Víkingur Ólafsson's debut at the Proms was epic. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

PROMMERS WARM TO VIKINGUR ÓLAFSSON

BBC Proms Saturday 14 August 2021 S.Prokofiev Symphony no.1,  J.S.Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, W.A. Mozart Piano concerto no.24, D. Shostakovich Symphony no.9

 

With the Philharmonia Orchestra’s new principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali unavailable, due to the government’s quarantine and testing requirements (he is mainly based in Finland and Sweden), a reserve conductor had to be found with less than a week to go.

I’m sure Rouvali will prove to be a marvelous addition for the venerable London orchestra in the near future, but the ‘super-sub’ that was brought in is in a different league. Paavo Järvi is an outstanding conductor with an air of old-fashioned poise and natural authority. Could he be the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s next chief conductor?

Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony will be very familiar territory for Järvi, but there was not a trace of routine about this performance. The allegro was swift, pert and slightly coquettish. The larghetto had a lightness of touch that made the musicians appear to levitate above their seats. The gavotta was perfectly danceable, quite slow, in a baroque kind of fashion and even though it perhaps to the original audiences sounded deliberately ‘clumsy’ (because of the uncoventional musical progressions), in my modern ears it sounded more ‘bumkinish’and full of haydenesque humour. The finale sounded like a super fast jolly ride that was sure to end in victory. The flute part (often given as an audition piece) in the 4th movement is technically fiendishly difficult, but principal flutist Charlotte Ashton nailed it perfectly.

Víkingur Ólafsson was one of this Proms season’s most anticipated soloists and this was also the Icelandic pianist ‘s festival debut. Many people have been watching his regular online solo concerts from Reykjavik during the lockdown.  This explained the rapturous welcome that he received in a nearly packed Royal Albert Hall (finally, it has looked half-empty for many concerts so far). Ólafsson may dress like your private wealth manager, but his playing is honest and always neat.

He totally ignores the early music movement’s progress and his take on Bach is unashamedly romantic, including a lot of pedalling. I am in his camp and don’t particularly like the mechanical sound of the harpsichord, particularly not as a solo instrument.

Víkingur Ólafsson makes his Proms debut, as soloist in both Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F minor, and Mozart’s pioneering Piano Concerto K491. The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.
Photo by Mark Allan

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Keyboard concerto in F minor was written for Collegium Musicum, a university society that gave weekly concerts in the coffee house Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. Despite the fact that the opening movement is clever, with its chromatic use of the returning theme, it can feel a bit like tracking the Bach family index on the BFSE (Bach family Stock Exchange). Of course it wouldn’t have sounded anything like this 280 years ago. This is intricate stuff. And the way Ólafsson approached the 2nd movement’s largo would have taken the composer by total surprise.

First of all the extremely quiet and delicate phrasing that Ólafsson displayed would have been impossible on a harpsichord. This was ol’school, romantic, contemplative playing and I got a sense of sacred wilted flowers. Yes, I’m not sure what that means, but Ólafsson added a religious touch to a secular piece. The plucked basses and soft pizzicato string accompaniment gave it at times even a jazzy feel. I have never heard any other pianist attempt to play so softly in this great hall and you could have heard a coffee bean drop.

It wasn’t just a gimmick because it made the final presto movement feel lika a battle of wits between Ólafsson and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Bach is any serious musician’s House God and the Old Testament of classical music. There are many different interpretations of the Old Testament but who in the end gets to decide which interpretation is right? This was a pure Godsend.

After the interval Ólafsson returned to play Mozart’s piano concert no.24 in C minor K 491 (1786). One of Mozart’s rare piano concerts composed in a minor key, but it is also a piece with a lot of very satisfying orchestra work for oboes, bassoon, clarinets and bassoon. There is some marvelous interplay between the pianist and those instrumentalists. While writing this concert was very busy with a number of operas including The Marriage of Figaro. The intro K491 could easily have worked as an overture to an opera. The soloists entry is tentative, but the mood is clear right from the start. A melancholy and a sadness must be expressed and the orchestra is in on the act. Ólafsson shows academic restraint, but after finishing a longer passage he will swing his upper body towards the orchestra and lift his arms as if to say: your turn! Ólafsson plays his own cadenza, but I have heard more convincing ones.The opening allegro was an important inspiration for Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto.

It is in the larghetto, the slow movement, you get a sense of how deeply felt this material touches Ólafsson. We heard Mozart the pre-romantic. The interplay between Ólafsson and the wind instruments was exquisite, delightful, but this remains very dark writing for being Mozart. The finale

The finale is built around theme and eight variations. With the woodwinds leading the way. The mood almost changes and gives a sense of hope, with a switch to major, but no luck, in the end there is a sense of bitterness. This was a splendid performance by Ólafsson, but less exceptional than the Bach.

We were treated to two encores and first came a transcription of the second movement of an organ sonata by Bach and then a Liszt transcription of a Mozart piece. Once more he achieved absolute transcendence. We can be sure that Ólafsson will be back at the Proms.

Photo: Mark Allan

While the Soviet troops were driving the nazis back into Germany Shostakovich started work on his Ninth symphony (1945) which was going to celebrate the ‘Great Victory’. Authorities expected something in the vain of Beethoven’s ninth. But for some reason Shostakovich decided to take the mickey, well almost. That’s how many listeners saw it. The work seemed more like a buoyant satire with a fanfare, ‘farting ‘ trombones and a number of passages that sound like circus music.

But in the fourth movement, the largo , the composer realises that he’s gone too far and turns plaintive. Mournful winds and a long suggest bassoon solo suggests that every victoory has its downsides. But hold on, the bassoon suddenly goes all folky and the rest of the orchestra joins in and the mood turns cheerful again. No, not cheerful, but a rather desperate sense to create joyful celebration after half a decade of destruction and mass murder.

Paavo Järvi is of course Neeme Järvi’s son and this is the reason why he as a boy met Shoshtakovich. They did not exchange notes about the Ninth symphony, but Paavo studied the work at the Leningrad Conservatory. The dark layer or undertone only comes to the fore in the largo and, yes, you can feel the nervous, towards the end nearly hysterical cheerfulness. But this remains , in my mind, quite an unsatisfying work, but I feel that Järvi and the Philharmonia presented this ‘musical mischief’ as well as I have ever heard it played. It was in the Shostakovich it became more than clear that Järvi was an ideal sub for Rouvali, who could not have gotten more out of this splendid orchestra.

The Philharmonia’s principal bassoonist Emily Hultmark deserves a special mention. She was the magnificent, superb soloist (subtly accompanied by violas)in the Ninth and also made me aware of the bassoon part in the Mozart. I give this concert nearly five stars, nine points!

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla's conducting style is elegance embodied. Photo:

MIRGA MAGIC DELIVERS THE BRITISH GOODS

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla's conducting style is elegance embodied
Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla’s conducting style is elegance embodied. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

BBC Proms 5 August Ruth Gipps Symphony No.2 in B major, Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel Symphony, Johannes Brahms Symphony No.3 in F major

I have been sitting it out for nine months, waiting for proper concerts with a live audience to recommence.

The BBC Proms is this year my reintroduction to concert going and there can’t be many better ways to start a new concert season than seeing  Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla conduct ‘her own’ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO)?

