. After that, Maw's mastery of the bigger picture took hold. Most composers who try buckle at the gates of Auschwitz, but Maw describes Sophie's ultimate nightmare and its aftermath in a great Wagnerian arch that I found compelling and, yes, very moving. Having written this, I discovered Alex Ross expanding eloquently on the opera's late return to Maw's best form at the time of the Covent Garden premiere.

It's good to be reminded, too, that the not-then-Sir Simon renegotiated his EMI contract with the condition that he could record Odyssey in all its ninety-minute orchestral glory. That’s a piece I’d still like to hear live.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Borough on the Baltic?



That was my first startled reaction to David Alden’s new English National Opera production of Britten’s Peter Grimes. As the Borough (aka Aldeburgh) types step forward at the inquest for the fisherman’s dead apprentice, it looks as if decadent Berlin has taken a trip north to the German coast – not least in the shape of an Auntie who looks like Dix’s Sylvia von Harden in fur coat and stripy suit (Rebecca de Pont Davies) and her two Nieces (Gillian Ramm and Mairead Buckle), ma(e)dchen in school uniform. And when at dawn the village worthies start behaving like characters out of Fritz Lang, with the weirdest of dumb-shows from the Nieces, the homage to German expressionism seems over the top. It’s only when the incensed villagers wave union jacks at the height of their second witch-hunt that we’re back in blinkered Blighty. The 'relations' are in the foreground of Clive Barda's picture for ENO above - same credit for the two below - with Stuart Skelton's Grimes seated for his Pleiadic monologue.

Well, Alden has a point: all this is only as stylised as Montagu Slater’s libretto (the one thing that grates on me the more I see Grimes, especially in Ellen’s pious lyrics; what a come-down for Britten after work with Auden on Paul Bunyan). Yet I’d prefer a middle ground between this and the absurd naturalism of Trevor Nunn at Glyndebourne, who tried to get everyone singing with a Suffolk accent. Tim Albery in the previous ENO production came closer to my ideal, and gave us more of the sea – here walls and corrugated roof only open up in Paul Steinberg’s compelling image for Sunday morning, the sun shining in the foreground with grey skies louring over the waves in the distance. Again, if Alden’s observation is that the seascapes of the interludes are in the characters’ souls, that’s valid too. Always interesting, he draws maximum contrast between the hugger-mugger scene of the village dance, suitably weird in a Richard Jonesian way, and the open beach for Grimes’s final monologue (those grey skies again).

Where, though, do Grimes and Ellen fit in all this?


I’ve seen reviews which suggest that they’re the only sane ones in the show, blunting their impact. But if Alden seems to go easy on the sadistic fisherman, that’s surely more to do with Stuart Skelton’s heldentenor Grimes. A Lohengrin voice from the start, he produces a beautiful sound at times but doesn’t for me make enough of the fatal fracture between lyric vision and violent impulse; for this, you need more vocal colour and greater dramatic projection. So it seems daft to label him a cross between Vickers and Pears; have folk forgotten so quickly Heppner at the Royal Opera or Langridge’s interpretation in the Albery production – so searing in his inwardness, so scary in his mad pacing? Skelton was, at least, touching in a rather childlike way throughout the last scene. Amanda Roocroft’s innate dignity is useful for Ellen, and ‘Let her among you without fault’ was the vocal highlight of Act One. If the voice frays at the very top - and she had some trouble with the Embroidery Aria - that’s a small price to pay for her conviction.


The women’s quartet was especially moving in its strange way, though odd for those Nieces to turn so suddenly into human beings.

Musically, the rest is splendid. Among the other roles a little constrained by Alden’s fascinating take – as especially, I felt, was Gerald Finley’s one-armed Captain Balstrode - Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley finds the mezzo still in remarkably good vocal health. The chorus delivers the expected impact, and Edward Gardner has done sterling work polishing up the ENO Orchestra; the brass especially packed a focused punch in the storm and the great central Passacaglia. Here was the ideal balance between long, tender lines and naked terror missing, for me, in Skelton’s portrayal.

I've always had a problem with how much we’re expected to sympathise with Grimes. He is, after all, a dangerous man, a child abuser in the physical if not the sexual sense; so isn’t the Borough partly right to try to stop him, and wrong to let him off the hook at the start so easily? Alden’s best touch, I think, was to make the posse’s arrival at the hut complicit in the second apprentice’s demise: startled by the knock at the door, Grimes drops the rope, and in that second the boy tumbles to his death. So that, at least, is tragic mishap. But we’re on dodgy ground simply seeing the protagonist as an outsider figure through whom Britten expresses his own estrangement.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Idolatry

On the same night that assorted EU folk were listening to the European Opera Centre five (see below), UK telly watchers saw Allison Iraheta bizarrely voted off American Idol, leaving the semi-final to the smokey if samey Danny Gokey, the middle-of-the-road Kris Allen and the incomparable Adam Lambert. All four have marked out standards way beyond what I'd have expected from a show like this - not that I've followed it before - but for me 17-year old Iraheta and showman Lambert can stand alongside the best singers in any sphere, opera included (and how much better they've been than many of American Idol's guests on eviction night).

