Barbican Hall, LondonDirecting the orchestra from the keyboard, Perahia played the Emperor with rhythmic urgency and a go-for-broke eloquence
Murray Perahia playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto was, of course, the big draw in this Barbican visit by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, of which Perahia is principal guest conductor. But there was plenty to engage with in the two lower-voltage pieces of top-notch compositional craftsmanship that preceded it.
Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, his neoclassical homage to Bach's Brandenburg concertos, was efficiently directed from the leader's desk by the LSO's Tomo Keller. The academy's performance was appropriately crisp and urbane, never lingering, with fine, incisive flute and clarinet playing counterpointing the brisk staccato tread in the strings in the outer movements.
Perahia then took up the conductor's baton for Haydn's B flat major Symphony No 77, immediately bringing more purpose and personality to the music making. Phrasing in the lively opening movement was spacious without ever being slack, and one noticed the same contrapuntal clarity in the development section that Perahia brings to his keyboard work. This may not have been a performance for historically informed purists, but the pairing with Stravinsky worked extremely well.
Everything went up a couple of gears for the Beethoven, which fulfilled and in some respects surpassed expectation. Perahia directed his 37 players from the keyboard, the piano lid off, the soloist's back to the audience, but there was never any sense of this being a scaled-down chamber orchestra rendering. As in his solo recital in this hall earlier this year, there was a go-for-broke eloquence – and a few slips – in Perahia's Beethoven playing, which was characterised by a bright, weighty tone and a compelling rhythmic urgency throughout. The Adagio sang out with unusually impassioned directness, and there was real grandeur and brilliance in the bravura moments – the crashing left-hand chord at the start of the Rondo, a Vladimir Horowitz homage perhaps, was one to savour.
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Faveyts/Uhl/Very/Clark/Netherlands Opera and PO/Albrecht(Challenge Classics, two CDs)
First performed in 1920, Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Seeker) was Franz Schreker's fifth opera. Though he completed four more before his death in 1934, it was the last to be widely successful. By repeating the dramatic recipe – violence, magic and sexual repression in a make-believe historical setting – that had worked so well in Der Ferne Klang (1912) and Die Gezeichneten (1918), which established him as one of the most significant modernist opera composers of his time, and matching it to a score that offered a watered-down version of modernism alongside late romantic music, Schreker appealed to both progressive and conservative opera audiences.
The libretto for Schatzgräber was Schreker's own. It's a fairytale plot about stolen royal jewels, eternal youth, a wandering minstrel and a magic lute that can find hidden treasure. The music makes it credible because it deals in real emotions. This recording, taken from the production conducted by Marc Albrecht at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam in autumn 2012, is convincing enough, with Tijl Faveyts as the king, Manuela Uhl as Els, the innkeeper's daughter who acquires the jewels, Raymond Very as Elis the minstrel, and a vivid performance from Graham Clark as the Jester.
As far as I know, the only previous recording is the 1989 Hamburg one available on Capriccio, conducted by Gerd Albrecht with Josef Protschka and Gabriele Schnaut leading a strong cast. It too was taken from a stage production, though the sound on the Netherlands version is better. The earlier one includes an English translation of the libretto, however, something notably missing from the Challenge Classics set.
Southbank Centre, LondonThe level of technical accomplishment was high in this smorgasbord of new-classical writing – and the spirit of Hendrix even invaded one bassoon player
As the South Bank's The Rest Is Noise festival draws towards its close, the London Sinfonietta's day of new music – fleshed out with talks, and variously occupying the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room, the Front Room and even backstage spaces – offered several highlights amid programming that provided at least a partial overview of current trends.
Notable was the level of technical accomplishment in works conceived in diverse styles and mostly produced by a younger generation of composers. Premiered as the final concert's centrepiece, Edmund Finnis's Seeing Is Flux takes its title from the American novelist Siri Hustvedt, its layered textures and ambiguous blend of innocence and sophistication demonstrating a keen ear for sonority skilfully deployed throughout a neat and effective structure; conductor Baldur Brönnimann held its iridescent surface up to the light in what proved to be a compelling reading.
Equally assured was the Serbian Marko Nikodijevic's Music Box, subtitled Self-Portrait with Ligeti and Stravinsky (and Messiaen There Too), whose references to giants of 20th-century music (randomly generated, according to the composer) added bravura to an already dazzling entertainment. Performed without a conductor, Rebecca Saunders' evanescent Stirrings melted slowly from harmony to harmony, its resourceful use of spatial effects heightening its mysterious atmospherics.
Notable in earlier sequences were Francisco Coll's new viola concertino Ad Marginem, in which soloist Paul Silverthorne's often combative role successfully took on the brittle brilliance of the ensemble around him; and the imaginative use of distant sounds threaded through silence in Simon Steen-Andersen's Chambered Music, whose infinitesimal refinements drew the listener ineluctably into its skeletal soundworld.
The less formal Sinfonietta Shorts programme, meanwhile, comprised a sequence of solos and duets, with Anna Meredith's Axeman bringing John Orford's amplified bassoon closer to the spirit of Jimi Hendrix than one could ever have imagined possible.
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Russia may be cracking down on homosexuality, but Moscow can't get enough of Benjamin Britten. Our writer chronicles a major celebration in the country's capital
I am standing in the Pussy Riot church, although I'm not really supposed to call it that. Also known as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, this vast and ornate building occupies a prominent position on the Moscow river. It was here, in February, that Pussy Riot staged their now notorious performance-cum-protest against what they see as Putin's intolerance. I have come here after a visit to the Pushkin Museum, where another, less vociferous musical radical has been taking centre stage.
Benjamin Britten's art collection has been shipped over from the Red House, his former home in Aldeburgh, and is being shown alongside letters reflecting his close relationship, in the 1960s and 70s, with composer Dmitri Shostakovich and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Bizarrely, at a time when Russia is cracking down on protest and enacting laws against gay "propaganda", Moscow is choosing to celebrate the centenary of a gay pacifist composer, the ultimate social outsider.
The museum's show is part of a Britten festival that has already seen events in Saint Petersburg and will culminate in the Russian premiere of Britten's final opera, Death in Venice, at the Moscow conservatoire. "Who would have thought we'd be doing such a quintessential English composer and a piece with this subject matter in Moscow in 2013?" says Peter Coleman-Wright, the Australian-born baritone and Britten specialist, who tells me proudly he has sung in all his operas.
The subject matter is delicate because, based on Thomas Mann's novella, Death in Venice deals with a middle-aged writer's passion for a teenage boy spotted in a hotel on the Lido and lusted after to the point of madness and death. So this homosexual and perhaps even paedophilic work (though the tortured writer Aschenbach and the boy Tadzio do no more than exchange glances) by a gay composer who was excessively fond of teenage boys, is now being performed in a country that, officially at least, has no truck with homosexuality. Tricky.
"The gay side of the opera can't be denied – he falls in love with a boy," says Richard Jarman, director of the Britten-Pears Foundation, which with the British Council co-financed the festival. "But we hoped that wouldn't create a problem." It was a gamble, though. English National Opera's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in an English public school in the 1950s and with a paedophilic subtext, caused controversy in Moscow last year, while a new Russian-made film about Tchaikovsky has been at pains to excise his gayness. So an opera with lengthy homoerotic ballets was unlikely to be embraced by the fundamentalists currently engaged in a cultural war with those who want to westernise and liberalise Russia.
The fact that the opera was being given a concert performance and the lithe, god-like Tadzio is never seen in his swimming trunks – never seen at all, in fact – made it less problematic. Jarman insists he had originally hoped to mount a stage production and that the choice of a concert performance was logistical rather than diplomatic, but he accepts it makes the premiere less provocative. "If it was staged it would probably be more of an issue. Certainly some of the productions I've seen would be quite an issue. There was one production I saw in Barcelona in which, in the nightmare scene, Aschenbach dances naked with the boy. I'm quite glad that's not happening here." Had it done so, we might well have been entering Pussy Riot territory.
In this political maelstrom, the British Council has to swim carefully. Paul de Quincey, head of the organisation in Russia, tells me he took up the job in 2011 when anglo-Russian relations were still frosty. Since then a thaw has set in and, as well as backing the Britten festival, the British Council will next year be co-operating with the Russian culture ministry on a wide-ranging series of events gathered under the umbrella of an anglo-Russian year of culture. We are getting Chekhov and Pushkin; they are getting early Hitchcock and James Bond. Who has the better deal depends on your view of art – Russia's cultural apparatchiks tend to favour timeless masterpieces. British art will also be represented by exhibitions on the influence of Oscar Wilde and the work of Francis Bacon, which may appeal more to the Pussy Rioters than the Putinites.
Happily, Moscow, a sharp-elbowed, traffic-clogged, open-all-hours city, has no difficulty accommodating both. Elton John is in town for a sold-out concert, and takes the opportunity to lambast Russia's "inhumane and isolating" anti-gay legislation during his show. He does not repeat the criticism at the concert he gives the following night in the Volga city of Kazan, 500 miles to the east, though. What is acceptable in dynamic, affluent, westernised Moscow does not necessarily play well in heartland Russia. Death in Venice staged in Novosibirsk would be an interesting proposition. Tadzio would have to dress a little more demurely, and not just because of the extreme cold.
Britten is being celebrated in Russia because in the last 15 years of his life – he died in 1976 aged 63 – Russian musicians, in particular Shostakovich and Rostropovich, became very important to him. Both were regular attendees at the festival in Aldeburgh run by Britten and his partner Peter Pears; Britten wrote several pieces for Rostropovich; and Shostakovich dedicated his 14th symphony to his English counterpart. As part of the festival, that work is paired with Britten's violin concerto in a concert at the conservatoire, with Mark Elder conducting the Russian National Orchestra.
Mikhail Fikhtengoltz, programme manager at the RNO, says the festival is designed to evangelise on behalf of Britten and British music generally. "Both Britten and the British musical heritage are very underrated here," he says. "We know some Britten – the War Requiem, The Turn of the Screw, some of his chamber works, a few of his songs, but otherwise it's still a space that needs to be filled. Elgar and Vaughan Williams are even less well known, and as for Finzi, Bax, John Ireland, Ivor Gurney, nothing." Fikhtengoltz says British music doesn't easily fit with the Russian mentality. "British music invites you to reflect and analyse. It never hurries you up. We need the sheer expression of emotion and drama, and that is sometimes lacking for us."
I experience Russian emotionalism at first hand, because I'm staying at a flat belonging to the Vakhtangov theatre and on the day I arrive a distinguished member of the company, 85-year-old Yury Yakovlev, dies. His body is placed in an open coffin on the theatre's stage, and fans file past and lay flowers. Ian McKellen may be admired in the UK, but you can't quite imagine this scene playing out at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Actors, especially those who took on the role of interpreters of life during Soviet times, are accorded extraordinary reverence, and theatregoers are the weepiest I've ever encountered. The Vakhtangov's powerful and beautiful Eugene Onegin (not Tchaikovsky's opera but Pushkin's verse drama, which will come to London in January 2015 as part of the anglo-Russian year of culture) reduces many of the audience to tears when I see it a couple of days later.
Ian Bostridge, who is singing Aschenbach in Death in Venice, insists Britten's music can tap into that emotionalism, and is far from being as austere and intellectual as it is sometimes presented. "Russians don't hold back emotionally and that's what Britten really liked," he says. "People sometimes looked at his music and thought, rather bizarrely, that it was modern music, and of course in one sense it is, but it's so not modern in another sense. It's very emotionally connected, and if it's played and sung with passion that's what makes the difference." Bostridge believes the apparent detachment springs from Britten's "hidden sexuality" and the way he used theatrical framing devices to mask the rawness of his feelings. "He lived a life of masks and also felt that slight English embarrassment about feeling," he says, "but his music is intensely passionate."
Death in Venice is being conducted by 82-year-old Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who was part of Britten's close-knit Russian circle and conducted the concert at the Royal Festival Hall in September 1960 at which Britten first met Rostropovich and Shostakovich. The neat circularity of having him on the podium for the premiere of Death in Venice is constantly referred to. I corner Rozhdestvensky in his dressing room in between rehearsals and ask what he recalls of Britten. "He was such a shy person," he says. "He was so shy that sometimes you felt he wanted to go out of the room. You got this strange feeling that somehow you were interrupting him and stopping him creating new work. He would be talking very politely to you and answering all your questions, but you knew he was in a world very far away."
Early in the rehearsals, the three singers who have come to Moscow for the performance – Bostridge, Coleman-Wright and countertenor Iestyn Davies – are a little downcast. The tempi are too slow; the pronunciation of the chorus and of the students singing the smaller parts bizarre; the young members of the conservatoire orchestra struggling to come to terms with Britten's soundworld. But over the five days of rehearsal the performance takes shape, and despite bronchial problems induced by the Russian winter their spirits lift.
"It's not Britten and Pears Aldeburgh perfection," says the genial Coleman-Wright after the final rehearsal, "but it's magical in its own way. The players don't have anything to measure it by. They're coming fresh and open, and doing it for the first time. There's no preconceived idea of how it should go. They're not trying to copy anybody. They're just being true to what they feel. They didn't quite grasp the whole structure at first, but they have really embraced it now and want to make it work. It's a unique soundscape for them. Some of the young small-part singers are coming up and asking us how to do things, and that's fabulous. It's wonderful to do such a masterpiece outside of Britain, where it's always expected to be perfect. This has a whole different flavour."
During the interval of the performance, the three visiting singers worry that the audience are not quite getting it: the long first act can be daunting, especially for first-timers. But the tumultuous reception after the second act eases their fears. When Rozhdestvensky holds up the score, the hall – the very hall at the Moscow conservatoire in which Britten conducted the premiere of his cello symphony with Rostropovich as soloist in March 1964 – erupts. Afterwards, Jarman is happy and perhaps relieved that four years' work has paid off. "Death in Venice," he says, "has been well and truly launched in Russia."
Cinema has always liked telling a good life story, and all kinds of biography – from the humblest to the starriest – have been given a filmic going-over. The Guardian and Observer's critics pick the 10 best in a very crowded field• Top 10 animated movies• Top 10 silent movies• Top 10 sports movies• Top 10 film noir• Top 10 musicals• Top 10 martial arts movies• More Guardian and Observer critics' top 10s
This is the most radical of all biopics. It does exactly what it promises, breaking the Canadian pianist's intense and troubled life into concentrated fragments. Reassembly is left to the viewer. When he began working on the screenplay with Don McKellar, the writer-director François Girard recognised the pitfalls of the genre. "There are many traps," he said. "The main temptation is to try to cram everything about a life into one film. What you need is a radical idea or angle; if you decide to show the whole journey and cover everything, you're condemning yourself to staying on the surface. Evocation, rather than being descriptive or exhaustive, is the key to unlocking a subject. Evoking a territory is easily preferable to trying to cover it all."
