Saturday 28 February 2015

Poland's recent past

One of the many things taught me by my dear Viennese friend Trude Winik (1909-1998), who lost her father in the First World War and her mother, brother and sister to the camps in the Second, was that the past is always present so long as the person who experienced it lives on. In Trude's case it was a guilt which haunted her every day, that she survived when the rest of her family didn't. Now a gripping family history, Matthew Zajac's The Tailor of Inverness, and a film about life two decades or so after the end of World War Two, Ida by that superb filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski who had already given us two very different and equally fine British movies, Last Resort and My Summer of Love, remind us that the past lives on in the next generation too.

It was serendipity that I came across The Tailor of Inverness among the books sold alongside the box office in Inverness's Eden Court Theatre the day before we watched the DVD of Ida - in turn, the day before it won the Best Foreign Language Film category in the Oscars (not that one cares for any ceremony which omits Mike Leigh's masterpiece Mr Turner from the main categories - I rant about that in my DVD review for The Arts Desk).The blurb made it sound interesting, but more especially I liked the idea of supporting a local publisher, Sandstone Press. More in the next post of why I was up there last weekend.

I don't know how much I can say about book and film without giving crucial information away. Both are thrillers in the sense of revealing surprise informaton - and Ida has a gut-wrenching twist about two-thirds of the way through for which I was completely unprepared, so you should be too. Both remind us that few folk escaped from the maelstrom of the war in central Europe uncompromised, let along unscarred. Zajac Senior came to Britain in 1948, married an Englishwoman and settled in Inverness where he made a success as a tailor after early vicissitudes.

Son Matthew (pictured on the cover of the book and above, by Murdo MacLeod, playing his father) speaks simply but rapturously of summers with his uncle in Lesna, south west Poland, a place of natural plenty. The kindness of relatives and friends is an overwhelming constant throughout, and helps him weather the revelations when they come. Suffice it to say that as an accomplished actor with his own theatre group, he made an Edinburgh Fringe First winning play about his journey of discovery which toured to the places he visited, Poland and Ukraine, among others. He writes:

It seemed right to me to take the story back to its origins, but I was nervous about how it would be received [well, as it turned out]. I was conscious that it could be viewed as a presumptuous act, for a foreigner to have the gall to tell Poles and Ukrainians their own story. But my previous trips to Ukraine in particular had told me that this was a story which had rarely been expressed on a public platform. The shock of the war and subsequent 45-year Soviet stasis retained their grip. The fear of speaking out which was endemic to the old Stalinist culture meant that many people, particularly in the older generations, still had a policeman in their head.

These are the same preoccupations of Ida. Framed as the kind of 1960s Polish art film the director remembered from his youth, in the square format then common, every scene is composed with an aching beauty, and there's a special affection for the bands of that time (the love-interest saxophonist is very handsome, too). Like any great film from the European masters, it has remarkable performances - in this case the contrasts and symmetries played out by Agata Trzebushowska's ambivalent Ida and the magnetic Agata Kulesza as Wanda, communist functionary with a painful secret.

Also as in any great film, the music is kept to a minimum; the actresses and the cinematography carry it all. I don't think I want to write any more: just see it.

Monday 23 February 2015

Also in Rattle week...

...I heard performances wonderful not just in parts - like the second of Sir Si's Sibelius series concerts with the Berlin Phil, very much a curate's egg - but as a perfect whole, and - apart from the Philharmonic Octet Berlin without Rattle at the QEH on Friday night, consummate - in less expected places (pictured above, two of my star performers throughout the week, violinist Julia Hwang and pianist Dmitri Alexeev).

Personally, I think I'd have chosen the Alexander Ivashkin Memorial Concert on Thursday night, even had I not worked with Sasha and loved what I knew of him, over Rattle's last Sibelius concert at the Barbican and Salonen conducting Ravel at the Festival Hall. The reason? A very rare chance to hear Russian master pianist Alexeev in action. The last time I caught him was partnering Sasha in Prokofiev's Cello Sonata at beloved Noëlle Mann's memorial concert*, and before that with Sitkovetsky in the First Violin Sonata as part of the Prokofiev 2003 concert she organised at St John's Smith Square. Here are all three, at I know not what event.

Brahms's late piano pieces have been obsessing me recently; I've played Nicholas Angelich's set over several times. And I've never heard Op. 119, with its extraordinary mixture of the elegiac, the light-as-air and ultimately the heroic, live in concert. Alexeev did not disappoint in finding the connections between the four pieces, in ranging from introspective heartbreak to unusual pride and strength.

But this was a concert in which everything made some kind of deep mark or another. True, Alexeev made the Steinway sound like an altogether different instrument from the way Boris Berman played it (Berman pictured above on 12 February; young photographers Alice Andrewartha and Sergey Kryuchkov will have to forgive me for not disentangling which photo is whose). His Prokofiev Seventh Sonata was just too loud to start with. But I've rarely heard a more shatteringly powerful account of the great slow movement, moving from Schumann stylised to the tolling of bells and the keening of human grief. The other ultimate depth came from the framing of the concert by cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, starting with perfect privacy in Schnittke's Klingende Buchstaben based on some of the notes in Ivashkin's full first name of Alexander.

In discussing the programme with that wonderful pianist Danny Driver - who wowed us with fellow Goldsmiths pianist Andrew Zolinsky in two pieces from Shostakovich's Op. 6 Suite, as good a performance in its way as anything on the programme - I suggested that the only possible ending could be the 25-minute epilogue to Schnittke's ballet Peer Gynt arranged for cello, piano and tape, winding its way into infinity. Irina Schnittke was to have played the piano part. But Altstaedt found it too much to prepare in so short a time, and his ineffably simple but profound substitute, the Allemande and Sarabande from Bach's Fifth Cello Suite, led to at least two minutes' silence. Unfussy, infinitely private and of the essence, his playing led me to go home and try and find something comparable among my sets. Two I threw out on to the regifting pile as being so wide of what I now want in this music; only Yo-Yo Ma came close.

Another bonus in place of the Schnittke was the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky's First String Quartet, played with introspective simplicity by the Goldner String Quartet (pictured above). But it was also vital to have students from Goldsmiths College involved. Mark Shanahan worked wonders on the Chamber Choir (he told me afterwards how, getting them to harmonise Bette Midler and really working on fullness of sound) in the big early-Rachmaninov liturgical setting Ever-vigilant Mother of God.

And the Goldsmiths Sinfonia (pictured above with Sasha's photo on the easel to the right) settled from a less than unanimous opening to cool style in Prokofiev's 'Classical' Symphony. Grandson Gabriel came up with a real winner, Outta Pulsor from his Suite for Cello Nonet, originally a multitrack work for one cellist, the fine player and film composer Peter Gregson who led this group (had a fascinating conversation with him later over supper about film music). This time Outta Pulsor was graced by nine players, some of them originally brought together by Sasha's wife Natalia Pavlutskaya, also a cellist and teacher (at Trinity, hence the name TrinityGold). Really distinctive melody, fascinatingly shaped textures around it. Below, some of the cellists with conductor Andrew Morley.

I love Natalia: she reminds me of everything that's best about the Russian character: the intense warmth and affection, the talent, the discipline. I was, as I said in the opening speech she'd asked me to give, very surprised and incredibly honoured when she asked me to be involved. I had no idea that she and Sasha apparently respected me, as of course I did him (I didn't know Natalia at all well when he was alive). But she welcomed me like a long-lost friend and invited me to the after-performance supper, too. Here we are being very genuinely affectionate at the pre-concert drinks - thanks to Alice for that. OK, so it's grimace and paunch from me, but it shows you the kind of person Natalia is, I hope.

An evening rich and wonderful beyond belief, still to be properly digested over the months to come.

Another exceptional person I adore is a younger mover and shaker. I met Ed Picton-Turbervill when he came up to me after a Salome talk I'd given at Covent Garden and asked me if I'd go and talk at his school. The results are recounted some way down this blog entry. Since then we've become, I hope, good friends, and here he is nearly at the end of his three years as an Organ Scholar at St John's College Cambridge.

Over five weeks ago J and I went up to Cambridge at his invitation to hear a late Epiphany spectacular in the chapel - the above pic of Ed by his college's famous bridge and the wing where he resides was taken on that visit. We returned on Valentine's Day to catch the last event of nine - all FREE - in the St John's Music Festival curated by EPT, who modestly appears nowhere in publicity or programmes to take the credit.

