Tuesday, 20 January 2015
Remembering Claudio Abbado
How could I forget? The greatest conductor of recent times died a year ago today, having given us a last decade with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra of the most extraordinary concerts I've ever experienced (Abbado in one of them pictured above by Peter Fischli). That his transcendentalism lives on is demonstrated to a remarkable degree in the Accentus Music film of the Lucerne memorial concert given on 6 April 2014.
I was very honoured to write the notes on the strength of a Guardian obit, and in one respect I had an advantage with the test pressing which the viewer won't enjoy: to experience the openings of the Berg Violin Concerto and the Adagio from Mahler's Third Symphony without voices over.
Yes, they've done the crazy thing of approaching those two performances with footage from other memorial tributes. I was very moved indeed to see the packed crowd in front of Milan's Teatro alla Scala for the Beethoven 'Eroica' funeral march conducted in Abbado's honour by Barenboim - sorry, there's just no comparison between those two - where the doors were thrown open to the wider public. Can you imagine a similar show of popular feeling for any musician in the UK? Ditto the Bologna lying-in-state for which musicians played around the clock.
Unfortunately the finished product brings on the music while all this is being shown, a terrible mistake in my opinion - especially when the Mahler finale, even without the string note gliding into the silence following the fourth movement's angelic conversation, needs the magic of its starting point.
What's invaluable in the DVD is to have the words of the wonderful Isabelle Faust, soloist in the Berg, and of veteran viola-player Wolfram Christ, testifying to Abbado's abiding presence in the orchestra, both as invisible guide while they play the first movement of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony without a replacement and in the hearts and minds of the musicians.
The musicality of Hölderlin's verses for 'Brot und Wein' as read by Bruno Ganz is spellbinding - in the booklet note I've written about my own assumptions of the connection between the lines and Abbado's spirit - and here, too, is Andris Nelsons as one of a number of younger-generation spirits who may rise to Abbado's level. Indeed, the Mahler finale has a special intensity in its perfect pacing I've only heard twice before - from Abbado himself with the Berlin Philharmonic and from Jiří Bělohlávek with the BBC Symphony.
Boy, did we need it the evening we settled down in front of the telly. I urged it on J because we'd just watched a remarkably horrible film, Calvary.
The acting, led by Brendan Gleeson (pictured above with Kerry Reilly as the priest's daughter), is perfect, the cinematography very beautiful, but 20 minutes into the mannered script (which begins with the line spoken by a parishioner in confession to the priest 'I first tasted semen at seven years old'), I began to have the horrible sensation I'd been here before. Namely in the ugly thriller In Bruges, similarly unredeemed for me in that case by the lovely Colin Farrell. Sure enough, the director and writer of Calvary, John Michael McDonagh, is the brother of the screenplay author for In Bruges, Martin McDonagh. These siblings had a very strange upbringing, which may account for the negativity of their Weltanschaaung.
Such grotesquerie might work on stage - I've not seen The Pillowman - but it's at odds with cinematic naturalism. And when you have such visual beauty from the scenes along the Sligo coast, with - I'm assuming - Yeats's Ben Bulben in the distance, how come there's no spirituality at all in the film, not a single human mixture of good and bad in the whole community? Which was why I thought we needed a spiritual dimension to wash away the nasty taste left by Calvary. And we got it, in tearful infinity, from the memorial concert.
Meanwhile, the horrors of this temporal world are never far away. Also on 20 January 2014, street fighting in the Kiev protests was reported to have escalated. And where are we now? Still being haunted by even more horrific scenes of destruction around Donetsk airport as Russian-armed insurgents and possibly Russian forces fight on in breach of the ceasefire which, it seems, Ukraine has tried to honour. News continues to trickle in of Russian soldiers sent on 'secret' missions to Eastern Ukraine and killed in the conflict: the mother of one 20 year old has been brave enough to speak out. So Putin will continue to lie - and Hollande says he has no reason to disbelieve him?
I've read only one eye-witness account in detail - the brilliant Ukrainian Russian novelist Andrey Kurkov's Ukraine Diaries, which run from 21 November 2013 to 24 April 2014. Much of what you need to know about the complexities of the conflict is here, in startling proximity to the unfolding events.
Here's part of just one pertinent entry, from 20 February 2014. Kurkov is telling us how the then opposition leaders and radical nationalists like Pravy Sektor jumped on the spontaneously launched bandwagon. The complete paragraph seems to me like a paradigm of most revolutions.
...recently, the only way to distinguish a radical from a peaceful protestor is to see whether or not they [sic - put it down to slack translation] have a Molotov cocktail in their hand.
The protestors have already been through all the stages: from the romantic phase, where everyone thought they could achieve their aims within a few days, to a premoniition of war, with revolutionaries covering their faces with balaclavas, wielding baseball bats and metal riot shields stolen from the police. Now we have entered a new phase, which can be summarised in five words: 'The bridges have been burned!' And many protestors on the barricades in Hrushevkoho street have removed their masks, no longer afraid to show their faces.