Monday, 24 March 2014

Magdalen in March

If we’re talking about archetypal English afternoons, then I can think of nothing much more perfect than lunch in an Oxford college, a walk around the grounds in warm spring sunshine, and choral evensong in the college chapel. To paraphrase unpoetically one of Oxford’s wisest graduates, gentle reader, do not care to know/Where Russia draws his* eastern bow,/What violence is done,/Nor ask what doubtful act allows/Our freedom in this English town,/Our dining in the sun.

Last Wednesday’s freedom came courtesy of Opus Arte promoting Magdalen College Choir, starting with a CD of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri. So far I’ve only dipped, but the work is a very quirky gem, celebratory or lamentatory according to what image or incident the limb of each motet conjures up. If I’m to be honest, the evensong was a mixed blessing. I like the bright, open sound the choir makes under Daniel Hyde, very much in the James O’Donnell tradition of more robust, continental style as opposed to the rather bloodless tones of our own cathedral tradition. 

I’d moaned to Philippa Howard, our cicerona, that I much prefer singing Byrd to listening to his music, and had hoped for something Victorian and vulgar in the service, but I’d forgotten what a masterpiece his Second Service is – or rather, the ideas came back as fresh as the day we first sang them on an All Saint’s Banstead cathedral course back in the 1970s. Yet in the anthem, Quomodo cantabimus (which we never performed), I had the curious sensation that the choir was singing ever so slightly sharp throughout – a much better fault than singing flat, indicative of zeal rather than torpor, but disconcerting all the same.

The rest was unalloyed pleasure. Though arriving in Oxford on a late train, I couldn’t resist speeding on foot along a favourite route from the station to Magdalen and was just in time for lunch at the Lodgings of the President, Professor David Clary. This in itself was a privilege – thought the building is nearly all Victorian, it has treasures such as the richly detailed Flemish tapestry received by one of the early Presidents for his part in arranging the match between the ill-fated Arthur, brother of the future Henry VIII, and Catherine of Aragon; both were only 15 at the time of their wedding in St Paul's. The Cathedral claims that this detail, reproduced courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalen College, represents the royal couple, though our Master's wife, who kindly gave us a tour, thought that was highly speculative.

Guests at table included former Magdalenians - if that's what they're called - John Mark Ainsley, with whom I was delighted to join in a paean to Richard Jones – JMA had just been singing in the stupendous ENO Rodelinda – and Robin Blaze, who sang from the same hymnbook on the glories of Göttingen.

I took myself off for a solitary look at the magical late 15th century cloister/quad, with its figures reproduced in the drawing of the White Witch’s stone statuary for Magdalen man C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - last seen with the wisteria in bloom, but against greyish skies - and then headed across the lawn towards Holdsworth's virtually unadorned New Building of 1733

and in front of it the plane tree planted in 1802 to commemorate the Peace of Amiens (this and other much more curious facts to be found in Peter Sager's Oxford & Cambridge: An Uncommon History, which I'm reading from cover to cover, having loved his outsider's take on East Anglia).

The college’s eccentric possession of a deer herd was much in evidence, horns being locked across the pastures. We stood, watched, chatted, then went in to evensong via the ever-impressive pre-chapel, which has all the major treasures - the misericords which start with a man's head peering between a lady's thighs, Piper's animals-report-the-nativity charmer stained glass and the sepia grisaille west window of the Last Judgment, designed by a London goldsmith in 1632, removed before the Second World War and not replaced until 1996, a project funded by two Californian former students. Looking back on my last Magdalen entry, I see I've got almost the same picture, but never mind.

JMA told me the chapel resonates – the G spot, as it were – to B major, for which Francis Jackson catered in the final ‘Amen’ of his canticles. 

After the service I wove my way along the seclusion of New College Lane, skirting Magdalen and New until the back of All Souls came into view with Hawksmoor’s Gothic/Baroque twin towers in silhouette

then shining in the late afternoon sun from west of the Radcliffe Camera.

And the cherry blossom was in full glory in front of St Mary’s on the High Street.

So back to London by 7pm to head for the Marylebone Hotel and talk to heavenly Anne Schwanewilms on Strauss, the role of whose Marschallin she now truly owns. We had a full 95 minutes’ conversation, during which she left me in no doubt that she’s the funniest as well as the wisest soprano I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Some of her comic mannerisms even reminded me of Carole Lombard, another beautiful woman with an earthy streak. Photo below by Javier del Real.

