Category Archives: Culture


Recently the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm released the complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies. The general level of playing is very high, as you would expect from one of the best orchestras in the world with a true ‘sibelian’ in charge, but not all the interpretations are spotless. In this first blog of two on the subject of Sir Simon’s latest Sibelius recordings, I want to find out why the Finnish composer is much more popular in Britain than in Germany.

I went to Berlin at the end of August to interview Sir Simon Rattle, before the recordings had been released. But I knew more or less what to expect, because I attended one of the Sibelius concerts that the Berlin Phil gave back in February at the Barbican. I also listened to the whole symphony cycle on the radio (BBC radio 3).
“Five years ago we did our first cycle and the third [symphony] had never been played in public by the Berlin Philharmonic. And many of the pieces very little played. What has been fascinating is watching the orchestra go from incomprehension to admiration, to taking it on. That has really been a process.”

I did get the impression that this was one of Rattle’s pet projects and he has probably waited patiently to be able to tie it in with Jean Sibelius’ 150th anniversary year. I don’t think Sir Simon could have left as chief conductor of the Berlin Phil (which he will do in 2017) with a clear conscience without having reintroduced the Finnish composer’s symphonies to this splendid orchestra’s repertoire.

So little Sibelius has been played in Berlin since the 80s that it must have felt a little bit like learning a new language for most members of the Philharmonic. It is today a very international orchestra (26 different nationalities are represented) with many of the members still in their 20s. This doesn’t make them worse musicians than the older ones, but it does mean that there will be a quite a few scores that they are unfamiliar with. Very few Austro-Germanic orchestras have Sibelius in their repertoire.
Rattle recorded all Sibelius’s symphonies and a number of tone poems during his 18 year tenure as the chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He knows his Sibelius very well but nowadays a conductor can’t dictate to an orchestrate and particularly not one with the stature of the Berliner Philharmoniker.
“Of course one thing you will have to learn as a conductor is that you cannot come to an orchestra saying: This is how it will sound. “

In hindsight the Sibelius symphony cycle the Berlin Phil did five years ago was a dry run. Maybe it felt to Rattle like they weren’t quite ready to record at that point. The second time around I get the impression that Rattle has tried to dig a little bit deeper. He tells me that the symphonies can seem deeply mysterious : “Even when it appears straightforward in the symphonies, it often isn’t. Working in Germany, the whole language, the whole syntax, the whole idea of tonality, rhythm and development, it is such a different journey. It is a different journey from the Austro-Germanic journey entirely. “
It certainly helps to know your Beethoven, Wagner and Bruckner when you study “Janne’s” scores (Janne was Sibeliuses’s name among friends).
It may be a stereotype, but Germans are more likely to question things they don’t necessary fully comprehend. This is not a bad trait but sometimes this can lead to intellectualization when a more emotional or intuitive response is called for. Rattle is very aware of this but doesn’t mind as long as the orchestra keeps an open mind.
“In Germany there is always the feeling that… how do we find our way through this? But this has been actually fascinating. Because it is people with open eyes saying: OK, what is this?  Even in terms of technique. How do you play the violin? For an orchestra that plays so much spiccato in the middle of the bow. A composer for whom that almost doesn’t exist where you have to play almost everything at the tip, where there is this kind of mystery between the notes, it is simply extraordinary.”
Rattle thinks that British musicians have an advantage when it comes to Sibelius; his music is almost in their blood.
“[Conducting in Germany ] has been fascinating, coming from Britain, whatever our faults, it has always been at the back of our brain how this sounds.”

Sir Simon Rattle_Berliner Philharmoniker © Holger Kettner
Sir Simon Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker © Holger Kettner

Judging by how Sibelius150th birthday has been celebrated over the past year in the UK, you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that he must have been British as well. Of course he wasn’t and he didn’t even speak English.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) first visited Britain in 1905 and consequently returned four more times. The first world war made it impossible for “Sibbe” (another nickname) to travel, but when he returned in 1921 it was in many ways a resounding success. Despite many invitations this was to be his last visit. His popularity continued to grow in the 30s and 40s greatly helped by conductors like Sir Henry Wood, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Adrian Boult who not only programmed his works but also recorded them. These recordings from the 30s, 40s and 50s have recently been rereleased by Warner Classics and I endeavour to devote a blog to many of these fascinating historic recordings at a later date. Despite a slight backlash in the 60’s and 70’s Sibelius’s reputation never waned in the UK. Sir Colin Davis and Rattle were in the 80s and 90s the most important supporters of the Finn’s music and every Proms season would feature at least a couple of his compositions. Rattle has found that in Britain playing Sibelius is the most natural thing.
“We are a very open nation. Although it took a long time for Bruckner to be accepted in England, which is interesting. Because there are many similarities between Sibelius and Bruckner and maybe Max Reger will never be accepted. Other than that it has been open to every different type of music. From the word go, [Sibelius] was always part of Britain’s music making. When I went to Birmingham it was one of the very first things we did. Work on Sibelius and use it also to build an orchestra because it makes such very particular demands and it was something that we could play and tour and other people weren’t. There I was, 25, and the orchestra was a very young orchestra. They weren’t going to go around Europe touring Brahms symphonies. But Sibelius always seemed the most natural thing. I grew up in Liverpool and there it was played all the time. I was stunned to find out that in Germany this was not the centre of the repertoire. That was how ignorant I was.”
In Germany Sibelius was unfortunately ‘adopted’ by the Nazis who admired his references to nature and the mythological aspects (Kalevala) of his music. This clearly tainted his image in Germany after the war. The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno already in 1938 started a veritable hate campaign against Sibelius (as opposed to Mahler and Schönberg who he revered). The rather odious Adorno argued in books and lectures that his music instead of being “deep”, was “a product of technical deficiency”. Adorno, a composer manqué, managed to influence many music critics and young composers.

Fortunately distinguished conductors like Hans Rosenbaud, Herbert von Karajan and Sergiu Celibidache made sure that Sibelius’ music wasn’t totally forgotten in West-Germany. Apparently Sibelius himself in a conversation with the legendary producer Walter Legge declared that “Karajan is the only (conductor) who understands my music”.
In the 60’s and 70’s the Berliner Philharmoniker, with Herbert von Karajan at the helm, was considered one of the best interpreters of the Finnish composer’s works. After von Karajan’s death in 1989 the Berlin Phil by all accounts fell into a bit of a slump (the process had actually already started during the ailing maestro’s last years). It took Sir Simon’s predecessor Claudio Abbado a number of years to reinvigorate the orchestra and he actively started recruiting younger musicians. But Abbado to my knowledge never played Sibelius. I find it astounding that Sibelius was virtually ignored for two decades by one of the world’s leading orchestras. Bless Rattle that he has put it right.

“You have to approach the Sibelius symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic through depth and richness and find a way in which that sound works.”

In the next ‘instalment’ I will let Sir Simon do most of the talking as he tells me about his Sibelius mentor (Paavo Berglund), some of the problems he encountered working on the symphonies and reveals his favourite work by the Finnish master, a work that he has seldom played and never recorded!!

Sibelius_Edition (Cover) ©Berlin Phil Media GmbH
Sibelius Edition (Cover) ©Berlin Phil Media GmbH


She has been dead for nearly forty years but there is no stopping her.  The last book she wrote was her autobiography which came out posthumously in 1977. As far as I know there are no unpublished gems hiding in the attic or even buried in the garden to keep the interest in Agatha Christie alive. And yet her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections continue to sell,  while a number of her 16 stage plays remain popular. The Mousetrap is synonymous with a never ending run in the West End. I want to find out why  Dame Agatha’s works have such an enduring appeal – seemingly unaffected by time, fashion and technology – while most of her contemporaries have disappeared from the commercial bookshelves?
Many of Christie’s novels are undoubtedly still very readable but could it be that some other factors or even organisations now contribute to make her works look fresh and keep them in the spotlight? I headed down to Christie’s hometown Torquay to find out what the secret of the Detective Queen’s continuing success is.

