Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Under and over the Thames

It started as a very special 'exclusive': an invitation to see the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's sound and video work in the enormous Bascule Chamber of Tower Bridge, 100 steps down beneath the Thames (main installation photos by Paul Cochrane, courtesy of GSMD). The bonus was just as good: a chance to join the tourists and look down from the walkways originally constructed as a Victorian wonder for pedestrians until too many people started throwing themselves off (it's all now very much enclosed, but you still get the views). Rounded off, moreover, by the sexiest machinery I've ever seen: the Industrial Age as a thing of beauty.

Of which Tower Bridge as a whole, constructed between 1886 and 1894 at a cost of £1,500,000, is the best representative I can imagine - and now that I know what it can reveal, I'd make sure any visitor put the paying part of it on a top five list of London sights (the Tower of London, with which I've been mildly obsessed since childhood, has to be number one).The one part the public doesn't usually get to see, other than on one day of the year (I assume during Architecture Open Weekend) or on specially-ordered private tours (which I'd recommend), is the Bascule Chamber, the operational area that houses the massive counterweights lowered when the two bascules are raised to allow big shipping through (which still happens regularly). The two towers clad in stone of Gothic design have a steel frame to support the heavy bascules, each weighing about a thousand tons.

The counterweights, if I remember what we were told correctly, amount to a couple of hundred tons, so it was quite a frisson to think of them, as well as the river water, hovering above our heads once we'd made the descent 'Down the Rabbit Hole', as the first part of the Guildhall School's live and installed work was called. Photos were allowed on the way up, so here are a couple I took, one of the dramatically lit staircases

and another of the big boiler? engine? towards the bottom. Very cold and dank down there. You could feel the temperature dropping as you descended.

The work was carried out by students from the GS's BA in Video Design for Live Performance and BA in Performance and Creative Enterprise degree courses. And a remarkable job they made of the 'happening'. We lucky few sat and donned headphones with a lively collage of music and quotations from films - most of them identifiable - while the images played with the sense of space. Back to Paul Cochrane for the next three pics.

Inevitably they were of variable quality, coming from so many different sources, but made up an imaginative journey which evoked cinematic travels to the centre of the earth with tumbling rocks, rainbows, spinning London landmarks and a projection of the underground map,

underwater sequences and giant faces.

Did the results achieve their stated objective as 'an imaginative and visual transformation of the space'? Absolutely, though it was also good to be allowed to linger and see the brickwork at closer quarters after the adventure.

As I exited, I saw tourists coming out of the lift that runs up one of the towers. and asked if I could go upwards, having been down. The staff couldn't have been more charming: a jovial Welshman escorted me up, and a nice girl I met at the top in the steel-encased upper part of the tower

told me how much she loved working there and watching people's reactions. My own was, why on earth have I never done this before? First I strolled along the east walkway, from which David Piper, in my first and still favourite big guide to London writes how 'the quintessential Thames opens up, the widening waters claim the sky and reject any further construction by bridges'.

The warehouse ghosts he writes of, though, have now been replaced by mostly undistinguished luxury housing all the way to Greenwich - and then, of course, there's Canary Wharf, undreamed of when the book was published in 1964.

Kids loved lying and taking selfies on the glass which gives way to views of the bridge and Thames below (it was half-term week and the hot, stuffy enclosure was rank with schoolroom smells).

And the information is good throughout, though there are rather too many photobooths and naff refreshments machines; whatever it takes to get extra money out of the visitors, I guess.

On the west walkway there's so much to see, familiar and yet not from this height or angle: the City Hall 'Armadillo' and the Shard,

the skyline along to St Paul's and beyond

with zoom shots of Wren's dome

and the Monument, which is higher but still surpassed by this for interest.

And of course, at the end of the walkway, there's the splendid Tower below

with a view of Traitor's Gate that's very unfamiliar

and Billingsgate Fish Market a bit further along.

I descended by the steps until I had to take a lift.

Having had my curiosity piqued by the electric machinery for the bascules which replaced the original in 1976,

I wanted to see the original hydraulic works by Armstrong-Mitchell Ltd, and was very kindly 'connected' to the last stop by another incredibly friendly attendant. I asked him if the employees had been offered a special showing of the Bascular spectacular. They hadn't; I wrote to the management to ask if that could be arranged, but never got a reply. Anyway, the glistening, repainted machinery is all worth seeing just from the aesthetic point of view. As I have no knowledge of what was pumping and turning for what (or would have been, were it still in use), I'll leave it at a parade of images.

It was one of those February days which give promise of spring, and of course the sunset was spectacular as I cycled homewards over Westminster Bridge*

with a Chinese wedding on the other side of the road.

The tourist closest to the bride has the staggered look of the bedraggled lady at the New York socialites arriving at the Met in one of Weegee's most famous images.

I decided to leave the cycle path in Hyde Park and walk with my bike along the Serpentine

where swan activity was strong, but peaceable

and a solitary Crested Grebe's head caught the last of the sun.

At times like this I enjoy both being a tourist and taking a proprietary pride in my inexhaustible city.

*23/03 Coincidental that I posted this a day before the attack. The last words above hold true more than ever. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Two hours with Snegurochka

It wasn't long enough. In the end the Opera in Depth term just concluded was eaten up, by general consent, with Der Rosenkavalier, including visits by Richard Jones and Felicity Lott (Robert Carsen would have come along, too, if he hadn't had to leave for America prematurely). I would have loved to spend longer with Rimsky-Korsakov's enchanting Snow Maiden, but I hope we managed to make a very lovely whistlestop tour of its four acts (five including prologue) in half the time it takes to perform the entire opera (usually heavily cut, as it was by Opera North in a production which still managed the magic well despite its Russian sweatshop setting. I wonder what Tcherniakov will make of it in Paris. Shortly to find out).

I find I can reproduce some of the greatest hits here, so let's start with the atmospheric Prelude. It's a good tone-poem evocation, like the design by the great Roerich below (his are also the other designs featured), of the stage directions by Alexander Ostrovsky, whose 'spring fairy tale' was the basis for Korsakov's first operatic masterpiece, and for which Tchaikovsky wrote equally delightful incidental music in 1873.

Beginning of spring. Midnight. Krasnaya Hill is covered in snow. To the right, bushes and a leafless birch grove; to the left, a dense forest of large pine and spruce trees, their branches bent low and covered with snow; in the distance at the foot of the hill a river is flowing; round its ice-holes and melted patches of water a fir-grove has been planted. On the far bank of the river the Berendeyev town....: palaces, houses, peasant cottages, all made of wood decorated with elaborate painted carvings; lights in the windows. A full moon covers everything in its silver light. In the distance, the sound of cocks crowing.The Wood Demon is sitting on a dried out tree-stump. The whole sky is filled with returning migratory birds. Spring Beauty, borne by cranes, swans and geese, descends to earth, surrounded by her retinue of birds.

This performance, from the great Yevgeny Svetlanov and his 'orchestra with a voice' (Gergiev) the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, is of the whole orchestral suite, including the chorus of birds without the delightful vocal parts, the quaint March of Tsar Berendey's Court (a model for Prokofiev's March in The Love for Three Oranges) and the best-known number, the Dance of the Tumblers from Act 3's summer revels.

We have to catch something of Snegurochka's very own personal magic. She's summoned by ill-matched parents Frost and Spring, and in her first aria tells them how she's attracted to the songs of shepherd-boy Lel and his fellow villagers. The first theme associated with her, heard in the first vocalised text, appears originally on the flute and I have no doubt that Prokofiev deliberately quoted it in the exposition round-off of his "Classical" Symphony's finale. After all, the symphony was composed in enchanting spring circumstances outside revolution-torn Petrograd. There's been a timely Decca release of Russian and other operatic arias and songs by the gorgeous Aida Garifullina, whose amazing presence the Opera in Depth class saw in DVDs of Graham Vick's Mariinsky War and Peace (special loan). The version with orchestra isn't on YouTube, but we're lucky to have this film of Garifullina performing the aria with piano at one of the Rosenblatt recitals. She's certainly musicality incarnate.

