Monday 31 October 2011

Sibelius's 'Virgin' Symphony?

We’re talking not any of those Kalevala maidens from Luonnotar to Aino, depicted above evading old man Väinämöinen in an early triptych by Sibelius’s friend and contemporary Akseli Gallen-Kallela, but the BVM, no less.

The news was broken to me by that nice BBC man Mark Lowther, bounding up enthusiastically at the interval of Friday night’s concert (which I was reviewing for The Arts Desk, but had been determined to catch under any circumstances). Had I heard what conductor Sakari Oramo had to say about new research on the Sibelius Third Symphony, in which he was about to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra? I hadn’t, but Mark gave me the gist and I caught Oramo succinctly mentioning it again in the broadcast between Luonnotar and the symphony.

In short, says Oramo, ‘this music or material of it was originally part of an oratorio project about the Virgin Mary, and you can I think relate to a lot of this music thinking it has a religious – albeit it is a pagan-religious or folk-religious – background, and I think this explains a lot of the chorale textures, it explains the nature of the final hymn.’

Indeed – hurrah for ongoing Finnish scholarship, and how frustrating that unless we master that impossible language, the rest of us are shut out from the more interesting developments until someone like Oramo draws our attention to it. Anyway, that’s enough to justify inclusion of a couple of images from the Barbara altarpiece by the north German Master Francke, which resided in the church in Kalanti from about 1410 to 1883 and is now in Helsinki’s National Museum of Finland.

Not that the news changes the essential character of the symphony, which has the feeling of a journey like the earlier ones in the Lemminkäinen Suite and En Saga. But how difficult to put one’s finger on what makes this music strike so profoundly, apart from its deep-wired structural surprises (what an amazing solution to let the chorale out of the bag in the finale when he does). I found myself in tears minutes into the second movement, which for swathes does little more than oscillate around an intermezzo-like, runic melody. Järvi's Gothenburg performance is one of the few to capture the same sort of inscaped magic.

I’d been in a gloomy mood all week, mostly triggered by ongoing dental surgery, and this lifted me completely as Chailly’s Beethoven on Wednesday couldn’t.

Same goes for Luonnotar, the Finnish creation myth as adapted from the Kalevala, and illustrated above and below by Gallen-Kallela. The depicted stanzas deal with Luonnotar/Ilmatar’s floating on the water and her raising of a knee for a teal to nest on.

From the teal’s egg are fashioned the solid earth, the lofty arch of heaven, the sun (its yolk), the moon (its white) and the stars (its speckled shell). I’ve written enough already in the Arts Desk piece about the BBCSO/Oramo partnership with the wonderful Mrs. O., Anu Komsi, who’s previously dazzled us with twin Piia in Salonen’s Wing on Wing. There’s communication for you. Mattila amid wavescapes will do here (be patient with the opening soundtrack, which fades before the music begins), but Friday night's performance was even more extraordinary, and the communication cried out to be seen as well as heard.

Komsi WAS the Virgin of the Air cast plaintively upon the waters, and earlier she even convinced me that there might be more to Saariaho than what so briefly tickles the ear: here was substance as well as texture. But of course it’s Sibelius who still sounds freshest and continues to give perhaps the greatest spiritual sustenance of any composer I know. I still count those four hours spent last March at his home of Ainola (pictured again below - this of course is where he composed the Third Symphony), prompting four entries starting with this one, as among the most impression-filled of my life. And Sibelius's unflagging genius - the miniatures are as individual as the compressed epics - has come to feel like the strongest of all musical companions through life.

Saturday 29 October 2011

In mycological mood

I thought better of calling this post 'the fruits of hidden sex' (though no doubt some sad searcher may still be disappointed as a result of my still managing to slip the line in here). The mushroom itself is, forgive the mixed metaphor, the tip of the iceberg, like the wonderful if hallucinogenic (I'm told) fly agaric fungi posing picturesquely on the edge of the drive to our dear friends' residence of Chapelgill, Broughton, in the Scottish Borders. Very near them is the world's first cryptogamic sanctuary, established in the Heron Wood of Dawyck Botanic Gardens with beech

and Scots pine now seeming as much at home as the native oak and holly. My Collins dictionary leaves 'cryptogam' at 'any organism that does not produce seeds, including algae, fungi, mosses and ferns', but we're talking sex, the vast underground network of decay-speeding and new lifing of which the mushrooms are the brief visible manifestation.

And this was a deceptively early autumn flourish, at the very beginning of September, after which of course we returned to late-summer heat and dryness. Dawyck is the place for what it calls 'a dynamic community of native mosses, lichens and liverworts'

many of which flourish on the stonework around the garden.

But Heron Wood feels like a place apart. About a third of the garden's 1,055 species of fungi* are to be found here, and on our September visit we could well believe it.

I've since had it confirmed that this is the tasty Boletus edulis, certainly a bolete.

Yet even if my mycological studies were to continue, I'd never trust myself to distinguish the edible from the poisonous - remembering especially an incident on Samos last autumn when our Polish friend Lydia identified a rare, delicious specimen only to be told by a local Greek lady that it was deadly. She thought this might be to discourage furrin pickers, but we weren't going to take the risk.

Anyway all you'd get from Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric, would be quite a trip. That too I'm not hazarding. But very pretty they looked too, flourishing under the beeches on the hillside in Broughton, ignoring the farmer's fencing.

After this I was keen to join the 'fungal foray' at Kew on 18 October, but it was booked out twice over. I can't praise Kew too highly, though, for responding so rapidly to my requests yesterday, when I decided to take an excursion in search of the yellowish coral fungus named there by George Massee in 1896. Clavaria kewensis is now Ramaria stricta, and the information lady put me straight in touch with mycologist Dr. Bryn Dettinger. While waiting the return of Martn Ainsworth, he confirmed my bolete and told me he'd seen a clump of Ramaria stricta on the east side of the Banks Building.

The trouble with that is that it's strictly private and punters can't get anywhere near the east side. Never mind; here's a Wiki shot of the fabulous beast to show what I missed.

That said, no visit to Kew is ever wasted. I didn't see a single fungus anywhere, and believe me, I looked. But I did come across one of the autumn glories, the Italian maple, Acer opalus, looking splendid both without

and from within.

The ubiquitous parrots along the Thames were flagrantly displaying themselves nearby; whatever the damage to treetops, who could resist that flash of green?

Sundry other maples were doing their stuff

and Aesculus flava, the sweet buckeye, provided more perspectives from within.

It was curious to walk around the woodland in the semi-darkness before closing time at 6pm. Geese, ducks and other woodland birds had truly taken over the gardens. But the fungi's above-ground flourishings all, it seems, were gone. Next time I need a reliable guide.

*Kew boasts around 2,750 including lichens. Its magazine article continues: 'To put the figures into context, there are around 2,100 native flowering plant and fern species in the UK, and around six to seven times as many fungi. It is this ration (developed by David Hawksworth) that underpins the now generally accepted figure of around 1.5 million fungal species estimated to live on Earth'.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Glyndebourne: autumn chats

Two visits on two very different days, to talk before the GOT (Glyndebourne on Tour) performances about two operas a little outside my comfort zone. It did me good to find more in Donizetti's score for Don Pasquale than had ever properly met my not especially attentive ear - especially when that was borne out by Enrique Mazzola's crisp, elegant conducting - and to try and find out what makes Rinaldo, Handel's first Italian opera for London, truly tick. As it does in Robert Carsen's clean, clear and often very funny production, though several folk who'd been to the talk expected me to go along with them in the intervals that the show was 'very silly'. And, of course, I disagreed.

