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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism