Sunday, 17 June 2018

Ever upwards with Bach and Dante



You can see I'm in danger of being left behind on terra firma in both my big pursuits of the year, with four out of seven Bach cantatas to catch up on here - I'll deal with the other three alongside next today's in a future post - and four Dante lectures to comment upon, of which I missed one. Nevertheless I'll make some effort to be light and airy like the masters.

It seems I was premature in leaving Purgatorio behind in my previous Dante/Bach post: there turned out to be one more Warburg Institute class on the middle cantica. The most treasurable utterance, of many, that I took away from Professor Took, of many, was a very helpful summary of the Dantean essence in response to one of the questions in the discussion: 'Peope's lives are mixed, ambiguous in the extreme, simultaneously in hell, purgatory and paradise. In order to explore [the issue], he divides it out. The moment of truth lies somewhere in the unutterable complexity of the here and now'.


Even so, Dr Scafi prepared us for 'a difficult and allegorical Canto' (33, the last, of Purgatorio) in the shape of the final processional which represents the triumph of the church (sketched above by Botticelli, no less), complete with the four cardinal virtues, three theological virtues and Beast of the Apocalypse. The difficulties pale into insignificance once we reach Paradiso. Dante warns the slackers among us - and there must be many more now than in that religiously obsessive age - at the beginning of Canto 2 (with acknowledgment to Robert W Durling's literal translation):

   O voi chi siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d'ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno, ché cantando varca:
   tornate a riveder li vostri liti,
non vi mettete in pelago, che forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti;
   l'acqua ch'io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l'Orse.

O you who in little barks, desirous of listening, have followed after my ship that sails onward singing, turn back to see your shores again, do not put out on the deep sea, for perhaps, losing me, you would be lost; the waters that I enter have never before been crossed; Minerva inspires and Apollo leads me, and nine Muses point out to me the Bears.

Despite the comfort of mythological and classical signposts, the Christian theology, albeit that Dante has such a singular take on much of it, is what makes so many of Beatrice's homilies rather hard for the contemporary reader. So is the assurance of a now outdated cosmology; it can't all be taken as poetic metaphor, after all. Nevertheless, the guidance of our Warburg Dante and Virgil (who has long disappeared from the scene in the Divina Commedia, of course), and the thoroughness of the notes to the Durling edition (of which the Paradiso volume runs to 873 pages) make the most difficult journey worthwhile.


The best of our two most recent classes, for me, has been in the discussions. I'm getting antsy: why should Piccarda Donati and the empress Constanza be in the lowest sphere, the moon, in Canto 3 (pictured above), simply because men snatched them out of their nunneries and forced them into unspeakable wedlock? And why does the narrative of Dante's Thomas Aquinas about St Francis seem so hard and charmless to us, expecting at least something of the goodly saint's conversation with nature?

Dante's Beatrice provides part of the answer when it comes to the two paradisical ladies in Canto 4: they merely appear in the moon, and actually adorn the first sphere, the Empyrean. It's a matter of conscience. Well, that's half satisfactory. And Prof. Took thinks that the narrator Dante is playing the serpent when he asks them if they don't desire a higher place. Smiling and joyful Piccarda replies that 'it is constitutive of this blessed to stay within God's will, and thus .our very wills become one' ('Anzi e formale ad esto beato esse/tenersi dentro a la divina voglia/per ch'una fansi nostre voglie stesse', 3.79-81).


As for Francis, the harshness is to do, as Prof. Took put it, with Dante's 'stringent selectivity' - he has an axe to grind with the Dominicans and their tendency towards luxury in opposition to the Franciscans, led by a man who took Poverty as his Bride. He's 'too angry', has 'too much of an agenda' to spend time on the birds and the beasts.

Bach doesn't always do the expected thing, either, though his line of communication is always direct thanks to the expressive power of music. His first Ascension cantata for Leipzig, 'Wer da gläubert und getauft wird' comes not with trumpets and drums but an exquisite halo of two oboi d'amore, a short if uplifting opening chorus and an affirmative tenor aria with ardent violin obbligato. Loveliest is the chorale for soprano and mezzo in imitation with dancing continuo support, as Brides of Christ complete with joyous 'eia's- irresistible when Rilling's soloists here are Arleen Auger and Carolyn Watkinson.


