Tuesday, 19 August 2014
It wouldn't really be right to try to sell Rona Munro's wonderful trilogy The James Plays with the above publicity image (one of two from James McMillian) of James III's Danish wife Margaret. People would say that the Edinburgh Festival was cashing in on Sofie Gråbøl, best known in the UK - until these past few weeks - as complicated detective Sarah Lund in surprise telly hit The Killing, but already a classical actress of note in Copenhagen, and now we know why; she's absolutely charming but also a tower of strength. The three Jameses of the new production shared between the National Theatres of Scotland and Great Britain - James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives (possibly the least nuanced of the three) - are all sexy and charismatic, but they don't tell the whole story either, even if they have to be on the main poster.
No, the real dynamic that drives the dynastic drama, as one might expect from Munro, comes from the women, and that's why the second part of my heading would, I fancy, be a suitable subtitle: they symbolise, though not in any abstract way, the shift from fear driving policy to confidence offering more democratic possibilities. Am I over-intellectualising in seeing a parallel between The James Plays and Aeschylus's Oresteia, in a kind of shift from primitive blood-grudge to a more enlightened society, however precarious - a developing drama in which the Furies become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones?
There's another key actress who fulfils that specific function, the equally fine Blythe Duff, pictured above in one of Eoin Carey's rehearsal pictures. Duff's Isabella Stewart, wife of regent Murdac and presumptive queen until James I returns from prison to claim his birthright, is an unscrupulous, if sharp and amusing, powermonger, doomed to become a vengeful wraith in chains bewailing the murder of her husband and her three sons.
Isabella makes her exit half way through the second play, having wrought her spell on the young James II, and in the third Duff metamorphoses into an older version of that king's wistful sister Annabella. So the actress plays her part in the trajectory whereby the first queen, English Joan, uses her fear to force the first James, who loves her but isn't loved in return, to a bloody oathbreaking, while the second, French Mary of Guelders, seems fearless until an event that would shock anyone shatters her incorruptibility (the same actress - Stephanie Hyam, a little underpowered - plays both roles and is pictured below as Joan with McArdle's James I in one of Manuel Harlan's production photographs).
These first two queens have others of their sex to back them up - the vivacious, devoted Meg (Sarah Higgins, strong and likeable) and, in Mary's case, young Annabella (Rona Morison, another sympathetic performance). But it's only when Margaret appears upon the scene, hailing as she finally puts it 'from a rational nation with reasonable people', that a truly dominant trio can emerge, Gråbøl's Queen well offset by Duff's older, resigned Annabella and Morison now playing the part of 15 year old Phemy. The culminating speech sets the seal, balancing James I's showstopper in one of many symmetries both subtle and obvious. I have to quote some of the text, to give you a sample of Munro's basic style, which is to exchange Shakespearean blank verse for simple but not unpoetic prose, best when getting to the essence of things as here. Margaret has just spilled her jewels over the floor before the Scottish Parliament, her capricious and jealous estranged husband having walked out on the ministers.
I am your Queen and these are yours.
The comfort of community is warmer and softer than cold gold could ever be. I'm sorry that it's taken me nearly fifteen years to understand that, to understand how to be your Queen. I'm sorry I never told you any of this. I should have known that the only way to let you understand how much I care, was to tell you exactly what I think of you.
I've seen the worst of you, and you're murderous, miserable men. You've seen the worst of me, I've been a proud, overdressed, self-centred woman. But the best in you pulls me above that, and the best in you, with my help, can sustain this parliament and this nation.
So it takes an outsider to make us in the audience think, hey, a Yes vote might not be such a bad thing. That's the power of theatre and if the above looks plain on the page, believe me it's not when you've got someone like Gråbøl delivering it at the very zenith of the drama. It reminded me of Prime Minister Birgitte's tear-jerking turn-it-around speeches in Borgen, with a similar sense of absolute rightness and naturalness coming from the actress in question (there, the equally wonderful Sidse Babette Knudsen). Let's have a production shot of Gråbøl's Margaret seduced, as she so often is, by the most sensual of the Jameses as played by Jamie Sives, who also features as a not very clear-speaking Henry V of England at the start of the saga.
