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11 Oct 2017

Voices of Revolution: Martin Sixsmith on Battleship Potemkin

11 Oct

2017

Series Advisor Martin Sixsmith introduces Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, ahead of the opening concert of the Philharmonia's Voices of Revolution series with Vladimir Ashkenazy on 12 October.

Most of us know at least something about Battleship Potemkin. The images of the massacre on the steps, the child’s pram careening down them and the old woman shot through her spectacles are celebrated icons of political cinema. But how many of us know what led up to the massacre? What year it took place? If indeed it did take place?

Sergei Eisenstein’s film is set not in 1917, but twelve years earlier, in June 1905. The Tsarist regime had been rocked by two cataclysmic events, the Bloody Sunday revolt in February and military disaster in the Russo-Japanese War in May. Spooked by unrest at home and gambling on the distraction of a foreign war, Nicholas II had sent the Russian fleet half way round the world to engage the Japanese in the Straits of Tsushima.

The outcome was a seaborne charge of the light brigade, the worst naval defeat in Russian history. Outmoded, underequipped ships advanced into a hail of concentrated enemy fire to be picked off and sunk, one after the other. Eight battleships and four cruisers went down before the Russian admiral raised the flag of surrender. Four thousand men were dead, another seven thousand taken prisoner.

Russia had been humiliated and anger with the Tsar boiled over. “An unparalleled crime was committed by those who sent us to our deaths”, wrote Vladimir Kostenko, ship’s engineer of the cruiser Oryol. “Our decrepit, degenerate monarchy was hoping for a miracle, but instead got the catastrophe of Tsushima. It is Tsarism that has been smashed by the Japanese guns. It is Tsarism that bears the shame of this defeat. The whole absolutist system is morally bankrupt!”



Discontent spread quickly. In the southern port of Odessa, sailors of the Black Sea fleet rose up in protest. It was a natural subject for Bolshevik propaganda and in 1925 – the twentieth anniversary of the revolt – Eisenstein’s film made the most of it. We see the sailors on the Potemkin abused by their masters, forced to eat maggot-infested meat and threatened with a firing squad when they complain. The film draws us into indignant complicity with the men’s plight; we share their exaltation when the mutiny spreads to other ships then to the inhabitants of Odessa itself.

The drama is compelling and Eisenstein uses ground-breaking cinematography to intensify its impact. Rapid intercutting between shots, subliminal frames with images evoking pity or horror combine with sophisticated montage techniques to give the film an enduring potency. It was judged so powerful, in fact, that it was banned in several countries, including in Britain until 1954, on the grounds that it would foment social unrest.

But as with so many revolutionary legends, the Potemkin events were less dramatic than their subsequent portrayal. The film’s most celebrated scene of Tsarist Cossacks slaughtering civilians on the steps leading to the docks did not happen. There were clashes elsewhere in Odessa, but it was Eisenstein’s genius that transposed them to the now legendary location. And the final tableau of the pro-Tsarist flotilla switching sides to grant the revolutionaries safe passage out of the port is largely fantasy. So convincing were Eisenstein’s efforts, however, that more than one history book has reported them as fact.

By the time the film was made, the Bolshevik regime had decreed that all art should be clear and simple, with a political message comprehensible to the even the least educated. Eisenstein’s task was to elicit a visceral response from his audience, to channel their sympathies in the correct political direction; and because dialogue was impossible in the era of silent movies, the role of the soundtrack took on added significance. The film needed music that would heighten the onscreen emotions and reinforce its effectiveness as agitprop.



The Austrian socialist composer Edmund Meisel, who wrote the score for the first international screening in Berlin, did a solid job. Delays in getting the film passed by the censor meant he had only 12 days to complete it, but he worked hard to match the music to the action on the screen – not always the case with film scores in the past.

Eisenstein liked Meisel’s music, but expressed the hope that a new score would be written every 20 years. Only that, he felt, would preserve the film’s freshness and guarantee its impact on future audiences, as musical tastes changed. It was an expression of faith in Potemkin’s longevity, a faith that has been justified. New scores were written in 1950, 1985, 2004 and 2011 by different Soviet and Western composers.

