Monday 31 January 2011

More on heavenly Margaret

I've said most of what I wanted with a few YouTube sound-clips on The Arts Desk, and in a footnote to the Rosenkav celebrations here. But since I haven't stopped listening, in between Berlioz snippeting, to the great lady, here are just a few words on Margaret Price, whose death last Friday marked the departure of yet another of the 20th century's great voices (in fact, if I remember rightly, when asked by the BBC Music Magazine for my own list of 20 great sopranos a couple of years ago, I put her third after Maria and Joanie).

I had a crazy idea of going down to the small seaside town in Wales where she bred dogs like the golden retrievers above - photo courtesy of Malcolm Crowthers - to bend the knee, but it's too late now. In any case, the voice is the thing, and what a lot we have to remember her by. I've noted that I still need to get her French chansons disc, and the latest Wigmore CD - I was there, and still count it the greatest song recital of my life - but I think I've got a fair few of her performances on disc and LP.

These three are perhaps the most treasured. The Wigmore Hall 1971 recital embraces what Roger Neill regards as a Price peak, Liszt's Three Petrarch Sonnets. Such strength combined with such radiance is, I think, unique among sopranos, and exactly what we got in her Wesendonck Lieder (that was when I went off the rails and hazarded for the Guardian that she was probably 'the most complete soprano of our time'). Yet equally good, and more unexpected, is her way with Russian in Musorgsky's The Nursery - and indeed, she does catch the child within without the archness. Some of the other songs on the LP - Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Rossini - didn't make it onto CD, so the original's worth keeping.

Surprisingly, much of the song repertoire isn't as yet to be found on YouTube. I was also reminded of her achievements in English rep - Mary's 'The Sun Goeth Down' in Elgar's The Kingdom, the eerie voice in Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony and Cathleen in his not-so-hot Riders to the Sea (only the contralto, Helen Watts, really gets the goods here). Now I need to reinvestigate her Schubert and Schumann. This is something, though: the loveliest Lied ever written, Mahler's 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen', sung by the most beautiful voice - and what ineffable long lines towards the end.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Genius and tyrant

Without Louis XIV, no gardens at Versailles, I guess, and no landscaping genius like Andre Le Notre (pictured first, of course) to be given the means to create them against all the odds of the king's capricious interference. But it struck me, reading Ian Thompson's excellently written book The Sun King's Garden how perplexing are the links between autocracy and the right for us pygmies to enjoy the best of everything (and the public have been doing that for free in Versailles' great outdoors since the French Revolution). I feel, once again, like young Hyacinth in Henry James's The Princess Casamassima , wondering at the great works of art but vexed at how they came into the world.

Writes Thompson in his Epilogue:

What difference does knowing the history of this place make to its enjoyment? Do we admire it less when we realise that it was a piece of propaganda and an expression of power? Are we troubled when we read that thousands of troops gave their lives in a futile attempt to get the fountains to run all day? Knowing that an immense amount of toil and suffering went into the creation of Le Notre's masterpiece can only increase the grip that this serene and stately place exerts upon the imagination. There is not a single tree alive at Versailles that was planted in the time of Le Notre, and even some of the statues are copies or restorations - the lay viewer has no way of knowing - yet the sense of continuity is palpable.

It's amazing that as much has survived of at least some of the 17th and 18th century garden design (there's been an ongoing project to restore Versailles to how it looked late in Louis XIV's reign). The Sun King built up such avowed wonders as the Grotto of Thetis, only to pull them down and replace them with another testament to vanity. Sheer hubris, much of it. Little did I grasp in late December when I looked down towards a frozen Piece d'Eau de Suisses, expanded from a village duck pond to a giant mirror of water the size of nearly 40 football pitches, what Madame de Sevigny - her letters are next stop - described as 'the prodigious mortality of the workmen, of whom every night wagons full of the dead are carried out...'. That makes it more than usually monument-like in winter.

Worse was the attempted diversion of the River Eure to keep up the water supply - still short - for the profusion of fountains, which led to an estimated 10,000 dead from malaria and accidents (no health and safety in those days). While the big-lake men had been Swiss guards, these were staple army cannon-fodder, and their deaths led to a shortage in the imminent, disastrous military campaign.

Autre temps, autre moeurs, to be sure. But thankfully we can all take our pleasure here, as at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fontainebleau and Chantilly - three places we're going to see with friends Laurence and Bertrand in the spring. When rhe river gods and goddesses will, of course, no longer be trailing icicles from their mythological personages.