Operatic, indeed, is how one might best describe Lambert's upper-register belt, the 'screaming' as some detractors call it. I liked his 'Feeling Good' less than any of his other new spins on old material, but it ended with pure artistry - a descent from what seemed like an infinitely held top note with a creative, seamless melisma. Am I nuts, I hear the purists asking? Well, I like to think I just appreciate any artist at the top of his or her game, and while Iraheta has years to develop that extraordinary, chesty rock-chick personality, Lambert is already consummate; I don't think the comparisons with Elvis, Jagger or Freddie Mercury are too far fetched.

There seems, however, to be an American storm in a teacup brewing over his sexuality, which some think could lose him the title. It wouldn't matter over here, but allegedly Allen's and Gokey's Christian credentials are winning them an irrelevant moral high ground in the eyes of the American public. So it may not be that the best man wins, but it will make little difference to Lambert's world domination in the long run.

PS (late May) - Allen became the American Idol, but the above still holds good. No fault of the cute nice guy if the middle-American comfort zone kicked in - though probably it had more to do with young girls voting again and again for the pretty one. Arkansas folk notched up an astonishing 38 million votes for 'their' boy.

Heading further downmarket to a talent show very much in inverted commas, I can’t resist wicked La Cieca’s ‘separated at midlife’ comparison between the much-discussed Susan Boyle and Langridge as Rosina Lickspittle. Do take a look (and bear in mind that Nigel Robson, in the original WNO Hansel, portrayed our Hexe as a Glasgow wifey).

Finally, our recent conversion to telly after a year free of the monster could only go so far. Enduring the bizarre opening kitschfest from Moscow, I stuck out Eurovision's first two semi-final entries from Montenegro and the Czech Republic before switching off appalled.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Ode to Joy



I use that title, as has friend and former European Union Youth Orchestra front-man Andrew Hammond before me, as a two-edged sword. Beethoven’s famous theme, usually sans voices, is of course the European anthem and as such, with everyone rising to their feet, it ended Friday evening’s Europe Day concert (international pride? Why not?). But the heading also refers to the enthusiastic Joy Bryer, co-founder and secretary general of the EUYO. It was thanks to her enterprise, along with the joint planning of EUYO manager Kim Sargeant and Kenneth Baird of the European Opera Centre, that the Europe Day fest happened for the first time in the summery environs of St John’s Smith Square. After it Mrs. Bryer expressed her effervescent hope that the occasion might become an annual event, a kind of Europe Day answer to Vienna’s New Year concerts. Its esprit certainly matched the best of those Strauss family jamborees.

Now, opera galas are tricksy things to gauge, and can be sticky even with the starriest stars. This one had many boxes to tick and groups to please. The repertoire had to run the gamut of European sunshine, from Frenchmen’s views of Galicia and Spain to an Irishman’s Windsor, and there had to be enough plums to keep ambassadors who know what they like happy (Pearl Fishers Duet, Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, ‘Softly Awakes My Heart’). It had to showcase and combine the talents of five more than merely promising young singers from the European Opera Centre; and it had to give the EUYO enough of a chance to shine under conductor Laurent Pillot.


All this more than worked under the magic wand of youth. Not that you have to make any allowances for the EUYO, one of the best European orchestras regardless of age; sitting near the front, I couldn’t detect a stray fiddle in the ensemble, and from the mellow opening horn harmonies of Delibes’s delicious Coppelia Prelude, you knew you were with a master ensemble. Perhaps owing to the frothy occasion – a full house, with lots of young people in the galleries – I enjoyed the ballet romp and Smetana’s Dance of the Comedians (if there is more joyous music, I don’t know it) even more than Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture. Maybe, too, it’s because this is repertoire the EUYO doesn’t get to play very often. Nor are they used to working with singers. And these, too, were the real thing (two are representing their countries in this year’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition). Left to right, as seen in the Carmen Quintet, they are tenor Philippe Talbot, baritone Marc Canturri, mezzos Annaik Morel and Tara Erraught, and soprano Dora Rodrigues.