In 1975, when the Soviet authorities released a fiftieth-anniversary edition of the film, extracts from three Shostakovich symphonies were assembled into a slightly cumbersome soundtrack, beginning and ending with the supposedly triumphant D Major fanfares and finale from number 5. The use of well-known bleeding chunks was hardly subtle, and the score that will be performed by the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy attempts to remedy that by deploying a wider range of Shostakovich themes (from symphonies 4, 5, 8, 10 and 11) in a version that succeeds in sounding more organically connected to the storyline.

Marrying film and live music is not always simple, however, and Eisenstein himself left a warning in his memoirs that should keep modern day performers on their toes. “A 1929 showing of Potemkin in London,” he writes, “was utterly ruined because they varied the projection speed to help fit it to the music. They destroyed the whole rhythm of the thing and, for the first time in my film’s existence, the audience burst into laughter.”

© Martin Sixsmith



12 May 2017

Lawrence Power, Viola: Breaking the Mould

12 May

2017


On Thursday 1 June 2017, British viola player Lawrence Power makes his second appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra this season. Digital Producer Marina Vidor explains why his performances with the Orchestra are a little bit different.

We meet violist Lawrence Power for a coffee well in advance of filming with him. He’s relaxed and keen to talk about the solo viola pieces he has programmed ahead of the two concerti he is performing with the Philharmonia this season: Julian Anderson’s Prayer ahead of the Walton Viola Concerto (12 February 2017) and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude ahead of the Bartók Viola Concerto (1 June 2017). He is committed to breaking out of current classical music programming trends and trying new approaches – in this case solo pieces that introduce a concerto.


"I have always been fascinated by the cycle we find ourselves in with programming. The whole ‘overture-concerto-symphony’ is very much a sort of fashion we’re in at the moment. Maybe we’re slightly coming out of it now – certainly with the Philharmonia, who are doing some really innovative things. You look at some of the early 20th century programmes, late 19th century programmes, of [Joseph] Joachim, for example… It’s just wonderful what they put together, seemingly incongruous things."

Lawrence Power


We agree to make a music video featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude, written for Power, as a preview for audiences coming to our June concert. Get a sneak peek here – we release a full video performance of the piece on Friday 19 May on our YouTube Channel.


Several months later we film Lawrence performing the Pentatonic Étude in his agent’s gallery space in Wandsworth, southwest London. MaestroArts has a beautiful art gallery with a good acoustic and we are blessed with a sunny winter morning. The gallery’s walls feature botanically inspired prints by the artist Jan Hendrix. The crew is excited because we’re making the first recording of this brilliant solo piece composed by Salonen in 2008, full of dazzling technique and folk-inspired warmth. Power’s Antonio Brenzi viola, made in Bologna circa 1590, fills the room with sound.

Because the viola has fewer solo works written for it than, say, the violin or cello, Power is committed to increasing the size and scope of its repertoire. In this way he continues the rich tradition within Britain of great violists inspiring composers. Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) and William Primrose (1904-1982) were two of the greatest violists who have ever lived and throughout their careers encouraged composers to write for their instrument, resulting in a number of important new pieces for the viola including compositions by Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. Béla Bartók started his Viola Concerto for Primrose, but left it unfinished at his death in 1945; it was finished by violist Tibor Serly, who had been Bartók’s apprentice. Lawrence Power has premiered works written for him by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Julian Anderson, Huw Watkins, Alexander Goehr, Olga Neuwirth and of course, Esa-Pekka Salonen. 


"The opportunity to work with composers is an honour, really. It’s the greatest thing. To start from scratch and to present something without any influence, without any history… It keeps you so fresh as a musician, just to be aware of all of those processes at their very infancy. When you go back to classical repertoire and having worked with composers a lot, I take back so much freedom. You’re not paralysed by history, by style, or by what people will think of the way you play Beethoven or Bach."

