Friday 28 September 2018


As in Sergey and Nataliya Rachmaninov (or Serge and Natalie Rachmaninoff, in the Frenchification SSR preferred in the west). Although works like the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances prove that Rachmaninov was no romantic reactionary, who would have thought his dream for the land he bought at Hertenstein near Weggis on the shores of Lake Lucerne in 1930 was the modernist architecture of what became the Villa Senar?

First thoughts were for a conversion of the grand chalet already extant in the 1.5 hectare park. Then Rachmaninov decided to start from scratch, commissioning the Lucerne architects Alfred Möri and Karl-Friedrich Krebs to demolish the original house, clear away five metres of rocky outcrop and construct both the villa - one of the few Bauhaus-inspired buildings in Switzerland - and a gardener's house, in which he lived for a while from July 1931: 'I feel splendid, I go walking a little and I work a lot'. He bought another 2,563 metres of land, ploughed it and bought a motor boat. The economic crisis dented his finances and his confidences, but he went ahead and the house was finally completed, inside as well as out, in March 1934.

It offered, among other things, what he had stipulated: 'four bedrooms, with three bathrooms. The best room should definitely be the study with large windows 3.5 to 4 metres high looking out over Lake Lucerne'.Every summer he worked here, composing the Corelli Variations, the Paganini Rhapsody and the Third Symphony here, until August 1939 when he gave a final concert at the Lucerne Festival as soloist in both Beethoven's First Piano Concerto and his Paganini Rhapsody with Ansermet conducting, and left for the USA, never to return, on the 23rd, the day before the signing of the Hitler-Stalin/Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Not much has changed since then, though what the locals called 'Gibraltar' is now much more wooded, and presents a charming view below Rigi from the Lucerne boat.

Many of the trees in the garden have grown substantially, not least the two pines which obscure the intended view from the house of Mount Pilatus across the lake (there are plans for their removal). This is what you should see, from my walk back to Hertenstein quay.

I planned my trip, while I was in Lucerne for two festival concerts - one of them, under Haitink, exceptional, the other excellent in parts - with the friendly co-operation of Ettore F. Volontieri, general manager of the villa since the death of Alexander Rachmaninoff, who lived there in recent years, assuring a continuity of sorts. What's the latest on the status of Villa Senar? Probably best if I quote Ettore: 'The Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation –  created in 2000 by his grandson Alexander to foster the better knowledge of Sergei Rachmaninoff as a composer and as a man – is presently working to achieve the transformation of the Estate as a modern and dynamic cultural centre, following the model of the Red House of Benjamin Britten in the UK. Together with the KKL, the Lucerne Festival, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra (with its Zaubersee Festival) and the Wagner House in Tribschen, Villa Senar will contribute to create a unique cultural and musical environment on the Lake of Lucerne.' No substantial changes can be made: the house and grounds are under the protection of the Lucerne district council. 

Perhaps I should have disembarked at Hertenstein, but I was keen to see a bit of Weggis, popular holiday destination for Brits among others (including my mother). It was a very lovely 45 minute walk along the shore of the lake, and I earmarked a spot close to the Rachmaninov bust for swimming. 

Needless to say I spent so long at the villa in Ettore's company that there wasn't time on the way back; and besides the glorious sunshine had yielded to dramatic clouds and heavy showers. It all becomes totally rustic when you turn off the lakeside road and head up towards a convent, famous for educating young Swiss women not at one point admitted anywhere else. There are greenhouses full of tomatoes to be sent to Migros in Lucerne - good to see the produce for that supermarket grown so locally - and the entrance to Senar, unobtrusive, is opposite the Schloss, where I later met three ladies staying there with other members of their choir while performing Beethoven's Mass in C locally. They didn't know that Rachmaninov's villa was hard by.

We started in the garden house, its plainness offset by several pleasing curves at SSR's suggestion

and walked to the villa, which presents its most forbidding angle from the north-east. The back of course is much more attractive; the study is to the left, three steps down from the main ground floor.

It's the lifeblood of the place, the reason why this should be open to visitors. Dominating it is the extra-length Steinway Grand presented to SSR by the company on his 60th birthday.

Rachmaninov sat at the piano with the windows behind him so that the light would fall on the music. The desk, on the other hand, looks directly out. 

In the centre is a plaster cast of the composer's hands, with those long, long fingers.

The contents of the music cabinet and the photos on top are not quite what they were in his lifetime - I guess many of Alexander's LPs have been added - and foxing meant that copies of the portraits needed to be made. The originals, and the more valuable scores, are housed in the archive upstairs. It's a fascinating selection, all the same. Tchaikovsky, SSR's greatest early influence and part-mentor, and Rimsky-Korsakov are to the left, Frederick Steinway and Josef Hofmann to the right.

Odd juxtaposition - Fyodor Chaliapin and Noel Coward (who of course eventually had a place in Switzerland, Les Avants, where Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge became neighbours).

Pleased to see Don Quixote, Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain among the books. 

In one of several admirable articles in the well-produced booklet on Villa Senar, Elger Niels quotes from the Nabokov poem at which the pages of a volume in the library fell open: 

Not the sea's sound...In the still night,
I hear a different reverberation:
The soft sound of my native land,
Her respiration and pulsation,..
In sleepless silence, one keeps listening
To one's own country, to her murmuring,
Her deathless deep.

Perhaps some of the trees in the grounds conjured up Russia for Rachmaninov. There is so much light. The dining room looks out to the garden beyond

and there were many family gatherings outside during those precious summers. This photo offers one of the rare instances of SSR smiling. Nataliya is to the left.

'SNR' is on so much, not least the cutlery,

and in my earlier quiz, duly answered, I featured the Rachmaninov tweed suit made in Jermyn Street - here's another angle.

Many of the original fittings remain, including one nice long bathtub and an array of taps. 

So outside, with various perspectives on the house

and a handsome flight of stone steps

down to the boathouse 

and a wonderful terrace right by the water's edge, a different perspective from the house higher up.

And then back, this time a shorter walk through a lovely valley 

to Hertenstein quay, coffee and cake at a pleasant cafe, and the return journey, this time on one of the original steamers. 

As dreamlike a round trip as if you arrive at Venice and leave it by vaporetto.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

h100 Awards: pride among peers

Having been one of the four judges for the Hospital Club's Young Influencer of the Year Award - courtesy of The Arts Desk as 'media partner' - I was looking forward to the annual event. All the more so since last year gave me insights into corners of creative innovation I knew little about (the star indisputably being Lady Leshurr; I always meant to write about her, and the event, but never did).

The good news was that Stuart Goldsmith (pictured above), a stand-up comedian who's genuinely funny all the time and would be excellent at impro, so quickly does he react to the immediate situation, returned to compere. While it was a shame that we didn't get the likes of John Simpson this time round, the keynote speaker and his speech could hardly have been more impressive. Must catch up with James Graham's dramas - The House, having started at the National Theatre, has been on a successful UK tour and I can't wait for his forthcoming TV drama about Brexit starring Benedict Cumberbatch - on the strength of his golden, and very sincere words.

You can read the whole speech on The Arts Desk. Most attractive personality, too, genuinely nervous about speaking but propped up by the beauty of his text. A person could develop a crush...

Our own Hanna Weibye, the only dance writer who could possibly have followed the classiest act of Ismene Brown on  TAD, gave a lovely speech, too. With most of the awards, we only got to know about the contenders in the beautifully-produced booklet handed out afterwards, but our Young Influencers all had context.

Marina Gerner, pictured with Hanna above, was an eloquent winner, but having spent more time on James Bingham's blog, Sense of Pitch, I'm more than ever sure that he's the most original thinker among our group. Doer too, and he's off to the fabulously promising new Irish National Opera, having been given carte blanche to develop its education programme without imposition from the usual suspects. Excellent company over good food, too.

Of the acceptance speeches, Bradford Literature Festival Director Syima Aslam's was the most thought-provoking. She spoke about the majority of lower-income groups,and of her pride in the English language, which she didn't begin to learn until the age of 8 (her mother still doesn't speak it). Here she is with our own TAD literary and musical doyen Boyd Tonkin.

Others provoked curiosity and lines to pursue. The Arts Desk has long been singing the praises of Keeping Faith, a TV thriller made in both Welsh and English, so I didn't need much persuasion to catch up with Eve Myles, protagonist and winner of the Broadcast category. Her character is so compelling from the start, all over the place in a way that you take for granted, as you do the normality of the town set-up even though you know it's quickly going to go awry. I've only seen the first episode and I'm hooked. So I was throughout Bodyguard, but it followed a more conventional pattern and the last episode was rather sowhatish.

