Saturday, 18 August 2018


Ernest Ansermet's recording with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande of Chabrier's Joyeuse Marche s a desert island track of mine: the precise brio instantly puts one in a jolly mood, the perfect curtainraiser to any concert of recorded music. His complete Delibes Coppélia was my top choice on BBC Radio 3's Building a Library. But I hadn't listened widely to the non-French repertoire in his 314 Decca recordings. Preparing for a Proms Plus homage on Thursday afternoon, I found myself constantly taken aback by the freshness, the combination of firm rhythmic definition and freedom, in  classical and romantic works. Not what one would expect from a Professor of Mathematics, but Ansermet was anything but rigid in his logic as an interpreter. 

In the end a brief digression on that subject got edited out for the interval broadcast, which you can hear about 58 minutes into the Prom as available for a while on the BBC iPlayer (and I recommend it all). Listeners had just heard Debussy and Ravel, and were about to hear Stravinsky's Petrushka, so that remained the brief. But how I would love to have illustrated the perfect gait and spareness of the first movement in Ansermet's recording of Haydn's Symphony No. 22, 'The Philosopher'. In a fascinating documentary made during a rehearsal you can see here,

Ansermet says every Haydn symphony should be respected for its unique character, that there is so much more beyond the basic classical forms. The focused power of his Beethoven Fifth, Seventh and Ninth is also surprising. The studio performance of the Seventh's finale is one of the glories of the recording world; I haven't had time yet to watch the whole of the below film, but it's another of those unanticipated pleasures that YouTube constantly gives us.

Many sound files only reached me from Universal - which holds the Decca legacy but can't, it seems, get hold of it so easily - just as I was about to set out for Imperial College on Thursday afternoon, but the listening will go on. One of the tracks I did get to excerpt especially impressed our players - the second of the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, silky but clear, with the necessary acidic jabs of pain. Here, also wonder of wonders, is a film of him conducting the OSR in La Valse.

The players weren't so fond of the Petrushka excerpt I chose - from the later, 1957 stereo version rather than the feted 1949 recording. A bit messy, yes, but so spirited.

I'd like to have included the white heat of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Finale - like the Beethoven, one of the best interpretations I've ever heard of a very familiar work - and more of Ansermet's perfect sympathy with dance music.

The relationship with Stravinsky (Ansermet pictured below with him and Prokofiev) is fascinating. It ran smoothly from the early days of the Ballets Russes - Ansermet took over from Monteux, called up for active service in 1915 - until 1938, when they fell out over a cut Ansermet insisted upon in the ballet Jeu de cartes. Much of the correspondence in Craft's Volume One selection is businesslike, but there's a touching commendation from Stravinky in 1919, after an OSR rehearsal of the new Firebird Suite, of how well Ansermet understands contemporary music, in that he doesn't approach it differently from 'music of the past'.

Schoenberg and his system Ansermet did not, would not, understand, and it's shocking to read in his huge study of musical aesthetics how he links the aridity with the 'Jewish question'. And that was in 1961! Still, I found that the Hannah Arendt Institute was promoting a conference on the holistic approach to music we find in Ansermet's magnum opus. A nicer way to end is to quote his fundamental tenet:

It is easy for a conductor to fill a musical phrase with feeling, because one can do more or less what one wants with a musical phrase. In any case, it is easier to do than to find the correct feeling, the one that puts the phrase in its context and takes account of its contribution to the piece as a whole...It is the interpreter's job to assimilate as much as possible the feeling which the composer turned into music, and to express it in such a way that the listener can hear it in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm and tempo. I have made my choice. First I imagine the musically sensitive listener. Thus I have faith in the listener, just as I have faith in the music, and the two things hang together. My idea is that the listener is able to understand and so all I need to do, in so far as I am able, is to let the music speak, without recourse to the sort of effects that one can always produce, but at the expense of the truth.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Dante in Ravenna

The shady Zona Dantesca/del Silenzio around the poet's local church, San Francesco, quickly became my favourite refuge from the sun, if not the humidity, during my charmed time in Ravenna.

Of course there's the wonder of the tomb itself, a symbol of the ongoing homages to the master combining an 18th century exterior by Camillo Moriglia

with Pietro Lombardo's 1483 original, including a fine relief.

The story of Dante's bones and their various shakeups since he died in 1321 after three presumably tranquil years under the patronage of Guido Novello di Polenta - the Polentas of Ravenna are buried and have memorials like this one in Dante's parish church, San Francesco -

is a fascinating one, and it's comprehensively told in the displays of the Dante Museum on the first floor of the Centro Dantesco.

While there is an active courting of the non-Dante-reading public with some of the displays,

the right wall of the 'Inferno' room tells the history. On Polenta's orders, Dante's remains were placed in a marble sarcophagus lodged in the Chapel of the Madonna between the church and the convent. In 1519, alarmed that the Florentines wanted to reclaim the bones of their exiled poet, the monks remove them to a sepulchre installed within the walls. Another monk rediscovered them in 1677 and had them placed in a wooden box with this inscription.

The box in turn was walled up when the fraternity was banished in the Napoleonic invasion in 1810 and not discovered until 1863, when a workman came across them. Great celebrations in Ravenna, and a public display of the bones, announced on this poster,

before they were lodged in the 18th century chapel. In wartime, the bones were moved yet again

and finally back again. Amen.

The museum has one original room decorated in 1921 by the Dante Society of Montevideo (!)

and fine views over the cloister of San Francesco's monastery (the monks moved back in a century and a half after their evacuation).

The next courtyard belongs to the Palazzo Rasponi where Byron lived - there was a Byron conference going on in the rooms adjoining the museum - and here we gathered on the first morning for what turned out to be a pretentious 'homage to Dante' by a 'poet' and a loud band (who were better). I didn't stay for long; the audience, however, was more interesting. One of these ladies was with a strapping 'figlio di momma', not pictured.

If that Dante event was a disappointment, there was a major compensation later that afternoon - on my way back along the main shopping drag from San Vitale, I came across the splendid reciter doing all the voices from memory, giving us the whole of the canto about Cacciaguida.

I was hoping to see him again on subsequent days, but I didn't.

The square of San Francesco is a lovely one, lined by trees and a pretty garden on one side and with a very good cafe-restaurant under the arches on the other.

Our Virgil in the Warburg Dante classes, Dr Alessandro Scafi, was responsible for choosing the quotations from the Divina Commedia carved into the stones. He wanted a sense of a passage from profane to sacred as one approaches the central west door of the church, in front of which we read 'Va, e andando ascolta' - 'Go, and listen as you do so'.

'Venite: qui si varca', 'Come: here is the crossing', are the words of the angel in Purgatorio 19:43.

And then there are the beautiful last four lines of its final Canto:

   Io ritornai da la santissima onda
rifatto si come piante novelle
rinovellate di novella fronda,
   puro e disposto a salire le stelle. 

(I returned from the most holy wave refreshed, as new plants are renewed with new leaves, pure and made ready to rise to the stars).

There is also a Dantesque inscription on the ex Casa del Mutilato on Piazza Kennedy, a Mussolini-era experiment from the years 1937-9 built in the demolished Jewish Quarter and now refurbished. Strictly speaking it's 'de l'alto scende virtù che m'aiuta'. 'from on high descends a power that helps me; line 68 of Purgatorio's Canto I.

The interior of San Francesco may seem a little gloomy compared to the mosaiced glories of other buildings in Ravenna, its sales table manned by two old ladies who had a little difficulty giving me the right change for the postcards I bought. But it has atmosphere, with its 22 columns of Greek marble and a splendid roof

and a treasure you might miss if you gave the building only a cursory glance: the crypt of Bishop Neon's fifth century original with a mosaic pavement now affected by Ravenna's rising water levels.

This only makes what you see through a grille below the high altar the more picturesque; and the goldfish are there for practical reasons, feeding on the algae which might otherwise destroy the mosaics. 

That more or less concludes my Dante instalments. I don't want to leave him behind. I have yet to make headway with the dual-language edition of Vita Nuova, and I'll certainly return to the Scafi-Took spectacular next 'term' for the earlier Inferno classes I missed by joining late.  As for the lead image, it's part of a splendid mural over one side of the boarded-up central market place, also featuring other Ravenna-connected celebrities. Insertion: a bit of classy graffiti elsewhere, presumably a take on Dante and Beatrice.

And there are several fine cafes and restaurants on the other side of the street, which the Ravenati frequent with their dogs - as regular a feature of the city as the bicycles.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Post-Pärnu listening

You'd think I might want a break from music after six glorious nights of it in Estonia. Not a whit; to return to the Pärnu Music Festival was to fall in love with a group of superlative musicians all over again, and to get to chat to some lovely folk I haven't spoken to there before. While I await the continuation of the party at the Prom tonight, I've been listening around the experience during a relatively lazy day at home.

A perfect morning palate-cleanser was the CD utterly delightful Japanese viola player Mari Adachi gave me, called Winterreise because at its heart are transcriptions of nine songs from Schubert's cycle. Some work better than others in their wordless context; better to hear the naturally introspective voice of the viola in such subtle hands, beautifully partnered by pianist Ryoko Fukasawa, than a singer who doesn't inscape properly. Best of all, for me, was to hear Mari soar in Schumann's Andante and Allegro, and there are some very original touches in the Schubert 'Arpeggione' Sonata. I won't forget her exquisite Pärnu performance, poised halfway between stage and organ, of Tõnu Kõrvits' Wanderer's Song.

