Sunday, 19 February 2017

More great guests at the Frontline Club

Following his final performance as the best Music Director of English National Opera in my memory, Mark Wigglesworth paid another visit to my Opera in Depth class at the Frontline Club in November.

Student Frances Marshall, a professional photographer who recently took stunning photos of the wedding of a certain bass friend and the Salzburg love of his life, brought along her camera and caught a couple of great shots, including the one above, which another visitor, Susan Bullock, thought was Mark to the life - pensive, deep-thinking.

More recently, spending what now turns out to be nine glorious Monday afternoons on Der Rosenkavalier, we were blessed to have Dame Felicity Lott coming to talk Strauss. Distinguished film and documentary maker David Thompson managed some pics from his seat front left.

And last week Richard Jones returned with typically off-centre thoughts on his Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier. This photo is of a previous visit as I didn't want to wear him out with student paparazzi. He's a lot smilier these days, so wry and funny.

Fortunately the wisdom of all three is captured, with their consent, on my mp3 player - I hope I'll have cause to revisit and transcribe some time. The main thing to mark is the departure of Messrs Wigglesworth and Jones from the ENO fold - the present CEO hasn't earned the respect of either, and should be ashamed of herself for letting them go. So much to lament here. This season's Don Giovanni was their first collaboration, and while Mark is never lost for words to praise his colleague, Richard said he was - adding only, 'what class'. When he said that he wouldn't tackle the other two Mozart/Da Ponte operas, I asked him, not even with MW? Oh yes, with him, definitely, came the reply. We've also lost the collaboration on The Gondoliers - a work Carlos Kleiber longed to conduct at ENO, gospel truth - and Elektra.

FLott still has the performer's instinct - she's havering over whether to play the Devil in a Belgian company's Stravinsky Soldier's Tale, in the French she speaks so beautifully, and to see her react to recordings of Crespin and Lehmann, as well as the recording she made of the Rosenkavalier Trio with Dessay, Kirchschlager and Pappano, was very, very moving. So were her readings of three texts I'd translated. Memories of C Kleiber were so precious - always the greatest for her, as well as for the rest of us watching their Vienna Rosenkavalier on DVD. No wonder she can't tolerate slow, maudlin tempi for the Marschallin. He used to sign himself 'Uncle Greifenklau' after the relative the Marschallin tells us she's intending to visit. Huge fun - he looks it on screen - and very amusing anecdotes, including one about Pavarotti replacing the usual Italian Tenor for a performance. You can imagine he didn't take to the Kleiber style.

It's also encouraging to hear all three guests speak so warmly and enthusiastically of the best young performers coming through the ranks. FLott had been giving masterclasses at the Carnegie Hall under Marilyn Horne's guidance, did a wicked impersonation of a young soprano hitting that rapturous Strauss Lied 'Cäcilie' as if it were a nagging lecture, complete with witchy finger-jabbing. But clearly she's kind and supportive to the talented. It will do the wonderful Miranda Keys good to know how much FL admired her Duenna, and of course she's a great admirer of Louise Alder, now learning her trade in Frankfurt. The future is golden, so long as there's financing to follow it.

Which allows me to slip in a photo featuring some of my favourite twentysomething musicians. The Philharmonia Friends in the interval of Paavo Järvi's utterly engaging concert with the Philharmonia the other week didn't know what hit them when youth and beauty, a mixture of Estonians and Brits, stepped into the Level 5 reception room. The lights of the former Chelsfield Room turned them green, so I made the pic black and white (the focus isn't great as we were being hurried back to our seats and the flash wouldn't go off).

Here are three violinists - Marike Kruup on the left and her partner Benjamin Baker, second from right, as well as Jess Wadley next to him; a cellist turned agent, Maarit Kangron; a bassoonist who's also a brilliant organiser, Tea Tuhkur, my most delightful companion for the evening; and a cellist turned conductor, Jonathan Bloxham (also boyfriend of the glamorous Jess).

The programme deserves more than a mention. The first half worked at a level of communication and humour you don't often encounter, here in Haydn's Symphony No. 101 ('Clock') and Beethoven's Triple Concerto, a piece that normally loses me for whole swathes. No chance of that with Christian and Tania Tetzlaff making chamber music alongside Lars Vogt. If you sometimes strained to catch it, that was no bad thing. And what an absolute masterpiece the Haydn is, like all its late counterparts.

If Paavo's Nielsen Sixth (the conductor pictured above by Jean Christophe Uhl) wasn't the greatest performance I've heard live, that was probably because the Philharmonia, or at least its strings, needed another rehearsal or two to truly let rip. But as an interpretation, it brought out all the timely mania and discombobulation in this amazingly modernistic piece, a beacon, surely, for Shostakovich in his Fourth and Fifteenth Symphonies (though I've never found any evidence that DDS knew it).

