Saturday 27 August 2011


Tolstoy may have had some crazy ideas about art and the battle of the sexes, as I found in that hard-going but revelatory trawl through the diaries, but in the former case, at least, there's sometimes a grain of truth. This is the man who thought Dante and Shakespeare had only acquired their great reputations 'by chance', who told Tchaikovsky Beethoven 'lacked talent', yet who could weep over Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile and Goldenweiser's Chopin.

As often, his theories did not always run parallel with his feelings. He tried to talk himself out of western conservatoire-trained music, claiming that the history-books only told 'the history of artificial music, ie of how real, melodious music was deformed'. I'd qualify but not entirely disagree with his comment that if you say you don't yet understand a work of art yet, 'it means the work of art is not good, because its task is to make understandable what was not understandable before'. And if I give even lip-service to his abhorrence of contrapuntal music - 'the destruction of music, a means of perverting it' - it's only because much the best thing I've heard at the Proms this year, where for various reasons I've been to less than usual and shall be attending fewer still, has been June Tabor with her two unaccompanied folk solos, captivating a late-night Albert Hall audience. Hurrah that both are now up on YouTube. Here's the first

and the second, purging the rather overblown Percy Grainger arrangement that came before it, which was done with suitable fulsomeness (you see, Ismene, I use the word correctly here) by the BBC Singers and Northern Sinfonia.

Since that revelation, I've been ordering up June Tabor CDs - I actually found I had one track, about a dying miner, on the CDs accompanying Tim Winton's stunning novel Dirt Music - and while the smoky tones of later years may not have developed on one of her seminal albums, Airs and Graces, back in 1976, the solo tracks here are just as moving, not least her highly-acclaimed treatment of Eric Bogle's Gallipoli threnody The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Striking out from Stykkishólmur

Not much independent enterprise on the morning of our second full day in Iceland, I know, but 'naturewatch' was too enticing a compound to ignore. After the wonderful weather of our exhilarating trip around Snæfellsjökull, there was still blue in the sky, but not enough to risk a whole day on Flatey, the small, fair and flat island (which of course is how it translates) recommended for r&r. The alternative was a two hour plus boat trip around some of the thousands of skerries and islets in Breiðafjörður. That would allow us time, given the many hours of daylight, to head out for a hike up the caldera of Eldborg in the late afternoon (which we did, and I was glad for that - more anon).

Stykkishólmur is tiny, more a harbour-village than a town, and it grows on you, despite the usual Icelandic mishmash of buildings small and humble alongside big and ugly. Settled early, its area described in the Erbyggja Saga, Stykkishólmur came into its own in the 19th century, and there are a few pretty little houses from that time.

The only one of several museums we explored was the already-praised Eldfjallasafn housing the substantial art and rock collections of locally born, internationally famous vulcanologist Haraldur Sigurðsson. He wasn't there, as he often is, during the visit, but the curator was very friendly and I'd recommend booking a trip with Sigurðsson around Snæfellsjökull if you happen to coincide. The museum's table of rocks from Snæfellsnes, with several types of obsidian and jasper, gave us a good sense of the variety.

You eat well in the authentic surroundings of Nafeyrastofa, just down the road towards the harbour next to the church, where I twice enjoyed a plate of mussels, guillemot breast, twice-smoked lamb (tastes like petrol smells, which believe it or not I like) and barley, though you can strike gold with the much plainer - though hardly cheaper - Fimm Fiskar, where I tasted the best, freshest haddock ever.

More surprising comestibles were to come as a highlight of the boat trip, which we shared with a voluble, vivacious Frisian lady and a party of Americans so thickly shell-suited that you'd have thought they were following in Buzz Aldrin's footsteps when he came to try out the nearest thing to a moonwalk in northern Iceland.

Birds were promised, and did not fail us. Forgive me if I didn't absorb the names of the many islets around which we floated, to the sublime indifference of the avian inhabitants, but they appear here mostly in chronological order (and to add to the curiosity, I do remember that on one of them was once located Iceland's first printing press). Fulmars and kittiwakes populated our first destination

while puffins, never presenting themselves to us from the rockface, were regularly to be seen floating in groups on the waters. This is as close as I got, and you can only just about see them if you click to enlarge, but we were lucky to see them at all because most have left by mid-August.

Shags stood in noble profile or flapped around on islets and promontories.

We were also promised spectacular rock formations, which did not disappoint. Who can believe these basalt pillars are not man-made? You'd have thought we'd reached Manhattan.

Even here the birdlife did its stuff against the spectacular backdrop, including a flotilla of female eider-ducks.

One of the few interesting facts Verne digs out in Journey to the Centre of the Earth is how the female eider feathers her nest with down plucked from her own breast. The eider trader robs the nest, the duck repeats the action until she has no down left. Whereupon the drake plucks his own breast with feathers that are of no use to man, who leaves the duck to lay her eggs 'in the spoils of her mate'. Whether this is any more accurate than most of our Frenchman's garbled facts, I don't know, but it's a good story.

As if we weren't already sated with wonders, the nice boatman then dredged up creatures from the seabed

and spread them on a table for our delectation and delight.

We duly took our share of the clams and scallops

and urchins (very sweet and, I thought, delicious)

while ogling the crabs and starfish before throwing them back where they came from.

And then the boat did a bit of comestible retail for those who wanted it before we came back into Stykkishólmur in time to augment our lunch.

We had a jolly time there, not least in the company of our newfound Dutch - or should I say Frisian - friend, who was on her 10th trip to a country and a people she adores. And we slept comfortably in the simple, friendly Breiðafjörður Hotel, though I'd say it was overpriced even by Icelandic standards - probably because it has a virtual monopoly in this small and thankfully undeveloped place. The staff in the hotel and restaurants, by the way, were mostly very blonde and quirky teenage girls. When the diplo-mate joked with our hostess about that not being allowed if Iceland joined the EU - which she emphatically didn't want - she said, 'but that's nothing: our street sweepers in winter are kids of 11 or 12'. Well, no harm done in a small community, I guess.

On our last night I had to keep my fellow-eaters waiting while I dashed back to catch the late evening light on Sugandisey, the amazing little island connected now to Stykkishólmur and protecting it from the worst excesses of Breiðafjörður weather.

And so, straight into the sunset:

A poetic way to take leave of this welcoming and haunting little place.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Having so much fun with R&H

Not last night, it has to be said, with a lacklustre revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific at the Barbican less than fresh from what was by all accounts a much better show at New York's Lincoln Center Theatre. Samantha Womack's Nellie Forbush, pictured above by Simon Annand as dyke's delight with Alex Ferns's dragged-up Luther Billis in 'Honey Bun', seemed OKish, and you had to make allowances for a broken toe. But then Matt Wolf, who kindly sent me off to cover the revival for The Arts Desk, pointed me in the direction of her Broadway predecessor Kelli O'Hara, and there's just no comparison. This is the real thing, and it's quite a feat to do your own stuff after Mary Martin and Mitzi Gaynor.

It didn't help yesterday evening that I'd spent some time revisiting the original Broadway cast recording and the Hollywood soundtrack. There's mezzo Mary with her sassy tones, and Mitzi with her hairwashing pizzazz; there, too, are Ezio Pinza and Giorgio Tozzi (Rossano Brazzi's voice dubber) seducing - not entirely appropriately with their Italianate diction since Emile is of course a Frenchman - in a way that even the excellent baritone Paulo Szot cannot. And much as I admired his show delivery of 'This nearly was mine', one of the classic tracks of all time now happens to be the way Bryn Terfel weaves a special, smoky magic on his 'Something Wonderful' disc.

Rumour has it that the R&H estate hated the Trevor Nunn production a decade ago, but I got so much more out of it than I did with last night's routine. And it didn't help to have a classic replica of the Broadway audience, chattering through the overture, whoo-whooing even the mediocre and of course rising to their feet for no good enough reason at the end. I won't say I'm going straight back to the film - its war sequences are horribly over-extended; but I can dip into bits of it. And then there's the much earlier (1949) Martin/Pinza team in magic moments like the (revolutionary at the time) 'Twin Soliloquies'.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Journey to the centre of Snæfellsnes

One of the many things Jules Verne forgot to mention about Iceland in his really not that great Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which properly begins there in a land he never visited, is that there's a spectacular glacier on the top of the dormant (not extinct, please note) Snæfell volcano. And nothing in his novella, which can't make up its mind whether to mangle geological facts or go all-out for fantasy (I wish he had - the underground sky and sea are the most imaginatively described things in the book), can touch the wonders of this extraordinary country as we experienced it in mostly clear, coldish and always sharp-focused weather.

It might have been the sunlight and the relative ease of access, but I couldn't find it in myself to fear these powers of nature or use the terms 'horrid', 'dire', terrifying' - awesome it all certainly is. And I really don't know where to begin. The motivation for visiting a country I've always wanted to see in the summer was the little weekend jamboree in Reykjavik centred around festivities in the spectacular new Harpa concert hall/arts centre, about which I'll be writing for The Arts Desk on Sunday.

As it was the diplo-mate's Big Birthday, I thought I'd treat him (and myself too, of course) to four days on and around the Snæfellsnes, the peninsula on the west coast north of Reykjavik which is supposed to have a little bit of everything in the geological makeup. Icelandomane Hilary - Hilla to her northern friends - Finch told me I'd chosen well over coffee in a Prom interval the week before last, and was delighted to give plenty of helpful tips.

We based ourselves in the beautifully located harbour of Stykkishólmur, the furthest point north in the top right hand corner of the map. That and its archipelago are going to need an entry to themselves. Otherwise I just couldn't decide where to start and stop today. So, reluctantly passing over our bracing journey in the hire-car from Keflavik airport, I'll confine myself to the momentous 11 hours - making use of a sun that didn't set until after 10pm - we spent driving and walking around Snæfellsnes.

First stop was a lavafield with flora and mountain backdrops very much its own, the 4000 year old Berserkjahraun named after the path through it forged by two doughty warriors of that name. These lavafields look alarming at first, and you could describe them as old stony bones covered in mould, which essentially is what the moss is. But look closer and all manner of flowers grow on them and in the cracks. That, I reckon, is going to have to be a separate entry too, once I get to identify which plant/flower is which.

The road goes west across the water and mountains of the Kolgrafarfjordur

before hitting the first settlement after Stykkisholmur, Grundarfjordur, an 18th century commercial centre monopolised by the Danes. A good place to base oneself, I reckon, with all the waterfalls around it

and the shape of Kirkjufell, dominating the harbour and rising to 469 metres, across the water.

You catch a first, heart-in-mouth sight of Snæfellsjökull as the road bends to descend towards Olafvik.

We turned off before the village to take (with great care and speed of 5mph, I hasten to add) the track up towards the eastern side of the glacier. Parked where the moraine looked grimmest, the winds keenest and the view along the south coast first apparent and then trekked upwards as far as we could go before the glacier takes over (even with full mountaineering gear you're advised not to go on it, though apparently there are moon-vehicles that do, occasionally). Occasionally we caught sight of the two 'horns' which from certain angles crown the cone with devilry, but mist and cloud swirling against the blue kept disappearing them.

Up here, you'd expect the colours to be lava/basalt black, but the lichen is still with us and the range of tufas stupendous (I won't pretend, as Verne does, that I know what I'm talking about, but I'm taking up volcano studies with the expert who's set up the handsome little Eldfjallasafn Volcano Museum in Stykkisholmur, Haraldur Sigurðsson).

The track then winds down past Stapafell to the south coast.

I guess we should have driven down to the curious harbour of Arnarstapi, but we had several objectives for late-afternoon walking so we pressed on, first to the long-defunct fishing village of Hellnar with its excellent visitors' centre run by a very helpful warden and its tiny church which forms such a homely foreground both to Snæfellsjökull

and to pointy-headed Stapafell, which rises to a mere 521 metres (compared to the summit of the big 'un at 1446).

Dates on the tombstones in the graveyard make it clear that the fishermen and their wives tended to live to grand old ages - most died aged 90 plus.

Snæfellsnes's green and peaceful coastline, shining in a relatively warm August sun, put me in mind of Cornwall's West Penwith peninsula, round which of course we walked on our long-term coastal trek; but then you look inland and there's the volcano.

The rock formations here, too, are not dissimilar to Cornwall's granite outcrops, but again on a bigger scale. We carried out our desired expedition to the Londrangar rock pillars, the tallest of which rise to 75 metres.

The description on the edge of my big map tells me that 'these are remnants of a long-vanished volcano: eruption vents filled up with volcanic material, which formed a hard "plug". The plug, of much harder rock than the surrounding volcano, remains as a pillar when the rest of the volcano has been eroded away.'

Well, we really did feel like we were in Cornwall, taking half an hour's kip on the grassy cliffs before retracing our steps. Back in the car, missed the turning to the harbour of Dritvik and found we'd got further round the coast road than expected, so instead of driving back to Buðir, we pressed on. The wide open spaces of the far west made it feel like an American road movie. And Snæfellsjökull kept revealing its different faces - from Kothraun

and from the bird-rich wetlands around the glacier-water plant at Rif.

So, at 9pm, it was back to base for sunset over the harbour and the best fresh haddock I've ever tasted. And now, heck, I must get back to a mountain of work. Next blogstop: Stykissholmur.

Monday 15 August 2011

Lake creatures

There's a not too contrived link to be made between Dvorak's Rusalka, which I saw at Glyndebourne for the second time yesterday following on from my pre-performance talk, and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, which you can hear in anything but its entirety (more anon) conducted by Gergiev at the Proms tonight. The photos are by Alastair Muir for Glyndebourne and Natasha Razina for the Mariinsky.

I was lucky to be able to play to the punters yesterday a hard-to-find recorded snippet* of the reconstructed duet from Tchaikovsky's discarded opera Undine which he used again as the great lakeside Pas d'action of his first ballet (and aptly; Odette, though originally a mortal maiden, is a transfigured creature of the lake whose prince betrays her, in this case with a black-swan decoy). The source is very similar to Dvorak's: a very poignant adaptation of the Melusine legend by De La Motte Fouque. His Undine spawned a whole host of forgotten or rarely-revived operas, starting with Hoffmann's (he of Offenbach's tales - composer as well as poet) in 1816.

It was fun to play the audience, as I partly did two years ago, snippets of water-nymph music more familiar in other contexts - not just Tchaikovsky's but also Mendelssohn's - his Fair Melusine Overture unquestionably influenced Wagner - and Offenbach's (the overture to Die Rheinnixen became the most celebrated of all Barcarolles). I also played them Mackerras's arrangement of Sullivan's Iolanthe music in Pineapple Poll, and asked them to guess the composer. The suggestions were gratifying, and not unreasonable: Wagner? Janacek? Mahler? No-one got it, though one lady who'd loved Sasha Regan's all-male production at Wilton's Music Hall production - the best thing I've seen up to this Rusalka all year - may have been too shy to speak up.

The revival was just as focused, emotional and ravishing as its predecessor. I've written a bit about this on The Arts Desk, but it will do no harm to reproduce this marvellous photo of Rusalka in extremis with her handsome, love-death-seeking Prince; Dina Kuznetsova made the role her very individual own, while Pavel Cernoch stole AND broke hearts with looks and tenderest singing in that greatest of final scenes.

And let's not forget the Wood Nymphs with their bark-rustling skirts and their breast-waggling, leaping dances - love the way Still introduces an element of Bacchic threat into their revels. It's all in the myths, of course, but the way she makes it real is wholly her own.

We have to see Still's Wagner Ring cycle some time soon; she'd be the perfect director for it.

And of course Glyndebourne is the ideal place for Dvorak's watery, enchanted-melancholy masterpiece. The lake looked ravishing in both intervals - here's my guest, last weekend's generous hostess Deborah, on either side. As you will have noted from one of the entries below, her own garden 'rooms' give the Christies' a run for their money, and her bronze 'world gone pear-shaped' would look splendid here (they are, in fact, introducing sculptures, but rather cautiously and with mixed success). It was also a joy to walk around with someone who knew the names of each and every plant.

What I hadn't anticipated was stepping out to retrieve the picnic box after Rusalka had sung her last over the body of her prince and being greeted by a full moon rising.

Had to stand, stare and snap at the head of the lake before it was time to pile on the bus back to Lewes. Bit of a contrast here: sharper with flash above, fuzzier but perhaps more atmospheric below without.

As for tonight, you must know that the Swan Lake Gergiev conducts is still the butchered Mariinsky version of 1894, which has always accompanied the old Sergeyev production incorporating Petipa's and Ivanov's choreography. You might have forgotten musical sorrows when dazzled by so prima a ballerina as Uliana Lopatkina, who came to London for the recent Mariinsky season. My colleague Judith Flanders on The Arts Desk was a little underwhelmed.

So tonight there'll be no sad dance of swans in Tchaikovsky's originally seamless Act 4, but two totally inappropriate interpolations by Drigo of orchestrated late piano pieces. Plus about a third of the original score cut and reordered. Knowing this, I hope, should soften the blow and help you to enjoy what there is. For full details, you'll have to read my programme notes, which can be read on the Proms website.

It will still be good to hear all this music in the concert hall, but when that's the only opportunity any of us are going to get of catching the entire score live, isn't this clinging to a mistaken tradition foolhardy?

*from an LP in the collection of that great Russophile Richard Beattie Davis, courtesy of his widow Gillian.