Tuesday 28 April 2015

Spring in Roulettenburg

It struck me that not much can have changed in Baden-Baden since Dostoyevsky lost a fortune at the gaming tables there and wrote about it in The Gambler with the spa town piquantly disguised as Roulettenburg. Shady and/or blingy Russians are still there in droves, many apparently buying houses and pushing prices up. Speciality brothels thrive, according to the ads in the posh free book I picked up - not that Russians are necessarily the main clients; there are a lot of sheikhs around too. And alongside that exist the well-off aged with their little diamond-collared doggies and the infirm, the parks and walks and still beautiful Black Forest hills around the town. We had the especially good luck to have got a deal at a large, not especially attractively designed but very spacious and comfortable hotel to the south of the centre, which meant walks back and forth either past elegant villas

or along the river Oos which threads through the valley. Magnolias were flourishing or incipient

and just a few trees, chiefly horse chestnuts, were leafing.

The Oos, hardly majestic but fast-flowing after torrential rains, made me think a bit of the grander scale in Inverness and its little bridges. In this case there are many more and they connect the still-elegant Lichtentaler Allee with the big hotels on the other side.

Inevitably most main paths and roads lead to the casino zone. Curiosity didn’t lead me into the casino at night to watch the hollow- or dead-eyed punters I remember so well from dining at one off the Edgware Road (courtesy of our resident Baden-Baden Ochs, Peter Rose, who used to be off in search of cheap eats), but I admired the entrance with its slabs of frieze above

from the rather beautiful foyer of the Kurhaus, which looks to me more deco than belle époque (this area and the concert hall were first developed in the betting-free early years of the First World War).

Retreating through the classically-friezed lobby

back to the main entrance

I found a Russian bride and groom being ostentatiously photographed just after a morning of rain

and I have to admit that the eight Corinthian columns, the paired-griffin frieze and the overall white-and-gold of Friedrich Weinbrenner‘s 1824 façade made a handsome backdrop. Of course the boom came slightly later than the first phase of Kurhaus building, with France’s ban on gambling prompting the enterprise of the Bénazets father and son, both intent on improving the culture and the amenities of the town with the profits from personal disasters. 

Further along the lawns and the green hill which rises behind them is the Trinkhalle, its central hall now the Tourist Information Centre – no drinking the water now – and its 90-metre colonnade frescoed with kitschy representations of local legends. A fine, cool place to rest in the summer, though.

Of course baths came before breaking the bank – the Emperor Caracalla encouraged the founding of Aquae Aureliae and there are fine remains in the basement of the still-thriving Friedrichsbad. I was hoping for a long session here moving from bath to bath, but lost my nerve on learning that the bathing is mixed and nude. The central bath with the big dome above it looked rather splendid in photographs, but I had to make do with a wander around the periphery.

The Friedrichsbad is a kind of symbolic new temple next to the Stiftskirche-Liebfrauen, dark and deserted when I visited. The spire takes you upward through history, from Romanesque square tower through Gothic to a Baroque cupola. 

The interior has little atmosphere and badly-executed 20th century glass, like most churches we visited on the trip, but there are quite a few treasures here. Nicholas Gerhaert von Leyden’s sandstone crucifix of 1467 was hidden behind its pre-Easter purple veil, but as walking around the sacristy seemed to be encouraged, I could catch it side on.

Flanking him are monuments of the Baden-Baden margraves good for a laugh. Ludwig Wilhelm, otherwise known as Türkenlouis from an obvious routing, the instruments of which are at the base with infidels (I presume) kept from his lofty presence among figures of Courage, Justice and Wisdom by Death and an eagle.

His uncle, Leopold Wilhelm, is semi-recumbent in the pose of a Roman tribune, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the nave and side chapels are more devout figures of the Virgin in wood and sandstone, an amazing carved tabernacle which didn’t photograph well and a late 15th century St Christopher.

