Sunday, 18 March 2018

Big Prisoner at the Frontline

That's Nikita, tenor Nicky Spence's character in Krzysztof Warlikowski's burningly intense production of Janáček's From the House of the Dead at the Royal Opera. He's seen above in Clive Barda's image harming the basketball-playing 'Eagle' of Salim Sai. But in reality Nicky is the loveliest of men, pure communicative energy with just the right degree of thoughtfulness.

He came along to my Opera in Depth class at the Frontline Club, where we're currently studying From the House of the Dead, on the recommendation of the opera's predictably brilliant conductor Mark Wigglesworth. A regular visitor, Mark has been unable to return this term because he's been preoccupied with three works - the Janáček, a Spanish run of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking followed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert performance - which I missed, dammit, because I was in Berlin that night hearing another conducting hero, Neeme Järvi, in Rudolf Tobias's massive oratorio Des Jona Sendung (Jonah's Mission) - and Verdi's La forza del destino in his debut at Dresden's Semperoper. He promises to come back in the autumn, by which time his book on conducting will have been published (can't wait for that).

Anyone that Mark recommends to come and speak is going to be a true Mensch like himself, that rare figure who goes beyond just being nice - there are more of that sort in the opera business than you might expect - and is an active force for the good. I include in that gender-unspecific category soprano Tamara Wilson, the great Leonora in MW's ENO Verdi Forza whose appearance as Wagner's Brünnhilde in the final scene of Die Walküre at the Proms Mark generously ascribes to my suggestion - let's hope eventually she performs the entire role for him, by which time Nicky may be up to Siegmund or even Siegfried - as well as our other soprano visitors Sue Bullock (an unreserved admirer of Nicky's work), Anne Evans and Felicity Lott ( I reserve their damehoods because SB should be one too).

Which is a long preamble to saying that Nicky (pictured above, and below with me looking inexplicably quizzical, at the Frontline by David Thompson) and I, from my perspective, got on instantly over the Frontline's fish and chips (best in London?) 'Grounded' is the word I and several students have used - he knows his worth but he's not arrogant in the slightest (that's usually born of insecurity). He learnt the hard way, promised 'fame in a night' with a Universal Classics/Decca record deal where he recorded 'stuff for grannies' and sang for the Queen (etc, etc - I can't say I remember this), but was pulled up short by a devastating review from Rupert Christiansen which sent him straight back to music college to get his voice properly in order over years. So we critics can sometimes have our uses, and Nicky acknowledged that RC, however harsh, had done him a favour.

It was serendipity that Nicky (pictured by Clive Barda above in rehearsal with Graham Clark - the oldest and the youngest members of the Dead House cast together, as Nicky remarked when putting it up on social media) came to be working with Mark again, having sung in two of the four triumphs of Wigglesworth's all-too-short regency, the William Kentridge-directed Lulu (which I saw three times) and the revival of Jenůfa in which he was a memorable Števa; MW was only called in to the Dead House after maverick Teodor Currentzis had pulled out. Nicky knows he gets a level of support and enlightenment from MW not common in conductors. He spoke interestingly about the slow evolution of Warlikowski's vision, in which space was given within the parameters of given scenes that actually worked rather than ending up an incoherent mess (he does a good Warlikowski impersonation).

I need to listen over to the private recording of our two hours in the class for chapter and verse, but suffice it to say for now that Nicky is on the right path towards the bigger Wagner roles. Next step is Loge for Philippe Jordan in Paris - as he pointed out over lunch, listening back to earlier singers of the role, he found them more Helden/lyrical, like Windgassen, than the character tenor we tend to get today - and Strauss's Herod is good semi-Heldentenor role for him, too.

We played excerpts from his superlative Strauss Lieder disc, last in the excellent Hyperion series. Roger Vignoles lured him in with the famous 'Cäcilie', but didn't tell him the rest would be bits and pieces left untouched by previous singers. Yet we agreed that there were some absolute gems here, and both, independently, decided that 'Die Ulme zu Hirsau' was the other track to play. It has a huge range as it depicts the tree growing through a ruined monastery - the piano's ripples are a precursor to Daphne's transformation in the much later opera - and after a heart-leaping modulation quotes Luther's 'Ein feste Burg' for Uhland's lines about 'another such tree at Wittenberg'.

