Thursday 30 August 2018

And the answer is...

as three of you correctly guessed. The Hanover Street label* with the name is being displayed by my guide around the Villa Senar, Ettore F Volontieri, General Manager of the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation, who came down from Zurich especially (by the way, they prefer the French spelling of the name, as do Boosey's for 'Serge Prokofieff'). I did already mention my dreamlike visit to the villa (Senar = SErgey and NAtaliya Rachmaninov) on the shores of Lake Lucerne a shortish walk from Weggis. No time at the moment to write more about the realisation of his Bauhaus-inspired dream in the early 1930s, but here he is at the time of construction sporting what they say is this very suit.

A guess at Bernstein wasn't so far fetched. 'I can't see Lenny in tweeds,' wrote one of my students in an email. Well, not in the 1950s and 60s perhaps. But to embrace his Harvard persona for those sensational Norton lectures he seems to have thought this just the thing.

*Davies & Son is/are still going, proud to have 'the longest history of any Tailor on Savile Row' going back to 1805.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Whose tweeds and sticks?

Don't answer if you've already picked up on a clue in previous posts or know where I've been. Educated guesses welcome (probably a fatal thing to ask on a blog if answers come there none). A very, very famous figure, not exactly to the tweed manner born, and with very long legs - I was asked to put the trousers against mine to compare, and even with a high waist these seemed to go on for ever. Pictorial answer will follow anon.

PS - I'm not doing this for clickbait. I just think the photo reveal will be fun.

Saturday 25 August 2018

Bernstein: a toast and a list

Some of my colleagues take exception to labelling an anniversary of a deceased great a 'birthday', so let's say that we celebrate Leonard Bernstein's colossal achievements as composer, conductor, pianist and educator on the 100th anniversary of his birth today. By happy chance I can only imagine doing so with a glass of Swiss Fendant from the cellar of the Schweizerhof Hotel in Lucerne, where I've been staying for two unforgettable nights of the festival (and a privileged tour around Rachmaninov's Villa Senar across the lake). The Schweizerhof claims he was served this very wine on the night he and the New York Philharmonic took Lucerne by storm, 27 August 1968 (coming up to another anniversary, then, the 50th - so he would have just celebrated a significant birthday). Here he is in 1971, the year of what to my mind is his greatest masterpiece, MASS.

Each room here is 'styled' after a significant guest. I get a celebrated Swiss weatherman, Karl Frey, which has been educational. I did ask if I could see the room where Wagner composed the last notes of Tristan und Isolde - how thrilled LB must have been to know about that - but it's occupied until Sunday, and I'm shortly gone to catch John Wilson's performance of On the Town at the Proms tonight* (Lucerne, sadly, is not playing a note of his music in the official programmes today). But the nice marketing manager did let me have a look in the Bernstein Suite, which has a familiar logo above the bed as well as the above bottles and newspaper cutting in a glass case.

On Tuesday I took a very engaged group of students, courtesy of one of them, Gillian Frumkin, making her home available, through a Bernstein 'snapshot'. Without further ado, these are the examples around which I based my talk. I think the connections are mostly explained, but I won't pad further.

West Side Story (1957) - the tritone/augmented fourth/'devil in music' in Prologue, 'Somewhere', 'Maria', 'Cool' and Epilogue. Film soundtrack conducted by Johnny Green (Sony)

Chopin: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 13 No. 4 (1833) - opening (as source for 'Maria'). Pavel Kolesnikov (Hyperion)

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra (1896) - ending (opposing B major - man - and C major - nature as influence on end of West Side Story). Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (RCA)

Bernstein on the tritone in Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in the fourth of his Harvard talks on music, 'The delights and dangers of ambiguity'. Five of the six are complete on YouTube; I have American-region DVDs released by Kultur.

MASS (1971) - Gospel-Sermon: 'God Said'; Hymn and Psalm: 'A Simple Song' (excerpt); Pax: Communions ('Secret Songs'); Gloria in excelsis - Trope: 'Half of the People' - Trope: 'Thank You' - Meditation No. 2 on a sequence of Beethoven (excerpt). Alan Titus (Celebrant), Ensemble/Leonard Bernstein (Sony)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (1817-23) - choral sequence in finale. London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Bernard Haitink (LSO Live)

Symphony No. 3. 'Kaddish' (1963) - three excerpts from third movement, Kaddish 3. Felicia Montealegre, Jenny Tourel, Camerata Singers, New York Philharmonic/Bernstein (Sony)

Chichester Psalms (1965) - Psalm 100 (excerpt). Camerata Singers, NYP/Bernstein (Sony)

On the Town (1944) - Subway Ride and Imaginary Coney Island (excerpt); 'Some Other Time'. Frederica von Stade, Tyne Daley, David Garrison, Kurt Ollman, LSO/Michael Tilson Thomas (DG)

'Big Stuff' (1944) - Billie Holiday and band (r. 1946, Proper)

Fancy Free (1944) - opening ('Big Stuff' on juke box, entry of the three sailors; Pas de deux; The Contest; Galop Variation. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton (Virgin)

The 'suggested reading' had to lead with Humphrey Burton's colourful biography, published by Faber. I'm halfway through and hope to finish it this weekend. What already strikes me is how much nicer and more considerate a human being LB turns out to be than I'd imagined: so much support of good democratic causes, so much non-egotistical connection with others (like Koussevitzky, for example, whom he obviously revered). I met him, courtesy of my then editor on The Guardian, Edward Greenfield, at his final recording sessions, for Candide -  Adolph Green, adorable man, was also there - and he held my hand firm while walking towards the gents, which was a bit odd.

Last Tuesday I also quoted some rather strange stuff - including a fantasy story about LB's coup de foudre on meeting Mitropoulos - from the volume Findings. There's also a print version of The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. Those are so compelling - do watch or read. I still have some listening to catch up with, too, and Burton makes one want to unearth some early rarities which must be lurking out there somewhere. Favourite recording of a work by another composer? The spacious and partly cut but so, so full and gorgeous Strauss Der Rosenkavalier with the Vienna Philharmonic. And on DVD, of course, the Vienna Phil Mahler cycle. Of the live performances I caught, unquestionably the greatest was his Mahler 5 with the Viennese at the Proms (I queued from midday to get an Arena place). Performances of his more serious works, not so much; but then I'm no great fan of the symphonies. Otherwise, the riches keep on giving. As an unusual and stylishly done anniversary tribute, this from musical saw artiste Natalia Paruz takes some beating.  Deserves to go viral.

*UPDATE: 26/8 And here's what I thought on The Arts Desk. Photo of the 24-hour changeover at the end by Mark Allan for the BBC.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Perfect Pärnu day

This routine was adopted during my annual favourite week of the Pärnu Music Festival in time for my special visitor, who arrived two days after I did, and his birthday, followed by 'linden boys' Kristaps and Artis from Riga on the Friday. In the end, I'm glad I chose the slightly down at heel but ever so characterful Villa Katariina in Pärnu's garden zone next to the beach as a base, with its slightly sullen staff who left you to your own devices.

I'm sorry, owing to the evening concerts and the gatherings thereafter in the Passion Cafe, to have missed a glimpse of the tango and karaoke nights held at the hotel; J arrived back earlier one evening to see a scene featuring three people straight out of a Kaurismäki movie.

Breakfast at 8am under one of the fruit trees in the garden. A watchful eye was necessary; when I crossed the lawn to fetch something from another table, the resident crow made off with an entire bun.

Cross the road to the park on the other side. Once I spied a hedgehog

which I took as a good omen because, not having seen one since I used to garden, as a student, for a neighbour, over 30 years ago, I'd also spotted another in an equally beautiful place, the churchyard of Saint-Cybard de Cercles while waiting for the eclipse and escaping part of an organ recital (report on the Itinéraire Baroque here).

