Thursday, 3 September 2015

Cat Kullervo

Mauri Kunnas's image of the hero setting off to war in his children's classic The Canine Kalevala is actually used to illustrate another heroic adventure in the Finnish epic, the journey of Lemminkäinen to woo the Maiden of the North, but it's still a brilliant parody of the famous Akseli Gallen-Kallela fresco which I also used as the lead image for Sebastian Scotney's review of a transformative Prom (as my notes were reprinted, it wouldn't have been right to take it for myself).

Because Lemminkäinen's mother is the real heroine of his not terribly heroic tale, there she is in Kunnas's picture trying to stop him setting out. And since this Lemminkäinen is a member of 'a small but tough clan of cats' who live between 'a tribe of wild and woolly dogs' in the land of Kalevala and 'a pack of mean and wicked wolves' in 'the gloomy North', he can't have a wolf as companion, so an old crow takes that place. Why didn't Kunnas tell the Kullervo story? Because a tragic tale of accidental incest followed by the suicides of the siblings would probably be too much for his audience. Though he doesn't steer clear of Lemminkäinen's gruesome death in the waters of Tuonela and his mother's arrival to bring him back to life. Here's the famous original image

and Kunnas's version. The gormless Swan can just about be seen top left, while the bee is flying in to sting the corpse back into action.

We'll have a couple more of these comparisons at the end, but first I want myself to sing the praises of Sakari Oramo's amazing Proms performance with nearly 140 male voices from the stunning Polytechnicon Choir of Helsinki and the BBC Symphony Chorus. I call it 'transformative' because I had total faith in the second, third and fifth movements of Sibelius's early mythological canvas, but perhaps not the opening call to arms nor the battle. Never have the prophecies of Janacek - whose first masterpiece Jenůfa was still some years in the future when Kullervo was premiered in 1892 - been more striking in the speech-melodies and especially the scene where Kullervo seduces his sister. Oramo made it all sound fresh, original and gripping, doubling the woodwind parts and making sure every word could be heard from his choir, the Wagnerian lyric-dramatic soprano Johanna Rusanen-Kartano and handsome young baritone Waltteri Torikka, pictured here at a different performance.

I'll keep it general, but I have to show a selection of images from last night's performance at the Lahti Sibelius Festival, because that's where I'm heading shortly - a ceremonial duty at the Tower of London this afternoon kept me in London, more on that in a later post - and because the great Chris Christodoulou wasn't there on Saturday. These pictures, all by Juha Tanhua and uploaded onto Lahti's website with Proms-like swiftness, suggest that it was also a great occasion there too (certainly pics I haven't used of a standing ovation confirm that). Not sure there are quite as many choral men in this image as there were creating such a unique impact in the Albert Hall, but it's still impressive:

Sakari with his soloists looks as proud and happy as ever.

One more of the main man. Several of my pals from the BBCSO are in there too.

I ought also to include a picture of BBCSO leader on this occasion Natalie Chee. She's good enough to be a world-class soloist, as we heard last year from her part in Strauss's Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and I think she has what it takes to be a co- rather than just a guest leader.

Roll on the orchestra's 2015-16 season with Mahler 3; before that there's a fascinatingly programmed Nielsen/Ives Prom, and tonight in Lahti they're playing more Sibelius under great but elusive Okko Kamu, whom I see in action tomorrow with the resident orchestra.

Coda: a few more Kunnas parodies: a delicious piss-take of fair Aino pursued by old man Väinämöinen. These are the two panels of the Gallen-Kallela triptych in question:

And here's Kunnas's witty reversal of roles in the central image: Aino pursues the old dog rather than vice-versa.

Towards the end of the saga, Väinämöinen and his crew are sailing home with the magical-properties Sampo they forged, gave to the northern folk and stole back when Louhi, crone-queen of the North, attacks them as a giant eagle.

The wolves seem to be in on this one together in The Canine Kalevala.

Still, the Kalevalan heroes all get to live happily ever after, for thanks to the all-providing Sampo, 'all of the heroic dogs' wishes were fulfilled and they were able to bid farewell to 'their wearisome wild and woolly life'. Only the cat Ahti Lemminkäinen, remaining on the outside, manages to aggravate their otherwise calm and overfed lives.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Pärnu: happy families, happy town


This is the unofficial Estonian royal family - great patriarch (and, ever since Edinburgh University days, when he took over the reins of the Scottish National Orchestra, my conducting hero) Neeme Järvi with his always direct and engaging wife Lillja on the right, their youngest son Kristjan on the left and the other, Paavo, driving force behind the Pärnu Music Festival (read all about it, and its two superb orchestras, on The Arts Desk), fourth from left. Plus assorted children/grandchildren, some of them very talented performers in the festival's annual afternoon children's concert.

There were at least nine Järvis performing in the festival. Here are some more in the fabulous three-hour chamber music concert, which gets Neeme's daughter Maarika into the picture (left) plus her cousin Teet the cellist, centre, and two more Järvis; the fifth player was the girlfriend of another since one more Järvi couldn't make it. Both photos courtesy of the excellent Kaupo Kikkas.

I actually found some press pics from my first time in Estonia, back in 1989 (more about it here): a very emotional return for Neeme, who hadn't seen his family in the nine years since he'd emigrated to America and whose mother had died in his absence. That's a younger Teet on the left, I think, and one of the boys must be Madis, who's above on the right.

Teet's father Vallo, a conductor like his brother, died five years later. Here they are at the momentous Tallinn meet-and-greet. The photographer whose name is printed on the back of the photos is Kalju Suur (address: K. Marxi 34-4, Tallinn USSR).

Other families of sorts were formed in the intense week of the festival. Needless to say I started as something of an outsider, an observer, as I was supposed to be, of the great western players working with Estonian young professionals in the Festival Orchestra, but thanks to a short meeting with top violinist Ben Baker at the East Neuk Festival, I got to talk further with him there and meet his cellist friend from Yehudi Menuhin School days, Jonathan Bloxham. One lunchtime at the pleasant bar that functioned as musicians' meeting place I also started up a conversation with pianist Sophia Rahman and her partner Andres Kaljuste. All four gave an uncannily perfect performance of Korngold's Suite for Piano Quartet (no harm reproducing another of Kaupo's pictures already used on The Arts Desk here).

The 15 would-be conductors using the junior of the two orchestras as a training-ground also seemed to get on well, so there's another family for you. Trust Neeme, who was sharing some of the training with Paavo and Leonid Grin, to be still instructing them in his farewell speech.

Invited guests had their own familial agendas. Fellow reporter on the best of all festival visits was my editor on the BBC Music Magazine, Olly Condy, who came with his wife Caroline and their totally adorable six-month-old baby Alice. Here they are at the aforementioned children's concert in which the youngest of the Järvis played. It was Alice's first concert and she beamed throughout it as usual.

She beamed especially, constantly, at me, which was very gratifying. I adore this very socialised and blithe young Condy. Here PR and friend Lucy Maxwell-Stewart and I are faking - but with pleasure, albeit happy to hand Alice back to full-time care - an alternative family shot on the beach after a delicious swim.

Alice even had her toes tickled and programme signed by Arvo Pärt, whose Swansong in the final Pärnu Festival Orchestra concert, completely undid me in five minutes flat. Here he is during rehearsals with Paavo (also courtesy of Kaupo, I think).

The family outings to the seaside added an extra dimension to our time in Pärnu, Estonia's official 'summer capital' with the only major south-facing beach in the country. Mornings were spent swimming and lazing about, afternoons at rehearsals or discovering the local delights and evenings at several of the best concerts I've ever attended.

I was very grateful for the splendid exclusive tour we had around Pärnu's streets, parks and seafront given by a very delightful lady, teacher as well as guide Malle Tiidla. She'd been given a season ticket for all the festival concerts as a birthday present, so was glad to meet up with us at one of the concerts (here she is third from the left at the very spacious and foyer-handsome concert hall).

