Category Archives: Culture

Spiegelsaal, Herrenchiemsee Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


Herrenchiemsee Festspiele  18-30 July 2017

‘Mad’ king Ludwig II of Bavaria may have been genuinely mad towards the  end of his life, but he also deserves to be remembered as the ‘opera’ king. Richard Wagner could not have afforded to spend so much time composing the Ring Cycle, if it weren’t for Ludwig’s  financial support. And the Festspielhaus that Wagner built in Bayreuth would never have materialised without King Ludwig’s sponsorship.

Ludwig’s hobby was overspending on extraordinary building projects, challenging himself to the extreme with every new ‘Schloss’ that he planned. Herrenchiemsee was the costliest and most opulent of all of Ludwig II’s royal edifices. The building of this monument to himself and absolutist rule hastened his downfall and was never finished. The magnificent palace was constructed on the Herreninsel, an island in the Chiemsee. The lake, Bavaria’s largest, acts on calm days  as a giant mirror for the expanse of the German Alps.
Everyone recognises the fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein sitting theatrically on top of a cliff ridge.  This was Ludwig’s obsessive attempt to build ‘the castle of the Grail’ and many of the walls echo the legends that Wagner had put to music.  The King was obsessed by Wagner and his operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin in particular.

Klaus Maria Brandauer in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Herrenschiemsee  was modelled on Versailles and intended as a homage to the new Sun King (i.e. Ludvig). In reality only a few rooms were recreated in the manner of Versailles. But Ludwig’s megalomania probably made up for his lack of sexual prowess and instead of the full interior grandeur of Versailles he built a wider facade and grander staircases than the French palace. The spectacular mirror gallery (see picture above), where quite a few of the concerts are held during the festival, is also longer than the one in Versailles. The excessive number of magnificent chandeliers and candelabras at Herrenchiemsee had the function of keeping the night permanently out (the eccentric king preferred to sleep during the day and be up all night).

The slightly odd ritual of parading and playing four alp horns takes place during the interval of concerts at the Hall of Mirrors. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The Herrenchiemsee Festspiele (July 18-30 July 2017) makes great use of some of the palace’s architectural features. Most concerts take place in the spectacular Hall of Mirrors and the Unfinished Staircase.

The opening concert of the festival is always held in the serene Benedictine convent on the Fraueninsel (the women’s island) which is Herreninsel’s neighbour. You reach the islands with a lake steamer from Prien and the alpine backdrop makes sure that the journey to the stunning concert venues forms a magical visual overture to the musical event.

This year’s festival offers 13 concerts and the theme is “Of Gods and Gods – Pathways to Baroque”,  an intriguing and perhaps slightly confusing title.  J.S.Bach and his contemporaries feature quite heavily and a whole evening is devoted to Monteverdi, celebrating his 450th birthday.

This is not a star-studded festival and if it is big names you’re after; Salzburg is only 70 km from Prien and Munich (in the other direction) is not much further.

Festival and musical director Enoch zu Guttenberg

Enoch zu Guttenberg has led the festival since 2000 and he also founded the ‘house band’,  Orchestra Klangverwaltung. The ensemble  is composed of musicians from many different German top orchestras and this year they are involved in six of the concerts. Bach’s Johannes Passion (on the Frauenchiemsee island) and Magnificat (in the Spiegelsaal) could be very memorable events , not only because of the music but also because of the environment in which the performances take place.

The Baroque Twitter evening also looks very promising with the early music ensemble Kammerorchester Basel performing a great selection of songs, arias and musical interludes.

Click below to see his year’s festival programme:

Enoch zu Guttenberg and the Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern (which was also founded by zu Guttenberg) will be awarded the prestigious Rheingau Musik Preis in August.


Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček, seen July  2017  Grange Park Opera, Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place.

Janáček’s associated his opera Jenůfa with both the death of his young son Vladimir and the slow and tortuous illness that took his daughter Olga away from him.  Jenůfa was his third opera and it took ten years to complete, but at least he managed to finish the piano score and play it to Olga as she lay dying. She loved it and the work was dedicated to her. She was buried with the last page of the score.

Jenůfa is Janáček’s  masterpiece, but its triumph on the world’s great opera stages was by no means immediate. After the premiere in the composer’s hometown Brno in 1904 it took 12 years for the work to be put on in Prague.  It was only then that it started to get universal acclaim. But for Janáček it still must have been quite frustrating because the Prague version had been revised and orchestrated by the National Theatre’s music director. Consequently it was this heavily edited version that was played all over the world until the 1980s. Nowadays only the original is performed.

