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Smashed Hits

Union Chapel, Islington
11/16/1998 -  
Catalan folk song El Cant des oçells
Alan Bush : Voices of the Prophets Parts 1, 3 & 4
Dmitri Shostakovich : Four Monologues on Words by Pushking
Conlon Nancarrow : from 37 Studies for Player Piano
Francis Poulenc : Deux Poémes d'Aragon
Olivier Messiaen :Quatuor pour la fin du Temps

Jill Gomez (soprano), Philip Langridge (tenor), Robert Lloyd (bass)
David Owen Norris, Eleonora Bekova, Simon Rattle (piano), Rex Lawson (pianola), Lynn Harrell (cello), Tamsin Little (violin), Antony Pay (clarinet)

An evening of banned music was a fund-raiser organized by Simon Rattle and Candace Allen, who is married to Rattle, for Index on Censorship, a British magazine which reports on free-speech issues and monitors censorship around the world. The Union Chapel, Islington (at the non-trendy end of Upper Street) was chilly but otherwise excellent as a venue with its long and continuing history of radicalism and community action, and its Victorian Gothic architecture recalling William Morris.

And the programme, like the performances, was excellent. It avoided the glaringly obvious, and combined comparatively familiar suppressed works by Shostakovich and Poulenc, and Messaien's sublime Quartet for the end of time from a German prisoner-of-war camp, with an almost unknown work by Alan Bush, a British composer who remained  unperformed because he was a communist, and an exhilariting rarity, a work for pianola by Conlon Nancarrow, who suffered similar suppression in the United States.

The evening began with Jill Gomez, heroic in white Grecian drapes, singing a passionate version of the Catalan song which became a focus of resistance to Franco, The song of the birds. This is probably best known in Casals' sublime cello arrangement, and Gomez' delivery seemed a little melodramatic by comparison. Her theatrics were superb, though, for the two Poulenc songs in the second half, which Simon Rattle accompanied. These were settings of surreal and implicitly anti-Nazi poems by the communist poet Aragon, composed in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Fêtes galantes is a skittish-seeming carabet song, with images of boulevard life interspersed with images of horror. Ç is a lament for France, built from lines ending in the syllable of the title.

Philip Langridge's performance of Bush's Voices of the Prophets was totally committed, and very powerful, but it is possible to imagine that Bush has remained obscure for reasons other than his politics. Two of the three texts in tonight's selection -- from Isaiah and Blake's Milton -- are stirring enough, and the short Milton setting at least has a heroic drive. But the third and longest setting, from My song is for all men by Peter Blackman, is desperately prosaic in both words and setting. It is a vision of international harmony (happy children of all colours looking to the future made bright by love as powerful as the atom) that might have made an apparatchik blanche. Bush was performed mainly in the German Democratic Republic, though they would have done much better to programme more Eisler instead.

Robert Lloyd gave a moving performance of the Shostakovich Monologues, superbly accompanied by Eleonora Bekova. He moved the third section, "In the depths of Siberia's mines" to the end, on the grounds that it is so powerful that it overwhelms anything that follows. His performance was certainly powerful, ending with a stirring vision of freedom, but the effect of ending with "Farewell", in which the prisoner recalls his last glimpse of his beloved "before the bars descend", can also be overwhelming.

Conlon Nancarrow's pianola pieces were superbly entertaining, subversive only in the way they push piano music to extremes of excitement and sound by removing the constraint of the player's fingers. Definitely liberating.

The closing work, Messaien's profound statement of faith de profundis, was never suppressed, and deals with conventional religious themes. But it is an expression of hope and even love of the world by an imprisoned composer whose life, and country, his captors are trying to destroy, and as such makes an entirely appropriate conclusion. Each of the quartet gave an intense, totally engaging performance of their solo movements, an unaccompanied everlasting birdsong for the clarinet and piano-accompanied hymn-like meditations for the cello and violin.

H.E. Elsom



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