The terrible sounds of silence

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ACCORDING to my diary, which lists the birthdays of prominent people in case you want to send them a card, Simon Rattle has just entered his forties: a traumatic time for anyone, even with an early knighthood to cushion the blow. He has also just entered The Forties in his long- running Towards the Millennium series, which is progressively exploring the music of our century to the year 2000 - when presumably the music stops. The Forties, it goes without saying, were traumatic, too: a time when art intensified in proximity to war. There was fierce cultural entrenchment as the borders closed, but frantic cultural exchange as refugees and other exiles crossed them. It was the time of late Schoenberg, Bartok and Strauss; of early Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich. No one could say there was nothing to write about.

For the second concert in theseries, Rattle took the CBSO through music relative to the plight of Forties European Jewry. The big work was Tippett's Child of Our Time. I promised last week to give Tippett a holiday. But this was too powerful to ignore, with choral singing of profound strength - I've never known so long or rapt a silence as the one after the final number - and solo singing of extraordinary presence and dimension from the black American soprano Faye Robinson. Her vowels come curiously distorted. But the texture of the voice, the focus, strength and musicality, are all hugely impressive. She eclipsed the other soloists. Even Philip Langridge.

Apart from Schoenberg's 10 minutes of declaimed anguish, A Survivor from Warsaw (spoken here by Benjamin Luxon with dramatic force), the rest of the evening was given over to music by the lost generation of Jews who died in concentration camps. The main orchestral concert had a piece by Pavel Haas, while a satellite chamber concert had works by Gideon Klein and Viktor Ullmann - names that have become familiar only in the last couple of years as record and television companies have taken interest in them. They were all in Terezin, the "model" camp where the Nazis encouraged artistic activity for propaganda purposes, working in what must have been conditions of unspeakable anxiety. You wouldn't know it from Haas's breezily neoclassical Study for Strings (1943). But then this was music written more or less to order, to be performed in an official film of camp life. Gideon Klein's String Trio, completed a week before he was sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers, is a more personal and probing combination of nostalgic lyricism and unsettling dissonance. And the same could be said of Ullmann's String Quartet, with its threatening waltz figure. These may not be great works, but they are works of quality. Klein was by all accounts a Czech Leonard Bernstein: charismatic, omni-talented, with exceptional facility. Haas was one of Janacek's most gifted pupils; Ullmann a bold, assertive pupil of Schoenberg who wrote from the camp, "Let no one say of us that we sat by the waters of Babylon and wept." The performances were uniformly good, exalted by a discernable and wholly legitimate pleasure in the victory of art over might. Of course, they died; but they were not silenced.

It's hard to play a clean legato when the floor shifts underneath your feet, but I'd never given this problem much thought until I took part in a Musical Mini-cruise last weekend and watched members of the Bernini Ensemble being shaken but not stirred across the Bay of Biscay in a force-nine gale. With valiant fortitude the band played on; even when the ship's generator failed and plunged us into darkness they continued, drawing parallels with the Titanic not lost on the audience. If the quality wasn't Berlin Philharmonic it was, in the circumstances, commendable.

But the main interest was not the playing so much as the event. This mini-cruise was a new venture from P&O, and took place on a ship that doubled as a car ferry. Most of the 1,000 plus passengers were not there for music; but it was none the less available to them, free and virtually around the clock. The atmosphere at the concerts - in bars, restaurants, the ship's cinema - was extraordinary: the closest I've come to a real experiment in evangelically alternative concert-giving since those halcyon days when the GLC funded London Sinfonietta's drop-in weekends at the South Bank. Undoubtedly it reached people who would never walk into a concert hall; and although some got bored and drifted away, many didn't. It's a touching thing to hear lorry-drivers admit that they rather like Haydn. I hope P&O provides the chance to like him again.

The last of the LSO's Boulez Birthday Concerts came this week, with a classic bill of the Berg Violin Concerto, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Boulez's own, inscrutable essay in the juxtaposition of instrumental and vocal colours Pli selon Pli - Improvisation III. The mitre conducted, Ann-Sophie Mutter was the Berg soloist: it could only be memorable.

The Rite is such an icon of modern music that it takes some ingenuity to reinvest it with the power to startle. Bad performances pull out the stops too soon and splash around for the next half-an-hour. But Boulez is all prophylaxis: tight, secure, skeletal, massing tension as it were in an enclosed space. And the Berg was comparably controlled: an intimate, reflectively withdrawn reading whose terms were set by the sense of suppressed energy that Mutter, with her curiously high-held bowing arm, makes her own. Muscular but veiled.

These were remarkable performances, and the end of yet another superb LSO series. My eulogies on the LSO are, I know, getting predictable, but they prove themselves time and again to be the finest orchestra this country has, and they are currently on peak form. Make the most of it.

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