Monday 29 March 2010

Music and Politics in the Real World? Jerusalem Quartet - Mozart and Ravel, 29 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.21 in D major, KV 575
Ravel – String Quartet in F major

Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Amihai Grosz (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (violoncello)

I have never been to a musical performance like this, and hope that I shall never do so again. That could be the prelude to a savage attack; rest assured that it is not. It could be the prelude to a performance so unbearable in its intensity that, like Wagner’s fears for a great performance of Tristan, it would be injurious to one’s sanity. This, however, has nothing directly to do with the performance, excellent and – in the circumstances – almost incredible, but rather with events that unfolded in the concert hall. I do not wish to sensationalise; at the same time, I think it would be disingenuous not to deal with some at least of the issues that arose, not least since it would be a wholly inaccurate account of my experience, were I to put them to one side.

Arriving in the nick of time for the concert, I registered a couple of policeman outside the Wigmore Hall, along with someone who seemed to be handing out leaflets. Insofar as I gave the matter thought at all, I vaguely wondered whether this might be a Palestinian issue, but was in too much of a rush to consider matters further. The hall was packed: not always typical of a BBC lunchtime recital but, by the same token, not necessarily atypical either. Having greatly enjoyed the evening recital from these players (plus Lawrence Power) of Mozart and Debussy a couple of night before, I was very keen to hear the present programme. The Mozart D major quartet, KV 575, opened with many of the virtues heard in the previous programme’s Mozart works, albeit with a recognition of the greater profundity of the present work vis-à-vis the early quartet on Saturday. (Then we had also heard the G minor quintet, quite a different matter.) This was a fully mature conversation, all the more so given the imperative handed to the composer to write a prominent cello part. The commissioner, the King in Prussia – not of Prussia, as is often mistakenly claimed – was himself a cellist and had also engaged the services of the celebrated Jean-Pierre Duport as director of chamber music (hence Mozart’s Duport Variations). The consequence is, as Anthony Burton pointed out in his programme notes, that Mozart made ‘everybody in turn a soloist,’ heightening the contrapuntal interplay that was in any case characteristic of his late style. That was something clearly relished by all of the Jerusalem Quartet’s players; it would be invidious to single out any of them, though I cannot resist putting a special mention the way of violist, Amihai Grosz. (Not for nothing was this Mozart’s favoured instrument as a quartet player himself.) The tempo seemed just right, likewise phrasing and the timing and weighting of climaxes.

On to the Andante. The sweetness of first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s tone struck me immediately, but almost as quickly did the players’ perfect counterpoise between harmony and counterpoint: absolutely fundamental to Mozart, yet so abominably difficult to achieve. (And the pay off is that it sounds ‘right’, rather than impressive in the virtuoso sense.) This is not a movement I should expect to terrify, but then it did – or rather something quite horrifying occurred during the performance. A woman rose to her feet and made a noise. For a split second, I was unsure what it was; then I realised that she was singing – in a reasonably imitation of a trained voice. ‘Jerusalem’ was the first word, followed by ‘is occupied’. She proceeded to shout out denunciations of Israel, ‘an apartheid state’, the attack on Gaza, the use of phosphorous, and so forth, seeming to implicate the quartet, though it was not clear how. I did not note down everything word for word, so should prefer not to guess or to misrepresent. Bewilderment turned into commotion and the players had to stop. Members of the Wigmore staff came to her row in the stalls and led her out of the hall. After a certain hiatus, the performance resumed where it had left off. Some bars later, a further interruption occurred from elsewhere in the hall: a man, I think, this time, though I am not entirely sure of my recollection. To say that it was unnerving was an understatement; I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for the players. And what else might be in store? Might there be something more than heckling? The players, this time having left the stage, eventually returned and resumed the movement, making their way to the end. By this time, of course, many in the audience, myself included, must have necessarily had other thoughts in their minds. What issues did this raise, especially in the allegedly most ‘pure’ of Classical forms, the string quartet? Although I shall talk a little about this later, I thought it better at least to mention it here, since this was perforce very much part of my experience as a member of the audience. By this stage, however, the disruption of the work’s aura was complete; fear and anger were increasingly palpable.

