Wednesday, 10 October 2018
12 talks in two grand houses
Over a fortnight ago, I was honoured to be part of the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, giving two talks in this splendid remnant of the Tudor palace where the future Elizabeth I grew up
and two in the glorious Marble Hall of Robert Cecil's house - still in the hands of his descendants the Salisburys. This exterior shot by the always friendly Jo Johnson, who was up there helping with the admin. She'll get a 'JJ' from now on when I'm using her photos.
The previous weekend I was up in the Trossachs at Gartmore House, 18 miles from Stirling: eight talks of an hour and a half apiece, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, to the Wagner Society of Scotland.
Both engagements meant stepping in to the shoes of distinguished but indisposed speakers at relatively short notice. I can't say how sorry I am that Derek Watson, who had been due to carry on his exploration of Wagner's life up in Gartmore, died on the Monday, having gone in to hospital for one thing but kept in for another which proved to be fatal. I never met him, but my 'students' told me a lot about him. There's a brief appreciation on the Society's website.
The only reason I was able to fill the gap, with less than a week to prepare, was because I could adapt and add to the classes on Das Rheingold I'd given as part of my Opera in Depth one-a-year survey of the Ring. Some members weren't sure they wanted to go into any one work in detail, but only one pulled out - and the rest told me they were happy to have found a new way of listening and of making connections with other music. Here we are at the end of it all.
Gartmore accommodation was simple, comfortable and quiet, with fine views of nothing but green through the windows. It did tend to be through, because the rain was frequent. I had two hours between lunch and my afternoon session to walk, and was glad I'd brought my waterproofs. I must write up a mycological trail in a subsequent blog. As far as the students went - what a delightful and original group of people. Singers, academics, a professional, a forensic psychiatrist, a retired sinologist: all so interesting and friendly to talk to. Here's my perspective from above the teaching zone. Apart from a few classes at my friend Chris's, with my goddog Teddy making a fuss of everyone and then slinking under the sofa, his favourite habitat, to sleep, it's the first time I've given lectures with a dog present, but Natasha's Zippy was attentiveness itself - head cocked when music was played, but no barking or even growling.
As for the music, I found myself drawn in afresh to key performances - above all the dramatic perceptions and brilliance of the Chéreau Bayreuth Rheingold, noticeably more involving after we'd watched a scene from the Lepage staging at the Met - good for the bigger picture, weak on the personenregie, which between Stephanie Blythe's Fricka and Bryn Terfel's bad-hair-day Wotan was more or less non-existent. And then, Zednik's Loge at Bayreuth: comic genius, but not without a serious edge.
At a later stage I had an excuse to play my most recent favourite among Wotan's Farewell (in a look ahead to Die Walküre justified by a class on the elements - here, of course, Loge as pure fire): Norman Bailey, perhaps the most god-like Wotan I've ever heard, with Klemperer and the New Philharmonia. I left the students to watch the Kupfer Rheingold in its entirety on Sunday evening while I got a late flight back from Edinburgh in order to get back to The Rake's Progress in my Opera in Depth class the following day.
Then three without talking much, and off to Hatfield - so much closer but by no means simple to reach owing to train chaos - for Thursday evening's opener (the talks courtesy of my dear friend Stephen Johnson, who asked to hand them over to me). There I met our charming host, Festival planner and participant Guy Johnston, a really nice chap with no side to him, pictured on the left here with his very talented violinist brother Magnus (JJ),
and gave my first 20-minute lecture - short, but all the harder to say much in that time (also JJ).
I needed to connect both with the overall them of 'Brahms and Friends' and the immediate concert - a chamber-orchestra-sized programme of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, Brahms's Double Concerto with the Johnstons and the First Symphony, all marvellously well handled by Mark Austin conducting the young professionals of the locally-based Faust Chamber Orchestra. Thought it was a nice idea to make sure everyone had a postcard with Mendelssohn's watercolour of Lucerne, its lake and the Rigi on one side
and Brahms's Rigi greeting to Clara Schumann on the other
I thought our short spot should be dedicated to 'Brahms the melodist' with the following excerpts (I'll give them for all four, since some folk didn't get the handout at the final talk and may like to see them here).
