Saturday 17 August 2019

The many faces of Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Was there ever a more perfect array of expressions to match the music than those of the wondrous Canadian? The shaping and body movements are totally eloquent, as they have to be, but the many faces prove that this man lives what he conducts without affectation or excess. BBC Proms hero the photographer Chris Christodoulou caught him in many moods at the first of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra concerts; between us Sebastian Scotney and I managed to put up quite a few shots in our respective reviews (mine is here). Chris wrote to me:' I have just finished editing 264 images of him alone - and only rejected at a push 22!' Thanks to him for supplying a few more here.

Chris also tells me that how people behave backstage is an eye-opener, and that  YNS is really out there, shaking hands and hugging people. Clearly a Mensch as well as a seriously great conductor.

It's a real shame the BBC didn't want shots at the second BRSO concert; the partnership with Gil Shaham, a late replacement for Lisa Batiashvili in Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto as YNS was for Mariss Jansons in the two concerts, proved another joy to watch and hear. Despite an ineffable lightness of touch, the team got at the essential seriousness I've always maintained is there in all three movements, the finale an increasingly manic danse macabre like Shostakovich's and Lorca's characterisation of the Malagueña in the Fourteenth Symphony ('death moves in and out of the tavern').

My colleague in the pre-Prom talk for that evening, Ariane Todes, didn't agree with me on the heart of darkness, opening apart, even after the performance, but that's fine - all part of Prokofiev's amazing ambiguity. We got on very well, and Martin Handley is a true knowledgeable pro; I didn't actually miss anything in the edited version brought out in time for the interval, so skilfully did he steer us to the main points both about the Russian school of violin playing and the concerto itself. Take a listen while you can on the iPlayer, both to the concert and to the talk (which starts at 46m25s).

I must admit the tempi YNS took in those infuriatingly music-minus-two and -three sequences in the annoying Rosenkavalier Suite could not have been sustained by any singer, but it was worth it to hear the necessarily exaggerated swoon of the waltzes (and the ratchet rattling in the Albert Hall). Brilliant idea, too, to give Sibelius's near-contemporary, couldn't-be-more-different Valse triste as the encore.

That's become an encore speciality of the Estonian Festival Orchestra and Paavo Järvi, who gave their best performance yet, of the ones I've heard, at the end of this year's Pärnu Festival; but YNS and the Bavarians yielded nothing in terms of character. Two very great orchestras and conductors - I wish Mariss Jansons back to full health after his absence, but I wonder if the (relatively) young Canadian could be next in line of succession in Munich.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

Summer bathing places

It has become a point of honour that I must immerse myself in sea or lake if either is available on a summer trip. Hardest was the North Sea off Crail, Fife, last year, in a haar that made the outside cold too. My pal Kari Dickson, who shared the dip and came out equally sharpish, claimed it was colder than the Firth of Forth on New Year's Day, so I do get a brownie point for that one. The five ventures this summer so far have been relatively simple, though I do bear battle scars from one. Despite that, it's rather boring how everyone now goes on about 'wild bathing', with encouragement from the media. There's nothing to it once you make up your mind.

Norfolk (1) I've already covered in a post on a very full day. Most pleasant of all were the daily plunges very close to the idyllic wooden house I had to myself (and an unaffectionate cat called Sebbe) by the water at Vattnäs in Sweden's lake district of Dalarna (pictured up top with the sauna, which I didn't use).  Here's my wonderful host Gun-Britt by the shore, from the window. The lupins, by the way, are beauties, but the locals are in two minds about them - they're invasive, nothing can grow around them. But so long as they can be controlled, I'd be happy to have hosts of them around me. You just need to cut off the heads once the flowering is over to stop the seeds spreading.

I felt immediately welcomed into the bosom of the Andersson family on the evening I arrived, when folk music was being played with a friend who knows all about these things, Lars Thalén, his wife Ingela on the zither, grandson Victor as second fiddle and Victor's girlfriend Anna on saxophone.

The young 'uns were involved in Anna Larsson and Göran Eliasson's latest project in the nearby barn-theatre, a uniformly well cast and superbly played Das Rheingold; for more on that, see the Arts Desk coverage.

Weather was changeable, but that made for many magical lights on the lake - like this one, when I woke up at 5am and snapped before going back to sleep,

and this one after the rains.

Two more, one from above when we went to pick up a fellow writer from his accommodation

and the other from close up again, near to sunset (around 11.30pm, I think).

A blog entry on excursions to the wonderful Anders Zorn Gallery and House in Mora and the rift valley of Styggforsen will have to wait. A full report on my fifth Pärnu Music Festival is, on the other hand, imminent.

