Tuesday 31 May 2011

Hornmeister history

Two Tuesdays ago we were delighted to welcome back to the BBC Symphony class Chris Larkin, veteran of the orchestra and master expounder of the instrument's historical metamorphoses, who usually brings along more than your standard state-of-the-art double horn. In fact you can hear him twice at the Proms in unusual roles: he'll be playing the cowhorn in Britten's glorious Spring Symphony and the natural horn in John Eliot Gardiner's performance of the 'French' Freischutz, with Weber's romantic mastery meeting Berlioz's specially composed recitatives.

Fortunately, perhaps, I can't regurgitate horn history at length since I left my notes at the City Lit, so that will force me to concentrate on essentials. The cowhorn, of course, had to be the starting-point: Chris brought along a smaller model than the specially-made one for the Britten pictured, I think, below, in a Reid Hall lecture-recital he gave recently, and produced such a warm, resonant sound from so tiny an instrument.

Chris has a theory that the Vikings used cowhorns on their boats to call to each other through the fog; though I associate the instrument with peaceful practices, and in fact there's a wonderful YouTube clip of a Swedish exponent playing an almost sax-like 'Summertime'; shame the film's beyond the pale, but the sound is good.

We didn't have at the City Lit a trompe de chasse of the size illustrated up top, but the next best thing: a natural horn of the mid-18th century. The French hunting horn is alive and well in numerous traditional ceremonies; Louis XV had his own master of hunting music at Versailles, the Marquis de Dampierre, whose fanfares for various types of hunt still survive.

Here's Chris at the Reid demonstrating one of Dampierre's compositions on a trompe Dauphine (misnamed slightly because Louis XV's first son wasn't born until a good few years after its invention) of 1721.

Even stranger are the Russian horn orchestras which date back to the time of Elizaveta Petrovna in the mid 18th century. The idea is that each 'tube' plays a single note, the equivalent of a handbell orchestra. Listening to it on CD, you wouldn't know, and you might question any validity beyond the historical. But anyway Sergey Polyanichko has revived the tradition with his Horn Orchestra of Russia - not surprisingly given the current state love of pomp there - and his 20 players wield 74 'notes'. Enjoy this selective take on Rossini's William Tell galop.

I had my own unexpected lecturing excursion last Wednesday when I went to Eton to talk about Prokofiev to an extraordinarily motivated group gathered at precentor and music director Ralph Allwood's home: the Parry Society, no less. And pre-empting some of the stroppier commenters here who got into a lather about public school folk at university some while back, and who might ask what an upstart grammar-school boy was doing swanning so happily around such a hothouse for many of tomorrow's leaders in arts, sciences and politics, all I can say is that curiosity and character cross all divides, and this lot had it in spades.

Here's a reduced line-up taken a few days later, since I forgot to snap at the time. The movers and shakers are 'sir' Allwood on the sofa and, to his left, Edward Picton-Turbervill, the enterprising Etonian who booked me on a sup-and-speak basis a year in advance having heard me talk on Salome at the Royal Opera.

As for the talent, ma foi: all I'll say is that I heard a chapel organ improvisation (very Messiaenic) which knocked me for six. But I suppose it's to be expected when the music facilities include no less than eight of those instruments on the premises...

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The good angels of Norwich

By which I mean not the legion which populates the rich medieval stained glass of this astonishingly church-rich city, but the citizens who do what they can to keep such gems as St Peter Hungate going. It lost its status as a home for valuable church furnishing in the late 1990s when Norwich's museum system went haywire. Now it's been reorganised by a group of local enthusiasts, chiefly as an interpretation centre for the story of stained glass. If I lived in Norwich, I'd join them as a volunteer, but in any case Hungate Medieval Art deserves our support.

This charmingly located church, surrounded by old cottages on Elm Hill, has its own treasures, chiefly a fine hammerbeam roof with angels and plenty of 15th and early 16th century glass in the east window featuring orders of angels and evangelists. Apparently the Laudians rebuilt the collapsed chancel in the early 17th century, but (laudably!) re-used the glass. That's St Mark in the second of the three pictures.

Hungate Medieval Art has also found a home for the excellent benches from St Andrew Tottington, now marooned in the Norfolk battle training area.

Needless to say, my completist hunger for church-trailing inclined me to overdo it, so we agreed we'd look at three churches only on our last afternoon in Norwich. Nearby we chanced upon St Michael-at-Plea, now a religious bookshop, but similarly situated with white wisteria in its churchyard

and a fine clock tower as well as a statue of its saint with the dragon above the porch which looks like a Victorian replica to me but is apparently part of the original perpendicular scheme.

We had, of course, to invesigate the great Flemish-style market church of St Peter Mancroft, close to the City Hall, which in its way is another admirable symbol of civic pride, worth examining for its 1930s craftsmanship and, as Pevsner has it, 'the foremost English public building of between the wars'. Here's the church tower as viewed from one of Hardiman's bronze lions.

The interior is remarkable, however restored, as much for its supreme airy spaciousness

as for its east window - also much re-ordered from other windows, but the finest collection of biblical panels in Norfolk, possibly in the country.

All images of the crucifixion seem to have been completely destroyed by Puritan zeal, and replaced, but the other strands are original medieval work.

Inevitably overshadowed by its forbears is the east window of the south chapel, designed in 1921 by Herbert Hendrie in the style of Eric Gill.

You can see far more, and much better, photos of the older glass both here and at St Peter Hungate on Simon Knott's wonderful Norfolk churches site. But there are other treasures too, lovingly tended by St Peter Mancroft's friendly wardens. I like the austere dignity of this 1592 monument to Francis Windham (Johnny Gielgud to the life)

and there's a beautiful 1573 Flemish tapestry of the Resurrection

with an interesting detail of Christ appearing as gardener to Mary Magdalen.

There's plenty of local TLC going on just outside the walls, too, but I see I've overrun on my time and space, so that will have to wait for another entry.

Monday 23 May 2011

Name that opera

I'd have guessed an all-in-the-schoolroom reinterpretation of Britten's The Turn of the Screw. In fact Alastair Muir's ENO production photo is from Christopher Alden's even more radical re-think of A Midsummer Night's Dream, next in the Britten operatic canon: Iestyn Davies, whose throat infection meant he did a perfect mime job to William Towers singing very well from a box on the first night, is Oberon/Quint, with Dominic Williams as changeling boy/Miles and Anna Christy as Tytania/Governess. I've thought and thought about this superb realisation, which like Rupert Goold's vision of Turandot set in a Chinese restaurant oughtn't to work right across the board but somehow does, since I saw it on Thursday: read the Arts Desk review here.

To coincide with the new production, the latest in a series of new ENO-related series of opera guides has just been published. Building on the old ones, but even handsomer, they take me back to a more innocent time doing humble proofing for still much-missed Nick John alongside Henry Bredin, and happy days are here again with the very friendly Gary Kahn in charge. He asked me to write a piece on the production history of MND - haven't seen a copy yet, so can't tell you what else is in it - and I realise I've seen rather a lot, from luminously trad (the Peter Hall at Glyndebourne, three times) to luminously mod (Robert Carsen plus a short-lived Opera London version conducted by Hickox at Sadlers Wells) via one by Christopher Renshaw which made the score seem stiff and contrived at Covent Garden (saving grace: fledgling Mark Rylance as Puck) and one in a semi-staged performance at Snape (the diplo-mate sang Theseus).

The one I still wish I'd seen, apart of course from Aldeburgh days before I was born, is Baz Luhrmann's Raj-versus-protoBollywood Opera Australia production. I put up this YouTube trailer on the Arts Desk, but no harm in repeating it here. I've heard better performances of "Now until the break of day", not least last Thursday's, so bewitchingly as well as brutally conducted by Leo Hussain, but none - again, apart from ENO's latest departure from the norm - which looks more enticing.

ENO, of course, is on a roll. Though it's more hit and miss, Terry Gilliam's approach to Berlioz's already problematic Damnation of Faust has at least three visual scenes to compare with the coups of the C Alden Dream and continues the Bury regime's mostly successful incorporation of other media (the Dream is austerely straightforward in that respect, though the visuals - especially in an Act 2 sequence which I won't spoil - are no less amazing). Here's another blackboard shot for ENO, this time by Tristram Kenton - Peter Hoare as coxcombed, C D Friedrich Faust and Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles.

Next season has two surefire talking points which I hope will be great hits, and which I've taken the risk of including among the six operas we'll study at the City Lit. At the ENO's 2011-12 core is what I believe will be the London, though not the UK, stage premiere of Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, which still hits idiotic pro-Israeli lobby reefs in the States (I've just read what Adams so eloquently and carefully has to say about the balance of sympathies in his superb book Hallelujah Junction). And the season kicks off with Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger in the David Pountney production, the Bregenz world premiere of which I've just waxed lyrical over for the BBC Music Magazine.

A more of-the-essence piece of work than Weinberg's The Portrait - don't miss the Radio 3 broadcast this coming Saturday at 18:00, with Christopher Cook chatting to me in one of the Leeds Grand Theatre boxes - it deserves its right to deal with Auschwitz; the author of the novel, Zofia Posmysz, was interred there and based her tale on the premise of what would happen if she came face to face in later life with her tormenting Kapo, and Weinberg escaped Poland and the fate of the rest of his family only to end up a near-victim of Stalin's antisemitic drive in the early 1950s. But none of this would figure if the score wasn't extremely strong, and I think it is, though haven't made up my mind pending the live experience whether it's a masterpiece or not.

My, these are culturally exhausting times. I've been to big events five nights on the trot, and I'm holding my breath about tonight's special-invitation Chamber Orchestra of Europe 30th birthday concert, on a hunch as to why the conductor isn't named on the invite. Wasn't looking forward hugely to the Glyndebourne Meistersinger on Saturday, given unquenchable loyalties to the WNO experience of Richard Jones's superlative production with Bryn Terfel last June, but it did its own thing and, while not surpassing the Welsh event, came close to it at times. Again, I tried to be as fair as I could to Gerald Finley, who did a good job and won a not undeserved standing ovation but still isn't Bryn or Norman Bailey, on the Arts Desk. And it was sheer bliss to be at Glyndebourne again on a perfect day.

I was lured away from my favourite picnic spot by the lake since we critics had only a ticket apiece, I wanted company, Ed Seckerson hadn't wanted to risk (wrongly) anticipated cold and discomfort, and so I joined him and a friend in one of the Wallops. Where the food was much better than I'd anticipated, even if service was in a bit of chaos on the first night. Anyway, I then got another little wander just as the sun had gone off the gardens.

At least one aspect of the new garden regime is redeeming recent misdemeanours: the abundance of papaver orientalis both in the beds on the lawn and in the formal garden was spectacular.

Friday 20 May 2011


Believe if you like that it split asunder at the moment of Christ's crucifixion - I don't mind the extra layer of religious lore grafted on to folk tradition (and how horrified I was to learn that the Glastonbury thorn, with all its fluttering votive offerings, had been hacked down by vandals). Skirrid Fawr's odd landslip, which gives it such a distinctive outline from a distance as you come from Hereford or from Abergavenny, no doubt happened in the Ice Age. But it's not an especially grim or daunting place, at least on a windy but far from freezing icy last day of April, when we did the rounds with the Johnson-Joneses of Sutton St. Nicholas.

I hope anyone who makes the ascent doesn't just take the quickest route up the ridge and back down, for the walk along the western slope is perhaps the most beautiful part. Apparently this stretch of the Skirrid - 'Ysgyryd' is the Celtic word for 'that which has been shivered or scattered' - was plagued by conifer-felling until recently, but now it just seems like natural, age-old woodland, complete with fresh-sprouting ferns and even some late narcissi.

I thought the bluebell season had finished - it was over, certainly, in London - but not so further west.

The views across are to the Black Mountains of which Skirrid Fawr is described as an 'outlier', and which we should be walking in the next stage of our long-interrupted Offa's Dyke trail.

As you head for the gap between the two peaks, the scene opens out. To the right is the higher of the two summits, capped by Devonian-era sandstone rock which overlies soapstone.

Then it's round the north end and up the hill to the trig point at 486 metres (1596 feet always sounds better), before which we were supposed to have noticed remains of an old chapel dedicated to St. Michael but didn't. More obvious were the bumps of an Iron Age fort like the one surmounted by the Herefordshire Beacon.

A more spectacular ruin we encountered on a May day round walk from Bredwardine, this time well within Herefordshire borders. This is Arthur's Stone, a cousin of the splendid Trevethy Quoit in Cornwall - to whit, a chambered neolithic tomb in fine nick, with about as much connection to the semi-mythical king as the Skirrid has to Golgotha.

If the first walk was all bluebells and bracken, our second was gambolled-around by spring lambs

and marked by an especially beautiful return to the Wye valley, with solitary old oaks lining the descent.

God's own county indeed. And you'll note it was looking rather green, thanks to a downpour on Royal Wedding night while the rest of the country stayed frustratingly dry.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Novissima hora est

Forgive the rather pretentious borrowing from another great genius's meditation on death - the hallowed words of Elgar's Gerontius via Cardinal Newman - but they seemed appropriate as we near the hour of Mahler's death exactly a century ago (at midnight on 18 May 1911 if Alma's memoirs are to be believed). Gavin Plumley has been taking Entartete Musik through a day-by-day chronicle of the events leading up to the untimely demise, so anything I could say on the biographical details would be superfluous. Still, I see no harm in re-cycling one of my photos of the grave in Grinzing.

I'll be talking on the Resurrection Symphony tonight in Birmingham. In a way I wish the concert I'd been accompanying featured the Cooke completion of the Tenth, but at least Oramo's done that already in this cycle; other orchestras, disgracefully, have left it at the fully-scored opening Adagio.

The CBSO players seem quite excited by the fact that the estimable Sakari Oramo's replacement tonight is Kazushi Ono (pictured below by Eisuke Miyoshi). I know from experience that he's very good indeed, but I had no idea he was this good: to quote a string-player who e-mailed me last night, 'Kazushi Ono is an absolute genius - today's rehearsal was the most extraordinary day's work in my career since I played for Svetlanov back in the 80s. I think you are in for a treat'.

Hope so*. In the meantime, as a calm Mahler memorial I rather perversely offer you a piece the existence of which I was unaware until the doyen of BBCSO horn players, Chris Larkin, introduced it to my class last night. More on his extremely enlightening history of the horn anon, but here's Bruckner's simple but absolutely ravishing Abendzauber (Evening Magic) for four horns, tenor soloist, male chorus and three soprano 'yodellers' (for which in this instance read three opera-singers). Can't you feel the depths and heights of an Austrian landscape in this music? Jessica, if you're tuning in, could you tell me that you don't dislike this little slice of heaven-on-earth, please?

*we were. See Arts Desk review. Tried to lead a standing ovation, and my neighbours joined me, but the Birmingham audience doesn't rise as readily as the Americans. What does it take, I wonder?

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Cinema 1938: a mural in Meknes

Say what you will about French imperialism in north Africa, but the so-called Protectorate in Morocco left a certain amount of what it found untouched. Thanks to Resident-General Hubert Lyautey's 'do not offend a single tradition, do not change a single habit', the old ways carried on alongside the new. In Meknes this means that for the flash, be-blinged 4x4-driving Moroccan nouveaux riches, the Ville Nouvelle is the place to go for cafe and nightclubbing life, while the medina on the opposite hill, separated by the valley with the Oued Boufekrane flowing (if that's the right word) through it, carries on an existence largely unchanged since the middle ages. This is the view of the medina from the newly-developed park slopes above the valley.

The other result is that the tourists ignore the Ville Nouvelle other to eat and drink there. Sadly the Moroccans have rather neglected it, too, which is a pity, because it's a treasure-trove of 1930s architecture falling into disrepair. In any other city where this was the only asset, it would be assiduously preserved and guided tours would be taken around its gems (think of Tel Aviv, or wonderful Asmara, capital of Eritrea, where the experimental architectural projects under Mussolini are a major draw). But at least it's still here, and very much the centre of attraction off the central roundabout is the 1930s Cine Camera, still a working picturehouse.

Had it not been for an excellent illustrated French guide to the town loaned us by Mouna and Simon of the Riad Lahboul, we might have missed one of the great artistic treasures of Meknes, one Marcel Couderc's 1938 fresco in the foyer, for neither the Rough nor the Blue Guides mentions it. The eye is drawn up to the central panel of opera singers, pianist, string players (love the double-bassist) and jazz band.

The details are no less charming on a close inspection. There are selective glimpses of Paris

and New York

sport and sailors

the movies

and fashion - dig the chap in his plus fours.


even the wall above the projection room is duly adorned.

There's been a fine book produced on the 1930s architecture of Asmara, but I couldn't find much on this - it all needs documenting by an enthusiast of the era. And I'm told Tangier and Casablanca have just as much to offer.