Sunday, 17 September 2017

Rouvali electrifies in Sibelius's Kullervo

It's clearly the start of a new golden age for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Göteborgs Symfoniker). While the UK establishment was going ape over Rattle's first official night at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, I still guess I was getting a better deal over on the west coast of Sweden, where the GSO has appointed 31-year old Finn Santtu-Matias Rouvali as its chefdirigent (pictured above by Ola Kjelbye). Exactly the sort of new adventure on which I'd hoped the LSO would embark - Ticciati would have been my ideal choice - before it settled for our most famous, and only fitfully brilliant, cultural export to Berlin, now back with fanfares galore. Name recognition, I guess. As it is, I reckon the Philharmonia is a more exciting London orchestra with Esa-Pekka in charge, Rouvali and another brilliant younger-generation spark, Jakub Hrůša as principal guest conductors (both appointed, I gather, with Salonen's input alongside the players').

My report of first acquaintance with Rouvali was going to tie in with a very quirky interview which will appear on The Arts Desk before his first Philharmonia concert of the season on 5 October. But I can't contain my excitement about the concert in question until then. It was, in any case, quite an emotional visit - though I've returned to Sweden many times in recent years, I hadn't been to Gothenburg since 1990. The previous year I was invited there to leave with Neeme Järvi and the orchestra on tour to Estonia, the first time he'd been back to his homeland since he in essence defected with his family in 1980. The next trip was to hear him recording Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel. Järvi's momentous tenure in Gothenburg lasted from 1982 - I actually heard the team for the first time in London in 1980, first remembered here - to 2004. I was happy to see a bust of the great man in the Konserthuset foyer

not far along from Nielsen and Grieg (Stenhammar is also here, of course, represented both as composer and as the GSO's principal conductor between 1907 and 1922).

Järvi's successor, Mario Venzago, left little impression; Dudamel was snapped up in 2007 and gave some excellent concerts with the orchestra but his heart was still in Venezuela and LA. The principal post remained unfilled for five years, until now.

The bar for Sibelius's first authentic large-scale work was set impossibly high: nothing could surpass the Kullervo of Sakari Oramo, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a wall of stalwart Finnish male voices with the BBC Singers at the 2009 Proms, my highlight of that season (and now on one of the best BBC Music Magazine cover discs ever). Read all about it alongside an illustrated population of cats and dogs from the Kalevala here. This was simply on the same extraordinary level, and stupendous on very different terms (since it would not be possible to surpass what Oramo and his team achieved).  Rouvali's precise beat combined with a dance-like bendiness means that everything is riveting; there's no such thing as peaks and troughs - even the few pianissimos buzzed with inner life. Only in the battle sequence, potentially repetitive, did he grade the intensity.

The reaction may also have something to do with where I was sitting - in the middle of the raised seats at the back of Gothenburg's magnificent 1935 concert auditorium, 'a crab in a rectangle,' as architect Nils Einar Eriksson described it in relation to its outer shell. The sound is very in-yer-face there, with woodwind sounding individually spotlit (the repeated-note oboe figures in the second movement were disconcerting, but in the right way). Sibelius's telling of a typical unhappy-hero sage from the Kalevala is unique, rough and direct, full of startling sounds and balances that need to be carefully worked through (Rouvali had made some of his own emendations to the score to foreshadow stuff in the symphonies to come - more on that in the interview).

So the orchestral playing was magnificent. Leading question, though: could the men of the famous Orphei Drängar from Uppsala possibly match the impact of the Finns at the Proms? They did - I have it on good authority that their Finnish articulation was impeccable - and similarly raised goosebumps on their first entry, tears at the last. Here are two of them walking towards the hall not long before the performance.

The weather, incidentally, was magnificent each day until late afternoon - more on my time by a Swedish lake and in town anon. Just as a taster, this is what I was doing on the morning of the concert, some way north.

But I digress, with the hope that Sibelius might approve. To return to the concert, the big central drama, where Kullervo seduces a maiden who turns out to be his own long-lost sister, an unhappy twist on the Siegmund-Sieglinde predicament, seemed more operatic than ever. Real-life sister and brother Johanna and Ville Rusanen entered from opposite sides during the kick-off, and the soprano suggested that she would already make a magnificent Brünnhilde (she also sang Kullervo's Sister for Oramo). In the absence of a professional photographer, I took one curtain call shot which is OK enough to use here.

I felt as if I'd lived through a big Wagnerian experience every inch as involving as that of the Budapest Ring. But Sibelius is not in thrall to Wagner, or Bruckner; if anything, this 1892 work anticipates Janáček's originality by nearly a decade. And you'll have gathered that the performance was well worth the trip. It should be back up on the orchestra's excellent website not too long after the livestreaming of the Saturday performance. In the meantime, take a look there (scroll down) at Rouvali's performances of Stravinsky's Petrushka and Janáček's Taras Bulba - available until 1 October - and watch this 360 degree experiment in which first horn Lisa Ford introduces Rouvali in a rehearsal of Smetana's "Vltava" from Má vlast before the complete live experience (at around the five-minute mark, if you don't want the chat). It makes Rouvali's special qualities very clear.