I begged to be excused from that Saturday's St John's evensong as I was keen to sample King's, and sit in the choir pews there, which we did in style thanks to Research Fellow Hanna Weibye, loveliest of colleagues as dance critic on The Arts Desk. I also wanted to hear beloved Herbert Howells. But what I'd been told was right - King's can't match St John's for choral splendour. The men are far too loud for the boys and it can't be healthy for Stephen Cleobury to have been in place since 1982, with the contract running until (at least) 2019. Anyway, he beats rather than shapes, which was what impressed me so much about Andrew Nethsingha at St John's.

After the service. we found ourselves treated to rather fine illuminations outside King's, part of Cambridge's e-Luminate festival. Its website is a bit messy, so I gathered that the rainbow colours projected onto arches were the work of Jack Beccegato Zero.

but didn't find out who did the more dynamic work on the later ensemble to the north. It really has to be seen in action, but you get the idea here.

Everyone seems to hate the Victorian tower of St John's, but I'd rather it was there than not, and the illuminations did a good job on it.

The evening concert, which reflected the festival's theme of 'the old made new' both in its programme and by taking place in St John's Divinity School, Victorian Gothic recently restored to lavish effect, didn't start until 8pm. That gave us a problem that if we stayed for the second half, we'd miss the last convenient train back to London. So we only caught the first, and in a way I'm glad because it ended on such a high. Accomplished piano duo Marie-Noëlle Kendall

and Patrick Hemmerlé were giving two world premieres, starting with Robin Holloway's Soldered Schumann, an attempt to give new life to the Schumann Andante and Variations in B flat which he and Britten both regard(ed) as a noble failure. The Andante is itself lovely stuff, but Holloway's emendations struck me as rather ungainly doodlings, and you can call me arrogant or deluded if you like but his contribution really was the sort of thing I used to improvise on the piano in my better moments.

Would Holloway's Silvered Schubert be the same? I've had the privilege of finding out from the recording Ed sent me, but on the evening I was so bowled over by Hwang's performance of the original Fantaisie for Violin and Piano with ex Pembroke College Organ Scholar James Drinkwater that I knew nothing could actually surpass it.

Anyway, Hwang (pictured again above, good publicity shots) and Drinkwater made such a persuasive case for the Fantaisie that I wouldn't hear much said against it: she with her burning intensity and pitch-perfect technique, he with crystalline runs and supreme elegance. What's Holloway's beef with it?

...that nothing after the opening is worthy of it [this is the wraith-like violin theme against shimmering piano, not easily transcribed for two pianos, and so much is violinistic that its point in rearrangement is lost]. Especially the Variations, which dissipate rather than gather - above all in not providing a minor version [ie variation] to search the lovely Lied more deeply.

Well, the song itself ('Sei mir gegrüsst') certainly lives up to the opening in the lovely modulations taken here by the piano alone, and the variations preserve the lightness of the whole premise by some ethereal filigree (very difficult to make light of it, but these two did). Holloway's elaborations, in the recording I've listened to, are also pretty in a more music-boxy sort of way. But his gawky late-romantic interjections are not, and the minor-key variation he supplies disintegrates into doodlery. His extended 'Apotheosis' for the return of the opening sounds horrid to me, overdone with Lisztian-style tremolos.

The interjection of another song, 'Death and the Maiden', is cleverly combined with the rhythm of the finale, but it's too heavy and long-winded for the Fantaisie's airy premise. As for the material of the finale, which seems to me typical Schubert at his most penny-plain but very much himself, I don't find this 'harum-scarum' 'vapid' (Holloway's note again) and the transition to the song reprise has a marvellous key change- C to A flat - which I find again so typically Schubertian. All this is lost in Holloway's flummery and by the end you're screaming for it to stop (which probably means that I was, even listening to the recording). I don't find anything tiresome or overlong in the Schubert original (about 20 minutes to Holloway's inflated 35). I went home and marvelled at the recording by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov. The first interpretation to be recorded, by Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin, remains one of the greatest: here it is.

Forgive all this length but I wanted to argue the case so that Ed can see I thought about it properly (I know  he likes the Holloway much better than I do, and he should be proud of having hosted the world premieres). The main thing is that the evening featured two very good performances and one superlative one (the Fantaisie proper), and it made me engage with why the work isn't, in my opinion, deeply flawed.

Several wonders since then - Nielsen from Oramo, Sibelius from Runnicles in accord with the Inverness setting - but those will have to wait until the next instalment.

*Shin-ichi's remark below about Sasha's performance with Dmitri Alexeev at Noelle's memorial concert gave me courage to view the whole performance again on YouTube. There's an interesting story here in that I proposed playing at least part of the Prokofiev central movement within my introduction the other Thursday. I utterly respect Natalia's artistic integrity, reflecting and standing up for Sasha's, in that she said he felt he hadn't had enough time to prepare on that occasion. So we didn't play it in the concert.

Yet I'd like to take the liberty of putting up for the second time on this blog the Moderato - Andante dolce movement, because as I said the other Thursday, it seems to me to encapsulate both Sasha's wry humour in the outer portions and his generosity of spirit in the great, beautiful Prokofiev melody at the very centre.

Actually these two's performance also convinced me of what's 'inside' the finale too, and that follows on this time round. If you like what you hear, don't hesitate to watch the entire performance.

Friday 13 February 2015

Lessons from the Mastersingers

What, you may ask, does this Molièresque bewigged gentleman have to do with Hans Sachs, real-life composer of over 4,370 'master-songs' in addition to several volumes of poems and philosopher-hero of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg? He is none other than Johann Christoph Wagenseil (1633-1708) Doctor and Professor of Law, author of the squat quarto Book of the Master-singers' Gracious Art: its Origin, Practice, Utility and Rules. In the Preface the supposed origin of the Gypsies is also dealt with.

I'd like to say I've read this book so you and my students in the Opera in Depth class don't have to (incidentally, teaching Meistersinger this time round has been immensely enriched by getting a bit closer to Wagenseil). But in fact I haven't had to either, since it seems beautifully summarised in the most disgustingly damp-eaten and smelly volume I've ever purchased off, Wagner & Wagenseil: A Source of Wagner's Opera 'Die Meistersinger' by one Herbert Thompson, published by Oxford University Press in 1927 and a mere 39 pages long - as opposed to Wagenseil's 433 - plus illustrations by way of appendix several of which I'm reproducing here.

Wagner's pal and fellow-composer Peter Cornelius secured him a copy from Vienna's Imperial Library. I've already speculated on the unacknowledged debt to Hoffmann, who in the introduction to his magnificently spooky story 'The Song-Contest on the Wartburg' - more Freischütz than Tannhäuser - also mentions Wagenseil and borrows from one of Wagenseil's early chapters on the 'Bards', 'Druids' and 'Prophets' who originated the craft of mastersinging (Nicolaus Klingsohr and Walter von der Vogelweid(e) are among them).

That's all of interest to Tannhäuser, of course. But it's not until we get to a list of 12 old Nuremberg Masters of distinction that the volume's usefulness to Die Meistersinger becomes apparent; the names were taken en bloc, Sixtus Beckmesser included, for the city worthies introduced in Act One of the opera. Then we get a biography of Nuremberg's cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, described by Wagenseil as 'justly esteemed patriarch of the Master-singers'.

Chapter Five, 'Complete Tabulatur of the Master-singers' has rules for the construction of a master-song's 'bar' and 'Abgesang' adapted almost wholesale by Wagner for Kothner's reading just before Walter sings 'Am stillen Herd'. Next are the 'XXII Faults which may be committed, and their punishment'; Wagner puts seven into Beckmesser's blacklist which rebounds on him in Act Two. David gives Walter Wagenseil's observations about 'Scholars' (those not familiar with the Tabulatur), 'Schoolfriends' (those who are), 'Singers' (those who can sing five or six 'Tones)', 'Poets' (those who writes songs to existing 'Tones') and 'Masters' (those who invent 'Tones'). Until I took a proper look at all this, I hadn't appreciated that Sachs takes down only the words of Walter's 'Morning Dream Song' in Act Three, not its music, so Beckmesser can only mangle the text of the sheets he's stolen.

Wagenseil then gives us a list of 222 'Master-tones', inventions of Masters to be sung by others. Some of these appear in David's exhausting list, so beautifully and amusingly illustrated in Richard Jones's production to stop boredom setting in at a perilously early point. It's worth picking out a few gems straight from Wagenseil: 'The Extra-short Evening red tone, by Georg Hagers', 'The Faithful-pelican tone by M. Ambrose Metzger', 'The English-tin tone by Kasper Enderle' and 'The Fat-badger tone by Metzger'.

Chapter Six is entitled 'Of the Master-singers' Manners and Customs, at the Singing School and in convivial meetings'; Wagner reproduces fairly faithfully the methods adapted by the Nuremberg Guild. Only the fact that there used to be four Markers rather than one is altered in the opera.

At the song-competition the Master-elect must sing, in addition to his own composition, the highly-prized 'Four Crowned Tones'. And here's another value to Wagenseil's text and Thompson's splendid precis: both books reproduce the first of the four, 'in long Tone of Heinrich Mügling'/ You probably can't read the words below, a doggerel version of Jacob and his matrimonial experiences, but you should be able to see that the 'bars' begin with a tune very similar to the second theme Wagner gives his Mastersingers in the Prelude.

Invaluable, no? And a treasure that's not been eaten away by the damp of my copy is the fold-out map of old Nuremberg the letter 'm' for St Catherine's Church in which Wagner sets his opening scene - the Mastersingers of Sachs's time actually met at St Martha's - isn't placed alongside any church. but I think it must be one in the lower eastern segment.

I think I've exhausted all possible words of praise for the ENO edition of Jones's superlative Mastersingers - different from the Welsh original, but in no way inferior - in my Arts Desk review. I've booked to go again on the last night, 10 March, and persuaded godson Alexander to leave his studies in Glasgow and come down to see it, because he won't see Wagner better done. Most of my colleagues think so too, esteemed Wagner doyen Michael Tanner in The Spectator being the latest to describe the experience as near-perfect. Any wishes for ENO's immediate demise seem to have badly misfired - not that the company management and image don't have a problem, but if it's All About Art, this is the crowning glory of a wonderful year and a bit.

Richard Jones came to talk to the students for the third time on Monday: it was wonderful, and I need to write about it in more detail, but suffice it to say he thought publicity to change ENO's image could make a huge difference, comparing their hopeless posters and attempts to be taken seriously as 'Opera for the People' with the way the PR department at the Young Vic were on to him the minute he started work on the forthcoming adaptation of Kafka's The Trial with (oh, wondrous) Rory Kinnear.

Anyway, don't miss this opera of operas.A few more pics for you by Catherine Ashmore for ENO: above, the ritual in Act One, Gwyn Hughes Jones's Walther getting hot under the collar at the Masters' closed-mindedness;and below, just before the 'christening' of the Morning Dream Interpretation Song; left to right Iain Paterson (Sachs), Nicky Spence (David), Madeleine Shaw (Magdalene) and Rachel Nicholls (Eva). Love 'em all.

Friday 6 February 2015

Romanesque and Gothic: big in Toulouse

Been dragging my flu-ridden husk around south-west France, with TLC from the diplo-mate. Maybe not a great idea to have gone as I've been laid up most of this week after returning on Sunday, and spent Meistersinger class day throwing up (I'd struggled to the Frontline Club the previous Monday). Still, an outing to see Théâtre de la Ville-Paris's haunting Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Barbican on Wednesday night proved there's something of a retour à la vie, slowly. Anyway, heading off to Aix-en-Provence the Saturday before last, on the morning after the first sweats, wasn't wise, either, though I got through it and met the interesting company I was supposed to interview there as they began preparation for a festival special.

First impressions: a pretty centre, plenty of fair squares with lovely fountains, not a great deal to see; maybe my slight grumpiness, apart from general indisposition, had to do with the fact that it all looked so Italian but wasn't. And admittedly the clash of my Sunday duties with the noon opening of the Musée Granet meant I couldn't wander round an avowed gem. The only treasure I saw - since Nicolas Froment's Burning Bush altarpiece was closed up, revealing only the two outer panels in grisaille - was the altar of the Aygoysi Family from the Church of the Carmelites, now in the Cathedral (west front and tower pictured above).

The sun shone in Aix; it felt Mediterranean spring-like despite cold mornings and nights. Not so, except for a still-cold hour or two, in Toulouse and Ax-les-Thermes in the Pyrenees, where we met up with the couple of friends I married several years ago, Susannah and Jamie, in a far cry from our carefree summer romp in the wilds of central Sweden. I probably wouldn't have been up to walking if the weather had been clement, but it snowed solidly during our time there, a beauty in itself but not good for expeditions. And the train was cancelled due to a fallen tree on the way back, so we had our only delay of the trip.

Had we been back in Toulouse on time, the idea was to tear off to see the weird and wonderful cathedral at Albi. But Toulouse did deliver two monsterpieces of Romanesque and Gothic art on a vast scale, plus one of France's most delightful museums. In this city of welcoming red brick, lively with students from the university originally founded as a counter to heresy (the Inquisition had a field-day here), there are two major edifices and they don't include the lopsided, dog's dinner cathedral, though that I suppose has interests of its own.

No, clearly the more imposing basilica is St-Sernin to the north, the largest Romanesque building in France (says the Blue Guide) or the world (according to the leaflet in the church). The patron is St Saturninus, infamously dragged through the streets by a bull in 250 AC. The present building was begun another 320 years later, the choir consecrated by Urban II in 1096 just as St Raymond Girard was beginning work on the nave.

The extraordinary cluster of apsidal chapels at the east end look as if they might have been subject to the ubiquitous Viollet-le-Duc's 19th century intervention, at least as far as the corbels are concerned, but that's still a splendid ensemble on the outside.

and within, the grandest effect is in the transepts

where extensive Romanesque murals were uncovered during the restoration of the late 20th century.

Even the plainer Corinthian columns are splendid, but there are others with fine details

and the glory of Romanesque stonecarving is to be found outside on the Porte Miègeville of c.1120.

Christ ascends between angels on the tympanum

while details on the capitals either side are chunky-quirky

and there are figures of saints James and Peter higher up.

A Renaissance gateway in front of the Porte Miègeville

 is the only remaining part of the enclosure; cloisters and abbot's palace were destroyed in the early 19th century and the basilica used, like the other ecclesiastical buildings post-revolution, for storage.

Thankfully some amends were made. The Musée des Augustins converted a superb southern Gothic monastery into an exhibition space in 1793, shortly after the opening of the Louvre, and on the site of the old refectory an eclectic construction was begun in the late 1890s on another idea of Viollet-le-Duc. The modest 4 euro admission is worth the main cloister alone, which matches the various carved capitals - crude but vigorous, like this green man -

with gargoyles from the destroyed Church of the Cordeliers.

The garden in the centre must be a riot in the summer, beautifully planted, though only winter greens and greys were flourishing in the cold.

The Gothic wing houses an obvious treasure of grace and beauty, the so-called Notre Dame de Grasse about which little is known except that the motif of the Virgin and Child turned in opposite directions is fairly unusual (this obviously not my image).

About the picture collection, not much needs to be said: at its best, it's curious, as in Delacroix's  Mouley Abd-Er-Raham Leaving his Palace at Meknes (of interest to us who'd been there) and Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant's gross Entry of Sultan Mehmet II into Constantinople, an epic which made the artist (briefly) famous overnight.

It wasn't until our return to Toulouse after the snowy mountain interlude that we clocked the city's other great gape-at treasure, Les Jacobins (1229-1350) with its relics of St Thomas Aquinas and, more important, its single row of nine central columns, 29 metres high, originally segregating the monks from the public.

'The painted imitation of the brickwork is unfortunate,' opines my Blue Guide, and it's kind of true, but it does accentuate the fan vaulting spreading out from the easternmost column ('le palmier').

The outside is mostly red-brick massive, like the earlier St-Sernin

but it does have charming animals ferreting around the foliage on the south door.

After this further exploration, we returned on the morning train to Paris, braved the filthy, sleety cold and grey which made the city look rather dispiriting - it seems to me to have lost so much lustre in recent years - and had a jolly tea with friends Hélène and Olivier in their apartment opposite Barbès-Rochechouart metro and the Luxour Cinema before catching the Eurostar back to London.