Thursday 26 December 2019

Solstitial sunrises from a Palma balcony

We lucked out, as they say, with this view from an apartment recommended by our friend Sophie Sarin (currently in tougher climes back in Mali) via her Swedish diplomat friend from Bamako, Eva. It was enough at first to wake when the sun was already bright

and the coast opposite clear

but after an early lifting of the shutters to reveal a sunrise, 7.30am rising became a must. Praise be to the solstice for making such a daily revelation possible - sunrises are usually for me a rare and unforgettable occurrence, like getting up at 4.30am in Göttingen to head out for a clavichord recital by the Seeburger See with the sun beyond the windows rising through the willows. Given variable weather, with only a smattering of rain when Storm Elsa was supposed to be at her height (it was about 9pm and I was on the way back from a free recital of Fauré's piano music in the fabulous Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró (more on which in a future post), no one morning was quite the same as the other. Even on a day when a Mallorcan version of the haar hung low, there was a hint of blurry sun before it closed in,

 There was red sky in the morning on the day of the Elsa warning

after which the sunny weather returned for the solstice days: first heralded by a different kind of red, a rosy-fingered dawn

then as an orb rising from haze

while the next day, Helios made a simple ascent at its most majestic.

The fishing boat on the left seemed to account for the gulls circling before the levee

while I was more hard-pressed to account for the swarms above the terraces of olive trees in Deia; some of them look like skuas, others black-headed gulls.

In our own garden - well-kept, but they need to ditch the noisy, smelly leaf-blowers - the denizens were mainly blackbirds, collared doves and the very occasional butterfly (I think this is a Wall Brown, Lassiomata megera, but someone else may know different).

while down on the rocky seafront, cormorants dried their wings,

poised and skimmed. We could just have been idle, but there was too much to see in the mountains and the wonderful city on our doorstep, where one of the greatest cathedrals in the world had its sandstone facade further deepened by the sun setting opposite.

More on that wonder, on Chopin and George Sand in Valldemossa and Robert Graves in Deia, in future posts. It's nice to be back for quiet interstitial days, full of such vivid impressions and having gleaned such warmth, as well as respite from the sight of our Prime Monster, over 10 days.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Good Chance conviviality in Dalston

So now's the time to forge closer ties with organisations within the UK that can make a difference, in line with the 'political re-wilding' George Monbiot writes about here. This breaking of bread - and what bread (chef Dina Mousawi, more on whom anon, pictured below) - a fortnight ago wasn't exactly a seasonal celebration, but better than any pre-Xmas event of a similar kind I've attended. Rarely met so many friendly and engaging folk as at this perfectly orchestrated fundraiser at the Ridley Road Social Club (a splendid venue, for a start, which clearly does good lunches and feels immediately welcoming).

Good Chance started out creating a safe and vibrant performance space for refugees in the form of a dome within the Calais Jungle. They'll be taking the same to Sheffield, where I hope they'll hook up with some musical friends of mine. The venture has expanded not only to mounting a much-acclaimed production about the Jungle experience, now in New York, and visiting more troubled zones where the GCers might make a difference. I got to talk to the charismatic Stephen Daldry. He's been down on the Mexican side of the border, where he found out how Honduran refugees are looked down upon by the locals: each 'tribal' group has the potential to hate another, but with a bit of work they can come to understand and welcome. He said the big problem, he'd learned from a very famous New Best Friend, was going to be climate-change related; in several years' time we'll see the new wave.

Above is J's (and now I hope my) friend Philip Cowell, Good Chance's Development Manager and one of the friendly circulators, while in the top picture you can also see second from the right one of the Co-Directors, Joe Robertson. All images taken by Aymen Mahamednor, courtesy of Good Chance. I was seated, as you can see from the top photo, next to Majid Adin from Mashad in Iran, a very talented artist who worked on this excellent short film to Elton John's 'Rocket Man' (thanks, of course, to Daldry's connections).

The food was superb, courtesy of Dina, Creative Director of Good Chance,  who's also produced a Syrian cook book - she is from Iraq, but her collaborator was born in Damascus, and they spoke to many women for the recipes.

I was pleased to see my all-time favourite starter dip, what I call muhammara, in the early pages, and so far  I've produced chicken in turmeric yogurt: needs fine tuning, but will be a good regular. At the feast, the turmeric cakes with pistachio were a special treat.

Dina charmingly introduced the speeches and the film, and then there was music from Sounds of Refuge's John Falsetto and Mohamed Sarrar.

It's a long time since I've been to a social gathering where so many people - in this case the regular team - were so adept at going round the room and talking to others. They all gave off such positive and friendly vibes. Time to do more.

Thursday 12 December 2019

The only reason... need concerning what NOT to vote for today.