A shame the impersonations of a certain conductor weren’t filmed as well as sound-recorded; I wonder how I’ll transcribe them for the Arts Desk Q&A, due to appear just before her Barbican concert appearance with Sarah Connolly, Lucy Crowe and Mark Elder conducting the LSO (Rosenkavalier excerpts only, alas, but don’t miss them). La Schwanewilms was here for another Wigmore recital, which I went to hear the following evening but didn't review simply because most of the programme was the same as the one I'd covered back in December 2011; even so, her spellbinding narrative skills proved hair-raising in Liszt's 'Die Loreley' and achingly sorrowful in Mahler's 'Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen'.

Much on my mind at the time of the interview was Die Frau ohne Schatten, that extraordinarily hard-to-stage fairy tale creation of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. Anne compared the two productions in which she’d appeared as the Empress – central to Christof Loy’s magic-free psychological study at Salzburg, which she bought though some of her friends didn’t, and coping at the Met with sets so tricky that they sent her to hospital on one occasion in the late Herbert Wernicke's resurrected show: that yielded pretty pictures, she said, into which the singers had to fit as best they could. She came a cropper several times on her mirrored glass slope, pictured below, and on one of those occasions had to make a visit to a New York hospital.

Claus Guth’s Royal Opera production, previously seen at La Scala, strikes a miraculous halfway house between psychoanalytic probing and the supernatural. I’ve waxed lyrical about it over on the Arts Desk and hope to go again towards the end of the run. The cast is uniformly excellent, led by Emily Magee’s sympathetic Empress (pictured below with father Keikobad in another of CliveBarda’s excellent photos).

Communicating with the CBSO’s Richard Bratby about it, I thought he hit the nail on the head when he remarked that he’d never realized what a desperately sad opera it is – and that includes the apotheosis, which worked for me here as never before. I even had a dream the same night about the court-room fantasy which is one of its more extraordinary later tableaux.

As it happened, talks with two fascinating women framed the Oxford visit, making for an exceptional 24 hours. On the Tuesday evening Sioned Williams, principal harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s great soloists, came to talk – and did she just – to my City Lit class about the music she’s been commissioning for her 60th birthday year.

Such wisdom and passion here about the infinite variety of so-called ‘contemporary’ music, above all how you the artist have to find what you like and go with that, and by the same token the composer must know your own special skills and abilities (which of course is how Britten always worked). I was pleased to see Paul Patterson as one of Sioned’s invitees (her very friendly Iranian husband Ali Hosseinian, whose compatriots' music she continues to champion, was there to offer technical assistance, too).

I wish I’d recorded it all – but Sioned, who had been ill and thus wasn’t able to bring her harp this time, will be back in September close to her special anniversary concerts. I’m relieved to say that her home remortgaging to pay for the commissions will now be partly offset by a grant from the Park Lane Group.

*I'm afraid Putin's lies and macho posturing have forfeited the feminine article of Mother Russia, but it was ever thus. The poem, of course, is my favourite, 'A Summer Night' by W H Auden.


Susan Scheid said...

Your lunch brings to mind a story told by Kate, who'd been our wonderful Tart Lady here, but has now gone back to Cambridge, from whence she graduated many years ago, to write. She told the tale of her calamity on attending a Formal Hall dinner here. She's most amusing, as always (or at least I think so)!

As for the Met & Anne Schwanewilms, it's definitely useful to get the inside scoop. I'm not surprised at what she reports, though dismayed. I'm already off the Met, and this just clinches it. The wrong values in ascendancy there, clearly.

Did think of you last night, at a program by the Emerson Quartet, Shos SQs 11 & 12, with Mendelssohn's last quartet between. There was interesting programmatic logic to it, as explained by Gerard McBurney in an enjoyable pre-concert talk. But no matter the logic, to this listener's ears, there was no resonance at all among the M and S works. Ah, well, next time out, the companion quartet is Britten's 3rd. That, I am sure, will be a good match.

David said...

La Weiner is a wonder: reminds me that I should sometimes eschew impressionism for a more taut narrative, though I lack the wit. How well I know the horror of the placement (plassmon). J and I decided we would adopt the 'ten questions' line - when you feel you've got that far and your fellow guest has asked not a single question of you, it's time to feel comfortable enough to turn away.

The worst situation was at the French Ambassador's residence where I was stuck for 45 minutes with neither the person on my right nor the person on my left addressing a single word to me, after the basic courtesies and a promising enough start on one side (that lady then having to speak to the man on her left). I went in to meditation mode to keep calm and not flee.

Wednesday before last's lunch was nothing of the sort, though I did feel I was being primed by a perfectly nice marketing man. Then John Mark hailed me across the table and, probably very loudly, we waxed eulogistic about Richard Jones. Anyway, it was in the beautiful surroundings of the Master's Lodgings, not the formal hugeness of the great hall.

