Thursday, 15 April 2021

Zooming Albert, Tito, and Russians from 1948

It seems appropriate to kick off the summer term of my Opera in Depth Zoom course with Britten's Albert Herring, that Maupassant-adapted classic operatic comedy - one of the few truly great ones of the 20th century - since we're heading towards the merriest of months, and Eric Crozier's libretto is about a virginal May King crowned in the absence of any suitable village maidens (pictured above by Robert Workman: Richard Pinkstone as Albert with Adrian Thompson as the Mayor, Clarissa Meek as Florence Pike and Orla Boylan as Lady Billows in the wonderful Grange Festival production, which I reviewed on The Arts Desk). 

Helping that great mezzo Jean Rigby and her husband director Jamie Hayes with some of the fiddly bits about Zoom sound and vision for a talk they were giving to the Northampton Opera Group, and instantly warming to them both, I thought I might be able to call upon Jean to talk about the Glyndebourne production originally directed by Peter Hall (and still ready for revival, I think). She's delighted to be able to help, and I'm hoping we might reassemble other members of that original cast, including John Graham Hall, Felicity Palmer and Alan Opie. Fingers crossed.


We kick off next Monday afternoon (19 April), 2.30-4.30pm, and the next three or four Mondays (Bank Holidays obviously excepted) will be devoted to Albert. Then we move on to Mozart's La clemenza di Tito for the following five Mondays (pages of Metastasio's libretto, much used by the time Mozart came to set/adapt it, pictured above), due a new production to mark the Royal Opera's emergence from lockdown. Director Richard Jones and conductor Mark Wigglesworth, both regular visitors to my Opera in Depth courses, have promised to come along. 

The last of four terms on Russian music begins next Thursday, 22 April. You don't need to have attended the other three to follow this one. I've made a provisional draft for each class thus:

1: The Zhdanov trials and after  22 April

After the ‘chaos instead of music’ Pravda article attacking Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, a second massive blow fell on Soviet composers in February 1948, when Stalin’s right-hand man Andrey Zhdanov initiated a conference attacking so-called ‘Formalism in Music’. Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the main victims. We look at Shostakovich’s ‘bottom-drawer’ parody of the event, Rayok or The Musical Peepshow, and see how Prokofiev adapted with a further simplified, but still characteristic, style. We hope that Steven Isserlis will be our guest to discuss the cello works of that period.

2: Before and after the death of Stalin: two symphonies  29 April

Prokofiev completed his enigmatic and only surface-simple Seventh Symphony shortly before his death, which coincided so tragically with Stalin’s on 5 March 1953. Shostakovich had begun his Tenth Symphony but did not complete it until after that watershed, allowing himself an uncharacteristically jubilant if wild finale (probably not surprising to see how the Italian communist paper l'Unit├á covered the event, pictured below).

3: Shostakovich and his acolytes in the 1950s  6 May

Shostakovich’s position as the supreme chronicler of Russian life and soul was now unchallenged, but new names start to emerge: the considerable figure of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, aka Moisey Vainberg, born in Poland in 1919 but Moscow based from 1943, at Shostakovich’s urging; and Galina Ustvolskaya, Shostakovich’s pupil from 1939 to 1941 and then from 1947 to 1948. Her output is small but original – ‘there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead’, she declared, with a certain hyperbole – and Shostakovich quotes her 1949 Trio for clarinet, violin and piano in his Fifth String Quartet, premiered in 1953.

4: Chamber music, mostly Shostakovich 13 May

Time to examine the form in which Shostakovich took the greatest and most radical steps forward, the string quartet, with special reference ranging from the Sixth Quartet of 1956 to the Tenth of 1964.  That includes, of course, his most autobiographical work, the Eighth Quartet of 1960. We hope to have as special guest for this class Sasha Pavlovsky of the Jerusalem Quartet, whose performances of these works in recent years have been awe-inspiring. 


5: Thaw 1: one step forward, one step back  20 May

With the advent of Nikita Khrushchev as President, opportunities in the arts seemed to open up. Shostakovich was hopeful for the performance of his Thirteenth Symphony, ‘Babi Yar’, to outspoken texts by the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, but things did not go quite so smoothly.

6: Thaw 2: Stravinsky returns to Russia  27 May

The third great 20th century Russian composer came in triumph to Moscow, celebrating his 80th birthday (pictured above with Rostropovich). We take the opportunity to look at the very different paths he had taken in America, and what came next.

7:  The inspirers: great Russian performers of the later Soviet years  3 June

Time to consider those towering artists who offered such lifelines to composers in trouble: violinist David Oistakh, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (Rostropovich’s wife, pictured below at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in 1963). 

8: Shostakovich: Endgames 1  10 June

In his later years, an ailing Shostakovich was much preoccupied by death, and approached each work as if it could be his last. The Fourteenth Symphony is his answer to Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, which he orchestrated: a cycle setting poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, K├╝chelbecker and Rilke for soprano, bass, strings and percussion. The Fifteenth Symphony of 1971 is an autobiographical orchestral summing up, but by no means his last work.

