Friday 29 April 2011

I was glad

Yes, he does look like many of the old Bufton-Tuftons in today's Westminster Abbey congregation, without Elgar's sensitive eyes to offset the walrus moustache, but Charles Hubert Hastings Parry could do a good bit of pomp and circumstance. My colleague Jessica Duchen violently disagrees about the worth of 'I was glad', to which a far from unattractive Kate Middleclass processed up the Westminster Abbey aisle a couple of hours ago, but it gave me all the usual frissons, especially in the full-orchestral version. Alongside it, the new John Rutter and Paul Mealor pieces seemed respectively cloying and a tad dreary (and 'Blest Pair of Sirens' felt a bit like overkill, but good to hear that too just when the whole thing had got almost too boring to watch, which sadly applies to the Bish's sermon too).

The frissons date back to my chorister days: on every summer cathedral course - and I 'did' Worcester, Hereford, Gloucester, Exeter and Lincoln - the Choir of All Saints Banstead would tearfully serve up 'I was glad' as the anthem of the final evensong*. In 1977, in a service which also included one of the earliest performances of Walton's Silver Jubilee Mag and Nunc, we even got to sing the 'Vivat Reginas'. They're the only thing which gives the edge to this St Paul's Cathedral performance on what I belatedly realise is the Queen's Golden, not Silver Jubilee**. Alas, it comes in half way through the organ prelude, but hold on for the trumpeters and the spine-tingling bursts of acclaim.

So much for a Golden Jubilee which I don't even remember. Can you believe it, back in 1977 - and I am opening myself up to such derision here - I even kept a Silver Jubilee scrapbook. Now I find the royals, whether sweet, Shrekish, grotesque or bland, totally irrelevant. Not that I don't wish this pair their rightful share of happiness. Peter Tatchell is a bit more belligerent, but puts some of his points very well.

*writes choirmaster DAH: 'By the way, we didn't always do I was Glad on the cathedral courses. We used to alternate it with Zadok, another coronation war-horse! My main worry was to stop the choir bursting into tears before the final top B flat!' Fellow former chorene Mary Amorosino and I remember it was Zadok only once, but who can confirm?

**said Mary has also just pointed out that it couldn't possibly be the Silver Jubilee because Wills and Harry are in the front row. Careless of me.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Souk Easter

The '54 days by camel' line in the previous post should have given a clue, though I don't like to banner-headline forthcoming absences on the blog: we've been in Morocco, mostly in the mellow city of Meknes, staying in the Riad Lahboul run by warm and delightful musicians Mouna and Simon, as prompted by ethnomusicologist Carolyn Landau's visit to my City Lit class some months back.

Apart from torrential rains in the Middle Atlas, which saw off a couple of days' walking plans, it couldn't have been lovelier - and look, no hassle! I'll report in three chunks when I've got the time, but now it's nose to the grindstone as deadliners bay. Apologies to commenters who had to wait for their remarks to be de-moderated; part of the plan was not to look at the internet for ten days, in which I succeeded.

Anyway, let's now have some seasonal fun to complement the chicks and bunnnies of Meknes's sole Easter-ish stall in the Sekkakine with the short animation many believe to be Chuck Jones's masterpiece. It was introduced to me by addicts Stephen Johnson and Kate Jones, whom we'll be seeing shortly. What's Opera, Doc? is surely the consummate Wagner spoof, with seamless chunks of Dutchman, Tannhauser (brilliantly choreographed bit of Venusberg ballet), the Ring and even, I learnt, a very obscure bit of Rienzi (not the overture). I can't recommend too strongly that you invest in this set for the spick-and-spannest version, complete with a 'making of' film and essential commentary.

I know, it's four CDs full of stuff, a lot of which you might not get round to watching, but there are other gems here and I found it online for a song. Make sure you get the right volume, the second one. My students have had the full treat at the end of our Tannhauser classes, but if you must have a sneak, here's the best quality I could find on YouTube. It's back to front presumably for copyright reasons, and in Italian ('povero coniglietto!'), but hilariously well dubbed so that the voices do resemble those of the original Elmer and Bugs. Enjoy and see you soon.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Khamsin week in London

The Arabic word signifies the fifty days, on and off, during which the Khamsin desert wind is supposed to blow - usually commencing in April, so that's not freaky-weird in itself. We only had more or less seven, with Saharan sand particles, I'm told, flying around in the air, but that was enought to bring on the peonies in the Chelsea Physic Garden and the heady scent of lilacs in the wastelands around the East End's slowly-rising Olympic site. Between them you'll forgive me for interposing an image of where the Sahara starts just outside Timbuktu - a strong if not especially nostalgic holiday memory from Mali. Where we'll shortly be is a mere 54 days' camel ride from there.

When weather patterns change rapidly in the spring, the great flower race sees some unlikely contestants sprint forward. I know some peonies bloom quicker than others, but I don't ever remember these ones flourishing before May. Two visits to the Physic within three days saw them budding two Sundays ago

and bursting the following Thursday, while the ones near the beehives had already done their work.

The heatwave also quickly saw off Sunday's magnolia

sent the robin on the tree by the gate twitter-berserk

caused the phallic liquorice to rise

and brought on the Judas tree, another early flowerer.

Lest you think we only do the posh and pretty parts of town, last Sunday's walk with friend Richard, who lives in the Three Mills enclave at the end of a long tube and bus journey, saw nature regenerating itself along the river Lea and the canal in a more urban environment.

At the back of the old mill, which is just over the border from Tower Hamlets into Newham, a swan warily guarded her eggs. We didn't give much for her chances against the local fox community, but since I've heard tales of swans breaking the necks of dogs in Regent's Park, perhaps she'll be OK.

Nearby shone the dome of Abbey Mills Pumping Station, the 'cathedral of sewage' grandly designed by the great Bazalgette and Cooper as part of Bazalgette's lifesaving drainage system in the 1860s.

A shame that in WW2 it had to loose its two minarets, obvious targets for German planes. The full complement in this engraving makes the pumping station look positively Prince Regentish in its mixing of Islam with Byzantium.

Richard's plan to lead us along the Green Way to Victoria Park was thwarted by the ever-changing Olympic village plans. But we did make our path through improvised rights of way stewarded by amiable Nepalese site workers

and found ourselves at a thriving improvised cafe looking over the stadium and the start of what sadly seems to be going ahead as the ugly, deeply unpopular demented-Eiffel-Tower designed by Anish Kapoor. As for horticultural life, it will no doubt bloom, but clearly - to judge from the sign and the result - not this year.

And so to Hackney, a friendly pub garden and a meander back to Mile End Station through enormous Victoria Park with another grand architectural folly, the Gothic drinking fountain designed in 1861 by Darbishire and presented by Angela Burdett-Coutts. Which, taking into account the dubbing of the sewage-plant, you could call the Armenian cathedral of free refreshment - not that you can get at it through the fencing that's around it at the moment.

Everyone seemed to be having a jolly time, albeit with the smokes of a thousand barbecues and more litter than I've ever seen in a London park, the bins overflowing with the detritus of the year's first scorching Sunday.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Tsar's Bride preludial

One thing's for sure: the dying heroine of Rimsky-Korsakov's pseudo-historical melodrama in Paul Curran's new production for the Royal Opera, opening tonight, won't be costumed anything like Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel in the 1899 production at Mamontov's Private Opera. Dare I hazard a guess that the silent role - what the Greeks used to call the kophon prosopon - of Ivan the Terrible might be portrayed by a Putin lookalike in a sharp suit? There'd be a precedent for that in the purpled parody of Yeltsin's embarrassing disco-dance executed by Paata Burchuladze's Tsar Dodon in Zambello's Golden Cockerel. Anyway, it's going to be oligarchs and mafia, I imagine, in sets that will look nothing like the old Bilibin design for Act 4:

No, if that's the sort of thing you want, you can see it done at not quite the highest level in the valiant efforts of the Moscow-based ballet company calling itself Les Saisons Russes du XXI Siecle at the Coli, where on Tuesday our princess even ended up with the sort of wedding headdress envisaged on the frontispiece of my Tsar's Bride vocal score (I don't dare reproduce it again here, but I think they've included a shot in the programme alongside my article). I'm very curious to know whether Curran can make cogent contemporary drama out of a very silly revenge plot.

In the meantime, having seen a perfectly traditional production at the Bolshoy starring a veteran Obraztsova, I know it's not boring and that most of the music presses the right buttons, even while it's not Rimsky in fantastical vein. The overture's a nimble corker, for a start, and I've already waxed lyrical about Borodina and Hvorostovsky in the Act 1 duet. We ought to hear the classic Arkhipova performance of Lyubasha's lovelorn aria:

And here are two clips from the rather good 1966 Russian film, which I was pleased to be able to show the students in a Kultur DVD import. Note that the good-lookers, especially the dishy Gryaznoy, are actors miming to a Svetlanov-conducted soundtrack. First let's have the lovely quartet in Act Two, modelled on a very Beethovenian moment in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar:

And finally the scene of Marfa's poisoned delirium, using the medium of film to create the illusion inherent in the music.

15/4 The results: a bit of a disappointment, though the updating started out pretty well. Full Arts Desk review here - plus a belated glimpse of what we're talking about below, one of Bill Cooper's production shots of Act 4.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Fidelio - liberated at last

Only professional reasons could have lured me back to sit through Jürgen Flimm's quarter-baked Royal Opera production of Beethoven's Fidelio a second time. Yet it turned out to be a whole different show, musically at any rate, from the one I had difficulties finding a good word to say about for The Arts Desk.

It may well be that Mark Elder got into his stride after an unco-ordinated first night. Yet while he had little time to step into back-troubled Kirill Petrenko's shoes, the Royal Opera's highly respected Head of Music David Syrus was also giving his first performance on little rehearsal last night.

And how he kept this tricky-to-start piece on its toes, with an ever-firm inner pulse, clear articulation and above all a buoyancy which, I suspect, is not Elder's ball-game (he seems to me to have succumbed to Goodallisation in his knighted middle years). While a couple of weeks ago I'd been inwardly screaming to get to Nina Stemme doing Leonore's 'Abscheulicher' - not quite right on either night, as it turned out, despite this fine soprano's inward energy - here I was delighted by every little woodwind nudge and nuance in those domestic ariettas, duets and trios. Not quite Mozart, I know, but Syrus made them seem almost so, and it helped to be hanging over the orchestra and to see what was going on in the pit when pitifully little happened on stage.

There were frisson-moments where I'd found none on the first night - above all in a flawlessly elevated shift back from the central solos of the Prisoners' Chorus to its recap, and in the little skipping violin triplets that lift the charge of the final joyburst. Again, it didn't pay to look at the chorus jigging aimlessly in a travesty of liberation, but they were at least crisp and together with the conductor, no easy task. This was a performance which I like to think our still so sorely-missed Charles Mackerras would have looked down on and heartily commended.

No real shifts of opinion on the production - its one moment of grace, so to speak, remains the darkness of Act Two's opening - or the singers: John Wegner remains a cipher; Stemme doesn't seem at her focused best, with the wide vibrato having some trouble getting round Leonore's more florid phrases; and despite some beautifully unfurled phrases from Elizabeth Watts as Marzelline (pictured above with Kurt Rydl's Rocco and Stemme), the most accomplished and technically secure performance remains Endrik Wottrich's Florestan; if only some people knew how impossibly written for the voice is the vision of 'ein Engel, Leonore', and how well he carried it off. The production photos here are by Catherine Ashmore for the Royal Opera.

Again for reasons yet to be divulged, I spent the afternoon listening to one of Beethoven's chief inspirations, Cherubini's 1791 'rescue opera' Lodoiska, and realised that it's not just the situation - here husband Floreski attempts to rescue wife Lodoiska from imprisonment by a wicked Pole - which gave the cue. The Sturm und Drang scenes of Act Two are very prophetic; so is the lovely woodwind scoring for a male trio and the Act Three quartet. Very fine music, and beautifully done on the Sony recording by Cherubini apostle Riccardo Muti with a cast including Mariella Devia, who I imagine would have made an excellent Leonore in her heyday.

It was fascinating to reflect, too, on Beethoven's Leonore of 1805, his Fidelio of 1814 and all the upheavals that had shaken Europe in its time of troubles since the idealism of 1789 went so badly wrong. It's worth remembering that the Bouilly libretto which inspired Beethoven was supposedly based on a true story of a wife freeing her husband from the Jacobins in Tours, and I was reminded of the compelling figure Hilary Mantel makes out of revolutionary Camille Desmoulins and his relationship with his feisty wife Lucile in A Place of Greater Safety. The real Camille did indeed write letters of a Florestanesque intensity to his wife from prison, though of course they both ended up on the guillotine.

So quite apart from Fidelio's endless resonances today, one trembles once again at the lessons of the French Revolution - how quickly liberators became oppressors, how betrayed were the libertarian ideals, and indeed how wonderful it was that, with Napoleon finally crushed, Beethoven could try and recapture the hopefulness of 1789 in the last great optimism of 1814.

Monday 11 April 2011

Himmel über Berlin

That, of course, is how the Germans know Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, a film which so coloured my early trips to this ever-changing city. Funny how each return can be tinted, or tainted, by other second-hand impressions: this time I couldn't get away from the ruined horrors of 1945, courtesy of Fallada's Alone in Berlin and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. To be honest, you don't have to look far beneath the shiny surface for signs of those times. Even the winged Victory, whose perch was also shared by Wenders's angels, is poised atop a sandstone-and-granite column heightened and moved by Hitler from outside the Reichstag to form the centrepiece of his east-west axis.

I suppose every city has its dualities, in any case: on the very day I was cycling through our own central greenlands and wondering at the new-budding trees, a body was fished out of the Serpentine. Cue diversionary snapshot.

