By the skin of his teeth. As a bizarre offshoot of the workers' paradise, Soviet ideology boasted of creating a New Man, with possible help from the apes — before DNA was discovered, crackpot experiments that involved interbreeding humans with lower primates were conceived. The only success was fictitious, a creature named Orango who began life as a French journalist before being injected with chimpanzee serum. He is the sullen, furry anti-hero of a satirical opera begun by Shostakovich in 1932, and although the weirdness of the libretto may have been a stumbling block, another was probably political: Orango spoofed the decadent West (the creature uses his intelligence to become a stock market manipulator but retains a King Kong-like appetite for blondes). Did Orango's brutish manners shave a bit too close to Stalin? Or did he dangerously mock the promise of a New Man?
Royal Festival Hall
This was originally intended to be the penultimate programme of Pollini's five-concert Project spanning the gamut of keyboard repertoire from Bach to Boulez (albeit with a large Classical Period-sized gap), but has been postponed for a couple of months due to illness. In my opinion this has made for a more fitting end to the series, not only following chronological order but also concluding by challenging the audience with something 'modern' rather than the obvious crowd-pleasing Chopin of what became the fourth Project concert. Appropriately, this concert in fact draws a connection, perhaps not immediately obvious, between the hugely different Chopin and Boulez.
Lion in winter. Concert audiences now whoop and whistle for their artists, and I couldn't help but wonder how this affects Maurizio Pollini. At sixty-nine, he has been before the public for fifty years, ever since winning the Chopin International Competition in 1960 at the age of eighteen. His white hair is wispy on top (this is art, so let's call it an aureole). He still walks briskly to the piano and hits the first keys with unnerving alacrity. When Rosa Ponselle made her London debut, the veteran diva Nellie Melba gave her a friendly warning: nothing but nothing could induce British audiences to give a standing ovation. Dame Nellie was reportedly quite put out when her young American rival earned a standing ovation at Covent Garden every night. Pollini earns the same, even when he ends his program, as he did last night, with Boulez's fearsome Piano Sonata no. 2. One way to insure that posterity will consider you a fool is to mock modern music, but in the annals of unapproachable and uningratiating works, the Boulez sonata must attain a kind of summa.
The saint of Bleaker Street. Morose, manic, and methodical. They all alliterate with Magyar, the Hungarian spirit that ran through Bartók, and each term applies to his music. But the saddest match would be martyr. In God’s calculus of gifts, to those who suffer most, the most is given. Bartók’s soul must have believed in that formula. Like the other two titans of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he was triply alienated, being a genius, an expatriate, and a logician of the abstruse. All three composers were forced to deal with their complex fates, yet Bartók made of his a via dolorosa.
More years ago than I care to remember (OK, about ten), Edward Moore, my piano teacher at university, told me he used to be a great fan of Maurizio Pollini, but had grown disenchanted with him because he thought his playing had become completely dry, overly safe and devoid of emotion. Perhaps because he was by far the best teacher I'd ever had, I took this opinion seriously and allowed it to influence my perception of Pollini ever after, remaining a devout sceptic despite his evidently immense popularity.
“My time will come.” This, the most famous quote from Gustav Mahler, wouldn’t seem apt for the music of Leonard Bernstein. His time was now, over and over, whatever decade from the Forties to the Eighties one is talking about. But there were dips in his meteoric trajectory, and Mass, which opened Kennedy Center in 1972, was a drastic one. Reviews weren’t merely dismissive; they expressed embarrassment for the composer, who leapt from his pedestal as an icon of classical music into the arms of hippies, flower children, and the Age of Aquarius. The work owed a distressing amount to Hair, the musical, and less obviously to Benjamin Britten and Bernstein’s own earlier works. As a spectacle, it combined the liturgy of the Latin Mass with episodes of the mob (updated with tie-dye, peasant blouses, and afros) jeering at the Church and belief in God generally. Bernstein wasn’t, shall we say, the most obvious candidate for a work of Christian devotion, and with eyes averted from the schlocky libretto -- crafted by Broadway baby Stephen Schwartz, who was young but no wunderkind-- the composer’s admirers chose to bury Mass as an ecumenical mess. The prevailing wisdom was that this, too, shall pass.
Remains of the day. The socialist romance still lingers around Royal Festival Hall, whose lower reaches are done up with cafes and bars open to the outside, welcoming jostling crowds in flip flops and t-shirts. Concertgoers gingerly thread their way through this perpetual beach party, trying not to look elitist in polished brogues and Stella McCartney tops. I was defying jet lag to hear the elegant Philharmonia play its last concert of the season under Yuri Temirkanov, and happily, the music delivered even more than it promised. Temirkaonov and his younger peer, Valery Gergiev, are the twin pillars of post-Soviet conducting. For any rival to poach on their private reserve – all of Russian orchestral music – runs the risk of serious embarrassment.