Tuesday 23 October 2018

Privileged preview: Stockholm's Nationalmuseum

A more pompous term for it would be 'VIP visit', but what's for sure is that the large group of international journalists present in Stockholm for the Birgit Nilsson Prize ceremony had huge privilege in being given a tour of the Nationalmuseum prior to its public reopening after five years of renovation and reconstruction. Here's the west facade seen from over the bridge, complete with a weekday morning exercise group.

I'm assuming the original idea was to have the sparkling, colour-filled redesign launched 150 years after the original opening on 15 June 1866, when the first exhibition drew more than 90,000 visitors in a city of 115,000 inhabitants, but presumably the work took longer than expected. Anyway, here it all is for the world to admire - a curious collection famous above all for its Rembrandts, including a personal favourite, The Song of Praise of Simeon in the Temple painted in the last year of Rembrandt's life, seen here to the left of the vast and peculiar canvas The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis which reminds me more of contemporary artist Ken Kiff.

We were lucky to be led, for half of the tour, by Helena Kåberg, project manager of the art collections, seen here beneath Balder the beautiful.

The priority, as she puts it in an interview for the 'Reopen' brochure, was "the lighting and the colours. One of the main principles underlying the new approach to displaying art collections is to use daylight in the galleries. It has been a challenge to handle the daylight flux and complement it with artificial light to create varying experiences'. Our morning, though it quickly gloomed, had started out bright, so the filtering screens were down, but still allowed for views across Strömmen to the Royal Palace.

The colours had been part of German architect Friedrich August Stüler's plans, but the Swede Fredrik Wilhelm Scholander who took over was more conservative. Many of the present schemes revert to Stüler's ideas. They work especially well, I think, in the 18th century French room (two Watteaus on the right here)

and the lilac matches the rather ugly vase in this assemblage.

Once 1950s whitewash had been removed, many of the domes in the ceiling looked like the one furthest away here, which was left as revealed while the rest were repainted and modern essentials like air conditioning and a sprinkler system were installed in the roses.

The Nationalmuseum's miniature version of the Great Court at the British Museum is the Sculpture Courtyard, which is probably the first room visitors enter once up the steps from the entrance. A new dome has been inserted

while the idea in what could well - but hopefully won't - be marketed as 'an ace cafe with a good museum attached' aims to attract families with affordable fishy tapas by a leading Swedish chef Fredrik Eriksson, who laid on a selective but insanely delicious spread for us.

But I leap ahead, mouth watering. After the gathering in the sculpture court, we were divided into two groups. My lot headed to the top floor (see lead pic), to be immediately dazzled by the lighting, especially of the sculpture casts in the niches - Laocoon has never looked so good -

before heading into the picture collection. Its core was assembled by Count Carl Gustaf Tessin (1696–1770), who doesn't seem to have gone that far back into the past; the earliest top notch paintings in the first room are by the Cranachs, including one of the many portraits of Luther

but then, via an exquisite gathering of Rembrandt drawings, we hit the big guns, including these portraits as well as the Biblical canvases depicted above.

After time in the French collection, we rejoined Helena downstairs in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as it were, and moved through the mixed showings of native and international art. It was good to see beloved Liljefors, the best of nature painters, in two works reunited with their original Japanese-style frames.

In a nice parallel to our own V&A, there's a big room of 20th century Swedish interiors with a fabulous and colourful array of designs.

The first big exhibition of the newly-opened building is devoted to John Singer Sargent, with some well-known loans including the National Portrait Gallery's Henry James, second along in the row here,

and comparisons with Sweden's own JSS, Anders Zorn, as here (the Zorn on the left).

I'd be prompted to think more of that great turn-of-the-century collector and gay icon Prince Eugen when I revisited Waldemarsudde, a superb bequest to the nation, in brilliant sunshine the following day. Hungry for more inside, though, on our grey day, I walked over the bridge to the museum island of Skeppsholmen and spent several happy hours in the Museum of Modern Art - a fine collection, but that had better wait for another time.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

A spontaneous walk above Lerici

No doubt at all: discovering Lerici and that part of the Ligurian coast as a guest at Gianluca Marcianò's Suoni dal Golfo Festival in late August was a revelation. Some years ago we walked the Cinque Terre route in late October, just after a storm had caused landslides; I'm told the route is choked now. So, much as I don't want to spread the news, come and ramble here. I've only touched the tip of the walking iceberg, but now I know where to start and where to get hold of maps, I'll be back.

To Tellaro, that is, the exquisite seaside village which was to be found ten minutes' walk from the simple but perfect Hotel Rosa dei Venti in Fiascherino where some of us were accommodated - infinitely preferable, I think, to the blingily redesigned and much more expensive Villa Magni, the Casa Shelley in San Terenzo.  Better views, too, especially from the roof terrace.

I only got to see Tellaro on my last morning, and fell in love. This was D H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf territory, as Lerici itself is proud to proclaim in literary posters. But now the area mostly has the air of an exclusively Italian holiday destination, and absolutely not a fancy one like nearby Portovenere, our starting-point for the Cinque Terre expedition.

Having walked around the promenade to Shelley's place and back, duly observing the plaque on the side of the now-hotel

and enjoyed the only attractive feature of its now-limited garden, the grotto,

I then thought I'd ignore warnings about the busy, twisting coastal road and head back up to the hotel. I'd heard that some steps up provided something of a short cut and a break from the speeding cars, but the ones I took went up...

and up, until I arrived by chance at the hill village of La Serra. This gives views right across the bay.

You get an especially good view of San Terenzo, which I've closed in on here. The Alps are visible, at least to the naked eye, beyond.

A bar was conveniently to hand, so I stocked up on liquid intake and then, mapless, had to take a gamble to get back to the hotel below at Fiascherino. Where would the road take me? Round the edge of the village at first, obviously.

But then it had to negotiate a wide valley, and continuing would take me beyond where I wanted to go. Seeing the wooded peninsula beneath,

I ventured on the first track I saw going down to the right, which soon joined up with what turned out to be the major footpath between Montemarcello - clearly the right destination for a longer walk - and Lerici.

There were handsome olive groves here,

and a view across to the south hillside with remains of ancient terracing,

and the wooded slopes of what turns out to be a national park ever more apparent as the track curves round the valley.

It was enticing to continue along the footpath more or less parallel with the sea, but I hazarded another guess turning down to the left, and that brought me out exactly where I needed to be. Needless to say the bus for the first concert in Lerici was 20 minutes late, so I missed the beginning of Samson Tsoy's recital, but what I heard of his Schubert and Schumann was wonderful, and afterwards the castle terrace gave good views out to the sunset.

Venus is shining, appropriately, above Portovenere here.

On my final morning there was time for a swim on the narrow but beautiful stretch of (public) beach below the hotel - daily circuits around a rock with a cormorant on it - before checking out

and then a stroll into Tellaro past the road to the Casa Lawrence

into the village where the road stops and it's pedestrians only,

taking in the beautiful Gothic virgin and child in the Church of Santa Maria Stella Maris - no information about it online -

and then wandering down to the harbour (Church of San Giorgio's tower under wraps)

before having coffee on a beautiful terrace with Jill Segal, whom I bumped into in Tellaro and whose organisational skills should save the festival from its only bad side - chaotic planning, quite a major fault. But I really wish it well, and hope it lives to tell another tale next summer. Whether that happens or not, I'll be back in the area, hopefully in the spring.

Wednesday 10 October 2018

12 talks in two grand houses

Over a fortnight ago, I was honoured to be part of the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, giving two talks in this splendid remnant of the Tudor palace where the future Elizabeth I grew up

and two in the glorious Marble Hall of Robert Cecil's house - still in the hands of his descendants the Salisburys. This exterior shot by the always friendly Jo Johnson, who was up there helping with the admin. She'll get a 'JJ' from now on when I'm using her photos.

The previous weekend I was up in the Trossachs at Gartmore House, 18 miles from Stirling: eight talks of an hour and a half apiece, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, to the Wagner Society of Scotland.

Both engagements meant stepping in to the shoes of distinguished but indisposed speakers at relatively short notice. I can't say how sorry I am that Derek Watson, who had been due to carry on his exploration of Wagner's life up in Gartmore, died on the Monday, having gone in to hospital for one thing but kept in for another which proved to be fatal. I never met him, but my 'students' told me a lot about him. There's a brief appreciation on the Society's website.

