Friday 30 September 2011

Sylvia, Sylvia

No, not the catchphrase demand (actually three 'Sylvia's) for diva Bills of La Gran Scena opera company, but a salute to two masterly novels by one of the most singular of all writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner. She seems to me something of a forerunner of the fabulous Hilary Mantel in her imaginative approach to historical truth; to find out more I'd have to read Summer Will Show, about the 1848 Paris uprising - next on the list - as soon as I can following After the Death of Don Juan.

But I started with what, for 1926, was contemporary subject-matter, thanks to a pointer from Richard Mabey in Beechcombings, his characteristically free-range book on British trees. The second half of Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes is set in Mabey's stamping-ground of the beech-rich Chilterns. It's the subdued spinster's sudden dash for freedom after twenty years in the suffocating household of her brother and sister-in-law. Longing after 'a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial', she's struck by the beech sprays in a bouquet put together by a London florist: 'they smelt of woods, of dark rustling woods like the wood to whose edge she came so often in the country of her autumn imagination'.

So off goes Laura - no longer diminished to 'Aunt Lolly' - to Great Mop. Her only seeming ally, dilettantish nephew Titus, turns out to be a disappointment in the new environment. His 'deep Willowes love for country sites and smells...was different in kind from hers'.

It was comfortable, it was portable, it was a reasonable appreciative appetite, a possessive and masculine love. It almost estranged her from Great Mop that he should be able to love it so well, and express his love so easily. He loved the countryside as though it were a body.

She had not loved it so. For days at a time she had been unconscious of its outward aspect, for long before she saw it she had loved it and blessed it. With no earnest but a name, a few lines and letters on a map, and a spray of beech-leaves, she had trusted the place and staked everything on her trust.

She retreats, if that's the right word,deeper into her own personal mystery, finding the local witches' sabbath and even Satan himself, who gets the big speech about woman's independence, 'very probably...quite stupid.' Even if she's sold her soul, she has her vision.

Far more pragmatic, and pungent in quite a different way, is Townsend Warner's riff on life after the supposed damnation of Mozart's and Moliere's Don Juan/Giovanni. The extra dimension here is her experience of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Dona Ana and her Ottavio seem to Juan's father, the well-meaning Don Saturno, a 'pair of elegant waxworks, one of which had a mechanism enabling her to sing as eloquently as a canary, the other incapable of saying more than Papa and Mamma'. In fact both prove more dangerous as forerunners of Fascist allies.

Townsend Warner's love of Spain is palpable in the most eloquent descriptions of sunrises and sunsets, equal to the many human sketches. The scene where she takes us inside Don Saturno's mind as he works on his Aristophanes translations is consummate, and his fate haunts the reader. The peasants are never idealised, but their bleak tenacity is mirrored in the prose. Townsend Warner describes the most admirable character, Ramon, as 'a man of certain steadfast ideas - not uncommon in that, and the ideas were nothing out of the ordinary. What made his peculiar was the steadfastness by which he lived out his creed.'

Which leads me to inflict on you a typically blunt poem on a similar theme by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose writings I revisited while preparing 'Babi Yar' for the Passenger class at the City Lit.

The photo is by Cybersky from 2009, a couple of years after I heard Yevtushenko read 'Babi Yar' before a performance of Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony in Carnegie Hall (the near-monotonous delivery struck western ears very strangely). And here is George Reavey's translation of 'Conversation with an American Writer', written in 1961. Forgive me if this system doesn't permit me to space as the poet does.

'You have courage', they tell me.
It's not true. I was never courageous.
I simply felt it unbecoming
to stoop to the cowardice of my colleagues.

I've shaken no foundations,
I simply mocked at pretense and inflation.
Wrote articles. Scribbled no denunciations.
And tried to speak all on my mind.

Yes, I defended men of talent,
branding the hacks, the would-be writers.
But this, in general, we should always do;
and yet they keep stressing my courage.

Oh, our descendants will burn with bitter shame
to remember, when punishing vile acts,
that most peculiar time, when
plain honesty was labelled 'courage'.

Now back to STW - to read more of her novels, and find out more about her extraordinary life: her political convictions and her long-term relationship with poet Valentine Ackland which made her one of the National Portrait Gallery's recent 'Gay Icons'. The style, though, is the thing, and in that only Mantel can touch her.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

11,002 virgins

Cologne has quite a monopoly there, at least on St Ursula, supposedly a Romano-British princess who arrived by boat along the Rhine in 383 (some say) with her maidenly cohorts on the return from a pilgrimage to Rome (research suggests there may have been a bit of a misreading of the number 11,000 - could be 11, could just be a virgin called Undecimilia), only to be massacred by the Huns. As for the BMV who makes up the total, there are hundreds of medieval statues of her scattered throughout the 12 romanesque churches within the city walls.

Not that you'd really think of going inside did you not know that each is a treasurehouse, for the post-war rebuilding renders most of the exteriors unprepossessing. I took the hint, while in Cologne at the weekend for an ultimately stunning Mahler 8 celebrating the Philharmonie's 25th birthday, while browsing a book on the city's many Virgin statues in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum's shop. I was also delighted to find a serendipitous link with Mahler beyond the obvious one (that he was here in 1904 to conduct the Gürzenich-Orchestra in the first performance of his Fifth Symphony; players from the same orchestra had also participated in the Krefeld premiere of the Third).

For didn't Mahler tell his pre-Alma confidante Nathalie Bauer-Lechner that the Fourth Symphony's slow-movement theme is 'the smile of St Ursula', laughing through tears? This is what he means, ineffably done by the best orchestra in the world at Lucerne and the greatest living conductor (only half the movement, unless you decide to pick up the next instalment, but the plus is that you don't have to watch Magdalena Kozena gurning her way through the song-finale; go back to von Stade on Abbado's first recording for a much better characterised mezzo version of that). Double-click on moving image as usual for the whole screen.

And don't Ursula's elftausend Jungfrauen dance to the unearthly music in the child's heaven of the Fourth's finale? That Cologne owns her is due to an early inscription at the church on the Ursulaplatz. It claims that the basilica was raised on the site where huge numbers of holy virgins had been killed, their bones discovered therein and installed in the Golden Chamber. Which, alas, was closed for restoration up to the saint's day on 21 October.

I didn't even get a proper look at the church, which was closing an hour earlier than the rest just as I got there; the warden was adamant, so I just peered up towards the east end before being shooed out. There's still a 'Bruderschaft' of St Ursula, and the place is in very good nick, so the Catholic money must be pouring in. As it is in several other well-maintained establishments. I saw out a 5pm service at St Kunibert, restoration complete as late as 1985, gazing at the reliquaries behind glass

before briefly speeding round the church prior to lock-up. There are two striking virgin shrines - a Pieta with a typically bloodied and wound-scarred Christ

and our Lady with lilies

as well as fine glass from the mid-13th century (not my photo, this one, as I was operating without flash as I always do in churches, and the camera didn't like the low light-levels).

The next lunchtime, after a wonderfully engaging interview with Markus Stenz, the delightful Bettina Schimmer indulged me in a second church trek (she's no more religious in an official sense than I, incidentally, and told me of the strange anomaly whereby her unbaptised six-year-old daughter wasn't permitted to attend religious instruction classes at school, diverse though they were). We struck out southwards to St. Maria im Kapitol, the biggest of the Romanesque 12.

It was built on a Roman temple to the Capitoline deities at the command of Plectrudis, wife of Pippin II - don't you just love those early Franconian names? - with the huge ambition of emulating the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Again, the post-war rebuild is fairly apparent, but the scale remains impressive, especially in the ambulatory around the trefoiled choir. And there are big treasures here, chiefly the wooden doors of 1065

with scenes from the life and passion of Christ, many with the paint still on them.

Modern though she looks, this Madonna of Herman-Joseph with her apple offerings dates from about 1180

and another expressive Pieta has a fine old window behind it.

Older is this (unlisted) monument on the south wall of the nave.

There's little of the Marian about St. Georg, a more intimate church further south, but like St. Maria im Kapitol it has an extraordinary crucifix at the west end

and what I presume to be a copy - because my postcard claimed that the original is in the Schnütgen Museum, which we didn't have time to see - of an even more amazing early wooden (1067) Christ on the cross above the high altar. St. Georg also has a fine Adam and Eve pillar in the porch.

As for St. Ursula, other reminders are scattered about town. St. Andreas, which I also revisited after a service, has the 15th century 'reservoir' over the sides of which, the inscription tells us, her blood is supposed to have flowed

and there's a fine statue in the cathedral, donated by a Frankfurt pastor.

That brings us back, as every walk in Cologne must, to the mighty Dom and its great west front shining in Saturday's hot late afternoon sun. How different to my first acquaintance when we stepped off an early morning train from Milan on a rainy January morning with only about £5 to last us six hours in Cologne and sat, or so I was convinced, behind Arvo Pärt in the first Sunday service of the day. I love the fact that the cathedral is open to all from 6am to 19.30 every day of the week, the true heart of the city.

Can't forget the lion on the door

nor a parting shot of that incredible situation alongside the Hauptbahnhof. A great city, which will repay many more visits; this was my third, and I've still no more than scratched the surface.

Looking for a decent city guide in Stanfords on Monday evening, I stumbled across Simon Winder's idiosyncratic meditation on Teutonic history, Germania, and found myself both laughing out loud and agreeing with what I read in the introduction. He doesn't shun the shameful era which he says is responsible for making Germany - probably Berlin excepted, now - 'a sort of Dead Zone' for all visitors other than 'those with professional reasons for being there' (like me, in this instance).

Yet Winder also reminds us that Germany is 'in many ways Britain's weird twin', 'a place without which European culture makes no sense, and for over sixty years Germans have been working strenuously to rebuild that culture in a way that, while admitting the legacy of the Third Reich, allows that earlier past to shine again.' As it does in Cologne, though again the nature of the rebuilding means that we never forget the more recent circumstances either.

Thursday 22 September 2011

High time for clemency

I'm rather arbitrarily comparing big and small here, and in the case of the small, Israel may have been the starting point but is no longer the issue (snapped that White Rabbit in Jerusalem's Mane Yehuda district two years ago, by the way - is it a Banksy?)

Obama's UN veto on Palestine strikes me as the biggest disappointment yet, on a par with his inability to intervene in the greatest horror last night, the execution of a man who remained innocent until proven guilty (what's the saw? Better twenty guilty men go free than that an innocent man should hang).

Anyway, one shouldn't be surprised about the USA's intractable association with Israel: in came a telling statistic from Peter Phillips that the Israel Philharmonic indeed gets little funding from its own government but - surprise, surprise - has most of the shortfall met by America. And don't get me wrong: I do believe that in some respects Israel remains a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. But in the areas where it so flagrantly isn't, there must be room for self-examination and not just the kneejerk assertion that anyone who says there's a serious problem must be anti-semitic. We well know, though, that no rational argument is possible here, it's been too deep wired over thousands of years.

As it happens, the Israel Philharmonic doesn't really figure any more in the case of 'the LPO four', the orchestral musicians who put their signatures to a petition in the Independent seeking the boycott of the IPO's visit to the Proms. The grey area which remains is whether it was they or the organisers of the petition who appended 'London Philharmonic Orchestra' to their names and professions. If it was the players - and this should have been properly established by due process - than an emphatic public caution from an organisation which should not have been linked with the cause was totally justified.

What remains indefensible is the decision to bar the players from all activity with the orchestra, first for nine months, now for six. Big deal. As I wrote in an email to LPO chief executive Timothy Walker yesterday - you can send one, too, to - 'a suspension, even if only for six months, is extreme, and reflects badly on nobody but the orchestral management'.