That fine alto distinguishes BWV 44, 'Sie werden euch in den Bann tun', with a superb aria alongside oboe and bassoon. The opening is surprising: two parts of the text run respectively as a duet for tenor and bass and a harmonically wayward chorus in faster tempo. The chorale for tenor here has a distinctly weird, chromatic accompaniment from bassoon, there are fabulous adventures from the bass line in the virtuoso soprano aria, verging on the Handelian, and the closing chorale is familiar from its similar setting in the Matthew Passion.

BWV 172, 'Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!' for Whitsunday, is much more what one might expect for Ascension. It comes as no surprise to learn that its three celebratory trumpets, which go virtuoso-crazy in the bass aria (a good, if short alternative to Handel's 'The Trumpet Shall Sound'), were originally meant for a secular celebration, but they suit the celestial setting of the Weimar chapel (pictured below, no longer extant, alas) for which they were destined in 1714. The tenor aria offers some room for reflection, and a presumably deliberate harping on minor seconds in the 'weh' of 'wehet'.


Intimacy is apt for the Whitsun Monday and Tuesday cantatas, both of which begin with charming recitatives. BWV 173, 'Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut", is another cantata adapted from a profane congratulatory set. It haas a radiant beginning (plus a non-chorale final number, unusual but not unique among the cantatas) and a lilting 6/8 tenor aria (beautifully sung on the Rilling set by his regular, Adalbert Kraus) with flute doubling first violin line to strong effect. The most original number, in which each of three verses, first for bass, then soprano, then the two together, is treated with increasing elaboration, is ruined by the only inadequate soprano I've heard on the Rilling set so far; let's hope she's a one-off.


BWV 175, 'Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen' captures the good-shepherd pastoral aspect with three recorders - and we're back to excellent soloists - Watkinson, Schreier, Huttenlocher - exchanged for two very florid trumpets before the finale choral reverts to the original colouring. Last night, in the only one of the three Gardiner cantata sequences I was able to catch over the Bach weekend at the Barbican, there was equal rustic beauty in the perfect correspondence between countertenor Reginald Mobley and Rachel Beckett and Christine Garratt on two transverse flautes for the aria 'Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen' in BWV 20. But I feel that's all I can write on the evening's cornucopia of riches for now, lest you feel drowned in BWV numbers. More anon.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Talks with two great artists

I'm not overstating the case, even if I do regard both as friends.


Dame Anne Evans was the Brünnhilde I saw in what remains by all accounts the last great Ring seen at Bayreuth to date, Harry Kupfer's, with Barenboim conducting and John Tomlinson as Wotan. She was also a superb Isolde with Mackerras. But her career embraced many surprises, as we heard at the Wagner Society. Everything there beautifully organised - for the first time in my experience of composer societies - by Henry Kennedy*, down to photographs taken by Ben Tomlin.


Kaupo Kikkas I first spotted moving very silently around the concert hall in Pärnu, with a muffler on his camera's click button. He took superb photographs of the Järvis and the Estonian (formerly Pärnu) Festival Orchestra, and continues to be the best musical portraitist, in my opinion. But he also surprised me when he sent a file of his 'Treescape' project, definitively answering the question 'is photography art?' with a resounding 'yes'. I was very honoured when he asked if I'd be the 'moderator' in an event to mark the end of his exhibition at the Estonian Embassy, about which I'd earlier written here. The above photo was taken by Roger Way; the other two of the talk below and lower down by Helen Mäerand.


In order of appearance, then, Ann(i)e first. I interviewed her about Wagner in the 1990s, but I first started to get to know her when she came to my Opera in Depth class with Susan Bullock. And to prepare for the talk, I paid a visit on a sunny afternoon to her, delightful husband John Lucas (biographer of Klemperer and Goodall, inter alia), and adorable one-eyed dog Izzie - as in Isolde, though a sex-change to Wotan would be even more apt - at their Islington home. We decided on the examples we'd play from an impressive archive which went back as far as her first Wagner in December 1967 - a snippet of her Wellgunde in Das Rheingold. As John remarked, and I sincerely agreed, you could tell the voice immediately; her sound has always been warm and distinctive**. She was then a student in Geneva, and she and two colleagues (one was Katherine Pring) got to sing Rhinemaidens, Valkyries and Norns in a professional staging.


Verdi and Mozart were more often on the cards in those days. We heard a very Italianate portion of the 'Libera me' from Verdi's Requiem conducted by John Barbirolli in the Royal Albert Hall on 3 March 1969 - another collaboration with students - and a stunning Traviata 'Sempre libera' with Mackerras at the Coli in the autumn of 1973. Because of CM, no high E flat just before the end, but the rest proves she could have done it. Lovely ornamentations in the da capo of 'Dove sono,' also under Mackerras's guidance.

And then, of course, Brünnhilde, with snippets from the film of Kupfer's Ring. Much discussion of the 'coming on running' instruction from Kupfer, how a dancer told Anne to hold the breath so that she could release it on arrival. And of how for the awakening scene in Siegfried, he wanted her to imagine a butterfly released from its chrysalis. Jerusalem was as much of a great colleague as John Tom, she says.


Our grand finale moved everyone, I think. If I were to go for an Immolation Scene on CD, it would be Flagstad's with Furtwängler in Rome, 1950 (Michael Tanner played it in his contribution to the German Romantic Opera study day I curated in Birmingham). On DVD, it would be not from a production, but this - Anne with the stunningly good National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands conducted by a hirsute younger Mark Wigglesworth in a hot open-air summer concert in Nijmegen on the banks of the Rhine. 14 July 1995. The second half of the concert was excerpts from Götterdämmerung, all worth watching; for the Immolation, go to 19'35.


Next talk at the Wagner Society is with Peter Conrad, always a thought-provoking speaker and writer, on Wagner and Shakespeare on 12 July; I look forward to being enlightened...

As I was by humble Mensch Kaupo a couple of weeks after the Wagner Soc event. I was delighted to receive a Treescape photo in a thick glass block - namely this one -


and a copy of the book based on his latest project, Saja Lugu, a centenary project to photograph 100 Estonians of all ages and from all walks of life. It had its origins in a similar venture Kaupo worked on in Tyneside with our mutual friend Jonathan Bloxham at his Northern Chords Festival. If only every town and every country had the resources to honour its people like this.


After spending two hours in his subjects' company, he took two photos - one a close-up portrait in black and white,


the other a colour image of the person in a setting dear to him or her.  There is no better way to connect with that wonderful country as it is today.


I marvel at the candour with which the folk engage with Kaupo. There isn't so much the culture of smiling inanely at the camera which makes so many photos here unnatural, as if everyone is always having a jolly time. You can see the history in the older folk, the openness of the young.

Kaupo's natural curiosity and lack of arrogance ensure all his portrait subjects are themselves, in a true dialogue with the photographer. He is especially proud of his many photographs of Arvo Pärt,


and in addition we discussed his several stays with the Matsés tribe down the Amazon; he won't do it again, he says, because the relationship between the gringo and the native is too precarious not to damage something. He pointed out that while the tribespeople do follow their traditions in certain rituals - the older women still sport decorative whiskers in homage to the jaguar -


they more often dress in t-shirts and baseball caps. But their cooking and essential ways of life remain the same as they always have been.


I should add that Kaupo trained at first as a musician at the Tallinn Music School and the Estonian Academy of Music before going on to study photography in Helsinki. Typical of his multifacetedness is that here in London he was guiding fellow Estonians around his own 'secret' places along with the familiar - many of this haunts I don't know myself, so I must take them up.


By way of footnote, I should mention one more Embassy event - this time at the Czechs' handsomely renovated Brutalist building in Notting Hill. It was a chance to hear the first-rate Pražák Quartet, who've recently taken on a new first violinist, Jana Vonášková. Her great artistry shone especially in the improvisatory feel to her solos in Dvořák's 'American' Quartet.


