Thursday 30 October 2008

Trouble and strife

'Take my wife. Go on, take her.' Well, you'd have thought we were at a performance of When Did You Last See Your Trousers (or 'Ding, Dong' - see below), to gauge from the raucous laughter of the half-cut Donmar Warehouse audience at Strindberg's Creditors on Monday night. Indeed, this is an absurd and occasionally farcical take on married hell, one which I'd only read about in Michael Meyer's Strindberg biography and never experienced on stage: odd, bearing in mind how much I love all the Bergman contretemps, which are so obviously modelled on his dramatic idol. My God, though, can you imagine a man talking about a woman as a chubby boy with breasts and no muscles in 1888? It was weird enough to hear it now. And this bizarre triangle of former-husband-incognito seeking revenge on the neurotic artist for whom his wife betrayed him could only come from real life (it did - from Strindberg's own 13-year marriage to Siri Von Essen - though I assume Siri's Baron didn't behave in the extraordinarily manipulative fashion of the play's Gustav, acted with great authority by Owen Teale,). By the way, the woman, when she finally appears, doesn't come across quite as black as she's been painted, least of all in the Donmar version - predatory and honest, yes, but despicable, no.

The production, by Alan Rickman, set in a beautifully lit hotel garret,served the play well enough to give a vivid sense of how modern it still is. But I'd like to see it with truly searing actors like Janet McTeer and Alex Jennings. I like Anna Chancellor's quirkiness a lot in comedy, but felt even she was rather low-key - and Tom Burke as her craven 'Little Brother' husband, was too much the jerky juve lead to be plausible. It's a tough role for credibility, though - especially having to deal with the notion that sexual frustration leads to epilepsy. What funny ideas there were floating around at the end of the 19th century - and, of course, how much of this was grist to Freud's psychological mill, as he acknowledged. Anyway, the below photo and the one above were taken for the Donmar by Hugo Glendinning.

Rather more appealing lovers caught in dire circumstances called for our attention three times, Groundhog Day fashion, the following evening. Jurowski's most challenging concert programme for the Revealing Tchaikovsky series was to begin with the original 1869 version of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, continuing with the soprano-tenor duet derived from its love theme as part of an uncompleted opera and concluding the concert's first half with the 1881 Overture we all know and love. Part of the point was to show that genius doesn't always flow untrammelled but puts its various ideas through the crucible before coming up with the perfect work of art. Sir Frank Dicksee's famous painting, a little better than the lumpy one by Ford Madox Brown, is only here as both an interlude and a counterpoint to our not so happy pair above.

The result of Jurowski's daring programming came across as cleverly-paced work in progress. Bringing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment into the festival, Jurowski put it through bright and businesslike paces for Romeo No. 1; after all, not much is to be made of the original Friar Laurence theme, which sounds like the verse of 'Ol'Man River' and simply doesn't go anywhere. This was the main idea that Balakirev persuaded Tchaikovsky to throw out as, in VJ's words, 'crap' in 1870. Real fire and sweep came only in Overture No. 2 (actually No. 3, as there's also an interim version). In between, back came the ineffable Monogarova and Shapovalov, who seemed less inside his music this time. Probably they'd had thrown at them at the very last moment the 'surprise': the love duet from the early opera Tchaikovsky consigned to the flames, Undine, best known as the Pas d'action in Swan Lake. It gave Monogarova her only chance of the evening to soar in Straussian line, and very impressive that was too.

She returned, very much in character, as Ophelia in Tchaikovsky's 1891 incidental music to a French troupe's production of Hamlet. This is what Jurowski had called on me to join him in discussing before the concert, though our talk went off in all sorts of interesting directions and the audience was, of course, captivated by him. I'd been a bit doubtful about what I'd heard: a truncated version of the splendid 1888 Hamlet Overture, entr'actes drawn from earlier works (an exquisite Snow Maiden Melodrama, the alla tedesca of the Third Symphony and the Elegy for the actor Samarin), and just a few more bits and pieces, and wondered how on earth they could end with the jaunty march of Fortinbras.

In fact, as VJ intimated in the talk, they found a better solution - to bring on extra brass players to give us the coda of the original overture. The whole made a good performing version, speeches selected (and not just from Hamlet's monologues) by Gerard McBurney and here directed by Tim Carroll, but there was one fatal flaw especially apparent to those of us who'd been to Friday's BBCSO concert: Rhys Meredith as Hamlet wasn't a patch in terms of vocal richness, thoughtful delivery of the text or sheer charisma on the superb Ray Fearon (Friday's Hamlet for the Benet Casablancas Seven Scenes - see below). A shame, because the speeches fitted well - except perhaps Claudius's monologue to the Samarin Elegy - and Jurowski drew typically clean and focused playing from the OAE.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Preaching to the enlightened

I’d like to be able to say that Eric Richmond's novel if bizarre publicity shot of selected players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment shows them in a state of delirious joy after imbibing at my fount of wisdom. Well, it doesn't; but I think it’s fair to say that there was modified rapture on both sides after I returned to Kings Place (see below) sooner than I’d expected to participate in a study day organised by one of the OAE leaders, Kati Debretzeni, for the players.

I’ll run that by you again – for the players. And therein truly lies enlightenment. For what other orchestra would really want to sit through a whole days of lectures telling them how to play Tchaikovsky and sundry ballet excerpts, and – in my case – why?