Except, of course, that the operatic rehashing of a romantic slice from Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata is silly in the first place, and Carsen is spot-on: this is schoolboy crusader 'history', so to have it as one unfortunate pupil's fantasy works well. Especially given the director's painterly eye, his refusal to fall into the trap of chucking in too much business to fill up the da capo arias and not to trust the singers, the minimum of gags very well choreographed by Carsen's regular collaborator Philippe Giraudeau.

The reviews seem to have taken it all a bit too seriously, and not to have realised that any links with David Alden's gobsmacking ENO schoolyard production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream were purely coincidental (both were being worked on simultaneously). 'Crusaders' on bikes to give energy to the Act 1 bravura curtain, 'Venti, turbini' - now there's genius, especially as it looked rather lovely under a full moon and since counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux is good but not Iestyn-Davies-electrifying in show-off mode (Rinaldo production photos by Alastair Muir).

Loved the sirens all mincing impersonations of schoolgirl Almirena, the 'siege' of Armida's castle in a chemistry lab, the elaborately timed soccer-match battle with a globe as the ball. Laurence Cummings kept a superb orchestra moving and shapely, not always with enough space for everyone on stage to maneouvre. All the singers did a good job, but the really outstanding ones - though Isabel, my companion for the evening, smitten by Dumaux, will disagree - were Joshua Hopkins's Argante (such a tough sing, but handled with confidence and nicely decked out in his splendid if nonsensical entrance aria by three of the opera's four trumpets) and Elizabeth Watts's Almirena.

I'd prepared the punters for various takes on 'Lascia ch'io pianga', from 'classical Barbra' Streisand (which several seemed to know before I cut her mercifully short) to Cotrubas and Bartoli, with an interesting detour via the aria in the second of its two earlier homes, as 'Lascia la spina' in the 1707 cantata Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, very stylishly da capo'd by Ann Hallenberg. But la Watts surpassed them all, I reckon, in her thoughtful ornamentation. We also had a bit of a laugh in the talk with Horne and Podles in 'Venti, turbini', and I found myself being irreverent about the whole set-up - without, of course, having seen the Glyndebourne production in the main season, as had many in the audience, which is healthily irreverent, too, but not insensitive or without its moments of pathos.

The history of the Queen's Theatre Haymarket premiere 300 years ago is, in any case, absorbing in itself and could well have filled up the half-hour pre-performance talk with anecdotes from Addison and Steele. I perceived a certain irony, though I may be wrong, in Steele's observation of the castrato playing Rinaldo in 1711, Niccolo Grimaldi detto il Nicolini: 'every limb an every finger contibutes to the part, inasmuch that a deaf man may go along with him in the sense of it. There is scarcely a beautiful posture in an old statue that he does not plant himself in, as the different circumstances of the story give occasion for it'. Well, autre temps, autres moeurs, I guess. We think this is Nicolini in Marco Ricci's Rehearsal for an Opera of 1709.

Don Pasquale's creation at Paris's Theatre Italien in 1843 is no less interesting, given that three of the four main singers had created a furore in Bellini's I Puritani eight years earlier. You can well imagine the self-regarding Tamburini

being miffed that the supposed cabaletta to his first cavatina went to the buffo, Lablache, pictured below with Giulia Grisi in Puritani

and I'd love to have seen what Grisi made of Norina-as-Sofronia's celebrated persecution and slapping of her old 'husband'. There was fun enough in the spat between Ainhoa Garmendia (good, bit soubrettish) and Jonathan Veira, all you could want in a not overdone, relaxed and easy-going Pasquale (great photo by Bill Cooper).

No need to regurgitate what I've written about the show over on the Arts Desk, so let's just wind back to a sandwich by the lake on a glorious autumn afternoon just before I went off for the soundcheck, the beech trunk more visible now that the thickets by the lake have mostly moulted

and apples in the orchard glowing red in the sun

while the view from the Ebert Room seemed much as it had been back in August.

Yesterday was blustery and - eventually - wet, even if the herbaceous border that looks out over the big lawn running down to the ha-ha is still surprisingly well flowered.

It did, though, feel like the equivalent of a seaside resort out of season that we had to stand and eat our sandwiches on one of the covered levels in the second interval. But both shows were well up to Glyndebourne-in-high-summer standard.

Monday 24 October 2011

The little things

I've never read a more entertaining, laugh-out-loud 'history' book than Simon Winder's Germania. Who could not but agree with him that most of the potentates who've called the shots throughout the centuries are nothing more than a bunch of demented sociopaths (he is generous with the exceptions)? It could all have been a bit brittle and wearing, this stance, were it not for the author's likeable personality and his willingness to stick his neck out for what he loves and cares about.

Which amounts to the civic by-products of all this instability: the handsome works of art commissioned by the worst people, the way that anything lovable has a way of squeezing itself in between the lines of horrible history. To sum up 'the pleasure and vigour of the pre-1914 world', Winder chooses his favourite painting, August Macke's Walterchens Spielsachen (Little Walter's Playthings) in Frankfurt's Städel Museum. I hadn't seen it, so I had to look it up and illustrate above. Having described it well in words, Winder sums up:

There are thousands of grander, more brilliant pictures in the world, but I'd settle for Little Walter's Playthings, not least for its revolutionary role in making guinea pigs an acceptable subject for portraiture. Macke spent his entire, short life creating paintings of happiness - shops, souks, parks, parrots, beautiful hats, all in the most surprising and lovely colours. He was killed in Champagne a few weeks into the war, which of course is where the problem begins.

Not that it hadn't begun again and again before in what we now call German history. As for after, when it comes to 1933, Winder declares that 'anecdotal facetiousness has to get out of the way and simply stop'. So he does, justifying as his cut-off point the fact that all the people who made Germany such a rich and rare place to be either emigrated or were murdered. Yet I wish he'd write another book on the continuing paradoxes of post-1945 'Germania', which of course he includes tangentially via his own multiple visits.

Those are what make such seemingly unbearable earlier grimnesses such as the Thirty Years War so bracing to read about. Winder meditates on the stuffed horse of Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus he's seen in Ingolstadt's city museum. Via an hilarious meditation on the usual experience of such civic institutions, he gives us the background and tells us how Gustavus narrowly escaped death in Ingolstadt when his horse was shot from under him before finally meeting it at Lützen. Here's the aside which especially flavours the anecdote: 'This sort of lucky escape is such a common cliché of history books that it is tempting to think of a parallel version which would privilege the horse: so that later, at the Battle of Lützen, "the horse's rider was shot from over him" would be a happy and much-whinnied at outcome'.

The first of Winder's three little chapters on the Thirty Years War made me look at images of more pictures, this time by an artist I'd never heard of steeped in the horrors of that time, Sebastian Vrancx. Alas, his execution is generally less accomplished and creepy than Winder's narrative of these 'highly disturbing images of powerlessness'. But I did find one which seemed sufficiently strange and right, of monkeys and cats in military uniform.

I could go on citing the pleasures of Germania, the many books I have to read and places I need to see which Winder has so enthusiastically recommended. But I'll stop by giving his final inimitable turns of phrase to a theory which Tolstoy put more cumbersomely in his diaries. The context is praise of the Biedermeier generation, 'the first timid attempt at bourgeois civil society, a sort of limbering up for us all now just sitting in a happy pile watching television', and praise for the 'time of quiet consolidation':

Just as most Europeans after the Second World War were, if given the chance, just sitting around in family groups and buying consumer goods, so the new rulers were able to preside over a generally rather dozy population. Indeed, a parallel history of Europe could be written which viewed family life and regular work as the essential Continental motor of civilization. Then war and revolution would need to be seen by historians as startling, sick departures from that norm of a kind that require serious explanation, rather than viewing periods of gentle introversy as mere tiresome interludes before the next thrill-packed bloodbath.

Worth applying, perhaps, to film and TV. I always remember Emma Thompson asking whether that splendid Ang Lee movie Sense and Sensibility wasn't closer to life as most of us experience it than the latest thriller or gangster movie. By the same token - bearing in mind that the only TV we watch is a string of catch-up episodes on J's iPad - isn't Come Dine With Me a bit more of the essence than generic, if well acted thrillers like Spooks and Hidden, which seems to me from a non-TVcentric perspective ridiculously overpraised? At any rate, it's always pleasantly surprising to be charmed on CDWM by the likes of Bobby Davro, a character one had written off (with little knowledge or interest, it has to be said) as a complete numpty.

Saturday 22 October 2011

St Paul's: what's the problem?

If you haven't been down to Paternoster Square, you might have a rather grim, media-fed image of the Occupy London protest camp outside St Paul's. I was surprised when I went there on Wednesday to find that the neat and tidy tents were well to the left of the main entrance; the steps up to the two doors, and the entire area around Queen Anne, are completely clear, and welcome as ever was to the hordes of tourists who are now busy snapping the interlopers. When I went back yesterday evening on my way to the Hvorostovsky recital at the Barbican, the path to the side door which leads to the restaurant and shop had also been cleared.

So far, too, it seems, all is extremely well organised: the toilet facilities, the cooking area, the 'Star-Books' stall run by those against the preposterous closure of the libraries. Sure, there isn't one point being made here, and some are bound to be distinctly fuzzy; but it's an arena for ideas. I saw no hint of the off-their-heads ferals who made Parliament Square such a dodgy place to be earlier this year.

But is it safe? St Paul's, having officially told the police to clear orf from protesters who so far show no signs of making trouble, and fielding a clergy many of whom are fundamentally sympathetic, now says it has to close its doors. It didn't make a very clear case for this yesterday, only loosely citing 'health and safety' issues*. The protesters countered that they'd checked with the fire brigade, which apparently has no problem. Worse, the 'first closure since the Blitz' line kow-tows to the worst kind of Daily Mail 'national shame' mentality.

That said, it's clear that there are some potential hazards here, and the main one - that the violent fringe could hijack the cause - is certainly problematic if, as I understand it, St Paul's is liable for anything that happens on its territory. But sadly this hasn't been spelled out properly so far and the cathedral has only itself to blame for vague publicity.

Today, incidentally, you probably won't be hearing from a closed cathedral the thunderous sounds of Liszt's Prelude and Fugue on BACH on the mighty organ - the chromatic upheavals of which contributed to my being sick in the porch of Norwich Cathedral in the early 1980s. As Jessica Duchen reminds us, it's the exact 200th anniversary of the Hungarian's birth. Here he is looking across to the cumbersome facade of the Esterhazy Palace at Eisenstadt (the inscription on the other side is rather odd, claiming Liszt as foremost son of Austrian Burgenland).

And here's his Blauer Salon in Eisenstadt's splendid Landesmuseum, reassembled lock, stock and barrel from the Schottenhof in Vienna.

I really don't have any Desert Island Discs for the occasion, unless it be Arrau in the Benediction de Dieu or Margaret Price in the Petrarch Sonnets, two of which Hvorostovsky spun rather beautifully in last night's recital. Most of the rest I can take or leave - my loss, I know; but so much Chopin last year spoiled me for returning to Liszt's piano music and finding it wasn't as miraculous, under all the wrappings, as I used to find it. Postscript: but then I listen to Cziffra in the Transcendenal Etudes, and I start changing my mind again...

*I've received further clarification from the St Paul's publicity department on what these problems consist of. They list:

· Presence of unknown quantities of flammable liquids.

· Smoking/drinking within the tented areas.

· Potential gas safety within the catering facility.

· Compromised free fire exits, usually open now closed but manned.

· Slips, trips and falls exacerbated at night with cover of darkness.

· Due to the darkness issues on North side, use of naked flame lighting.

· Sleeping risk within the tented area, if fire should break out.

· Public heath issues

a Sanitation

b Food hygiene

c Rodent/pest issue

· The issues of rope/guy-lines attached to trees, bollards, lamp standards possibly causing injury to face/neck/upper limbs and trips on low level guy-lines.

· VIP security due to camp protest.

All of which I can see the point of, but two questions remain: whose land is this (one recent report suggested it was a patchwork of St Paul's, City of London and free-for-all territories)? And exactly how does this rebound on entering and using the cathedral - is the fire risk too great?

Thursday 20 October 2011

A little light ondes music

Never heard of a composer called Pierre Vellones (pictured above with Maurice Martenot in 1936)? Neither had I until Tuesday evening, when Cynthia Millar, friend and doyenne of that singular Messiaenic bird the ondes Martenot, paid my BBC Symphony Orchestra class at the City Lit a visit. I hope it doesn’t put into the shadow the magnificent light she shed on her long-standing acquaintance with the role her instrument plays in its most monumental incarnation, the Turangalila Symphony, nor all the splendid work she’s done as composer for films and TV, to say that the real revelation was a piece of light music – by Vellones.

A bit of an epoch-maker, as it turned out, since the delightfully dotty Vitamines - a precursor of a light-music piece I think is a real gem, John Malcolm’s Non Stop, better known as the old ITN news theme – was one of two pieces Vellones wrote for his friend, fellow cellist and of course inventor Maurice Martenot as early as 1935. Along with the 'Valse tzigane' Split, it featured both saxophones and the ondes as I’ve never quite heard it before, staccato rather than swoopily legato (though we did also hear a piece of music for TV Cynthia had written which emulated that approach). So here’s the Columbia a-side

pursued in more leisurely style by Split, with the ondes in more familiar mode.

These are two that, we agreed on Tuesday, the fabulous John Wilson could resuscitate with pleasure. And were we to flick back a few years, courtesy of the miracles of YouTube, we could also listen to a more serious Fantaisie Vellones wrote for ondes and piano.

It seems to me there’s almost as much mileage to be got out of the singular histories of these two grands amis as from the story of Lev Termen, the creator of the theremin.

Which is of course operated quite differently from the later ondes – by adjusting finger and arm movements in a force field. The ondes Martenot comprises a keyboard (monodic), the ribbon (ruban) in front of it threaded through a metal ring controlling portamenti and glissandi

and of course the three speakers, of which the most attractive to behold below is the palme, with its lyre-like arrangement of 24 tuned strings.

Nevertheless the artistry, especially in matter of manipulating dynamics and vibrato, makes the ondes irreplaceable by the plain old synthesizer or computer. And the same goes for the theremin. I take the liberty of reproducing another gem since one of my most treasured CDs, The Art of the Theremin, has gone walkabout. It features the great Clara Rockmore, Vilnius-born violinist pupil of Leopold Auer turned theremenist, accompanied by Nadia Reisenberg. What Rockmore achieves in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is, of course, long-breathed beyond the wildest dreams of any singer, though several friends guessed it was Callas when I played it to them source unknown.

Ultimately, though, it’s back to Messiaen. You can hear Cynthia in a double whammy at the Barbican – Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bucher conducted by Marin Alsop on 4 November, followed by the BBCSO performance of Messiaen’s Turangalila on the 5th. She’s also doing interesting experimental work at Snape Maltings with her nephew, a dubstep guru turned ambient specialist (I was really impressed with what she played us of that). But we have to end with Turangalila, and the loony tune of the ‘Joy of the Blood of the Stars’ movement, which despite its complexity and resources isn’t so very far removed from Vitamines… There are only two movements on YouTube of the amazing Prom in which Cynthia joined Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Andrew Davis and a typically gigantic National Youth Orchestra, but this will do.