Thursday 21 April 2022

Zooming Sibelius

After four in-depth Zoom terms on Russian music, one on the Czechs and the most recent on the Hungarians, I decided that Finland had to be next. And while there are plenty of other fascinating musical voices, the name of Jean Sibelius towers above all others. While he only started learning to speak Finnish aged 9 at one of the country’s first national schools – Swedish was his mother tongue – Sibelius’s musical consistency is absolute, from the early masterpieces of the 1890s through to his turning away from all major works in the 1920s.

We’ll be following the adventure from its bracing start - including the programme symphony based on the exploits of one of the many ill-fated heroes in the national epic the Kalevala, Kullervo (depicted above on his way to war by Finland's greatest 19th centurty artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, like the portrait-plus below, hanging in wonderful house-museum Ainola) through to the supreme concentration of the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola, with excursions to the music of other Finnish composers both contemporary with Sibelius and of later generations.

Hopes are high for the kind of special guests who’ve been a feature of earlier courses – among them conductors Paavo Järvi, Vladimir Jurowski, Antonio Pappano and Robin Ticciati; pianists Pavel Kolesnikov, Alexander Melnikov, Steven Osborne and Samson Tsoy; violinists Alina Ibragimova and Josef Špaček; and harpist Jana Boušková. Certainly I'm wondering if the exceptionally busy Klaus Mäkelä can be persuaded to come along again after his energetic contribution to a Bartók class just before I heard him conduct the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin in Oslo. My rave for his new Sibelius symphonies set with the Oslo Philharmonic, now incontestably one of the world's top orchestras, should be out in the BBC Music Magazine soon. But there already fine cycles to choose from, including those by Berglund (twice), Järvis Neeme and Paavo, Kamu, Oramo and Saraste.

A wide range of works will be illustrated with excerpts on CD, DVD and YouTube. We begin next Thursday (28 May) at 2.30pm with the first of 10 two-hour classes. You don't have to attend live - you can received the video the day after. Either way, the fee is a modest £100 for the whole term (not bad at £5 an hour - and often we take the luxury of running on longer if the case, or the special guest, so demands). Email me at ASAP to confirm a place

Sunday 17 April 2022

Flann O'Brien: mortality, metaphysics and bicycles

It was our friend Paul Ryan who, when J said we were briefly renting a place in Dalkey by the sea, c.12km south of Dublin city centre, handed over his copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive as essential reading. Thus began a strange journey which has so far taken me deeper into a singular kind of Wonderland, a dreamscape with nightmarish elements and so many parallels with the successful realisations of Neveux’s play and Martinů's opera Juliette, or The Key to Dreams, much on my waking and sleeping mind when we studied the musical masterpiece last year. And more than dreams, in all cases; for what can be more boring than when someone divulges the randomness of sleep images? 

Beyond the first chapter, where the Vico Road and the bathing spot beneath it figure significantly, neither Dalkey nor any of the other Dublin settings loom very large (though that opening page IS pertinent to our immediate vicinity).

The oddities are initially parcelled out between the opinionated and possibly dangerous/insane de Selby and two potential acolytes, brusque drinker Hackett and confused truth-seeker Mick, who turns out to be the main character. The girlfriend to whom he's none too committed, Mary, is the only sane person in the novel (and I’m assuming from his difficult character that the misogyny is Mick’s, not FO’B’s). The comic coup is saved for the arrival on the scene of the loquacious and fantastical Sergeant Fottrell. An underwater interview with St Augustine is counterbalanced by several more with James Joyce, who’s turned up alive and well working as a barman in another seaside resort, Skerries, this time north of Dublin.

The reading was addictive, and as I neared the end I was hungry for more O’Brien (real name Brian O’Nolan, born 1911, died on April Fools’ Day 1966); the Lord be praised that The Gutter Bookshop in Dalkey had a copy of The Third Policeman, Which is altogether more nightmarish, more hallucinatory and much more preoccupied with landscapes, and what man may or may not have injected of him (or her, but mostly him) self into them. The metaphysical aspect is even more pronounced, the sudden swathes of melancholia and self-doubt similarly lending gravity. Yet there’s a whole chunk I’d already read, the policeman’s disquisition on the interchange of human and velocipedal attributes due to the exchange of molecules.

Why? The answer is quite simple, but fascinating. O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published in 1939 at Graham Greene’s recommendation, and praised by both Joyce and Beckett. The Third Policeman was rejected on the grounds that ‘we realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so’. His third novel, The Poor Mouth, came out in Gaelic and then there were the daily columns of wit and fantasy in The Irish Times as ‘Myles na Gopaleen’ – as a secretarial civil servant O’Nolan could never use his own name in print – but no more novels until The Hard Life in 1962 and The Dalkey Archive in 1964. In true Mylesish fashion he spun various stories about the fate of The Third Policeman but it only came back to the surface after his death. 