The original play, Její pastorkyňa (which means Her Stepdaughter  in Czech), that Jenůfa is based on is by the Bohemian writer Gabrieala Preissova. This village drama’s subject matter clearly offended many within the (nationalistic) cultural establishment. Preissova was a promising  dramatist and she had initially been encouraged to write Her Stepdaughter (which was renamed Jenůfa when it was introduced in Germany) by the National Theatre in Prague.  But it only survived for a few performances, before the subject matter was considered to be too controversial and the play was dropped.

Janáček on the other hand was fascinated and he understood that the time for naturalism in opera had arrived. Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Puccini (Madama Butterfly) and Richard Strauss (Elektra) were at the same time trying to create characters that had real psychological depth and used language that was not particularly poetic. Janáček adapted Preissova’s text himself by cutting almost a third and adding some more Moravian dialect and speech patterns. He focused very much on speech melody and this is why words and sentences are so often repeated in this work. Jenůfa became the first Czech opera set in prose instead of verse.

The garden at West Horsley is picture perfect for a languid picnic.


THE PLOT  Jenůfa is Kostelnička Buryjovka ’s adopted child. Hence the original title of the play Her Stepdaughter ( it can also mean Her Foster-daughter in Czech) which also indicates that Kostelnička, or the sextoness, is as much of a principal character as Jenůfa. At the start of the opera Jenůfa is already pregnant with her cousin Števa Buryja’s child but she has managed to keep it secret, although Števa’s jealous stepbrother Laca is suspicious.  The problem is that Laca is also in love with Jenůfa.  Števa is relieved that he hasn’t been drafted into the army and is celebrating by drinking himself into a stupor. Laca senses an opportunity, but is turned down once more and out of jealousy disfigures Jenůfa’s face with a knife.

It is impossible to understand how the different characters are related to each other without consulting a family tree, which luckily the programme provides.

Laca knifes Jenufa

It is in the second act that real drama unfolds. We find out why Kostelnička is being such a killjoy and control freak. Five months have passed and Jenůfa has just had her baby. But Kostelnička has stopped Jenůfa from marrying  Števa and he has now fallen in love with another woman and is unaware that Jenůfa has had his child.  Kostelnička is so eager to protect Jenůfa because Števa reminds her too much of her own husband ( Števa’s uncle) who mistreated her badly. Kostelnička’s way of dealing with the problems is shocking: she drowns  the baby arguing that he resembles Števa. She also knows that it will be easier to re-marry without the shame of having to deal with an illegitimate child. When Jenůfa  finds out what has happened she fist reacts as you would expect but then seems willing to accept that this is the will of God. By the end of the act she has even consented to marry Laca.

Jenufa – Leos Janacek – Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Place , Kostelnicka: Susan Bullock,

In the third act everyone is getting ready for the wedding. Even Števa and his fiancée are in attendance. But just when everybody is about to go off to church a girl storms in with the news that the winter ice has broken up and the body of a baby that was stuck underneath the ice in the stream has just been found. Jenůfa  immediately recognises her child’s clothes. Thinking that she drowned her baby the crowd turns on her, but to everyone’s surprise Kostelnička confesses to murder. Incredibly she is forgiven by Jenůfa because she meant well. Laca doesn’t take up the offer to leave Jenůfa. No, he will stick with her and start a new life.

REVIEW Director Katie Mitchell has picked up on the claustrophobic element of the play. She sets all three acts in quite cramped rooms. The first act is normally staged outsid, near the mill, which Števa now owns. This is a place where the people of the village naturally gather. The xylophone, which is heard on a number of occasions in the first act, is probably meant to suggest the spinning mill wheel. Mitchell also pretty much ignores the symbolism, which perhaps is quite obvious, and the religious element of the libretto. For a UK production those are not great losses. The (revival) director has probably stressed the psychological aspects of the characters and the acting is throughout very strong. In a ‘naturalistic’ opera like this all the characters have to be believable. The Welsh Natalya Romaniw as Jenůfa  has a great stillness on stage, but perhaps we could feel her anxiety a little bit more in the first act and I believe she could be encouraged to take more risks  Romaniw’s voice is focused and never less than impressive. I would say that she is now ready for the big opera houses. Both Števa (Nicky Spence) and Laca (Peter Hoare) are strong performers. Hoare’s tenor voice is full of sweetness when he tries to persuade Jenůfa to marry him. It is not an easy role to pull off in a believable way but Hoare does it. The heart and soul of this opera is without a doubt Kostelnička and Susan Bullock is equal to the challenge. In the first act she is the hard-hearted woman and in the second act her ruthlessness and strength come to the fore. Bullock portrays a no-nonsense woman who genuinely believes that she is helping Jenůfa by manipulating her love-life and drowning the baby. It is chilling but Bullock also shows the human core at the centre of the character. But it is difficult to understand her totally misguided thought process. Bullock is not over-dramatic in the crucial second act and keeps it all fairly straightforward. She is perhaps all the more frightening for that very reason. Yes, Bullock really helps to make this a memorable production.

