Friday, 29 December 2017

A year in books

Certainly the above was the biggest surprise of my reading in 2017, with a more profound impact than I could have anticipated. I picked it up in a remainder bookshop for £1, thinking to be entertained and to have my prejudices confirmed by Storr's meetings with climate-change deniers, religious extremists and UFO spotters. Certainly there are some horrible people within these pages, chiefly the, shall we say, somewhat partial 'historian' David Irving, whom Storr bravely joins on a tour of concentration camps and Nazi sites around Germany. But while the author claims that 'as a journalist, my knowledge is broad but shallow', he does his research and is far too self-critical to allow simple journalistic blacks and whites.

What makes this book more than a collection of essays about the variously weird and wrong is the way that Storr examines one set of chapters before moving on, always opening up the bigger picture. The life-changer for me, though no doubt much in it is nothing new to scientists, is the chapter on the human brain, its unreliability and its wonderful deviousness.

Storr spends as much time with the fact-conscious Skeptics and is wary of their 'binary, dismissive thinking', especially when it comes to a mysterious scratching illness, where he thinks a combination of mental, clinical and environmental causes may be involved. Later there's an even more valuable observation:

I used to imagine that our biases and delusions existed on a layer above a solid and clear-sighted base. Beneath your mistakes, I thought, is your human nature, which is rational and immovable, and seeks only truth. If you came to suspect that you were in error, you could easily work your way back to sense. What I now know is that there is no solid base. The machine by which we experience the world is the thing that becomes distorted. And so it is impossible to watch ourselves falling into fallacy, We can be lost without knowing we are lost. And usually, we are.

This is a wise guide at a time when we are all prone to judgement - and, I think, partly rightly so when it comes to aspects of Horror Clown behaviour on both sides of the Atlantic (what a relief it's been, by the way, to put all that aside very consciously over this interstitial period).

I wrote earlier in the year about another brilliant piece of writing in which the personality of the author is subtly interwoven with his subject, Fredrik Sjöberg's The Fly Trap. Since then I've read the two sequels in what turns out to be a trilogy about Swedish maverick adventurers, both in the same volume, The Art of Flight. The semi-biography of that title deals with watercolourist of the Grand Canyon Gunnar Mauritz Wildfors, while The Raisin King is zoologist Gustav Eisen, perhaps the most extraordinary of the three men in his indomitable ability to be born again in another field when disaster strikes; after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which destroyed his natural history collection, he set off in various directions, the most moving of which was his timely salvation of the world's biggest trees by setting up the Sequoia National Park (made me tearful, perhaps, because of the terrible negation of all that the Moron-in-Chief is trying to set into operation right now).  I do wish the text was punctuated, as in W G Sebald's similarly discursive books, with photos like the one of Eisen below; sadly none is included.

As Sjöberg puts it, Eisen 'sought happiness - or meaning, if you like - by repeating one and the same project over and over again but in different forms'. Plenty of other figures are wheeled in and out of the narrative - there's another side of Darwin revealed which makes me love the man more than ever, so pisseur A. N. Wilson can take his new 'biography' and stuff it where the sun don't shine - and Sjöberg acknowledges in himself, too, the embodiment of how 'freedom starts when we take a step to one side and, if only for a moment, do something that has no purpose beyond itself, something that is not done in vain pursuit of respect, appreciation, power, money, love, fame or honour'.

That's what partly makes my two great nature books of the year, J. A. Baker's The Peregrine and Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain, so ineffably wonderful (Thoreau's Walden comes a close third, though we must doff caps to the father of the ecologically-aware genre). I believe there's also the pure calling of art about A. L. Kennedy's Serious Sweet. Having met the person at an inspiring lecture and walking to the tube with her afterwards, I know she's an altruistic person. And that part of her must be in the self-doubting, dual protagonists - adorable yet still at times maddening - of this most tender love story, which I took up after the talk. What Ulysses does for Dublin, this is to contemporary London, with its 24 hour trajectory - leaving the present for the recent past provides a lovely twist about halfway through - and its stream of consciousness from the two main characters.

Very much on the same, highest level is Alan Hollinghurst's The Sparsholt Affair - a return to unforgettable form after The Stranger's Child, which I enjoyed but can remember little about, whereas this one's branded on the memory. It was one of five books I got to review this year for The Arts Desk; the others were Anne Applebaum's Red Famine (not quite as unremittingly grim as the subject of the Ukrainian famine(s) might suggest, since there's historical context and hope for the future), Kissin's brief but telling Memories and Reflections, the latest Icelandic thriller from Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and Eisenstein on Paper, a lavish Thames and Hudson tome featuring many drawings by the master of film not previously seen before.

The other treasured visual delight of the year is a beautifully designed monograph on the Welsh-born, Sydney- and London-based artist John Beard, which we were gifted on a visit to his Greenwich studio to see his epic diptych response to Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa - that will need an entry to itself.

Otherwise, on the blog, it's been all about the first discovery of the year, the great Hungarian (and European, and world-class) writer Péter Esterházy, and his historical masterpiece Celestial Harmonies, a biography of the fascinating figure behind the genesis of Der Rosenkavalier, Count Harry Kessler, a journey partly retraced through the novels of Evelyn Waugh starting (of course) with Decline and Fall and going up to Put Out More Flags, with a jump ahead to The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold to complement a portrait of this multifarious gent by Philip Eade, and embarking on the masterpiece of Estonian literature, Jaan Kross's Between Three Plagues trilogy.

The second translated volume of this magnificent equivalent to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall appeared this year, and I'm halfway through it now. Here's to the completion of Merike Lepasaar Beecher's labour of love in 2018. In the meantime do have a look at the choices my team and I on The Arts Desk made in the spheres of opera and classical concerts - quite a healthy list, I think you'll agree (update: Boyd Tonkin's marshalling of our book bests is now up and running - the Applebaum and Hollinghurst are there, as I should have hoped). CD choices will have to wait until 18 January, when the front-runners for the BBC Music Magazine Awards are announced - I'll then be able to reveal what I think should also have made the grade, and which of the nominations I'd like especially to celebrate.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Seasonal sugar plums in Leipzig

A serendipitous double: on Wednesday evening I caught the legendary Leipzig Gewandhausorchester giving a nuanced performance of Tchaikovsky's heavenly Nutcracker score to lively choreography (ballet photos by Ida Zenna - featured below, Madoka Ishikawa as Clara, Francisco Baños Diaz as Drosselmeyer and David Iglesias Gonzalez as the Prince)

and then the following morning there was a full performance of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel (premiered, incidentally, only a year later than The Nutcracker, 1893, just down the road in Weimar, conducted by Richard Strauss). While the ballet crowd was of all ages, including lots of young adults, this one consisted mainly of children (opera photos by Kirsten Nijhof).

The cast I caught included the perfect Gretel, Olena Tokar, regrettably not pictured, whom many may remember in the 2013 final of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. I only just missed by a week her Rusalka in Leipzig. Here's why she would probably be incomparable in that role, too.

I was in Leipzig to see the Blüthner Piano Factory in operation, a unique opportunity to witness perfectionists in the art of pianomaking; I'll be writing about that on The Arts Desk. But of course I was equally excited to follow Bach from the font at Eisenach to the grave in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, for the choir of which, of course, he wrote all of his great choral masterpieces. More on that anon; in the meanwhile here's an Arts Desk feature on how to listen to Bach cantatas throughout the year, with a photo of Bach's statue outside the Thomaskirche at the top.

Anyway, it was clear from Tchaikovsky's Miniature Overture that this Nutcracker would be an interpretation, under Tobias Engeli, the like of which I've only once experienced in the theatre when Svetlanov conducting a run of the long-serving Peter Wright version at the Royal Opera House. The orchestral sound in the most recent theatre on the site, begun in 1956 and inaugurated in 1960, is so warm and immediate, with every timbre of the exquisite cor anglais and clarinet solos beautifully captured. For much of Act One Jean-Philippe Dury's choreography follows familiar lines. It's matched by elegant sets from Yoko Sayama that achieve all the necessary transformations with state-of-the-art effects as well as flats which fly up and down nimbly and costumes by Aleksandr Noshpal serving up a handsome contemporary bourgeois party (Drosselmeyer stands apart).

There's one interpolation - the opening and middle sequences of the delightful 'Marche Miniature' from Tchaikovsky's First Orchestral Suite as a variation for the quirky Fritz (Alessandro Repellini - I assumed the tap-dancer who makes a novelty addition to the Waltz of the Flowers was supposed to be Fritz too, but apparently not).

In both acts' narrative scenes the mice appear prematurely - pictured above, Kiyonobu Negishi's Mouse King and Flavia Krolla as Young Clara - but their battle with female as well as male soldiers is very well choreographed, and the first Pas de Deux for Clara-as-young-woman (Ishikawa) and her Prince (Iglesias Gonzalez) has plenty of novel spinnings to the second transformation scene. The snowflakes sequence has good visual effects, too.

On stage, it all goes a bit half-cock in Act Two. There's a lot in the programme from Dury about Clara's passage to womanhood, but whatever's intended, some of the character dances don't 'read' - least of all the three stomping, punkish folk doing a weird routine to the Mirlitons number (Mother Gigogne, as usual, is nowhere to be found - I love that musical number and always miss it). It's always difficult to thread some kind of narrative through the divertissement; Matthew Bourne's fun Adventures version is best for that - I see from the early days of the blog that I last saw it a decade ago - this one doesn't really try. Some of the costuming shows a penchant for bondage gear, too, though I liked the men's floral waistcoats in the ensemble waltz, even if the women had rather lopsided rose-tits.

The Leipzig corps de ballet is good and hard-working, though one of the six Arabian Dance men did threaten to sabotage the symmetry. The Pas de Deux becomes a Pas de Trois for Drosselmeyer, Clara and Prince, with the Sugar-Plum Fairy (Anna Jo) and her cavalier (Yan Leiva, hat on sideways, doing a Bob Fosse shuffle in the Tarantella) getting the variations. Still, the celesta player (Alden Gatt) was as fine an artist as many of the wind players.

The league of nations in any ballet company always intrigues me, and of course makes for photo-enlivenment of the foyer spaces. What a brilliant idea for Leipzig Opera and Ballet to promote its ensembles through pairs of contrasting photos by Andreas Pohlmann, updated every season. These were complemented on Thursday morning by first the rucksacks and then the interval snacking of the kids there for Hansel.

I have to say my expectation that the noise levels would abate during the actual performance, as they so impressively did at Glyndebourne-on-Tour's schools Falstaff, wasn't realised, but there were many younger kids here too. Quite a bit of the Overture was lost in the loud, long applause for curtain-up, even if it was only on a shooting star. And the restlessness crescendoed across Sandman, Evening Prayer and Angel Pantomime (why the whale? Because Gretel's main comforter is a toy one).

Still, it was a luxury to have Leipzig Opera Generalmusikdirektor Ulf Schirmer conducting. There were some frissony horns and lower-string activity; what a varied miracle Humperdinck's score is, always knowing when to slim down from the full Wagnerian works to the simple. Olena Tokar's little mushroom-Lied was so exquisite, likewise her morning wake-up call. She does some mean dance routines, too, which made me laugh aloud. The other standout among the voices was baritone Julius Orlishausen, and it was good to have a tenor in drag as the batt-y witch, Dan Karlström (though this morning I've been listening to Christa Ludwig on the peerless Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis recording, perfect throughout).

The opera company as a whole seems in very good health. Among its regulars in the photo-parade, especially impressive in the parterre foyer on the first floor,

I recognised Faroese bass Runi Brattaberg, Hagen in the Budapest Ring and very good company at the aftershow gathering (on the right here),

and Wallis Giunta, at the top below and marked out as a star in the making in Opera North's Trouble in Tahiti.

She's Leipzig's resident Cenerentola.

On the way out, I found Tokar between handsome dancers (Yan Leiva and Francisco Baños Diaz, with fellow singer Gal James to the left)


and left the Opera House ahead of lines of departing kids.

And so, with an hour to catch my 14.15 train, I wandered back through town and snatched a quick bowl of excellent soup Zum Arabischen Coffe [sic] Baum, which I had to see

because Schumann's gang gathered here and even have their places marked - here, Schumann and Mendelssohn next to each other

while other musical giants line the walls.

Shame about the piped quartet music, but the place seemed to be inhabited by regulars. Bit difficult to tell, though, if the other diners might not have been German tourists here to visit the justly celebrated Christmas market, which fills the centre of town, radiating outwards from the Markt. More on that, too, in a future entry. Meanwhile,

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Bergman in fashion

Mighty Ingmar, that is, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate next year, not wonderful Ingrid, though I'll give her a repeat look-in at the end here. The above image of one of Bergman's greatest leading ladies, Eva Dahlbeck, in Smiles of a Summer Night, was used in a colour ad to make me slaver at the prospect of Bergman à la mode at the Hallwyl Museum (Hallwylska museet).To be honest, I wasn't so sure about the mode bit, but anything about the master while I was in Stockholm for the HK Gruber festival at the Konserthuset had to be embraced.

The actuality, curated by set and costume designer Anna Bergman and Nils Harning, teacher of Costume/Props at Stockholm University of the Arts, exceeded my wildest dreams, even if the setting, No. 4 Hamngatan close to Dramaten, the National Theatre, is a fascinating but oppressive monument to often dubious bourgeois taste. It was built for Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl between 1893 and 1898 to designs by Isak Gustaf Clason. The exterior is a fanciful combination of Venetian Late Gothic and Early Spanish Renaissance.

Admission to the main rooms on the first floor - I suppose one should say piano nobile - has been free ever since the Museum, bequeathed by the Hallwyls to the nation on condition that the rooms stayed the same, opened to the public in 1938. Should you begrudge paying 80 SEK for the bulk of the exhibition in the smaller, mostly unfurnished rooms on the second floor - and you'll see further down how that would be a false economy - you may still coo at the very first room you see, shrine to the Ekdahl family Christmas, if you love Fanny and Alexander anything like as much as I do (it's still my No. 1 favourite film). By the way, these are all my photos, with permission; the catalogue doesn't have pictures of the exhibition displays, and it's all in Swedish, otherwise I'd have bought it.

There are the maids' costumes, the one worn by Pernilla August (then Östergren) as the vivacious Maj in the centre; there, too, are the gowns for the ladies of the family (the one for Gunn Wållgren's Helena Ekdahl on the right, and for Mona Malm's Alma Ekdahl in the centre).

There, too, next to an Oscar, are Alexander's sailor suit and his teddy.

J actually met the original, Bertil Guve, at a Bergman Centenary launch in London which, regrettably, I didn't make. Very friendly chap, apparently, now an engineer, there with his real-life sister.Testified to Bergman's infinite kindness and consideration on and off set.

The table is laid as for that sumptuous Christmas.

The taste of the Hallwyls, though, is rather more fustily eclectic; as a distinguished actor, presumably with connections in the artistic world, Bergman's Helena favoured something more along the clean, bright lines of the Thielska Galleriet out near the farthermost tip of the Djurgården island, still my favourite building in Stockholm alongside the art deco Konserthuset. The big showoffy room in the Hallwylska has opulent tapestries, an impressive marble relief of Abraham and Isaac above a for-show-only fireplace

and a Steinway model C delivered in 1896. Doughty Wilhelmina wanted more than just the plain pearwood look, so she commissioned Clason to make a 'Baroque' parquetry case. Restored in 1990, the piano is in fine working order, they tell me.

The exhibition has two costumes from that vulgar mess Now About These Women, one of the few Bergman films I can't stand (because, unlike Smiles, it's not funny. I don't like The Silence either, but I don't dispute its finer points).

As for the paintings in the Hallwyl collection, there are few that show much imagination other than the portrait tucked away in the corner of Walter's smoking room.

Collections of pipes, porcelain and other fripperies didn't do it for me, but at least there are a few more objects of Bergmania scattered around the other piano nobile rooms, like this costume (there's jewellery too) from the austerely masterful The Virgin Spring,

and a model of Bergman's maternal grandmother's home in Uppsala as recreated for the Bille August-directed The Best Intentions.

Costumes from that are in the first room of the exhibition's paying part upstairs

alongside some of Bergman's own working clothes (men do get a look-in from time to time). Of course I love the jacket matched to angel wings,

echoing the treasurable photo of Bergman wearing those from the nativity scene of Fanny and Alexander.

Outside in the hallway there's jewellery worn by Ewa Fröling as Emilie Ekdahl, the mother of Fanny and Alexander.

The generous placard tells us that it symbolises security for the children - the only time Emilie doesn't wear it is when she goes to live with the 'bad father' Bishop - and quotes Fröling: 'I remember when I first saw the "dog-collar"...A piece of jewellery joined together by older pieces. Extremely beautiful'. There's more jewellery, the engagement brooch worn by Bergman's mother (on whom Emilie was partly modelled), placed together with a letter below the striking photo of the parents, not quite easy - just, in fact, as played by Samuel Fröler and Pernilla August in The Best Intentions.

Now we head to the heart of the earlier masterpieces - and, in the case of the black and white films there's the fascination of seeing the actual colours we had to imagine. Thus the dress worn by Bibi Andersson as the old professor's youthful crush in Wild Strawberries

and here's striking colour to match the flamboyance of Desiree Armfeldt, the captivating heart of Smiles of a Summer Night as unforgettably played by Eva Dahlbeck.

The room also has two other costumes. As the helpfully translated panels have it, the dress designer Mago - born Max Goldstein, fleeing to Sweden from Berlin 1938 - found 'a creative outlet for his weakness for 1950s silhouettes, where slender waists, ample breasts and shapely hips dominated. As a type of "master of glamour," Mago turned the film's turn of the century into 1950s couture'. As a result Margot Carlqvist's Countess Charlotte 'is draped in duchess and chiffon with an asymmetrical cut'.

To balance, there's the provocative innocence of Ulla Jacobsson's Anne Egerman (cf Sondheim's 'You must meet my wife').

Dahlbeck's red dress is first glimpsed from a very different room.

This is a little masterpiece of exhibition design - a red room with a white dress, Ingrid Thulin's in Cries and Whispers. It mirrors, of course, the essential design concept of that harrowing work of genius.

Creepiness rules in the corridor, as two alcoves give us the clown costume from Sawdust and Tinsel - telling us that Bergman was terrified of clowns, and that he thought white clowns 'mean' - and the God-puppet from Isak's shop of wonders, the 'fourth dimension' of Fanny and Alexander.

Pure enchantment, to the strains of the Christmas-tree decoration music in Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, opened up in the recreation of the children's room upstairs at grandmother Ekdahl's in the same film.

And there, at the very centre, is the toy theatre with which Alexander is seen playing at the start of the film.

One sumptuous male costume gets a look-in - the kaftan of the caddish actor-seducer played by Hasse Ekman in Sawdust and Tinsel.

Opposite are two more gowns for Gunn Wållgren's Helena - I love that touching photo. Wållgren knew she was dying from cancer when she made the film, which surely gives her superb, still sensuous performance an extra pathos.

Death stalks the next room.

The deepest resonance in the film for me was when Alexander's father is dying and the boy, taken into the room, hides under the bed. It wasn't quite like that, visiting my dad on the last night of his life in hospital - in fact it was a lot worse - but I did identify with him. So I wasn't unflattered when two Swedish ladies told me, unprompted, I was Alexander. Fortunately I didn't exercise any powers on my stepfather, whom I was old enough to tolerate. Anyway, here's another nice composition - the boy's funeral suit, and a photo of young Ingmar similarly attired.

In an excellent final flourish, the corridor back to the staircase has a fine selection of Bergman's boyhood drawings.

No surprise that he already saw himself as a filmmaker at an early age.

Even this little collection would have been worth the price of admission. As it turned out, the whole exhibition was a thing of amazement to me. Oh, and just to give Ingrid Bergman a look-in - we must watch The Visit again some time soon - I take the liberty of repeating one of my all-time favourite magazine covers as symmetry to the Dahlbeck picture at the top.