My one sticking-point about the awards - that the Hospital Club doesn't place classical music and opera in the same fashionable mainstream as its featured arts - was partly appeased by that already great cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason winning the impossibly broad Music category (among the nine other candidates, Gillian Moore was the only other one with 'classical' credentials). Let's hope that as a member, I can influence 'our' presence there by setting up an event or two. Our own TAD treasure Thomas H Green was there to announce the winner and Sheku, as unshakably modest and diffident as ever, had filmed a little speech.

TAD sails on, with as little prospect of payment as ever, but I think we do the best possible job and I'm very proud of our extensive Proms coverage. Now we're in the middle of the Royal Opera Ring cycle, with one reviewer per each instalment. I get to see Siegfried, the only one I didn't get to see first time around. Didn't think much of any of them; let's see if this marks a change of opinion.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Shibe stunner

Having experienced both the soft acoustic and loud electric of genius 26-year-old guitarist Sean Shibe's latest Delphian CD live in Anstruther, I wondered when I saw the back cover whether bunching the two different styles respectively together would make for as good a programme (he shared the concert, too, with clarinettist Julian Bliss).

Then I listened, and was convinced. The exquisite miniatures of the Scottish lute pieces fold outwards into MacMillan's From Galloway, ingeniously transcribed from the clarinet original,  and Motet 1 from Since it was the day of Preparation - first track to play anyone you want to convince about the rainbow hues of Shibe's acoustic-guitar mastery.

Reich's Electric Counterpoint glides us into the louder stuff. The composer's commendation on the back of the disc says it all more eloquently than I can. Then comes the stunner which virtually lifted me out of my seat in the East Neuk - on the cusp of bearability, though the earplugs we were given turned out not to be necessary - in the shape of Julia Wolfe's LAD. I've already written on how only an artist of Shibe's unique imagination could have thought to ask if he could adapt the original - for nine bagpipes, performed in the World Trade Centre - for himself live and recorded eight times. David Lang's Killer just about finishes us off.

So we move in - please note, not 'to', which writers are still declaring virtually daily - a crescendo, from introspection to exhilarating, violent exuberance. If only all solo CDs had anything like this thoughtfulness. It's a winner by any standards. Great photo-artwork, too, by the inimitable Kaupo Kikkas.

I spoke to our hero at the Frontline Club some time back; the interview is now up on The Arts Desk to follow Graham Rickson's very enthusiastic review. The accolades are just pouring in.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

Rake and Spades at the Frontline: do join us

Yes, that's the great Dame Felicity Lott as our Opera in Depth end-of-term lunch guest last term, before she went on to talk with her usual natural charm, wit and insight on Britten (we were covering A Midsummer Night's Dream over five Monday afternoons, using the Peter Hall Glyndebourne DVD in which she plays an appropriately tall Helena. Yesterday she was a very impressed onlooker at the celebrations of the great director's life). There are, incidentally, many more of us than you see in the Frontline club room shot above.

For the coming term, which starts next Monday, I'll be covering Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, two operas which climax in a crucial game of cards. Pikovaya Dama, to give it the proper Russian name (Pique Dame, incidentally, is nonsensical) will be staged at the Royal Opera in Stefan Herheim's Tchaikovskycentric production; having reviewed the DVD of its Dutch incarnation for the BBC Music Magazine, I can say you're in for a treat, a concept that's actually followed through, so let's forget that dramatically abysmal Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne.

Vladimir Jurowski will conduct The Rake's Progress at the Royal Festival Hall (no idea yet how semi-staged it's going to be). He made such poignant and light-of-touch work of it at ENO years back, in a quirky production by Annabel Arden with a profoundly moving Bedlam scene. Back to the Garden of Eden below in the recent British Youth Orchestra production I found so effective: Pedro Ometto as Trulove, Samantha Clarke as Anne and Frederick Jones as Tom Rakewell (image by Bill Knight).

Meanwhile, a Rake extravaganza linked to the above has already taken some shape for our last class on 17 November. As the Frontline Club flummoxed me a couple of months ago by telling me that they regard the 'run-up to Christmas' as including the whole of November, when they hope to make more than the substantial amount I pay them for my weekly two hours, I've had to find other homes for the last three Mondays. Which, it now seems, will be St James's Church Sussex Gardens, with its avowedly fine audio-visual set-up - I'm going to check it out on Monday - and its new Steinway Boston Concert Grand.

The idea for the proposed event took shape quickly after I'd been to see the BYO Rake. FLott, as Madame la Patronne of BYO (as she is of the Poulenc Society), had recommended I go, and I'm glad I did. So she has agreed to preside, a lovely connection back to the famous Hockney-designed Glyndebourne Rake in which she sang the role of Anne Trulove, happily preserved on DVD (the Bedlam scene above with Leo Goerke). Samantha Clarke, already a world-class Anne, will, we hope, reprise the aria.

Nicky Spence - who sang Tom Rakewell for BYO a decade ago, pictured above - will join with his pianist partner Dylan Perez, and Susie Self, a hairy-chested Baba the Turk for Opera Factory back in the 1990s, has agreed to come along too.

Students for the term will have this as part of their package, but we hope others will come along too, to help us raise money for BYO. A unique event - put it in your diaries, and leave a message here with your contact details (I won't publish it) if you want to join us either for that or for the entire term.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Discovering Danco through Ansermet

Continuing to dig in to the huge discography (300 plus Suisse Romande recordings for Decca alone) of Ernest Ansermet long after the BBC Radio 3 discussion of his legacy - the edited version still to be heard for the next few days on the BBC iPlayer here starting at 53m27s - I ordered up five discs from the Australian-based Eloquence wing of Decca, not least to explore his few opera recordings. And here I came across a voice I only previously knew through the Josef Krips Don Giovanni and Erich Kleiber Figaro, Brussels-born Suzanne Danco. Her lyric soprano is not so light as ever to be dubbed 'soubrette' - she sang Ellen Orford at La Scala, Marie in Wozzeck and Mimi - but it's the personality in everything she sings that shines through.

Anyone, for instance, who gets annoyed with poor Mélisande - abused, Maeterlinck would have us assume, by her previous lord and master Bluebeard before Golaud discovers her lost in the forest - might find this characterisation stronger than usual. There's certainly nothing wan or wispy about it, and you hear the pain creep in when Debussy needs it. As for the whole of this 1952 Pelléas et Mélisande, I think this may be the most compelling version I've ever heard on CD - I wish I'd known it when I spent six Monday afternoons on the work for my Opera in Depth course.

The classic Désormière recording of over a decade earlier is also very speech-melody conscious, and there will possibly never be a better Pelléas than Jacques Jansen (Ansermet's Pierre Mollet is also excellent). But here the sound is so much better, and Ansermet, preferring a forward sense of movement throughout to 'burn off the mists' long before Boulez, makes his strings sigh with pain and love. You can more or less understand, with even just a little French, what's being sung about just by listening without a libretto. Quelle clarté! I'd still turn to some recent recordings for further beauty of orchestral texturing, but I simply don't want to listen to a non-French cast who doesn't understand every nuance.

It's curious to see Danco get top billing in Ansermet's recording of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges when in fact she sings not the role of the reactive child but the meltingly beautiful aria of the picture-book princess. Again, the pointillist detail of Ansermet's interpretation as captured in the bright old Decca recording is fabulous (even if the last chords of the Five O'Clock Foxtrot seem not to be fully scored) and here's Hugues Cuénod excelling, too, as old man Maths. Danco and her Golaud, Heinz Rehfuss, turn up in the aurally otiose L'Heure espagnole, too. But she's most bewitching in the Deux mélodies hébraïques - the first of which gives the strongest sense of the power she can unleash when necessary - and Shéhérazade. So full of charm and meaning, again, even if not as luxuriously upholstered as the classic version with Régine Crespin. Which I had quite forgotten is also an Ansermet/Suisse Romande special. Real gap in the library there - must correct.

On the same set there's the first of Ansermet's Boléros with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. a good couple of minutes more leisurely than his Suisse Romande version. I was glad to find out that his recording of Hérold's Zampa Overture is lurid with character, explaining why I was so obsessed with this piece as a child (I took out the Ace of Diamonds LP of French overtures at least twice from Sutton Library). And the Haydn revelation continues with renewed admiration for the mixed moods of Symphony No. 83 (the hen-peckings follow a dark start) and the charm of No. 84's finale (funny how the un-soubriquet-ed symphonies often seem to be overshadowed) in the set of 'Paris' Symphonies. The discoveries keep on giving.

On a very un-French footnote, I also confirmed for myself the total-classic status of this recording of Britten's first opera, operetta, musical, call it what you will. 

Having been disappointed with so much about the Wilton's mishandling of Paul Bunyan, despite some excellent casting, I came home, and confirmed the work's masterpiece status thanks to a cast under Philip Brunelle that puts it across with exemplary clarity (that word again, not so evocative in English).