Girard's film, structured in homage to Bach's Goldberg Variations, which has 32 sections and was featured on Gould's debut album, is a lesson in the majesty of understatement and suggestion. Vignettes of Gould's life, individually slight but with an enormous cumulative power, are presented to the viewer without immediate context; our understanding of how they lock together happens only gradually. If you want a measure of exactly how unorthodox the picture is, try this: it's a biopic of a pianist in which we never see the subject touch the keys. The camera goes inside Gould's piano, and even shows an X-ray image of him playing, but the physical satisfaction of seeing him in full flow is withheld. "That's part of the genius of the film," observed the actor Colm Feore, who is fiercely compelling as Gould. "You see me fondle pianos, talk about them, I'm around them, I even prepare to play them—but I never actually do. The problem is that I've occasionally been invited to drop by and play a little something at the induction of a new syllabus at the [Toronto] Royal Conservatory. I feel like saying, 'Have you even seen the film?'"
It was for practical rather than artistic reasons that Girard kept performance off-screen: "I didn't want Colm to imitate Gould's playing style, and I didn't know how to show it, so I decided not to show it at all. How would you get, say, an actor today to play tennis on film like Rafael Nadal? You couldn't. My advice for anyone planning to tell Nadal's life story would be: Stay away from the tennis court." Ryan Gilbey
Paul Giamatti didn't get to be king of the sad sacks overnight. That sort of title takes years of toil and dedication, not to mention performances as lovingly detailed as the one he gives as the underground comic-book author Harvey Pekar. This is a key work in the actor's repertoire of sullen grumps, as well as one of the more adventurous biopics of recent years. Pekar wrote about his life of drudgery and disappointment working as a file clerk at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in Cleveland, Ohio. His friend, the legendary Robert Crumb, rendered Pekar's stories through a grubby crosshatch of black lines that exaggerated only slightly the author's seething discontent with the world.
It's significant that the movie should have been directed by a pair of documentary-makers, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, since it hovers knowingly between fact and fiction, incorporating documentary footage and animation alongside dramatised passages from Pekar's life. These show him falling in love with Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis wearing Harry Potter specs), a comic-book author who became Pekar's third wife and wrote Our Cancer Year about his struggle with lymphoma.
American Splendor is one of those movies that knows it's a movie: the real-life subjects are occasionally seen on screen with the actors playing them, and no attempt is made to disguise the artificiality of some of the sets. The schism between the real Pekar and his fictional incarnation is highlighted when the author, played by Giamatti, appears on David Letterman's talk show, while at home Joyce watches the real archive footage of him on TV. Far from feeling gimmicky, this reflects and enhances the autobiographical tensions of Pekar's own work, and introduces extra levels of cool, wry analysis into a world that might otherwise be oppressively bleak. RG
Sergei Eisenstein's last completed film still looks like an astonishing anomaly when compared with the films that were coming out of the US and the UK in the mid-1940s. Though made with sound, the aesthetic is that of the silent age, with Eisenstein shooting in extreme close-up and using actors caked with make-up. The sets, too, recall The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with scenes in shadowy throne rooms and chambers that, at times, seem to be simply dug into the walls. Given Eisenstein's past mastery of montage, however, the most extraordinary thing is how much he relies on his performers: there's a theatricality that brings to mind Powell and Pressburger's Tales of Hoffmann.
Perhaps the most important point to make about Ivan the Terrible is that it was made during wartime to Joseph Stalin's specifications. Eisenstein was sequestered in Kazakhstan and "commissioned" to make the film. The Russian dictator was an admirer of the 16th-century ruler, a tsar given to violent outbursts and whose nickname was coined for his 24-year reign of terror. The circumstances in which the work was filmed are almost manifest on screen: Eisenstein's film feels cut off from the outside world, and the story – a Shakespearean narrative of triumph at a cruel price – is racked with paranoia and intrigue, a roundelay of conspirators foregrounded against pageantry.
The second half, in which the tsar becomes clearly unhinged – even though Eisenstein portrays his reign of terror being undertaken somewhat reluctantly – ruffled feathers in Russia. Party leaders saw unflattering parallels with Stalin, and the film was suppressed until 1958, five year's after his death. This is reason alone to rate Ivan the Terrible as a biopic. Although it was conceived as hagiography, the truth of the story – as seen by Eisenstein, a cerebral and literate man who didn't share Stalin's admiration of Ivan – is still clear through the propaganda trappings. Damon Wise
The deal for David Lynch's second film was done over a cheeseburger and malt at Bob's Big Boy diner in Burbank, California. Producer Mel Brooks had just seen Eraserhead and was intrigued by the young director, who walked in wearing a white, buttoned-up shirt and a leather jacket, looking, said Brooks, "just like Lindbergh when he flew over the Atlantic". It was to be a fruitful collaboration; Brooks put Lynch with screenwriters Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, and 18 months later they had a script for The Elephant Man, the story of Joseph Merrick, the Victorian freakshow exhibit.
At the time, the film seemed an extraordinary move for Lynch, but in hindsight it prefigures some of his later concerns. Shooting in black and white – a decision sanctioned by Young Frankenstein director Brooks, who feared Merrick's deformities would be "too grotesque" in colour – Lynch made great play of the industrial breakthroughs of the late 19th century, and the film's atmospheric depiction of sparking electricity and gaslight adds an almost steampunk counterpoint to the cobbled streets. This would mean nothing without compelling performances, however, and John Hurt's title act truly centres the film, navigating the period's harshness with a poignant soulfulness, even under several pounds of latex and prosthetics.
