Monday, November 11, 2013



November 11 today. Paul Keating has just delivered his address at the Canberra War Memorial in the presence of the usual, and not so usual, distinguished guests.

The day the Armistice was signed was the day Wilfred Owen's family was informed he had been killed just a week before, having returned to the front line in what seems a difficult to comprehend action for the poet pacifist unless it were to imitate, as has been suggested, his beloved friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon whom he had met at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh and with whom he developed a relationship that went well beyond literary mentoring and into the depths, or heights, of devotion.

    (Sassoon - Owen)

Sassoon was vehemently against Owen's return to service, and Owen's farewell came in a letter written after he had left for France. He was shot trying to cross the canal in the tiny village of Ors in northern France, and where he is buried

Two years after the war, after her son's death, his mother wrote this heart wrenching letter to the great Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore when he was in London:

"I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you were in London ~ but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient. It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me ~ we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea ~ looking towards France, with breaking hearts ~ when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours ~ beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’ ~ and when his pocket book came back to me ~ I found these words written in his dear writing ~ with your name beneath." 

                  When I go from hence let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
         I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus
         that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I
         blessed--let this be my parting word.

         In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my
         play and here have I caught sight of him that is

         My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his
         touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes
         here, let it come--let this be my parting word.  (Tagore)

                                                            (Tagore and Einstein - the eyes!)

Owen's legacy is his beautiful (if truth be beauty) poems of pacifism and forgiveness (if forgiveness be understanding). And so it was with these well in mind and the extra insights of a two hour workshop and a dress rehearsal, that I, along with many others, was brought to tears last Friday (8th, and again the next night) by Vladimir Ashkenazy in his penultimate appearance as Chief Conductor with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, delivering a powerful and hugely emotional performance of Britten's War Requiem to an overwhelmed, silent and ultimately enormously appreciative Sydney audience.

Mr Ashkenazy had assembled a tremendous team - more than 300 on stage - his great orchestra surely feeling  the importance of this occassion, the simply stunning Sydney Philharmonia Choir of more than 208 choristers in full flight, the gorgeous Sydney Childen's Choir of Angels, and three soloists whom I doubt will be surpassed in my time waiting for when I go hence. I am still at the stage where I don't want to hear this again for a very long time, if ever. I get like that. I commend strongly David Garrett's notes in the programme, here (pdf) for anyone interested in the brilliantly layered work, and for my own return, as is all this stuff.

Mr Ashkenazy is a broad stroked emotion conductor, and having the pulse of this, the steady beat of inevitability driven forward with no hint of turgidity or self-indulgence, held the forces at hand as best I think I've heard from him, mindful that the present most always fades the before. Forces so large and complex that Britten when asked to conduct the premier at the new Coventry Cathedral deferred and elected to settle for the chamber orchestra, leaving the main orchestra with choirs to Meredith Davies.

Well able to listen to themselves, the orchestras gave wondrous detail to Britten's brilliant palette of sounds, infused with the emotion Ashkenazy evoked so apparently simply. For all the fear and terror and invocation, this is a work of redemption and optimism and belief in the brotherhood of mankind and had all the hallmarks of being in believing hands. The trumpets and horns were outstanding not that any section should be singled out.

Dina Kuznetsova was the amazing Lisa in last years Pique Dame and now her Archangel, poised behind the main orchestra in front of the sopranos, was a warm yet silver edged voice from on high, a head back open throated supplicant, confident yet reverent, with a spine tingling habit of finding the high notes gently for a nanosecond, not tentatively necessarily, the expanding the volume and tone into the hall with quite thrilling effect. It lent a sense of humility to her whole approach with an endearingly beautiful sound which cut through without the slightest hint of harshness.

Andrew Staples I couldn't believe. This big man poured out the sweetest sounds with such apparent ease across the range as to be the talk of the night. He was, for me, Wilfred, the soft innocent sound of youth, ever aware of the 'pity of war', yet ever ready to meet death, and in astoundingly beautiful harmony with the baritone (when lo! an angel) turned the voice of God once feared into the the voice of Heaven itself. His final ascent into the liturgical Latin was spellbinding.

Baritone Dietrich Henschel completed the prescribed Russian, British, German trilogy denied the first performance. Here was the voice of wisdom, of a man, no youth left here, and in a amazing study of character development he progressed from a slightly covered sound of the battlefield, to the ageless face of death, through to the anger and horror of man disobeying God's order to kill not (Abram and Isaac), the slaughter which followed, and finally the agitated 'End'.

At the rear of the hall, far up in the upper circle, was the children's choir (not exclusively boys) and together with the accompanying little organ haunted the whole piece with the voice of the angels. The closing hushed 'perpetual light and eternal rest', when all the forces combined at last in a wonderful metaphor for Heaven (there is no need for anything else within and there in nothing else without), left a silent tearful audience ever thankful for such a moving night, and for their departing, most humble at the service of the music, Chief Conductor.


marcellous said...

I was there on Saturday, next to your lady judge chum. It was good wasn't it? (Children maybe a little too good by reason of the inclusion of GIRLS which doesn't quite line up with the innocence-lost semiotic or the poetic text, but that is a quibble.) Couldn't sleep afterwards, which is always a sign. And for the Fri and Sat subscription audiences, also Ashkenazy's farewell as chief conductor.

marcellous said...

(re the last sentence)
As, now I unthread the interlaced commas of your last sentence, I realise you have already observed.

wanderer said...

A small change to my last sentence might make it less tortuous. Yes, last for the subscribers who haven't booked the Zucherman galah nights this week. (I have.)

Likewise, I drove in silence to the bush and didn't settle for hours and days later still resort to gush to try to get it down. I hope they release a recording. It has to be one of his very best for the whole tenure, if not the best. When I think back I think of the Pique Dame, the DLvDE, maybe the Mahler1 (it nearly got there), and then it starts to fade.

Susan Scheid said...

An extraordinarily beautiful accounting. I feel almost as if I'd been there. I didn't know the story about Tagore. It doesn't seem at all remote and remains heart rending today.

wanderer said...

Likewise Sue, I knew little about Owens, and nothing about his likes and relationships.

It is a extraordinarily moving work when it comes together. There's a lot of Britten in New York, as is detailed here, or for the stay at home, and time poor, maybe this.

David said...

If you have any tears left, steel yourself and listen to this - an Israeli mother of unflinching honesty, bravery and compassion talking about what she did after her peace-movement son was killed pon compulsory (or go to prison, an option considered) national service.

Glad you had your own redemptive War Requiem after the Berlin disappointment. Ours was in the right place - the Albert Hall - and with every component perfect.

wanderer said...

David I'm deferring watching this for a day or two as we bustle about getting sorted out for Melbourne. I'll know when the time is right. Thank you.

RAH I imagine did great service to the great work.

I today bought the Kildea biography.

Susan Scheid said...

That Dudley Moore clip is something else, and of course it's David who first introduced me to it. Listening to Pears, as he predicted, has never been the same.

Susan Scheid said...

I've just now listened to the radio interview David linked. She's remarkable, in every way.