Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Adam Sisman, Michèle Roberts and Vasily Grossman.

Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography by Adam Sisman

"The subject of this biography may have had all the potential to be an academic idol," opines Anthony Howard in this week's New Statesman, "but at the base of the statue there were always feet of social-climbing clay. Beautifully written and admirably presented though it is," Howard avers, "there is nothing in Sisman's narrative to cause me to want to alter this view."

"We are in the midst of a Trevor-Roper revival," declares Tristram Hunt in the Telegraph. "Much of [the historian's] arsenal of unfinished essays and biographies has finally come into print . . . But what Adam Sisman's new biography, for all its scholarship and detail, fails to provide is the convincing answer for Trevor-Roper's claims as one of our greatest historians."

Not so for A N Wilson in the Observer: "This great book confirms my sense that Trevor-Roper was not merely a clever, but also rather a great man," he writes of the Christ Church don. "It is impossible to praise Sisman's book too highly . . . [It] will remind us all of why we value the life of the mind, and why style and intelligence are not superficial weapons against the forces of darkness."

Mud: Stories of Sex and Love by Michèle Roberts

"The importance of maternal love sits beneath the surface of [these] stories," writes Megan Walsh in the Times, "whether it's a prostitute finding strength in imagining herself as the smallest figure in a protective matryoshka doll or a mother trying to protect her daughter's innocence by tenderly twisting her unruly hair into plaits.

"While Roberts may, on occasion, overuse certain metaphors," continues Walsh, "her poetic instinct stands out: a skirt 'pinioning' knees, cabbages 'tight-waisted and frilly; about to bolt'."

For Elaine Feinstein, writing in the Independent, "Roberts understands the far from innocent attachments of childhood . . . She is at her poignant best as a [young] maid who fell in love with Emma Bovary", and "as a servant in the house of Jane Eyre's Mr Rochester . . . she can be cruelly funny at the expense of a male companion who refuses to learn French".

"The short story is an intimate, subtle and enigmatic form," argues Stevie Davies in the Guardian. "Michèle Roberts reminds us . . . that she is one of our foremost practitioners of the art."


Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

"[Vasily Grossman] died in 1964 before finishing his revisions of Everything Flows," writes Lucy Popescu in the Independent. "His uncompromising chapters on Lenin and Stalin fell foul of the Soviet censors." A tale of Ivan Grigoryevich's release into Russia after 30 years of incarceration in the Gulag, Grossman's novel has, in Popescu's view, "the power to make you weep at man's inhumanity to man and, at the same time, rejoice that freedom does not die. Thanks to Robert Chandler and his co-translators, Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan, the Russian voice positively sings."

According to the New Statesman fiction critic Leo Robson, the story is "digressional and diffuse, and cares little for the reader's conventional demands: a straight narrative backbone, thematically obedient characters, and so on. Then again, a reader's conventional demands are apt to be ignored when it comes to the portrayal of atrocity."

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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