Friday 28 February 2014

Oslo's civic pride

1923, 1931, 1938: these were golden years for enthroning the city/town hall as palace of the people. Stockholm, Oslo and Norwich respectively all put their edifices high on a list of priorities. All seem rather functional from a distance until you look at the extraordinary craftsmanship of the detail, which in Oslo's case wasn't actually polished until 1950, though the foundation stone was laid 19 years earlier and much of the work was done in the 1930s. There's the city hall very much at the centre of the above schools-assisted tapestry lodged in the building itself, and here are its twin towers from the nearby open space just below the Akershus Fortress.

My inadequate city booklet - Berlitz, more or less useless, should have picked up The Rough Guide to Norway in Stanford's because there wasn't one at the airport - tells me one useful thing about it, how 'detractors joke that it resembles two large blocks of brown Norwegian goat's cheese ([exte] geitost)'. Of course I had to look for images of that very produce, and the one I liked best comes from this excellent cheeseblog which gives a very flavoursome description of its making and taste. Sweet, sweet, sweet is the keynote.

Forbidding from a distance, Oslo City Hall welcomes with its details from the moment you step up to the colonnades flanking its impressive main doorway and astronomical clock. Around them are painted wood carvings of scenes from Norse mythology by Dagfin Werenskiold (1892-1977). The swans who turned into maidens on landing catch the eye first on the right.

Stripped of 20th century frocks, the Norns - not the hags of Wagner but pneumatic girls - pour water on the wounds of Yggdrasil, the tree of life.

T(h)or rides his chariot drawn by rams

while beasties populate Ragnarok, the day of destruction.

Inside, Werenskiold also sculpted more Yggdrasiliana above the fountain.

This great hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place on 10 December each year, has some of the biggest frescoes in existence, notably by Alf Rolfse and Henrik Sorensen, which celebrate labour and don't shy away from images of the Occupation.

Don't look too close, though, because while details on the fittings like the reindeer on the doors are superb,

the painting of the bigger murals is crude. Which you couldn't say of Per Krohg's impressive work in the Eastern Chamber upstairs. The wall above the east end has the imagery of bees flying from the hive (the city)

to a rosebush (nature) applied to human effort.

The vast north wall works its way from winter at one end to autumn, spring and summer in the central panel.

Higher up are images of the camp in which Krohg was interned by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Everywhere you look, outside as well as inside, the detail is impressive. A hymn to fisherman on the east wall.

And of course this is very much an active building, with rooms for state-sponsored artists at the top of the western tower and over 300 events a year including weddings/civil ceremonies held in a chamber with a pastoral Munch over the fireplace. Of course the room everyone should see in Oslo is the Munch collection in the National Gallery, including the one of the many Screams which was stolen and recovered next to the blobby faces of The Dance of Life and portrait proof that mighty Edvard didn't just paint distressed aliens.

Looking in the other direction at the room full of Norwegian landscapes and sculptures of varying quality.

The Gallery, due to move to spacious new quarters in some years' time, has impressive selections of French painters, real quality in its handful of Cezannes, Van Goghs and Gauguins. Not enough visitors turn left at the top of the stairs instead of right. Because of Oslo's minor status for centuries, there are few old masters, in fact only one absolute masterpiece, a Goya of a toreador, but the room of icons from Novgorod is a surprise.

My biggest regret, apart from the fact that weather conditions and time shortage combined meant we didn't cross over to the peninsula with the viking ship museum, was that I didn't make it to Ibsen's apartment (guided tours on the hour made it tricky given the patchwork schedule centred around the National Opera). Homage to his National Theatre and the statue outside, though, was essential.

and here in this central oblong of public space, plenty was going on - skating, with Parliament behind

and a musical Ukrainian protest.

I've already posted one picture of the Akershus Fortress, silent and empty in the snow of a freezing Sunday morning. We slowly made our way there over the ice past the old town which includes the former City Hall, a very pretty cafe and barracks-like housing.

All was silent apart from the odd crow and a tramping sentry(below; that's a tramping diplo-mate above)

until we heard bells and organ music coming from the castle chapel.

Passing the stone coat of arms on the left

and an intriguing cellar-like door with royal crown

we found a christening taking place inside the chapel (1500s with baroque accretions) to which we were welcomed, sitting on a bench alongside paper and crayons which little girls rushed up to use from time to time. Modern Norwegian dad knew how to rock his crying infant into stillness.

Pretty as the chapel undoubtedly is, Oslo Cathedral has the bigger treasures, though it isn't really the sum of its parts.

The present building was consecrated in 1697 and much done over in 1848-50, though the Gothicisation then has been reduced in favour of many of the original baroque fittings. These include the 1700 carved altarpiece,

the singular font of 1726,

the1727 organ facade which conceals a state-of-the-art instrument

and the 1699 pulpit,

not a patch on the one in Stavanger Cathedral, but with the curiosity of multiple hour-glasses to time the sermon.

What's relatively modern is well done here, too, especially the chancel windows by Emanuel Vigeland c. 1910.

That's quite enough of old Christiania for now. I'd like to explore further. My Icelandic friend Steinunn pointed out that while Reykjavík doesn't change its essential character too much between winter and summer - though I found it hauntingly empty on a Sunday afternoon in early February - Oslo is a completely different city in July and August. Hoping to return then and see much more in and around the city. In the meantime, a grotesque farewell in front of a real scream of a train in Oslo Airport's railway station.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Flexatone or musical saw?

Preparing my pre-performance talk for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's concert last night, which included Khachaturian's lumpy behemoth of a Piano Concerto, I was expecting this in the middle movement:

whereas what we got was this:

Which was a pity, because the Khachaturian concerto has only two redeeming features: its opening melody, done to death, and the novelty value of what ought to be a solo for flexatone, not musical saw. The former instrument also has notable roles in Shostakovich - The Nose, The Golden Age, Hypothetically Murdered and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (for the Schoolteacher with his Gogolian question as to whether frogs have immortal souls) - Schoenberg (unlikely - the awful Variations for Orchestra) and Křenek's Jonny spielt auf; I had the lively 'Leb'wohl, mein Schatz' foxtrot lined up for the talk but didn't use it when I realised that one tantalising soundbite of the flexatone was enough if the audience wasn't going to hear it live in the concerto. Here's Khachaturian and piano, though I believe the concerto was too difficult for him to play.

For a clear definition of the flexatone, I resorted as so often to Norman Del Mar's A Companion to the Orchestra: 'the curious penetrating whine it produces is created by rapid oscillation of two little wooden knobs at the end of thin flexible strips against the broad curving metal plate, whose curvature - and hence pitch - is controlled by the thumb.'

The distinctive rattling timbre is nothing like that of the musical saw, but at least we got something in the form of consummate saw-ist, chanteuse and actress Katharina Micada, who I'm sure is the glammy lady pictured in the unattributed Wiki image above; I checked my Russian Disc recording with Nikolai Petrov as the pianist and Khachaturian conducting, and there's nothing, only violins taking the melody. David Fanning writes in his excellent programme notes: 'The instrument [flexatone] was only patented in 1922 [the concerto was written in 1936], and there is some evidence to suggest that in the 1920s and 30s 'flexatone' may also have been used to designate the musical saw, an 'instrument' known in traditional Russian and Armenian music'.

Well, I'm not convinced, since the tone-qualities are so dissimilar. Anyway, Micada has quite a career; she was off, a player told me, to Amsterdam today. And many contemporary scores do engage the musical saw; I can see why, even if it was a bit 'pitchy' last night.

But fundamentally I didn't care, since not even the virtuosity and shading of Marc-André Hamelin (pictured above by Sim Canetty-Clarke) could redeem the boggy meanders. He does Khachaturian no favours by reviving it; at his best, the Armenian can induce hilarity and exhilaration with wildly OTT scores like Spartacus, as I found at a delirious Bolshoi Ballet performance a couple of years ago, but this is (almost) his turgid worst. Anyway, here's the second movement, actually sounding more artistic in the hands of that profound musician Boris Berezovsky. The orchestra from the Urals furnishes a proper flexatonist, answering my question as to whether any still exist, though the sound is faint: he enters 2m18s in.

Hamelin disappointed, too, in his encore by bringing out yet again his unfunny-once-heard-once distortion of Chopin's 'Minute' Waltz. I'd have loved it if he'd played even only the last third of Balakirev's original Islamey.

For this, the only first-class work on the programme, we had Casella's overblown but entertaining orchestration to begin, allowing me to cue Lezginka links in the talk. Call me callow, but I didn't stay for Osmo Vänskä's interpretation of Kalinnikov's quite interesting First Symphony because a) I didn't have to - I wasn't reviewing, b) I thought I had to get up at 6am to travel to Bordeaux, though it turned out early this morning before I set out to catch the Eurostar that I'd got the day wrong and I leave tomorrow and c) I'd heard my hero among conductors Neeme Järvi conduct a really wonderful performance with this very orchestra and I don't much care for Vänskä's slightly bullying style. If you want to hear the complete concert, it's on the BBC Radio 3 iplayer for the next six days, and the Khachaturian concerto, of all things, seems to have been selected for 'clip' status which means it may never go away.

But all this Russian/Soviet stuff is small beer compared to what's happening as Kiev goes up in flames. Shame on Putin for labelling a people tired of a dictator terrorists - though there are extremists as in any situation which has gone too far - and on Medvedev for raising the spectre of a divided Ukraine, which according to many who live there - admittedly those with western contacts - is such a distortion of the situation (and latest reports suggest help for the protesters and obstruction of the military from all parts of the country, including the east).

Maybe the time for laughing at those two is over, but it's been a good way of dealing with Sochi. Peter Tatchell, whom I'm invoking for the second time in two days, produced a neat Valentine's Day card last Friday.