Their all-Czech programme was generous, but the revelation for me, because I hadn't heard it before and fell instantly in love, was Josef Suk's Quartet No. 1 in  B flat, full of personal touches both harmonic and melodic, rarely predictable.


While I do find the Asrael Symphony rather long in getting to its devastating payoff, I'd count this relatively early work as a masterpiece. There's even a recording - trust YouTube, at least for the first movement - with Suk himself playing it as second violinist of the Czech Quartet in 1928.


*Young and very enterprising conductor and clarinettist who's just completed his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. He's put together a concert in aid of Parkinsons' UK at St John's Smith Square this Friday (15 June), with fellow students playing and a senior Beethoven Piano Society of Europe prizewinner, Andrei Iliushkin, in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, followed by Bruckner's Third Symphony. Book here.

**And now she may have an Irish successor. As one of the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists, Jennifer Davis sang Mozart, Nielsen and Bizet, very meaningfully, at our 2017 Europe Day Concert (pictured here with Jonathan Bloxham by Jamie Smith)


and took over the role of Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin at the Royal Opera from Kristine Opolais. Total, if unflashy, triumph, winning the loudest applause, cheers and footstamping of the first night. Rupert Christiansen, in the Torygraph, went for the 'star is born' line in the opening paragraph. I felt I ought to keep perspective in my Arts Desk review since we regard her as 'our Jenn', but there was no denying the evenness throughout the range, the brilliant top - in marked and not inappropriate contrast to Christine Goerke's Ortrud - or the authority of goodness she brought to bear against her hater in Act Two. Here she is in Act Three as the wedding night starts to unravel, photo by Clive Barda.


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Africa in Portugal



Fresh from four exhilarating days at the Setúbal Music Festival - I have yet to write up the report of this year's spectacular for The Arts Desk, but here's one from 2014 - I wasn't expecting something quite as extraordinary as the centrepiece of another festival in the beautiful Alentejo town of Évora - African Passions. Curated by the incredibly impressive and widely travelled Alexandra de Cadaval, it makes superb use of the exhibition rooms in the family's palace.


It's especially appropriate since, although all 16 artists represented come from sub-Saharan Africa - and, as ever, beg the question, should we be lumping so many countries together under the aegis of 'African art'? - the Palácio dos Duques de Cadaval is built, like all else in Évora, on the 450-year period of Moorish rule established by Tariq ibn-Zayad in 715 (the Moors were driven out of Portugal much earlier than they were in Spain, so there are no great monuments to compare to the mosque in Cordoba or the Alhambra). Earlier still, the Romans were here, and the gem of Évora's UNESCO World Heritage status has to be the Temple of Diana (so called) on what is essentially the acropolis (the Cathedral is almost, but not quite, on the same level).


Some of our fellow guests in Setúbal had been at the festival opening in Évora, to the accompaniment of a dramatic thunderstorm of which we had no inkling on the coast (where the sun shone every day; inland, it remained mostly grey and the rest of Europe seemed to be drowning). We were sorry to be missing one of the many musical events by taking a flight back that evening; tanked up to trance state by litres of beer, men from Burkina Faso were to hold a full moon Bwaba ceremony at the cromlech outside town. But at least our experience followed a ritual route, starting by entry into the former convent church next to the palace, the Igreja dos Loios, via the Gothic doorway and the escutcheon of the Cadavals.


In front of the high altar, flanked by the floor-to-ceiling azulejo tiles showing scenes from the life of  São Lourenço Justiniano, founder of the Loios, Benin artist Romuauld Hazoumè's Osa La, made of fabric and trailing plastic containers, evokes Yoruba ritual parallel to the Catholic one represented in the church. 



83-year-old Esther Mahlangu of the Ndebele community in South Africa came to Évora to try out the ceremonial paintings handed down through generations on the gateway to the Palace - I love it that this modest contribution coexists with the Cadaval arms- 


as well as a new canvas seen on a wall of the courtyard up top (the heritage status meant it couldn't be done directly) and this old motorbike dug out by Alexandra.


