Monday 31 August 2009

Argerich: No. 1?

Well, No. 1 may have gone from last night's Proms programme - the Prokofiev First Piano Concerto, Martha Argerich's second promised offering of the evening, was a casualty of her recent illness, we're told - but what the great Argentinian did give us, Ravel's adorable G major Concerto, showed that she is surely first among pianists for wit, fantasy and tone-colour.

More surprising, for me, was the light and airy shape into which Dutoit had knocked the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the concerto, and what he did after the interval with the irresistible Prokofiev replacement, the Love for Three Oranges Suite, and the Musorgsky/Ravel Pictures from an Exhibition. Despite fine recordings with Gatti, the RPO has dropped off the performance radar for me in the last five years. I'll admit a falling-out with new marketing brooms sweeping in and demanding that notes had to be written to attract first-time listeners to concerts; so the big and money-losing Mahler cycle was the last thing I did with them. Anyway, great days are now ahead with Dutoit, that's obvious: and I say that as one who's always had my doubts about him. Whatever his faults, as a colourist he is surely the Ravel of the conducting world.

Even the 'new' work at the start, Claude Vivier's Orion, was a huge improvement on other beginners I've heard this season, namely Casken's Orion over Farne and Rebecca Saunders's traces. I say 'new' because although this was the UK premiere it was written in 1979, one of only two orchestral scores achieved by the French-Canadian composer before his death at the age of 34. Hurrah, a melodic shape seconds in, superbly articulated by the RPO's principal trumpeter (two are advertised in the programme, so I'd better not guess which; though of course it immediately made us anticipate the start of Pictures). And, sectional though the piece was, the drone bass + overtones on the strings towards the end were mesmerising; wish it had developed a little more.

Martha stunned us with Ravel's first flights up and down the keyboard, made us laugh with her comic timing, brought tears to the eyes with the hyper-poetic second subject, made the trill in the cadenza sound like some weird cimbalom and always tuned in to the chimerical orchestral playing. The start of the slow movement, though sensitive, projected into the hall as if we were in a salon yards away from the pianist (I was two-thirds of the way back in the arena), and Argerich's filigree floating over the cor anglais's reprise reminded me how Yuja Wang had missed the point at a similar moment in the Prokofiev Three with Abbado (also underlining that Ravel had probably heard and known that work, just as Prokofiev would often return the compliment). So here we had refinement without a sense of playing for oneself (the problem with Lang Lang in the slow movement of Chopin 2), just as in the finale there was helter-skelter danger in fast passages without scrambling (Stephen Hough, please note). The glorious encore, a Scarlatti sonata that sounded like Busoni, was if anything even more elusive and will-o-the-wispish. At its end, Martha led the RPO leader off: no more, alas.

Oh look, here she is playing the same piece in Turin last year. As usual with her, it's by no means the same interpretation. Again, scintillating pianism doesn't get any better than this:

This, by the way (2/10), has turned me back to pianistic Scarlatti sonatas. I hadn't taken my Pletnev recording off the shelf for years, and it's captivating, though in quite a different way: earth to Martha's air.

What was new for me about the Three Oranges Suite? Above all the full-throated brass playing, and a low horn solo in the bass line just before the end of 'The Flight' which I've never heard before. Dutoit in his advancing years is becoming as relaxed as my hero Neeme Jarvi - much shoulder conducting, lovely bounce for the March. And I tell you, for Radio 3's Building a Library I must have heard some forty or so recordings not just of the Ravel-orchestrated Pictures but all the others, and if this one were to sound as good on CD as it did from where I was standing, it would beat Jansons to the top of the list. My notes were reprinted in the programme and can still be read here.

Dutoit, after years of experience, fully grasps the interconnectedness of the drama, the distorted self-portraits even in the individual numbers between the Promenades, the terror of 'Catacombs'- oh, my goodness, five of the six surviving Hartmann paintings/sketches which inspired Musorgsky are on Wikimedia, so let's have the ones pertinent here -

and the Satanic timpani and bass drum dialogue at the start of the Baba Yaga flight (Hartmann only sketched the witch's 'Hut on Fowl's Legs' as a clock design).