Attempted singing of the main theme in the central movement of the Double Concerto, Op. 102 (1888) and the words Brahms set, in a postcard to Clara Schumann, to the alphorn call he heard on Mount Rigi – transformed as the horn call in the finale of the First Symphony, Op. 68 (1876)
‘Sapphische Ode’ and ‘Kein Haus, Keine Heimat’ from Five Songs, Op. 94 (1884) Thomas Quashtoff, Justus Zeyen (Deutsche Grammophon)
‘Alpenlied auf Rigi’ Angelo Lottaz, Male Voice Choir of Thun
The performance of the Double Concerto was the perfect chamber-musical conversation, a far cry from the usual heavy weather you get in the concert hall, the Johnstons never trying to dominate. And if Austin's interpretation of the symphony didn't break out into unbridled exhilaration, as Jonathan Bloxham's had with the Northern Chords Festival Orchestra at our Europe Day Concert, his instincts were all right, his discipline perfect. Soloistic star for me was the superb principal oboist, Katie Bennington.
Only after the concert was I able to find the key to my lodgings, serendipitously only two minutes down the hill from one of the house's gates. The owners, John Mark Ainsley and William Whitehead, had tried to get us to come to the festival the previous year; now here I was, awaiting their return, and J due on Saturday lunchtime. I woke up to this - a garden not overlooked by anybody -
and had a blissful time exploring locally, including the church. I think I ought to blog about the sightseeing elsewhere, but I must of course introduce a figure very much part of all proceedings in the main house's Marble Hall, Gloriana in the famous and slightly enigmatic 'rainbow portrait'.
It's one of two in the house, the other upstairs in the Picture Gallery and attributed to Hilliard.
But the rainbow queen has the more supernatural impact. You know that old cliche about portraits, 'the eyes follow you round the room'? Well, these seemed to, and you could kid yourself that the Queen was mighty pleased with what she was hearing.
The lunchtime recital - for which the above, pictured Vermeerishly by JJ, was the rehearsal - featured Guy with the very individual Melvyn Tan - whose work up to this point tends to have been mostly on period instruments rather than the sonorous Fazioli, a point of contact with the Suoni dal Golfo Festival in Lerici, and less with chamber music - and clarinettist Julian Bliss, who's very good but a tad too reserved for my taste. How could I feel any differently having been under the spell of maybe the greatest of them all, Matt Hunt, at the Pärnu Festival? Still, it was good to hear all the works on the programme, especially so as to get to know the late Brahms Trio the better.
My (slightly longer - half-an-hour) talk, of which there is the above record by audience member Sue Forbes, for which I'm grateful since I wanted to be photographed with Queenie, needed to set up the evening programme. That took us beyond Brahms, so the excerpts I played were:
Double Concerto (1888) – slow movement Jitka Čechová. Jan Páleníček, Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra/Ondřej Kukal (Triart) as echoed in
Julius Röntgen: String Trio No. 6 (1919) – opening Lendvai Trio (Champs Hill – our wonderful group have recorded all 16 trios, unearthed in a Dutch archive and due to be published thanks to their championship)
Elgar: Piano Quintet (1918) – Brahmsian theme in first movement and its transformation Bernard Roberts, Chilingirian String Quartet (EMI)
Brahms (1863) arr Schoenberg (1939): Piano Quartet in G minor – Rondo all’Ungarese (excerpt) London Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi (Chandos)
The splendid Lendvais - Dutch violinist Nadja Wijzenbeek, Swedish viola-player Yivali Ziliacus and British cellist Marie Macleod - chose the fourth Röntgen Piano Trio, a waltz suite, for the concert. I imagine a little goes a long way, but the 16 trios are quite a discovery, a perfect enrichment of the repertoire for string trio.
We heard, of course, the original G minor Piano Quartet, fine and rewarding to watch, though one sensed that Tan, who made so many beautiful and original sounds on the Fazioli, wasn't quite expansive enough to let the strings breathe.
That was clearly not going to be a problem for the phenomenal Tom Poster, who plays in the Aronowitz Ensemble of which the Johnstons are also sometime members. The Saturday afternoon concert in which he teamed up with Ziliacus, the outstanding violinist Elena Urioste and Guy was, for me, sheer perfection of a kind you don't often get even in the rarefied world of chamber music.
If, taken as a whole, Fanny Mendelssohn's works show greater originality than Clara Schumann's, the central of the latter's Three Romances is an airborne masterpiece, one I wanted to hear again the minute Urioste and Poster had finished playing it. And while Schumann's Piano Quartet sounds modest between the two Brahms giants, he hit the right note even when not aiming as high as he does in the Piano Quintet. Lovable, every moment of it, in these hands.
John Mark and William were now back, complete with adorable vizsla Radish, most vocal and engaging company. Family portrait essential, I think, with their permission.