It is a happy ending of sorts…..

Janáček and his students collected more than 10.000 folksongs throughout Moravia, but apparently there are no direct quotes in this opera. The choruses in the first and third act sound genuinely folksy but Janáček has simply been very clever and made it all up. But the rhythms , intervals and short burst of melody are sometimes derided from folkloric sources. The BBC Concert Orchestra is such a versatile band that they can cope with all the challenges that the score throws up.  Conductor William Lacey doesn’t linger in the lyrical passages and gives the score the sense of unease and anxiety that Janáček wanted to come across. There can be no doubt about the cathartic role of the music in the end when Jenůfa and Laca decide to start a new life and the opera ends in a rousing major chord while the back wall opens up to reveal… a young child sitting in a field of green shoots.

The gardens at West Horsley Place are ideal for picnicing

The brand new Theatre in the Woods isn’t quite finished yet, but the acoustics are good. I visited on a hot day and inside the auditorium the heat was stifling. That can’t have done the singers and the musicians any good, not to mention the audience. I hope this can be sorted out in the future. The gardens at West Horsley Place are marvellous and the house looks pretty stunning as well. You simply must visit!

Photo: Alice Pennefather


Il Turco in Italia, music: Gioachino Rossini libretto: Felice Romani, seen at Wormsley, Garsington Opera,  2 July 2017

It is the vitality of Il Turco in Italia’s overture, with its wonderful plaintive horn solo, that immediately sucks you into Rossini’s masterful satire on the age-old theme of the flighty wife, the cuckolded husband and the exotic lover. For extra spice (and some lovely tenor arias) this dramma buffo adds a second, rather dull boyfriend.

Rossini commissioned Felice Romani to adapt a libretto that was originally composed in 1788 for an opera by the German Franz Seydelmann. Romani’s version was considered to be more libidinous and daring than Mozart’s Così fan tutte which had been staged just before Rossini’s work was premiered at La Scala in August 1814. Its racy reputation and the fact that early on some of the most effective arias and cavatinas were cut  did the work no favours.  In the 20th century it was only revived (but with all the cuts still in place) as late as 1950 in Rome, with Maria Callas in the role of Fiorilla.  Callas recorded the opera four years later and she set the benchmark incredibly high. She more or less owned the role for decades despite the fact that she never got to sing Fiorilla’s most powerful aria. The self-pitying but terrific aria Sqallida vesta a bruna hadn’t been rediscovered when Callas sang the role.

Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) makes men go weak around the knees.
Photo:Alice Pennefather

This is a revival of a Garsington Opera’s  2011 production but with the original director in charge it all once more comes alive.

The opera’s stock-characters (some of them wafer-thin) are based on classic commedia dell’arte figures but the often very clever lyrics combined with Rossini’s orchestral brilliance provide the singers with all that is needed to present a believable  performance. In a couple of places the staging is perhaps a tad too cartoonish, but in general director Martin Duncan keeps the silliness in check. It would be easy to deconstruct the plot in postmodern fashion. The meta-theatricality is already  a given in the libretto.

The first act of this production is an absolute delight. The poet Prosdocimo, suffering writer’s block, is in search of some real characters  and a dramatic plot. And really, any characters will do as far as he is concerned, at this point. Prosdocimo is reminiscent of the Don Alfonso character in Così fan tutte. Rossini also briefly quotes Mozart’s opera in the trio Un marito scimunito.  Prosdocimo, who is well characterised by Mark Stone, is elated to instantly be presented with  a first act that has all the hallmarks of a tragic farce with love triangles and philandering popping up in virtually every scene. Initially Prosdocimo just observes the action, but soon he tries to influence the proceedings  to fit his own story. Fiorilla resents being described by the poet as a wayward wife. Her husband Geronio and her lover Narciso are both extremely offended by Prosdocimo when they read how he is going describe them in his play.

the Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang is the only survivor from the previous production and he makes a dashing Selim. This young Turkish prince literally forces his entrance through the Neapolitan backdrop when he docks his yacht in the harbour. He doesn’t even have time to finish his aria Bella Italia before he sets eyes on Fiorilla. Despite being married she is also game and leaves in no doubt what she makes of Selim’s advances.  De Quirijn’s looks the part and can act as well. His voice is perhaps a little underpowered and I would like to hear more tonal variety, but on stage his portrayal of this smooth cad more than makes up for these flaws. Geoffrey Dolton as the deceived Geronio is totally in his element and his comic timing is spotless and the cause of much hilarity. The tragedy is that I actually used to know an Italian who was not unlike his portrayal of this henpecked figure. I think the part was originally written for a baritone-bass and  a bit of dark tonal bluster wouldn’t do the Dolton’s performance any harm.

Selim seems to have Fiorella in his grip, when Geronio enters
Photo:Alice Pennefather

Some of the most effective and funniest scenes in the first act are the duets between Geronino and his capricious wife. Particularly when he catches her red-handed with Selim in his own home In the duet Per piacere alla signora leading into No, mia vito, mio tesoro Fiorilla first wins Geronio back with charm, only to then fly into a mock rage that makes it believable that Geronio will plead on his knees for her to forgive him.  Soon Fiorilla will have her own reasons for jealousy when she finds out that the gypsy  Zaida (Katie Bray) was once Selim’s lover and she is  back on  the scene, having established her fortune-telling business in Naples.  Selim has clearly not forgotten their amorous past. Encouraged by the poet Fiorilla and Zaida come to blows at the end of Act I.

The fortune-teller Zaida (Katie Bray) probably knows from the start that she will get her man. Photo:Alice Pennefather

It gets even better in the second act as Selim offers to buy Fiorilla from Geromio, who is horrified.  The poet is willing to stir a bit more by organising a masked ball and he tells Geronio that Selim plans to abduct Fiorilla. But if Geronio turns up dressed like Selim he can foil the plot. But at the party confusion reigns because Narciso has also come dressed as the Turk and he ends up with the trophy, Fiorilla. Selim gets Zaida. This means that Geronio ends up with nobody.  This again necessitates the poet’s intervention and Gernonio throws Fiorilla out of the house and tells her to go back to the hovel where she came from in Sorrento. I know, very confusing, but the point is that Rossini was a master of musically illustrating “chaos without casuality” (to quote the Viennese critic Karl Kraus).

Fiorilla gets to sing her heartbreaking aria Squallida veste e bruna (the one that Callas never got to sing). It is hard for Geronio and the audience, and the poet, not to melt. Geronio takes her back, Selim sails back home with his first love and we have a happy ending.

She is a headturner, that Fiorilla.
Photo: Alice Pennefather

Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) is a headturner when she spins her 1950s pleated red skirt in the first act. Tynan has as much vivid colour in her voice as her dress is scarlet in the second act. On top of that she handles appoggiaturas and embellishments with such ease and firmness that it is no wonder that she is irresistible to all men in this opera. Tynan could be a little bit more sharp-tongued ( Cecilia Bartoli and Callas are worth a listen) but she deserves to be seen even more in this country.

Martin Duncan sets the opera in 1950s Italy and well travelled moviegoers will instantly recognise Federico Fellini’s world. The set by Francis O’Connor is uncomplicated and effective.

Rossini was an excellent choral writer (listen to his Stabat Mater) and the  22-year old here already proves his mastery of the genre. The Garsington Opera Chorus – picked from the latest crop of conservatory graduates and students – is young and eager to please. They get to play gypsies, Turks, sailors and masked partygoers. They are remarkably confident and entertaining for being relatively inexperienced.  I am sure chorus master Susanna Stranders deserves a huge credit for this.

The opera was a bit of a rush job (as most of Rossini’s works seem to have been) and the rather disappointing finale he apparently left in the hands of an assistent. The secco recitatives of the poet are also not from the master’s hand, as is not the rather pointless aria by Albazar. Mark Stone handles the slightly irritating writer role with aplomb. Katie Bray as Zaida is fiery and you can understand that Selim in the end prefers her to Fiorilla.

Conductor David Parry is an expert in this field and he clearly has brought out the best in most of the singers. The playing of the overture I found strangely muted ( and therefore a bit un-Rossini like) but thereafter the orchestra picked up and added sparkle and humour wherever it was required. As always with Rossini there is ample lyrical brilliance in the orchestration, but on the evidence of this amusing work it is not bleeding obvious that he soon would be going on to compose one of the absolute masterpieces of the opera buffa genre, Il barbieri di Siviglia.

This was a very enjoyable evening helped by the stunning weather. The Garsington Opera auditorium is an architectural marvel, inspired by Japanese architecture. When the weather is good (and it always seems to be when I visit) you can let the sun in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. This provided the whole first act of the opera some lovely natural lighting that one couldn’t possibly replicate with stage lights.

I also think the picnic setting with the lake, the lush forests, the rolling hills, the deer park, the gardens and  the cricket pitch is the perfect advertisement for English country house opera at its glorious best.



Albert Herring (far right) is told no uncertain terms that he must be the May King. Photo: Robert Workman


Albert Herring, music: Benjamin Britten, libretto:Eric Crozier, seen at The Grange Festival , June 25 2017

Why did Benjamin Britten not write more comedy operas? On the evidence of this Grange Festival production he was clearly seriously good at being funny and clever at the same time. Was Britten afraid of not being taken seriously?

Benjamin Britten is in my book the (world’s) most versatile opera composer from the post-war era. Peter Grimes is a tragic masterpiece. The Turn of the Screw is that rare thing: a ghost story that improves when set to music. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a respectful adaptation of Shakespeare with some highly individual music. Death in Venice manages to add an extra dimension to Thomas Mann’s obsessive and creepy tale about a professor pursuing an underage boy. Comedy and opera all too often strange and even uncomfortable bedfellows (comedy is better suited to operettas and musicals). But Britten was a composer who could turn his hand to seemingly anything.

This new production of Albert Herring at the Grange Festival in Hampshire makes it clear that comedy suited him very well. Yes, this production is new, but a couple of people on the team are the world’s most experienced Britten experts. They could have done this in their sleep. Luckily they are wide awake and still very much on the ball. The 83-year old director John Copley directs  worked with Britten\s company as a young man (and was kicked out after a few years). He has directed Albert Herring many times in different countries. The 87-year old conductor  Steuart Bedford’s mother was part of the original cast of both The Rape of Lucretia and  Albert Herring.  Bedford has during his long career conducted all of Britten’s operas and recorded Herring for the Naxos label. With these veterans on board this Grange Festival production was practically unsinkable.

Lady Billows (Orla Boylan) takes advice from her housekeeper (Clarissa Meek) photographer: Robert Workman

Eric Crozier directed Benjamin Britten’s first opera Peter Grimes in 1945 and then took on the same duties for the next opera, The Rape of Lucretia. To his surprise Crozier was then asked by Britten to come up with some ideas for a comedy. Crozier suggested Guy de Maupassant’s novella Le Rosier de Madame Husson. Britten liked the idea that it could easily be transposed from its original Normandy setting to East Suffolk, where the composer grew up. Britten then gave the somewhat astonished Crozier the job of librettist. It is clear that Crozier and Britten worked together very closely. Crozier helped Britten  to reveal the characters through the music.

Peter Grimes is set in a fictive fishing village in Suffolk. The location is reminiscent of Aldeburgh, the town where Britten lived and established his own festival. In Albert Herring the action takes place in a village called Loxford. The similarities with Yorford in East Suffolk, not far from where Britten grew up, are not incidental.

The overbearing and snobbish Lady Billows  has invited  local dignitaries to her manor to deliberate the candidate for the the title of May Queen. The Superintendent,  the head teacher at the church school, the vicar  and the Mayor mention a number of virtuous and chaste young girls that seem perfectly suitable. But Lady Billow, who is the main sponsor,  follows her stern housekeeper’s advice and turns them all down. Therefore the decision is made to pick a May King. The shy, innocent and fairly simple  greengrocer’s son Albert Herring is deemed to be a perfect candidate.  Albert demurs but his totally domineering mother is not going to give up on the  prize money. Albert is under her thumb and gives in. At the May Fest things start to go off the rails. Albert’s lemonade is spiked with rum by the mischievous butcher’s boy who hopes that it will loosen up the teetotal greengrocer’s assistant. The potion begins to work and the orchestra responds with variations on Wagner’s magical Tristan chord. This is typical of Britten’s,  at times, brilliant pastiches in this score. In the first act he dips into parlour music, there are children’s ditties, beguiling  easy-on-the-ear love music, there is cheeky whistling and Alban Berg also makes an appearance. There are even shades of Verdi’s Falstaff in the last act.

This Sid Tim Nelson) and Nancy(Kitty Whateley) couple are not into punk music. Photo: Robert Workman

Albert has become quite tipsy from the rum punch, but when he overhears  the butcher’s boy Sid and  the baker’s daughter Nancy canoodling he decides that it is time for him to break free.  The next day Albert doesn’t turn up for work and everybody is worried. When the wreath with which Albert was crowned is found, crushed by a cart, everybody fears the worst.  Albert is assumed dead and the May King organisers join Albert’s mother to  sing a heartfelt threnody. Suddenly the lamented son just wanders in, his virgin-white suit all soiled, but clearly happy. He has had a drunken good night. lost his virginity and thanks the commission for is financial contribution to it all.  This shocking confession leads to his title being retracted. Albert doesn’t care, his newly found freedom has changed his outlook totally. Nancy is a bit smitten by the liberated Albert. In an act of biblical  symbolism Albert ends up giving away the apples and peaches from the shop to the children who happily take a bite. It is a happy ending (as opposed to the de Maupassant original).

Albert in the virgin-white suit of the May King.
Photo: Robert Workman

The 13 singers and 13 musicians (with some of them doubling up on instruments) show off a real sense of ensemble spirit. You can feel that the cast enjoy performing this opera. The lament for Albert in act three is a beautiful piece of writing and sung with verve..  Because Albert Herring is a comedy we can laugh about it but  if this threnody were to feature in a tragic opera it would fill you with sadness.

Richard Pinkstone (Albert Herring)  in the lead is a believable mother’s boy with a suitably pleasant voice. Herring overhears Sid and Nancy taking the mickey out of him and Pinkstone could emphasize his sexual awakening and frustration a bit more, but otherwise this is a remarkably confident display from a relatively inexperienced singer. I also liked soprano Anna Gillingham’s insecure school mistress Miss Wordsworth and she is a talent to keep an eye on.  The Irish soprano Orla Boylan  (Lady Billows) is asked to act much older than her age and does she pull it off! Hers is the standout performance of this show and she manages to make a wonderful meal out of the old bag’s mixed up speech at the May fest.

It is good to see that young singers here get a chance to sing  meaty roles.  The International Singing Competition that the Grange festival organises in September provides a wonderful opportunity for talent to filter through and next year we will hopefully hear some of the  winners.

Steuart Bedford probably knows this score backwards and the very versatile Aurora Orchestra is the right fit for this chamber work that incorporates so many different musical styles. There are some tricky passages and quite a few  sound effects (whistling, various clocks and bells).  Then there is  the strangely contemplative interlude (or ballet) between act two and three, but it all adds up to a very original opera score.

Remaining performances June 29, July 1,7,9

The Grange,  Hampshire, Alresford. SO24 9TG



The Vesconte Maggiolo planisphere and world map is yours for a cool €10 million at Daniel Crouch Rare Books


TEFAF,  10-19 March, 2017, Maastricht

Art fairs are essential for the dealers. This is where nowadays most of the networking with clients, colleagues and museum curators is done. It is also the best place for the art tourist with a limited budget to find out what he/she can afford,  never-in-million-years afford or what will just have to remain a dream.

What I love about an event like the European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf), which has been held in Maastricht since 1988, is that you don’t have to feel intimidated by the location or the price tags. In London, Paris, New York and  Munich the shop fronts of some of the most respectable art dealers can seem forbidding. It starts with the fact that you often will have to ring a doorbell to get buzzed in. If it is a jeweler you are visiting, you will be let in by a security guard with three months of  try-to-look-bored-training.  The worst thing that can happen is that you upon entering realise that you are the only visitor in the gallery. The girl in attendance, and it always seems to be a young woman, starts tapping away at double speed on her Poweri Macbook, with a look of  ‘can’t-you see-I’m-busy’ or just total nonchalance. She will barely acknowledge you ( a skill which takes three months to master) and wouldn’t dream of starting a conversation. She can spot a mile off that you are not going to be a client.

Lucio Fontana doesn’t stand a chance when confronted by a real work of art (see jacket and haircut)

This sort of learned behaviour you will not come across at a fair where you can just glide in and out of the stands of some of the most haughty antique dealers. You can act that you are a potential client and remain in the driver’s seat.

