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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.

 

 

 

102 years in the making: the debut of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, photo:Chris Christodoulou

BERNSTEIN IN ALL HIS GLORY (SLAVA)

Prom 60, Royal Albert Hall, 27 August 2018

Does Leonard Bernstein 28 years after his death really need an advocate? In this country  we are particularly keen on celebrating or commemorating the births and deaths of composers. In March it was 100 years ago Debussy died and his music has been heard all over this scepter’d isle, this blessed plot, this England. Leonard ‘Lenny’ Bernstein was born the same year Debussy died. Lenny was not as prolific a composer as Claude, but he more than made up for it by being a very active conductor and enthusiastic pedagogue. The focus has lately been totally on Bernstein because his centenary was on the 25th of August. BBC radio 3 and the magnificent BBC Proms festival are very good at marking these kind of celebrations with concerts, documentaries and podcasts.

Bernstein is a gratifying subject because he lived so many different lives and careers simultaneously. He was a most remarkable conductor, pianist, composer, educator, humanist and political activist. There are still a great many people around that can talk about the different aspects of his character and his many talents. On YouTube you can find a seemingly endless amount of concerts conducted by the maestro. Many of his best educational programmes that he recorded for American TV are also available online. No, Bernstein is far from forgotten, but some of his compositions deserve to be played more often. And who better than Marin Alsop to look after his compositional legacy? Alsop was a protégé of Bernstein, but of course she is also a marvelous conductor in her own right. She has been the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) since 2007 and this was their debut concert at the Proms. Alsop is much loved by Proms audiences (having conducted The Last Night of the Proms twice) and the welcome she received while walking to the conductor’s rostrum was thunderous.

Bernstein's most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop is one of Bernstein’s most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou

The concert started out with a piece never heard before at a Prom. For Slava! A Political Overture (1977) Bernstein decided to incorporate two numbers from his musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had tanked the previous year on Broadway. Slava was dedicated to the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich who had just become Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Slava means glory or praise in Russian and it was also Rostropovich’s nickname. I am  sure this occasional piece is very political to the initiated, but the snippets of pre-recorded election speeches that are shouted over the music make no sense to me.  Apparently President Carter was in the audience at the premiere in 1977 and perhaps that is the most political aspect. This overture is perfectly loud, brash and entertaining but really quite inconsequential. I think it would have worked better as an encore.

After this fluffy appetizer I was ready for some music of consequence and with meaty content: Bernstein’s second symphony. Quite honestly I was unfamiliar with the work before this year’s centenary celebrations, but now I consider it one of Bernstein’s best compositions.

Bernstein told an interviewer that after having read W.H Auden’s 80-page (!) poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ the music almost immediately started to sing. The poem is mostly set in a New York bar and consists of conversations between four strangers: three men and a woman. They end up in the woman’s apartment, but two of the men leave and the third one passes out drunk. Perhaps the woman should be relieved. In many ways the main themes are loneliness and a search for meaning in a recently war-torn world. The poem was published after the war(1947) but it reflected the emptiness that many people felt after all the misery that they had experienced.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein's symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou
Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein’s symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou

Alsop and the BSO treated the Prologue with its clarinet duet with a good deal of gentleness and a sense of trepidation. The descending scale played by the flute forms the bridge to the Seven Ages: Variations 1-7 . Then we are introduced to the piano setting out a slightly dissonant melody. The piano transports us from one variation to the next, with each variation elaborating on an idea or theme from the previous one. After three or four variations it becomes clear that this really is a piano concerto in all but name. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet recorded this concert five years ago with the same orchestra and conductor. On this occasion Thibaudet’s interpretation displayed even more flair, neurosis and a sense of life’s struggle than on the recording (available on Naxos). It was a nice touch to hear the jazzy Masque scherzo (for piano, bass, timpani and percussion) played without too much stomp and bravura. This seems to signal that the carousing at the woman’s apartment is not a bacchanalian feast after all. It is certainly one of the most memorable movements in American orchestral music. One could argue that the piano represents Bernstein’s own voice and at times I thought that Thibaudet perhaps was trying to portray the composer’s multi-faceted personality in this piece, one could hear so many different shades. The Epilogue is a different beast. In the revised edition from 1965 (played here) the piano is given a cadenza that seems to suggest a sad and lonely life, but then the orchestra takes over and signals a sense of hope and it all ends with the big orchestra treatment that you will find in so many American films from the 40s and 50s. The plaintive element and “loss of faith” may dominate the symphony and therefore the optimistic spin added on at the end can seem an afterthought, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra make it all sound perfectly obvious and matter of course the way only Americans can. All in all, splendid!

The Marktkirche in Halle and the Händel statue seen from behind (lower left). Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

SAMSON AT HÄNDEL FESTSPIELE HALLE

Sunday 27 may 2018, Handel Festival Halle

The late-Gothic Ulrichskirche in Halle (Saale) has been a concert hall since the 1970s and the massive concert organ is now a bit of a feature. It is not old, but if you visit the iconic Marktkirche you can during the Händel festival in June on a daily basis hear the original Reichel organ in action. This is the very organ that Händel played in his youth. J.S.Bach also almost certainly had a go on it. Today the sound is as splendid as ever.

The famous Reichel organ in the Marktkirche in Halle. G.F. Händel played on it in his youth. Altar painting by Cranach's workshop. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The famous Reichel organ in the Marktkirche in Halle. G.F. Händel played on it in his youth. Altar painting by Cranach’s workshop. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Only a little over a month after having composed The Messiah in September 1741, Handel turned his hand to the oratorio Samson. This was an incredible feat, considering that the work is nearly 3 ½ hours long. After finishing Samson Handel left for Dublin, but he returned to London to revise the work and in February 1743 it had its premier at Covent Garden.

The Scottish Dunedin Consort have so far made critically acclaimed recordings of Handel’s The Messiah, Acis & Galatea and Esther, all conducted by their music director John Butt. They are planning to release a recording of Samson in the not too distant future. This was to be my maiden Samson and I couldn’t have wished for a better qualified ensemble.