No reply as yet. Last night I was harangued by a person closely associated with the orchestra for trying to raise the issue as objectively as I could in the LPO's opening concert of the season, as if it had no place even in interval chit-chat. Anyway, I attended - some of my colleagues returned boycott for boycott - with the intention of giving the great Jurowski's latest piece of daredevil programming its due, but also of raising the peripheral issue, in my Arts Desk review, and have done just that. VJ, incidentally, did what he thought he could to plead for the players but doesn't feel beyond making his point that more is within his remit as principal conductor.

I was, of course, relieved that there were no protests in the hall, but deeply disappointed that no-one had the decency to support the players by issuing leaflets in the foyers. The gist should have been, 'enjoy the concert, but be aware of the issues' - the line taken by protesters at the BP-sponsored Trafalgar Square live screening of the Royal Opera Cendrillon. This eco-ballet, Swan Lake as parable of swans in oil, photo courtesy (I trust) of the Indymedia UK website, did not 'disrupt the event' as the site claims; it took place half an hour before curtain up.

I didn't catch the quarter-hour happening, as I arrived just before official 'curtain up'. I did, however, get a very witty and articulate leaflet. But on Wednesday there was nothing before or after the concert. That's sad.

23/9 Update: 117 signatories in a letter to the Telegraph, including Mike Leigh and Miriam Margolyes, have expressed their outrage. I don't think they've approached it from quite the right angle, but they've made their feelings known. And Timothy Walker - who still hasn't responded to my email - tells the Telegraph: 'This all became an issue when we started to receive emails and letters from supporters, a lot of whom are Jewish and felt that the players were taking an anti-Jewish position. Some said they weren't going to come to the concerts or give us any money.' Hmm - that says rather more than it should, doesn't it? And I believe two of the players in question are Jewish, so what does that make them - self-hating?

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Wingnuts adrift

After 154 episodes and approximately six months' viewing - when exactly did I pick up Series 1 and 2 in a charity shop for a fiver? - our sole addiction to the telly screen of late has come to an end. The West Wing (hence 'wingnuts' = fans) went out with a stylish whimper, and organically as ever, with the conclusion of President Josiah Bartlet's sometimes compromised but by and large pretty ideal two-term reign and his handing over of the reins to...

Can't divulge, since it was a surprise to my fellow-watcher even if I'd snuck a look at the episodes precis. Suffice it to say that part of the series' natural evolution was to find a potential Democratic successor as charismatic as Martin Sheen's lovable President, Jimmy Smits's Matt Santos - modelled, I recently read, on the speeches of a then largely unknown Barack Obama, with the emphasis shifted from black to Latino - and a Republican challenger as sympathetic as Alan Alda's Arnie Vinick. Both proved more than equal to the rest of the fabulous ensemble.

The presidential campaign is eye-opening to us barely comprehending Brits, and bears out in its twists and turns the famous 'events, dear boy' saying (or as Thucydides put it, 'the persistence of the unforeseen').

Americans would have found special pleasure in the live debate where Vinick takes up Santos's gauntlet to drop the usual format and go uninhibitedly head to head (I understand two versions were filmed, one for the west coast and one for the east; we should have had both, as well as the promised extras about the making of this episode which were not to be found, on the DVDs).

Interesting, of course, but what makes The West Wing unique is the flexibility of tone in the behind-the-scenes dialogues and developments. I thought, for instance, that the old 1930s screwball-comedy flavour had disappeared somewhere in Series Five; and yet there it was again, in an achingly funny episode based around Josh Lyman's post-campaign burnout ('Transition', superb script by Peter Noah and actor Bradley Whitford at his peak). Then the focus shifted back on my favourite of all, C.J. Cregg (the ineffable Alison Janney), with whom I'm just a little bit in romantic love, and another superb instalment, this time in the sentimental-drama mode. We also got to see Toby of the sensitive eyes again - Richard Schiff, low-key and hardly on screen for more than a few minutes in later episodes, if at all, but powerful as ever.

Loose ends are all tied up, to a point, but the last episode is no wave-farewell-to-all-you-best-loved-characters; some don't reappear, and the end of run mood is pointedly subdued. The viewer is encouraged to share in the feeling that this is how it has to be, and no regrets. True, one imagines, to how it was and how it is. And there was never a point where I felt the classic series had dated or was no longer relevant to ongoing issues. No wonder Obama, currently taking up the constant gauntlet mentioned here of taxing the millionaires, adores the show. It actually made me love America again.

Postscript: a final word from Martin Sheen, long before a seventh series was so much as a glimmer (and yes, I have a second-hand copy of the 'official' West Wing Companion covering series 1 and 2; it was a present, if you must know):

One of these only comes along in a lifetime, let's face it...Why would I want to look back? What am I going to follow this with? I may as well go and do Shakespeare in Minneapolis or something.

Given Bartlet's Lear-like attack on God at the end of series 2, that might not be a bad idea. Could one do Shakespeare's greatest tragedy in a contemporary political setting, with Sheen Martin not Michael? There's a thought.

Monday 19 September 2011

Why you must see The Passenger

It's an Auschwitz opera, but it could hardly be more responsible or unsensational in its approach. Zofia Posmysz, the Polish woman on whose novella it's based, was indeed interned in the camp and years later heard what she thought was the voice of her former tormentor in a group of German tourists on the Place de la Concorde (it wasn't, but she based her flashback technique on a 'what if?'). Mieczyslaw Weinberg, the composer, otherwise known as Moisey Vainberg, followed in his father's footsteps as a musician in Warsaw's Yiddish theatre, fled to the Soviet Union while his parents and sister were sent to the camps, and was imprisoned in the last year of Stalin's reign for 'bourgeois Jewish nationalism' (his father-in-law had been Solomon Mikhoels, whose fate he was spared only by Stalin's death).

So both had a right to such an opera. That wouldn't in itself make The Passenger great, and in the relatively cold light of twice viewing the Bregenz premiere on DVD - the first time to review for the BBC Music Magazine, the second time with a score to write a programme note - I still can't say with certainty that it is, at least by the conventional canons of operatic masterpiece status. Too much, perhaps, lives under the shadow of Weinberg's inspirational father-figure mentor Shostakovich (I argue in the programme, or rather speculate, since there's so little hard evidence, on the presence of a third voice who would certainly have been presented on a regular basis to Weinberg by Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten).

Yet what struck me especially on a second hearing was how restrained much of the musical invention is. It doesn't thrust itself on you with any false pathos; it only really breaks its leash in the impassioned love music between the imprisoned Sofia-figure, Marta, and the lover she's reunited with, Tadeusz. It places its dissonant climaxes very carefully; it makes use of a life-and-death tension between cheap music and Bach (a departure from the source). Its dramaturgical arches see the banality of evil ultimately wiped clean, or at least dwarfed into insignificance, by the voice that will never forget.

Above all it demands total integrity from its cast. Michelle Breedt, picture above right in the third of the Karl Forster photos from the Bregenz premiere, will surely be as magnificent at ENO - the eight-performance run starts tonight - as she was at Bregenz. Giselle Allen sings the other woman, originally sung by Elena Kelessidi (on the left). There are superb roles for a whole ensemble of women, whose barracks scenes remind me of the integrated acting in Sovremennik's vintage staging of Yevgenia Ginzburg's Into the Whirlwind. And David Pountney, knowing better than to exploit his recent trademark crazy crowd scenes, directs with restraint on Johan Engels's perfect set.

I'm facing tonight's UK premiere with just a little knot inside, but I know it's going to be quality work. I'm sure, too, that the opera itself will justify the five two-hour classes we're going to spend on it in my Opera in Focus course at the City Lit, starting this afternoon. Lucky that I have a full house of students willing to follow me into such arcane repertoire...

On a connected note, I spoke on the phone yesterday to Thomas Sanderling about the death, just before his 99th birthday which would have been today, of his remarkable conductor father Kurt. I needed to check some facts in my Guardian obituary, and though I gave him the option of not being disturbed, he rang me to talk about his father's last days and to read through the piece (which made me very, very nervous - needlessly, as it turned out).

Both Sanderlings have been intimately connected with Weinberg's work; the composer dedicated his Second Symphony to Sanderling Vater. Now Thomas is embarking on what he feels passionately sure IS an operatic masterpiece, Weinberg's treatment - with the same librettist, Alexander Medvedev - of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. He's going to play through scenes from the piano score to convince me. So the wonderful continuity of the musical world goes on...

Stop press, 20/9: The Passenger was, as predicted, done by ENO at the very highest level. Fret though I may about what might be the authentic voice of Weinberg, there were huge strengths throughout and, yes, the epilogue was quietly affecting. Review here on The Arts Desk. And I got to shake the venerable hand of elegant Zofia Posmysz...

Sunday 18 September 2011

A palace in Fife

Long gone were thanes and wives - remember Lady Macbeth's little ditty? - when the royals came to Falkland, starting with James II in 1453. It was Jameses IV and V who created the Frenchy Renaissance style and the south range facade with its six bays, two tiers, buttresses and roundels of Roman emperors, glimpsed here through roses of the Stuart livery (yellow and red). An 18th century tourist went so far as to call it 'the beautifullest piece of architecture in Britain'. Zounds, sir!

The east range, of similar design and again with French masonic input, is a splendid ruin.

Palace tours, courtesy of the present hereditary keeper Ninian Crichton Stuart - clearly a decent chap with a good social conscience - via the Scots National Trust, are enlivened by the very diverse group of guides (Morningside lady, chatterbox, friendly boy from local institution, ghostlike silent sitter). But the impression is of lugubriousness, offset by some interesting Jacobean beds, a high Catholic chapel and some splendid 17th century Flemish tapestries of natural scenes.

These, though, can hardly compete with the splendours of the garden proper, mostly designed by Percy Crane between 1947 and 1962 to the Crichton Stuarts' specifications. Circles of beech and oak on various levels provide welcome shade, and there's a spectacular herbaceous border running for an unbroken 180 metres. We saw it, I think, at its best, with bees, butterflies and dunnocks flitting around it.

The inner bed is not so profuse, but some of its 320 delphiniums were still in bloom in late August.

Of less visual but great historical interest is the Real Tennis Court built in 1539 for James V, older even than the one in Hampton Court.

The odd game is still played here by a local society, and barn swifts nest quite happily in the viewing gallery above the heads of chattering visitors.

Falkland itself, dominated in the 19th century by the splendidly-named Onesiphorus Tyndall Bruce, flourishes, with its monumental fountain

and numerous bridal inscriptions above the doors.

Falkland, 'most clean little town' as it was described in 1723 and remains, stays real by virtue of the former 1931 Linoleum Works, now a bag factory (paper or plastic, I'm not sure which).

You pass it on the haul up to East Lomond, highest pap of Fife at 424 metres. A climb through pollarded and then high beeches, douglas firs and out on to the heathery hills with views over the town and the north

leads eventually to the summit marker (a sudden steep ascent), accessory to an itchy sheep

and the Firth of Forth gleams to the south.

That was a short hike, but, combined with a morning walk up to Castle Law at a mere 249m, it exercised all muscles and severely taxed kneecaps on the way down. On the car drive back to friends Caroline and Alan near Abernethy, we stopped again to catch in the late afternoon sun that village's eleventh century tower, one of two in Scotland presumably based on Italian models.

and back to our fastness amid the soon-to-be-harvested fields (view from the bedroom window).

Thus, then, the last days of summer in Scotland.