Seriously, my thoughts are with the poor people of the Ukraine. I watch developments with a terrible anxiety.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Seltjarnarnes: to the lighthouse

It was light by 10am in Reykjavík but only a tourist or two seemed to be up and about on Sunday morning. I was determined to excurt in my only extended time free of the many admirably mixed events in the Dark Music Days Festival - report imminent on The Arts Desk - but had been thwarted in a desire to see the tectonic plates at Þingvellir, the site of the old Icelandic parliament which we hadn't visited in the summer of 2011: road possibly too icy, taxi too expensive. Fortunately the wonderful Hilla, aka a gem among fellow critics, Hilary Finch, who's been coming to Iceland for 30 years now, had a few recommendations, one of which was a bus to the peninsula at Seltjarnarnes.

I wanted to walk, and the extremely helpful, friendly folk at my waterfront hotel furnished a big map which would enable me to do so. Daftly, this excursion isn't in the usually dependable Rough Guide; in fact the Ness, with the lighthouse at Grótta on its northernmost tip, isn't in their city plan at all, even though Seltjarnarnes is a suburb of Reykjavík.

So I struck out for the harbour, so very different from its summertime incarnation. The wind was furious; I was glad of the reindeer-patterned hat and gloves J had bought in Oslo the previous week, even though the ear-flaps wouldn't stay down. I walked out to the jetty, with views across to Harpa and the city skyline, with what looked - and continued throughout the day to look - like a sunset or sunrise behind it.

The whalewatching kiosk was open, but would there be any takers? It seemed unlikely. Nor were any of the bars open, so I just started walking. There's a proper path for walkers, cyclists and joggers, though the impression was one of ribbon-development desolation on the left, with uniformly ugly new housing. You just have to avert your gaze and look out at the beaches, the Atlantic and the snow-capped cliffs beyond.

Soon the city is just a series of silhouettes on the far horizon,

the apartment blocks become low-level houses and signs of the seafaring past, the wrecks and the shacks, punctuate the route.

At last you're on the peninsula, with 360 degree views of nothing but sea and mountains. To my left there were fresh, even more sunsetty views - at 1pm - of the Reykjanes peninsula and the ridges beyond.

Tides mean care in crossing to the old lighthouse at Grótta

but I was clearly fine. I stepped down on to the beach, alone with the local birdlife (the area is closed to the public in the nesting season).

Eiders male and female were bobbing and making their peculiar cooing/sighing noises (I took a little film, but the sound can't be heard against the tearing of the wind). This isn't the sharpest of closeups (there's a better eider shot - mamma and babies - here) but you can see the markings well enough.

From what I can make out, Grótta is mentioned in mid-16th century accounts. A colossal storm changed the landscape dramatically in 1788. A lighthouse was built here in 1895, dismantled, rebuilt after the Second World War and soon abandoned. I understand it and the adjacent building are used as local schoolrooms. What fun to have all the marine life of the Ness at your feet.

This all felt especially desolate. I was liable to be spooked out because I was reading the latest thriller of the masterly Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, I Remember You, about a couple and their friend who go to a deserted village in the West Fjords to renovate an old house, with disastrous consequences. We'd also been talking the previous evening about angelica used in soups, when I remembered that one of the characters in the book gathers it. I think this is a dried-out remnant of angelica flower.

I did a quick circuit of Grótta,

rejoined the mainland and walked south west along the edge of the frozen inland lake, the Bakkatjörn,

gaining views across to the conical Keilir which you see very clearly en route to Reykjavík from the airport.

Whooper swans - the lazy ones who decided not to overwinter in places like Welney in Norfolk - were gaggled around the frozen lake's south-eastern corner.

And now the low-lying suburban houses reappeared and, with no sign of a bus for at least half an hour, I retraced my steps as briskly as I could back to the city centre. Which on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps because the weekend package tourists have left, was more or less deserted. I walked past the Tjörnin, where the swan and duck feeding frenzy was continuing as usual

past my favourite part of town

and up to Skólavörðustígur, the street that climbs to the cathedral. I'd had my eye on a fish place the previous day when I sat in Babalú opposite, the quirky cafe recommended by Hilla, waiting in vain to be served (the boy playing chess with his mother at the next table turned out, I think, to be the son of the waiter, who appeared after 20 minutes, by which time I had to leave for a lunchtime concert; no problem, I'd enjoyed sitting there).

The Fish Cafe's freshest cod melted in the mouth; its accompanying salad was amazingly good. And Iceland is no longer the money-sink for tourists it was when we first visited: this was lower than London prices. So to a late-afternoon nap in the hotel, then on to three more concerts to open my ears and eyes on the closing evening of the festival. I had had my vision.

On which note - vision, or not, the film Blue referenced here - 19 February can't end without my commemorating Derek Jarman's death 20 years ago today (I'm sure the gay owner of Babalú, who came to Reykjavík to marry his Icelandic boyfriend, would join me). This is more of a holding notice until I gather my thoughts together, and perhaps see the films of his I've so far missed (The Last of England and Caravaggio, chiefly). Peter Tatchell reminded me. He's written an eloquent tribute in the Huffington Post UK, which serves us nicely for now.