Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Estonian Festival Orchestra: on a high

For me, the players and their inspiring conductor Paavo Järvi always were (on a high), at each of the three festivals in the lovely southern Estonian seaside town of Pärnu I've been privileged to attend: reports on The Arts Desk of 2017 here, 2016 here and 2015 here. But now the rest of the world is getting a chance to catch up. So far it's been Europe, with triumphant visits to Turku, Stockholm, and Copenhagen following last summer's festival, and at the start of Estonian Centenary Year Brussels, Berlin, Vienna and Luxembourg.

Kaupo Kikkas, photographer without peer - and not just in the world of classical music - took the images I'm posting here from the most recent mini-tour, starting on home turf in Tallinn (first photo). As a respected colleague, and a musician himself (clarinettist, I seem to remember), he is well placed to catch the spirit of his friends, that heady mix of Estonians and leading players of great character from other famous orchestras.

The second shot reminds me of how the Lucerne Festival Orchestra players used to react at the emotional ends of their miraculous concerts with Claudio Abbado. I'd place the Paavo effect on a level very close to that - now the great Abbado is no longer with us, and the LFO, though still superb, sounds like many other top orchestras, the EFO experience is the next best thing. Below, the orchestra in Berlin's Philharmonie.

The Pärnu 'family', as part of which I'm honoured to have been included, does have its concerns: will too much touring change the special identity? What happens when (as happened on the recent tour) some key players can't leave their other posts to join their colleagues? Will Paavo and the orchestra be able to resist excess demands from the big agents now in on the act?

In the meantime, the worldwide launch has been ballasted by their first CD together. Quite a few of us put our oar in as to what we'd like to see/hear. For me personally, the best combination would have been a mix: their unforgettable performance of Arvo Pärt's short but significant orchestral-version Swansong, maybe the electrifying Mullova performance in Pärnu of Sibelius's Violin Concerto or the radical characterisation of Strauss's Duett-Concertino by principal clarinet Matt Hunt and Estonian sometime principal bassoon Martin Kuuskmann (though now I have the live performance on file, I realise it would need a patching or two).

Certainly the Shostakovich symphony we have here is the right choice; Nielsen would have done just as well. I personally wasn't so sure it should be all Shostakovich, and though the Stassevich version of the Eighth Quartet shows off the adaptability of the strings to fine effect, I don't much care for the timpani role; Barshai's 'Chamber Symphony' is still best.

No question, though, the Sixth Symphony is the most powerful of calling-cards; I'll never forget the shock of the bass-vivid opening in Pärnu. The booklet is graced by Kaupo's photos, but I also get a spread (thanks, Lucy) with some amateur shots of the beach and town, dramatic cumulo-nimbus clouds doing much of the work. Very honoured indeed to be in such company.

I realise that though I waxed blog-lyrical about discovering Riga for the first time last summer, I didn't revisit Pärnu in pictures, so here's another indulgent phototour of the town, because it makes me happy and longing for the summer months. Let's start on the beach, from microcosm - what is this geranium-like flower which flourishes in the sand? -

to the bay seen from the roof of the spa hotel where the senior Järvis were staying last year.

Back down to the beach: a sign for the impending visit of the Dalai Lama above the dunes

and another, closer beach shot, with, in the distance, Kristaps and Artis, my dear Riga pals who accompanied me north from my first time in Latvia,

who are seen below (A. left, K, right) at the cafe they discovered, Supelsaksad, on the road leading to the beach (Supeluse).

It really does serve the best cakes in town; at opening time, leisurely mid-morning, there's a queue for the fresh, on-premise baking. The owner is a true artist - on the inside wall of the conservatory-porch

she's painted tromp l'oeil miniatures.

More wooden houses in the garden zone: this one I liked

and this is the side of the dacha which David Oistrakh used to rent when he came, along with Shostakovich, as far west as Soviet citizens could in those days. It doesn't seem too well cared for - I'd love to buy it and set up the ground floor as a museum of Oistrakhiana (well, I'd settle for a selection of photographs).

Miscellany: roses

and sunflower,

plus a resident making repairs on a house in the shadow of the big Estonia Spa Hotel,

I almost neglected the two most splendid buildings closest to the beach - the neoclassical mud baths which have been preserved as conversion to a top hotel, the Hedon (not exorbitant by our standards)

and since one of the wings is lopped off the pic, here it is at closer quarters.