Talbot opened up in the higher register for a personable and nuanced ‘Una furtive lagrima’, very classy; and there was moonshine in Rodrigues’ Rusalka (full marks to the poignant cor anglais solo). Canturri came more into his own as Donizetti’s strutting Belcore, and the sensuousness of Morel’s Dalila carried to an expert team of opera-lovers sitting at the back of the church. Erraught championed a rarity by compatriot Balfe. Did you know his Falstaff? I certainly didn’t. (N)Annetta’s cavatina is as good as your average Donizetti number; the Irish mezzo despatched it with sparkling engagement of the audience and a musicality to match Talbot’s. I've since discovered that Erraught features on an RTE recording of the complete opera with Majella Cullagh as Alice Ford and Barry Banks as Fenton.

The Carmen Quintet brought the singers together and kept the buoyancy of the evening afloat until it was time to embrace the solemnity of the ‘anthem’. Well, I thought, why not the whole of Beethoven’s Ninth next year, maybe with bleeding chunks of Fidelio in the first half? It would work in St John’s with an orchestra of this size – but the problem, as Kim Sargeant pointed out, would be in squeezing a chorus on to the platform. Never mind; Joy Bryer’s suggestion of an annual celebration to give Vienna a run for its money will do very nicely.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

The seasons alter, florally

All that time the blogging keyboard remained idle, the camera was still there to record the passing of time. I thought, by way of an interlude before musical activity resumes as usual, I might indulge in a brief chronological survey to show how far the local flora has/have come since the chill of winter. Now that snowdrops no longer have a place in the despoiled back yard, a lone bloom of that blowsy tart camellia Debbie was the first to emerge so obligingly just before the Big Snow of February, which of course she survived (alas, not so the scented geraniums).


Early April marked the last of Debbie's flaunting.


Then it was the turn of the front garden. I know folk are agin the over-insistent Spanish bluebell, so rampant alongside our coyly nodding native variety, but I'd rather have the invasion around the dicentra than not.


Cut to Chelsea Physic Garden in early May, when I was surprised to find many of the peonies in full spate.



And in the little patch of walled garden I maintain on the south side of the estate, nearly buried for the moment behind builders' debris like Freia under the piled-up filthy lucre in Rheingold, the cistus and geraniums came into flower last week.


Creatures of habit by necessity at the moment, we returned to the Chelsea Physic Garden today - partly lured again by their excellent Sunday lunch - and it's startling to see how swiftly nature marches on. The above peonies are now flowerless, while amongst other surprises the oriental poppies, budding phallically last week, have burst. The sensation is that we head already towards midsummer.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Music to watch films by

‘If you’ve enjoyed Cheri, tell all your friends’, declared the very professional MC at the Cine Lumiere screening of Stephen Frears’s new film last Wednesday, ‘and if you haven’t, keep quiet.’ It may have been because we were a bit quiet at the reception afterwards that a delightful French lady felt obliged to step in and say, ‘well, you know, it is very much a woman’s film’ – as if women were less discriminating than men, and as if the Colette original weren’t a timeless, universal marvel – and ‘but wasn’t the music wonderful?’ Well, I found it de trop, overblown when not tootling archly – and how much of it there was (several orchestrators were credited).

By the same token, how much of it there is in an altogether more authentic French drama, Arnaud Desplechin’s Un conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale); and yet how wonderfully this collage of diverse sounds and scores not only enhances the film but sometimes even seems to dictate its emotional rhythm.


Obviously Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and Intermezzo play an important role, but I wish I recognised the bittersweet berceuse that pops up at very diverse moments (it might, of course, be a new theme by the soundtrack's composer, Gregoire Hetzel). It makes an unexpected return, counterpointed with jazz, to calm the nerves through the final scenes, when Deneuve’s matriarch undergoes the bone marrow transplant provided by her splendidly dysfunctional black sheep of a son (Mathieu Amalric). I haven’t been so haunted by music as an integral part of a film since the sombre, ultimately transcendent use of Rachmaninov in a Swiss movie, Garcon stupide.

Which justifies a brief digression, as I just (13/5) found an eminent musician who felt the same about Garcon stupide and Rachmaninov. Pianist Jeremy Denk (whose Prokofiev Visions fugitives was perhaps for me the highlight of the Bard Festival last summer) writes on his idiosyncratic blog think denk of the last scene. In it, to give a bit of context, our hapless hero may or may not find happiness in a fairground...


