Saturday 31 July 2010

Two for Mahler

With thanks to 'Schopenhauerian' on the BBC Message Boards, who posted the link, and acknowledgment to Gavin Plumley over at Entartete Musik, who I belatedly recalled put up the same YouTube song some time back and who's another almost as much in love with Sondheim as he is with Mahler, let's hear it for Lainey and yet another variation on her immortal toast from Sondheim's Company. 'Two for Mahler' is acknowledgement that at the end of this post you can hear another interpretation proposing 'one for Mahler', Sondheim's bottoms-up to another anniversary boy. In her terrific one-woman show, the divine Stritch told us that at the time of the Company premiere, she thought 'a piece of Mahler's' might be a slice of cake you went round to Mahler's Broadway deli to consume after 'a matinee, a Pinter play'.

This, anyway, in keen anticipation of tonight's Proms birthday tribute including Bryn Terfel, Maria Friedman and Dame Judi's immortal rendition of 'Send in the Clowns'. When I saw her play Desiree in A Little Night Music at the National, it struck me how you don't really need a great singing voice for this - Glynis Johns didn't have one either - but you do need an impeccable sense of musical timing and/or freedom (which Sian Philips as the matriarch didn't seem to have). Would so love to have seen Angela Lansbury on Broadway - again, the nuancing seemed wonderful from what I've heard. Do listen to this remarkable octogenarian talking to Mark Coles on the BBC World Service's Strand programme. Now that she's left the run, who's going to take her part but - Elaine Stritch. Bernadette Peters will now play the Zeta Jones role. Worth a trip? Perhaps, if only I didn't find Sondheim's second act a let-down after the bewitching Bergman original.

Talking of veterans, if only they'd bring in Cleo Laine tonight to sing 'I'm Still Here'. Her performance of it on the vintage 'Cleo sings Sondheim' CD, one of our most played, is up there with Elaine's. One Dame who wouldn't be singing, but might do a nice line in presentation, is the recently-maligned Julie Andrews. What a knockout performer she was, though, right up to the catastrophe. If you doubt it, watch '(Not) Getting Married Today' from the Sondheim anthology Putting it Together. The picture quality ain't great, to put it mildly, but the sound is just fine.

In the meantime, let's end with another consummate performer giving a different take on 'The Ladies who Lunch', Carol Burnett. Anyone see the 'spiders' episode of the Larry Sanders Show in which she tells her host she saw his balls? Quite apart from that, I reckon it was the funniest episode ever. Anyway, that's not on YouTube, I guess for copyright reasons. Here's Carol. I need a bit of cheering up* anyway after the farrago of last night's Zandonai car crash at Opera Holland Park.

Sunday press: you can read the Arts Desk review of last night's semi-spectacular here. Plus another of Chris Christodoulou's photos since I can. No need, I guess, to signal the stars?

* Did I say cheering up? Watched it through to the end and it's wrist-slitting time...

Friday 30 July 2010

Verbier fare

No. it wasn't all lotus eating. For the most part I kept myself to myself, stocked up on delicious local produce and fresh bread in my self-catering flat (the second, after I'd moaned about the dark, viewless first, just perfect) and missed a couple of banquets because of my devotion to late-night Leonskaja after the main concerts of the evening.

Bit of a pity, that, on my second night, because there was a big do out at a restaurant near the golf course. I arrived at 11.40pm, delirious from Leonskaja's Schubert D850, just in time to find the only folk I actually knew on the point of departure. The food was finished, but not all the distinguished guests had gone. As Bashmet, Maisky and other familiar faces flitted past, I saw the divine Anne Sofie von Otter (pictured below for the Verbier Festival by Nicolas Brodard singing the ballad of Faure's Melisande in that evening's concert) and wanted to tell her how much her tribute to Anthony Rolfe Johnson had meant. Yes, she said, so many famous losses already this year, and several others close to her. And we talked a bit about Tony's warm and ever-helpful collegiality.

Spoke to that romantic young cellist Andreas Brantelid about the morning's Debussy trio revelation. Also saw Bengt Forsberg, and wanted to press the flesh after that totally individual recital he'd given at the Wigmore. Never met a friendlier artist. He was there with his daughter, and told her delightedly I was the one who'd given him that review, and how I'd understood his intentions. I pressed the Grainger celebrations idea next year on him, and quick as a flash he came up with the relevant Percy dates.

