Wednesday, 17 January 2018

BWV 3



Having got the long-festering cri de coeur of the previous entry off my chest (forgive the mixed topography), let's turn the water into wine by backtracking (or Bachtracking) to Wedding at Cana day (detail above from Duccio; below, Tintoretto's version). Last Sunday's Bach cantata looks from the numbering like it might be an early one, but it continues the strain I've been finding especially wonderful in the new works for the Leipzig year of 1725.

Like BWVs 123 and 124, for Epiphany and the first Sunday thereafter, 'Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid' begins with  a choral movements offering heavenly roles for oboe(s) d'amore. And maybe it's only because I heard this one recently that I think it the most amazing of all. Maze-y, too; though the cantus firmus of the basses is doubled with trombone, what goes on above and around includes some of Bach's most giddying harmonic progressions. I'd call it gorgeous and sensual, though it's essentially there to underline the 'deep affliction' and 'sorrow' out of which mankind must struggle. Nevertheless the key is that bright A major which will return in the duet of soprano and alto before the final chorale (Gardiner calls that the 'most winning music' of the cantata, but I disagree again - it's chaste compared to the opening number, for all the dancing vigour of a typical upper-voices duet, and the oboes d'amore double the violin line).


The water which must be turned into wine - Bach doesn't even make a passing reference in this cantata for the day of the Cana reading - is there, in complex form, in the recitatives and the bass aria, deliberately uneasy in its writing, with plenty of minor seconds and accents on 'angst' and 'pein'. It's so beautifully negotiated by the finest bass-baritone on Rilling's set, Philippe Huttenlocher, whom I also remember as an excellent Papageno. Though I'm equally happy to visit Gardiner's set now for Gerald Finley.


More revolutionary, if not necessarily greater, is another No. 3, Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony. I joke with my young pal Jonathan Bloxham that I'm collecting his Beethoven cycle; 6 and 7 he conducted with shining graduates, while this excellent concert in the beautifully situated church of St Mary-at-Hill down Lovat Lane close to the Monument was with the hard-working mostly amateur players of the Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra.


Still, he got the same energy levels, powerful accents - those repeated chords in the first movement I've never found more impressive -  and some fine phrasing, while the general approach is one I like best, fast-moving but never rushed. What's interesting is where the challenges lie for amateurs - all those pattery string notes in the scherzo, the constant chatter of the finale, which meant the first half of the symphony, the 'heroic' side, was better than the second. But it was all good.


Fabulous, too, to hear Jonathan as cellist-conductor duetting with his confrere at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall Michael Petrov in Vivaldi's G minor Concerto for two cellos. Michael, who came here from Bulgaria as a teenager and seems to me to have unaccented English, has a natural projection and golden sound which bode well for his appearance at what may be the last Europe Day Concert on 9 May - Bulgaria has the presidency (and the first and third photos were taken by Jonathan's assistant Dorian Todorov, another Bulgarian and forging a parallel career as conductor). Full steam ahead now.

Meanwhile, BWV 3 seems to be one of the few from the Rilling cantatas series on YouTube. I see from the last time I tried to embed performances that many eventually vanish. And I do recommend that you buy the big 71-CD box. But this will show you why I like the interpretations so much.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Work: more for less, or for nothing at all


This post, uniquely, will be pictureless. 

One thing I know for sure: that freelancers like myself are being asked to do ever more for less, or for no pay at all - and no money we will sometimes take only if it doesn't set a bad example (intolerable, for example, the Independent online not paying its writers for some time, and some of them setting a terrible precedent for exploitation by accepting that).

This is a time of rapid change for the ever-pressed middle-classes and their once-dependable professions, paid writing of either a journalistic or a more in-depth sort especially, and areas of my work are drying up. Others, well, it seems that either what a colleague helpfully (no, really) called my reactive nature has pissed people off - beware of tone in emails - or that some of those people I've been working for are not as nice as I thought they were. Who knows what reasons may proliferate of which one knows nothing when it comes to reaching the end of one working line - where it's not you but the situation (this radio programme needs younger voices, more women - well, that last was certainly overdue). I don't think I should get into that here - no-one wants these things of limited interest aired in public.

January is certainly the first month in over 30 years of freelance life where I've looked ahead and seen nothing in the short term other than my weekly classes and work for a certain website I love and respect which doesn't like it known that we're not paid - but we have to think of ourselves and the fact that people might think we're gainfully employed. Time to think of changing tack?

Finishing Prokofiev Volume Two - that needs to be done; in many ways it justifies my working existence more than anything as far as the future, posterity, call it what you will, is concerned, but it won't bring in any money. And it's always the way that when you have the time to do the most important things, the mind is obfuscated by worries so that best work isn't possible.