Agatha's Books

Once a year Torquay on the ‘English Riviera’ plays host to Christie’s most passionate fans, keen readers and experts on her works. This year was her 125th birthday and the International Agatha Christie Festival made sure her anniversary (15 September) was more special than usual with plenty of impressive speakers and guests.
Agatha Christie is easily the best selling novelist of all time, translated into more than 100 languages and surprisingly enough also still the most performed female playwright. While I am writing this somewhere in the world one of her stories is being adapted for radio, TV or film. Living in England it is easy to forget that her books have an universal appeal and all the adaptations are not British.

Young Agatha © The Christie Archive
Young and cheeky Agatha© The Christie Archive


But it would be a mistake to assume that Agatha Christie’s canon speaks for itself and therefore sells in all eternity.

David Brawn is Agatha Christie’s publisher and I presume that the sales part of his job is a diddle. It turns out I couldn’t be more wrong. David Brawn should know, because at HarpersCollins his task is to look after dead authors and he can therefore easily compare sales with other writers who passed away long ago.

” It is interesting to look at other authors who died at about the time of Agatha Christie for whom there haven’t been any new books. How within a very short time authors can completely fall out of sight. Other authors come along and take over the mantle”, David Brawn concludes.

I am  not an expert on the  crime novel genre, but even I can’t help noticing that the crime and adventure thriller universe appears to be bigger than ever and that it is still expanding. David points out that Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley, just to mention a few of my favourites from my youth, have gone missing.  We both agree that their best novels haven’t dated, so what is going on?  David Brawn of course knows why these authors have been lost in the mists of time.

David Brawn - Agatha Christie's publisher
David Brawn – Agatha Christie’s publisher.

” The difference is perhaps that Agatha Christie has been carefully managed by her family, by the company that owns her rights and by the publisher, to ensure that we keep the books looking as fresh and as relevant as possible”.
One of the ways to keep the backlist of an author, who is no longer with us, fresh is to constantly put new covers on their books. Brawn makes a comparison with the music industry, which in many ways is much more conservative. Original album covers are rarely changed, not even when the recording moves from vinyl to cassette to CD to download.
“Publishing has always been restless. It has created and followed fashion. Within a year of Christie’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles being published, Bodley Head was re-issuing it with new covers.”

Brawn points out that it is essential to constantly test the market by asking people what they like. You constantly need to keep an eye on the trends. The  publisher will also have to decide if they are trying to appeal to film goers or people who like classic crime thrillers. You repackage the books accordingly and then you can do new displays so that people hopefully buy them on impulse. HarperCollins have a line of Christie books with the original first editions covers. Her novels don’t get the ‘annotated edition’ treatment  that passionate American readers are so fond of,

It is not only the publisher that keeps an author like Christie fresh and on the bookshelves.
Dame Agatha was clever enough to form a company in the 1950s that manages the intellectual property rights of all her books apart from the ones written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott and The Mousetrap.  Agatha’s grandson Mathew Pritchard is the chairman of the company and Hilary Strong acts as the CEO. She spends a lot of time in Los Angeles pitching to and working with various studios. At the moment the company is trying to get three adaptations off the ground and one of them is quite far advanced with Fox studios. It looks like Murder on the Orient Express is going to be re-made with a team including Simon Kinberg and Ridley Scott, Hilary reveals. Agatha Christie Limited is involved in virtually every step of the production process. The company  both initiates and co-produces television programmes which they very often also fund. They  get involved in every aspect from the script development, the casting, the choice of director, to the distribution of the film. This means that they virtually control the end product.  For a director this could potentially turn into a rather overbearing affair. But Hilary assures me that in general the company is so comfortable with their creative partners that they most of the time let them do their own thing.
“We are working very hard to ensure that our stories reach a contemporary audience, people who are looking for a modern tone and pace. That doesn’t mean we should change the stories if we put them into a contemporary setting. They still have to feel like Agatha Christie books and the brand management is a significant part of the role we play”.

Agatha Christie Surfing@Christie
Christie had to choose between becoming a surfer girl or an author,  photo: The Christie Archive

In the UK we were recently treated to an updated version of the novels about the crime-fighting duo Tommy and Tuppence. The six-part BBC TV -series  called Partners in Crime is an adaptation of two novels .
Some fans were unhappy about the fact that this version set the action in the 1950s, whereas the original stories were mainly set in the 1920s and 30s. It is impossible to please everyone and sometimes  you also have to make rather harsh decisions about what characters to leave out of a TV or movie version. Personally I was underwhelmed by David Walliams’s performance which made Tommy seem rather naive and foolish. I know that he is not meant to be clever, but Walliams played him too often like  a big bumbling child  which doesn’t make for interesting television in a six- parter.

At the festival we did get to see a couple of scenes from the new TV remake of Christie’s most popular novel, the mystery thriller And Then There Were None. Judging by the two tension filled scenes, this could be a seriously good adaptation for adult viewing.  There will be three episodes that are scheduled to be aired around Christmas in the UK. The cast list is also pretty impressive with Charles Dance, Sam Neill and Miranda Richardson heading the proceedings.  I will come back to this production in december . You will  get some fascinating and funny  insights from the scriptwriter Sarah Phelps into the decision making process.  What does it take to turn a well known  novel into a TV-series without leaving out too much?

Dame Agatha Christie. Photo credit; The Christie Archive.
Dame Agatha Christie. Photo credit; The Christie Archive.

Finally a few words about the actual festival.  Most of the main events were held in Torquay at Torre Abbey, an atmospheric complex of buildings incorporating a medieval monastery, a Georgian house, a gatehouse and a tithe barn. I loved the garden party and luncheon with most of the guests dressed up in vintage clothes and a band playing the standards from the 20s, 30s and 40s. The Abbey garden is fabulous and the Potent (poisonous) plants section of the garden, inspired by Christie’s books is a darkly humorous and rather deadly flower display.

Some of the photographs in this blog are featured in the touring exhibition Agatha Christie: unfinished portrait, a collection of  rare photographs of the world’s most popular female author. Many of the pictures are from the Detective Queen’s private collection.

Agatha Christie: unfinished portraits,  can be seen at  Torre Abbey,  Torquay until 18th October 2015. 

The official Christie site is one click away:

Here is a link to the novels by Agatha Christie that are currently available:



EyewitnessSign Philip, Henning
Henning ( Odin Waage) and Philip (Axel Bøyum) in Eyewitness

MC gangs, a tentative teenage gay love story, a professional sharpshooter, an undercover infiltrator for a secretive police unit, a female detective, a criminal boss with international ties, his young daughter, a pedophile and a host of other more ’ordinary’ characters keep the viewers of this Norwegian crime series on the edge of their seats.

Four killings in a matter of seconds in the opening minutes of the first episode (of a total of six by the end) made me engage totally, to start with. But in that first episode we are also bombarded with so many different characters that there is no time for slouching on the sofa.

Philip and Henning, two 15-year old boys, racing at night on a MX bike end up in a sand quarry where they get emotionally entangled. Before they know it a car has pulled up and the youngsters witness a massacre of four members of an outlawed motorcycle (MC) gang. The naked marksman then spots one of the eyewitnesses but is knocked out by the other teenager and left for dead. The boys flee with the murder weapon and decide to stay shtum, to avoid adults asking questions about their special friendship.
Initially all the action takes place in the small community of Mysen outside Oslo where Philip’s foster mum Helen Sikkeland happens to be the chief of police and a very experienced detective.
The boys are potentially in serious trouble when it turns out (warning: slight spoiler) that the killer is still alive. At the same time the police investigation appears to have come to a dead end. More apparently unrelated deaths follow. Philip and Henning seem to be the only ones who can provide some vital clues. Will they talk before the sharpshooting killer hunts them down?

This dark ( warning: cliché coming up) Nordic thriller is terrific until, about part three. This is when the investigation gets seriously stuck,  the weaknesses appear and the script starts to unravel.
The seemingly unrelated subplots are a fine and tested method to keep the audience on tenterhooks, but if you have too many characters you can end up not properly developing any of them. The only fully rounded characters (and therefore the most believable) are the two youngsters. Wide-eyed Philip (Axel Bøyum) is a fabulous talent who has a great future, possibly even on stage. The smouldering Henning (Odin Waage) is equally good with an extremely Nordic look.
These newcomers make Øyevitne very watchable, but Eyewitness isn’t quite the classic it could have been.
Jarl Emsell Larsen is one of Norway’s most experienced scriptwriters and directors, but unfortunately he has missed a few opportunities here.

MC gang prepares for night moves

Outlawed MC-gangs can be very powerful and much more scary that they are portrayed here. They tend to have their tentacles in the police force as well. If you kill four MC members it will have cataclysmic effects and spark a gang war that ends up like the last act of a Shakespearean drama. We get to see plenty of hardware (bikes, helmets and clubhouse) and a nasty beating but the brutal MC aspect is underused and more or less dropped after a while.

Detective Sikkeland (Anneke van der Lippe) also makes some very incompetent decisions that really should have seen her fired. It didn’t help that I didn’t find her a sympathetic character.
My mother tongue is Swedish and I understand much of the Norwegian dialogue and in general it is good and credible (don’t worry, there are subtitles), but sometimes pictures say more than words. The stunning Norwegian countryside and the Oslo cityscape could have been used more effectively (see Wallander, Bron and Borgen).
But there is enough going on to make this a worthwhile purchase for
people desperate for some fresh Nordic Noir.
I give Eyewitness 8 stars for the first three parts and 6 for the consequent three episodes.

Eyewitness (Öyevitne, 2014) is released on DVD 14 September from Simple Media, in the UK.

See the trailer here:

You can purchase the TV/series here:

SCHUBERT symphony no.9, 7…um 8 ? at BBC Proms

Bernard Haitink with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Bernard Haitink rehearsing the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the BBC Proms , photo: Ehrnrooth

BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Friday 28 August 2015 prom 57

I have no idea “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall” , but at the Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s recent  BBC Proms concert (no.57) the hall was packed to the rafters. Not a single hole to be seen. This was the orchestra’s eleventh visit to the Proms and, yes,  the  Chamber Orchestra of  Europe (COE) is well established in this country, but with Bernard Haitink conducting you are guaranteed a full house. That is simply a fact. The  maestro can pick and choose who he wants to work with and the COE have clearly over the past few years been in his pick n’ mix bag.
I was lucky enough to attend the COE’s rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall. The calm authority that Haitink exudes is a lesson in itself for any youngish conductor. This is still one of those professions where you have to earn your stripes and there is no known quick route to becoming a great conductor. Any impatient baton wielder should remember that most maestros only improve with age. Haitink’s eyelids are now slightly drooping but make no mistake, his ears don’t miss a trick. He rarely interrupts the flow during the rehearsal: a facial expression, an authoritative, but not unkind look at a section of the orchestra, an elegant wave of his left hand is enough to signal what is required. This orchestra with its very experienced musicians reads the signals quickly. At the end of the rehearsal Haitink thanks and praises the orchestra and says: ”Have a good concert tonight because it is a wonderful audience. And they also think they are a wonderful audience!” Laughter all around. Haitink has nailed it: Prommers are a self-righteous lot, but what a (sometimes even overly) generous audience they are.

