Breeches, brocade and bonbons

The trio Baroque Encounter play an unusually intimate gig at the Handel House Museum.

“Early music”. Earlier than what? We’ve come a long way from the bearded earnestness of the early period performance revival. There’s a freedom and a flexibility to the music of the 12th to 18th centuries that you just don’t get with the big Romantic repertoire, encouraging and even demanding experimentation. Whether you like your minuets and sarabands served straight up in britches and brocade or prefer something a bit more baroque’n’roll, there’s something to suit everyone.

Sitting in a wood-panelled salon, a series of Restoration worthies staring down at you from gilded frames on the walls, you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself back in Handel’s London. To some extent you’d be right: the meticulously restored Handel House Museum on Brook Street in Mayfair (next door to Jimi Hendrix’s former home) is a world away from the contemporary clatter outside.

Concerts regularly take place in Handel’s recital room, where the composer rehearsed and performed with the operatic greats of his day and once threatened to throw the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window. With a capacity of only 28, performances here are intimate, allowing you to hear this music as the original audiences would have done, in what is in essence a domestic setting. Proximity might dull the acoustic bloom you’d get in a concert hall, but what performers lose in soft focus, they gain in directness and human friction.

Playing on this unusual intimacy, a concert from the trio Baroque Encounter on 29 August invited us to take a musical stroll through London’s pleasure gardens. The group’s counter-tenor, Glenn Kesby, has an unworked simplicity to his sound that is well suited to the more popular repertoire of the 18th century. “The Little Coquette” by John Worgan was arch and appealing, its flightiness grounded by Claire Williams’s stylish accompaniment at the harpsichord, while “The Lass of Richmond Hill” by James Hook had all the freedom of the folk songs that it so closely imitates. Seduction took a more serious turn in “Lady Jane Grey’s Lamentation” by Giordani, its tragedy contradicted by the convulsive Lombardic rhythms.

Lauren Brant, on recorder, paid homage to the master of the house, performing Handel’s “Recorder Sonata in F Major”. A slight tightness to her sound in the larghetto gave way to a lively allegro, with the third movement gaining new colours in the harp-like effect of spread chords on the harpsichord. Among so many musical bonbons, Telemann’s cantatas offered something rather more substantial but even the earnestness of Kesby’s coloratura couldn’t obscure the tongue-in-cheek morality of works that exhort us to drink, gamble and worse, so long as we do so in moderation.

From authenticity in Mayfair to experimentation in Dalston. At the Arcola Theatre between 27 and 31 August, Grimeborn’s Handel Furioso, directed by Max Hoehn, cut through the complexities of warring kings and mistaken identities and did away with most recitative, becoming a simple boy-meets-girl tale played out by two white-faced singers in a minimal set.

Taking the model of the 18th-century pasticcio – an operatic equivalent of the “jukebox” musical – Hoehn used arias from Handel’s operas as well as some of his chamber duets to create this slight, fable-like work. Occasional harmonic lurches (and one unfortunate oboe) aside, the result is artless and engaging, distilling music and emotion down to their essence. The soprano Robyn Allegra Parton (as the girl) and the mezzo Anna Starushkevych (as the boy) found a dramatic sincerity and sweetness that amplified their archetypes with surprising emotional heft.

Some superbly creative accompaniment from Julian Perkins (directing a small period band from the harpsichord) led us from first love to last rites in a tour of some of Handel’s loveliest music. “Caro! Dolce! Amico amplesso” from Poro found the voices writhing among each other with innocent obscenity, while Ariodante’s “Neghittosi” gave Parton scope for musical rage in coloratura that convulsed with fury. Starushkevych failed to find the stillness at the core of “Dove sei, amato bene?”, but in her later “Cara sposa, amante cara” there was a darkening of both vocal colour and intensity, finally showing this sternly beautiful voice at its best.

Early music might be an ambiguous term, but that reflects the range and flexibility of the genre. There’s nothing archaic or precious about music that’s as comfortable stripped back to the basics in Dalston as it is in the Royal Opera House; that can take as much reverence as revolution. With English Touring Opera offering a season of Handel, Monteverdi and Cavalli this autumn and the prospect of an anarchic Rodelinda from Richard Jones at ENO in February, baroque is as contemporary as it has ever been.

“Handel Furioso” is at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 31 October and the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool on 2 November Handel House Museum: handelhouse.org

The opening page of 'Serse' by Handel, displayed at the Handel House Museum. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge