Take that, Classic FM!

The Cheltenham Music Festival is an unlikely setting for artistic rebellion.

There is nothing in the stolidly Edwardian marble and pastel shades of Cheltenham's Town Hall that speaks of rebellion. The town itself -- originally a spa for well-heeled Regency gentry -- is all Cotswold stone and laboriously tasteful bistros, and the annual Music Festival an unimpeachable mixture of local talent and international superstars.

Yet it was here last week that a young Russian violinist flouted the rules and blew the doors off that most hackneyed of classical favourites, Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Giving Londoners an unarguable reason to brave the trek to the West Country, the line-up for this year's Cheltenham Music Festival includes performances from Freddy Kempf, Sarah Connolly and Steven Isserlis. Last Tuesday, however, it was Alina Ibragimova, the Russian violinist who performed at Yehudi Menhuin's funeral at the age of just 14, who took to the platform with the European Union Chamber Orchestra to perform an unusual programme of Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.

Framed by readings of a new set of sonnets by Andrew Motion, it seemed possible, for the first time since Nigel Kennedy's now ubiquitously anarchic rendering, that Vivaldi's concerto might be startled out of its cotton-padded Classic FM coma and back into life.

The images of Motion's poetry, a series of meditations on the passing of time, nature and love that owed much to Eliot's Four Quartets, were most delicately precise in their rendering of the natural landscape -- the frost that "slips a filigree sleeve along the still-bare Mulberry arms" -- focusing and newly reanimating Vivaldi's own musical sketchings.

Taking her place among the orchestra rather than out in front, Ibragimova signalled her understanding of the peculiarly intimate relationship necessary between solo and orchestral forces here. Opening with the impossibly fragile bird calls of "Spring", hers was an interpretation of calculated extremes, following the colourfully programmatic contours of the music with reckless commitment.

Moments of extroverted dynamism -- the chromatic third-movement storm music of "Summer", the opening of "Autumn" -- and the starkly transparent, introspective textures of the largo in "Spring" or the allegro of "Winter" were dramatically juxtaposed, Ibragimova trusting in the solidly familiar structure of the work to absorb the shock of her lyrical shiftings of dynamic and tempo.

Sacrificing polish for a febrile urgency (sadly not always matched by the rather polite forces of EUCO, who only came into their own in the Tchaikovsky), the result was both authentic in content and bluntly contemporary in delivery, with an immediacy in the solo passages of almost improvisatory fluidity.

Despite the odd flaw of intonation or tone, moments where her technique was not quite the equal of her expressive intent, Ibragimova delivered a performance so fragile, so intelligently modern, that one half expected the great marble pillars of the hall to topple from iconoclastic shock.

More traditional, though perhaps no less provocative, was Thursday night's festival concert at Tewkesbury Abbey. Celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, Monteverdi's Vespers is one of the most notorious sources of artistic contention, provoking the musicologist Denis Arnold to conclude that, "to perform it is to court disaster".

Little is known of its true composition date, original performance context, or even its pitch, but most vexed has been the question of vocal forces. More typically performed by a massed choir and soloists, there is a case to be made for using just solo voices -- a case given persuasive life in Thursday's performance by Peter Harvey, the Magdalena Consort and ten vocal soloists.

Scored with only two treble lines, the distinctive texture of the work is dominated by its eight lower voice parts. In the resonant acoustic space of Tewkesbury Abbey, the impact was both clear and gloriously powerful, with Harvey (who contributed a baritone part as well as directing) able to balance the collective force of the men and orchestra against the lighter sopranos of Elin Manahan Thomas and Julia Doyle.

In doing away with a full choir, Harvey and his performers did lose a central source of dramatic contrast, sometimes failing to compensate sufficiently with dynamics, which tended to default to a full-toned mf -- not aided by some occasionally rather brash orchestral playing. Texturally, however, the single voices of the ensemble yielded an unusual clarity and flexibility, with the intricate decorative detail of the vocal ornamentation emerging clearly silhouetted against the collective texture.

With soloists of this quality -- James Gilchrist, Charles Daniels, Eamonn Dougan, Robert Macdonald -- vocal excellence was a given, and most striking was the trust and communication on display between the performers in this highly ornamental and delicately spun music. Two high points were the duets "Pulchra es" and "Duo Seraphim". The latter, an evocative description of two angels calling to each other, became, in the voices of Gilchrist and Daniels, an impossibly fluid battle of skills, the two diving and dovetailing among one another with ecstatic urgency.

Sacred and secular, national and international: this year's Cheltenham Music Festival represents a stylish challenge to our disproportionately London-centred classical scene. With the coming weeks bringing major music festivals to Edinburgh, York, Gloucester and Dartington, the bar has been set high indeed.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496