Thursday, 26 March 2015

Hunter's gift to Glasgow



On those many excursions from the alma mater, Edinburgh, to breath-of-fresh air Glasgow I used to make as a student in the 1980s, I now realise that I only ever saw the Hunterian Art Gallery and the reconstructed Rennie Mackintosh House on the Glasgow University campus, never the Hunterian Museum itself. I'd not even wandered into the two quads behind the famous bell tower, consecutive works of Giles Gilbert Scott and his son Oldrid. Valuing this sort of thing much more now, I find there's more to it than just the mere statistic of this being the second largest Gothic Revival work after the Palace of Westminster.


The original Hunterian collection goes back further. Doctor William Hunter, obstetrician, royal physician, anatomical surgeon and passionate collector of much more than merely scientific objects, was born near Glasgow in 1718, graduated from the University in 1731 before going on to study Medicine in Edinbugh and moved to London 10 years later, where he died in 1783. The collections he bequeathed to Glasgow were transported up north and the first museum to house them was on the old university site, an edifice on the High Street dating back to 1451 (who'd have thought it? Another statistic - Glasgow University per se is the fourth oldest in the English-speaking world).


That site was moved to the splendid eminence where the clock tower stands proud, Gilmorehill, with the river Kelvin winding around beneath it, in 1870. So large is the Hunterian collection that it's been split over four different buildings. I'd love to see the zoology department on my next visit - from the below picture in the main hall, it looks as if all those stuffed animals once stood in the grand hall which is the centrepiece of the current displays.


While there's no chance of reconstructing how the galleries once looked - I suppose I was hoping for something as authentic as Bamberg's phenomenal Vogelsaal - the mix after the 2011 re-opening still has a little of that cabinet-of-curiosities jumble which has intrigued me ever more since reading Simon Winder's Germania. Very few postcards available, so with approval I snapped some of the objects. Needless to say most have been accumulated since Hunter's day, but there's a whole assemblage of his items in the first room, and I believe these specimen jars on the mezzanine level are his.


Many other distinguished academics have bequeathed their collections, including Professor Bernard Hague, whose musical instruments stand proud in several central glass cases - our friend Andrew van der Beek will approve of the serpent -


and William Thomson, First Baron Kelvin, hugely distinguished mathematical physicist and engineer, is represented by a wide range of objects, including this French horn of 1840 which he used to demonstrate acoustical properties in his lectures.


Richard Fortey's The Earth has acquainted me with some of Scotland's specific geological wonders, so I wasn't too surprised to find that these three stones from the mines at Ledhills-Wanlockhead 60 miles south east of Glasgow are unique to the area and take their names from it: they're leadhillite, the yellow one with small blue caledonite crystals; caledonite itself, turquoise blue with deep blue tinarite; and lanarkite, shiny transparent needles with greenish-yellow pyromorphite.


Rocks and stones are beginning to have as much appeal to me as human masterpieces, all this in preparation for my next life as a zoologist. This goethite from Queensland, Australia is eye-catching because of its iridescence, but it's a nice link to Johann Wolfgang, after whom it takes its name, because I so treasured the objects from his own cabinet of curiosities, including fossilised fish, which sat alongside the Tischbein portrait - enormous, much to my surprise - in the British Museum's excellent German exhibition.


These kyanite crystals in quartz are beauties, too, purchased from Capelinha in Brazil with assistance from the NFA, so presumably rather precious.


Back to Scotland for this deep sea coral, Lophelia pertussa, can you believe, dredged up by fisherman from the sea between Colla and Barra off the west coast.


Around the hall are, inter alia, mummies and scarabs, a Maori artifact believed to come from one of Captain Cook's expeditions and this skull of a young Neolithic man discovered near Clachaig Falls in Arran.


On the way out I just had time for a whizz around the permanent collection of Roman sculpture from the Antonine Wall


before heading downhill to what used to be my favourite Glasgow museum, the Kelvingrove


to meet godson Alexander for a quick tea before catching the train south. Blowing bubbles from a strange 'gift' donated by a student seeking election, he had to admit that though up on the campus most days, he'd never been inside the Hunterian. Can't blame him: it took me years to visit the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh's Old College. Anyway, he and fellow student/godchild Evi had a good time the night before, getting a meal, a talk and a BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert in the glorious City Halls. I may be biased, but these two - who don't, I hasten to add, see each other between my visits other than in the University Library - are as fine and good young people as any I know, wanting to do good in the world.


