Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Music as preaching (or vice versa)

As I listened to Christian Tetzlaff's playful and lyrical account of Brahms' violin concerto in the Symphony Hall this evening, I reminisced on the first time I remember hearing it live - Tasmin Little, with the Ulster Orchestra, in the Ulster Hall, Belfast. I recall drifting off in young sleepiness in the over-warm hall during the second movement, and being thrown awake, embarassed, by the launch into the third. I was sitting with my Dad in the balcony stage left, for a good view of the soloist. I enjoyed it then; I enjoyed the performance this evening. Then, in awe of Tasmin Little and the virtuosic beauty of the music, particularly the double-stopping; now, amused by Tetzlaff's youthful quirky treatment of some of the piece, and struck by the musical similarity between the soloist and the conductor, the electrifying Andris Nelsons.

Music, it seems to me, is like a sermon in some respects. I wouldn't say that my recording of the Brahms (Anne Sophie Mutter, I think) is not the Brahms, but it is certainly less than the live performance. There's something about music, and a sermon, which should be embodied. The recording may be perfect - perfect balance, no distance through a concert hall, no coughs or dropped programmes at inappropriate moments, no distraction of an overactively bobbing soprano clarinetist. But it is precisely all those things which are cut out which make it so touchingly human. The music enacted in a different context every time, unique despite being written. So it is with a sermon: the word addressed to a particular time and people, in a context. (και ο λογος σαρξ εγενετο, one might ponder.)

So, also, I appreciated Shostakovich's earthy, jarring and tense search for resolution and hope, post-Nazi invasion of St Petersburg, more than the ethereal disembodied floating of souls through layers of supposed paradise, in part II of Mahler's 8th on Saturday. (Not that this fully characterises either piece - just some parts of each.)

Perhaps a feel for music gives some theological insight - the truth bubbling up to the surface, however hard repressed. The conductor turned before the Shostokovich and gave us a little exposition: the original author's meaning, its application to our day, the eternal truth behind both. 'There is always hope!' he concluded, as we were launched into Shostokovich's Eighth Symphony.

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