I have one complete recording with which I'm very happy, conducted by Fedoseyev with Irina Arkhipova doubling the roles of Spring Beauty and Lel. Such a distinctive sound, even if Lel's three songs could be subtler. The whole recording is on YouTube, and I link to it near the bottom here, but for now let's just pick out Lel's Third Song from the midsummer ritual of Act 3.

Other highlights include character-tenor Tsar Berendey's first aria with cello obbligato - I have an old 50s recording with Ivan Kozlovsky, an acquired taste and sadly not on YouTube. That leaves us nothing here of Act 2 other than Roerich's splendid design for Berendey's palace.

There are also fascinating comparisons to be made between Korsakov's and Tchaikovsky's scores. Though the former's dance is better known, Tchaikovsky's skomorokhi are more joyous still and their music touches on the liveliest numbers in Swan Lake, composed around the same time (early 1870s).  There's a terrific performance from Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, but the winner is an outlandish arrangement for the Osipov Balalaika Orchestra in the legendary 'first recording made with western equipment on Soviet soil'.

One passage can't be extracted here which Prokofiev describes very movingly in the autobiography of his youth commemorating Rimsky-Korsakov's death in 1908. Amongst other observations, he records his St Petersburg Conservatory professor, Nikolay Tcherepnin, saying 'When a French orchestra was rehearsing Snow Maiden in Paris (or perhaps it was Monte Carlo), the musicians were so delighted with the festive scene in the sacred wood, when Lel takes Kupava to Berendey and kisses her to the strain of a marvellous melody, that when it came time to play the melody again they suddenly put down their instruments and sang it. That was a really exciting moment'.

Our last stretch in the class was the climactic duet between Snegurochka and Mizgir, the human to whom she's finally decided to give herself - two unforgettable tunes here - her melting in the rays of the sun and the glorious hymn to Yarilo led by Lel - a tune in 11/8 time. Another Prokofiev anecdote is essential here, since Korsakov wrote two 11/8 ensembles. He's remembering a discussion of his youth with his older friend, the vet (and fellow chess player) Vasily Morolev.

In the stallion's stall he asked me. 'You mean you really don't know Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko? It's a fine piece of work....In the first act there is a chorus in 11/8 time so exciting that you simply can't sit still in your seat.'

I gave a start. 'In 11/8? I know that in Snow Maiden Rimsky-Korsakov has a chorus in 11/8. and I even heard that one conductor, who simply couldn't manage to conduct the chorus, kept muttering all during the singing of it; "Rimsky-Korsakov has gone completely mad" ["Rimsky-Korsakov sovsem s uma soshel']. But when I tried it, it turned out that the phrase doesn't fit the chorus from Snow Maiden, because it comes out "completely mad"[ie with the stresses displaced].

'Wait a minute!' Morolev exclaimed excitedly. 'Maybe that phrase fits Sadko!' And he began to sing in turn 'Hail, Sadko, handsome lad' ['Goy ti Sad-Sadko, prigorii molodets'] and 'Rimsky-Korsakov has gone completely mad'

'It fits! It fits!' we shouted at the same time. And we began to sing the theme of the chorus, first with one text, then with the other [Prokofiev writes out a musical example to prove it].

No YouTube snippet of the final ensemble exists, so you can have the benefit of the entire recording. I own a good CD edition on a rare label which sounds better than this, but it will do. Zoom forward to 3'05'28 if you want the last two minutes. Listen out for the shifting chords above a fixed bass which surely gave Stravinsky the cue for the very end of The Firebird.

The only DVD we had access to in the class, not on YouTube, was the very charming and ethnographically detailed Soviet film of Ostrovsky's original play I bought from the Russian Film Council, with splendid folk music using the right kinds of voices (obviously the numbers are not Korsakov's).

The other option, if you don't mind a condensed version and you want to entertain children - or indeed, just yourself - with something rather lovely in its old-fashioned way, is a sweet Russian cartoon (with subtitles) which includes many of the musical highlights.