The tour lasted four hours - I have no idea if that had been the plan, but there were so many stops for babyphotos and we wanted to see so much that if she was on a tight schedule she didn't have the heart to say so.We began at the Tourist Office, which is in the handsome Town Hall of 1797 just along the street from the Catherine Church begun in 1764.

One of the many casualties of the Soviet occupation and Second World War combined was the town's main church, St Nicholas, which had been bombed but not so badly that it couldn't have been rebuilt; the Soviets, perhaps because the majority of its congregation had been German, razed it to the ground. That leaves in central position St Elizabeth, the spire of which is a feature of the old town.

The oldest building is the so-called Red Tower of the 15th century, originally used as a prison; currently neglected and unoccupied, one storey shorter and of course whitewashed.

Of the 17th century bastions built by the Swedes, the Tallinn Gate and grassy banks above a moat remain. By 1835 the Vallikääru Park had been created, and, re-landscaped, it now doubles as a harbour. The gate is now the only one of its kind left in the Baltic countries.

Just along the street from it is the home Functionalist architect Olev Siinmaa built for himself in 1933. He fled to Sweden 11 years later, leaving behind numerous examples of his work in Parnu.

Pärnu was once a major Hanseatic port on the route to Novgorod, but those days are long over; under the Soviets, the port was closed to the outside world and its status reduced to a fishing harbour. There isn't even much sign of that any more. Its bathing and convalescent attractions have remained constant since 1835, though, when what is now the de luxe Hedon Spa and Hotel was built. The wooden construction burnt down and was replaced by an odd neoclassical construction in 1927

but it's rather comfortable if ever so slightly blingy inside, and the southern facade almost on the beach is very different.

My favourite building here is the Kuursaal of the 1880s, where many popular entertainers played on both indoor and outdoor stages. There's a statue outside to composer-accordionist Raimond Valgre. Apparently songs of his should play when you sit on the bench, but I didn't hear any.

Inside the Kuursaal's vast space was deserted on a sunny afternoon

because everyone was out on the terrace. The waitresses here were supremely friendly, as elsewhere in Estonia, and as usual, one offered to take a group snap.

As for the food - simple, fresh - it was infinitely better than in any of the eateries we tried in town. There was care in presentation, too: dessert time.

The miles of white Baltic sand we had practically to ourselves on our bathing days; strongish winds had put people off, but the sea was warm even if one had to wade some distance out to be able to swim.

I made my way up via the historic Ladies' Beach in the company of Lucy the first full morning, but was left in no doubt that I could go no further than this on the second day.

Still, there were plenty of sandy accesses

and needless to say Alice was queen of the dunes.

Malle's tour took us back into town past the opulent Villa Ammende, a merchant's home from 1905 to 1927 when the family went back to Germany.

Now it's the other and most expensive of the de luxe hotels in town. I preferred the simpler, deliciously old-fashioned summer villas across the road, full of light, like the one where Anneli, down on a visit from Tallinn - more about our time there anon - stayed.

David Oistrakh loved it here - there's a plaque on the dacha where he stayed, apparently because he warmed to the Estonians' absence of antisemitism as well as to the town itself. This was always 'the west' for Soviet citizens.

The place is still apparently used as a summer home but there were no signs of occupation when we were there and I thought it ought to become an Oistrakh Museum, with at least a display of photos of the great violinist on holiday and performing here.

Shostakovich came here too - this priceless photo shows him with Neeme and Paavo some time in the late 1960s/early '70s. Unusual for him to be the jolliest looking person in the picture.

Our hotel was just around the corner, plain and comfortable; strictly speaking it was more a sanatorium full of old Finns who come here in droves. For festival musicians, it was the perfect place to concentrate on a huge amount of repertoire, somewhere with which I think we all fell in love. I'll go back with J next year, that's for sure.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Domestic strife at the Frontline

A cup of coffee helps to put things right in the turbulent household of Robert and Christine Storch (aka Richard and Pauline Strauss – played above in the recent Garsington production of Strauss's Intermezzo by Mark Stone and Mary Dunleavy, photo by Mike Hoban). It takes mushrooms sprinkled with rat poison, and then a good old-fashioned strangling to solve the problem among the Izmailovs of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk when bored and abused housewife Katerina wants a real man (my thanks to Eduard Straub for allowing me to reproduce two images from the ever-fascinating Dmitri Tcherniakov's production as first staged for Deutsche Oper am Rhein, heading for ENO soon).

We've had several summer months to put between the Strauss comedy and Shostakovich's compassionate shocker - scheduled for late September - in my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club. Back in mid-July we wound up in double-quick time with the happy ending of Strauss’s autobiographical marriage opera, and after doubts seeped in with Dunleavy’s less than sympathetic Christine at Garsington, and for that matter with the only half-realised production from Bruno Ravella, Felicity Lott and John Cox in the Glyndebourne production of the 1980s – the only one, I think, on DVD – won even hardened sceptics round.

It was Elisabeth Söderström who sang the first Christine at Glyndebourne, and a half-good Chandos recording exists to testify to her own doughtier charms. Flott simply owned the role, as they say: she’d figure as a great comedienne if Strauss’s excellent libretto were merely read out. With both physical glamour – which presumably the real Pauline didn’t possess – and nervous perplexity and perversity – which clearly she did - she suspends all disbelief.

Even so questions need to be asked about one crucial issue: why, when Strauss put in nearly all his real wife’s bon mots and her less attractive qualities to boot, didn’t he mention that the wife had been a superb prima donna who gave up her singing career to look after husband and son? Clearly the flighty temperament was always there, but wouldn’t it have been exacerbated by dissatisfaction that she had sacrificed her career. Christine in Intermezzo is merely a spoilt housewife with charm, if you're lucky with the performer, and that’s unfair to the autobiographical roots.

The other question that bugs me is where Christine’s presumably naïve flirtation with the young Baron Lummer – a comic take on the Marschallin-Octavian relationship deliberately evoked in fleeting moments – had its roots in real life. Everyone who loves Strauss knows the anecdote of the mistaken telegram which nearly led to divorce on grounds of infidelity. But I, for one, would like to know about the Baron Lummer saga. The point here, though, is that it mostly shows the heroine in her most attractive and even generous lights.

We will probably never know. All I can say is that with the very first class I was back in love with the score and (most of) the situations. It was also a pleasure to get to know the splendid vocabulary of Strauss's original German libretto (both the Glyndebourne and Garsington productions were sung in Andrew Porter's fine English translation - right under the circumstances, I think). That was thanks to other supreme interpreters – Lucia Popp and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Sawallisch recording, more recently the wonderfully characterful and humorous Simone Schneider on a new CD set taken from a semi-staged Munich performance.

And Jeffrey Tate’s Rotterdam Philharmonic recording of the Four Interludes embraces a desert island track of mine in his very leisurely but glowing account of the “Reverie by the Fireside” – perhaps Strauss’s greatest slow movement.

Four of next season’s operatic choices for the course leaped out when English National Opera announced Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as its opening production (second image of original Deutsche Oper am Rhein production above), Verdi’s La forza del destino to follow  and Tristan und Isolde as its big show of next summer, while the Royal Opera’s Boris Godunov, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano, ought to be among their best successes. I knew I couldn’t justify a whole half-term on Enescu’s Oedipe or Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, so why not spend three Mondays on the tragedy and two on the groundbreaking operatic comedy? Mark Wigglesworth has promised to come and talk about the first two new productions he'll be conducting in his first season as ENO's Music Director, and I hope Richard will return for Boris. Join us at the wonderful Frontline from late September; contact me for details on Oh, and yes, I admit it, this is a 'shop-window' entry.