Anyway, I’ve rarely enjoyed myself so much in a talk situation as I did on Wednesday, set before sixty top musicians all eager to know what’s so special about Delibes and Tchaikovsky. There, I think, even if I might still be doubtful about the virtue of playing Adam’s Giselle Act Two in concert, I could enthuse as well as give decent chapter and verse. And I found my exuberance rising with the lively participation. Needless to say, some of these players know more than I do – especially first oboist Tony Robson, who seems to have played the ballet scores before. Enlightened questions flew: might the 5/4 metre of the extraordinary Sapphire Fairy Variation supposedly represent a pentagram? What was the truth in Tchaikovsky using the metre just to fox and annoy the performers? As it turned out, they’d played my best-beloved slice of Sleeping Beauty, the ‘Sommeil’ Entr’acte, with Norrington, but I don’t think the connection between 100 bars of string tremolo and a century of sleep had been made then.

For sure, Jurowski will make the best possible argument, and of course they like him. His ‘Revealing Tchaikovsky’ festival is now under way, and will continue to stun and surprise. If you need a reminder of what's on, and why it's so unusual, see (again) the Southbank Centre’s festival webpages with the programme and my introductory article. Anyway, from Kings Place I cycled to the Southbank for the opening of the series (of which the two OAE concerts form an important part) – encountering en route a magical sunset over the great Thames vistas from Waterloo Bridge.

The festival kicked off with the LPO in a refined and ultimately (in the ‘None but the lonely heart’ sequence) very moving performance of Stravinsky’s complete Fairy’s Kiss ballet. The First Symphony seemed so fresh-minted, too. Is there a more consistently beautiful, melodiously unbroken slow movement than this? The one in Dvorak’s Sixth comes close, but there are storms there; Tchaikovsky’s novelty is to frame the lyric inspiration with the love music from his Katya Kabanova tone-poem The Storm, and then let it unfold in endless rainbow hues. The finale is usually a problem. On Wednesday, it wasn’t: the dark folksong undertow was present throughout the official celebrations, and the final parade sounded suitably hollow and threatening.

On Saturday we had a better-sold event, the late one-act jewel Iolanta. As I was quick to point out in my pre-performance talk, this is no neglected rarity: the UK has witnessed two productions and two concert performances in just over a decade and a half. But I can say hand on heart that while I’d always enjoyed it as a string of set-pieces, most of them reminiscent of earlier Tchaikovsky operas, and strung-out recits with the occasional startling grace of miraculous woodwind scoring, on Saturday night Jurowski made it work as pulsing drama. The meltingly lovely voice of Tatyana Monogarova came with a very touching image of the blind princess, and much was made of the red and white roses which reveal to the smitten Vaudemont that the object of his affections has no idea of her sightless condition. Alas, no publicity photos were taken of this, so in contrast to the raven-haired heroine all in white clutching her roses, I offer a now rather out of date photo of the latest Russian diva.

The line-up was flawless, down to the very small roles of Almeric (young tenor Peter Gijsbertsen) and Bertrand (character bass Maxim Mikhailov). How we love to see the relaxed demeanour of the indestructible Sergey Alexashkin, and how amazing to welcome yet another Slavic tenor of tireless strength in Yevgeny Shapovalov (though I’m so sorry that Gegam Grigorian, a blazing Vaudemont on the Gergiev recording, has come a-cropper). The Martha was Alexandra Durseneva, a dazzling Duenna in the Glyndebourne Betrothal in a Monastery and plausibly concerned for her charge here.

I’m a bit talked out: two hours on Hoffmann Monday, two more with my BBC Symphony students Tuesday, the OAE afternoon on Wednesday, Iolanta on Saturday night and – by no means the least of these events – a warm and lively pre-performance interview with Catalan composer Benet Casablancas before the BBC performance of his 1989 Seven Scenes from Hamlet.

Working through the score with the students, I felt a bit like echoing Prokofiev on Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss. He wrote: ‘I’m glad you liked The Fairy’s Kiss; I’ve always said that Tchaikovsky was an excellent composer’. And in commenting on the Seven Scenes, it was a case of ‘I’ve always thought that Berg was an excellent composer’. But this was composed twenty years ago, when Casablancas was still under the spell of Berg doyen Friedrich Cerha (he is much more keen that the BBCSO take on his latest, Tempest-inspired score). And, in any case, the Hamlet Scenes constitute excellent Berg. In performance, the idiom completely won me over. This had much to do with tear-jerking speeches from actor Ray Fearon, but also with the expressive playing of the BBC soloists, especially in the music for Ophelia, the Jig for the Players and the final high weave of strings for 'The rest is silence'.

They really are on top form at the moment. Conductor Josep Pons seemed happy to allow the cor anglais (Alison Teale) and oboe (Richard Simpson, one of the world's best, and such a modest man) room to sing, so Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole sounded like the miracle of sound and space it truly is. Turina’s Danzas Fantasticas seemed to me a bit of a waste of space – we could have had Chabrier as a curtain-raiser – but the promised highlight made its mark. This was Falla’s complete El amor brujo ballet with a real flamenco artiste, as happened at the 1915 premiere. Ginesa Ortega looked extraordinary in her frills and roses – three hours in the making-up, someone backstage claimed – and although the strange and not quite projectable delivery took some getting used to, it certainly pierced the heart. Why are there never photographers around when you need them? Like Monogarova, Ortega will have to pass unrecorded in her costume for the occasion; and this publicity shot, again, will have to do.

