Monday, November 14, 2011

Contra Eliot

After hearing Stephen Dillane read "The Four Quartets" at the Clark Studio Theater last Friday, my longstanding love affair with the poem may be over. The still small voice of the poem that I had always heard in my head was suddenly and merely expressive in the mouth of the actor, expressive of a conservative religion, a contempt for other people and an authoritarian disposition that I knew were there, but had ignored as in the flush of love. I still admire the questing spirit in the poem--"Old men should be explorers"--and still respect the scrupulous scrutiny with which Eliot examines his life. Like Wagner's return to Christian symbolism in Parsifal, which caused Nietzsche to break with him, Eliot enters in "The Four Quartets" a dead end that no one else can follow, except his co-religionists.

The contrast with Beethoven's late String Quartet in A minor, which supposedly inspired Eliot, could not have been vaster. Played feelingly by the Miro Quartet, the music was achingly human. Even in its most divine aspect, the slow middle movement of the five, the divine is the expansion and elevation of the human spirit, and not a denial of it. The music makes me proud to be human, to belong to the same species as the man who composed it. The music is, ultimately, life-affirming.

Yesterday afternoon, GH and I listened to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra play at Avery Fisher, under the baton of Fabio Luisi. The program was completely Romantic: Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto in C minor and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major. Lise de la Salle, the twenty-three-year-old wunderkind from France, was mesmerizing at the keyboard. I did not think she reached the depths in the first movement of the concerto, but she was delicate in the second movement, and dazzling in the third. She disappeared under the orchestral sound at some point in the first movement, but was strong and commanding otherwise. I was surprised by how slow the work was played.

The same slow pace governed the Beethoven symphony, and destroyed it for me. Masterful precision in tempo and volume civilized the carnivalesque spirit of the work. The painful inarticulacy of the second movement sounded to my fanciful ears like operatic declamations. I would like to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under a different baton, for the strings sounded wonderful, blended and warm. This performance of Beethoven, however, was Bacchus in coat-tails.


eothen said...

Yes i'd always wondered about you and 'Four Quartets'. Even though i could see you liking its *spirituality*, it also has a dogmatic tone that didn't seem to me like something you'd take to so intensely.

And the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th - 'painful inarticulacy' describes it perfectly. See if you can find a recording of the Vienna Phil conducted by Carlos Kleiber. CLASSIC. Best interpretation i've ever heard. (And i've heard a few.)

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi eothen,

Dogma dogs my life, though I have been trying hard to shake it off. Thanks for the Kleiber rec. I will look for it. I just bought the Takacs recording of the late string quartets.