They both came to the evening concert, and I was delighted that William came away as bowled over by the Brahms A major Piano Quartet as I was. This was the real pay-off in preparing the talks. How surprising to find that a work which begins in serene introspection, the opposite of the G minor's cloudy start, rises to even more challenging heights. Every theme, every transformation, could only be by Brahms, laying to rest the ghost of Beethoven and taking on the mantle of Schubert (my personal preferred choice every time). With Poster at the piano and the admirable string group from the Aronowitz Ensemble of Wijzenbeek, Tom Hankey and Macleod, the payoff of the performance was simply colossal. Here they are rehearsing as shot from above by JJ.
I'm going to pass on saying anything about the first half, Lieder by Clara, Brahms and Schumann performed with his customary audience engagement by James Gilchrist in a familiar partnership with Anna Tilbrook. There was something in all this that didn't quite ring true to me, but any attempts to reach out communication-wise should always be applauded.
The preceding talk was an attempt to cover several bases: Clara and her youngest son Felix; Wagner and Brahms; and the A major Quartet's relationship to its immediate predecessor. So make what you will of the sequence here.
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1864) – Fliedermonolog, Act 2, excerpt Norman Bailey, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti (Decca)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor (1854) – end of slow movement Maurizio Pollini (DG)
Brahms arr. Schoenberg: Piano Quartet in G minor – finale (except) LSO/Järvi (Chandos)
Piano Quartet in A major (1863) – opening Gautier Capuçon, Gérard Caussé, Nicholas Angelich, Renaud Capuçon (Virgin)
Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877) – violins close to opening Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (EMI)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor – opening Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Furtwängler (EMI)
Sunday morning continued the wind and rain of soggy Saturday, but at 3pm, just after J had left, the sky cleared and I did a healthy circuit around the park. I'd given the midday concert a miss partly because of social lunching, but also had to stay true to the vow I'd made after Hunt and Co in Pärnu not to hear the Brahms Clarinet Quintet played by anyone else for at least five years.
I did, however, want to hear the legendary Brett Dean as viola-player as well as composer, pictured above second from the left with Tan, Brett's daughter Lotte Betts-Dean, Poster and Johnston. Dean's Hommage à Brahms left little impact, I fear, as [played by Tan; it may seem reactionary of me but I'd much rather have heard the whole of Op. 119, which the homages were designed to weave between, rather than just Nos. 1 and 4 (how could anyone miss out the vintage masterpiece that is No. 2?)
Brett and Lotte were performing together for the very first time. She's a promising mezzo: super engagement, an undeniably individual and rich instrument, but much work is still to be done and a more secure technique should free things up. Let's leave it at that; I wish her every success.
So to the last hurdle, back in the Old Palace Hall. My sincere thanks to all those lovely people who came up to talk in between and enriched my knowledge from their various perspectives. It's rare to have such an interactive audience, but then again I guess as there wasn't time for questions more casual meetings were the only option. Ein Deutsches Requiem was on the cards, so I was able to talk about the curious Bremen premiere of all but the soprano-solo movement. Hence these excerpts, framed by the mighty Ferrier, which also allowed me to touch on Brahms's neo-Baroque aspect.
Bach: St Matthew Passion (1727) – ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (sung in English) Kathleen Ferrier, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult (Decca)
Handel: Messiah (1741) ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ Lynne Dawson, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble/Marc Minkowski (Archiv)
Ein Deutsches Requiem (1869) – ‘Ihr hab nun Traurigkeit’ Dorothea Roschmann, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle (EMI)
Brahms (1862) arr. Rubbra (1938): Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel – conclusion of fugue-finale LSO/Järvi (Chandos)
Four Serious Songs (1896) – ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ Ferrier, John Newmark (Decca)
Austin once again did the work to hand proud, with the necessary sense of forward movement that keeps the German Requiem from getting stodgy. There was again a marvellous power from the three double basses which helped out the many smokier sounds. Good soloists, a fine amateur choir - though I'd still have liked more words, even if there was more operatic drama than we got from the professional choir in Bremen. But I must say I was tired by the halfway mark. And I went and blotted my copybook, not having done anything wrong during my stay, by waltzing off with John Mark's wallet and leaving mine in my raincoat hanging up in the porch. Anyway, a Tuesday lunchtime meeting with William at Kew - he'd been playing for a funeral nearby - meant I finally took a holiday and spent a brilliantly sunny afternoon in the Gardens.