Falla's ballet is a marvellously authentic score: not layered like the Ravel, but appropriately dressed in bright orchestral colours and clever in the move from the shrill trumpets of the ghost-lover to the tender victory of el amor. Another wonderful programme from the BBCSO.

By way of postscript, I should add that you can now post your greetings/contentions/disagreements here more easily - I've found a way which saves you having to sign up as a Googlista. All messages are subject to moderation, so no Parterre trolls slagging off British singers, please.

Sunday 26 October 2008

Laugh, 'Mr Paxo'

...or, 'Ridi, pagliaccio'. And weep, those of you with any interest in a new take on the hoary old Cav 'n Pag double-bill who failed to catch the ENO production, for it was the final performance of the run I saw on Thursday (don't worry - it will surely be back another season). Anything Richard Jones attempts is worth seeing, love it or hate it, for its skewed or visionary approach; but I'd say, along with my friend the former ENO repetiteur and pianist to the stars Phillip Thomas, that this Pagliacci ranks among his most extraordinary shows yet.

The radical, but risky, premise was to commission writer Lee Hall to provide a completely overhauled English performing version. I guess Jones had the concept of turning the Italian travelling players into a group of English rep comedians and sitcom stars in the 1970s. Hall's 'translation' could have fallen flat with a lesser director, and I was delighted to be proved wrong in doubting that either could sustain the conceit convincingly when the players stage their harlequinade - here, a bedroom farce called 'Ding, Dong', along the lines of the long-running 'No Sex Please, We're British' (for some reason the poster on the wall of Matt Lucas's sleazy impresario in Little Britain, advertising 'Sex Please, We're Not British', makes me laugh whenever I think about it). The sequence of scenes - designed by the wonderful Ultz - that unfold behind the orange curtain are always surprising: the vividly recreated street scene outside a rep theatre in the north, where a little girl steps out of the crowd to do a delighted little line dance in homage to her TV idols; the stage and the auditorium where Nelly (Nedda) lives out her dreams; the four dressing rooms in one of which Kenny 'Mr Paxo' Evans (Canio) rages and weeps; and finally, the split-screen effect of both the auditorium and the stage, seen here in the second of four ENO production images by Robert Workman before the curtain rises on 'Ding, Dong':

Cavalleria Rusticana, a score with moments of surging passion but infinitely weaker musical and dramatic construction poses more problems: what to do with the half-hour of vignette preambles where absolutely nothing happens? Jones sets the action in a village hall-cum-storeroom for Alfio's comestibles, and turns the village people into joyless drones: was there a point being made that not all Italians, least of all Sicilians caught up in a vendetta mentality, are jolly and vivacious, just as not all Brits in the 1970s were buttoned-up and grey? Jones slightly overplays his hand in the constant presence of a young man with cerebral palsy playing another young man with cerebral palsy. Otherwise, nothing remarkable goes on here except for the claustrophobic crowding-in of the chorus in the small room and an especially nasty murder.

Musically, both performances had their distinguished elements. In Cav, which started orchestrally very strikingly in Ed Gardner's hands but became rather stodgy, a million miles from what an Abbado or a Muti would make of it, there were a very nearly Italianate tenor Turiddu (Peter Auty, apparently the original treble voice for 'Walking in the Air' before Aled Jones did the commercial version) and a rather wild but not at all bad mezzo Santuzza (Ana Ibarra). Pag had a slightly wooden Kenny, Geraint Dodd, who did let rip with sobs in the voice for the big number but didn't spread the right psycopathic terror in the final scene. Nelly was another singer I'm happy to count as a friend, the ineffable Mary Plazas, who as usual provided the classiest legato singing of the evening and proved a surprisingly good comedienne in 'Ding, Dong'. Here she is surrounded by mute members of the company.

All hell was let loose on a certain website when I waxed lyrical over Christopher Purves's Tony. I'd already said that I thought he made a more appropriate Wozzeck on stage than the Lieder-lovely Matthias Goerne, and this brought some mockery from certain Brit-hating Americans who hadn't even seen him in the part. I should explain that I was completely ignorant of the irrational hatred directed against each and every British singer from those in the USA smarting (and probably with some justice, who knows) from the engagement of British administrators and singers when American ones might have got the job in question. About this I don't particularly care - why should I, when I don't live there? All I want is to note a performance that has moved or thrilled me, and since I happen to live in London that's just as likely to be a UK singer at ENO as an international artist at the Royal Opera. But this extolling of Purves's vivid theatrical skills - OK, no Fischer-Dieskau as a voice but certainly the next Andrew Shore as a stage animal - brought forth extraordinary bile on the site. One fanatic screamed in no less than half a dozen posts that I was provincial, like a weird old lady from Des Moines, that I didn't even know I was provincial, which made it hilariously funny.