Two Proms premiere performances by British composers in one evening should have attracted a capacity audience. But perhaps the extremely wet weather dampened the spirits of some regular concert goers.

Ruth Gipps (1921-99) used to be a CBSO oboist and also performed as a solo pianist with the same orchestra. She had her first composition performed at the age of 8 and later studied with Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In her thirties a shoulder injury put an end to her career as a soloist which meant that she focused on composing.

Gipps’s Second Symphony (1945) was supposed to celebrate the end of WWII, but the composer admitted later that she had tried to depict the effect of the war on a young woman’s private life. Gipps’s own, at times traumatic, experience of the war comes to the fore in a number of passages. Ruth’s husband went off to fight and she didn’t see him until the war ended. This one-movement symphony has a fairly classic structure and Gipps makes no attempt to adhere to any modernist trends. The opening section depicts the almost carefree mood before the war, which pretty soon converges with the stark realisation that war is inevitable. The sadness creeps in with the short solo violin passage, but there is still time for a burst of hope that it will soon be over. The pastoral element that follows, with echoes of Vaughan Williams, was rendered movingly by the CBSO. The second section with its fanfare and march sees Gipps’s husband departure for the theater of war. Yes, it’s all rather theatrical, maybe even filmic. Once the soldiers have disappeared into the distance the soldier’s wife is left to reflect on a very uncertain future. The adagio with its muted tones of deep despair reminds me of Sibelius and even if I have no evidence that Gipps knew his work, her teacher Vaughan Williams was positively a fan. But the work ends in a fanfare of joy and not only does Gipps’s husband return, there is a powerful sense of hope in the final section of the work. The multi-talented Gipps was also a prolific conductor and I’m sure that this fact inspired Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla together with the CBSO to deliver a superb performance of a work that deserves more regular outings.

Clarity is Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s middle name. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel (2015-16) is based on Luis Buñuel‘s Mexican film (1962) with the same name. Last year Adès composed  a symphony adapting some of the music from the opera as well as adding a newly composed movement . It’s interesting to note that the original film contains no music.The first movement focuses on the entrance of the guests. In the film this happens twice. In the symphony the unstable entrance of the bourgeois guests to the palatial house also receives a slightly amended reprise. The grand dinner party gets under way, but pretty soon it emerges that some mysterious compulsion stops the guests from leaving the room. As the guests become increasingly hostile towards each other and anxious, all survival tactics seem futile and the tribal nature of a society in free fall emerges. In the second movement this descent into hell is illustrated by a snare drum led ostinato reminiscent of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony (first movement). Does this relentless music represent the exterminating angel of the title?  Buñuel wanted to mock the church and the pretensions of the (Mexican) upper class, but Adès struggles to convey that in the music without the words. The third movement depicts the suicide of two lovers with a fairly predictable mock (?) sentimentality. It is perhaps the fourth movement with its wonky waltzes that comes closest to reflecting Buñuel’s surrealist style. Adès’ has described the Waltzes, that can be heard in the fourth movement, as ‘joining together the bits of a broken porcelain object’. Here the off-kilter instrumental humour is used to great effect and in the vein of Buñuel’s film. There is no waltz in the film but I imagine that Adès sees the Viennese dance as a symbol of glamour and easy seduction. But Adès’s waltzes are not meant to be seductive, they are disturbing  and eventually wipe the smile off your face, when you realise that the exterminating angel is already in the (Albert) hall, sitting in your seat.

The CBSO’s musicians were still forced to sit at a social distance from each other which seemed to enhance the clarity and accoustics, or perhaps it was further evidence of the magic that is Mirga’s elegant conducting style.

 

 

 

Mary is enraptured by "the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs" while hiding in a cave in the South of France.Alternatively this is just an erotic painting. Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, about 1620-25 Oil on canvas © Photo: Dominique Provost Art Photography - Bruges

ARTEMISIA CUTS A DASH, AND A HEAD OR TWO

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, about 1620-25 Oil on canvas Artemisia Gentileschi
Mary is enraptured by “the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs” while hiding in a cave in the South of France.Alternatively this is just an erotic painting.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, about 1620-25
Oil on canvas
© Photo: Dominique Provost Art Photography – Bruges

Artemisia, National Gallery in London 3 October 2020 – 24 January 2021

Don’t try this at home. Just try to imagine what it would be like to slice somebody’s head off with a sword. First of all,you have to make sure that your weapon is a sharp as a Japanese (katana) sword. If that’s not the case, as in the painting below, just use brute force. A lot of strength is required. It is messy affair and blood will splatter.

The National Gallery shows two versions of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith beheading Holofernes and it looks like she had a fair idea of what it takes to decapitate somebody. She may have seen Caravaggio’s painting on the same theme and thought: I can do better. In her treatment of the popular subject Artemisia certainly outshone the master whom her father Orazio admired so much. While Caravaggio’s pretty Judith seems to be slicing a piece of cake, Artemisia’s Jewish widow shows absolute determination and muscle while cutting into Holofernes’s carotid aorta. Unlike Caravaggio’s painting Artemisia physically involves the maidservant Abra, who is made to restrain the Assyrian warrior in his death throes. Watch the blood spurting onto Judith’s shiny, golden brocade gown. A couple of drops have already hit the top of her cleavage. And look at that elegant bracelet which may have helped Judith to get invited into general Holofernes’s tent.

It is hard work butchering a powerful and vengeful general. But somebody’s gotta do it.
Judith beheading Holofernes, (1613-14), Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence © Gabinetto fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 -1654) couldn’t get enough of the this apocryphal story (or was it her clients?) and there are two more paintings of Judith and her maidservant, after they have done the deed. In both these pictures the sense of drama is equal to anything Shakespeare or Caravaggio could have come up with. The two accomplices are about to make their getaway, they’ve ‘bagged’ the head of Holofernes, but they can hear some noise outside the tent. Judith has her sword at the ready, Abra is hurriedly concealing the blood-dripping head. The flickering candle throws a dark shadow over Judith’s face which is lit up in the shape of a crescent moon. Could it be that Artemisia intended a reference to mythology? The half moon is the attribute of the Greek goddess Selene. Artemis is another lunar goddess (as well as the goddess of wild nature), and Artemisia the painter was perhaps named after her. In the ancient Greek district Attica they honoured a bull goddess, Artemis Tauropolos, who during a ritual would receive blood drawn by sword from a man’s neck! Would the painter Artemisia have been familiar with this tale or am I reading too much into this magnificent work?

This painting was one of the highlights at one of the first major exhibitions devoted to women artists in 1976 in Detroit. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, about 1623-5 © The Detroit Institute of Arts

Artemis seems to have been particularly fond of empowered heroines. Her interpretation of the Jael and Sisera story from the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible is fairly dramatic. The cruel Canaanite leader Sisera, who has been defeated by the Israelites, is offered food and refuge in the tent of Jael.  The heroine had sex with Sisera, seven times in all, according to the Talmud. This was just to tire him out, so she was forgiven. While the potent warrior had a little rest Jael drove a tent peg through his temple. This story has inspired quite a few painters and writers, including Agatha Christie (not sure if she includes the sex). Do I detect a slight smirk on Jael’s face while she lifts the hammer for that almighty blow?

