In the Critics this week

Jonathan Lethem on Philip Roth and Steven Poole on David Hendy's latest book.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, American novelist Jonathan Lethem pays tribute to Philip Roth, who turns 80 this month. Reading Roth as a young man, Lethem writes, illuminated “something aggravated and torrential in my voice” – something specifically Jewish. “As Roth points out, the books aren’t Jewish because they have Jews in them. The books are Jewish in how they won’t shut up or cease contradicting themselves, they’re Jewish in the way they’re sprung both from harangue and from defence against harangue, they’re Jewishly ruminative and provocative.”

In Books, Steven Poole reviews David Hendy’s Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening. “Hendy’s emphasis is on championing noise as a vehicle of sociality,” writes Poole. Hendy devotes a chapter to the noise of stadium crowds but, Poole notes, “does not mention the most notorious instrument of sporting mob dictatorship. I mean the vuvuzela, the plastic horn whose aggregated cacophonous buzz-farting ruined the auditory atmosphere of the 2010 World Cup”.

Also in Books: Alwyn W Turner reviews Mod: a Very British Style by Richard Weight (“Born in the affluence of Harold Macmillan’s Britain, mod was a cross-class coalition of youth, bringing together the art school and the assembly line …”); Lucy Wadham reviews Marcela Iacub’s novelised “memoir” of her affair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn (“There are moments when I feel that as long as I live … France will remain forever a mystery to me. Reading Marcela Iacub’s books Belle et bête … was one such moment”); Sarah Churchwell reviews O My America! Second Acts in a New World by Sara Wheeler (“Wheeler wants to claim more significance for these women than perhaps they merit”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey reviews Danny Boyle’s Trance and Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 (“That The Spirit of ’45 survives its simplifications is due to the sincerity and urgency of Loach’s argument. And, regrettably, to its pertinence”); Antonia Quirke listens to the first episode of David Hendy’s 30-part history of noise on Radio 4 (“this sounds like the most sub-avant-garde and brilliant new programme on BBC radio”); Rachel Cooke is disappointed by the BBC’s adaptation of The Lady Vanishes, though she concedes that the performances are “universally lovely”; Ollie Brock visits an exhibition of the archive of the writer Roberto Bolano in Barcelona (“For true Bolanistas … the most interesting items will be glimpses of … the ‘possible books’ to come, the unpublished manuscripts …”); Kate Mossman reviews What About Now, the new album by Bon Jovi (“Hair metal … has had a bit of a reassessment in the past few years …”.)

PLUS: “King Vulture”, a poem by Joe Dunthorne, and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.


Philip Roth photographed by Eric Thayer. (Photo: © Eric Thayer)
Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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