Hurt's performance brought an Oscar nomination, and though some claimed the film was overly sentimental, The Elephant Man proved not so untypical for Lynch, who added unashamedly romantic flourishes to later films such as Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In many ways, though, The Elephant Man is the perfect companion piece to Eraserhead, with its nervousness about relationships and parenting. "It's [about] a great triumph of love – of love for one another, of humanity," said Brooks. "It's an amazing thing, to care for this unfortunate person and find the beauty in his soul." DW
Jean-Dominique Bauby, known as "Jean-Do", was an editor of French Elle magazine who once mixed with the great, the glamorous and Lenny Kravitz. In 1995, he suffered a massive stroke. His face was frozen in an outraged grimace, the lower lip jutting out of a lopsided mouth: his septic right eye had to be sewn shut by doctors. Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a portrait of life with locked-in syndrome, might have been called My Left Eye, as that was the only part of him that wasn't paralysed. And, like Christy Brown's left foot, Jean-Do's flickering eyelid becomes the tool of his artistic release. A therapist introduces a system of communication based on blinking — one blink for yes, two for no. An assistant reels off the alphabet repeatedly while Jean-Do painstakingly constructs words, whole sentences and eventually an entire memoir (from which the film was adapted by Ronald Harwood, who wrote The Pianist).
Mathieu Amalric is hypnotic as Jean-Do. The nature of the film, and the medical condition it describes, deny him the ostentatious acting challenges that usually come with playing a physically disabled character, but that only makes his clinched, internalised performance all the more remarkable. One memorably upsetting scene shows the grizzled Max von Sydow as Jean-Do's father, blubbing down the phone at a son who can only blink in reply.
Cinema has always struggled to depict the creative process, so it's novel to see a literary life that can't be quantified in overflowing wastepaper baskets. Jean-Do does not have that luxury — he edits in his head. It is there that the film's most expressionistic passages take place. The hospital is on the coast in the Pas de Calais, and the visual metaphors have an aquatic flavour tenderly realised by the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski: shelves of ice crumble into the sea, and Jean-Do imagines himself suspended inside a diving bell deep in the ocean, or trapped in his wheelchair on a pier isolated from land by the tide. RG
Few contemporary directors do postmodern as well as Todd Haynes, who told the Karen Carpenter story with Barbie dolls (Superstar, 1987), made a film about 70s glam rock in the style of 70s glam rock (Velvet Goldmine, 1998) and imagined what a 50s Douglas Sirk melodrama would look like if the subtext were the actual text (Far From Heaven, 2002). But his Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, took the principle to new heights, casting six actors as the musician, including a young African-American actor as the young Dylan and Cate Blanchett as his 60s speed-freak incarnation.
It sounds gimmicky on paper, but I'm Not There does perfectly distil the alacrity with which Dylan changed his image in the first 20 years of his fame. Marcus Carl Franklin plays him first, as the rootless heir to folk hero Woody Guthrie, then Christian Bale takes over as the singer of protest songs. Bale gives way to Blanchett, who, as "electric" Dylan, rejects his folk past with sarcasm and venom, before returning as the born-again Dylan of the late 70s. Richard Gere finally appears as the latter-day Dylan of the Never Ending Tour, a cowboy figure from Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, while in the meantime Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw make appearances as manifestations of the rock star's artistic life.
Haynes's methodical attention to detail ensures that this biopic not only works as a truthful approximation of Dylan's real life, but also makes sense of the mass of contradictions Dylan embodies. It features a fantastic soundtrack, too, in which a wide variety of musicians illustrate the diversity of Dylan's back catalogue, from the urgent folk of When the Ship Comes In to the mournful lament of Goin' to Acapulco. That Dylan gave permission suggests he approved, but it's a measure of the film's accuracy that no one knows for sure whether the reclusive rocker has ever seen it. DW
Even 60 years after the second world war the idea of allowing a German actor to play Adolf Hitler in a German movie was almost a taboo notion in a country that had managed a spectacular moral transformation in the six decades since. Most previous iterations of the little corporal had been essayed by British actors of high standing (Alec Guinness in The Last Ten Days of Hitler being the standout), and one imagines that few German actors were ready to take on a part that they might be identified with to the grave.
The makers of Downfall split the difference and cast German-speaking Swiss citizen Bruno Ganz (whose nationality meant he hadn't grown up asking what did daddy do in the war?), perhaps the greatest European actor of his generation, as the great monster of the 20th century. To humanise or not to humanise, that was the sticking point: Hitler was kind to his secretaries, loved his dog, Blondi, and always complimented the cook, but y'know … there was all that other stuff. The film-makers evidently thought that cutting the monstrousness, the screaming fits, the tirades against treacherous generals and the final desire for the immolation of the whole German people ("they have not proven worthy …"), with something graspably, recognisably human would make for a more approachable moviegoing experience.