Oh, enough already. I'm out of there (especially as the 'hostess' also has a weird thing about 'fucking Brits'). J has always told me that blog threads are a school playground where the bullies shout the loudest. And, sadly, for a second time, he's been proved right. The regrettable thing is that I really learned a great deal from half a dozen knowledgeable souls, exchanged ideas, bought or sought out recordings because others had said they were personal favourites (we did especially well out of a Margaret Price fan posting files which we were able to download). One of these interesting guys, correspondence with whom is to be found at the bottom of the previous entry, has also left in outrage at an especially vindictive attack on Renee Fleming's private life, and he suggests that I invite the wise few to join us here. Well, may they appear if they want to - but no screaming trolls, please: they shall be rebuked and redacted.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Image problem

What's wrong with this? Apart, of course, from the fact that the featured Tsar looks nothing like my friend Peter, who's rehearsing the role at English National Opera probably even as I write (the image might serve if you bear in mind that Boris was supposed to be a Tartar and the 'son of a hangman', but I reckon you need the crown of Monomakh in there to clarify). What troubles me is the horrid and now ubiquitous use of cyrillic lettering to try and make the logo look good. But it doesn't. To me it reads as 'Boris Godtsiov' (usually the abuse is to the Russian 'ya', made to serve as a kind of backward 'r'). I immediately e-mailed my editor at ENO, Philip Reed, for whom I've just written the general article for the programme, and pleaded with him not to let it pass on the cover. And he replied saying that the sound I was hearing was that of him putting his foot down already.

Well, I suppose that, having stamped my own pedantic feet, I should do the otherwise doughty company some service by saying that Musorgsky's Boris Godunov runs at ENO's home, the London Coliseum, on selected dates from 10 November to 1 December. Since Tim Albery's directing, I expect it to be a bit sharper than their last staging, even though that was one of Francesca Zambello's better efforts. And of course this is a big step for Divobass Rose, who in the recently-voiced words of a younger bass, goes 'from strength to strength'.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Back to the couch again

Twenty-two years have passed since I first arrived at the Freud Museum as a green, part-time educator, knowing next to nothing about mighty Sigmund but happy to be paid to learn while I got on with the real business of freelance writing. It was a very happy time of my life, even though I had not then attained my heart's desire (by his own choice, a more or less invisible presence here, despite two decades' eventful cohabitation). No matter how discombobulated I might feel, I'd always find myself centred after a few minutes standing in the great man's study - more or less untouched since daughter Anna preserved it as a shrine following his death in 1939, a year after he landed as a refugee in north London.

The house still has the same serene atmosphere since the year in which we, the 'primal horde' as the Museum's present director Michael Molnar so wittily put it, first took a myriad of interested visitors around the key rooms. Tommi and Martha were, of course, familiar with Berggasse 19, and wanted to see the couch, the books and the antiquities. I think they were suitably impressed - though less so by the temporary exhibition of new works by artist Oliver Clegg. Well, I rather liked the chess set mirroring the objects on a replica desk, swathed in the darkness of what used to be the orientation room. That's a replica of Freud's anthropomorphic chair in the background.

Sticking doggedly to the 'program' devised for our Viennesers, we rushed from Hampstead to the Barbican Pit and the raw energy of the Brazilian youth theatre Nos do Morro's Two Gentlemen of Verona. Quite apart from ticking this off the ever-dwindling list of previously unseen Shakespeares, I wanted to catch this 'fresh, raw and energetic' approach, as it was advertised. I wasn't disappointed. The musical interludes, graced by an especially soulful and watchable young guitarist, were enchanting as the ensemble told us what was going to happen next (even with this, Tommi and Martha were still a little confused). But the production was also alert to the admittedly flimsy drama's slide into potential tragedy and the acting was very disciplined, too, as far as I could tell from the Portuguese intonations, with charismatic performances from the gents - noble Valentine and slippery Proteus - and their ladies. Here's Onelia Sylvester in the middle of the photograph taken by Ellie Kurtz.

Then it was on to friendly, intimate Kipferl, coals to Newcastle for our friends, I know, but the nearest cafe to hand, and an ever-fascinating stroll to St Paul's, where Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli just happened to be the mass setting for Solemn Eucharist, radiantly sung by the cathedral choir. After a jolly supper chez nous with divobass Peter, culinary genius Florian, their friend Elmar and our diplodiva Anneli, the exhausted Austrians took an earlyish night to face the Sunday morning ordeals of Ryanair to Bratislava. Next time, unquestionably, they'll come to Heathrow with Austrian Airlines or BA.

Sunday might have been blissfully uneventful but for a revelatory piano recital in the evening - Lithuanian doyenne Muza Rubackyte in a colossal programme of Chopin Etudes, his B flat minor Sonata, curiously deep miniatures by national hero Ciurlionis and Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata as dessert. What's amazing about this woman is her effortless muscular control of the most complex music, keeping her distance from the torrents, for which in some cases - two of the Chopin Etudes, for instance - there seemed to be two different pianos at work, one in the cascading right hand, the other in the strong melody of the left. Another distinguished, more outwardly emotional pianist at the event found it cold, but I thought it just magnificently objective. True, there could have been a little more pathos in the valse lentissimo of the Prokofiev, but resonant austerity is Rubackyte's way, and I've never heard such structural control in the first movement. In the finale, she failed to hit the start of the final slog to her satisfaction, and seamlessly went back and repeated the previous three minutes so that, I guess, she could run at it afresh. And who would have noticed if they didn't know the work? Above all, though, I want to hear more of Rubackyte's Bach and Liszt.

