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Reviewed: Baroque Spring

Death by chocolate.

Baroque Spring
Radio 3

“We don’t even know what it was that killed him,” said Donald Macleod of Henry Purcell, “but there are a whole array of possibilities including tuberculosis, flu and chocolate.” Eh? Sounds like my kind of guy. Ah, but no, to clarify – this was freak food-poisoning from a tainted cacao morsel. Little more is known. So little is known of Purcell’s life, in fact, that the usually chatty Composer of the Week (weekdays, 12pm) was markedly more music than talk.

Entire Purcell trio sonatas and funeral anthems played out endlessly (“that was Man that is Born of a Woman followed by Thou Knowest Lord sung by the choir of Winchester Cathedral. And now Welcome, Vicegerent of the Mighty King, including Your Influous Approach our Pensive Hope Recalls. Let’s hear it in full.”)

Any biographical detail, or any word at all from Macleod, got so rare you could feel yourself getting older waiting for him to pipe up, like you do hoping Gideon Coe might say just a little more between songs on 6 Music but always find yourself hanging on irritatedly through another Yo La Tengo. Chuck us a bone! The following was drip-fed over 58 minutes: that aged 14, Purcell was declared “official keeper, maker and repairer of the kings virginals and recorders and all other kind of wind instruments whatsoever”. And that Charles II named his prize ketch Chubby after his mistress the Duchess of Portsmouth, and then took everyone for a bad-weather sail around the Kent coast, forcing all on board to vomit keenly over the sides.

But always, too quickly, back to the music – described by Macleod as full of “secret compartments”. Exactly right. Purcell does forever seem to be opening drawers in minutely carved cupboards to find yet another contrapuntal refrain inside the back of the next, and then another – inescapable. Finding yet more and more ways to set terrible lyrics to great music (“the words are frankly dross,” agreed Macleod).

But then who cares for Purcell’s words? We can’t make them out half the time, anyway. They’re a staccato blur thrusting through language barriers on a tidal wave of the King’s virginals and recorders (and all other kinds of wind instruments whatsoever . . .).

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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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