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War, love, music, film, poetry, history

Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann recital, Barbican Centre (16th February 2018), Philharmonia at the Movies at RFH (4th March 2018) and Daniel Cook organ recital at RFH, Southbank Centre (26 February 2018).

Three classical concerts during the winter season of 2018 were wonderful examples of successful synthesis of several art forms or ways of perception where different areas of human activity were helpful and active in allowing us to understand music and put it into context while listening. It was done very differently each time, this combination made me think of possible way of synthesize our art experiences in future, so that a usual form of a classical concert transforms into something new. I think it is quite a rare case to have only the auditory perception dominating over other senses, and for an average person curious about music slipping in additional milestones in terms of poetry, narrative, screen projection or historical background could become very important in boosting their motivation to go and see it. One should not be afraid of ecclectism here and try to interweave contextual elements from other spheres into a musical experience, as they seem to be working very effectively for modern audiences.

The first concert was a recital by Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann (supported by Helmut Deutsch at the piano) at the Barbican Centre on 16th February 2018. The pair of German singers made a wonderful choice of material for their vocal exploration: Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch (1896). In 1891-1892 Wolf quickly and feverishly composed a collection of songs based on Heyse’s translations of anonymous love poems from Tuscany (rispetti) and Venice (vilote). The collection consists of small stanzas of six or eight lines, and is a compendium that could be used by singers to channel different themes of love. That’s what Damrau, Kaufmann and Deutsch wisely did, creating a four-part themed evening of love songs, where different emotions were reflected, depending on a stage in lovers’ relationship. Two great vocalists proved themselves to be excellect actors and performed a ‘love roller-coaster’ to us, where tiny wars raged and piece followed each other, where the dawn of love leads to the summits and downfals, with sunsets leading to new beginnings.

The first part is dreaming about each other, imagining another as an unaccesible and sweet goal, the second is a series of war where false starts or annoyances are then followed by peace-making and suggestions to go to heaven together or and leave this world. The third part is an anticipation of a lover’s death and some melancholy fantasies associated with a loved one, while the fourth one is again a storm where delights of love are interspersed with torments of trying to reach an unaccessible object and flirtations where the end of the fight is unpredictable. Kaufmann had some limitations on his actor’s palette, with only in rare moments allowing himself being truly lyrical and at most of the times profiting from the strength of his voice and handsome looks to show off as a ‘passionate’ or ‘rejected’ lover. But he indeed went well in accordance with his partner, trying to answer her emotions both in singing and gestures.

However, it is Damrau that went to extraordinary heights in creating a multi-faceted, well rounded-up, comprehensive range of love emotions, her acting being a base for her superlative delivery. It felt indeed like an extremely rich intellectual and musical treat, with variations of love emotions interpreted through singing from the world’s most sought-for vocalists, and the words (though in German) bringing into context the multiple pearls from Wolf’s work. That was the first example of a very effective musical experience where poetry, music and a bit of playful acting were combined to a wonderful synthetic effect, while the metastructure of the whole work allowed us to pick and choose from the range of emotions presented the ones that appealed to us the most.

Credits: Mark Allan/Barbican

Similar experience of synthesis, although of a very different kind, was to be experienced during the very interesting event of which there should be more in London or elsewhere. It was the screening of two silent movies with Greta Garbo accompanied by a live score composed and conducted by Carl Davis at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre on 4th March 2018. The mind’s wish to follow the story on screen will always be one of the strongest ones, and that’s why the industry has prospered and has been so popular with mass audiences all over the world almost since the day of the conception of moving images. Philharmonia orchestra presented these screenings as part of its ‘Philharmonia at the movies’ series, and it was a privilege to see Carl Davis, a renowned specialist in creating scores for silent movies, to be involved both as a conductor and a composer for this event. It was an evening where music followed you where your brain was already directed by a film narrative, and there was no need to concentrate hard to understand different themes and motive, as Davis made them clear for the listener, playing interesting metamusical games with music that was used or mentioned in the actual films.