My train from Glasgow Central only took me as far as Penrith, where I stepped out and hit the splendid site of a much older building than the Kelvingrove, the castle with connections to much-in-vogue Richard III.


Then it was off to stay with friends in Lorton, a lovely corner of what I've always called - in the wake of a friend's Freudian slip - the Rain District. This time it started out as the Wind District, with gale force weather whipping up the waves and the spray on Crummock Water, and allowing our dear Tom Pope to be held up, strip of a being as he is, by the wind.


The elements made us take three shorter walks that Saturday rather than one long one, which allowed for love at first sight of Buttermere, a really fine lunch at the Pheasant Inn and an excursion to idyllically situated St Bega's on Bassenthwaite Lake. On Sunday morning the wind had dropped, the clouds were rolling away above Crummock Water


and blue skies headed in from the Lorton Valley in the opposite direction.


So by the time our hosts Rosanna and Anthony, seeming to dance here beyond the snowdrops on the lawn of Lorton Hall, bade us farewell, it was a vintage Lakes afternoon.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Wagner and Weill: trouble in Paradise




Well, Brecht's brilliant 20th century mythic invention of Mahagonny was only ever a paradise for fools, and the trouble in Wagner's Nuremberg is idealistically remedied by Mastersinger Hans Sachs. So there's no contest in terms of the feelgood factor, and as I've already reported, folk have been coming out of Richard Jones's near-perfect ENO production feeling transfigured (as my pal Edwina put it, 'over-friendly to people on the underground'. I remember a similar sensation after seeing Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire at the now-defunct Lumiere Cinema a block away from the Coli). I should have left John Fulljames's Royal Opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny blackly misanthropic about the Saturday night folly all around, but it was no more than usually irritating, and I was just disappointed that the show hadn't been as hard-hitting - or as funny - as Brecht and Weill originally made it.


This Mahagonny packs almost as few punches as Alaska Wolf Joe (Neal Davies) in his unequal boxing match with Trinity Moses (Willard White), perhaps the worst handled of all the group scenes in a production which has none of Jones's precision in blocking and physical expression. The Royal Opera Orchestra sounded tight enough, but more of the music needed to fly; despite the jazzy trumpets and the excellent onstage saxes-for-sex sequence, I was disappointed for once in one of my heroes, Mark Wigglesworth, for not sweeping it along more, or hitting hard with the total anticlimax of what should be a hair-raising apocalypse at the end. The impression, then, was of Germanic ponderousness - a trait of which Wagner shows not a hint in the five hours of Mastersingers, especially when done as superbly and clearly as it was at ENO.

How hard, then, to try and explain to my disappointed students who had seen it that the fault doesn't lie with any lack of inspiration in the work itself. People still misunderstand Brecht's text as outmoded propaganda spelling out the obvious, whereas it's not only painfully topical - the parallel with today's climate change crisis didn't need to be laboured as it was by Fulljames - but also pithily poetic and freighted with black humour. In that respect Jeremy Sams' translation was streets ahead of the production for sharpness.


The refrains of smoking, whisky, fishing and girls (ie sex for cash) in Mahagonny Version I are musical in themselves; the 'everything is permitted' gamechange that brings in the dollars for Version II provides the opera's finest musical sequence - very little of it in the original 25-minute 'Songspiel' - and culminates in what should be the terrifying clause 'so long as you can pay for it' - and if you can't, it's the electric chair for you. I should have been distressed by the execution of Jimmy Mahoney (read McIntyre, in this English language version) execution distressing, but it simply felt as glib and flat as so much else in the production.


Then there was some fatal miscasting. The (again usually just perfect) Anne Sofie von Otter was sometimes near-inaudible as the Widow Begbick, who needs to be a redoubtable old lag, a mezzo matron with a juggenaut of a chest voice like Astrid Varnay in the old Met production. And it doesn't matter whether or not Jimmy is good looking, as Kurt Streit undoubtedly is - though the wig gave him an unappealing Stringfellow effect - when the burning question is whether he's really up to the Heldentenorish demands. In that respect both Peter Hoare (Fatty) and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Jack O'Brien) would have cut the mustard much better than Streit, a lightish lyric with a now-shot top. Willard White was inaudible half the time and didn't seem very committed to a role which could be played with relish.


The star was Christine Rice, a mezzo in a soprano part, who brought typical nuance to Jenny's two big numbers. Why any promising young voices were needed for her 'girls' beyond the chorus beats me: Anna Burford, Anush Hovhannisyan and Stephanie Marshall, among others, were even more wasted than star voices mostly are as Mastersingers beyond the roles of Beckmesser, Kothner, Pogner and Sachs. The best of it, other than Rice? Es Devlin's container set and Finn Ross's consummate video projections, way above the average. They may give a sense in Clive Barda's photos for the Royal Opera of a livelier show than was in fact the case.


One other thing: if Fulljames wanted to extend the world of the opera into the audience, he should have gone further. Once the night of the hurricane is past, and anything goes in Mahagonny, it should in the auditorium and the foyers too. Friends were ticked off by an usher for eating in a box, and I wondered whether the girls in front would return to the mobile phones another usher had told them to switch off five minutes into the first half. Fortunately the dilemma this might have provoked didn't pertain, for they were quiet and attentive to the end, and cheered vociferously, with special warmth for Anne Sofie. The Royal Opera should have produced a tabloid programme, too, along the lines of the brilliant accompaniment to Phyllida Lloyd's scathing Donmar Threepenny Opera, to give free to what Dame Edna called the 'paups' up top. Perhaps too much would be lost in advertising if they were to sacrifice the usual programme, which with its ads for luxury flats, jewellery, investment management and Rolex watches makes an especially ironic counterpoint.


Clive has caught all the tableaux served up, which isn't always the case with press photographers. No images, on the other hand, could quite convey the wonder and the fun of the ENO Mastersingers. Overwhelmed on press night by my second viewing of Jones's production, with addition, after the Welsh National Opera original, I bought tickets for the last night and persuaded godson Alexander to take a break from his Glasgow studies and come down for a couple of nights to see and hear Wagner at its best.

The response was as good as I'd hoped. In a recent email, he wrote:

I still catch myself humming excerpts from Meistersinger several times a day. Such an excellent performance of a great work. I'm still baffled by how the time flew and the music continued in this marvellous sweeping curve for the entire time. I think that your hand in my musical education has reached staggering new heights, the extremity of which I never anticipated. All I want to do now is see more Wagner.

You see, my boy, how time becomes space. I'm only disappointed he didn't mention the Wurst we consumed in the interval at Herman ze German in Villiers Street. Companion Jill suggested we went there in homage to the opera, where David sings to himself, when he can't get Sachs to look up from his book the last act - alas, not accurately rendered in the ENO translation - 'if only I'd put away the sausage and cake first' and later, directly to Sachs,'would you like to try the sausage now?' Here are three of our company including equally ecstatic friend Edsy.


Needless to say, Jones's wit and craft had not palled (on Saturday, I kept thinking what he might of made of Mahagonny, a piece right up his street - though part of his genius is that one can never second-guess the ideas. I can't imagine, for instance, how research on Russian cannibalism is going to feed in to his Royal Opera Boris Godunov). Among the singers, Nicky Spence was on much better form as David than he had been on the first night - no problem at all with the top notes on the 11th - while Rachel Nicholls, though the spread is still a bit worrying for one so young, and the vocally tireless Gwyn Hughes Jones as the young lovers (pictured below in one of Catherine Ashmore's shots for ENO) seemed much more relaxed.


From a seat in the Upper Circle which proved acoustically wondrous - Alexander thought the strings must be miked, so lustrously did they bloom at climaxes - and perfectly good visually, I got more out of the Act Two kerfuffle, especially with David and Beckmesser flitting by at the back.


Our already great new Sachs Iain Paterson was suffering from a heavy cold but clearly has the technique and the generosity of spirit to carry him through (he sounded less tired at the end than Bryn Terfel had in the Prom performance of the WNO production). It seemed even more of a miracle how Ed Gardner knew what to do with the score at every point, breathing with the singers throughout (I may be mistaken, but I thought James Cresswell's Pogner was singing meaningfully in even longer phrases than before). Gardner brought the players onstage at the end. I'd hoped the press office would have a shot; they didn't, but another source which shall remain nameless (certainly not me, as I never take photos at the end).