The only reason I was able to fill the gap, with less than a week to prepare, was because I could adapt and  add to the classes on Das Rheingold I'd given as part of my Opera in Depth one-a-year survey of the Ring. Some members weren't sure they wanted to go into any one work in detail, but only one pulled out - and the rest told me they were happy to have found a new way of listening and of making connections with other music. Here we are at the end of it all.

Gartmore accommodation was simple, comfortable and quiet, with fine views of nothing but green through the windows. It did tend to be through, because the rain was frequent. I had two hours between lunch and my afternoon session to walk, and was glad I'd brought my waterproofs. I must write up a mycological trail in a subsequent blog. As far as the students went - what a delightful and original group of people. Singers, academics, a professional, a forensic psychiatrist, a retired sinologist: all so interesting and friendly to talk to. Here's my perspective from above the teaching zone. Apart from a few classes at my friend Chris's, with my goddog Teddy making a fuss of everyone and then slinking under the sofa, his favourite habitat, to sleep, it's the first time I've given lectures with a dog present, but Natasha's Zippy was attentiveness itself - head cocked when music was played, but no barking or even growling.

As for the music, I found myself drawn in afresh to key performances - above all the dramatic perceptions and brilliance of the Chéreau Bayreuth Rheingold, noticeably more involving after we'd watched a scene from the Lepage staging at the Met - good for the bigger picture, weak on the personenregie, which between Stephanie Blythe's Fricka and Bryn Terfel's bad-hair-day Wotan was more or less non-existent. And then, Zednik's Loge at Bayreuth: comic genius, but not without a serious edge.

At a later stage I had an excuse to play my most recent favourite among Wotan's Farewell (in a look ahead to Die Walküre justified by a class on the elements - here, of course, Loge as pure fire): Norman Bailey, perhaps the most god-like Wotan I've ever heard, with Klemperer and the New Philharmonia. I left the students to watch the Kupfer Rheingold in its entirety on Sunday evening while I got a late flight back from Edinburgh in order to get back to The Rake's Progress in my Opera in Depth class the following day.

Then three without talking much, and off to Hatfield - so much closer but by no means simple to reach owing to train chaos - for Thursday evening's opener (the talks courtesy of my dear friend Stephen Johnson, who asked to hand them over to me). There I met our charming host, Festival planner and participant Guy Johnston, a really nice chap with no side to him, pictured on the left here with his very talented violinist brother Magnus (JJ),

and gave my first 20-minute lecture - short, but all the harder to say much in that time (also JJ).

I needed to connect both with the overall them of 'Brahms and Friends' and the immediate concert - a chamber-orchestra-sized programme of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, Brahms's Double Concerto with the Johnstons and the First Symphony, all marvellously well handled by Mark Austin conducting the young professionals of the locally-based Faust Chamber Orchestra. Thought it was a nice idea to make sure everyone had a postcard with Mendelssohn's watercolour of Lucerne, its lake and the Rigi on one side

and Brahms's Rigi greeting to Clara Schumann on the other

I thought our short spot should be dedicated to 'Brahms the melodist' with the following excerpts (I'll give them for all four, since some folk didn't get the handout at the final talk and may like to see them here).

Attempted singing of the main theme in the central movement of the Double Concerto, Op. 102 (1888) and the words Brahms set, in a postcard to Clara Schumann, to the alphorn call he heard on Mount Rigi – transformed as the horn call in the finale of the First Symphony, Op. 68 (1876)

‘Sapphische Ode’ and ‘Kein Haus, Keine Heimat’ from Five Songs, Op. 94 (1884)   Thomas Quashtoff, Justus Zeyen (Deutsche Grammophon)

‘Alpenlied auf Rigi’   Angelo Lottaz, Male Voice Choir of Thun

The performance of the Double Concerto was the perfect chamber-musical conversation, a far cry from the usual heavy weather you get in the concert hall, the Johnstons never trying to dominate. And if Austin's interpretation of the symphony didn't break out into unbridled exhilaration, as Jonathan Bloxham's had with the Northern Chords Festival Orchestra at our Europe Day Concert, his instincts were all right, his discipline perfect. Soloistic star for me was the superb principal oboist, Katie Bennington.

Only after the concert was I able to find the key to my lodgings, serendipitously only two minutes down the hill from one of the house's gates. The owners, John Mark Ainsley and William Whitehead, had tried to get us to come to the festival the previous year; now here I was, awaiting their return, and J due on Saturday lunchtime. I woke up to this - a garden not overlooked by anybody -

and had a blissful time exploring locally, including the church. I think I ought to blog about the sightseeing elsewhere, but I must of course introduce a figure very much part of all proceedings in the main house's Marble Hall, Gloriana in the famous and slightly enigmatic 'rainbow portrait'.

It's one of two in the house, the other upstairs in the Picture Gallery and attributed to Hilliard.

But the rainbow queen has the more supernatural impact. You know that old cliche about portraits, 'the eyes follow you round the room'? Well, these seemed to, and you could kid yourself that the Queen was mighty pleased with what she was hearing.

The lunchtime recital - for which the above, pictured Vermeerishly by JJ, was the rehearsal - featured Guy with the very individual Melvyn Tan - whose work up to this point tends to have been mostly on period instruments rather than the sonorous Fazioli, a point of contact with the Suoni dal Golfo Festival in Lerici, and less with chamber music - and clarinettist Julian Bliss, who's very good but a tad too reserved for my taste. How could I feel any differently having been under the spell of maybe the greatest of them all, Matt Hunt, at the Pärnu Festival? Still, it was good to hear all the works on the programme, especially so as to get to know the late Brahms Trio the better.

My (slightly longer - half-an-hour) talk, of which there is the above record by audience member Sue Forbes, for which I'm grateful since I wanted to be photographed with Queenie, needed to set up the evening programme. That took us beyond Brahms, so the excerpts I played were:

Double Concerto (1888) – slow movement   Jitka Čechová. Jan Páleníček, Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra/Ondřej Kukal (Triart) as echoed in

Julius Röntgen: String Trio No. 6 (1919) – opening  Lendvai Trio (Champs Hill – our wonderful group have recorded all 16 trios, unearthed in a Dutch archive and due to be published thanks to their championship)

Elgar: Piano Quintet (1918) – Brahmsian theme in first movement and its transformation   Bernard Roberts, Chilingirian String Quartet (EMI) 

Brahms (1863) arr Schoenberg (1939): Piano Quartet in G minor – Rondo all’Ungarese (excerpt) London Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi (Chandos)

The splendid Lendvais - Dutch violinist Nadja Wijzenbeek, Swedish viola-player Yivali Ziliacus and British cellist Marie Macleod - chose the fourth Röntgen Piano Trio, a waltz suite, for the concert. I imagine a little goes a long way, but the 16 trios are quite a discovery, a perfect enrichment of the repertoire for string trio.

We heard, of course, the original G minor Piano Quartet, fine and rewarding to watch, though one sensed that Tan, who made so many beautiful and original sounds on the Fazioli, wasn't quite expansive enough to let the strings breathe.

That was clearly not going to be a problem for the phenomenal Tom Poster, who plays in the Aronowitz Ensemble of which the Johnstons are also sometime members. The Saturday afternoon concert in which he teamed up with Ziliacus, the outstanding violinist Elena Urioste and Guy was, for me, sheer perfection of a kind you don't often get even in the rarefied world of chamber music.

If, taken as a whole, Fanny Mendelssohn's works show greater originality than Clara Schumann's, the central of the latter's Three Romances is an airborne masterpiece, one I wanted to hear again the minute Urioste and Poster had finished playing it. And while Schumann's Piano Quartet sounds modest between the two Brahms giants, he hit the right note even when not aiming as high as he does in the Piano Quintet. Lovable, every moment of it, in these hands.

John Mark and William were now back, complete with adorable vizsla Radish, most vocal and engaging company. Family portrait essential, I think, with their permission.

They both came to the evening concert, and I was delighted that William came away as bowled over by the Brahms A major Piano Quartet as I was. This was the real pay-off in preparing the talks. How surprising to find that a work which begins in serene introspection, the opposite of the G minor's cloudy start, rises to even more challenging heights. Every theme, every transformation, could only be by Brahms, laying to rest the ghost of Beethoven and taking on the mantle of Schubert (my personal preferred choice every time). With Poster at the piano and the admirable string group from the Aronowitz Ensemble of Wijzenbeek, Tom Hankey and Macleod, the payoff of the performance was simply colossal. Here they are rehearsing as shot from above by JJ.

I'm going to pass on saying anything about the first half, Lieder by Clara, Brahms and Schumann performed with his customary audience engagement by James Gilchrist in a familiar partnership with Anna Tilbrook. There was something in all this that didn't quite ring true to me, but any attempts to reach out communication-wise should always be applauded.

The preceding talk was an attempt to cover several bases: Clara and her youngest son Felix; Wagner and Brahms; and the A major Quartet's relationship to its immediate predecessor. So make what you will of the sequence here.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1864) – Fliedermonolog, Act 2, excerpt   Norman Bailey, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti (Decca)

Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor (1854) – end of slow movement   Maurizio Pollini (DG)

Brahms arr. Schoenberg: Piano Quartet in G minor – finale (except)   LSO/Järvi (Chandos)

Piano Quartet in A major (1863) – opening    Gautier Capuçon, Gérard Caussé, Nicholas Angelich, Renaud Capuçon (Virgin)

Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877) – violins close to opening   Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (EMI)

Symphony No. 1 in C minor – opening    Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Furtwängler (EMI)

Sunday morning continued the wind and rain of soggy Saturday, but at 3pm, just after J had left, the sky cleared and I did a healthy circuit around the park. I'd given the midday concert a miss partly because of social lunching, but also had to stay true to the vow I'd made after Hunt and Co in Pärnu not to hear the Brahms Clarinet Quintet played by anyone else for at least five years.

I did, however, want to hear the legendary Brett Dean as viola-player as well as composer, pictured above second from the left with Tan, Brett's daughter Lotte Betts-Dean, Poster and Johnston. Dean's Hommage à Brahms left little impact, I fear, as [played by Tan; it may seem reactionary of me but I'd much rather have heard the whole of Op. 119, which the homages were designed to weave between, rather than just Nos. 1 and 4 (how could anyone miss out the vintage masterpiece that is No. 2?)

Brett and Lotte were performing together for the very first time. She's a promising mezzo: super engagement, an undeniably individual and rich instrument, but much work is still to be done and a more secure technique should free things up. Let's leave it at that; I wish her every success.

So to the last hurdle, back in the Old Palace Hall. My sincere thanks to all those lovely people who came up to talk in between and enriched my knowledge from their various perspectives. It's rare to have such an interactive audience, but then again I guess as there wasn't time for questions more casual meetings were the only option. Ein Deutsches Requiem was on the cards, so I was able to talk about the curious Bremen premiere of all but the soprano-solo movement. Hence these excerpts, framed by the mighty Ferrier, which also allowed me to touch on Brahms's neo-Baroque aspect.

St Matthew Passion (1727) – ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (sung in English)    Kathleen Ferrier, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult (Decca)

Messiah (1741) ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’   Lynne Dawson, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble/Marc Minkowski (Archiv)

Ein Deutsches Requiem (1869) – ‘Ihr hab nun Traurigkeit’    Dorothea Roschmann, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle (EMI)

Brahms (1862) arr. Rubbra (1938):
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel – conclusion of fugue-finale   LSO/Järvi (Chandos)

Four Serious Songs (1896) – ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’   Ferrier, John Newmark (Decca)

Austin once again did the work to hand proud, with the necessary sense of forward movement that keeps the German Requiem from getting stodgy. There was again a marvellous power from the three double basses which helped out the many smokier sounds. Good soloists, a fine amateur choir - though I'd still have liked more words, even if there was more operatic drama than we got from the professional choir in Bremen. But I must say I was tired by the halfway mark. And I went and blotted my copybook, not having done anything wrong during my stay, by waltzing off with John Mark's wallet and leaving mine in my raincoat hanging up in the porch. Anyway, a Tuesday lunchtime meeting with William at Kew - he'd been playing for a funeral nearby - meant I finally took a holiday and spent a brilliantly sunny afternoon in the Gardens.