It sits aptly in the centre of the first room, celebrating the artist we know best from his association with Sophie in Mali, photographer Malick Sidibé (born in the same year as Esther Mahlangu, 1935; he died in 2016). The bike, its provenance being explained by Alexandra above to Hugo O'Neill (more on him anon when I return to the subject of Setubal) and Lady Hamlyn is well in accord with the lovely scenes of urban life in the nightclubs and dance halls of Bamako. The Helen Hamlyn Trust is one of the sponsors of both Setúbal and Évora festivals.

Turn to the left and in the first of a long sequence of light-filled rooms, each of which is enriched by the perspective on the others, there are further exuberant, this time colour, images brimming with African vitality. JP Mika's La belle ambiance even reflects Sidibe's most adorable image, of the dancing couple, 


while Chéri Samba, like Mika from the DRC, gives space to the young and old.


Mika, quite a character by all accounts who to homage the Alentejo turned up in cork hat and suit, dances us into the next room


which offers another joyous perspective in Cote Ivoirien Frédéric Boulay Boubaré's 213 drawings imagining his mother travelling the world on crutches. She not only visits European countries; the EU flag also gets a look-in. Each drawing is subtly, and mostly humorously different. 


Rather whizzing on now through the rooms - and nothing I saw was unworthy of attention - here's the obsessive working in black and white - with just a bit of pink - by the DRC's Houston Maludi.


Malian Toussaint Dembelé's colour to monochrome is in the loads of cyclists. The painting I'd take away with me from the exhibition is on the right.


A third Malian, Amadou Sanogo, could be giving us another Ubu Roi series with A Votre Avis


while the portrait in the next room, mostly obliterated by the light in the distance above, is by Filipe Branquinho of Mozambique.


Mauro Pinto, from the same country with ties to Portugal, has photographed tribal ritual, which Alexandra is explaining to Helen.


Then the photography strain continues with the alienation of some African women as depicted by Phumzile Khanyile of Soweto


in striking contrast to Senegalese Omar Victor Diop's playful but magnificent series of self-portraits, usually with football,


of which this perhaps is my favourite


though the portrait of the woman with a fan depicted in the second picture from the top is justly the cover image for the exhibition. I can't recommend a visit too strongly - it runs until 25 August.

Our run of superb lunches continued at the four-table Tasquina d'Oliviera, drooling over items at which I'll spare you, after which J and I took a much-needed walk along the colonnades of the lower old town until we reached Évora's main square


of which you may see more, as well as other parts of Évora we didn't have time to see, in a video by my latest discovery, folk singer and heroine of the Alentejo Celina da Piedade. I love her smile and her brio - she's a consummate performer as well as perfect crowd-worker, as we witnessed on our first evening in Setúbal



All we had time left to see was the Cathedral - fortress-like without, begun in Romanesque style, mostly Gothic within, and unhappily restored.


Looks like too much may have been done to the statues of the Apostles either side of the west doorway, if indeed they're still originals,


but the detail is especially fine on St Peter.


The cloisters are rather splendid, 


especially since you can take one of two spiral stone staircases up on to the roof.


Gargoyles offset roundels with designs presumably influenced by the Moorish occupation.


In the south-east corner there's the tomb of the fundador, Bishop Pedro,


with a fine crucifixion frieze beneath his head and on one of the lions' backs.


The well laid out cathedral museum contains way too much samey stuff for my taste. Two things stood out: a small piece of 4th century fabric with praise to the Lord in Arabic, and this 12-inch-high Gothic ivory statue of Mary, opening out into a triptych with nine scenes of her life.

 
A French work of the 13th century, with a replica head from the 16th century, it must have been a gift to the town.


I wish we'd had more time for treasures in the main museum - less sorry about not seeing St Francis's chapel of bones, which  was not going to outstrip the crypt of All Saints Sedlec just outside Kutna Hora in Czechia - but Lisbon and the airport were calling. We'd hoped to see the cromlech on the way out, but our driver told us it was too far off the main road and so - whizzing back past the fabulous landscape of cork trees on undulating hills and little sign of habitation, later storks and their nests on pylons - we headed for home.