9: Shostakovich: Endgames 2  17 June 

Each of the last three string quartets offers a different angle on death: terrified in the Thirteenth, ultimately radiant in the Fourteenth and skeletally enigmatic in the Fifteenth. Parallel are the last song cycles, with explicit reflections in the texts especially of the Michelangelo Suite, and the swansong of the Viola Sonata

10: The end of history – the mid-1970s onwards 24 June

Two towering figures in Russian music emerged after Shostakovich – Alfred Schnittke, who like the master constantly surprised with his eclecticism up to his death in 1998, and Sofia Gubaidulina (born in 1931), who has continued to compose music of a visionary intensity.

If you're interested in signing up - each two-hour class is a tenner, making it £100 for each term - leave me a message here with your e-mail. I won't publish it, but I promise to get back in touch.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Weekly cycles to Kew 1: January and February


It quickly became a weekly fixture, a ritual almost: I'd cycle to Chiswick, collect my friend Cally and then we'd pedal along the river to Kew Gardens. She'd pack two flasks of soup and some bread, I'd buy the cakes and eventually the coffees, we'd walk, find a bench - no matter how cold - for lunch, walk some more. pick up the coffees and sit opposite the palm house for afternoon tea, walk some more and cycle back before dark. It became, apart from Zoom classes, a highlight of the week, a much-anticipated day out at the end of each busy week (after the first cycle, we fixed on Fridays). One Friday we missed because I was feeling peaky and hoped it wasn't Covid-19 (it wasn't); on another, we had less time to spare so we resolved to meet at Barnes Pond and explore the Leg of Mutton nature reserve (a former reservoir), sandwiched - unbeknownst to us until then - between the river and the road to Barnes. As the London Wetlands Centre has been closed for the whole of this year up to now, this was the next best thing.

The beauty, of course, was to see the steady return to life of plants and trees. to catch the Thames and the Gardens in so many changing lights and temperatures. We persist even now, but in order not to swamp you with photos, I've stuck to the first two months. The first jaunt took place on 6 January. This was the scene near the eyot at Chiswick

and this the tree-canopied stretch from Chiswick Bridge to the Gardens

What was flowering or budding then? Near Kew Palace, Syringa x hyacinthiflora, 'Lamartine';

a camellia near the Japanese Temple

and various Hamelidacaeae, the family to which the Witch Hazel belongs - this is Parrolia persica, the Persian ironwood, another finer speciment of which we'll come across in a later week.

Otherwise, only bracket fungus here and there.


Every week we'd keep a watch on the buds of the magnolia grove - the big oak behind always looks splendid, whatever the season -

and cross the main pond, larches now skeletally dominant

then head up to the view across the river to Syon House, where we had several lunches.

The woods were awaiting their snowdrops, and still in places looked autumnal

Fading light (mid-afternoon) around the Pagoda and its dragons,


the Temperate House

and the Palm House.

Closing time was officially 3pm, though I think we were out later, and catching sunset on the river back at the eyot at 4pm.

15 January expedition: first catkins


and some fine lichen on firs.


Coldish lunch by the Thames

and then into the woods to see the first snowdrops.

Ubiquitous ring-necked parakeet at the feeders with various tits.

First signs of tentative blossoms on the fruit trees near the Temperate House, now in full spate.


Then the usual routine - heading to the cafe to carry away coffees to the other side of the pond (the former archive building catches the sun, which has tended to shine on our visits)

and a pleasant wend towards Alpine territory, via the ever-fascinating Hive,

to catch what we could: a few exquisite narcissi

and heavenly-scented paperwhites just inside the open door of the Alpine House,

curiously drosera-like growths on the rockery

and spectacular sedums which a few weeks later would need to be under wraps in sub-zero temperatures

plus a detour beyond the wall to see if anything was growing in the vegetable beds - answer, Swiss chard - 

and to catch a glimpse of promises beyond: Sparrmania africana of the mallow family

and knobbly beginnings of Crambe cordifolia.

Grasses still flourishing which had been cut back on our most recent visit 

and a tentative Chinomanthus praecox 'Lutea', another version of which we'd find giving off fabulous scent a few weeks later.

So to the gate at sunset

and a very rewarding cycle back - the river front at Kew Green glowing;

what is now the Budweiser brewery seen once we'd crossed the bridge;

while at the eyot a surprise awaited, not an entirely unfamiliar one as the Thames does tend to come up over the road and pavement at high tide, and I'm always happy to wait and watch until it recedes a bit - but this was spectacular. Stranded cars parked on the slipway are an all too regular occurrence here.


Canada geese relishing the grass of one of the Chiswick Mall gardens a bit further along

and last sunset perspectives before the homeward stretch.


22 January: a brilliant start by the stone or umbrella pine, Pinus pinea, which Joseph Hooker moved to this spot in 1846 from Princess Augusta's original collection.

The mountain gum further along, Eucalyptus dalrympeana, is already of massive girth though only planted in 1971.

New to me were the trees in the rockery and glade around King William's Temple. Here, the Chilean Colletta spinosissima  

has gathered some fine lichen.

Beyond, in the grove dominated by date plum trees, Ehretia dicksonii is nicely mossy.

Another Persian ironwood, this time in the wooded zone, is rich in red berries 


Clouds were rolling in as we passed the Temperate House

and there was a curious desolation about the dead gunnera leaves by one of the smaller ponds in the woods.

Swan seeking self-shelter

but nearby, signs of new life in the first iris of the year, Iris lazica from the Caucasus,


 and in the tentative yellow flowering of the Cornelian cherry.

More new life on the other side of the lake


and as we headed back to the gate, the clouds began to lift and the late afternoon sun started to strike through.


Final grand illumination of the big trees near Kew Palace, Orangery and Nash Conservatory




Further light on Kew Green

and a bright moon by the time we reached the eyot (you can just see it high and left of centre in the first picture below).


29 January marked a departure from the routine. We both had limited time, so as I'd heard of Egyptian goslings newly hatched on Barnes Pond, I thought we could meet there and go on to explore the Leg of Mutton reserve (I heard about both of these from my peregrine-watching new friends in Margravine Cemetery). Hadn't bargained for a very high tide and, having decided to ride through the high water, got soaked and decided to shelter by the Putney boathouses until it subsided. Again, a car was sinking fast (transport police eventually towed it away).

The walkway by the Thames had become a channel for swans and geese to glide along

After 30 lively minutes of waiting, the waters retreated enough for me to resume the journey.  I feared I'd be way too late, but as I cycled towards Barnes Pond, I saw Cally pedalling towatds me. She'd had exactly the same problem on the other side of the river, but had been able to go home and change. Anyway, we didn't see the goslings, only their parents on the island in the middle, but the pond was pleasant enough 


and I hadn't realised there was an arts centre (serving much-needed coffees to take away). Another five or so minutes, and we were at the Leg of Mutton. The river side of the old reservoir on the circular walk is the most attractive, as you have water on both sides (and of course the Thames was still high).


Bird life was unexceptional but abundant and picturesque, especially with reeds as background,

and the late afternoon light lent an eerie charm to the place.

5 February: back to Kew. The first crocuses were coming through

as well as the shoots of the first peonies (cambesedsii in the Alpine Garden).

The witch hazel below the Temple of Aeolus had further blossomed


and Chimonanthus praecox 'grandiflora' was heady in its scent - at this point we could have been deluded into the thought that spring had arrived.



 A ubiquitous robin only to commemorate our lunch on a bench on the rise towards the William Temple - this was our constant companion.

Amazing natural (sap?) striations on a Spanish chestnut tree in the woods

and an abundance, now, of snowdrops.


Again, abrupt change of weather - dark clouds as we reached the river.

Firsr rhododendron in flower, campanulatum 'notturno'

and an oblique take on one of the Chinese red-barked birches (Betula albosinensis) in a grove I always seek out.

Dramatic light by the Hive

and redwings, which I'd been following almost daily in the Margravine Cemetery, here in abundance too.

Back to the gate

and moody river scenes on the cycle home.


Though we'd missed the first brief bout of snow at Kew, we returned on the 12th in the big freeze, and still patches of the latest fall.

The light was bright, and magnolia buds well advanced against the background of the mighty oak suggest it was more clement than it felt,

but you can see the partial freeze on the main lake.



Nothing daunted, we had our lunch on a bench near the river, faces turned to the sun and well wrapped up against the wind which blasted us from behind (the chill factor must have made it at least -3).

Didn't quite feel how the cold had got into our bones as we wandered the woods again

and appreciated the liveliness of various tits at the collection of feeders

but I'll never forget the intense sensation of cold at this seemingly benign point as we headed towards the Temperate House (closed, of course, and we were so looking forward to gleaning what warmth we could buying coffees and running hot water over our hands in the for once welcoming toilets).

The pond by the Palm House was also, of course, semi-frozen



but once again the Aeolus hillock and its foreground witch hazel look surprisingly benign.

Seek snow, though, and ye shall find little patches

even on the Alpine rockery agave.

Only cycling back warmed us up. Highish tide again


 and presumably the parents of the swan family at the eyot.



Looking back once more to Chiswick.

Real progress at last on 26 February (can't remember why we missed a week). The long-awaited magnolia flowers in that wonderful glade were beginning to open, and the crocus carpet beneath was a bonus.



Further beds of crocuses down by the river

which offered a welcome journey back, and an even more magical moon (full, this time) at the eyot.


In the next and final batch, which will complete the year of London nature in lockdown, you'll finally see a riot of blossom. And I'm looking forward to returning to the Wetlands tomorrow, open this week for the first time this year.