Monday 30 November 2009

Changing London for a letter

Which means Loddon, just south of Norwich, that great city where we spent a blissful few hours on Friday afternoon looking around the cathedral after dark. And for Londoners seeking purer air and wanting to swap an n for a d, there's one extra enticement to Loddon now that the adorable Katherine Howard, ex-Sony and EMI gal, and her equally good-natured husband Andy Walter, who I'm delighted to say is still restoring historical recordings at EMI despite all the vicissitudes there, have turned the barn of their mill house (seen in the photo beyond the duck sign) into a concert hall.

There was a big event last year, with the first-rate Henschel Quartet (whose latest disc of Mendelssohn and Bruch is sheer delight). But the launch of more and grander things to come, now that Katherine has her lively brood of four more or less sorted, happened on Friday night. Katherine used to go salsa dancing with a quirky and delightful chap who's now leader of the second violins in the Royal Opera Orchestra, Jan Schmolck. He and his pianist wife, Frances Angell, formed two-thirds of a trio but found that co-ordination with the cellist, who lived a long way from them, had become tricky. Now they've collaborated with some of the leading players in British orchestras to set up the Turner Ensemble, which launches an official residency at Kings Place on 17 January.

The Mill Room wouldn't accommodate the sort of larger-scale ensemble they have in mind for their first, enticing Kings Place programme, so the Angell-Schmolcks came to Loddon with one of the finest horn players in the UK, Roger Montgomery.

They delighted a packed crowd of locals, Norfolk based musicians and sundry Londoners who'd come specially, including ourselves, Phil and Susan Sommerich, and the inestimable Andy Stewart. His article about 'Mill Power' in the 7 November issue of Classical Music eloquently says all that needs to be said on the subject.

Except, of course, how bracing the launch was, since it hadn't happened then. As I know from the players who visit my BBC Symphony classes, our orchestras have within their ranks instrumentalists as good as any who appear at the Wigmore or the QEH. Better than most, I'd hazard in this case, because Frances plays with such restrained power that you'd never know what a struggle the livelier movements of the Franck Violin Sonata or the Brahms Op. 40 Trio are for the pianist. Which is not to say that she was discreetly accompanying in any way, just that the tone was never forced - and we were sitting right at the front - and the musicality total. Jan and Frances expressed all the drama of the Franck to those in the audience who might have needed the visual aspect to convince them of the inner story; not that they would have realised the killer effort involved.

Roger's part in the proceedings chimed serendipitously with my visit to Jasper Rees's horn play the night before (see below). Roger told me Jasper had persuaded him to loan one of the horns which hung above the Hampstead stage. Poulenc's idiosyncratic Elegie was written for Dennis Brain, very much on my mind since his part in the play. And there was even deeper lament in the Adagio mesto of the Brahms Trio. I couldn't tell why it was affecting me so strangely, not least when horn and violin take up solo lines and the piano stays silent for a while; it was only afterwards that Andy drew my attention to the note which told us it was completed, like the German Requiem, in memory of the composer's mother. Frances told me afterwards that having an audience always changes the way she plays it - the elegy needs a sense of shared mourning.

All this sobriety shouldn't detract from the sheer joy of the occasion, the delight of some folk who'd never been to a chamber concert in their lives, the mulled wine and the mince pies.

But after 24 hours in Norfolk, it was back to more seriousness with the last of the Southbank Schnittke concerts. I hadn't bargained for the challenge of involving the composer's widow Irina in the pre-performance event with an interpreter (two, in fact) present. That meant dialogue couldn't flow as freely as it might have done with just Vladimir Jurowski or Sasha Ivashkin, both of whom speak the most elegant English. But it was important to have the connection, the slight awkwardness melted away and I think everyone had their turn in making unusual and interesting points. Here's the distinguished troika afterwards.

You'd never believe that in half an hour's time Vladimir and Sasha were to embark on one of the toughest concertos in the repertoire. The concert was sombre but focused and magnificent, difficult to write about without becoming unduly portentous, but I've tried in my latest Arts Desk review.

So that's our fill of Schnittke in what would have been his 75th birthday year, so zdravitsa with a glass of vodka. It seems apt to leave him plaintively awaiting an audience. He's certainly found one, made up of quite a few members of the younger generation, over the past fortnight.

Friday 27 November 2009

Cor rep

Praising a fellow Russian music expert's work to the skies, and to his face, some years ago, I was disarmed when he retorted 'oh, licky, licky'. Can you believe me if I say that I only gush sincerely? In the present case, I'll admit that I might not have gone to see I Found My Horn at the Hampstead Theatre had it not been the brainchild of Jasper Rees, nominally a new boss (though we're not supposed to have such things in the democratic world of The Arts Desk). I'll also claim that if it hadn't been anything special, I wouldn't have felt obliged to write about the experience here; after all, recent minidisasters like the Jacques Brel Tribute (Diamanda Galas's part in it honourably excepted) and Ryan Wigglesworth conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra have passed unremarked.

Jasper's book has been sitting on my shelves since a mutual friend gave it to me as a birthday present. I liked the photos, read the preface and realised this was clearly going to be a cut above Jilly Cooper's Appassionata or even other more real books on matters musical; but postponed it for a rainy day. The author, who talks about finishing, well, starting Ulysses, will appreciate my obligation to make at least some headway with Finnegans Wake and maybe re-read Proust first.

But here it was, presented on a plate in the form of a consummate one-man show directed by Harry Burton, with skilful lighting and excellent sound for the well-chosen horn snippets. Jonathan Guy Lewis made a sympathetic case not just for midlifecrisis Jasper and his determination to return to his unrequited love the horn, at which he was not very good as a boy (spot-on masterclass in school-orchestra Schubert 9), but also for doyens of the horn world Dave Lee, Hermann Baumann and Lowell Greer.

I laughed a lot, but I also had tears in my eyes when Jasper stands among young people listening to more young people play Sibelius's Fifth at the Proms (the great horn theme helps), and when Dave tells him to pull himself together and remember that Dennis Brain was seven years dead at his age. This touched a nerve with those of us approaching 50. Louis Lortie, whom I have yet to report on, has just turned the half-century and reminded me on Tuesday that he's already lived longer than nearly all the composers whose music he plays.

So, mortality and making something of yourself before it's too late, that stock of the feelgood movie, combine here. And the grand finale is superb, because Lewis CAN play the horn and re-enacts Rees's spiritual crisis as he faces the British Horn Society in Mozart's Third Concerto (photo, as above, by Alastair Muir).

The fact that he goes from being total crap to putting his heart and soul into it is theatrical licence, but of course you're rooting for him to succeed. As he does, on all levels. This show should run and run, but sadly it finishes at the Hampstead Theatre on Saturday. Here are Jasper, Jonathan and their capricious love object in front of Hampstead ghosts present and to come.

Oh, and about that Brel concert: I do feel I should have stuck up for the wacky Goth Diamanda, whose disgusting rendition of 'Amsterdam' was the only real highlight despite cries of sacrilege and horror.

Beware artists with single names like Bono. I've already forgotten the nondescript Brit and the gravelly Flem who made unintelligible mush of Jacques's lyrics (which are in any case the only point as the music is ballad-simple). Good to see Marc Almond in chirpy form, but he was like a very slick end-of-pier-show host; and what was all the fuss about Camille O'Sullivan? She seemed rather amateurish and inexperienced to me.

Stop press: I've got to take the stage again tomorrow. Sasha Ivashkin didn't want to have to chair as well as to participate in the RFH pre-performance Schnittke talk with the composer's widow (and amazing pianist) Irina and Vladimir Jurowski. So with some trepidation I've agreed to take it on. Don't miss the last concert in a challenging series.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Schnittke's supernova

Imagine Wagner's in-the-beginning Rheingold Prelude burgeoning and exploding into other dimensions, and even then you can have only an inkling of what Schnittke's hour-long Third Symphony of 1981 sounds like in the flesh. I heard it live for the first time last night in the Royal Festival Hall, as part of the latest instalment in Jurowski's hugely ambitious Schnittke Festival.

All the historical stylisations and musical monograms, from Bach right through to Bernd Alois Zimmermann, go into the melting pot, or rather the meltdown, but I beg to differ for once with Ed Seckerson, the colleague with whom I'm usually most in harmony. He ends his Arts Desk review by writing what he whispered into my astonished ears at the end of last night's performance: 'I don't believe a note of it'. And I replied, rather fired up, 'I believe every single note'.

Which was a bit of an exaggeration: I almost lost sympathy when a big Mahlerian slow-movement finale took over from all the supernova build ups and bursts. But I soon came back into the fold. And it wasn't difficult given that Jurowski's preparation and all-stops-out realisation with the LPO stunned at every point. As John Riley said to me in another of our wildly enthusiastic post-concert blethers, just when you thought the centre couldn't hold and there had to be a blurring of textures, our hero kept it in brilliant focus.

So just as execution, it was as dazzling a performance as I think I'll ever hear in the concert hall. From Lee Tsarmaklis's consummately sung and danced tuba solo, so crucial a mooring early on in the work, to the last echoes of that hyper-romantic melody on the flutes, the LPO played with an almost frightening conviction (though I did see some of the players smiling at the huge grandiosity of it all, which was reassuring). Some folk still don't buy Schnittke's range of reference, but at its best - as here, in the Viola Concerto and the First Concerto Grosso - it all coheres with astonishing subterranean logic. As for revitalising the symphonic experience back in 1981, it struck me that Schnittke took up where Shostakovich's toppling masses in his Fourth Symphony left off (and remember Shostakovich could never be the same again after the infamous Pravda attack). I may well go back to one of several recordings, including Rozhdestvensky's which features another apt image on its cover, Bosch's outer panel paintings for The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Yet as John said, the live LPO/Jurowski experience took the symphony to a level which I'm presumptuous enough to think hasn't been reached before, nor ever will be again. And just in case you think I'm a bit of a Jurowski obsessive, I have to say that the intriguingly planned but rather oppressive first half - Webern Passacaglia, Lindberg Chorale (Bach's 'Es ist genug' the basis) and Berg's Violin Concerto - left me half asleep, for all its textural revelations.

Maybe I take too over-emotional a view of the Concerto and its dedication to the angelic 18 year old Manon, daughter of Alma and Walter Gropius, whose struggle and death are usually so vividly re-enacted here. I snapped her striking tombstone on Alma's grave just around the corner from Mahler's in Grinzing Cemetery.

Leonidas Kavakos, whose playing invariably hooks me, seemed to be keeping his distance. The playing didn't sing or cry out in the way I remember from Nigel's outlandish performance (dressed as a vampire - John Drummond apparently had to restrain him from applying a trickle of fake blood to the corner of his mouth).

In short, it felt like a dispassionate play-through, though beautifully balanced and with Kavakos (pictured above by Yannis Bournias) sensitively attuned to his colleagues. Afterwards, violinist and conductor re-convened to talk to Southbank Head of Music Marshall Marcus in the RFH Ballroom. I only just caught it because I was coming up from the cloakroom and there was Vladimir, approachable as ever and especially pleased that I'd picked up the Amfortas reference in Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony; he'd found another Parsifal quotation in it and one from Beethoven's Op. 111. Here are a couple of photos by the ever-reliable Chris Christodoulou, sent to me by the Royal College of Music following rehearsals and performance of the festival launch and that unforgettable Prokofiev Six.

We talked about the dangers of critical jumping to quick conclusions. VJ's been disappointed by reception of last season's most daring ventures, which I missed, but determined to go on with his extraordinary programming and heartened by the crowd. Best of all, I'd say, is that first on their feet at the end of the Schnittke were the teenagers and twentysomethings. A new climate is afoot; with animateurs like Jurowski, Petrenko, Nelsons, Dudamel, Salonen, Ticciati and Nezet-Seguin around, the change of attitude in the younger generation advances in joyous leaps and bounds. It was high time.

Sunday 22 November 2009

People of the Peking Diner

They told me Rupert Goold's new ENO Turandot was going to be set in a Chinese restaurant; I laughed. I saw the trailer; it looked as if it might work. I went to the show last night; I haven't experienced a more brilliant piece of totally reinvented music theatre since Richard Jones's production of Wozzeck. Sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Katrina Lindsay, video art and design from Lorna Heavey and Rick Fisher's lighting all go towards creating the total visual experience. All production photos here are by Catherine Ashmore.

Like Jones, Goold takes cues from the text, in this case about violent appetites, doll-women and total sadism, and creates a whole world from them. Puccini's and Gozzi's China is a never-never one reinvented by western fantasies; the anything-catered-for Chinatown dining experience is a good equivalent. Entourages come from all over the world to face the riddles, so why not gather all sorts of masqueraders and religions in the restaurant? Puccini's theme-park of stylistic references finds its equivalent here. And the cruelty is slightly picture book, too, so why not make it bloody but entertaining and strip-cartoonish along the lines of Tarantino's Kill Bill!?

In any case, whether or not you like Goold's solutions - and for me, everything worked - you have to concede the tightness and discipline of the theatrical vision. What a joy, after the aimless mooching Zambello allows her cast in The Tsarina's Slippers, to see every chorus member an individual, every dancer a tight and bizarre executant of wacky routines (by Aletta Collins).

Musically, the reason for mounting Turandot without all the resources it ideally needs is the stupendous lead Ed Gardner gives the ENO Orchestra and Chorus. This is another high watermark for them to set alongside their Peter Grimes. The number of top Cs in the soprano line is awesome; the orchestra catches the watercolour beauties as well as the extended lurid splendour of the score. Gardner relishes the slow torture of the Prince of Persia

as well as the lovely little garden-reverie indulged in by Ping, Pang and Pong as they sit on the back stairs of the restaurant, watched by the writer who seems to be creating Turandot as he goes along (an emblematically detailed performance by top-notch actor Scott Handy).

The Act Three atmospherics have never sounded eerier, piccolo and harmonics going hand in glove with the horrifying kitchen of our Peking Diner.

Calaf sets the flames on the big cooker going and delivers 'None shall sleep'. Clearly Goold wasn't going to get more than the odd hand gesture from Gwyn Hughes Jones, but the tenor does rise to the vocal challenge. Earlier, his bottled top and invisible low notes made us wonder if a Nanki-Poo hadn't strayed into boots several sizes too big for him. It's a serviceable performance, as is Kirsten Blanck's in the insane role of the ice princess (here poignantly abetted by a little-girl alter ego who skips around to the 'moo lee wah' children's chorus). Blanck's high notes may be blowsy but they're never shot like several of the Turandots we've been watching in the class. She acts decisively and brings energy to the final duet

where Alfano's cumbersome orchestration is matched by a pig-headed kitchen creature taking over the sensitive writer's notebook. Goold's solution to the ending Puccini never got round to finishing is much better than Tony Palmer's in that absurd Scottish Opera production twisted around Puccini, his wife Elvira and their ill-fated maid Doria Manfredi.

Liu here is the superb Amanda Echalaz, a dangerous voice on the cusp of blowing apart, but stylish and always dramatically motivated. She and Goold give a different but plausible take on whatever 'Signore, ascolta!' is in this vivid if not always well-fitting translation. The torture scene is momentarily shocking, but think about it: Puccini's sadistic stagecraft knows no bounds here. It was both a masterstroke and a stumbling block for the happy ending to sacrifice Liu in this way (Busoni's Turandot is so much easier to celebrate because, apart from the unfortunate offstage prince in the first scene, no-one dies).

The suicide is not pretty, nor is it meant to be. Yet this grimness is offset by the bizarre jokes that abound elsewhere. A colourfully-dressed old wino is taken up by the writer to play the Emperor; a clown fanfares the beginning of the trial on a toy trumpet. The mechanical maids-in-waiting, dancers with amazing legs, do a brilliant job of acting out Turandot's violated state, collapsing in pairs as the latest man gets the riddles right. The end is appropriately colourful, however queasy. Like Laurent Pelly's Glyndebourne production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Goold's Turandot manages to say some thought-provoking things about our pick-and-mix, casually violent society without labouring the point a la Alden or Bieito. If you're just out for the voices, you might be forgiven for giving it a miss. But if you care about living theatre and great conducting, you have to see it.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Farewell, Swedish Elisabeth

Very sad to learn that another of our greatest singing actresses, Elisabeth Soderstrom, has followed Behrens to the grave. She had more of an innings than I realised, reaching the relatively grand age of 82, and yet it seems like only yesterday I caught some of her later performances.

I came to Strauss's marital semi-comedy Intermezzo through hearing her termagent Christine Storch (aka Pauline Strauss) sung in English on Radio 3. I could only have been in my teens when I made a rather bewildered acquaintance of Strauss's parlando in the televised Glyndebourne Capriccio. I didn't understand it but I liked Soderstrom's charismatic glamour in the final scene. Now that the top YouTube clip has been deleted - 2/2014 - I had recourse to go back and look again, and here's a recording of (part of) the Final Scene I didn't know existed. The top commenter is right - there are no other performances I know with such intensity of feeling and meaning.

As I think I mentioned in extolling my hero, Neeme Jarvi, I got to hear him and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for the first time purely through wanting to catch Soderstrom in Strauss's Four Last Songs. All I remember is that it was sabotaged by the jangling jewellery of the lady next to me, who left at the interval to let me enjoy Sibelius 2 and Part's Cantus to the Memory of Benjamin Britten in peace and awe.

Recitals? She promised her last at the Edinburgh Festival, veering towards musical comedy if I recall correctly (with Liza Lehmann's 'Fairies at the bottom of the garden' as one of the encores), and it didn't leave that much of an impression. But then she stepped in for - whom? no idea now - at the Wigmore, and her Musorgsky Nursery was utterly convincing, never archly childlike. Her famous anecdotal presentation of both concerts was charm itself.

We have her Janacek heroines to remember her by, but she wasn't around in the heyday of filmed opera, so apart from a Glyndebourne Fidelio, I don't think there's much to record her ineffable stage presence. My hope is that the stuffy old Strauss family can finally overcome its aversion to John Cox's setting Capriccio in the 1920s - after all, the Carsen version which has appeared is located at least a decade later - and then maybe the BBC filming could come out on DVD. Finally, I must search out a copy of Soderstrom's avowedly entertaining memoirs.

What would she have made of her fellow Swede Anna Larsson in red lingerie and fishnet tights as the tango-of-death Mephistophila in Schnittke's Faust take? She would have relished it, no doubt. The review of Wednesday's concert is here on The Arts Desk, as is my late-night report on The Tsarina's Slippers. You'll gather from it than not much has changed in pretty Ukrainian-village staging of Tchaikovsky's charmer since Maria Kuznetsova sang capricious heroine Oksana in the early 1900s.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Beauty awakens

Oh, the mainstream ballet world: don't you despair of its innate conservatism, the genteel brides (and queens) of dance who cry horror at anything seen onstage which couldn't have appeared before 1950? Now that a DVD release has made revisiting the Royal Ballet's controversial Maria Bjornson-designed Sleeping Beauty of the early 1990s possible, it makes me very angry to see how little the dancers had to accommodate themselves to the allegedly treacherous sets, how absurd it was to claim that the mannerist pillars in the Prologue went against the angles of the company at the curtain in anything but a good way.

True, Aurora has to negotiate the steps on her entrance, preventing the ideal capricious flight. And the fairy-tale characters in the Third Act need to walk down them or sit on them. But all the essential dance takes place on a flat stage. And did the ballerinas not swoon at every little detail of their never-to-be-repeated costumes, every last sequin beautifully observed by the perfectionist Bjornson?

I'm glad the great lady, who died so pointlessly young, has an online website devoted to her art, the Maria Bjornson Archive. My thanks to its friendly guardians for allowing me to reproduce most of the pictures featured here, including the one for the Breadcrumb Fairy above. And my awed respect to a person I wish I'd met, as well as to Anthony Dowell who stood by her in his careful fusion of innovation with tradition.

I've only been given 40 words in a ballet DVD round-up for the BBC Music Magazine to comment on Opus Arte's third Royal Ballet Sleeping Beauty, so I take the opportunity to enlarge on it here. This is the only Sleeping Beauty I've seen to make the rare patches of action flame into life: the emergence of Carabosse's entourage from under the skewed banqueting table, the thorny forest that covers the castle, the winter panorama against which the Lilac Fairy and the Prince travel to their destination.

There's also more music here than we currently get in the painstaking but slightly frigid revival of the 1946 Messel-designed extravaganza. It's conducted on the DVD with surprising panache by Barry Wordsworth and what violin solos remain are superlatively taken by dashing Vashko Vassilev (though I was amused to hear the clarinet coming back in again with his Crystal Fountain variation when he should have had his eye on the coda of the Pas de Six. Groundhog Day?)

Anyway, the Act Three March is there in 1994, and this is the only time I've ever seen Tchaikovsky's brilliantly scored, modernist 5/4 variation for the Sapphire Fairy danced (the rhythm does, admittedly, make Petipa's classical tradition buckle). I'd still like to hear all one hundred bars of the 'sleep' entr'acte and, while the Wolf is there in Act Three

as splendidly adorned as Puss in Boots and the White Cat, Cinderella, her Prince and Hop O'My Thumb are deprived of their piquant numbers. I guess you can never have everything in a staged Beauty.

This one, in any case, is executed at the highest, aristocratic level the imperial style demands. It's a feast of exquisite dancing, from the fairy-tale variations of Deborah Bull, Leanne Benjamin and Errol Pickford among others equally good to the gorgeous picture-book Florimund of Zoltan Solymosi and the poetry incarnate of Viviana Durante's Aurora. Cojocaru, in the latest production, may be a more realistic teenager, but not a better ballerina. This is the Beauty to buy as a Christmas present for children, whether dance-mad or not. And adults will be spellbound by the visual extravaganza, as our guests of all ages were when we watched the Perrault divertissement on Sunday afternoon.

I can't tire of hearing those Act Three character-sketches in which Tchaikovsky's happiest genius reaches its high watermark. Jollity is a keynote in the early work the Royal Opera is calling The Tsarina's Slippers, opening tomorrow: so much rumbustious fun in the gopaks for Gogol's witch and devil, as well as plenty of slightly melancholy humanity for the lovesick smith Vakula and his capricious Oksana. I've enjoyed myself writing the historical and musical note for the programme, so I won't repeat myself here, but I will give you a taste of the picture book designs, which along with the choreography for the many dances will hopefully raise Francesca Zambello's production aloft. Here are two of Mikhail Mokrov's backcloths for the never-never Ukrainian village

and Tatiana Noginova's costume designs for seasonally adorned village children.

More designs here on The Arts Desk, with an accompanying interview by Ismene Brown.

I don't doubt that this will finally put Cherevichki, as Tchaikovsky called his lavish revision of Vakula the Smith, up there as a comedy to offset the greater lyrical depths of Eugene Onegin, Mazeppa and The Queen of Spades.

Privyot i s rozhdestvom...

Tuesday 17 November 2009

The last trees of summer

As the very last leaves fall from the London planes outside the window, I thought an arboricultural intermezzo might not go amiss. I never managed to wax lyrical about the trees of Zurich, enjoyment of which was much enhanced by using Walburga Liebst's Von Baum zu Baum: ein Fuhrer zu besonderen Baume Zurichs before leaving it behind as a gift for our generous hosts. In the Old Botanic Gardens auf der Katz she led us up the hill to the towering Osagedorn

and down again to Sorbus latifolia in full bloom.

Thomas Mann's residence, which I blogged back in August, has a robust Platanus orientalis outside its front door

while another graces the Botanic Gardens in Vienna.

Outside the city, the most welcome sight to me: beech woods on the ascent of the Raxalp.

Back in Blighty, I look fondly on this old copper beech as our Norfolk churches walk took us from Tilney to the Wiggenhalls.

Dawyck in the Scottish Borders will still be showing off its splendid evergreens, but the rowans and silver birches up the hill will have lost fruit and leaf if not lichen.

Coming home, I must end on a sober note. I've never stooped to mention the constant battles we have here with our management. In the latest outrage they told us that the 21 black poplars on the boundary were causing subsidence to a row of poorly-constructed garages and needed to be cut down because the insurers had insisted on it.

We asked to see the documentation; insufficient proof was provided. We asked the council to intervene; it also failed to see the evidence it wanted and placed a tree preservation order for an interim period of six months so it could investigate. While this was set up, the felling began unannounced. We lost four trees before the council could physically slap the order on the tree company employed. Now the management has prevented the council from distibuting its TPO notices around the blocks, claiming their letter had falsely stated that the gap was visible from the local park. Here's the ocular proof that it is - bad for the residents, bad for the park users, bad for the loss of bird- and bat-friendly nooks and crannies.

Dull pictures, I know, but they give some idea of what we've already lost in an afternoon's unadvertised hacking, and what we will continue to lose if we're not all vigilant.

Monday 16 November 2009

Schnittke: darkness and light

We could be in for a tough time. When Alfred Schnittke, Shostakovich's natural heir, moved away from the anything-goes 'polystylism' of his earlier works - balancing gritty contemporary music-drama, skewed quotations or stylisations of his famous predecessors and popular styles on a knife edge - and into the valley of the shadow of death, his works became more skeletal and austere. Whether or not a whole day of undiluted Schnittke, which is what Vladimir Jurowski's extraordinary festival offers us on Sunday, will work remains to be seen and heard.

Don't miss a chance to hear at least a couple of the programmes to come: details here.

No doubt about it, though, Jurowski's decision to launch the 'Between Two Worlds' fortnight at the Royal College of Music last night was an electrifying coup. I've written all about it for The Arts Desk. Inevitably Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony licked the two Schnittke works in the first half, but then Schnittke hit back with an early masterpiece, the First Concerto Grosso. Jurowski generously tacked it on to the programme to give students a chance to be heard by their confreres before Sunday's performance. As Head of Performance Planning at the RCM Simon Channing said in his introduction, we were to think of what turned out to be a three-and-a-half hour event as akin to one of those Viennese marathons in which Beethoven (an invisible presence in this programme) participated.

I met Schnittke in 1993. The Gramophone interview is here (albeit in somewhat garbled autoform). My Russian then wasn't up to scratch, so Irina Brown came along to interpret. We both remember this as perhaps the most profound meeting we've had with a creative artist. He was very frail, but his statements were crystal-clear and rather forbidding, until a smile from time to time lit up his by then ascetic countenance.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Armenians in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem's 'collection of alienated islands', as my current literary hero Amos Elon describes it, the Armenian Quarter seems most at peace with itself, and inhabited by folk who have tried to be as co-operative with Israelis and Palestinians as possible. Of course that's not always easy to maintain. Recently a couple of ultra-Orthodox boys spat at two Armenians in the street. The response to this apparently unprovoked insult was a punch in the head, and the immediate consequence threatened deportation for the Armenians. Their church rallied the other Christian communities in Jerusalem to threaten non-co-operation if the deportation went ahead, and a crisis was averted.

Not that the Armenians are any more immune to the daftness of sectarianism than any of their rival religions. In the apartheid supermarket that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they once literally kicked out a Greek Orthodox Christian from one of their services. And you see this ladder?

This is no ordinary ladder (I feel like the father in Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, weaving a fantasy about a bedroom stool to the awestruck children). One tale has it that the Armenians used it to grab a breath of fresh air at a time when all re-entries were taxed by the Ottomans. The ledge, though, is claimed by the Greek Orthodox. So the ladder can't be removed until the dispute is solved - which presumably will be (like so much else in Jerusalem) never.

Even so, the Armenian Chapel of St Helena with the fairly recent floor mosaic pictured above seems to me the most peaceful and spiritual part of the Holy Sepulchre bazaar. The walls on the staircase leading down to it are marked with hundreds of crosses made by medieval pilgrims.

Decidely the most positive religious experience we had in Jerusalem was our twofold visit to the Cathedral of St James in the heart of the Armenian Quarter (which accounts for one sixth of the old city, housing a national population of no more than 1800).

The public is only admitted first thing in the morning and at 3pm, when the service is held by a group of chanting, black-cowled monks. Calls to prayers are announced by beating on the wooden

and metal

bars either side of the main entrance, dating from the time when no Christian bells were permitted to be sounded in Jerusalem. The rules mean what they say: a monk will come along and tap your legs if you've dared to cross them.

After the service, we joined a privileged tour of the quarter given by our hostess Juliette's good friend George Hindlian, an encyclopedia of information about Armenian life in Jerusalem. We got to see the curious tiles in the Chapel of Etchmindzin, dating from the early eighteenth century and fired, like the curious eggs above the lamps, in Kutafya, Turkey.

Here's Salome, dancing for John the Baptist's head in Turkish shoes (forgive the fuzziness, but I found no reproductions of this elsewhere).

Then we walked around the convent behind St James's, encountering curious Armenian schoolchildren and a pair of young men, one of whom was explaining to the other that 'Sweden isn't close to Armenia' (the tour party was Swedish).

We saw one of those many flexible sites, the olive tree to which Christ was supposedly bound, but not, alas, the museum, which is currently under restoration. It contains the greatest collection of Armenian manuscripts outside Yerevan, and much about the infamous World War One massacre by the Turks which gave Hitler his cue (well explored in Michael Arlen's Passage to Ararat). I feel privileged to have seen the Armenian wonders of Akdamar, Ani and Isfahan - George, who has no official passport, would love to go.

Let's end my over-extended Jerusalem bulletins with the usual strange compound of religions. This is sunset at St Anne's Church just inside the Lions' Gate. Sitting by the ruins of Bethesda, all you hear at this hour is the Ivesian melee of muezzins chanting from the Muslim Quarter.

Again, a deceptive peace seems to reign over this meeting of religions. But you'd have to be a fool to believe in it. I close with more from Elon:

A few regard the profusion of denominations and sects in Jerusalem as merely eccentric or picturesque. Others insist that, taken together, they constitute the city's unique sense of place. That spirit might itself be called into question. Beyond the comforting, utopian generalisations that imagination, prejudice and vanity might set free, there are human beings living in the city - Jews, Moslems and Christians - ordinary people who, though diligent and forever on the alert, have often been crushed and plundered clean in the relentless intensity of local history. No-one really knows the full human and emotional cost of living in a violent house divided against itself. The price is surely high, but no-one knows the exact amount paid in terms of psychological entanglements, debilitating compensations and illusions.