|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Storms and sunshineDavid Blake takes refuge
Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conductor Abdel-Hamid Ismail, violin Hossam Shehata, Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 24 November
La Forza Del Destino is Verdi's greatest opera, gory but divine. Like life it leaves little room for preferences. The storms of life are upon us before we realise it, and there is nothing to do but walk to the destined end. So, too, in La Forza. It is unique, there is nothing in all music that compares in beauty, compassion and delicacy. And its ending is cathartic. Only Bach and Mozart are comparable. The overture, which started off the evening, is a carefully arranged selection of melodies and scenes from the drama, an ample demonstration of the opera's beauty and power.
The orchestra was under the direction of Abdel- Hamid Ismail, taking over from the indisposed visitor from Vienna. Ismail's management of the orchestra left not the slightest ground for complaint. His handling of the storms of the Verdi masterpiece were varied and sensitive. Usually this overture gets a bashing -- even the best maestros are tempted to go for the blood and guts. But not Ismail. He really got at the central point of the drama: the characters are innocent of anything at all. Members of the Ducal family, the mighty Calatravas of the Spanish Empire, they have a basis in the real world. And so, being derived from a true tale of the birth and death of empires, their story has a far-reaching effect on those who follow its twists and turns.
The lives of its royal heroes, and for no reason except perhaps eminence, were carved and sliced to ribbons by destiny, until in the last scene they are all lying dead, four victims of a malignant fate over which they had no control. There is nothing further to do but for the Padre Guardiano to pronounce the word "peace" over their bodies. The prelude is a shattering account of the price that has to be paid for the life and death of empires, and it ends shatteringly.
There was no let down with the next item on the programme, the Violin Concerto No.1 in D-major, op. 91 of Prokofiev, played by the very young Egyptian soloist Hossam Shehata, who gave an altogether new look to the Russian masterpiece. From the beginning of this violin elegy the sounds are meltingly personal. Why did the composer not do this with any of his three piano concertos, the third of which Wael Farouk played a few weeks ago? Prokofiev's piano had allowed no sidetracks into love or understanding, but with this violin concerto the player and the orchestra had a better opportunity to delve into such realms; and indeed they did so without fail.
The first movement saw frolicsome melodies extending beyond the range of the violin and brimming over into that of the cello. Every tonal variety was given its chance, of which the young player took every advantage. He seemed at times to be dancing with pleasure at the sounds they were making. Prokofiev apparently knew how to solicit an audience better than one had supposed. And the conductor never made the mistake of piling on the tone. In fact the work was given a fine grained surface, like old polished silver. Could there be more to come?
There was the second movement, where we went into a moonlit landscape. Prokofiev made a rainbow of pale colours with a background of dots and dashes and funny scraping noises, all well within the range of the violinist. It sounded sometimes simple, but it was not. The role of the violin is strong and of the utmost complexity. The sounds showed the player's ease of bowing and stopping. The surprise was never broken, nor did it sound inadequate. The technique for such a young one was outstanding. Often he broke away completely from the idea of Prokofiev the great Russian percussionist, taking us to Vienna, into a softer world with Alban Berg -- glorious tones, surfaces silky. And the vision of the music was completely authentic.
It glided into the last part, which had an echo-like effect, recalling what had come before from the opening. Prokofiev extends time, which meant nothing to him. Parts of the closing of the concerto go tick-tock. The violin was beautifully clear, it did what was intended. Finally ending a dream, we slid back into what is called reality: enough to give this young artist a worthy tribute of shouts and bravos. What he really gave us was the vision of a floating, passing globe on the way out to other constellations.
From the strange special visions of Prokofiev we went straight to Dvorak's Symphony No.8 in G- major, op.88. A hallucinatory journey, this. All Dvorak's rivers have colours and names. The Eighth Symphony makes use of the colours emanating from the Danube, grey-green and blue shot through with sunlit topaz, a safe colour of which Ismail made great use, toying freely with light and even affection. If there were shadows Ismail promptly did away with them. So our trip was a happy one, and we went at a gentle gallop over a vast, verdant landscape, discovering all that made this cool area the birthplace of much of Europe's greatest music.
The symphony has an irresistible swing to it as music, never seeming to look anywhere but the bright side. Its feeling of comfort and security remains more or less neutral. Dvorak is to love. For sure he never flatters the listener, but his best does tend to smooth out life's rough passages. This symphony is almost cute, the way it presents itself, Disney-like but with the mighty rivers below swinging into a power beyond anything in Disney. We seem to be on the back of a legendary monster, a sea horse, with a refreshing wind around us. This cleanliness refreshes all Dvorak's output, moonlit and love-lit. His tunes rival even Negro spirituals for lovability, but of course this symphony does go on. Sometimes it suggests Mahler, occasionally Brahms, but always the colours of a country person's outlook on a passing show.
The end of the No.8 is amusing. We've had so much love and so many tunes, each vying with the other for affection. But then even Dvorak stops suddenly -- there is a halt. This is a symphony, it means something to somebody and that person has arrived. But what green grass and tunes: Dvorak thinks differently. One must arrive in another manner, and ascend to that classic place of judgment. And so the heartfelt songs move over a bit, and from the right comes an ending. It is loud, friendly, but determined to make the gesture which will earn a place up there on that glorious bench on which Brahms and his comrades rest.
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