But if the last big speech is one radiant keynote - buying at least a few years' peace, as Annabella will tell us when the action fast-forwards beyond Margaret's death - there are darker climaxes, too. Folk have complained about James II being the weakest of the three plays. I don't think the opening nightmare of young James need be quite as messy as Laurie Sansom's very uneven direction makes it - and the music is just dreadful throughout - though I didn't mind his idea of a puppet to play the king's even younger self (pictured below, Andrew Rothney as the second James, complete with the birthmark he doesn't sport in the publicity. It did nothing to diminish his attractiveness in my eyes. NB: dry ice, always a bad sign in any production as far as I'm concerned).
But after the nightmares temporarily give way to reality, there is a series of great scenes. Almost unwatchable in the right sense is the one where Balvenie, now Earl of Douglas, has grown from a whiner who wants a plot of land into a territorial monster, bashing his son into repetition of the names of the estates which make up the land separating Scotland from England.
Very proud of Peter Forbes here (pictured above in rehearsal with Cameron Barnes as Big James Stewart), always the Actor Most Likely To when I was in the Edinburgh University Theatre Company (he was a superlative Malvolio and Herr Schultz in Cabaret, pictured in an earlier anniversary bout of nostalgia about 'the Bedlam'). Required to provide more light and shade, Mark Rowley as his son and the cousin who gives most succour to the young James rises to the most tense and finely-paced stretch in any of the dramas, the scene in which William baits the king who's set him at arm's length, with tragic results. I wept here, and Rothney certainly played his part in making the confrontation unbearably moving. The earlier homoerotics are beautifully suggested, too, and two goodlooking actors certainly help the frisson (below, Rothney and Rowley in rehearsal).
What else stands out? The unruly second act supper of James I (pictured below, Duff as Isabella seated left), the anything-goes football game in the December idyll of James II, the astonishing mirror scenes of James III (Margaret, confronted with herself: 'I like this woman! Look at her! She's ready for a laugh, isn't she? I'd love to get drinking with this woman! I really like the look of her. Is that really me?'), James III's capricious rejection of his son. And finally, making it all temporarily right and tying up the strands, the epilogue where Annabella decks out James IV-to-be in jewels of past significance.
Some have found the writing superficial, but I marvel at how Munro can say so much with so little - unspoken echoes, tactless reminders changing the mood - and how at the existential heart of it all lies the 'is that all there is?' of those characters - William, James III especially - who know there is a richer, lovelier, more adorned world beyond Scotland. Time for another final chunk: this is William telling the untravelled James II what he saw as Papal Envoy to Rome:
There's a house, not a rich man's house, a wine merchant's house, an ordinary shop man's house you ride past on your way into town.
It has paintings of angels on its walls that look like a window into the next world.
It has peacocks in the yard. I'm not joking. The wine merchant's kids are kicking peacocks' eggs around his garden in Rome.
With angels watching them.
And I come home and I'm supposed to feel like a rich man because I've got another hundred wet sheep?
What's the point? Tell me? What's the point of that?
And yet even the malcontents, like Margaret and us, love the best of Scotland. This is one to make film and television, and hopefully in a decade or less there will be a production truly worthy of the text. I'm glad and emotional to have seen it, though, over three festival nights, with time to think about it in the days between. Try for returns when it comes to London in a couple of weeks' time.
Coda: just finished watching a much longer epic, Breaking Bad. Hyperbole has been labelling it the best TV series ever. Well, there are superb performances, virtuoso camerawork and scenes of great truthfulness, but while the family tensions were always gripping, the premise on the gangster/violence front has never quite had me suspending my disbelief. They really seemed to be stringing it out in the last series: it could have ended two episodes earlier, with two vintage twists, but then I guess we wouldn't have got the poetics of the grand finale. Suffice it to say that while Skyler's breakdown moved me very much, I couldn't quite get involved with our Walter once he'd gone beyond the pale. An exceptional man who did great evil: who can ultimately can care for his redemption? Maybe you did; I didn't.
Sunday, 17 August 2014
This captures, I hope, the big moment in the garden of the Villa La Foce where the travertine path through the fountain and lemon tree gardens comes to an end at a balcony and the formal garden of scallop-shaped box hedges below opens out for the first time. In the distance are the rather less verdant fields on the other side of the Val d'Orcia below the highest peak in Tuscany, the extinct volcano of Monte Amiata. It gave me the requisite goosebumps, of course. I was being led on an extremely privileged tour by the current chatelaine, Benedetta Origo, whose marriage to the Menuhin protege Alberto Lysy has turned an Origo strain to the most musicianly imaginable: their son Antonio Lysy, a superb cellist, has been running the Incontri in Terra di Siena Festival since 1989, bringing with him students from the University of California, Los Angeles where he teaches.
