Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017): this says it all



This is from the beginning, at the 1989 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, when he was up against Bryn Terfel. Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama was one of those things Hvorostovsky sang like no-one else - the vintage cello of a baritone voice just loved those rising scalic phrases, and the breath control was always extraordinary. It was the first thing I thought of today, hearing the awful if expected news (he was four months younger than me). Tomorrow I'll turn to an Arts Desk tribute and listen to a lot more (the Russian folk songs disc, Verdi as well as more Tchaikovsky) when I have the time.

Update (23/11) My Arts Desk homage is here, with excerpts from a 1992 interview for Gramophone and two more YouTube clips. My thanks to Cheryl Madden over on LinkedIn for citing the folksong 'Nochenka' as her favourite Hvorostovsky number - unaccompanied, he is at his nuanced best.

Eight from the Gedda collection



I had an amazing, impression-packed three days in Stockholm: three stupendous concerts in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic's HK Gruber festival (including the great man's definitive, legendary performance - conducting, singing, shouting, kazoo- and recorder-playing - of his ever-startling Frankenstein!!), a brilliantly staged production of the new, hit-and-miss Dracula opera by Victoria Borisova-Ollas and a vulgar, fun one of Turandot at the still-cultish Folkoperan, costumes from Bergman films brilliantly curated in the oppressive but fascinating Hallwylska (House-)Museum. But the biggest surprise was on a freezing Sunday morning when the square between the Scandic Haymarket Hotel where I was staying, formerly the Art Deco department store where Greta Garbo was discovered while working as a shop assistant,


and the Konserthuset, proudly proclaiming its star composer,


was transfigured from a fruit, flower and vegetable market - chanterelles very much the prominent items -


into a fleamarket.


Better than any I've encountered in the UK, its antiques were interesting, a print-stall led me to buy two illustrations from Lindman's 1920 Nordens Flora for less than £6 each - and then I discovered the records. First - on my way to a cash machine to pay for the prints - mixed boxes of LPs at about £1 each, where I snapped up Decca Phase 4 Ketelbey, Drottningholm Court music, an old Melodiya choral disc featuring Rimsky-Korsakov's Tatar Captivity, and this,


the great Gedda singing Swedish patriotic music including gems by Stenhammar and Alfven. Would that I'd discovered the real treasure house earlier. The boxes in question started with what must be the complete discography of the Serge Jaroff Don Cossacks Choir, progressed to a variety of tenors from Russian vintage via Caruso through to more recent contenders, hit a strand of HMV's old Viennese operetta recordings and ended with classic Swedish artists like Elisabeth Söderström. I asked the guy on the stall how much? He replied '30 kronor each'. I pointed out that what I'd already bought were only 10, he reduced it to 20. When, having made a selection, I asked again, he explained why these were more, launching his thunderbolt. This was the private collection of Nicolai Gedda, from his Stockholm apartment on Valhallavägen (his main home was in Switzerland, where he died on 8 January aged 91. A clip from the tribute programme to which I contributed on Radio 3 can still be heard here).

What, break up a treasury, fail to establish an archive? That seemed sad to me. But better that someone should make a selection who really loved the tenor and his wide-ranging artistry. And it turned out that the choice I'd made was actually quite representative. The DG Serge Jaroff LP I chose signalled the involvement of Gedda's adoptive father, Michail Ustinov (distantly related to Peter), who sang bass in the choir.


To be honest, listening was quite a shock - such comically terrible intonation, especially from basses trying for the low notes. But also such esprit and some fine solos. The back of the sleeve was annotated - Gretchaninoff's Credo has 'fakral' (farewell?) beside it, and 'God save thy people' 'Tchaiokvsky OBS'. This is the hymn arranged at the beginning of the 1812 Overture (and sung, in Karajan's recording, by the Serge Jaroff Choir).


There were so many volumes of tenors from Melodiya's 'The World's Leading Interpreters of Music' series, including Yershov and Sobinov. I chose the one dedicated to Nikolay Figner, since his history went back furthest: he created the role of Hermann in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, opposite his wife Medea as Lisa. The recordings date from 1901-2 and 1909, yet sound amazingly present - enough to tell that this was not a beautiful voice, at least when the tenor was in his early forties, but certainly one full of character, and one hears the heroics not in the Hermann aria but in Davidov's 'Away, away'.


Had to take a token of Gedda's great Swedish predecessor, Jussi Björling, especially as two weeks ago, searching 'Che gelida manina's for the Opera in Depth classes on La bohème, I found the ideal - not his later recording for Beecham (which overall is still THE classic), but one made with Nils Grevellius conducting in 1938. That's not on this LP, but other Grevellius-era recordings are, weirdly remastered with echo-chamber around them in 1961, the year after the troubled tenor's death at the age of 42 (a tear shed here, incidentally, for the news today of Dmitri Hvorostovsky's death from a brain tumour at 55).


I didn't realise Gedda's own debut recital came out as early as 1952. When I went into the BBC studios to record a Radio 3 tribute in January, the aria they played was Lensky's from this LP, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia. So delicate, so feminine. The gutsiness came later, but Gedda never pushed like Björling, which is why we heard him singing so well at the age of 72 in the Golders Green Hippodrome (I reproduce the signed ticket on the blog here). The French arias are ravishing, too. This was my most treasurable find: on the inner sleeve is inscribed 'Dorogoi Mamochke, na (can't read the word), ot Koli, Chicago 26/4/1952'). Presumably dedicated to his adoptive mother Olga, his aunt. His real parents were Swedish and half-Russian. To know more about Gedda's humble and clearly not easy beginnings - after which he was swept from being a Stockholm bank clerk to overnight stardom in Adam's Le postillon de Longjumeau at the Royal Stockholm Opera - I've ordered up a second-hand copy of his autobiography, mercifully translated into English.


I could have chosen from the two LPS each of The Gypsy Baron, A Night in Venice and Wiener Blut as the operetta representative, but since it's closer to my heart I went for the excerpts - all that were recorded - from Richard Strauss's Arabella. Gedda features only very briefly in a scene from Act 2, and Schwarzkopf even in her younger days was predictably mannered and faux-girly as the heroine, soubrettish-sounding too. But the prizes here are the Philharmonia horns, presumably led by Dennis Brain, the Mandryka of Josef Metternich, a baritone I'd never paid much attention to before, and the pacy conducting of Lovro von Matačić - would that he had left us complete R Strauss rather than Lehár.


Had to have a specimen of Gedda singing Russian folk music with balalaikas. This is all good, but the two bell numbers at the end with a cappella support are especially magical. As for this,


which I selected before I know whose records these were, it's the original of a CD which has long been such a favourite at home. The CD only has four overlapping songs, including the consummate original version of Soloviev-Sedoy's 'Midnight in Moscow' seductively sung by Vladimir Troshin, and the extras on here include more surprises as to how jazz-oriented Soviet Russia could be in the late 1950s, not least with three guitarists playing the St Louis Blues. When I stayed in St Petersburg with the Romashovs, the grandmother, Elizavata, was fond of a radio station which played nothing but songs by Soloviev-Sedoy and his colleagues. I bet that no longer exists. Anyway, what superb arrangements and fine vocalists on this LP.

Well, you're spared further chronicles of further purchases because first, I had no Swedish notes left before I had to dash in to the afternoon concert, and second, I had reached the limit of what I could pack into my hand luggage. I had to look in two batches - about an hour into my first market browsing, I was heading towards hypothermia and was splendidly revived by fish soup with celery in the wonderfully old-fashioned (and extremely popular) Café Avenyn just down the hill. Which I returned to after the concert to take a breather before catching the Arlanda Express back to the airport, and indulged myself with the rich chocolate of a 'Sarah Bernhardt' (you can get these in the wonderful Bagariet in Covent Garden's Rose Street, too). It had been packed at lunchtime, by the way, a very lively scene, but this was 5pm on the same Sunday, so much quieter.


