Friday, 4 September 2009

Planets revolve around Grafenegg

Or they did on a slightly humid, storm-threatening summer night near the Danube, when the European Union Youth Orchestra and Andrew Litton came to the oaky estate and its glitzy newish open auditorium to show the Austrians that Elgar, if not Holst, is well up to the mark of Bruckner and Mahler. How long ago it seems, now that autumn advances, and in a way it is; I apologise for the delay, but half-decent photos have only just arrived from the EUYO to complement the very few I took.

And why the Copernicus? Because this is the International Year of Astronomy, which has brought us the Proms' well-meaning resuscitation of such one-day butterflies as Casken's Orion over Farne (Vivier's Orion, as Colin Dunn or Dnnu, whatever he thinks he's called, helpfully amplified in a message below, was much more interesting). So, a little further up the Danube, the overwhelmingly beautiful baroque library of Melk Abbey

was hosting a fascinating exhibition of 16th and 17th century astronomical treatises, a page of one of which I take the liberty of reproducing above. The temporary display enhanced the gorgeous globes symmetrically placed on either side.

We'd never have got to see Melk had it not been for a rainy Sunday morning, scuppering Tommi and Martha's idea of packing us all into their little motor boat and showing us that treasurable region of the Wachau from mid-Donau range. So we used the ubiquitous car instead, which did mean that we had quality time admiring the 14th century statues of Christ and the twelve apostles below the organ at the Pfarrkirche, Spitz,

observing its dappled tower from above the village,

discovering a naive and tiny medieval Pieta in another Pfarrkirche magically located atop lovable Weissenkirchen

and hitting the justifiably (but not, on an August Sunday afternoon, overly) touristic gem of Durnstein in the clearing skies of late afternoon. The walk along the Danube past the blue baroque tower of the Stiftskirche - occasioning memories of Rastrelli in St. Petersburg - brought real peace to the end of a hectic day.

But I jump ahead. Our Danube weekend began at Krems. It has one of the best cake shops in Austria (just by the station, curiously), three fine churches, hugely impressive 16th century sgraffito on a big house and quaint old streets winding up the hill to vineyards with great views over to the monastery of Stift Gottweig on the other side of the river

Yet I shouldn't omit to mention that the problems of the modern Austria (and, boy, they have a few) had only just intruded. Earlier that week in Krems a boy in his early teens had been shot dead by the police in a dramatic case of authoritarian over-reaction, and Austria was divided over whether the police - and the ones I met in Krems struck me as deeply unpleasant, probably very much on the defensive - had any justification. There were youth protests in every town, and several days later, looking across the mini-river from Vienna's Stadtpark, I caught this sign of the times ('Polizei ermordet 14-jahrigen - kein vergeben, kein vergessen'):

Well, trouble or not, I liked Krems, if not its rather heavy (in more ways than one) populace. But the best was to come that evening. With an hour and a half to spare before the concert, we drove just beyond Grafenegg up the gently vineyarded slopes to Feuersbunn am Wagram, where T and M were seeking out one of their beloved Heurigen. We found the only one open at the end of the local Kellergasse. Here our dear Viennese friends model with a characteristic spread.

Every village in the region has a Kellergasse, a long street just outside the centre lined with the cellars of the local wine producers. Feuersbrunn's is one of the largest, boasting over 250 cellars.

The owner of the Heuriger - where we consumed, as you can see and as is the rule in granting a licence for these summer drink-and-eateries, cold meats and cheese with our wine and grape juice - was happy to take us to his cellar. The temperatures plummeted as we descended and furtively wandered mysterious dank caverns lined with barrels

as well as bottles covered in vile black fungus known as kellerpilz.

Shall I be obliquely unsound and say this brought to mind all sorts of horrors? And need I say more than reproduce what I read as a cracking line in Sasha Baron Cohen's Bruno - more on the Austrians and that in my last mittelEuropean blog entry to come - and laughed out loud: 'I want to live the Austrian dream - to find a partner, buy a cellar and raise a family'.