The Ulrichskirche also seemed a perfect venue for an oratorio with a biblical story. But Handel didn’t intend his oratoria to be religious, they were simply operas on a sacred subject.

Samson includes two famous arias: ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ and ‘Total eclipse’. It helps that the story about Samson and Delilah is  well-known and not as complicated and convoluted as Handel’s opera Berenice (see https://acge.net/handel-festspiele/). The libretto by Newburgh Hamilton was a bit of a cut and paste job. The main source is John Milton’s drama Samson Agonistes, rather than the Book of Judges (which features the ‘original’ story). There are also quotes from many poems and odes by Milton, as well as bits and pieces from the Book of Psalms. But the story remains rather straightforward and sets the Israelites against the Philistines, the worshippers of false gods. This is where Mendelssohn got some of his ideas for the oratorio Elijah. Every time Samson was performed in the 1740s and 50s it turned out to be a hit.

Dunedin Consort in Halle's Ulrichskirche, which foundations were laid by the Servite friars in 1339
Dunedin Consort in Halle’s Ulrichskirche, which foundations were laid by the Servite friars in 1339. photo:Thomas Ziegler

We meet Samson in Gaza where he has been imprisoned after he has had a severe haircut and his eyes gouged out. No wonder he is bewailing his fate. It helps to know that John Milton was blind and Handel’s eyesight was beginning to fail when he composed Samson. Previously his title roles were mainly written for castrati but Samson, being a man’s man, was created for a tenor.

In this concert performance tenor Joshua Ellicott (Samson) was giving it his best shot, but in the first act it seemed that there simply weren’t enough memorable moments – apart from the aria ‘Total eclipse! – No sun, no moon!’. The plot is very static to begin with and the singers were in the opening act, with the exception of Ellicott, focusing a little bit too much on just singing. I know, this was a concert performance, but even so I could have done with a bit more interaction between the soloists. I respect that John Butt probably wants to perform the whole oratorio uncut, but in a live performance it is an unwise idea.

Jessica Dandy (Micah) is a great talent with a wonderful contralto. The role of Samson’s friend Micah was originally sang by a woman, but today a countertenor usually sings the part. Dandy placed her score on a big music stand and thereby put up an invisible barrier between herself and the audience. Her voice sounded at times underpowered and she could seem more absorbed by the music than connecting with the audience (or at least with me). I repeat, her voice is very attractive, warm and glowing like burnished bronze and with some more guidance she could become a top Handel interpreter.

Sophie Bevan (nearest to the viewer) shines as Dalila in Handel's Samson. photo; Thomas Ziegler
Sophie Bevan (nearest to the viewer) shines as Dalila in Handel’s Samson. photo; Thomas Ziegler

The soprano Sophie Bevan knows the tricks of the trade and never puts her score on the stand. She wasn’t afraid to immerse herself in the role of the two-faced Philistine Dalila. I did every now and then get that feeling, and you only get rarely in the concerts, that she was singing to me personally. Joshua Ellicott responded accordingly. Samson and Dalila’s heated exchange in the second act consequently became one of the highlights of the night. I also want to single out the bass Matthew Brook (Manoa). Samson’s father is by no means an essential character (and could be cut by at least a third) but Brook  squeezed every bit of tenderness out of the role that you could wish for. The nine soloists also doubled as chorus of Israelites, Philistines and Virgins.

Handel scored Samson for a large orchestra and there was some particularly brilliant individual playing. The solo trumpet in ‘Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound’ and ‘Let the bright seraphim’ was outstanding. Butt directed from the harpsichord, but much of the time he was standing while at the same time playing the keyboard. He kept the pacing fairly crisp and was not tempted to speed too much in the final act. Dunedin Consort is Scotland’s finest when it comes to Handel and Bach, but sometimes they perhaps need to be less of a slave to the material. My advice is once more: omit parts of the ponderous first act!

Dunedin Consort will perform Samson at the Edinburgh Festival

https://www.dunedin-consort.org.uk/diary/handels-samson-2/

Joyce DiDonato with il pomo d'oro at the Händel Festspiele

WAR AND PEACE IN HALLE, DIDONATO WINS

Händel Festspiele Halle 2018,  26 May, 2018 Georg-Friedrich Händel Halle

Correct me if I am wrong, but surely the Kansas-born mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is our generation’s biggest opera diva. On top of that a prima donna who doesn’t put on any airs. The opposite is true. She gives a lot of time to good causes and is genuinely interested in working with young singers. She also believes that “Art is a valiant path to peace”. But I struggle to conceal my cynicism when the audience is handed a Hallmark invitation card  at the entrance of the concert hall in Halle with a personal greeting from DiDonato. It contains  a few thoughts about discord and harmony and the belief that art unifies.  And then she poses a question which she hopes that we find time to answer and post in the box provided for that purpose : “…in the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?’ I have to confess that I didn’t fill in an answer. I let DiDonato’s singing do the talking.

On her whirlwind tour to two cities in the former East Germany DiDonato also found time to pick up a couple of awards. Halle is Handel’s birthplace and DiDonato, who is the composer’s foremost interpreter in the US, was given the town’s prestigious Händel-Preis. This price doesn’t include a remuneration, it is simply a mark of distinction. Two days later DiDonato appeared in Dresden (which lies 130 km further east), where another splendid music festival is taking place simultaneously as the Handel festival . The Glashütte Original MusikFestspielPreis (offered by a local watchmaker) does come with a decent sum of money, € 25,000. DiDonato decided to donate the prize money to El Sistema Greece, an organisation that provides regular music education for children who live in refugee camps in Hellas (Greece).

Yes, proof, if needed, that DiDonato is not only an internationally acclaimed opera star, but also has plenty of heart.

DiDonato wants your response ©️Brooke Shaden
DiDonato wants your response ©️Brooke Shaden

The modern Georg-Friedrich-Händel Halle in Halle rarely gets used during the festival (see also my previous blog from the festival). Its capacity is greater than the audience numbers that most of the Händel festival concerts and performances attract. Joyce DiDonato and Il pomo d’oro have no problem filling the large concert and congress hall. People fly from all over the world to see DiDonato perform.