Exciting times for orchestras all around the world at the moment with so many new major talents popping up everywhere.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Art Nouveau: a street in Riga

Alberta iela, where tourist groups are brought to see the most extensive row of Art Nouveau blocks in Latvia's capital, also happens to be where my friend Kristaps' small but classy publishing house, Mansards, has its office.

In, it has to be said, the weirdest and most forbidding, castle-like building on the street, No. 11,

the 1908 work of Eižens Laube which also has the advantage for students and renters of not having been done up yet.

A barrel-vaulted entrance

leads to a courtyard which would be very Crime and Punishment were it not for the lovely big tree in it. The old designs on the staircase to Kristaps' office have been nicely revealed, too.

And he gets to look out on such gems as this, No. 8, designed in 1903 by the predominant genius of the Art Nouveau movement in Riga, Mikhail Eisenstein (1867-1921), father of film-maker Sergey.

No. 4 (1904) is where young Sergey lived for a few years, my guidebook says, though I didn't see a plaque. Perhaps I was distracted by the lions on the turrets.

Fascinating details abound on both: at like the satyrs with pan-pipes here,

a more central lion atop No. 8

 and the Babylonian dragons here.

My own personal favourite, partly because of the handsome dark red stripes, is No. 2a, another Eisenstein folly from 1906.

with more fine classical heads

and a combination of grotesquerie and elegance lower down.

It's especially endearing because the young Isaiah Berlin spent some of his formative years here - this time there IS a plaque.

Turn left at the end of the street, and you find an especially spruce restoration, of No. 41 Strēlnieku iela, a typically riotous Eisensteinian fancy of 1905-6 which now houses the Stockholm School of Economics

with classical/futuristic helmets at the base

There's a statue outside, one of many dedicated to the city's much-loved fourth Mayor, Riga-born Englishman George Armitstead.

Most startling of all are Eisenstein's elongated heads on the corners of the pinnacle at No. 10b Elizabetes iela,

another opulent specimen.

The Art Nouveau district has most of them, but there are a few in the Old Town, one topped by this wolf,

though here as you'd expect what turns out to be the oldest inhabited house in Riga makes a tourist attraction with the two buildings to its left, known as the Three Brothers in counterpoint with Tallinn's more regular Three Sisters.

Kristaps' tour ended here - I've described and depicted the building where Wagner conducted in a previous post - and began with an interesting wander through the sensitively restored pedestrian streets of Bergs Bazaar (originally late 1800s) with their abundant cafes and restaurants, one of many fine pieces of discreet intervention by the architect Zaiga Gaile, whose work Kristaps understandably admires.

So much more of this ilk, and other districts to discover, when I return to Riga, which can't be too soon.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Quacks and Queers: rare BBC bullseyes

So-called 'situation' comedies seemed to have wilted on UK TV, or rather I'd stopped watching them. Until Peep Show and Rev. Then Fleabag. And now Quacks, taking as fine satirical target the medical discoveries and pretensions of the earfly Victorian era, and graced like the others by some of our finest actors.

I'm also surprised we don't get more of the talking-head monologue after the success of Alan Bennett's classic series. It returned with panache in Queers, eight revealing 20-minute monologues about gay lives from 1918 through to the present day to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private. Ben Whishaw kicked the whole thing off in soulful style as a soldier newly returned from the First World War.

Good to see the scripts have been published by Nick Hearn Books; actors will want to take on some of these challenges, though they'd be hard-pressed to equal the telly originals (or the performers at the Old Vic, many of whom were different - wish I'd known about those at the time).

The standard of Mark Gatiss's great idea, with texts by a whole range of writers including Gatiss himself, tended to be uniformly high, let down only by Alan Cummings' pre-nuptial monologue, the sincerity undermined by the horrid mugging to camera. There were some real surprises, like Rebecca Front as Alice, the poignantly determined-to-be-cheerful wife of a gay man eventually liberated by the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

And I didn't know many of these actors, apart from Whishaw, Cummings and the ineffably sexy Russell Tovey, but would now look out anything they happen to appear in, be it on stage or screen. They're all infinitely superior to any of the younger actors in the stiff Mills-and-Boon drama Man in an Orange Shirt, complete with squishy score; I've enjoyed Patrick Gale's novels, but this seemed formulaic and - in the second episode about a young gay man afraid of intimacy - psychologically implausible.

Also unfamiliar was the creator of an unforgettable character in Quacks, Matthew Baynton as Victorian would-be-psychiatrist William who pushes the novel idea of talking rather than torture as therapy for the mentally unwell.

Cameos abound, all of them shrewdly observed. Rupert Everett's Dr Hendrick prefers not to examine female patients, using instead a dolly which he presses or asks the patient to press. He recommends a lady who clearly has cystitis to 'fast for a week, ride a horse for two hours a day, not Sundays, and place a freshly cooked baked potato on the infected area'.  Lisa Jackson as Mina, William's intended, by his mother, at least, relishes a romantic memory of a fairground visit which involved a helter-skelter ride and 'hitting dwarves with sticks'. And in Episode Two, we get both Florence Nightingale, duty-bound to worst our chief narcissist, in a pitch-perfect performance by Rory Kinnear, and Charles Dickens - good lord, that's our Hamlet of the moment, Andrew Scott, weirding us out with the great man's insecure vanity in his younger days.

Lydia Leonard as the neglected wife battling with both an unruly libido and male resistance to a woman wanting to join the medical profession, and Tom Basden as a drug-intrigued dentist/anaesthetist complete the main quartet. Of course the operations, conducted by Kinnear's Robert in a blood-caked apron, make you have to turn away, and some folk didn't have the stomach to stay with the series beyond the first ten minutes. But if you do, you'll find the historical detail fine-tuned - by James Wood, co-writer of Rev and judicious spicer-up of Waugh's Decline and Fall for the excellent TV serialisation - and laugh out loud at regular intervals. Cure from this elixir guaranteed, or your shilling back.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Norfolk churches: why we walk

With the fundraiser for the Norfolk Churches Trust imminent, I thought an advertisement for what we do and why we do it wouldn't go amiss. And what better demonstration of how funds can save an historical and architectural gem than the restoration of Knapton's Church of St Peter and St Paul? 

It was very much shut off when we passed it last year at the time (though not on the very day) of our last walk. Admittedly the money that's preserved it came from the National Lottery Fund; but the point of how much is needed to save these places which struggle with a small and ageing congregation is the same.

Restoration work at Knapton didn't involve the magnificent double hammerbeam roof of Irish oak with 138 angels (more on that anon). It included the removal of asbestos from the tower and repairs to its stonework as well as the chancel arch and the south roof.

A collection of medieval stone coffin made of Barnack stone and Purbeck marble, dating from between 1120 and the mid thirteenth century were relocated - from where the new guide (also produced thanks to Lottery funds) doesn't say, but they all looked good with the sunlight slanting in on them through the chancel windows.

All predate the present church, the earliest parts of which are early 14th century, including the tower and porch with its 'handsome tripartite niche' (Pevsner).

First thing you see through the porch door is the font.

It's 13th century but notable more for its 1704 cover, 'a gay piece with thin balusters and an ogee top'.

'The Greek inscription means: Wash my sins and not my face only'.

Then of course there's the roof, besides which, Pevsner rather meanly notes, 'the rest palls' (apart from the font). Certainly, as he notes, not all the angels are original and we know that the ones at the foot of the wall posts were the work of George Gilbert Scott's 1882 restoration.

No matter; they complete the picturesque whole, and some of the painting dates from just after the roof of 1504.

Detail is cheery and sweet.

Walking around the tower

gave us different perspectives on the splendid weather-vane, designed by John Sell Cotman when he gave a drawing lesson at Knapton House (he also sketched the church).

The churchyard offers perspectives towards the sea through the hedge, and is nicely lined with cherry trees and lilacs.

Our Easter visit was nicely complemented by the obligatory crab and lobster at the Overstrand shack and a brisk walk along the cliffs towards Cromer - the bluebells on the edge date the walk. This year we're promised plenty of coastal scenery, weather permitting.

One more church in much need of repair we made the subject of a morning walk on our last day at Southrepps back in early August. A pleasant five or so mile round walk from base takes you along  the lower board walk of the common at Lower Southrepps and then around fields, along the hedge of one of which were swarms of dragonflies and damselflies, rather oddly as there was no water in sight, and then up to St Giles Bradfield, in a clump of trees surrounded by open land from which you can see four other church towers.

The setting, with the church tower disappearing as you edge the woodland until there it suddenly appears,

is what the Italians would call molto suggestivo. In August the overgrown churchyard and the slight air of dilapidation is attractive,

but help will be needed sooner or later. The interior is praised by Pevsner for its 'exceptionally fine Dec chancel, remembered by its E wall with a five light window'

and the real speciality, a wall painting of 'Christ on a rainbow displaying his wounds'.

The font has an 'octagonal stem with eight attached shafts' and 'bowl with alternating panels of two ogee arches and of a four-petalled tracery form'.

I liked the look of these rusty fittings on the porch door - I assume that this is what Pevsner means by 'plate for the knocker of the C13'.

All walls of the outside have their attractions. The south ends in one of the pinnacles of the chancel,

and there are heads at the four bases of two windows.

The east end looked impressive with storm clouds massing behind it (we got a heavy rainfall later, but not until about an hour after arriving back for lunch)

and the aspect from the north had a poetic solitude about it

with interesting traces of where presumably the ivy had been.

If any of our forthcoming stretch is as satisfying as the route of this little excursion, we'll be very happy. And if you feel like sponsoring us - though this is never a useful way of raising funds - just leave a message here which probably won't need to be sent 'live', but I'll respond if you leave your email.