Artemisia ‘chiselled’ her signature on the pilaster (stage right). Jael is about to practice some chiselling on Sisera’s skull.
Jael and Sisera, dated 1620 © Szépmüvészeti Múzeum / Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Artemisia had a good reason to occasionally let off some steam by painting pretty horrific killings.

Artemisia was born in Rome in 1693, the only daughter of the Mannerist painter Orazio Gentileschi. He was heavily influenced by Caravaggio (and so was Artemisia) but after the ‘enfant terrible’s’ death Orazio rediscovered the Tuscan lyricism and a lighter palette that had marked his early career.  By the time she was 15 Artemisia was probably training in her father’s studio.  Her earliest signed work is from 1610. She was only 17 years old, but her Susannah and the Elders is technically already pretty stunning. The way the attractive wife of Joachim turns away and refuses the two lecherous men’s advances is very convincing. Artemisia would return to this subject several times and three depictions of the virtuous heroine are included in the National Gallery show. She was still only 17 when she was raped at home by the painter Agostino Tassi who was working together with her father. She fought back but he deflowered her and then promised to marry her. Their relationship continued for a few month after that, but when Tassi didn’t keep his promise things went awry.  It was Orazio who insisted on pressing charges. The rape trial lasted for nearly nine months and it has been the subject of at least one (crappy) film and a pretty good play. In London you’ll have an opportunity to see the original account of the trial, which has never been exhibited before in public!

The transcript of the trial has never been exhibited before. Proceedings of Agostino Tassi’s trial for the rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, 1612 © Archivio di Stato di Roma

Artemisia was tortured to test if she was telling the truth, but at least she won the trial. Tassi was sentenced to go into exile (he just had to leave Rome), but he returned quite soon without anyone objecting (it seems). Within a day of the court case ending Artemisia married a fellow painter and they left for Florence. She set up a studio in her father-in-law’s house, and had five children in seven years – three died in infancy. Her husband turned out to be a good for nothing, but Artemisia became friends with Galileo Galilei and the poet Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger. She was the first woman to become a member of the prestigious Accademia delle Arte del Disegno and she worked for the Medicis. Her Florentine period is particularly interesting for all the self portraits. She portrays herself as various martyrs (St. Catherine of Alexandria in particular) and using her own mirror image as a model would have saved her quite a lot of money (Rembrandt also regularly painted his own likeness while dressed up in various guises). Artemisia’s patrons clearly must have admired her likeness.

Does Danaë seem erotically enraptured to you? Look again: she’s crossing her legs and her face signals displeasure. The picture seems to send mixed messages. Artemisia Gentileschi © Saint Louis Art Museum

Around 1618 Artemisia started an affair with the wealthy nobleman Francesco Maringhi.  Nine years ago 36 letters were discovered that she wrote to her lover. Four of them are on display here. I particularly like the one in which she tells Maringhi that she no longer sleeps with her husband and then she implores her beau not to masturbate over her self portrait.

In 1620 the family moved to Rome, because Artemisia’s husband’s lifestyle had bankrupted the business. Luckily her work was now much in demand and she was the main breadwinner. Her husband describes in a letter how cardinals and princes frequent their house and studio. It is in 1620s that she produces some of her most powerful work ( which I have discussed above). She was becoming famous, even celebrated, and Simon Vouet painted a portrait of Artemisia posing with a palette and a drawing implement. She is also the subject of a portrait medal and engravings. There is even a depiction of her right hand delicately holding a paintbrush.

I don’t know too many painters whose hands have been portrayed. The Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush, 1625 Pierre Dumonstier II  Black and red chalk on paper © The Trustees of The British Museum

Much has been made of the fact that Artemisia was a woman artist. Female painters actually weren’t that unusual during the baroque era. Sofonisba Anguissola was perhaps the foremost female artist of the Renaissance. Simon Vouet (see above) was married to the Italian painter Virginia da Vezzo. And I believe that the Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster doesn’t get enough credit. There were others, but perhaps I should devote a separate blog to these other fabulous woman artists.

Gender not taken into account, Artemisia deserves to be treated as one of the great painters of the 17th century because of her portrayal of women from a female perspective.  Her nudes appear more realistic to me than Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt’s unclothed beauties. The way she depicts Judith’s and Jael’s emotions during the act of murder can’t be found in any other paintings from that era.  And look at Susannah’s almost tearful face in the picture below. This is a voluptuous and attractive woman (compare with the rather plump woman in Rembrandt’s version), who is pestered for sex by two very ugly men. But she also gives out a sense of vulnerability that most male artists couldn’t capture.

Susannah’s attempt to cover her private parts is reminiscent of the classic Venus podica pose.
Susannah and the Elders, 1622, A. Gentileschi © The Burghley House Collection

In the 1630s we find Artemisia in Naples where we know that she made some pictures for the well-known patron of the arts Cassiano dal Pozzo. The Infanta Maria of Spain, the Spanish king’s sister, also commissioned some works. But most of the altarpieces and other paintings based on biblical stories created in Naples fail to really impress me. Technically they are still quite brilliant, but maybe there are too many figures and the focal point becomes ill defined. Artemisia was definitely at her best when she didn’t have to focus on more than three characters. Still, among these late works there is another very evocative painting of the semi-naked Queen Cleopatra, as white as a sheet,  on her deathbed.

In 1638 she went to London to assist her father who she hadn’t seen for 20 years. Orazio was working on the ceiling canvases for the Great Hall of the Queen’s House in Greenwich.  Many figures are more reminiscent of Artemisia’s powerful style than Orazio’s more artificial depictions, claims the curator of Marlborough House. That is where these paintings hang nowadays, but the mansion in St. James, London, is not open to the public. But you can see the ceiling in detail by following this link:

https://artsandculture.google.com/story/an-allegory-of-peace-and-the-arts/XgKSWkEDR113Lg

Artemisia stayed in London for another year after her father’s death in February 1639. She continued to work for the Queen but how many paintings she produced is not known. The one work that is associated with this period is the famous La Pittura, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (see below). I don’t believe for a minute that it is a self portrait – the subject is far too young (Artemisia would have been around 46 years old). My guess is that the allegory portrays her daughter Prudenzia who also was a painter.

This is a faithful rendition, almost to the letter, of how an allegory of painting was supposed to be portrayed. But the angle is unique and innovative.   Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), about 1638-9  © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Artemisia returned to Naples in 1640 and continued painting, but by 1649 she is again bankrupt. Her last dated picture is from 1652 and it is another Susannah and the Elders which also features in the exhibition.

Artemisia Gentileschi, the first truly great woman artist, is still recorded as being alive in August 1654 when she paid her taxes. The excellent catalogue accompanying the exhibition suggests that she died soon after that. I sincerely hope the tax bill wasn’t a killer.

A Corner in the Garden, Éragny (1897) sums up summer and impressionism. Pissarro's eyesight was already failing when he made this perfect rendition of dappled light in his own garden.

