Romancing the stones

The desecration of monuments is a hot topic today: ISIS and other actors in the Middle East are being regularly, widely and rightly castigated for their destruction of world heritage sites, something for which US troops were already being criticised in the earliest stages of the Iraq War. It’s not a new trend: the price of war is as old as war itself.  In the turbulent 1990s, it was Croatia and the Balkan states who were seeing their architectural and cultural treasures destroyed, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes through military expediency, and sometimes just as a result of sheer bad luck. Buildings have such strange vulnerability: stone edifices may seem made to last forever, yet ironically their very permanence makes them an instant victim of the bomb, the mortar, or the grenade. By contrast, the seeming evanescence of a piece of music – which can survive in a book, be hidden in a pocket, get smuggled through state borders in the lining of a coat, or simply live invisibly in the memory – has its own invincible immortality. In cultural terms, music is the ultimate survival tool.

Croatian angels carved by Master radovan in 1230 on the Cathedral of St Lawrence in Trogir, by Croatian artist Ljerka Njerš.

Croatian angels carved by Master Radovan in 1230 on the Cathedral of St Lawrence in Trogir, by Croatian artist Ljerka Njerš.

It therefore felt fitting, as well as beautiful, to draw together a programme of music in memory of Sir Henry Beresford-Peirse, a Yorkshireman who, with his widow Lady Jadranka Beresford-Peirse, founded the International Trust for Croatian Monuments in 1991. Together, the Beresford-Peirses worked tirelessly for years to preserve, protect and restore Croatia’s national heritage, and Lady Beresford-Peirse’s efforts remain unstinting today. The Trust has helped in many ways for the last 24 years, restoring churches, cathedrals, museums and monuments across Croatia, but also highlighting the case of stolen paintings, seeking to repair damaged libraries, and supporting the education of young Croatian conservators and restorers, empowering Croatia’s new generation to heal their country. In gratitude, Croatian singers Dubravka Šeparović Musović (of Croatian National Opera and Theatre, Zagreb) and Ivana Lazar (of Zagreb National Opera and Theatre) gave freely of their time and talents to celebrate Sir Henry’s work and legacy in a packed concert at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square.

Dubravka Šeparović Musović’s full, supple and rich mezzo made the most of Holy Trinity’s superb acoustics from the very first, sinuously following the curving melody of Berlioz’ “Premiers transports que nul n’oublie” from Roméo et Juliette, a sensuous evocation of passionate love. Moving from love to grief, Prokofiev’s haunting “I go across the White Field”, a lament from his cantata Aleksandr Nevsky, was plangent and mournful in Šeparović Musović’s hands. Occasional swoops, leans and smudges in her voice only added to the Russian atmosphere of this intense piece, with its fascinating political provenance (originally commissioned for a Stalinist propaganda film). In Wagner’s magical Wesendonck Lieder, Šeparović Musović allowed her voice real freedom, which brought huge rewards to her reading overall. Even if some moments were a little wild at times, particularly in Der Engel, Stehe still! and Im Treibhaus, all suffering slightly from lack of control, the lyrical expressiveness of Schmerzen and Träume amply repaid her risks, filling the Church (and, one felt, surely the whole of Sloane Square) with glorious Wagnerian emotion, languorously rich and imaginatively lush. Later, Šeparović Musović’s triumphant and playful Habanera encore, complete with a white rose plucked spontaneously from one of the gorgeous flower arrangements, closed the concert with a sense of spirited joy.

Ivana Lazar took longer to adjust her delicate, shimmering soprano to the sumptuous demands of Holy Trinity, and Frühling, the first of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, was rather lost as a result. But soon adapting her voice, Lazar sang September with tenderness and growing confidence, while Beim Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot were each a resounding success, deeply felt and glowingly clear. Lazar’s fine phrasing, softness and control continued to impress in two further Strauss lieder after the interval, Schlagende Herzen and Ich wollt’ein Sträusslein binden, each song elegantly executed. Lazar moved on to sing Dora Pejacsevich’s Vier Lieder, four subtle and appealing lieder by the noted 19th-century female Croatian composer, each reminiscent of Strauss in their gleaming melodies and nicely contrasting harmonies.

Piers Lane’s piano accompaniment sounded superb at all times, interacting with the singers sensitively, and bringing a satisfyingly unique range of colours and textures to each song. Altogether, this was a remarkable and special concert, not least because of the strength of feeling in the room, a tribute to Lady Beresford-Peirse’s passion and energy in persuading so many people to come, to remember a much-loved man and to support a much-treasured cause. As we sat in the exquisitely-wrought interior of the Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement, with care and craftsmanship evident at every turn, the work of this Trust felt extremely precious: it’s a long time since the dissolution of our own monasteries, but it was sobering to think how all the fabulous beauty around us could easily be destroyed in a few terrible moments – except, of course, the music.

This review was also published in the October 2015 issue of the newsletter of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: click here to see it on their website

International Trust for Croatian Monuments
in memory of Sir Henry Grant de la Poer Beresford-Peirse
Dubravka Šeparović Musović, mezzo-soprano
Ivana Lazar, soprano
Piers Lane, piano

Holy Trinity, Sloane Square

Tuesday 9th June 2015

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