It's a good enough representation of a source of joy which will feed the community of Mastersingers fans for months, if not years, to come.And, of course, a further yah-boo-sucks to the narrow, jargon-fixated minds at the Arts Council.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Back to Mann (and Britten)



Taking part last week in a Garsington evening event on that enterprising country house opera's forthcoming production of Britten's Death in Venice was the icing on a particularly rich and sometimes bitter Thomas Mann cake I've been digesting over the past month. (Pictured above, Steuart Bedford - conductor of the 1973 premiere and returning to the opera at Garsington - here revisiting his original recording in my treasured Decca box set with one of the Piper designs on the front, and the delightful Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, whom I know of old as one of J's Glyndebourne chorus pals in the early 1990s, holding a copy of the vocal score from which he sang as cover of the role of Aschenbach. From the excerpts he put across so vividly and movingly I want to hear him in the complete role).

Having made a re-reading of Doctor Faustus my big off-duty task of 2014 - and then failing to blog the teeming impressions it left - I thought I'd begin this year with a book I've always seen as the most daunting, the 1500-page Joseph and his Brothers. Returning to Mann's finest novella for the study evening helped me clarify some of the major themes running through the master's work.


Joseph is no chore, at least not the first book and a half of its four, which is as far as I've got so far. Needless to say I hadn't read translator John E Woods' introduction to the Everyman's Library edition* when I embarked, otherwise I might not have begun with 'Prelude: Descent into Hell' (he recommends getting a flavour of Mann's superb narrative skill in 'The Story of Dinah', Part Three of Book One and then reading the rest of that volume before returning to the proper start). It's a bit like ploughing through Tolstoy's disquisitions on the nature of history before beginning War and Peace, yet - steeped as I still was in the philosophical side of Doctor Faustus - I found Mann's thoughts on the recurrence of mythological patterns and aeons of time which may have passed between, say, Abraham and Jacob absorbing as well as beautifully expressed.


For this is supreme myth, its familiar sequence of events interrupted by authorial reflections. The Bible is seen as part of a stream of world mythology in which, for example, the theme of fratricide and brotherly strife is a constantly recurring pattern (Steinbeck knew the same thing in an equal masterpiece, East of Eden). Yet there's nothing dry about the storytelling, which can be humorous and is full of 'period flavour' so vivid that you immediately see these people as living human beings.

There are big set pieces dripping with detail, like the reunion of Jacob and Esau, and there is humour too, for example in the portrait of Joseph as a pretty little snitch. Nor does Mann spare us the horror of his treatment by his furious, jealous brothers or the complex psychology of their behaviour; when it becomes almost unbearable, those objective statements intervene for relief of sorts.


What ties the big, Wagnerian epic - Mann's Ring, taking almost as long to write as the Master of Bayreuth's tetralogy did to compose - to Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus is Joseph's sense of the duality of life - which of course is the (Geminian) author's too (Mann pictured above in 1939). His ambiguity is far too rich simply to lay before us black and white, good and bad. Adrian Leverkühn, the hero (I certainly wouldn't append an 'anti'-') of Doctor Faustus, may or may not have made a pact with the devil: Mann keeps it as tantalising as Henry James in The Turn of the Screw as to whether the voice of the red-bearded one is merely in the composer-protagonist's head or not. But he remains part of humanity even when he most seems outside it.


Integral to this is the misunderstanding I took away from a callow first reading. I assumed that Leverkühn's appropriation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone/dodecaphonic/serial system in all its rigour was a wholescale demonstration of its devilish sterility. But that's only a phase in the fictional composer's bewildering, unpredictable development. Clearly it applies most to his mighty Apocalypse alongside a plethora of quotations for the devil's best tunes, but the Violin Concerto Leverkühn composes for one of his 'victims' is playful, evasive. At a late stage, too, he makes a marvellous plea for the understanding of 'serious-light' music which Prokofiev would have applauded wholeheartedly.

The complexity reaches a high pitch when he discusses with the sometimes blinkered classicist narrator the higher reaches of science, the outer limits of space, which the humanist decries as beyond man's natural realm of compassion and sympathy. Quite apart from all this, I ought to add, is the novel's other side as an increasingly frightening kind of psychological thriller.

On the train back from visiting J's ma in St Leonards-on-Sea yesterday, I laboriously wrote out the passages that I'd pencilled as significant when I read the book. I'll spare you those here, and there will be time enough to return to Joseph once I've finished it. Instead I'll move on swiftly before I get too carried away to Death in Venice (which, of course, is back in time to 1912; the only photo of Mann I could find nearest to that period dates from 1905).


Here I'll take the liberty of quoting part of Mann's letter of 1912 ('1902' in David Luke's introduction to his translation must be a misprint) to Carl Maria Weber in which he refutes Weber's claim of a sort of homophobia in hero Aschenbach's destruction by his pursuit of the 14 year old Tadzio (the real-life counterpart, whom Mann certainly found entrancing but whom he did not, as far as we know, chase all around Venice or follow to his bedroom door, was not yet 11 - another crucial connection with torn Britten's interest in the story at the end of his life). Telling Weber that homosexual experience is very familiar to him, he tries to outline the essential duality.

The artistic reason lies in the difference between the Dionysian spirit of lyric poetry as it individualistically and irresponsibly pours itself out, and the Apolline spirit of epic narrative with its objective commitment and its moral responsibilities to society. What I was trying to achieve was an equilibrium of sensuality and morality, such as I found ideally realized in [Goethe's] Elective Affinities.

Except that, as in the greatest of Britten's operas, there is no equilibrium, only conflict and ambiguity. Mann went on to say that he had been after something along the lines of the 74-year-old Goethe's obsession with 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, but that the proper turn of the screw had been 'a personal lyrical travel experience' in 1911 when he met young Wladyslaw, the future Baron Moes, at the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido ('Adzio' pictured kneeling on the left at that very place and time with 'Polish mama' and siblings. 'Jaschiu', his friend, was a real person, too, and apparently turned up while Visconti was making his film).


So the twist was personal and became realised, in a rather healthier way, when in the late 1920s the 50-odd-year old Mann fell in love with 17-year-old Klaus Heuser - and was requited. There's a curiously touching recollection of that time in a diary entry of 1942 when he remarks:

Well, there it is - I have 'lived and loved'. Dark eyes that shed tears for me, beloved lips that I kissed - it all happened, to me too it was given, I shall be able to tell myself this as I die.

Aschenbach's love remains unconsummated, but his death, in the opera at least, is transcendent in Britten's 'emancipated' A major (the novel gives us the vision of Tadzio as Mercury, messenger of death, only to end drily with the famous last line 'later that same day the world was respectfully shocked to receive the news of his death'). But he's had his vision, and perhaps it is a kind of Liebestod, or Liebesverklarung parallel to Isolde's. I suggested as much last Wednesday to a gentleman in the audience who asked about pessimism in Britten's endings. I don't think there's pessimism here at all. A conflicted life reaches an apotheosis composed only a couple of years before Britten himself died. Again, this photo is only approximate to the last years - a Decca publicity shot of 1968.


No-one could have been closer to Mann in spirit: both were pillars of the community with a puritan streak at odds with their true sensual natures, upon which Britten, at least in respect to his obsession with pre-pubescent boys, never acted (if you seek a nuanced, sympathetic examination of this, read John Bridcut's Britten's Children). Rich pickings for a complex art indeed, which may have revealed to both writer and composer more than they consciously knew themselves. Still, it's perfectly clear why Der Tod in Venedig so appealed to a composer who was soon to die himself.

*No more the H T Lowe-Porter translations, which both Woods and David Luke in his introduction to the Vintage volume of Death in Venice and other stories repudiate. Well, they would, wouldn't they, you might say, but it's clear that her idea of Biblical conversation in Joseph and his Brothers is more antique and less real than Mann's, and there are some shocking omissions/mistranslations in her approach to Aschenbach's dark/light night of the soul.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Runnicles: best after Berglund



In Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, that is (and only connect: Paavo was left-handed and so is Donald). I flew up to Inverness for a mere 20 minutes’ talk on this and Sibelius’s links with Beethoven, very much interconnected in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s programme with mighty Donald (how lucky they are in the commitment to his homeland of one of the world’s best conductors).

The flight passed over snowy Cairngorms and flights of geese beneath before a taxi sped me to the town on the river Ness, rushing at high level past my hotel and the Eden Court Theatre on the other side where the concert was held. The place enchanted me in the bright, cold weather with only the occasional snowstorm, enhanced by the knowledge of those mountains to the south and no major settlements to the north.

I last came here with dearest Lottie in 1983 to join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on its steam-train trip to the Kyle of Lochalsh (the best perk of being the SCO’s ‘student publicity officer’). We stayed in the youth hostel which, my taxi driver told me, has since burnt down, leaving enough of a shell to save and within which, perhaps, to rehouse the museum, currently stuck in a concrete box. His lilting accent reminded me of the Invernessian charm. News of my business there, and mention of Sibelius, led him to tell me of a Scot he knew called Greig who lived in Norway and reversed the e and i.

We could live here, I foolishly thought, enticed by the nearness of wild nature and the fact that on the Saturday morning before my early afternoon flight I walked half way to Loch Ness along river and canal, greeting lots of locals – cheery at the sun, no doubt – with their dogs: any town where the country is so imminent has my vote. Lewes would probably be a more practical suggestion but heck, a castle here wouldn’t cost half our flat thanks to the insanity of the London market.

Alas, I left my camera behind and my mobile phone was in transit from Aix-en-Provence, where it had fallen out in a taxi, so no shots of the fast-flowing river or the thousands of snowdrops and crocuses along the way. Here’s a generic photo of the Eden Court – no architectural masterpiece, but you get a sense of its riverside setting.


As for talk and concert, I thought I’d better draw the threads suggested by the programme together: Sibelius and Beethoven, the painstaking path both took to the final results (Beethoven 9 finale, Sibelius 5 versions 1 and 3). Runnicles’ coup, after a first half balancing a Sibelius Finlandia which was never overbearing even from my second-row seat with an intonation-perfect, meaningful-in-every –note Alina Pogostkina as soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto (still boring to me despite that), was to follow the end of Sibelius 7 with Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No. 3 (the same C major). My blind spot for so many Beethoven scores meant I still didn’t find it as meaningful as the Sibelius symphony, but that was a beauty of a performance, every tricky tempo change seamlessly negotiated and the climaxes falling where they should. Delighted to find this sketch on sibelius.fi.


Predicting success from what I knew of Runnicles' flexible style, I’d made an unfavourable comparison in the talk with Rattle’s Sibelius cycle so fresh in my head: this is a work that Donald knows how to negotiate, on a first attempt by the way, and Sir Si, for all his strengths in Sibelius 1, 2 and 4, doesn’t. A lady in the interval ticked me off for setting one above the other, and she did it with typical Scots abruptness, not prepared to hear me out. But against that, there were five folk with whom I had really lovely conversations, including the local worthy who remembered Neeme Järvi unveiling the plaque to the new theatre. That wasn’t all to the good: the theatre had lost several hundred seats in the revamp, meaning that they couldn’t afford many visiting orchestras because they couldn’t sell as many tickets as they had before.


Still, this event was packed. A fine crowd; they deserve more music up there. And I loved meeting the very thoughtful and friendly Donald as well as Alina (pictured above) afterwards, thanks to the kind offices of the excellent Andrew Trinick. I mentioned the superb performance she gave of Widmann's Violin Concerto in Bamberg and our conductor was keen to hear a recording of it.

Now I’m in Glasgow after another talk, another great concert, enjoyed with the adored godchildren studying here, Evi and Alexander. I hadn’t intended to write about it but was so impressed by the sound coming from the orchestra under Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto that I just have, with a disclaimer, for The Arts Desk.

Work proceeds inspiringly on listening to all the Sibelius 4s for Radio 3’s Building a Library: halfway through I’ve found one which will be hard to beat, a real surprise to me at any rate. But I can’t say more about the performances; suffice it to say that being immersed in this dark, if not black, work has not been depressing – past an early dip, extrovert performances raised my spirits and the perfect construction amazes me more and more.


Another seminal work of  around the same time, Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano Op. 11, was beautifully argued in word and performance by young Jordanian-born, British-trained pianist Saleem Ashkar (pictured above) the other week. The circumstances were remarkable: an evening at Lady Valerie Solti’s house, organized by Norman Rosenthal. Ashkar was promoting his new album on Opus Arte, hence my invitation from the recording company.

What artistic treasures – one never knows if it’s legit to list them or not – and what unshowy good taste, much like the lady herself. She came to the rescue when I asked where Strauss, at whose funeral Solti conducted the Trio from Der Rosenkavalier where the ladies famously broke down one by one and came back in again to reach the end -  was among the pictures in the music room. The photograph in question – the old composer on his 85th birthday celebrations working with young Georg (Valerie referred to him throughout as ‘Solti) – seemed to have disappeared. She found me an unsigned copy, wonderful to see. Naturally it's not available, but I think - I may be wrong - that this photo of Strauss conducting also dates from the time of the celebrations.


