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Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Better Late Than Never – An Update!

I have been reliably informed of a new trend for making ‘quality’ films aimed at older audiences.

Indeed, I recently viewed an unusual and absorbing example of this in the shape of  A Late Quartet directed by Israeli-US director, Yaron Zilberman.

Surely many of the 50-plus generation will watch the struggle of the fictional Fugue Quartet to remain whole as they deal first with the senior member’s illness and then the group’s internal strife, and begin to think of real-life models like the dearly missed U.K.-based Amadeus Quartet.

How in tarnation, I now wonder, did the Amadeus boys hold fast for 40 years and disband only with the death of  violist Peter Schidlof? If anyone can provide more information,  I’d love to hear from them.

The Amadeus Quartet plays Beethoven’s String Quartet No.16 Op. 135

But I can remind devotes that the real-life musicians began working together in 1947 as the Brainin Quartet, led by violinist, Norman Brainin. He, Schidlof and fellow violinist, Siegmund Nissel met as Austrian Jewish refugees in a British internment camp during World War II. The three were released with help from composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Jewish pianist, Dame Myra Hess, teaming up with cellist Martin Lovett in 1946.

Not only did the four tour extensively during their career as the swiftly renamed Amadeus Quartet, they also made about 200 recordings, including the complete quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. So I ponder further how they would react to hearing Beethoven’s Quartet in C sharp minor (Op. 131), employed as a metaphor for  what happens to the film’s fictional musicians off-stage.

The Beethoven piece is 40 minutes long and  traditionally its seven movements are played without a pause. This must require great physical stamina and the deepest possible concentration. Moreover, any artist – or group of artists - will wish to put their own gloss on  a work created by someone else. So there is an extra level of exertion to be added between score, rehearsal and performance. A solo artist enjoys some leeway for self expression but there is little room for personal ego when working as part of  a group as each individual must be prepared to subsume himself to the integrity of the artistic whole.

This is where the tension in Zilberman’s story begins. Originally a mathematician, he points out that Beethoven’s work has seven movements, like the days of the week. “So it’s a cycle, a life cycle,” he says.

As Zilberman is Jewish,  he must be keenly aware of the figure seven’s significance in Jewish tradition and I suggest this  plays an unspoken role in the story, just as the  second meaning of the word ‘fugue’ is symbolically important. It is a medical condition in which a person’s behaviour is not directed by their complete normal personality and it could well serve as a further analogy for what members of the quartet experience.

Meanwhile, I understand that Haifa-born Zilberman has lived in the USA for 25 years and his close friends have included the late cellist, Steven Katz. So it’s no coincidence that The Fugue’s senior member played by Christopher Walken is a cellist diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

This movie is Zilberman’s second major film. His first was the award-winning documentary, Watermarks, featuring the reunion of  the 1930s Hakoah Vienna Jewish Women’s swim team which  had dominated national competitions in Austria before the Nazis rose to power.

Despite his relative inexperience, Zilberman’s made an excellent, off-beat drama, spoilt only by an improbable one-night stand and a rather silly stunt, which both detract from the screenplay’s elegant, high-minded tone.

I was captivated especially by vignettes like those showing the musicians’ off-stage duties: the purchase of a violin at auction and a visit to a farm to find the perfect horsehair for a bow were scenes suffused with serene charm.

As an aside, Zilberman appears to be as irritated as I am by Israeli cinemas’ insistence on having an intermission during screenings. He  says: “I like to see a movie from beginning to end, uninterrupted.” A little like listening to Beethoven’s  Opus 131? Ha! We all know how he feels!



* I saw a A Late Quartet in Israel. It is due to be released in the U.K. on 05 April 2013 and as reviews are beginning to appear in the British Press I consider it opportune to republish this piece with a small update.

Amadeus.Trio.Concert.1983* By the time I heard the Amadeus team play in concert during November 1983, they were often appearing as a trio and it was Brainin, Schidlof and Lovett who delighted an audience at the Manchester Reform Synagogue with a programme which included Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart.

* So now I conclude with renewed thanks – thirty years on! - to  Richard Spiro, then a member of the Liverpool Bnai Brith Bertram Benas Unity Lodge, for sending me an autographed copy of the evening’s programme. Amadeus.Trio.Signatures.1983


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