I’m sure there have been scholarly articles on the complex relationship between The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive; but, that central velocipedal episode excepted, the witty exchange of non-appearing 'classic' (or prolific lunatic?) De Selbey with lower-case maverick de Selbey and the theft of a black box from a big house, the correspondences are more subtle. The later work is the one which will have wider appeal; the earlier is one I want to re-read almost immediately, because so much becomes clear at the very end. I’m glad he didn’t give it the alternative title he proposed to the Americans – I won’t mention it here – because that’s a real spoiler. But the book is bigger than that – just in Juliette, crucial questions of memory and what happens when we lose it, the proximity of dreams and death, the search for something that may not even exist, are vital. I’m hooked.

As for our Dalkey fastness, Dublin suburbia – some of it pretty – continues south until, essentially, Sorrento Point, from which we had a terrific early evening view of the island with its chapel and Martello Tower

and the lighthouse beyond,

and – on our first full day, which offered a sunny afternoon, views from wonderful Dalkey Hill south along Killiney Bay to the Wicklow Mountains

and back to Sorrento Point and the island. 

An easy walk north the next day took us to Sandycove and the Martello Tower where ‘Ulysses’ begins. But I’ll save the already overwhelming Joyceana for another entry.

Monday 11 April 2022

Samson & Delilah & Eugene & Tatyana on Zoom

It was Richard Jones, unlikely choice to direct the forthcoming Royal Opera production of  Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila, who finally persuaded me that I ought to go for it as the first of the summer term's Operas in Depth. I know I can circle around it entertainingly; but will the Biblical drama itself offer much meat? We'll find out later this month.

At least there's an interesting contrast with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, the much more familiar second choice. The operas were written around the same time in the 1870s by two gay composers who enjoyed each other’s company. Even so, Saint-Saëns’s grand spectacle, with its big choruses and exotic ballets, was exactly the sort of operatic hokum Tchaikovsky wanted to escape from in his ‘lyrical scenes’ based on Pushkin’s verse-novel about very real people. The most famous set-pieces in both opera tend to belong to the women: Dalila’s two great arias, and the scene in which Tchaikovsky depicts the infatuated teenage Tatyana writing an ill-fated love-letter to dandy Onegin.

I'm delighted that in addition to Richard, who's promised to come along after offering his usual off-piste observations on Britten's Peter Grimes last term, we'll also be joined by the Tatyana of Opera Holland Park's impending Onegin, charismatic Armernian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan. The tradition of special guests, which has been so fruitful online since the start of lockdown, has featured appearances from, among many others, Ermonela Jaho and Antonio Pappano for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Felicities Palmer and Lott for Britten’s Albert Herring.

After an introductory session for context, we'll be following the course of each drama with excerpts from a wide range of recorded performances on CD, DVD and YouTube.Admission fee is a snip - £100 for the whole term of 10 two-hour classes, Mondays 2.30-4.30pm from 25 April. If you can't attend live, I'll send the video the next morning. Anyone interested should contact me: On Thursdays I'll be running a course on Sibelius's symphonies and tone-poems,  but I'll post separately about that.

Thursday 7 April 2022

Kiefer and Baselitz in Paris

Top of the list when we stopped over in Paris before the last leg of the train journey to Siena and back over Christmas and New Year was Anselm Kiefer's 'Pour Paul Celan' at the Grand Palais Éphémère.

It didn't disappoint, but Paris excelled expectations this time - and we had two days longer there than planned, which was the very opposite of hardship. Ads for exhibitions on the Metro are sparse, so it was only when we found ourselve in front of the Centre Pompidou on the last full day that I realised there was a big Georg Baselitz exhibition.

These were spectacular bookends to a time in the city as happy as I've ever experienced, and unexpectedly up there with the discovery of Turin and reacquaintances with Florence, Siena and Venice. We were especially lucky to catch the Kiefer, which ended on 11 January before any other Brits could get across to Paris to see it (we had been lucky to travel through France before Christmas on the day before the borders were closed to us). I'd read the review by my colleague Mark Kidel on theartsdesk but needed no encouragement after the Royal Academy retrospective and the two big shows in White Cube Bermondsey. 

The new Parisian space is at one end of the Champ de Mars opposite the Eiffel Tower - the clods of earth here and the perspective could be straight out of a Kiefer painting -

and the hangar-like interior with its wooden struts is absolutely necessary for the space of Kiefer's monumental works, around which there was, as before, so much space to walk around and view them from every angle.

Tellingly Mark wrote that 'there is something beguilingly time-less about a show that reminds us that human violence and frailty are not time-bound. Genocide is not limited to the Holocaust. If history teaches us anything, it is that humanity is rooted (or perhaps stuck) in cycles of repetition. Images of perfectibility and progress are an illusion.' So looking back on this and across to the hideous images of war-scarred Ukraine has special resonance right now. The poet, born Paul Antschel, a name he changed to Ancel then anagramatically to Celan, grew up in Czernowitz (now Ukrainian Chernovtsy) in Bukovina. His parents died - his father of typhus, his mother from a bullet in the neck - in a Transnistrian internment camp, and he escaped forced labour under the Nazis until 1944 .

'Todesfuge' ('Death Fugue'), Celan's most famous poem, from which he later tried to distance himself, is one response to that horrific time, It appeared in his first collection of poems, Mohn and Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory). Immediately there's a connection with Kiefer's regular use of poppy seedheads on stalks among the materials he attaches to his paintings

and in the attempt to recreate his storerooms in the space between the exhibition and the cafe/library zone, we see these as part of his stocks in trade.

