Thursday 28 August 2008

Remembering RVW

The great man (photo courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Estate via the Proms) died fifty years ago this Tuesday. There's already been a fair bit of remembering - or rather discovering and rediscovering - on this blog, and the Proms' mammoth tribute, conducted by who(m) else but Sir Andrew Davis (Richard Hickox, some would say, but not I, though I'm sure we'd all have happily settled for Vernon Handley, had he been well enough), offered further revelation. Of what sort I still don't know in the case of the Ninth Symphony, his enigmatic swansong. Similarly equivocal symphonic endgames by Nielsen and Shostakovich resolve, but this one doesn't: what means the finale by wandering on beyond its natural end? What are the galumphing forces that break across the flugelhorn solo in the slow movement (maybe something to do with the final scene of Tess of the D'Urbervilles which this was originally meant to illustrate)?

No matter; the answer is surely that there is no answer, that the old wizard was still experimenting with harmonies, orchestral colours (the flugelhorn, the three naughty saxes in the scherzo) and the Unanswered Question (is this perhaps death, and if so, what might it mean?) Davis once more obeyed, as had Volkov, that wise Barenboim injunction to 'let the hall come to you', and the BBC Symphony played soulfully for him throughout. He even managed sustained silences at the end of three works: for this, for the Serenade to Music - doesn't really work in this space, though good to hear voices of distinction in Sarah Tynan, Catherine Hopper and Joshua Ellicott - and for the unquestionable masterpiece, the compendious score for the ballet Job, in which the BBC woodwind proved they are the most distinctive of the London sections. I was sorry not to see a single one of Blake's haunting illustrations in the programme, so here's one so luridly complemented by the music of Vaughan Williams's Scene 4: 'With Dreams upon my bed thou scarest me & affrightest me with Visions'...

The Tallis Fantasia didn't quite work for me, partly because the audience had not yet been stilled and also because the spatial effects didn't come across. Interesting phenomenon, if obvious, that when the hall fills up - and the Arena was more packed on this occasion than I've seen it this season - the halo of sound disappears, along with the (for some pieces) worrying soft edges. So a shame there weren't more bodies for Janacek the other night. Whatever the pros and cons, they've got the visuals of a full Albert Hall platform exactly right, so here's a photo by Chris Christodoulou of (just a few of) the best of young British singers, the orchestra and Sir Andrew in the Serenade to Music:

The whole event has prompted incomprehension from some of the critics, but there's poetry of the best sort in Ed Seckerson’s Independent review: he's one of the handful who know and love what they're talking about.

For me, too, this was an evening full of surprises. Job I'd heard live before - Tod Handley, dancing performance - so I knew the smoochy sax-comforter and the apocalyptic organ would have their effect. But I did feel privileged to be hearing the Ninth and even the Serenade for the first time in a concert hall, adding two more riveting new experiences to those already noted with the Piano Concerto and The Pilgrim's Progress. Onwards, then, to the Sinfonia Antartica, the Eighth and Riders to the Sea.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Last year in Luhacovice

Last Thursday's Proms concert performance of Janacek's Osud brought back happy memories of the spa resort where its first act kicks off in sun-drenched merry-go-round brilliance. Mapped out as part of our Czechia motoring tour by our dear Viennese friends Tommi and Martha, Luhacovice (pronounced Luhatchovitse - sorry, I can't do accents on this facility) was our watering-stop between Brno and the Beskedy mountains en route to Janacek's home village of Hukvaldy last May (see the blog entry for October 2007 with the vixen badge-and-statue photos). You will see that not a great deal has changed in olde-worlde Luhacovice, though it is no longer for the fashion-conscious; all Czechs seem to enjoy the simple pleasures there. In the second picture ye foreign tourists are standing at the entrance to folly-architect Dusan Jurkovic's biggest number, complete with swans at the portal (it's now the top spa hotel). For good measure, here's another old postcard purchased there - making fun of Czechs trying to be stylish in the rain - and a wider sweep of the hotel in the central spa gardens as the less fashionable tourists walk away from it.

I suppose one could do a mobile performance of Osud, moving for Act Two to Janacek's little house behind the Organ School in Brno (the only problem being that there is no high balcony from which Mila's mother might hurl herself and her daughter)...

...and for Act Three the demonstration of protagonist Zivny's unfinished opera could take place in the Organ School itself:

The Royal Albert Hall performance was beautifully shaped by Belohlavek, and luminously played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra so that the big emotions of Zivny's making-sense-of-life in the last act certainly developed. But there was a big problem, even knowing the libretto a little, in following this overwrought text with a programme on one's lap. Janacek, as always, goes for uncompromising music theatre, and the only solution is either to do it in English or make sure you have supertitles (and the Proms will have to get them for next year, I think). The singing was good, but Stefan Margita's idiosyncratic voice production and charisma couldn't eclipse memories of Philip Langridge in one of his greatest roles.

Meanwhile, from Janacek's piano in his little house behind Brno's Organ School... a harp somewhere in France...