Just a bit further along is the Kuursaal from the 1880s. I'm sorry for the changes since our first visit - the menu is nowhere near as good and the dance-hall interior has been stripped of its hunting trophies, though the statue of popular singer-accordionist Raimond Valgre outside still plays music as you walk past.

Besides, the Kuursaal remains a good place to have a drink on the terrace, though probably avoid the food now unless you want a burger.

I enlarged upon the Villa Annende, the other luxury hotel,

in a previous blog visit, but it's worth taking another glimpse into the central hall.

Rather dark to stay there, I'd say, but fascinating to visit, and concerts take place here every festival.

The canal basin fringing the dacha zone is one of many pleasant park areas in the green belt; the wooded zone nearer the sea is the perfect picnic place.

Now we head for the old town, through the only surviving 17th century gateway in the Baltic countries, built between 1675 and 1686 (probably by a Swede). Ladies were selling their knitted wear either side of the portal on this occasion.

Probably the town's most famous son, Olev Siinmaa left his mark in what has been called '"Pärnu Resort Functionalism", chiefly in the splendid hotel by the beach. But the little miracle is surely his own house at 1a Rüütli Street, just behind the above bastion, constructed in 1932-1933.

It fits neatly into a triangle which continues with traditional wooden houses.

In the centre of town, the main drag depicted here with banners for the festival (and some restoration going on to the right, I'm pleased to see - building preservation seems quite hit and miss),

the interloper is the Russian Orthodox Church of 1784-8, named after Catherine the Great.

Close by is the Town Hall.

And then, if you cross Pärnu's only busy road, you're in the complex of new buildings which includes a shopping mall - can't deny the citizens something of the latest trends - and the concert hall which, needless to say, is the building in which I've always spent the most time. More, though, probably, on the beach...

Watch this space, anyway, for your chance to catch the Estonian Festival Orchestra without having to travel to Pärnu (though I can't recommend that too strongly). And meanwhile, last night at Milton Court there was another chance to hear the excellent Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir offering more revelations of the choral repertoire - my Arts Desk review is here.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Alone with Charles I's treasures

It hardly seems now that it happened, but for the last quarter of an hour of Tuesday's Private View of Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy of Arts, some of the greatest paintings in the world were available to see with no-one else in the rooms. The above, of course, is Mantegna's Triumph of Caesar, shipped to England from the Gonzaga Collection in 1630, which you could usually see in Hampton Court Palace, but not, of course, like this. Even when I first walked round, there was still plenty of opportunity to get close to the pictures - the clusters of mostly suited gentlemen weren't exactly crowding them out.

But maybe I'm being a bit childish in my delight. The main thing to say is that this must currently be the greatest collection of paintings, sculptures and miniatures on display in the UK apart from the one in the National Gallery, even if it only takes us, for the most part, from the Renaissance up to the 1640s. It has been not entirely jokingly suggested that there should be a portrait of Cromwell here too, without whose intervention and breaking-up of the collection - a Titian Cromwell gave to a plumber is going on show in Sotheby's New York prior to sale - a good many of these masterpieces would have been lost in the Whitehall Palace fire.

Even Room I, 'Artists and Agents', has one gasping. The agents are on the left wall, the court artists on the right in three magnificent self portraits by Rubens, Van Dyck - the adorable one with the sunflower - and Daniel Mytens (also good in this one, by the way).

The bust of Charles dead-centre is thought to be a copy of the one by Bernini lost in the Whitehall fire. It allows for what I hope is interesting composition among the few photos I took (I asked a warden if I was allowed to photograph without flash, and he genially replied  'you can photograph any way you wish, for this one night only'). For I'm assuming that the usual rendering of Van Dyck's Carolingian Trinity will normally be seen, as it is in the exhibition's keynote image, by itself. Fascinatingly, it was sent by Van Dyck to Bernini in Rome in 1636.

The straightforward photos of the paintings here, of course, are not mine - I wanted to show the Van Dyck at closer quarters.

Room II has the National Gallery's Correggio Venus, Cupid and Mercury alongside the National Gallery of Scotland's Veronese Mars, Venus and Cupid side by side, plus the grand Rubens of Venus protecting Pax from Mars (also National Gallery) dead centre.

Then come the Mantegnas in the biggest room and a stunning line-up of Holbein portraits in Room IV including one of my favourites, of Robert Cheseman with a falcon, from the Mauritshuis.

A miniature gem from the Frick, Bruegel the Elder's Three Soldiers, hangs on the opposite wall.

The three Titians side by side in Room V are, for me, the most staggering in the exhibition. Here are the two I'd take if I had a big enough palace to hang them in, the Prado painting of Alfonso d'Avalos, Marchese del Vasto, Francesco d'Avalos, addressing his troops, which has to be seen in the flesh for its grandeur and brilliance, and the Louvre Supper at Emmaus, usually overlooked in Paris because it shares a room with the Mona Lisa.

The compassionate risen Christ here is one of the most moving imaginings I've seen, if not the most moving. And the fabric colours, the general gentle hue, also amaze. The superabundance of Royal portraits in the next room are very fabric-, as in silk-, conscious, too. I remember the portrait of Henrietta Maria always took my childish fancy in the PG Tips card series Costumes through the Ages. The 'Greate Peece' of 1632 hung prominently in Whitehall Palace is the grandest of the set.

To balance the Titians, at not so much lower a level of quality, Tintoretto's Esther before Ahasuerus is flanked by two very fine Bassanos in Room VII.

Room VIII is fascinating if a little odd - those Orazio Gentileschis with their waxy but modern-looking figures - and Cristofano Allori's Judith with the Head of Holofernes leaps out.

Then we're in the Whitehall Palace cabinet of smaller paintings, with more Holbein paintings and some of those extraordinary portraits in black and coloured chalks, bronzes, Hilliard miniatures and the Roman glass-backed sardonyx portrait of Claudius.

From small to great, and tapestries of the Raphael Acts of the Apostles, woven at Mortlake from seven of the cartoons purchased in 1623 from Genoa by Sir Francis Crane. These ones from Paris  complement the ones in the V&A.

The Central Hall has a brilliant assemblage of Charles on horseback - one Van Dyck with which we're very familiar as National Gallery visitors, others less so - while the final room, where the curator was being filmed when I saw it, takes us to later achievements of Van Dyck and Rubens in England; the former's Cupid and Psyche offers a last fling.

There. I feel breathless just going superficially through it. And as a nice coda, I got to press the flesh and feel the feathery dress of Grayson Perry. Brexit, he said, is the gift that keeps on giving for artists railing against it (I wish I hadn't known that two of our artistic national treasures are in favour of it). I told him how tickled I'd been by the display of his costumes, Making Himself Claire, in the Walker Art Gallery on my visit to Liverpool back in November (just before I went off to the afternoon performance of Verdi's Falstaff with Bryn Terfel and Vasily Petrenko conducting at the Liverpool Philharmonic).

He hadn't been. I mentioned the Post-It notes pictured here

and he said that if only one child became an artist as a result of having been to a gallery, it had to be worth it, didn't it?

Since I now realise I didn't get to blog about my afternoon in Liverpool, it's worth noting that the Walker has some very fine British paintings as the core of its collection. Stubbs, of course

and  Gainsborough,

all handsomely hung in the recent revamp. Not so sure, much as I admire her in principle, about Turner Prize Winner Lubaina Himid's cut out slaves, part of the installation Naming the Money, hogging some of the limelight from Hogarth's swagger portrait of Garrick as Richard III.

but the parallel between wealthy patrons and slaves is well made. Anyway, I feel that old art-hunger coming on. Sophie has proposed that we go and look at the Dante-quoting frame for Ari Scheffer's Francesca and Paolo at the Wallace, and I have to catch the Kabakov installations at Tate Modern before the show closes on Sunday.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

After a lecture on Dante

NB: Warburg blurb gives conflicting information. Start is 6pm.

Liszt's overblown 'Après une lecture de Dante' actually means 'after a reading of Dante', and in Monday evening's case we got reading and lecture combined at the highest level of enthusiasm, knowledge and inspiration. In a bid to find a less frequent alternative to the Tuesday soirees she used to run before going off to found her mud hotel in Djenne, Mali, Sophie had proposed a reading group following Dante's Divina Commedia - in English, of course, but thanks to doyenne in all things Italian Jill Dunkerton I have my dual-language edition with a fairly literal translation by Robert Durling plus a CD of selected readings from the Inferno, so I was prepared to benefit from that (pictured below: Botticelli's image of Dante's topography - hell as a funnel, starting with the widest, first circle at the top).

Before the intended launch, however, Sophie had discovered that there was a free series of lectures taking place on Monday Evenings through the Spring and Summer terms at the Warburg Institute in connection with University College London and the Italian Cultural Institute. As Monday's session took the sorrowful tale of Francesca da Rimini in the context of Canto V, as its theme, I was especially keen to check it out. And so, after two hours of my own lecturing on Wagner's Das Rheingold, I cycled from the Frontline Club to the Bloomsbury university zone (a nice straight line heading east). And I'm glad I made the effort. This is the Dante reading group for me, though I grant that we could carry on discussing the ramifications for a lot longer.

The format is perfect. Each week Dr. Alessandro Scafi of the Warburg (pictured above) reads the chosen Canto in Italian, accompanied by slides and the text on the screen in both Italian and English. He then goes back over the text clarifying the meaning and footnoting the references. Then Professor John Took of University College London - who seems reluctant to have a photo of his very characterful face with its thoughtful, furrowed brow on the internet, so I make do with this portrait accompanying his self-introduction -

gives us his take on the Canto in question. That then leaves 40-odd minutes for questions.

Those are the bare outlines, but I can't communicate how well the two academics themselves put across their passion for the subject. Dr Scafi's reading is so, well, poetic - and sensitive, better, I fancy, than the voice of Claudio Carini on my CD, who tends to drop at the end of most lines. Oh, those bird similes - especially the one about the cranes (which I'll leave you to look up for yourself). He even made me want to learn passages by heart, as I did after I'd read Pushkin's Boris Godunov with my late, lamented Russian teacher Joan Smith. Prof. Took said he found discussing the Francesca narrative almost too painful, but left us in no doubt of what he takes from it, or at least a part of that.

It's a masterly compression in which Dante, we decided, forges his own myth from a story which would have been recent history for his readers: while reading of Lancelot's love for Guinevere, Franceca and her husband's brother Paolo Malatesta - whom she may or may not in real life have taken for her intended before the truth was revealed - discover their own love in a passionate kiss, only to be murdered by the jealous Lanceotto. Dante's treatment is oblique: the unknown shade who comes closer to Dante through the 'aere maligno' (Blake's depiction shows the aftermath, where Dante passes out with emotion)

tells him first that she was born 'beside the shore where the Po descends to have peace with its followers' - in other words, Ravenna - and is only named Francesca at line 115.

She abnegates her own responsibility by blaming Love for 'seizing' her and others, then when Dante pins her to relive her past happiness by narrating it in present misery - Prof. Took thinks 'dimmi', 'tell me', is one of the most drastic and severe commands in the whole of Dante - speaks only of the reading and the kiss in a highly charged 12 lines (sketch by Rossetti for his famous triptych below).

Paolo, referred by Francesca only as 'costui', 'this one,' weeps and Dante 'fainted as if I were dying, and fell as a dead body falls'. That's the end of Canto V (here depicted by Fuseli, a study for a painting which no longer exists).

With passionate eloquence, Prof. Took emphasised what I had always hoped to find in Dante even before I started reading him properly: that this Inferno is not about divine wrath, but 'the agony of what the soul chooses for itself' - and therefore the most profound meditation on the human predicament, then and now. The second circle is full of 'carnal sinners who subject their reason to their lust' (lines 38-9). Yet while Dante subscribes to the sexist view of Semiramis, who seems to have committed no sin in history other than to have been a powerful female leader, he makes Francesca so piteous in her graciousness. Three lines especially tear at the heart, Francesca of course addressing the deeply suffering Dante:

    se fosse amico il re de l'universo,
noi pregheremmo lui de la tua pace,
poi c'hai pietà del nostro mal perverso.

('If the king of the universe were a friend we would pray to him for your peace, since you have pity on our perverse pain'). Yet at the same time, Took stresses how the heroine tries to mythologise her guilt away. In both aspects lies the complexity: 'mortality, psychology, ontology in 70 lines - a literary miracle'. That compression has never found its equal in any of the many homages since in art and music, though Tchaikovsky catches the pathos of Francesca and the ache of happiness lost and of illustrators the imaginations of Blake and Doré (pictured below) are surely the finest.

Next week we embark on a daunting subject, the  Suicides in Canto XIII. Come along if you can and you like the idea then and/or on 5, 12 February, 5, 12, 19, 26 March - no registration needed. I hope you'll find it as inspiring as I do.