One thing led to another, and this year's festival, to which I was invited, featured an even more significant augmentation of youth and mentoring. But details of all that are to be found in the two TAD articles in which I sang for several suppers: an interview with the wonderful Ashkar brothers of Nazareth, and a piece on the festival itself with a bit in passing about the superb Tuscan and Umbrian locations.
What I didn't have time to expand on was the garden tour given exclusively to lucky me by Benedetta, pictured above heading down the first of many travertine paths. The first building we passed on our way out from the main wing was the osteria built in 1498 for pilgrims and merchants travelling the Via Francigena, a branch of the road from northern Europe to Rome. It's thought - though never verified - that Sansovino had a hand in the project, commissioned by the wealthiest landowner, Siena's Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. Coats of arms of families like the Piccolomini and Chigi on the side of the building reveal sources of its riches.
Chastening to think that, just as Goths had wiped out the Roman farms and settlements long before the osteria's foundation, devastation came to the Val d'Orcia again shortly after its construction as Cosimo de' Medici lay waste the area in Florence's war with Siena. Iris and Antonio Origo came here in 1924, just after their wedding; less than two decades later, death and destruction returned, as Iris describes in her most famous book, War in Val d'Orcia.
Back in the 1920s, it was a kind of love at first sight. 'We only knew at once,' wrote Iris in her very selective autobiography Images and Shadows, 'that this vast, lonely and uncompromising landscape fascinated and compelled us. To live in the shadow of that mysterious mountain [Amiata], to arrest the erosion of those steep ridges, to turn this bare clay into wheatfields, to rebuild these farms and see prosperity return to its inhabitants, to restore the greenness of these mutilated woods...that, we were sure, was the life we wanted'.
Benedetta is no great fan of the main English-language biography of Iris, by Caroline Moorehead; she feels that Antonio is too shadowy a figure in it, just as Iris seemed to ensure - possibly out of respect for her husband's privacy - and that if another book were to be written, it should be about him. Certainly there are problems about telling the story of the early years at La Foce, though I think Moorehead does it even-handedly and clearly; it seems like an admirable piece of work to me, though very poorly proofed.
Having promised a progressive social reform which would favour the poor, Mussolini gave huge subsidies to the gentlemen landowners to maintain the status quo in the country; the Origos were among the most enlightened, building a school and a hospital among other amenities which still survive in one form or another, but theirs remained a patriarchal society for all that. And while Iris and Antonio gave courageous, dangerous support to partisans and escaped soldiers throughout the Second World War, he remained a conservative aristocrat the evolution of whose views on Mussolini still remain unclear.
Iris, on the other hand, moved from a 'blank vagueness' about politics to a very late realisation of the horrors Mussolini had inflicted on her adoptive country. It does seem rather surprising to us that throughout the late 1920s and much of the 1930s she ignored the murders and exiles of opponents, the suppression of a free press, the annexation of Abyssinia (to which the United Nations reacted with sanctions much as we do with Putin today; astonishing how all of Mussolini's moves seem to be echoed in everything that other would-be totalitarian leader does). In effect, while Antonio managed the estate, she cultivated her garden with the help of the English architect Cecil Ross Pinsent, whose work Iris knew well from the Berensons' Villa I Tatti and his landscaping of her mother's nearby garden at the Villa Medici in Fiesole.
He carried out his work over 12 years, from the garden near the new wing in 1927 to the stupendous lower garden pictured up top in 1939. Slowly Iris came to understand what would and wouldn't work in this climate: English style borders could be only selectively planted, roses did briefly flourish but no longer. The wisteria arbour must be a glory of the late-ish spring; lavender flourishes in abundance.
But the formality remains; it is not a 'deep' garden, planting wise. The chief virtue is the setting, of course, and the way that Pinsent's longest travertine path runs round the edge of the hill and out from formality into the woods: the Renaissance ideal of balancing manicured perfection with wilderness beyond.