...and the unearthly beauty of the slow movement from the First Symphony plays at length (I'm sure for more than two minutes). Denk writes eloquently: 'The concluding two minutes of the film seem musical, not by accident, but in essence. The onscreen events are reticent to declare themselves (”I am a happy ending” or “I am a sad ending,” or even “I am an ending at all”?), and they take refuge therefore in the music (which cannot really declare itself either); the two enigmas are tied to each other, timed as a gradual release and disintegration, an unfolding of images and motives.'

But back to A Christmas Tale, the plot of which gives very little idea of the film’s unique, dreamlike quality – indeed when I read about it at the time of last year’s release, I wasn’t tempted. Yet it’s a real one-off, a kind of gracious French Bergman family drama in which sadness or misery dissolves at the lightest of pressures. And what wonderful performances Desplechin draws from his ensemble of accomplished actors. One who lights up the screen in all her variousness is Emmanuelle Devos, a name I blush to say I’d not come across before. Her character, the black sheep’s girlfriend Faunia, is by no means a dominant figure, and yet her expressive range is utterly compelling. So I’m looking forward to catching up with another Desplechin film in which she plays a major part, the highly praised Rois et reine.

And Cheri? Well, it’s a step up from Frears’s excruciating Mrs Henderson Presents, but none of the characters seems quite right for Colette’s lethally elegant novel – though Rupert Friend’s petted young roué comes close – and none won my sympathy. Michelle Pfeiffer can be luminous, but she’s resolutely unsexy: didn’t Frenchmen like their courtesans with a big bust and an ample derriere? ‘Nice hats’ is the best I can do.

PS - accents: where are they when you need them? As my laptop doesn't have a 'separate numeric keypad', I'm at a loss for an alternative. And I've tried.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Galina as babushka


Who’d have thought it, the redoubtable one-time diva of the Bolshoy in an understated gem of a screen performance as a Russian grandmother? We knew Galina Vishnevskaya, always in the past hovering between dramatic truth and the grand manner, would go for truth given a chance. And half a chance was all she had in her film debut back in the 1960s as Shostakovich’s (originally Leskov’s) Katerina Izmailova, a performance which wavers between astonishing realism and silent-film gestures writ large. That maverick director and master of interior mood Alexander Sokurov – amen to his survival in the current climate of Russia – says he knew Vishnevskaya could be relied upon to be, and to look, the opposite of the archetypal filmstar. Without her Alexandra, his enigmatic fable of an elderly woman visiting her grandson in a military camp down south (Chechnya, we presume), would never have come to fruition.

Vishnevskaya’s Alexandra Nikolayevna - baffled but tenacious, sighing a thousand ‘oy, oys’ at the resistance of her tired limbs but emotionally sharp as a knife – cuts a quietly extraordinary figure as she travels to her bleak destination and shuffles around the camp; you can see the amazement in the half-deferent, half-puzzled eyes of the young recruits she encounters. Contrast to this bleached, desultory life finally comes when she stubbornly wanders off to the nearby market and befriends a Chechen woman (Raisa Gichayeva) who offers her tea and rest in her half-destroyed apartment block.

There are scenes of tenderness between the two women as well as between Alexandra and the grandson she accuses of being a killing-machine, but what’s said – which always seems to be overheard rather than heard distinctly, to be improvised Mike Leigh style rather than hewn out as words of didactic significance – is less telling than looks and gestures. As with another strangely-rooted film we caught up with recently, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre, you don’t think it can work in the first quarter of an hour, but you end up mesmerised. A whole world has been created in Sokurov’s not so little masterpiece. Curiously, by the way, the memorable image of Alexandra passing a group of soldiers has been edited on the Artificial Eye DVD cover to lop off Vishnevskaya. Here she is rightfully restored in the French release:


I interviewed Vishnevskaya back in 1988, when she agreed to talk about her part in the towering Decca recording of Britten's War Requiem; it was then due to receive another lease of life as the soundtrack to Derek Jarman's film of the same name. I guess around then she would have looked something like this (forgive the lack of date and credit; if anyone can supply them I'll be happy to insert).


The great lady reminisced about the huge Aldeburgh recital she gave which inspired Britten to create the soprano role in the War Requiem for her, insisted that Shostakovich - who wore out his Decca LPs - 'said that it was - not one of the greatest contemporary works, but the greatest' and told me that she and Britten got on so well because they were both essentially 'very shy people - and this may surprise you'. It did, but I came to see what she meant.

Ah, skolko zim, skolko lyet, as the Russians say – and where the hell have I been these past months? Lying low, making only the occasional excursion to essentials (such as Doctor Atomic, which did not disappoint), reading reams of Dervla Murphy, working when I could, cultivating what little garden I have. Hopefully that phase is coming to an end and it’s back to the more active life again, but thank you to those who expressed their concern.