About these, incidentally, I learnt something else from Thompson: their handsome recumbent poses were designed so as not to block a clear view across the parterre to the great avenues below and beyond. Obvious, perhaps, but striking.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Happy birthday, Quinquin

Herrgott in Himmel, I nearly forgot that my favourite opera of all time and certainly the one I know best from head to toe, Strauss and Hofmannsthal's 'comedy for music' Der Rosenkavalier, is a hundred years old today; it took Gavin Plumley's homage - albeit with a clip of perhaps my least favourite Marschallin after Schwarzkopf, the over-indulgent Renee - on his Entartete Musik blog to remind me. Silhouette of Strauss and Hofmannsthal above by Bithorn, from the time it was shown in the Strauhof Museum Zurich's excellent exhibition 'Das Libretto'.

This is not, as they sing in the opera, quite what we'd hoped: I'd thought an annotated Rosenkav might make an intelligent coffee-table book for 2011, but there was much dragging of heels from a certain quarter, and then it was too late. Nor is there any chance for the seasonal warming of winter cockles this year, at least in the UK (what were you thinking of, Covent Garden and Mr. Pappano?)

Still, it's a time for Marschyesque reflection: almost too many great performances on stage and screen to recall. I can't quite choose an overall favourite on disc, though I guess the palm would have to go to the classic Erich Kleiber version.

I have a special affection for the Philips set, where the score is conducted like chamber music by Edo de Waart and Flicka shines as Octavian, and for the super-sumptuous if super-slow Bernstein offering. On DVD, there's no Marschallin more gorgeous and intuitively wonderful than Kiri's, though Gwyneth runs her close in the old Bavarian State Opera film: silence, you text-scoffers, and tell me in the following snippets if our often indolent Kiwi is slapdash or lacklustre with the meaning. Then along came Anne Schwanewilms's angry-beautiful redhead, and we all fell in love, I think, with that performance in an otherwise less than top-notch Dresden-in-Japan production. Sadly it's not snippeted decently on YouTube.

Best Octavians? For me, Fassbaender and Troyanos on DVD; on stage, a young Garanca in Vienna, terrific against Martina Serafin's gorgeous Marschallin - another redhead - though the creaking rep production left everyone to their own devices (lovely lady FLott said that the first time she met one of her Octavians at the Staatsoper was when she woke up in bed beside him/her). And the rest are usually good, with few matching the visual and vocal ideal of a young Sophie so well as Barbara Bonney, who seems to have stayed the girlish course for longest. I never thought Kurt Moll would make such a funny Ochs, but he does in the Met DVD, though for sheer classy delivery, dare I once again mention my good friend Peter Rose?

So what do we have that's worth seeing on YouTube (remember, to get the full picture on each of the below, you'll need to click on the moving image)? Kiri with Solti when the Schlesinger Covent Garden production was still fresh, ravishing and, yes, thoughtful in the Act 1 soliloquy:

Then let's switch to Gwyneth and Fassbaender in that classic Munich production, superlatively well conductor by Kleiber junior:

and back to Kiri, this time in a tired old Met staging which has just been issued on CD, and the fustian doesn't matter since the four leads find such meaning in interacting with each other. And though Levine has been quite a grand conductor of the score, his lavishness never holds up the proceedings like Thielemann's. The Sophie is Judith Blegen, no ingenue but still vocally very fine. Shame the whole thing stops at the end of the trio.

So raise a glass of old Tokay if you would to a complex masterpiece that's kept all the moaners on the run for a century now and retained its central place in a warhorse repertoire against the odds.

29/1 Very much on a related note, and as I mentioned in the reply to Jon below, the most beautiful Mozart/Strauss voice ever, Dame Margaret Price, died yesterday at the age of 69. I've written a brief tribute on The Arts Desk, and may add more here over the next few days. As always with these losses, such balm to be able to listen to her greatest recordings - and they are legion - by way of response.

I'm impressed that the BBC News website has a tribute among its headlines - as, of course, it should, but that kind of thing hasn't been happening recently. Are opera and classical music returning centre-stage as newsworthy?

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Psychedelic Berlioz

It's been a hyperaesthesic, diverse ten days in London by any standards: a Spanish/Argentinian fiesta, Arab-Andalusian music (more below), the greatest violin-and-piano duo I've ever heard in the concert hall, gay men stripping off above the Stag pub in a truly terrible adaptation of Schnitzler's La Ronde, Russian women on their way to Siberia as well as hoping to get to Moscow, and even a glut of short films made by schoolkids about their pets, environment and sporting enthusiasms at East Finchley's Phoenix Cinema on Saturday afternoon (reason: the European Commission sponsored the project). But what's truly been thrumming through my brain and making me wake up early is the length/breadth of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette.