The Villa La Foce is more of a hive of creativity now than it was before, despite the distinguished visitors. Two of them were Diana and Yehudi Menuhin, introducing the Origos to a brilliant violinist protege, Alberto Lysy, who became Benedetta's husband, in spite of Iris's disapproval. Here's the gracious and very natural Benedetta, somewhat in shadow, on the travertine path overlooking the lower garden.
One of her daughters, Giovanna Lysy, is a remarkable sculptor who has a studio and a wonderful exhibition space among the olive presses.
She works in travertine - remembering its heat on her bare feet as she walked the paths of La Foce as a child - as well as iron and glass.
The light is everything, and it works perfectly in this space.
I especially admired this image of an explosion - at its centre an instrument of war Giovanna found in the grounds.
A quick whizz round the dreamspace, and then Giovanna drove me to the station at Chieti - so often a changing-point, but never yet visited, an omission we must remedy next time - in the company of her daughter Allegra, off to Japan very shortly. And my festival taster was serendipitously rounded off by meeting on the train that most enthusiastic of communicators as violinist and musicologist Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo Quartet, his wife Yeesun Kim who's the cellist in the quartet, and their son Christopher, who was fascinated by the Proust wordrose on my watch. Nicholas gave me a taste of his interest in the detailed dynamic markings of Beethoven's manuscripts - he has four categories below piano, for instance - and we exchanged ideas. I think they had a good day out in Florence: they'd not been able to pinpoint the Masaccios they'd seen in a book, so I told them how to get to the Brancacci Chapel, my favourite spot in the city.
But perhaps I ought to finish with the man they all left out - Antonio Origo. The Tuscan scene most often reproduced on postcards is the one of a zigzagging road up a hill dotted with cypress trees.
It was, in fact, one of Antonio's constructions, part of the 10-point plan he read out to the Accademia dei Georgofili in Florence in 1936. Perhaps this shadowy figure should have the last word, as eloquent as his wife's measured, sometimes (to me) slightly chilly prose. I conflate two passages from different contexts:
It is a vast and solemn landscape, where precipitous crete [Senesi, the low clay hillocks resembling craters of the moon] alternate with fertile oases and stretches of barren land, and in its silent immensity the spirit lays itself down and rests. The powerful spirit of a lost mythology hovers in the air above the valley, and an eternal sense of expectation reigns...I am not a specialist, nor a scholar. I am simply a keen amateur farmer, who at a given point in his life - perhaps the most romantic one, coinciding as it did with marriage - felt...the eternal fascination of the country and decided to make it, and the people who cling to it for their livelihood, the main purpose of my life.
Saturday, 9 August 2014
The phrase is not mine but my bright young colleague Alexandra Coghlan's on The Arts Desk, penned about Berio's Sinfonia, which preceded a shattering but nuanced interpretation of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony at Tuesday night's Prom. I choose to apply it to the superlative team which gave one of the best Proms I've ever heard, our already-beloved European Union Youth Orchestra, and further, to the even younger members of nine British youth orchestras they mentored in an inspiring workshop featuring 180 young musicians on the platform of the Royal Albert Hall the morning after the EUYO triumph.
All photos here by the wonderful Chris Christodoulou, with whom I managed to have a good chat as the players lined up on the steps in front of the hall's south side. Above, below and in the last photo are some of them on Wednesday morning conducted by likeable young motivator Duncan Ward and playing to a small audience of friends, family and a handful of scribblers like me.
A big question which I intend to peck away at: why did the BBC not ask Chris to snap one of their most photo-friendly evenings? He tends to come to everything he can, but the press folk only ask him for so many Proms. More bizarrely, why did BBC Television choose not to film the EUYO concert for broadcast (Radio 3's transmission is on the iPlayer for the next month)? The fact that they'll be transmitting the National Youth Orchestra Prom is no excuse: it shouldn't be a case of either/or, but both. And what better to spell out the message that there IS a future for great orchestral music than the enthusiasm and commitment of these photogenic young players with their handsome young conductor, the already great Vasily Petrenko (replacing an indisposed Semyon Bychkov, who would also no doubt have trained them up to the hilt)? Was it politics or is there a less sinister explanation? Shame on you, Beeb - you should be helping to tell the world that this is what we're fighting for in Europe. True internationalist Sir Henry Wood would have thought so too. I asked Chris especially to snap this one for us.