The path ahead, it seems, is more entrepreneurialism: it's time to stop depending on those once reliable sources. I never thought I could organise my way out of a paper bag, but thanks to mass e-mailing and xls sheets, plus a venue with which I instantly fell in love (the Frontline Club), I got the Opera in Depth course up and running within a month or so of giving up at the City Lit. More of the same may be the future.

These are early morning thoughts after waking up panicked for the second time this month. Filing them now and obviously decided to post if you're reading them. Just a realistic intermezzo. It would be good for others to share experience in the comments - I realise I may be calling into the void, but it's always good to know I am not alone (and I know I am not  there are others in a far worse situation. I have a home and the best, most supportive partner in the world).

Normal service, with photographs, will be resumed as soon as possible.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Willkommen (zurück), bienvenue, welcome

It was 37 years ago this May that the Edinburgh University Theatre Company put on a production of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret in the much-loved Bedlam Theatre. It had a huge impact on all of us lucky enough to be in it. Mary New (now Amorosino), my then soon-to-be flatmate, whom I'd known (but not really since we were juvenile chalk and cheese) from All Saints Banstead Choir days and still a close friend, incarnated Sally Bowles.


Living as she does in Washington, Mary wasn't able to make a wonderful reunion held in the Stockwell home of Sarah Macnee - then the designer, now Executive Director of Crying Out Loud. Our MC, the fabulous Leonard Webster, also lives in the States, having performed the role professionally (in Leicester, I believe) since those student days. But it was still quite an assemblage.


Some of the folk in this photo - courtesy of Kerry's man Dom (more about her below), since though I was on the staircase snapping alongside him, my shots are less sharp - weren't in the production, but all had some kind of involvement with the Bedlam. So I'll add parentheses where relevant. From left to right, Eleanor Zeal (two-time Fringe First winner and co-godparent of beloved goddaughter Rosie - Rosie's  mother being our equally beloved and never forgotten late friend Nell Martin), Pat O'Connell (music director), Kerry Richardson (uncharacteristically distant, but we'll see her in a moment recreating her Fräulein Schneider), Antonia Giovanazzi, half of Simon Bell (Clifford Bradshaw, and still my best mate), Claire Hicklin (Bedlam queen when I arrived to audition at the theatre in Freshers' Week 1980, and I was always a bit intimidated by her impossibly glammy former self, all Stockbridge charity shop fur coat and smoke from pungent Gauloises; if only I knew what an eerie little person she was inside, she told me), John Stalker (director, Bedlam supremo and now big-cheese producer, predictably enough), Peter Forbes (Herr Schultz, and another big cheese, just wowed everyone as Buddy Plummer in the National Theatre Follies - back then always The One Most Likely To, despite his modesty), Gabrielle Firth (as she then was; she must forgive me for not having recognised her from those days) and Sarah.


That's Peter as Buddy, pictured for the NT by Johan Persson. I'd previously seen him as Malvolio, Max Reinhardt's business manager Rudolf 'Katie' Kommer in Michael Frayn's Afterlife - a play I liked a lot more than most - and Balvenie, Earl of Douglas in Rona Munro's magnificent James Plays, but who knew he could sing quite as stunningly as he did at the National? Herr Schultz required only a kind of crooning, but still he conveyed all the necessary quiet pathos, and Kerry made me weep every night with her rendition of 'What would you do?' I'm so glad she's become a good friend in the past few years, too. I knew I wanted the 'older couple', closer in years now to their roles, to recreate this pose.


And gamely they did - there's a whole string of diverse, fun posturings, but this one comes closest. Peter seems to have reincarnated his pose, laugh apart, more accurately than Kerry.


What filled me with a long-lasting delight about the evening was that everyone present seemed - so far as one could tell - sorted and happy. Sure, there had been some divorces and past troubles, but - touch wood - we all seemed on an even keel, contented with our lot. So very different from Follies. And John - I asked him if he still thought our Cabaret was good, and he told me he'd seen many since, and yes, it was in his view the best - would be happy to help with a 40th anniversary sing-through of the show. Maybe more (a special script?), maybe on the Edinburgh Fringe, who knows? Let's get organising, and hope no-one dies in the meantime... The extra body in the photo below, by the way, is Sarah's partner Walter, meeting and chatting to whom was another huge plus (he's a staunch and active Remainer).

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Three Kings, Three Rhinemaidens

Epiphany today brings Casper, Balthazar and Melchior, though not in the Bach cantata for the day (but here they are in Dürer's Adoration of the Magi anyway),


while on Monday in the first of this term's Opera in Depth course classes we embark on a four-year journey through Wagner's Ring, starting in the depths of the Rhine with Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde (pictured here by Arthur Rackham teasing Alberich).


Cantata first. This time in 2013, on my first attempted Bach cantatas journey, it was the resplendent BWV 65, 'Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen', decking out the arrival of the kings with the panoply of strings, two oboes, two oboi da caccia and two recorders. Clearly Bach wanted to do something completely different for the following year in Leipzig, 1725. BWV 123, 'Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen' continues at its heart two deeply expressive arias - as in BWV 65, also for tenor and bass. The tenor's expressively emphatic  refusal to be daunted by the 'cruel journey of the cross' is  underlined by two oboi d'amore (such a different sound from the caccia variety, for inwardness, of course).


I don't for once buy John Eliot Gardiner's description of the bass's 'Lass, o Welt, mich aus Verachtung' as 'one of the loneliest arias Bach ever wrote' - how can it be when the flute hovers above the voice and the continuo line, and the major key prevails? Admittedly the text of the outer sections is bleak, and there's a plaintive cadenza in one of the settings of the word 'Einsamkeit', 'loneliness'. The opening chorus is in the dominating minor, but in a lilting 9/8 with pastoral trills and grace notes for the wind, and the concluding chorale, in another flowing metre, ends piano. Another treasure at the highest level.

So looking forward to my second Ring journey in the 28 years I've been taking an opera appreciation course. Our Rheingold half of term - the second half is devoted to Janacek's From the House of the Dead to tie in with the new Royal Opera production, now conducted by regular Opera in Depth visitor Mark Wigglesworth - links with Vladimir Jurowski's four-year adventure at the Royal Festival Hall. Das Rheingold is on 27 January; predictably, tickets are like gold dust. Singing Alberich for the first time is Robert Hayward, who came to the Frontline Club at the end of last term to talk to us not only about his Wagner roles but also - since we had just brought it to an end after five weeks which confirmed for me that it's even more astounding than I used to think - about Musorgsky's Khovanshchina.


Last autumn Robert sang the role of Ivan Khovansky in the revival of David Poutney's Welsh National Opera production (pictured above by Clive Barda for WNO shortly before the prince-in-decline is assassinated. He was also very nearly in the superlative Prom performance conducted, and never better, by Semyon Bychkov).

Robert also portrayed the Walküre Wotan in Opera North's semi-staged Ring, as involved and moving a performance of that killer role as any I've seen.


He says it will be interesting to find the humanity in Alberich, as he has also done with Ivan Khovansky and Scarpia, a role which he says could happily sing in three runs a year for total contentment.

Here he is with me at the Frontline - should have got a student to snap us spontaneously while we were in conversation. But you get the idea, that he's a very affable, modest and down-to-earth person. Extraordinary that he started out as a counter-tenor - he is going lower, which is to say higher, by the year.


You can see him in the Barbican performance of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle with Rinat Shaham and the National Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder tomorrow night. Here's what Robert Beale thought of yesterday evening's Manchester performance on The Arts Desk. Meanwhile, if you're willing or able to come to this term's Opera in Depth, just leave me a message here with your email - I won't publish it but I promise to respond. Further details here in The Wagnerian (my own flyer is rather different).


UPDATE (7/01) - the first Sunday after Epiphany, its subject Christ lost and found by his parents in the temple (cue another Dürer above) follows directly on its heels this year, so here we are with the next in line to the one which moved me so much - the (by contrast) three-quarters bright BWV 124, 'Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht' (it was performed on 7 January in 1725, too). I find it intriguing that Bach should carry over one oboe d'amore from BWV 123, because the context is wholly joyful this time - you'd have thought he'd want a straight oboe, but maybe this exquisite variety creates an extra sense of intimacy against the horn-doubled cantus firmus of the opening chorus (Rilling's oboists, as I've already mentioned, are superlative). The pain comes in the tenor's 'Und wenn der harte Todesschlag', so very operatic with the jabbing repeated notes of the strings to which the oboe d'amore and the voice respond. Operatic, too, is the bass recitative, with its chromatics and it run on the word 'Lauf'. The soprano/alto duet which follows is sheer dancing delight, albeit with only continuo complement. Delicious, of course, from Arleen Auger and Helen Watts - what a joy these soloists are on the Rilling set.