For a more consistently interesting slice of ecclesiastical art, with a Russian orthodox church half way between the two, 

you have to head south to Lichtental, a mere quarter of an hour’s walk through the park from our hotel. We were lucky to hit the grounds of the old Kloster, still occupied by 30 nuns, in the middle of a Good Friday service. There were anthems and plainsong, and a reading of the Passion which sounded as if it were going to go on for a good deal longer than I wanted to stay; a tall young nun acting Pontius Pilate with nervy lack of conviction made me feel awkward for her and I headed out to the genteel cries of ‘Barabbas!’

I’d intended to walk up to a waterfall but got sidetracked by a very late lunch of pancakes and a turn in the weather, which had been glorious up until about 4. 

So I quickly nipped up to the very attractive villa where Brahms stayed between 1865 and 1874, composing his Deutsches Requiem as well as his Second and Third Symphonies here. 

 In the park by the Oos, there are busts of Brahms

and of his beloved Clara Schumann, who also lived for a while in Lichtental.

Not all profane, then, the Baden-Baden environs. The house is only open on Wednesday afternoons; I’d thought we’d be able to revisit if we came back from Weimar on the morning train, catching the similarly restricted tour of the Kloster’s Fürstenkapelle, but that didn’t happen. We did spend a last night back in Baden-Baden, in curious rooms above the Löwenbräu Biergarten, where Liszt had stayed (Gogol lodged opposite, with a sharp new Russian plaque to mark the spot). By this time spring was at last in full spate, and I got back to find the prunus over the wall of the back yard just about to flourish. Which it did last week

and then the blossoms quickly fell

and it's already over, along with the last flower of the camellia which has bloomed for precisely four months (remember the Christmas tree shot?It's at the foot of the 'Festive Oslo' entry) So now the lovely procession of wisteria and lilacs is under way. And tonight, since my Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of The Gambler has arrived – essential for knowing what’s in French in the dialogue – my soon-to-be spouse (not that I’ll use the name, or ‘husband’, for that matter) will have to put up with the first of many Dostoyevskyan bedtime readings.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Baden-Baden bei Wien

Unless you're familiar with both places, the title may need some explanation. Baden-Baden, Dostoyevsky's 'Roulettenburg' and I guess not awfully changed since then (more on that in the next post), nestles in a valley on the fringes of the Black Forest. Baden bei Wien is a rather sweeter, resolutely old fashioned spa town a tram ride from Vienna. And Vienna, of course, is the location for Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier, not that you'd really have known it from Brigitte Fassbaender's production at Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. Erich Wonder's first backdrop, which I thought might be showing Dubai without the sea from a luxury penthouse, apparently references a view you can get from a high-rise hotel some way from Vienna's inner Ring.

We based a whole Easter jaunt to Germany around Freund Peter Rose's invitation - there he is above the morning after the show we saw at an outside table of Baden-Baden's Cafe König - to go and see his Ochs for the umpteenth time (always welcome, since he is now - fairly unarguably, I'd have thought - the world's best). With Anja Harteros and Anna Prohaska in the cast more of an enticement than Sir Simon Rattle, his Lady - Magdalena Kožená, improbably cast as Octavian - and the Berlin Phil, it sounded like a good opportunity. The idea was to continue with walking expeditions in the Black Forest, but an invitation from the Thuringia Bach Festival changed all that and turned it all into a very wonderful busman's holiday (fortunately the indulgent diplo-mate found it so too, despite initial misgivings).

Not that this Rosenkavalier, for all its many passing pleasures, was the highlight (Strauss yields to Bach done at the highest level). For a start, the Festspielhaus is a bit of a monster. Sure, Baden-Baden's main theatre, originally a thousand-seater with a too-small orchestra pit as Berlioz found when he inaugurated it conducting his specially-commissioned Béatrice et Bénédict in 1862 - would now be inadequate for many of the operas put on by the Festival (the theatre company was performing a version of Berlin Alexanderplatz there which I'd love to have seen had there been more time). But it's a much more attractive option.

The Festspielhaus, a 2500 seater swaggering as the biggest in Germany, opened in 1998 and funded by a club of 300 of Germany's richest citizens, has the facade of Baden-Baden's grand old station (the present one is way to the north). Sure, the station building itself is handsome and the ticket hall now functions with the same guichets that used to sell railways tickets.

But once you get into the theatre, you feel a million miles away from the action, and the singers, too, are dwarfed by the sheer height of the interior (second only to the ghastly Bastille home of the Paris Opera). We were in row 12 of the Parterre, with tons of leg room - always welcome - but felt detached from the action the minute the curtain rose. Even the Berlin Phil, which started with a horn blooper and ended Act One with a flat high note from the solo violin, didn't exactly sound opulent, though there was a certain fullness and the action music of Act Two seemed to come off best: Rattle's attention to detail paid off there. But the orchestra hasn't played this score since Karajan's time - which means most of them haven't played it at all before - and clearly needed more time on it. First of the production photos below shows the orchestra on stage. They're all, I think, by Monika Rittershaus, seemingly the official photographer; I applied to the press office for images but never heard back.

As in the last Royal Opera production, only the Ochs and the Sophie passed their tests with flying colours. Peter's characterisation, always beautifully sung especially in the upper register, has relaxed so much over the years, and casual dress seemed to put him even more at his ease. Anna Prohaska is another stage animal, proving - as have Marie Arnet, Lucy Crowe and Lisa Milne before her - that Sophie is no generic pushover. Here she is with Kožená in the duet following the trio.

I thought Harteros would be another great Marschallin of our times to set alongside Martina Serafin in Vienna and the most gracious lady of them all, Anne Schwanewilms, whom we saw in Dresden, also courtesy of Peter, and will never forget (can't bear Fleming's over-larded interpretation, never could; though it now sounds like I should see the wonderful Krasimira Stoyanova in the role - the DVD of Harry Kupfer's Salzburg production is now out).

Yet Harteros didn't seem to know what tone to adopt. Way too much hair-fiddling in the opening scene, nothing inward about the first monologue (apparently it was her idea to have the Notary with her for the start, since she thought she had to address 'Da geht er hin' to someone onstage). A gorgeous physical presence, of course, and how she opened up to golden tone, especially in the Trio - but then I (and J too) kind of wished we were hearing her Verdi again. This is possibly the only time I've not been remotely touched by the closing scene of Act One.

The other blames lie there with Rattle's uncertain tempo relations and above all with Kožená's young blade. Not nearly as grim as I was expecting, and her dreadful habit of throwing her head back for top notes that don't really come out very fully could be ascribed to the impetuousness and exaggeration of the young man. Yet it was so apparent that this is a voice not in the same league as those of Harteros, Prohaska and Rose, and the 'take my wife' thing has never seemed quite right to me*. Quality there undoubtedly was from Irmgard Vilsmaier's ever-striking Duenna, an unusually strapping Faninal in Clemens Unterreiner and of course from Laurence Brownlee's Italian tenor.

Excellent Valzacchi and Annina, too, from Stefan Margita (I thought he was more a Helden- than a light tenor) and Carole Wilson. Their visual gags were the funniest, among several which had to do more with the  wacky costume designer, Dietrich von Grebmer, than with Fassbaender, who claimed she had no concept at the start, and it showed: plenty of interesting ideas, but none of them properly followed through. Our intriguers started as cross dressers. Then for the 'Ecco!' scene they had swapped striped suit and old-lady pink, only to both appear as 'ladeez' for the Letter Scene. I did find that funny. And I loved the Leopold, Ochs's illegitimate son, as a teenager on rollerblades (again, von Grebmer's idea and again, he could have been developed by Fassbaender as far more of a character, though the gag of Ochs sending him off for takeaway pizza when our Baron rejected the inn's expensive fare was a good one).

The photos actually make it all look rather handsome; in the theatre, it seemed cheap and nasty. One spent far too much time working out what Wonder's projections were supposed to be or to mean, and the idea of people doing long entrances back and forth at the back messed up the privacies of Act One.

The Presentation of the Rose was blown by having us see Octavian raised on a pedestal before he makes his entrance among people who've been working on sewing-machines (Faninal wouldn't mess up business with show). Pointless business, too, with producing the silver rose from a bunch of real flowers.

In Act Three, quite apart from the fact that there were way too many people piling on stage (the chorus need be no more than a dozen), Peter was left repeating business to fill gaps where Fassbaender hadn't really thought of anything. And the stupid thing is that Hofmannsthal hands it to the director on a plate. If you throw most of his stage directions out, you have to find stuff that's equally convincing, as did Richard Jones at Glyndebourne. Above all, I kept wishing this was a Glyndebourne-sized experience instead of vacuity in a barn. Won't be going back to this Festspielhaus again, however extraordinary the cast. But still, we had a fun time in Baden-Baden the day after the show, cafe-hopping with Peter and Martin Snell (the Notary, interesting chap who lives in Lucerne).

It's been a driven week since our return, with way too much of me on The Arts Desk starting with the Bach festival writeup, hitting a dud of supposedly radical music-theatre on Tuesday and then soaring with Gypsy (the unsurpassable Imelda Staunton in one of Johan Persson's production shots above), Cheek by Jowl's harrowing Measure for Measure and Sasha Regan's hysterically funny but also very disciplined all-male The Pirates of Penzance (group shot below by Kay Young). And then yesterday we caught the tail-end of dearly beloved old rock and roller Paul Beecham's 70th birthday party, with the master at the turntable and many of his old cronies reunited.

Anyway, the London summer season is on a real roll now, with too many good things to resist. Back to school tomorrow with the first Opera in Depth class of the summer term, on Guillaume Tell. I've just read the Schiller play and it's a masterpiece - way better than the libretto for Rossini's opera. But that will furnish plenty of musical riches.

*Worse - she's going to sing the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius at the Proms, with Sir Si conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. How could he, when he's worked with Dame Janet? One to miss. 

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Bach's Dresden jaunt

That noblest of riverside views* was snapped in a heatwave last summer; in fact I've been in the contrasting strongholds of Baden-Baden and Thuringia, and nothing could have been closer to heaven than the greatest of B minor Masses on Easter Sunday in the Bethlehem of Bach-lovers, Eisenach. Bach was baptised there on 23 March 1685 in the very font (pictured below after the concert) we saw flanked by players of Prague's superlative Collegium/Collegium Vocale 1704. I've written something about this and other wonders of Bachland over on The Arts Desk.

Then, if ever, was the time to take with me John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the Castle of Heaven and read it from cover to cover (which I now nearly have, excepting the lengthy descriptions of the two major Passions, which I'll save for when I next listen to them properly). Even in a volume full of JEG's extraordinary blend of passionate enthusiasm and intellectual rigour - with plenty of speculation, given the gaps in the JSB biography, all of which strikes me as entirely plausible - the chapter on the B minor Mass is overwhelmingly impressive. Extreme care in devotion is needed when dealing with the greatest mass ever (yes, I know, there's Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, but sorry, that's a bit of a blind spot for me, and a lung-busting horror to sing, though I can see the genius) and Gardiner is as good on the history as he is on the music in detail.

It's fascinating, for instance, to read of what may have happened when Bach went to Dresden in 1733 to see his eldest son, Wilhelm  Friedemann, settled in as organist of the Sophienkirche. Clearly the Kyrie and Gloria - the only two mass sequences admitted in Lutheran practice - featured, like nearly everything else in what was to become his complete mass masterpiece, 'parodies' of earlier inspirations, but seen to have been specially tailored for the sumptuous Court Orchestra and its Italian operatic soloists. The rest, as we now know, wasn't entirely ready until two years before his death, but it's exciting to know about the music's intermediate putting-down of roots.

That turned me back to the two other Collegium 1704 recordings which a Czech benefactor sent me a couple of years ago featuring church music by Jan Dismas Zelenka, then the main man in Dresden and Bach's good friend. Of course anything is going to seem one-dimensional after the four of Bach, but I was charmed by the Requiem in D Zelenka composed for the year-long obsequies, also starting in 1733, in honour of that mostly ridiculous ruler and fortune squanderer Augustus the Strong. Charmed? Yes, because it's not the usual heavy-hearted affair. How odd to hear a Kyrie begin in bold major with drums and trumpets - the emphasis being on the 'lux per perpetua', presumably - and a Dies Irae that starts in incredibly jolly fashion.

Nothing outstays its welcome here, and though the writing for solo or paired instruments is penny-plain alongside Bach's, it's good to hear the chalumeau and to savour the bassoons chuntering downwards at the bass's Offertorium lines about Tartarus (Gardiner tells us how delighted Bach must have been by the Dresden bassoonists; apparently the Leipzig fagottist was feeble).

The Officio defunctorum, also for not-so-strong Augustus, on the other disc is more long winded but also stranger in parts; ditto the Responsoria pro hebdomadad sancta of 1723 in a second Collegium set, with some astounding chromatics and firework word-setting.

Above all, of course, I've been back to Collegium 1704's B minor Mass, which reveals how much that vital conductor Václav Luks has changed since the recording was made. I'd love to know what the players felt about the very special circumstances of the Eisenach performance.

I'll certainly never forget it - the crowning glory of an Easter Sunday which began in style with a Cranach masterpiece as focal point, and a more modest Bach mass to punctuate, in Weimar's Herderkirche. This shot, I hasten to add, taken long before the service began, with the church packed when we arrived.

*One that Bach very nearly lived to see. At the end of Gardiner's Chapter 13 there's another beguiling speculation - that he was readying the B minor Mass for the inauguration of the Catholic Hofkirche (the church on the right), finally completed the year after his death. The famous Frauenkirche (the dome to the left), a people's venture, which rose only to fall in World War II and rise again, improbably, in recent years - I saw both the ruins and the completion - must have been appearing on the skyline too.

Wednesday 1 April 2015


That's actually a leap over the beltane bonfire on midsummer night, a Johannissprung, rather than a celebration of the day itself, but I felt quite like jumping high after 10 weeks with the Opera in Depth students on Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, culminating in our own Johannistag two Mondays back, a good few months before the eagerly-anticipated time itself.

Our constant companions have been three DVDs and snippets from the seven recordings I possess, and over time it became clear which stood out among the others. None of the films matched up to Richard Jones's ENO production throughout. Stefan Herheim's Salzburg staging is far too mannered to home in on the human qualities of its leading characters; we watched wildly overacting chorenes and/or actors around David in Act One and an expressionistic handling of Act Two's opening scenes. McVicar's Glyndebourne show is beautifully filmed by Francois Roussillon, but I already knew its shortcomings, namely some serious miscasting - less in Gerald Finley's Sachs than in the Eva and Walter - and a cramped , unfocused final scene. I used it for the scenes with Beckmesser, since Johannes Martin Kränzle is the real star.

The cameraman for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Zurich Meistersinger wanders all over the place and tries too many arty angles, but there's definitely a core here. When I saw that team in concert on the South Bank, José van Dam's Sachs seemed a little blunted in timbre, but he's such a sympathetic actor and makes us believe so in Sachs's serious disillusionment that the decision to help his love-rival seems all the more heroic. And who could not warm to Peter Seiffert's Walter? Michael Volle's Beckmesser is all the better, too, for being a real person, the proper mixture of arrogance, nastiness and insecurity. More gravitas needed from Welser-Möst, but there's plenty in an oddly disconcerting - but not unjubilant - final scene with hints of Regensburg's neoclassical Valhalla and the chorus in contemporary casual dress (I see our Lottie in there from time to time, too).

When I compared Parsifals for Radio 3's Building a Library, the leader was crystal-clear: Kubelik's studio recording with a perfect cast, only buried for decades because of Karajan's jealous machinations. And Kubelik's 1967 Meistersinger comes out on top for me, too. I wouldn't chuck out my Karajan, especially for the midsummer night tenderness of Act 2 and the Staatskapelle Dresden sound which seems to move him to more warmth than usual. Norman Bailey is good for majestic Goodall and majestic for bumpy Solti, while the old Kempe moves so easily and has the best Eva in Elisabeth Grümmer. But Kubelik's cast is the best overall, and while Gundula Janowitz is a bit tremulous in the bigger Wagnerian moments, she lights up the conversations and the best quintet since Elisabeth Schumann, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr et al for Barbirolli. So three more cheers for Arts Archives in keeping this recording in the catalogues.

We've all of us, I think, been on a high - one student said he left every week walking on air - and we've also been lucky in picking one of the great operatic achievements of recent years. Richard Jones again showed incredible generosity in coming to talk; I little thought, years back, when he picked my brains on Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, that he'd return the complement with three visits to date. It would be indiscreet to cite his characteristically unexpected views on wider issues, but I can precis a few highlights.

I started by asking him if he found himself moved on first night, as so many of us were again and again. Oh no, he replied, much too worried. About? The minute and a half's scene change in Act Three: it had never been right in rehearsals and he couldn't rest until it worked on the night. He talked a bit about backstories, a part of his work I know from what singers told me about the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier and from what he himself had told the class about Gloriana. Chief surprise this time was to find out that Sachs's mistress had been absent from Nuremberg for six weeks, which was why he found himself more than usually susceptible to young Eva's charms.

We asked him about changes since the Welsh National Opera production. The last-act set, for a start, and the romping of the principals, finally allowed - Beckmesser included - to step Mozart-like out of character as they held up their historical figures on the placards. And I didn't remember Beckmesser being starkers with only a mandolin to cover his privates. That was thanks to Andrew Shore's willingness, he told us: he'd seen him naked, very movingly, in Tippett's King Priam, suggested it to him and Shore agreed. We must get him along to talk, said Richard: such a nice man, and so many interesting ideas especially about English text (Shore's Beckmesser pictured below with Iain Paterson's revelatory Sachs by Catherine Ashmore for ENO).

Classic Jones: 'the libretto is a bit Rupert Bear' (the other analogy out of the two choicest it would be indiscreet to reproduce). I asked him why Eva's arch line about 'the trouble I have with men' wasn't supertitled: he doesn't like it. Did the audience laugh at it? Not much, I said. Good. And he doesn't care at all for Sachs's self-regarding Tristan/King Marke reference. Would he do it again? No, it doesn't leave enough scope for the director's ideas. The Ring he definitely wants to tackle once more. When he visited to talk about Gloriana, he was looking forward, albeit  to Tristan und Isolde. Now he's rejected it: he spent two months with those two characters in the second act, and couldn't decide what to do with them. Christof Loy's Royal Opera production got it pretty much right, he thought, and that decided it.

I know what big operatic project we can expect next, because we had a dramaturgical pow-wow about it in Carluccio's near the Barbican: Musorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera with Bryn Terfel and Pappano (this is hardly confidential news as I've seen it touted in various biographies). Despite agreeing that the Polish act was so wonderful, brought a different atmosphere to the piece, he's since decided on the 1869 original. Apparently my thoughts on the bells in three scenes have been helpful. We talked Sondheim - 'his' cast had just been on a reunion outing to see the film, would love to have been a fly on the wall then - and he's interested in Follies, having had a long chat with the Old Vic's Matthew Warchus (I think because Warchus had done it in New York). Imminently, of course, there's an adaptation of Kafka's The Trial at the Young Vic with Rory Kinnear: our doughty director, after having watched 2000 episodes of a certain telly classic for a putative project in the States, has just spent two weeks agonising over the novel's adaptation.

Meanwhile the opera class moves on to two summer specials: Rossini's Guillaume Tell, which I'd originally thought of devoting a whole term to, and Strauss's Intermezzo, in anticipation of Garsington's production.

Do join us at the fabulous Frontline Club or leave a message here - I needn't send it live - if you want to contact me about it. We kick off again on the 20th. And listen to my Building a Library on Sibelius's Fourth Symphony on Saturday (I wrote something about the background on The Arts Desk). It will be up thereafter in perpetuity* and downloadable as a podcast, so plenty of time to hear it.

*14/4: Here it is in 'clip' form, which presumably outlives the 28 day format.