Clash of the titans

Pierre Boulez conducts Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle.

With Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez - titans of the classical world - sharing a stage, the question of musical dominance was always going to arise. While a programme of Liszt piano concertos promised the traditional rivalry between soloist and orchestra, it was the altogether quieter rivalry of soloist and conductor that proved more compelling in performance, as Boulez's restraint and precision faced off with Barenboim's expressive showmanship.

Conducting Barenboim's own orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle, Boulez was always going to be at a disadvantage. Often directed by Barenboim from the piano, you could hardly blame the players for responding to their director's gestures and barely-concealed cues, yielding two concertos that while solid enough, lacked the energy that comes from absolute clarity and specificity of interpretation.

The contrast between the two musicians was encoded into the programme itself, with the bravura of Liszt's concertos framed in each half by one of Wagner's orchestral works. With Barenboim absent the hall lost much of its rather manic electricity, but while even Boulez's control couldn't lend substance to the youthful indiscretion that is the Faust Overture, his clean textures made something unusual of the Siegfried Idyll.

The Staatskapelle's smooth-edged sound is a miracle of many years' making, and the tenderness of Wagner's birthday gift to his wife offered a sympathetic vehicle for this peculiar sweetness. Originally (and pragmatically) scored for just 15 musicians, Wagner's Idyll here enjoyed slightly expanded orchestration, allowing for the scope and rather awkward acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall auditorium. Its spirit however remained resolutely that of a chamber performance, balancing intimacy (the most vulnerable of string pianissimos) with Boulez' habitual emotional coolness. The result was oddly exhilarating, its passions (and there were plenty) keener for being hard-won.

Hearing Boulez conduct such repertoire is only more fascinating than it is bizarre. While his musical boundaries have broadened considerably in recent years, encompassing Wagner and Mahler, such Romantic extremes as the Liszt concertos represent new territory, encountered for the very first time in the current concert tour. It was only natural then that Barenboim should take the lead here, his personality pounded hard into the keyboard and flung out at the eager audience.

The impact of the Piano Concerto No. 2 may have been enough to reduce Matthew Arnold to the "sweetest, bitterest tears", but I'd imagine few were tempted to that condition last night. While the woodwind offered a suitably moody opening, and instrumental solos (exquisite cello in particular) tugged plaintively at the heartstrings, there was a thrust and force to Barenboim's playing that spoke briskly of action rather than contemplation. At his bravura finest in the dramatic authority of the Marziale, it was his textural contributions - the delicate moments of arpeggiation and motivic dialogue - that reminded me of his musical intelligence and maturity.

There was no ignoring however the intrusive smudge of the sustaining pedal, blurring much of the passagework and clouding the tone of the RFH's Steinway. It was an issue that persisted in the E flat concerto, where it was again balanced by the Mozartian lyricism of the Allegretto, hands unfolding themselves into flurries of filmy ornamentation.

Yet rather like the infamous solo triangle, placed rather intrusively centre-stage at Barenboim's left elbow, something still jarred about this performance. While the finale was an Olympian parade of muscular will, its scope and volume seemed alienated from the earlier movements, a trumpet-call of victory without the validation of a battle. Barenboim is surely unequalled among pianists for visual drama and musical personality, impressing them upon score and audience with equal authority, yet where he lacks is surely in narrative. His colourful episodes each emerge distinct and complete, but the connecting conceptual thread - the guide rope with which Boulez never loses contact - is often lost.

Royal Festival Hall, London, 13 June

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis