"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
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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times