Classical: The music outlives the murder

Jara was a man of action who rolled up his sleeves to labour with the people he loved and sang about
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The Independent Culture
AS EMMA Thompson is bursting to tell us, she's making a film about the Chilean singer-songwriter, Victor Jara: hence the concert she's shooting at the Festival Hall on Sunday. But now is the time to praise Victor Jara, for it's 25 years to the month since he was machine-gunned down by Pinochet's thugs, after days of torture during which his hands and wrists were methodically smashed. His weapon was the guitar: silencing him, and banning his records after his death, was part of the fascist regime's sacred mission.

This week sees the release of a Jara compilation called Manifesto (ESMCD 6657), plus the re-publication of his widow Joan Jara's biography, Victory: An Unfinished Song, which she has brought up-to-date (Bloomsbury pounds 7.99). And if you read her harrowing tale - ideally in conjunction with the four- CD box Victor Jara Complete (Plane 88747) - you may begin to understand why this glorious performer mesmerised his generation, and why Pinochet was so desperate to liquidate him.

Jara was born poor and stayed poor: every ounce of his energy went into his campaign to improve the lot of Chile's peasantry. He was a Communist in the idealistic, Latin American sense of the word: a man of action, not ideology, who was always ready to roll up his sleeves and labour with the people he loved. And about whom he sang, for the songs are as much a social chronicle as an autobiography. A chance encounter was enough to set him off - a weaver he met by a lake, a sick child dumped at the door of the college where he taught - and the lyrics are lovely poems in their own right. Moreover, he knew how to find the universal in the intimate. One of his most famous songs - "Te recuerdo, Amanda" - contained, says Joan Jara, "both his mother's smile and the promise of his daughter's youth".

The limp label "protest-singer" undersells him grossly, but it accurately describes the song he wrote on hearing of the massacred squatters in Puerto Montt: he named names, and pointed the finger. And as the bourgeoisie mobilised to crush Allende, so the Chilean Song Movement of which he was leader became inexorably politicised. One of his most haunting works, inspired by the murder of a friend in a peaceful demonstration, was an oblique prophecy of his own death, though the way that came - the soldiers hated him as the Spanish fascists had hated Lorca - was infinitely more terrible. The last track of Victor Jara: Manifesto is a reading of his final poem, scribbled on a piece of paper and smuggled out of the sports stadium where his body was broken. "What I see, I have never seen...." Listen to these words, then listen to his warm and vibrant voice in happier days.

As I found on a recent research trip to Chile, the battle Jara fought is far from won. Musicians told me of their residual fear of the army, which still looms like a ghostly threat after eight years of quasi-democracy. Opera is thriving, thanks to Pinochet's insistence that Chile should compete in the international league, but other forms of music are desperately marginalised. A whole generation of writers, film-makers, and musicians were forced into exile after 1973: for two decades culture came to a halt. "We have been effectively lobotomised," said one. "Our task is to recover our communal memory."

NOW TO pianistic events, which are hotting up for the autumn. Those within striking distance of Blackheath Concert Halls this weekend have the chance to sample a unique festival in which every aspect of the piano is being explored. Meanwhile, Glasgow prepares to host the new and thriving Scottish International Piano Competition (Sept 10-19). And on 17 September, the most remarkable documentary ever made about a pianist - Richter, The Enigma - is being screened at the Barbican.

Whereon hangs a tale. This film may be long and serious, but that hasn't stopped it winning prizes, nor has it deterred European TV networks from buying the right to show it. But the British networks have turned it contemptuously down: par for the course, given the philistine dimwits who currently rule the televisual roost. So it's nice to be able to report that it's now available as a Warner video.

For piano fans with a longer purse - and longer shelves - next week sees the launch of something momentous: a 200-CD collection from Philips called Great Pianists of the 20th Century. According to Philip's director of repertoire, Tom Deacon: "We realised that at the end of the century we should look at how piano playing has changed, and we decided to expand the idea beyond the Polygram labels." And so, for the first time ever, the big labels are sinking their differences in a joint venture. Everybody who is - or was - anybody is here, with the oldest being Paderewski and the youngest (by a mile) Evgeny Kissin. The translated liner notes leave a lot to be desired, but the discs themselves are piano heaven.

MY SUGGESTION two weeks ago that superstar counter-tenor, Andreas Scholl, had been lured to Decca from Harmonia Mundi by filthy lucre has been greeted with outrage by his agent and recording manager. OK, OK ignoble insinuation, take it all back etc etc. But now I hear something even more deplorable. It seems the boy is not merely going to do crossover stuff, but will record at least one album which is firmly on the other side of the divide. Let's rock with Scholl!

This is madness. He may be, as we discovered at Glyndebourne this summer, the most perfect singer of his breed, but he's still a one-hit wonder. Prudence should have dictated a consolidation period of at least two years, before he stakes all on what Decca sweetly terms "an exciting, long-range recording plan".