If Clarke, John Major and Michael Heseltine are agin Diana Ditch and her Chamber of Horrors, while Tommy Robinson has cast in his lot with the monstrosities, where does that leave you?

I don't need to post much more, but where anyone with a fibre of moral integrity should vote depends on keeping the worst at bay.  It's simple in Hammersmith: our Labour MP with a large majority, Andy Slaughter, is a passionate Remainer and tireless hard worker. He helped save Charing Cross Hospital, he's campaigning against the Third Runway and working with constituent Alf Dubs (whose face can just be seen in the below photo; Andy's on the left) to do more for refugees. Ticks all the right boxes, I'd have thought, and Corbyn has campaigned decently; we'll cross the bridge of his pro-Brexit stance when and if we come to it. At least he's offering another public vote on the terms, with No Brexit as one of the options.

Meanwhile, just vote and please don't spoil your ballot paper; as I read someone else saying elsewhere, find where there is a bit of difference between what you hate and what you think could do even a tiny bit of good, and mark your cross accordingly.

I'm off tonight to hear Vaughan Williams's Fourth Symphony from Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra. Concert planning couldn't have known that this would be a significant date, but what could be more appropriate than an angry, dissonant work from a (left-wing) composer who cherished his roots but was also a true internationalist. Let's hope that tomorrow morning the total contrast, his radiant and mostly serene Fifth Symphony, will chime with my feelings about the results. This performance conducted by the composer in 1937 - by which time the angst expressed must have been even more extreme - is magnificent.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

First person singular: Ferrante and Tokarczuk

Here are two novels in which the narrators are so careful with their words that the response must be terse too - and elliptical, too, in order to avoid any spoilers.

The Lost Daughter is the last of Elena Ferrante's (relatively) early works I've read this year, since I finished the great Neapolitan quartet in hospital in early January and then moved on to the most haunting of the early three, The Days of Abandonment.

I was quick to buy a copy of Olga Tokarczuk's 2009 masterpiece Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead not after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but because I'd read that demiTory weirdo Rory Stewart had remarked on seeing someone reading it on the tube, and, clearly knowing nothing of its reputation, objected to the odd title (so much for being well briefed).

The title comes from Blake, one of the leitmotif preoccupations of animal-loving hillside dweller Mrs. 'don't call me Janina' Dusjecsko. You're drawn into her singular way of seeing things from the very first page, and even inclined to think that many of her views must be those of the author. Until... and that's about as far as I can go here, It reads so compellingly, too, in the translation of Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who's also rendered into very lucid English Artur Domosławski's superlative biography of fellow more-than-journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, which I'm halfway through at the moment.

There's also not too much I should say about The Lost Daughter, except that it contains many of the same preoccupations as Lenù's in the tetralogy. You can't help wondering if Ferrante has kept her real identity secret because of how much she personally may have invested in her memorable tale-tellers. Here the essence is a beachscape with a mother, young daughter and doll, and how those elements trigger the narrator's memories and obsessions. How else can I describe it but as great, serious literature?

Meanwhile, the saga of Lenù and Lila continues to haunt; having reviewed the National Theatre's compromised but theatrically effective zip through the whole story for The Arts Desk, I ordered up Saverio Costanzo's TV series based on the first volume, My Brilliant Friend (the others, apparently, are to be serialised too). One episode watched so far is enough to realise that this is visual narrative right under the skin of its subject. The casting of the children, is perfect, much as I imagined them.

Linn Ullmann's Unquiet is a very different case from Ferrante's works. Ullmann calls it a novel, but it is in fact a candid, unsparing portrait of her relationship with her father, Ingmar Bergman, and to a certain extent of that with her mother, Liv. In total contrast to a dreadful, sensationalist Swedish TV documentary about the master which I gave up on halfway through - not least because the tacky music was at odds with the film clips, though chiefly because its structure was unsound, its speculations dodgy - this is a portrait told with love but also a disarming honesty, catching angles of a filial relationship in which magic plays a greater part than disenchantment. I guess the selection, the honing, is what makes it novelistic. And like all great novels, it raises more questions than it answers.

Saturday 30 November 2019

To Hades and back with Gluck's Orfeo

If you take Gluck's original 1764 score for Vienna, his Orfeo ed Euridice is one of the shortest and superficially the simplest three-act masterpieces in the repertoire. A major part of the credit should go to librettist Ranieri de Calzabigi, who strips the myth of preliminary trimmings and all but three characters (though the Furies and the Blessed Spirits are major presences). After Handel's Agrippina, which took more time than I'd thought, I wondered if we might be stretching Orfeo at four two-hour Monday classes on my Opera in Depth Course at Pushkin House. Far from it. In the first I was finally able to dig out excerpts from Peri's Euridice (beginning of the Prologue pictured below), the oldest extant opera in the repertoire from the year 1600, and his collaborator Caccini's version premiered shortly afterwards, as well as what you might expect from Monteverdi and a sideways glance at Telemann's multilingual spectacle for Hamburg.

