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.

Monday 18 November 2019

Shostakovich in Ambleside


Part of the summer I miss so much (I can't remember a more oppressive, wetter autumn), my weekend as guest speaker at the Lake District Summer Music festival seems so long ago now. But I remember the people and the place with such affection. If you can love Ambleside in peak season, packed with holidaymakers - though mostly of the more active, walking and sporty sort - then it must have something special going for it. For a start, I was given the nicest, quietest accommodation imaginable, above Stock Ghyll, with a table and chairs on a little terrace below the cottage where I managed to do a bit of work. But most of the time I was out, not least from 10am to 10pm on Saturday, taking part in the big Shostakovich day down at the Ambleside Parish Centre, opposite the handsome Victorian church,

which has not one but two lecture rooms (one doubling as a recital hall, the other kindly ceded by the Methodist Church, both with state of the art equipment and a technician, Tony Wilcock, who did more than anyone I've ever met to help with the smooth running of the talks, even uploading between the sound tracks I'd already recorded the two film clips I was using (from Kozintsev's superlative films of Hamlet - the graveside scene pictured below - and King Lear; there are correspondences between Shostakovich's film music and his quartets).

My morning lecture was an introduction to Shostakovich's changing and evolving style, though very different from the one I'd given in Bromsgrove where the aim was to parallel the 15 quartets to come. The possibilities of illustrations are always rich, though it's good to start and end with "Immortality", the song which concludes the Suite on Verses by Michelangelo - presenting the simple tune which was one of DDS's first inspirations as a child, then having reached the end, conclude with the words of the second quatrain - as Elizabeth Wilson does in her peerless Shostakovich Remembered - which in the music is followed only by the triads, and not the tune, melting into infinity:

I am as though dead, but as a comfort to the world,
With its thousands, I live on in the hearts
Of all loving people, and that means I am not dust;
Mortal decay cannot touch me.

Youth was very much the theme of the ensuing recital across in the larger room. The original baritone, Liam McNally, had gone down with laryngitis, and recommended another recent music college graduate, Belfast-born Malachy Frame, accompanied by the superb Duncan Glenday - who'd partnered Garfield Jackson in Friday morning's Shostakovich Viola Sonata (sorry that I arrived just too late for that - it had clearly left a very deep impression). Glenday looked a bit like the late, great Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but I wasn't expecting him to sound like him - which he did, instantly, in an immediately moving performance of Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades. Which you take me to mean that there's fabulous, cello-like quality to the sound, accompanied by obvious intelligence. That Frame has the capacity to go further was richly proved when he encored the last of Schumann's Op. 39 Liederkreis, and it soared even further. Apologies that these aren't the best shots; there wasn't a regular festival photographer on hand.

There was just enough time for lunch back in town before returning to the smaller room for a screening of The New Babylon, the masterpiece by Kozintsev and Trauberg for which Shostakovich wrote his first film score (originally to be performed live, as I've heard it done once, but the soundtrack here, conducted by Frank Strobel, couldn't have sounded better).  What endless pleasure there is to be gained from watching the magnificent performances, mostly by troupers from the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS). This is Sophie Magarill, so hilarious in Faintzimmer's 1933 film Lieutenant Kije (with music by Prokofiev, of course).

Had hoped I could grab a swim between the end of the film and the afternoon talk, but there was too much work to do (I got my bathe in Lake Windermere the following morning, as I've already reported). There was a big bonus, though, before the next event - sitting on the wall outside the Parish Centre was John Hiley, ex of our great friend Ruthie, with whom we'd spent a very jolly weekend when he was living in North Berwick. He's now happily married and hails from close by - he invited me back after the evening concert to meet his wife and have a meal with them, but it had been an exhausting day so we settled for a jolly gathering outside Fellini's Cinema (what a place, Ambleside - there's also Zeffirelli's Cinema and another near by).

But before that there was work to do and a very demanding concert to attend. I thought it would be powerful to begin the talk on the quartets - the Brodsky Quartet were to play the Third and the Eleventh - with a scene from King Lear, the last film for which Shostakovich wrote the music: directed by Kozintsev, as before, and culminating in apocalyptic scenes to a wordless choral lament Shostakovich used to frame his Thirteenth Quartet.

I also talked about quotations in the other quartets, and featured the Gravedigger's Scene from Hamlet. What especially touched me was that the splendid Artistic Director of LDSM, Renna Kellaway, former head of the School of Keyboard Studies at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music, felt moved to give a speech of thanks before the talk, having enjoyed the morning event ('she doesn't do this often', I was assured). I'd very much enjoyed her company when she drove me back from the previous evening's Leonardo concert from I Fagiolini and the inspirational Robert Hollingsworth in Kendal.

That had been a very splendid bonus, something of a known quantity to me from the beautifully produced CD, but there's nothing quite like witnessing a total work of art like this live, and Hollingsworth's conversations with Professor Martin Kemp in between the carefully-chosen choral pieces were fascinating. And I had excellent fish and chips by the river Kent, prefaced by an interesting conversation with the lady in the fish shop. I told her a bit about Shostakovich and she said, very perceptively, that it all sounded rather manic-depressive. They're shrewd, the people of Cumbria.

To conclude, the Brodskys thought big with their programme, with the Shostakovich quartets as outer panels framing Beethoven's Grosse Fuge - I've now heard it three times this year, and it's always a knockout - and a  beautiful arrangement by the quartet's viola player Paul Cassidy of the Adagio and Fugue from Bach's Third Violin Sonata. Isn't Bach always of the essence? But Shostakovich's Third is also one of the great quartets, and with the peerless Gina McCormack having recently joined the quartet, it was shatteringly fine. Thanks to LDSM for at least one record of the event, though clearly it's no more professional than my shots above.

Incidentally, full marks to LDSM General Manager Kim Sargeant for writing such detailed and excellent notes in the programme, and proofing them so immaculately.

The only drawback of the flying visit was that I didn't see enough of Ambleside's glorious surroundings, though I did walk down to the remains of the Roman fort of Galava the next morning before my swim. Just before I left, and the humidity finally broke with heavy rain, I picked up Paul Renouf's Ambleside - the Gruff Guide, which confirmed my hunch that there's a very vibrant community core in this special place. I can't wait to return.

Next talk on Russian music: a study afternoon (they call it 'workshop') on Soviet music in the 1920s arranged in conjunction with Pushkin House on Saturday 7 December. They even filmed me talking about it by way of promotion. Excellent folk there - my opera course runs so smoothly thanks to their vigilance and help.