How I love Estonia's summer capital; even knowing that the permanent residents have a nasty habit of supporting the country's newly emergent far right, with its links to Marine Le Pen, I feel comfortable among the summer visitors who know how to have fun without the excesses of British holidaymakers. Bathing here requires a considerable wade out in the shallow waters of the eight-mile sandy bay, but it's worth it - especially at midnight, encouraged by doyenne Lucy and several other companions. The disco on the beach throbbed and twinkled boisterously, but there was also a blood-red moon rising. None of this documented, of course, but I have the usual beach pics, most dramatic on the day when I went for a knee-deep paddle and the third of the day's storms threatened beyond the dunes.

It looked so impossibly calm out at sea, despite the cumulo-nimbus forms on the horizon

that I didn't make much haste heading back in the heat - until I saw a spectacular forked lightning display up the river. And the cloud formations over the wetlands looked almost cyclonic.

So I ran through the woodland and into the Villa Katariina where we'd stayed last year, for a drink and a snack, just as the heavens opened. It was over in 20 minutes, so I just had time to dash back to the hotel and on to the evening's concert. All was calmer by the time J arrived - four days of uninterrupted sunshine. I rely on him to offer proof that I did bathe,

eventually swimming out towards the masts of the annual yacht race around the Estonian coast, and then we just water-waded along the coastline

to a river mouth this time without a hint of threat, solitary tansy in the dunes a magnet for bees,

and the shoreline cattle doing their thing as luxury yachts incongruously sailed past them.

More of our bovine friends at the water's edge were to be seen by Lake Windermere nearly two weeks later.

I had a totally wonderful time in Ambleside and Kendal, giving two talks on Shostakovich as part of Lake District Summer Music's day of events which I'll outline anon. I only had the morning of my departure free, and could have gone up to the fells, but wanted the swim so headed for the lake out of town. The National Trust is responsible for fair meadows at Waterhead

and English Heritage looks after the remains of Galava Roman Fort. Not much to see here since most of the stones were carried off for building in Ambleside, but it's an attractive setting, especially with no-one else around.

Clearly bathing where the Romans would have done so wasn't ideal, so I found a rocky outcrop in nearby Borrans Park.

A warning about a rather nasty blue-green algae in the lake made me wary, but the damage actually came from a rock which left me with a black toe - amazing how quickly the bruising went down with Arnica cream. Didn't much like the oozy weeds twisting around my legs either, but otherwise managed to keep swimming towards the boats and back. It was a sticky but mostly rain-free weekend; the bad weather only set in when I was sitting on Windermere Station for the train to Oxenholme and thence back, uneventfully, to London. A week later, and there would have been trouble.

We were very much on the fringes of that while staying in North Norfolk with our friend Jill for the Southrepps Music Festival - the best yet, that I've experienced, at any rate, with unsurpassable performances from, among others, Ben Baker (best Bach Chaconne either I or David Parry have ever heard live), festival doyen Ben Johnson (peerless in Britten's Serenade, with the equally magnificent Martin Owen and Parry conducting a first-rate string group led by Ben), guitarist Sean Shibe creating his usual hold-your-breath magic, Jonathan Bloxham on a flying visit as cellist in breathtaking Mendelssohn Second Piano Trio - ah, that chorale moment! - and two young pianists, Martin James Bartlett and Daniel Lebhardt who both dazzled in two different concerts on the same day and who, I kid you not, cast an erratic Martha Argerich at the Proms last night in the shade, for fine tuning with colleagues, at any rate.

But there are also the swims, walks and crab/lobster lunches at the Overstrand shack to be accommodated. We managed two of the three on Saturday afternoon, but high winds and sea swells meant friend Cally and I didn't take the plunge then. You can see the white horses here,

and just over this cliff with the last of the Alexander there had been a big collapse in June.

Anyway, we got our bathe on Sunday lunchtime between Bach/Mendelssohn and an excellent lunch at the Vernon Arms back in Southrepps. Thus the beach

and the view from above on the walk back.

In about a month we return for our annual churches walk. The gifts of these wonderful retreats just keep on giving - but I hope, in terms of fundraising for the Norfolk Churches Trust, we give back a bit too.

Monday 5 August 2019

From Undine to Rusalka: truth in fairytales

How Dvořák must have loved his sad water-spirit (Sally Matthews depicted in the latest revival of Melly Still's unforgettable Glyndebourne production above by Tristram Kenton): there isn't a bar that palls in his Rusalka, and I was very reluctant to let the opera go in the fourth and last Opera in Depth class on it last Monday afternoon. Curious that so fantastical a tale, differently treated in many variants, should have brought forth such deep responses from so many of the masters who touched it, otherwise Hans Christian Andersen in The Little Mermaid, Mendelssohn in his Overture The Fair Melusine and, least known these days, Henri de la Motte, Baron Fouqué, in the seminal tale, Undine, of 1811 (illustrated below in a later edition by Arthur Rackham).

No wonder Goethe loved it so much. Undine is no wan angel; when we first meet her she's capricious and wilful (not bad traits for a heroine by today's standards), only later transformed by love for her Prince Huldbrand. What's remarkable, though, is the author's human understanding of the love triangle which develops in the royal realm.

The fascination of Dvořák and Kvapil's second act is how the sudden appearance of the Foreign Princess to challenge the mute-among-mortals seems hallucinatory to the Prince: she even has some of Rusalka's music, like a kind of Black Swan, representing the sexual desire lacking in the protagonist (Robert Carsen's superb Paris production makes her and witch Jezibaba into aspects of Rusalka). In Fouqué, the unhappiness develops over time; at first Princess Bertalda becomes Rusalka's confidante for real once the prince has ridden back through the forest with his love back to his domain (painting below by Daniel Maclise, 1843).

The situation is complicated by the fact that she turns out to be the mortal child snatched away by the water spirits from the fisherman and his wife who have since brought up Rusalka as their own. At the beginning of Chapter XIII ('How they lived at Castle Ringstetten') we get this:

The writer of this story, both because it moves his own heart, and because he wishes it to move that of others, begs you, dear reader, to pardon him, if he now briefly passes over a considerable space of time, only cursorily mentioning the events that marked it. He knows well that he might portray skilfully, step by step, how Huldbrand's heart began to turn from Undine to Bertalda; how Berthalda more and more responded with ardent affection to the young knight, and how they both looked upon the poor wife as a mysterious being rather to be feared than pitied; how Undine wept, and how her tears stung the knight's heart with remorse, without awakening his former love, so that though he at times was kind and endearing to her, a cold shudder would soon draw him from her, and he would turn to his fellow mortal, Bertalda. All this the reader knows might be fully detailed, and perhaps ought to have been so; but such a task would have been too painful, for similar things have been known to him by sad experience, and he shrinks from their shadow even in remembrance. You know probably a like feeling, dear reader, for such is the lot of mortal man. Happy are you if you have received rather than inflicted the pain, for in such things it is more blessed to receive than to give.

How this affected the author precisely is not known, though I hazard a guess from the fact that he was was twice married (I've found nothing about the first wife). But how truthful, and - in the uncredited translation I have - how much more telling than the discreetly erotic drawings that accompany it.

I note that Fouqué provided the libretto for Hoffmann's opera on the subject; what a shame that the music is so much more pedestrian than either the novella or Hoffmann's literary tales.

In the end I used nothing from the Hoffmann opera to illustrate the classes, though there was plenty from Mendelssohn, Weber, Tchaikovsky (the four surviving numbers from his Undine, including the love duet which became the Act 2 Pas d'action with violin and cello solos replacing soprano and tenor in Swan Lake), Sullivan (yes, the magic/spooky music of Iolanthe is worth taking seriously) and Dvořák's other operas (chiefly The Devil and Kate and Armida, chronologically either side of Rusalka).

As for the opera itself, we had mostly what we needed in two CD sets and two films. On disc, there's the Supraphon Rusalka from Neumann with the unsurpassably luminous Gabriela Beňačková, whose Song to the Moon is peerless, or at least first equal with Lucia Popp's - this is actually from a desert island arias disc -

and Mackerras's, also with the Czech Philharmonic. starring Fleming and Heppner, never better. The last duet is overwhelming in what for me is maybe the greatest, Liebestod-ish end of any opera. This excerpt comes in a tad too late for my liking, but you get the idea.

The DVDs are of Carsen's production mentioned above, again with Fleming, and the late, lamented Sergey Larin as the Prince, and another going way back to Pountney's Victorian nursery fantasia for English National Opera, which is still heartbreaking in the final scene (Eilene Hannan and John Treleaven). So much so that one student had to run out of the room at the end so that we didn't hear her sobs. I had that the first time I saw the film, though I don't remember the live performance having quite the same effect. Alas, Eilene Hannan died in 2014 at the age of 67 - best remembered as an intense presence on stage in everything she did.

Meanwhile, for next season, academic year, call it what you will, I've decided that we'll devote the autumn term to three, rather than two, operas, one a stage work: Handel's Agrippina, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and Weill's Der Silbersee. The spring term will see the third instalment of our four-year Ring journey with Siegfried, while the summer bring Strauss's Elektra and one more TBC. All tending to the Germanic, I know, but that's what the London rep is offering in 2019-20. Let me know in a message here if you're interested, complete with e-mail; I won't publish it, but I'll be sure to reply.