Andre Previn's pulling power

In classical music, the "special relationship" is alive and well

Andre Previn, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yuri Bashmet, LSO
Barbican Hall, 7.30pm, 19 February 2012

Politically things may have cooled, but in the world of classical music the transatlantic "special relationship" is still alive and flourishing. Following closely on the polished heels and glossy tail-coats of last week's New York Philharmonic's residency comes a visit from legendary octogenarian pianist and conductor Andre Previn, rejoining the London Symphony Orchestra for an all-American programme of 20th century music.

Previn may have left the position of Principal Conductor at the LSO some decades ago, but his visits have been so frequent that London audiences have scarcely had cause to mourn. Judging by the conductor's increasingly frail and effortful journeys to the podium however it's a collaboration that we should enjoy while we still have the chance - a sentiment clearly shared by the Barbican crowd, warm with enthusiasm for Previn.

The concert's centrepiece was the European premiere of Previn's own Concerto for Violin and Viola, which saw the LSO joined by the work's dedicatees, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (also for a time Previn's fifth wife) and violist Yuri Bashmet. Following in the tradition set by Previn's earlier compositions it's a polyglot creature, conservative in its harmonic language but borrowing freely from many different tonal traditions.

Previn's longstanding relationship with film-music prompts inevitable comparisons with Korngold, but there's an elegiac wistfulness to this particular concerto that speaks more loudly of Walton and Howells (the viola's opening gambit especially), their English voices in dialogue with jazz-inflected moments of Ravel and pure Americana. It's a modest concerto - less than 20 minutes of music, treating its two soloists texturally and often in duet.

Last night it was a pairing that worked rather better for Mutter, whose lines were unusually charged with emotion, largely obliterating the under-projected, poorly-tuned and non-committal mutterings of Bashmet. A capricious musician, Bashmet may be unbeatable on form, but his moody inconsistency is making him ever more of a risk as a soloist.

Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring in its full orchestral arrangement offered an enticing curtain-raiser, but I wonder how Martha Graham and her company of dancers would have coped with Previn's tempos which charity might call poised, but often dragged the work's pulsing syncopations almost to a standstill. Previn's beat - so precise and clear in both his own music and the Harbison symphony - seemed an unreliable guide for the LSO whose floundering ensemble and wrong entries spoke of general uncertainty. There were hints of Copland's glowing folk warmth in the slower string passages (and leader Roman Simovic's solos were a highlight) but with the work slipping in and out of focus these were never quite sustained into anything more substantial.

Although well-known in his native America, John Harbison's works are rarely heard (and still more rarely discussed) in the UK. An academic by inclination as well as by trade, his continuous five-episode Symphony No. 3 is a good sampler of the composer's technique - rigorous structural architecture underpinning attractive textural effects. With their programmatic titles - "Disconsolate", "Nostalgic", "Militant" - the movements lend themselves to evocation, an approach that works particularly well in second episode "Nostalgic", where disparate memories stir from each orchestral section - a folk tune from the woodwind, grudging remembrances from the brass - before becoming woven together in a colourful fog over sustained pedal points. "Militant" stages a vibrant fist-fight between tuned percussion and orchestra (with the LSO percussion section redeeming themselves after issues in the Copland), before we cruise into the finale and a huge groove from the brass.

Technical issues aside this was a fascinating concert: an evening's American holiday that educated as much as it entertained. The pulling-power of the mighty Previn is such that a rather abstruse programme drew a full crowd, and I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that this most determined ambassador for American music continues to return to the London and the LSO for as long as he is able.

 

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times