Friday, 5 January 2018

New Year's Day at Shrieking Pit



For the second time this year, in the depth of winter rather than the height of summer, we passed a dark place of legend on our way from Southrepps to the North Norfolk Coast, going on this time from Overstrand to Cromer to catch what turned out to be the most enjoyable fireworks display I've encountered, not least because of its circumstantial spirit. Of course we'd connected the two points in reverse, via a much bigger loop, on our 2015 Norfolk Churches Walk.

Monday was a brief interlude of sun between a general drama of what my godson used to call (aged five) 'horrifying wind and rain'. The eve had been spent travelling, not too painfully, by tube, coach and train to Norwich to visit our companion Cal's friend Gail in the cathedral close. We headed for Evensong, which turned out to be evening prayers, as I'd expected - 15 minutes of liturgy which at least gave time to find where my favourite roof boss from numerous cards I've sent was actually located - in the Choir. Noah's ark, of course. Gazed upwards at this while a potentially jubilant psalm and the Mag, Nunc and Creed were all droned rather joylessly.


Not my photo, but this one, of the Green Man I always salute in the cloisters, is - albeit taken in the summer.


For once I left my camera behind, so I was dependent on Cally for a few images. None to post of our jolly time eating and chatting at the party held by Kate and Fairless in the Old Rectory up the hill, but a few of our NYD walk. The plan for which evolved nicely between the four of us: why not head for the pub in Southrepps proper, 10 minutes up the hill - where they squeezed us in for fish and chips between folk celebrating the New Year more lavishly - and then press on, ending up in Cromer so that we could take the train back to Gunton?

Which is what we did. The green lanes and quiet roads between Southrepps and the sea, a secluded zone embracing a valley and a very lovely wood, are already ones I dream about. So Shrieking Pit shouldn't be seen as too much of a blight - in fact on both occasions I never found it threatening, though the overhanging oak on the path side and the trees casting black reflections opposite are atmospheric both in August


and January.


The legend is proclaimed on a nearby board, told in colourful language (you can imagine a Northrepps local historian having fun), though it seems in many respects quite specific.The year was 1782, the fatal romance the one between an 18-year-old village beauty (was she really called Esmeralda?) and a feckless farmer who was told to stay away and cheerfully obeyed. One night by full moon our doomed heroine wandered along Sandy Lane, thought she saw the reflection of her lover in the dark waters and threw herself in, uttering three piercing shrieks which woke the village before she drowned. At midnight every 24 February you may hear them again...

We hit Overstrand in time for tea (needless to say our favourite shack is shut - crab and lobsters are not in season), then struck out along the cliffs (yes, Norfolk cliffs) towards Cromer. The grey pall that had spread in late afternoon looked about to lift with the sunset in the distance at the lighthouse,


and as you can see from the film of the 5pm fireworks, taken from a drone and quickly up on the Eastern Daily News website, it did: late blue skies are apparent here. Probably best with the sound turned off; one of the nice things about it was the absence of pumping loudspeakered music which had made a 5 November effort in a London Square such an endurance test. Here people were remarkably quiet; we were the only ones in our zone going 'ooh' and 'aah'.


The display could hardly have been better choregraphed, but just as memorable was the buzz in town - most shops open, mulled wine and a barrel organ outside St Peter and St Paul (so high is the tower that Cal's shot couldn't quite squeeze it all in).


Inside, the church was alive with folk buying refreshments and consuming them in the pews while big screens showed images of last year's fireworks. Here's one future for our ailing ecclesiastical buildings - they've got to be more welcoming, more open to social use. Fortunately there was nothing as lavish as a livescreening; any of the 10,000 folk who flocked into town could get a good view of the pyrotechnics shooting up from the pier. And the packed train journey back (for us only 10 minutes to Gunton) was jolly good-humoured too. Just what a community event ought to be.

Our 2 January was good, too - a walk along the beach from Mundesley some of the way to Happisburgh, where we started last September's churches walk, the light this time out at sea and giving way to prospective rain clouds just as we headed back, as this photo by Cally reveals.


A wet afternoon was spent cosily back at the cottage before we took the train to Norwich, and on to London. Needless to say we didn't have the courage for a New Year dip in the North Sea. Maybe at the start of 2019...

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Ending and beginning with Bach



This year's attempt to play a Bach cantata on every appropriate Sunday and holy day of the year stands a better chance of lasting than my 2013 attempt, which fizzled out at Easter because I hadn't ordered up the right CDs in time (I could have done it via YouTube, but I was too sound- and performance-fussy). With the Hänssler box of Rilling's Bachakademie Edition to hand, and a good online guide to what cantatas should be heard/performed when, I'm all set. I describe how I came round to Rilling, with his superb team of soloists led by Arleen Auger, a choir projecting the meaning of the German texts and various magnificent oboes, in a feature on The Arts Desk.


