Saturday, 25 June 2022

And the Best Tatyana Letter Scene winners are...


...as far as Tchaikovsky's opera is concerned, two: still,  on DVD and in the opera house, Yelena Prokina for Graham Vick at Glyndebourne back in 1994. Here's the reaction of some of the students on my Opera in Depth course after I'd played it to them on Monday. I've cut down the bigger picture to focus on the best responses. One lovely person with a lifetime of astonishing musical experiences recalled emotionally what having seen it at Glyndebourne meant, and how happy she was to see it again now that she and her husband can't get there any more.

Two hours still weren't quite long enough on what turns out to be so many people's favourite operatic scene. Sound recording only wise, there was a strong positive reaction to my personal favourite here, Gabriela Beňačková in a Supraphon disc of Czech and Russian opera arias - I picked it up for a dollar when we spent a New Year in Prague a year after the Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Neumann conducts the Czech Philharmonic.

Parallel with the opera, we're also listening to some of the Pushkin text, in both the English translation of Charles Johnston and the Russian original, in two recordings featuring the very beautiful incidental music provided by Prokofiev for a 'stage realisation' of the verse novel intended for the centenary year of Pushkin's death, 1937, but destined never to see the light of day (Prokofiev repurposed much of the music in War and Peace as well as several other later scores). 

We treasure the reading of Wests Timothy and Same, and Niamh Cusack as Tatyana, in Edward Downes' realisation on Chandos, but I thought it might be most interesting for you to hear Tatyana's letter to Onegin as read by Chulpan Chamatova, with the late Mikhail Jurowski conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in the music that occasionally punctuates the text. You can have your English translation to hand if you need it. I originally found the recording broken into tracks, which would have been most convenient but doesn't work in this format. Here's the whole thing. The Letter begins at 15m32s.

Meanwhile on Thursdays, the Sibelius course is taking us all deeper and broader than I could ever have imagined. The most recent class, 8, featured not only the String Quartet 'Voces Intimae', which I'm getting to know and admire better, but three orchestral works I love most of the so-called tone poems, all composed within a relatively short space of time. I am now obsessed with hearing them all in a single Sibelius half of a concert programme. Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra is the creation myth, and could be followed by The Bard, a voiceless singer strumming his lyre until the sound of primitive lurs summons him, a kind of Ragnarok that goes profoundly within; and then one could have the purification of water in The Oceanides

Well, I can dream, can't I? Now there are four more summer term Zoom classes to go, then a break, then the Wagner Society of Scotland wants me to start up with Die Meistersinger on 3 August, another luxuriant course of 10 classes. More of that shortly.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Musical gatherings and glories


This is really just checklisting; otherwise I fear the events which didn't need a review may pass unillustrated, and their originators officially unthanked. Gatherings and receptions are fine in very small doses as far as I'm concerned, but it did feel special to be back in the social swing of matters musical. 

Much fanfare, first, for the Proms launch at the massive Printworks, Canada Water, on 26 April (all event photos courtesy of BBC Proms publicity). Weirdly, everyone knew the programme in advance, and the annual prospectus wasn't ready for handing out at the end (my copy arrived only last week). But I've rarely enjoyed a melee as much as this, partly because 30 'young creatives' from the new BBC Open Music Scheme added vivacity and glamour. They'll be spotlit in the Open Music Prom on 1 September. 

I so admired the confidence and minimum gush from the two young presenters Mahaliah Edwards and Elizabeth Ajao (pictured above)  - you sensed they were genuinely excited about the world of music that had opened up, not just about their own fledgling stardom. I offered Elizabeth Ajao the chance to write for The Arts Desk, gave her my email and am...waiting to hear from her. Ahem. But one or two of the trainees will put something together nearer to Proms time.

In terms of musical entertainment, there was a tad too much brass from the Tredegar Band (all of it well played), and sheer delight from the glorious Nardus Williams and David Bates in Purcell's 'O! Fair Cedaria'. 

Also got to talk to Nardus afterwards, as a very genuine admirer of her Anne Trulove in the Glyndebourne Tour revival of what we should call the Stravinsky/Hockney Rake's Progress. She radiated natural charisma and charm. Nardus will be singing Mozart's Countess in selected performances at Glyndebourne and on the whole of the tour.

The rest was chit-chat, but not to be sniffed at with the likes of friendly faces Dobrinka Tabakova, Mary Bevan and Nicky Spence. Likewise - with Nicky very much centre stage alongside husband Dylan Perez, singing for his supper as 'Personality of the Year' (I'd say personality enough for 10) - two nights later at the BBC Music Magazine Awards. That's him, bekilted and very much standing on the two legs he broke falling down an airport staircase at the beginning of the year, with Tom Service and BBCMM's new editor Charlotte Smith (who both kept things admirably short and snappy).

