Shakespeare! With Astonishing Illuminations from Tchaikovsky, Pasternak, Kozintsev Shostakovich, Abbado and Italy’s President

ItalyItaly Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Anatoli Kotscherga (baritone), Orchestra and Chorus of Santa Cecilia, Ciro Visco (chorus master), Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado (conductor), Rome,  20.11.2011 (JB)

Tchaikovsky: The TempestOp. 18 (Symphonic Rhapsody)
Shostakovich: King Lear music from Op. 58a and Op. 137

I have taught so many courses on King Lear that I have immodestly come to wonder if I might not  begin to be considered among the world experts on this play. But o dear! I am irrelevant compared with the insights of ear and eye flashed before us on Sunday last from Tchaikovsky, Pasternak, Kozintsev, Shostakovich, Abbado and Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano. It was a privilege to be alive. And to witness this extraordinary historic concert.

Claudio Abbado has long had Russian cinema as a chief interest. When he was the Music Director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 1983, he invited his friend and mentor, Andrei Tarkovsky to stage Boris Godunov. Although he had never staged an opera, Tarkovsky was unable to resist this collaboration with Abbado. Unsurprisingly, the staging was cinematic and as breathtakingly beautiful as Tarkovsky’s films. It is a production which has toured the world’s major theatres, though rarely with Abbado and never with Tarkovsky, who died very young in 1986.

Claudio Abbado now draws our attention to another Russian master of cinema: Grigory Kozintsev (1905 – 1973), whose two most acclaimed films were based on the Shakespeare plays Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971); both used Boris Pasternak’s greatly praised Russian translations of the plays and both had music by Shostakovich. The composer later arranged some of the incidental music of Lear into two suites – Op. 58a and Op. 137.  It is these pieces which Santa Cecilia gave the audience, accompanied by restored projections of the appropriate sections of the original footage.

Each of these great men brought their own vision and depth to that bottomless well of human understanding which is King Lear. Moreover, they carried the audience with them with seeming effortlessness, even though much of Lear is a harrowing onslaught for an audience.

One can only feel a strangely exhilarating humility in the presence of such amazing minds.

I could see from the Italian subtitles that Pasternak had made an almost literal translation of the Shakespeare play. I have already ordered the DVD of the movie, and since the subtitles will be in English, it will be interesting to see if the translators simply give me back the original Shakespeare text.

But more importantly, the actors in the film were living the words they spoke; they were vitally at home in their delivery. And Kozintsev is clearly a director who knows how to get the best out of his actors. (One of my end-of-course tests for my students was to require them to read portions of the speeches on which they would then be graded for the sense which they managed to extract from that reading. It became something of a joke among the students to say they were off to the Buckley school of acting!)

The Santa Cecilia Orchestra joined forces with Abbado’s Mozart Orchestra, so there was no room left on the immense stage, not even for a triangle player. It made the Symphony of a Thousand orchestra look paltry. There were so many strings it was impossible to count them.  But what quality of sound such a body can make. And as always, Abbado never misses a single nuance. Moreover, it is just here that Shostakovich throws out unrivalled challenges.

I am perfectly sure that he never found a more painstaking conductor than Abbado with these present forces: string sounds, the likes of which have never been heard before. These players are equipped with the most astonishing virtuoso techniques, always in the service of impeccable, applied musicianship. The composer requires the players to rethink what their instruments are able to do. With Abbado as their guide, that rethinking – delightfully – becomes a new soundscape.

The soundscape in turn seems to be talking back to the images on the screen, much of it landscapes, which appear to have been shot in the cruel terrain of Siberia. Bleakness and wanting are major themes of Lear and Kozintsev supplies them aplenty. So do Shostakovich and Abbado. The hall was well heated, but nonetheless had the curious effect of making you wish you hadn’t left you coat in the cloakroom. Some of this music freezes the listener to the marrow.

Shostakovich gives eight brief little songs to Cordelia (one) and the Fool (seven). Anna Caterina Antonacci and Anatoli Kotscherga delivered these miniatures rather well, though I have to admit that among the other pages of this magnificent score, I found the songs something of a non-event.

Where Shostakovich arrives at one of his all-time peaks is in the storm scene with the wordless chorus. A perfect example of his finest orchestration, but here it is voices which are orchestrated. This must surely stand as one of the most effective stormscapes in music.  Another jewel in the composer’s crown.  Ciro Visco with his Santa Cecilia Chorus delivered the effects down to the last detail.

Storm is another principal subject in the concert’s opening piece, Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy on The Tempest, Op 18. The strings of the two orchestras again amazed us with their accomplished handling of Tchaikovsky’s severe technical and musical demands. Tchaikovsky’s storm arrives more gradually and is more theatrical and thus easier on the listener. But it is still clear that we are dealing here with a master-orchestrator.

Claudio Abbado greets Giorgio Napolitano, President of Italy. Photo courtesy of the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome

The folly of political arrogance is another of the themes of King Lear. And there was present at the concert a gentleman who has recently demonstrated that he knows more than most about what to do in this ugly situation. In fact, Claudio Abbado had dedicated the concert to Giorgio Napolitano, President of Italy. When the President stepped to the front at the end of the concert, Abbado knelt down on one knee to grasp the President’s hand. You could feel the packed hall behind the two men in this joining of hands.

Jack Buckley