Friday 3 November 2017
Quiescence: Sakari Oramo and Nan Shepherd
This was serendipity. Last Friday I encountered for a second time the great Finnish conductor's unique way with one of Sibelius's most elusive movements, the hypnotic centrepiece of the Third Symphony with which he also made the 2011 BBC Symphony Orchestra debut that got him the job as Principal Conductor. I was in the middle of reading Nan Shepherd's masterpiece of writing about nature, The Living Mountain (you may remember that I mentioned buying it in the Lighthouse bookshop during my blissful day at large in Edinburgh last month.
Why the connection? Because we all surely have at one time or another the feeling that music and its interpretation are reaching to some hidden truth that we think we glimpse, only for the intuition, revelation, call it what you will, to fade away. Another way of looking at it is that we become fused with the 'thing in itself', Kant's 'Ding an sich'. Shepherd touches time and again on this, and it is not cheating the gist of her small, perfect book to quote from her very last paragraph:
I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey in itself is part of the technique by which the god is sought, It is a journey into Being: for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain's life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.
Shepherd, who lived in the same house outside Aberdeen for 87 years, made the Cairngorms her intimate friend, if that's the right word - she was never sentimental about them, and knew that 'Summer on the high plateau can be as delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge'. In the second paragraph of The Living Mountain, written just after the Second World War but not printed until 1977 and only recently rediscovered as the glory it is, she tells us what her approach is to be:
The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered ad scooped by frosts, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books - so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet - but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind.
Shepherd moves chapter by chapter from the inanimate, like water* - 'like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me...it does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself' - to the living creatures created thereby,
for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grows from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird - all are one.
The most miraculous single chapter, for me, is the one entitled 'Sleep,' about 'quiescence', dwelling 'in pure intimacy with the tangible world' in that moment before losing consciousness out on the mountain, and waking, 'opening eyes that have human cognisance behind them upon what one has been so profoundly a part of. One has been in.'
This, finally, is where the connection with the Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto of Sibelius's Third in Oramo's interpretation last Friday comes in (top photo by Mark Allan). The circling mystery is somnambulistic, and seemingly repetitive, but it takes one to the heart of 'being in'. The more careful the pacing, the more intense the piano and pianissimo of the divided cellos, the deeper it goes. The first two bars reproduced here are their third statement, the most inward of all.
Everything in this work seems to come from a deeper place, even the subtle emergence of what will be the final C major triumph (see also what Oramo had to say about the background around the time of his 2011 performance here). It's always impossible to say which Sibelius symphony has the strongest pull; given Oramo's love and knowledge, and the way those are imparted to players who equally love him - one of theme said they had never been unanimous about a chief conductor before - each one seems to be the greatest at the time of hearing it.
Last Friday's concert was remarkable, too, for Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's thrilling teamwork with conductor and orchestra in a work he can truly call his own, Ravel's Concerto for Left-Hand Piano. I agree with everything my Arts Desk colleague Peter Quantrill had to say about the evening (I went on a night off, so to speak) and recommend that you listen to the concert, or at least its second half, on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer. Looking forward to the remaining four in this series; can't afford to miss a single programme. In the meantime, I'd say that Leif Ove Andsnes' recital on Tuesday several times touched a similar point of quiescence.
*The two images to go with Nan Shepherd's description of water are taken from our time in Sweden's Fulufjället National Park. Probably the geology doesn't entirely connect to the Cairngorms, which I've never visited except for a bit of ill-advised skiing on Glen Shie's nursery slopes; I do remember seeing the plateau from the plane flying to Inverness a couple of years ago. But for me there was an essence on that walking trip, too.