To scoop up more Geddaiana was so tempting - I now realise from reading how Gedda collected books on art, Russian art especially, that beautiful old volumes on another stall would have been his, too. Someone else was going through a box of letters, but didn't move on in time so I didn't get to see whether those were his as well. I repeat, how sad when the collection of a great person gets broken up and no archive is established. Heck, there ought to be a Gedda Museum in Stockholm. I hope a Swedish musician reads this and heads to the marketplace next Sunday - these mementos need an appreciative home. Anyway, I've done my bit. Watch this space for more on the Bergman exhibition, and The Arts Desk for both an overall Stockholm/Gruber piece as well as a transcription of a very emotional 65-minute interview generously granted by HKG.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Autumn about town


Taking us from late September to last Thursday, between which times I hadn't been able to make it to my NFP (New Favourite Place, at least since the summer), the walled garden of Fulham Palace. Only had ten minutes within, the closing time now moved back from 4.15pm to 3.45. The beds of vegetables and flowers had changed from this


to this


and here are the beehives in September


not long I bought my first jar of honey, among the best - so little is needed on toast to give the distinctive tang, so a small £10 jar can last a long time - with the even smaller yield from the Garrick Club roof and the unique chestnut honey flavour from Valvona & Crolla's Italian source, a jar of which I picked up on my Edinburgh afternoon.


For some reason, I don't think I'd featured any of the Tudor bee-bole holes in the Fulham Palace wall. That was then


and this is now.


The most spectacular colour right now, many specimens having already shed, is that of the gingko near the gate into the walled garden



beyond whose leaves the east facade of the Palace can be glimpsed.


Visitors to whom we've become so accustomed all along the Thames and in the London parks could be heard before one of those pesky but still oh so exotic parakeets was seen.


The beech hedge along the north wall is also flaming


while the garden at the front still has some floral colour



and the fading light beyond gives a good indication of where we now are in the year.


I'll return to my route back along the river at the end. But now for the interstitial period. Autumn at Kew was essential. While the Palm House stays more or less verdant throughout the year, albeit lit up by the late afternoon sun on this occasion,


the lilies in the neighbouring glasshouse will soon be over and starting again from scratch in the spring,


and this was the last of the gourds.


Roses were still abundant in the beds between the Palm House and the long walk towards the river.


The big trees did not disappoint. My favourite of the grandest, the giant oak by the Thames, Quercus x Benderi, which also has Q. coccinea x Q. rubra on its label (a dendrologist would need to explain that one to me), looked fine from across the lawn


and looking out from underneath the branches towards the river.


A pure Q. coccinea (crimson) lived up to its colour-coding, again from without


and within,


while the beech grove, with autumn crocuses before it,


gave several interesting perspectives, both up


and across to acers via vast roots.


Memories of Dawyck in the Scottish borders were conjured by a cluster of birches, the finest being the Chinese red-barked variety (Betula albo-sinensis).


Soon I was back among the magnolias, normally only distinguished by their flowers in spring, but Magnolia salicifolia, the willow-leafed variety, is an autumn beauty.


So too is Fraxinus angustifolia 'Monophylla', with its stippled bark.


I was going off-piste among the trees to search for fungi, but specimens found I few, other than this bolete - I'm guessing, from the redishness on the stem - uprooted


close to something fascinating I couldn't identify (but, thanks to Caro in the comments below, can now suggest as magnolia seeds in a broken-off piece of poddery).


The bracket fungi back nearer the Palm House never fail.


An earthstar? (Loose guess- my handbook usually doesn't help).


And I think this is honey fungus attacking a tree that's not long for this world - common, but impressive.


One fleeting afternoon visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden - Hans Sloane through seasonal leafchange


reacquainted me with the Mediterranean spitting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium, not yet ready to do its stuff - the cucumbers were then only the size of poppyheads before unfolding.


I headed back down to the CPG environs on the afternoon when the tailend of Hurricane Maria was whipping up the Thames at high water with its blustery winds. The exhilaration can't be captured, but you get a sense of the swell looking over towards the Buddhist temple in Battersea Park.


Black-headed gulls (yes, their heads are almost white at certain times in their development) were bobbing among leaves from the Embankment plane trees clustering in the water.


A cormorant bobbed, disappeared, resurfaced and skimmed the water as it flew away.


Looking towards Chelsea, one big cloud gathering that only deposited a quick shower

 
and walking along the houses of this stretch of the Embankment, which for some reason I've never passed before. And there are some gems - the terracotta of Garden House -




and the much more celebrated Swan House, Norman Shaw's work,


'the finest Queen Anne revival domestic building in London,' says A Guide to the Architecture of London, ''with three first floor caged and fully glazed oriel windows'


Crossed the river on my bike and did a circuit of Battersea Park, where the leaves were clustering at the edge.


and then wove my way back through Chelsea Street, past the heron panels of a building on the Embankment I've not been able to identify, 


somehow ending up by the house that's always fascinated me in the attractively named Glebe Place.