If the Great Gate (strictly speaking 'The Bogatyr Gate at Kiev' - Hartmann's design features cupolas in the shape of a bridal headdress and a knight's helmet)

didn't broaden majestically at the end, that's true to the matter of fact spirit of Musorgsky (Jansons is even faster right at the end, and I like that). Mustn't forget the very prominent and artistic horn solo in the second 'Promenade' or the tuba with a nice touch of vibrato in 'Bydlo'. 'Tell me, wasn't that a really special performance?' asked the nice man behind us with two attentive children in tow. And I could boast, with my Building a Library anorakish-for-pay 'heard every one' behind me, that it was. I should just add that the audience, one or two coughers apart, couldn't have been more different from the Lang Lang crowd - more discerning piano lovers, perhaps, who'd booked their seats early - and their concentration played a palpable part throughout the evening.

Friday 28 August 2009

Sigmund's Alpine way

The great man stands, appropriately clad, in a quirky mini-museum near the comfortable (and not exorbitant, if I read the tariff aright) Knappenhof Hotel, encouraging us to continue our ascent of the Raxalp near Vienna. Two years ago our Viennese hosts Tommi and Martha drove us to Freud's birthplace in Moravian Freiberg (now Pribor), serendipitously close to the Janacek domain of Hukvaldy, and last autumn I gave them a tour of the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, where I had been part time 'Museum Educator' for one happy year.

A two-day excursion to the Reichenau region was the latest Gellert-Bernardi payback. Since Tommi had first learnt to ski as a child on the slopes of the Raxalp, and they both visit it regularly, they knew much more about the Freud connection than did Ronald Clark when he wrote the biography we were all encouraged to read as 'Edukators'.

Clark tells us only that the first significant case history, 'Katharina K', in the Breuer-co-authored Studies in Hysteria, was 'a peasant girl in the Tyrol with whom Freud had had a single short talk', and later adds that he met her on the way up the '6000 foot' Raxalp. Research has moved on. We know that Freud would scramble up the Raxalp at least three times a week to visit the original Katharina, Aurelia Kronich, daughter of the innkeeper who ran the popular Ottohaus near the summit. In later years he came back to stay at the Knappenhof, which hadn't been built at the time of Aurelia's analysis.

So we covered both resting-places. The idea was to spend the night in the Ottohaus after our ascent to 1644m (starting from Hirschwang at about 500m). Warmed by coffee, plum cake and the friendliest of receptions at Monikas Knusperhauschen, we walked for an easy hour in bright sunshine through woods and meadows to the Knappenhof. This view is in fact just above the hotel, and shows our craggy destination (you can just see the outline of the Ottohaus on the ridge).

At the Knappenhof we took an excellent light lunch. I chose Kartoffelsuppe mit eierschwammerl - the yellow mushroom now in season which the French know as the chanterelle. This is wholly in the Freudian spirit since, as I know from my guiding, he was a keen mushroom gatherer. The soup is further coloured by my favourite Austrian export, kurbiskernol - pumpkin seed oil. Terribly good for the prostate, we're told.

Then we climbed for about three and a half hours. I love ascents, hate descents, so although it was sweaty work in the atmosphere building before a storm, there were plenty of good views en route and a whole glade cleared of trees where large white butterflies with black 'eyes' flitted in abundance.

As a display case of local insects next to a photo of Freud in the Ottohaus later told us, this is the beautifully named Parnassius apollo, the apollo butterfly.

You know you're nearly there when you see a doorway in the rock, the main feature of the Torlweg.

Very Freudian, thought J, who was soon waving a banana in the hole to prove the point. Another view the other way shows how far we'd come.

Then you're out on to a high mountain plateau covered in wild flowers. It was, I'm told, my extraordinary good fortune to see a lone Edelweiss on the right of the path.

Freud used to pick them for his wife Martha, but we don't do that sort of thing any more. Anyway, 20 minutes through blue swathes of aconite around boggy ground

and there we were at the Ottohaus - not a moment too soon as it was just starting to rain and the colossal storm which soon broke went on for much of the night. We were safe but not exactly comfortable in the haven of the Ottohaus. It was cold without thick sleeping bags, and the staff were extremely sullen, not to be humoured. I suppose you couldn't blame them. It's not surprising if Aurelia was a little strange, living up there. But I fear our Sigmund rarely took environment into account.

