Monday 24 March 2014

Magdalen in March

If we’re talking about archetypal English afternoons, then I can think of nothing much more perfect than lunch in an Oxford college, a walk around the grounds in warm spring sunshine, and choral evensong in the college chapel. To paraphrase unpoetically one of Oxford’s wisest graduates, gentle reader, do not care to know/Where Russia draws his* eastern bow,/What violence is done,/Nor ask what doubtful act allows/Our freedom in this English town,/Our dining in the sun.

Last Wednesday’s freedom came courtesy of Opus Arte promoting Magdalen College Choir, starting with a CD of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu nostri. So far I’ve only dipped, but the work is a very quirky gem, celebratory or lamentatory according to what image or incident the limb of each motet conjures up. If I’m to be honest, the evensong was a mixed blessing. I like the bright, open sound the choir makes under Daniel Hyde, very much in the James O’Donnell tradition of more robust, continental style as opposed to the rather bloodless tones of our own cathedral tradition. 

I’d moaned to Philippa Howard, our cicerona, that I much prefer singing Byrd to listening to his music, and had hoped for something Victorian and vulgar in the service, but I’d forgotten what a masterpiece his Second Service is – or rather, the ideas came back as fresh as the day we first sang them on an All Saint’s Banstead cathedral course back in the 1970s. Yet in the anthem, Quomodo cantabimus (which we never performed), I had the curious sensation that the choir was singing ever so slightly sharp throughout – a much better fault than singing flat, indicative of zeal rather than torpor, but disconcerting all the same.

The rest was unalloyed pleasure. Though arriving in Oxford on a late train, I couldn’t resist speeding on foot along a favourite route from the station to Magdalen and was just in time for lunch at the Lodgings of the President, Professor David Clary. This in itself was a privilege – thought the building is nearly all Victorian, it has treasures such as the richly detailed Flemish tapestry received by one of the early Presidents for his part in arranging the match between the ill-fated Arthur, brother of the future Henry VIII, and Catherine of Aragon; both were only 15 at the time of their wedding in St Paul's. The Cathedral claims that this detail, reproduced courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalen College, represents the royal couple, though our Master's wife, who kindly gave us a tour, thought that was highly speculative.

Guests at table included former Magdalenians - if that's what they're called - John Mark Ainsley, with whom I was delighted to join in a paean to Richard Jones – JMA had just been singing in the stupendous ENO Rodelinda – and Robin Blaze, who sang from the same hymnbook on the glories of Göttingen.

I took myself off for a solitary look at the magical late 15th century cloister/quad, with its figures reproduced in the drawing of the White Witch’s stone statuary for Magdalen man C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - last seen with the wisteria in bloom, but against greyish skies - and then headed across the lawn towards Holdsworth's virtually unadorned New Building of 1733

and in front of it the plane tree planted in 1802 to commemorate the Peace of Amiens (this and other much more curious facts to be found in Peter Sager's Oxford & Cambridge: An Uncommon History, which I'm reading from cover to cover, having loved his outsider's take on East Anglia).

The college’s eccentric possession of a deer herd was much in evidence, horns being locked across the pastures. We stood, watched, chatted, then went in to evensong via the ever-impressive pre-chapel, which has all the major treasures - the misericords which start with a man's head peering between a lady's thighs, Piper's animals-report-the-nativity charmer stained glass and the sepia grisaille west window of the Last Judgment, designed by a London goldsmith in 1632, removed before the Second World War and not replaced until 1996, a project funded by two Californian former students. Looking back on my last Magdalen entry, I see I've got almost the same picture, but never mind.

JMA told me the chapel resonates – the G spot, as it were – to B major, for which Francis Jackson catered in the final ‘Amen’ of his canticles. 

After the service I wove my way along the seclusion of New College Lane, skirting Magdalen and New until the back of All Souls came into view with Hawksmoor’s Gothic/Baroque twin towers in silhouette

then shining in the late afternoon sun from west of the Radcliffe Camera.

And the cherry blossom was in full glory in front of St Mary’s on the High Street.

So back to London by 7pm to head for the Marylebone Hotel and talk to heavenly Anne Schwanewilms on Strauss, the role of whose Marschallin she now truly owns. We had a full 95 minutes’ conversation, during which she left me in no doubt that she’s the funniest as well as the wisest soprano I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Some of her comic mannerisms even reminded me of Carole Lombard, another beautiful woman with an earthy streak. Photo below by Javier del Real.

A shame the impersonations of a certain conductor weren’t filmed as well as sound-recorded; I wonder how I’ll transcribe them for the Arts Desk Q&A, due to appear just before her Barbican concert appearance with Sarah Connolly, Lucy Crowe and Mark Elder conducting the LSO (Rosenkavalier excerpts only, alas, but don’t miss them). La Schwanewilms was here for another Wigmore recital, which I went to hear the following evening but didn't review simply because most of the programme was the same as the one I'd covered back in December 2011; even so, her spellbinding narrative skills proved hair-raising in Liszt's 'Die Loreley' and achingly sorrowful in Mahler's 'Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen'.

Much on my mind at the time of the interview was Die Frau ohne Schatten, that extraordinarily hard-to-stage fairy tale creation of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. Anne compared the two productions in which she’d appeared as the Empress – central to Christof Loy’s magic-free psychological study at Salzburg, which she bought though some of her friends didn’t, and coping at the Met with sets so tricky that they sent her to hospital on one occasion in the late Herbert Wernicke's resurrected show: that yielded pretty pictures, she said, into which the singers had to fit as best they could. She came a cropper several times on her mirrored glass slope, pictured below, and on one of those occasions had to make a visit to a New York hospital.

Claus Guth’s Royal Opera production, previously seen at La Scala, strikes a miraculous halfway house between psychoanalytic probing and the supernatural. I’ve waxed lyrical about it over on the Arts Desk and hope to go again towards the end of the run. The cast is uniformly excellent, led by Emily Magee’s sympathetic Empress (pictured below with father Keikobad in another of CliveBarda’s excellent photos).

Communicating with the CBSO’s Richard Bratby about it, I thought he hit the nail on the head when he remarked that he’d never realized what a desperately sad opera it is – and that includes the apotheosis, which worked for me here as never before. I even had a dream the same night about the court-room fantasy which is one of its more extraordinary later tableaux.

As it happened, talks with two fascinating women framed the Oxford visit, making for an exceptional 24 hours. On the Tuesday evening Sioned Williams, principal harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s great soloists, came to talk – and did she just – to my City Lit class about the music she’s been commissioning for her 60th birthday year.

Such wisdom and passion here about the infinite variety of so-called ‘contemporary’ music, above all how you the artist have to find what you like and go with that, and by the same token the composer must know your own special skills and abilities (which of course is how Britten always worked). I was pleased to see Paul Patterson as one of Sioned’s invitees (her very friendly Iranian husband Ali Hosseinian, whose compatriots' music she continues to champion, was there to offer technical assistance, too).

I wish I’d recorded it all – but Sioned, who had been ill and thus wasn’t able to bring her harp this time, will be back in September close to her special anniversary concerts. I’m relieved to say that her home remortgaging to pay for the commissions will now be partly offset by a grant from the Park Lane Group.

*I'm afraid Putin's lies and macho posturing have forfeited the feminine article of Mother Russia, but it was ever thus. The poem, of course, is my favourite, 'A Summer Night' by W H Auden.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Arson bad, donuts good

Plunged recently into the alternating sweet and nightmarish American cityscapes of novelist A. M. Homes. Love her worlds or hate them - some are more extreme than others and, having been compelled to buy the entire oeuvre, J had to chuck the novella about a paedophile cannibal in the bin before it made him throw up - they're a racy read. The two I chose to follow in hot pursuit were the terrifying Music for Torching and the redemptive This Book Will Save Your Life.

I sense that by writing This Book... after Music for Torching Homes wanted to follow bad with good rather than present both facets in one volume, as Philip Roth does so devastatingly in American Pastoral. Here's another writer it was high time I started to read, and Simon Winder's declaration in the wonderful Danubia that Roth (Philip rather than Joseph, which might have been more appropriate for the context) was his own favourite author seemed like a good enough recommendation. Protagonist of this amazing Pulitzer Prize winner is Swede Levov, a genuinely nice guy and not even as limited as his sporting background and successful working life as family business heir might suggest. He's tolerant, liberal and utterly supportive to his only daughter. Yet it is she who, by one appalling action, 'transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral - into the indigenous American berserk.'

Most of the book is devoted to Levov's imagination working feverish overtime trying to work out where he went wrong, what he has done to deserve it. And the only enlightenment, it seems, is this:

How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everyone who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress - probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed? People were standing up everywhere, shouting 'This is me! This is me!' Every time you looked at them they stood up and told you who they were, and the truth of it was that they had no more idea of who or what they were than he had. They believed their flashing signs too. They ought to be standing up and shouting, 'This isn't me! This isn't me!' They would if they had any decency. 'This isn't me!' Then you might know how to proceed through the flashing bullshit of this world.

Married couple Paul and Elaine in Homes' Music for Torching have no idea how to proceed through 'the flashing bullshit of this world' either, though it's not because they're too nice. They're falling apart, and the novel begins, as it were, with the denouement, which comes in the first chapter where Elaine kicks over the barbecue grill and sets fire to the house (no spoiler notice needed here. Homes pictured below by David Shankbone).

Where is the novel to go from here? Can this pair get any worse, give each other any more pain in their Strindbergian hell? Strictly, no, though the damage to the kids moves on apace and mostly unnoticed. Once in a while, they unexpectedly inspire pity and tenderness in us and in each other:

For the moment they are fantasies of themselves, their very best selves, the people they'd like to be, and then just a minute later they are once again their more familiar selves - petty, boring, limited.

Why doesn't either escape, get out of there? Homes' answer is that this is the only reality they know, even if it's hell and they are in it:

Every day Elaine thinks of disappearing. She will leave and take nothing with her - 'You have yourself' is what people say, and that's what stops her. She fears she is nothing. Nonexistent.

So even the liberating philosophy of Shakespeare's Parolles - 'simply the thing I am shall make me live' - has no validity in this modern identity crisis.

How on earth, then, to finish? Homes' solution is stagey, unconvincing (to me, at any rate), as if she just didn't know what to do: a consequence of the odd and, initially, daring structure. Roth, I think, has parallel problems. We observe 'the Swede' throughout the first part of the novel through an old school acquaintance,  a familiar Roth alter ego (the author pictured below in 1973).

Who then disappears, leaving the author to retrace steps or rather go round in circles until we're stuck at a particular point in Levov's unhappy story where even more is about to go wrong. We know he survives it all outwardly because we've been told. But the ending towards the conclusion of a disastrous dinner party feels oddly inconclusive*.

Homes' This Book... follows a more comfortable trajectory, about a man in mid-life crisis who really does turn his world around with an honesty that would seem to have been alien to him up to the point at which the novel properly begins. Is it all too good to be true? Well, it's leavened with humour, irony and a surprisingly affectionate - when not scabrous - view of Los Angeles' looking-glass world. There's an unforgettable scene in which a horse gets stuck in a Beverly Hills sinkhole and has to be airlifted by the helicopter of a friendly neighbourhood movie star.

The arrivals on the scene of a housewife in meltdown and a reclusive Malibu writer warm the heart-cockles in an unexpected way; the hero's reunion with his son has 'feelgood movie rights' written all over it. Yet the exercise remains virtuosic, the unputdownable Homes pacy dialogue just as good as in Music for Torching, and above all it's creative donut shop owner Anhil who remains the good-angel constant. And that last photo? Well, we know that the French are turning against their own cuisine and so 'Les donuts, c'est la vie ' ought not to be too much of a surprise in central Lyon. Needless to say I didn't go in and buy one, but hived off to a patisserie in a sidestreet where I consumed...cannoli.

*With reason, it now turns out: see Sue Scheid's comment below.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Antinoöpolitan trousers

If I have my way, they'll be MY Antinoöpolitan trousers, to be based on the above cotton-and-flax pattern of little roundels with winged horses. It's one of many astonishing Coptic-Roman fabric survivals brought to light on the 13 expeditions to ancient Antinoöpolis, the city founded by Hadrian in memory of his beloved beauty Antinous and more elegantly known as Antonoé in French, under the command of Albert Gayet between 1897 and 1908. Our dear friend Cressida Bell, designer of my prized dressing gown, won't do it as the artwork has to be her own. But wouldn't the jambières look splendid, to judge from the model wearing them behind 'Thaïs' (explanation below) in this leading image for the Musée des Tissus in Lyon, which has just held the most spectacular exhibition of the finds. I don't have credits for all the images, which I think are without exception publicity for the show, though I assume the below is, like the above, by Pierre Verrier.

Returning to the great museum, which we saw on our first visit to Lyon, and discovering this exhibition was serendipitous. It happened to be round the corner from where I'd had my lunch interview with the great violinist Vadim Repin, reason for the visit. I thought I'd look at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in the same mansion, not having seen it first time round, and asked if there was a special ticket. No, said the incredibly friendly and helpful people at the desk, only a combined one, but when I mentioned how much I'd loved the Coptic fish tapestry in the Tissus, they told me there was a companion piece and much, much more in the exhibition. This still remains the absolute highlight of my four visits to the fabulous French city.

Having just walked round the Viking exhibition at the British Museum, private view last night courtesy of the diplo-mate, I was reminded how selective a view we have of the ancients according to what's survived - for example, I'd love to know if the fierce Norsemen had tattoos, and if so, what they looked like. At least we know they filed and probably dyed their front teeth to look terrible in battle. But the dry middle Eastern climate has preserved not only those sensational encaustic Fayum portraits which are the first painted great ones of their kind (the only labelled specimen from Gayet's expeditions pictured below),

but also the formal and everyday wear of well-to-do Roman Egyptians. Much needs reconstructing, and the Musée des Tissus has done just that with its photographed models,

but the scraps - sometimes more - give an incredible impression of what those people wore. Needless to say I was hooked by the garments of the lady called Thaïs, who may well have been the legendary courtesan - Gayet's sponsor Eduard Guimet certainly liked to think so, as Massenet's heroine was then popular at the Paris Opéra - and above all by the mythological scenes on the shawl belonging to one Sabina, perhaps the most extensive masterwork in the exhibition. Then there were the embroidered slippers.

The last room has three climactic offerings - fabric-wrapped mummies, with hair intact, of three officials including this fonctionnaire à la pourpre (translation, anyone?)

Very well, three mummies may not be as gobsmacking as the largest of all Viking ships, with modern Danish craftsmanship recreating the entire frame, which greets you in the last room of the new exhibition space at the British Museum, but it was an impressively designed way to finish. I have a great deal of digesting to do, as I bought the lavish catalogue, and my French is halting.

The 24 hours in Lyon passed very pleasantly. I went back to my old hotel near the Opéra in the Presqu'ile between the Rhône and the Saône, the very quiet Grand Hotel des Terreaux which I warmly recommend, now rather over-designed but calm and intimate still (even if it's weird to have breakfast in the chlorine-smelling, humid room with the swimming pool). I arrived via the tram from the airport, walking from Part Dieu to the Terreaux, and hit quite by accident the new Les Halles de Lyon, which you'd have to go out of your way to find: shame they knocked the old glass building down in crazy redevelopment in the 1960s, but the smells and the swishness were impressive.

I remedied the bad impression gained from walking down the central Rue Auguste-Comte last time I was here and finding it full of fast-food joints by exploring the parallel streets in the grid plan, full of boucheries, boulangeries and patisseries probably cheaper than the chain names.

I didn't have a great meal this time in the food capital of France, just a good one, but have earmarked places to visit on return. Here are Vadim and I after lunch in his hotel brasserie, photo taken on his phone by the very nice waitress.

Downpours arrived after that, which made the museum a good choice, but my morning stroll took in the usual views. The Place des Jacobins

and the main square, the Place Bellecour, with the not very lovely Notre-Dame de Fourvière on the hill near the Roman remains across the Saône and the statue of Louis XIV by Lemot in the foreground

and the big wheel at the other end.

After the exhibition, I worked my way back in the pouring rain via a patisserie selling superb cannoli, the Romanesque St Martin-d'Ainay, closed by late afternoon

and an alternative route through Vieux Lyon, accidentally stumbling across the hotel which Vadim told me made the best madeleines (he'd admired my Proust watch). But the receptionist shook her head blankly when I asked, so it was back to tea in the hotel before the tram to the airport and a two-hour-delayed late flight). I'm looking forward very much to returning in April.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Five weeks with Priam

At times it felt like ten years before the walls of Troy. And out of over 100 operas, some of them repeated, that I've covered in my opera course over 25 years at the City Literary Institute, only Tippett's King Priam along with Beethoven's Fidelio - my own personal blind spot - made me glad I'd finished with them.

King Priam is not an easy opera to love, nor does Tippett ever try to make it so. Up to a point, I understand his intention: to write music of thorny, embattled combat for a more relaxed age (not that 1962, the year of my birth, was that relaxed) having written an opera of exuberant lyricism for the tense postwar era (The Midsummer Marriage). But there are moments of supposed transcendence - as when Achilles yearns for his homeland, or when Hermes sings first that we should feel 'the pity and the terror as Priam dies', then of 'divine music' to 'melt our hearts, renew our love' - where the actual musical substance still doesn't yield what the text promises. Flute and harp do not the sublime create if the idea still isn't on the level of what, say, Britten would have made of it.