Last Tuesday the weather in Berlin was so mild, if not as brilliant-blue as the above proves it soon was in London, that I gave up on museums and exhibitions, including an Ingmar Bergman special I really shouldn't have missed, and decided to walk from my hotel near the Philharmonie to Schloss Charlottenburg. I had four hours between my genial late-breakfast interview with Andrew Litton and the journey back to Schonefeld Airport, and it turned out to be quite a hike, by no means all of it pretty. From the leafing trees and wild flowers of the Tiergarten's south side

I crossed a couple of the roads meeting at the Siegessäule and found myself in a less salubrious woodland around the Fauler See. We're talking midday, but this zone was full of stunted and deformed eastern cruisers who kept on dropping out of the ugly tree. The hassle was so, well, I'll be frankly prudish and say disturbing, that I walked the rest of the way up to the Charlottenburger Tor along the road. Now there's another ugly beast for you, built in 1905 for the 200th anniversary of enlightened Queen Sophie Charlotte

but considerably adapted by Hitler in 1937 to make way for his military parades. A long walk up Otto Suhr Allee past very indifferent 1960s building brought me to a more fascinating monstrosity, Charlottenburg's Rathaus - still very much in use, so you can wander the vast corridors and the library with the rest of the area's inhabitants. This colossal pile, built by Heinrich Reinhardt and Georg Süßenguth between 1899 and 1905, shows all too clearly what the belle epoque meant to Prussia. But I do like some of the bas reliefs, and the ironwork above the left entrance is impressive.

It makes Schloss Charlottenburg, albeit heavily restored after 1945, seem all the more elegant. I've been here before, to see the Caspar David Friedrichs as well as Nefertiti when she was housed in one of the smaller museums to the south, but I wanted to compare and contrast late 17th-early 18th century Charlottenburg in spring with mid-17th-century Versailles in winter (would have gone to Potsdam, into which Frederick the Great channelled his energies, had there been more time - that I have yet to see). The south facade includes gilt railings to match Versailles (first shot)

and handsome trees

though the space before it can't compare to Versailles. Toyed with the original plan of going round Berggruen's collection of Picassos and Klees, now housed across the Spandauer Damm, but lunch called, so I stopped at the cafe of the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, with its intriguing-looking collection of fantastic art from Piranesi and Goya through to Magritte and Dubuffet.

The weather was now overcast but fair, so the Schlossgarten needed exploring.

There's an intriguing mausoleum, built to a neoclassical design by Gentz as a tomb for Queen Luise between 1810 and 1812, extended by the great Schinkel after the death of Friedrich Wilhelm III - that's his effigy below; Luise's is a finer work of art, but by that stage I realised I wasn't supposed to be photographing.

Presumably further touches are part of the 1890–91 extension to accommodate the graves of Wilhelm I and his wife Augusta. At any rate, it's a hotchpotch of styles, but not without grace in some of the details.

There was just time for a quick wander of the park. Beyond the formal gardens - which I'm delighted to see were indeed inspired by Le Notre's Versailles - the looser English style takes over; in fact the whole park looked like this after 1787, but following war damage the baroque portions were restored. At any rate the lakes tie in well with the distant Belvedere

and the palace proper looks handsome across the waters.

I suppose I should have followed what my guidebook described as the 'beauty and the beast' itinerary and gone to see the memorial on the site of Plötzensee, the slaughterhouse of political prisoners between 1933 and 1945. But time was up, so I took a brief detour along the Spree, with willows and cherry trees framing enormous factory chimneys, past a functional newish Russian orthodox church

and a monumental piece of wall-art

back to the Rathaus, Richard Wagner-Platz

and the U-bahn back. There was just time before taking the train to the airport to pay homage to another grim memorial, this time opposite the hotel, to Stauffenberg and the members of the German resistance who tried to overthrow Hitler in the July plot of 1944.

It's inside the yard of the Bendlerblock, former Nazi army headquarters, where they've also erected the statue of a defiant, chained naked man, worthier than the flatulent inscription on the ground in front.

I'm guessing that even this building had to be reconstructed after 1945. It's astonishing to see a photograph of Scharoun's Philharmonie, newly constructed in 1964, surrounded by open space and only a handful of semi-ruined edifices. Couldn't find this image on the web, nor on the Philharmonie's website - for which I sought permission in reproductions below - so will have to hope this poor copy of my postcard will suffice.

I didn't have time to see the museum within the Bendlerblock, but it's worth quoting inscription on the banner which is one of the exhibits, highlighting Pastor Martin Niemöller's wise words:

When the Nazis came for the Communists, I said nothing, for I was not a Communist. When they locked up the Social Democrats, I said nothing, for I was no Social Democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I said nothing, for I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I said nothing, because I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no-one left to protest.

Now - he grandly proclaims - go away and read Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, and don't think of taking a jolly jaunt to Berlin until you've finished it.