Friday, 11 September 2009
Beethoven, Baden-bei-Wien und...Bru(e)no
Yes, Sasha Baron Cohen's outlandish fashion designer is posed ready to strike the hallowed Beethoven Cinema in Baden-bei-Wien. This conservative if, to an outside eye, intriguing and lovely little spa town won't know what's hit it. But I gather Austrians on the whole are rather amused and accepting of Bru(e)no's ambiguous film exploits (which I've yet to see, though I nearly fell off my seat during the rodeo sequence in Borat, and I've laughed over the lines I read in the papers).
Why go to Baden-bei-Wien? Well, for a start, it makes a curious alternative to the capital, it only takes half an hour by train from Vienna's Sudbahnhof or slightly longer by tram from the Opera, and its Wienerwald backdrop is typically lovely. The musical connections are strong, too. I read some wag saying someone should put up a sign for every inn Beethoven DIDN'T stay at, but Rathausgasse 10 has a special claim to fame. In a room here two of the most towering scores in the history of music were created, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis.
We didn't go back for the afternoon opening, since as with so many other composer houses in Vienna and around, there's little if anything to see. We came for a swim, and weren't disappointed. The 1926 Thermalstrandbad boasts the largest sandy beach in Austria (OK, not difficult), a quaint old changing-rooms system, curious deco-ish stained glass
and delicious thermal fountains beneath which the shoulders can benefit from a healthy massage.
Like the rest of Baden, its glory days are past and the visitors were few even in August. After our bathe we walked through the empty rose gardens to lunch at the touristy but excellent and friendly Damal, trading like so many other establishments on imperial nostalgia. I wanted one of the two specialities, a tower of blood sausage and potatoes (Damals Blunzenturm) and J had the other, Kaisers falsches Schnecken Karussell (little bits of beef in piquant sauce masquerading as snails). For dessert, we shared a plate of Kaiserschmarrn, which are difficult to do well, but well they were certainly done here.
Can I bore you with the rest of our itinerary? At least it's relevant since rich in more musical connections. There are house plaques to J Strauss I and Schubert, and the first performance of Mozart's miraculous Ave verum corpus took place in the Pfarrkirche.
By 4pm we had coincidentally landed up in the beautifully manicured if perhaps over florid Kurpark sloping up to the woods, and an open air concert had just begun.
The standard was excellent: this was the local theatre orchestra, nightly engaged in what looked from the photos like a cringingly trad Zigeunerbaron and here conducted very well by Oliver Osterman in Suppe, Waldteufel, Donizetti, Verdi and of course three Strauss family numbers. Just a little further up the hill Lanner is passing on his metaphorical palm to Strauss:
And then there's a Beethoven memorial, a kitsch but rather well done pavilion built in 1926 (like the baths) to mark the centenary of Beethoven's death. A reproduction of his death mask
lours beneath a dome of Beethoven-related themes, including Prometheus, though I'm not sure where the Michelangelesque Adam and serpent fit in - outlawed from Elysium, perhaps?.
Well, that's enough of a jolly, well-ordered day in Baden. Let's get back to Beethoven's music, and an effortlessly flowing, infinitely subtle performance of the Pastoral Symphony from a newly-glowing BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiri Belohlavek at the Proms on Wednesday. I can justify one more Beethoven place-shot as some of his ideas for the Sixth were sketched on walks above Heiligenstadt closer to the centre of Vienna, even if the Third had been more on his mind, hence
Belohlavek's interpretation was in marked contrast to Volkov's teeming, vital refresher last year; both worked. The Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream sequence culminated in a very unpompous but still shining Wedding March, but we could have done with more of that glorious score. Instead it made way for Augusta Read Thomas's Third Violin Concerto, 'Juggler in Paradise'. That gleamed and danced in Jennifer Koh's surely ideal hands, though I wasn't sure where it was going or why. I preferred what I later heard on 'Listen Again' of the last piece in a pre-performance event featuring Read Thomas and some of her chamber music.
Anyway, the lady looked as shimmery and gorgeous as her music sounded. As two mutual friends had suggested we meet in the interval at door 12, here's 'Gusty', as her friends call her, further adorned by the musical wrap of my guest, Gillian Davis:
Gillian, who still teaches dance, is the widow of Richard Beattie Davis (alas, I never met him), authority on Adolph von Henselt, collector of works published by Belyayev (or Belaieff as he signed himself in English) and founder of the Richard Beattie Davis Rare Scores Archive at Florida Atlantic University. She wore the wrap to admiring comments from several audience members, so I took the liberty of photographing her after the concert was over.
That's my last glimpse of the Albert Hall for this year. I'd half thought of dashing from an event in the Danish ambassador's residence celebrating the impending Nielsen cycle at the LSO to catch the second half of the Vienna Phil/Welser-Most Prom, but thought better of it. And the Schubert Great C major I'm hearing now sounds sleek, but nothing special (oh listen, though, the finale's caught fire at last), so I don't regret saying farewell to the Proms on the previous night's high.
Surely this first of the VPO's concerts would have been a different matter with the (indisposed) Harnoncourt. A civilized music-maker, Welser-Most doesn't seem to have much temperament. Perfect, perhaps, for this orchestra which has so signally failed to move with the times, for all the beautiful sounds it's capable of making. I mean, still only THREE not very visible women in the orchestra (I could only see one when I last watched a recent DVD)? Maybe they'd reply, paraphrasing Fay Weldon about women writers, 'music is not an equal opportunities employer', but you're telling me there aren't women in Austria just as good as many of those guys?
Zubie M, anyhow, may do good things tonight in a rather more interestingly balanced programme. I'd be there if I could for Strauss's Don Quixote, a piece which has held me spellbound since I obsessed about it in my late teens. But I wonder if the Brahms 4 will smack of the Schubert's complacency? Mehta has been involved with some maddeningly commercial and unartistic things (for the £££/$$$s? - and I'm not talking about the original Three Tenors Concert), but his 2007 New Year's Day concert was amazingly good
and let me hear, at long last, Dynamiden, the Josef Strauss waltz which RS plundered and made his own for his Rosenkavalier hit.
But back to Danish national treasures. In the warm and cosy Arne Jacobsen-designed apartment above the Danish embassy, an expert quartet from the LSO gave us Nielsen's earlyish G minor String Quartet. I can't say any of it really sounded like the Nielsen I know and adore, but they played (and introduced) it well, and the food at the reception really was outstanding. I hesitated to tell the ambassador's charming wife, who like both her husband and Nielsen hails from the fertile island of Funen, that she'd recommended we eat the snails' eggs at the French 'do' in July which we believe made us both sick, but she has a real sense of fun, so she didn't mind at all. Oh, and I should have mentioned that the very genial ambassador told us how at the end of every long winter he plays that Nielsen gem Springtime in Funen. How many of his counterparts do the same with their native masterpieces, I wonder?