Tuesday 28 February 2017


Péter Esterházy, the author of one of the most fascinating works of literature I've ever read, would probably approve of me starting back-to-front with a footnote. I was curious to read in Celestial Harmonies, a masterpiece which reads as an experimental novel but isn't (novel, that is; it's certainly experimental), of his ancestor Count Ferenc (Franz) Esterházy (1715-85). Could two works be more different than Mozart's astonishing Masonic Funeral Music, written for Ferenc, and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, whose Octavian is avowedly modelled on the Count, taking his pet name of Quinquin? I wanted to know more about the man for one of my Rosenkavalier classes at the Frontline, but what did a Google search bring up first? The above, a sparkling Rosé from the Esterházy estates. Here's the only portrait of 'Quinquin' Esterházy I could find, clearly past his dapper, bed-hopping prime.

 The palace at Eisenstadt, by the way, is a rather ugly affair on the outside, so much so that the only angle I could find remotely attractive when we visited some years ago was from Liszt's statue opposite.

But I realise I'm postponing the inevitable, when I have to try and get to grips with Celestial Harmonies. I came to read it after being fascinated by Esterházy's text for Péter Eötvös's Halleluja: Oratorium Balbulum, which I had the good fortune to hear at its first Budapest performance. The playful, absurd hopping-about in time when dealing with a serious subject was something I'd never encountered before. Below, Eötvös (left) and Esterházy pictured together by Szilvia Csibi for Müpa Budapest not long before the writer's death last July.

The usual hyperbole about an author being born to write a certain book may even be true in this case: Peter Esterházy had to write Celestial Harmonies at some point in his amazing literary career. His singular fate was to be born dispossessed into a significant family shorn of significance, a weird combination, as he points out in a terse but typically teasing Q&A, of the Kennedys, Rockefellers and Rothschilds placed at a different point in history. As he writes in the book, 'My father, as I have often heard and read in the family records (for it was a recurrent motif of epic proportions), was the first Esterházy in centuries to have come into the world without rank and means.'

His father's history is complicated: he and his beautiful wife kept the family going through the worst times, and were able to turn their hands to manual labour when kicked out of Budapest in the forced resettlements; but he turns out to have been a spy for the regime, reporting on folk - when Esterházy junior discovered the fact (apparently after writing Celestial Harmonies), he wrote an 'appendix' entitled 'Revised Edition' - a revision of his attitude - called III/III, the internal security department of the Ministry of the Interior (please could Judith Sollosy, the seemingly excellent translator of Harmonia Caelestis, the original title which might have been retained, give us an English version of III/III too, please?). Nevertheless the fact remained that he was a good father, and the complex portrait is a complicated one.

Complicated hugely, in fact, by the book's first part, where 'my father' turns out to be multiple Esterházys through history, subject to the 'leapfrogging through time' which is Esterházy the writer's preferred, non linear mode. He tells us he had to restrain himself from doing more of it in Part Two, which is essentially the narrative of his father's and grandfather's lives, and his childhood experiences (he still can't help himself occasionally, and I wish he had, for the most part, even if older anecdotes are recalled by his own remembered scenes).

In order to try and get a grip on all the riches I'd half-digested - and it really was the most extraordinary feeling to get to the end of the book - as well as to try and ingest Esterházy's elusive style, I wrote into a notebook most of the passages I'd underlined and marked up. Further whittling, here are some of the half-ironical apercus and some of the perceptions of past Esterházy behaviour that make up Part One (bearing in mind that the author is often speaking as the voice of earlier Esterházy sons, and sometimes as the fathers).

What makes a family a family is that they can and dare say: we.

History belongs to the victors, legends to the people, fantasy to literature. Only death is certain.

We do not value other people's truth when it stands in opposition to our own falsehood.

The past belongs to us not because it is glorious, but because it is ours, We are rich, and this sort of wealth is an aid to freedom.

The common folk are so prejudiced in favour of great lords, in favour of my father, in favour of his facial expression, tone of voice and conduct in general, that indeed it would amount to idolatry if only once, just once, it ever entered my father's head to be a good man,

More importantly - or, if there's such a thing as tragedy, then more tragically - I have lost my solidarity with Hungarian society. Who is there to sympathise with? The dishonest bourgeoisie? The greedy and brutally selfish peasantry? The uneducated working class? As for my own class, there's no class any more, just a couple of individuals as far as I'm concerned.

In the 18th century my father did away with religion, in the 19th century he did away with God, in the 20th century he did away with man.

Society does not insist on principles as long as its style is not meddled with, as long as the 'delinquent' is able to come up with the right packaging.

(On large palatial rooms; pictured above: the Haydnsaal at Eisenstadt) Space is drama. It is rich and desolate. Empty. And melancholy, too. But always participatory, creative (active, constructive). It is always in motion.

When they were close enough to the big fish to swallow them up if it felt like it, but didn't, they swam back to the others and resumed their daily activities with (relative) equanimity (love, life, culture, God, homeland, family, or when he (my father) was young, soccer, followed by defence of the homeland). 

Something tells me, my father said, after wracking his brain long and fruitlessly, that the most sacred thing of all is the thing we do not recall.

Though the author dealt with real life, he thinks it ought to be read as a novel; in other words, without asking either more or less of it than a novel can give (everything)...This is in part that book; but only in part, because the memory is finite and unreliable, and because books drawn from real life are often no more than feeble glimpses and fragments of the things we have seen and heard.

The wisdoms and paradoxes are no less rich in Part Two, but here it's the scenes and transfigured memories of family life that make the 'memoir' seem more novelistic. And the structure becomes more apparent - especially towards the end, where having seen his parents' turning to labour and resourcefulness in poverty, Esterházy gives us a long last scene in which his father takes the family to dine in a posh Budapest restaurant and impersonates Austro-German nobility (drawing from his family's history when all traces seem to have been obliterated by the communists).

The introduction is typical:

It was around this time that Budapest ceased to be. The city had stopped remembering itself. It disappeared. It was lost to sight, you couldn't see where it was, where it came from or where it was headed. Some restaurants, however, lagged behind the city and the people. 

We follow the family's enchantment with the father's act, and share their gradual realisation that his dazzling 'fairy light' is due to an increasingly drunken mind. So the final pages decrescendo via the threat of bad behaviour to the low-key walk home from a spoiled afternoon. A superlative way to end, and it left me reeling. Moving on to the next book, Orhan Pamuk's Norton lectures gathered together as The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, I found so much concordance between Pamuk's almost mystical sense of the "hidden centre" of a novel and Esterházy's genius working in ways. Maybe there's room for more on the Pamuk front here, but in the meantime the dust needs to settle a little.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Anselm Kiefer noch einmal

And this time the amazement was total. I found myself knocked for six by the big show at the Royal Academy in 2014, not least for the revelation of Kiefer's connection to the world of German mythology via Wagner. But in a way this show at the White Cube Bermondsey is more of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in that it's like one a series of giant stage sets for the Ring I hope Kiefer will eventually design. Except that you're not so much a spectator as a participant; this is site-specific theatre.

As I wrote in the earlier blog entry, it would be difficult to imagine his vision subdued to the musical whole, and as spectators you'd lose the walk-round dimension (unless the whole thing were to be done along the lines of Graham Vick's stupendous Birmingham approach, opera reimagined). But in a chat with great director Richard Jones last week - we're exchanging ideas about Parsifal prior to a production he's preparing for Paris next year - I was convinced by what he said about a possible parity between artist and director being of the essence; then it could work. He'd wanted that with Zaha Hadid, but threw in the towel when she told him she was sending two architectural associates along to work on the project: quite rightly, he replied that it had to be her or nothing. So it was nothing.

But to the show. Once we'd waited in the long queues on the last weekend - White Cube is a private venture, so this had to be the best free-admission show in town - it was like walking into a Tardis. In other words, I had no idea that the gallery space was so enormous. 'Walhalla' is written above the entrance, promising links both to the mythology and that extraordinary neoclassical construction (also titled with the 'W') which I'd love to see outside Regensburg, begun under the supervision of Leo von Klenze in 1830. But what you get, to begin with, is a dimly lit tunnel full of crumpled lead beds. The photos here are going to be a mix of White Cube images (WC, with the photographer credited), several others supplied by the gallery and mine own, sans flash, to give some alternative angles (DN). The top pic is by Georges Poncet, the below WC/Ben Westoby.

Off this hallway are light rooms to the left and dark to the right. Three giant Walhalla canvases dominate the first. The tottering towers of the gods are based on the rubble towers in his studio at Croissy (I'd love to go). The materials as usual are thickly encrusted, a mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, clay and lead (WC/BW).

There's a parallel, albeit on a gigantic scale, to the ruined buildings depicted by John Piper, though he lived through two world wars. Born in a rubbled Donaueschingen on 8 March 1945, Kiefer sees the rebirth inherent in ruins (just as Wagner does, indeed, at the very end of the Ring, where Sieglinde's big theme is a rather more definitive anticipation of Kiefer's more lyrical strokes and colours). 'In the beginning is the end and in the end is the beginning,' perhaps his most famous quotation, matches the definition of painting as 'a ceaseless shuttling back and then forth between nothing and something, a constant going from one state to the other'. The dynamism is especially pertinent if you view the paintings from the sides, like sculpture, where paint or metal is seen to hang off; hence many of my own prying photo investigations.

Second room on the left, the '9 x 9 x 9 x 9' gallery is dominated by a rusting metal spiral staircase, strips of film reel hanging from the lower rails and dirty coats on wire coat hangers; despite the religious title, referring to the Sursum corda or 'lift up your hearts; of the Eucharist, this is Kiefer's decadent vision of the Valkyries ascending to Valhalla, discarding their robes as they go (DN).

Darker chambers lead off to the right. Philemon in stasis (WC/George Darrell) is unexplained: is this the old man of mythology?

Likewise San Loreto (WC/GD), I presume a reference to the casa santa which took off from Bethlehem and landed just off the Adriatic coast of Italy.

In between Kiefer's Arsenal (WC/GD) is a dark cabinet of curiosities with more of the spooling films at the end.

You get to rootle around in here, visually. Needless to say Siegmund/Siegfried's discarded sword caught the eye; it's cropped up in Kiefer's canvases since the 1970s. This might have been the way Sieglinde bundled up the bits of the shattered sword to entrust to safe keeping (DN)

Maybe this is Kiefer's room of picture-props. Never seen the Lorelei depicted in any of his paintings, but the reference is typical of his occasional jokes (DN).

Theatre on the biggest scale comes last, in a vast space divided into two. The characters in the giant dramas are suggested by objects or composites in vitrines, all crucially changed by what angle you view them from, and what you see behind them. This is the left side of the first division (WC/GD).

The two canvases at either end are among the most powerful. This Walhalla (oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac and clay) is informed by blue and gold, and repays closer/sideways inspection (DN).

Likewise Gehäutete Landschaft (Peeled Landscape) at the opposite end, which I originally misread as Amfortas, and that rooted it in my mind - I cling to the vision - as Parsifal Act 3 (GP).

Is the grey-black cloud sweeping over the flower studded landscape or leaving it? Let's leave the window open for optimism (DN).

And here is our dramatis personae: Brünnhilde (Kiefer spells is with one 'n'), fecund if of dried plants (WC/BD);

Thor (DN);

and Amfortas, or rather the chair of the invalid (DN),

with a lead, glass and metal 'wound' hanging over him (Todd-Waite Art Photography).

The oppressive 'cloud' is repeated above Brünnhilde's rock in the next subdivided space (Brünhildes Fels, WC/GD)

with the previous room's Walhalla as a fine hint of backdrop (DN)

or, if you prefer, the grimmer canvas we're coming to shortly (DN).

Next, Freias Garten, at the withered stage the Gods fear in Das Rheingold - but the few apples are still gold (WC/BW).

The neighbouring Walhalla is the most oppressive of the series: destruction before regeneration (WC/BW)

A big difference here from the side in perhaps the most sculptural of all the canvases (DN).

The Valhallan edifices are smoking brown in Böse Blumen (DN),

the flower-towers labelled with historical names. Make what you will of the Empress Maria Theres(i)a tagged on the central one (DN).

Maybe Hojotoho, Hojotoho, Heiaha, Heiaha shouldn't have made me laugh, but there's black humour in the Valkyrie's ride all crashed up in a pile of bicycles (DN).

Here they are again, echoing Sursum corda,in a more upright representation (WC/BW).

And there's one more epic Walhalla with roads leading to a vanishing point (DN).

I was curious that there were quite a few older-generation German speakers moving with intense concentration around the exhibition (DN).

I could have gone on to catalogue every item, each of which changes its dramatic meaning according to the angle you view it from, but these will suffice. All I know is that if ever, and wherever, Kiefer collaborates with a very special director on Wagner, be it the Ring or Parsifal, I'll move heaven and earth to get there and see it.

And on a less lofty note, we came straight out and headed to a flawless restaurant, Pizarro (go!), just down the road. Bermondsey Street may be hipsterville, but I like it.

Sunday 19 February 2017

More great guests at the Frontline Club

Following his final performance as the best Music Director of English National Opera in my memory, Mark Wigglesworth paid another visit to my Opera in Depth class at the Frontline Club in November.

Student Frances Marshall, a professional photographer who recently took stunning photos of the wedding of a certain bass friend and the Salzburg love of his life, brought along her camera and caught a couple of great shots, including the one above, which another visitor, Susan Bullock, thought was Mark to the life - pensive, deep-thinking.

More recently, spending what now turns out to be nine glorious Monday afternoons on Der Rosenkavalier, we were blessed to have Dame Felicity Lott coming to talk Strauss. Distinguished film and documentary maker David Thompson managed some pics from his seat front left.

And last week Richard Jones returned with typically off-centre thoughts on his Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier. This photo is of a previous visit as I didn't want to wear him out with student paparazzi. He's a lot smilier these days, so wry and funny.

Fortunately the wisdom of all three is captured, with their consent, on my mp3 player - I hope I'll have cause to revisit and transcribe some time. The main thing to mark is the departure of Messrs Wigglesworth and Jones from the ENO fold - the present CEO hasn't earned the respect of either, and should be ashamed of herself for letting them go. So much to lament here. This season's Don Giovanni was their first collaboration, and while Mark is never lost for words to praise his colleague, Richard said he was - adding only, 'what class'. When he said that he wouldn't tackle the other two Mozart/Da Ponte operas, I asked him, not even with MW? Oh yes, with him, definitely, came the reply. We've also lost the collaboration on The Gondoliers - a work Carlos Kleiber longed to conduct at ENO, gospel truth - and Elektra.

FLott still has the performer's instinct - she's havering over whether to play the Devil in a Belgian company's Stravinsky Soldier's Tale, in the French she speaks so beautifully, and to see her react to recordings of Crespin and Lehmann, as well as the recording she made of the Rosenkavalier Trio with Dessay, Kirchschlager and Pappano, was very, very moving. So were her readings of three texts I'd translated. Memories of C Kleiber were so precious - always the greatest for her, as well as for the rest of us watching their Vienna Rosenkavalier on DVD. No wonder she can't tolerate slow, maudlin tempi for the Marschallin. He used to sign himself 'Uncle Greifenklau' after the relative the Marschallin tells us she's intending to visit. Huge fun - he looks it on screen - and very amusing anecdotes, including one about Pavarotti replacing the usual Italian Tenor for a performance. You can imagine he didn't take to the Kleiber style.

It's also encouraging to hear all three guests speak so warmly and enthusiastically of the best young performers coming through the ranks. FLott had been giving masterclasses at the Carnegie Hall under Marilyn Horne's guidance, did a wicked impersonation of a young soprano hitting that rapturous Strauss Lied 'Cäcilie' as if it were a nagging lecture, complete with witchy finger-jabbing. But clearly she's kind and supportive to the talented. It will do the wonderful Miranda Keys good to know how much FL admired her Duenna, and of course she's a great admirer of Louise Alder, now learning her trade in Frankfurt. The future is golden, so long as there's financing to follow it.

Which allows me to slip in a photo featuring some of my favourite twentysomething musicians. The Philharmonia Friends in the interval of Paavo Järvi's utterly engaging concert with the Philharmonia the other week didn't know what hit them when youth and beauty, a mixture of Estonians and Brits, stepped into the Level 5 reception room. The lights of the former Chelsfield Room turned them green, so I made the pic black and white (the focus isn't great as we were being hurried back to our seats and the flash wouldn't go off).

Here are three violinists - Marike Kruup on the left and her partner Benjamin Baker, second from right, as well as Jess Wadley next to him; a cellist turned agent, Maarit Kangron; a bassoonist who's also a brilliant organiser, Tea Tuhkur, my most delightful companion for the evening; and a cellist turned conductor, Jonathan Bloxham (also boyfriend of the glamorous Jess).

The programme deserves more than a mention. The first half worked at a level of communication and humour you don't often encounter, here in Haydn's Symphony No. 101 ('Clock') and Beethoven's Triple Concerto, a piece that normally loses me for whole swathes. No chance of that with Christian and Tania Tetzlaff making chamber music alongside Lars Vogt. If you sometimes strained to catch it, that was no bad thing. And what an absolute masterpiece the Haydn is, like all its late counterparts.

If Paavo's Nielsen Sixth (the conductor pictured above by Jean Christophe Uhl) wasn't the greatest performance I've heard live, that was probably because the Philharmonia, or at least its strings, needed another rehearsal or two to truly let rip. But as an interpretation, it brought out all the timely mania and discombobulation in this amazingly modernistic piece, a beacon, surely, for Shostakovich in his Fourth and Fifteenth Symphonies (though I've never found any evidence that DDS knew it).

But I digress. Back, finally, to the visitors. Jones's Rosenkavalier is returning to Glyndebourne next year - I already knew this - though directed by his very talented assistant Sara Fahie. He'd like to change quite a bit in Act One and wouldn't stay for the screening of the Levee, which he thinks needs more focus, though the students loved it. It was good to hear him standing up for Tara Erraught, and interesting to hear him say that it should have been Glyndebourne's responsibility to back her up; as he rightly points out, she has a fabulous gift for comedy, especially as 'Mariandel'. 

Sad to hear that the great Lars Woldt, perhaps the most lovable oaf of all Ochses, has retired from the role now. Here he is with Erraught, Ochs and Octavian being kept apart by Kate Royal's very attractive Marschallin - a photo by Bill Cooper of the 2015 production. The Feldmarschall in the left of the two portraits on the wall, by the way, is a former member of the stage crew, much admired by Richard, who took off for a year to travel round the world.

And then, of course, we went on to the end of the act with FLott and Von Otter, neither needing direction - nor did they get it from lazy old Otto Schenk - to communicate supreme eloquence, with Kleiber as the dramaturg. This version on YouTube breaks things up into 10 minute chunks, and there are no subtitles, but it does have the advantage of starting at the crucial soliloquy.

Three more glorious weeks to go, then all too little time on Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden. Summer term will be devoted to Otello and Pelléas et Mélisande - contact me if you'd like to come by leaving a comment here with your e-mail; I won't publish but I promise to get back to you. Special guests TBC. Will Jonas sing the Moor? Kinda sad he cancelled the one concert in the Barbican residency I was going to - though as fellow critic Neil Fisher pointed out, 'I really can't wait to hear a tenor sing the Four Last Songs' is not a comment you're ever likely to hear...