Morning broke, wet at first, then thick with mist. Our plan to do a circuit of the ridges was scuppered, so having examined the Alpine Garden below the Ottohaus, we walked to the Berggasthof at the top of the cable car line via the religious waymarker at the Hirschwanger meadow, very Caspar David Friedrich

After coffee at the Berggasthof, the weather was clearing. It was my stupid idea to beg that we walk the descent. The thighs took several days to recover, but meanwhile with eyes cast downwards on the steep path, very slippery after the storm, we did see plenty more fungi, orchids and beetles

and were further rewarded with another stop at the Knappenhof. The proprietress, Doktor Brigitte Klenner-Kaindl, greeted us warmly and when she heard of my Freud connection, presented me with the 'Action Figure' they sell among the merchandise (made in China for 'Accoutrements Seattle'). I'd certainly stay there any time, and it would be very reasonable if you didn't sign up to the spa therapies.

Time was short, and we had one more destination: the house designed for a mayonnaise magnate by that great Brno-born, Vienna-based architectural genius Adolf Loos on the other side of the valley. It's now a hotel and a restaurant, but has retained most of Loos's fixtures.

The design is curious, all the main bedrooms on a landing leading off the main room so the mayonnaiser could see everything his daughters were getting up to. There's also a lovely little room off the main dining area which was once the library.

Near here Mahler and Alma also stayed; she maintained the villa after his death but Martha told me the owner has grown a thicket around it and you can't see anything. So then we took another, more relaxing walk down the Kreuzberg hillside past another shrine where this time a bird seemed to have found comfort in the nearness of Christ

and arrived in Payerbach just in time for the 17.24 train back to Vienna.

Yesterday I rushed down from Edinburgh, of which more anon, to relive this and other Alpine experiences through what can be Strauss's most exalted tone poem - and was, under Fabio Luisi and the Dresden Staatskapelle at the Proms. Their recording of An Alpine Symphony had promised great things, and introduced me to the most unusual and heartfelt interpreter of the Four Last Songs I've ever come across, the miraculous Anja Harteros, who slipped in almost unnoticed via the 'filler'.

Sadly, Harteros wasn't last night's soloist. It was Lang Lang, who packed 'em in, including a group of very rustly Japanese girls in my promming vicinity. He played the outer movements of Chopin's Second Piano Concerto bizarrely, rushing and muddying many passages and giving us little clue about the spirit of the dance (I couldn't sit through a Lang Lang recital of polonaises and mazurkas). The slow movement was beautiful in a slightly narcissistic way if you listened hard enough: pearls on a line indeed. Lang Lang can do the refined tone, and the notes; but can he do the musicality? A Chopin Etude as encore left further room for doubt.

As for Berlin-based young composer Rebecca Saunders's traces - true 'parking lot music', as Anders Hillborg told me the contemporary curtain-raiser's often called in America - I'll leave it to my pal Stephen Johnson to sum up. When I met up with him all too briefly in the interval, we agreed that Schoenberg with his 'Farben' and Ligeti in his Atmospheres had said this kind of thing much better a very long time ago, and Stephen neatly declared traces something along the lines of outmoded avant-gardism in the last throes of Alzheimer's. Just long-held single notes and the occasional jump - all process, no 'hooks' in the shape of real musical lines. A familiar story.

The resident Dresden maestro (photo copyright Barbara Luisi via the Proms office) worried me a bit at the beginning of the Alpine Symphony: anxious to set it up, a little rushed at the wonders of sunrise. And I'd promised friends Cal and Penny that part of the Albert Hall experience of this piece would be the mountaineering horns answering from (I hoped) the gallery. They seemed, alas, to be onstage, albeit muted - no substitute for the spacial effects which are the Albert cavern's greatest gift.

But soon Luisi's mastery found us all the right peaks and crevasses. The Staatskapelle, with its innate, sometimes rather placid warmth and glorious brass lining, is the right orchestra for Strauss's most plushly upholstered large-scale work, and the Albert Hall, for once, is the right venue - not just for the organ but also for the halo it places around the sound. Too often in drier venues this piece can sound (in J's immortal phrase about an Ashkenazy RFH experience) 'like an angry rice pudding'. In the last ten or so minutes, after a storm the protracted length of which our Raxalp night made me understand, I shut my eyes to the swaying giant in front of me, the noisy Japanese and the man with some sort of conducting Tourette's syndrome to my right and enjoyed another out of body (my phrase of the month) meditation.

The Dresden horns still have that heavenly glow and that judicious vibrato, even if the peerless Peter Damm, whom I met and interviewed during the sessions for Haitink's Dresden Rosenkavalier, is no longer in command. That bittersweet Epilogue in this team's hands remains one of the wonders of the musical world. Cal, a regular companion on our Italian mountain walks, e-mailed me this morning with redoubled thanks for persuading her to stay since she felt she'd 'lived through a great adventure'.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Mathilde's Zurich hothouse

Was it the octagonal Palmenhaus (built 1851) of Zurich's Old Botanic Gardens where Mathilde Wesendonck sat and sympathised with the poor imprisoned hothouse plants in her poem 'Im Treibhaus' (I’ll come to its Wagnerian offshoot soon enough)? Or did she have enough of her own at home on the Rietberg? Zurich Opera's production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, lumping it in the bourgeois reality of Richard and Mathilde in the late 1850s, would suggest she did.

The exact location doesn’t signify. It simply gave us a pretext to go off searching the botanical gardens for atmosphere. The fact that we made a mistake by heading first to the new ones didn’t matter: the three very modern, interconnected domes there are quite unlike any others I’ve seen – mini versions of those in the Eden Project.

The grey glass gives a gloomy cast to the inhabitants’ plight even on a hot sunny day.

Well might Mathilde muse, in what is not exactly first class verse but certainly the best of the five poems set by Wagner:

High-vaulted crowns of leaves,
Canopies of emerald,
You children of distant zones,
Tell me, why do you lament?

Silently you bend your branches,
Draw signs in the air,
And the mute witness to your anguish -
A sweet fragrance - rises.

In one of the futuristic domes I found my old friend the antipodean tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica.

It had looked rather happier when we came across it in abundance throughout the glades of Ireland’s subtropical Derreen last year. I’m also delighted to see Dicksonia as part of the ever more abundant jungly scheme of the Glyndebourne gardens, too:

Which allows me to sidestep neatly to that Tristan stage and orchestra rehearsal I kept more or less mum about before the production opened. That's when I photographed the tree ferns. I still won’t judge the performers from the incredibly moving and involving run through, but what I saw and heard seems to have been fairly reflected in the more enthusiastic of the reviews. The next four photos are all by Alastair Muir for Glyndebourne.

It was abundantly clear that great Vladimir Jurowski touched the Wagnerian ideal in the early stages of the Prelude, the momentum of the Act 1 finale, the susurrations of the summer night in Act 2 (a point where my soul really left the body for a moment), the love duet, the fever-flares of Tristan…of course VJ will go on learning and shaping more and more throughout his lifetime. But he must have felt like the young Strauss in Weimar who declared: ‘today I conducted Tristan for the first time, and it was the greatest day of my life’. For, as Jonathan Harvey said when I met him at that rehearsal, echoing Boulez, there is no more miraculous score in western music, surely?

We all marvelled at the adorable Anja Kampe’s deeply loving, wild Irish maid.

Kampe's gleaming middle range sounds like Crespin at times, and she hits all the high notes perfectly, even if there were occasional warning-signs of potential wear right up there (as how could there not be?) The Liebes-tod/-verklaerung was the most elevating I’ve ever heard it live, hand in hand with the unearthly blue light of the Lehnhoff production. I was taken aback when she came into the staff café in her dressing gown, and probably wouldn’t have recognised her were it not for the red wig: she has such stature on stage, and seems so much smaller, though still extremely pretty, in real life. ‘Aren’t you Isolde?’ I gauchely said. ‘No, I’m Anja’, she amiably exclaimed, extending a hand.

J and I have known Sarah Connolly since her days in the Glyndebourne Chorus, and I’ve never felt prouder for her, stunned by her projection of the meaning and unexpected reserves of tonal beauty as Brangaene, here cradling her beloved mistress:

I was also taken aback by the sheer velvety depth and infinite anguish of Georg Zeppenfeld’s Marke.

I wouldn’t judge Torsten Kerl’s Tristan from the rehearsal: he sang it all effortlessly, which already puts him among a handful of tenors worldwide, but would no doubt pull out more stops in the ‘real’ performances of the last act. Lehnhoff’s production, revived by Dan Dooner, has a touch of 1990s TV space dramas about it, but knows how to be still when it needs to be.

Which brings us back to the Villa Wesendonck on Zurich's Rietberg in the Enge district.

Alongside it Wagner, inspired by the probably unconsummated relationship with Otto W’s clever wife, penned a fair bit of music’s greatest feat, the Wesendonck songs – among which ‘Im Treibhaus’ became the music of Tristan Act 3, just as ‘Traume’ was transformed for the Liebesnacht – and some of Siegfried. His ‘asyl’ was soon pulled down when the Wesendoncks sold up, and the big and rather ugly Villa Schonberg opposite the Wesendoncks’ was built on the site:

There’s still a bust of Wagner in the grounds:

And a modern commemoration of his time there in the Rietpark.

The Villa Wesendonck is now a superb museum of non-European art, recently graced with a stylish new extension reflecting the house:

The beautiful grounds with their great old trees have long been a haunt of the lucky locals, who of course include our dear friend Lot and the goddaughters. The sisters are happy to give you a sample of the Villa’s more recent role:

Every morning we were in Zurich, we bought our muesli, buns and coffee from the superb Rietberg Museum café and breakfasted under a tree. That’s the image I most treasure from a very full Zurich time – especially the Saturday morning before my Lucerne trip when we heard the alphornist whose practising I posted in a short film at the end of the 'Hyperaesthesia' entry. Here, for extra measure, is his bore.

We now think he must have been preparing for the record-breaking rally of 366 players in Zermatt, superbly pictured in yesterday’s Guardian (though for some reason I can't find it online).

In addition that morning, we heard the strains of Brahms being practised on a nearby piano – the locale is full of musicians as well as orthodox Jewish families – and the Siegfried Idyll blazing forth from a hi-fi. Fear came into Paradise that morning, and unloaded:

But there were also artists painting in the shade, babies executing their first crawls on the lawn, and a naughty little doggie ignoring the signs and taking a bathe in the fountain:

It is indeed an enchanted zone, as the friendly guy working in the café asserted: he’d lived in Enge all his life, and he still found the park strangely magical. As do we, and would, I’m sure, even without that astonishing link to Richard and Mathilde.

Friday 21 August 2009

More about Hildegard

Following my personal memories further down in 'A star fell', I had the honour of writing Hildegard Behrens's obituary for The Guardian, now up and running here. The newspaper version has a splendid full-length colour portrait of La B as Brunnhilde, managing to look austerely beautiful in the unattractive weeds of Otto Schenk's hideously dressed Met production.

We must have a clip of Behrens at her most idiosyncratic. There are three YouTube chunks of her in 1994 as Strauss's Elektra. I thought the final dance of death was a bit close to the bone, so here's the big soliloquy. Levine's conducting is pretty fine, too.

Thursday 20 August 2009

The Frank Sinatra of the Ottakring

Our Viennese friends Tommi and Martha, for all their progressive world-outlook, are great fans of popular musical traditions in Vienna, where the recent revival of schrammel-bands has gone hand in glove with a welcome back for the last exponents of that sentimental, sometimes satirical, sometimes rather louche art-form the Wienerlied.

Following the recent death of one of its most senior interpreters, Trude Mally, there's only one great performer still alive whose memory stretches back to the golden years. Kurt Girk was high on Martha's list of Vienna's top attractions, though she couldn't find anything on while we were staying. So imagine the Gellert-Bernardi pair's delight when the dapper 77-year old Girk just turned up at the newly-resurrected Blauensteiner 'Gastwirtschaft'. We'd finished our meal, so we just kept topping up his wineglass in the hope that he'd eventually give us a song as he intimated he would. Here he is happy to pose with me:

and in conversation with Martha and Tommi:

To elicit the promised performance, J had to sing 'Forgive me if all those endearing young charms' and a burst of Lensky's aria to encourage him, and we were feted in return with a highly coloured account of 'O du bezaubernde Wienerin'. 'That's a real tenor', Girk declared of his encourager, and added that Gigli and Pavarotti would always be the tops for him in Italian rep.

Girk was once a humble tailor form Vienna's poorest and also liveliest district, the 16th or Ottakring, making suits out of a single needle and thread (the Ottakring, by the way, is now a vivacious Turkish and Balkan quarter, with a large number of cheap but echt restaurants). His master was Richard Tauber's personal assistant, and he was interested to learn that Tauber is buried in Brompton Cemetery round the corner from us. A friend of his once shared an apartment with Joseph Schmidt, but Girk knew intimately that other glam-tenor of the era, Jan Kiepura, and his wife Marta Eggerth: 'she's still alive - would you like to meet her?' Coincidentally, the next evening we came across a photo of Eggerth and Kiepura on the walls of that wonderfully old-fashioned little cinema the Bell'aria just by the Museumsquartier.

Anyway, meeting one great star of yesteryear was quite enough for one evening, though I still have to get hold of the CD (cover reproduced above). There's a film on YouTube of Girk performing recently at a heuriger, but I want to hear him in his prime.

Managed to pay homage to my old Viennese friend Trude in last night's Shostakovich talk before 'The Year 1905'. As you'll hear me say if you tune into the 20-minute interval version on Radio 3's Listen Again facility, up and running for the next six days, I was having tea with her after a class when she told me her favourite Shostakovich symphony was the Eleventh. Surprised, I discovered the reason: the third movement's eloquent theme for violas is based on the requiem-song for the fallen of 1905, which Trude knew from her Socialist Youth Movement years in 'red Vienna' as 'Unsterbliche Opfer' (she wrote out the text and I still have that pasted into the back of her memoir). As someone whose father was killed in the First World War, and whose mother, brother and sister were murdered in Treblinka, she would have found that lament especially resonant throughout her life.

Among chunks which had to go from the rapidly-edited interval broadcast was an interesting - or so I thought - insight from another dear friend and student, Kazan-born Martin Zam, who died at the age of 94. He told me his father was present at the 1905 massacre, and that he told him it started because the soldiers fired into the trees to try and disperse the crowds. Unfortunately there were children perched there, and when they fell to the ground the panic and the onslaught began.

Here, to lighten the mood, is a photographic intermezzo, a shot of the Proms queue for Shostakovich 11 on a sunny scorcher of an afternoon taken by a younger student and friend of mine, Piala Murray, after the talk. The ones of me are not for public consumption.

Bychkov's and the BBCSO's performance of the Eleventh revealed a few cracks in the basic edifice, but the finale - the trickiest movement to bring off - had a hair-raising energy amd panache. Some contested the sharp cut-off of the metallic bells, when Rostropovich and Stokowski used to let the sound reverberate, but that was an unforgettable noise. Alas, the first half flopped for me in a brutal and heavy performance of the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody in which Bychkov was as guilty as barnstormer Dennis Matsuev. The 18th Variation, though, turned out surprisingly sensitive. Detlev Glanert's Shoreless River was another of those works Prokofiev would have called a 'one-day butterfly': skilfully orchestrated and with a few nice melodic lines including a very beautiful one for the cor anglais, but not destined for a long concert-hall life. Still, it was thoroughly prepared and Bychkov gave it the best possible presentation.

Still hung over from the magic of Salonen's Monday Ravel, I couldn't quite bring heart and soul to the programme of the febrile Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer the following evening. Fischer is a real live-wire, looking here in the first of Chris Christodoulou's photos like a younger Harnoncourt (who, by the way, has pulled out of his forthcoming VPO Prom due to illness):

and he has fashioned a unique identity for his orchestra; together they always deliver focused interpretations con amore:

Leonidas Kavakos, unquestionably one of the world's top violinists, projected sweetly and with impeccable intonation into the Albert Hall vasts; but even he couldn't quite persuade most of us that Bartok's Second Violin Concerto doesn't outstay its welcome. The Budapesters swept with inimitable pliability and golden horn-edged magnificence through Dvorak Seven, but again it was my fault if I wasn't quite in the mood. The encore, Strauss's Peasant Polka complete with rustic vocalising, proved that Fischer should be signed up by his snootier neighbours in Vienna for their New Year's Day concert, and it offered more polished verve than anything in the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's late-night offering.

The Albert Hall was packed to the rafters yet again, but this time with folk who'd signed up to be members of a Special Club with their own ukuleles. My amusement at the unusual circumstances quickly dried up as the over-amplified group settled into a string of covers (and they can play, but they can't really sing and shouldn't). Felt like a suburban evening at the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. So we hung around for the Danse Macabre transcription, and even that wasn't very good, so off we went. I was expecting something of the calibre of those Russian balalaika orchestras who play Schubert symphonies, and this was nothing like. Dear Roger Wright, I commend your shrewdness, but please note that you should be looking to the Ossipovs of Moscow, if they still exist, for top light-hearted quality. This lot might be fun in the Cecil Sharp House, but their oft-touted rep doesn't really sit well in Albert's Colosseum. I know many will disagree with me, and I'm glad the hall was full, but - never again.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

A star fell

It was one of those oddly serendipitous moments. Carl, in whose Zurich flat we were staying, sings in the opera chorus there, and among his CDs were a few of my favourite tenor, Romanian born Joseph Schmidt. I came to Schmidt through my dear late friend and student Trude Winik, who grew up in what she called 'our red Vienna' and always claimed Schmidt as 'one of our people'. As such, he met a tragic and unnecessary end, dying in a Swiss transit camp aged only 38 of disease and exhaustion. But before that the diminutive Schmidt was a matinee idol, a film star - once his appearances on stage were limited by the growing anti-semitism - and a prolific recording artist.

We don't know enough about him in the UK, but in Germany he remained celebrated enough to merit a stamp in the centenary year of his birth.

I have four CDs at home of Schmidt's HMV recordings, and Trude gave me a couple of battered old records, but I'd never heard the Preiser disc Carl owns of 'Religious Songs and Arias'. So as well as marvelling at the wealth of different tones Schmidt brought to characters as diverse as Massenet's Rodrigue, Tchaikovsky's Lensky and Korngold's Paul, it was amazing to come across him as cantor in a couple of Hebrew songs. Even more amazing was to read in the booklet note that he was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Zurich.

It seemed too strange a coincidence to pass by: we were catching the train the next morning to Vienna, where of course my thoughts are often with Trude (who has a crucial part to play in the talk on Shostakovich 11 tonight, too). So we found out how to get to the cemetery, took a No. 13 tram to Albisgutli on the edge of the Rietberg and walked along a high path past smallholdings to what turned out to be the NEW Jewish cemetery. Further enquiry from a venerable orthodox gentleman with one eye led us down the hill, and there we were, able to lay two stones on the great man's gravestone.

Today I learnt of the death, aged 72, of Hildegard Behrens, another star who this time meant so much to my operatic wunderjahren. It was 1978 and I was 16: I'd been turned into an incipient opera queen hungry for Sutherland by mamma, who'd seen the Bell Song from Lakme in some film or other. But I was slowly coming to realise that much of the rep Joanie sang, including that season Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, wasn't quite to my taste. I wanted Strauss, Wagner. And having just bought the LPs of Behrens's Salome with Karajan, I was thrilled to bits to go to a friends rehearsal of the Royal Opera production. She stunned me with that odd, silvery sound and that terrifying development from innocent to harpy. I went backstage and the lady, clad in a leopardskin coat and with huge false eyelashes, was charm itself. She wrote 'Best wishes for you' on the back of the cast-list (in which I note John Tomlinson sang Fifth Jew) and signed my EMI booklet not just on her photo

but also on the booklet's cover, across the midriff of a naked dancing princes who, surprise, surprise, didn't do much for me.

Since then I saw Behrens's Elektra twice, relished her Met Brunnhilde and her Dyer's Wife for Solti on CD and will always remember her great singing acting as synonymous with my own musical growing-up.