AS reported her experience wryly - apparently she could only see Jurowski through a tiny gap, which they both laughed about - and by no means entirely negatively, as if to say that good stage pictures were valid(ish) too. And as usual I guess a Met show is only as good as its production team and singers.

Did you get a chance to chat to Gerard? How we miss him here: one of the best, and always very supportive in the Russian sphere. And are you getting a complete Shostakovich quartets cycle? Ours completes this coming month in the hands of the superlative Jerusalem Quartet at the Wigmore.

David Damant said...

Although special dinners may be formal at Cambridge the ceremony of dining every night is vanishing at most college high tables, Cheshire Cat like. The usual excuse is that the fellows wish to go home to their families but I fear that more basically the formal meal ( in homes as well, so that children graze and therefore lose a dimension of their education by missing conversation around the table) is something people do not want. Having a proper meal is referred to, horresco referens, as "fine dining"

I was told in France the "placement" is an English adoption, and that the correct French is "mise en place"

David said...

The kitchen table was always the focal point of our student life in Edinburgh's Dundas Street (after first year, meals in Pollock Halls always a good meeting point if never a fine culinary experience). All the best chats happen round a dining table of some sort, don't they? And there's been much in the news about children missing out on the ritual of the family meal.

If you haven't read the piece by the Lady of the Tarts, for which Sue provides a link, I recommend you do so.

David Damant said...

David, you and Talleyrand are in agreement - on one point at least. More and better progress, he said, can be made around a table with a table cloth than around a table without a table cloth ( mutatis mutandis: I am sure he would accept the principle of a kitchen table with no cloth, but still with good exchanges of view, since it was the dining he was promoting)

Susan Scheid said...

I love that you've come up with not just one excellent name for Kate, but two: La Weiner and Lady of the Tarts! I, too, wish I had a talent for wit like that. But, alas, it seems sincerity/earnestness is my long suit. To your questions, the Emerson SQ is doing the late quartets, 11-15, I won't be able to hear the 15th, very sad about that, but at least the other four. I didn't speak with McBurney--he was immediately surrounded by several people who clearly had much to say, so I let it go. Last, but absolutely not least, I watched a DVD tonight of the complete Turn of the Screw. Wrenching. His sense of musical drama is extraordinary (or name your superlative). (As I'm sure you'll ask, it was the Opus Arte with Mark Padmore as Quint, Lisa Milne as Governess, BBC Orchestra, Hickox conducting.)

David said...

Our Wigmore journey with the Jerusalems goes (chronologically I think) from 7 to 15 over two weeks. I'm looking forward to setting it up at the hall and finishing with the last three for the Friends of the JQ.

Glad you got the Katie Mitchell film and not the dreadful Hungarian grand guignol attached to the Philips recording. As I remember I don't always share KM's point of view but it's a gripping piece of work and Lisa Milne is terrific (down to earth Scots lass with GSOH and colourful language). The best production of the opera I've seen in any shape or form was Graham Vick's Glasgow Tramway production which a student had filmed from the telly (it never reached DVD).

As for the work itself, your wish for a nuts-and-bolts guide to form re Shostakovich would yield results that might amaze you about BB's structuring.

Susan Scheid said...

I would love to have such a guide to BB--I have this sense with him that there is simply never a note out of place. Say, I didn't spot your interview with AS yet. Did I miss it, or is it not yet up? Did spot your two reviews that included Adams pieces. The BBSCO/Oramo was quite a line-up, and interesting about your take on Shos 5/Mvmt 1, which makes sense to me. It seems to me that really, the place it falls off is at the very end. Was surprised at your comment on Vänskä. As I'm sure you know, he's quite the hero here, and deservedly so. He's certainly had very high marks here for the Sibelius cycle, by all accounts.

David said...

Not only never a note out of place, but never a wrong instrumental colouring. I shall never forget tenor Ben Johnson being asked before a Cadogan Hall Prom whether Britten wrote amazingly for the tenor voice and he replied: 'he writes amazingly for EVERY instrument'.

The Anne Schwanewilms interview will appear just before her appearance with the LSO and Mark Elder in Rosenkavalier excerpts, mid-May, I think.

As for Vanska, I'm sure I've written about him here before. So many folk seem to think he's a great Sibelius interpreter, but for me his bullying conducting style hard-hits the wrong things, and the Sibelius 5 I heard him conduct completely missed the nodal point in the first movement. I understand he's admired for his stance in the Minnesota debacle.