Properly the listening should have begun at advent, but I started with the perfect aria, "Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn", launching BWV 132, from Auger with oboe obbligato, the day before Christmas Day, and then followed the seasonal route with individual cantatas rather than those making up the Christmas Oratorio. I've made due notes, but should start here by observing the latest two beauties, BWV 28 "Gottlob! Nun geht des Jahren Ende" on New Year's Eve and BWV 171, "Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm", which we listened to on Jill's Bose up in Southrepps on New Year's Day, aka the Feast of the Circumcision or Snip Day. Apologies if in the ensuing I don't dwell much on the text - I shall when Bach illuminates the words in a special way.


Again, Auger led the way, heralded by striking figures from two oboes and oboe da caccia in harmony, in BWV 28, composed in Bach's third year at Leipzig for the end of 1725. There's a double whammy of glory here - the ensuing motet treatment of a chorale is one of Bach's most giddying contrapuntal inspirations, and Gardiner had it performed at the very end of his 2000 Bach Pilgrimage. A tenor recit is haloed by strings and leads to a dancing duet; the final chorale is enhanced by brass (cornet and three trombones).


BWV 171 comes after the three Leipzig cycles and was first performed on New Year's Day 1729. The opening choral fugue starts in old-fashioned style, but the entry of the first trumpet with the theme is a real wake-up call. In Gardiner's words, 'the music suddenly acquires a new lustre and seems propelled forwards to a different era for this assertion of God's all-encompassing dominion and power'. Violin obbligati enrich the tenor and soprano arias (the latter adapted from a number in a secular cantata where the instrument illustrates a 'gentle wind'), while there's typical originality from Bach in the bass's arioso-recitative, with striking illumination from the two oboes. As in BWV 28, but even more strikingly, the brass adds glory to the final chorale.


The above photos of Leipzig's Thomaskirche were taken on what turned out to be a wonderful trip just before Christmas, ostensibly to see and write about the Blüthner Piano Factory - it was enlightening, and write I shall anon - but which opened up to embrace two performances at the Opera (already described lower down the blog) and an afternoon/evening at large in the centre of town.


I won't deny that I got pleasantly teary sitting as near as I could to Bach's grave in the Thomaskirche chancel. His bones had been dug up from the cemetery of the Johanniskirche, placed inside the church in 1900 and moved here following that church's destruction in World War Two in 1949 (it is perhaps even more shocking that the Soviets dynamited the University Church, where Bach was director of holiday services, as late as 1968).


At last I completed the journey which had begun with the unforgettable performance of the B minor Mass by Collegium 1704 around the font where Bach was baptised in Eisenach.


So much has happened to honour Bach in the last few decades. The Nikolaikirche was stripped of the Baroque refurbishing which the composer would have known during his tenure in the 1880s; further re-Gothicization, returning the 'hall' church to how it looked in 1496, took place in the early 1960s. But the biggest restoration took place in time for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death on 28 July 2000. Much of the funding for this and other projects has come from the Thomaskirche-Bach 2000 Assocation, and it's heartening to see the list of names involved in the state-of-the-art Bach Museum opposite the church.


The Bachs lived in the old St Thomas School, which no longer survives, but this house at Thomaskirchof 16 was the residence of their good friends the Boses, a merchant family which had the 16th century building refurbished in Baroque style. The beautifully designed museum rooms are mostly geared towards education about the essence of Bach's music and his life, with plenty of listening posts, but they do include a chest which was identified as late as 2009 as coming from Bach's household (thanks to a seal)


and the restored organ console from the destroyed Johanneskirche at which Bach played in 1743.


There's a nicely displayed room of musical instruments to complement the ones to be seen in the Thomaskirche, including this handsome viola d'amore.


Holiest of holies, though, in the 'Treasure Room' is a magnificent bequest, by far the more brilliant of the only two portraits of Bach painted in his lifetime by Leipzig artist Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 174 and showing Bach holding a score entitled ‘Canon triplex à 6 Voc: per J. S. Bach’. It was bequeathed to the Leipzig Bach Archive by American musicologist and philanthropist William H Scheide, who died last November aged 101 (the other work, far duller, is in the main city museum, which I didn't have time to visit).


This is manuscript heaven, too. The full autograph score and the individual parts of the Cantata BWV 20, 'O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort', can be seen in the museum together for the first time ever. The former is in a superb little exhibition on Bach and Luther, finishing on 28 January, which also includes a grand Luther Bible with Bach's name inscribed in his own hand. 

I left the Museum after dark, though there was abundant life in town as the Leipzigers flocked to the stalls of the Christmas Market, which spreads outwards along most streets from the central Markt. And I did just manage to see the outlandish interior of the Nikolaikirche, redone long after Bach was master there, between 1784 and 1797, in neo-classical style by J F C Dauthe. The palm columns are something else.


Handsome as it unquestionably is from the exterior, the Nikolaikirche is celebrated now as the peaceful source of protests which led to the fall of the East German regime in Autumn 1989. The Rev. C Führer's description of those events in the green pamphlet is movingly phrased, especially as it heads towards the quiet denouement of 7 October:

...the prayers for peace took place in unbelievable calm and concentration. Shortly before the end, before the Bishop gave his blessing, appeals by Professor Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. The solidarity between church, art, music and the gospel was of importance in the threatening situation of those days.

The prayers for peace ended with the Bishop's blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands - an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you cannot carry stones or clubs at the same time. The miracle occurred. 

Friday, 29 December 2017

A year in books



Certainly the above was the biggest surprise of my reading in 2017, with a more profound impact than I could have anticipated. I picked it up in a remainder bookshop for £1, thinking to be entertained and to have my prejudices confirmed by Storr's meetings with climate-change deniers, religious extremists and UFO spotters. Certainly there are some horrible people within these pages, chiefly the, shall we say, somewhat partial 'historian' David Irving, whom Storr bravely joins on a tour of concentration camps and Nazi sites around Germany. But while the author claims that 'as a journalist, my knowledge is broad but shallow', he does his research and is far too self-critical to allow simple journalistic blacks and whites.

What makes this book more than a collection of essays about the variously weird and wrong is the way that Storr examines one set of chapters before moving on, always opening up the bigger picture. The life-changer for me, though no doubt much in it is nothing new to scientists, is the chapter on the human brain, its unreliability and its wonderful deviousness.


Storr spends as much time with the fact-conscious Skeptics and is wary of their 'binary, dismissive thinking', especially when it comes to a mysterious scratching illness, where he thinks a combination of mental, clinical and environmental causes may be involved. Later there's an even more valuable observation:

I used to imagine that our biases and delusions existed on a layer above a solid and clear-sighted base. Beneath your mistakes, I thought, is your human nature, which is rational and immovable, and seeks only truth. If you came to suspect that you were in error, you could easily work your way back to sense. What I now know is that there is no solid base. The machine by which we experience the world is the thing that becomes distorted. And so it is impossible to watch ourselves falling into fallacy, We can be lost without knowing we are lost. And usually, we are.

This is a wise guide at a time when we are all prone to judgement - and, I think, partly rightly so when it comes to aspects of Horror Clown behaviour on both sides of the Atlantic (what a relief it's been, by the way, to put all that aside very consciously over this interstitial period).


I wrote earlier in the year about another brilliant piece of writing in which the personality of the author is subtly interwoven with his subject, Fredrik Sjöberg's The Fly Trap. Since then I've read the two sequels in what turns out to be a trilogy about Swedish maverick adventurers, both in the same volume, The Art of Flight. The semi-biography of that title deals with watercolourist of the Grand Canyon Gunnar Mauritz Wildfors, while The Raisin King is zoologist Gustav Eisen, perhaps the most extraordinary of the three men in his indomitable ability to be born again in another field when disaster strikes; after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which destroyed his natural history collection, he set off in various directions, the most moving of which was his timely salvation of the world's biggest trees by setting up the Sequoia National Park (made me tearful, perhaps, because of the terrible negation of all that the Moron-in-Chief is trying to set into operation right now).  I do wish the text was punctuated, as in W G Sebald's similarly discursive books, with photos like the one of Eisen below; sadly none is included.


As Sjöberg puts it, Eisen 'sought happiness - or meaning, if you like - by repeating one and the same project over and over again but in different forms'. Plenty of other figures are wheeled in and out of the narrative - there's another side of Darwin revealed which makes me love the man more than ever, so pisseur A. N. Wilson can take his new 'biography' and stuff it where the sun don't shine - and Sjöberg acknowledges in himself, too, the embodiment of how 'freedom starts when we take a step to one side and, if only for a moment, do something that has no purpose beyond itself, something that is not done in vain pursuit of respect, appreciation, power, money, love, fame or honour'.