But I digress. Back, finally, to the visitors. Jones's Rosenkavalier is returning to Glyndebourne next year - I already knew this - though directed by his very talented assistant Sara Fahie. He'd like to change quite a bit in Act One and wouldn't stay for the screening of the Levee, which he thinks needs more focus, though the students loved it. It was good to hear him standing up for Tara Erraught, and interesting to hear him say that it should have been Glyndebourne's responsibility to back her up; as he rightly points out, she has a fabulous gift for comedy, especially as 'Mariandel'. 

Sad to hear that the great Lars Woldt, perhaps the most lovable oaf of all Ochses, has retired from the role now. Here he is with Erraught, Ochs and Octavian being kept apart by Kate Royal's very attractive Marschallin - a photo by Bill Cooper of the 2015 production. The Feldmarschall in the left of the two portraits on the wall, by the way, is a former member of the stage crew, much admired by Richard, who took off for a year to travel round the world.

And then, of course, we went on to the end of the act with FLott and Von Otter, neither needing direction - nor did they get it from lazy old Otto Schenk - to communicate supreme eloquence, with Kleiber as the dramaturg. This version on YouTube breaks things up into 10 minute chunks, and there are no subtitles, but it does have the advantage of starting at the crucial soliloquy.

Three more glorious weeks to go, then all too little time on Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden. Summer term will be devoted to Otello and Pelléas et Mélisande - contact me if you'd like to come by leaving a comment here with your e-mail; I won't publish but I promise to get back to you. Special guests TBC. Will Jonas sing the Moor? Kinda sad he cancelled the one concert in the Barbican residency I was going to - though as fellow critic Neil Fisher pointed out, 'I really can't wait to hear a tenor sing the Four Last Songs' is not a comment you're ever likely to hear...

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Bamberg again: 1 - the hills

A series of brilliant, blue-sky days with snow on the ground and way-below-freezing temperatures marked my return to the town/city (population 70,000, including 13,000 students at the university) which is unquestionably the most beautiful I've seen in Germany.

This was the view from the Michelsberg across the ecclesiastical vineyards to the Jakobskirche and Altenburg Castle in the distance. The same in September 2014 (and I promise you I hadn't remembered this shot when I took the above):

I never did get round to hymning the praises of the three great religious buildings on three of Bamberg's seven hills at that time, having exhausted wonder on what Simon Winder in the excellent Germania calls 'the most beautiful room in the world', the Vogelsaal of the Natural History Museum, and written about Hoffmann's quarter. The house-museum was closed for the winter - too expensive to keep heated, said a man coming out of the passageway - but anyway for auld lang syne and that greatest of felines, the Tomcat Murr, here's the statue revisited, as adorned with seasonal cheer.

I think, though I wouldn't swear to it, that the splendid sign of Kater Murr at his desk is new.

But I'm on the wrong side of the river for today's excursion, which must begin - as I did towards noon after a wonderful interview with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's new Chief Conductor Jakub Hrůša - on the rise above the hotel , a converted 18th century hospital which was a model of its kind. Through a gateway the monastery and church of St Michael loom large

with the devil-dominating saint between the two towers.

The monastery buildings are home to what has to be the best municipal old people's home anywhere, though it's a bit isolated - apart from the shop over the way, sporting newspapers with headlines of Trump's inauguration the previous day,

the residents have to climb up and down to get anywhere. But they do have a spectacular sun terrace

with terrific views both down on the town

and across to the great Dom, two of its fine 12th/early 13th century towers under scaffolding.

Which is nothing compared to the work that needs doing on St Michael's Church (founded 1015; major rebuilding and monastery buildings 17th century). Three years ago a great crack appeared in its ceiling - painted with a 'heavenly garden' that is charmingly reflected in the Biblical herbs planted in the courtyard - and, in danger of toppling, the whole building has been closed ever since.

The area of old houses, statuary and churches to the south-west of the Michelsberg is one of the most extensive old-town areas anywhere, lovingly occupied and tended by Bambergers, with its greatest treasure the Carmelite cloisters, which I visited back in 2013 and never wrote up (one day, maybe). The Michaelsbergstrasse heading downwards

 is a joy all the way, from the old Renaissance house with statues on the right

and the door of the Archbishop's residence up the steps to the left - St Michael and the dragon-devil again -

to the fifth of seven Stations of the Cross showing Christ meeting Veronica. The inscription reads 'Here Christ pressed his holy face into the veil of the woman Veronica in front of her house, VC steps from Pilate's House'.

The way of the Cross was donated by Heinrich Marschalk von Raueneck around 1500. He transferred the steps he'd counted on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem into this Bamberg context.

Cutting short the 2013 circuit and turning towards the Dom, countless details catch the eye. like these coats of arms - uniform included - around a door inscribed in chalk with the traditional Three Kings formula (the year either side of  'C[asper] + M[elchior] + B[althasar]')

Ought also to slip in here a couple of late-afternoon-light shots from the return route with J., the Jakobskirche tower beyond the shadowed old house.

