Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Priez pour paix



Having noticed this piece from January 2011 rising up the most-viewed list, I make no apologies for republishing it now. Not only does it embed the exquisitely simple Poulenc song which is one possible response to the weekend's events - though I hasten to add I don't think of 'prayer' in narrow Christian terms - but it also reminds me to go back and watch one of the greatest films possibly ever. Unless you seek total escapism, it's the right thing to see at the moment, though you'll weep. My review DVD is still in the hands of our Meknes host at the Riadh Laboul, so I'd better get another copy.

I make no apologies for juxtaposing the peaceful song-title - bearing in mind Poulenc's inward setting of Charles d'Orleans's invocation under threat of war - and the violence implicit in Caravaggio's painting. Both the juxtaposition and the image play key parts in Xavier Beauvois's near-flawless film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux): Luc (the infallibly sympathetic Michael Lonsdale) leans against the wounded body in a poster of the picture on the wall of his Algerian monastery and we begin to understand what 'love of Christ' might actually mean.

In fact all the best aspects of faith are to be found in the exquisitely chosen dialogues and quotations of the film's awe-inspiring script, with the Koran playing almost as large a role as the Bible. I'm hoping to obtain a copy of the text as it's a collection of wisdom in itself. In the meantime, read Dom Christan de Cherge's testament, written in Algiers on 1 December 1993, produced at his monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine on New Year's Day 1994 and opened on Pentecost Sunday 1996 shortly after the murders of Christian and his fellow Trappists (is it possible to talk about this film without foreknowledge of its end? I don't think so, though clearly an audience which didn't know the outcome would find it even more suspenseful). This is the voice not of a missionary - the director had said he would have found it hard to make a film about that - but of someone who dearly loved Algeria and his Muslim brothers.


Of Gods and Men works simply on so many levels: as a meditation on sound and silence - the popcorn crunching next to me soon stopped, and the Curzon Mayfair was still for the rest of the screening - in which music plays a minimal but essential role, Tchaikovsky as much as religious chant, and we understand what's not verbalised (as when, for instance, Lambert Wilson's Christian touches the trunk of a huge, ancient tree); as an unsentimental embodiment of what it might really mean to live and work in a community which may worship differently; and above all, ultimately, as a palpitation-inducing speculation on whether fear or faith will have the last word (the final procession which melts into the snow leaves the question open).

Unusually, I don't want to say much more, or to sully the film with any clips: just go see for yourselves. If only it could be screened in Iraq and Egypt in their current times of trouble, too*: not, of course, as anything as crass as a Christian tract, but just for its simple reflections on the 'all men are/should be brothers' line. It's enough, as Golaud says in Pelleas et Melisande, to make stones weep. But not in a bad way.

Anyway here's Poulenc's 'Priez pour paix', the first of four songs delivered here by Charles Panzéra with his wife at the piano (I wanted the Ann Murray recording, but it's not on YouTube; now - 17/11/2015 - Felicity Lott is there with Pascal Rogé, but for some reason not embeddable). The simple poem is by Charles d'Orleans (1394-1465)



And how could I not reproduce the most moving final scene in all opera, the nuns to the guillotine in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites? This is perhaps director Robert Carsen's finest achievement, seen in the Scala production conducted (magnificently) by Riccardo Muti and with Dagmar Schellenberger giving a stunning performance as Blanche. When I encountered Carsen at a BBC Music Mag awards gathering, I asked him what working on it had signified. He replied with tears in his eyes that his mother had just died and it meant the world to her. A pity we don't get the brutal Prokofiev-style march before the Salve Regina here, the equivalent to the simultaneous noise of hovering helicopter and chant in one of the film's most powerful sequences.



The Carmelites, of course, have high-profile martyrdom thrust upon them; one of the points in Of Gods and Men is that the brotherhood wants to live as long as it can simply to do good to its flock as - in the words of one village lady - the branch on which they sit, and does not seek death. But the way in which the men individually come to terms with what it means to stay or to leave is another remarkable aspect of this cinematic masterpiece.

*17/11/2015 Hard, isn't it, to think of a time when Syria wasn't ripping itself apart (that started in March 2011, two months after I wrote this post)? Or that any of us wandered free and happy through the souks of Damascus and Aleppo, or the ruins of Palmyra and Qalaat Samaan, meeting kindness at every turn.

12 comments:

John said...

This is perhaps the most eloquently moving film I've ever seen. Thanks for complementing it with the shattering Carmelites clip.

laurent said...

I did not know Charles Panzéra, what a beautiful voice. This production of Polenc, Dialogue des Carmélites, we saw on my first visit to La Scala many years ago, it was beautiful.