The other problem is that the vocal lines are so relentlessly declamatory that it's not just the singers who tire of them: while the guitar writing for Achilles' meditation is fascinating (shameless and not very good painting of Achilles and Priam above, not worth crediting the French artist), the vocal line is not. I pitied the poor young tenor having to grapple with that in English Touring Opera's disastrous-from-the-start staging the other week.

On the other hand, if any opera stars could convince us of Priam's vocal worth, it would be the line-up on David Atherton's incandescent Decca recording with the London Sinfonietta (now on Chandos). What a vintage this was: a team led by Norman Bailey, my all-time favourite bass-baritone, in which a youngish Philip Langridge and Ann Murray, sounding gorgeous, especially shine and in which Heather Harper, Felicity Palmer, Thomas Allen and Robert Tear all sound very much their own distinguished selves.

And it was certainly a relief to get back to the recording after the poor live experience - though that too had its revelations: the women were superb, and the Andromache, Camilla Roberts, a possible future star (pictured in the foreground seated below; above, bad hat and make-up day, both images by Sim Canetty-Clark).

Atherton grabs you by the throat with the trumpet fanfares, timpani rattles and choral howls at the start (all properly placed, as they were so ridiculously not in the Linbury). The instrumental groupings are always fascinating. But again I'm not always convinced by what Tippett does with them. And structure-wise, there are fascinations - above all the strings-free, short 'war' act - but, while the middle of Act Three is gripping, ultimately it feels a quarter of an hour too long. Somehow the old Kent Opera production by Nicholas Hytner, the only one on DVD, is more companionable. And Omar Ebrahim, pictured as Hector below with the young Paris his brother, was rather delectable in those days (a couple of students even rather fancied Rodney Macann's Priam shirtless, a silver-fox fantasy perhaps).

And that, Tippett operas-wise, is as far as we'll be going in the class: to me, it's a law of diminishing returns with The Knot Garden, The Ice Break and New Year, though admirers say I should try harder. I do love the Piano Concerto, the first two symphonies and the piano sonatas - looking forward to Steven Osborne playing the Second and Third - while I want to get to know the string quartets. Mastery, yes; genius, only sometimes. But I'll keep my Priam score for the singularity of the instrumentation. As far as the class goes, we're now liberating ourselves with the intoxicating panache of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini.

A family at war is the starting point for Richard Jones's dazzling production of Handel's Rodelinda at English National Opera. I've already waxed indecently lyrical about it for The Arts Desk, but this is the opportunity to use some more of Clive Barda's fine photos of the pre-dress (I hope to go again before the short run ends). Jones deals well with Handel's slow kindle in Act One - like most Handel first acts, low on inspiration - but rises to match the greatness in the duet at the end of the Second Act, which like the staging of a third-act lament is one of the most startling things I've ever witnessed in the theatre. This gives you some idea of the ultimate tableau, John Mark Ainsley's vacillating mobster standing statue-like between the separated husband and wife.

Rebecca Evans is Iestyn Davies' equal for vocal beauty and prowess: what a transformation into an Anna Magnani strong woman. Barda's money shot, IMO, is the one I used to lead the TAD review, but this is a good one. Christopher Ainslie as a long-suffering servant is to the left, the charismatic and attractive young actor Matt Casey as her son to the right. Love the hands (some, like my erstwhile Arts Desk colleague Igor Toronyi-Lalic, did not).

Here's the bar where the soda waters flow, Iestyn Davies centre with Ainslie left and Sue Bickley right.

And a hint of the berserk - which is to be a topic here soon in an American context - as Ainsley's capo tries every which way to despatch his enemy.

It's funnier than it looks. Some reviews thought Jones's concept too jokey, some too dark. I reckon the genius lies in the risk-taking flip between one and the other. It's neither more nor less than Handel's fitfully inspired score deserves. But go and see it, do.

Meanwhile, there's also a certain comedy amidst the horror to the Russian abuse of language in the present standoff: Putin is the defender of the Russians against the 'fascists' - a fair number of those on both sides, though probably Russia scores rather higher than Ukraine - and 'anti-semites'. He represents 'humanitarian values' and human rights. Ponyatno/Yeah, right. And of course there are no Russian troops in the Crimea, even though a BBC World Service reporter had confirmation from a young soldier that he was officially representing his country, and personally didn't think it was right. How Lavrov will worm out of this, how it will all be resolved, makes the mind boggle and the soul despair.