Friday 23 January 2015

The bitter tears of Sergey Rachmaninov


Rachmaninov at the premiere of The Miserly Knight, 11 January 1906, with I. Grizunov (the Duke), G. Baklanov (the Baron) and A. Bonachich (Albert)

How glad I am Vladimir Jurowski still believes in the most haunting of Rachmaninov's three operas, The Miserly Knight, its text adapted practically word for word from Pushkin's magnificent 'little tragedy' (Skupoi Ritsar in the Russian - 'covetous' may hit the mark even better than 'miserly', especially since, as I only learnt a couple of days ago, Pushkin intended seven plays for each of the deadly sins, though he only reached four. For more on the origin of this frontispiece, see further down).

Nearly a decade on from his Glyndebourne championship, Jurowski (pictured below by Chris Christodoulou) conducted an orchestrally unsurpassable performance of The Miserly Knight in Wednesday night's London Philharmonic Orchestra programme, a fascinating double bill about gold and greed with substantial excerpts from Wagner's Das Rheingold in the first half. When he recently decided to join the pre-performance talk originally to have been given by director Annabel Arden alone, I was privileged to be asked to chair the chat. That meant handing over the review to my Arts Desk colleague Matthew Wright; he got it, I think.

Talk and performance were absolutely fascinating and challenging. VJ never views things from a conventional angle, and the way he manipulates the English language to express complicated thoughts simply is a marvel. Besides, who else would have pulled off this programme? The Rheingold sequence was infinitely more satisfying than Dudamel's disastrously paced and ineptly snippeted 'Entry of the Gods into Valhalla' the other week. It had been advertised as orchestral music only, but then Jurowski realised there wasn't enough to stand by itself. He found out that Sergey Leiferkus, his Baron, towering protagonist of The Miserly Knight, had sung Alberich and it all flowed from there. Thus we got the whole of the introduction, first scene and interlude up to the Valhalla theme, with the Rhinemaidens, in Arden's semi-staging, undulating above and below the front row of choir stalls. The Woglinde, recent Guildhall graduate Natalya Romaniw, took a minute to settle, but what a voice this is - I hear a potential Sieglinde in there.

Jurowski made the score gleam and undulate, as if we were in a finer acoustic that the RFH's (when I returned in the talk to his question of doing a whole Ring with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which he'd brought up at an earlier meeting, he said they'd need a whole new construction to house it). There was perhaps a touch too much care for the descent to and ascent from Nibelheim, and the patching felt a bit conspicuous from here up to the final sequence, but the anvils - 8, said the programme; 18, said VJ; 10 came on for a bow - resonated marvellously. Nor were the gods very Wagnerian-divine, but it was good to have the Rhinemaidens at the back rather than offstage, chilling the blood. And yes, we got six harps.

The Rachmaninov was, by contrast, impassioned, absolutely sure in every gesture - having played for the Glyndebourne 2004 production, the LPO still seems to have the music in its blood - and enshrined the most magnificent monologue in the operatic world from a still-untiring Leiferkus (there was a point a couple of years ago where I thought the voice was worn out, but little sign of that here). Annabel's finest touch was to find, unforced, a second role for the singer-actresses portraying Wagner's Rhinemaidens, as young Norns hovering above the Baron - especially valid since, as she pointed out, Russian abstractions like Death and Fate are feminine. The three made it work chillingly well.

We also spoke of how Rachmaninov takes a leaf out of Wagner in his slow-burn crescendos. There are two, the biggest, which seems to go on for ever before imploding, when the Baron, Bluebeard-like, lights candles and opens his six jewel-caskets. But the one with the more poetry to go with it is perhaps the more haunting in both music and text. Thus James E Falen's translation, preserving the Shakespearean iambic pentameters of Pushkin's original:

Ah yes! If all the tears, the blood and sweat
That men have shed for such a hoard as this
Should suddenly gush forth from out the earth,
There'd be a second flood - and I'd be drowned
Inside my trusty vaults.

As luck would have it, the fourth instalment of the Glyndebourne film downloaded to YouTube - I don't know for how long (and I'd urge you to buy the DVD, which is beautifully presented) - starts at exactly this point. So you can hear how Rachmaninov develops the extraordinary four-note ostinato of the third movement from his Suite No. 1 for two pianos, 'Tears' ('Slyozi'). This in turn derives from the bells of Novgorod, which haunted Rachmaninov from childhood. So that comes first here in the partnership of Nikolay Lugansky and Vadim Rudenko - my CD benchmark is Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovitch - and is followed by Leiferkus in the middle of Scene 2. Arden's production has the masterstroke of an aerialist, Matilda Leyser (now married to Phelim McDermott, Annabel told me), who scared the life out of me with her big eyes, as the fateful spirit of avarice.

Pushkin's monologue is great in itself: I've determined to learn it in Russian, as I started to learn Pimen's speech from Boris Godunov; let's see if I can get further this time  (Russians always appreciate you quoting some Pushkin - J can impress with 'Shto dyen gryadushy mne gotovit' since Tchaikovsky set Lensky's lines very faithfully). I'd also like to do my own translation and I've just discovered these illustrations for the Little Tragedies by a talented young artist, Ievgen Kharuk - very much in the tradition of Russian book illustration (though Ievgen is from Kiev, more power to his pen). Note the key motif from The Miserly Knight on the cover for all four works.

Look at more of his work here. It should, of course, be published. On which note, it saddens but doesn't surprise me to learn of the latest philistinism to dog the better part of Putin's Russia: the great publications known as 'thick' journals, a glory of the Russian intelligentsia even in Soviet times, are in danger of extinction and the dangerous fraud who's supposed to be the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky (the one who said Tchaikovsky wasn't gay - see the footnote here - and who went on to even greater glories), won't lift a finger to help

 In the meantime, the staff of Moskva, the journal which first published Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, are ploughing on this month and the next unsalaried to try and save their great institution. The Interpreter has its rigorous finger on the pulse of this as of so much else. I know, pace David Damant's comment to a recent post, that it's partial as an instrument of opposition, but it does its best to provide chapter and verse against the scandalously nebulous propaganda pouring out of Russia at the moment.

A final, not unconnected, point: a far more incriminating photo than the above from 2004, along with detailed facts, here point to why there should be an immediate end to Anna Netrebko's hit-and-miss career in the west. If she was naive to think that giving money to a Donetsk opera and theatre company to carry on had nothing to do with separatist propaganda, then she should definitely have stopped when they asked her to hold the flag. Simple equation: if you pay to see Anna Netrebko, you're funding the daily murder of civilians in a war within Ukraine's legal borders - no doubt by both sides -  which the Ukrainians did nothing to start. And as a general principle, applicable to Gergiev too, the author of the article, Julia Khodor Beloborodov of Arts Against Aggression, is surely right:

Artists and their art can stand apart from politics. However, artists who use their artistic reputations to further a political cause cannot then be allowed to hide behind that reputation and claim to not be political actors.

Anyway, Netrebko's Iolanta and Four Last Songs discs are poor. That may be beside the point, but at least I wrote about those before I knew anything about this. 

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Remembering Claudio Abbado

How could I forget? The greatest conductor of recent times died a year ago today, having given us a last decade with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra of the most extraordinary concerts I've ever experienced (Abbado in one of them pictured above by Peter Fischli). That his transcendentalism lives on is demonstrated to a remarkable degree in the Accentus Music film of the Lucerne memorial concert given on 6 April 2014.

I was very honoured to write the notes on the strength of a Guardian obit, and in one respect I had an advantage with the test pressing which the viewer won't enjoy: to experience the openings of the Berg Violin Concerto and the Adagio from Mahler's Third Symphony without voices over.

Yes, they've done the crazy thing of approaching those two performances with footage from other memorial tributes. I was very moved indeed to see the packed crowd in front of Milan's Teatro alla Scala for the Beethoven 'Eroica' funeral march conducted in Abbado's honour by Barenboim - sorry, there's just no comparison between those two - where the doors were thrown open to the wider public. Can you imagine a similar show of popular feeling for any musician in the UK? Ditto the Bologna lying-in-state for which musicians played around the clock.

Unfortunately the finished product brings on the music while all this is being shown, a terrible mistake in my opinion - especially when the Mahler finale, even without the string note gliding into the silence following the fourth movement's angelic conversation, needs the magic of its starting point.

What's invaluable in the DVD is to have the words of the wonderful Isabelle Faust, soloist in the Berg, and of veteran viola-player Wolfram Christ, testifying to Abbado's abiding presence in the orchestra, both as invisible guide while they play the first movement of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony without a replacement and in the hearts and minds of the musicians.

The musicality of Hölderlin's verses for 'Brot und Wein' as read by Bruno Ganz is spellbinding - in the booklet note I've written about my own assumptions of the connection between the lines and Abbado's spirit - and here, too, is Andris Nelsons as one of a number of younger-generation spirits who may rise to Abbado's level. Indeed, the Mahler finale has a special intensity in its perfect pacing I've only heard twice before - from Abbado himself with the Berlin Philharmonic and from Jiří Bělohlávek with the BBC Symphony. 

Boy, did we need it the evening we settled down in front of the telly. I urged it on J because we'd just watched a remarkably horrible film, Calvary

The acting, led by Brendan Gleeson (pictured above with Kerry Reilly as the priest's daughter), is perfect, the cinematography very beautiful, but 20 minutes into the mannered script (which begins with the line spoken by a parishioner in confession to the priest 'I first tasted semen at seven years old'), I began to have the horrible sensation I'd been here before. Namely in the ugly thriller In Bruges, similarly unredeemed for me in that case by the lovely Colin Farrell. Sure enough, the director and writer of Calvary, John Michael McDonagh, is the brother of the screenplay author for In Bruges, Martin McDonagh. These siblings had a very strange upbringing, which may account for the negativity of their Weltanschaaung.

Such grotesquerie might work on stage - I've not seen The Pillowman - but it's at odds with cinematic naturalism. And when you have such visual beauty from the scenes along the Sligo coast, with - I'm assuming - Yeats's Ben Bulben in the distance, how come there's no spirituality at all in the film, not a single human mixture of good and bad in the whole community? Which was why I thought we needed a spiritual dimension to wash away the nasty taste left by Calvary. And we got it, in tearful infinity, from the memorial concert.

Meanwhile, the horrors of this temporal world are never far away. Also on 20 January 2014,  street fighting in the Kiev protests was reported to have escalated. And where are we now? Still being haunted by even more horrific scenes of destruction around Donetsk airport as Russian-armed insurgents and possibly Russian forces fight on in breach of the ceasefire which, it seems, Ukraine has tried to honour. News continues to trickle in of Russian soldiers sent on 'secret' missions to Eastern Ukraine and killed in the conflict: the mother of one 20 year old has been brave enough to speak out. So Putin will continue to lie - and Hollande says he has no reason to disbelieve him?

I've read only one eye-witness account in detail - the brilliant Ukrainian Russian novelist Andrey Kurkov's Ukraine Diaries, which run from 21 November 2013 to 24 April 2014. Much of what you need to know about the complexities of the conflict is here, in startling proximity to the unfolding events.

Here's part of just one pertinent entry, from 20 February 2014. Kurkov is telling us how the then opposition leaders and radical nationalists like Pravy Sektor jumped on the spontaneously launched bandwagon. The complete paragraph seems to me like a paradigm of most revolutions.

...recently, the only way to distinguish a radical from a peaceful protestor is to see whether or not they [sic - put it down to slack translation] have a Molotov cocktail in their hand.

The protestors have already been through all the stages: from the romantic phase, where everyone thought they could achieve their aims within a few days, to a premoniition of war, with revolutionaries covering their faces with balaclavas, wielding baseball bats and  metal riot shields stolen from the police. Now we have entered a new phase, which can be summarised in five words: 'The bridges have been burned!' And many protestors on the barricades in Hrushevkoho street have removed their masks, no longer afraid to show their faces.

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Dazzling woods, stagnant lake

Here's what I want: to persuade as many of you as are interested that the new, Disney-backed film of Sondheim's Into the Woods is infinitely better than any of the lukewarm or downright vindictive reviews I've read of it would lead us to believe, and to urge you to go and see it. Derek Deane's assisted Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake for English National Ballet at the London Coliseum needs no such special pleading, but much as I enjoyed catching the first night as the guest of The Arts Desk's excellent chief ballet critic Hanna Weibye - who raved here - I have more than a few reservations about both the nature of the tradition and even the performance of prima ballerina Alina Cojocaru, my favourite Aurora but not on this evidence the greatest Odette. I know, I know, ENB is so lucky to have her, above all dancing with Ivan 'the Beautiful' Vasiliev (only picture of him below among the selection offered by  ASH for ENB), and in the past I've found her dancing peerless, but this was odd from where I sat in a good seat towards the back of the stalls.

Why? Because I couldn't see any facial expression. It was as if she'd decided Odette has been turned into a kind of mechanical doll by Rotbart (vigorously etched by James Streeter, but our villain has nothing to do other than flap his rather splendid wings). Maybe that's one way of interpreting her, but then what about the poetry of the budding love between Prince Siegfried and the swan-into-forlorn maiden (or male swan, in Matthew Bourne's heartbreaking reinvention, which would have so moved Tchaikovsky)? As Hanna remarked, Cojocaru only let her face light up once, as the Prince pledged true love towards the end of that crucial second act.

My other problem is that I'm perhaps too fixated on a tall Odette - perhaps not an option for the small but perfectly formed Vasiliev. Still, you need to know who the Swan Queen is the minute she emerges from the gaggle. I'll never forget Svetlana Zakharova's infinite, and infinitely expressive arms at the Mariinsky. Cojocaru simply doesn't stand out from the pack, not to the non-connoisseur of dance at any rate.

Cojocaru was, though, superlative as black swan Odile (apart from the dull Drigo-arranged variation where her execution made one fear for the famous multiple fouettés to come, though as it turned out there was no need to worry). Here I could read the switch between smiles and mock-sadness towards Siegfried and craftiness towards dad Rotbart's implausible egging on (and why on earth would a court tolerate those freak-henchmen of his? I know it's not meant to be realistic, but still...)

On the other hand, I couldn't take my eyes off Vasiliev. Not just because he is indeed so beautiful - part of a trio in my books that also includes Ivan Putrov and Roberto Bolle - but also because the slightest tilt of his body suggested his pain and boredom at court, his anguish in the later stages. The trouble is that apart from the leapy-leapy in the 'Black Swan' Pas de deux, Petipa and Ivanov's Prince is a mere support act. A long way indeed from the Spartacus with which Vasiliev burst upon the London scene.

I thought the corps excellent, and the four cygnets mesmerising in their leg-work; it took Hanna to explain to me how certain angles would be more perfect from the Russians, but she was impressed too.

The real poetry comes from all those waving arms, that sea of bluish-white which for me is the real treat of an old-style Swan Lake. Otherwise, Matthew Bourne's storytelling is superior as a reflection of the music at every point, especially in Act Four, so limp here.

Thankfully ENB didn't take over wholesale the Drigo-butchered score which goes with the rehabilitation of 1895: gone were those horrid Tchaikovsky piano-piece arrangements which are so alien to the world of the composer's through-composed final act. Still, the Pas de deux pretext for a borrowing from the otherwise-cut Pas de six of Act 3 does nothing for the dancers and holds up the action just as badly as Drigo's number. The score was well enough conducted by Gavin Sutherland, but clearly hampered by ridiculously slow tempi for nearly all of Odette's music (at Cojocaru's demand? I can't tell).Star for me was an oboe hero of mine, Gareth Hulse. Can't quite make out why the London Sinfonietta's top man has ended up here, but it's a quality band if a bit thin on the violins.

No such extreme musical surgery was applied to Sondheim's masterpiece of music-theatre Into the Woods - now, for me absolutely the tops of all his work for sheer integrated, clockwork perfection - in its fortunately not too Disneyfied version by Rob Marshall. Some songs are cut, though I didn't miss any except the meaningful reprise, with a very different text, of the princes' 'Agony'. Thanks to certain insistences and the guiding presence of original 'book' writer James Lapine, kids may well be disconcerted by the especially dark turn the counterpoint of stories takes in the second half: no fairy-tale happy-ever-afters here. And though I loathed in principle the idea of Sondheim's having caved in to let Rapunzel survive and not bereave the Witch too severely, in practice her riding off with her prince was probably an OK decision; there's enough death and misery around that part of the drama as it is.

None of the stage-show's sharpness has been lost. Indeed, its brilliant first quarter of an hour is paralleled by superlative filmic cross-cutting between the characters. I didn't know the names of about half the members of the great ensemble* but I was convinced by them all.

Well, not perhaps at every point by James Corden's Baker, but he does cry convincingly and he's generally simpatico. It was going to take a lot to convince me that this Baker's Wife could match up to Imelda Staunton (in Richard Jones's original London production - revisited the soundtrack over Christmas, and it's one of the best ever) and Jenna Russell at Regent's Park, but Emily Blunt is so winningly lovely and mobile of expression, and her singing is fine. As is everyone else's, though I wonder if there was a bit of help for Daniel Huttlestone as cheeky dimwit Jack in his number 'There Are Giants In The Sky', which sounded almost too good to be true for a kid.

No doubt about it, Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood is a total star. Good lord, is that Annette Crosbie in about 40 seconds of Grandma time? Not to mention Simon Russell Beale as the Baker's Father and Frances de la Tour revving her contralto register as the Giantess - luxury indeed. Jonny Depp is as surprisingly good smarming up the Wolf in 'Hello, Little Girl' as he was in his off kilter Sweeney Todd (Sondheim's favourite film adaptation until now: does this take pride of place, I wonder?)

All the acerbity of the lyrics bites through, the execution of the G&S-in-black patter song 'Your Fault' is astounding and this time I bought into the possibly oversentimental music of 'No One Is Alone' - well I remember Richard Jones telling me he thought that was a disappointing lie - because the words keep it sharp. So did the fact that we were watching it with a goddaughter who'd still been in her early teens when her mum died. 'People sometimes leave you/Halfway through the woods' is a line that always gets to me.

Perhaps I'd have liked a more active segue into the return of the opening music at the end - it's used to back some of the credits - but that's my only major criticism. Jonathan Tunick is on hand, as ever, to make sure the larger-scale film orchestrations really work (it sounded good, if as ever a bit overamplified, in the Vue Cinema on Lower Regent Street). The woods look sinister-beautiful - do I see my beloved Frithsden beeches? Must check - and the film medium fully exploits the special-effects potential of exploding beans, beanstalk, whirlwind witch, etc.

So what, finally, of Meryl Streep as the Witch, referencing her age reversal in Death Becomes Her halfway through? Sensational. '[The] Last Midnight' rises dizzyingly to its 11 o'clock number status, a sinister Ravelian waltz to set aside the 3/4s of A Little Night Music, and leaves us gasping for breath. It also, incidentally, has some of the best-set lyrics: 'You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right'. So here's one musical they got as right as the cinema ever can, and if you say 'I wasn't going to go but now I shall', then my job's well done.

*Not quite as starry as the cast of the second read-through back in 1995, when Columbia Pictures and Jim Henson were interested. Sondheim lists the names in his second volume of complete lyrics and observations, Look, I Made a Hat: Robin Williams (the Baker), Goldie Hawn (the Wife), Cher (the Witch), Carrie Fisher (Ugly Sister Lucinda), Bebe Neuwirth (Ugly Sister Florinda), Moira Kelly (Cinderella), Kyle McLachlan (Cinderella's Prince), Brendan Fraser (Rapunzel's Prince), Elijah Wood (Jack), Roseanne Barr (Jack's Mother), Danny DeVito (the Giant) and Steve Martin (the Wolf). 

Why did it come to nothing? According to Sondheim, 'because of one of those periodic shake-ups where a new platoon of executives replaces the old one, eager to throw out all projects begun before their arrival in order to demonstrate the freshness of their re-thinking'. Familiar story in all walks of life, alas.

Anyway, let's celebrate that it DID get made nearly 20 years later, and with more of the original material. I can't imagine the opening sequence being bettered.

Saturday 10 January 2015

The good person(s) of West Hampstead

I was going to call this post 'a heroine of our times', parallel to the 'hero', Desmond Tutu, then I thought Emma Thompson would scoff at the grandiosity of that. After all, in one way, the good she does is a drop in the ocean, whereas Tutu's influence is infinite. Yet I hold to the Talmudic 'he [ie anyone] who saves one life saves the world', and the below film (in two parts) of Em and her adopted son Tindy(ebwa) Agaba lifted my spirits in the dark days following the Paris massacre. I sent the link to selected friends, but want to share it with the (little) world.

Greenpeace led me to it, via a 'what did we do in 2014?' film - answer, much good - which led me to a clip of ET cooking on board the Rainbow Warrior and alongside it other recommendations. She's funny, sophisticated, self-deprecating, an impassioned speaker for her several causes and a great mixer-in. Few top Hollywood actresses seem so natural (well, there's always Meryl, I suppose). Her mannerisms also remind me of my dear late friend Nell Martin, who should have been a leading actress, so that's a reason why I often find myself on the brink of tears when I see her. Plus, of course, in addition to Tindy she has SUCH a handsome husband - the actor Greg Wise, whom she met on the set of Sense and Sensibility while rebounding from a deep depression following the end of her marriage to Kenneth Branagh - as well as a daughter and clearly values private life and normality.

Hope I have permission to use this media shot of Tindy's graduation. He is now a human rights lawyer. When he arrived in London as a refugee and spent six nights on the streets, he could hardly speak any English. I'll leave other circumstances to the film.

Actually I'm not sure what 'normal' meant to Em and sister Sophie (now an equally individual actress) as they grew up, what with dad Eric writing and voicing brand-new scripts for the French animated series Le Manège enchanté as The Magic Roundabout, laid-back winner of so many childhoods including mine, and mum Phyllida Law being both an actress and the model for the musings of TMR's glorious cow Ermintrude. Out-of-focus realness was the best I could do here.

Anyway, let the mutually adoring mother and son tell their story as filmed at the instigation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Near the end of the second part, Em makes us think about the obvious: we all have refugees in our family some time back. Heck, on my mother's side - which is the only one I know about - the first ancestor on the Parris family tree is Jean de Paris, who fled here from the St Bartholomew's Day massacres in Paris. So it goes.

Book now for ET's Mrs Lovett opposite Bryn Terfel at the ENO. I was giving Sondheim's Sweeney Todd a rest, much as I know it to be a masterpiece, but I have to make an exception here. And this gives me the cue to hymn another favourite actresses as my 'Best Actress of 2014' (with Belvoir Sydney's The Wild Duck and Phyllida Lloyd's women's prison Henry IV - scroll down this blog entry - as the top theatre productions): Juliet Stevenson in the Hamlet of women's roles, Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days. Photo by Johan Persson for the Young Vic.

Good news: if you didn't catch it then, she returns to the role at the Young Vic in February. I think the performance is rich enough to see at least twice, so I'll be back.

Come to think of it, that would be a great role for Em too. Not to mention Harriet and Lindsay, who were in the audience the night I went. How I wish I'd seen the Winnie of the great Billie Whitelaw, who died last year and who remains in my pantheon of drama goddesses I've seen on stage for her Andromache in John Barton's RSC The Greeks (so mesmerising that I went twice). Awards all round, then: cue a final clip of Em in 1996 reading what she thought would have been Jane Austen's acceptance speech on being awarded a Golden Globe for the screenplay of Ang Lee's superlative Sense and Sensibility.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Le cas Voltaire

Nothing can be expressed about the 'executions' in the Charlie Hebdo headquarters beyond horror and revulsion, but the ramifications of what happens next are thousandfold. I heard that folk at the French Institute today were in shock and tearful mourning; many of them had grown up familiar with the work of several of the murdered cartoonists, and felt that with their deaths went part of themselves. Of the thousands of outpourings, I was struck afresh when our beloved Sophie quoted a French journalist citing lines attributed to Voltaire: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it'.

The first point here is probably trivial, but the fact is that Voltaire didn't put it in those words: that was how a 1907 book by one Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire, summed up Voltaire's attitude to the state burning of a controversial book by the philosopher Helvétius. What he actually said, which doesn't begin to do justice to the present situation, was, 'so much fuss about an omelette!'. Anyhow, it was instructive to learn of the circumstances.

More troubling is an article by Brendan O'Neill in Spiked, which points out how the lawyer of the radical Muslim men tried in Luton back in 2010 for verbally abusing soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan  invoked that very phrase in their defence. Five of the seven were found guilty and fined £500 each with a conditional discharge, so Voltaire's tenet wasn't accepted. Certainly O'Neill's points about the west's forgetting Voltaire at its un- or dis-enlightened peril are rich and troubling food for thought, though I don't agree with them all. After all, European societies' hypocrisies are nothing compared to the wholesale pursuit of bloody revenge which is such a mass psychosis in the world today.

I'm still not comfortable enough with the question of spoofing Mohammed to declare 'je suis Charlie Hebdo' (I know, I'm being too literal there). But I do embrace this truth with all my heart (and a question mark about the slaver), courtesy of  Index on Censorship.

Here is probably not the best place to reinforce what I wrote in the comments to the previous thread, since master musicologist Michael Kennedy's death at the age of 88 on 31 December was relatively peaceful and natural. Still, a sombre time seems appropriate to voicing something of my feelings. How I admired that man. His biography of Barbirolli was the first I ever read about a musician, since it was one of the few in my grammar school library that stood out when I first went there at the age of 11. And his Master Musicians study of Richard Strauss stoked my teenage infatuation; since then he's been the model of informed enthusiasm, not just about Strauss but also in warm appraisals of Boult, Britten, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

We met often at operas and concerts, and shared several study days and discussions. He always looked a little wry when I told him how influential he'd been on my musical life, thinking perhaps that I was overdoing it ('licky, licky'; as another colleague, David Fanning, rather disarmingly put it). But I meant it. Since so much of his time was spent on the Northern edition of the Daily Telegraph, it seems right to link to that paper's obituary. Thoughts to the vivacious Joyce Bourne, his widow.

This is merely a detail, since it can't be seen clearly below, of a panel gathering at the Manchester Prokofiev Conference in 2003. How sad it makes me to note that Michael is only the latest person photographed to be no longer with us. Also here are Sir Edward Downes, my dear Noelle Mann, Lynne Walker and Sasha Ivashkin, all of them untimely gone.

I've not written about other deaths towards the end of 2014 which affected me personally, for various reasons; at the request of his griefstricken partner Cristian, I can't enlarge on how sad I feel about his dear Gary, and I'll miss two of my mother's closest and liveliest friends, the two Marys (Farrington and Hooper), though their lives had been so wretched in the last year or so that it really was that clichéd thing, a blessed relief.

So it goes. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Monday 5 January 2015

Onwards to Nuremberg

The masters await next Monday afternoon (12 January) as my Opera in Depth course at the marvellous Frontline Club sails on, with loyal as well as new students on board. The outcome will be 10 glorious (I hope) weeks on Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Various Wagnerian organisations have proved incredibly supportive in offering me publicity, which means that you can see the full flyer via this excellent site. As well as The Wagner Society, The Wagnerian and Wagner Opera also helped out: thanks to true Mensch Barry Millington for pointing me in the right directions. Thanks too to the Goethe-Institut London which has also been supportive. I hope to see a few more folk signing up as a result. You can contact me via the e-mail given in all three links if you're interested in coming along.

Not all my loyal followers are 'doing' this term as we went through the opera five years ago, when Richard Jones (now CBE, if he really has accepted it) launched his great production at Welsh National Opera with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs (the original pictured above). I have huge confidence in Iain Paterson who takes over the role as Jones reworks his production for English National Opera in February: at the very least Paterson should be rock-solid with the stamina to get through the part.

Limbering up over the half-quiet, half-social days since 2015 began, I've been listening to a Meistersinger Prelude a day, doing a mini Building a Library so that I can serve up a compound of the best next week (by the way, having on the last occasion dealt with the toughest BaL of them all, Parsifal, I have another coming up in March concentrating on a work of much lesser length but made of very tough stuff; not sure I can reveal what it is yet). There's so much warmth and humanity in the Beecham and Strauss recordings of the Vorspiel (the latter taped in Vienna in, ahem, 1944). And what a splendid thing it is to follow the C major of Bach's Christmas Day Cantata BWV63, an early work from the Weimar years no whit less stocked high with invention than the later Leipzig works, with Wagner's.

I've also plunged into the rather awkardly printed English translation of E T A Hoffmann's second story compendium, Die Serapionsbrüder (The Serapion Brethren, ostensibly about a group of artistic friends which gathers to tell tales). The impetus came from the best substantial Wagner biography I've come across, by Joachim Köhler. As usual there's not enough about the music, but where Köhler scores is in unearthing so many of the literary sources which Wagner rarely acknowledged.

Hoffmann (selfsketched above the previous paragraph) would seem to be the most important of them all. Would Wagner have hit upon the theme for his Meistersinger and its central character Hans Sachs without Hoffmann's pointer in the direction of 'Johann Christoph Wagenseil's work on the glorious craft of the Mastersingers'? He cites it at the beginning of 'The Singers' Contest [on the Wartburg]'. Needless to say that's the root of Tannhäuser, though Wagner's eponymous minstrel is nowhere to be seen. His counterpart is the devilishly inspired Heinrich von Ofterdingen, whose true opponent is indeed Wolfram von Eschenbach (illustrated here in a medieval manuscript).

As a story, Hoffmann's is preferable to Wagner's typical fusion of three different tales, to me at any rate - I like all the spooky-supernatural stuff, though it's perhaps a bit too close to the hell-trafficking of Weber's Der Freischütz. 'Master Klingsohr' is the major magus of unearthly powers here, too. For the high spirits of Meistersinger, and the pitting of handsome young suitor versus pedantic nincompoop, I'd hazard a guess that the very lively tale of 'Albertine's Wooers' is a source. It's a wonderful fusion of bürgerlich Berlin with the fantastical, ending in a spectacular denouement based on the three caskets of The Merchant of Venice. The pedant's compensation prize is a book which, when lodged in his pocket, will come out as whatever special edition of whatever work he desires to read at the time. Wouldn't mind that myself: infinitely preferable to the intolerable Kindle.