I'll mostly pass on the awards themselves - all worthy winners, though I fancy it's how many followers you have on social media which gets you the prize out of three finalists in each category - other than to say that I'm very happy with the top award, to the great Igor Levit. Haven't heard his Stevenson yet but the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues live at the Barbican were just sensational (and the cover design of the two-CD set fitted well with Kings Place's very different verticals).

 Otherwise,, the performances here were especially remarkable. Nicky and Dylan gave us Strauss's 'Zueignung' followed by Jeremy Nicholas's 'I love ME' (would that perhaps be 'Valentine Card' in the published volume of his numbers written for 'Stop the Week'?), which could have gone OTT without perfect comic timing and discipline. 

Another super couple, Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, played the pianist's transcription of Sondheim's 'Send in the Clowns'. As I said to them afterwards, who'd have thought this could work so well without the words? It brought tears to my eyes. I was hoping the performance had been filmed; it wasn't, but here's a different capturing of the same piece.

I'd planned to keep all events here within a three-week bracket, but realised I hadn't mentioned the very happy occasion at the glorious Fidelio Orchestra Cafe, bringing together a favourite venue and two favourite people, viola-player Kathy Kang and her husband Andrew Litton (their adorable young 'un was being looked after by Korean Granny - I had expected Anastasia to be turning pages already). 

I already mentioned in an Arts Desk review, actually about another superb Fidelio Cafe event, how the minute Kang put bow to string, the warmth and resonance of the sound in that well-wooded venue carried us - even through less than great music (Kornauth's Viola Sonata). The selection from Robert Fuchs' Phantasiestücke struck a note of richer originality, and fascinatingly I got to hear the Brahms E flat Sonata, Op. 120 No. 2, for the second time chez Fidelio in the viola-piano version: so very different from Power and Kolesnikov, equally valid. As an invitee, I felt in distinguished company, as you can see here: next to Kathy and Andrew are Dennis Chang, Stephen Hough, Alastair Macaulay and Jennifer Eldredge.

Famous faces were abundant at an occasion which might have been sad but was anything else: as the 'order of service' had it at the Wigmore Hall, this was a celebration of the full life of the greatest among conductors, Bernard Haitink. 

I was very touched to be asked by his widow Patricia to the event (she remembered a happy meeting we had at his last masterclasses for young conductors in Lucerne, where I briefly talked Mahler 3 with him; he just lit up about it).  She spoke so beautifully in the welcome address, as did Thomas Allen before the final work, segueing masterfully into Prospero's farewell. Clearly a review wasn't in order, but I have to say that both the works and the performances were as perfect as so many of the master conductor's interpretations. Here's the full programme - click to enlarge. Due to Covid, there were a couple of player swaps; I did wonder about Enno Senft, who'd been playing in the Europe Day Concert and had been mingling in the crypt bash afterwards on the Monday...

Photography likewise seemed inappropriate, but I'm grateful to Neil Gillespie, photographer and tenor with the London Symphony Chorus (well represented) for sharing his official shots. Emanuel Ax and Paul Lewis sounded absolutely as one in the Schubert Fantaisie, so fascinatingly different from the Kolesnikov/Tsoy combination I've been hearing a few times of late.

For me, the revelation was Beethoven's 'Spring' Sonata, probably because I know it less well than all the other works on the programme - the flow, the idiosyncrasy, the humour were so ineffably there with Ax partnering Frank Peter Zimmerman,

A friend tells me he was sitting behind the Haitinks at a Gerhaher Wigmore recital two weeks before the great man's death. I've never heard a bigger range in Lieder from Gerhaher before. Here he is with his regular duo partner, Gerold Huber.


 Finally, Prospero and the Siegfried Idyllists, an army of generals.

More recently, my good friend Sophia Rahman and her partner Andres Kaljuste had assembled another superb ensemble by scratch for a Ukrainian charity concer in St Peter's Belsize Park, quickly named the Whittington Festival Players after the splendid sequence of events she's just masterminded in that Shropshire village. Sophia also plays for Steven Isserlis at Prussia Cove. He'd been booked for a recital in Odesa on that evening, of course happened to be free, and so...

This is a photo Sophia took at a rehearsal when SI turned in to play to his fellow strings. His performance of the Haydn C major Cello Concerto was so resonant but also so moving - I've not shed tears at the pure classicism of the slow movement before, but this introspection completely got to me, He lives every bar. But so did Andres and the strings; their Mozart 29 was alive and deliciously nuanced, and the concert started with the subtlest and most charming playing by Irène Duval, another Prussia Cove visitor, in Mozart's A major Violin Concerto K219. Here are the two soloists together after the concert.