...where two weekends ago we were liberally hosted by a genial chatelain. He shared with us his splendid outdoor pool and his cook, unlocked the doors to his artistic holiest of holies (which of course can't be enumerated) and drove us some distance to the prettiest towns bordering on Provence. I fell in love with Grignan, a walled gem which welcomes the Better Sort of Tourist thanks to its literary connection with the Marquise de Sevigne: note the quill on the old tower, as well as the roses of which the town makes such a fuss in its 'jardins botaniques de Grignan' trail.

The chateau here, reconstructed in the 1930s, has an odd kind of dominance - from its terraces one has splendid views over the region, and it extends over the roof of the 16th century church, as you can see.

Vaison-la-Romaine is much more touristified, but then it has even more to see: Roman ruins and bridge leading to the medieval town... well as an atmospheric romanesque church where we were lucky to catch France's National Youth Choir in rehearsal. The next morning we went to Solemn Mass at the monastery of Aiguebelle, set in a lush green valley.

The monkish chanting was a wonderful background to thoughts holy and otherwise (by which I don't necessarily mean UNholy, just a tad profane). We had to tut 'dommage, dommage' as the woman in front and her granddaughter took out their mobile phones to photograph the proceedings, whereafter the teenager promptly and childishly slumped to sleep on granny's shoulder.

By Bank Holiday weekend, it was time to settle in at home a little, though I did go off to the National Youth Orchestra Prom so vividly conducted by Pappano - does this man ever do anything less than wholeheartedly? - and in which one could take the virtuosity of the under-20s for granted in a more than usually gripping and danceable performance of Varese's Ameriques. I heard Copland's Third live for the first time, and didn't much care for its flatulent attempts to live up to the Big Symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich; but they did it superbly well - there was a great young oboist - and flew alongside the laid-back but inspired Berezovsky in that difficult beast the Rachmaninov Fourth Piano Concerto.

Sunday was our day out. First we had lunch at Mount Pleasant, a tranquil haven for writers and artists in Reigate where I met one of my great heroes, Bryan Magee, as courteous and curious in person as he is in print. Then we took our diplomatic friends Anneli and Niki to Charleston. Despite twice performing in the Quentin Follies, I've never been round the house, and I was not just charmed but dazzled by the Bloomsbury motto of 'if it's a surface, paint it'. There were some first-rate portraits by Duncan Grant, an uneven artist but at his best in the studies of Maynard Keynes and Lytton. And the guides were tactful and very well informed. I like the fact that they don't have 'keep off' signs on the fragile furniture, or cordons around it. Here's a photo of the studio, with Duncan Grant's Italian nude on the easel, taken by Pia Tryde (no photography otherwise permitted within the house). For further images and news, check out the Charleston website.

A sunny afternoon was heightened by tea with Olivier Bell, friend Cressida's mother and widow of Quentin, who lives nearby. I can't say how much my spirits soared when she told us that the diagnosis of brain cancer, which had prompted Cressida to encourage us to pay our last respects earlier in the year, had proved completely wrong (somehow we hadn't gathered this particular part of the message from Cressida, just imagined she was in some kind of remission). In fact, Olivier had had a stroke, and has completely regained the power of her speech. Her wit and wisdom are as sharp as ever - she complained at the cropping of the Keynes painting in the postcard I showed her - and she was tolerant of the battery of cameras portraying the gracious lady with each of us. I only ventured one at the end of our visit of Olivier in her favourite kitchen seat.

92, and still as strikingly attired as ever and as upright in her posture as when we first met her. Evviva Olivier - or, as I said, may she live as long as she wants to, and clearly she does very much want to at the moment.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Right again, Anna

In A Russian Diary (Harvill Secker), a book so powerful and depressing that I had to read it in chunks with intervals in between, the soon-to-be-murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya charted the new democracy in Georgia between the beginning of 2004 and the summer of 2005.

On 5 January 2004 Politkovskaya welcomes Saakashvili's 'Rose Revolution' and notes: 'There is a limit to how long you can trample people underfoot. When they really want change, there is nothing you can do to stop it. Is this what they are afraid of?'

On 6 October she laments that 'a serflike psychology has once again taken hold of the country, and rounds on anyone less servile. How malevolently Russian television rants when Yushchenko makes a mistake in the Ukraine, and as for Saakashvili, he is the Kremlin's bete noire. Georgia is our main enemy among the countries of the former USSR.'

Don't say we weren't warned. Though to be fair, Saakashvili was daft to fall into the trap that Putin set and to march into South Ossetia. The Economist wisely points out the maxim that, given a choice between an unwise decision and doing nothing, it is always better to do nothing. But doing nothing is not an option now for the west - even if it has to be more aware about Russia's extraordinary (and from their point of view understandable) hostility towards NATO.

A balanced view of Georgia's mistake, Russia's trap and the role of America's Neocons is to be found in Misha Glenny’s New Statesman article.

(28/8) The causes remain confused. Today’s article in The Moscow Times attempts to clarify.

How weird that I temporarily found myself agreeing with those Neocons - though as Glenny points out, their bullishness also spells terrible danger. Our (my) ambivalence towards the New World continues. I came back from Bard/New York loving the city much more than I had in 2001, when I was so disturbed by the gluttony and the general greedy overconsumption (I had hung around the horrifying delis near Carnegie Hall, which I understand are more for the little-American tourists - this needs to be spelled out, because a reader has misunderstood me). That's a theme that's treated, with much more lightness of touch than the critics have given him credit for, in Laurent Pelly's Glyndebourne production of Humperdinck's evergreen Hansel und Gretel, which I caught up with last night. The gingerbread house is a piled-high American supermarket of massed comestibles - lest you thought it could happen, or has happened, here, dollar signs gleamed aloft - but its dayglo colours still look enticing in Barbara De Limburg Stirum's brilliant design. Here's the first of Mike Hoban's production photographs:

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's drag witch is hysterically funny, but the hysteria supersedes the fun when the wig comes off and the supermarket unfolds to reveal rows of kitchen knives.

Those and the charnel-house chimneys which pop up lend a grim edge, but it's not overdone. Pelly knows how to make you laugh out loud, and he doesn't pile on the horror in the way that Richard Jones did in his terrible-mouth production for Welsh National Opera. Critics made unfavourable comparisons between Pelly and earlier Hansels from Pountney and Jones, and claimed he was dissing the po' white trash for the delectation of the dinner-jacketed punters, but that's going too far (and I found all three productions equally inventive). Even the hugely fat children liberated from the supermarket-house get a big laugh to start with, but then prove very touching and sad when they leap about. I enjoyed seeing the piles of body-suits backstage afterwards, but the photo I took really isn't interesting enough to post here.

Relatively little happens in Act 1, but I roared at the silhouette-comedy for the Hexenritt interlude, and unlike my colleagues liked the idea for the angel pantomime - hordes of white-clad Hansels and Gretels, spirits of the Witch's victims perhaps, playing with the rubbish and clustering curiously around the sleeping siblings. Kazushi Ono conducted with great sweep, so there was never a dull moment even in Mutti's monologue, and the 'liberation waltz' was irresistible, but there wasn't quite enough atmosphere, and nothing to fear either musically or production-wise in the forest of Act 1. Adriana Kucerova and Jennifer Holloway as the hyperactive children clearly needed a dose of ritalin, but acted their socks off (Kucerova is a real stage animal), and I liked the true Brunnhildesque tones of Irmgard Vilsmaier's mother, but Ablinger-Sperrhacke stole the show. Pantomime dame? Of course, why on earth not? He was on the company bus back to Lewes - I shared it with Charles Kerry (see June blog) - and asked to be let off at Waitrose's. To stock up on supplies for the house, I asked to his amusement before enthusing about his inspired comic timing. He seemed surprisingly quiet and modest after all that lighting up on stage.

My only regret about the evening - apart from a meeting-up debacle I won't go in to here - was that it meant sacrificing Gergiev's performance of Tchaikovsky's complete Sleeping Beauty with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Proms. The last time anything like this happened was with Rozhdestvensky and the BBCSO back in 1979 - I remember being one of the very few to attend as a teenager, and it was charismatic though rather scrappily played. The full score never gets played for the ballet in its entirety, so I was delighted when Harriet Smith gave me the chance to annotate each number for the programme. I'm pleased with the results, as I love this music as much as any, and you can refer to these detailed notes for the complete Sleeping Beauty online. Very nice things have been said about them today in the BBC Messageboard thread about Gergiev’s Prom. What could be better than inspiring someone who's been resistant to the ballet in the theatre to go and see it, just because she found Act Three much more enjoyable with the notes? Though I guess Ms Elleson may be disappointed to find how much music gets cut, especially in the fast-moving Royal Ballet version. As for the Prom, I've managed to listen to the Prologue and Act One this morning, and very lush they sound too, far removed from Gergiev's rather speedy recording with the then-Kirov Orchestra.

Stop press (21 August): only connect. The night after the Prom, when apparently he was supposed to be rehearsing the LSO in London, Gergiev was in South Ossetia conducting a memorial concert dedicated to 'our great Russia', according to this gobsmacking Times report. OK, so he's (North) Ossetian, but might it not have been wiser to use music as an angel of peace and dedicate the commemorative works to the victims of both sides? I'm chilled to think of our Valery and Putin as godfathers to each other's children. People will say, ah, it's Strauss and Furtwangler all over again, but those world-within-worlders who naively thought music could get along with tyranny were compromised, whereas Gergiev charges to the side of might without a moment's hesitation.

And again (23 August): watch the YouTube film of Gergiev’s Tskhinvali speeches in Russian (with interpreter) and English and decide for yourselves whether he went far enough in his plea for peace. With constantly reiterated words like ‘aggressor’, the equating of Tskhinvali with Stalingrad (ouch) and phrases like ‘the help and assistance of the Great Russia’, as well as his insistence only on ‘the days of 7th and 8th August’, I should say this is going to make difficulties, rightly or wrongly, for the organisations with which he works in the west. Sadly, too, in the meantime a peace concert held in Tallinn and shared between Estonians and Georgians went largely unreported.

Let's finally celebrate a genuinely joyous piece of Americana. Why was I deprived throughout my childhood of one of the cleverest and most heartfelt Hollywood musicals ever, The Music Man? OK, so we had endless repeats of The Sound of Music, but somehow this perfect show for kids of all ages didn't make much of an impact in the UK.

I was lured to hire it from LoveFilm when a poster on the sometimes hilarious mentioned Hermione Gingold's 'vocal filth' when she utters the name 'Ball-zac' (one of the many 'smutty' authors the mayor's wife doesn't approve of being stocked by the lovely librarian, Marian, so deliciously played by Shirley Jones - oh, I can feel another evening in with Carousel and kleenex coming on). The rap routines of the salesmen and Ohians are rather bewildering, but experimental for the time and the camerawork is ingenious; there are at least four hit songs, capped by the irresistible 'Seventy-Six Trombones', some terrific dancing, a touching kid with a lisp, and the relationship between slippery but loveable conman Robert Preston and good woman Jones is so nuanced in its development that both of us at home here were in tears - ah, manipulation - towards the end. Definitely one of the great musicals, so I'm ashamed not to have given it house-room before.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

56 years late, a Proms first

My one-time sage, if capricious, Meister when I assistant edited Music and Musicians all those years ago, Robert Matthew-Walker, was there at Monday's Prom - sitting in the Arena bar during the interval like a fixture of the Royal Albert Hall with his old pal Malcolm Smith. Both had been present at the first UK performance of Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto with Rostropovich and Sargent in 1958 (NOT at the Proms), and both were well satisfied with what they'd just heard: 'a very fine performance of the greatest work for cello and orchestra of the 20th century', proclaimed Cap'n Bob.

So why have the Proms ignored it all these years? Bizarrely, the much less popular and less audience-friendly Cello Concerto No.1, which Prokofiev refashioned with Slava's help into what eventually became the Symphony-Concerto, HAS been heard twice in the RAH. Anyway, this strange omission may be the reason why they asked the evening's outstanding cellist, Alban Gerhardt, and myself to talk to Martin Handley before the Prom. The talk can be heard online on the Radio 3 Proms site, though not apparently outside the UK, and it's pointless me providing a link here because you'll be told you need all sorts of scripts which presumably you already have. It went with Aufschwung, partly thanks to Alban, who has very decided opinions both on the two works - which he is about to record with Andrew Litton in Bergen for Hyperion - and on Slava. Here we all are after the talk, with a startled-looking Martin on the left and Alban on the right:

You can read an account of his latest Proms experience on Alban’s blog, with its daunting command of idiomatic English (he lives in Berlin, where his father still plays in the Berlin Philharmonic, an option he once considered). His performance was astoundingly fluent, negotiating gear-changes so that the audience would never have noticed the problems inherent in the work, spot-on in intonation and hyper-brilliant at the very difficult end (in which the cello, in Alexander Ivashkin's potent image, seems to fly away from his enemies and enter heaven through the narrowest of gates). There's always a problem with where you sit in the RAH, if you don't brave the Arena which I didn't on Monday, and at the side with Alban projecting away from us I felt we weren't getting the full richness of his cello tone. Listening, however, to the snippets on his website, I was compelled especially by the slow movement of the Dvorak Concerto, which made me stop everything I was doing. I had to go and dig out Rostropovich's performance with Giulini, though I suspect the younger player would not approve.

I think there was a faint hiss in the audience for the talk when I said that I didn't 'get' Elliott Carter, whose very brief Soundings launched the Prom, and indeed I listened to it with interest, admiring the orchestral colours, without finding it had anything to say (Carla, who joined me again, this time with four 'A's in her A-levels and a distinction in Advanced English under her belt to send her on her way to Oxford, articulated the same feeling without my prompting). The Beethoven Pastoral Symphony after the interval was a total surprise, even though I know Ilan Volkov is a rather remarkable young conductor and has already done fine things with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It bore out what we'd been saying in the talk, when Martin quoted Barenboim as advising his musicians to 'let the hall come to you'; this was a gleaming, intimate, mostly rather feminine interpretation, effortlessly phrased and always alive - what focused energy from the Scots cellos, perhaps inspired by their soloist, though it was a shame Alban didn't join the rank-and-file as he sometimes likes to do after his solo appearances. It reminded me what generalisations one makes about Beethoven being the cell-man, Mozart the singer of longer phrases, for the Sixth is so full of song and Mozartian warmth of orchestral colour. Even the storm didn't seem too threatening, and the shepherds' thanksgiving glowed.

The events of the past few weeks have steered me back on course with Prokofiev Vol. 2, happy in the knowledge that I have something to say and that my love for SSP is boundless. I've also been inspired by what is perhaps the best, and certainly the most idiosyncratic, biography I've ever read, Peter Ackroyd's enormous study of Dickens. I finished it on the way back from France on Sunday, and I'm convinced you have to read it in its entirety, rather than the easily-found abridged version, which is why I've taken this rather poor reproduction of the cover of the right edition to show you the one you should be looking for, a very heavy paperback from Vintage:

Herein is a character one can reverence for his deep humanity, even if like us all he reveals flaws in his personal life. He really practised what he preached, and of course his preaching is so eloquent. I felt compelled to copy down his wit and wisdom into my little black book, from which I select only one quotation. It's from a New Testament story he wrote for his children, never intended for publication and only emerging in print in 1934 (I found a good second-hand copy via Amazon). In it, he exhorts: 'Never be proud or unkind, my dears, to any poor man, woman or child. If they are bad, think that they would have been better, if they had had kind friends and good homes, and had been better taught. So, always try to make them better by kind persuading words; and always try to teach them and relieve them if you can...And always pity them yourselves, and think as well of them as you can'. There is, of course, one fatal instance in which he fell short of this command, in his complete emotional cut-off from his long-suffering wife Catherine. But for the greater good, he never compromised. We still need his tolerance, his energy and his humour today.

Finally, a very kind word from a stranger on a posting here made me realise I perhaps should not have hidden my latest, very modest light under a bushel, and, dammit, I am quite proud of the results. This is a little two-CD set with a hundred-page booklet from Naxos called 'Igor Stravinsky: A Portrait'.

The generous reader from Illinois commended the text, but I'm perhaps even happier with the representative selection of music I was allowed to make from The Firebird to Requiem Canticles on the two CDs. We were especially lucky in that Naxos took over the Robert Craft recordings, which leaves them with a sizeable Stravinsky discography. It gave me the chance to get to know better the thorny dodecaphonic stuff of great Igor's last period, as well as such unexpected masterpieces as the Concerto for Two Pianos. Above all, here is another complex genius whose company, when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil, one is very reluctant to leave in reading of his life (and Stephen Walsh's two volumes can be very entertaining, though I'm not sure he identifies quite as strongly with his subject's humanity as Ackroyd does with Dickens). Zdravstvuytye!

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Gehry here, Gehry there

Having promised more Gehriana, I think the photos serve the connection as well as I'd hoped. The sharp angles of glass and timber announce the new style of the Serpentine pavilion, which I've observed with fascination since the first beams went up earlier in the summer. The gleaming splendour beneath reflects the more familiar curves of earlier Gehry - in this case a known and loved quantity to me since I first wandered through the oaks of the Bard campus up the Hudson from New York four years ago, and almost burst into tears at the beauty of the sunset reflected on the panels of the Fisher Center.

So here I was, delighted to be back again in one of the most beautiful natural spots on earth (quite something to follow the Maiella, the Beare peninsula, Savonlinna and the Malverns - what a summer!) My first visit was thanks to Shostakovich, whose world this most enterprising and concentrated of festivals happened to be exploring in 2004. This year was Prokofiev's turn, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of leading light Leon Botstein and the special pleading of scholar-in-residence Prof Simon Morrison (see the Romeo and Juliet entry back in May). The whole organisation, I should say straightaway, is as smooth as any I've ever encountered, and all my demands were obligingly met by Irene Zedlacher, Raissa St Pierre and Christopher H. Gibbs (one of the three artistic directors).

I determined to take more time than I had four years ago, stopping off in New York for a night and a morning on the way, where I was generously hosted in the very comfortable apartment of John Morris between West 85th and 86th Streets. Here was a chance to explore the Upper West Side, and it made me fall in love with NY again after a more ambivalent visit in 2001. Everything gleamed in the sharp sunlight of a perfect (and not at all humid) August morning; having bought an emergency shirt supply in Filene's Basement and consumed a potato and garlic knish from Zabar's emporium, I strolled up Riverside Park from 80th to 108th streets and back down Broadway. Then came nearly two hours of one of the great train journeys, along the banks of the Hudson from Penn Station to Rhinecliff, transfer to cosy comfort in the 1844 Germond House of Rhinebeck's Delamater 'zone' and an evening trip, through the bucketing rains of a fierce storm, to the second theatre of the Gehry complex to see Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing.

Perhaps because I'd spent so much time wallowing again in the genius of G&S, it seemed like thin stuff: too many sub-Savoy choruses, too little lyricism (though 'Love is sweeping the country' and 'Of thee I sing, baby' made little islets in a rather grey sea). They chose it because they thought it was topical in election year. The dialogue, by Kaufman and Ryskind, ain't half bad, but Ira's lyrics are toe-curling and the plot really oughtn't to outstay an act: a would-be president, Wintergreen, plans to get elected on the love ticket, a beauty pageant is fixed to find the ideal Mrs Wintergreen and then he goes and falls in love with his secretary. Thwarted Diana Deveraux makes trouble, but the new Mrs W's corn muffins triumph at the end of Act 1, pictured here by Stephanie Berger with Amy Justman's Mary Turner on the chair and her adoring Wintergreen (John Bolton) centre stage.

In Act 2, Deveraux's French ancestry threatens a diplomatic incident - quite funny, that bit - but Mrs W again upstages the vengeful scion of Napoleon by going and having twins. Though the choruses remained cheesy, the three leads were absolutely what you'd want and expect on Broadway: funny face Bolton for President, perfect lyric soprano Justman as sweet Mary and Andy Gale as goofy Vice-President Throttlebottom. But don't expect Of Thee I Sing on the London stage any time soon.

By the time Prokofiev kicked off the following evening, the skies were clear over Bard, so here's the hall from the meadows: as in Kensington Gardens, the natural setting assists with the magic.

The mammoth programme was merely the shape of things to come. Excellent pianist Jeremy Denk kicked off with the Three Oranges march transcription, and just about managed the ferocious Suggestion diabolique, but poetry is his element and in that he was soulfully partnered by Soovin Kin in the arrangement for violin and piano of the winsome Five Melodies. The First Quartet wasn't quite up to scratch as the Chiara String Quartet's first violinist had just gone into labour and had to be replaced by a perfectly competent player; and I pass over the playing of the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata (ditto the same pianist's Three Pieces from Petrushka the next day). Song-wise, baritone John Hancock performed two numbers from Kije as if they were by Wagner, but there was a transcendent mezzo interpretation of the Akhmatova Songs (usually soprano territory) by the wonderful Irina Mishura, well partnered by Julia Zilberquit. The Overture on Hebrew Themes sounds better in its chamber original, and this Classical Symphony from the American Symphony Orchestra and Botstein needed a bit more buoyancy to be welcome at the end of a long programme (by then it was 3.30am UK time for me).

Saturday was the working day, but huge fun. My fellow biographer Harlow Robinson, film music expert Kevin Bartig and I all breakfasted under the trees on campus. Then Harlow and I joined the utterly charming Caryl Emerson, Princeton Slavic languages and literature doyenne, and Marina Frolova Walker, my esteemed colleague and long-term double-acter from Cambridge, for a panel on 'Prokofiev: The Man and his Music'. I 'did' the first 27 years in 20 minutes, ending up with Nina Koshetz singing the Chopin Etude which Prokofiev so admired a few days before he caught the last Trans-Siberian Express out of Moscow in 1918. Harlow covered America and Paris, while Marina ended her session on the Soviet Prokofiev with a hilarious transcript of a committee on the Seventh Symphony, in which the ghastly Zakharov harps on the fact that the finale is in his opinion a picture of disorderly Soviet children 'poking their tongues out'. Here we all are as snapped by Christopher - Caryl, a moderator who was biding her eloquent time until her more extensive appearance on the Sunday, on the left and Marina on the right:

Then, with less than an hour for lunch, I was back on to talk about Prokofiev's teachers and influences before a bumper afternoon recital. This was much less heavy-going than the previous evening's concert and started amiably with Nikolay Tcherepnin's Six Quartets for Four French Horns. Pleasant if inconsequential Gliere and Medtner (not his best stuff) paled alongside a gem of a miniature by Taneyev, his Andantino semplice, beautifully nuanced by Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute. But the highlight of the concert, and possibly for me of the four concerts I heard, was Denk's incredibly fluent and increasingly darker threading-together of the Visions fugitives: such fun he had with 5 and 6, inspired, he later told me, by SSP's own recording, and there was such wistful poetry in the later stages. I was delighted to be able to give him my prototype copy of Richter's 1961 British debut including 18 of the Visions, for which I've just written the notes. After the interval soprano Dina Kuznetsova articulated the not very memorable Op. 9 songs beautifully and to conclude - again the punters were flagging - came a sunny, if overlong String Quintet by Glazunov, obviously modelled at times on Borodin's Second Quartet, though nowhere near its equal.

Two hours later, we were back again for an apocalyptic evening programme in the Sosnoff Theatre. My heart sank when Simon announced as we shared a pre-performance drink that Russia had invaded Georgia: the finale of Prokofiev's Third, described by Richter so vividly as an end-of-the-world picture of gaping, toppling masses, was going to be rather evocative. So unreal, too, to be surrounded by all this beauty on a perfect summer evening with all those horrors to the east: Auden's 'Out on the lawn', my favourite poem, came to mind throughout. Just juxtapose in your mind with the below an image from war-torn Gori, if that isn't spelling it out too much:

Anyway, the concert began with Rimsky-Korsakov's inventive tone-poem Sadko, which I've never heard in concert, followed by Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy capped by a brilliant Broadway trumpeter, the slight overkill of Achron's sub-Scriabinesque Epitaph to the master in 1915 and Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto, dominated by a live-wire jazz-and-classical pianist, Blair McMillen, who did very fresh things with the cadenza especially.

And that was only the first half. Watching Lyadov's Enchanted Lake made me realise that he achieves his magic without trumpets and trombones (though I should have noticed that in the score). Back they came to shatter in the Prokofiev Third. Botstein made it flow very vividly, better than Gergiev in the first movement and highly effective in scherzo and finale. And could I find out anything about Russia and Georgia on the 90 channels of my hotel television when I got back? Not a thing - only the 'second', parochial CNN's obsession with the death of comic Bernie Mack and the murder of a couple of Americans at the Beijing Olympics.

The New York Times filled me in on Sunday morning - as John had said, the press is better than ours in the UK, the television a great deal worse - and the subject sparked a lively two-hour conversation on the terrace of the Delamater breakfast room with the nicest pair of Bard visitors, anthropologist Andy Manzardo and his wife Lora from Baltimore. I shan't forget the time we spent together. Then John arrived in his car from New York. Our plan had been to hike in the Catskills, but violent thunderstorms were forecast and duly materialised. We were standing outside Olana, the Moorish folly house of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church, when the storm broke. So forked lightning and terrifying overhead thunder dogged us as we sat beneath the awning of the house's stone terrace eating our sandwiches (a Fellini and a Montessori) from Leonardo's Italian deli .

