Royal Albert Hall
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, op.24: Polonaise
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
David Robert Coleman: Looking for Palestine (2017-18)
Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy, op.54
Elsa Dreisig (soprano)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)
Can music lie? Conversely, can it tell the truth? Are those meaningless questions, confusions of category? Most of us, I think, would agree that music can mislead and that it can also lay claim to truth content. It was certainly a relief to spend a couple of hours away from the lies that infest our political and ‘media’ life, to experience the truthfulness of great musicianship.
A late addition to the printed programme was the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. It made for just as splendid an overture as it might have done an encore. Daniel Barenboim has a splendid history with this opera and with Tchaikovsky more generally. With his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra too I heard perhaps the best live performance I have yet to experience of the Sixth Symphony. Moreover, the first time I heard the orchestra live, at the LRB’s Edward Said Memorial Concert in 2004, the Fifth was on the programme. Here heard – almost saw – the swagger of St Petersburg: for once with an unashamedly large, generous orchestra. There was seductive intimacy too: those stolen glances, aural and almost visual, telling us much. And those cellos…
The Violin Concerto took off, so it seemed, from where the Polonaise had left us: stylistically, even developmentally, there was much in common, yet also of course much to distinguish. Barenboim provided an almost Beethovenian sense of purpose to take us up to Lisa Batiashvili’s entry. Her tone struck me throughout as akin to a fine red Burgundy: rich yet never too full-bodied, cultivated, always hitting the spot – and the dead centre of the notes, single – or double-stopped, without so much as a hint of the clinical. Rubato was perfectly judged as a tool of expression, as were Barenboim’s variations of tempo. The cadenza might have been written, as well as performed, ‘in real time’, such was the sense, however illusory, of spontaneity. Freshness of woodwind solos was just as striking, each and every one of them revealing a star in the best, collegiate sense. Likewise in the Canzonetta, in which Batiashvili’s duetting with them proved the magical highlight of highlights, and the finale. Even in a performance such as this, I cannot say that Tchaikovsky’s invention, or lack thereof, quite convinces. There is surely a good deal of note-spinning. It came closer than I can recall, though, and this was exquisite spinning of notes, with all the character of a great finale.
David Robert Coleman’s Looking for Palestine sets passages from Najla Said’s – that is Edward’s daughter’s – one-woman play Palestine. First she bears witness to the vicious Israeli onslaught upon Lebanon in 2006 – vigorously supported, you may remember, by Tony Blair and New Labour. ‘You can spend your life being a humanist, a pacifist … treating them the same way you wish to be treated BUT when you are being attacked, when bombs are falling … your life is in danger and you are scared, it is so easy to look up at the sky and scream at the top of your lungs’. Later, in New York City, she discovers a group protesting for Palestinian rights – her rights – without being able to contribute: ‘ME, I am this Palestinian walking by them all with my mouth slightly open, because I want to do, say, give, something, SOMETHING, and I’m thinking how I can’t, and shouldn’t at that what WOULD I do, say? And I’m thinking that words are so powerful, Palestine … Palestine … that word … that word … that word …’
Words are indeed powerful, as is music; so too is their combination. Here, the oud sets up the musical setting – and, in a sense, the words to come too. Its intervals, in the solo introduction, seem generative, leading to more non-verbal speech – or is it? is that to render things too easy, to sentimentalise? – from the fine WEDO brass section. As well as the oud, piano, harps, percussion seem to incite the rest of the orchestra – perhaps to look for Palestine too. The soprano’s introduction in turn – ‘And though I have never returned to Palestine, Palestine always returns to me. Tuesday, July eleventh, I am in Beirut.’ – incites both action and remembrance. (Remembrance, we may reflect, is sometimes all we have, for better or worse.) Coleman’s setting here, Elsa Dreisig complemented, perhaps even questioned by, electronics, came closer to Nono than anything I had yet heard Barenboim conduct. It would be quite a thing were he to take up those particular cudgels now from his erstwhile friend and colleague, Claudio Abbado. Like Nono, Coleman, in the three short ‘scenes’ that follow, evinces a keen sense of that ineffable thing we call ‘vocal style’. It may or may not correspond to anything we have heard before; yet, even if we cannot explain it, we know it – at least in a fine performance, which this certainly seemed to be. There was, perhaps, also a sense of post-Bergian writing for voice and orchestra – certainly harmony – as the first scene went on. Amplified speech at the opening of the second came across as reimagined recitative. Was there a bit of the easy film score towards its close? Perhaps, but one might well argue that the words suggest such an approach.
An amplified ‘stage whisper’, in the introduction to the third scene – ‘I think’ – called into question even the identity Said/Dreisig had established for herself, post 9/11, as an ‘Arab bridging the gap between two worlds that don’t understand each other’. Ligetian scurrying and swarming, a whip that – if only to me – evoked Alberich in Nibelheim, traffic whistles: all this and more went to suggest the aural urban landscape of Manhattan, even what Nono would have called his ‘provocation’. Was the final, vaguely ‘Arabic’ vocal line a sign or an indictment of Orientalism? That such a question, clearly presented, was left hanging was perhaps the most telling aspect of all.
Finally, at least on the programme, came Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Barenboim and his orchestra proved once again very much in their element. Work and performance opened somewhere between Wagner and Debussy, and immediately headed somewhere beyond them – whatever one thinks of that particular ‘beyond’. Yes, I thought, he ‘gets’ Scriabin. An urgent, undeniably hot-house performance, founded on rhythmic progression and above all on the progression of harmonic rhythm, seemed in just the right sense to ‘go with the flow’, or better, to ride the crest of these strange, even gaudy aural waves. Until languor set in, that is, and how, Michael Barenboim’s sweet toned violin solos very much the icing on that particular cake. Overloading with metaphors seems inevitable here, even in stylistic keeping. Immediacy of colour, initial Tannhäuser-like frustration of climax, trumpets and brass more general with old-fashioned ‘Russian’ vibrato, all led us up to a series of final climaxes which may or may not be ludicrous – but which are surely what Scriabin ‘meant’.
After that, the unforced nobility of a generous ‘Nimrod’ spoke more clearly and, yes, more truthfully than any words could. Now it was over to us, but would Elgar’s countrymen listen?