They weren't wrong, and they had the actor to make it work. Historians who know say, "That really is Hitler" (Joachim Fest), or "Ganz has Hitler's voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic" (Ian Kershaw). Set in the final fortnight of the Reich, as the Russians close in on the bunker, this epic account of the Nazis' Götterdämmerung is visceral and ultra-violent, as it should be (so many people blowing their brains out), but director Oliver Hirschbiegel's gaze has a steely, unsentimental clarity: no heroes here. Noteworthy cameo: Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, Reich Mother of the Year. John Patterson
With the lukewarm reception for Spike Lee's latest feature, Oldboy – in fact, for most of his work, barring documentaries, in the past 20 years – it's easy to forget how great he can be when he's on his game. Malcolm X is, arguably, Lee's finest three hours and 12 minutes – an appropriately regal epic about a princely figure in Black American history that demonstrates all Lee's virtues as a film-maker (dynamism, edginess, dramatic intensity) and none of his flaws (sloppiness, self-indulgence). One of his biggest budget efforts, it nearly didn't get made; on advice, allegedly from Francis Ford Coppola, Lee "got the movie company pregnant" – that is, extending production far enough to force an increase in budget. Even so, Lee only managed to complete thanks to loans from rich supporters, including Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.
Structurally, it's a classic biopic: it covers events from before Malcolm X's birth up to his death, and beyond. And yet, through felicitous use of leitmotifs and repeated imagery, it has shape and unity, and none of that one-damn-thing-after-another feel of so many similarly scaled films. Imbuing a complex, deeply charismatic figure with breadth and depth while nailing the physical impersonation, Denzel Washington is magisterial in the title tole. (He should have won the Oscar in 1993, but was robbed of it by Al Pacino, for Scent of a Woman.) Lee and Arnold Perl's historically faithful script briskly covers Malcolm's tragic childhood and zoot-suited gangster years (an excuse for a cracking dancehall sequence) and, eventually, his conversion to Islam in prison that led to his becoming an inspiration for the Black Power movement before his untimely death.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Lee accurately depicts X's once hardline separatist politics and understandable hostility to the white world that oppressed him. Predictably, the film was highly controversial. Yet even the most hardened, anti-X sceptic would be moved by the closing montage, an electric sequence featuring knife-sharp editing, stirring archive footage, Terence Blanchard's surging soundtrack, Spartacus allusions and a cameo appearance from Nelson Mandela. Leslie Felperin
Most people who are opposed to The Social Network, a biopic of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that contains an unusually high level of conjecture, offer the excuse that they don't like Facebook. Well, neither do the film's director, David Fincher, and its writer, Aaron Sorkin, if the unambiguously cautionary tone of the movie is anything to go by. The sinister score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor embodies the mood: industrial rumbles, distant alarms and a faint buzzing that suggests the sound of something, or someone, short-circuiting.
It's a supreme joke that Facebook, which helped redefine communication in the 21st century, should have come from two Harvard undergraduates with the social skills of mouse pads and the popularity of computer virusus. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg sounds like the speaking clock having a panic attack. Ninety per cent of what he says indicates that he regards you as privileged to live in his world; the remaining 10% only seems that way. Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield, is taller and better looking, but his handsomeness is undercut by an earnest expression that's always on the verge of crumpling with joy or anxiety.
Sorkin's screenplay, based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, scuppers any celebratory air by cutting back and forth between Facebook's rise and the multi-million dollar lawsuits in which Zuckerberg later becomes entangled. We see him sued by the strapping Winklevoss twins (both played, with the aid of digital trickery, by Armie Hammer), who had hired him to mastermind a dating site, and also by Saverin. Zuckerberg isn't given any opportunity to savour his salad days. It's as if the film-makers wanted to hit him with an almighty hangover before he'd had a chance to knock back a shot.
A minor plot-point involving a caged chicken that is fed the meat of its own species provides an insight into the picture's concerns about the creators and frequenters of Facebook. But no one aspect is predominant. The movie contains elements of screwball comedy, courtroom drama and class satire; it also touches on tragedy, asking what Zuckerberg might have forsaken on his way to world domination. RG
Viewers and critics always have their favourites, but some films achieve masterpiece status, universally agreed on. Andrei Rublev undoubtedly has it, even though it's a film that people often feel they don't, or won't, get. It is 205 minutes long (in its fullest version), in Russian, and in black and white. Few characters are clearly identified, little actually happens, and what does happen isn't necessarily in chronological order. Its subject is a 15th-century icon painter and national hero, yet we never see him paint, nor does he do anything heroic. In many of the film's episodes, he is not present, and in the latter stages, he takes a vow of silence. But in a sense, there is nothing to "get" about Andrei Rublev. It is not a film that needs to be processed or even understood, only experienced and wondered at.
From the first scene, following the flight of a rudimentary hot-air balloon, we're whisked away by silken camera moves and stark compositions to a time and place where we're no less confused, amazed or terrified than Rublev himself. For the next three hours, we're down in the muck and chaos of medieval Russia, carried along on the tide of history through gruesome Tartar raids, bizarre pagan rituals, famine, torture and physical hardship. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot.
With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky was consciously crafting a language that owed nothing to literature, and it's a pity so few others followed him. In today's cinema, we're still served up linear, cause-and-effect biographies of artists as if, by doing so, we'll understand the person and be able to make sense of their art. Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It asks questions about the relationship between the artist, their society and their spiritual beliefs and doesn't seek to answer them. "In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer's feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought," wrote Tarkovsky in 1962.