WORLD-BEATING DANISH COLLECTION OF FRENCH ART

Gauguin and the Impressionists, seen at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (until 18 October 2020)

Pictures from the Danish ‘Golden Age’ of art (first half of the 19th century) and Vilhelm Hammershøi’s understated, almost stark interiors have this century become quite desirable outside of Scandinavia . Copenhagen is today the (very expensive) capital of cool for foodies and design buffs. Tourists have also finally discovered that the Danish capital has a number of art museums of outstanding quality. If it is 19th century French painting and sculpture you’re after the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, next to the fabulous Tivoli amusement park, should be your first port of call. Ordrupgaard is almost up there with Glyptoteket when it comes to classic Danish and French art. The fact that Ordrupgaard is situated on the outskirts of Copenhagen means that fewer foreign visitors find the time to explore this very fine museum. If you are in the UK, the time is now to see Ordrupgaard’s splendid French collection, as the Danish museum is temporarily closed. The Royal Academy of Art in London is the last stop of the touring exhibition ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists’, consisting of 40 mainly French works from the Hansen collection which is housed at Ordrupgaard.

Berthe Morisot
The model’s innocence is caught perfectly in this typically loose and sketch-like portrait  by Berthe Morisot. Young Girl on the Grass, the Red Bodice (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert), 1885

Around the turn of the 20th century Denmark had a number of very keen art collectors. The owners of the Carlsberg brewery, the Jacobsens, were both wealthy and knowledgeable, but Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936) was perhaps a more systematic and interesting collector. Hansen had made a fortune in the insurance business and had amassed an impressive collection of Danish paintings by the time he discovered 19th century French art. During his regular visits to Paris for business he found time to familiarize himself with the recent French ‘repertoire’; everything from the Barbizon School to the Post-Impressionists. In the decade before the First World War  impressionist paintings were becoming very collectible and prices were starting to rise at an alarming rate. But the Great War dampened the enthusiasm to spend big on art and as the conflict dragged on, without an end in sight, prices plummeted. Denmark managed to remain neutral, but Hansen could no longer travel to Paris. In 1916 his advisor, the well connected French critic Théodore Duret, pointed out that a number of first-rate works had come on the market for bargain prices. Edouard Manet’s unusual still-life Basket of Pears and Delacroix’s Ugolino and his Sons were among the early acquisitions (and feature in the exhibition). Three years later Hansen’s collection was already so impressive that when he returned to Paris he was welcomed “like a little god” by the local dealers.

At the turn of the century Paul Gauguin would  have been one of the more familiar impressionists in Denmark, thanks to the fact that his wife was Danish. Gauguin and Mette Sophie Gad had five children and in 1884 the family moved to Copenhagen. Paul tried to make a living as a tarpaulin salesman in Denmark but lacked the luck, the skills and  the will to make it work. He abandoned the family a year later and moved back to France to concentrate on his career as an artist. After he settled in his Tahitian ‘idyll’ in 1891, and took three teenage brides,  he seems to have given little thought to his wife and children in Europe.   After the war  Hansen created a consortium with another collector and a few dealers which enabled them to finance some major purchases. This way he managed to get his hands on a number of superb Gauguins. Eight of them feature in this exhibition and for me the highlights are The Little One is Dreaming (1881), an early master-piece, and the rather bizarre (or disturbing) Portrait of a Young Girl.

Portrait of a Young Girl (Vaïte ‘Jeanne’ Goupil), 1896
This is one of the few commissions Gauguin received n Tahiti,  The subject, Jeanne Goupil is only nine years old but looks twice her age. She looks non-committal and the background is peculiar.  Portrait of a Young Girl (Vaïte ‘Jeanne’ Goupil),  1896 © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Understandably the Royal Academy decided that the works by Gauguin form the main pulling power for this exhibition, hence the title. The impressionists are well-represented with a few key works: Sisley, Monet, Renoir and Berthe Morisot get to show off some good and strong paintings. But the two Manets and two ( out of a total of six) Pissarros top my list.  Pisarro’s A Corner in the Garden, Éragny (see featured image above) is a masterclass in impressionistic painting and it also comes close to depicting how I remember the summers of my youth.

Yes, the impressionists are worth the visit, but so are the more sombre works by the Barbizon School and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s realistic works. I was particularly drawn to Eugene Delacroix’s portrait of George Sands  which implies both exterior and interior movement. This oil painting’s unfinished character adds to its immediate appeal. The writer’s contours are slightly blurred, but her eyes are clearly closed. She is listening intently. Her hands have been placed very distinctly in the foreground. Perhaps her fingers are tinkling the ivories in her imagination and she is mimicking her lover’s playing. Sadly Frederic Chopin has been cut out of what originally was a double portrait and we are now just left with Sand’s reaction to his piano playing. If you want to see the other half of the painting you need to visit the Louvre, just like Wilhelm Hansen would have done  during his many visits to Paris.

EUGÈNE DELACROIX (1798–1863)George Sand, 1838
This unfinished painting’s other half (Fredric Chopin) is in the Louvre, George Sand, 1838, by Eugene Delacroix
The Wellington Collection, Apsley House [English Heritage] © Historic England Photo Library

GOLDEN AGE INFLUENCER NICOLAES MAES AT THE NG

London’s National Gallery and The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum have put together the first exhibition in the UK devoted to Nicolaes Maes,  a Dutch Golden Age painter who deserves to be more well-known.

Even in the Netherlands Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693) is not really a household name, but I reckon that he was one of the Dutch Republic’s major influencers (when it came to painting). His intimate, often humorous, domestic interiors have had a significant influence on the work of Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer.

Nicolaes Maes is considered to have been Rembrandt’s pupil. It is a fair assumption but there is no certainty. The only ‘evidence’ we have comes from Arnold Houbraken’s history of Netherlandish Art, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (1721). Houbraken mentions nonchalantly that Maes learnt painting from Rembrandt and drawing from an unnamed “common artist”. And yes, some of the early works in this fascinating exhibition at the National Gallery are blatant copies of the master’s work. We know that Maes left his hometown Dordrecht and moved to Amsterdam before he had turned fourteen. If he was apprenticed to Rembrandt it would have lasted for about four years.

Even if he wasn’t Rembrandt’s pupil, it is obvious that he studied Rembrandt’s technique and his subject matters very carefully. Maes became so proficient that The Apostle Thomas (see picture) for 200 years was admired as a work by Rembrandt van Rijn. This depiction of an old man (as a saint) had Rembrandt’s signature and was dated 1656. In 1885 it became clear that the signature was false while the date was original. During the latest restoration in 1977 Maes’ name was not found anywhere, but all experts seem to agree that the only other artist, apart from Rembrandt, who could have painted such a warm and sympathetic portrait of the saint is the man from Dordrecht.

The Apostle Thomas (1656) was for centuries attributed  to Rembrandt. Today everyone agrees that Nicolaes Maes was responsible for this heartfelt ‘portrait’. 
© Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

Nicolaes Maes was born in Dordrecht, a city in the south of Holland that has retained some of its atttractive features from the 17th century. Dordrecht was in the early days of the Dutch Republic an important commercial and religious centre. It was also (in the 17th century) the birthplace of many talented painters. Some of the most well-known artists are Aelbert Cuyp, Samuel van Hoogstraaten and Aert de Gelder.

