Here is a killing leap of faith for you. To hear Beethoven in Volgograd’s Central Concert Hall, yes; but to hear him in Stalingrad? No. The resonances are all wrong, which is why violinist Ian Peaston puts the composer’s piano sonata No.23 under considerable (electronic) strain. Its tempestuous character is more evidenced through juddering chords and distorted modulations than anything more romantic.
The ‘Apassionata’ is not so much shredded as flattened. And as for Stalingrad, in the winter of 1942, it was being blown apart. Peaston’s assiduous playing accompanies actor Jesper Arin, as he recalls that battle by reading verbatim the recovered letters of twelve German soldiers. Were it 1914-18 these would be ‘letters from the front’ – and more familiar – but this is Christmas 1942, the German 6th army is surrounded, and its soldiers are under orders not to try to break out. Historically, these are the untold letters from a circle of hell.
But there’s less anger, less anguish than you might expect here. Instead there is a stranger, plaintive quality, which aims to turn the unexceptional – thoughts of home, family, lover, and so forth – into rarer material. The musical score, therefore, is probably annotated with the direction ‘In a cold sweat’, and Arin’s voice expresses the same. He has limited room, a bare table, just a field-grey great coat and no company. I was on the last row of the small space, and as I heard his dispassionate voice reaching far beyond me, going back to those soldiers and their last considered thoughts, I wanted to be there with them – but alas, I didn’t make it.
I could only catch glimpses of the ‘letters’ themselves, and had trouble distinguishing one from the other at times. The dismal detail was telling, all the same. One soldier, his legs gone, is waiting to be airlifted out; one, whose father is a general officer, is the most accusatory. Another probably spoke for them all when he wrote ‘To speak about God in Stalingrad is to deny him’.
The music does swell towards the close and Beethoven comes briefly into his own, which did sound marvellous. For the rest of the time the effect is disconcerting, and very deliberately so. The fraught situation seems held in the balance and we are spared the truth of what happened next. I would have welcomed more oomph, more solidity; not necessarily shell burst, or rifle crack, and certainly no statistics – horrifying as they are – but some words in German might have nailed it. Even the tired and tested fade from German into English in the Prologue would have worked for me. With that reminder of context, the Christmas message of peace and goodwill to all men could have been all the more powerful – and sad.
Perhaps, above all, I would have liked some immediate record of what was being communicated. Sight of those letters sticking out of his greatcoat pocket, maybe, would have reinforced the fact that all this did indeed come to pass; these letters were written, were requisitioned, and never got home.