Despite its apparent formlessness, Andrei Rublev is precisely structured and entirely aesthetically coherent. Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction, there are themes of flight, of vision, of presence and absence; the more you look, the more you see. And then there are the horses, Tarkovsky's perennial favourite: horses rolling over, horses charging into battle, swimming in the river, falling down stairs, dragging men out of churches. At times the screen resembles a vast Brueghel painting come to life, or a medieval tapestry unrolling. We're always conscious of life spilling out beyond the frame, and never conscious of the fact that this was made in the USSR of the 60s. In Tarkovsky's own turbulent time, the film lit all manner of controversy. Its Christian spiritualism offended the Soviet authorities; its depiction of Russia's savage history upset nationalists such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and its challenging form led to various cuts. After opening in Moscow in 1966, it was suppressed until the 1969 Cannes film festival, and didn't reach Britain till 1973.
We don't necessarily know, or need to know, how Andrei Rublev works or what it's telling us, but by the end we're in no doubt it's succeeded. In the closing minutes, the film pulls off its most famous flourish: the screen bursts into colour and we're finally ready to see Rublev's paintings in extreme close-up. Coming, as they do, at the end of this epic journey, they can reduce a viewer to tears. As the camera pores over the details, the tiny jewels on the hem of a robe, the lines forming a pitiful expression on the face of an angel, the tarnished gilding of a halo, we feel like we understand everything that's gone into every brushstroke. We're reminded of what beauty is. It is as close to transcendence as cinema gets. Steve Rose
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Rivington Place, LondonClaudia Molitor's 'desk opera' – more quirky, intimate performance art than opera – might be slender, but it has an odd beauty to it
When is an opera not an opera? When it's a "desk opera", which is composer Claudia Molitor's subtitle for this quirky, intimate piece of performance art, staged for audiences of around two dozen. Inspired by the writing desk she inherited from her grandmother, it was first seen at Huddersfield last year, and has now come to the Spitalfields Music Winter festival.
The subtitle matters, because Molitor's work ideally needs an audience that is prepared to listen hard – especially at this particular performance, in which building-site noise from next door mingled with the scheduled sound effects. And yet the prerecorded score, mainly atmospherics involving low piano and high-plucked strings, seems less important than the visuals.
Standing behind an old-fashioned bureau, dressed in Grecian-style white, Molitor herself introduces her conceit: two doomed operatic heroines are chatting on the phone, plotting to take back control of their own narratives. But what happens next? Molitor sets up a story that she doesn't then tell; if there's an opera going on here, it's happening in our heads.
What we do get is the frame of an opera in extreme miniature. Molitor creates a theatre within the desk. She lifts a figurine of a conductor, and dozens of ball bearings slide down a hole – the noise is like applause. Books with intricately cut-out pages open up to become scenery; a rubber stamp discloses a portrait of Eurydice; an inverted ink-pot lid becomes Dido's crown. Before revealing each new thing, Molitor looks at us with knowing relish, like Audrey Tautou's Amélie about to attack a crème brûlée. There is even a nod to the idea of interval refreshment, when Molitor delicately passes us each a piece of Turkish Delight – as if we are in Narnia, and she is the White Witch.
That relish is absent from the video art of the final episode, making it oddly anticlimactic. But, however slender, Remember Me has an odd beauty. Molitor sends us away one by one, whispering in our ears as, finally, we hear some singing: Dido's Lament. As the first to leave I could see the looks on everyone else's faces as they walked out. Most looked baffled, but most were smiling.
Linbury Studio, LondonWith its fascinating score, Julian Philips and Edward Kemp's version of Ted Hughes's creation tales has become an inventive experiment in live theatre
"I wish I could sing like that, papa." For my four-year-old daughter's first trip to the opera, this was a result. Or would've been, had the favoured voice not belonged to a busker whose fine rendition of Tosca's Vissi d'Arte occupied us before we headed to Julian Philips and Edward Kemp's new opera, How the Whale Became. Puccini's luxuriating lyricism, though, has little place in the musical world of Philips, who feels modern musical idioms are as good for children as adults. He's been proved right in the past, and thanks to his wonderfully assured ear, the new work's fascinating, eclectic score is its least challenging aspect.
Kemp, Philips and stage director Natalie Abrahami have turned Ted Hughes's creation tales into an inventive experiment in live theatre. Tom Scutt's charmingly cluttered set of blue pallets stacked with miniature cottages and sprouting plants serves as God's workshop – half allotment shed, half Flash Gordon spaceship. As in the stories, God, played by different members of the cast, is a somewhat hazy, inconsequential figure whose loving but haphazard messings-about-with-clay are left to themselves to discover who they are.
Like the animals, the opera also "becomes" during the performance. This involves the on-stage musicians using different versions of the same instrument (the pianist moves between a toy piano, broken pub piano and a Steinway), echoing the characters' experimentation with different versions of themselves. By the end, the musical, dramatic and emotional elements have coalesced into something in which operatic modes of expression seem perfectly natural. It's a fascinating recipe both for adult and children's music-theatre, but (on opening night at least) there's some way to go before the first half can escape the encroaching sense of shapelessness. As my daughter told the librettist afterwards: "It was very good, but you need to tidy up now."