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, yes, on the instrumental coloring! I love the quote from Johnson. Interesting what you write about Vänskä, so different from the perception of his Sibelius interpretations among critics here. I want to turn to listening again to Sibelius's symphonies in prep for our trip, actually, & would love to know what interpretation(s) you would recommend.

Last not least, and I should have written this in my first comment: with winter still stubbornly clinging on here, the golden photographs and lovely flowers you've included here are even more enticing than usual. Every time I visit here, I do NOT want to leave, but rather to walk into, those photographs of yours.

David said...

Funny, now that it's grey again I was just thinking exactly that - that I would like to walk back in to the first picture (all the more so as it does a kind of jump sometimes as if it's coming to life). Stockholm last week was several weeks behind in that the crocuses were still profuse, but oh how warm it was in the sun. And of course Scandinavians sit outside in shirtsleeves at the first possible opportunity.

You also coincide with another Sibelius binge I'm having, working my way through a huge box of the late great Paavo Berglund's Sibelius (EMI). You may guess my alltime favourite, Neeme Jarvi, whose first Gothenburg recording of the Sixth is a desert island disc - but those BIS recordings aren't so easy to assemble now. Ditto Jukka-Pekka Saraste's cycle on Finlandia. Vanska's recordings sound dim and unbackboney too because he uses the OK but not great Lahti Symphony Orchestra in the ones I have. Incidentally I dislike the Minnesota sound too and thought their joint performance of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle the speediest and least atmospheric I'd ever heard.

Enjoy swimming in the soup, as Sibelius said interpreters should do with his music. There's no better world than his, I'm coming to think, because he never deals in certainties (unlike Beethoven). The miracles of final chords, the wonder of tonality, are never greater than with Sibelius.

Whatever you do, listen to The Bard and The Oceanides as well as the symphonies, of course.

Susan Scheid said...

You are unbelievable! How many hours are in your day?? Many, many thanks--I've been able to pull up all of Berglund on Spotify, as well as Jarvi/Gothenburg (though for the latter the label is DG). Also pulled up MO/Vanska 1&4 for comparison, to see if I can hear what you hear, so to speak. I do look forward to revisiting the symphonic poems, which I started to collect after you wrote about Luonnotar. As for swimming in the soup, well, as Schoenberg said, he (and our friend DDS) have "the breath of symphonists." Such a beautiful way to put it, no?

Gavin Plumley said...

How marvellous to read this David... so many shared favourite things. Oxford, Auden's 'Summer Night' – one of my first loves was a boy who had come to my school from The Downs – Strauss, Schwanewilms. "We already see so much," as Robert Walser once wrote.

David said...

I'm especially glad you like Schwanewilms, Gavin - she is not to all tastes but then she draws you in rather than strenuously reaching out. And you of all people must admire her nuanced German (just because she's German herself it wouldn't necessarily follow, but this is one very intelligent soprano...).

Stephen Johnson's wonderful vicar friend's wife Sally teaches (or did) at the Downs School, I think. We've walked through it on a shortish hike from Malvern to Colwall. One thing which it tickled me to learn was that the boys really were encouraged to take their beds out on to the lawn in the windless nights of June - hence the so-poetic-seeming opening line can be taken at face value, though I'd rather keep my original impression of it.

It also amuses me, with just a touch of poignancy that quickly passes with reminders of happy times at Edinburgh, that I didn't get to Keble from my grammar school (where we were told it was one of the few colleges we might be accepted) and that you did many years later...

Oh, and Sue, I do hope you can find Jarvi's earlier BIS series. I remember the DG Sixth being nowhere near as natural. His Nielsen cycle for that company, though, is stunning - get ready for 2015 when both will have, I hope, equal honours. And Sakari will be conducting all six Nielsen symphonies.

David Damant said...

It is sometimes asked "Shall we ever get the Victorians in perspective?". I believe that we already have. Let me put it this way - the great advantage of being inside Keble is that one is not looking at the outside. And the generation that held that the soppy sentimentally of "The Lost Chord" was vastly superior to Sullivan's work with Gilbert ( and said so,over and over again)displayed so clear a demonstration of the decay of taste in that period as to raise one's appreciation of Picasso to even grater heights

David said...

The Victorian bits of Magdalen, including the bulk of the chapel, are extremely well done, if mostly pastiche-y.

When I cycle past the east end of Westminster Abbey on my left and the Houses of Parliament on my right, I do think a very fine complimentary job was done there, too.

Now off to investigate Cardinal Newman. Parts of Gerontius ain't half bad as poetry.