I'm listening to about a dozen recordings - not all available or quotable - for Radio Three's Building a Library (transmission due on 5 February, assuming I've recorded it by then). And such is Berlioz's incredible invention that from hour to hour the ideas and themes in my head that won't give me any peace shift from one movement to another. His 'dramatic symphony' is the musical equivalent - and from 1839! - of Joyce's Ulysses in that for each 'scene' he makes a stylistic fresh start. Structurally, thematically, orchestrally and vocally there's nothing like it in the whole repertoire (Wagner was hugely impressed, if with mixed feelings, but he took the revolution in a whole different direction).

Clearly it's not my place to discuss the various recordings yet, but what's changed in my attitude to the piece? Chiefly the usefulness and originality of the vocal outer portions: I understand better why Berlioz wanted to set up the drama to come with his Greek chorus and soloists, and why the big operatic final scene dominated by Friar Laurence with the massed choirs (below cartoon by Dore) has to be; even though clearly it's disproportionate to Shakespeare's intentions, it makes good musical sense.

I'm also amazed by the interconnections, which mean that any movement or set of movements is diminished when heard out of context.

And what are the most feverish ideas that have seized hold of me? The start - that fabulous fugal idea, the first four notes of which were taken up, surely not coincidentally, by Prokofiev for the equivalent aggressive gesture of his Knights/Montagues and Capulets. The way he manages to write a tiny scherzetto of simple ingenuity for tenor, choir and very selective orchestra which, while it deals with the same aerial substance, is utterly different from the main scherzo devoted to 'Mab, queen of dreams'.

Which I still love best of all - its lopsided phrase-returns once the main buzzing theme has been clearly stated, the wistful cor anglais-led trio which so influenced Verdi for Nanetta's entry as queen of the fairies in Falstaff, the dream hunting-horns, the exquisite use of the antique cymbals Berlioz had first tried out in Naples' Archeological Museum (what magic there is in those three notes, p, then pp, then ppp, before they make the supernatural welkin ring).

Other simple but unusual ideas are of the essence: the distant dance-thrumming of the timpani and the tambour de basque before the aggressively brilliant Capulet ball and the offstage choral transformations after it, the vocal recitatives that punctuate the opening and love scenes, and the pitting of one-note chorus against deeply eloquent orchestral laments for Juliet's cortege (it's no mere gimmick that the roles are reversed half way through).

These are just random jottings while I'm in the thick of it. And now, if you please, Boulez (hmm) calls, followed by the mighty Munch.

Friday 21 January 2011

Moroccans in Notting Hill

True, there's already a large Moroccan community, in Ladbroke Grove and the splendid Golborne Road, to be precise. But until Wednesday night, I doubt if they had been treated to such distinguished musical visitors as the members of the Fez (Arab-)Andalusian Orchestra, pictured above at the Tabernacle for the BBC by Simon Jay Price (who also took the next four photos below). It was the central part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Diverse Orchestras Week 2011, and it turned out to be far and away the best of the cross-cultural meetings I've attended. Read all about the riotous evening on The Arts Desk. While the highlight was hearing pure tradition in the hands of the world's best exponents, I still can't get over the dazzling appearance and the soulful musical sound of the BBC Family Orchestra, players of all ages, abilities, colours and presumably creeds.

Unfortunately I can't go to Maida Vale tonight to hear the Fez men's second concert, this time with the entire BBC Symphony Orchestra - I have a date with Russian women in a Siberian labour camp, courtesy of Moscow's visiting Sovremennik Theatre - but I look forward to the broadcasts.

We'd been well primed for the visit on Tuesday, with a guest appearance on my BBCSO course at the City Lit from Dr. Carolyn Landau, ethnomusicologist and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at King's College London> A pioneer of the brilliantly organised website collecting Moroccan memories in the UK, Carolyn is the perfect mix of precise knowledge and passionate enthusiasm, so I learnt a lot about the different types of Moroccan musics and hope she'll be able to set up a little course on Music and Islam at the Lit.

I felt better prepared to understand the stunning Fez Andalusian players' preparatory improvisation on their chosen maqam or mode, and much enriched by knowing that each singer/player does his own arabesques around the theme, which may sound haphazard to western ears but once you get used to it can be heard for what it is, a healthy form of heterophony. The group's consummate lead singer, Aziz Alami Chentoufi, is pictured here second from the right. How could you not covet, as I do, a pair of the yellow slippers, apparently rather expensive because of the (saffron?) dye.

