Friday, 28 August 2009

Sigmund's Alpine way

The great man stands, appropriately clad, in a quirky mini-museum near the comfortable (and not exorbitant, if I read the tariff aright) Knappenhof Hotel, encouraging us to continue our ascent of the Raxalp near Vienna. Two years ago our Viennese hosts Tommi and Martha drove us to Freud's birthplace in Moravian Freiberg (now Pribor), serendipitously close to the Janacek domain of Hukvaldy, and last autumn I gave them a tour of the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, where I had been part time 'Museum Educator' for one happy year.

A two-day excursion to the Reichenau region was the latest Gellert-Bernardi payback. Since Tommi had first learnt to ski as a child on the slopes of the Raxalp, and they both visit it regularly, they knew much more about the Freud connection than did Ronald Clark when he wrote the biography we were all encouraged to read as 'Edukators'.

Clark tells us only that the first significant case history, 'Katharina K', in the Breuer-co-authored Studies in Hysteria, was 'a peasant girl in the Tyrol with whom Freud had had a single short talk', and later adds that he met her on the way up the '6000 foot' Raxalp. Research has moved on. We know that Freud would scramble up the Raxalp at least three times a week to visit the original Katharina, Aurelia Kronich, daughter of the innkeeper who ran the popular Ottohaus near the summit. In later years he came back to stay at the Knappenhof, which hadn't been built at the time of Aurelia's analysis.

So we covered both resting-places. The idea was to spend the night in the Ottohaus after our ascent to 1644m (starting from Hirschwang at about 500m). Warmed by coffee, plum cake and the friendliest of receptions at Monikas Knusperhauschen, we walked for an easy hour in bright sunshine through woods and meadows to the Knappenhof. This view is in fact just above the hotel, and shows our craggy destination (you can just see the outline of the Ottohaus on the ridge).

At the Knappenhof we took an excellent light lunch. I chose Kartoffelsuppe mit eierschwammerl - the yellow mushroom now in season which the French know as the chanterelle. This is wholly in the Freudian spirit since, as I know from my guiding, he was a keen mushroom gatherer. The soup is further coloured by my favourite Austrian export, kurbiskernol - pumpkin seed oil. Terribly good for the prostate, we're told.

Then we climbed for about three and a half hours. I love ascents, hate descents, so although it was sweaty work in the atmosphere building before a storm, there were plenty of good views en route and a whole glade cleared of trees where large white butterflies with black 'eyes' flitted in abundance.

As a display case of local insects next to a photo of Freud in the Ottohaus later told us, this is the beautifully named Parnassius apollo, the apollo butterfly.

You know you're nearly there when you see a doorway in the rock, the main feature of the Torlweg.

Very Freudian, thought J, who was soon waving a banana in the hole to prove the point. Another view the other way shows how far we'd come.

Then you're out on to a high mountain plateau covered in wild flowers. It was, I'm told, my extraordinary good fortune to see a lone Edelweiss on the right of the path.

Freud used to pick them for his wife Martha, but we don't do that sort of thing any more. Anyway, 20 minutes through blue swathes of aconite around boggy ground

and there we were at the Ottohaus - not a moment too soon as it was just starting to rain and the colossal storm which soon broke went on for much of the night. We were safe but not exactly comfortable in the haven of the Ottohaus. It was cold without thick sleeping bags, and the staff were extremely sullen, not to be humoured. I suppose you couldn't blame them. It's not surprising if Aurelia was a little strange, living up there. But I fear our Sigmund rarely took environment into account.

Morning broke, wet at first, then thick with mist. Our plan to do a circuit of the ridges was scuppered, so having examined the Alpine Garden below the Ottohaus, we walked to the Berggasthof at the top of the cable car line via the religious waymarker at the Hirschwanger meadow, very Caspar David Friedrich

After coffee at the Berggasthof, the weather was clearing. It was my stupid idea to beg that we walk the descent. The thighs took several days to recover, but meanwhile with eyes cast downwards on the steep path, very slippery after the storm, we did see plenty more fungi, orchids and beetles

and were further rewarded with another stop at the Knappenhof. The proprietress, Doktor Brigitte Klenner-Kaindl, greeted us warmly and when she heard of my Freud connection, presented me with the 'Action Figure' they sell among the merchandise (made in China for 'Accoutrements Seattle'). I'd certainly stay there any time, and it would be very reasonable if you didn't sign up to the spa therapies.

Time was short, and we had one more destination: the house designed for a mayonnaise magnate by that great Brno-born, Vienna-based architectural genius Adolf Loos on the other side of the valley. It's now a hotel and a restaurant, but has retained most of Loos's fixtures.

The design is curious, all the main bedrooms on a landing leading off the main room so the mayonnaiser could see everything his daughters were getting up to. There's also a lovely little room off the main dining area which was once the library.

Near here Mahler and Alma also stayed; she maintained the villa after his death but Martha told me the owner has grown a thicket around it and you can't see anything. So then we took another, more relaxing walk down the Kreuzberg hillside past another shrine where this time a bird seemed to have found comfort in the nearness of Christ

and arrived in Payerbach just in time for the 17.24 train back to Vienna.

Yesterday I rushed down from Edinburgh, of which more anon, to relive this and other Alpine experiences through what can be Strauss's most exalted tone poem - and was, under Fabio Luisi and the Dresden Staatskapelle at the Proms. Their recording of An Alpine Symphony had promised great things, and introduced me to the most unusual and heartfelt interpreter of the Four Last Songs I've ever come across, the miraculous Anja Harteros, who slipped in almost unnoticed via the 'filler'.

Sadly, Harteros wasn't last night's soloist. It was Lang Lang, who packed 'em in, including a group of very rustly Japanese girls in my promming vicinity. He played the outer movements of Chopin's Second Piano Concerto bizarrely, rushing and muddying many passages and giving us little clue about the spirit of the dance (I couldn't sit through a Lang Lang recital of polonaises and mazurkas). The slow movement was beautiful in a slightly narcissistic way if you listened hard enough: pearls on a line indeed. Lang Lang can do the refined tone, and the notes; but can he do the musicality? A Chopin Etude as encore left further room for doubt.

As for Berlin-based young composer Rebecca Saunders's traces - true 'parking lot music', as Anders Hillborg told me the contemporary curtain-raiser's often called in America - I'll leave it to my pal Stephen Johnson to sum up. When I met up with him all too briefly in the interval, we agreed that Schoenberg with his 'Farben' and Ligeti in his Atmospheres had said this kind of thing much better a very long time ago, and Stephen neatly declared traces something along the lines of outmoded avant-gardism in the last throes of Alzheimer's. Just long-held single notes and the occasional jump - all process, no 'hooks' in the shape of real musical lines. A familiar story.

The resident Dresden maestro (photo copyright Barbara Luisi via the Proms office) worried me a bit at the beginning of the Alpine Symphony: anxious to set it up, a little rushed at the wonders of sunrise. And I'd promised friends Cal and Penny that part of the Albert Hall experience of this piece would be the mountaineering horns answering from (I hoped) the gallery. They seemed, alas, to be onstage, albeit muted - no substitute for the spacial effects which are the Albert cavern's greatest gift.

But soon Luisi's mastery found us all the right peaks and crevasses. The Staatskapelle, with its innate, sometimes rather placid warmth and glorious brass lining, is the right orchestra for Strauss's most plushly upholstered large-scale work, and the Albert Hall, for once, is the right venue - not just for the organ but also for the halo it places around the sound. Too often in drier venues this piece can sound (in J's immortal phrase about an Ashkenazy RFH experience) 'like an angry rice pudding'. In the last ten or so minutes, after a storm the protracted length of which our Raxalp night made me understand, I shut my eyes to the swaying giant in front of me, the noisy Japanese and the man with some sort of conducting Tourette's syndrome to my right and enjoyed another out of body (my phrase of the month) meditation.

The Dresden horns still have that heavenly glow and that judicious vibrato, even if the peerless Peter Damm, whom I met and interviewed during the sessions for Haitink's Dresden Rosenkavalier, is no longer in command. That bittersweet Epilogue in this team's hands remains one of the wonders of the musical world. Cal, a regular companion on our Italian mountain walks, e-mailed me this morning with redoubled thanks for persuading her to stay since she felt she'd 'lived through a great adventure'.


Don Pascoe said...

Did you hear the Symphonia Domestica conducted by Runnicles the night before the Alpine Symphony? Different but effective.

David said...

Just caught up with it, Don, via the Listen Again facility. Domestica is my own personal favourite of the tone poems, even if I know Don Quixote's the greater work, and I thought there was plenty of spirit in the performance. It sounded a little thin on the broadcast, but transparent, quick off the mark but not rushed. Runnicles would seem to have adapted the performance to his whippet-like new orchestra's sound; it would be foolish to try and make it sound too lush with the BBCSSO.

And I still think the work is a miracle of thematic manipulation, if you set aside the programme (with which, in any case, I don't have a problem).

Colin Dunn said...

I heard Lang Lang's Chopin too, David. Pointless performance: he played the notes, but not the music. The slow movement could have been lovely, but wasn't. Shame.

David said...

Sorry, that was my reply to Sebastian and I posted it in the wrong entry.

But of course you're absolutely right, Colin. Argerich's way with an even lovelier slow movement highlighted what was wrong with Lang Lang's in the Chopin.

Yundi Li, by the way, is a lot better. I liked his Ravel G major with Ozawa when it came out. But of course after Argerich it's bound to sound a little pedestrian on a revisit.

Clara said...

Enjoyed your: Sigmund's Alpine way and the pictures too, I keep it in my favorites.
Just want to tell you, I am the grand-daughter of "Katherina", nee Auralia Kronich.
I am living in Montreal, have 4 children and 4 grandchildren!
My grandmother had no problame, just Freud wanted to make a case.Aurelia had 6 children and a very happy marrige.
Your writing is good, the pohotes too.
p.s. A part of Knappenhof had been my mother's! She lieved there 4 years and her aunt left her 1/3 of the hotel.

David said...

How wonderful, Clara (if I may). Messages such as yours are the best reason why we blog - especially when they rekindle happy memories (this seemed so long ago.) Thank you for taking the trouble to write.

Clara said...

One more thing. I am a little upset about Knappenhof's new owner, becouse she made Freud room and made very commercial the past!
When I been there at 1994, was a room for the Kronich family,full og there pictures. becouse they were the Ottohaus's and Knappenhof's inkeepers and owners in the past.