Sunday, 21 January 2018

Best CDs of 2017 - BBC Music Mag Awards and me



To discover the one of these six favourite discs I reviewed or rated in 2017 which not quite enough of my fellow jurors were persuaded to shortlist, you'll have to head over to the voting page of the BBC Music Magazine Awards 2018. I'm finally free to divulge a little more about the December day at Editor Olly Condy's home in Bristol when seven of us, plied with cake and home-made membrillo plus plentiful cups of strong coffee, thrashed out our choices - and a very amiable conference it was (the others on the panel were Olly, Reviews Editor Rebecca Franks, Nicholas Anderson, Erica Jeal,  Andrew McGregor and Kate Wakeling).

Suffice it to say that of the above, Sean Shibe's first complete solo disc, of British guitar music, Bychkov's recording of Schmidt's Second Symphony and the revelatory Martinů Cantatas on Supraphon won the greatest degree of unanimity among us (my reviews of the latter two should be on the BBCMM website, but the reviews index is patchy and they aren't, yet). I'm also pleased that Alec-Frank Gemmill's enterprise in going flat-out for a CD that wasn't just the usual recital disc - featuring four different period horns, and Alasdair Beatson playing four different period pianos - made the grade.


You are of course free to vote any way you wish, or not at all; these are only my opinions, but I hope a bit more background is helpful. Biggest surprise for me was the electrifying approach of Jean Rondeau - anything but a cool dude in the performances - and Dynastie Bach family harpsichord concertos; since that got its nomination, I can't be too sad that Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque didn't make it too, though I liked her quasi-improvisatory playing just as much.


Instrumental and Chamber were the hardest categories to choose from, overwhelming us with riches; though content with the three nominations in each category, I would have been equally happy with Beatrice Rana's startling Bach Goldberg Variations, up there with Denk and Gould;


another surprise favourite, Shai Wosner's brilliant programming of 'Impromptus', one way forward in recital planning which he shares with fellow pianist Ari Porat;


violinist Daniel Rowland and pianist Natacha Kudritskaya rising to the near-impossible challenges of Enescu's supernatural Third Violin Sonata;


and several quartet discs. I got to know Grieg Quartets played with magical pianissimos where required by a group with whom I was also unfamiliar, the Meccore String Quartet, and another of those imaginatively planned programmes which seem the prerogative of the younger generation comes from the Schumann Quartet(t), linking 'Landscapes' of Haydn, Takemitsu, Bartók and Pärt .


There was an endgame battle for Instrumental because two of us hadn't received Krystian Zimerman's Schubert Sonatas by the day of judgement. Our front-runners pending that included my absolute favourite, Alexander Melnikov's first disc of Prokofiev sonatas (Melnikov was also a top contender with Andreas Staier in very live-wire Schubert piano duets).


Because it's perhaps the finest performance I've ever heard of the Sixth Sonata, and equal first with Richter in the Eighth, I'd put this above Zimerman's Schubert, since he stands alongside quite a few other greats. But still, when I finally heard it, I had to include Zimerman in my final three over Fenella Humphrys' 'Bach to the Future 2' - great playing, but for me there were a couple of duds among the new works. That probably gave Zimerman the edge in the joint final choice. Anyway, Melnikov will be back with Volume Two of his Prokofiev soon, which should give the 2018 panel something to get hold of...

Since this is also about discs which may not be new, but which I discovered in 2017, I have to give an awed salute to pianist Peter Jablonski, whose playing I haven't heard for years and whose fiancee, the vivacious Anastasia Belina, became a new friend last year when we appeared together in a pre-Proms talk.


It would have been my prerogative to simply pass over the discs she sent in silence if there had been nothing special, but they're first rate - I even think I prefer Jablonski's Grieg over Andsnes' (whose Sibelius disc, by the way, nearly reached the Instrumental category, but that was so saturated with good performances this year). Liszt, well, the repertoire isn't so much to my taste, but I can't deny the magisterial diversity of the approach. Wonderful sound from the Japan-based issues, too.

In another hangover from a previous year, having been mesmerised by young Pavel Kolesnikov's selection of Chopin Mazurkas at a lunchtime Prom, I caught up with this disc, which goes right to the top of my Chopin list (or equal first with several, at any rate).


But back to the Awards. Quite a few might-have-beens bit the dust in Orchestral - Paavo Järvi's lithe and clear-lined Strauss Ein Heldenleben and Don Juan just missed the final three by one vote, and Vaughan Williams gave rise to three front-runners - though the fresh kick applied by Andrew Davis to the more Satanic moments of the ballet Job as well as the eerie solos in the Ninth Symphony clinched the chosen one for me. Terje Tønnesen's string-orchestra versions of the Janáček String Quartets may have missed out by being rather hard to categorise, not least because of the excellent adaptation of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata (inspiration for the First Quartet) so well read - in English AND Norwegian - by Teodor Janson.


Sadly my personal favourite Opera/Vocal disc, Daniel Behle's Schubert Arias, wasn't to a couple of reviewers' taste repertoire-wise, and the period-instrument orchestra is not so highly rated


but I'm delighted Ann Hallenberg's delicious programme of Venetian carnival arias made the list. I'm also glad to have made the acquaintance of Louis Andriessen's Theatre of the World. Those who saw the world premiere production say this audio recording leaves more to the imagination, though I'd love to see a director like Richard Jones tackle its black-comedy apocalypse.



I also fought hard for both Louise Alder's and Nicky Spence's Strauss songs (the last a real surprise, conclusion to the excellent Hyperion series) in the Vocal category, but mezzo Jamie Barton's debut disc was a unanimous choice. There's a vocal personality that just leaps out at you; and that's a necessary virtue when you have over 200 discs to listen to and you can't sit there riveted with a score for every one. The special ones always make you stop what you're doing and listen properly.


Very happy with the Choral choices - as well as the Martinů, they included the best Estonian choir of all, Vox Clamantis, whose acquaintance I made at Tallinn's 2017 Estonian Music Days, in a peerless Pärt programme.


Champion oddity of the year for me, one that actually works, was the Japanese percussionist Kuniko giving a whole new, lugubrious and hypnotic meaning to Bach on the marimba. Don't think that even got reviewed in the BBC Music Mag last year, but if it did, it wasn't on the list. 


Is Bach the only composer who can be transferred to just about any instrument? It seems so: another Awards nomination I was sorry not to see reach the final three was the unusual trio of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile and bass player Edgar Meyer in trio sonatas and other transcriptions; there's some magically deft playing in the more virtuosic passages there.

Needless to say my most serendipitous discovery of 2017, which I've already chronicled here and here, was the wonder of Helmuth Rilling's Bach cantatas.


It was an easy step from charity-shop purchases to the complete set, which will be keeping me company every Sunday and holy day in 2018.

Today's Cantata for the Third Sunday after Epiphany was BWV 111, 'Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh Allzeit', another gem from January 1725. The adoring, adorning pair of winds this two are oboes, dialoguing with violins in thirds around lively choral counterpoint and a terrific busy bass. This opening chorus may be in the minor, but it's all spritely. The cantus firmus hymn is one from 1547 by Albrecht von Brandenburg, who brought Lutherism to his state. Either his was a lopsided face or Cranach the Elder hasn't quite got it right here.


The cantata bursts with a muscular Christianity in the bass aria and a pounding duet for alto and tenor driven by dotted rhythms  - not quite charming, and it might be one of the few places in the Rilling set where the voices (Helen Watts and Lutz-Michael Herder) aren't perfectly matched, but the impression remains one of forceful vivacity to fit the 'confident steps' ('behertzten Schritten'). The surprise for me was the twist in the short but expressive soprano recitative before the final chorale, reminding us unexpectedly of that final struggle where death tears the spirit from the body, the deathbed a 'battleground' ('Kampftplatz'). The oboes are back at hand to guide the soloist through this final dark night. Lesson for the day: never take the essence of any cantata for granted until it's all over.

Now, on with that voting.

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 (amazing finale, sounds like syncopated Elgar). 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 just taken up the Presidency of the European Council (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.


Brilliant Bulgarians marked the new Presidency of the European Council, also at St John's Smith Square, on 9 January.  Mastery in any sphere is to be applauded, and though I'm not sure I would sit through more than about 45 minutes of a jazz duo like the Wladigeroff Brothers, I found the sound if not always the substance (the compositions were mostly theirs) compelling - not least because St John's, from the back row at least, turns out to be a fabulous acoustic not just for piano but also trumpet.


Scions of a distinguished composing family - grandfather Pancho is a big figure in Bulgaria - Alexander and Konstantin aren't just brothers; they're identical twins, and the statement that music in their blood isn't just an empty cliche. There were some stunning novelty moments; Alexander at several points played two trumpets at once, in Roma-style thirds (pictured above in the second of three photos by Jamie Smith). The range of 'horns', too, made for some surprising changes of timbre, along with some splendid forays into 5/4 and 7/8 time.


Even so, it was just as well that they were offset by the London Bulgarian Choir. An amateur group, its women have been trained by the vivacious Dessislava Stefanova to sing in that open manner familiar in many eastern folk choirs (I missed the throat singing at the beginning). Brave of them and the Wladigeroff Brothers to try their own, poppy version of the Ode to Joy sung in three languages, but the musical highlight of European co-operation for me was one on film, Swiss animation brilliantly timed to a very lively number.


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.