And we finished with the second part of Pavel Haas's Fata Morgana song cycle for voice and piano quintet, an even bigger sing. This connected us to Janáček, since Haas was his pupil and composed the cycle in 1923, the year after his great master had written The Wandering Madman in typically quirky style for chorus to a text by the same poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

The sad connection with From the House of the Dead is that after Janáček's death mercifully prevented him from seeing the horrors of the Second World War, Haas's Jewish background landed him in Terezin (Theresienstadt), where he composed the desperately poignant 'Four Songs on Chinese Poetry' about exile and separation shortly before he was sent to Auschwitz and the gas chambers there in 1944. I had no idea until I just read it that the great Czech conductor Karel Ančerl was there too, and survived the experience, unlike his wife and child. He recounted that he and Haas were lined up before Mengele, who was about to send Ančerl to his death, but when Haas began to cough, chose him instead. The horror of it.

So, tomorrow, back to study of Janáček's last masterpiece, his most startling and orchestrally outlandish. Not sure how I'll get a grip on it.* I wanted to buy the orchestral score, but Universal wants over 400 euros for making one up, so I'll have to look on line instead. Next term's operas are (coincidentally) 'ill met by moonlight' - Strauss's Salome and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Carsen production of which I saw again with great pleasure on Wednesday (pictured above by Robert Workman, a plus against the definite minus of the shoddy, poorly directed Traviata which has just opened - my review has surely squandered the goodwill built up with ENO by ecstatic praise of the Iolanthe, but one shouldn't mince words where incompetence is concerned. Disagreeing with the approach is something else altogether).

If you're interested in joining our summer classes, leave me a message here - I won't publish it but if you leave your email, I'll reply immediately.

*20/3 Yet I think I did - it makes much sense as units governed by searing themes, usually made up of no more than four notes, and in performance you don't notice the joins as one 'scene' segues into another.

Our guide, alongside the online score, was Mackerras's electrifying recording, which can never be surpassed (we'll watch the Chéreau production conducted by Boulez next week). In fact I'd go so far as to say that given the stupendous sound - those timps and the trilling high-wire trumpet at the end of Act One! - and the playing of the Vienna Phil, which can never have gone out on more of a limb, it may be the most stunning of all opera recordings. Left us trembly yesterday afternoon.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

To the Mendelssohn House

On my first visit to Leipzig back in December - I can't believe it took so long before I saw the city - Bach had to be the priority. And he was a kind of starting-point this time, because the Nikolaikirche was his second home after the Thomaskirche, and I found myself on the fifth floor of a hotel with perhaps the best view I've had in any city; namely of the church, which filled the entire window.

I could see it at sunset

and at sunrise

and besides, the street has a row of wonderful second hand bookshops which I spent some time in on my last visit. The square was now devoid of its Christmas market stalls but there was the solitary palm column mirroring the ones within the Nikolaikirche, its shadow serving as a kind of sundial on the building where Wagner went to school (there's a Wagner Museum in the basement, nicely laid out, but it had no treasures and didn't teach me anything; I whizzed around it rather quickly).

Leipzig would have to be the mecca for musicians in terms of its astounding heritage - Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn, young Wagner - and it treasures its orchestra. I was here for the inauguration of already-great Andris Nelsons as the 21st Gewandhauskapellmeister, about which I've written on The Arts Desk. Needless to say, the whole city viewed this with pride in a way that would be unimaginable here - can you imagine Simon Rattle plastered over Kings Cross to celebrate his return to the UK as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra?

Note, too, it's 'Andris', like 'Mirga'. A PR friend of mine found this cheesy, but I disagree - it suggests all the breaking down of boundaries since the Call-Me-Maestro era, and Andris is the most genial and natural of conductors.

I had the day of the concert free to cover everything I hadn't seen on that first visit, and I managed a great deal of it. Namely morning in the superbly designed MdBK (Museum der Bildenden Kunste, in other words the main art gallery), for which another blog entry will be necessary, a pausa in the Stadtcafe Riquet

where I couldn't resist a photo of the table with the best Mohntorte (poppyseed cake) I've had next to the Cafe Frauenhuber in Vienna

and then an afternoon walk following part of the Leipzig Music Trail, helpfully studded with symbols on every pavement. It led me, about five minutes past the Gewandhaus on the other side of the ring road, to Königstraße 3, a large house built in 1843-4 as part of a new residential district.

In August 1845, the 34-year-old Mendelssohn, who over the previous decade had transformed the Leipzig Gewandhausorchter into a thing of wonder,  moved into the very substantial apartment on the first floor with his wife Cecile and four children. The building and garden were in a fairly ruinous state before the International Mendelssohn-Stiftung took it over and planned a hugely impressive restoration in the 1990s.  I love it that certain parts of the building, namely the old staircase, need careful treading

and the modernisation of the rest, starting with a reception desk and coffee shop manned by really friendly young women, is a treat. The nine main rooms on the first floor have been reconstructed with meticulous taste. It helps that Felix Moscheles left several watercolours of the rooms just after Mendelssohn's death, on Cecile's invitation, including - most important of all - the study where he composed Elijah.

What we have now isn't identical, but the bright yellow combines with the sunshine that flooded the apartment on the freezing cold and ice-windy but brilliant afternoon I visited.

It's important to see Mendelssohn's idols in the busts of Goethe and Bach, for whom he did so much during his time in their shared city of music.

Much else is in the Biedermeier style. The room opposite has most of the original furniture, including a cabinet containing bronze statuettes of Voltaire (which you can see on the right) and Rousseau

and though you can't see it from the way the rooms are arranged and cordoned, a small-scale colour reproduction of Titian's Assumption in Venice's Frari hangs above the recamiere here.

The Music Room which hosts regular events has been lovingly restored in careful application of paintwork, reconstructed stove and chandelier and careful work on the 1830 trumeau.

Objects on permanent loan from the Museum of the History of the City of Leipzig are sensitively presented, many of them in pull-out drawers below some prize exhibits. This is the 16 year old Mendelssohn's translation of Terence's Andria as 'The Maiden of Andros', with which he surprised his teacher Heyse. The work of 'F****' was published by Heyse with an introduction in 1826.

Multitalented Felix was also an accomplished watercolourist, and having seen many of his views of Switzerland in a book of Swiss landscapes given to me by my Zurich-based friend Lottie, I was delighted to see even more of the originals given a room to themselves here. Rather fond of this unfinished view of a tree-lined promenade in Interlaken. Mendelssohn had little confidence in his ability to draw figures, which is why the lady remains sketchy.

A nice creative touch is the use of the kitchen to display Mendelssohn's travels in a series of commemorative plates

with an introduction which made me especially happy:

Upstairs are the Archive devoted to that great man and Gewandhaus presiding genius for many years Kurt Masur

and, more important still, a series of rooms devoted to Felix's fabulously gifted sister Fanny, named throughout as Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. Her artist husband gracefully adorned many of her manuscripts,

and I sat in one of the rooms listening to a recording by Lauma Skride (sister of Baibe, who was playing in the Berg Violin Concerto later) of three movements from her piano series Die Jahr, a predecessor of Tchaikovsky's The Seasons (which of course should be The Months). No small talent, this. It is saddening to read in the exhibition of how her brother prohibited her from publishing her music. The same old story of male dominance which pertained to Alma Mahler, whose husband made it clear there weren't room for two composers in one household. That document is highlighted, but there is also plenty of memorabilia here too, not least from time spent in Rome.

The garden has a recent bust of Mendelssohn

and a chastening exhibition in the outbuilding of Mendelssohn and the Nazis. I was saddened to see a picture of Strauss conducting under a giant swastika as late as 1938 - I have been too much the apologist for the extent of his compliance with a regime he hated - and there's also the shocking story of Beecham and the LPO visiting Leipzig in 1936, laying a wreath at the foot of the statue on 9 November, only to return the next day to find it gone. To his credit, the Mayor resigned in protest at this disgrace. A reproduction of the statue was placed in 2008 at the back of the Thomaskirche (this from my first visit last December)

and Mendelssohn has left us a watercolour of the church for which Bach composed so many of his cantata masterpieces.

The Music Trail, meanwhile, leads one on to the Grieg Memorial Centre in the next block. Grieg was the guest of publishers Abraham and Hinrichsen during his Leipzig stays. 

With opening hours limited to Friday afternoons and Saturdays, there was no chance of visiting, so I contented myself with the sight of the plaque and a bust in the neighbouring garden. 

The building which housed the former Peters Music Library is nearby, too, and then you come to the splendid Museum complex including the Museum of Musical Instruments and the graveyard at the back where Bach was originally buried (members of the Mendelssohn family, too), but that was locked and I had no time on this visit to see the oldest fortepiano, so on I pressed to the apartment in which Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck spent the first year of their marriage, on the first floor of Inselstraße 18.

This is a far less lavishly maintained museum than the Mendelssohn-Haus; perhaps more has gone into the Schumannhaus in Bonn. But it had an old-fashioned charm, one of domineering father Wieck's pianos

and a rather less period-conscious assemblage of copies of reproductions favoured by Schumann

as well as an equally well-maintained staircase.

Time for the evening's concert was drawing closer, so I headed back via the Wagner memorial behind the Opera House, surrounded by snowdrops

and the frozen pond below it.

There will be plenty more of that ice in my next photojournal - I've recently returned from Bodø, well above the Arctic Circle in Norway, and that really was a winter wonderland.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Bach and Dante: darkest before the dawn

Two Sundays ago I said farewell to meat with the last Bach cantata before Lent (during which time none was performed in Leipzig, though there's the odd one from earlier days) - 'Sehet, wir gehen hinauf', BWV 159, with its searing anticipation of the Passion. The next evening at the Warburg Institute we walked with Dante and Virgil across the frozen lake of Antenora, where traitors to their country or party are stuck, before encountering Satan at the bottom and emerging to start the climb to Purgatory.

Dr. Scafi and Professor Took had selected lines 1-90 of Canto 33, the awful tale of Count Ugolino's starvation in a tower along with his sons, and 20-69 of Inferno's final Canto, witnessing the 'emperor of this dolorous kingdom' with the supreme traitors in his three mouths, before reading the final description of the return to the 'bright world'.

Ugolino's narrative has no light in it, none at all. Dante condemns both the Count, facing the catastrophic consequences of his betrayal for young lives - those of his own offspring - and Pisa, 'shame of the peoples of the lovely land...For if Count Ugolino was reported to have betrayed your fortresses, you should not have put his sons on such a cross'. Ugolino will not look at his boys in their ultimate trial; he is like all souls in hell, cursing everything, angry with themselves, 'not transitive but reflexive' (Took); we understood his ambiguous last line - ''Poscia, più che 'l dolor poté 'l digiuno', 'Then fasting had more power than grief' - to imply that he succumbed to eating the bodies of his sons, though it could mean he simply died.

I was fascinated by the idea that the near-bottom of hell is not fire and brimstone, but ice, an atmosphere almost still but for the beating of Satan's terrible wings. Once we have reached the existential limits - 'Io non mori' e non rimasi vivo', 'I did not die, and I did not remain alive' - and witnessed the giant with Brutus, Cassius and Judas in his maws,

'we have seen everything - nothingness, no more to see...This is the turning place, the ontological fulcrum' (Took).

This coming Monday, after a fortnight's break, we are promised an investigation into 'the moral structure of Purgatory'. I have my second volume of the Durling dual-language Divina Commedia in readiness, and I'm just filling in the gaps of the first.