The human worlds of Hoffmann's tales and Meistersinger may not overlap with the giant canvases of Anselm Kiefer*, but Wagner's metaphysics certainly do. I'd been bowled over by the two huge paintings in Basel's Fondation Beyeler - I realise more than ever that Renzo Piano's interior spaces must be the best possible for them - and thus keen to get to the Royal Academy (pictured above with one of two Kiefer installations in the courtyard), which I only just did in time before the exhibition closed. But I was unprepared for the deep structures which Kiefer and Wagner share, beyond the obvious references in the series of works Kiefer painted in the wood-lined attic room of his studio in Hornback throughout the early 1970s. What better setting for Nothung

and the Parsifal series (bloody spear replacing sword)?

I'd better point out immediately that the small reproductions here do especially poor service to the giddying scale of the canvases, which you simply have to experience in the flesh, as it were (even the catalogue doesn't come close to the 'live' sensation). In one way these look like forecloths or backdrops to fill an entire stage, and as I wandered from room to room I found the ideas for what's behind or beneath each of the Ring operas. In fact to adapt these overwhelming, fluid statements as operatic sets would be to reduce the level of discombobulation they induce. Kiefer adds diverse materials or lets them decay when he feels too comfortable with the first finished product. The weathering and the additions make them more sculptures than canvases; each needs to be walked in front of and seen sideways from both ends.

Least reproducible of all are the lead sheets studded with diamonds sparkling as you pass, which immediately brought to my mind for some reason the slate-clearing at the end of Götterdämmerung. The notions of blossoms rising from the rubble, of atoms constantly reforming, of a beginning inherent in an apparent end, is what it seems to me the Wagner of the Ring and Kiefer have most in common.

In addition, I can at least evoke my constant amazement at the deep-veined parallels. The exhibition room of surprising colour suggests the prelapsarian Rhine at the start of Das Rheingold , even if nature here is all above the surface of the earth. The hanging stone of Hortus Conclusus could even become the lump of gold gleaming in the flux. I can't find a reproduction of it, but something of the same effect is to be seen in the Morgenthau Plan (pictured above), somewhat more threatening due to the Van Gogh-derived crows above the wheatfield.

The building of Valhalla could be suggested, if only just above the level of the river, by the Rhine collages of woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac executed between 1982 and 2013. One of Kiefer's constructions has the polyhedron from Dürer's Melancholia hovering above it.

Siegfried's woods meet their dark, disturbing mirror-image in Kiefer's

and the artist prone beneath sunflowers reminds me of Siegfried meditating on nature, death and the stirrings of love in the 'Forest Murmurs' sequence

while the hall of the Gibichung could be any one of the decayed Speer-like spaces such as this one - Interior, 1981.

If only there were some way of bringing Wagner's music and Kiefer's art together without reducing the significance of either. An impossible task except in the viewer's mind, perhaps. What matters is that, for all his manifold faults, Wagner caught the apocalyptic tones of one era just as Kiefer has so much to say, at the most profound and troubling level, about the world, and not just specifically the German one, since 1945 (the day after he was born, an allied bomb destroyed the house next door in Donaueschingen and he grew up playing in the rubble). I've not often been so shaken up by works of art as I was here, and above all by Isis and Osiris, with projecting lead books hinting obliquely at the monstrous burning and a possible rising from the earth, which nearly finished me off. Again, reproduction in much reduced form does little for its impact, but you may get the gist.

Curiously only the week before I also shed tears in the last of the exhibition rooms devoted to Rembrandt's late works at the National Gallery's great 'show': such a look on Bathsheba's face, such tenderness in Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph.

This is timeless humanity, both a corrective and a counterbalance to Kiefer's metaphysics. And of course Rembrandt is as capable of embracing near-darkness as Kiefer is of diving into colour. Chief of my favourites among the etchings is a Nativity where you really have to accustom yourself to the light to see what's going on.

I loved both exhibitions and can't think of any I've seen that have moved me more.

*Copyright tangles with the Kiefer images left me confused as to whom I should credit in many instances. I plead 'fair use' , but shall remove or (preferably) credit if asked.