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Hearing Bach re-imagined makes it clear why he still reigns supreme

Between the delights of reconstructed sonatas and Thomas Gould's "violin hair", the paradoxically intricate simplicity of Bach shone in Baroque Encounters.

It was the American billionaire and composer Gordon Getty, of all people, who best summed up the way we think about Bach. “I do not think that music keeps evolving,” he said. “It evolved through Bach; since then, in my humble opinion, all the innovations added nothing.” For many music enthusiasts, particularly those of early music, the paradoxically intricate simplicity of Bach cannot be improved on. Every time you hear an especially good account of the Goldberg Variations, or a rendition of an aria from the St John Passion that makes your heart hurt, you find yourself slipping further towards Getty’s point of view.

Yet the violinist Thomas Gould and the pianist-composer Gwilym Simcock staunchly disagree. Both often engage in unusual, genre-crossing performance, and both are as active in contemporary music as they are in the classical repertoire (Simcock is probably better known for his jazz work). For the eighth edition of the Baroque Unwrapped season at Kings Place this year, they turned their attention to Bach, devising what they describe as a series of “encounters” with the composer.

Wisely, they chose to begin and end their programme (21 April) with the unadulterated original – Bach’s Violin Sonatas No 1 and No 4. What happened in between, as Gould explained before they started playing, was a “journey” from the known quantity of the first sonata into the unknown, followed by a return “home” to the No 4. Their interpretation of the Bach compositions showed some confident, nuanced playing, though the latent early-music purist in me did tut silently at the contrast of the bright tones from the Steinway grand that Simcock was playing with the mellow roundness of Gould’s 1782 J B Guadagnini violin.

What followed was a dismantling and reassembling of some of Bach’s best-known themes, most notably from the cantatas “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and ­“Jesus bleibet meine Freude”. Simcock found new, crunchy overtones to add to Bach’s harmonies and drew out melodies and syncopations hitherto only hinted at in the original. His relaxed and easy playing style belied the complexity of what he was doing. His manner and movement might have been at home in a jazz club, but the sheets of music he was getting through hinted at the scale of the compositional work that lay behind the apparently improvised work – a very Bach-type contradiction.

Gould’s playing was more adaptable and fluid. At times, he launched into flourishes reminiscent of a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band; elsewhere, he reeled like a fiddler in a folk group. Throughout, he used the full range of his instrument, double-stopping across the strings for a more rhythm’n’ blues-style passage, or interspersing delicate pizzicato while Simcock took the melody. Despite having what I can only call “violinist hair” and the stage demeanour that goes with it, musically Gould is affecting and engaging.

The communication between the two musicians was constant; the genial atmosphere they produced offered a welcome deviation from the rigid way in which early music is all too often performed. Both performers chatted to the audience at the start, explaining how the programme was going to work and what they hoped the result would be. Consequently, everyone knew what to expect and when you were supposed to clap. People felt free to vocalise their recognition of a theme they recognised emerging from the texture, or to clap spontaneously mid-piece at a solo passage they appreciated. The atmosphere was more jazz club than concert hall, and it was delightful.

For all the interest and originality of the Gould and Simcock “encounters”, the best thing you can say about them – and it really is the best – is that at times it was impossible to tell what was Bach and what was not. After such a riot of inventiveness, you might worry whether a centuries-old sonata might not sound flat or stale by comparison, but as Gould navigated the last flourishes at the end of the final movement, you wondered no more.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist