Friday 28 April 2017

Well chosen, BBC Music Magazine

I wasn't able to be at the BBC Music Magazine awards this year - too busy Snow Maidening in Paris - but at the end of my write-up of last year's ceremony, I pointed out that the Smetana Trio's disc of Martinů Trios was already on my shortlist for best of the year already (pictured above, violinist Jiří Vodička, pianist Jitka Cechová and cellist Jan Pálenícek) . It won the chamber music category at the 2017 awards, and Czechia has been going wild with excitement. What it probably doesn't know is the golden thread that led to the nomination - my Czech friend Jan sending me the disc, my pressing it on reviews editor Rebecca Franks so that it made the pages as another glorious Supraphon issue that might have been in for an award, of Martinů's Ariane and Double Concerto mentioned here, didn't.

As a Martinůmaniac, I'm of the opinion that Maxim Rysanov's disc of sonata, duos and Rhapsody-Concerto could also have won the previous year, and this absolutely delicious tetralogy of cantatas ought to do so in 2018 (that review isn't found on the hopeless BBCMM search engine).

Golden times for the reassessment of the last towering figure of the 20th century not to be widely acknowledged as such. And on 9 May you can hear Nicola Said reprise her Ariane in the final scene from that little masterpiece at this year's Europe Day Concert in St John's Smith Square. That's all I'm saying on the subject for now.

Frankly I'd have chosen the trios disc as the top award over Vasily Petrenko's Tchaikovsky Symphonies 1, 2 and 5, though I'm proud that I enthused over that one, too, in the pages of the magazine (again, the search engine on the BBCMM website doesn't locate it). The May issue had a riven choice over raves - which should be Recording of the Month, Paavo Järvi's Strauss Heldenleben and Don Juan with the stunning NHK Symphony Orchestra, or 87-year-old Bernard Haitink's latest Mahler 3? Rebecca went with Paavo in the end. And in the June issue there's going to be a spotlight on another stunner, leader of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Terje Tønnesen's transcriptions for string orchestra of the two Janáček quartets, the First also to be heard in the context of a thrilling adaptation of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata read in both English - brilliantly - and Norwegian by the actor Teodor Janson. It's the luck of the draw - months can pass with only three-star-max discs, and then all these glories come along at once.

Anyway, I'm proud that the magazine continues to flourish in difficult times. And now, on the BBC front, we have the Proms to get excited about - for me, it's one of the best seasons on paper for years. The launch is always fun, and that was another one I had to miss last week. A single highlight for me? Jakub Hrůša's all-Czech variations on a Hussite chorale with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 26 August. On 13 August, before a double whammy of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony in the main Prom and the Vespers sung by the brilliant Latvian Radio Choir in the late-nighter,  I'll be talking about the composer's use of Russian Orthodox chant in his orchestral music.

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Parisian Snow Maiden: into the Bastille woods

Dyed Moroz, Old Man Frost, had released his icy grip - but not his cold east wind - when we arrived in Paris for six days which grew progressively warmer and then decreasingly sunnier over the weekend (Friday was the zenith, a day I'll never forget). And this was the year in which I got to see Rimsky-Korsakov's Snegurochka, The Snow Maiden, La fille de neige, call it what you will where you will, on stage not just for the first but also the second time - after Opera North, the Opéra National de Paris mounted it in more lavish style, and with world-class singers, but not necessarily more truthfully. Gergiev brought a Kirov concert performance to London, what, two decades ago now, from which I remember chiefly the shepherd-boy Lel of the young Yekaterina Semenchuk. She was down to sing Spring Beauty at the Bastille, while a strong counter-tenor many may remember as runner-up in the 2009 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Ukrainian Yuriy Mynenko, was cast in the trousers role.

He appeared (pictured above in the second of five images for the Opéra by Elisa Haberer); Semenchuk didn't - though it would be hard to imagine a more authoritative bouffanted grande dame than Elena Manistina - and nor did Ramón Vargas, whose role of the aged and here ineffectual Tsar Berendey was taken by another stalwart Ukrainian, Maxin Paster, who cranked up well but didn't get his second aria. Director Dmitry Tcherniakov went for more of the score than John Fulljames in the Opera North production earlier this year, but made some odder cuts: chiefly the best-known number in the score, the Dance of the Tumblers/Skomorokhi, which at least appeared as an Entr'acte in Leeds (as some compensation, we did get the quirky little march of the Berendeyans, and I loved the 'heralds' singing through megaphones).

The imaginative Russian usually ends up bending the scenario to his will in a way that ultimately doesn't always serve the music best. His idea here was that the thuggish merchant Mizgir is incapable of being enchanted, so no magic spell cast on him when he first claps eyes on Snegurochka. Nor can she succumb to his passion in the end, so the great love duet of capitulation becomes a struggle, which deprives the singing of its conviction (Snegurochka and Mizgir pictured below, in the second of four images for the Opéra by Elisa Haberer).

No, this Snow Maiden loves Lel to the end and is seen slowly dying through the second half of the opera (Acts Two, Three and Four). A sacrificial victim like Stravinsky/Roerich/Nijinsky's Chosen Maiden, she doesn't melt with love and the first rays of the sun but drops down dead, lying there at the front of the stage while everyone ignores her in a stomping dance with a fake fire sun rather than a real one at the end.

That didn't work for me, and as a whole, to my surprise, I'd rate Fulljames' balance of magic - those video projections, exquisite - and realism higher. But in every respect the vitally beautiful Aida Garifullina was Snegurochka incarnate; our hearts went out to her from the start. She was, of course, one of my two work-related pretexts for spending nearly a week in Paris; the interview, a total delight, will appear soon on The Arts Desk. That crystalline lyric voice carried even in the horrid vasts of the Bastille Opera (not all the choruses crossed the proscenium arch, though the soloists were mostly clear). And at least Tcherniakov forsook his beloved grim, realistic interiors, which always look good in the director-designer's work but aren't always apt. We entered the auditorium to witness a forest community complete with caravans and dacha-houses, dwarfed by enormous pine trees which rose to the full height of the stage and went back as far as the eye could see. That kept us happy while the Prologue unfolded in a smart (stage?) school where Madame Spring put her proteges delightfully through their paces as a chorus of birds (pictured below).

Veteran Vladimir Ognovenko - whom I think I last saw at the Bastille as a gruff Kutuzov in Prokofiev's War and Peace - is as easy on stage as Manistina, plausibly an old couple whose late-flowering love-affair went awry. Mynenko sings as artistically as any counter-tenor could as long-haired, slightly repulsive Lel, but I'd still prefer a fruity mezzo; Heather Lowe for Opera North looked just like a teenage boy, but didn't have the dark Slavic colour). There was luxury casting for the 'other' soprano, sensuous, experienced village girl Kupava, in the shape of dramatic soprano Martina Serafin, whose Marschallin in Vienna was Crespinesque and who totally redeemed an otherwise dreadful production of a dreadful opera, Giordano's Andrea Chénier, in Zurich (I've not seen her Tosca and wonder whether she really still has the top for Turandot). Neither as youthful nor as hilariously crazy as Elin Pritchard in Leeds, she still produced beautiful sounds and relaxed, intelligent acting. That's her in the middle of the ensemble scene pictured below. The real let-down was baritone Thomas Johannes Meyer's Mizgir, brutal and constricted beyond the call of duty.

I wasn't entirely convinced by the conducting of the Mikhailovsky Theatre's Mikhail Tatarnikov; as with Leo McFall in Leeds, there were times when the score could afford to expand more opulently, and the last duet felt rushed - didn't help that it was cut in half. The first oboe was having a bad night, too, with many notes not coming out. But perhaps the most bewitching scene in the entire score, the desperate Snegurochka's summoning of her vernal mamma, really glowed, and it produced the most beautiful tableau, too, as the forest constantly revolved. For symmetry's sake, it might have been better to return to the school room, and the forest was stuck there for the scene in Berendey's court, too; but this was the highlight for most of the audience, and it's the scene that Garifullina loves best, too.

Anyway, I'm glad Tcherniakov is making a case for the best Rimsky-Korsakov in Paris, rekindling earlier glory days at the beginning of the 20th century, and we need it at the Royal Opera too. High time they engaged Garifullina before she's booked up entirely; and in earlier days a complete Decca recording would have been built around such perfect casting, She told me in our wonderful interview on Sunday that her next wish is to sing Manon in Vienna, but I'd be even more delighted if somewhere like Glyndebourne would stage Strauss's Daphne for her; I'm sure she could manage that lighter soprano role among his operas already. So, exciting times ahead, and they couldn't happen to a lovelier person. I'll put in a link here when the interview's up and running; and needless to say much remains to be written here about Paris in the springtime, even if I haven't finished with Oslo, Amsterdam, Gloucester or Tallinn yet...

Sunday 16 April 2017

Three resurrections

Two are the semi-comic ones of Captain Grimes and Paul Pennyfeather, or so Evelyn Waugh similarly titles them as chapter-headings in Decline and Fall. To describe the form they take would spoil the pleasure of the absurd plot, if you haven't read the book or watched the new BBC three-parter. I do remember at university wondering why on earth we were studying such pieces of fluff as this and Vile Bodies, but the serialisation reinforced that the dialogue is so crisp, sharp and laugh-out-loud funny.

All credit to the director and cast for making it consistently so on the screen. I think lad-comedian Jack Whitehall surprised everyone with his pitch-perfect Paul, and though I saw other performances traduced for being too broad-brushstroke, that's surely how Waugh paints them. The main thing, again, is that I laughed a lot at Douglas Hodge's unsquashable Grimes, David Suchet's Dr Fagan ('it do, it do' being one of the funniest rejoinders in the whole thing - you need the context), Stephen Graham's Philbrick and sundry minor caricatures. I warmly agree with every word of Mark Sanderson's review on The Arts Desk. I could ask no more of it than the fact that I've gone back to my old Penguin copy (pictured up top), and who knows, I might continue with a Waugh binge.

'The' resurrection, about which I feel a little like Philip Pullman in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is a bit of a sticking point. Can we just take it as a metaphor or a parable, as Rupert Shortt suggests in his otherwise unproblematic (for me) God is No Thing? Perhaps, at least on Easter Day, when we need a 'triumphant' shout after the suffering of the Passion. Anyway, it allows me to put up one more detail from the glorious Vyšší Brod Brod altarpiece, and this superb minimalistic finale of Rachmaninov's Suite No. 1 for two pianos, eventually matching the bellsong of the happy morn with the same 'Christ is Risen' chant Rimsky-Korsakov uses in his Russian Easter Festival Orchestra. Forgive the poor picture, but the sound and performance of Lilya Zilberstein and Martha Argerich are terrific here.

In the meantime, I leave you with a somewhat sacrilegious Easter greeting - either message may be adopted - which has been widely circulated by us from home today.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Easter interstitial

So here we are still in London, and not in Norfolk as planned - J has a cold. No matter; it's good to be at home after a week of rushing around Europe. And I always love the reflective period before Easter itself. Very happy, in looking for images to accompany my review of the Dvořák Requiem on Thursday, to have rediscovered a masterpiece which stunned me when we spent Christmas in Prague back in 1990, the altarpiece from the Vyšší Brod Monastery. My Czech friend Jan reminded me of it in sending a postcard of the above, taken from the depiction of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.

The mourners at the cross are expressive, too.

We spent an hour and a half of contemplation on that theme yesterday afternoon in Westminster Abbey. Our dear Spanish friend María Jesús wanted to meet up, and though I fear we let her in for a longer ritual than any of us had expected, I hope she found it a treat. Anyway, we did get to chat over tea afterwards. That's Giotto's great crucifixion on the order of service cover, of course.

Certainly it was surprising to find that the congregation queueing and then packed in around the central tower didn't consist of casual tourists, but a plethora of believers (among which I do not count myself, however much I take from the Passion narrative). Indeed, the number of folk wanting to venerate the cross meant the whole service took much longer than expected (the Communion was more streamlined, with priests serving both aisles). Never come across this business before - nor has J, with his Catholic upbringing - and found it all a bit mumbo-jumbo-y, but then I guess so are the rituals which I've grown up with since I was a choirboy, and I say the Creed without a second thought.

The order of service cannily embraced a diversity of styles and nations - plainsong, Lutheran and Anglican hymns, and composers Spanish (Victoria - the central St John Passion, in which 'composition' is not much present, but it was splendidly delivered by two tenors, bass and choir), Italian (Lotti) and Austrian (Bruckner). Much as I love anthems like Locus iste, which we sang at Stephen Johnson's and Kate Jones's wedding, I blush to say I didn't know the latter's Christus factus est, and it's a masterpiece, covering so much of the composer's mature style in such a short span. The Westminster Abbey Choir sang it with magnificent fervour in the climaxes. Here it is performed by, of all things, a Japanese high school choir, and very well, though you need to look away from the gurning individual among the boy-men...

Some of the details in John 18 and 19 took me by surprise. Hadn't realised, for instance, that Pontius Pilate did what he could to avert the sacrifice. And this I love: 'When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother: "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple: "Here is your mother". And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.'

On which note, there's a marvellous poem on the Stabat Mater theme by Joseph Brodsky in his Nature morte. I came across it as the third of Estonian-based, Ukrainian-born composer Galina Grigorjeva's settings gathered together under the same name. It was high time I listened to the disc by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir which had been sitting here for too long. Grigorjeva calls the poem 'Who are you,' and here it is.

Mary now speaks to Christ:
'Are you my son? - or God?
You are nailed to the cross.
Where lies my homeward road?

'Can I pass through my gate
not having understood:
Are you dead? - or alive?
Are you my son? - or God?'

Christ speaks to her in turn:

'Whether dead or alive,
woman, it's all the same - 
son or God, I am thine.'

Alas, this setting isn't available on YouTube, but there's a marvellous film there which includes the second setting, 'The Butterfly,' remarkable especially for capturing Grigorjeva's spirit as she talks to the choir about it. I'm waiting for her score of the new and remarkable Vespers I heard premiered in the Niguliste (Church-)Museum last week by the stupendous Vox Clamantis choir. She sent me a very polite email saying she couldn't send it or hand it over just yet because she'd noticed some mistakes. A composer of obvious and rare integrity.

Finally, a few more seasonal flora shots from the cycle home after the service yesterday - tulips in the meadow arrangement in front of Clarence House

and wisteria backed by white lilac - both out already - in Launceston Place, the magical street which runs parallel to Gloucester Road.

Friday 14 April 2017

Estonia's first spring flower

This is Hepatica nobilis, known by us rather unpoetically for such a beauty as liver leaf or crystal wort and by Estonians simply as 'blue flower', my friend Andres Kaljuste told me. He has a place on the Lohusalu peninsula not far from Laulasmaa, Arvo Pärt's preferred retreat since he and his wife Nora returned to their beloved homeland from Berlin, bringing all their stuff with them. A new home for that abundance of material was why, on a second visit to Estonian Music Days, Tallinn's big spring festival of new music, a happy band of us were taken to see work on the new Arvo Pärt Centre, to a glorious design of glass and wood by the winning Spanish architects, close to the retreat. Hence one of several photos of Hepatica in the nearby forest.

This isn't the time and place to expand on the trip - I have yet to write up the experience of four fabulous days for The Arts Desk, as I did last year - but a few more nature perspectives in Laulasmaa might not go amiss. From the room at Aliina (for so the house is called, after the first piece Pärt wrote following his long official silence) with a piano,

downwards to one of many lichens on the ground,

and upwards to the larches (note the crane creeping into the picture - that area will be partly cleared, but there's a fine fusion promised between design and nature).

On our way to Laulasmaa, we stopped for a short wander along the cliff above Dagmar Beach.

Here there was no cold wind, and the bushes were more advanced than elsewhere in their budding.

Even so, inland looked forbidding beneath massed clouds.

The spring which had burst in London was not even incipient in Tallinn, where snowdrops still flourish in clumps beneath the tower of Pikk (Tall) Hermann.

This was just before 7pm on my first evening, heading from the hotel to the Niguliste Museum for the first concert along a memorable road I'd not taken before. Moon was up.

With only shoots on the trees, you could still catch atmospheric glimpses of old buildings like Kiek in de Kök.

Been an exhausting week-plus. I returned from Estonia last Sunday night, had only half a day at home to catch up on some work and flew - eventually, since non-running Gatwick Express trains made me miss my first flight - to Amsterdam for a second stint - as Chairman, this time - judging Dutch school orchestras in the Concertgebouw for Orkestival 2017. More on that anon: as with last year, I owe each of the spirited groups of participants a few helpful notes. Flowers remain the theme here, so here's our dear friend Machteld driving me in convoy with her sister Eline, my now-godson Charlie and beloved lapdog Johnny past tulip fields, a spectacular sight even on a grey day.

The excursion followed a leisurely morning at and around mein hosts' home in the Sapharti Park, recorded at a different time elsewhere.

Now the park was green, white and pink

with tulips growing around the monument.

Eline had the inspiration that we should go for lunch in the farmhouse of Keukenhof Manor, a road and a quiet world away from the coaches and cars parked around the famous gardens. It was a delightful interlude, made all the more memorable by our jovial waitress who joined us for a photo outside. I like the slightly chaotic and not entirely flattering spontaneity of this one, which gives us more than li'l Johnny's rear.

There was only time for a quick spin around the grounds as the rain began,

and a glimpse of the sweet old thatched cottage hired out for private functions,

before walking past the last of the magnolias

back to the car for the whizz to the airport. In light of what followed - one and a half hours of unannounced flight delay, then no trains at Luton Airport station, so bus, train, tube - it was an ideal tonic.

Finally, full bloom ahead at Chelsea Physic Garden on the first open Sunday of the year.

Here's a range of exotic Mediterranean and Turkish tulips


the tiniest of narcissi,

early peonies incipient

and one out

as well as the annual blossoming of the Judas Tree

and of the Paulownia lilacensis.

Today's at home for Good Friday, maybe an excursion to Westminster Abbey for 3pm liturgy, and reflection around the (eventually) revelatory Dvořák Requiem I've just reviewed: writing a note on Beethoven's Missa Solemnis for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and listening to Bach yesterday proved perfect preparation.

17/4 Thought the below was a nice addendum, sent to me by Andres' partner Sophia. They're back at Lohusalu for Easter, though all is not entirely tranquil: the building mania that is plaguing the Estonian coast east of Tallinn is threatening an unwelcome addition on the peninsula. Corruption is not unknown in that mostly admirable little country...  Anyway, this is how it was over the weekend - sun and snow.