Anyway, I was there on Tuesday evening with the diplo-mate - having to break his rule of avoiding all Proms, and he couldn't have admired it more - in the EU invitees' zone close to the stage, leaving Alexandra to write up the event for TAD. I didn't sway her beyond a very late message saying that if she didn't give it five stars, she would be exiled to an island of exclusively baroque music. There was no need: she'd already written the piece by then, and she touches on just about everything I would have done, very much in her own eloquent style, so I don't have to reduplicate here.
Just a few points of my own, then: first, that I've never heard a more detailed, coherent or intelligent performance of the baggy-monster Fourth. Petrenko, at times sexy-sinuous, at others rhythmically taut, amazingly so in the Berio, drove a line through Shostakovich's most outlandish orchestral work without ever being over-emphatic.
There was much more more lyricism than we've come to expect, more sheer fun in the concerto-for-orchestra parade of solos and groups, while never losing sight of the terrifying overall rhetoric. And what an extra layer of emotion there was in hearing a first-half work which seemed to think that 'classical' music had shattered into fragments, never to be pieced together again, and an even greater masterpiece ending in total annihilation, and finding them in the hands of a future which is as bright performer-wise as it is in the new wave of post-Darmstadt, post-modern composers who are no longer afraid of the kind of cornucopia Shostakovich loved so much.
I've written about the Inspire Workshop event over on TAD, but the BBC were slow in getting Chris's pictures over to me, which is how I can indulge in a few more here. That was fun, but the EUYO concert has burned itself on my heart as what will have to be the most extraordinary Prom this year, however much of excellence is no doubt still to come.
Young and old alike must rejoice that today is the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson's birth, a special day she shares with her Moominpapa (anyone's guess), the diplo-mate (thirtysomething, of course) and his mother Wyn (86, doing pretty well by the sea yesterday). Shot of the last two at St Leonard's from behind only due to privacy wishes.
I raise my special Hemulen mug to the great author, and like to think of her like this below in 1956 on her special island with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä and her beloved mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, the 'Grandmother' of the volume I most often gift, The Summer Book (remember this to young Sophia, countering the child's insistence of 'a big, enormous Hell': 'You can see for yourself that life is hard enough without being punished for it afterwards. We get comfort when we die, that's the whole idea').
Tove would approve last Saturday's outing to Holland Park and Will Todd's splendid opera for children Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (or should that perhaps be 'New Adventures') with goddaughter Mirabel. I managed to sneak in a picture of her with the lovely Fflur Wyn, Alice personified, to the Arts Desk review, but felt it might be overload there to include Keel Watson's very friendly Caterpillar
and the family bear of long wear and tear, Special/Spesh, occupying the White Rabbit's cage in the opera's Grimthorpe Pet Shop.
Fortunately they all lived happily shortly after: Spesh was released to join Mirabel, ma Edsy and auntie June for tea and scones chez nous.
Sunday, 3 August 2014
J came back from the Sheffield Documentary Festival clutching a DVD of a film he'd seen which he found absolutely entrancing. Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7 is a documentary-style work of highly artistic fiction, charting an hour and a half in the life of a pop singer who's waiting to learn the news of a biopsy (strictly, then, it's Cléo de 17.00 à 18.30). There are parallels here, among many others, with La Dame aux camélias, but mainly playful or enigmatic ones. I should have twigged earlier that 'Cléo' is merely a chic construct, for up to the point at which I started falling asleep on the sofa and switched it off half way through, I found it stylish in a very French, a very Parisian way, but slightly irritating and inconsequential. I suppose I should have been charmed by the trying-on of hats and the appearance of a young Michel Legrand as 'Bob le pianist' in the studio apartment Cléo shares with a playful kitten.
And how glad I am that I picked it up again, home alone, the following evening. For it was just after the extraordinary Legrand song that singer-actress Corinne Marchand as Cléo delivers with such feeling that the mask comes off - or, more precisely, the wig and the polka-dot dress. Black garb and dark glasses suggest Cléo, now her real self as Florence, is going into mourning for her life. Cue existential crisis, lightened by the arrival on the scene of vivacious artist's model friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck, more or less playing herself, as Varda later said)
and then by a soulful soldier on leave from the Algerian War (Antoine Boursellier) whom Florence meets - it's emphatically not a pick-up - in the Parc Montsouris.
So enchanting did the Parc look in the special camerawork, reminiscent of Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and backed up by the most haunting number in Legrand's score, that I wondered why I'd never been there - nor to the spacious garden yard of the Salpetrière Hospital where the action comes to a very poetic, unbearable-lightness-of-being open ending. By the way only the opening, with an intriguingly filmed tarot sequence, is in colour.