That's what partly makes my two great nature books of the year, J. A. Baker's The Peregrine and Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain, so ineffably wonderful (Thoreau's Walden comes a close third, though we must doff caps to the father of the ecologically-aware genre). I believe there's also the pure calling of art about A. L. Kennedy's Serious Sweet. Having met the person at an inspiring lecture and walking to the tube with her afterwards, I know she's an altruistic person. And that part of her must be in the self-doubting, dual protagonists - adorable yet still at times maddening - of this most tender love story, which I took up after the talk. What Ulysses does for Dublin, this is to contemporary London, with its 24 hour trajectory - leaving the present for the recent past provides a lovely twist about halfway through - and its stream of consciousness from the two main characters.


Very much on the same, highest level is Alan Hollinghurst's The Sparsholt Affair - a return to unforgettable form after The Stranger's Child, which I enjoyed but can remember little about, whereas this one's branded on the memory. It was one of five books I got to review this year for The Arts Desk; the others were Anne Applebaum's Red Famine (not quite as unremittingly grim as the subject of the Ukrainian famine(s) might suggest, since there's historical context and hope for the future), Kissin's brief but telling Memories and Reflections, the latest Icelandic thriller from Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and Eisenstein on Paper, a lavish Thames and Hudson tome featuring many drawings by the master of film not previously seen before.


The other treasured visual delight of the year is a beautifully designed monograph on the Welsh-born, Sydney- and London-based artist John Beard, which we were gifted on a visit to his Greenwich studio to see his epic diptych response to Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa - that will need an entry to itself.

Otherwise, on the blog, it's been all about the first discovery of the year, the great Hungarian (and European, and world-class) writer Péter Esterházy, and his historical masterpiece Celestial Harmonies, a biography of the fascinating figure behind the genesis of Der Rosenkavalier, Count Harry Kessler, a journey partly retraced through the novels of Evelyn Waugh starting (of course) with Decline and Fall and going up to Put Out More Flags, with a jump ahead to The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold to complement a portrait of this multifarious gent by Philip Eade, and embarking on the masterpiece of Estonian literature, Jaan Kross's Between Three Plagues trilogy.


The second translated volume of this magnificent equivalent to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall appeared this year, and I'm halfway through it now. Here's to the completion of Merike Lepasaar Beecher's labour of love in 2018. In the meantime do have a look at the choices my team and I on The Arts Desk made in the spheres of opera and classical concerts - quite a healthy list, I think you'll agree (update: Boyd Tonkin's marshalling of our book bests is now up and running - the Applebaum and Hollinghurst are there, as I should have hoped). CD choices will have to wait until 18 January, when the front-runners for the BBC Music Magazine Awards are announced - I'll then be able to reveal what I think should also have made the grade, and which of the nominations I'd like especially to celebrate.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Seasonal sugar plums in Leipzig


A serendipitous double: on Wednesday evening I caught the legendary Leipzig Gewandhausorchester giving a nuanced performance of Tchaikovsky's heavenly Nutcracker score to lively choreography (ballet photos by Ida Zenna - featured below, Madoka Ishikawa as Clara, Francisco Baños Diaz as Drosselmeyer and David Iglesias Gonzalez as the Prince)


and then the following morning there was a full performance of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel (premiered, incidentally, only a year later than The Nutcracker, 1893, just down the road in Weimar, conducted by Richard Strauss). While the ballet crowd was of all ages, including lots of young adults, this one consisted mainly of children (opera photos by Kirsten Nijhof).


The cast I caught included the perfect Gretel, Olena Tokar, regrettably not pictured, whom many may remember in the 2013 final of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. I only just missed by a week her Rusalka in Leipzig. Here's why she would probably be incomparable in that role, too.


I was in Leipzig to see the Blüthner Piano Factory in operation, a unique opportunity to witness perfectionists in the art of pianomaking; I'll be writing about that on The Arts Desk. But of course I was equally excited to follow Bach from the font at Eisenach to the grave in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, for the choir of which, of course, he wrote all of his great choral masterpieces. More on that anon; in the meanwhile here's an Arts Desk feature on how to listen to Bach cantatas throughout the year, with a photo of Bach's statue outside the Thomaskirche at the top.


Anyway, it was clear from Tchaikovsky's Miniature Overture that this Nutcracker would be an interpretation, under Tobias Engeli, the like of which I've only once experienced in the theatre when Svetlanov conducting a run of the long-serving Peter Wright version at the Royal Opera House. The orchestral sound in the most recent theatre on the site, begun in 1956 and inaugurated in 1960, is so warm and immediate, with every timbre of the exquisite cor anglais and clarinet solos beautifully captured. For much of Act One Jean-Philippe Dury's choreography follows familiar lines. It's matched by elegant sets from Yoko Sayama that achieve all the necessary transformations with state-of-the-art effects as well as flats which fly up and down nimbly and costumes by Aleksandr Noshpal serving up a handsome contemporary bourgeois party (Drosselmeyer stands apart).