Once embarked on Gluck, it was vital to check the differences between 1764 and the Paris version of 1774 (frontispiece pictured below), which involved substantial additions, only one of which I'd use if I were staging the work - the piercingly beautiful-sad flute solo which became the centrepieces of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, about which Berlioz writes so eloquently in his Treatise on Instrumentation. I'd also, by the way, omit the pointlessly jolly Overture and stop the opera at the end of 'Che farò', reprising the opening chorus with Orfeo's three cries of 'Euridice'. No point in staging the 'lieto fine' or happy end and being ironic it, given that modern taste won't swallow it.

So we zoomed between John Eliot Gardiner's recording of the original version, incisive and buoyant in choral and orchestral terms in a way none of the other five recordings I've been using begins to match,

and the Paris version as recorded in 1956 with Leopold Simoneau in the title role recast for tenor (listening options are now between countertenor, mezzo, contralto, tenor and even baritone, though we didn't go as far as that). Neither includes the aria at the end of Act 1, 'Addio, miei sospiri', which was formerly believed to be a borrowing from a contemporary, but in fact turns out to be Gluck adapting himself, albit a pre-reform self with all the showpiece trimmings. I was thrilled to find it on a recording I'd thought of discarding, the one with Marilyn Horne and Solti conducting. Then I screened the end of Act 1 with Janet Baker in the Glyndebourne production, and that has it too.

Anyway, here's Horne somewhat later, transposing down a tone and not so agile with the coloratura, but it's good to see a master singer's way with poise and the Italian language (especially in the preceding recit).

The Furies and Elysium scenes, which need to run continuously - and without the Dance of the Furies, taken for Paris wholesale from Gluck's splendid Don Juan ballet, pointless in this context since Orfeo has calmed the tormented creatures - involve some looking forward, especially to Beethoven, who explicitly moulded the dialogue between soloist and gruff strings at the heart of his Fourth Piano Concerto on the first and the 'Scene by the Brook' in the Sixth Symphony on Orfeo's 'Che puro ciel', for me the tone-poem high point of the entire opera. Gluck's original orchestration, with birdsong flute, seems to be so much lovelier than his simplified revision, and Derek Lee Ragin is my favourite interpreter of this heavenly inspiration, so we ought to have the Gardiner recording with the English Baroque Soloists. For some reason, though, that's not embeddable from YouTube, so I'll settle for Anne Sofie von Otter with the English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock.

When Ian Page of Classical Opera and The Mozartists came to talk to us for the third class, he agreed that the original sounds best, but that the revision - where the flute simply exchanges murmuring-brook triplets with the strings, which first appears in the Parma interim version he conducted recently at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - actually works more effectively, balance-wise, live. Ian, polymath extraordinaire, wowed everyone with his range and insights. Within minutes he was talking about how what he thinks of as the tempo giusto for 'Che faro', a faster one than usual, makes it more about passionate loss rather than gentle, consoling elegy, with appropriate adjustments to the reflections marked 'a little slower' (Gluck was very specific, in everything but metronome, about what he wanted here). We then heard Classical Opera's Wigmore recording of the aria with the lustrous Anna Stéphany, and when the following week I compared verses - Lena Belkina (Ian's splendid Orfeo at the QEH), Ferrier, Simoneau, Derek Lee Ragin, Iestyn Davies on the new recording with David Bates's La Nuova Musica - that still came out tops for me. Of course Baker at Glyndebourne is the very model of focused intensity; how she pulls that off at the late Raymond Leppard's incredibly slow speed is little short of miraculous.

Ian's intensive study of hundreds of operas from the mid-18th century informs so much of what he says, and it was surprising to learn that Gluck's first version premiered in Vienna the day before the child-prodigy Mozart visited. Mozart certainly knew and loved this work - viz the parallels between 'Che puro ciel' and Tamino's first use of the Magic Flute, where both heroes lament how the absence of their beloved renders the idyllic scene imperfect. We also discussed, inter alia, dramatic continuity - the Parma version was performed straight through, with no interval and only the shortest of pauses between acts - and supertitling (Ian does his own, to make certain of absolute tie-ins with what's being sung). Here we are as snapped on request by student Andrea Gawn - forgive the shine and the blue tinge, the latter's from the projector/screen, hard to avoid).

We were also, for some reason, talking about Haydn symphonies and how Ian wants to champion the best ones without nicknames. He talked about the musical palindrome in the Minuet and Trio of No. 47, and how mind-blowing it is to get players to render it backwards from the score (as Haydn intended) rather than having it written out. There's a wealth of strangeness and wonder still to explore in the musical world.

Expectations of Iestyn Davies's visit this week were dashed when it turned out that he'd got the day wrong for his return from tour. We'll hold him to coming to see us next term; but I do think we got infinite riches from Ian. In the meantime, went to the Royal Overseas League yesterday for the launch of our beloved Linda Esther Gray's new collaborative volume with tenor Ian Partridge, Thoughts Around Great Singing (there's also a website: Both spoke engagingly of their experiences and the collaboration. I'll report back when I've read the book.

Sunday 24 November 2019

To the Strahov Monastery

Booked into the most spacious of top-floor hotel rooms for my evening at Prague's Rudolfinum hearing Semyon Bychkov conduct the Czech Philharmonic in the ultimate test of acceptance, Smetana's Má vlast, and my interview with him the next morning, I could see the Strahov Monastery from one of my big windows - and most of the other landmarks of old Prague into the bargain. Thus the Vltava, Charles Bridge and National Theatre to the left,

the Sv Mikuláš Church and Petřín Hill

and to the right of it Hradčany.

There was just one drawback about the charming Hotel Klárov with its friendly and helpful staff - I was in the Andrea Bocelli suite,

which kind of ties in with the Eurotrash with which central Prague has recently been overwhelmed (blame ownership by Russians and others eager to make a fast buck out of mass tourism). Anyway, this time I didn't hit the tack that overwhelms the Staré Město and actually found the streets heading up the hill not so packed, nor the Hradčany Square in front of the gates to the first castle courtyard.

But I had two aims - to meet my generous Czech friend Jan Kučera for lunch in U Ševce Matouše, where you used to be able to eat lunch while your shoes were cobbled (nothing special now), and then to head up to the monastery.

Though the Premonstatensian Abbey was founded in 1143, the essence of what we see now ranges from Baroque to Rococo. The grounds are beautiful and extensive; they embrace not only the big Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady

and the early 17th century Church of St Roch, now an art gallery

but also two important libraries connected by a corridor full of cabinets of curiosities, the driving reason for my wanting to come here (with happy memories of the Vogelsaal in Bamberg, described by Simon Winder in Germania as 'perhaps the most wonderful room in the world'). Had to buy a modest photo permit as there were no postcards other than of the two library halls.

For me, these slightly tatty cases were more a source of wonder than the libraries, visible cordoned off - unless you take a private tour - beyond the corridor. The Wunderkammer tradition seems to have its roots in the Emperor Rudolph II's collections, now, I guess, dispersed. This set is not original to the monastery - it came from the estate of Karel Jan Erben in 1798. The ordering is more random than in Bamberg, but here too there are wax fruits as well as marine curiosities (two whales' penises included).

Between the cabinets of shells and corals

hangs a 12th century 'wire shirt', as the monastery text puts it,

and there are two pretty cases of butterflies

while more specimens lurk in boxes in other cabinets.

The first library you see is the Philosophical Hall, its walnut 'interior' relocated from the abolished Premonstratensian monastery in Louka - the Strahov was lucky to escape Joseph II's dissolution of the monasteries in 1783, and only lost its monks in the Communist era, after which they returned, and restoration has been ongoing - and installed between 1794 and 1797 by its original designer.  Viennese artist Anton Maulbertsch painted the fine ceiling fresco on in six months with one assistant.

At the other end of the corridor is the Theological Hall of about a century earlier, and frescoed 50 years later. Here it's more clear that religious faith guides knowledge and wisdom.

Some of the cabinets in the corridor are currently empty, like this one alongside an Egyptian sarcophagus,

and I looked in vain for the dendrology library or xylotheca, with each volume featuring the bark of the tree in question on the spine. Yet beneath glass were some of the libraries' treasures, including the precious Strahov Evangeliary of 860-5

with its lavish Gothic binding;

the first manuscript to feature the translation of the Bible into the Czech language;

a symbolic map of Europe as the Virgin with Bohemia as her heart (from a Prague volume of 1592);

and an astrological volume in Arabic.

Afterwards I wandered along the Petřín Hill and ramparts above the church

with an even more spectacular view down on to St Vitus's Cathedral

and then went back down through the gate to the monastery gardens

where the view above the vineyard has to be one of Prague's (many) best,

passed Prague's Loreto Church

with holy flying house (Santa Casa) within like the spectacular one I'd seen in Brno. Only this time it was gone 6pm so interiors were closed, and I made my way round a back street with a house plaque to Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer to Rudolf II for two years,

and catching at sunset the statue of T G Masaryk, one of the few truly enlightened figures of 20th century politics, as it were saluting Prague laid out before him

made my way past the army security in front of the castle and headed downhill through its precincts with plenty of time to get back to the hotel and then take metro and bus to the airport (as easy as pie). With some relief, I was leaving as the English soccer fans were arriving for a match the next day; predictably, there was trouble, but not solely from the English side.