The film's meditation on mortality is deliciously complemented by a documentary Varda made reuniting the actors some years later - especially revealing on how she tried to reshoot the very last scene because the camera rail was visible in the original, but couldn't recapture the chemistry between her two leads - and her delightful commentary on the five-minute short woven effortlessly into the film at a point where she feared the viewers might begin to get bored with the leisurely pace, Les Fiancés du Pont Mac Donald. It turns out to be a witty bagatelle on the theme of trying to get Jean-Luc Godard to remove his dark glasses, and watching it after the insights makes it even more charming. Anna Karina plays "Anna", and I'm sure a cinéaste would know the other participants; I don't.
Years ago a friend got us to watch Varda's Jacquot de Nantes, and I can't say it left a great impression. But now I'm going to seek out as much of her other work as I can find. Another (10 minute) short among the extras, Les dites cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids [of Paris]), taught me, amongst other things, the origin of the word 'caryatid' and Baudelaire's miserable end. It's an absolute gem, pure magic in its weaving of music (Rameau on the piano and the song referred to below), poetry (Baudelaire beautifully read by Varda) and image. It seems wrong to show just this minute, all I could find on YouTube, but it does include the most remarkable cool chanson, one François Wertheimer singing (who'd have thought it) Offenbach.
Like Cléo, and no doubt other Varda films I have yet to see, Les dits cariatides celebrates Paris, and not the parts we'd necessarily know. Eat your heart out, Woody Allen, and go make a decent film after all these years of traveloguing rubbish (I know the Blanchett vehicle may be different, but friends I trust say not).
Went to the cinema for the first time in months last Saturday to see a film we might well call Mason from 6 to 18. Certainly I don't know why Richard Linklater's Boyhood isn't just called Childhood, since for at least the first 20 minutes the protagonist's sister, played by Linklater's own daughter Lorelei, is even more interesting. But as in Fanny and Alexander the male filmmaker is more interested in an alter ego growing up. Which, famously - though I managed not to read anything about it before going - Ellar Coltrane, playing Mason, did while the film was being made over 12 years.
There are many touching things about him - the refusal, for instance, to be bludgeoned by adults in his teens into conformity. But deepest sympathies really rest rest with his confused mother Olivia, a luminous performance from Patricia Arquette: thanks to her, the film could equally well be called Motherhood. Bring Ethan Hawke's complex dad into the picture, and you have Parenthood (as well as further touches of the feckless parents in What Maisie Knew). The site on which I found the above composite shot has a fine review by Mark Greene which explores the issues more deeply than I've time for now. Anyway, take your pick, enjoy which angles catch your fancy, it's that kind of a movie.
Monday, 28 July 2014
Any priest would be glad of the Utopian congregation - young and old, citizens of many nations and thence of the world - who attended Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach lecture in the courtyard of Montepulciano's Palazzo Ricci, home to the altruistic-sounding, Cologne-born European Academy of Music and Arts. This has been the main home for the various young musicians whose training and concert-giving have been at the heart of the festival Incontri in Terra di Siena: the International Menuhin Music Academy, students from the University of California, Los Angeles and - the ones I caught, and to whom my heart went out unreservedly - the Arab and Hebrew Israelis of the Polyphony Foundation based in Nazareth.
It's not my intention to write much about the festival here, except to point out that it owes its existence to that fine cellist Antonio Lysy, grandson of Antonio and Iris Origo whose Villa La Foce is the other centre of operations. My interview with the inspirational Ashkar brothers, violinist Nabeel Abboud and master pianist Saleem, will appear as an Arts Desk Q&A next Sunday, and a report of my festival slice around La Foce the following Saturday.
JEG's special appearance was a surprise to me. It seemed to be there not so much as a successful attempt to flog the paperback edition of his Bach book - more on that below, pictured above in the second of three pictures by resident ITS photographer Paul Flanagan - as an education to the young musicians. They listened intently and afterwards asked lots of intelligent questions about vibrato and pedalling as well as staging Bach: an unwanted extra dimension, said JEG, once you bring in the alien apparatus of the opera house, it takes away from the experience. I'd agree with that, and I'd add that the director's imagination stops you exercising your own in a non-operatic drama. Pictured below, kids and adults (including the hugely entertaining Laurence Vittes from Los Angeles in the hat) along the colonnade from where I was sitting on the steps.
