Classical review: The Memory of WT Stead - I've got that sinking feeling …

Five pianos went down with the 'Titanic' – a century later, Cassie Yukawa imagines we can hear them still

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When RMS Titanic sank in 1912, five Steinway pianos went down with her: two Model K uprights, two Model R uprights and one Model B drawing room grand, their brass feet bolted to the decks. Did they creak and sigh as they went down? Did the glue soften over the following days, weeks, years? Did the hammers float soundlessly up, the iron frame sink deeper into darkness? Inspired by the para-psychological writings of a journalist who died in the disaster, Lundahl&Seitl's participatory installation with pianist Cassie Yukawa in Steinway's piano showroom, The Memory of W T Stead, blots out light and everyday sound, sharpening one's ears for the blissful logic of a Bach fugue and the dreamy peregrinations of Ligeti's Pour Irina in a series of fragments and whispers.

More than 2,000 mourners attended Stead's memorial service, which began with his favourite hymn, "Begone, unbelief!". The Memory of ... can accommodate only six people at each performance – more a sensory journey – but "Begone, unbelief!" is still a useful maxim as you sit at a piano, put on wireless headphones and submit to the grip of light-excluding goggles. All you have to anchor you now are the crisp injunctions of an elderly male voice, the groan of wet wood, faint shreds of Bach and a series of unseen hands guiding your steps as you slowly and blindly pass through the building, brushing the exposed mechanism of an instrument with your fingers, its hammers like vertebrae. The voice in your ears is not that of Stead the reformer, the campaigner, the muckraker, but Stead the short-story writer, who wrote about an imaginary maritime disaster years before the Titanic, Stead the spiritualist, perhaps even Stead the dead, who dictated The Blue Island to a medium from "beyond the veil".

If Steinway Hall is heaven, heaven is remarkably well-insulated and nicely carpeted. After 40 minutes of convalescent docility, sometimes gazing at highlighted objects or figures, mostly in darkness, like a sort of enhanced solitude, suddenly finding oneself just an arm's length from Yukawa as she begins to play feels almost transgressive. I would have preferred my Bach served straight, without the glacé cherry, cocktail umbrella and indoor sparkler fixings that Liszt brings to his transcriptions. But for the opening bars of that fugue, the dazed beauty of Pour Irina, and the strangeness of being so very close to a pianist, it was worth a few extraneous double-octaves.

Though immaculately choreographed, The Memory of ... feels too careful of its human cargo, too serene, too uninquisitive, but the musical performance at its heart is raw and hyper-expressive, untidily and unguardedly moving.

Freighted with violence and grace, political anger and personal grief, The Gospel According to the Other Mary (Barbican Hall, London ****)is the companion piece to John Adams's nativity oratorio, El Niño. Twelve years separate the two works, both settings of texts assembled by Peter Sellars, both vivid in their attempts to voice the female experience, both occasionally syntactically baffling. Where El Niño dug hard into the quickening of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, drawing parallels between the Slaughter of the Innocents and the 1968 Tlatelolco Square massacre in Mexico, The Gospel ... ricochets between the quasi-sexual ecstasy of Hildegard of Bingen's visions and the contemporary misery and fright of drug abuse, self-harm and prostitution. Centrepiece of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Barbican residency with Gustavo Dudamel, the European premiere was exhilarating, enchanting and sometimes infuriating – semi-staged by Sellars in a performance of outstanding physicality, emotional commitment and technical virtuosity.

To the blistering strings, Latin brass, squalling saxophone and keening oboe of El Niño, Adams has added Mahlerian details for double bass and clarinet, plashing Debussian trills, a frosting of cimbalom, a shiver of mandolin, the brute twang of an electric guitar. Exquisite solos for flute and viola curl up out of nowhere, tender and green, tailor made for the LA Phil.

Mary (Kelley O'Connor) is a fragile, passionate conflation of two characters: the ex-prostitute Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, whose wiping of Christ's feet with expensive oils outrages her stern sister Martha (Tamara Mumford). A chaste trio of countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley) narrates, tenor Russell Thomas is the rebellious heart of the drama, voicing Lazarus and, sometimes, Christ, while the Los Angeles Master Chorale sing searing choruses of protest. Crucial to this performance were the three dancers, Michael Schumacher, Anani Sanouvi and Troy Ogilvie, the last especially touching.

As with El Niño, which I thought silly on first hearing, before I grew to love and respect it, The Gospel According to the Other Mary needs to be heard more than once. But the modest women's uniform of the Christian community – hair, arms and legs covered with sweatshirting or curtain-fabric florals – seemed to me to be every bit as repressive as the hooker-heels and G-strings that poor, sweet, ruined Mary had left behind.

'The Memory of WT Stead' runs till 6 Apr (

Critic's Choice

Exaudi, Christian Curnyn, Concerto Caledonia, London Voices and La Nuova Musica explore the music of Britten and Purcell in Aldeburgh's Easter Weekend concerts in Orford, Blythburgh and Snape, Suffolk, from Friday. Daniele Abbado's new production of Nabucco opens at the Royal Opera House, London, from Saturday, with Nicola Luisotti conducting.