At the Lithuanian reception afterwards to launch Vilnius as European Capital of Culture 2009, I was delighted to see one of the country's finest younger talents, Evelina Puzaite. I had the great pleasure of interviewing her last week, and found her vivaciously responsive to all sorts of disciplines outside the musical sphere. She was certainly in awe of the great lady's achievement, and wanted to go and ask her what instrument she was playing, since like me she couldn't believe the brilliance of the upper register. So this was an opportunity to snap them together. As you will no doubt have gathered, Evelina - whose own next Wigmore recital takes place on 4 January - is on the left and Muza on the right.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Magical mystery tours

Very well, contrived it may be to try and link the surprises of Louis Malle's most mesmerising actresses with an educational visit from an unknown string quartet and a lavish rarity imported from St. Petersburg (based on designs by the great Bilibin, illustrated above with two more to follow), but this has indeed been a week of unpredictable events.

I can't think of a single friend who, when we boasted that we were going to have supper with Juliette Binoche, didn't react with generosity towards this very singular beauty. By way of preparation, I wanted to catch up with the Louis Malle film in which she starred with Jeremy Irons, Damage. I, too, was in this movie when they filmed it in London - happened to be walking up Villiers Street as the cameras were rolling. I didn't see myself in the end product, but never mind. What a horrid and unbelievable drama it is - script by David Hare about a messed-up girl who's been so traumatised by the suicide of her adored brother that she would appear to be recreating the crisis by having a sordid affair with the father of her fiancee. Well, La Binoche looks suitably enigmatic but seems as puzzled as the rest of the cast by some of the clunking lines she has to speak.

The point, anyway, is not to dwell on this but to hymn the wonders of an earlier Malle film which I'd never seen before, but which turns out to be as compelling as Lift to the Scaffold. Two-thirds of Les amants is mired in an acid comedy of manners, with the captivating Jeanne Moreau as an elegant, spoiled, bored housewife, leading as superficial a life in her affair with a Parisian as she is in her marriage to a provincial newspaper editor. Then, at a house-party as magical and life-changing as the one in Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, she falls into a dreamlike love-affair with the handsome and drole young man who's given her a lift when her car broke down. They walk bewitched through the grounds of the Dijon chateau while the solemn strains of the slow-movement variations from Brahms's Op. 18 String Sextet tell us that this is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime love. What consequences does it have for the marriage and child she leaves behind? We don't know, though subtle doubts are raised as the lovers drive away together the next morning.

Amazingly, the film was branded as pornographic and even caused a law-suit in Ohio. It's certainly very sensual, as in the scene where our Jeanne, wearing nothing but a pearl necklace, is being pleasured by her new lover. But the enchantment always gilds the lily.

We anticipated being similarly spellbound by La Binoche on Monday evening. I wasn't expecting too much of her collaboration with choreographer-performer Akram Khan at the National's Lyttleton Theatre, in-i, and despite a certain admiration for the boundaries she'd pushed in the dance sequences, and the rather beautifully lit wall designed by Anish Kapoor, the show and above all its chunks of dialogue attempting to delineate the agonies and (ouch) the comedy of a new relationship between a man and woman of different cultures struck me as lumpy and pretentious. Our lady moved well, but not quite as supply as a real dancer would. Here she is as photographed by Tristram Kenton for the National.

Several hours later, la belle Juliette swept in, exquisitely coiffured and attired, to the French ambassador's residence, where the crowd was larger than anticipated - though it was good to see so many theatrical luminaries there, and I was very happy to chat to Nick Kenyon and Graham Sheffield from the Barbican. Her speech was more alluring and spellbinding than the show, I have to say. Anyway, I was seated between a lawyer and a Portuguese writer, whose company I specially enjoyed (we can't read her novels as they haven't yet been translated, but the cover of the latest is designed by her good friend Paula Rego, there's a bit more namedropping for you). It was a bit odd to have both hammering away at the question of how I came to music and didn't I miss playing the oboe - I felt I was overpleading the active role of the listener and commentator. Anyway, good food and the surroundings of a few fine pictures and opulent tapestries meant that the late hours flew by.

The following evening, in the altogether less sumptuous surroundings of the Anglo-American Study Centre in Bloomsbury Square, my Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra class enjoyed the supreme luxury of a performance and chat by the third quartet from the BBC Symphony Orchestra to visit us. Having already established excellent relations with the Helikons and a viola ensemble which promises to stretch to six or eight the next time they come to see us, we found our loyalties divided by the very personable and sophisticated Merchant Quartet - violinists Amyn Merchant and Ruth Schulten, viola-player Philip Hall and cellist Michael Atkinson. Stupidly, I didn't take along my camera, and this is the photo they sent me, which captures their smiliness, but they need to get some good publicity shots:

Between the expected Haydn 'Sunrise' Quartet and the completely unexpected first and third movements of the Ravel - it turned out we might have had it all had there not been so much talking - the players turned out to be all four of them eloquent speakers (by no means a given with orchestral players, and why should it be?) I learned a great deal about the relative values and insurance of old instruments and bows, a practical aspect I don't tend to cover. As usual, the students and I were in a mild state of bewilderment at having such first-rate performances given just for us in a small and overheated room. The duty secretary was even more breathless with amazement when I spoke to her at the end, and I'm not sure she'd heard a string quartet in action before. With BBCSO supremo Paul Hughes's visit at the beginning of term, as well as the second of the player visits and an introduction to Turkish week yet to come this term to complement the rest of my talks, we're doing rather well here. And the students this year, still with the core of adored regulars, are an especially vocal and inquisitive bunch.

