Friday 28 May 2010


So what is it, the tree under which cobbler Hans Sachs sits and reflects in Act 2 of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, praising its scent 'so mild, so strong and full'? Does it matter? Well, it does to me, because now that I've reached the fourth of ten City Lit classes on the opera - what a luxury - we can walk out and smell the lilacs. Flieder was originally the German for 'elder'; but when the lilac was introduced - some time after the period which Meistersinger is supposed to depict - it was called 'spanische Flieder' ('Spanish elder'). As a note I found on the net tells us, 'eventually, the 'Spanish' part was dropped and lilac was simply called "Flieder" while elder was called by its alternate name, "Holunder" '.

Pedantry? I insist not. Anyway, if lilac is an anachronism in the Nuremberg of the Mastersingers, elder, I'm told, wouldn't have been in bloom on 'Johannistag'. The above illustration and the one below, from a wonderful site devoted entirely to antique postcards of Wagner's operas, confirm the hunch. And gardening doyenne Deborah van der Beek wrote to me that 'lilac sounds more likely and very Victorian, elder being a shade catty and rather sneezy.' To complicate matters, there should also be a lime tree in any staging of Act 2, but that's by Pogner's house, while the Flieder is in front of Sachs's cobblery.

But the music's the thing, and of course it's the perfumed airs of a summer night as well as the inspiration of what Sachs has heard Walter sing in St Catherine's Church earlier that day which matter. Two horns waft the scent, and the phrase of infinite yearning dogs Sachs's meditation. I went through half a dozen versions, and easily the most tender, the oakiest and the best phrased was Norman Bailey's on the much-maligned (and occasionally miscast, but which recording isn't somewhere?) Solti recording. Our Norm kicked off my Wagner craze singing Sachs under Gibson in Scotland in the early 1980s, and I still count his interpretation, simple goodness personified, as one of the top ten, top five probably, I've seen of anything.

Alas, Norm's not on YouTube, but two will do. One is an historic interpretation to set alongside the much more famous Friedrich Schorr - a very distinguished bass sound, this, too, from Michael Bohnen:

The other is from the man we expect so much from next month when Richard Jones's Welsh National Opera production is unveiled in Cardiff, Bryn Terfel. I listened to a rather soft-grained Fliedermonolog he recorded with Abbado, but this is better, and actually suits the usually ponderous Thielemann well, too. Like Norman, Bryn brought tears to my eyes. Enjoy.

And the latest news is that Welsh men of a certain age, preferably bearded, are being asked to hie down to Cardiff's Millennium Centre to be photographed for Richard Jones's wall of masters. What fun! And I wonder if he's going to turn the whole thing into a kind of Eisteddfod. It would fit. Can't wait.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

All nature as a garden

It was Horace Walpole who said of William Kent that he 'jumped the fence and saw all nature was a garden'. Sandwiched chronologically between Charles Bridgeman and Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Kent took up the 18th century delight in placing not only ruins and follies in a landscape but also a whopping great lake. And I've never walked round a larger one on a man-made scale than the topographically complicated specimen at Wotton House, Buckinghamshire, to which we travelled on a blazing May Saturday for the engagement of our adored, vivacious Stefania of Ascoli Piceno with Ben of Saxmundham (it was his uncle and aunt who opened the doors of Wotton to the party).

Wotton has a curious and typically English history: built in 1704, restored by Soane after a fire in 1820 and later divided up, it was salvaged by the evidently redoubtable Elaine Brunner in 1957 just as it was about to be demolished. Her son-in-law now maintains it with the help of only one gardener, which I found astonishing. The Blairs have a weekend home in one of the side pavilions, for which they paid a modest four million - and I do hope we taxpayers aren't upholding the heavy police presence. The following photos were all taken on friend Jill's mobile as I'd left my camera battery charger in Lewes.

Thus Thomas Whately:

Water is the most interesting object in a landscape, and the happiest circumstances in a retired recess; captivates the eye at a distance, invites approach, and is delightful when near; it refreshes an open exposure; it animates a shade; cheers the dreariness of a waste, and enriches the most crowded view; in form, in style, and in extent, may be made equal to the greatest compositions, or adapted to the least; it may spread in a calm expanse to soothe the tranquillity of a peaceful scene; or hurrying along a devious course, add splendour to a gay, and extravagance to a romantic situation.

The water-course at Wotton, laid out by Bridgeman though of course 'Capability', as the more glamorous name, gets the credit - he was first an under gardener and then may have added a few details - certainly opens up new perspectives at every turn. As Whately wrote, 'if the water at Wotton were all exposed, a walk of near two miles along the banks would be of tedious length, from the want of those changes of the scene, which now supply through the whole extent a succession of perpetual variety'.

I won't attempt to reproduce Whately's long amble, but I ought to illustrate each of the 'four principal parts' along the trail. Those of the engagement party willing to excurt first trailed down an avenue of fruit trees and ancient lilacs - here's our ubiquitous Sophie, who's blogged herself in two other location shots, beneath one, lush water meadows in the background -

and then followed Whately's 'reach of a river, about the third of a mile in length, and of a competent breadth, flowing through a lovely mead'.

This part of the walk is lined by venerable chestnuts:

We left the group quaffing by two Tuscan temples - Barrett style replacements of the originals? - wandered with a delightfully squiffy Sophie to the five arch bridge which disguises the change of levels between two stretches of water

and left her recumbent beside the champagne bucket, striking off on our own and little imagining that a group including several octogenarians would also be completing the entire circuit. Near the China Island where once stood an elegant tea house - removed from Stowe, transported to Ireland and then returned by the National Trust to its original setting - is what Whately called 'an elegant bridge with a colonnade upon it'.

Eventually you come in sight of the largest stretch of lake, with perspectives over to an island with a grotto on it and glimpses, beyond that, of a rotunda.

Two more exotic follies have been better restored than the rest: a Chinese or crescent bridge

and a Turkish kiosk.

None of this really captures the grand sweep of the design. The lake must be three times the size of Stourhead, and of course it made me yearn to go to Stowe. The scope and the constant change of perspectives are what make it so magical, though of course there are more intimate lakes I love best of all. Glyndebourne, it goes without saying,

and the long thin stretch of water at Chiswick Park, which I biked to again late yesterday afternoon. The moorhens continue to nest tenaciously on the water, though now the greenery has rushed on apace, with rhodies and grasses in abundance. Wyatt's bridge I can't resist reproducing again, so perfect is it

and another view of the house

before coming in sight of the cascade at the south end

which yesterday was in full spate.

And isn't Burlington's grand staircase on the north side of the house one of the wonders of Palladian architecture?

I do marvel that all this is looked after for everyone, and for free (the gardens, that is, not the interior of the house), by the council in conjunction with English Heritage. And to think that, just as Wotton was partitioned and scheduled for demolition, so Chiswick House lost Burlington's private residence at the side and was a private mental institution until its state purchase. There's quite a lot of work going on at the moment, but if it continues as it's begun, it will be more than worthwhile.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Rights o'man in Lewes

The penny didn't drop until I was back in Lewes after a harrowing evening at Glyndebourne: Tom Paine, the author of The Rights Of Man evoked by Britten's Billy Budd and labelling him a potential mutineer though he's actually referring to the name of a ship, spent crucial years in that generally liberal, if Catholic-hating town so close to the country opera house. We have a distant gleam in the eye about a home and a garden there, which grows by the year and with better acquaintance. Much encouraged by making the acquaintance of gems like the above shop, the Tom Paine Printing Press and Gallery which has only been there about six months, bang opposite the house where the great man himself lived and worked (and with one of my favourite of all second-hand bookshops just up Pipe Lane to the side).

Peter Chasseaud, who's just run off from the press the prints up top - and I want to buy one - also has a blog devoted to the Press. Last year was the bicentenary of Paine's death, and to my shame I still haven't read his seminal defence of the French Revolution, though I now have a copy. As for the show, it had a defect or two too many to be compulsive, as it should be, from start to finish, but Michael Grandage's first opera production was a pretty fine piece of work. Here's John Mark Ainsley's Captain Vere trying to reassure a flabbergasted Billy (Jacques Imbrailo) as he stammers in the face of accusations from the awful Claggart (Phillip Ens; this photo by Alastair Muir).

I wrote up my Arts Desk review in record time, 45 minutes tapping into the Glyndebourne WiFi outside the Press Office before our taxi arrived to whisk us back to Lewes. Didn't even have the opportunity to look it over, but it turned out OK. Picnic interval as the temperatures rose towards a hot weekend was full of friendly faces - philosophers, Italian princesses, students, publishers - and much enhanced by splendid fare put together by the emporium which is one very good reason for living in Lewes, the splendid Bill's. That's another Hockney design on the 2010 programme cover, celebrating 35 years of his immortal designs for Stravinsky's Rake's Progress.

As so often, we stayed with former Glyndebourne stalwart Charles Kerry, who served up a characteristically superlative lunch of local gathered produce, including sprouting sea kale from the beaches below Newhaven.

What I love about Lewes is that you can strike out in every direction, and every walk is rewarding: to the east, Glyndebourne over the cliffs and along the ridge; to the south, the sea either over the Downs or along the Ouse valley; to the west, the race course and the next wind of Downs. On Friday, we headed north along the Ouse

with hawthorn in profusion, nesting, nestling and gliding swans and roving cattle in the water meadows. For a morning's jaunt, it makes a wonderful circuit to head up the hill and through dense woodland back into town.

Our evening destination on Friday couldn't have been at a greater remove from Glyndebourne. The drama that our New Best Friend Chris Gunness of UNRWA had originated in Jerusalem, about the Israeli bombing of the UN humanitarian-aid warehouse in Gaza, had been reworked by Brighton stalwarts Faynia Williams and Richard Crane. Once again, I've written up the experience on TAD. Here's a production shot by Malcolm Crowthers, one of the few photographers to make much of the stage, of Anna-Maria Nabirye as the 'conscience' of the burning warehouse.

Anyway, here's a bit of context, with my own photos around the fort above slightly creepy Newhaven, clearly a well-organised tourist attraction. First, above the nissan hunt and casements where the entertainment took place:

Looking east over the bay to Seaford

out to the quay and beyond

and upwards to further guns.

We wound our way back along the harbour, where a cross channel ferry was just docking

and had to settle for just a bag of chips before the train back to London. It was, as I wrote in the review, a ghost town on a Friday night, and even the fish and chip shop was closing at 9 - avoiding pub closing time chaos? A world away from Lewes just ten minutes' train ride up the Ouse valley. But decidedly with its own creepy fascination.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Djenne Djenno comes to London

She's here, the Grand Sophy(ie) aka La Sarina, godmother to this blog when she set the example by putting her own much more exotic life as a Malian hotelier on line. A couple of weeks ago she was excurting on her beloved Maobi to one of the villages near Djenne we didn't see on our trip

and only last week stroking mythical horn-less unicorns on a riding course in Seville.

And there she is up top, our remarkable Sophie Sarin, happily blasted by Gergiev's Stravinsky (stunning Mariinsky disc of Oedipus Rex and Les noces) at home here as she settled down for a good read. The book is on the master masons of her town by a chap who left just before she arrived. He has an exhibition of photos at RIBA which we must go and see.

Today London decamps to Glyndebourne and Seaford while Djenne Djenno stays put. I linger on the airwaves via four minutes' chinwag with kindred spirit Jonathan Swain on Mahler 7 (available on the iPlayer until next Monday - chat comes after David Matthews's beautifully orchestrated, substance-wise take-it-or-leave-it Seventh Symphony at about 30'40) and on Saturday at 6pm at long last they're broadcasting Prokofiev's The Gambler - the Royal Opera performance in which Andrew MacGregor and I sat in a box and chatted quasi live. I'd put up a pic of the production but the Royal Opera's ludicrous ban on using photos on blogs - inconsistently applied - forbids.

Should just mention that this is being flagged up as part of the big BBC opera season. Don't miss Pappano's telly programmes on Italian opera starting next Monday - those should be rare quality - though do what you like with S Fry and slebs. One amusing outcome was that splendid Dame Kiri, the Beautiful Voice of the late 20th century alongside Margaret Price and hosting what sounds like a well-backed voice competition on Radio 2, has been speaking common sense on S Boyle, A Bocelli and the like in interview. This is badly written up and trails a load of illiterate, venomous trolls in its wake, but the lady spoke wisely, I think.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Trees of Oxford

Better get a move on, as the seasons change and summer hits us this weekend. And so, since Maidie and Minnie seem to like the tree shots here, back to early May blooming in Oxford, albeit against the backdrop of a biting wind. The copper beech in youthful leaf can be seen from the windows of friend Hen's parents' house in Norham Road, part of that Victorian estate so robustly planned and exuberantly if somewhat pompously executed over decades. The University Parks are nearby, and usually we excurt around them in the spring, but as we opened the front door a gust and a downpour greeted us, so we promptly shut it and curled up with our books.

Great joy of the university gardens, it seems - though I remember New College in midsummer with great fondness - is the extensive reach of Worcester College's back yard. Planted in 1832, it still has a few robust, disease-resistant Princeton Elms on the lawn, of which I'm told this is one, though it looked more like a London Plane to me.

Alas, I can't identify this handsome, ivied bark just west of the college buildings

but I do know my Dicksonias when I see them, those handsome tree-ferns which populated New Zealand and Derreen.

Horse chestnuts overhanging the lake:

and another taken from Turl Street between Jesus and Exeter (now, by the way, is real prime flower time for the noble chestnut):

Magnolias all have lost their flowers now, but here's a last spurt for one in Worcester

and another just outside St Mary's

One final shot of the copper beech on a sunnier afternoon before I strode off for the station along the canal

to compare with another a couple of weeks later in Kensington Gardens.

Finally, nature's permanence in ancient Oxford: my thanks to Rev Carl for pre-empting where I've reached in Gaudy Night - pure enchantment, by the way, with a dash of malice and hysteria thrown in - and quoting his favourite Wimsey line: 'How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks'. Though this one seems to have had her continuity much reduced to the mere power of one.

This just reminded J of the fabulous beetle board at the Oxford Museum of Natural History (the one with the unmissable Pitt Rivers Museum at the back), headed by a possibly apocryphal comment by the Oxford-educated geneticist and evolutionary biologist J B S Haldane. When asked by theologists what could be deduced of the creator, he replied that he must have 'an inordinate fondness for beetles'. The board tells us why:

Monday 17 May 2010

On the Rach Pag

Spent a jolly, sunny afternoon on the Southbank dialoguing and monologuing on the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in the company of Rachmaninov fans (from the -off Society and the Philharmonia Friends) and the compelling, if controversial Nikolay Lugansky. Let's face it, his manner divides opinions: many find him cold, and I don't understand that at all. All emotion is kept between the lines, with the subtlest of rubato and the ability to change colour on a single note. His performance of the Rhapsody on Saturday evening was crystal clear, beautifully sprung - it was a joy to watch the fingers bouncing off the keyboard - and hitting just the right notes of tenderness in the famous 18th variation - that near-inversion of the Paganini Caprice, as the above example shows, and as Lugansky demonstrated in the talk once we'd persuaded him over to the keyboard - without any excess sentimentality. The art that conceals art.

As a person (above left, beside the grinning, chin-up goon) he is, as I knew he would be, easy to talk to, responsive, enthusiastic, full of interesting ideas. The whole thing, I add rather nervously, was filmed, so no doubt there'll be a post mortem at some point. We locked horns just a bit over whether the Dies Irae, the Latin chant for the day of wrath, links to Russian orthodox znamenny chant or not, in which case you could say that the work has some Russian links (Nikolay insists it's the only one where there are none). But this led to a passionate defence of the free-flow autobiography in the Fourth Concerto, a work to which Lugansky is passionately devoted; and indeed of Rachmaninov's own style as a pianist.

That led me to bring up, mentioning no names at the time, what I thought was the ill-advised attempt of Stephen Hough to resurrect Rachmaninov's fast speeds in interpretation - and quick as a flash, also without naming names (and I've no idea if he knows Hough's versions), Lugansky said he thought it wouldn't work, because you'd only get the leggiero without any of the composer-pianist's phenomenal pesante force at those tempi. Exactly right. I still think Hough shouldn't be playing Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky at all - at best it's a rush, missing notes blurred by sustaining pedal, at worst a complete dog's dinner (that awful performance of the Rach 2 at the Proms a couple of years ago).

Anyway, we're here to praise Caesars Rachmaninov and Lugansky, not to bury well-meaning Stephen. But I sure would bury Alexander Lazarev on present form. He launched the evening's concert with another interpretation to forget - a Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings crushed by his completely unnecessary brute force, arms flailing left and right as he gave emphatic cues to violins and cellos they didn't need (and at one point, in the cellos' case, fatally failed to follow properly). Monstrous. As for the pause between Elegie and Finale which brought ill-timed applause and unleashed a battery of latecomers, that was his fault: a sensitive conductor would have gone straight into the slow introduction with the first of Tchaikovsky's Russian themes. The Rach Pag was surprisingly together, but still the orchestra was far too loud. I didn't hang around to hear Lazarev stomp all over Shostakovich 6, especially as I'd heard the Philharmonia give a riveting performance of it with Ashkenazy over at the QEH while the Festival Hall was being renovated.

Other than that sour note, it was a fun day. We heard a great deal from Lugansky about the Rachmaninov country estate of Ivanovka in Tambov province and the amazing moral force of the man who's run it for decades and had it rebuilt according to the original plans.

I sounded off about the Dies Irae from its origins to Berlioz, Liszt (the incredible Totentanz) and the sweep of Rachmaninov's output (with excerpts from his own recordings of The Isle of the Dead, the Vocalise and the Third Symphony). Found Oleg Kagan's recording of the Denisov-arranged Paganini 24th Caprice and Manze/Egarr in the Corelli variations on La Follia, basis for Rachmaninov's own set, which Lugansky thinks is his most difficult and ascetic work (though he plays it superbly alongside the Chopin and Paganini variations on a treasurable disc). Gillian Frumkin, loyal student and Philharmonia Friends dynamo, took me and the super-efficient, friendly girls from the Phil for a plate of pasta at La Strada beneath the hall - a perfect afternoon to sit out and watch the thronging crowds. So let's end with a couple of shots of a rare true May afternoon on the Southbank before the torrential rains of Sunday.