On Tuesday, we had a whistlestop tour around the leading types of performance in Morocco, dictated to a certain extent by the divisions of its mountain ranges, with examples provided from the splendid collection of the much-travelled Jean Jenkins. You can hear them in 'the map' section of Moroccan Memories. I was especially fascinated by the Gnawa or sufic music, originating from sub-Saharan Africa, Mali included, as this old postcard reveals.

There are haunting sounds here - the low tones of the gumbri, a three-string bass lute (not pictured in the above line-up, but an essential component these days), and the hypnotic clashings of the qaraqub, iron castanets. The idea is that the sick person to be treated dances until he or she falls down in a faint, and we saw something of this in a film provided by one of Carolyn's colleagues.

Too much to report here, but watch this space: Carolyn has some friends who've just done up a Riad in Meknes, running short courses in cookery and things cultural. Whether or not we take any of those up, or just stay there before going on to hike in the Atlas Mountains, I can't say yet, but I feel a trip coming on.

Tuesday 18 January 2011


Or rather, mania with Liszt attached. I wasn't expecting to be quite so stunned by the new DVD of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling; having seen Edward Watson as a rather pallid Romeo, I'd never imagined he'd be up to the mark of syphilitic, gun-toting, sado-masochistic Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (not telling you the true-to-life plot if you don't already know it). But that's the intriguing thing about dancers, as with singers, that some roles just fit them like a glove. I wish I'd understood this earlier in life.

Clearly 35 words on it in a BBC Music Magazine ballet round-up wasn't going to be enough, so I was lucky to have a chance, simultaneously, to write about Liszt and the use of his music in the ballet by John Lanchbery for the Royal Opera and Ballet website, readable here. I think the site looks good now as well as, let's hope, reading informatively and being well cross-referenced).

That fellow Jack, as Lanchbery's pals knew him, really was more of a great man than most people seem to have recognised. I adore his work on Tales of Beatrix Potter - which he came to the flat to talk about shortly before he died, tinkling away on the ivories of our on-loan Steinway Boudoir Grand to demonstrate - and La fille mal gardee. The Liszt potpourri is perhaps even more sensitive a selection. There are works already scored by Liszt, who God knows was not on the whole the greatest orchestrator, including the opening of A Faust Symphony which serves as brooding deathmotif throughout; but Lanchbery also does a pointedly weird job himself on some of the quirkier piano miniatures. Anyway, read all about it over there.

As for the latest cast to take up MacMillan's grim gauntlet, what an ensemble it is. All the ladies create a real sense of character - not just the scary-ambitious Mary Vetsera of Mara Galeazzi (pictured with Watson above in the first of two Royal Ballet production photos by Johan Persson, in a Pas so physical you fear her body might snap) and Sarah Lamb's calculating Marie Larisch but also the poignant ones, Iohna Loots as poor Princess Stephanie (dancing another weird Pas de deux with Watson's Rudolf below) and Cindy Jourdain's hot-and-cold Empress Mother. There's a dazzling, sexy cameo from Steven McRae, too, as royal cabbie Bratfisch. Otherwise the whole thing works against what I always thought the principle of ballet was, to froth up, instead stripping down to the skull beneath the skin. Very scary. I can't wait for it to come back into the Royal Ballet rep.

And of course it's the Liszt bicentenary, as if you could possibly have missed that already, as well as Hungary's controversial six-month EU presidency (it looks as if Sarkozy and Merkel may already have plied a restraining effect upon Hungary's truly awful new government). I have no regrets about missing the wonderful Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer on Sunday, simply because while no doubt that was a five-star occasion - my pal Ed Seckerson certainly loved it, and so did the diplo-mate - the duo of towering violinist Leonidas Kavakos and revelatory pianist Enrico Pace over at the Wigmore would have to merit five and a half. More anxious to hear a masterpiece not often played live, Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata, in such hands rather than the relatively known quantities on the BFO programme, I chose to write about the recital for The Arts Desk; I'm still reeling from it and thinking over especially the plains of heaven Kavakos and Pace trod in Schubert's C major Fantasy.

Anyway, there's plenty more Liszt on the horizon (all they had on offer at the Southbank was the First Piano Concerto, another dubious choice for Stephen Hough, but Fischer had already done several of the not-great tone poems as well as anyone could expect at the Barbican several years back). Mayerling has sent me back to some of the sources, not least the Harmonies du soir of the transcendental etudes which serves as a climactic Act 3 Pas de Deux. Bertrand in Paris was going through a Cziffra craze, some of which rubbed off on me, so here's the phenomenal Hungarian master surmounting a peak of pianistic art:

Before we go on to more Cziffra, a less overheated interlude - one of the many great works which wouldn't have fitted into the decadent, hothouse environment of Mayerling, Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este. This performance was recorded in 1928 by my personal favourite among Liszt interpreters, Claudio Arrau.

Cziffra leads me on to the opera we're spending seven or so weeks on at the City Lit, Wagner's Tannhauser. We're already having an intriguing time in the two Venusbergs of 1845 and 1861, so here's the Liszt transcription of the Overture from Tannhauser's second hymn of praise to Venus to the end:

And just as an ironic encore, since there's been so much talk of this since we discussed it at Susie and Michael's on 2 January, another overture transcription with a difference: Hindemith's Overture to The Flying Dutchman as Played at Sight by a Second-Rate Spa Orchestra at the Village Well at 7 O'Clock in the Morning.
A little of it goes a long way until it breaks out in a Strauss waltz, but what effects from a mere string quartet.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Civil rights, Italian style

Here's a sober, if charmingly directed, take on the abuse of the religious wisdoms so beautifully stated in Of Gods and Men, since it highlights the Vatican's nonsensical 'crusade' against the rights of same-sex civil partnerships in Italy (where else does religious authority interfere in legislation to the same extent? Only in Islamic theocracies). To make Suddenly, Last Winter (Improvvisamente l'Inverno Scorso) Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi followed their impressions, and the healthy conflicts in their eight-year relationship, offbeat-documentary-style through the year of government shilly-shallying over the bill for the so called DICO that would have given them the same rights we have in so many other European countries, or something like them.

The Jarndycean to-ing and fro-ing in the Senate (Cesare Salvi pictured above) is amusingly covered, with a light touch backed up by quirky music for wind quintet. But the Vatican's various statements that legalising loving relationships will lead to 'incest and paedophilia' as well as pose a threat to families are shown in their full impact not just on extreme religious groups but also on the widespread support for the truly creepy 'family day' (fine, celebrate the family, but don't use it as a pretext to oppress people who are different from you). Luca states his reluctance to hold the camera in no uncertain terms, while Gustav unassumingly puts the questions to sundry bigots and nearly gets beaten up on one demonstration. To balance that, we see the huge crowds and hear the impassioned speeches - including one from a spirited old priest defrocked by the Vatican - at political and Pride rallies.

Luca's feelings are familiar: we're protected by the microcosm of friends and family, but out there they hate us, and why? It's that curious feeling that we're living in the modern world and centuries ago simultaneously. As for one commenter's suggestion here that I really ought to read the doctrines and arguments of the Catholic church, why on earth should I when their unChristian, uninclusive attitude on social issues is built on such ill-considered fallacies? For, of course, it's not an 'either' 'or' situation. And, however many may argue that a child needs a father and a mother, families now come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes very large extended ones (two mothers, two fathers, plus close friends, in which respect we've been honoured to participate in a small way in the upbringing of our loved ones' children).

It's easy enough to comfort ourselves and say, well, Gustav and Luca will be fine; this is Italy, anyway, with its own version of America's Obama/Palin polarities, and just look at Berlusconi (no, not a harmless old clown, very far from it). But even when won, civil rights remain fragile, and tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance. I'm glad this often very funny film is able to put its points across more elegantly than I can. Ultimately, it remains optimistic. See the very detailed website and/or watch the trailer:

*stop press: good on Judge Rutherford, who found against a couple of hoteliers in Cornwall for refusing a room with a double bed to a gay couple. Summing up, he said of the 'Christian' hoteliers: 'I am quite satisfied as to the genuineness of the defendants' beliefs and it is, I have no doubt, one which others also hold. It is a very clear example of how social attitudes have changed over the years for it is not so very long ago that these beliefs of the defendants would have been those accepted as normal by society at large. Now it is the other way around.' Amen to that.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Bebo, Cigala and Chavela

That's to say Cuban jazz veteran Bebo Valdes

who recorded a wonderful disc sent to us by our friend Pedro in Madrid, Lagrimas Negras, with charismatic Romani Flamenco singer Diego El Cigala

and, last but by no means least, the fabulous Chavela Vargas, born in Costa Rica, rooted in Mexico and beloved of Spanish audiences, who came out as a lesbian at the age of 81 (past lovers included Frida Kahlo).

All this because I was rooting around for some genuine cantaors, whose tradition Manuel De Falla played a crucial part in keeping alive, as I prepared for the City Lit class on the BBC Symphony Orchestra's forthcoming Argentinian/Spanish concert. I started with the great Camaron, whose abrasive vocalising made contralto Hilary Summers so uncomfortable when she came to supper some years ago ('that man sings like dog!' has stuck).

Well, it's so unBritish, isn't it (Hilary, who's Welsh, has opted not to sacrifice purity of sound for sheer voicewrecking balls)? After all, De Falla wrote of his Cante Jondo ('deep song') Competition in 1927 that 'the essential quality of pure Andalusian cante is to avoid any imitation of a concert or theatrical style and one must bear in mind that a competitor is not a singer but a cantaor. The cantaor should not be discouraged if he [or she] is told that in certain notes he [or she] is out of tune. This is not considered an obstacle to the true connoisseur of Andalusian cante.'

How I love the authenticity and even the simplicity of El Amor Brujo, De Falla's 1915 homage to the skills of flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio - and all the more now since Josep Pons reintroduced the skills of her tradition in the shape of Ginesa Ortega. You can see Ortega about a minute and a half in to this slice of documentary, which starts with a dance from De Falla's early one-act opera La Vida Breve:

We saw and heard the compelling Ginesa at the BBCSO's previous Spanish concert conducted by Pons, but as that included the revised El Amor Brujo, what we didn't get was the spine-tingling melodrama of the rejected heroine's 'conjuration for the reconquest of lost love', which is hair-raisingly climactic in Ortega's voice on this essential recording.

As I had to move a little sideways to the Latin American first half of Friday's programme, I thought a bit of fusion wouldn't go amiss: hence the collaboration of Bebo and Cigala on a disc which totally captivated our visiting friend Juliette. There's film, too, of the two ages in concert. I've chosen 'La bien paga', here without the extended piano improvisation on the disc. 'You've been well paid for your kisses, white woman; I'm leaving you'. Go fullscreen, as usual by clicking on the image once it's moving, to catch El Cigala in his full gorgeousness.

Chavela Vargas's songs are very different, rooted in the laid-back mariachi tradition of Mexico, but there's nothing easy-listening about the sentiments of 'Volver, volver', so close to the dark gypsy lamentations of Andalusian music: 'I'm on my way to madness, but even if everything tortures me, I still know how to love. I listen to my heart and I'm dying to go back, to go back.' No idea who the two guys who creep up behind the grande dame might be, by the way.

Our finale last night, incidentally, was the Malambo finale of Ginastera's Estancia, inimitable encore of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela's concerts under Dudamel. Cynics say it's all getting a bit tiresome, but as far as I can see the joy never fades from these young musicians' faces when they play it: a well-earned party after an evening of deeply serious music-making. It's going to be difficult for Pons and the BBCSO to compete with this, and if it doesn't bring tears of joy to your eyes, you're a hard soul indeed.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Skarsgårds and other Swedes

Passing through customs at Stockholm's Arlanda airport, you find the photographs of famous Swedes on the walls getting bigger. The final hall of fame includes (if I remember rightly) various Abbas, Bergmans Ingrid and Ingmar, Borg and...Stellan Skarsgård (heck, I'm only doing the accent on that one). Which surprised me, as I can only remember him in two of Lars von Trier's films, Breaking the Waves and Dogville.

To fans of vampire dramas, he will be praised as the father of sexy Alexander Skarsgård, who to be honest I've never knowingly seen in anything. But of Stellan's three other acting offspring, I've been hugely impressed by Gustaf (born 1980, pictured above left with Torkel Petersson and Thomas Ljungman in Patrik, Age 1.5, more of which anon) and Bill (born 1990). Sweet Bill played wacky youths in two out of four films we had the great privilege to view just about before anyone else in Bergman's private cinema on Faro last June. I wasn't allowed to talk about them then, but I can now since they've been doing the rounds of film festivals and Simple Simon, equal first in my and the other, more well versed-film critics' affections, is Sweden's entry for Best Foreign Oscar.

It beat the much plainer storytelling of Behind Blue Skies, based on a real rites of passage story honing in on the Swedish yachts-and-drugs scandal of the 1970s. 'Simple Simon' is a boy with Asperger's syndrome whose relationship with his brother and his brother's girlfriend is told in witty, only occasionally poignant terms.

It's a cinematic work in that director Andreas Ohman superimposes graphs and clocks representing Simon's obsession with figures and precise timekeeping. Otherwise modest in its ambition, Simple Simon is a real one-off, and by the time it reaches the heights of sentiment, we're warmed up enough to accept them. Here's the trailer (you'll need to click on the moving image to go widescreen on YouTube)

A couple of nights ago we watched Bill's older brother Gustaf give an equally lovable performance as a very decent gay man in Ella Lemhagen's Patrik, Age 1.5. The premise is that Gustaf's character and his 'Mann' (Torkel Petersson) are up for adopting a 1.5 year old child. What they get, owing to the slipping in of a comma (1,5) is a 15 year old supposed delinquent (Thomas Ljungman). Who is from the start, despite his avowed violence and homophobia, essentially a sweet-natured youth who just needs to be loved.

Now we know from friends who've had the most disturbing problems with a late-adopted boy that all the love in the world might not be enough for a troubled child. But give the film's premise the benefit of the doubt, and some of the story's unpredictable twists and turns do help to make it genuinely moving.

But I ought also to give a charismatic young actress a look-in. And this isn't mere tokenism because we privileged spectators on Faro placed Alicia Vikander's spellbinding performance in Lisa Langseth's Pure equal first with Bill's in Simple Simon.

True, this at times slightly pretentious but more often troubling film has its faults. Katarina is a girl from one of the relatively underprivileged housing estates on the edge of Goteborg, swept up into a different world of music when she attends a performance of Mozart's Requiem in the city's glorious Concert Hall which allows her to escape an abusive background. Unfortunately the music that's played isn't always what they say they're hearing, or going to hear, in the script, and there's a bit of nonsense with 'the Rachmaninov Concerto' which will make anyone in the know want to spit. I was surprised, too, that the sound quality of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra recordings didn't come over too well, and the system on Faro was well up to state-of-the-art reproduction.

It's also a bit of a shame that attractive Samuel Froler's conductor...well, I won't spoil the plot. But what carries it are the beautiful cinematography and the way that dwells on Vikander's very changeable face. Like Sibel Kekilli in When We Leave, surely the performance of the year, she can look beautiful and happy or drawn and miserable. That's the asset of great screen acting.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Berlin 1923, Dostoyevsky-style

When did I last read a novelist who left me breathless across an epic span to know what was going to happen next, as I've just found with Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin (Every Man Dies Alone) and now his Wolf Among Wolves? Probably when I was in my late teens, and devoured Dostoyevsky with such obsessiveness that my main studies at university were in danger of falling by the wayside (praise be to Russian Studies 1 and above all to Yelena Voznesenskaya, the only tutor who inspired me during those four years). I don't suppose the parallel had really occurred to me when I read Alone in Berlin, so singular and unrepeatable are the circumstances of its creation and the abysmal time it describes. Whereas Wolf Among Wolves brings us closer to the often fruitful vortices of restless 19th century Russia. The hero, Wolfgang Pagel, is a loveable but spineless young man who discovers his backbone once he leaves a chaotic inflation-ridden Berlin for a country estate which turns out to be no less full of different pitfalls. The roulette scenes in the city inevitably recalled the feverishness of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler (they're central to a first part which takes 370 densely-packed pages to describe an eventful 24 hours in Berlin). But I'd guess that the unease which spreads across the next couple of hundred pages out at Neulohe, leading up to the failed putsch - pictured below in archive footage of 1923's secret army - is a far more personal homage to the threat of something terrible in the ridiculous provincial society milieu of The Possessed. How can both Fallada and Dostoyevsky manage to be so gripping at times when, on the surface at least, not much is happening? The answer probably lies in the speed with which they wrote their tumbling prose, though Dostoyevsky's is often far less clear and makes him extremely difficult to read in Russian. Fallada knew he was risking his neck in the Berlin of 1936-7 for a novel which it was extremely risky to publish, pouring forth 123 pages a week. There is, of course, a magnificent tension both between the moral stature Pagel acquires by experience and the up-down trajectory of Fallada's fascinatingly tragic existence (I must read his biography), and in the contrast of the contented optimism at the novel's end with what we know would have been just around the corner for Pagel, his wife and their child. But this is, in any case, a book which lives in the moment, occasionally stopping to analyse and embroider. It is, above all, Fallada's incredible gift for storytelling which keeps the reader spellbound. And there is material enough here for 100 short stories: I loved the divertissement of the mad Baron who holds to hostage the staff of a Berlin hotel, and the oddly reassuring tale of the servant Elias who has started gathering high-mark notes together in the hope that they'll eventually be worth something again but ends up collecting them for their own sake, since money has lost all its value. Anyway, these books are not only astonishingly faithful testimonies to the times in which they were written, but masterpieces in their own right, no doubt at all about that. On now to Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Fringe churches of the Norfolk fens

These are the two grand churches not embraced in our Walpoles to Wiggenhalls walk the time we strode out into the fens, in September 2009. And I can see why Jill hadn't incorporated them then, for the simple reason that both sit in the straggly development spreading from Wisbech, which of course is in Cambridgeshire. Wouldn't have been much fun to trudge along the bungalow-lined suburban roads. Walsoken actually has its churchyard divided between the two counties, but the bulding itself is decidedly in Norfolk.