For the dealer there  is a risk of ‘fair-tigue’, because nowadays to be taken seriously  you have to participate in at least 3 or 4 major shows every year.  The street level gallery space and home base has this century diminished in significance. You can’t do without it, but it doesn’t really attract new clients. There is also the digital platform which can be very valuable, but clients who buy artworks worth more than £100.000 will always want to see and feel the object.

This is another reason why a fair is ideal for visitors with minimal funds. You get to stand very close to an object, you could even study it with magnifying glasses. You can touch it or in some cases hold it (if you ask very nicely and pretend that you are interested in buying it). You can’t do any of that in a museum. So, work on your acting skills.

Speaking of museums. Curators and directors from some of the most well-known ones always try to find time to visit Tefaf and they come with intention to purchase. This is the last weekend of the fair and a number of important sales have been agreed. Quite a few museums from across the globe have been busy buying, but the Rijksmuseum profited from a private collector . He  acquired the gloriously illustrated 12-volume series of books entitled Historia Naturalis which were created for Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg. The generous collector has agreed a long-term loan of the work to the Rijksmuseum.

Historia Naturalis consists of 750 watercolours of animals and plants compiled 1596-1610 by Rudolph II’s court physician Anselmus de Broodt

Tomasso Brothers Fine Art sold an unique sculpture by the  Mannerist artist Giambologna (1529-1608) to an European collector. The statuette was re-discovered 40 years ago and is the earliest recorded work by the Florentine sculptor and the only one carved in wood. It depicts the great general and politician Julius Caesar in a classical position and nude, which wasn’t uncommon in Roman days. The  asking price was €1,5 million.

Giambologna’s Julius Caesar is carved in wood and only 46cm in height, Tomasso Brothers Fine Art

The TEFAF Global Art Market Report is always eagerly anticipated and it is one of only a very few reports that in the past have provided, what seemed like, reliable figures on the dealer sales and the auction market.

In previous years Clare McAndrew has conducted the survey and provided the statistics. But Clare now works for Art Basel and Rachel Pownall , who is a Professor of Finance at the University in Maastricht, has stepped into her role. She immediately introduced a new methodology which shaved off some $ 19 billion dollar from the value of the art market. Suddenly the total sales value went from        $ 63.8  in 2015 to $45 billion this year! Yes, everybody knows that there have been some destabilising political factors over the past year, but this massive loss (if it is that?) seems odd, to say the least.

There could be several reasons for this rather dramatic re-evaluation. Pownall’s estimation is based on data from government statistics and the United Nations, as well as auction and sales data. But out of the 7000 dealers worldwide Pownall approached with a survey, only 350 responded. The auction houses were much more helpful providing figures for private sales as well. The problem is that art dealers are notoriously opaque with supplying any information on sales.

Hades abducts Persephone,
Guatamalan school, 18th century

Without going into the details about Pownall’s methodology, her report also concluded that the art gallery dealers and private sales now account for 62.5% of total global art sales, which would mean an increase for this sector of almost 20% compared to the previous year.( Last year Clare McAndrew stated that private sales and auction sales each constituted about 50% of the total).

Pownall also thinks that a lot of the wealth, when it comes to art purchases, is still in Europe, despite all the hype about the strength of China and the fact that the USA remains the biggest art market in the world. The UK is still the biggest art market in Europe and the third largest in the world. The fall in the value of the pound after the EU referendum in June has benefited many dealers in London. Old Master paintings and antiques have become popular with Asian clients and the weaker pound has almost certainly helped.

This monumental seated Buddha weighs 350 kg and was created during the early Ming era (14th century), Vandenerven Oriental Art

The real growth market now seems to be online sales and many of the respondents reported increasing business through online platforms and their own websites. But smaller galleries still have a tough time. The major ones seem to reap the real benefits.

Meanwhile we have very recently seen major auctions at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s achieve several new records for contemporary artists. Therefore 2017 looks quite promising despite the fact that the real fallout from Brexit is still unknown. The economic outlook for the US is quite rosy, but Trump’s erratic behaviour and bizarre tweeting could still cause all kinds of unwelcome surprises.

With hindsight I note that the two blogs on this year’s Tefaf don’t mention design but this is not a deliberate omission. I promise to concentrate on that sector a bit more next time. This is such a versatile fair and it is easy to overlook major works, but I did notice this year a serious lack of photography.  Could it be that photography simply doesn’t sell like it used to, because it is so difficult to control the amount of editions of a photograph. Then a woodcut of a photograph (see blog below)  is a much more attractive idea.