The first film was the only surviving extract from Victor Sjöström’s ‘The Divine Woman’ (1927), where Garbo plays a beautiful girl Marianne who uses all range of her emotions for Lucien, her lover, to desert the army. It is interesting to note that the version survives with Russian subtitles, so it was probably conserved at one of the Soviet early cinema studios. This sequence is partially reminiscent of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, and Davis wisely combines some military motives with lyrical passages, while also depicting some additional emotions (from the soldier’s mother) with cleverness. It is here that Davis’s skills in using music for depiction of visual imagery becomes obvious, as the music also follows the changes of interior and light, and even attempts to represent and complement lovers’ gestures. Sometimes I felt that Davis’s combinations of these variations were a bit too much, and could have been based on overarching themes important for a movie, and indeed he showcased his ability to do just that in the second film, Fred Niblo’s (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) ‘The Mysterious Lady’ (1928).

The ‘Mysterious Lady’ sees a young officer Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) getting a ticket to see Tosca in a Viennese opera house and meeting a beautiful mysterious young woman (Greta Garbo) whom he follows to her lodgings. The woman spends an amourous night and the following day with a handsome man, but turns out later to be a Russian spy Tania Fedorova working for General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) based in Warsaw. The elements of naïve Russian mythology that has survived through the century of cinema till modern times are really fun to watch here – both for the figure of severe general and for a Russian female spy who experiences the internal fight between her duties and her passion. The Tosca (an opera the future lovers watch) motive plays an additional parallel here, while an exchange in the beginning about a husband catching two lovers kissing precedes the love triangle in the film. The film is very wisely done in terms of plot development and features some remarkable close-up and interior shots, while being truthful and detailed in showing the psychology of furtive and cunning young lovers.

Carl Davis used several leitmotifs from Tosca, including the most famous one from the third act to get interweaved into his music, and I especially liked how the composer reflected superimposition effect used in his film in swift introduction of similar tableaus within his score. For instance, when a gaggle of geese were superimposed on happy lovers’ faces, David also included notes representing the birds eating crumbles and moving on the ground that quickly went back to lyrical musical passages, and he did the same through introducing Russian-themed dancing or Viennese valses (or even the cars and general bubbling life in the city) that are superimposed on overarching themes of his score for his movie, making their presence and then disappearing similarly as the images in film do. Davis’s score is never intrusive, it always supports the development and motives of the film, and it leads the mind to a true and sincere enjoyment of a story and characters seen on screen. Everything is slightly naïve, but beautiful and atmospheric, while music tenderly supports the screen narrative by a masterful mimicry of the silent movie genre interspersed with elements that sound very contemporary in their psychological complexity. Indeed a marvellous and liberating experience from Philharmonia and Carl Davis giving one more example of success of synthetic forms of perceiving music.

The third concert, the organ recital by the sub-organist of Westminster Abbey Daniel Cook on 26th February 2018, at the first glance was not involved in the production of synthetic emotionary layers out of musical concert, but in fact the concert’s programming was helping the audiences to get similar effects in their listening. The pieces chosen for Cook’s evening programme were a Sonata No.2 (Eroica) in G minor by Charles Stanford, Maurice Duruflé’s ‘Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d’Alain’ and Louis Verne’s Symphonie No.6 in B minor. The first two pieces receive their context from the French history and, specifically, that of the First and Second World Wars. Stanford’s Sonata brings the visual imagery from the fields of the battle of Verdun and of the bombardement of Rheims Cathedral, interweaving ‘Marseillase’ into the work’s triumphant finale, while Duruflé’s work is an exquisite, intricate hommage (developing a 5 note motif similar to the name ‘Alain’) to a composer Jehan Alan who died in the war in 1940. The third piece continued the French theme by presenting a Symphonie that could be named as Vierne’s life achievement and brings forth the images of his declining health and facing the impeding death while becoming even more sensitive to Mediterranean sun and glimpses of the world’s beauty.

This vivid ‘France-imbued’ imagery, combining war and death with imposing images of human longevity and persistance of memory over past was indeed the one that suited the grandeur and versatility of Cook’s delivery, who excelled in showing how organ is the instrument able to create a vast, detailed and varied musical-visual panno with the usage pedals, basses, foundations and upperwork that make up an organ at the Royal Festival Hall. At some moments the speed and depth of Cook’s delivery made one doubt that one man was behind this cascade of sounds, and, having the images of historic battles in mind, one was taken away to the hidden layers of the past by the route that seemed fantastical for such a journey – through the sounds of an organ that served as a mystical door to the death and lives of unknown French men. A magnificent experience indeed, showing how additional intellectual context could help the audiences tap on their knowledge of history to get involved with the music in innovative ways.

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