Three days ago it was still freezing out in the flatlands. And St Mary West Walton was several degrees colder inside than out. A great contrast in this respect to lovingly-tended Walsoken, but not without its merits, combining the sparse interiors of those buildings looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust with the peeling fallen-on-hard-times charm of an edifice left in the care of a sparse community. Grand, anyway, it certainly was both in size and ornamentation, which looks northwards to Lincoln c.1240 (possibly begun 1225) and is rich in stiff-leafed capitals

and above them painted decoration made to look like fleur-de-lys'ed wall hangings between the clerestory windows. There's a fine monument of a 13th century priest which was discovered by accident forming a step; no proof at all that he was the founder of the church, but so they like to think.

A corbel looking rather African sits in a cobwebbed glass case.

We found the leaded windows with their panels in many cases coloured by age the very picture of evocative wintriness, given the line of trees outside the west window

and the ghostly view of the separate tower through one in the south aisle.

The tower was built to stand some distance from the lowish church itself some ten years later, so about 1250. 'The two buildings speak complex architectural languages,' writes Simon Knott on his always engaging and ever expanding Norfolk churches website 'as if one is at the start of a movement and the other at its flowering. It is rare to find two such strong Early English buildings in such close proximity.' Pevsner, as usual, is balder. 'It is pierced on the ground floor on all four sides. The arched entrances have much dog-tooth to the N and S; to the W and E they are simpler.' A shame he has nothing to say about the many splendid gravestones in the churchyard.

A total contrast, All Saints Walsoken is lovingly tended by its ageing parishioners. We met a couple out removing the numerous mini fir trees that had been adorning, and rightly proud the old man was of his care. Except that the floor in the north aisle had been renewed with a horrid kind of fake-tile lino which would last no time at all; not sure what the Norfolk Churches Trust would have to say about that.

Anyway, Walsoken is another sui generis gem: to whit, it boasts the finest late Norman nave arcades and chancel arch.

The fine roof of hammerbeam and cambered tiebeam has coloured figures in niches and lively angels, complemented at the east end by a wooden 17th century King David with his harp and just before the west tower by a jolly Solomon flanked by two 16th century paintings depicting his judgment.

Clearly Walsokeners were fixated on this moral tale*, because there are two more roughly executed but rather fascinating 17th and 18th century pairs of pictures on the subject in the chancel.

Not sure how much restoration is responsible for the figures on the bench ends here, but these are charming and well done, anyway,

and there's a special treasure in the double figure representing prayer and activity (the sporty man is a fowler, evidently).

Walsoken's major gem, though, is its octagonal font, the Seven Sacraments featured being very much an East Anglian speciality. This is one of the latest, from 1544, with eight saints around the stem and the crucifixion making up the eighth of the main panels.

I ought finally to add another winged angel, from a very fine Resurrection window of 1903, to complement the much-admired specimens in Worcester College and Eastbourne's old church.

After these two major tickings off the list, our trail went a bit cold. We followed up a whizz around Wisbech by tracing the old, frozen Ouse to the connected villages of Outwell and Upwell (one side of the river in Cambridgeshire, and very Dutch in style, the other with the church in Norfolk). Both churches were locked, with the keys nowhere to be obtained at lunchtime on a Bank Holiday Monday, but it was worth looking at Outwell's old tower and corbels

and we now have another reason to return on open day, the extraordinary little shop opposite.

Upwell had the more handsome exterior of these two riverside churches, a fine set of gates, and more splendid headstones.

We passed the chance of microwaved food in the local pub and didn't fare much better at Welney, but were otherwise well fed during our stay, both at Jill's in Lynn and at Susie and Michael's in Hindringham after their concert. Which was a real pleasure on a bitterly cold night in Wells-next-the-Sea. I doubt if the locals who turned out in very respectable numbers have ever heard Hindemith in the community centre, let alone S. Self's and M. Christie's compositions. It was a generous programme shared between mezzo, cello, guitar and piano around memories and pictures of Susie's distinguished grandfather John Drinkwater. Here are the Christie-Selfs at home after their labours (centre and right) with their excellent pianist, John Flinders.

Don't forget that the warm and hospitable Selfmade Music set-up plays host to a whole range of courses throughout the year. You'll be well fed as well as excellently coached if you decide to take up the option. More details here.

*uncannily reproduced in a current Eastenders storyline which has combined cot death with childsnatching, much to half the nation's chagrin. There was a balanced discussion about it on Radio 4's Any Answers this afternoon, in which the experience of some of the female callers added authority to the pro- and contra- arguments. I haven't seen it, but I can well imagine the excellent Jessie Wallace acts her socks off.