The minuet was taken at a fastish tempo but without sounding hard-driven: again, a necessary but devilishly difficult task for Mozart performers. It was perhaps a little faster than I might have expected, given the general nature of the performance and my experience of the quartet’s general approach; I wondered whether this might be an attempt to make up time, given what had happened in the previous movement. In the circumstances, the players’ attentiveness to each other and general stylishness seemed little short of miraculous. The audience, one could sense, remained on edge; I certainly was. It was likewise remarkable how full of grace and genuine give-and-take the trio proved. But we made it to the finale, though no one knew whether the interruptions – I am trying to employ ‘neutral’ language, whatever the nature of my own feelings – had ceased. I should have noticed the fullness of sound in any case, I think, but given the circumstances, it resounded all the more, perfect to support that precarious balance or dialectic between harmony and counterpoint. The movement perhaps sounded a bit precipitate, but one could well understand why. I myself was willing the players to make it to the end before another intervention. It was not to be…

… This time proved, if anything, nastier. The music having stopped again, some members of the audience began to shout at the protestor: hardly unreasonable, though one man in particular seemed a little too eager for a fight, calling out personal abuse. One frustrated audience member, seated in front of the present protestor, turned and initiated some sort of physical contact, which was broken up when the protestor was led out. A man from a few rows behind shouted out, condemning the responding audience member’s behaviour. It was unclear whether the man now calling out were another member of the organised – I realise I am making an assumption here, but it can hardly have been spontaneous – group, or whether he were sympathetic and simply venting his opposition to such behaviour. My suspicion, and it is only that, is that the latter was the case. Eventually, Amihai Grosz spoke, attempting to address accusations – apparently levelled in the leaflets being dispersed outside – that the quartet was somehow supported by the Israeli government. He said that it was not, which was good enough for me, and referred to the fact that every Israeli citizen must perform military service. (There are conscientious objectors, of course, but let us leave that on one side.) At any rate, they were only musicians. (I shall come back to that.) The players were clearly uncertain as to whether to carry on, or as to whether they would be permitted to do so. It was a relief to have the hall's front of house manager now walk to the front and ask whether we wished the quartet to resume. There was no equivocation in the response, so the players did as they were asked. I do not know whether the broadcast, which had presumably made this an attractive, high-profile proposition for protestors, had ceased by then. An announcement that the only remaining audience was in the hall might have helped. Music won through, though, as the performance proceeded to its end. Applause was warm, to put it mildly. Some, myself included, stood.

Then Ravel. The cool, calm, collected nature of the opening seemed all the more remarkable on this occasion. Beautifully stylish, the performance pulsated with life, especially in the inner parts. This, someone such as Daniel Barenboim would doubtless argue, is what music can do. I differ from Barenboim concerning his understandable divorce of music from politics, but enough of that for now. Those, though, were thoughts that I could not banish from my mind, however much I wished to concentrate on ‘the music’. Something that sounded like anger – the relationship between music and the emotions, let alone their personification, is complex – understandably made itself sound, or at least I heard it, followed by a relative calm that could not quite be placid.

Interruption again… When the music resumed, Ravel’s apparent serenity was anything but. On this occasion, the unanimity of pizzicato in the second movement’s opening bars was all the more thrilling. Was that anger again one heard soon after? The Lent section was full of tension not necessarily in the music – or, again, this was how I heard it. Relief on completing the movement without extra-musical incident compensated somewhat. Shimmering background was the setting for a profound melancholy to the lyricism of the slow movement’s opening. Climaxes were rapt: surprisingly Romantic, but not inappropriately. I admit, though, that I found it impossible properly to concentrate. Perhaps one had to have to, as the players did. Again, this movement proved free of disruption, but I cannot have been the only one to fear that something was being kept in reserve for the finale. The disciplined violence of its opening bars would have told anyway, but certainly did now, likewise its searing lyricism. The courageous – in my view – players of the Jerusalem Quartet made it to the end. Once again many of us stood to applaud them.

I do not believe in art for art’s sake, in principle or phenomenologically. To attempt to remove art from the political sphere, or politics from art, goes against everything I hold dear. What, then, should one think about what happened? There is probably no one thing one should think – which may be the most important thing to remember. The protestors would doubtless claim that the disruption caused was as nothing compared to the events in Gaza. It is difficult to disagree. But is that the point? And were they on sure ground with respect to these musicians? So far as I could discern afterwards, the protestors’ grievance seemed initially to have been derived from a dubious website. Barenboim’s personal heroism is of course quite something, but should one expect such heroism from everyone, especially, dare I suggest, from musicians who do not have the luxury of being Daniel Barenboim? And what should one think if, for instance, one knew that performers supported something one found abhorrent? Is it not a good idea to rejoice in music’s capacity to heal? Or is that an illusory æstheticism? Again, there are probably no singular answers – and a lack of plurality is again a major part of the problem. My thoughts led me to that enigmatic shout of ‘Deutschland über alles, Herr Schuricht!’ at the 1939 performance of Das Lied von der Erde in Amsterdam under Carl Schuricht. Was that woman protesting? Was she a supporter or was she voicing sarcasm? How can one fail to feel horrified, whatever the response? The reader may discover for himself; the performance was recorded. These are all difficult questions, which is not to say that one should not attempt to answer them. However, one should guard against definitive answers, not out of some misguided desire for ‘moderation’, but because there is nothing more totalitarian than a simplistic response. The Jerusalem Quartet players acquitted themselves magnificently. I admired them before as musicians; I admire them now as men.