Saturday, 1 August 2009
July was my month in the sun with the stars, interposing myself in the manner of Woody Allen’s holy fool alongside the likes of Benny and Harriet Andersson, and more recently the great Maggi Hambling. I'd decided to hang fire on that particular Zelig snap until she approved it, offering in the meanwhile a shot from her website of the glorious and, bizarrely, controversial Britten memorial scallop on Aldeburgh beach. But now I have the green light, rather against myself because this is the most flattering image of Maggi out of the three and the least so of me:
I knew I’d adore La Hambling in person ever since I caught her on some eighties TV art quiz alongside her late mate George Melly, getting away with a statement along the lines of ‘the blue of that Claude sky is like the sensation of being in love’, and on Desert Island Discs she was so human and likeable. As indeed are Maggi and her partner (and fine fellow-artist) Tory Lawrence in person - even if her expansive rendition of ‘Getting to know you’ chez nous caused one among us to quote the immortal singing teacher's line ‘make friends with the pitch, dear’.
To this momentous supper and the Swedomania I ought to add recent glimpses off-duty of Sir Charles Mackerras, who’s always been like a great professor giving me a private tutorial in every interview I’ve had with him, coming out of the Gents at the Albert Hall Door 9 last night - he was there, I guess, to see 'his' Scottish Chamber Orchestra in action - and of Jiri Belohlavek eating an interval ice-cream in the arena on the previous evening (though whether he was promming for the concert itself I don’t know).
July was also selig, blessed (from which of course comes our ‘silly’ via Chaucerian English). I met those greats and was able to bring others close to me along to enjoy their company too. I got to know Dvorak's Rusalka as a masterpiece of the first order preparing for the pre-performance talk, and the Glyndebourne production along with its Falstaff and the Trafalgar screening of Barbiere were as near to perfection as anything I’ve seen. I saw a possibly long-lasting new play, participated in a high profile discussion (can't resist another prod in the direction of the Radio 3 webcast, if you haven't already seen it) and, towards the end of the month, heard some music at the Proms I’ve never heard live before.
First there was Martinu, and then Mendelssohn. He’s been much on my mind since I fell in love all over again with his Overture The Fair Melusine. I was following the road to Rusalka via Undine from the French Melusine myth as re-told by medieval chronicler Jean d'Arras. Here Guillebert de Mets in 1410 illuminates the scene of the heroine’s fishy tail discovered as she bathes by her noble suitor.
No prizes for hearing the influence of Melusine’s rippling clarinet water-music on Wagner’s Rhine and its daughters, who I gather started the whole Mariinsky shebang on Wednesday in poor style (for catastrophic reports, try the Independent's Michael Church – though he adored the Keith Warner version, which suggests I wouldn’t necessarily agree with him – and this blog entry with tags including ‘Mariinsky Ring’ and ‘total disaster’).
Anyway, the Proms’ concern was not with the watery-mythic side of Mendelssohn but his Lutheran celebrations, some of these linked to Luther's 'Ein feste Burg’.
On Thursday Elder and the Halle gave us the Second Symphony, with its extended ‘Lobgesang’ Cantata. Of course there was a certain Proms splendour about the massed forces, as pictured for Radio 3 by Chris Christodoulou:
The Halle shed a certain heaviness in the intermezzo and made noble work of the slow movement, but despite ardent singing from Sally Matthews and Steve Davislim, there was no concealing the fact that the chorus-and-soloists stuff seemed to bring out religious squareness in sweet-natured Felix. Still, the combined Halle choral forces poured their heart and soul into ‘Nun danket alle Gott’. The first half started with a slightly earthbound Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini Overture, which nonetheless kindled happy memories of the 72-year old Ghiaurov as Berlioz's Pope in Zurich, and continued with Susan Graham striking statuesque poses as Cleopatra. Oh look, the BBC's man Christodoulou was there to snap her too:
The regal maroon dress was duly noted, and the big coiffure, which put me in mind of Kitty Kelley on Nancy Reagan: ‘if she fell to the ground, her hair would break’. Graham pressed all the right buttons with style, but the real glory of this early piece belongs to the orchestral dying shudders, and Berlioz never delivers one of his eternal melodies.
The real Mendelssohn revelation came yesterday, another chance to catch up with a musical sensation. Musicality oozes from every pore of the young and small-but-perfectly-formed Yannick Nezet-Seguin. As with Nelsons, the BBC and Christodoulou gave me the option of 'sweet' or 'monster' shots, so why not have them both?
Ed Seckerson broke the mostly-musicals thread of his blog to praise the YNS Bruckner 7 with the LPO earlier this year, and I now know what all the fuss has been about.
First, a digression. I didn’t expect to be able to take it all in, frankly, having been steeped throughout the day in the magic of Tristan at Glyndebourne from 10.30am to 5pm: the last ‘orchestra and stage’ rehearsal, the only one I’ll be able to catch, and a real performance from what I could tell. It’s bad luck and poor form to talk about these things in detail before they’ve opened – first night is 6 August. I’ll just say that I had several extra-terrestrial experiences in the second act - not just from 'O sink hernieder' onwards - and at the end. I’ll think of more to say about it later this month in tandem with another Wagnerian theme I’ve had up my sleeve for ages. Anyway, out of the hauntingly-lit night of Lehnhoff’s production we came into another blazing summer day by the lake. The meadow zones are thriving (it's the time of the now-ubiquitous but still glorious verbena bonariensis)
and Rusalka’s realm at Glyndebourne is as magical as ever.
But to return to the 'Reformation': frankly YNS could conduct the telephone directory and make it seem the very essence of vitality. But in any case Mendelssohn does lay forth some good things here: the ethereal Dresden amen so well known from Wagner's Parsifal, an irresistibly buoyant scherzo with a lilting trio that lifted me sky-high, and a short and noble slow movement followed by a finale based on ‘Ein feste Burg’. While I’d prommed on Thursday, I and my wonderfully alert, if markedly pregnant, friend for the day needed seats after our Sussex runaround (we got to the Albert Hall with three minutes to spare); but I promptly rose to my feet for YNS and the superb Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the end. They also gave us a fresh-as-paint Stravinsky Pulcinella, carefully blending the antique with the modern, and a curious Schumann Piano Concerto where Nicholas Angelich’s bell-like piano sound, projecting into the spaces of the hall, won me over to an interpretation playing fast and loose with the rubato.
There was a chance of catching the Mariinsky Gotterdammerung today. I'm sure there were good things in it. But I thought it was best to end the recent feast on a high of unsurpassable musical quality, so I didn't (catch it, that is) and I've no regrets.
Sunday morning - it sounds like the MGM musicals Prom was much more fun. I'm listening to it at the moment: John Wilson's superband sounds lush indeed and Kim Criswell is consummate as always. Later - just hit the High Society strand, and it's almost as good as the originals; though who could quite be Sinatra and Crosby? Here's Grace with Frank:
The experience is as good a way as any of reminding everyone that we have the enormous privilege of accessing any Prom, any time, for the week after the initial broadcast.