Not much is known about Nicolaes’ childhood, but he did settle in Amsterdam around 1646. None of the work that he produced during that period (he was in his teens) is featured in this exhibition. The competition in the 1650s in Amsterdam would have been very tough for an artist who hadn’t yet established himself. After his apprenticeship (to Rembrandt?)  Maes returned to Dordrecht in 1653 and married a widow. The earliest works on display are history paintings, which was the genre that was most respected and commanded the highest fees. I think his take on Dürer’s engraving Adoration of the Shepherds is rather good. It is more or less an exact copy, but it has been enlarged and the oil paint colours add an extra dimension.

Nicolaes Maes copies Dürer in The Adoration of the Shepherds
Nicolaes Maes copied an engraving by Dürer very faithfully and skillfully coloured it in . The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1656–8
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

After moving back to Dordrecht Maes seems to have established himself pretty quickly.  He took up a form of genre painting that was becoming very popular and required a lot of technical skill. The influence of Rembrandt is still discernible, but Maes starts to work with more saturated colours (warm red and deep shiny black). I think Gerrit Dou’s exacting style had a profound influence on Maes, even though there is no obvious evidence. Maes’ domestic scenes pay great attention to detail, but they also quite often have a moralistic undertone. Lacemakers (see picture) are a subject that appealed to Maes (and Gerrit Dou!).  The Old Lacemaker (see picture) shows an old, but industrious woman who is a good example of the Calvinist work ethic. Maes also made several paintings depicting an old woman nodding off during work and this is meant to illustrate  idleness, which protestants of course couldn’t approve of. But Maes also likes to mock his subjects and his clients particularly appreciated that side of his repertoire.

Nicolaes Maes, The Old Lacemaker, about 1656 © Mauritshuis, The Hague / Photo: Margareta Svensson
Nicolaes Maes, The Old Lacemaker, about 1656
© Mauritshuis, The Hague / Photo: Margareta Svensson

The exhibition features four different Eavesdroppers (see featured image at the top of the page and below) and they are Maes’ signature paintings. The Eavesdroppers have all in common that in the foreground of the painting you see a woman standing/hiding on the landing or on the stairs spying on a maidservant and her lover in an adjoining room, basement or hallway.  We can see  the lovers, but the eavesdropper can’t. She looks straight at the viewer with a smile and raises a finger to her lips, thereby involving us in her secret overhearing business. There is a didactic message: servants distracted by amorous suitors are neglecting their duties. These type of pictures  confirm the contemporary view that domestic servants were in general pretty deceitful. All these domestic scenes  incorporate elements of meticulous still life painting (a cat, a detailed map on the wall,  a beer tankard, books, etc.). Surely the ‘School of Delft’ painters (de Hooch, Vermeer) saw some of Maes’ work and found inspiration in his well observed  intimate interiors.

Maes’ interest in genre scenes only lasted a few years and his decision to suddenly exclusively devote himself to portraiture painting can only have one explanation: portrait painting  was financially more profitable than genre painting. Maes moved back to Amsterdam where his potential clientele was richer and perhaps even more sophisticated. He briefly revives his Rembrandtesque approach, but in the 1670s the brown hues fell out of fashion and Maes adopted the lighter French Baroque style.  The portraits in this exhibition are well chosen but only a handful hold my attention.  Maes was very versatile , but he was no van Dyck even if he, after a visit to Antwerpen,  desperately tried to emulate the swagger and flashy style of the Flemish master.  Nicolaes Maes was an accomplished portraitist, but his true talent and originality can be seen in his warm and humorous domestic scenes.

This eavesdropper is spying on her employer who seems to have a row. Nicolaes Maes, The Eavesdropper, 1655, Harold Samuel Collection, Mansion House, London
© Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Nicolaes Maes, Dutch Master of the Golden age  at The National Gallery, London, until 20 September 2020

The refurbished Hans and Julia Rausing gallery contains many Baroque masterpiece, including a newly acquired self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi © The National Gallery, London

NATIONAL GALLERY REOPENS AND REINVENTS ITSELF

Do you think you know London’s National Gallery? Think again. The museum has reopened, now that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is deemed to have passed. But all visitors are still expected to wear a face mask. You will have to book your ticket in advance, but the main collection can still be visited free of charge.

But nothing is like it was before. Yes, most of the same old pictures are still on display, but you can no longer crisscross between galleries. You have to choose and stick to one of three marked out routes and follow the arrows in a one-way system. So what will it be today? Route A is for renaissance masterpieces by the likes of van Eyck, Leonardo, Michelangelo and  Raphael. Or B?  starting in Venice and moving on via Hogarth, Gainsborough. sidetracked by Holbein only to end up with the impressionists. C is my flavour of the month with Caravaggio, the Flemish and Dutch masters, Monet, Turner and van Gogh among the highlights.

Rembrandt at National Gallery
Am I dreaming? A room full of Rembrandts, and on top of that the space more or less to myself. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The National Gallery’s central location has in the past made it an ideal place to kill some time between appointments. Quite frequently I would nip into the museum to study four or five paintings. The three new routes literally changes your perspective: you’re now offered a sort of self-guided, curated tour around the galleries.

I found this to be a very positive experience, because beside my favourites, I discovered works that I previously hadn’t taken notice of.

There are also a number of new acquisitions, loans and rehangs that deserve special attention. Most importantly the largest gallery space in the museum, room 32,  is now, after a 21-month refurbishment, ready to impress. The room’s decoration (see featured image above) has been returned to its original 1870s design , including twenty lunettes with dolphins and winged lions supporting the names of great masters. The gallery is named after Hans Rausing, the Swedish Tetra Pak billionaire, and his wife Julie who contributed £4 million to the refurbishment project.

The Rausing gallery is packed with Baroque paintings by masters like Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Guercino and Orazio Gentileschi. The latter painter’s The Finding of Moses (1630s) is now a permanent part of the collection. The large painting has been on loan to the museum since the 90s but was acquired  for £22 million in December.  A little bit too mannered and theatrical to be called a masterpiece, it is still worth searching out for its exquisite depiction of silk fabrics and baby Moses looks like a real wriggling infant.

Orazio Gentileschi The Finding of Moses
Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses (cropped)The rendering of the silk dresses is impressive. Baby Moses looks real whereas the ladies look like a posturing bunch of acrtresses. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

King Charles I invited Orazio to Great Britain in 1626 and that is where he died 13 years later. His daughter Artemisia joined him in 1638 to assist with the ceiling paintings that were made for the Queen’s House in Greenwich.  Artemisia Gentleschi (1593 – 1654) was a great talent in her own right and the National Gallery had planned to celebrate her work in a major exhibition that  was due to open in April. The COVID-19 virus killed off the plans, for now. In the Rausing gallery Artemisia’s self-portrait has a place on the opposite wall of her father’s depiction of the basket case Moses.

In 2018 the National Gallery bought Artemisia’s Self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria for £3.6 million in July 2018. Saint Catherine’s left hand is resting on the wheel with the horrid spikes that crushed her. Artemisia was also subjected to torture during the  trial against the man who raped her, the painter Agostini Tassi. But in the role of St. Catherine Artemisia shows no sign of emotion. Many of her paintings have been interpreted as a response to the unfair rape trial , but this representation doesn’t seem to qualify. Unless….. this portrait is meant to depict her submission to the ethical doctrine of the Stoics. They tried to free themselves of emotional involvement and pain.

Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia was a respected woman artist who for a number of years worked for King Charles I before returning to Italy. The National Gallery will in the near future devote a major retrospective to her work.

Charles I  is surely the British royal that even up to this day can claim to have contributed most to his country’s artistic life. His magnificent collection of Flemish, Dutch, German and Italian paintings was unfortunately broken up and sold off by Cromwell, but some masterpieces were later bought back by Charles II.                    The National Gallery’s conservators  and scientists have quite recently finished the cleaning and restoration of Anthony van Dyck’s enormous Equestrian Portrait of Charles I. The discolouration and aberration in some  key areas has been restored and retouched and this slightly effete royal has regained some dynamic flourish.  It’s not up there with van Dyck’s other equestrian portrait, Charles I with M de St. Antoine,  which can be seen at Buckingham Palace (well, that is if it opens again over the summer months!). But this, in places almost sketchy, swagger portrait is certainly worth a detour.

So even if you think you know the National Gallery well, reconsider and book your ticket for a new passageway and pleasantly surprising walk through one of the world’s greatest collections.

Charles I Anthony van Dyck
Anthony van Dyck was Charles I’s favourite court painter. This equestrian portrait (van Dyck painted two) has recently been restored.
© The National Gallery, London

 

Plan your visit here:

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/plan-your-visit

N'Wana and Sotho dolls from South Africa and Lesotho. These circa 20 cm high objects were made by young women to enhance fertility. Once the child was born they became dolls or the beads were used as an accessory by the mother. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

ART CONQUERS ALL, THE SHOW MUST GO ON

This is my second report from TEFAF Maastricht, the world’s foremost art fair for antiques and design. In my previous blog I mentioned a number of blockbusters, both quality- and price-wise. In this article I am concentrating on some personal favourites.

What is so extraordinary about TEFAF is that there is something for everybody to admire, all under one roof. You can invest in a large neolithic axe blade that is at least 5000 years old or splash out on a panorama of Paris, circa 1810 ( Galerie Perrin). Then there are the many ‘exotic’ objects.  Exotic is now a virtually ‘verboten’ word but I don’t mean anything condescending by it. Exotic to me is an item that is so far removed from my own cultural experiences that it makes me extra curious.

The colourful, beaded dolls that feature in initiation rituals when Tsonga s (South Africa) and Lesotho girls get married are meant to encourage fertility. After the wedding these ‘toys’ are initially treated like a baby, until the newly weds conceive a child. If the child is a girl, she gets to play with the N’Wana (meaning child). I would feel a bit uncomfortable about owning one, but they are very decorative (seen at Bernard de Grunne).

I wouldn’t mind owning a Renaissance sword of the caliber that Peter Finer has on offer. I have visited the impressive Rüstkammer in Dresden and seen some of the most incredible swords and field armour worn by Emperors, Dukes and Counts. This weapon with a blade and grip made of steel, copper alloy, gold, silver, ebony and bone (restored) is of such fine quality that it should be in a major museum (perhaps the Wallace Collection or Royal Armouries museum in Leeds?). I can’t divulge the price, but you will get a four-bedroom detached house in the best parts of Ealing for the price of this sword. Peter Finer also boasts a finely decorated and unusually large German field armour made for the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel. Nobody messed with him when he wore this, to be sure.

The grip and efinely decorated pommel of this Italian style renaissance sword, In the background you get a glimpse of the Ducal field armour. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The grip and finely decorated pommel of this Italian style renaissance sword. In the background you get a glimpse of the Ducal field armour. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

If it is sculpture you’re after, the portrait bust of Georges Mareschal is one of the absolute highlights of the show. François Girardon (1628-1715) created many famous works for the garden of the Palace of Versailles. His equestrian statue of Louis XIV in Roman armour is also pretty famous (the colossal original stood in Place Vendome and was destroyed during the revolution in 1792). This marble bust of the  premier-chirurgien du Roi is so detailed and skillfully made (1700 -1710) that it looks like a lifecast. The extravagant wig leads a life of its own and the sideways turn of the head provides a sense of movement that only the very best sculptor could achieve. Mareschal is portrayed so vividly that I feel like asking him how he would have handled the coronavirus crisis. Stuart Lochhead Sculpture hope to achieve 2.6 million euros for this masterpiece.

Francois Girardon(1628-1715) created major works for Louis XIV. He should be seen as France's answer to Bernini.
Francois Girardon(1628-1715) created major works for Louis XIV. He should be seen as France’s answer to Bernini.
The flower arrangements at TEFAF are never less than spectacular. De Quénetain's gallery's decor, in the background,is pretty impressive as well.

TEFAF BATTLES COVID-19 VALIANTLY, AND WINS

Back home after two riveting days at the TEFAF antiques & fine arts fair in Maastricht and my head is still buzzing. No, it’s not the coronavirus that’s affecting me. When I am trying to process thousands of exquisite objects -–that cover a time span of 7000 years – in a relatively short time, it makes my brain glow and work overtime for many hours afterward. But surely it is the best and most pleasant mind game to keep dementia at bay.
Only three galleries dropped out because of coronavirus fears, but particularly the absence of Asian visitors was noticeable.  Covid-19 hasn’t stopped 282 exhibitors, a record number, from 22 countries appearing in Maastricht. TEFAF is one of the must-visit-fairs on the calendar of museum curators with a deep pocket. Sadly a number of important museums have this year declined invitations to attend the preview. The general visitor figures are so far also somewhat down on last year.

I am going to wash that virus right out of my stand. J.Kugel of Paris employ well-dressed cleaning ladies. photo:Albert Ehrnrooth
I am going to wash that virus right out of my stand. J.Kugel of Paris employs well-dressed cleaning ladies. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

All the more reason to visit TEFAF this year, because in the past this prestigious fair has at times been too busy for comfortable viewing. Both gallery owners and visitors have taken enthusiastically (and with a genuine smile) to elbow bumping which seems more appropriate in this environment than a hipster fist bump.

I am devoting this first blog to some expensive highlights but lookout for a special blog in the coming week devoted to the process of vetting. No other art fair takes vetting as seriously as TEFAF. That is a fact, not just a boast.
If you want to set up your little stall at TEFAF don’t expect to get much change from 100.000 euros. That is before you’ve even sold one single object. On top of that, some dealers are prepared to go all out on the decorative budget. Their booths are worth visiting just for the surroundings as much as the artworks on display. The Parisian fine arts dealer Christoph de Quénetain (see featured image) brought a truckload of marble columns and a parquet floor to match. A couple of German antiques dealers build complete historic interiors and Axel Vervoordt also makes sure that the decor is just so. But for my money Tomasso Brothers’ stand is the most eye-catching of them all. See my Instagram post (on the side panel) for more on the interior.

Hammer Galleries never disappoint and they have an endless supply of impressionists. You can get a tan while admiring Edgar Degas' Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts. photo: Albert Ehrnroot
Hammer Galleries never disappoint and they have an endless supply of impressionists. You can get a tan while admiring Edgar Degas’ Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts. photo: Albert Ehrnroot

The most expensive painting at the fair has an asking price of $45 million. Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts (1891) by Edgar Degas doesn’t disappoint. The colours may be reminiscent of candy floss, the subject is almost clichė Degas, but the fairly large painting (81.3 x 65.1 cm) will certainly brighten up your lounge and is a real head-turner. It has been in the Armand Hammer collection since 1969 and it’s been on show in countless exhibitions.

Large pink diamonds are extremely rare and when the Argyle mine in Australia closes they will become even more difficult to source.
Large pink diamonds are extremely rare and when the Argyle mine in Australia closes they will become even more difficult to source.

The second most expensive item is probably ’The Perfect Pink’ a 14 carat (I quote) ‘fancy intense emerald-cut Type IIa’ natural pink diamond. This diamond is in the top ten of the largest pink diamonds (over ten carats) ever sold. London’s Symbolic & Chase didn’t want to reveal what their asking price is, but it was pointed out that this beauty with baby pink hues achieved $23 m at an auction 10 years ago.
You can purchase a fairly early van Gogh for half the price. Dickinson (of London) are masters at sourcing Vincent’s paintings. ‘Peasant woman in front of a Farmhouse’ comes with a good story. It was sold in 1967 in Staffordshire by an auctioneer who also dealt with livestock and farm equipment.  An antiques dealer in Belsize Park, London, bought it at some point for £4.  A few months later he sold it to an Italian journalist for £45, making a tenfold profit. I bet he was delighted, only to be deflated after a couple of months when he realised his mistake. The journo purchaser had recently seen a major van Gogh exhibition and spotted the signature ‘Vincent’ in the lefthand corner of his painting. He took it to the future director of the Tate Gallery who, with some help of Dutch experts, recognised it as the genuine article. ‘Paysanne devant une chaumiere’ has changed hands at various auctions a number of times over the last 30 years and in 2001 ended up in a collection in America. It has only once been exhibited in public. The asking price is between 12-15 million euros.

Prom 60 Photo:Chris Christodoulou

HAITINK HAS HUNG UP HIS BATON AND BOOTS

BBC Proms 3 September 2019 Beethoven Piano Concerto No.4, Bruckner Symphony No.7       Vienna Philharmonic, soloist: Emanuel Ax, conductor: Bernard Haitink

Last year it was announced that Bernard Haitink was going to take a sabbatical. A sabbatical at 90?

It turned out to be a false rumour. Haitink is simply retiring. One of this and last century’s top conductors is quitting.

Haitink initially claimed he was going to take a sabbatical because he wanted to avoid official farewell concerts. It reflects his naturally shy character. In June Haitink conducted his last concert at the Concertgebouw. But it was not the resident Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) that accompanied his last concert in the building where his career started. Haitink made his debut in 1956 with the Concertgebouworkest (without the royal prefix in those days) but became the chief conductor of the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest in 1957. It was with that orchestra he decided to play his final concert in the Netherlands, rather than the much more famous band ( RCO) where he was at the helm for 27  years!

Photo:Chris Christodoulou

The maestro has already said his goodbyes in Munich (with the  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Chicago, where his tenure as chief conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is remembered fondly.There will be one more final concert this Friday 6 September in Lucerne where he will conduct the same programme that we were treated to in London.

Surely it is no fluke that this Prom was Haitink’s 90th. His first  appearance at the Royal Albert Hall  was in 1966 and that time Bruckner’s 7th symphony was on the bill, just like the other night. Surely not a deliberate choice as Haitink recently has been conducting that symphony everywhere he went.

So, why has he not said his goodbyes to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra where he learnt his trade and helped to develop an elite orchestra  with a an international reputation.  Haitink has been hurt in the past. Perhaps at times a little bit too easily. But it must be said that the Concertgebouw Orchestra , that probably owe their Royal title to him, have at times treated him badly. In 1988 Haitink left Amsterdam because he felt no support or appreciation from the orchestra management.   But it must be said that Haitink became an even better conductor after he left his home country. He had already been the artistic director at Glyndebourne when he became music director at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden  (1987 – 2002).  Despite some real triumphs,  particularly with Wagner operas, he never saw himself as an opera conductor. “I am a conductor who conducts operas”, he said in one interview. “Antonio Pappano, that is a real opera person”. But he admits conducting opera enriched his music making.  The Dutch didn’t have a dedicated opera house until the Stopera (Het Muziektheater) opened in Amsterdam in 1986. But Haitink was never invited to conduct there.

Haitink says that opera never used be  part of the Dutch DNA and I think he is right (having grown up in Holland in the 70s and 80s). Things have changed and that is very much to Pierre Audi’s credit (he was artistic director of the Dutch National Opera until 2018).

If this was indeed Haitink’s last London concert, and he hasn’t ruled out that at short notice he could replace a colleague who has fallen ill, it was almost as good as you could have ever wished. It helps that the Vienna Phil  in this kind of repertoire is virtually unbeatable.

photo: Chris Christodoulou

Emanuel Ax replaced Murray Perahia and I don’t  think you will today find a better interpreter of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto (well, Perahia may be equally good).  There was a slightly comical moment as the maestro and Ax entered ( to a roaring, roof-lifting applause). Ax helped Haitink up on the rostrum, but from my position, facing the stage at a slight angle, I could only see the back of his head. The rest of the conductor was hidden behind the  gi-normous grand piano that had its lid up to the max.  So, it was impossible to see what Haitink was up to during the Beethoven concerto.  But Ax  didn’t leave Haitink or the orchestra out of his sight, that much was clear.  Ax was careful not to stamp too much ego on the performance and I can imagine that some people would  criticise Ax for not breaking the mould at any point. The long cadenza at the end of the first movement was magnificent ( not sure who wrote it).

It is well known that Bruckner composed cathedrals. They were musically fairly simple and straightforward, and clearly constructed by an organist. He worked with blocks of sound and you can at times in the orchestration hear the contrasting registers and manuals of an organ in full flow . The long-breathed harmonic idiom takes a leaf out of Wagner’s book. Particularly in the seventh symphony the Austrian doesn’t seem to want to detach himself from his German idol. The symphony was dedicated to King Ludwig II, Wagner’s most important supporter.  The Adagio was composed ” in memory of the highly blessed, profoundly revered, immortal master” (i.e. Wagner, who died in Venice during the composing process).

The first movement’s 22-bar main theme (cellos, horn and violas to start with), with its ascending fourths and fifths, is reminiscent of the prelude of Das Rheingold . In the Adagio we hear for the first time the four distinctive Wagner tubas (that can also be heard in (Das Rheingold) And yet, despite these almost-quotations the seventh symphony is without a doubt a masterpiece. It is full of hummable long lines and some clever contrapuntal  treatment of the main theme. Bruckner certainly isn’t afraid of a repeat when he has found a good tune. Bruckner was deeply religious and it is claimed that you can hear it in his seventh. It is possible to stress that point, but Haitink has no truck with religion. The religious works were never Haitink’s forte. So, this interpretation was not a solemn, elegiac poem to the memory of Wagner (who died while Bruckner composed this symphony). Nor was it a played like Haitink’s symbolic Abschied to the concert stage. Haitink and the Vienna Phil actually gave a fairly straight, or rather ‘nuchter’ (that is sober with a Dutch tinge) performance. Yes, there was splendour and grief, but also a very forceful scherzo and if you closed your eyes you could have imagined the orchestra dancing its way through the finale.

As always, at least during the past 4 or 5 decades, Haitink conducted with restraint. The right hand as firm as ever,  mainly moving in front of the body. The left hand only occasionally indicating a change of dynamics, an articulation or encouragement to an individual. Haitink is also very good at picking out and signalling individual musicians with his eyes.  But there are no superfluous hand gestures, the music flows out of his arms , musicians seem to read his intentions instinctively.  Niks, geen kapsones, as they say in Dutch (no haughtiness or vanity) . After 65 years at the helm, Haitink surely is every musician’s dream conductor. And now he is almost gone (but not dead!!), leaving a huge musical space that eventually will be filled with conductors that hopefully have studied this absolute maestro in action.

A long last walk down the Royal Albert Hall corridor.
Photo:Chris Christodoulou
It's tough going when you have to do those Sibelian double stops. Pekka Kuusisto knows the highs and lows. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

WAS SIBELIUS A FOLKIE?

BBC Prom 20, August 3 2019 Violin Concerto and Symphony 5. J. Sibelius, violinist: Pekka Kuusisto, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard

Where did Sibelius find the wonderful, hummable themes and melodies for his violin concerto and his fifth symphony?  The Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard wanted to explore the possible connections between the two Sibelius compositions and the Finnish, as well as the Finnish-Swedish folk music tradition. Dausgaard approached Timo Alakotila,  a well-known Finnish folk musician and expert in that field, to work on two preludes that perhaps could point to similarities and original sources.

It is true that Sibelius studied folk music and he traveled quite extensively in Karelia to hear the old runic singers and the local musicians. But he later denied that there was any direct connection with folk music in his tone poems and symphonies, despite some titles indicating a link. We can more or less ignore the maestro’s denial because the journeys that he undertook would almost certainly have inspired him but maybe he was too proud to admit it. But Sibelius never used ethnographic methods unlike composers like Grainger and Bartok. Alakotila doesn’t claim that Sibelius cited any specific folk song in the works presented, but it is true that you can distinguish certain scales and rhythms that are common in traditional Finnish music.

Timo Alakotila at the harmonium. Vilma Timonen busy plucking the kantele. Ilona Korkonen, Minna-Liisa tammela and Taito Hoffrén are the singers.Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Minna-Liisa Tammela, Ilona Korhonen and Taito Hoffrén began by singing some wordless tunes and something reminiscent of a herding call. Alakotila accompanied on the harmonium (which is still widely used in Finnish church and folk music) and Vilma Timonen added even more typical Finnish sounds with her kantele, a small harp-like instrument that is played horizontally. The violinist Pekka Kuusisto improvised in fiddle style but would suddenly ‘jump’ into passages from the violin concerto with the orchestra joining in. There was a a snippet from a Swedish hymn (Gud fader helga denna stund, etc.) and a polka that suggested a link, but musically it wasn’t a wholly convincing argument. Who cares? It was certainly a more satisfying and smooth way of introducing the violin concerto than kicking off the evening with an overture by, say, Beethoven or a piece by Tchaikovsky.

For a long time the Sibelius family didn’t allow performances of the original (and later discarded) versions of the master’s works. Why should they? None of the first versions are better than the final product. But today we are interested in sketches, demos and alternative takes. The family already relented in the 1990s.  We didn’t get the very first version of the violin concerto which is a little but unwieldy and features a long cadenza in the style of Bach (admittedly Leonidas Kavakos has managed to make it all sound rather wonderful) . In general it is thought that the very first version had too many ideas and lacked focus.

Sibelius gives in this second version the solo violin in the opening measures ample space and doesn’t specify a rhythm. Kuusisto doesn’t go hell for leather, as many of his colleagues do. He happily sticks to the ‘dolce e espressivo’ that Sibelius suggests in the first movement. Kuusisto carefully builds up a whole world with dark undertones in the first movement. The main theme is repeated in progressively darker tones. Sibelius wrote parts of the concert while battling severe alcohol abuse. Which is not to say that anything feels like a hangover, but Kuusisto is not afraid to touch on the painful bits. There is virtuosity but probably nothing that Sibelius himself couldn’t have played. In his youth he  nearly reached the level required of a solo violinist. While composing he would on his violin try out passages at night, to his wife Aino’s delight. A century ago many top violinists struggled with the last movement’s virtuosity but  Kuusisto made it sound like a piece of cake. This is what a cake full of flavour sounds like.

Pekka favours a sweet, intimate, at times almost hesitant tone in the romantic second movement. The violin virtually dances in the rapturous third movement and it never sounds like ‘a polonaise for polar bears’, as the critic Donald Tovey put it in 1936. The darkness displayed in the first movement is successfully exorcised. I just wonder if Kuusisto has listened to Ginette Neveu’s classic (and quite slow) take on this concerto from 1946? It won the composer’s approval and I think ‘Sibbe’ would have been pretty happy with Pekka’s interpretation as well. Kuusisto delighted the audience with Sibelius’s a deeply felt Humoresk nr 4 for violin and orchestra as an encore.

The fifth symphony started off with a similar prelude to the violin concerto. Again it was quite interesting but not really particularly revealing. The folk musicians did their ‘tradidadidadi’ and the kantele plucked away at a familiar theme from the symphony, Another snippet from a Swedish-Finnish song was heard and then before we knew it, without the familiar opening of French horns and the timpani we had seamlessly gone into the first movement.

It is interesting to learn that the BBC used a passage (which one?) from this symphony as background music during the live broadcast of the moon landing 50 years ago. It is maybe not the kind of music we associate  with lunar music today (Pink Floyd, Brian Eno or other synthesizer music comes to mind), but the original version of this symphony must have sounded pretty ‘far out’ or ‘spaced out’ to the earliest audiences. It is not as comfortable a listen as the final product.

Sibelius conducted the work himself on the occasion of his 50th birthday. It took at least three years to put together a first version and he actually started working on the sixth symphony some time before before the fifth was finished. It is odd that Sibelius started tinkering with the symphony and changed much and shortened it considerably, because the first version was welcomed enthusiastically.

The ur-version (1914-15) has four movements and the first one seems to end in mid sentence.  And then the second movement also ends as suddenly. In the final version (1919) the first two movements were dovetailed. The third movement seems to have more pizzicato plucking than the final version and there is definitely not the same orchestral  lushness. The fourth and last movement is more grand and sounds even in modern ears at times disconcertingly dissonant. The 16 swans that Sibelius at one point saw doing a flyover while he was composing the last movement have over the decades been analyzed in minute  detail. I think that every swan has consequently been identified and named. OK that is a lie,  but the swan theme is firmly in place in the original, with some extra dissonances, and it returns towards the end. The real surprise comes at the very end.  The brass continues playing until the end and there are no rests nor timpani providing an explosive ta-boom!

All the BBC symphony orchestras  are now so good at playing  Sibelius, maybe thanks to the various Finnish conductors that regularly lead them, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, that used have the Finn Osmo Vänskä as their chief conductor,  is no exception.  The high standards of the BBC orchestras remain impressive.

Kuusisto came on for another encore and did what he is now  expected to do every Proms season: he got the Royal Albert Hall (packed to the rafters for this event) to hum along to a Finnish folk tune. Kuusisto is a very popular man with Proms crowd.

Henry Wood is keeping an eye on the proceedings in the background. It was he who introduced the Sibelius Violin concerto to British audiences in 1907. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

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