This entrancing street ends (or begins, according to your perspective) opposite one entrance to the Old Court

which houses the History Museum (closed at the time except for extended crib displays - subject of another post, I hope) and remains of the bishop's palace. Schoolkids were gathered here on one of the educational trails at which Germans (and Russians) seem to excel.

The 'Beautiful Gate' next to the chancery is late Renaissance work by Pankraz Wagner (1573)

Aloft is Mary, a model of the cathedral behind her, the saintly Henry II and Kunigunde on either side of her. The founding father-king of Bamberg's greatness was canonized in 1146, his Luxembourgeois wife in 1200.

Further along are personifications of the rivers Main and (here) Regnitz.

But to return to king and consort: Henry II, who founded the bishopric here after his coronation in 1002, and the virginal Kunigunde, somewhat blasphemously raised to the level of a second Mary. She gets the central place in the left reveal of the oldest cathedral doorway, Adam's portal, with St Stephen on her right and Henry on her left.

These are copies of the original statues, now in the Diocesan Museum, but they make a fine tableau along with Peter, Adam and Eve on the other side.

The Princes' Portal of 1224/5 is the finest, but currently under wraps, so I'm pleased to have snapped it on an evening stroll back in 2013.

Central to the cathedral's interior, or rather centre-east, below one of the two raised chancels, is the imperial tomb of Henry and Kunigunde, sculpted from Jura marble by Tilman Riemenschneider and his merry men between 1499 and 1513.

Four reliefs build up the legends around the saintly royal couple. Finest is St Michael, with St Benedict beside him, weighing up the Emperor-King's soul.

At first glance the Cathedral seems rather austere and stony, but imagine how colourful it would originally have been, with paintings like this fragment on every column.

Besides, you only have to look closer and there's marvellous detail and flow even in the amazing assemblage of 13th century statuary. The figures of Ecclesia and Synagogue were removed from the Princes' Portal in 1936 to grace the south choir parclose.

Synagogue is depicted as blindfolded, her staff broken, with the tablets of the Ten Commandments slipping from her left hand.

There's life, too, in one of the discussions between Saints and Prophets on the north side.

But the most celebrated statue is that of the Bamberg Rider (c, 1225), possibly St Stephen of Hungary, and briefly tainted by its inclusion into Nazi propaganda.

A later gem is the 75-year-old Veit Stoss's Lady Altar of 1523 in the south transept,

and I love the man-animals of the east choir's stalls.

I'm actually doing the day's itinerary partly back-to-front, because after arriving at the Domplatz, which probably looks best in this evening, floodlit shot from 2013.

I descended for lunch with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra party and then led J to see the Cathedral via my own personal favourite on a third hill, the Obere Pfarre (Upper Parish Church). The route down steps and up the other side is one of the most piquant in Bamberg, with excellent views of the Dom looking back over sundry rooftops:

The Upper Church is a 14th century edifice with rich, mostly later, ornamentation inside - not that you'd guess it from the west tower.

The Bridal Porch to the north is a glory from circa 1350. I'll spare you the silly shots of J and I gookie-ing and looking virtuous on each side and simply focus on the Wise

and Foolish Virgins.

In 1711 Jakob Vogel began to baroque-icise the interior without damaging the medieval sculptures. A recent restoration makes it one of the most handsome church interiors I know. From the pulpit looking upwards

and to the much-praised organ

and likewise from Tintoretto's (yes, indeed) Assumption, in rather an odd place on a west wall.

The very Baroque high altar encases yet another of those 'miraculous statues' of the Madonna. This one's from Cologne, c.1330, and gets dressed up and carried round the town on the Sunday after the Assumption.

This, I presume, is St George and the dragon rather than yet another St Michael.

In the near vicinity are various crucifixion and deposition carvings

and a rather fine tombstone of a fine gentleman (priest? burgher?)

The ambulatory, more Gothic in feeling than the rest, has its shrines still - an elaborate tabernacle of 1392

and, behind glass, the dormition of St Anna

with Joachim touchingly asleep at the foot of the bed.

Further charm here came in the shape of what must be Bamberg's best crib, already changed that weekend to mirror the flight into Egypt, but I'm storing that up - maybe even for the end of 2017 or beginning of 2018, TV (Trump Volente). But this tour has reached its end (in 2013 I climbed another hill to another church, St Stephen, via the famous Apple Woman doorknob on Eisgrube, which I snuck in to the Hoffmann sequence). Next time we'll go further on the other side of the Regnitz. For now, I'll end where we started, with two contrasting seasons of a similar view, this time looking up at different spots from the park by the concert hall towards the Michelsberg. This time

and back in September 2014. Bring on the leaves (though not as wild a thunderstorm as the one brewing then).