Monday 29 May 2017

The frogs of Göttingen - and Seeburger See

Anyone who's hung around this blog for a long time may remember my account of first acquaintance with the more unexpected choruses of the Göttingen International Handel Festival, when I fell in love with the symphony of brekekekexes in the University of Göttingen's magical Botanical Gardens. On two subsequent visits, their stridency was rather muted - last year's epiphany with a mallard and his drake made amends - but not this past week. It meant a fair bit of hanging around, though, until I finally saw the above fella on one of the lilypads and, in following his progress, got the full sonic works. There's a lot of jumping, but blink and you'll miss the bubble-gum inflating to make the noise early on.

As I explained in last year's blog, the time of the Festival depends on where in the calendar the Germans' Ascension Day holiday falls. This time we were back to the end of May, when the aquilegias are flourishing

and providing a major source of nectar for the bees.

I actually got a double dose of ranine activity on the first full day of my visit to the Festival this year. Not ideal, sleepwise, since I'd got up at 5.30am on Wednesday morning for an early flight and had to do so at 3.30am on Thursday for the GIHF's second 'sunrise concert'. Still, it had to be done: my all-day Messiaenic birdsong experience at Aldeburgh last year taught me that. So after a stunning performance of  a work which came as a revelation to me, Handel's early (and pre-Bach St Matthew and John) Brockes-Passion on Wednesday evening, I decided it made sense to skip Continuum's late-night event and get something approaching four hours' sleep (by the way, all the events I did attend I'll be writing up on The Arts Desk next weekend).

As at Aldeburgh, the dawn chorus was one attraction. It seemed to be starting up in the tree-lined streets of Göttingen as I walked through the near-darkness at 4am to get the coach to our destination. But on arrival at the Seeburger See 45 minutes later, with the red glow of pre-sunrise across the lake,

the full thing was definitely in full spate. You may not see much of what I could, as  I walked through the woods near the lakeside in this short film, but you'll hear what you need to. Of course, our ranine friends soon come into earshot by a small pond.

Then I joined the few other concertgoers who hadn't gone straight into the warm on arrival

seeing this to the left

and some old boathouses to the right.

The one-hour concert began at 5am on the first floor of the Restaurant Graf Isang (est. 1925), with candles lighting our way upstairs and strategically placed in front of the surprise instrument - a clavichord, no less, the first time I've ever heard one live in concert.

Although the actual programme is the territory of my Arts Desk piece, we must just see young Avinoam Shalev, one of the already more than promising prizewinners in which the GIHF has placed justified faith. Israeli by birth, Hanover trained and now living in The Hague, he led us into a mesmerising meditation on the sounds and colours possible within the quieter end of the dynamic range the instrument inhabits. The sun actually rose behind the willows to our left at about 5.25am, as he was in to the first movement of Haydn's G minor Sonata Hob. XVI: 44. I took this picture, of course, in a break between movements, not during, as no official photographer was present.

A bow to a wildly enthusiastic if necessarily small and select audience: note the bird of prey in the first complete window pane on the left behind our clavichordist.

The sun went behind early morning clouds - by 9am a clear blue sky would emerge - but that didn't deter me from taking my breakfast out on to the terrace.

This turned out to be a good idea, or maybe it was just a case of attracting kindred spirits, because first our coach driver, a very interesting and friendly guy called Jan who'd stood for the whole recital, asked if he could join me. Then Avinoam appeared (pictured left), followed by our chaperone Enno (who said he had to stay out of this picture so as not to block the lake view) and Lisa Kraemer from the GIHF Artists' Office.

So we had a happy time - and there was plenty of it, the coach not due to leave until an hour and a half after the concert - mainly fulminating about Brexit and Trump (the legs you may see in the background belong to a bizarre dummy who had an unfortunate resemblance to the latter). This wasn't the only occasion at Göttingen this year where I have cause to invoke the suitable observation of Kurt Vonnegut's uncle on blessed gatherings in lovely places, 'if this isn't nice, what is?'

In fact that was also true of a last meeting yesterday (Sunday) morning at our favourite haunt in Göttingen, the Cafe Botanik. Pictured here, our wonderful co-ordinator, now a friend, Victoria Viebahn, critic Luca and his friend Christian.

You may also have read on this blog before about the Botanik, still run by an Iranian whose menu is small but perfect. On a hot afternoon I had a refreshing glass of sharbat as well as a hummus plate, and yesterday saffron cake was the only option in the absence of croissants - but delicious.

Inevitably, with less than an hour to go before my train back to Hanover Airport, I had to make a last homage to the frogs, taking Victoria with me, and the inhabitants of the noisiest pond were still to be found.

Their neighbours several blocks to the south set up quite a racket, too, and this time the birds were obliging, both aurally and visually.

So I said this farewell to another inhabitant,

found another bee nectar-sipping, this time in a peony

and noted various positive signs of Germany today - funny, isn't it, how its chancellor is now officially the Leader of the Free World - including this sign in the rather deracinated part of the garden (it's now in need of more finances, and too dependent on volunteers)

and these papers and magazines on a rack inside the Cafe Botanik, snapshotting Obama's meeting with Merkel in Berlin as well as Macron, 'dear friend'*,

 and made my way back to the station via the lovely town museum, currently housing a neat little exhibition on Lutheranism arriving in Göttingen (relatively late, in 1529, with predictably disastrous consequences). Maybe more on that in a future entry, but the ensemble is irresistible.

*It actually turns out to need taking in its other meaning of 'expensive', as two folk have pointed out to me; the subheading is how Macron will cost Germany. But the leader actually ends with the conclusion that togetherness for European countries is the only way ahead.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Paths to Bluebeard's Castle

The performance was the thing, of course, though the paths in question are those I pursued in a Southbank talk preparing for it a couple of Saturdays back. Because of the link, and the fact that I could get tickets that way, I passed the concert review on to my Arts Desk colleague Sebastian Scotney, and I agree with everything there. More on the talk anon; certainly last night vindicated Bartók's chef d'oeuvre as one of the 20th century's towering masterpieces, indeed one of the greatest operas (no need to preface that with 'one-act') in the most nuanced performance I ever hope to hear from the electrifying Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, and - it should go without saying - the most idiomatic, too.

The Bluebeard, Krisztián Cser, was literally jaw-dropping - when he did that, cavernous sounds came from within the genuine bass. He and Ildikó Komlósi - an old hand at Judith, but still one of the classiest - performed out front from memory, no special lighting, no gimmicks. Fischer recited Béla Bálazs' Prologue so beautifully that I decided I want to learn it just to please my Hungarian friends; the orchestra did the castle-sighing. We felt the beauty, the jarring pain, the supernatural flickers in the garden and on the lake of tears. It was yet another of those performances where you could only wonder at what an astounding work it is, how on earth Bartók keeps pulling idea after idea out of the conjurer's hat in such perfect music-drama sequence.

My guest was none other than our Sophie Sarin, on her last evening in the UK for a while - she's off to Sweden now and back to Mali for what may be the last time at her hotel. Never having experienced the opera before - she was shocked by the ending - she managed to slip in rather belatedly that she had 'played' the corpse of one of Bluebeard's wives in a seemingly unobtainable 1982 film based on Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and starring Terence Stamp. Oh, that Sophie! We have, of course, seen her big-hair, shake-it-all-about appearance in the (actually rather good) movie of Jesus Christ Superstar (she happened to be travelling in Israel, where it was filmed, at the time).

But back to the concert. The first half was typical Fischer enterprise, preceding Bartók's Hungarian Peasant Songs, all flaming strings and authentic Magyar clarinet, with some of the original versions performed, in relaxed and witty fashion, by the ineffable Márta Sebestyén (pictured above by László Perger) and three players from the orchestra who like to jam in folk idiom; the violinist, István Kádár, is as compelling as his folk singer, and in the encore you feared Zsolt Fejervári would snap his double-bass in two. Only a couple of small snags: I always like to know what the texts mean - there were no supertitles in this half, no introduction of the meaning despite Fischer's splendid commentary with examples of Bartok's phonograph folk recordings - and we really needed to be able to dance.

The dance I led the audience at the 'What You Need to Know' study day on Bartók and Bluebeard's Castle was very much around the heart of darkness. Of course I wanted to tackle the juicy subject head-on, but that was to fall to the excellent Jonathan Cross in the afternoon (I couldn't stay because of a deferred weekend in Lacock, but I have the soundfiles so I shall certainly listen). I had the impossible task of summing up 64 years of life in 50 minutes. As the punters didn't get copies of my track list, I'm happy to refer to it here. And I'm punctuating this sequence with installations as part of Müpa's Ludwig Museum Bartók homage, which I never got round to writing about when I came back from Budapest last November.

At the top of the piece is Ádám Csábi's Bartók, based on his idea that the composer's face hardly changed throughout the years - hence multiple plywood-and-acrylic heads carefully lit. Here's a different angle.

The start for the talk was obvious to me - two C major blazes, since the first work at its 1902 performance in Budapest inspired the young Bartók to devote his life properly to composing: Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra opening and the opening of the Fifth Door in Bluebeard's Castle (both conducted by Boulez, a curious candidate for the first).

I then did a rewind to trace Bartók's steps up to his Budapest training, noting how each of the places the family lived when he was growing up tends to be in another country now - Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia (important to the mix of folk idioms he was later to study). I thought we could look at the divide between his early late-romanticism and the steps towards modernism in the Two Portraits of 1908 - the end of 'Idealised' and the opening of 'Distorted', very much à la Berlioz in the Symphonie Fantastique (recording courtesy of the incredible Ferenc Fricsay and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra).

The new modernism took us via the Allegro barbaro of 1911, Bluebeard year, in a 1929 performance by the composer-pianist, to his interest in folk music (cue further archive recordings in an excerpt from the Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Songs and 'New Hungarian Folk Song' from Mikrokosmos Book 5 arranged for piano duo, Bartók and his second wife Ditta Pásztory, recorded in New York in 1941). Pictured below from the exhibition: Dénes Farkas's Microcosm and Gábor Palotai's Makrokosmos 1-16.

Then did a sideways leap to a folk arrangement by his fellow collector from 1905 onwards, Zoltan Kodály: the song collected in the Tolná area 'This side of the Tiszá' ('Tiszán innen, Dunán túl'), as given to Háry János and his beloved Őrzse in the 1926 folk opera which, shamefully, I've never heard performed complete in the UK (I caught it in Vienna from Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra - piquantly, since the tall tale is about the adventures of the lying soldier in the Austrian capital. Our performers on the excerpt were László Palócz, Erzsébet Komlóssy and István Kertész conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, prefaced by Peter Ustinov). Had it confirmed by a Hungarian speaker in the audience that what we know as the 'Scots snap' rhythm comes from the language's stress on the first syllable. Gave a purely orchestral song equivalent in the context of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta's third-movement 'melody' (Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner). Pictured below: Adrienn Dorszanki's Bartók, turning text from the Cantata Profana into morse code.

Like Fischer in the concert talk, I thought I ought to illustrate a couple of folksongs as recorded by Bartók on his phonograph - mine were later, from his trip to Turkey in 1936 - 'My darling is following' sung by Emine Muktat and  'One can feel that the summer is coming' delivered by Zekeriye Culha.

The question of melismatic ornaments in folksong allowed me to cue the opening of the First Piano Concerto's finale. Moving from 1926 to 1930, I let the chord clusters in the middle of the Second Concerto's central movement stand for his extreme dissonances of that time. And then a leap forward to America and the straightening-out of the Adagio religioso; stuck with Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis for all three. The biography inevitably got a bit squeezed, and in ending with a miserable Time obituary which remembered Bartók only as 'prolific Hungarian composer of piquant, sometimes cacophonous orchestral and chamber music', citing only one work - 'Contrasts for Benny Goodman', I didn't have time to play the final extract - Bartók, Goodman and Joseph Szigeti in their celebrated 1940 recording.

Still, we had a lot of sound-clips, and it worked well in tandem with Sarah Lenton's ensuing talk on the plot and literary precedents of Bluebeard's Castle, which stuck to the visuals (so the audience got to see this famous photo of Bartók recording in the countryside).

Fischer, of course, was absolutely charming in his presentation of the recorded folksongs; how wonderful it would have been to have him there for the study day too. I do want to meet him. And it strikes me that, of the world's great 'orchestras with voices', the Budapest Festival Orchestra will never let you down so long as he's in charge, while with the Berlin and Vienna Phils, it very much depends on the conductor; you can hear boring performances in their hands. With Fischer, never. His concerts are always true events. Long may he continue to bend the standard format to his own vibrant will. Anyway, the next time I hear Hungarians perform live it will be in the hall announced below.

Saturday 20 May 2017

European Literature Night: A L Kennedy on Brexit

She took us by storm the Wednesday before last, briskly and with a fabulously emphatic delivery in a 20-minute speech full of savage indignation. Surprised to find tears in my eyes so soon after their regular occurrence throughout the previous evening's Europe Day Concert. I hope you'll read the speech in full here on the Royal Society of Literature's website - the organisation had much to do with the event, as did EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture), though the host was the British Library - and that there will eventually be a podcast of the delivery, so energetic and impassioned was it (event images by Jolly Thompson). But in any case it's worth putting up the first paragraph, since it also encases a stunning quotation from Primo Levi.

So I am a citizen of Nowhere. Intellectually, culturally and as a member of my species, I am and must be a citizen of the world. This is simply logical and a matter of self-defence. As Primo Levi, one of the consciences of Europe, tells us “Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager.” To be in any sense healthy, I must be a citizen of the world. I belong to that Nowhere.

And thence Kennedy seemingly freewheeled, as if she were improvising (the transcript proves she wasn't). Yet she kept a structure, enlarging on the question, where is Nowhere? (For a writer, and a thinker, everywhere and anywhere). She made a strong attack on our lack of reading matter from other countries: 'For more most of my lifetime as a writer, less than five per cent of all our books printed in any year are translated from any language'. Cited striking examples of writers who took or borrowed from other cultures. Encapsulated what Brexit Little England may be like and why the likes of us will be OK:

It seems clear that Brexit will leave us trapped on an apparently increasingly racist island with faltering press freedom and crumbling press reliability, adrift in a shrinking culture enthusiastically rejecting real-world knowledge of all kinds. Dark money, calculated online influencers, our public discourse bought and sold… So we’ll look elsewhere for inspiration, for facts. We did anyway. Their preciousness will increase. The urgency with which we attempt to communicate will grow. We may long for news of countries that aren’t closing libraries by the hundreds, aren’t destroying their own education system and undermining English language teaching, any language teaching, for a generation.

How it will be for others who don't have our opportunities or our roots is more worrying. That was one of the questions grappled with - mostly a bit too nebulously - in a panel discussion with another very intelligent writer, Francesca Melandri, and one who presumably is very good but not, on this evidence, a nice human being, Clemens Meyer. He alienated me before he even uttered a word, his body turned away from the other speakers in haughty apartness. He made most people laugh, including his generous fellow guests,

but actually took a very long time to make a perfectly salient point (that his kind of writing thrives in a time of dissolution and uncertainty, though which time isn't?). And then there were the 'questions' from people who only really want to hear the sound of their own voices.

But back to Kennedy, whom I hope you'll read - not just the speech, which concludes with a perfect segue to William Morris's News from Nowhere - Kelmscott frontispiece seen here

 but also the novels; we have one here, the most recent, Serious Sweet, which I intend to turn to once the first half of my Waugh binge is over. The author seemed straightforwardly pleased about that as we parted;  I happened to accompany her to Kings' Cross tube, and thought: this is the sort of person I'd treasure as a friend. Anyway, we have her words to serve that purpose; one can ask no more. How rare are these people who speak so directly, crystallise so much with their choice of examples and metaphors. True authentics, present in every age but hard to find.

Thursday 18 May 2017

Parisian interiors

From the Galerie J. Kugel, its astonishing collection lavishly housed in the 19th century Hôtel Collot, No. 25 Quai Anatole France,

to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at No. 37 Quai d'Orsay

is only a few minutes' walk. But our privileged entrées to each building were separated by two days of packed activity - a leisurely hour or so on the Île Saint-Louis, supper with our friend Hélène just by Barbès - Rochechouart metro - a very different part of town - followed the next day by a major exhibition and the permanent collection at the Institut du Monde Arabe (with lunch on the roof), Snegurochka at the Paris Opera and my first inspection of the new Seine Musicale complex. So many impressions still to be digested - and at the very least I need to write up the Treasures of Islam in Africa and Picasso Primitif exhibitions (the latter we saw the day after our friend and host Laurence Auer was gonged at the Ministry).

Our tour of what has to be Paris's most spectacular private gallery - a house full of extraordinary, eccentric and valuable if not always beautiful art from the Renaissance through to the early 19th century - came courtesy of our friend Laura Kugel. We met her in the entrance hall - itself full of rich and curious furniture - and ascended the grand staircase around the above three graces clock, originally made for Charles IV of Spain and offered to Napoleon, who forced him to abdicate in 1808 and installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.

On a nearby table sit two grotesque bronzes of a witch and a wizard.

The first room on the right upstairs has a series of paintings chiefly fascinating for the musical instruments pictured within.

Next door there's a gilded cage with singing birds, made by Swiss craftsmen for the Ottoman market in 1785.

We didn't get to hear the caged birds sing, but in the big rooms overlooking the Seine, several of the famous Renaissance automata made in Augsburg were up for demonstration. How I'd love to have seen the full exhibition of 31 pieces held here last year, of which this tantalising little film cleverly utilising Ketèlbey's In a Persian Market gives a neat taster.

There's also the most beautifully produced book on the subject, a copy of which I'm delighted to own.

Its superlative photographs notwithstanding, I'm still going to press ahead with a glimpse of some of the remaining items in context. Several, including perhaps the most beautiful, the elephant clock of c. 1580-90 illustrated on the cover pictured above, as well as the classy lion and his young African tamer, his stick rising and falling as part of the action, sit on a table

in front of two very handsome busts of Roman emperors.

The masterpiece of whimsy, though, is the clock-chariot of Bacchus,

a tankard of beer in his right hand and in his left a whole chicken and a skewered sausage, a barrel on his head,

being driven  in his chariot by two elephants surmounted by pipe-playing satyrs and driven by a black coachman holding a trident.

As you see in the film, when activated Bacchus - also described as Hans Wurst or Gambrinus - rolls his eyes and the bear musicians around the base play instruments.

Further bizarre wonders unfold in other rooms and on other floors. The cabinet of curiosities is too rich to catalogue, but here are a few more favourites - a chess-set with Chinese figures,

and miniature depictions of Abraham poised to slay Isaac

and Jonah emerging from the whale's mouth.

Up another flight of stairs, early 19th century treasures have an appropriately more restrained setting

and as we drank coffee with Laura in her father's office, my eye was drawn to this very splendid backgammon set.

The afternoon sun shone against a cold wind in our subsequent promenade along the Seine, though folk found plenty of shelter along the embankment,

on the Île Saint-Louis

and on a section of the Rive Droite

with a bar in an old industrial building adding to the general liveliness. Via that walk we headed back towards the Cité metro for the ride north to Hélène's place at about 7.

She and her husband Olivier have an apartment opposite the splendid Louxor Cinema, opened in 1921, and brought back to new life in 2013 after years of dereliction.

It continued to glow in the last of the evening sun as seen from one of the apartment windows.


had also invited the warm and delightful Maxime and Claude

and I have to say I enjoyed this evening of Bacchic mirth as much as anything during our stay.

Next morning, the election leaflets were out on Laurence's big table. I've done my best here to make sure the unspeakable is half-hidden.

Laurence and Bertrand have a place in the 15th arrondissement, very bourgeois compared to Barbès - Rochechouart as Hélène observed with amused brio: I'm sure she would be happy, as I am, to be defined as Bo[hemien]Bo[ourgeois]. They may not have the Louxor opposite but the view is typically Parisian.

That morning saw us flung to the four quarters of Paris, I to the Seine Musicale to interview Laurence Equilbey a second time (here, for reference's sake, is the interview from last year). This was my first glimpse of the new concert hall as I walked towards it from the Pont de Sèvres station at the south-west end of metro line 9.

Here it is from one of the two bridges connecting the Île Seguin across the Seine

and from the other.

Later in the day we all regathered at the apartment to change for the big ceremony. Which despite the opulent surroundings was very relaxed and genial. Harlem Desir, Secretary of State in charge of European Affairs, spoke eloquently of Laurence's achievements before she took the microphone. She really is the most extraordinary person - genuinely warm and natural, yet working at the highest level, most recently as French Ambassador to Macedonia and currently as Deputy Director for (France's part in negotiations re the) European Union.

Here she is with the medal, the Order of Merit; she already has the two categories of the Legion d'Honneur. Shame J had to be cropped out of a super pic as he rejects full-frontals here.

Bertrand was official photographer, though I got some different shots as I was on the other side of the room.

Later we were given a glimpse of the holiest of holies: the deco bath

in the bathroom specially installed for George VI and the consort we always knew as the Queen Mum.

On the ground floor - here's a shot from halfway down the grand escalier -

a wry and immensely likable Major Domo ('left and right, they all went to the same schools') showed us round the grander rooms, including the one in the second-to-top picture where Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman signed the momentous Schuman Declaration on 9 May 1950 which has ensured peace in much of Europe for the past 52 years. Again, the other proud EU representative had to be cropped out of this pic of a pic.

There were other lively ceremonies just finishing downstairs, so we shared this grand council chamber with others delighted at their various ennoblings.

Then we took a short walk over the newly-restored Pont Alexandre III with its Art Nouveau river gods on the balmiest and most beautiful of April evenings

to a supper at a destination I won't disclose since it's a private club and I shouldn't have taken any indoor pics, but may be excused this one, surreptitiously snapped sans flash at the supper table with a Gobelin tapestry of an episode from Don Quixote (seen a whole set at Belvoir Castle).

It commemorates an evening meal of such deliciousness that even our spoilt French friends said they couldn't remember anything like it in years. London clubs have so much catching up to do... And so, one final interior, Bertrand driving us home at the point when the Eiffel Tower does its midnight twinkly thing. The magical side of Paris did not elude us on this visit.