This is also a good excuse to use a few more specimens from Kaupo Kikkas's comprehensive Pärnu photo-gallery - it won't be the last time - so here's the admirable Kõrvits last Wednesday, receiving the Lepo Sumera Prize awarded annually to a composer who has made an outstanding contribution to Estonian music.

Of all the orchestral performances, it's Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra as curtain-raiser (!!) to the second EFO concert which has stayed with me, so I put on one of Christoph von Dohnányi's better Cleveland recordings, razor-sharp. 

What a total masterpiece this is, in shape as well as colour and idea. Is it heretical to wish that Lutosławski had written more in the same vein - did finding his own voice entail a certain arcane quality I don't always 'get' or warm to? On which note, Paavo told me the other night that Boulez came backstage after a performance he (PJ) had conducted of the Concerto for Orchestra. He'd never heard it before, though he knew WL's later works very well.

Finally, a proper listen at last to the earlier, composition-wise, of the two Arvo Pärt discs Paavo brought out with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in the early 2000s, for which I wrote the liner notes. That battle towards the essence reached after a five-year silence was so hard-won. I now find most affecting the early children's cantata My Garden - almost a parody of Young Pioneering, certainly ambiguous; the end of the Second Symphony too. 

I'll be lucky to hear the Third tonight for the third time in five days (I was also lucky to be at the rehearsal where Pärt played an active part in the process, pictured above). It's a work I've known to some degree since Järvi senior's 1989 Prom performance, and I'll be listening, hopefully, with even greater awareness.

14/8 update: the Prom, which Pärt attended to the audience's huge delight and surprise (photos by Chris Christodoulou), was mostly a spectacular success. My Arts Desk colleague Boyd Tonkin is reviewing it, so we'll see what he thinks*. Paavo and the orchestra mastered the tricky acoustics of Albert's colosseum, from where I was sitting, at any rate, in a box with the Estonian Ambassador; textures had maximum clarity, phrases high definition, and the pianissimos were magical - PJ seemed to have taken heed of Barenboim's maxim that in this hall, you draw the listener in rather than push out. The Pärt symphony, now with a halo around the sound, moved me more than ever, and the Sibelius had more space than in Pärnu. 

The liability was the gifted but oddly narcissistic Khatia Buniatishvili. While Leonskaja found fresh depths in every line of the Grieg Concerto in Pärnu, making it sound like a new work, Buniatishvili was self-regardingly soft-loud, slow-fast. Murderously fast in the finale, which ceased to be a dance. I heard that she'd adopted a completely different tempo in the rehearsal. And it was disconcerting to see her descend from a high trill with the right hand and flick her hair out of her eyes with the left.

Our genius clarinettist Matt Hunt's phrasing in the Sumera encore, playing with the space but always joining the notes with supreme musicianship, was everything Buniatishvili's insane encore - Debussy's Clair de Lune - was not. Heck, the moon could have done an entire revolution around the earth in the time that took.

*Second update: he loved it, and writes so eloquently. 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Leonskaja embraces the Pärnu spirit

Shouldn't pre-empt too much the Pärnu Music Festival piece I owe The Arts Desk for the fourth successive year, this time ahead of the Estonian Festival Orchestra's Prom on Monday (for which, I'm proud to say, I played my campaigning part). UPDATE (13/8) - here it is. But I have to recapture the amazement of turning up at the first concert of the week, less than an hour off the coach from Riga, to be knocked sideways by the opening work on the programme. From the website, we knew to expect the excellent Eldbjørg Hemsing in Massenet's Meditation from Thaïs and Saint-Saëns's Introdcution and Rondo Capriccioso, as well as the Järvi Academy Sinfonietta in Musica Profana by Lepo Sumera, the Estonian composer whose symphonies knocked me for six in the 2016 and 2017 Estonian Music Days.

The rest, however, had been put together over the past week. Elisabeth Leonskaja, my goddess among pianists, here to play the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Estonian Festival Orchestra - which she did, with unique deep musicianship, last night - decided she wanted to get involved with the players in chamber music. Hence Beethoven's early Quintet for piano and winds, also like you never heard it before nor will again. Two of my other favourite players in the world, EFO regular clarinettist Matthew Hunt and horn master Alec Frank-Gemmill, were there alongside her, to my amazement - Matt (pictured with Leonskaja above - all photos by the superlative Kaupo Kikkas) knows her well and they sea-bathed together at 8am on several mornings -

plus two other superb wind players not known to me, José Luis Garcia Vegara (whose playing in La Valse last night was out of this world) and bassoonist Jesús Villa Ordóñez (much Hunt humour about 'playing with Jesus').

'Lisa' wanted broad, floated playing, taxing the winds to the very extremes of their breath control, but she was right to ask for it. As for how good it was, don't ask me but rather Triin Ruubel, co-leader of the EFO but unable to travel with them this year because of her advanced pregnancy. I met her on my way into the hall here yesterday to witness Arvo Pärt listening to a rehearsal of his Third Symphony - it's that kind of place - and she said she had to leave the concert after the Quintet because she had 'never heard a more perfect performance in my life'.

The following evening, Triin contributed to the unearthliness of a real underrated near-masterpiece, Eduard Oja's Piano Quintet, which Leonskaja had also undertaken to learn and more or less conducted from the piano: stunning, unforgettable. That's the two of them above with Triin's fellow violinist Adela-Maria Bratu. But that, and the rest of this amazing week, must wait until later coverage... Next, however, was this, from yesterday's rehearsal of Pärt's Third Symphony. Photo by Karima Morooka Elsamny.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

English wedding with international guests

Hardly surprising, the international component, since our beloved Juliette and Rory, as respectively aid project manager and one-time Guardian Middle East correspondent, lived together in places like Islamabad, Baghdad, Beirut and Jerusalem (guess which one we haven't visited). The wedding guests last Saturday came from various parts of the UK but also from Ireland, Belgium, France (I got an early flight from Bordeaux), Thailand, Sicily, Morocco, Cyprus, Jordan, Oman, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Kabul, Pakistan, Mali, Mogadishu, Washington, New York and Australia.

It all took place, after their first 17 glorious years together, in Julie's home village of Blewbury, Oxfordshire, where her wonderful mother still lives, and you don't get much more English than that. The above photo captures the spontaneous spirit of the day; mine below is simply there to show you more of the church between the showers.

Despite delicious kinks in the wedding service, the afternoon and evening travelled smoothly along expected lines, including a wedding banquet in a marquee on the home lawn and speeches from Rory, Julie (this, at least, is a recent departure - the lady does not remain silent) and Best Man. The dancing, too, was initiated by the bride and groom; we joined in the Arabic numbers. No-one there, I hope, would have been shocked to see two men dancing together the way we did, but I DID think that the table labels ('Lancelot and Guinevere', 'Tristan and Isolde', 'Layla and Majnun' - that's an Azeri couple) should at least have run to one like 'Hadrian and Antinous'. Well, we same-sex marrieds were in a small minority. Anyway, here's my conventional cake-cutting shot, and they are indeed a beautiful couple.

We wouldn't know our extraordinary friend Sophie, nor visited her mud hotel in Djenne, if we hadn't met Juliette first, nearly 25 years ago. Julie told us her 'goddaughter' (yes, really) needed cheering up in London and we took her to a lousy play about the Holocaust in the basement of our local pub. It was so bad we actually laughed a lot and bonded instantly.

We also wouldn't know Juliette if our passports hadn't been stolen while we spent a night in an airport hotel in Damascus before supposedly flying on to San'a (a city I guess we won't see now). After 10 hours in an airport holding-space, we were finally rescued by Peter Noon, British Consul, who took us to HQ where we saw a polaroid of then recently-released Terry Waite on the wall and got our temporary passports, after which they were duly stamped, and stamped again when we revised our travel plans and took a service taxi to Amman in Jordan and on to Petra before travelling back to Damascus (more visa shenanigans).

Before that, our extended stay in Syria, which I can't regret for any reason - we had intended to spend four days there on the way back - meant that we spent New Year's Eve and Day in Palmyra

and went to the crusader castle of Krac des Chevaliers on quite a different day than the one envisaged in our original plans. And there, in the pouring rain, I saw three figures emerge on another tower and serendipitously snapped them before a word had been exchanged.

These were Juliette (centre), Nick her travelling companion (right) - Rory was some years in the future for her then - and their guide (left). She shouted 'Are you English?' and 'Why are you carrying that music case?' (I was also wearing tweed, as we did on our travels in those days). Meeting them at the main gate, J thought she was 'a bit braying', but we bumped into each other again in Damascus, had supper together and the rest is history (even weirder is the fact that our dear friend Cally had told Nick, who was her landlord at the time, that he would probably meet us at Crac). Along with our Viennese friends Tommi and Martha, whom we met during a six-hour delay to our flight from Cairo to Asmara and with whom we subsequently travelled a bit around Eritrea, Juliette and hence Rory are the real abiding friends we've made from our travels. Very loving and loyal ones, too. Here's to their next decades together.