Unlike the red poppy which for us is a symbol of remembrance - we encounter these living flowers often in Kiefer's fields - the seedhead suggests opium, and forgetfulness. Yet the application of these stalks and heads rising from a round concrete bunker, or sprouting from huge lead books on the wing of a full-sized decaying aeroplane of the same material, turn it all back into memory and a hint of hope, or at least of humanity.

The two leading figures whose names are repeated in 'Death Fugue', Margarethe and Sulamith, are the subjects of two of Kiefer's large canvases from the early 1980s with straw applied to oil, acrylic, emulsion and woodcut. and featured in the Royal Academy exhibition (scroll down this blog entry for reflections on that). It was there, too, that I first saw Celan poems inscribed on Stalks of the Night and one of his Rhine series of woodcuts. Needless to say they're prevalent, too, in this latest exhibition, including one canvas which takes its title from Celan's 'Zuversicht' ('Confidence'), though the use of natural material here is more suggestive of 'Das Geheimnis der Farne' ('The Secret of the Ferns'). It's a long-established theme of Kiefer that a tank should be lurking in the half-natural surroundings.

There is word-music in Celan's poetry but the sense is very elusive. Kiefer, who declares that not a day has passed when he hasn't thought of Celan - who committed suicide in Paris by drowning in the Seine in 1970, aged only 49 - points out (hope my French is good enough to render translation from the handout) that 'the language of Paul Celan comes from so far away, from another world with which we haven't yet been confronted, it appears extraterrestrial. We understand it poorly. We seize upon a fragment here and there.  We cling to it without ever being able to discern the whole. I have humbly tried, throught sixty years.' And a vision of the whole is so often what we get in these vast canvases, even if it is so often contradictory or ambivalent one. The correspondence between text and painted vision isn't always clear - Denk dir - die Moorsoldaten must be related to the poem 'Think of it - the bog soldier of Massada/teaches himself home', but I can't see how, beyond a visionary optimism common to both. But it's an overwhelmingly impressive work. The apocalyptic Auf der Klippe (On the Cliff): für Paul Celan stands in front of it in the second image.

The most striking canvas of all, to me, at any rate, because I hadn't encountered some of its elements in a Kiefer painting before, is enigmatically called Madame de Staël: de l'Allemagne

What do the mushrooms sprouting from the floor of Tempelhof Airport, many with labels of famous German artists, composers and writers, have to do with this? The work stands by itself, but we're told that Mme de Staël wrote admiringly of Germany to her compatriots in 1813; German history since has turned so much upside down. Kiefer, of course, embraces the whole.

Between the Kiefer and the Baselitz we walked for miles in ever-brightening weather, and stayed for the first time (it's always been a bit of a dream of mine) on the Île Saint-Louis; absolutely worth it. I've covered some of the interim in an earlier blog post here

And so to Hans Georg Kern, born on 23 January 1938 in Deutschbaselitz near Dresden, Seven years the senior of Kiefer, who grew up playing in the ruins of Donaueschingen. He writes: 'I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn't want to re-establish an order; I'd seen enough of so-called order. I was forced to question everything, to be "naive", to start again'. Kern took the name of Baselitz in 1961, then shocked the world with a giant erect penis in The Big Night Down the Drain, apparently masking his hatred of Hitler; when he revisited the work in 2005, the resemblance to the dictator was even stronger. 

 His next gambit, in 1964, was to present himself as Oberon, king of the fairies, in four duplicate heads - 'not heads', he writes, 'in the sense of portraits, but something like an image which has in the centre. in the thick of a soup of colours, a head which became more and more distinct from one painting to the next'.

A sense of dislocation in a divided Germany reared its head in the series of 'fracture paintings' (1966).

Then, in 1969. Baselitz declared he had found 'the philosopher's stone./Painting lives on through the inversion of motifs./It is possible to create an abstract painting using this method'.

The tumbling eagle and the naked man (Triangle Between Arm and Trunk) are among his finger-paintings.

The Model for a Sculpture, carved with axe and chisel and then sprayed with red and black paint, and so well placed in a room with two of the most vibrant upside-down paintings (see up top), derives from Baselitz's collecting of African art. He denied that the raised arm was intended to represent a Nazi salute, but of course it caused a scandal.

In 1989, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Baselitz recalled the rebuilding of Dresden, and homaged the 'Trümmerfrauen', the women who clear the rubble, in the yellow heads of Dresdner Frauen

Late bronzes and a striking image of his wife Elke in a hospital bed take us one step further in the last big room.

How fresh and lively the Pompidou Centre felt again; I remembered those days discovering Paris on the way back from an Easter party in Rome in 1983 when I watched Syberberg's freaky film of Wagner's Parsifal in the cinema there for free (over three visits) and was so struck by Delaunay's statement that 'colour itself is form and subject'. Wandered the galleries of great 20th century art, and of course the escalator ascents were as magical as ever given the light.

Paris, I fell in love with you all over again on that trip. So close to London, and yet so utterly different.