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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times