Nous vous proposons à cette soirée, un petit opéra, un petit drame, pour sept instruments et une voix, qui est très passionnante et un beau plaisir minuscule….It’s OK, don’t panic, the rest is in English. Sort of.
Though there was a momentary panic early on in the Stravinsky L'histoire d'un soldat. Even I can hear cracked notes from the brass and tell when a note on a string instrument should be flat, not off altogether. But they recovered.
I think they recovered, for I found the music rather flat too, only occasionally dramatic, certainly never melodramatic, and monochromatic. I can’t see why this should be. There were so many missed opportunities, so many points at which the narrator was so much more dramatic than the musicians, and without him one would have felt just as forlorn as that soldier finding the violin had no sound.
That’s not to say the musicians were not highly skilled; they were. There were some lovely sweet bars from the violin when they were needed, some splendid passages from the two brass players, but, all the same it was cold. And surely the parodic Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott was, for all its harmonium impersonation—and why wasn't that sustained?—neither out-and-out-parody, nor ironic, not even post-modernist. Somebody didn’t really get the joke.
And, at the end, what was the percussionist doing, playing like a street musician collecting pennies? So, I’m sorry to tell you, I was a bit disappointed again. The playing was, que dirai-je? Sequential. It lacked sufficient narrative cohesion. And any sense of a fairy tale, let alone a post-war fairy-tale and one that belongs as much to the Thirty Years War as the First. Yet at least some of the members of this band must have been brought up on Khalil-wa-dumnah? (I don't think I've got the transliteration right, there, but it's too late at night to ring a friend and ask.) And in the devilish dispossession of war that is the point?
But what saved it was Patrice Chéreau’s wonderfully dramatic narration, which had all the colours and expression and narrative flexibility the playing mostly lacked. Perhaps that was the intention? But if it was, why? It was an utterly entrancing bit of story-telling: I really felt like a child again, wanting to see how it all turned out, seeing the characters so vividly in my head, and yet hoping it wouldn’t end too soon. Even though I know the story . . .
And I’m sure at one point I heard him make that very French rude gesture: when you slap the elbow of your right forearm up with its clenched fist with the palm of your left hand . . .Something certainly sounded like that . . .
I’m so glad I could follow the French. Not that it’s so difficult, actually, and made even easier thanks to the narrator’s superb diction. (Did the audience not, or not have a translation? I thought they’d giggle a little in places, and when they didn’t, I felt a bit foolish.) Unforgiveable, BBC: why didn’t Patrice Chéreau get a credit in print, or on the web, nowhere that I could see? He was indispensable.
Note to presenters: if you must try to pronounce names in French, it sounds very silly when it’s done so “exsplausifelie”. Forget “Allo, Allo”, OK? That’s not actually French they’re speaking . . . . And practice saying “Intercontemporain” please. No, no, try again. You can manage ‘ensemble’ on your own, can’t you, though I know it’s a bit tricky putting them together? I’ve already screamed at my speakers over Alice Coote’s “ondgenoo” for ‘ingenue’. This guy Pierre Chéreau might give lessons . . . The story lasted less than an hour, nowhere near long enough for ‘Patrice’ to turn into ‘Pierre’. Yes, I know I make mistakes too, and I had a very long day as well after not much sleep, perhaps that’s why I’m in a bit of a temper, but this does smack of carelessness.
Apparently the orchestra flew into London from Naples late last night, were rehearsed from 10am until 2, and were on at 7. Tomorrow they’re flying off again. The presenter said Barenboim ‘pushes them hard’ almost approvingly. Too hard, I think, and I also think it was showing tonight. Why? A ‘maestro-onic’ ego trip?
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim; Stravinsky: L’histoire d’un Soldat, narr. Patrice Chéreau.