Anyway, like Pelleas, I was glad to come out into the sunshine, and down the slope we drove to Grafenegg. Our happy heuriger hour left us little time to examine the mock-Gothic castle, so we headed straight for the impressive Wolkenturm where later in the season the VPO, OAE, LSO and Budapest Festival Orchestra were due to appear. Here an EUYO double bassist and horn player move towards it in the first of two photographs by Claudia Prieler

We took our seats next to the assembled 'VIP's and the ever-impressive doyenne of the EUYO, Joy Bryer, who hosted amiable interval drinks in the park. I can just make out Martha standing in red and the backs of our other three heads near the bottom right.

And here's one by me of the crowd with the moody skies and folly-castle as backdrop.

Litton worked with Kim Sargeant of the EUYO to provide a thoughtful theme of England-meets-Italy-and-the-Universe programme. Very much the heart of it was Elgar's In the South to follow Walton's Scapino Overture in the first part. For all the impact of the Wolkenturm's design, the sound still isn't ideal: woodwind don't project enough, percussion, celesta and harps maybe a bit too much. Take note, Charles Hazlewood, in promoting outdoor events, that big orchestras NEED a warm acoustic, however lovely it is to enjoy music al fresco.

Still, Litton projected great romantic warmth in the Elgar. It was surprisingly broad, a long way from Elgar's own interpretation, but also made much the deepest impact of the evening, with the 'Fanny Moglio' tune on the clarinets and the gorgeous 'canto popolare' of the solo viola meltingly beautiful. During the twilight mood between boisterous Edwardians in Alassio and tramping ancient Romans, a flock of geese soared vocally overhead, ducks quacked in the lake and the threatening sky turned pink.

For The Planets, Venus obligingly shone during her musical message of peace. Then the skies clouded over again before Neptune, which brought a twinge of disappointment until an orange harvest moon rose between the trees to the left of the auditorium. Of that disappointment there was then a far greater twinge, more a grimace, at the unmagical singing of the Wiener Singakadamie ladies - stray voices, dodgy tuning, so that one was glad when the door was closed (by Kim) ever so artistically on them at the end. Litton's interpretation could have done with more focused fire, I thought, and my mind wandered as it had not in the Elgar. Might have been Mrs. Bryer's champagne.

Memories returned, too, of a more flashing, iridescent Planets from Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO at last year's Proms, the day we learned of Tod Handley's death. That was a great tripartite challenge which worked; I'm so glad I experienced the Xenakis Pleiades with its attendant riot then, and sorry I missed this year's comparable happening on Wednesday. But I did get to the latest Proms triple whammy last night. Not sure the programme would have lured me, but of course Vladimir Jurowski conducting his London Philharmonic did, and I guess the interconnectedness of the programme was mostly his idea.

It all came together when I was least expecting it, in Zimmermann's Dialoge, a new experience to set alongside last year's Pleiades. Out of the seeming randomness, brilliantly executed by Jurowski in awesome, technicolor teamwork with live-wire pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, came nightmarish quotations of Debussy's Jeux - earlier brought into sharper than usual focus alongside Ibert's outrageously camp Bacchanale - and a Mozart piano concerto (Aimard and Stefanovich had just played the K448 Sonata for two pianos, not with Argerich's fantasy, inevitably, nor the aristocratic poise of Britten and Richter, but the handful of quirks in the piece showed up well). Though the whole thing was shown on BBC4, and should be available online, no photographer was there for the BBC, so I'll have to make do with all three artists in accustomed publicity shots.

Those entails credits. Vladimir, I am asked to note, was 'dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna', which seems unlike him but no doubt publicity had its own ideas, and photographed by Sheila Rock; the photo of Tamara Stefanovich is by Manfred Eisler; and Guy Vivien placed Pierre-Laurent Aimard in appropriate context.

Back to the Zimmermann, I guessed, too, that the third reference, to the 'Veni creator' chant by a standing trombonist, would find its crown in the chorale of the Brahms First Symphony, and that point undoubtedly came with the three trombones between horn solo and big tune in the finale. Jurowski promised when I interviewed him for the September issue of the BBC Music Magazine that, once he turned to Masur's romantic repertoire with the LPO, they would all be looking at it in a new light, and this was truly the case.

Brought up on Furtwangler, I expected perhaps more space to drive home the development climaxes of the outer movements, but this was lithe and muscled throughout. Maybe the approach would be better suited to the RFH than the diffusing effect of the Albert Hall, but still, you had to respect it. The third movement came as a rather fast and embattled prelude to the ultimate drama. If all this needed some intellectual, if not emotional, adjustment, like Jurowski's radical Tchaikovsky Pathetique last season, the slow movement took wing immediately as Jurowski floated the soul of that endless, across-the-barline song which for me is Brahms's greatest gift. This was the orchestral equivalent of the Argerich experience. Perfect rubato, ineffable control, all of it embodied in the great man's clear and expressive conducting style. If he doesn't go to Berlin after Rattle - who, for me, is a great colourist, programmer and animateur but has nothing like Jurowski's sense of the long line - I'll eat my hat. Unless, of course, he doesn't want to, which would be typical. After all, it would be very hard to leave an orchestra with whom you can conduct Tristan and Falstaff at Glyndebourne before going on to Brahms, Mahler and Schnittke...

The next entry will be shorter, I promise.


JVaughan said...


I largely learned _In_ _The_ _South_ from Sir Adrian Boult's EMI stereo recording, and must have picked up some bad habits from it since there are certain things which he does that no one else seems to, the composer included. Most notably, he takes that Moglio theme more quickly than virtually anyone else I know, again including the composer and Maestro Litton on his recording, and, because of that, I find those other accounts to drag there. The following great lyrical tune may also plod a bit more, though I might do well to make a closer comparison there. Also his opening of the entire overture is more lively, though I have read criticisms of him for doing that, with the _POSSIBLE_ result of some raggedness of ensemble, though I have yet to really notice it. Yet he is just a mite slower at the end of the coda, where the brass triplets come in. One thing I always listen for is the viola soloist's intonation in the "Canto Populare" since failure in that area can _REALLY_ ruin that lovely tune. Sir Adrian's soloist seems to hit the mark there, as thankfully have various others I have heard. This is a wonderful work as far as I am concerned, and I am glad that Mr. Kennedy rethought his initial reservations about it. By the bye, I also heard Maestro Litton conduct it live, when he was an Associate Conductor with our National Symphony. I also participated in a conducting class from him as a premium for making a donation to the Orchestra. That was a nice experience. I have his recordings of Rachmaninov's _Second_ _Symphony_ and most of Mendelssohn's _Midsummer_ _Night's_ _Dream_ _Music_.

Hoping, as usual, that this finds you well, and with renewed thanks and best wishes,

J. V.

p.s. I have also come to share your implied liking of Debussy's _Pelleas_. I have the famous Desormiere account.

David said...

Good to hear from you again, JV. Actually that Boult recording has one of his famous pile-ups (Barbirolli has them too) - near the beginning, I seem to remember, though there are better things later on.

As I implied, the model for Boult and others would be Elgar's own relatively speedy account. I was surprised by the time Litton took, but the atmosphere was always sensitive and the positioning - second in the programme - justified the depths.

I still love Litton's early Rach cycle, and well remember the RPO concerts out of which they sprang. His is still my favourite performance of the First. I'm looking forward to hearing his contribution to Alban Gerhardt's much-praised Prokofiev double-bill on Hyperion.

The Planets, sadly, was a bit too flaccid in places for me.

Yes, I love Pelleas, and especially that Desormiere recording with Joachim and Jansen. Karajan's is ravishing in quite a different way.

JVaughan said...

I still wish Elgar himself and others took that Moglio theme just a shade faster, but presumably that majority of conductors cannot be wrong, and, as one who wishes to respect composers' intentions, I probably must accept that, like it or not. I recall Mr. Kennedy's biography of Sir John stating that the author convinced the conductor to take on that Overture, though currently do not know of any recording.

Given its length, I would be inclined to agree about placing it second in a concert, though seem to recall him having led with it with the NSO.

Another of Sir Adrian's faster tempi, also taken on by Maestro Leppard, is for the first of the _Dream_ _Children_, he taking it at what we often hear in Baroque pastorale movements these days, and I think it works wonderfully! Yet Elgar asks for dotted-crotchet=48 if I recall aright, and I now have actually gotten used to Sir Charles taking it at about that pace, and personally find the atmosphere he gets just right as well! I wish Elgar had not ultimately rejected those two gems, thus depriving us of a recording from him, as well as of the _Introduction_ _And_ _Allegro_.

I do not yet know the Rachmaninov _First_, but expect Maestro Litton would get as much out of it as I feel he does from the familiar _Second_. Once again begging your pardon for possible ignorance, is Mr. Gerhardt a producer for that great Hyperion Label, or something else? And of what does this Prokofiev double- bill consist? Given Maestro Litton's love, along with that of Maestros Previn, Slatkin, and indeed Bernstein, for Russian music, I expect he would also do well by that composer.

Hoping I am not repeating myself from all of those Proms-related exchanges we had in July, I liked Sir Charles's _Planets_, notably those accents in "Mars" which are not in his EMI recording from Liverpool, though just maybe some string warmth was wanting in Venus.

In addition to the music, the characters are rather interesting in _Pelleas_, and the words which Maiterlinck gives to describe Melisande near the end are the most moving part of that opera for me.

J. V.

JVaughan said...

I fell short of the mark in my last comment, and should have said that the characters in _Pelleas_ are _QUITE_ interesting, not just rather!

David said...

Alban Gerhardt is the remarkable cellist I had the pleasure of sharing a Proms panel with last year, before his performance of the Symphony Concerto. Shortly afterwards, he recorded it alongside the First Cello Concerto upon which it expands and from which, in several radical respects, it departs. That recording has now been issued with my notes - I've yet to hear the finished product.

Maeterlinck is long overdue a revival - I can imagine his supposedly symbolist plays being done in a Beckettian fashion. They're mostly unfathomably cruel, rather like much of the Golaud strand in Debussy's opera, and mostly about the destruction of fresh youth by convention and envy. The Death of Tintagiles is horrifying.

JVaughan said...

I now recall having heard the _Symphony_ _Concerto_ with the NSO some years ago, as well as the beginning of a recording of the _First_ _Concerto_. If I am not mistaken, their openings are indeed virtually, if not entirely, identical, and interestingly so. I still do not know a great deal of Prokofiev's music, but one thing which I find interesting about him is what he frequently does with key relationships, e.g., going from one key to the one immediately above or below, wittily in a number of instances (that delightful _March_ _Op._ _99_ for band and the more-famous one in (Lieutenant_ _Kije_, also in the _Seventh_ _Symphony_), Strauss being another who does that sort of thing, though not necessarily for wit's sake. Of course the openings of these concerti are slow, but again the harmonic movement is interesting. This might be a recording worth eventually investigating.

There is a French woman in our building, cousin of the musician who helps me with certain mundane tasks, in her 90's and still, as is said, sharp as a tack! She also loves _Pelleas_, and I would like to talk further about Maeterlinck with her. Yes, when one stops to think about it, Golaud probably goes beyond mere jealousy, certainly when he kills Pelleas, but also when he takes his brother to that deep and dark portion of the castle to which you aluded, though, when they emerge, he just then repeats that they were acting like a couple of children. Yet holding that little boy up to a window to spy on the lovers was cruel since he is frightened.

If I may once again, as we seem to do frequently around here, stray off topic, this past Tuesday, as presumably you know, was Dvorak's birthday, so where, if you have an opinion and would care to say, do you stand on the perennial question of whether or not he was influenced by African-American music, etc., when writing the works from his time over here? I personally find some melodic and, in particular, harmonic touches in this music which does not seem to be prominently, if at all, present in his other work, one of these being passages alternating between relative majors and minors. To be sure, this is very basic, but something about what he does with it, and the melodic touches associated with it, seem to make this unique in his output. There are also some lovely melodic touches in the Finale of the _Cello_ _Concerto_. A work which I love is the so-called _American_ _Suite_, and I might well want it on one of those desert islands if I could only have one work by him, though I also like several others. I do not yet know _Rusalka_ apart from we both know what.

J. V.

David said...

Yes, Prokofiev and Strauss - harmonic 'sideslippers' both (think of the Gavotte in the Classical Symphony and that even earlier piece of neoclassicism in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme Entr'acte).

As to Dvorak's Americanness, when does a Czech folksong become a native American one? Traits are the same in many countries. It does seem to me that the New World is imbued with both, ditto the 'American' Quartet. I read an excellent little book, you'd have thought it was for mere beginners but it is very up to date and intelligent: Neil Wenborn's mini-biog in Naxos books.

And you really don't know Rusalka, Dvorak's absolute masterpiece? I'm amazed that as a Mackerras devotee you don't have Sir Charles's glorious recording. Remedy that at once!

JVaughan said...

I overlooked that famous example in the _Classical_ _Symphony_ when writing my previous comment, though, of course, it does just the sort of thing I was talking about. I have heard excerpts from _Le_ _Bourgeois_ _Gentilnhomme_ at least a few times, probably with the Marine Band or Chamber Orchestra, but did not get to know the music well enough to note the passage you cited. Yet, if my current understanding is correct, that Sir Charles plans to include that music with his forthcoming, if all goes well, English recording of _Ariadne_, I could find it there (one wonders if he plans to perform the opera in its original version, thus making this even more apt, though I would tend to doubt it since presumably most listeners, especially those getting to know the work initially by listening to it in English, would want the standard version).

Are not those folksy touches you rightly note in those two famous Dvorak works somewhat different from most of what he wrote in Bohemia, whether before or after his American visit? Much of the Finale of the _Piano_ _Quintet_ would not be out of place at an old-fashioned American barn dance, and yet it does not have some of those touches he seemed to take on while over here, especially what he does with alternating relative majors and minors and the melodic touches accompanying them. Should this book you favourably noted cover this issue perceptively, it might well be worth acquiring.

One of the reasons I have not yet taken on _Rusalka_, admittedly a flimsy one, is that I have so much Dvorak now for my annual cycle, another, also-flimsy one being that it is in the original Czech, a language which, unlike certain others, I do not know at all apart from some proper names and maybe just a word or two. Therefore my Janacek operas are thus far all in English, though I do have Sir Charles' decca _Makropoulos_, which I acquired before his _EXCELLENT_, in my opinion at least, ENO one came out. That _REALLY_ brought this opera to life for me! When I heard we both know what from Rusalka, it was usually sung by we both know who, and thus that connection, again of course, would be preserved were I to buy this recording. I think I will check (no pun intended) for a good price on it, trying to make sure, if it was perchance reissued without libretto, that I get an issue including that! I did meet La Fleming some years ago, after a masterclass in the Kennedy Centre in which she colaborated with Miss Graham and Mr. Cosarro, possibly etc., and was pleased that she wished her Chicago performance of Floyd's _Susannah_ would be issued on commercial CD's!

J. V.

David said...

That's great news that 'Charlie' wants to play Jourdain as well as the opera: I saw him conduct the BG Suite alongside Walton/Bach with the English Chamber Orchestra in my first ever visit to the Barbican, now when on earth would that have been?

If you must have Rusalka in English, Chandos have done it that way with the very good Cheryl Barker, but Hickox conducting couldn't be a proper swap for CM. Renee is at her best on the Decca recording; Heppner is fab, too. I like the old Czech/Neumann recording with the gorgeous Benackova, but I have to agree the more recent one has the edge.

JVaughan said...

I need something to cool me down now after that _MOST_-annoying, to me, Maestro Christie's doings with _Judas_ _Maccabaeus_, including organ continuo in slow airs and even at least one recitative, reducing the strings to solo in at least one air where I am virtually certain that Handel wanted his regular complement, etc., so am glad to have this relief! DGG, would you _PLEASE_ let Maestro McCreesh resume recording Handel oratorios?!

As you may know, there is a recording including Sir Charles conducting the Bach/Walton _Wise_ _Virgins_, etc., but I have not heard it, but rather an older one with the Cleveland Orchestra (or was it Atlanta after Maestro Lane moved there?).

I found the Mackerras _Rusalka_ for between $18 and $19, and doubt that I would get a better price. You will be pleased to know that I took it! I have possibly been buying too many CD's and downloads in recent weeks, but may wish to buy at least one Verdi opera soon, the newly-remastered, by Pristine Audio, Toscanini _Ballo_ (they have also done the even-more-famous _Otello_, which I already have from the RCA series, but might wish to consider this one as replacement), hopefully in time for my early-October Verdi cycle. I hope to play the recently-acquired, as you know, Muti _Traviata_ this year instead of the Mackerras, but further hope to return to it next year for his 85th birthday. I am also considering the Levine _Forza_.

J. V.

p.s. I wish this past Saturday's _CD_-_Review_ feature on the Verdi _Requiem_ had come up with a new clear winner, but it did not, and thus that remains yet another gap in my collection that must eventually be filled.