Two of the students from my other City Lit (Opera in Focus) class, Gillian Frumkin and Naomi Honigsbaum, took me along to the final rehearsal of the Mariinsky's Rimsky-Korsakov Tale of Tsar Saltan at Sadler's Wells - for which I was very grateful as, due to the state visit of our beloved Viennesers Tommi and Martha, I couldn't make either evening performance. Now, I know these rehearsals - even one which ended an hour before curtain-up - shouldn't really be described, so I will only obliquely say that the familiar Russian sense of last-minute chaos would by no means pre-empt a perfect performance that evening. So what of the positive did I glean from this preview? Above all, that the gorgeous Bilibin designs really were his fairy-tale, skazki, illustrations brought to life, a wonder throughout, and especially wondrous when the high-point orchestral interludes were illustrated by CGI variations on his best known illustrations, like the Hokusai-inspired picture of the barrel in which the betrayed Tsarina and her fast-growing son are put to sea.

Even though the singers were, many of them, understandably marking, there was a known first-rate quantity from tenor Daniil Shtoda and another voluptuously beautiful young woman with a quality Slavonic-soprano sound (I'd better double-check which of the two singers it was at the final rehearsal). Tughan Sokhiev has come a long way from his singer-unfriendly, inexperienced youth at Welsh National Opera. He keeps the score buoyant, presumably fishes out more atmosphere for the interludes in performance and rehearses the choruses well; I was amused to hear the usual problems in what I guess, though I don't have a score here, to be yet another of those 11/8 numbers which so flabbergasted the young Prokofiev and his pal Morolev in The Snow Maiden and Sadko. Rimsky's score is jam-packed with fine inventions, but it must be obvious even in a livelier, more physical staging than this that it takes a good hour to reach the long-anticipated happy ending.

Still, lucky us to have this most important offering in Rimsky anniversary year. It does, however, beg a question which I never even dreamed of in the 1990s when Gergiev first served up these lavish World-of-Art-designed recreations: doesn't this all tie in too uncomfortably well with the neo-nationalist agenda of Putin's Russia? Is this why so much money is available for a lavish redesign, stupendously detailed costumes and all the CGI caboodle? Remember Rimsky was composing these increasingly formulaic, if well-imagined, fairy-tales for an ever more authoritarian tsarist regime (even if, of course, when pushed to it he sided with his reform-hungry St Petersburg Conservatory students in 1905). And now parallels are being drawn, not entirely implausibly, between Stalin's turn back to the 19th century classics in the late 1930s and the image of renascent Russia that Putin is trying to project. After Gergiev's behaviour in south Ossetia, we know that there is no such thing as a separation between music and politics. It doesn't diminish the artistic achievement here - in every sphere except the directorial, where the usual Mariinsky shambles on stage prevails - but it does leave a relatively new sour taste in the mouth. To remove it again, let's have another Bilibin image from his original illustrations to the Pushkin tale (which I'm lucky to have at home in several editions). Here the tsarevna and her fully-grown Gvidon look at the magical city on the island where they've just landed.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Crocustown, mezzomania and honeysweetness

Forgive yet more time out, but I keep stumbling across these extraordinary places not a million miles from London, and wanting to hymn their praises. The latest surprise, discovered during a weekend with our friends the Kafalas near Colchester, was an excursion to the deliciously-named Saffron Walden: not entirely serendipitous, since I'd read about its treasures and a friend of Tarik's and Sarah's had told them that an exhibition of Edward Bawden's middle-eastern wartime pictures at Saffron's Fry Gallery was due to end that Sunday.

The name comes about because at the end of the Middle Ages Cheping Norton, as it was then known, specialised in the growing of autumn-flowering crocuses, the saffron from which was used for dyeing and medicine (it still imparts an extraordinary flavour to food). Saffron's extraordinarily lovely setting, where as Hardy once said of 'Casterbridge' town and country still meet at a mathematical line, is due partly to the preservation of the nearby Audley End estate, which we have yet to see. What we did admire were the artistically graced houses of Castle Street, the pargeting on the most distinguished townhouse, the exquisite public space of the Bridge End Gardens and, of course, 'the Fry', a quirky Victorian building like the Watts near Guildford, but full of much better pictures of a later era. The stars are Bawden and my idol Eric Ravilious, who shared a house in nearby Great Bardfield. The main gallery has walls devoted to each. Here you see the Bawden display, with father Tarik keeping an eye on the Kafala twins as they amuse themselves with items from the toybox so helpfully supplied by the gallery.

After this Haydar came with J and I to St Mary the Virgin's, where he had fun preaching from the pulpit and was much taken with the Trompeta Real of the restored organ. We, meanwhile, just revelled in the height and light of Essex's most noble church.

Earlier in the day, the twins' weekly theatre group took us to Sudbury, just inside the Suffolk borders and the home-town of Gainsborough. Here the Church of St Gregory boasts a macabre curiosity, the skull of Simon of Sudbury, executed by Wat Tyler's mob and now keeping his head, or rather having it kept for him, under lock and key in the vestry. We had easy access to it because the churchfolk were celebrating Harvest Festival with a post-service open house.

Here, too, just to complement the Lynn collection below, are a perhaps over-restored chancel roof with angels...

