An event of the soul

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Although billed as separate concerts, the Berlin Philharmonic's two Proms this year formed a single musical gesture. Friday's Beethoven and Mahler glanced ahead to Saturday's Wagner and Strauss; but what of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern - the second-half cuckoos in the musical nest? Rattle urged his audience to treat these Second Viennese experiments as, "Mahler's imaginary Eleventh Symphony", changing not only the way we listened, but the nature of the music itself.

Restored from wilful contrarian angst to a place within the continuum of the German musical tradition, the orchestral colours so often suppressed in this repertoire emerged, timidly at first in Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, but with increasing conviction through Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra and finally Berg's autobiographically charged Three Orchestral Pieces.

The quality of the hush in the Royal Albert Hall - disappointingly fragile this season - was testimony to the active listening taking place, as we re-tuned our ears and expectations of this "difficult" music. The enormous orchestral forces (including quintuple woodwind and six horns) spoke of the textural generosity of Schoenberg's early music - unmoored from symphonic structure, but not yet pledged to the ascetic self-denial of 12-tone serialism, "an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colours, rhythms and moods", as the composer himself described it.

Rattle's principal achievement with the Berlin Philharmonic has been fostering a blend of sound. Among woodwind and brass particularly, the bright, forward character of the Karajan/Abbado eras has been replaced with a more unified web, in which even the deliberately grotesque solo contortions of Vorgefuhle retained their relationship to the whole. Similarly in Das obligate Rezitativ, the macabre little touches - a mournful bassoon, a chatty viola crushed underfoot by brass - sustained a dialogue with the greater textural tectonics of the movement.

The Webern that followed presented something of a problem to the BBC, whose coloured onstage screens change to reflect the mood of each piece. There was blue for Strauss's Four Last Songs, fiery red for Berg, but Webern elicited such a confused mess of colours that it was clear that BBC officials were at a loss as to what we were supposed to be thinking or feeling. Fortunately the same was not true of the orchestra, who guided us through its inscrutable textures, articulating with precision the shift from muted nullity - a side-drum fluttering vainly against the oppressive hush - to a pianissimo acceptance and redemption.

Rounding-out the triptych, and pushing beyond stillness into rage, was Berg's densely-scored Three Orchestral Pieces. Here at last abortive melodies gave a focus to the Berlin Philharmonic's astonishing string section, their massed lyricism struggling against outbursts from solo strings and wind. The shocking conclusion, Paul Griffiths' "catastrophe in sound", attacked the hall, its shattering hammer blows proclaiming themselves the true heirs of Mahler, the evening's ghostly ancestor.

Famously described by Nietsche as "an event of the soul", the Act I Prelude from Wagner's Parsifal was a bold opening. The unison of the first phrase is a skeleton on which the smallest of deviations shows up as a tumorous growth, and unfortunately strings and wind never quite agreed on their rhythmic contours, unsettling the work's unearthly aspirations with all-too human error. There is no doubt that the Royal Albert Hall can take the slow pace set by Rattle here, but equally little doubt that this was the cause of the uncertainty, from which we never quite recovered.

Slow speeds also characterised Strauss's Four Last Songs, but here their poise was absolute. Karita Mattila, though hardly among the largest of Strauss voices, has a roundness and inhaled ease to her singing that suits the intimacy of these settings, and was matched tone for tone by the extraordinarily backlit sound Rattle drew from his players. Comfortable as a texture among the orchestra, Mattila relied on the audience's familiarity with the work, risking a delicate, self-abnegating performance that only occasionally flared forth into full vocal bloom. Such moments - the "bathed in light" of Fruhling, the final ecstatic verse of Beim Schlafengehen - had all the sheen that Wagner's Grail Theme had lacked: moments of pure and generous beauty in a concert of harder-won, if no less substantial, pleasures.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem