Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Leonskaja's Schubert: CD gold

'Who are your idols?,' I once asked a colleague while we were waiting to record a BBC World Service chat in Bush House. 'I don't have idols, I'm a professional critic' came the ludicrous reply. Well, just as I haven't 'grown out of' Der Rosenkavalier, as another pompous Brother in Apollo told me I would, I still have idols, and Elisabeth Leonskaja is the living pianist I'd rather hear more than any other; readers of The Arts Desk will know that I cover every UK appearance of hers that I can, and I still count it as one of the musical highlights of my life that I got to hear four late-night concerts in her 2010 Schubert cycle at the Verbier Festival - the first time she'd ever tackled them all - even if the Verbier experience per se wasn't an especially happy one for either of us (I've no desire to go back, much as I loved the solitary walks in the heights).

My seminal experience in Schubert's piano music dates back to March 1989 and Sviatoslav Richter's Chichester Cathedral recital, when I first heard the heavenly and hypnotic length at which he unfolded the first movement of the G major Sonata D894.

Leonskaja has her own very distinct voice in Schubert, but as Richter's protégée she was bound to follow his example in several respects (there's also a DVD on the lavish set I'm discussing here of the two playing Grieg's two-piano transcriptions of three Mozart piano sonatas and C minor Fantasia which I have yet to watch). One is that you don't EVER omit a Schubert repeat. When I interviewed her in Verbier, she recalled Richter's demands of students who dared to cut the inspiration short: 'what, you don't love Schubert's music?' And how the hell did Brendel dare to inculcate in pupils like Imogen Cooper a truncation which would mean omitting as inspired a passage (eight and a bit bars of first-time link back to the repeat) as this?

That of course occurs in arguably the greatest, certainly the most heavenly, of all Schubert's sonata first movements, the Molto moderato of D960. Unthinkable not to have the seismic rumble the only time it appears ffz in the movement (though apparently there's been some debate about the dynamic marking). We get all repeats, of course, on the four CDs in eaSonus's luxurious presentation - and never have I been happier to see such a homage, made to follow on the heels of Leonskaja's 70th birthday in November 2015. It comes with 48 pages of mini-biography in the form of more in-depth interviews than mine, enriched with a fine selection of personal photographs you won't have seen anywhere else. I have to quote two specific answers by the great lady. One is to the question: 'what do you try to pass on to students in a master class?'

1.   Love of music.
2.   Respect for the composer.
3.   Avoiding laziness.
4.   Self-confidence without arrogance.
5.   How to master the technique of playing the piano freely. In Moscow they used to tell us over and over again to sit comfortably and play freely and that's my approach now. That means free thumb (very important!), free elbows and wrists, and sitting comfortably at your instrument. All this leads to an unobstructed energy flow. At the beginning I find all this much more important than to work on the details and specific aspects of a particular piece.
6.   It's very important for me to be friendly, without too much finger-wagging. I simply concentrate on whatever I believe is blocking the student's progress.
7.   Passing my experience on to students without being condescending to them. It is essential to have a good atmosphere in order to work intensely and constructively.
8.   During the lesson, life takes a back seat, only music is important while we work. Teaching is an intimate and transcendental moment.

And to 'What are your sacred rules, your everyday doctrine?':

I think every day about what [Heinrich] Neuhaus [the greatest of pedagogues] used to say: 'Don't look for yourself in the music, but find the music in you'.

And Richter always used to say, 'It is not the what that matters, but the how'.

The 'how' of Leonskaja's Schubert I've tried to grasp over the years, but its essence is absolute clarity, an ability to switch from well-weighted orchestral pianism (something I always think of as the essence of the Russian school) to delicacy in a split second. She talks of wanting the public to have left a concert 'with the feeling of having found the grail', and that's happened to me, right from the first re-connection in the second half of her Chopin recital back in 2009. In the performance of the 'Trout' Quintet at Crail Church as part of this year's East Neuk Festival, I found myself within minutes of the first movement's beginning in that profound state of transport yet total awareness you only get in the best meditations. It's a shame there wasn't an official photographer to document her appearances; my post-performance shots, taken without flash of course, are inevitably fuzzy. See this as an imperfect souvenir.

Nothing is more phenomenal than Leonskaja's 'Wanderer' Fantasy, like the work itself an encyclopedic wonder of the world - I hope a recording will feature on the sequel to this set, due early next year - but she can also be wry and funny with total lightness, as in the finale of the 'Gasteiner' (D850). The physical energy and focus of D958's tarantella-finale are something you have to experience live to quite believe. And not even Richter produced as much shattering power as the time-bomb of D959's slow movement explodes at its terrifying heart.

I'm so grateful to Leonskaja, too, for proving that Schubert's quirky and lovable personality is there right from the first, five-movement sonata, D557, which I heard both in Verbier and Crail (again, I trust it will be included in Volume Two). The relatively early A minor Sonatas sound pretty miraculous in her hands, too; D784 is simply colossal. It's only when you get back to the last five that you realise the difference between great and supernaturally great. Here's to many more years of performances; in her seventies Leonskaja has lost nothing of the strength and clarity which are her trademarks, so there's no reason she shouldn't carry on as long as she wants to.

By way of a Schubert footnote, though it deserves pride of place and should have been included in my 'Music for a few' post, the duo recital of Martino Tirimo and Atsuko Kawakami at the Reform Club back in May (pictured above) reminded me very movingly what a great masterpiece is the F minor Fantaisie D940. Martino, a real gentleman and a seriously underrated top interpreter of Schubert, Mozart and Chopin, understands the ethereal yet still humanly bittersweet quality of late Schubert so well, and the sound of his former pupil was so well co-ordinated to match (Martino took the lower part).

The real surprise was Eduard Langer's transcription of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - on the above front page it's clear that Tchaikovsky made the one for two hands, Langer for four - reminding one just how elaborate the composer's genius is in these miniature gems and how wonderful the counterpoint. An especially lovely touch was Atsuko side-tapping a tambourine for those essential ta-ta-ta-ta-taaas in the Arabian Dance. Afterwards I asked if they knew Rachmaninov's similar transcription of the Sleeping Beauty Suite, which they didn't, so I loaned the score to Martino when he came to the Frontline Club. Looking forward to their performance of it. Though if that, too, is to be at the Reform Club, the promoters will have to work a bit harder to get more than six people in the audience (three of them myself and two students I'd asked along). These first-rate musicians deserve much better.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Fulham Palace's Walled Garden of Eden

Last time I walked through the old gate to the walled garden of Fulham Palace, a green space-within-a-space in Bishop's Park by Putney Bridge and the river, the greenhouses were dilapidated and broken-windowed, the knot garden still going but scrubby, the rest of what turns out to be an enormous enclosure dating from the 1760s just wild. That must have been four or five years ago, and even back in 1986 the initial view was this (from photos of photos taken on a riverside walk with my Edinburgh friend Ruth). Of course ruins have their own peculiar charm.

And now it's this:

The 'vinery' and knot garden have survived from the 1820s. The wisteria, over a century old, is still going strong. Obviously May would be its peak flowering season but there were some blossoms still on it.

and here you can see how it fringes the glasshouse/knot garden zone.

The gate, with Bishop FitzJames's much-erased coat of arms dating it to the early 16th century, didn't need much doing to it, but it was in danger of collapsing. A rather thin person standing by it in '86

and now (with All Saints Church just over the south-east wall).

Much of the restoration work is due to lottery fund money; the palace, home to the Bishops of London from the 11th century up to 1973 and with main buildings ranging from Bishop Fitzjames' time to those of Bishop Howley (1814-15, the south-east front) and of Bishop Tait (the chapel, 1866-7 - worth seeing, apparently, though it's not been open on my visits), has been a splendid beneficiary. This old map, which I photographed hanging on the walls of the Palace interior, shows the essence of the place with the walled garden clearly defined; the area called The Warren is mostly allotments, generously handed over for that purpose to the public by one of the Bishops, and you see a moat filled with water. Putatively dating from Roman times (!), it's dry now but plenty of work was being done on it when I visited on Wednesday.

At present only a few rooms are open with choice museum exhibits or for rather good refreshments; a further drive for funding will see more visible to the public in the years to come. Already the planting outside the old wing of the palace is a sign of improvement

and within, the offices around the courtyard are to be reclaimed in the further opening-up.

I don't know the proportions for work on the Walled Garden - presumably enough to pay for a head gardener of superlative vision, Lucy Hart, and to encourage the training of apprentices - but the folk I came across all working away in an idyllic setting on a hot afternoon were mostly volunteers. This was the moment of epiphany: ordered glasshouses are one thing, but transformation on this scale, and the evidence of loving human hands on it, brought tears to my eyes.

There are 200 volunteers at Fulham Palace, and I'd like to join the garden team for half a day a week. Fruit and vegetables are sold at an average of £2 per punnet from a 'barrow' just on the edge of the cultivated zone.

I bought tomatoes, a pepper plant, plums and courgettes picked to order. It would have been tempting to pick up and eat the fallen plums from the big tree in the middle of it all, but fair deal - get the folk to gather them for you and pay to support the work.

Returned yesterday, but there was no-one at work, and only baby red onions for sale. So it's a lucky dip. Still, the magic persisted.

Beyond the barrow are beehives - must find out when they gather the honey and put my name down for a couple of jars, if possible, as I used to do at Chelsea Physic Garden before the yield dwindled.

Thousands of dahlia plants with the dark leaves I love line the area, up against the wall and half the way round. Great for the bees, obviously.

I can't resist two more flower-and-bee shots from the central beds.

The cultivation is a mix of vegetable plots and lively planting - marigolds round the edge, obviously, to keep off the pests,

but also gladioli,

lilies (with the early 19th century front of the Palace just visible over the wall)

and more splashes of colour.

They've planted young fruit trees in plots hidden by the long tall grass, but the central rows of mature varieties still thrive

and provide a foil to the garden beyond if you walk round to the quiet southern side.

The greenhouses once lodged more exotic species - in 1853 the head gardener was proud of his grape harvests and his pineapples, while nearby there was a melon pit - but the tomatoes and beans are doing very nicely here, with a flavour you just can't get from supermarket purchase.

What's happened here is even more impressive than the restoration of Chiswick House's gardens - my other nearest haunt on biking breaks along the river from work. The journey itself is treasurable.

On Wednesday the tide was low and a variety of birds including a cormorant next to an Egyptian goose and various gulls were lolling peaceably on the little islands.

Those rather cheery creatures the black-headed gulls, so much more appealing than their bigger, noisy, scary sea brethren, were wading and skreeking in the mud

whereas yesterday, with the tide very much in, they were content to bob along

Sanctuary was now to be found on the old wooden structures mid-Thames

with the cormorants perfectly happy here

while the Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) - please correct if I've misidentified - now gathered together, looking a bit cold and intimidated, at the foot of steps up to a former wharf.

Let's end on another historic contrast: Ruth by Butler's Wharf in 1986

and how it looks now, gentrified into a gated set of flats, with Richard Rogers' Thames Wharf conversion beyond.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

After Pelléas, Ariadne and Tito

'Ah! I breathe at last!...I thought for a moment that I was going to be ill in those enormous vaults.' Following Pelléas's cue as he emerges onto a sunlit terrace after a terrifying time in the depths of the gloomy old castle, I think most of us in my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club were glad to get out into the sunny streets of Paddington after the last of four and a half Monday afternoon immersed in the world of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Some of us will be staying in the light for Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos next Monday. Pelléas was hard emotional work, though. It's probably the most exquisitely refined and orchestrally ravishing operatic score ever written, but as a drama more cruel and harsh than it is soft and beautiful.

We've been aware of its multiple meanings, but above all how it functions both as the most straightforward triangle - as Richard Jones put it to me when I first met him as he was working on the ENO production, 'two men fall in love with the same woman, with disastrous results' - and as so much more, partly intimated by Arthur Symons: 'we have two innocent lovers, to whom love is guilt; we have blind vengeance, aged and helpless wisdom; we have the conflict of passions fighting in the dark, destroying what they most desire in the world'.

Ascribe that first to Maeterlinck's nightmarish play, following his obsession with the destruction of the young by the old. Of course Debussy completely transfigures it with his music of nature, reaching its most dreamlike, minimalist, barely-audible apogee in the scene at the grotto by the sea. But he knows how to unleash the full harshness  - at the end of Act Three and in Act Four, in the scenes of the insanely jealous Golaud's abusive cruelty to his son and wife, the musical violence is extreme. This made an interesting comparison with the pathology of the protagonist in Verdi's Otello, on which we'd spent the first five and a half weeks of the summer term - the difference being that Golaud has real cause for his jealousy, whereas Otello does not.

As well as snippeting sound recordings by Désormière - the classic and text-unsurpassable 1941 recording with Irène Joachim and Jacques Jansen - and by Karajan, featuring an superb José Van Dam and Frederica von Stade, we stuck for visuals with the 1999 Glyndebourne production by Graham Vick on DVD. I'm kicking myself that I never saw it at the time; apart from possibly being the most visually arresting production ever seen at the Sussex house, with its flowers under the floor, spiral staircase and peeling gold walls, the focus on nuance from John Tomlinson, Christiane Oelze and Richard Croft is ideal for video close-up. We came away devastated from the tower scene (Mélisande actually hangs backwards from a huge deco light, as you can see in the DVD cover up top) and, yesterday, from the disturbing death of Act 5, as quiet and strange as the lovers' unaccompanied 'je t'aime'/'je t'aime aussi'.

Much more to say on this, but the advertising point here is that we move on and for the next two Mondays, I've added two extra one-off classes on Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (24 July) and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito (31 July), tying in with the Glyndebourne productions (scene from the Ariadne opera in the 2017 revival, image by Robert Workman). Same time, 2.30pm-4.30pm, location a private house generously loaned by a friend just down the road from our usual venue. the superb Frontline Club. If you're interested in coming along, leave a message here with your email. I won't publish it but I promise to reply.