Sunday 12 September 2010

'Pastiche, politics, and all that jazz' - Royal Academy of Music students, 12 September 2010

St Pancras Room, Kings Place

Weill – Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Stravinsky – Piano-Rag-Music
Three Easy Pieces

Eisler – Über den Selbstmord
Lied einer deutschen Mutter
Mutter Beimlein
Lied des Händlers

Stravinsky – Tango

Weill – Je ne t’aime pas

Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano)
Jonathan McGovern (baritone)
Edwige Herchenrode and Reinis Zariņš (piano)

No one could seriously accuse Kings Place of a lack of ambition. This weekend festival boasted no fewer than a hundred concerts. I felt slightly embarrassed to be attending just the one, but such is life. At any rate, this seemed an appealing programme – and so it proved, though I was a little puzzled by the title. ‘Politics’, yes; ‘jazz’, well, sort of, if not quite; but ‘pastiche’? More importantly, however, to present Eisler not only with Weill but Stravinsky too made for a good mix.

Jonathan McGovern delivered the Ballad of Mack the Knife with an impressive command of Weill’s – and Brecht’s – idiom: nasty, without melodrama. McGovern’s Lied des Händlers was, if anything, more impressive. The biting satire of Brecht’s text and its desolate conclusion – we do not know what rice is, only its price, then the same for cotton, and finally for men – chilled, and reminded us that critique of capitalism is at least as necessary now as then, and nowhere more so than in London. (It so happened that, on the bus to the concert, I had been reading Vittorio Negri’s The Constitution of Time, a brave response to a totalitarianism of capital Brecht and Eisler would have understood only too well.) Which of the City’s bankers know what a man is? They probably cannot even be bothered with his price any more, unless there be a few hundred of them to trade. Eisler’s piano part was clearly delineated by Edwige Herchenrode. The halting progress of Mutter Beimlein, wooden leg and all, was wryly observed, in music as much as words.

Katie Bray was entrusted with the rest of the vocal programme. I wondered whether she was a little too emotive in the Eisler songs. Lied einer deutschen Mutter, the lament of the mother who now could see that her son’s brown shirt was his burial shroud, benefits from a little more distance: not quite Mother Courage, but something edging in that direction. Bray’s command of French – that most difficult language in which to sing – impressed, verbally and stylistically, in Weill’s setting of Maurice Magre, Je ne t’aime pas.

The solo Stravinsky items were performed by pianist Reinis Zariņš. Even the Three Easy Pieces are far from ‘easy’, especially in musical terms. Stravinsky loves to set straps and to defy expectations. His polemical dryness is a good deal of the story, but not the whole tale. There are moments of tenderness, for instance in the adorable Tango. (I recall playing it once as an encore, which even certain audience members of conservative bent enjoyed – until I informed them it was by Stravinsky.) But such moments must never, ever be milked, no more than in The Rake’s Progress; Zariņš had their measure. Motor rhythms not unlike those of Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata, invaded the Piano-Rag-Music to thrilling effect. Ragtime similarly impressed: clear, yet never merely dry. Such chips from the master’s workbench are akin, say, to Beethoven’s Bagatelles; in both cases, they will only shine as gems in good performance.

All in all, then, a most enjoyable performance and an excellent showcase for the RAM. It was a pity, though, that the performers’ names were not included upon the sheet with texts and translations. I had to visit the Royal Academy’s website to find them.