So much for substituting a hike with a walk of Olana's grounds. Instead we poked around an excellent second-hand bookshop in Hudson, got stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway of the other side of the river and so missed seeing John's barn, and came back to Rhinebeck only just in time to set off for the evening concert. I missed meeting Michael York in person, a heartthrob from Cabaret days - he was also staying there, and John encountered his big smile while waiting to drive me back - but I did love his spirited reading for Poulenc's Story of Babar in Bard's 'Cult of the Child' programme. Lucille Chung played the pastiche, which could have outstayed its welcome in other hands, with such sonority and poise, and better still was the true masterpiece, Ravel's Ma mere l'oye pieces, in which she excelled as Beast to Alessio Bax's Beauty.

This jam-packed children's playground, with the orchestral works tautly conducted by Eckart Preu, gave us the chance to hear Carpenter's Krazy Kat ballet; Prokofiev hit the nail on the head in his diary by remarking on Carpenter when he heard a performance 'he is technically proficient, and he knows how to orchestrate, but sadly often strays too close to bad taste for comfort' - I'd substitute 'thematic poverty' for 'bad taste'. What stole the show? Peter and the Wolf, of course. I fell in love with it again when I saw Suzy Templeton's genius animation film, and I haven't heard it 'live' for years. How generous Prokofiev is with his gestural writing, his themes and his symphonic development; what a brilliant idea to let the Huntsmen's tune - my godson Alexander's favourite when he was four and would strut to it, and mine, I think, too - out of the bag at the three-quarters mark. York loved it, too, but this time was outstripped by the clarinettist and bassoonist.

I've just (20/8) discovered a much more focused review of the long weekend's events. Having been underwhelmed by the dutiful New York Times write-up, even as I was mildly flattered to be mentioned, I discovered that Ross Amico, WWFM Classical Network presenter who was one of the many interesting folk I met during the various intervals, has written up his Bardian experience on his blog and, boy, has he style (and again, I say this not because I was tickled at being depicted as 'in quintessential Brit-scholar mode', but because his crits hit the various nails eloquently on the head - which means I agree with him). Read more about it, if you want to, on Ross Amico’s blog.

As coda to the jamboree, six of us dined at Rhinebeck's Beekman Arms. We laughed until we cried at the tales of Byron Adams, a born raconteur as well as a passionate advocate in the States for VW and Elgar. You can imagine the fun we all had when he talked about his time as a teenager in Paris when he met Germaine Tailleferre and repulsed the unwelcome attentions, he says, of Henri Sauguet (say it aloud with an emphatic American accent and you get the gist of our hilarity).

Storms dogged the return journey along the Hudson to NY, which I very happily shared with Harlow and Texas Professor of History Joan Neuberger. The elderly couple next to us, returning from Niagara Falls, seemed amused rather than horrified at our comments on another name which causes mirth when spoken, the Hudson village of Coxsackie. 'Oh, I hadn't thought of it that way before', said the old lady, 'but now you come to mention it...'

My NY afternoon before the flight at 9pm was as perfect as the Thursday morning. I tried Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King for lunch but found him closed for the day, so consumed popovers and scrambled egg next door (with the added embarrassment of having to cart three more popovers. donated by the waiter when I expressed an interest, back to John's charming cleaner). Then there was time for a quick excursion around central Central Park, taking in Shakespeare's Garden and a zoom downtown to catch Olafur Eliasson's New York Waterfalls from Pier 18 of the South Street Seaport. Eliasson wowed us all in London with his Weather Project at the Tate, which turned into a kind of New Age cult happening in 2004:

And here he constructed four large structures for waterfalls at strategic points around the harbour and the East River, including one on Brooklyn Bridge:

So, farewell to New York on another thundery evening, and hello again, gorgeous London on a bright summer day. After going against received wisdom and napping in the afternoon, I took myself off to another Prom which I wanted the younger children of Claire Suthren and Howard Lane, Rowan and Luke, to enjoy. We swapped seats for Arena between halves, and I think they enjoyed it. Here, again, was the answer to my American friends' pessimism about the age and size of audiences: a packed Albert Hall, yet again, for a concert with no obvious stars. Sinaisky and the BBC Phil made lovely work of Elgar's In the South, focused in its swagger and most touching, as such quiet moments usually are in this giant space, as the viola's sweet Italian song died away. I blush to say I didn't know the Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto, and thought it would be light and snazzy in the line of Britten's specimen. Hadn't bargained for the usual 1930s dialectic between war and peace: the finale, which only eventually finds peace after a turbulent fugue and German waltz, is stunning. Also hadn't come across Ashley Wass before, another poet with the necessary big guns. Shall we ever forget the thunder and torrential rain overhead (yet again, after Savonlinna and Bard) as the pianist struggled to find peace of mind in the slow movement?