..and more splendid bench-ends and misericords, including one of the many 'doggies' which currently fascinate one-and-a-half year-old Faiza:

In the meantime, unexpected news arrived from another family further away in Athens. Elena Marangou sent us a CD of her performance with the Orchestra Ton(e) Chromaton(e) conducted by Miltos Logiadis of Elgar's Sea Pictures. Can I be honest and say we were expecting it to be so-so? Consequently we were startled to hear a mezzo voice of real distinction and a highly-nuanced delivery of the poems - an interpretation one would be happy to set on the shelves among the best, honestly. I said I'd be happy to mention it here, because it's easy for me to be sincere about it. I thought the publicity shot Elena sent me didn't seem to catch her terribly well, so I sought her permission to put up a picture of her, daughter Ariadne and husband Manos on the roof of the Benaki Museum, where we had an unforgettable lunch with them and another charismatic mezzo, Susie Self (she was singing one of the 'Maoettes' in the Athenian Nixon in China), in the spring of 2007.

Susbequently Elena found what she thought was a better publicity shot of herself, taken by her friend the photographer Sophia Pintzou. As I know how sensitive these divas are about being represented properly here - having had to remove what I thought was a fun picture of Riikka - I'm happy to add it, since Elena agreed that the family shot could stay. Editors should therefore use the below image.

And while we're on the subject of mezzos up close and personal, I hope Ekaterina (Katya) Semenchuk is happy to advertise as Carmen in this backstage shot taken after a stunning Beethoven Missa Solemnis at the Barbican.

Katya is pally with mutual friends Riikka and Anneli. I missed a night on the town with them all earlier this year, but finally got to meet Katya after the concert, and a more vivacious and friendly singer it would be impossible to encounter. I already admired her singing from a debut recital disc of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (which has gone walkabout; I really ought to write down whom I'm lending CDs to), her Lyel in Gergiev's concert performance of the Rimsky masterpiece The Snow Maiden, and her work with Larissa Gergieva in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, when I was rooting for her to win. She seems a bit stuck with Tchaikovsky's Olga and Polina at the moment, but there's plenty of time for bigger things.

As for the Beethoven, it made sense to me for the very first time, thanks to the expansive focus of great Jiri Belohlavek and a tireless BBC Symphony Chorus, seemingly unfazed by the insane vocal writing. Of course the violin solo (Andrew Haveron, peerless) in the Benedictus and the drums-and-trumpets eruption in the Agnus Dei made the biggest impact, but it was all of a piece, and there was never a sense of wanting any of the Mass sequences to be over. For once, the ever-radiant Christine Brewer was not the star of the show (discussing the performance with my Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra class last night, the students prioritised Katya without my having to say anything). Afterwards we went for a pizza with Anneli and Monica-Evelin Liiv, the Estonian mezzo on the Covent Garden young artists' programme about whom I hear many good things. We'll have a chance to judge for ourselves when she sings Madame Popova in Walton's The Bear next week.

More good company on Sunday when Malian medical researcher Guida Landoure invited us to celebrate the end of Ramadan with a belated Eid feast. It was a truly international gathering: three Malians, five Germans, a Dutchman, an Albanian Greek, an Ethiopian Australian, two Romanians plus us and our friend Kurt Ryz. I'm putting up this photo of Guida, his cousin Kolado and friend Lamine serving up the fruits of their afternoon in the kitchen because Sophie and Keita, Guida's friend back home, will want to see this in Djenne, and Sophie can't download pictures when I send them to her:

Guida and his fellow chefs served up succulent chicken and lamb in flavoursome juices with fried plantain and bananas. Drinks were dèguè made with millet and creamed milk, lemburuji (ginger and lemon) and dabileni (a juice from a certain type of hibiscus), the last two of which we consumed in vast quantities when we stayed chez Sophie at Christmas. In the meantime, the Hotel Djenne Djenno food supplies increase (Sophie recently marinaded and cooked the legs of the garden frogs and lived to tell the tale). Now there is another potential supply: honey. I love this picture from her Djenne Djenno blog of bees swarming around her flamboyant tree (best seen in enlarged form):

Apropos of nothing but my melimania, I want to show you my current jars of top honey.

The best I've ever tasted still comes from the Asco Valley in Corsica (last year's supply was juniper 'miel des neiges'), but the Chelsea Physic Garden 2007 vintage ran it close, and the souvenirs of our Irish and French trips in the summer are still proving tasty and healthful. The story behind the Chain Bridge heather honey launches our friend Hattie Ellis's delightful book Sweetness and Light, which I can't recommend too highly. It makes the perfect antidote to her stomach-churning latest volume, Planet Chicken.

Friday 3 October 2008

Regal fanfare

Here is the wavy western glass wall that greets visitors to Dixon Jones's spanking new Kings Place as they approach it from York Way. And we approached it on Wednesday, Day One of its opening festival, with some awe at the programme: one hundred concerts in five days, out of which I'd picked five as a sampler.

Perhaps it wasn't a great idea to locate events of significance in the 'flexible space' of Hall Two, which is really a rehearsal area. Because it doesn't have any rake, and the seats are only temporary, you're not going to see much unless you're in the front row - and, of course, even less if the musicians happen to be Indian and sitting on the floor, as they were at the 10.30am welcome to Ganesh. I suppose I could have caught all the performers at the Bhavan Centre just around the corner from home, where I once attended yoga classes, but it was good to get the buzz from a full audience including a few children, and I think we were all charged up after an exuberant Kathak dance.