When the audience enters the auditorium the artist is already on stage, albeit in the shadows upstage left and therefore many audience members don’t spot her straight away. She is dressed in clobber designed by Vivienne Westwood but not as heavily made up as she is on the cover of the CD ‘In War and Peace, harmony through music’(2016). Clearly visible in the foreground, and naked from the waist up, sits a dancer on the floor, face down. A low hum can be heard through the sound system. This sets the serious and solemn mood of the concert. Unfortunately the audience starts to clap when the orchestra enters and that upsets the momentum temporarily. DiDonato has together with the film director Ralf Pleger created a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk in which voice, music, dance, costumes and lighting design are meant to come together. I have my doubts about the necessity of this concept. If DiDonato was a lesser singer I would perhaps welcome this approach, but I ‘d rather concentrate on her voice and watch the excellent orchestra than be distracted by a lone dancer and the occasional flickering lighting effects.

The recording of ‘In War and Peace’ features even (out of fifteen arias)  by Handel. In this concert she presented in total nine arias and a song (by Richard Strauss and not featured on the album). Six were composed by Handel.

The first half of the concert concentrated on five different heroines who are embroiled in deadly conflicts. The arias all deal in one way or another with war.

In the opening DiDonato flung herself into ‘Scenes of horror, scenes of woe’ aria from Handel’s oratorio Jephtha. The audience luckily cottoned on pretty quickly to the fact that they were not meant to clap after every song. There was a superb , slowly intensifying rendition of Henry Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’. The mezzo-soprano turned this lament a few years ago into a tribute to victims of intolerance and injustice when she performed it in The Stonewall Inn, the famous gay bar in Greenwich Village.

Sitting on the stage she finished the first half of the concert with a very fine, pianissimo and lentissimo rendition of ‘Lascia, ch’io pianga mia cruda sorte’ (from the opera Rinaldo).

DiDonato can create magic out of thin air ©️Brooke Shaden
DiDonato can create magic out of thin air ©️Brooke Shaden

Throughout the concert Il pomo d’oro performed a number of instrumentals to allow DiDonato’s voice some rest in between arias. This was an opportunity for the orchestra (and the dancer) to shine. Il pomo d’oro play on period instruments and they mainly specialise in opera. Emilio de Cavalieri considered that his work Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo (1600) was the very first opera and that was reason enough for the ensemble to give us the sinfonia from that work.

The young Russian Maxim Emelyanychev, who next year will become the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal conductor, put Il pomo d’oro through its paces. Maxim conducts with gusto, occasionally jumping up from his harpsichord to stress a bar, a note here and there.. He also turned out to be very adept at playing the cornetto. An even bigger surprise came in the second half when Anna Fusek, one of the second violinists, got up from her seat to join DiDonato downstage. Fusek proceeded to play the tricky soprano flute solo in Handel’s charming aria Augelletti (Little birds, you who sing, Little zephyrs, you who breathe) from Rinaldo!

Joyce DiDonato doing her best Stevie Nicks impression ©️Brooke Shaden
Joyce DiDonato doing her best Stevie Nicks impression ©️Brooke Shaden

in the second half of the concert DiDonato returns barfoot. The second half is supposedly devoted to peace, but Purcell’s ‘They tell us that you mighty powers above’ (from The Indian Queen) is sung by the Inca Princess Orazia while she is waiting to be put to death together with her lover, the Aztec Montezuma. DiDonato and the orchestra perform this piece at speed as if there is no time to lose for contemplation. It is rather odd that on her album this aria is featured in the War section. There is more Handel with the virtuous Susanna bathing naked in ‘Crystal streams in murmurs flowing’ (from the oratorio Susanna). But this peaceful scene will after this aria be disturbed when the two dirty old men, that have perved on her, reveal themselves and demand sex.

DiDonato’s encore is Handel’s well-known Dopo Notte which is not included on the War and Peace album. But after a concert with much darkness and turmoil it is wholly appropriate to end on a positive note. because indeed: Dopo notte, attra e funesta, splende in ciel piu vago il sole (After night, dark and mournful, the sun shines more radiantly).

Svitlana Slyvia (Selene), Filippo Mineccia (Demetrio) get ready to share a selfie with the Halle audience.

BERENICE FINALLY CONQUERS HÄNDEL FESTSPIELE

The Handel festival has taken place on an annual basis in the composer’s birthplace Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, since 1952. This year’s premiere of the original Italian version of the opera Berenice means that all of Georg Friedrich Händel’s 42 operas have been staged in Halle, which is a feat that no other city can boast (according to the festival organisers). This Handel festival (there are two others in Germany)  features many local productions, but this year some of the baroque genre’s most celebrated singers are visiting Halle : Joyce DiDonato, Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann and Max Emanuel Cencic are among the solo performers.

An anti-German clique, absurdly with the support of the Prince of Wales (an Hanoverian!), started the Opera of the Nobility company in London. Händel’s company, the Royal Academy of Music, couldn’t compete with the star-studded casts that the upstarts presented. This caused Handel a lot of stress and a month before the premiere of Berenice, Regina d’Egitto in 1737 the composer suffered a mild stroke or possibly even a heart attack. This meant that he neither conducted or attended the premiere of the new work. It is often reported that the opera was a failure with the public but there is no actual evidence of that. But it is a fact that the work until recently was rarely performed and was dismissed by most experts. The minuet from the overture continued to be popular in versions for different instruments.  eleven years later Handel included the sinfonia from the third act in the overture to the famous Music for the Royal Fireworks.

 Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) is slumming it
Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) is slumming it © Anna Kolata

The subject of this opera seria in three acts is the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra Berenice III. The libretto is only very vaguely based on historical facts. Rome, which rules over Egypt, wants Berenice for political reasons to marry her stepson Alessandro, who has actually fallen in love with her. The queen on the other hand loves Demetrio, but he is already romantically involved with her sister Selene. And to complicate it all there is the Egyptian prince Arsace who is in love with Selene. What ensues is a classic tale of thwarted romances and erotic encounters.