A final quick sketch of two indelible impressions left by performances which I didn't get to review, but caught later in both runs. So glad I didn't miss the revival of Lohengrin at the Royal Opera, and not just for Jakub Hrůša's art-concealing-art conducting, fairly perfect, Jennifer Davis was already a star when she stepped in at the first run, but now everything's at the highest level, and I'd completely forgotten the announcement that she was having neck and back trouble. It didn't show. Besides, her swan knight, Brandon Jovanovich, was another revelation: so tender, so believably good; more tears for his performance. Just one shot, them, of Jovanovich and Davis, by Clive Barda for the Royal Opera.

One of my students, Andrea Gawn, advised us all not to miss the performance of Jetter Parker Young Artist Alexandra Lowe in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire at the Linbury Theatre. She was right: Lowe, until this just another very promising lyric soprano, absolutely astonished in acting, singing and speaking. I was just as impressed with the production by Anthony Almeida, which pushed at several boundaries. Bold attempts to link with Stravinsky's Mavra, by no means forced, but I still don't quite see the point of that Pushkin bagatelle. Anyway, here's Lowe on Rosanna Vize's striking set as photographed by Helen Murray.

Sunday, 1 May 2022

The peony in Glasnevin

I'll stick my neck out and declare that not even Kew Gardens can compare with the peony walk of the Irish National Botanics in Dublin's comfortable northern suburb of Glasnevin. I certainly never saw this hybrid tree peony, Paeonia delavayi 'Anne Rosse' in London. And it turns out to be a native speciality: a hybrid of the yellow Paeonia delavayi var. ludlowii and a red Paeonia delavayi, raised by the Sixth Earl of Rosse at Birr Castle Gardens, County Offaly, Ireland and named after his wife. I've not seen it anywhere else, certainly not in Kew.

Said ludlowii, named after Londoner Frank Ludlow who found them in Xizang, Tibet,  in 1936 - North Yunan was the territory where Father Jeam Marie Delavey made his discovers in 1884 - was the only one producing a few flowers when we first visited close to the beginning of my two weeks in Dublin. Otherwise, there were promising buds, with the attractive oak grove behind the hedge as backdrop

where the grouind was carpeted with anemones that first Saturday.

The peony walk is so well planted, one one side the tree varieties with the O'Connell Tower of the extraordinary Glasnevin Cemetery - tourist attraction complete with cafe and visitors' centre - in the background, an 1858 homage to the medieval versions to be seen elsewhere in Ireland ('Rapunzel, Rapunzel' chanted a little girl who passed us as we were walking around it),

and on the other side the herbaceous varieties

which, a local told me, are a riot of colour in peak peony season. The shooting is always attractive - those first sentinels appearing in early spring - and so are the leaves and buds of the fernleaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia)

which nearly a fortnight later were flanked by various types of narcisii 

forming interesting dialogues with their so-far smaller neighbours.

The one spectacular flower out in the herbaceous border was just emergent on Paeonia daurica subsp. macrophylla.

On this second visit (21 April) more blooms were in evidence along the tree-peony side: Paeonia suffruticosa 'Feng Dan Zi',

Paeonia rockii 'Zi Hai Yin Bo'

and plain (in nomenclature, not appearance) Paeonia delavayi.


But that hybrid Irish strain was the star of the show, both collectively - with the leafing of the oaks behind now also advanced - 

and in the variety of its individual flowers.




As I was talking to the local resident - a mine of information about wild-ish Irish gardens in the north - a peacock butterfly landed; it seemed rude to divert for a snap. But soon various bees were at the flowers


and for ocular proof that the butterfly was around and about, here's it is settling on the leaf mould below the peony trees 

where on the first visit a dunnock was rather well camouflaged.

Robins are frequently impertinent inquisitors, but especially so here - I wish I could show the photo of the Other Half in conversation with one. But let's stick to an exquisite colour-clash

and a Peeping Tom.

As at Kew, peonies aren't confined to their special zone. There were more in the rock garden 


and a clump of Paeonia rockii just in front of the wrought-iron Curvilinear Range glasshouses.


By way of an extended coda, I should put up some snaps of these centrepieces at Glasnevin Botanics. The Curvilinear Range was designed by Dublin iron-master Richard Turner and built in 1849. Its 1990s restoration has received a Europa Nostra award for excellence in conservation architecture. The nearby Victoria House, previously containing the great water-lilies, is currently being restored. Anyway, palms against iron and glass

and a Strelitzia further on.

The Great Palm House was originally erected in 1884 


 and in its 20m high central zone feels more jungly within even than its counterpart at Kew.

I can well understand why Wittgenstein liked to come here (beyond keeping warm).

The east wing houses orchids,



the west wing cacti and succulents.



To the north, there are ponds

and waterways; the boundary here is the River Tolka.

And all this for free, a happy resource for everyone living in Dublin or visiting it (I count myself halfway between the two right now). Next stop: the glorious cliff walks to the north and south of Dublin Bay.