A portrait of Thomas Mann led to a conversation about Joseph and his Brothers, which I’ve just begun and, contrary to fearful expectations, am bathing in its serene mythic re-interpretation. ‘Solti’ read one of its four books every summer holiday, and when he finished, went straight back to the beginning. I can already understand why.

Ashkar’s concerts will always be a success if he presents them as revealingly as he did this one, explaining why the Schoenberg shouldn’t be seen as difficult music: how it should waltz and entertain. In that small space, the resonance of the Steinway could be overwhelming, and it is perhaps a little too often on the CD too; a few more genuine pianos wouldn’t go amiss. But there’s no doubt about Ashkar’s lively intelligence, re-creative art and knack of good programming. The Berg Sonata actually made sense and flew by for once rather than sounding like an improvisation, though the improvisatory quality was still there and the becalmed ending seemed like the goal of all its labours. Fabulous neoclassical Enescu, too. The promotion did its work: I’ll be seeking Ashkar out from now onwards.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Poland's recent past




One of the many things taught me by my dear Viennese friend Trude Winik (1909-1998), who lost her father in the First World War and her mother, brother and sister to the camps in the Second, was that the past is always present so long as the person who experienced it lives on. In Trude's case it was a guilt which haunted her every day, that she survived when the rest of her family didn't. Now a gripping family history, Matthew Zajac's The Tailor of Inverness, and a film about life two decades or so after the end of World War Two, Ida by that superb filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski who had already given us two very different and equally fine British movies, Last Resort and My Summer of Love, remind us that the past lives on in the next generation too.

It was serendipity that I came across The Tailor of Inverness among the books sold alongside the box office in Inverness's Eden Court Theatre the day before we watched the DVD of Ida - in turn, the day before it won the Best Foreign Language Film category in the Oscars (not that one cares for any ceremony which omits Mike Leigh's masterpiece Mr Turner from the main categories - I rant about that in my DVD review for The Arts Desk).The blurb made it sound interesting, but more especially I liked the idea of supporting a local publisher, Sandstone Press. More in the next post of why I was up there last weekend.

I don't know how much I can say about book and film without giving crucial information away. Both are thrillers in the sense of revealing surprise informaton - and Ida has a gut-wrenching twist about two-thirds of the way through for which I was completely unprepared, so you should be too. Both remind us that few folk escaped from the maelstrom of the war in central Europe uncompromised, let along unscarred. Zajac Senior came to Britain in 1948, married an Englishwoman and settled in Inverness where he made a success as a tailor after early vicissitudes.


Son Matthew (pictured on the cover of the book and above, by Murdo MacLeod, playing his father) speaks simply but rapturously of summers with his uncle in Lesna, south west Poland, a place of natural plenty. The kindness of relatives and friends is an overwhelming constant throughout, and helps him weather the revelations when they come. Suffice it to say that as an accomplished actor with his own theatre group, he made an Edinburgh Fringe First winning play about his journey of discovery which toured to the places he visited, Poland and Ukraine, among others. He writes:

It seemed right to me to take the story back to its origins, but I was nervous about how it would be received [well, as it turned out]. I was conscious that it could be viewed as a presumptuous act, for a foreigner to have the gall to tell Poles and Ukrainians their own story. But my previous trips to Ukraine in particular had told me that this was a story which had rarely been expressed on a public platform. The shock of the war and subsequent 45-year Soviet stasis retained their grip. The fear of speaking out which was endemic to the old Stalinist culture meant that many people, particularly in the older generations, still had a policeman in their head.


These are the same preoccupations of Ida. Framed as the kind of 1960s Polish art film the director remembered from his youth, in the square format then common, every scene is composed with an aching beauty, and there's a special affection for the bands of that time (the love-interest saxophonist is very handsome, too). Like any great film from the European masters, it has remarkable performances - in this case the contrasts and symmetries played out by Agata Trzebushowska's ambivalent Ida and the magnetic Agata Kulesza as Wanda, communist functionary with a painful secret.


Also as in any great film, the music is kept to a minimum; the actresses and the cinematography carry it all. I don't think I want to write any more: just see it.