W is for the villa the composer built for himself in Bayreuth, where, as he had it, 'my delusions have found peace'
W is naturally very big in the world of Wagner. There is Wagner himself, of course, and all his descendants, notably the double Ws – Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, his grandsons, who shaped the modern Bayreuth, and his daughter-in-law Winifred, the English-born wife of Wagner's bisexual son Siegfried. Winifred ran the festival in the 1930s after Siegfried's death, and became alarmingly close to Adolf Hitler. There was even talk of marriage at one point.
Not can we forget Wotan, the wilful chief god in the Ring cycle, and Die Walküre, the most popular of the Ring tetralogy. But from a strong field, we will choose Wahnfried, the name Wagner gave to the imposing villa he built for himself in Bayreuth.
Wagner had the house constructed in the early 1870s when he settled on Bayreuth as the place to build the opera house in which he would present his works as he wished to see them staged. The name is a Schopenhauerian one: "Wahn" means delusion or madness; "Fried" means both freedom and peace. The world is a madhouse prone to illusion, Wagner is saying, but here is a repository of wisdom and, through wisdom, contentment. He spelt this out in an inscription on the front of the house: "Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt." "Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried."
The house is now a museum devoted to Wagner, and you will indeed find peace there, sitting among his artefacts and listening to recordings of his music played continuously over the sound system. Wagner and his wife Cosima are buried in the grounds of the house, beneath a mound that is topped by flowers left by well-wishers. Their dog Russ has a little memorial close by. It is a very touching, fitting rest place for this strange, irritating, inspiring genius.
A is for AlberichB is for BayreuthC is for CosimaD is for DeathE is for winsome heroinesF is for Die FeenG is for GesamtkunstwerkH is for HitlerI is for IsoldeJ is for JewsK is for KundryL is for LohengrinM is for MeistersingerN is for NietzscheO is for OrtrudP is for ParsifalQ is for Queen VictoriaR is for the Ring CycleS is for SchopenhauerT is for TannhäuserU is for UpbringingV is for Valkyrie
Milton Court, LondonThe pianist's flawless performances somehow found a way of bringing two very different pieces by Adams and Lachenmann together
On paper, the main works in this fascinating recital – John Adams's Phrygian Gates and Helmut Lachenmann's Serynade – could scarcely be more different. The Adams is a fine example of a nuanced and natural musical ear being applied to minimalist procedures, resulting in delicately calibrated waves of sound and simple but subtly combined harmonies. The Lachenmann's principal material, by contrast, is a kind of pianistic anti-matter – articulated not when the keys are struck, but when the strings are left to resonate and develop their own particular identities. A work of dazzling surfaces, Serynade seems to draw an entire orchestra (and choir) from their hiding places deep inside the piano.
Rolf Hind's flawless performances somehow found a way of bringing the two works together, showing how each uses the accumulation of harmony and gesture over time to create complex sonorities that exist as much in the ear's memory as in the actual soundwaves crisscrossing the dark wooden surfaces of the Guildhall School's stunning new concert hall. Both pieces end with the sustaining pedal held until the sound has died away, giving the sense of complex worlds evaporating into silence.
The two "late second millennium" pieces, as Hind rather suggestively put it in the programme note, were partnered with two more recent works by James Weeks and Mark Simpson, two composers who have found that music's moving forward also involves keeping an ear out for the past. Simpson's Barkham Fantasy takes strands of, among other things, Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and works them into a fascinating study of movement and stasis, resonant and stifled sonorities. Weeks's Two Prescriptions, by contrast, operates in the shadows cast by Liszt's late piano music, drawing stands of forgotten harmony out of the air and tying them into a shimmering web so delicate that only a pianist of Hind's extraordinary patience and concentration could bring it so magically to life.
St George's, BristolThe finesse of Savall's almost whispered tone created an intimacy quite unlike that of anyone else
It was in the 17th century when Marin Mersenne, father of acoustics, noted the subtle parallels between the sound of the viol and that of the human voice. His younger namesake, viol player and composer Marin Marais, then embodied the idea in his work Les Voix Humaines. Jordi Savall, the Catalan viol master of today, took both the piece and its title as the theme for his solo viola da gamba recital. In doing so, he seemed also to be invoking the highly distinctive voice of his wife, the singer Montserrat Figueras, who died two years ago and who, with her husband, was such a pioneer in the performance of early music. He dedicated pieces grouped together as Les Rêgrets to her memory: they were wistful and poignant, with the final improvisations on a Bach Bourrée, BWV1010, flowing freely.
Savall's arrangement of shorter works into complementary sequences was instinctively honed, and the gentle inflections of the title work were followed by two Marais Muzettes and La Sautillante, the latter's figurations leaping around furiously. In some halls, Savall is obliged to accept a degree of amplification but, in the pin-drop acoustic of St George's, there was no such requirement. The finesse of his almost whispered tone created an intimacy quite unlike that of other performers.
Any notion of austerity was dissipated with the Musicall Humors of the Scottish soldier and composer, Tobias Hume. Stirring marches, quirky lines and percussive bowing made for lively contrasts, while Savall's combination of fastidiousness and virtuosity was apparent in the pieces by Alfonson Ferrabosco and John Playford. The bourdon bagpipe effects in pieces from the Manchester Gamba Book required retuning, which was cheerfully explained, and the playful, swirling dances elicited a delighted, foot-stamping, response.
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