Next year’s TEFAF will be held March 9-18,  2018

Maria in Guadaloupe (2005) by Franz Gertsch


TEFAF  in Maastricht, 9-19 March

The Maastricht Treaty is already a fading (bad) memory for most British people that voted for Brexit.  But the city of Maastricht deserves to be associated with some positive things as well.  André Rieu, the world’s most popular violinist, hails from this city in the Southern Netherlands. If Rieu’s schmaltzy way with the classics is not your cup of tea,  the European Fine Air Fair (Tefaf)  will most certainly not disappoint.

There may be better fairs for contemporary art or design, but there is no other event that is as comprehensive as Tefaf.  Old masters and antiques still dominate , but there are plenty of dealers  that specialize in contemporary painting, design , jewellery,  rare books, drawings, Oceanic art …. you name it, the list is endless. This year there are 275 galleries from 21 countries represented at this magnificent showcase .

Kim Simonsson’s moss people can be seen at Jason Jacques’ stand

Most of the tens of thousands of objects are of museum quality and it is no wonder that every year over 200 curators and directors from the world’s leading museums, visit Tefaf to see if they can find something they can add to the collection.

This year there are no headline-grabbing works of art, like last year’s recently identified early  Rembrandt. But in general I found this year’s show one of the most satisfying fairs out of the five Tefafs I have visited in total. I am sure my verdict is purely subjective, but at the same time I think this year the mix of recent, ancient, modern, old and contemporary is close to perfect.

My favourite contemporary work is ‘Maria (2001) in Guadaloupe’  by the Swiss artist Franz Gertsch, whose work is presented by the Norwegian Galleri K.  You can see part of Gertsch’s giant woodcut in cobalt blue in the featured image at the top of the page. The source was a 30 year old slide taken by the artist of his nude girlfriend sleeping in the shade on the Carribean beach. This picture he transferred on to 380 x 528 cm sheets of Japanese paper. It required 3 large woodblocks to produce the image, but the result is stunning.  The turquoise colour filters out the soft pornographic element while at the same time making it more sensual. Unfortunately the piece doesn’t quite fit above my bed and the prize needs to come down from here to Guadaloupe (SFR 400.000) before I can even contemplate building an extension to my bedroom.

I am also a fan of Kim Simonsson’s sculptures and the New York gallery Jason Jacques that represents his work. Kim’s moss people (see picture above)  relate to the special magic radiating from the ancient woods of my and Simonsson’s country of origin, Finland.  When you walk alone in a remote Finnish wood you can get the feeling that you are being watched by these kind of fluorescent green creatures of the forest.

A carved pink-brown agate naturalistic potato box. Made by Fabergé workmaster Michael Perchin, St.Petersburg, 1890. Owned by A La Vieille Russie, New York.

Tefaf is like visiting four major museums at the same time. And when you return the following year there is a whole new collection with another 30.000 object from across the ages. This fair can boast  objects  dating back 7000 years.

The fact that the fair is held in the Netherlands means that you will always find some very impressive Dutch Old Master paintings . Johnny van Haeften, who is also one of the founding fathers of Tefaf, always comes up with the goods. But this year his showpiece is somewhat problematic.

The pendant portraits of A man and a woman holding a pair of gloves have been painted by Frans Hals in 1637.

A portrait of a man and a woman holding a pair of gloves, Frans Hals. Johnny van Haeften tests a cautious market.

The couple would have exchanged the gloves with one another during  the ceremony that celebrated the signing of the betrothal contract. The identity of the sitters is unknown but we know their age and because they are dressed so soberly in black, experts believe they were Mennonites. The style is typical of Hals and he conveys  a lively naturalness  that few of his contemporaries could equal. The man, holding a hand on his heart,  is more self-conscious and artful, whereas his ruddy cheeked wife seems slightly  bored – or is there a smile about to break through?

The problem is that last October Sotheby’s revealed that A portrait of a man that the auction house had sold in 2011 for about $10 million , was a very clever modern forgery.  Obviously the buyer was reimbursed  but it made many experts who had declared that the portrait was a “national treasure” look like fools.

Dressed to match

I think Van Haeften’s portraits are considerably better than the forgery and definitely more convincing. But buyers are for now very cautious and this may not be the time to sell a Frans Hals. Or maybe it is. You could try to get a bargain. The paintings have now been on the market for a while.