There is awfulness at the heart of Bach's BWV 159, but this setting of Christ on the cross's 'It is accomplished', 'Es ist vollbracht' (seen above on the monument I came across in suburban Bamberg last January), is consoling rather than a heartbroken treatment, most famously rendered in the alto's aria of the St John Passion. In the opening number, the bass-baritone Jesus' dialogue with the soul attributes the string halos around the voices differently to the comparable passage in the St Matthew Passion. It's good to hear the familiar chorale 'O sacred head so wounded' here, too. But the big aria with austerely beautiful oboe obbligato is the thing, and so beautifully sung by Philippe Huttenlocher on my companionable Rilling set. There's a Fischer-Dieskau recording, by the way, but it's much too slow.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Snow and Fauré

Since the major snow flurries were just around the corner when I attended Tuesday's lunchtime concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields, it's pure fancy after the event to see some of Fauré's inspirations as delicate flowers that bloom out of bitter cold, which seems to be the case with the slow movement of his First Violin Sonata. It could not have been played with more exquisite, cultured tone and phrasing than by young Maria Włooszczowska with my good friend Sophia Rahman as her equally sensitive and nuanced pianist. Here they are after the event.

After the wonderful recital of Estonian music by the Ruubel twins Triin and Kärt in Berlin a week ago, this was an equal joy - and more of a surprise, since I hadn't heard Włoszczowska before. Though currently taking an Artist Diploma course at the Guildhall School with András Keller, she has already recorded Mozart's Church Sonatas with Maxim Vengerov, so that should give you some idea of her level. The communication shows in her features, too - that aspect shouldn't be underestimated, since it's rare to see a violinist take visible pleasure in the music - and she somehow combines the culture with a big sound; Sophia's mastery of Fauré's more turbulent writing could afford to let rip and never swamp her duo partner. I'm kicking myself for missing the Ysaÿe Sonata in the first half of the concert, but I was cycling with two heavy panniers of sheet music and LPs to hand over to friend Clare, who also came, as well as battling the east wind, and it took me 20 minutes longer than it usually does. Thighs now like tugboats.

I could afford to take my time on the way back as I was working at home in the evening. And after I'd helped Clare to Leicester Square tube with her load, the first big snowstorm began. I dived into Bagariet, the superlative Swedish bakery in Rose Street, and felt all mysigt (that's hygge to the north) with my espresso and cake watching the flakes fall outside the window. The brilliant sunshine and sharp blue skies that followed meant I became a tourist wandering round Trafalgar Square with its semi-frozen fountains

and dusting of snow on lions

and water-deities.

I was making my way to have a late lunch with J round the corner from Europe House, but realised I had to go via St James's Park where the daffodils were now trying to hold their heads above the snow,

the London planes glowed in the light before the next flurry

and tress by the water's edge had begun their budding.

Pink and white fur here from this lady exercising her handsome dog.

Birds were generally more eager than ever to come close in the hope of food, including moorhens

and patient herons,

but black and white swans seemed more keen to keep warm down by the water's edge

and the pelicans, as usual, appeared perfectly indifferent, albeit feeling the cold, on their rock.

Refreshed at Itsu, I pedalled slowly home, despite being relieved of my pannier-burdens, admiring the blossoming in Paultons Square

and just catching a glimpse of distant snow-clouds mountainously massing beyond Brompton Cemetery.

I needn't have been in such a hurry to catch the snow scene - yesterday morning everything was covered and the view out of one back window in the early morning light

caught the prunus's premature flowerings.

Snow lay heavy on tentative vegetation

and more came in droves.

Not so much fun last night: my attempts to get to English Touring Opera's Marriage of Figaro at the Hackney Empire were aborted, despite timetables showing no imminent delays; first we were thrown off the on-time London Overground train at Willesden Junction, standing for ten minutes in another blizzard (kinda fun in its bleak awfulness), and then told that the next train and all its successors would only be going as far as Camden Road because of damage to overhead lines. So I got off at West Hampstead, took a much quicker tube journey home and spent a hygge/mysigt evening with J watching two episodes of Homeland's slow-burn but gripping Season Six.