Sunday, 30 November 2014

Philippe Sands, A Song of Good and Evil (premiere), 29 November 2014


Purcell Room
 
Vanessa Redgrave and Philippe Sands (narrators)
Laurent Naouri (bass-baritone)
Guillaume de Chassy (piano)
Nina Brazier (director)

 

A Song of Good and Evil received its premiere as part of the Southbank Centre’s Literature Autumn Festival 2014. It is a piece difficult, perhaps impossible to classify – a point not entirely without relevance to its subject matter. Perhaps it is better simply to describe. With the help of pictures, music, and narration we learned of the intersection of three lives in Lemberg/Lvov and Nuremberg: the lives of two lawyers, Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin, and Hans Frank. Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin studied at the University of Lemberg or Lwów (the city had, yet again, changed its name and indeed country, in the very few intervening years); both, indeed, were taught by the same jurist. Frank visited as Governor-General in August 1942. All three would be crucial figures at the Nuremberg Trials, Frank of course meeting his death as a consequence, Lauterpacht and Lemkin leading advocates, indeed international legal originators, of the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide. The conflict between the two concepts, between protection of individuals and that of groups, was clearly explained – and, in a postscript, pursued in more recent years. Frank, it should be added, was certainly in some sense responsible, and held by Lauterpacht and Lemkin to be responsible, for the deaths of their relatives.
 

Such, apparently, is part of the material for a book by Philippe Sands, to be published in 2016. This piece also offered opportunity for reflection on the role of music, always so crucial to German culture and to German reflection upon culture. We all know how indelibly pieces of music can become associated with particular times, places, and events. There is something truly disconcerting about the thought that both Lauterpacht and Frank derived inspiration and solace from Bach’s St Matthew Passion during the final days at Nuremberg. Laurent Naouri, fresh from Thursday’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande, and jazz pianist, Guillaume de Chassy offered musical excerpts and in some cases whole performances, one of which was ‘Erbarme dich’ (usually, of course, heard from a mezzo, but sounding not at all out of place in a moving, direct performance). Opening with Ravel’s Yiddish ‘L’enigme éternelle’, one of his two Mélodies hébraïques, we ended with what, in context, we could hardly fail to consider a call for universal human rights in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. Along the way, other music included a snatch, albeit for piano alone, of Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, the beginning of the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata (played by Lautenbach’s wife when they met), some Bach-Busoni (‘Ich ruf’ zu dir’), Paul Misraki’s Insensiblement (heard by a reporter in a French café when news of Frank’s execution reached him), and other pieces.
 

Perhaps the most controversial inclusion was a setting by Frédéric Chaslin (‘in the style of Richard Strauss’) of Wer tritt herein, so fesch und schlank? Strauss set the words in praise of Frank in 1943, but the music seems to have been lost. It is difficult to imagine it being sung often, even if it had survived. Chaslin’s setting did a passable imitation of Strauss, without truly convincing, but then that was not really the point. It was difficult, however, to feel that Strauss, described as a ‘friend’ of Frank was being treated entirely fairly; we might have been informed of the cat-and-mouse game the Nazi authorities played with him, or at least of his Jewish grandchildren. But then, one has to admit that there are far more deserving recipients of our sympathy than Strauss.
 

The material was well selected and presented. Sands and Vanessa Redgrave shared the narration; it was certainly quite a treat, even in such difficult circumstances, to hear Redgrave’s way with words. Naouri proved himself adept in various languages and styles, as did his pianist. A sobering, fascinating, and in the best sense provocative evening.

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