So there was talk if nothing more than a cream eclair to go with it. Earlier, at least, some of us had enjoyed a sumptuous reception at the simple but obviously first-rate Grange Hotel where I chatted with the delightful Laurence from the tourist office about Edinburgh, where she'd au paired in days gone by. Dvora and Michael Lewis and I agreed that the above tuna and mango spoons and all the other bonne bouches were the best we'd ever tasted. Dix points for presentation, too: how's about this for confectionery?

Even so, I was very happy to potter around delis, patisserie and Migros seeing what Valaisian fare was on offer. Bought some choice local meats and was pleased to find seasonal raspberries, apricots and the best cherries ever, many of which I consumed on the balcony of my lodging staring over at the western peaks.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Joyce and Svevo in Trieste

There they are, Trieste's two most original literary chroniclers, among the many statues in the public gardens described by Svevo (born Ettore Schmitz, a typical Triestine mix - the nom de plume marries Italian and Swabian roots) as 'that greenery which seems so pure in the midst of the grayness of the streets and houses that surrounds it'.

I confess that this will be a very patchy entry, as I hardly trailed around the Joyce sites in Trieste much more than I did the ones in Dublin (in that instance, not at all). And I'm only halfway through Svevo's putative masterpiece, Zeno's Conscience, which so far has disappointingly little about the city in which it's set, though it does make me laugh from time to time.

Still, we'd just come back from the Julian Alps and Udine in time for Bloomsday, 16 June. There was a happening of sorts starting at the Urban Hotel Design, somewhat chaotic as these Italian esposizioni usually are. In a very crowded room, a man in a straw hat clowned around a bit on a whistlestop reading of Ulysses with musical interludes. We were shown films of the four artists involved in the 'projetto', one of whom made fun of picking up Ulysses, putting it down and declaring that Joyce could go hang; Svevo was the man for him (the two are not unconnected: Joyce saw Svevo into print and is even supposed to have modelled Leopold Bloom on his Triestine drinking buddy). Here are a couple of Luigi Tolotti's digitally elaborated collages.

Then we went walkabout, up to the street with the Augustan arch, but it had all fizzled a bit and so the two of us branched off and headed back for the harbour.

Joyce lived with Nora Barnacle in no less than nine poky apartments in the vicinity as a struggling writer and Berlitz School English teacher, fascinated by the Triestine dialect and the red-light district, both of which are supposed to have found their way into Ulysses - a book with a double consciousness split between Trieste and Dublin. He also spent hours absorbing the Greek orthodox liturgies in the Church of San Nicolo dei Greci.

It was brilliantly illuminated by the late afternoon sun when we visited, especially when the west door swung open. The young sacristan was very welcoming, and told us how large a community it still hosted on a Sunday morning.

We spent one of our four nights at the James Joyce Hotel in the old city - quiet, clean, rather dark and not bad value for money. Of course I have to show you the toiletries.

Even so, for our last night we returned to the hotel recommended by blogging pal Willym, Le Corderie, high on the hill and quite a hike from the centre of town (though weaving up and down through the backstreets, we caught some marvellous art nouveau). Le Corderie is modern, filled with books in every room, and boasting two especially delightful members of staff in the incredibly vivacious Edwiga and the very nice girl who served us breakfast on the terrace and gave us extra helpings of cherries. And what a breakfast it was - our new friends certainly weren't wrong about that.

But how have I got from high literature to food? I can't say that Svevo's Zeno would have especially approved - the idle, neurasthenic and hypochondriacal merchant's son is much more interested in cigarettes.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

An Olympian in the Alps

I've turned Schubert-crazy again. As with Wagner, the mania comes and goes in waves. It all started with The Greatest Piano Recital I've Ever Heard, Richter's at Chichester Cathedral in March 1989, when he took an hypnotic half-hour over the first movement of the G major Sonata (D894). Then I hunted out all his recordings of the sonatas, and found his heavenly length the only way I wanted to hear Schubert. Now his one-time duo partner and protegee Elisabeth Leonskaja has come out from under the Richter shadow and forged her own great interpretations. And it's the palmy days of Richter all over again, though with a very different musical personality at the helm.

At Verbier high in the Alps, where I've just been privileged to spend three and a half music-and-walking-packed days, Leonskaja is currently working her way through the complete Schubert sonatas - half of them for the first time ever, as she told me in an interview which will appear probably around the time of her return to London to play D894 later this year. She clearly had as much smiling affection as I did for the first of the three late-night programmes I was privileged to hear in the vast temporary construction of the Salle des Combins. There, having moved from an apparently disastrous encounter with a poor piano and rough acoustics in the Verbier Cinema, she played the Sonata in B major, D575, and the unusual five-movement E major, D459. Hardly a couple of bars pass without Schubert revealing his own lovable, harmonically wayward personality, and you can rarely predict the progress of a melody (the third movement of D459 struck me forcibly in this respect).

So what is it that makes Leonskaja's Schubert so special? I came late to her extraordinarily deep and thoughtful concert-hall approach - music as a sacred rite - with the second half of her Chopin recital late last year. Here, it seemed, the range was extended. She can indeed be as Olympian as Schubert himself (her word for the opening movement of D850), with that fabulously weighted full sonority; but she catches the essence of his ability to leap from the thunderously epic to the intimately lyric. So we ranged - forgive the corny images prompted purely by a desire to put up a couple of Verbier snaps - from the babbling, high-altitude brook of D850's delicious finale

to the forbidding heights, glaciers and cataracts that disrupt the ineffable slow movement and finale of D959 (a performance which brought an instant standing ovation, as the colossal D major Sonata should have done the previous evening).

The articulation is phenomenal, the emotional commitment total. And the stern, concentrated figure on the platform is in extraordinary contrast to the vivacious, humorous woman you meet offstage - though one thing, a great humanity, connects the two.

And for now I'd better stop waxing lyrical, return to Verbier another day (due for a big Arts Desk piece on Sunday) and just count myself lucky to have heard great pianism in hugely contrasting styles, from Lewis and Pires at the Albert Hall on Wednesday to the 18 year old Kit Armstrong pouring forth musicality and playfulness in a Verbier trio concert and, of course, Leonskaja magisterially at the heart of it all.

Friday 23 July 2010

Farewell, Tony Rolfe Johnson

One woe treads close upon another's heels. Now the two greatest British tenors of their generation, Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, have taken leave of us within a matter of months (Robert Tear, who was such fun when we met in a BBC studio last year, is I guess slightly older, and going strong, touch wood). Tony - I only call him that through the resident heldentenor, who knew him from Aldeburgh and ENO - had been ill with Alzheimer's for many years, so for the family I'm guessing this will come as a release.

I thought of him when I put up that heartbreaking Poulenc song 'Bleuet', though I didn't want to draw attention to his state then. And now, as before, it's time first to celebrate his stylish art. Top, spectacular choice has to go to that 'Fuor del mar' from Idomeneo.

I've never heard it sung better - the same would go for his Monteverdi Orfeo, and indeed Jessica Duchen chose the stunning 'Possente spirto' over on her Standpoint blog - and it brings back memories of a golden age, with the two great Mozart opere serie performed side by side with near-perfect casts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

That was something Langridge couldn't replicate. Of course he always had the neurotic, intense edge in Britten, though it was a treat to see their Aschenbachs almost side by side. And ARJ's Grimes on the Haitink recording is a beautiful piece of singing. What I want to hear - and I can't, as I'm not at home - are the Michelangelo Sonnets in that ineffable recording with Graham Johnson. They're not as far as I can see on YouTube, but here's one of the Hardy settings from Winter Words instead.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Winckelmann in Trieste

The name won't mean much even to the few tourists who visit the loveliest corner of Trieste - and there were none on the morning we wandered around in the baking sun puzzling out how to find the entrance to the Museo Civico which lodges the Winckelmann Memorial

in its Lapidary Garden.

So what does Johann Winckelmann mean to me? Really not much more than a name, somewhat mocked in Richard Jenkyns's The Victorians and Ancient Greece for his dogged insistence that Greek art was all 'noble simplicity and calm grandeur' and his 'peeping Tom' view of the original Athenian gymnasiums with their naked youths as an education in 'the beauty of forms'. Walter Pater pinpointed Winckelmann's partial view when he declared that 'the eye is fixed on the sharp, bright edge of high Hellenic culture, but loses sight of the sombre world against which it strikes.'

Alas for Winckelmann, the 'sombre world' did for him after only eight days in Trieste, when the young Italian he'd taken up with murdered him. Troubled rent-boy or thief pure and simple? We'll never know, though Winckelmann's homoerotic dithyrambs sugges the former. Anyway, according to Jan Morris in my current bible, 'all educated Europe, we are told, was saddened by the news of his death - "universal mourning and lamentation", Goethe wrote'. The cenatoph, Morris adds, was 'erected under the patronage of an emperor, three kings and a grand duke,

containing a fine marble image of Dr Winckelmann and sundry examples of the busts, torsos, thoughtful muses and fragrant heroes of his enthusiasms'. Eheu, fugaces.

There are some fine sculptural fragments around the Lapidary Garden, too, including this fragment, one of three from the nearby site of Aquileia which we must visit next time.

And the Museum proper is charming, obviously benefitting from a recent injection of cash and proud of the Egyptian collection assembled by a couple of distinguished Triestine archaeologists. It's not at odds with the memorial strain here to feature four very handsome canopic jars, those mysterious god-as-animal-headed containers for the intestines:

All these pictures: maybe we need Debussy's 'Canope' from the second book of Preludes to absorb them by. I'd choose Zimerman if pressed, but as I have his Preludes on the shelves, let's hear great Gieseking.

By pure serendipity, I've just discovered that 'Canope' is also among the selected preludes on a 1967 Richter recital disc for which I'm just about to write the notes. And apart from the Festival Hall hackers and coughers, it's spellbinding.

Just two more items from an absorbing collection, which we didn't have time enough to see at length before the museum shut at noon. Here's the rim of a funeral jar from one of the prehistoric sites of the local Castellieri civilization up in the karst

and the museum's real treasure, though not from around here: a fifth century BC rhyton from Tarentum.

All these aides memoires I needed, by the way, because they didn't have any postcards, and even the guide book was sold out. A shame: it's a wonderful little museum and I'd like to have known more about its collectors.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Christodoulou at the Proms

Any reasonably accomplished professional photographer could take a good symmetrical shot like the above, of this year's First Night of the Proms: the Royal Albert Hall and what the BBC sometimes rather garishly does with it at Proms time do the rest of the work. But Chris Christodoulou is no run-of-the-mill man with a camera. He's done some marvellous portraits of conductors in action. Photogenic Dudamel handed it to him on a plate, but last year he also caught, among others, Andris Nelsons looking like I've never seen him before (gurning, to whit).

Actually the problem these days is whether you can get past the artists, and more usually their agents, with a really good, unusual shot. I heard only last week of a certain soprano at the Garden who wouldn't approve any photos of her other than alone - and since she was singing with arguably the greatest, most charismatic singer alive, that was a bit of a problem. Others want airbrushing. But I guess these two images of the great conductors in charge of the first two nights passed untainted. Here's modest, profoundly musicianly Jiri Belohlavek getting reasonably fired up by Mahler's Eighth.

It's always a treat to hear such a piece in such a hall, yet all bar one of the soloists really let it down, as I've regretted on the Arts Desk. No such problems with the Meistersinger line-up the following night. I'd decided to give it a miss so we could hold a birthday lunch for our good friend Niki and go to a birthday drink in a pub in Kentish Town in the evening. Surprise, surprise, when I found the BBC4 relay was delayed until 7pm, I stayed in and had another little weep as Bryn, Mandy and even a much better Raymond Very pulled at the heartstrings. 'Wach' auf' was a tearjerker, too: the WNO Chorus's final tribute to their homegrown superman before the dream team disperses for ever. What a shame, especially since fabulous Lothar Koenigs and the orchestra had just get better, but as Richard Jones said when he came to the class, that's the ephemeral essence of theatre. Chris has captured Koenigs well here.

On Sunday, all eyes must have been on Domingo, because Chris's only shot of Pappano is not a flattering one. He may have a good shot of photogenic Vasily Petrenko, too, but that concert last night I missed as I'd been sent to the first night of the Bolshoi summer season at the Garden hot on the heels of putting Wagner's masters to bed in the eleventh and last class of the City Lit term. Spartacus was fabulous, wild, OTT but never to be forgotten. Here's rising star Ivan Vasiliev, a big boy for 21, and all those shields, photo this time by Marc Haegeman for the Bolshoi.

Monday 19 July 2010

Fårö: non-Ingmar places

Or nearly. Because of course Bergman husband and wife are buried in Fårö churchyard, and I guess he must have gone there often before he was buried in his state-of-the-art coffin (he wanted one just like Pope John Paul's, apparently; so much for Calvinist austerity). But quite independent of the Ingmar topology is this marvellous kutatavlan or seal hunter painting ('kut' is Fåröese dialect for 'seal'), one of two on the church's north wall.

In the winter of 1603 15 seal hunters found that the ice floe they were standing on was drifting out to sea. Three reached land at Gotska Sandön, while the others took 14 days to turn up somewhere on the Swedish archipelago. As a thanksgiving, they had this picture made, which shows them in their Sunday best with hunting equipment as well as the oldest known image of Visborg Castle in Visby. A poem beneath in rhyming Danish tells the story of their hardship, living off nothing but raw seal meat and battered by snowstorms.

The poem is reproduced in a book on the Gotlandic journey of Carl von Linne, aka Linnaeus. On 29 June 1741 he set out with his team of fellow researchers on a day's excursion around the east of Fårö, noting down marram and other plants and observing local customs like catching seabirds with snares. The heat was so intense that they sought shade beneath the then already very large oak on the farm at Ava.

Linnaeus measured the circumference - 4.2 metres at waist height - and noted that on the nearby fence was hanging a net for seal-hunting made of treble twine. Lichen grew on some of the walls. Linnaeus noted its use as yellow dye for cloth.

I walked there on my evening off from the screening of Smiles of a Summer Night in Sudersand cinema. The heavenly circuit took me inland through woods

out to the coast through fields full of the famous Fårö sheep

and pines on fire in the sunset

before heading back along the shore against very intense, 11pmish skies (hence those treasurable images reproduced below and over at TAD). Even though I was wearing shoes and socks, and had plastered face and arms with tropical insect repellent, mosquitoes and horseflies got at my ankles in a big way, as I discovered painfully over the next few days. You need to do some penance in paradise, especially if it's Bergman's ambivalent haven. And I know, I know, I should see it in the winter when all colour drains from the scene.

But back to the midday summer sun which brought out Ingmar's demons, and our first lunch at Kutens Bensin. There's a connection, of course, with the film world - the Creperie Tati serves up such specialities as the Marilyn and the Miss Taylor - but this is a world unto itself.

The vigorous owner, whom I can only call Thomas as he prefers to remain anonymous on the place's very idiosyncratic website, came out to tell us all about the stars of the rock and folk world who've played in his barn.

His daughter, who lived in France for many years and studied with a cordon bleu chef, served up lunches with sensational baking during our hours spent in the private cinema. And anyway, even if the food weren't up to much, you'd be happy to sit there for hours admiring the rusty old cars and fridges.

One man I know would love it is our friend Paul Beecham, stage manager of the Quentin Follies and former ENO backstage doyen. So ending with a shot of him at the revels Saturday before last should lead you back to the extravaganza below.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Barefaced cheek at Charleston

Yes, it's changed since my performing day when the half-amateur, village-institute feel was supposed to be a hangover from the days when Quentin Bell and family put on panto and cabaret. Now burlesque from Brighton and elsewhere has hit Firle even harder than the travellers who caused such an ungenteel stir a few years ago. This year the Quentin Follies in the barn at Charleston was (were?) 90 per cent professional high quality. These boys from Der Wunderlich Revue with their cheeky Bradford and Bingley routine certainly added variety. The three pictures of the acts I've included were taken for Charleston by Axel Hesslenberg.

I've written a bit about it already in the Buzz section of The Arts Desk, without passing critical judgment, and I'll use that only to praise here, too. But first, the circumstances: a blissful July late afternoon and evening, with breezes to chill but not freeze the air and eau de vache to perfume the air from outside the barn (a few supernatural moos punctuated novelist Andrew O'Hagan's recitation of Burns's Tam o'Shanter, too, which was all to the good.

Ever since she rose from her supposed deathbed and proved that rumours of an inoperable brain tumour were not so much exaggerated as completely wrong, I've been more delighted than ever to see Quentin's splendid widow Olivier - possessor of the sensible streak in the Bloomsbury mayhem which she passed on to daughters Cressida and Virginia. Not bad for 94, eh? And here's our dear friend Cressie-poo, as Sophie will annoy her by calling her, sporting natty jewellery as doyenne of the festivities, carrying on her father's fun work in what would have been his 100th birthday year.

Everything in the Charleston garden is blooming. The noble but spontaneous hollyhock would seem to be the Bloomsbury symbol of current choice:

and here are two shots of shots of house, wall and downs.

As for the show, I've done a run-through on TAD, and there were certainly highlights towards the end. But nothing could have been better, as far as I was concerned, than the little sequence minutes in. It began with sheer charm - a scene from Susanna Waters's adaptation of Daisy Ashford's infant-phenomenal novel The Young Visiters [sic], in which Susanna and Richard Hahlo dealt with ingenious props and scenery.

I might have been in a minority delighting in every word of Tam o'Shanter (prefaced by consummate and, yes, even beautiful bagpipes), but I don't care. And, finally for now, a certain drag/falsetto Dido, an image of whom I am permitted to include here if I say no more. Goddaughter Evi's comment: 'what a lovely lady!'