David said...

Lucky you, if you saw that cast with Silja and Schellenberger; or was it earlier? I bet you cried. And I bet you will if you both go and see Of Gods and Men: I urge everyone I know to see it, with the somewhat risky consequence that if anyone isn't at least a bit as moved as I was, I don't know how we'll get on afterwards...

Envying the blue skies and bright light of your Rome pics.

The Lamp said...

Thank you for a lovely entry. I think it's good time for a opera-film about the Carmelites. Why not?

David said...

Well, I do think that the filming of the Scala production is very beautifully composed. But I agree, a proper film evoking the locations would be very welcome.

We are lucky to have a student production of Poulenc's opera coming up at the Guildhall. I have great hopes for one of the Blanches, Anna Patalong, who was mesmerising in George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I'm glad you reposted. I don't know what (or if) I commented before, but I'm glad to be reminded of the film, and the Poulenc is a perfect companion. Sad times.

David said...

You didn't. Impossible as it seems, this was on the blog P S (pre-Scheid/Susan).

Extraordinary passion for the best of French culture is welling up here in the UK. And one response to the horror manages to do it with humour - from the northerner chap on your HBO.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Ah, as I now see, when I look at the dates of the earlier comments. So, now, this is totally off point, but I just want to say I heard a blow your head off performance of Rachmaninov's First Symphony at the NY Phil today. The probable cause for this? Glazunov was NOT conducting; Neeme Järvi was. Zachary Woolfe seems to have gone to a different concert (actually, he went the day before, so maybe that accounts for his bizarre comment on the performance--tongue very much in cheek here). The NY Classical Review describes what I heard and saw pretty faithfully, I'd say. I'd not heard this piece before, and I just loved it. (In that regard, this may amuse you (if I've linked this properly, that is.)

David said...

Ah, Neeme in Rachmaninov - none better. Isn't the First extraordinary? Only two themes for the entire symphony, and the last movement implosion is spectacular (I buy the idea that it's Rach's Anna Karenina Symphony because of the frenetic course of events in the finale, so akin to what happens to that poor heroine in the last quarter of the book). Did you enjoy Trifonov (I think it was) in the Fourth Piano Concerto? He's flavour of the month here, though to me he's just one among quite a few outstanding young Russian pianists.

I'm also tickled by the fact that Jarvi pere followed the two sons this week - Kristjan in a pretty awful Britten Sinfonia programme on Wednesday (not his fault), Paavo in superb Haydn and Nielsen on Thursday.

Susan Scheid said...

David: The 4th, which was new to me, was a hard one for me to get a real sense of what Trifinov can do (though he's certainly a terrific pianist, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise). The sound balance was off, too (from where I sat, at times the piano didn't come through the sound of the orchestra--I can't say for sure why, but I blame it on the acoustic). The First Symphony, however, also new to me, was a revelation. I've since listened to two other very good to excellent performances on recording, which made me appreciate further what a great performance this was. What I also loved about NJ here, as I'd witnessed the only other time I saw him conduct live, was his irresistible warmth. These world-weary-over-nothing New Yorkers are tough to engage, but, with a big smile, he gestured with one hand to his ear and with the other summoned all of us until he got many folks who weren't already there on their feet applauding the sections of the orchestra for their splendid work. We could use a lot more of that.

David said...

If you look at the latest comments beneath the previous post, Sue, you'll see that Geo. was at the same concert and had similar reactions to you. As for Neeme, I've never met anyone so unceasingly passionate and in love with music ('every day, always', as his charming announcement on his website puts it). But he also has a superb less-is-more approach - the paradox neatly expressed by the fact that at the end of the young conductots' course at Parnu, he was still demonstrating methods to them at the post-concert party, but showing how the hands shoud stay close to the body. In good-humoured music he sometimes conducts with his shoulders, something I've noticed Paavo doing recently - and Kristjan has a very relaxed manner, too.

Geo. said...

Didn't think to look in an alternate thread where Susan S. had commented on the same Rach-fest concert with the NY Phil. I too saw the hand-cupped-to-the-ear trick that NJ did at the end of Rach 1, which I'd like to think that "Murder Inc." (i.e. the orchestra) appreciated. Obviously I've never met the man, but just intuitively, it should almost go w/o saying to say that given how long Neeme Jarvi has been conducting, he should know how to work with orchestras, i.e. not to talk too much, and to say just enough when he has to talk, that kind of stuff.

I'm impressed that you worked your way through the complete Stravinsky recordings of his music. I'm not the biggest Igor-fan, particularly with his neoclassical period (too much of the same dry, chugging rhythmic style for me). But 20th century music would indeed have been very different w/o him, to be sure.