"Nixon in China" breaks all the rules

John Adams's impressive Proms performance

Proms Review: Nixon In China, Adams / Vienna Philharmonic, Haitink

John Adams’ dense, discursive Nixon in China breaks all the rules – not least in being a 20th-century opera that has found its way into the regular repertoire. The composer’s expansive minimalism expands and contracts its patternings to accommodate the personal and political currents of Richard Nixon’s iconic encounter with Chairman Mao. Performed in concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under John Adams itself, this was always going to be a thrilling end to the Proms’ opera season.

There’s always the danger of indulgence when it comes to composers conducting their own music, but if Adams was enjoying himself here he didn’t let it show. The pulsing motor-rhythms of Adams’ score usually generate a muscular momentum, stressing vertical moment-to-moment harmonic sensations, but under the composer’s direction a horizontal line of continuity emerged, taking the mechanistic edge off the textures and distancing Adams’ expressive, flexible style even further from fellow minimalists Reich and even Glass.

Director Paul Curran did what he could with this awkward space (the bathetic transformation of Sellars’ original landing sequence into a toy plane, passed from hand to hand, was a witty touch), but ultimately much responsibility fell the orchestra to help carry the audience from the naturalism of the early scenes to the decayed and increasingly fantastical reality of the latter.

The BBC Singers – a vocal toy plane compared to a full-size opera chorus – performed their own transformation, bringing clarity and character to Adams’ essential chorus sections. They held their own among a cast that no wish-list could better. Robert Orth’s Nixon sat just the right side of caricature, balancing his folksy artifice with beauty of vocal tone, and supported by the warmth of Jessica Rivera’s Pat. Kathleen Kim (already an astonishing Madame Mao on stage) stole hearts and scenes with the ferocious excellence of her coloratura. It was left however to Gerald Finley’s contemplative Chou En-lai to have the last word, sending us out into the night in the undulating embrace of his final aria, a passionate and poetic raging against the dying of the light.

Murray Perahia or Bernard Haitink alone could ensure a packed Royal Albert Hall. Performing together, and with the support of the mighty Vienna Philharmonic, the queues of people waiting in the small hope of returns stretched back to the doors. While Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic this season strayed out of their core territory with excursions into Ligeti and Debussy, the Vienna Philharmonic stayed squarely in their musical heartland.

Skipping straight to the meat of the evening, Haitink opened with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto – an inspired act of defiance to programming convention that heightened Beethoven’s own. Dispensing with the usual orchestral introduction the composer allows the soloist to speak first, and in a full-to-bursting Royal Albert Hall it was left to Perahia to cut into the heavy silence with the gentle insistence of Beethoven’s chords. Neither he nor Haitink are musicians given to excess, and here we witnessed them taming into submission not only of the traditional orchestral Furies, but also an even more defiant acoustic space.

While occasional ensemble issues (and a curious moment of wind intonation) kept Haitink vigilant, Perahia was supreme in his control. His is a matter-of-fact reading of this concerto – from the start there’s no doubt that his solo piano will prove victorious – but amid this understated precision a joyous syncopated emphasis emerged. Mined often by soloists for its lyricism, the concerto is lively with offbeat accents, passages that strive against the prevailing current, which achieved characterful dominance here.

Bruckner’s unfinished 9th Symphony completed the evening, performed in its three-movement version rather than with any of the various scholarly completions. It’s a choice that leaves listeners in desperate uncertainty of the Adagio – a powerful cry of fear by a composer staring into the abyss of modernism.

Haitink’s authority in this repertoire in unequalled, and the measured tread of his pacing generated a Scherzo whose humour was black indeed and an Adagio that, if it lacked quite the fragmentary desperation of some performances, confronted terrors with steady gaze. The Vienna strings cast aside Beethovenian brilliance for a weightier sound, aided by a brass section who brought portent and authority rather than all-out force.

What a week to bring the 2012 BBC Proms to a their close, leading us down into the darkest musical place in the fears of old men before taking us back into the light in an exuberant programme for the Last Night. For my part though the festival can keep their sea-shanties and Rule Britannias – I’ll be wallowing just a little longer in the gorgeous darkness, savouring the torment with Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Mao shakes hands with Nixon in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

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