Reviewed: Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan; Nicholas Daniel and friends

Chamber of wonders.

Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan; Nicholas Daniel and friends
Barbican Hall; Wigmore Hall

London has five symphony orchestras, two opera houses and is a hub for visiting soloists from across the world. With so much bigbudget clamour it’s easy to overlook the still, small voice of chamber music. We’re lucky enough to have the Wigmore Hall – one of the finest intimate venues in Europe – with its daily roster of recitals, and the newer venue King’s Place is also carving out its own niche for the genre. This week’s concerts saw chamber music at its two extremes: a glitzy, headlining visit to the Barbican from the violinist Maxim Vengerov, and an evening of ensemble music-making from the oboist Nicholas Daniel and friends at the Wigmore.

Vengerov is appearing five times at the Barbican over the next 12 months as a part of a mini-residency, giving audiences the chance to get reacquainted with the virtuoso after his recent prolonged absence from the stage. Issues both physical and emotional have put his career on hold, and the Vengerov that has returned – focused as much on chamber repertoire as the big concertos – seems a noticeably different creature. The quality of the playing, however, is also a rather mixed bag.

In a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata in London last year, he marshalled all the old colour and crispness. Yet in this concert his Sonata No 10 (with the pianist Itamar Golan, once again) was less persuasive. Vengerov beckoned us in with the most delicate of trilled flutters, a barely-start in keeping with the sonata’s flighty moods, but then seemed to lose his nerve. Intonation was wayward throughout and the passage-work of the Scherzo and the Presto often approximate. There was glorious weight from Golan in the Adagio, coaxing Vengerov to match him, endless melodic arabesque for arabesque, but by the end we were left with a performance painted on rather than carved-out.

Schubert’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major was more successful, with glossy, spacious passages of control releasing into flourishes that dared us to doubt him, but still lurking under the swagger was a faltering cross-current, only exposed in the intonation. At his best, there’s no doubting Vengerov as a technician but his taste can be a little more questionable. There will be those who will have relished his full-blooded take on César Franck’s Sonata in A, but I was left wondering what this brutish glamour had to do with the fey, corner-of-the-eye beauty that French 20th-century chamber music is all about, wondering what had happened to the aural simplicity of the astonishing canon that is the Allegretto.

But then Vengerov played Saint-Saëns and the superstar was back. The Havanaise and Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso are clearly old friends for the violinist, and their bold Spanish colours were poised at the junction of art-music and vulgarity, as they should be. But are these choreographed encores enough to hail a triumphant return? Not yet.

Over at the Wigmore, things were rather more low-key but with no scrimping on virtuosity. If you were assembling the chambermusic equivalent of a fantasy football team, chances are that the oboist Nicholas Daniel, the pianist Julius Drake and the violinist Jacqueline Shave would all be high on the list. Add the wonderful Caroline Dearnley on cello and Clare Finnimore on viola and you have a supergroup of serious heft. All principals or alumni of the Britten Oboe Quartet and the Britten Sinfonia (with the exception of Drake), the musicians’ long-performing relationship is the basis for a communicative energy that gives us a way in to even the inscrutable music of the contemporary British composer Helen Grime.

A first half of duo music for Drake and Daniel gave us Grime’s Three Miniatures for Oboe and Piano – enigmatic little fragments that took all of Daniel’s tonal control to characterise. Unearthly, high keening gives way to angry scuttlings, with Drake offering some small point of anchor to these outbursts. Grime’s Oboe Quartet gives more foothold to the listener. An exercise in textures, Daniel’s liquid-voiced oboe curved in relief against the strings, before dissolving into a haze of glissandi.

Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet was the centrepiece of a concert that roamed across three centuries of ensemble music. An early work, there’s more than a hint of the wistful pastoral that the mature composer would excise later on – relished by the performers here. Shave is a restless and physical presence in any group, and brought delicate shades to this perfectly poised performance; while Daniel’s oboe had just enough of the rough menace of Pan to keep us uneasy.

The amiable Mozart Oboe Quartet ended the evening with a change of gear. Shave’s expressive flexibility felt constrained by the confines of this music but Daniel – ever the chameleon – was at his virtuosic ease. In an evening of ensemble music, his was the unignorable, bravura talent that never quite assimilated, in the best possible way.

Violinist Maxim Vengerov during a session for BBC Radio 3.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era