Berenice doesn’t display the musical fireworks that you can find in some other Händel operas and by his standards it is a fairly restrained piece. In that sense this  exuberant staging at the Halle Opera seems to suggests the opposite.

The Berenice possie get ready for a groupfie
The Berenice possie get ready for a groupfie © Anna Kolata

Director Jochen Biganzoli sets the action firmly in today’s self(ie)-obsessed world. One can see parallels with vainglorious circles during the Baroque period, but this production at times works a little bit too hard at dragging the plot into modern times. The costumes are a mixture of contemporary and historic but the set is modern. Handel’s operas and oratorio have a tendency of becoming rather static and this is where the revolving stage comes to  good use, particularly when it turns fast like a carousel with the characters chasing after each other through adjacent rooms. But the backdrop, which projects a mixture of various news media updates and messages sent in various forms between the characters, is in the long run a terribly distracting concept. It works for half an hour and then it gets tedious. Biganzoli charges the piece with narcissist and voyeuristic aspects and he is right in stressing sex as a political weapon

If you want to stay with the spirit of this opera it is closer to the Age of Enlightenment than our modern media age. But Biganzoli’s argument for a total visual overhaul of the plot is, all told, pretty successful.

With the risk of sounding patronising I was surprised by the high standard of some of the Halle Opera ensemble’s own singers. The soprano Romelia Lichtenstein might be slightly too old for the role of  queen Berenice but her voice shows no signs of aging. She was splendidly furious in the Traditore, traditore aria and effortlessly nailed the bravura aria Chi t’intende which ends up as a duet between queen and the oboe. It was the production’s highlight and most tender moment when Romelia, dangling her legs in the orchestra pit, sat next to the standing (and rather brilliant) oboist. It all ended comically with the pair sharing a selfie.

Ki-Hyun Park (Aristobolo) and the burlesque dancers
Ki-Hyun Park (Aristobolo) and the burlesque dancers do their thing. © Anna Kolata

Berenice’s sister Selene is turned into a comical character with a strong sex drive. The Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Svitlana Slyvia handles all that is thrown at her by the director with aplomb (including the heavily tattooed look) and it could easily have become a 3D printout of a cutout cardboard, but Slyvia manages to give the role plenty of depth. This in-house production features a number of guest stars. Demetrio is the most multi-facetted male character: he plots against Berenice, together with her younger sister Selene, while at the same time pretending to be the queen’s lover. The Italian countertenor Filippo Mineccia portrays the  jealousy and lust for vengeance in the Su Megera, tesifone, aletto! aria very well. Demetrio’s Si, tra i ceppi aria is easily the opera’s most recognisable and here Mineccia didn’t let us down either. His rather ridiculous cool-lover-man act was greatly helped by his silly Kenny G perm wig.

I expect in the near future to hear more from Samuel Mariño, the young Venezuelan countertenor with a soprano voice. He more or less stole the show and got the biggest and longest applause at the end. His lovelorn Alessandro walked around with a naive smile while  clinging on to a giant coke with a straw. It was almost inevitable that this little-boy-lost would win the queen’s hand in the end. In the voice department  Mariño could still learn a trick or two, but he already has a remarkably assured stage presence and is still fairly inexperienced.

Conductor Jörg Halubeck doesn’t let the, at times frantic, action on stage affect the music and he keeps the very competent Handelfestspielorchester der Staatskapelle Halle in check. Handel’s arrangement was only for strings, oboes and basso continuo (in this case a harpsichord) and why Halubeck (?) deemed it necessary to add some modern style percussive effects to the score, is not clear. The score is quite descriptive as it is and  I think it suffices that  mobile ringtones played on harpsichord and other instruments have been added for comical effect.

But I do recommend you catching this production, particularly with this cast in place.

There will be two more performances during the Händel festival: June 2 and 7 at the Oper Halle.

The Paris-based Eric Philippe, who can be seen in the picture, devoted his whole stand to Finnish design, photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Scandinavian paintings at Tefaf

In the good ol’ days every Broadway show had weeks of previews out in the sticks. The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) only needed two previews to get it right. TEFAF Maastricht, 8-18 March 2018, see also my previous blog.

Despite some early grumblings the new arrangements that Tefaf Maastricht put in place turned out to be a resounding success. The Early Access Day (8 March) and the following (admittedly less prestigious) Preview Day setup led to an increase in sales and more room for serious collectors, museum curators and myself to have a look around. The corridors of the exhibition space were  slightly widened, which also was a subtle improvement.

The temporary oyster shack in front of Helmer Osslund's View from Storberget, Nordingrå. Photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

Early Access Day and the temporary oyster shack is hitched in front of Helmer Osslund’s View from Storberget, Nordingrå. Photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The positive feedback from the exhibitors was essential, but a pleasant bonus was the fact that the number of museum representatives visiting the fair also reached a new high. Which other antique fair can claim to attract some 300 curators and representatives from the world’s most prestigious museums? On top of that some 60,000 paying visitors came to Tefaf over the nine days that followed the previews.

In my previous blog I already mentioned and posted a picture of ‘Lilacs’ by Vincent van Gogh which was sold by Hammer Galleries. It probably became the fair’s most expensive artwork selling for a sum close to €7,7 million. The magnificent Bulgari Clock, which I also featured previously, is likely to have come a close second on the top sales list. Rumour has it that it sold in the region of €7,5 million. It remains guesswork because a few galleries are sticking with their opaque policy of not revealing prices. When it comes to transparency there is still room for improvement at Tefaf . A couple of gallery owners have told me that their insurance company stop them from publicising prices. In that case we need to get on to the insurance companies.

In this final blog about the Tefaf art fair I will look at some Scandinavian artworks that were on offer in Maastricht.

‘A trunk and pine trees, landscape at Hyvinge’ (1914) by Helene Schjerfbeck (€ 220,000) was offered by the Munich dealer Daxer & Marschall. Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is undoubtedly Finland’s most well-known artist. She studied in France, and briefly also in St. Ives. She was influenced by the Symbolist movement, but Cézanne, Manet and Degas also made an impact on her work. This oil and charcoal painting (see picture) was made in the artist’s home town of Hyvinge, where she had moved in 1902 together with her mother.

Landskap och tallar, ett landskap från Hyvinge (1914), Helene Schjerfbeck, photo:Albert ehrnrooth
Landskap och tallar, ett landskap från Hyvinge (1914), Helene Schjerfbeck, photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The delicate composition with the pink tree trunk in the foreground is reminiscent of Japanese woodblocks. But where had I seen this picture before, quite recently? A little googling did the trick. It went  under the hammer at Uppsala Auktionskammare last June for €80.000.

The same gallery also had a very fine interior by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916). It is a reasonably early work (1895), painted before his grey-toned, tranquil scenes of home life became almost over-familiar.

Pigen dækker bord (Maid setting the table) by Vilhelm Hammershøi features an armoire that could be harboring some dark secrets....photo:Albert Ehrnrooth
Pigen dækker bord (Maid setting the table) by Vilhelm Hammershøi features an armoire that could be harboring some dark secrets….photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The maid setting the table has a dynamic air about her unlike all those reading and contemplating women in other Hammershøi pictures. This painting has an interesting provenance for Swedish readers. The writer and publicist Olof Lagercrantz used to own this work. The price: €650,000.

Dickinson displayed a slightly intriguing,  small-scale portrait of  Queen Christina of Sweden (1661) by Wolfgang Heimbach. Christina is posing with a crown and orb, while holding some sort of baton.

Where this painting of the abdicated Queen Christina is set remains unclear, but she is no Greta Garbo. photo: Alnert Ehrnrooth
Where this painting of the abdicated Queen Christina is set remains unclear, but she is no Greta Garbo. Note that she is wearing men’s shoes. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Slightly curious because she had abdicated and moved to Rome seven years before this portrait was painted.  Kristina, that was the spelling of her name before she converted to Catholicism, was among many other things an avid art collector. She received a stash of priceless paintings when the collection of the Holy Emperor Rudolf II was seized by the victorious Swedes at the end of the Thirty Year War in 1648. She continued to add to that collection and acquired works by among others Raphael and Titian. Unfortunately this treasure  was dispersed.  According to London–based Dickinson this painting has been in the same collection for a long time and was last exhibited in 1966.

Helmer Osslund is seen in sweden as an early modernist.Before the storm (1910).
Helmer Osslund is seen in Sweden as an early modernist. Before the storm (1910).

Helmer Osslund was deeply influenced by synthetism, a style closely associated with Paul Gauguin. Osslund’s panorama landscapes depicting beloved views in the (old) northern province of Ångermanland remain popular, at least in Sweden. Galerie Michel Descours did manage to sell Osslund’s expressionistic Before the storm (1910). I am not sure if the Swedish art  gallery Åmells sold Osslund’s more typical and autumnal View from Storberget (see second picture from the top).
This year Verner Åmells’ pièce de résistance was Cleopatra (1883) by Julius Kronberg, which until recently hung in a Swedish manor house. Its size and theatricality makes it ideally suited as a backdrop for an old fashioned touring production of Händel’s opera Giulio Cesare or a revival of a 1898 actor-manager production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Gazing up at the vast expanse of canvas I am not too surprised that Kronberg is today largely forgotten, but many Swedish people have unwittingly seen his work either at the Royal Palace, Hallwylska Museum or the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.

TEFAF Highlight: Cleopatra by Julius Kronberg @amellsfineartdealer
Do you like it large? This is super-large. Cleopatra by Julius Kronberg, 410x225cm.

Åmells also offered Inferno, painted by the writer August Strindberg’s. This work now seems to do the rounds as it was auctioned only last year at Bukowskis for €1,9 million. We are given a visual glimpse of the author’s inner demons. He wrote an autobiographical novel (in French initially, not Swedish) titled Inferno in 1896-97 and the painting was  conceived a few years later.

Strindberg was not really a painter. But he could express himself with paint. Although his Inferno laways reminds me of a waterfall. An infernal waterfall.
Strindberg was not really a painter. But he could express himself with paint. His Inferno effort always reminds me of a waterfall. An infernal waterfall.

Axel Törneman’s full frontal nude ‘Modell i blått’(1915) appeared at Ambrose Naumann’s gallery.  I should perhaps mention that at Uppsala Auktionskammare the hammer price for this quite attractive painting (the breasts were surely modeled after bowling balls?) last year was 26.000 SEK (€ 2,500). And that price came in  below the estimate. I am not sure what Ambrose is playing at, but he is offering the blue model for $30,000. Ambrose is the son of the well-known art dealer Otto Naumann (who has retired).

No Finnish gallery has ever exhibited at Tefaf, despite the ever increasing popularity of classic 20th century Finnish design. I spotted ceramics by Birger Kaipiainen’s and Paavio Tynell’s lamps in at least three different galleries. Paris-based  Eric Philippe is an early devotee of Finnish furniture. This year he devoted his whole stand to eleven Finnish designers. He was particularly proud of the two chandeliers (see picture) by Tynell, pointing out that only three pieces were ever produced. Eric declined, with a perfectly charming smile, to reveal the price for the pair.

Two chandeliers(1954) by PaavoTynell, they were produced for the club house of the paper mill Myllykoski
Two chandeliers(1954) by PaavoTynell, they were produced for the club house of the paper mill Myllykoski

TEFAF New York Spring will be at Park Avenue Armory,  4-8 May

Medici and Westminster Pietre Dure Tabletop designed by Giorgio Vasari at Robiland + Voena gallery, photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

THE BUCKET LIST ANTIQUE FAIR

Behind the glass there are  some 12,000 orchids, buttercups and various other pink and white flowers that seem to drift in a nine metre wide cloud. Every year the entrance to The European Fine Art Fair  (TEFAF) in Maastricht  is turned into a horticultural masterpiece by Ten Kate Flowers. Visitors pose eagerly against this spectacular floral backdrop and the display is on a par with what is on offer at the fair.

The entrance to the fair is an ideal backdrop for selfies and hobby posers. ©albertehrnrooth

In the run-up to the opening day of TEFAF (8-18 March), the Dutch papers were reporting quite extensively about the new arrangements. Instead of one preview day, there are now two. The newly christened ‘Early Access Day’ is reserved for super-VIPs with a maximum of 5,000 attendees. The second so-called ‘Preview Day’, sees 7,000 invitees inspect the antiques, modern and contemporary artworks on offer. In previous years the single preview day was the busiest of the whole fair with up to 10,000 visitors. But gallery owners complained that too many people were predominantly interested in the free finger food, the alcohol beverages and the party atmosphere. The buying public, serious collectors and museum representatives clearly became tired of having to slalom their way between finger-licking and wine-swigging attendees to get to the next booth.

The new chairman of the Tefaf foundation, Nanne Dekkinga, has introduced some changes that already have had an effect. From now on, only the privileged 5,000 that have an invitation for the first day will receive complimentary food and champagne, whereas the preview day guests just get the non-alcoholic beverages for free. It is up to the gallery owners, who hand out most of the invitations, to weigh up which clients deserve to be called VIPs. Inevitably the (second) Preview Day tickets will feel like ‘second rung’ tickets. The gallery owners  (who were complaining) have stopped complaining, because it turns out that sales were up for the opening day, despite some grumblings from B-list guests. (Somebody told me that many invitees on the second day are Dutch celebrities). Well, enough about this A- or B-list business and on to the real matters at hand:  some of my favourite highlights on offer at this year’s fair and a look at some of the sales that already have been achieved.

The Bulgari Clock truly is a Gesamtkunstwerk, photo:Albert Ehrnrooth
The Bulgari Clock truly is a Gesamtkunstwerk, photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The 31st edition of Tefaf sees  275 dealers representing 21 countries. A few days before the fair starts nearly 190 experts grouped in 29 committees check every single object to make sure that it is what it says on the label. The vetting at Tefaf is extremely stringent.

J. Kugel takes pride of place and has done so at every fair since the Paris-based gallery started coming to Maastricht in the early 1990s.  They are a perfect representative of the exceptional standards that Tefaf likes to show off.  Alexis and Nicolas Kugel are the fifth generation of antique dealers that originally came from Russia. Antique furniture may have lost some of its allure but high-end antiques are still in demand and Kugel mostly offers museum quality furniture, clocks and objets de vertu.

The Death group on top of the Bulgari Clock rotates every hour, photo: albertehrnrooth
The Death group on top of the baroque Bulgari Clock rotates every hour, photo: albertehrnrooth

This year their standout piece is the Bulgari Clock (pictured right), an ivory and silver-gilt astronomical clock (Augsburg 1637-39). It is a perfect example of a collaborative effort involving the work of goldsmiths, an ivory carver and a clockmaker. Depicted are the Seasons, the Planets, the Elements, Death, Venus as well as some other exquisitely carved reliefs. So here we are at the top end of the fair in one of the most prominent  booths. But straight away I’d like to take you to the far end of the fair where the tiny (11 m2) ‘Showcase’ booths are located.  The Showcase section is a platform for smaller galleries and a chance to try out a seat at the big table. The rare and antiquarian books dealer, Camille Sourget, is also Paris-based.  She has applied a few times in the past and  finally made the grade. The rent is relatively cheap at the far end (€8500 a booth), but the space is very limited. This hasn’t stopped Camille from creating a very inviting and colourful display for bibliophiles like myself. She shows me Abraham Ortelius’s magnificent ‘Theatrum Orbis Terrarum'(1570) atlas (€230,000). She has already sold William Lewin’s beautifully illustrated and fantastically titled ‘The Birds of Great Britain with their Eggs, accurately figured’ (1789-1794). It contains 232 original gouaches and sold in the region of €88,000. Two other volumes containing hand-coloured plates of birds have also found a new owner. Camille inherited her shop from her father; “because he didn’t have a son” she says laughing heartily.  Camille has had a very successful week and I am sure that she will try to get a place in the main section next year.  But she will have to consider if it is  worth the price (€100,000 a booth).

The colourful Camille Sourget has a rare and antiquarian bookshop in Paris well worth a visit, photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The colourful Camille Sourget has a rare and antiquarian bookshop in Paris well worth a visit, photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

I always spend two days at the fair but never feel that I have seen everything. When I talk to colleagues they will always mention something that I have clearly missed, which can be quite frustrating.  But it was difficult to miss one of two van Goghs. I think ‘Lilacs’ (1887) is fairly unremarkable oil painting but admittedly the colours are very vivid and expressive. Hammer Galleries from New York sold it to a private collector for a sum in the region of €7.7 million.

Would I buy this painting if I saw it at a local auction (without the van Gogh signature)? Probably not, although I might have bought it for the frame. Lilacs by Vincent van Gogh, photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Would I buy this painting if I saw it at a local auction (without the van Gogh signature)? Probably not, although I might have bought it for the frame. Lilacs by Vincent van Gogh, photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Finally a couple of personal favourites from a long list. On Instagram (see pictures on the right)  I have already published a number of pictures of artworks that caught my eye.

Paul Gauguin stayed for nine weeks with Vincent in the Yellow House in Arles in 1888 . For a while they did feed off each other and van Gogh was particularly prolific, but it all ended when the unhinged Vincent sliced off part of his ear. The two leopards were probably studied by Gauguin when a Grande Ménagerie visited Arles. We know that Gauguin made several other sketches of exotic animals on that occasion. The sleeping Tahitian woman must have been added later. On the verso is a self-portrait in profile with studies of two Breton women.

This is a page from a sketchbook by Paul Guaguin. Other pages fdo turn up occasionally at auctions. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Watercolour, pen and brown ink study. This is a page from a sketchbook by Paul Guaguin. Other pages do turn up occasionally at auctions. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The Tödlein (little death) figure in the picture below is dressed as a pilgrim. There are all kinds of creepy crawlies burrowing into his rotting and sinewy body. The Austrian Balthasar Permoser may have sculpted it around 1685. Munich-based Julius Böhler is hoping to get €850,000. This memento mori made out of boxwood was owned by the operatic baritone, Titta Ruffo, who was a colleague of the Great Caruso. Listen to his very solid rendition of O vin, discaccia la tristezza from Ambroise Thomas’s opera,  Hamlet, by clicking here  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpC2v8VbQWI

These memento mori Tödlein figures were quite 'popular' during the 15th century and the baroque. Height 38 cm photo: albertehrnrooth
These memento mori Tödlein figures were quite ‘popular’ during the 15th century and the baroque. Height 38 cm photo: albertehrnrooth

 

Tefaf finishes on Sunday 18 March, but I will bring you another update before long.

Look out for the two Tefaf fairs in New York: May 4-8, 2018 – Park Avenue Armory and October 27-31 at the same venue.

 

Axel Gallén's Lake Keitele (1905) may seem like a straightforward lake view, but there is much more to it. National Gallery, London

GALLÉN’S LAKE KEITELE AT THE THE NATIONAL GALLERY

Review of exhibition Lake Keitele, a vision of Finland at National Gallery, London. Until 4 February 2018.

Have you ever heard of the Finnish artist Axel Gallén? Or does Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1930) ring a bell? I am impressed if you recognise one of the names, because Axel and Akseli are one and the same person. I’ll explain later.

Outside of Finland and Sweden Akseli Gallen-Kallela is today virtually unknown, but a century ago the respectable Uffizi Gallery in Florence commissioned his self-portrait. He was considered to be Finland’s leading artist and internationally reasonably well-known. Together with the composer Jean Sibelius, his exact contemporary and friend, Gallén was also seen as one of the major contributors to the narrative of the awakening Finnish nationhood. But after the Finnish Civil War (1918) Gallen-Kallela’s work became uneven in quality and he found it hard to adapt or even appreciate all the new and modern styles of painting that conquered the major capitals of Europe.

The National Gallery, (NG), in London has two excellent reasons to draw attention to Gallen-Kallela. The museum acquired in 1999, a very fine landscape,  or more correctly lakescape, by Axel Gallén. It remains the only Finnish work in their collection. The second, and most important, reason for staging this exhibition at this point in time is the fact that it coincides with the centenary of Finland’s independence (6 December, 1917).
The National Gallery’s exhibition ‘Lake Keitele, a vision of Finland’ is staged in room no.1 and can be visited for free until 4 February 2018. There are thirteen works on display and in all of them a lake features in one way or another. There are four paintings with the title Lake Keitele and they all depict the same subject, except for some minor variations. The picture owned by the NG is, despite it not being the first version, the finest of the four.  Painted in 1905, it shows a panorama view of a lake with an island in the middle ground and the opposite shore in the distance. The sky is barely visible but it is mirrored in the water. Intriguing and slightly mysterious are the diagonal and geometric patterns caused by the wind on the vast expanse of water.
You could admire this image like a perfect picture postcard of a Finnish lake at the height of summer. And yes, it is first and foremost an ode to nature. But the sun is shining but the blue and green colours are not particularly warm, so perhaps something else is going on as well? The cool and silvery colours and the sense of isolation hint at a Symbolist message.
Axel Gallén (officially – he changed his name in 1907 to Akseli Gallen-Kallela,  had previously painted a number of works that suggested an allegorical voyage. The island Haapasaari in the Lake Keitele picture would have reminded many contemporary people of the famous painting Isle of the Dead by the Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin. Prints of the painting were mass-produced and it was a common sight in many middle-class homes.

Another factor that needs to be taken into account when looking at Lake Keitele is Axel Gallén’s interest in the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. He painted many scenes from that collection of poems in the 1890s which established him at home as a firm favourite. His international recognition came in 1900 when some of his furniture and fabrics were exhibited in the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair. His four Kalevala-themed frescoes made a big impression as well and he received two silver and one gold medal for his works.

The Oceanides (1909) are the daughters of Oceanus. This painting shows influences from the Fauve or Die Brücke movement Photo:Finnish National Gallery/Janne Mäkinen
The Oceanides (1909) are the daughters of Oceanus. This painting shows influences from the Fauve or Die Brücke movement
Photo:Finnish National Gallery/Janne Mäkinen

The Kalevala was put together in the 1830’s by the physician and linguist, Elias Lönnrot, who made many field trips to Finland’s most eastern province, Karelia. He gathered many ancient songs and poems that previously had only been passed on orally. We can’t be sure how much of The Kalevala consists of traditional material and what Lönnrot made up himself to construct  an overarching story resembling a creation myth on a legendary scale. (Lönnrot had gathered stories and poems on his many field trips that weren’t all necessarily part of the same narrative. ) After the publication of The Kalevala in 1835, it was very quickly recognised as the most important work written in the Finnish language. It also gave the Finnish independence and language movement a strong sense of identity.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, as he is constantly referred to in the exhibition, kept returning to The Kalevala myths throughout his career (with the exception of the years he spent in Africa).
There are no figures in the Lake Keitele paintings but Gallén (the only name with which he signed these works) hinted that something else was going on, apart from a  view of a beautiful lake in the middle of Finland. Gallén stated that the steel-grey geometrical patterns across the lake, caused by wind and underwater currents, also suggest something else; the traces that Väinämöinen’s copper boat has left. Väinämöinen is a wise hero with an enchanting singing voice and magical powers . He is also forever on the look-out for a wife. So, we are to assume that Väinämöinen has rowed past several times in the picture, leaving silvery wakes up and down the lake. If that interpretation was what Gallén intended, then so be it.

There is a third, ‘nationalistic’ interpretation of the Lake Keitele painting. Listen to the curator of the exhibition, Anne Robbins’ explanation:

The artist's wife Mary Gallén on the lakeshore at Lintula with Keitele in the background, Gallen-Kallela Museum, photo: Tuukka UUsitalo
The artist’s wife Mary Gallén on the lakeshore at Lintula with Keitele in the background, Gallen-Kallela Museum, photo: Tuukka UUsitalo

Finland was still part of the Russian empire (until 1917), but as an autonomous Grand Duchy (the Tsar was in principle Grand Duke and not Tsar in Finland); Finland retained a reasonable amount of independence and its own Diet (legislative assembly). Tsar Alexander III started to change all that by trying to force Slavic values on the Finns. This Russification process intensified under Nicholas II and began to seriously undermine Finland’s autonomy. Nationalist movements grew rapidly and various political parties, that previously had had little in common, now found common ground in their resistance against the Russification campaigns. I could write a number of blogs on this subject (see also my previous blog), but in this context I just want to reiterate that Gallen-Kallela was seen as the foremost artistic representative of the nationalist movement.

Rouse Thyself Finland! (1896) The original version of Sibelius's tone poem Finlandia had the same title. Stained glass. Gallen Kallela Museum, photo: Hannu Aaltonen
Rouse Thyself Finland! (1896) The original version of Sibelius’s tone poem Finlandia had the same title. Stained glass. Gallen Kallela Museum, photo: Hannu Aaltonen

The exhibition includes an early stained glass design which contains a fairly obvious political message. It shows a massive white rose (Finland’s heraldic symbol) rising over a lake landscape. The title alone, Rouse Thyself Finland!, would have given the authorities a fair idea of what the subject is realy about. T

The rest of the paintings are mainly decorative, but there is a lovely portrait of Axel’s wife, Mary Slöör (see picture above) with Lake Keitele in the background, which provides evidence of the fine portraitist that Gallén was.

This small, but informative exhibition begs the question; isn’t it about time for the National Gallery to devote a major show to  art from the Northern countries?

FINLAND CELEBRATES ITS CENTENARY

The BBC Symphony Orchestra with its Finnish chief conductor Sakari Oramo at the helm will perform an all-Sibelius programme at the Barbican hall in London on the 6th of December. This is a significant date for a small state that on this very day celebrates 100 years of independence.

Finland had been a part of Russia since 1809 and had for a long time benefited from a fair amount of autonomy.  The Finns were  for almost 90 years quite content with the Russian domination, but during the latter part of the reign of Emperor Nicholas II (yes, the Tsar was called Emperor in Finland), the russification programme of the Grand Duchy intensified.
The imminent defeat of the Russians during the First World War opened up an opportunity for complete secession from the union. After the Bolsheviks, in November 1917, had seized power in Petrograd, the Finnish parliament moved very quickly. There was real danger of a red revolution and a general strike was called in Finland. Luckily parliament managed to gain some measure of control.
On 4 December, while the ‘red’ revolutionary forces were staging protests outside the Senate,  a draft was submitted to Parliament. Two days later a fairly basic declaration of independence was added to the draft.  The general reaction from the public was lukewarm. There were no big celebrations on 6 December 1917.
Lenin recognised the sovereignty of Finland on New Year’s Eve and most other major countries followed suit. Great Britain and the United States, on the other hand, were more cautious and only after much lobbying did they give their recognition in the spring of 1919.

The Finnish Civil War, which was an extremely bloody affair, broke out in January 1918. The true scale of the horrors committed by both the ‘Reds‘ and the ‘Whites‘ led to much bitterness, which unfortunately still lingers on, unresolved, in some people’s minds.  Let us hope that the centenary celebrations will finally put an end to the old divisions.

he BBC SO conducted by Sakari Oramo with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on piano perform Schmitt: symphony No.2, Franck: Symphonic Variations, Ravel: Piano Concerto for the left hand, Sibelius: Symphony No.3 in the Barbican Hall on Friday, 27 October 2017. Photo by Mark Allan/BBC
The BBC SO conducted by Sakari Oramo with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on piano perform  Ravel: Piano Concerto for the left hand and bent leg,  27 October 2017.
Photo by Mark Allan/BBC

The Brits have more than paid back for their initial reluctance to recognise Finland’s independence. Many orchestras have, or have had, Finnish chief or principal conductors over the years.  Paavo Berglund and Osmo Vänskä  have come and gone, but Esa-Pekka Salonen, (Philharmonia Orchestra), John Storgårds (chief guest conductor with BBC Phil) and Sakari Oramo are still very much active in this country.
Tonight’s programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oramo opens with Sibelius’ Press Celebrations Music, written in 1899 as a quiet protest to the russification and censorship that was starting to affect Finnish culture. The original music was not published until almost a centenary after the first performance.  This will be the UK premiere of the work. The last movements of this  partly reconstructed and quite rarely performed suite  were some months later reworked by Sibelius and became the now well known tone poem, Finlandia.
You can find more on the history of the Press Celebrations Music here: http://www.sibelius.fi/english/musiikki/nayttamo_sanoma.htm

The very talented Guy Johnston, former BBC Young Musician of the Year,  takes the solo part in Cantique and Devotion for cello and orchestra, 1914-15. This work can either be played by a solo violin or cello with orchestra (small or large) and it has been suggested that it originally may have been intended as church music.  Sibelius composed it while he was stuck in Finland, because of the war, and in dire need of money. But it is by no means a quickly churned out work to satisfy his publisher. The concert ends with Sibelius’ Symphony No.1 in the version first performed in Berlin in 1900. These are the original programmatic titles for the movements:
I          A cold, cold wind is blowing from the sea.
II        The pine of the North is dreaming of the palm of the South.
III       A Winter’s Tale.
IV      Jorma’s heaven.

It is difficult to hear any of these suggestive titles in the final work – but I think we can all agree that it  is a rousing, fiery and romantic work showing clear influences from Tchaikovsky and Berlioz. If you want to read some nationalistic message into it, you may.

“The  BBC Symphony Orchestra has a tremendously rich Sibelius tradition,” notes Sakari Oramo. “They made one of the great early Sibelius recordings with their live performance of his Seventh Symphony in 1933 under Koussevitzky and have retained a deep collective understanding of the composer’s music. I look forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence with them.”

The original inspiration for von Wright's Fighting Capercailles (1882) by Audubon Altright
The original inspiration for von Wright’s Fighting Capercailles (1882) by Audubon Altright

You can hear  this concert live on the BBC Radio 3 and shortly after the broadcast it can be downloaded on the website.