I ought to add by way of footnote that our previous two Opera in Depth classes had been devoted to Act 3 of Der Rosenkavalier. Apart from the usual extracts ranging far and wide, the DVD I chose to show was of Richard Jones' production from Glyndebourne. No-one has ever managed, in my experience, to make the discomfiture of Ochs pass in a flash, not to mention be funny and dark at the same time (pictured below, Lars Woldt and Tara Erraught, singers with fabulous comic instincts both, by Bill Cooper for Glyndebourne).

It soon became even more apparent that this is Jones at his meticulous best, choreographing every move with rigour, throwing out much of Hofmannsthal's detailed scenario and finding his own equivalents to match the music at every point. Had been intending to switch over to a final scene with truly great voices (Jones, Fassbaender and Popp for Carlos Kleiber or Te Kanawa, Troyanos and Blegen for Levine), but neither seemed so perceptive on the human level, so we stayed with Jones to the charming end (yes, he actually makes something warm and amusing of Mohammed's entry to retrieve - not Sophie's handkerchief but the wrap of the mistress with whom he's besotted).

Next term we move on to two lacerating studies of jealousy, close in time but musically poles apart - Verdi's Otello (Francesco Tamagno pictured above) and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Ten Mondays 2.30pm to 4.30pm starting 24 April at the Frontline Club. Leave me a message here if you're interested in joining with your email: I won't publish it but I promise to reply.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Early Spring in Chichester

Blooming rushes on apace now, but three weeks ago in mid-February, this scene by Chichester city walls was a novelty and the day was a one-off glory, the first on which we had the chance to sit outside for lunch with friends Eben and Themy and their young organist friend Tim Ravalde in the Cathedral Close.

A weekend excursion to Edinburgh had been called off when Neeme Järvi cancelled what would have been a Tchaikovsky spectacular (Hamlet Overture and Manfred Symphony). 80 this year, he's been having trouble with his knees and as yet won't sit to conduct (I'm only glad it's nothing worse). So a Saturday excursion was in order. Having met Pallant House Gallery CEO Simon Martin and learnt that this was the last weekend to catch the exhibition he'd curated, The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, it seemed like a good opportunity to visit the much-praised gallery and see friends at the same time. Illustrated below, Meredith Frampton's Still Life (1932).

The Pallant is a kind of self-contained village in Chichester's South-East Quadrant, with several grand 18th century houses. Pallant House of 1712 is easily the most imposing.

It had the nickname of 'Dodo House' from the stone birds atop the gatepiers (bad shots, Nairn and Pevsner tell us in the Sussex volume of The Buildings of England, at ostriches which feature on the family crest of the architect, Henry Peckham).

The Mythic Method, housed in five rooms of the new wing, was a fine show, though the quality of the artists proved variable. Bloomsburyite work was good, William Roberts' from the late 1920s somewhat repulsive, but curious in its depiction of scenes like this Judgment of Paris (© Estate of John David Roberts).

There was a room tenuously linked to Venus recumbent, but the best was probably in the last two rooms: curious photographs of society women as Greek and Roman goddesses etc by Madame Yevonde with this Edward Burra, Santa Maria in Aracoeli (© Estate of the Artist c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London) having a wall to itself

and some excellent Henry Moores just beyond, The Three Fates of 1948 possibly best of all, with a good Ceri Richards, The Rape of the Sabines (Saudade).

The main collection didn't take long, though it's well displayed and Graham Sutherland's portrait of that dedicated collector and Chichester Dean Walter Hussey reminded us why the gallery came into being with his bequest as its centrepiece.

What took me by surprise was stumbling across a travelling show mounted by the Sidney Nolan Trust to mark the centenary in the great Australian artist's birth, Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain. This turned out to be its first day at Pallant House and the serendipitous highlight, connecting strangely with Anselm Kiefer's Walhalla at the White Cube Bermondsey. Nolan takes semi-mythic Australian figures and stories and makes something haunting out of them. There were no complete series, but enough Ned Kellys to give that thread a kick - a rusty suit

as well as quite a few versions of Nolan's - sorry, I have to use the word - iconic painted Kelly, which made art critics start at his first show in 1955,

and a haunting framework for Kelly's death mask, Death of a Poet, seen through the glass case featuring the costume design for the Chosen One in Kenneth MacMillan's Royal Ballet Rite of Spring

Burke and Hare's journey through the middle of Australia is imagined with one or t'other of the explorers stripped naked

and the curious tale of the escaped convict who liberated the shipwrecked Mrs Fraser from her ordeal on what is now called Fraser Island off the Queensland Coast - she later shopped her lover in London and made money at a fair recounting her story - represented by three canvases, the first two of which immediately showed me something special was afoot when I walked into the central reception room of the house with the staircase beyond. Not sure about the frieze or the pine cones on seats, though.