There's one interpolation - the opening and middle sequences of the delightful 'Marche Miniature' from Tchaikovsky's First Orchestral Suite as a variation for the quirky Fritz (Alessandro Repellini - I assumed the tap-dancer who makes a novelty addition to the Waltz of the Flowers was supposed to be Fritz too, but apparently not).


In both acts' narrative scenes the mice appear prematurely - pictured above, Kiyonobu Negishi's Mouse King and Flavia Krolla as Young Clara - but their battle with female as well as male soldiers is very well choreographed, and the first Pas de Deux for Clara-as-young-woman (Ishikawa) and her Prince (Iglesias Gonzalez) has plenty of novel spinnings to the second transformation scene. The snowflakes sequence has good visual effects, too.


On stage, it all goes a bit half-cock in Act Two. There's a lot in the programme from Dury about Clara's passage to womanhood, but whatever's intended, some of the character dances don't 'read' - least of all the three stomping, punkish folk doing a weird routine to the Mirlitons number (Mother Gigogne, as usual, is nowhere to be found - I love that musical number and always miss it). It's always difficult to thread some kind of narrative through the divertissement; Matthew Bourne's fun Adventures version is best for that - I see from the early days of the blog that I last saw it a decade ago - this one doesn't really try. Some of the costuming shows a penchant for bondage gear, too, though I liked the men's floral waistcoats in the ensemble waltz, even if the women had rather lopsided rose-tits.


The Leipzig corps de ballet is good and hard-working, though one of the six Arabian Dance men did threaten to sabotage the symmetry. The Pas de Deux becomes a Pas de Trois for Drosselmeyer, Clara and Prince, with the Sugar-Plum Fairy (Anna Jo) and her cavalier (Yan Leiva, hat on sideways, doing a Bob Fosse shuffle in the Tarantella) getting the variations. Still, the celesta player (Alden Gatt) was as fine an artist as many of the wind players.


The league of nations in any ballet company always intrigues me, and of course makes for photo-enlivenment of the foyer spaces. What a brilliant idea for Leipzig Opera and Ballet to promote its ensembles through pairs of contrasting photos by Andreas Pohlmann, updated every season. These were complemented on Thursday morning by first the rucksacks and then the interval snacking of the kids there for Hansel.


I have to say my expectation that the noise levels would abate during the actual performance, as they so impressively did at Glyndebourne-on-Tour's schools Falstaff, wasn't realised, but there were many younger kids here too. Quite a bit of the Overture was lost in the loud, long applause for curtain-up, even if it was only on a shooting star. And the restlessness crescendoed across Sandman, Evening Prayer and Angel Pantomime (why the whale? Because Gretel's main comforter is a toy one).


Still, it was a luxury to have Leipzig Opera Generalmusikdirektor Ulf Schirmer conducting. There were some frissony horns and lower-string activity; what a varied miracle Humperdinck's score is, always knowing when to slim down from the full Wagnerian works to the simple. Olena Tokar's little mushroom-Lied was so exquisite, likewise her morning wake-up call. She does some mean dance routines, too, which made me laugh aloud. The other standout among the voices was baritone Julius Orlishausen, and it was good to have a tenor in drag as the batt-y witch, Dan Karlström (though this morning I've been listening to Christa Ludwig on the peerless Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis recording, perfect throughout).


The opera company as a whole seems in very good health. Among its regulars in the photo-parade, especially impressive in the parterre foyer on the first floor,


I recognised Faroese bass Runi Brattaberg, Hagen in the Budapest Ring and very good company at the aftershow gathering (on the right here),


and Wallis Giunta, at the top below and marked out as a star in the making in Opera North's Trouble in Tahiti.


She's Leipzig's resident Cenerentola.


On the way out, I found Tokar between handsome dancers (Yan Leiva and Francisco Baños Diaz, with fellow singer Gal James to the left)

 

and left the Opera House ahead of lines of departing kids.


And so, with an hour to catch my 14.15 train, I wandered back through town and snatched a quick bowl of excellent soup Zum Arabischen Coffe [sic] Baum, which I had to see


because Schumann's gang gathered here and even have their places marked - here, Schumann and Mendelssohn next to each other


while other musical giants line the walls.


Shame about the piped quartet music, but the place seemed to be inhabited by regulars. Bit difficult to tell, though, if the other diners might not have been German tourists here to visit the justly celebrated Christmas market, which fills the centre of town, radiating outwards from the Markt. More on that, too, in a future entry. Meanwhile,