Room to breathe

The Middle Temple Hall could become London's venue of choice for lieder.

Mark Padmore, Julius Drake & Richard Watkins
Middle Temple Hall, 7.30pm Thursday 19 November, 2010

Generously equipped with large-scale concert halls, London is strikingly lacking when it comes to spaces for lieder. The Wigmore Hall (while acoustically blessed) is too deep for real intimacy, Cadogan Hall too sprawling and the Purcell Room too rarely used for this repertoire. Predating them all and putting their purpose-built structures to shame, the Middle Temple Hall is a revelation. With pianist-in-residence Julius Drake joined by tenor Mark Padmore in this gem of a space, the latest concert in the Temple Song series had all the elements for a superb evening of music. All that is, except the joy.

With a world premiere of Roxanna Panufnik's miniature song-cycle The Generation of Love framed by lieder from Schubert and Beethoven, the programme had a clear sense of architecture. Add in Beethoven's cycle An die ferne Geliebte and his Sonata for horn and piano however and it became dangerously overloaded, straining both the audience's attention and Padmore's upper register.

Suffering from the start, it was evident that Padmore was ailing. His trademark floated top notes were gripped and increasingly flat as the evening progressed, despite evident effort on his part. Musicianship and diction were as sensitive as ever, but with vocal issues so audible it was hard to see past technique and into the narratives he and Drake were crafting.

Claimed as the first real song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte broods on love and separation, aspiring perpetually toward a relationship that remains unfulfilled. Padmore can squeeze and spin a line from nothing (as evidenced later in the Panufnik), and Beethoven's long, outreaching phrases flowed freely. The inward character of "Wo die Berge so blau" and "Nimm sie hin denn diese Lieder" was well-judged, their understatement tempered with a tender simplicity in contrast to the rather rough excesses of the earlier "Neue Liebe, neues Leben".

Hindered by the piano's bright tone, Drake rivalled rather than supported Padmore in this repertoire, pushing the straining singer to risky dynamic levels and clouding the fragile precision of mezza voce passages. Balance issues dissolved however in the Schubert, where the supportive pianistic textures drew some of Drake's most delicate playing. Star among these latter songs was the extraordinary epic-in-miniature "Des Fischers Liebesgluck". With its rigid strophic form, the song's challenge is sustaining a sense of direction and progression through its meditative repetitions. While defeated by the exposed octave leaps in the latter part of the verse, Padmore's narrative commitment and sense of pacing were unerring, guiding us through the fisherman's tale with the intelligence of his interpretation.

At the centre of the evening's music was The Generation of Love, a new cyle of just three songs from British composer Roxana Panufnik. Setting Shakespeare sonnets for piano, tenor and horn, the work traces the progress of a relationship from infatuation to ironic familiarity and ultimately parting. Characterised by bitonal harmonies and edgy sonorities for both voice and horn (played gamely by Richard Watkins), the songs seemed an exercise in musical unbeauty, assaulting the ear with disjunct lines and quivering semitone clashes. Balance issues inherent to the writing saw the horn become unduly dominant, crushing both Padmore and Drake underfoot in the outer songs.

Most successful was Panufnik's take on "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", styled as a wayward, Brittenesque cabaret song, complete with laconic commentary from the horn as musical compere. Elsewhere text and music seemed barely on speaking terms, with little to distinguish the early romance from the lovers' parting save some rather crassly comedic horn textures in the latter. For a composer capable of the minutely calibrated vocal blends of the Westminster Mass it was uncharacteristically blunt writing, blotting the poetry it should have been illuminating.

Although far from the recital its performers might have delivered, this misfire of concert from Padmore, Drake and Watkins did suggest the intimate potential of this unusual performing space, a potential hopefully to be fulfilled in the coming year. With Sarah Connolly, James Gilchrist and Jacques Imbrailo all joining Julius Drake for Temple Song recitals in 2011, the Middle Temple Hall has the goods - if only it will use them - to become London's venue of choice for lieder.

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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