Bach's current earthly representative is indeed an inspirational speaker, because he not only has the most profound performing experience of what he's talking about, but also the highest enthusiasm and love. All this was apparent in a documentary which marked a vital staging post on the road back to intelligent television arts coverage. I possess in handsome, beautifully produced hardback the book of which he was signing copies afterwards, Music in the Castle of Heaven, and though I've not done any more than dipped into it yet, my good friend Stephen Johnson has recently been inspired by it and made me move it near the top of the list.
Both book and talk fulfil that essential function of making you either go to or immediately listen to key passages in the cantatas. I began my big Bach Sunday pilgrimage the January before this one, only getting up to Easter before my resolve to absorb and blog bit the dust, Even had I continued, I'd still not have heard all the masterpieces. JEG added more to my enthusiasm in his illustrations of Bach's astonishingly vivid musical-theatre instincts. I knew the splendid depiction of the calm at the eye of storm-tossed billows in the tenor aria from BWV 81, 'Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen', but not the last excerpt JEG played, from BWV 105.
It instantly brought tears to my eyes - rather ready after being able to grieve for the world horrors of the last two weeks at the previous evening's concert given by the young Arab-Hebrew partnership in Citta della Pieve - with a wavering between major and minor anticipating Schubert. JEG writes in his preface: 'we want to know what kind of a person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then at other moments so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then at others still so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being'.
That last sums up for me the aria in question, 'Wie zittern und wanken, die Sünder Gedanken', oboe as soul, soprano as human, with only light string accompaniment. How could I have lived so long and never heard it? In that self-indulgent but not I think mawkish habit I have of choosing what music I'd like at my funeral, I decided on the spot that this would have to go in. If they outlive me, Debbie York and Lysander Tennant can conduct the dialogue; three solo strings will do for the support. But then, of course, I went to hear the whole cantata on YouTube, reeling at the rich, chromatic opening chorus, the distinctive bass recitative and the tenor's aria with rushing second violins, and decided that nothing less than the whole thing will do. Here's Herreweghe's performance, lovingly put up with printed music to follow and translation of the text. The soprano/oboe aria is at 6'17 but do listen to all of it.
And since I mentioned Schubert again, let's have my current craze, a disc I can't stop playing: Sviatoslav Richter effortlessly emanating pure summer/country happiness in the A major Sonata, D664.
This warmly recorded Tokyo 1979 performance is now on the bargain Alto label. Yes, I'm still buying CDs - though mostly Schubert and JEG's Bach cantata pilgrimage series.
So much for hardly clouded skies. Just as JEG's homily came to an end, a roll of thunder announced God's judgment, as he jokingly put it. The table of paperbacks was moved under the arcade, the heavens opened and while the author was signing copies for his enthusiastic audience including prizewinning Palestinian Israeli violinist Feras Machour in the red and white shirt (third of Paul's photos here),
I was trapped not too unwillingly in the Duomo a few yards up the hill with Taddeo di Bartolo's lovely altarpiece.
Umbrellaless, three of us made it through a relative break in the torrents to a cavernous ristorante where we sat down to bowls of piping hot home-made pasta in a cavernous ristorante , but lingered there rather impatiently as the downpour increased and rivers ran down the cobbled streets, flushing out some extraordinary large beetles which made our cicerona Nicky shriek but which I found fascinatingly beautiful. The storm lasted about four hours, after which we made our way to the Castelluccio Bifolchi near Villa La Foce for the Borromeo Quartet's evening Bartok epic, which isn't my concern here except to say that the spectators to the right of JEG in the first of my own three photos below are first violinist Nicholas Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim, his wife and a very radiant, calm-seeming personage, much like the present chatelaine of La Foce, Benedetta Origo.
Yeesun is listening to music with eyes shut in the photo, not sleeping, in case you wondered. I had the serendipitous pleasure of this wonderful couple's company on the train to Florence, and a masterclass into the bargain, but that's another story.
Let me just leave you with this Castelluccio - not to be confused with our beloved village of the same name at the head of the Piano Grande in the Sibillini mountains - in the evening mists at altitude after the rain. Locals said they'd never seen the like in July. The stupendous garden at La Foce to follow in time.