The one on the right is Convict in a Billabong (University of York, © Sidney Nolan Trust), the Nolan which had the strongest impact on me.

There's also a surprise homage to Britten, who became a friend, in a painting of John the drowned apprentice in Peter Grimes.

Nolan often used spray paint, too, strikingly so in a self-portrait, Myself of 1955, which is slightly hidden, almost under the stairs.

St John's Church, an elongated octagonal building of 1812-13, is only a few streets away.

Pevsner/Nairn is harsh: 'Neither beautiful nor lovable, but almost unique in its unaltered extreme Low Church plan'. It's been restored by the Churches Conservation Trust, and looks good inside, except for the pictureboard they've used to represent the organ (not sure whether that's been taken away for restoration or isn't due to reappear at all).

The finest feature is the 'huge free-standing three-decker pulpit' of American black birch.

The lower desk was for the clerk; the Minister would conduct the service from the middle desk and ascend to the upper pulpit for his sermon. Hogarth's The Sleeping Congregation shows us two tiers in operation.

As the late afternoon light was still good, I decided to do a full circuit of the city walls. There's a walk, but little wall, on the edge of the South-East Quadrant, covered in crocuses.

Charming little gatehouse at the end with more birds on pillars - you could be in a village at this point.

Then you cross the main north-south street and find excellent views of the Cathedral circumnavigating the South-West Quadrant.

On the west side, parallel with a noisy by-pass, the cathedral's detached bell tower also comes into view.

Leaving the road behind, and passing the site of the house where Eric Gill lived and worked for many years, you reach the most striking part of the walk, in that you're now following the ramparts. Snowdrops were here in modest clumps on the banks

and the first daffodils were making their appearance.

Crossing North Street, the wall girding the North-East quadrant overlooks the backs of 19th century terraced houses.

Then you're in Priory Park, with Greyfriars a 'very noble fragment' (Pevsner/Nairn) of the refounded Friary, completed in 1282.

Called the Old Guildhall and used for wedding receptions and other functions, it was locked, but the west front looked rather splendid, catching shadows of the trees in the sun like the walls themselves.

There's a promising looking cafe in the park with an aviary in front full of demented budgies, but it was closed by 5 so I walked back into town for tea and then on for evensong. The choir was small (12 trebles, two voices per each lower part) but absolutely superb - finer, it has to be said, than Gloucester Cathedral's choir which I've just heard when down there for a talk on Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil. The main difference was in the delivery of the Psalm - meaningful, with one especially interesting chant, in Chichester, lacklustre and dutiful in Gloucester.  'Wood in F' was a Mag&Nunc we always enjoyed singing in All Saints Banstead, but I'd never observed its skillful touches, what, as Tim said afterwards, gives a sudden twist to Victorian business as usual. The Glorias are, well, glorious, and brought a tear to my eye both times. And it's always a pleasure to sit within sight of the Piper reredos (better make clear this was an after-'show' shot; I wouldn't take photos during a service).

I had a chance to examine some of the misericords in the vicinity of where I was sitting. 'Vivid and varied enough,' declares Pevsner/Nairn, but not of the highest standard. Not really the point with misericords, is it? One's looking for eccentricity and grotesquerie and these deliver.

Afterwards there was just time to take a quick walk around the building I'd spent longer looking at when we were last here. Pevsner and Nairn are right - 'without any doubt it is one of the most lovable English cathedrals...It is a well-worn, well-loved, comfortable fireside chair of a cathedral - St Francis, not St Bernard: St Augustine of Hippo, not St Augustine of Canterbury'.

One final bonus - there was even a nice little independent cafe in the station, still open at 7pm, while I waited for the train back to London. The perfect city day out.