The park is full of healthily-lichened oaks which fringe the protected coastal meadows

but there are also stands of other trees, including the silver birches which have been suffering in Sweden (here temperatures went back up to 31 degrees for two days, but all remained green)

and it's good to see vegetable plots for all.

Turning out to walk alongside the Pärnu river with the docks on the other side, you pass garganeys ducking and diving, though on the first hot day they were very much idle.

I first saw a pair by the legendary stone pier

while on the other side the cattle grazing on the peninsula were reintroduced through the EU-funded 'Urbancows' programme, 'to restore the traditional semi-natural habitat of the area via livestock grazing'. The first day I saw them doing their thing,

but with the return of the heat they were all sheltering under the lone tree.

This end of the beach is the quietest for swimming; I've never seen the main strand so busy in any of the previous three years I've been here. There's the jetty to one side

from which you may look back up the river towards town,

and general views across the grasses to the peninsula.

To swim you must wade quite some way out in the warm, shallow waters off the eight-mile curve of the sandy beach. This is our largest posse, also including that greatest of clarinettists Matt Wolf. A distant people shot is as close as I'm allowed...

Next part: to walk along the water's edge back, passing large naked sunbathers and swimmers and the Women's Beach,

and then to the hotel to change. Heading for a second breakfast, you may encounter something as enchanting as this in the park on the other side of the road - 'are you performing somewhere soon?' 'We're not good enough!' -

and even - bizarrest - a Christmas bazaar in aid of a local musical organisation.

There is only one cafe to lounge at - the beautifully designed Supelsaksad (the term translates as 'the snobby dippers'). Its cinnamon and cardamom buns are the best in town; there's quite a queue for them when the establishment opens at 10am. We arrive later, sometimes just in time for lunch (also superb); the birthday lounge must have extended over some hours.

The garden's full of sparrows, which may be pests on the continent, but since we have so few in the UK now, I was happy to let them peck the plate clean once I'd finished.

Options now diverge. If there's a message that 'Arvo/Neeme is coming to the rehearsal', then you don't hang around but go straight to the concert hall. Where on the Wednesday lunchtime I found the master of the Third Symphony to be performed that evening intent with the score before hoiking himself up on to the platform to listen and advise.

Järvi Senior was there on Friday afternoon to rehearse the young Academy Orchestra in a fun little nothing of a march.

Afterwards he beckoned me to a chair and we chatted. I had no idea the great Kaupo Kikkas was lurking with his camera. He says he likes this shot because he knew our long-term story and thinks I'm looking pensive about it - though I fancy I was not ignoring Neeme but responding to viola-player Mari Adachi, whom I'd caught as she was passing us.

Another alternative haunt on some afternoons was the little wooden building and garden taken over the previous month by the cafe/restaurant Pipermunt - though we rather took agin the previously charming lady in charge when she was sniffy about serving us up plates of hummus and carrot salads before a concert ('the kitchens are very busy' - ha! Supelsaksad wouldn't do that). Still, I loved my place under a crabapple tree, where I managed on several occasions to get some work done,

with views across to St Catherine's Orthodox Church (1764, commandeered by the Empress of that name on a visit)

and the amusement of a tit at the crabapples.

Later, of course - with the option of a late-afternoon nap - there were the concerts, six spectacular nights, and the option of chats at the Passion Cafe. Not sure how the musicians managed it, staying up until 4am or later - which I did on the last night, but they had a Prom in two days' time.

Let's just say the love and adrenalin just kept flowing. Paavo Järvi commandeers the magic of the music-making by choosing his players carefully and then making everyone feel welcome; but Pärnu itself is a very special quiet place to work and thrive. And a perfect Pärnu day means a perfect day, period.

Saturday 18 August 2018


Ernest Ansermet's recording with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande of Chabrier's Joyeuse Marche is a desert island track of mine: the precise brio instantly puts one in a jolly mood, the perfect curtainraiser to any concert of recorded music. His complete Delibes Coppélia was my top choice on BBC Radio 3's Building a Library. But I hadn't listened widely to the non-French repertoire in his 314 Decca recordings. Preparing for a Proms Plus homage on Thursday afternoon, I found myself constantly taken aback by the freshness, the combination of firm rhythmic definition and freedom, in  classical and romantic works. Not what one would expect from a Professor of Mathematics, but Ansermet was anything but rigid in his logic as an interpreter.

In the end a brief digression on that subject got edited out for the interval broadcast, which you can hear about 58 minutes into the Prom as available for a while on the BBC iPlayer (and I recommend it all). Listeners had just heard Debussy and Ravel, and were about to hear Stravinsky's Petrushka, so that remained the brief. But how I would love to have illustrated the perfect gait and spareness of the first movement in Ansermet's recording of Haydn's Symphony No. 22, 'The Philosopher'. In a fascinating documentary made during a rehearsal you can see here:

Ansermet says every Haydn symphony should be respected for its unique character, that there is so much more beyond the basic classical forms. The focused power of his Beethoven Fifth, Seventh and Ninth is also surprising. The studio performance of the Seventh's finale is one of the glories of the recording world; I haven't had time yet to watch the whole of the below film, but it's another of those unanticipated pleasures that YouTube constantly gives us.

Many sound files only reached me from Universal - which holds the Decca legacy but can't, it seems, get hold of it so easily - just as I was about to set out for Imperial College on Thursday afternoon, but the listening will go on. One of the tracks I did get to excerpt especially impressed our players - the second of the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, silky but clear, with the necessary acidic jabs of pain. Here, also wonder of wonders, is a film of him conducting the OSR in La Valse.

The players weren't so fond of the Petrushka excerpt I chose - from the later, 1957 stereo version rather than the feted 1949 recording. A bit messy, yes, but so spirited.

I'd like to have included the white heat of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Finale - like the Beethoven, one of the best interpretations I've ever heard of a very familiar work - and more of Ansermet's perfect sympathy with dance music.

The relationship with Stravinsky (Ansermet pictured below with him and Prokofiev) is fascinating. It ran smoothly from the early days of the Ballets Russes - Ansermet took over from Monteux, called up for active service in 1915 - until 1938, when they fell out over a cut Ansermet insisted upon in the ballet Jeu de cartes. Much of the correspondence in Craft's Volume One selection is businesslike, but there's a touching commendation from Stravinky in 1919, after an OSR rehearsal of the new Firebird Suite, of how well Ansermet understands contemporary music, in that he doesn't approach it differently from 'music of the past'.

Schoenberg and his system Ansermet did not, would not, understand, and it's shocking to read in his huge study of musical aesthetics how he links the aridity with the 'Jewish question'. And that was in 1961! I won't sully the entry with quotations (and there's a still worse one in an earlier article on how Schnabel played like a Jewish banker). Still, I found that the Hannah Arendt Institute was promoting a conference on the holistic approach to music we find in Ansermet's magnum opus. A nicer way to end is to quote his fundamental tenet:

It is easy for a conductor to fill a musical phrase with feeling, because one can do more or less what one wants with a musical phrase. In any case, it is easier to do than to find the correct feeling, the one that puts the phrase in its context and takes account of its contribution to the piece as a whole...It is the interpreter's job to assimilate as much as possible the feeling which the composer turned into music, and to express it in such a way that the listener can hear it in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm and tempo. I have made my choice. First I imagine the musically sensitive listener. Thus I have faith in the listener, just as I have faith in the music, and the two things hang together. My idea is that the listener is able to understand and so all I need to do, in so far as I am able, is to let the music speak, without recourse to the sort of effects that one can always produce, but at the expense of the truth.