Deep Frieze

Where next for the global art market?

Look, bubbles create other bubbles, they're like derivative bubbles . . .

An anonymous hedge-fund manager, quoted in the new issue of N+1

Among the "derivative bubbles" created by the bubble in financial assets was a bubble in the global art market. And one event, more than any other, came to symbolise its excesses: Frieze, the annual art fair held in London, was, as Tim Adams put in a New Statesman piece last year, a "frenzied narcosis of Prada and oligarchs", a three-ring circus of conspicuous consumption.

Until the near-collapse of global financial capitalism, that is. At last year's Frieze, Adams reported, the "excess . . . seemed finally to have run dry". The art, he wrote, "was never quite the point of Frieze; that was always the buzz, generally loud enough to drown out any shouts about the emperor's new clothes". And the buzz stopped abruptly on the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy (last year's Frieze took place exactly a month after Lehman went down).

At last night's private view for the 2009 iteration of the fair, there wasn't any frenzied narcosis -- at least, none that I saw (though I wasn't allowed into the inner sanctum of the Deutsche Bank VIP suite) -- but the crush at the bars was discernibly thicker than it was last year. The bald figures, however, suggest that, for all the "buoyancy" of the mood last night, the art market is still in the doldrums.

Only 135 galleries are participating in the main fair this year, compared with 150 last year. And, as one artist I spoke to remarked mordantly, most of the gallerists who have turned up are showing second-rate work, as if they're hoarding the best stuff through the financial winter. (One exception to the medicore, reheated conceptualism that tends to predominate at Frieze were the vaguely hallucinatory paintings of the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans.)

Another sign that the art market won't be recovering any time soon is ArtReview magazine's "Power 100" list, announced today. "This year's list inevitably refects the financial tumult of the last 12 months," the press release reads, "with just about a third of last year's entries falling off and being replaced with newcomers. Collectors as a bracket suffered the heaviest fall within the list, with many former high-rollers going or gone." Perhaps the most precipitous fall is that of Charles Saatchi, who has fallen from 14th in 2008 to 72nd.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis