Friday, 4 September 2009
Planets revolve around Grafenegg
Or they did on a slightly humid, storm-threatening summer night near the Danube, when the European Union Youth Orchestra and Andrew Litton came to the oaky estate and its glitzy newish open auditorium to show the Austrians that Elgar, if not Holst, is well up to the mark of Bruckner and Mahler. How long ago it seems, now that autumn advances, and in a way it is; I apologise for the delay, but half-decent photos have only just arrived from the EUYO to complement the very few I took.
And why the Copernicus? Because this is the International Year of Astronomy, which has brought us the Proms' well-meaning resuscitation of such one-day butterflies as Casken's Orion over Farne (Vivier's Orion, as Colin Dunn or Dnnu, whatever he thinks he's called, helpfully amplified in a message below, was much more interesting). So, a little further up the Danube, the overwhelmingly beautiful baroque library of Melk Abbey
was hosting a fascinating exhibition of 16th and 17th century astronomical treatises, a page of one of which I take the liberty of reproducing above. The temporary display enhanced the gorgeous globes symmetrically placed on either side.
We'd never have got to see Melk had it not been for a rainy Sunday morning, scuppering Tommi and Martha's idea of packing us all into their little motor boat and showing us that treasurable region of the Wachau from mid-Donau range. So we used the ubiquitous car instead, which did mean that we had quality time admiring the 14th century statues of Christ and the twelve apostles below the organ at the Pfarrkirche, Spitz,
observing its dappled tower from above the village,
discovering a naive and tiny medieval Pieta in another Pfarrkirche magically located atop lovable Weissenkirchen
and hitting the justifiably (but not, on an August Sunday afternoon, overly) touristic gem of Durnstein in the clearing skies of late afternoon. The walk along the Danube past the blue baroque tower of the Stiftskirche - occasioning memories of Rastrelli in St. Petersburg - brought real peace to the end of a hectic day.
But I jump ahead. Our Danube weekend began at Krems. It has one of the best cake shops in Austria (just by the station, curiously), three fine churches, hugely impressive 16th century sgraffito on a big house and quaint old streets winding up the hill to vineyards with great views over to the monastery of Stift Gottweig on the other side of the river
Yet I shouldn't omit to mention that the problems of the modern Austria (and, boy, they have a few) had only just intruded. Earlier that week in Krems a boy in his early teens had been shot dead by the police in a dramatic case of authoritarian over-reaction, and Austria was divided over whether the police - and the ones I met in Krems struck me as deeply unpleasant, probably very much on the defensive - had any justification. There were youth protests in every town, and several days later, looking across the mini-river from Vienna's Stadtpark, I caught this sign of the times ('Polizei ermordet 14-jahrigen - kein vergeben, kein vergessen'):
Well, trouble or not, I liked Krems, if not its rather heavy (in more ways than one) populace. But the best was to come that evening. With an hour and a half to spare before the concert, we drove just beyond Grafenegg up the gently vineyarded slopes to Feuersbunn am Wagram, where T and M were seeking out one of their beloved Heurigen. We found the only one open at the end of the local Kellergasse. Here our dear Viennese friends model with a characteristic spread.
Every village in the region has a Kellergasse, a long street just outside the centre lined with the cellars of the local wine producers. Feuersbrunn's is one of the largest, boasting over 250 cellars.
The owner of the Heuriger - where we consumed, as you can see and as is the rule in granting a licence for these summer drink-and-eateries, cold meats and cheese with our wine and grape juice - was happy to take us to his cellar. The temperatures plummeted as we descended and furtively wandered mysterious dank caverns lined with barrels
as well as bottles covered in vile black fungus known as kellerpilz.
Shall I be obliquely unsound and say this brought to mind all sorts of horrors? And need I say more than reproduce what I read as a cracking line in Sasha Baron Cohen's Bruno - more on the Austrians and that in my last mittelEuropean blog entry to come - and laughed out loud: 'I want to live the Austrian dream - to find a partner, buy a cellar and raise a family'.
Anyway, like Pelleas, I was glad to come out into the sunshine, and down the slope we drove to Grafenegg. Our happy heuriger hour left us little time to examine the mock-Gothic castle, so we headed straight for the impressive Wolkenturm where later in the season the VPO, OAE, LSO and Budapest Festival Orchestra were due to appear. Here an EUYO double bassist and horn player move towards it in the first of two photographs by Claudia Prieler
We took our seats next to the assembled 'VIP's and the ever-impressive doyenne of the EUYO, Joy Bryer, who hosted amiable interval drinks in the park. I can just make out Martha standing in red and the backs of our other three heads near the bottom right.
And here's one by me of the crowd with the moody skies and folly-castle as backdrop.
Litton worked with Kim Sargeant of the EUYO to provide a thoughtful theme of England-meets-Italy-and-the-Universe programme. Very much the heart of it was Elgar's In the South to follow Walton's Scapino Overture in the first part. For all the impact of the Wolkenturm's design, the sound still isn't ideal: woodwind don't project enough, percussion, celesta and harps maybe a bit too much. Take note, Charles Hazlewood, in promoting outdoor events, that big orchestras NEED a warm acoustic, however lovely it is to enjoy music al fresco.
Still, Litton projected great romantic warmth in the Elgar. It was surprisingly broad, a long way from Elgar's own interpretation, but also made much the deepest impact of the evening, with the 'Fanny Moglio' tune on the clarinets and the gorgeous 'canto popolare' of the solo viola meltingly beautiful. During the twilight mood between boisterous Edwardians in Alassio and tramping ancient Romans, a flock of geese soared vocally overhead, ducks quacked in the lake and the threatening sky turned pink.
For The Planets, Venus obligingly shone during her musical message of peace. Then the skies clouded over again before Neptune, which brought a twinge of disappointment until an orange harvest moon rose between the trees to the left of the auditorium. Of that disappointment there was then a far greater twinge, more a grimace, at the unmagical singing of the Wiener Singakadamie ladies - stray voices, dodgy tuning, so that one was glad when the door was closed (by Kim) ever so artistically on them at the end. Litton's interpretation could have done with more focused fire, I thought, and my mind wandered as it had not in the Elgar. Might have been Mrs. Bryer's champagne.
Memories returned, too, of a more flashing, iridescent Planets from Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO at last year's Proms, the day we learned of Tod Handley's death. That was a great tripartite challenge which worked; I'm so glad I experienced the Xenakis Pleiades with its attendant riot then, and sorry I missed this year's comparable happening on Wednesday. But I did get to the latest Proms triple whammy last night. Not sure the programme would have lured me, but of course Vladimir Jurowski conducting his London Philharmonic did, and I guess the interconnectedness of the programme was mostly his idea.
It all came together when I was least expecting it, in Zimmermann's Dialoge, a new experience to set alongside last year's Pleiades. Out of the seeming randomness, brilliantly executed by Jurowski in awesome, technicolor teamwork with live-wire pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, came nightmarish quotations of Debussy's Jeux - earlier brought into sharper than usual focus alongside Ibert's outrageously camp Bacchanale - and a Mozart piano concerto (Aimard and Stefanovich had just played the K448 Sonata for two pianos, not with Argerich's fantasy, inevitably, nor the aristocratic poise of Britten and Richter, but the handful of quirks in the piece showed up well). Though the whole thing was shown on BBC4, and should be available online, no photographer was there for the BBC, so I'll have to make do with all three artists in accustomed publicity shots.
Those entails credits. Vladimir, I am asked to note, was 'dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna', which seems unlike him but no doubt publicity had its own ideas, and photographed by Sheila Rock; the photo of Tamara Stefanovich is by Manfred Eisler; and Guy Vivien placed Pierre-Laurent Aimard in appropriate context.
Back to the Zimmermann, I guessed, too, that the third reference, to the 'Veni creator' chant by a standing trombonist, would find its crown in the chorale of the Brahms First Symphony, and that point undoubtedly came with the three trombones between horn solo and big tune in the finale. Jurowski promised when I interviewed him for the September issue of the BBC Music Magazine that, once he turned to Masur's romantic repertoire with the LPO, they would all be looking at it in a new light, and this was truly the case.
Brought up on Furtwangler, I expected perhaps more space to drive home the development climaxes of the outer movements, but this was lithe and muscled throughout. Maybe the approach would be better suited to the RFH than the diffusing effect of the Albert Hall, but still, you had to respect it. The third movement came as a rather fast and embattled prelude to the ultimate drama. If all this needed some intellectual, if not emotional, adjustment, like Jurowski's radical Tchaikovsky Pathetique last season, the slow movement took wing immediately as Jurowski floated the soul of that endless, across-the-barline song which for me is Brahms's greatest gift. This was the orchestral equivalent of the Argerich experience. Perfect rubato, ineffable control, all of it embodied in the great man's clear and expressive conducting style. If he doesn't go to Berlin after Rattle - who, for me, is a great colourist, programmer and animateur but has nothing like Jurowski's sense of the long line - I'll eat my hat. Unless, of course, he doesn't want to, which would be typical. After all, it would be very hard to leave an orchestra with whom you can conduct Tristan and Falstaff at Glyndebourne before going on to Brahms, Mahler and Schnittke...
The next entry will be shorter, I promise.