Lawrence Power


Salonen’s Penatonic Étude was written to lead straight into the Bartók Viola Concerto and makes reference to the concerto’s opening pentatonic (five-note) scale. Tickets for Lawrence Power performing with the Philharmonia on 1 June are still available. Gustavo Gimeno conducts, with Mahler Symphony No. 1 in the second half. Click here to book: https://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1622

Watch the full interview with Lawrence Power here:


28 Apr 2017

Inspirations Part III: What To Expect

28 Apr

2017


The next concert in our Inspirations series with Esa-Pekka Salonen and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, on Thursday 4 May, juxtaposes the music of Debussy and Boulez in an original way. Philharmonia Concerts Manager Natasha Riordan-Eva explains what will happen on the night.

When seen in isolation, colours can look beautiful, but flat. But when we see colours alongside each other, we see the connections between the different shades, the subtleties of how the addition of tones can create warmth or a sense of cold, light and darkness, and how colours complement each other. At our concert on Thursday 4 May, we delve into the sound worlds of Claude Debussy and Pierre Boulez and the beauty of this concert is the order in which the pieces will be performed.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has curated the order of the first half in which the works of Debussy and Boulez will interrupt each other; each piece will lead into the next without a pause and, like seeing colours together, the soundscapes of Boulez and Debussy will complement and inform each other:

BOULEZ Notations IV, for solo piano (1’)
BOULEZ Notations IV, for orchestra (2’)
DEBUSSY 'Gigues', from Images (7’)
BOULEZ Notations VII, for solo piano (1’)
BOULEZ Notations VII, for orchestra (6’)
DEBUSSY 'Rondes de Printemps', from Images (8’)
BOULEZ Notations II, for solo piano (20")
BOULEZ Notations II, for orchestra (2’)
-interval-
DEBUSSY Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra (26’)
DEBUSSY La mer (24’)
 

The solo piano miniatures will be performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard who is no stranger to this concept. In 2010 Aimard presented Collage Montage at the Aldeburgh Festival, a concert in which Pierre-Laurent chose various solo piano works and crafted them together to create a single line of music. Works bled into each other with the fluidity of watercolour paint and pieces you wouldn’t think had anything in common effectively became extensions of each other.

That concert has been at the back of my mind as I’ve been listening to the Boulez and Debussy works we will perform on Thursday. I’ve started to hear things in the music that I hadn’t heard before. Now I hear part of Debussy Gigues in the Seventh of Boulez’s solos piano Notations – is this really my mind hearing something new or am I actively seeking similarities? Do the piano Notations sound less harsh if they are heard in the context of the Debussy works? Does the Debussy sound more contemporary alongside the Boulez? Listen to our Spotify playlist and see what you think:



 

The beauty of presenting music in this order is that as the listener your ears and intuition are on high alert as you are transported to different sound-worlds. Whether you know these works well or whether you are a first-time listener, this concert will allow you to experience these brilliant compositions in an order that has been curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen, whoknows these scores inside-out and understands how they can be crafted together to create a one-off experience.

To enhance the atmosphere, lighting designer Colin Grenfell has created tailored lighting for the first half. We want the concert experience to enhance the experience, and the different moods of the solo piano and orchestral music will be reflected in the lighting. Surtitles will indicate when each new piece begins.

The opening of the second half is a step backwards in time from the Boulez. Debussy started working on the Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra in 1889 when he was 27, and whilst there are hints of his later harmonic language the mystery of Images is not yet there. Fast forward a few years and we reach La mer: this is Debussy at the height of his creative powers. Sun shimmers on the water, waves crash and the wind tears through the sea. Salonen has said that ‘no matter how many times you have looked at every note [of La Mer]…it only sounds new.'

Debussy broke ground with this piece, and surprised his contemporaries who had thought they knew Debussy’s ‘style’. A fitting end to a concert devoted to two artists who took music to the edge, conducted and performed by two musicians who in turn continue to push boundaries.

Tickets for Inspirations: Debussy & Boulez, on Thursday 4 May 2017, are still a available. Click here to book tickets.

Image: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Stravinsky's Les noces, featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard (right-hand side of the image) on 26 May 2015, as part of the Philharmonia's Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals series.