20 September 2010

The Kreutzer Sonata

It never occurred to me - why should it? - that there should still be
private palaces in central London, houses with drawing rooms large
enough to accommodate a string quartet and a sizable audience (and to
feed most of them dinner afterwards). Nor that they might house art
collections, largely hidden from public view, including works by
artists whose names were familiar to me, hung as densely as the
posters on a student's bedroom wall.
I found myself in just such a parallel universe this evening, but by
way of a different parallel universe in which celebrity chef manqué
Arthur presided over the opening of The People's Kitchen, a new
venture within The People's Supermarket. He has devised seasonal
recipes for snack-type dishes, the sort of thing that a hungry office
worker might devour at lunchtime (and probably much cheaper than the
Pret à Manger sandwich, these days referred to just as Pret, as a cup
of coffee is often called "a Starbucks", that they might otherwise
buy). I tasted cheese on biscuit with a very tasty savoury jam, and a
couple of other concoctions - one largely potato, the other largely
chickpea - which were equally good. I must ask him for the recipes. My
idea of catching up with him there was, of course, hopelessly
misguided. Apart from the throng of customers, he had a TV crew in
close attendance. (The show is now due to go out in February.)
So, after a chat with Kate and making the acquaintance of Andy I
headed off to the palace I didn't realise was there, arriving footsore
and a quarter of an hour early. I did a hindi squat round the corner
to stretch out my calf muscles, writing a couple of emails in that
position, then headed for the front door where I encountered Sally,
who'd invited me to hear the Barbirolli Quartet, and Ashok, their
cellist.
Inside we were offered wine and I met the two gentlemen whom I had
particularly wished to meet, chatted with them until it was time to
take our seats and sat with them admiring the paintings. When the
music came, I learnt more from my neighbour's comments than I have
learnt about music since Mr Fender's Music Culture lessons at school.
A Haydn quartet (opus 54/3 in E major) they played with passion, which
they confused with intensity, he thought: I had been impressed with
the animation of their performance, which was as visual as it was
auditory. They should slow down to give the audience a chance, my
tutor explained, and I recalled the webinar I presented some time ago
where the only comment from the audience came in the form of a request
that I speak more slowly. They knew the music, we didn't: I knew the
subject of the webinar, the audience didn't. It made much sense.
Sensing that there might be a story in this event, I made notes - the
flashing eyes, raised eyebrows, furrowed brows and frowns of the
players, the manoeuvre that involved the second violinist holding her
instrument under her chin when a few rests came along, allowing her to
adjust a wayward strap on her dress with her left hand, the same
player snapping upright in her seat at a climax as if in receipt of
an electric shock. It made me feel alive, which contrasts favourably
with some recent concerts I have heard of music that had quite rightly
lain unplayed since a premier a century ago. This was great music, and
excellent music making.
How to build a story from it?
The Haydn gave way to the emotional wringer of Janacek's "Kreutzer
Sonata" quartet, the music of the book of the music - tempting to
reuse it as the title of a book, but for now I'll make do with using
it as the heading for a blog post. Then an interval, before more
emotional intensity with Mendelssohn (opus 80 in F minor).

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