And finally, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, not quite with the wealth of idiosyncrasy a Gergiev finds in this dazzling score. But the flashing images of the last movement were brilliant, as ever, and I loved BBCPO leader Torchinsky's beguiling solos. One final comparison, then: from the big-circus effect of Bard's Spiegeltent, imported from Belgium, where a parallel new-music mini-festival was going on which, alas, clashed with the Prokofiev events... the bigger dome of the Albert Hall, splendidly lit this year. As I revise this, I've just been to what will unquestionably go down as one of the Proms of the year, Dudamel conducting my friends of old the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Ravel, Hillborg and Berlioz. I want to write about the Dudamel phenomenon when I have time, but the point is to show Claire's daughter Carla, now a canny 18, beside the giant bells used in the Witches' Sabbath of the Symphonie fantastique:

All a far cry from the first ballet I took Carla to see when she was four, Adventures in Motion Pictures' Nutcracker! ('and it was only a dream after all', she said loudly but sadly just before the end - except that in Matthew Bourne's choreography, it wasn't quite a dream, for the Nutcracker pops out of Clara's orphanage bed to lead her to freedom). As for Tuesday night's Prom, we could, of course, have gone on to hear Rowan Williams speak - an anti-Archbishoper suggested perhaps pelt him with rotten eggs - and then enjoyed Estonians in Rachmaninov's Vespers, but all were too weary, if quite happy with what we'd already had.

Monday 4 August 2008

City, city?

Should I, Rakewell-like, bewail my return to the Great Grey Babylon after ten glorious days in the country, where as usual at this time of year we have been looking after a big house above Ledbury, Herefordshire? In the past, it always unsettled me, having had the run of all that space and the company of the family dogs; one year, the only thing to lift my melancholy was the best-ever Shakespeare of the Globe's all-male Twelfth Night.

This year, quite apart from the whirl of this unusually charge-around summer, adjustment was easy. From Paddington Station, I simply walked across the Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens divide, met two Prommer friends by the Serpentine, marvelled briefly at the now completed and up-and running Gehry pavilion (more of that in the next blog entry, the reasons for which will become apparent):

and then headed towards the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall in the lovely evening light.

My first Prom this year certainly made me eager for the rest (sometimes I feel bad-tempered about the audience, the acoustics, the whole Albert Hall experience). Once past a completely disposable world premiere, Kenneth Hesketh's Graven Image, sans bold ideas, interesting orchestral combinations, obvious structural strengths, you name it, it lacked it, the rest was first-class. I wanted to hear Paul Lewis live because I've found some of his Beethoven cool on CD, but this Fourth Piano Concerto made one sure that a certain detachment is what he wants. The piano sounded clear and unorthodox in that space, the phrasing thoughtful, the interplay with Petrenko's equally light and buoyant Royal Liverpool Philharmonic impeccable. Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances were really what I'd come to hear, as again I've not experienced Petrenko in the flesh, so to speak. He is a master, sure of rhythm, rubato, nuance and emotional depth in this curiously haunting swansong. It might be the knowledge of what's behind it, but the last-minute progress of the Vespers' 'Alleluias' brought tears to my eyes as surely as the rhapsody at the heart of the first dance (what genius to match a sax with only one other woodwind instrument at a time; Hesketh et al, take note).

When I played it again the next morning - Neeme Jarvi's performance, once my Building a Library choice on Radio 3, but I'm not sure that if Petrenko and the RLPO recorded it now they wouldn't knock it off its pedestal - consort said this passage was like a walk in the woods above Ledbury. Indeed, like Elgar, I'm mad about that little Arcadia, the sweep between the Malverns and Ledbury. On one glorious weekend, the hottest of the year, when we mostly basked with our guests, the walking was almost too much even at seven in the evening. Here you see our two favourite dogs, the best of pals, panting atop the British camp with Little Malvern Priory and Worcestershire unfolding beneath them (the Herefordshire side from the Malverns, I have to say, is infinitely prettier, with its rolling wood-topped hills).

This is the view looking south, earthworks with sweaty walking friends (even up here there wasn't a breath of wind):

And here's the same hill from our neck of the woods. Elgar could see it from quite a different viewpoint as he worked on The Dream of Gerontius at Birchwood Lodge.

Had we stayed on this last weekend, we would have been hearing music of quite another sort as the Big Chill festival got under way. I was moderately curious to hear Leonard Cohen and see the artworks, but I couldn't contemplate the thought of more than a couple of hours dipping in and out. The Big Chill has grown from the year when friend Jill and I forced our way through on a public footpath, and found it all very low-key and amiable. Some say it is beginning to supersede the mudbath of Glastonbury.

Ledbury, meanwhile, showed little evidence of the punters on the Friday we left. Its half timber work is famous, especially in the street leading up to the church:

But there's also one newish building squeezed into one of the town's characteristic alleyways housing part of the wonderful Tinsmiths collection, and designed by Alex Clive.

Tinsmiths opened our eyes this year to a fine artist in the Ravilious tradition, but no mere pasticheur, Mark Hearld. Originals are heading Londonwards soon, but in the meantime here's a print which shows why he would be the perfect illustrator for the original Cunning Little Vixen story by Tesnohlidek (high time we had a new English translation in the UK).

You can see more of Mark's work in the linked page of the splendid St Jude's Gallery, Aylsham, Norfolk.

Anyway, apart from being tempted by art in town, our time in Ledbury was as simple as ever: food, friends, walks, kitchen-garden tending and very little music or film (only a necessary revisiting of Sargent's G&S, which helped with the jolly mood, and one DVD, the hyper-romantic Atonement). Now, though, it's back to cultural overload as usual.