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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser