Tuesday 30 November 2010

Golden October, sombre November

Where, oh where - paraphrasing/adapting Pushkin's and Tchaikovsky's Lensky - have you gone, golden October days? Every Sunday in that month was one of brilliant sunshine, whether in Sandwich, Oxford, Athens or Samos. It hardly seems less than four weeks ago that we were hiking the hills of that wonderful Greek island, discovering fruit bursting and dropping ungathered from the trees. And there I was, today, one low ebb of the year - though I'm tolerably jolly in myself - hanging around on freezing outlying Piccadilly and Bakerloo line stations waiting to go and get a verdict on the fracture from the maxillary department at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow (the second picture, obviously). Not at all grim inside, in fact, as NHS hospitals go. I'm getting to compare them all these days, split as I have been between six of them.

It cast me back to a bleak January day in Edinburgh in 1984 when I took a journey through the snows from our mice-ridden Dalry Cemetery Gatehouse to Portobello Cat and Dog Home, hoping to lay my hands on a mouser only - very reasonably - to be told that the carers didn't like to let cats loose with students who might desert them or, at best, shunt them around (eventually we got Sinope/Snoopy on loan from Iqbal and Sharif over the road).

Not to detain you with the boring details of this morning, but I must side- or even up-grade the 'supraorbital' wound to a fracture of the left sinus wall. Whether it needs to be operated on will depend on the CT scan which should reveal how far back the damage goes. Ho hum: only another fortnight's wait, with the comforting intelligence that if I start bleeding or vomiting again, I must take me back to A&E immediately (unlikely, insha'Allah).

In the meanwhile, preferring to turn the calendar back a month as November comes to a close rather than forward to Christmas as everyone seems so hell-bent on doing, I think of our Samian time, not all blessed with clear blue skies but all of them fresh and bracing. We harvested a good crop of local produce to keep us going in our Potami retreat.

The day of our fruit walk saw a rather bigger detour than we'd intended around mountain villages through valleys of silvers, greens, reds and greys

and eventually down to the coast path between Megalo and Mikro Seitani beaches, which we'd explore the following day after the storm had passed.

Even the coldest day of the week, when we froze above Manolates, was rather beautiful, with the Turkish coast at its clearest in the sun while we shivered under a grey pall.

The pomegranate up top, of course, plays a key part in the Persephone myth of the seasons. I'm just in the mood for the restrained emotions of Stravinsky's melodrama, the highlights of its Hades scene including the quietly ravishing 'Lullaby for Vera' to be heard here in Sir Andrew Davis's Proms performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Paul Groves and Nicole Tibbels. Forgive the artwork; it's beyond my control.

Sunday 28 November 2010


So the bass chorus almost shouts back at the soloist in Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony when he seeks to clarify the 'Tolstoy' Yevtushenko's poem places in the company of Shakespeare, Pasteur and Newton. It's ironic, of course, because the audience at the 1962 premiere, like the bass, would have been plagued by reminders of narrow careerist Alexey Tolstoy, who's more or less forgotten now.

Yet over here we haven't really been making as much of a fuss of either the great Lev/Leo's death-centenary nor Chekhov's 150th birthday as we should have done. Gospodi moy, I even forgot the actual day of the Tolstoy commemoration, 20 November, only to be reminded when the Radio 3 programme to which I contributed on Tolstoy and music, The Kreutzer Sonata, was finally aired on Saturday.

All I did was to speak to Katie Derham for about half an hour a few months back, and I didn't expect much to come out in the finished documentary, since there were such knowledgeable contributors as Prof Simon Morrison and the marvellous Dr Caryl Emerson, who appropriately had the last, most eloquent word. But the production team got the balance right, I think, KD really seemed to know her stuff and the programme covered most bases admirably (I suppose they had to go for Russian accents in the readings just to differentiate, though generally I don't like that false distinction) I guess we'd all covered some of the same ground, so it was fairly shared. You can hear the results for the next five days on the BBC iPlayer.

What do I know, anyway? Well, I know about Tolstoy's meetings with Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov from one perspective or both. I've recently come to know the Kreutzer Sonata novella, too, and I guess it might have been one leap too far for the programme to bring Janacek into the picture too. And I've spent quite a bit of time looking at exactly what Prokofiev took for his selective scenes from War and Peace, which I still love beyond reason. That's to say both the opera and the novel, which is one of the few I'll still be re-reading every decade or so (maybe Ulysses will join the repeat list now, but Proust, no way).

The above intrigued me as I was casting around for images: how seldom our impressions of great men - less so great women - are taken from their earlier years. We prefer bearded patriarchal Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy to their younger selves. And Tolstoy was as singularly handsome in his youth as Musorgsky, who of course always winds up on the brink of delirium tremens shortly before his death in Repin's unforgettable portrayal, worth repeating here in the company of the composer's younger self (the older Tolstoy-as-peasant is, of course, another Repin, though the top image comes from that amazing supply of early Russian colour photographs).

Let's shift some way north-west from Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana for two more major creators. I was pleased that others, including Jessica Duchen and top oboist Nick Daniel, were as delighted as I was to see movies taken at Sibelius's home in Jarvenpaa, which I tracked down via news of a recently published book of photos and linked to via The Arts Desk. It was also a timely reminder of one of the two most extraordinary connections with the past this year - my time at Ainola (the other, of course, was treading sacred Bergman territory on Faro). Because the films show a surprisingly mobile egghead in 1927 and 1945, the younger, Bohemian Sibelius in Gallen-Kallela's triptych, which I was so surprised to see on a wooden wall at Ainola, needs resurrecting here:

And finally, another singular portrayal; thanks to Simon for starting us off. August Strindberg has an antithetical sidekick in these very odd one-minute animations. I'm not quite sure which to show first, so let's have the one with the best punchline.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Vot tak syurpriz

Or, 'Oh, what a surprise', and since the black eye is a thing of the past now, it must be something to do with my unexpected guest above. In brief, I was waiting in the Festival Hall wings on Wednesday to go on and do my stuff about Shostakovich 11, with nice snippets from Britten, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, the Red Army Choir and three of the main man's symphonies lined up, when along strolls the impending concert's conductor, Vasily Petrenko. Well, it was nice to meet him for the first time and all that, but as he hovered, it suddenly occurred to me: 'you're expecting to join me, aren't you?' And, having read a piece of information on his agent's list as a command to appear, he was.

An opportunity too good to miss, and worth the sacrifice of everything I'd prepared. So, quick thinking: two chairs, please, and a mike that would catch both of us. And we winged a half-hour interview, which I think went rather well, because Liverpool's great Russian import is the most relaxed and thoughtful of speakers. Out went the music examples, though I did still want to make the point that, though the symphony was written over 50 years ago and casts further back to the 1905 St Petersburg massacre, its significance continues, or did for two of my oldest and most treasured City Lit students before their respective deaths at the ages of 87 and 96. They may be gone now, but their memories live on in me.

Martin Zam's father was there in Palace Square, and wondered why the history books never reported the events as they unfolded: chiefly, that the soldiers fired into the trees to try and disperse the crowds, unwittingly killing the children who were perched up there, which triggered the panic. And Trude Winik always loved Shostakovich's Eleventh best because she used to sing the revolutionary funeral song quoted by violas in the slow movement, 'Eternal Memory' ('Unsterbliche Opfer' to Trude), in red Vienna's Socialist Youth Movement during the 1920s. So when I hear it, I always think of Trude, who lost her father in the First World War and the rest of her family to the camps of the Second World War.

Thanks to the LPO below for alerting me to the quick putting-up of the talk on its website as a podcast. As for yet another astonishing performance of a symphony I never used to care for, read about it in my Arts Desk review.

I asked the LPO's Alison Jones to snap me and VP together. The specs reflect because my non-reflective ones got smashed in the bike crash.

The top picture was taken, serendipitously, by a professional - photographer Mauro Fermariello, son of our adored Clara, who came along as my guest with mutual friend Cally. He was amused by my red socks, which he said would have got me lynched in conventional Italy - and certainly I hadn't worn them for effect, since I'd been expecting to stand behind a lectern. I took a look at Mauro's website, and there are treasurable images in every gallery. He gave me the green light to put up some of my favourites here. A dog basking in the sun at Pompeii:

musicians at La Scala

with trumpets to cue a quick mention for Martin Hurrell's visit to the students on Tuesday accompanied by partner Liz Burley, the BBCSO's fabulous orchestral pianist, celesta and (as she amusingly told us) virgin organist on a needs-must tour featuring Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. Martin played fluegelhorn and piccolo trumpet as well as the regular in a dazzling rendition of a piece by Aratunian.

And, last but by no means least, two of glorious Clara, nearly 85, under the heading 'Terza Eta'.

Auguri to our dama di grandezza in Napoli.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Eye saga

Felt a bit queasy about the big brother eyes in the ENO/Complicite Dog's Heart on Saturday (photo by Stephen Cummiskey). Not because of Graham Danby's unduly sinister party man, but because I was slightly nervous anticipating the visit to the Western Eye Hospital yesterday.

And with reason, as it turned out: after I'd been jammed up against a machine and had anaesthetic drops put in the eyes, and had lenses and sticks jammed in them, and had to swivel them every which way in front of bright lights, a big eye cheese decided I needed a torn retina lasered shut. In fact, I think this may have been a longer term problem dating from before the bike smash, from what an optician said a couple of years ago; but I'm glad to have had it sorted because a detached retina is no joke.

But from being told nothing about what they were doing to me, I then found out a bit too much: the specialist was going to burn around the tear. So the laser light show was accompanied by the odd shooting pain. Enough: it was over in fifteen minutes, the pink room returned to its normal colour and I stumbled out on to the Edgware Road with my eyes streaming.

By 4, I was fighting fit for the Adriana Lecouvreur class at the City Lit, and we had a happy time comparing versions of 'La dolcissima effigie' (Alagna, Kaufmann, Gigli, Corelli, Domingo and - tops - Aureliano Pertile). Then it was Judy time, and any initial scepticism about Tracie Bennett's impersonating the fundamentally inimitable were swept away by the second act of Peter Quilter's play End of the Rainbow, freshly transferred from Northampton to the Trafalgar Studios. Here's star Tracie as photographed by Peter Day.

Read all about it in my Arts Desk review.

And finally, a real tonic. You may have heard about the hideous demise facing the Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre (Muziekcentrum van de Omroep) and all its ensembles in Holland. I signed the petition against the government cuts along with thousands of others - you still may here - and was rewarded with this flashmob film in which the beleaguered players all gathered together for Bernstein's West Side Story mambo in a busy Rotterdam train station. Stick with it while the percussionists allow the other musicians to put themselves together.

Brought tears to my eyes - there's communication for you.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Good company down the A&E

Well, I'm not sure Hans Fallada, born Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen, makes exactly congenial reading when you're waiting for three hours to be seen in the mayhem of an accident and emergency department, but anything is bearable so long as there's humanity at the heart of it. Of which more anon. I should explain that it was the long-term accident rather than another immediate emergency which caused a concerned doctor to send me to Charing Cross Hospital nine days after the all-too-perfunctory inspection at St Thomas's. Last week's bash was still giving me gyp, and she discovered a dent above the eye which in my squeamishness I hadn't felt.

X-rays and further checking finally revealed, after three and a half hours' hanging around, that I have a left supraorbital fracture which, horror, may mean maxillary surgery. But in the meantime they're more concerned about the orb itself, so off I go first thing tomorrow to the Western Eye Hospital. The CX experience could have been a lot worse, despite a fair bit of wailing and crying from a failed suicide behind drawn curtains. Chief entertainment was an old parlare-ist called Reg, who'd been there all day for brain scans and tests, and his merry men. I just assumed they were a bunch of old London pals, which they were - but with a bit of a difference.

The giveaway was when Reg gently broke into a rendition of 'I am what I am', and of course the parlare which cropped up when one of his chums spoke of his old mum's ailments. 'You need to keep up your fluid intake', quoth another a little bit later, to which came the quip 'as the Bishop of London said to the actress'. There was a bit of bickering between them, which prompted me to tell Reg how fortunate he was to have such loyal companions. He agreed, felt my dent and invited me to drop in some time on a kind of friends-only casbah off the Battersea Bridge Road. Which I am, of course, very curious to visit if I can, and if indeed it exists as Reg, for all his eloquence, wasn't quite all there.

In the meanwhile, jammed between two slumped young men, I moved deeper into the horrifying world of Fallada's Alone in Berlin, German title: Jeder stirbt fur sich allein (another curious admission, by the way, had to sit cross-legged on the floor, where he was soon engrossed in Gautier's My Fantoms [sic]).

Simply as a document from someone who lived through the terrors in question, as of course did Irene Nemirovsky in the unfinished Suite Francaise, Alone in Berlin would be remarkable: the insights into the police-state Berlin of the early 1940s are unflinching, the Third Reich 'vile beyond vile', as the author incontrovertibly states. But Fallada is both blackly comic about the twisted logic of the regime and shatteringly moving about the handful of folk who insist on keeping their integrity no matter how useless their active demonstration of it might prove. The counterpoint of characters is worthy of Tolstoy, even if I'm not always sure about the felicity of Michael Hofmann's translation. My own preference would have been for the splendid Anthea Bell, but still we must be grateful to Hofmann for bringing a masterpiece to the attention of the English-speaking world.

There's an extraordinary chapter in which the imprisoned protagonist shares a cell with a psychopath who pretends to be a dog so that he can be registered as insane. Intriguing parallels here with the wonderful Bulgakov novella turned into the opera I saw last night, A Dog's Heart. I thought the staging was ENO at its idiosyncratic best - read all about it on The Arts Desk. Meanwhile, here are some shots from the Apple Store pre-performance event in which I had the pleasure of partipating. What a weird idea, to set it in the middle of a vast open shop with crowds milling and buzzing all around. I couldn't hear a lot of the earlier slots backstage, as it were, until I went and stood by a loudspeaker. There were star turns from the dog's chief puppeteer, Mark Down of the Blind Summit Theatre company, seen here demonstrating bag-of-bones Sharik to the magisterial Christopher Cook:

and from the young countertenor covering Sharik's 'pleasant voice', Iestyn Morris, who, accompanied by Murray Hipkin, made the dog's dream-monologue sound like something by Cavalli. His teacher Andrew Watts did a clarion job, too, in the show proper. We'll be hearing a lot more from this second Iestyn (can you believe there's another to follow in the footsteps of the estimable Mr. Davies?) Here he is on the left, standing by the dog-table with Tim Armstrong-Tayor, the actor who so wittily told the story from plastic surgeon Professor Preobrazhensky's perspective.

And last but of course not least, the brothers Simon and Gerard McBurney with our mainstay.

Complicite's main man had to dash off, so he did his bit with Christopher first; and then at the end I joined Gerard to talk Dog's Heart. Inevitably I was a bit in awe since he'd been, as he put it, a 'fellow musketeer' of composer Raskatov in Moscow and had a much closer bee-line to the work in progress than I did. But I'm glad to have had my preliminary hunches confirmed by such an inspiration-packed work.

Friday 19 November 2010

Dog and diva

In this week of bizarrely contrasted operatic first nights, it should be the other way round, of course, but it doesn't sound so good. The diva is Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, purportedly a star vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu. Yet what we saw last night was a good company show, with plenty of quiet perceptiveness about the 18th century gulf between actors and aristocracy in David McVicar's production, beautifully designed by Charles Edwards. It certainly didn't make me regret taking the decision to spend four weeks on the opera with my City Lit students.

There's Gheorghiu's actress above in the Royal Opera photo by Catherine Ashmore, being attended to by Alessandro Corbelli's sympathetic theatre manager among others while Michaela Schuster's bitch princess looks on. You can read what I made of it in my Arts Desk review.

And what about Kaufmann? Well, I had the same reservations last night as I do about his new so-called verismo disc - that the top is infallibly secure, with its authentic Italianate sob, but the middle is a bit dark, baritonal and slightly in the throat, not quite the sunshine and roses I was hoping for in this rep. But as I wrote, it will be terrific for Lohengrin, Florestan and Siegmund. And eventually, let's hope, for Tristan and Siegfried. The boy has the looks, the musicality and probably the strength.

A rather different attention is being paid up top to poor old stray Sharik in the De Nederlandse Opera/Complicite premiere of A Dog's Heart earlier this year (both photos by Monika Rittershaus). I got to know Raskatov's score preparing an article for the ENO programme, and what an elaborate piece of clockwork it is: a bit like Prokofiev's collage technique, with no idea resting for more than a few pages, but quite a few repeats. Whether it'll hang together as good music theatre remains to be seen - and I will see tomorrow, since it's the first night at the Coli. Before that, I'm joining a conversation in the Apple Store on Covent Garden Piazza, chaired by Christopher Cook with the brothers McBurney and sundry performers as the other guests. It's free, so do come along at 6pm on Saturday.

Thursday 18 November 2010

People who live in glass houses

'See what he is suggesting? The house will be sort of hung from the first storey, here. Do you see? Downwards into the garden. The bedrooms and bathrooms on the entrance floor and then the living room below. Huge windows. Plate glass. I mean, the fellow hasn't really bothered with walls. Just glass.' His tone is one of amazement and excitement, as though he has just been the witness of a natural phenomenon that you see only once in a lifetime.

Thus the proud commissioner of the Landauer House in Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, aka the Villa Tugendhat of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Brno, built in 1928-30 and surviving all the forced repossessions and governmental interventions to stay open, on select days, to select groups. We saw it a couple of years ago thanks to the enthusiasm of our Viennese architect friend Tommi and his partner Martha (subsequent travels around Moravia mixed Janacek territory with a trip to the big Bata complex at Zlin, though we didn't find the model houses Tommi was looking for). Everything is exactly as Mawer describes it, down to the use of rare tropical woods and the semi-translucent onyx wall which in the novel becomes the living room's last-minute, hugely expensive piece de resistance

and the big glass windows which can be raised in the summer.

How far the book follows the real history of the occupants I can't say, though it stays fairly close to what happened to the house itself, whose original Jewish owners Fritz and Greta Tugendhat left in 1938 and never returned. I gather their descendants have applied for restitution to the Czech government, on the grounds that the Brno authorities failed to carry out the necessary repairs (though this is a UNESCO world heritage site). It did seem in a rather parlous state when we visited. Here, too, in 1992 'Czechia', as the Austrians so much more effectively call the Czech republic, was officially severed from Slovakia by the countries' respective leaders.

Mawer's novel is an admirable piece of imaginative reconstruction, verging on a pastiche of the German/East European epic. The characters, who sometimes feel a little like programmed creatures predestined to bonk each other, don't have the richness of those in a book which is closer in time to the dreadful topsy-turviness of the Second World War, Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin (I'm halfway through, and I can hardly bear to put it down). Nor does The Glass Room boast the supreme style of the novel I read in between, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

I sometimes feel Mawer has co-opted too much cultural information, interesting as it is for readers to learn about the tragically short life of Martinu's mistress Vitezslava Kapralova, a talented composer in her own right (as a disc loaned to me by Charles Mackerras richly demonstrated). But the house is the thing, and in his unusual quest to make it the abiding principal character, Mawer has lucidly succeeded. There's a fascinating Radio Prague interview with the author here.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Dryadic, Nereidic

Following perhaps excessive contemplation in previous entries of my 'large peri-orbital haematoma with tracking to the lateral margin, secondary blepharospasm and superficial abrasions' (thanks to Doctor Andy Beale, KBE), I thought it was time to back-project myself to more idyllic surroundings before retreating from the pictures. Happy day indeed, our Samian walk from Potami to Mikro and Megalo Seitani beaches. That's little and big Satans, to you - and you can see that the day after the big storm, the wee devil was still quite churned up.

On the way, we passed through some of the loveliest olive groves I've seen. Better candidate, the olive, opined J, than the noble laurel for Daphne-like metamorphoses. The ground was studded with cyclamens and the odd chequerboard autumn crocus:

and then we were out on the cliffs, which felt not a little like the wilder stretches of our 10-year project the South West Coast Path, above sea-lashed rocks

down to Mikro Seitani, where the waves were too rough for bathing

and on to its big brother

reached at a point where a dramatic gorge tumbles down to the beach on the east side.

Blissful bathing, a picnic of salami, cheese and tomato rolls followed by halva, and we made our way back. I'm an addict of round routes, but the daylight hours were too short and of course it all looked very different in reverse, with the late afternoon sun and clouds further transforming the scene.

Back at Mikro Seitani

the sun finally sank beneath the waves

and we returned to Potami in time for supper. And I can say the same as I did in the saga of the ascent to Panaghia Makrini: we hadn't seen another soul all day. Soundtrack? Sibelius's only southern tone poem depicting the daughters of Oceanus frolicking in increasingly rough waters, a Desert Island piece for me. If you want sonic indulgence, there's none to beat Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but I was surprised at how good Boult was in this magical rep in the late 1950s.