My guides all wax lyrical about the 19th century artists' studios, one of which was Charles Rennie Mackintosh's studio-house in the last years of his life, and The London Encyclopedia mentions a brickwork cottage (No. 51), 'reputed to have been a hunting lodge of Henry VIII but this is unlikely. It was used for a long time as the Chelsea Open Air Nursery School,' as the charming plaque still reminds us.


But what of No. 50, built for the advertiser Frank Lowe between 1885 and 1887? Think of its folly what you will, but it catches the eye with its tower, its six statues on the mansard roof and the painted design blow them.


I'm glad my curiosity led me to step into the porch, because quite apart from the intricately wrought door


there's also a tabernacle with portrait which clearly intends to evoke Renaissance Italy


and the ceiling is curious too.


If anyone knows more about this curious building than I've been able to discover, please let me know. But it's time for some brutalism now - a view from Sophie's top-floor flat on Ladbroke Grove across to Ernő Goldfinger's once-hated, now-treasured Trellick Tower (1966-72) against black skies that threatened rain as I left on my bike but fortunately failed to deliver.


And the skies were even more extraordinary one evening as I walked to pick up my bike at West Brompton Station where I'd left it one day and cycle on into town. The brute here is the 28-storey Empress State Building, built between 1958 and 1961 and renovated in 2003 to a design by Wilkinson Eyre Architects (I've only just found that out, plus the fact that there's a revolving restaurant on top. I thought it was for police occupancy only).


Earl's Court Exhibition Centre next to it is no more; the whole space is one big building site, and I understand the massive luxury developments planned have been halted in their tracks. But it does give a nice open wasteland feel to the place which is not without its strange attraction. That evening, though, the sky was the thing, planes on their way to Heathrow adding a feature



And the pink was still there by the time I passed the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Smoky, cloudy sky, too, over the Barbican Centre


and clearer twilight in front of St Giles Cripplegate before a not very good BBC Singers concert preceding the stunning second instalment of Sakari Oramo's Sibelius cycle over in the Barbican Hall.


Even the 'western wastes', as Henry James called them, of my vicinity were lit up on another evening, here with the excellent Bhavan Centre at the end of the road.


I have no photo documentation of two very different Monday afternoons cycling to my opera class at the Frontline Club. On one, I looked above the treeline in Hyde Park to see an orange sun - later found out this was causes by a sandstorm from the Sahara and forest fires in Portugal. And last Monday was the sharpest, most crisp, brilliantly blue-sky autumn day imaginable.

Last Saturday we went from watching a noisy (pumping-music) and mildly interesting Bayswater firework display from the comfort of a high-up apartment to supper near Baker Street. As I walked around Dorset Square


I was dazzled by the brightness of a just-past-full moon.


Not only that, but the craters were clear on the edge.



But back to last Thursday. I must give a salute to my favourite new local haunt, visited en route to Fulham Palace - the Jaffa Bake House on the North End Road. The premises used to house a large but indifferent bakery; now they've been transformed into something you'd be happy to find in Beirut or Damascus - and my mouth waters at the thought of za'atar (the delicious spice mix) on man'ouche or flat bread, done on the spot in the capacious wood-fired oven: this flavour brings back mornings staying at friends Juliette and Rory's place in West Beirut one Christmas, when I'd go down to a hole in the wall and bring back man'ouche to eat on the balcony with a bit of a sea view, along with cardamom coffee. The North End Road Market has improved immensely over the past couple of years too - heck, you can even choose the fruit and vegetables - and there are even more Middle Eastern food shops, of ever better quality.


So to the images up top, and on to Bishop's Park, heading past the pond by what used to be called Margate Sands,


the fiercely defended edge of Fulham Football Ground, the sky busy with birds heading back to the Wetlands Centre - which I must visit this year, when the Bewick and Whooper swans have arrived -


and a bit of fiery orb (look carefully at this small size) behind the now deleafed trees.


One final surprise - the prunus over the back wall has only a few leaves left, but one stubborn blossom insists on emerging when all we thought we could expect now were the flowers of the ivy, last source of nectar for the bees.