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.


David Damant said...

I know that you suggest that I always go off at a tangent, but there is one point that may be of interest. After Shostakovich's little local difficulty with Stalin over Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 he was in Leningrad when he was rung up by the commander of the Leningrad Military District to make sure that he was all right. This commander had been instructed to do so by Marshal Mikhail Tukhashevsky, who was a friend of Shostakovich, which shows the impact that the composer had made in the highest circles - the Marshal was one of and perhaps the most outstanding of the military men in the USSR at that time, a brilliant man and a Marshal at 42. He was of course shot by Stalin. His 1937 "confession" was covered in blood.

David said...

Well, frankly I'm grateful for a comment, and this is germane. I know it, of course, and Shostakovich's arrest in connection with Tukhachevsky is the main theme of Julian Barnes's The Noise of Time, which I have but still haven't read. Tukhachevsky's wife at one time was Natalya Satz, founder of the Moscow Children's Theatre and collaborator with Prokofiev on Peter and the Wolf. She spent some time in the camps as a result of her connection.

David Damant said...

It would be interesting to know why Natalya Satz was - relatively - well treated. In 1944, after her hard labour. she was sent to Almaty but there she was able to propose a Children's Theatre. The rest of the family were harshly treated, and in the case of the close family "physically annihilated", in the phrase of Robert Conquest. Seems odd. Was Natalya in some way credited with the achievement of Peter and the Wolf etc? Or maybe in Almaty the local communist bosses were very far from Moscow and thought that she was rather a cultural catch

David said...

Impossible to say. Her superb memoir, Sketches from My Life, was published in Soviet Russia so that part of her life gets very little mention.

Susan said...

To think of all this happening in Ambleside! Your vignette of the lady in the fish shop is delicious. I'm glad, too, to be reminded of the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, and those beautiful lines you quote. I looked back to find a bit of the back story on Michelangelo's text: For this setting, Shostakovich chose two epitaphs (190 and 194) from a set of forty-eight that Michelangelo wrote to commemorate the death of the 16-year-old nephew of his agent, Luigi del Riccio. Del Riccio had asked for a portrait, but Michelangelo didn’t like portraiture and offered the epitaphs, a sonnet, and a madrigal instead. Del Riccio seems to have showered Michelangelo with gifts to entice him, prompting Michelangelo to accompany some of the epitaphs with wry comments. To Epitaph 190, Michelangelo appended the note, “When you don’t want any more of these, don’t send me anything further.” He accompanied Epitaph 194 with the note, “I didn’t want to send this one to you since it’s very clumsy; but the trout and the truffles would compel heaven.”

David said...

I remember you were struck by those lines the last time I quoted them. Thanks for the research - I didn't know all that. I think you and J would like Ambleside, unless you've already been. We'd had a few not so great experiences of 'the Rain District' so to find love for it again - as for Prague above - was reassuring.