The real business for most of us was the 400-seater Hall One, London's first new purpose-built hall since the opening of the Barbican Centre back in the 1980s. Here heard the first-rate soloists of the Endymion Ensemble (led by the marvellous Krysia Osostowicz) in what Anna Russell would have called a 'wispy' piano trio by York Bowen - magical opening and conclusion, nothing memorable in between - and Webern's impressive reduction of Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony. The sound is crystal clear, but not over-clean - acousticians always want a bit of 'dirt' in the sound. As in the gorgeous great hall at Lucerne, you can hear the slightest rustle or whisper from the other side of the auditorium.

It looks beautiful: all the wood comes from one 500-year-old German oak, the 'Contessa'. It was felled on the last full moon of 2005. Where its acorns fell, new oaks will grow. I was told all this, before I read up on it, by a familiar face (but not familiar at first because he's changed his hairdo), the gregarious and supremely helpful Hogarth. He's now what Kings Place needs - a charming greeter. But he's also an illustrator and animator. I first met him when he came to my City Lit opera classes, the ideal student - one who didn't know opera but liked what he'd heard and wanted to know more for an animation he was working on. Anyway, here he was again for a bit, before he left for a meeting about his first children's book, Ethical Elephants. He promised to squeeze in my BBC Symphony Orchestra course after a singing class, and I really hope he does.

There were all sorts of other friendly folk to chat with in the little press refreshment room they'd commandeered from the new London Sinfonietta offices (the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is here too; The Guardian moves in at Christmas). Michael Church filled me in on the current state of play in Tbilisi, where he's been recording choirs and ensembles; it still sounds good to go. There, too, were Geoffrey Norris and Tim Ashley, talking about the precarious paper situation, and later the wise and friendly Geoffrey Smith. Between concerts, too, I had an all too brief exchange with Alex Ross*, whose well-selling The Rest is Noise I intend to read very soon. I'd just come out with Henrietta Bredin, who introduced us, reeling from Steve Reich's Different Trains. I though Mr. Ross would be the best person to ask if he agreed that this is one of the truly great and essential scores of the late 20th century. He does. How beautifully it changes gears and speeds as it shunts back in time from contemporary American trains to 1939, 1940 and the trains to the camps - and then, of course, more optimistically forwards again. The setting of snatches of speech from its interviewees, as imaginatively harmonized for the live quartet (here, the Dukes) and their recorded selves, pierces the heart.

Regrettably, I had to skip Roddy Williams's late afternoon recital to catch my dear friend Noelle Mann's farewell at Goldsmiths, but I left Kings Place very happy. It's true that although the foyers are spacious, there's nothing especially striking architecturally speaking apart from the glass facade, but then this has all been done with private funding. Of course, it's more awe-inspiring to then walk through the covered hall of St Pancras Station...

...and on to the British Library, where I had a quick coffee with friend Simon who now works there. That has also had vastly greater sums of money poured into it. But of course it's what's within Kings Place that matters. I was entranced by the exhibition of glass and granite sculptures by Norwegian Nicolaus Widerberg, and would love to buy one of these Torsos, were it not to set me back £29,500.

Kings Place's other gallery, Pangolin London, houses Peter Randall-Page's very different sculptures, inspired by a co-artistic project with the London Sinfonietta and Nigel Osborne visiting the 'rock gongs' of Uganda's Lolui Island on Lake Victoria.

As you can see, if not hear, Wednesday was a day of sensory overload. Perhaps it was over-ambitious of me also to cram in an evening concert at the Royal Festival Hall, but we don't get the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer here every month of the year (and when I and J last heard them, in their impressive home concert hall, the impact of Tchaikovsky's Manfred was unforgettable). Fischer always programmes well, and from the heart. This was a big emotional night: Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, with ethereal, very inward violin-solo work from Violetta Eckhardt, followed by Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.

Now, the Budapesters don't make the most lustrous string sound among European orchestras, and the Festival Hall is harder on them than the Barbican or their Budapest base, but what they do have is priceless - a distinctive febrile quality, great depth and a youthful sense of total involvement. Similarly, young Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn (pictured below by Marco Borggreve) is not without a few technical obstacles to her profound musicianship (I'm sure the top of the voice could be liberated if some inspiring teacher enabled her to remove the physical tension that makes her rock from one foot to the other).

Yet I know why Fischer chose her. There are, of course, no limits to the perspectives you can open up in Mahler's exhausting 'Farewell'. I knew this would, if it worked, be quite a draining experience for me personally - following a dying friend as far as I can on her final journey has made me more prone to weep at the drop a hat than ever - and indeed, after the orchestra had finally opened up fully for the funeral march two-thirds of the way through the movement, that heartbreaking passage setting Wang-Wei's poem meant I had to stifle loud sobs. I almost didn't notice the transcendence at the end. And I realised that Shostakovich and Britten were right: there is no deeper work in the western musical canon. I'd like to reproduce the poem, including the last lines which Mahler added himself. Many of you will know it; for those who don't, I hope it will encourage you to go and seek out what Mahler in extremis makes of it:

He alighted from his horse and handed him
the drink of farewell.
He asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He replied, his voice was veiled:
'You, my friend,
Fortune was not kind to me in this world.

'Where do I go? I go, I wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart.
I journey to the homeland, my resting-place.
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour.
The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again.
Everywhere and eternally the distance shines bright and blue.

*footnote in 2011 - this turns out to have been a case of mistaken identity, about which HB has had a good laugh ever since. And now that I know what the 'real' Alex Ross looks like, I wouldn't have made that error more recently.