Wednesday, 16 April 2014
It was a dazzling sunny March morning in Stockholm, so what better than to walk to the most outlying of the city's many galleries and museums, the collection of Swedish banker Ernest Thiel (1859-1947) in the grandiose villa he had built by Ferdinand Boberg in 1904?
By a not unhappy chance, the Gallery wasn't where the Rough Guide put it on the map: that turned out to be the Maritime Museum, where a nice lady gave us a bigger and better map which showed we had another couple of miles to walk across to the former royal hunting grounds on the island of Djurgården and its westernmost tip on the Baltic. Better still, we'd be able to walk back to the city centre via a different rustic route. From the map on the noticeboard at the entrance to the Djurgården, which of course we only saw on the way out of the park, here's the furthermost part of the island with the Thielska Galleriet illustrated.
So let's embrace the grand sweep. We packed up and paid for our night in a clean, comfortable and quiet hotel with a lovely breakfast room, the unpromisingly titled 2Kronor in Norrmalm, and strode out past the church opposite
down to the 18th century Adolf Fredriks kyrkan, unprepossessing enough from the outside but surrounded by a pleasant cemetery with crocuses in abundance.
The inside is minimalist but boasts some fine monuments, not least this one to Descartes, who was buried here for 11 years until his body was removed to France in 1661,
and one of the few which can boast a camel on top, in memory of the explorer Sven Hedin.
Even the modern fixtures sit naturally within the white space, not least this crystal font
and outside there's a simple memorial to Olaf Palme, shot dead outside the cinema opposite in 1986 - a crime that shocked Sweden out of its liberal sense of security.
Then up the hill on the other side past the Johannes kyrka, one of several grand cousins to Victorian St Augustine's Kilburn but with a pleasing wooden church in its grounds
and past the Royal Library with workers and students basking in the sun through the posh district of Ostermalm, with its deco designs writ large (as is so much, rather inappropriately, in central Stockholm).
Linnegatan finally ends at the waters of Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, where a statue of Diana and a stag (Actaeon transformed) reminds you of the hunting grounds across the inlet.
Stockholm's suburbs now give way entirely to nature,
with plenty of joggers and strollers out in the spring sunshine. Here's bracket fungus on a waterside tree
and now we're out on to the Baltic via a narrow canal which is all that separates Djurgården from the mainland.
Around the shoreline, and then the over-imposing dome of Thiel's villa on an eminence comes in view.
We were, of course, ready for lunch after our exertions and the Thielska Galleriet's light, airy cafe serving superlative soup and cakes did us proud (the house has been under state control since Thiel, virtually bankrupted after the First World War, bequeathed it in 1926). We'd just missed an exhibition on naked Swedish manhood, worse luck, which meant that the downstairs rooms were empty, but the gallery spaces on the first floor are the thing, approached by a staircase immediately displaying the idiosyncratic nature painting of the wonderful Bruno Liljefors, a good friend of the not entirely conventional Thiel (who described himself in the third person as 'a banker with a mind of his own').
All the interior shots, incidentally, were taken without flash, and there was no-one in attendance in the empty rooms to ask if I could or couldn't: what a delicious far cry from National Trust properties where you'll be mugged by anything up to five old volunteers in attendance wanting well-meaningly to intrude on your absorption.
Undoubtedly, despite many more obvious masterpieces, the picture I'd most like to take away with me from the Gallery is Liljefors' Winter Hare. This one, reproduced on Wikimedia Images, isn't quite the same, with the hare more in motion and less snow clumps on the vegetation, but it gives you some idea.
Liljefors also painted a very fine scene with a curlew which would be my second choice. The next great painting hangs above the piano in the central first floor room. In Five Portraits Vilhelm Hammershøi, now hugely popular in the UK thanks to a stunning Royal Academy exhibition and the championship of Michael Palin, depicts his younger brother and four friends in sombre mood around a table with candles and glasses (in one of the Thielska's few marketing ploys, you can buy replicas of those glasses). I'd use the Wikimedia image but it's much too dark.
A room to the right is all contrasting light, hung with the mostly sentimental pictures of Carl Larsson. I do like the two male portraits either side of the clock here, though.
And then comes another surprise, of which the leaflet with its very strange choice of illustrations gives no hint: another large gallery room full of Munchs, including his portrait of Nietzsche above a hideous piece of furniture which would surely give the philosopher a nasty turn in his grave.
I'd like to know more about Thiel's connections with Nietzsche. I think the acquaintance might have stemmed back even to before he took up with the circle of cultured Signe Hansen, the woman for whom he so scandalously left his wife. At any rate Thiel funded a luxury edition of Also sprach Zarathustra and a proposed Weimar archive. It's not surprising, then, that the death mask of the great man greets one in an attic room
surrounded by Munch prints, all of which remind me that this is the aspect of the artist's work I like the best.
The Scream looks best in that form, too: Thiel's lithograph has a hand-written insciption which reads 'Ich fühlet das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur' (' I felt the great scream [resounding] through nature'). Back in the downstairs room there's also a treasurable version of the girls on the bridge
and Munch's portrait of Thiel himself (left)
while up the stairs three of Strindberg's nature scenes, perhaps not his best, hang together
next to a vivid Toulouse-Lautrec and an exquisite tiny Vuillard interior.
Now it was time for the exterior - mostly under scaffolding, but haunting at a distance under the beeches beyond the wall.
A haze had gathered over the view of the distant Stockholm skyline (third picture up top) and we rounded the peninsula past the old customs house where boats enter the city harbour were obliged to stop.
Snowdrops appeared on a nearby rise
and then we arrived at the bird-loud lake we'd only seen (and heard) from the other side of the canal.
Its chief attraction is the heronry high in the trees.
I'd never seen one before, and so it was all the more surprising - and just a little deflating - to find a smaller one on the lake island of Regent's Park a couple of weeks later. This one, though, was rather spectacular
especially as I'd always thought of herons as solitary birds, perched at distances along the Thames. We even saw a couple on one of the nests
and further east a duck or two I'd be pleased if someone could identify for me.
Palace buildings and monuments became more frequent as we came closer to the park entrance, including this statue of Jenny Lind.
And then, with one look back across the Djurdgårdsbrunnviken to the radio tower on the Ladugårdsgärdet,
we were at the gates
and crossed the most picturesque of Stockholm's bridges
back to Ostermalm, passing Dramaten where years before we'd seen an interesting production of Three Sisters with each act set in a different 20th century decade, and Bergman actress Stina Ekblad (the androgynous Ishmael in Fanny and Alexander) as one of the sisters.
Bergman has the most miserable street imaginable named after him behind the theatre
but there are grander allees up towards the Konserthuset, namely the cinema street of Kungsgatan, with the familiar Svenska Film motif everywhere
and the gigantic towers of, what, the 1930s, giving a green light to the outsized developments of later years. With which, as our day's walking was over and we had only to return to the hotel before heading out for our friends in deeper nature further south, I take my leave in a shot to complement our starting point.
Friday, 4 April 2014
Our Stockholm trip was not quite as planned. Originally centred around an interview with Sakari Oramo, on sensational form in recent Beethoven and Shostakovich as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Principal Conductor, the schedule changed with his indisposition. J and I were still free to go, but the concert had gained another brilliant Finn, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (pictured below, like Radu Lupu lower down, at the very concert by photographer Jan-Olav Wedin - dead impressed that the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra has one on hand for each event).
Thanks to Saraste, the change from new Swedish work and Berwald symphony to an all-Beethoven programme was not the disappointment it might otherwise have been. And we still had a new production of Don Giovanni at the Stockholm Operan to look forward to. But what a painful experience that mostly was, in contrast to the electrifying concert.
I'd seen Stockholm's Konserthuset, home to aforementioned RSPO, on a dark November visit to a contemporary music festival some years back, but not really clocked its idiosyncrasies. Which begin outside with Ivar Tengbom's blue 1926 neoclassical facade, singular by day albeit hemmed in by the unattractive developments around Sergels Torg
and by night,
and continue in its deco interior, full of variable statuary and peculiar detail (what, I wondered, was with the faun orgy in one bas-relief?). Guess this is Papageno guarding one side of a staircase.
And at the back of the balcony, a gallery of distinguished busts lines the doorways. The first, as was right, turned out to be Franz Berwald, whose Sinfonie sérieuse I was sorry to be missing as I've never heard it or any of the other three symphonies live (but I do like my Gothenburg/Järvi set).
While the grand master at the other end was honorary Swede (and, up until the age of 11, I think I'm right in saying, exclusively Swedish-speaking Finn) Sibelius with Stenhammar behind him.
The hall's rather a beauty, I think, with discreet state-of-the-art modernisation. Certainly it sounded to be of rare acoustic freshness (tends to be Gothenburg's all-wood Konserthuset which gets all the praise). That might have been partly down to the RSP's airy sound, or the light Saraste brought into it, but this was another of those extra-London occasions where you hear the music with the roof off, as it were. Another photographer, Mats Lundqvist, also captured our evening.
I'd never really watched Saraste's technique. It's as lovely and lucid as Vladimir Jurowski's; everything you see you hear (absolutely not the case the other week with the albatross-like Michael Tilson Thomas). Saraste had one peculiarly remarkable physical gesture of seeming to pull the first violins in to him at the ends of phrases when he needed to. And he starts with no false flamboyance, only a Finn's let's-get-on-with-it alertness. That was especially true of the opening chords of both the Leonora No. 2 Overture, complete eventually with trumpet from the top back of the auditorium, and the Seventh Symphony. Its dynamism was totally focused, details from ppp to fff clearly delineated, shorter crescendos especially amazing. I'll write no more about it here other than to say that it was one of the three freshest Beethoven symphony performance I've heard - Oramo's Eroica the other month and Ilan Volkov's fluid but not hurried Pastoral at the Proms being the others (I'd probably choose Ticciati's Fifth, too, if I liked the symphony better).
Radu Lupu had star billing, looking rather different above from the posters showing him some considerable years younger than he is now. I haven't heard his mastery live for even longer than that - not sure he comes to London any more, if he has I've missed him - and his Beethoven Third Piano Concerto showed why other pianists respect him so. It was all perfectly placed, nuanced, projected; and yet with the kind of mastery that says, "this is absolutely how I do it now". No encore, either, despite the automatic standing ovation from the elderly but very enthusiastic audience. Quite a few stood for the Beethoven Seven too, myself included.
What happened between the concert and the opera needs at least one more post to the delights of a long walk out along the royal park island to the Thielska Galleriet (all will be revealed soon, though I promised the same about Edinburgh and Bordeaux, and still those city walk descriptions hang fire). The stupendous interior of the Storkyrkan beside the Royal Palace - Stockholm's cathedral in all but name - deserves more future time, too, not least for its overwhelming Renaissance statue of St George and the Dragon and its gilt royal pews.
Here I had the serendipity of turning up shortly before an organ recital at 1pm. Michael Waldenby was playing mostly Bach, with interludes from son Carl Phillip Emanuel and Jon Ludwig Krebs, to follow the composer's birthday.
To my shame I didn't know the Prelude/Preludes and Fugues in question: no great organ man I. But J S can be refused in no sphere, and what a gift he offers to the organist's pulling out all the stops in the big D major Prelude, turning over the stomach with its sudden turn to the bad and then infinitely postponing the triumphant cadence in an extended surprise coda. Absolutely magnificent.
So around the old town and over the bridge to the Opera House, neither fish nor fowl as a statement of rather drab 19th century pretension. But it has a prime setting, and canoeists were riding the rapids beneath.
Posters were inviting, for who would deny that Ola Eliasson looks like a handsome Don Giovanni? Public reception had been wildly enthusiastic, too; the day after the performance our hosts delighted in our incredulity that Norwegian Ole Anders Tandberg's production was the No.1 'must see' on the Stockholm arts scene according to one Sunday paper.
Well, all I can say is that I'd even welcome back Kasper Holten's hit and miss Royal Opera production after the dizzying ineptitude of this one. It starts with a row of toilets: maybe the Swedes have never heard about Bieito's ENO Ballo in maschera with courtiers on the bog - not a bad start to a show of diminishing shock-returns. This one immediately alienated my support: any production is going to lose me which leaves not a hint of ambiguity about whether Donna Anna was right to cry rape - that indeed, she's having fun, as she was in the Holten production and here, with Leporello filming entwined legs from the gap under the toilet door. And, what a surprise, the only director who's ever got it right for me has been a woman, Deborah Warner at Glyndebourne, who conveyed in no uncertain terms that when a lady says 'no' after a certain point, for whatever reason, she means it.
But this was only the start of the inconsistencies Tandberg posed the audience. The women get a poor deal, as usual: Donna Anna is an hysterical self-harmer, Donna Elvira - who arrives with her suitcase in the public lavatory - a repressed nymphomaniac and Zerlina a psychopath who straddles Don Giovanni at gunpoint in 'Là ci darem' (he ends up shot, of course: no hell, only a corpse for the ladies to keen over). No idea why. Was Eliasson's libertine more sinned against than sinning? Didn't really care, because his character never began to add up.
Much worse was the overall level of the singing and playing. OK, so Malena Ernman was a last-minute replacement for Elin Rombo, whose Elvira may have been high quality for all I know. Ernman's was not, nor were Yana Kleyn's pneumatic-drill Anna nor Sara Widén's colourless Zerlina. Eliasson mistook near-inaudible recit for suave sotto voce, though to do him credit he's the only Giovanni I've ever seen to play the mandolin for the serenade, which meant his breath control went to pot. His Leporello, Luthando Qave, sang coarsely and offered no leavening wit. It all looked unappealing, too, so all credit to Markus Gårder's photography (three specimens reproduced here) for making it seem stylish.
Which leaves two saving graces - Linus Börjesson's Masetto (pictured above with Widén), much the best of the Swedes coping with the Italian in the recitatives, more virile and charismatic than Eliasson if not as obviously cute, and the star, Michele Angelini (pictured below) as Don Ottavio: a true Italian (Italo-American) tenore di grazia, full throttle when needed but superbly elegant in ornamentation. His variations in the da capos of the arias - thank God we got them both - were a model of style which any tenors incapable of making their own should note. Honour bound to return for Act Two, unlike J, I consoled myself with the hope of 'Il mio tesoro' - not guaranteed if the pure Vienna version is being given - and was not disappointed.
One other plus: the onstage wind band for the supper, infinitely better than their fluffing counterparts in the pit. Lawrence Renes conducted without style or elegance - disastrous for Zerlina's two numbers - though at least there were no extreme tempi. Only the opposite pole of bad tradition, as opposed to bad supposed 'innovation', from the Novaya Opera's Prince Igor aka Carry on Up the Dnieper visiting the Coli this week was worse; but at least the musical values were higher. And that, I hope, is the last snark you'll find from me on here for a while.