Maria João Pires playing Mozart
Maria João Pires playing Mozart © Chris Christodoulou

Schubert intended the Overture in C major (D591) to sound like the opening of a Rossini opera. Haitink and the COE start rather tentatively but there is intent in this approach. A typical Rossini overture starts slowly, warming up elegantly,  so that the crescendo will have a maximum impact. Schubert and the COE plagiarise perfectly and if I had been told this is a work by Gioachino,  I would  have believed it.
Maria João Pires enjoys a felicitous collaboration with the COE and I don’t know of any better interpreter of the Mozart piano repertoire. There may be more adventurous  keyboard virtuosi and peddlers of the ‘authentic’ style , but I like Pires’s ‘hammerless’ approach. She will always ignore pedal instructions in favour of clarity. I own the box set of her Erato recordings from the 1970’s , so I came well prepared. Her interpretation of Mozart’s piano concerto No.23 in A major (K488) doesn’t appear to have changed hugely, other than that the adagio has gained more depth. How could it not 40 years later? From where I was sitting during the concert the tiny Portuguese virtuoso seemed to disappear into the giant Steinway during the adagio only to reemerge for the virtuosic hustle and bustle of the allegro assai. The COE wafted in and out appropriately and while this might be relatively easy for them to play, for the soloist it is no mean feat to make K488 sound lyrical, brilliant and effortless.
Schubert’s Symphony no.9 in C major was originally published as no. 7 and in the latest edition of Franz’s works it is numbered as 8. Then there is the question of how many sections should you repeat. The ‘Great’ C major was once considered unplayable and the length of the symphony also put some orchestras off.
Having recently listened to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s interpretations of the work with both the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker, I was really looking forward to Haitink’s take on things. I was not disappointed and interested to discover how different (in mood) the interpretations are.
The COE and Haitink inject some fresh mountain air to the first movement, ma non troppo. The opening horn solo puts you in the romantic vein, but Haitink doesn’t really have time for that, after all he is Dutch. Haitink really gives the three trombones – a complete novelty in the 1820s – a prominent role and they are allowed to shine in their solos (albeit pianissimo). The Andante con moto could not have been played more delicately, without loosing the rhythmic tread that becomes more inevitable as we move up the mountain. Well, I assume we are climbing a mountain, with just a little pause to empty our (walking) boots of the stones gathered. Then the cellos mysteriously guide us up another, slightly darker, path. Key changes abound in this piece, but it is more difficult to smooth them out than to stress them and if you want a ‘modernized’, edgy Schubert, then Haitink is not your man. He opts for most of the repeats and I believe that he only in the finale may have left out a couple.
Schubert here makes his scherzo slightly more heavy going than usual and Haitink doesn’t attempt to lighten the step by stressing the dance elements. This is also where the COE live up to their name. Despite having 40+ members on stage they can still sound lithe like a chamber orchestra when required. By the time we get to the finale we are virtually paragliding up that mountain. The winds are sturdy the higher up we get, but at least they push us up. The woodwind and brass sections deserve a special mention. Throughout they keep the legato melodic line going and particularly in the last two movements they provide a mostly very subtle pulse throughout.
With this lot there is no stopping Schubert’s majestic 9th… or 7th or… 8th, or whatever ‘Great’ symphony.

Bernard Haitink © Chris Christodoulou BBC Prom 57
Bernard Haitink © Chris Christodoulou BBC Prom 57

P:S: If you live in the UK you can see this concert on BBC 4 at 7.30 Friday the 4th of September. after that it will be available on iPlayer.



The handwritten opening page of Tristan und Isolde photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The handwritten opening page of Tristan und Isolde photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The 104th edition of the Bayreuth Festival has just kicked off with Christian Thielemann conducting Tristan und Isolde. Thielemann was recently appointed as the very first music director of the Bayreuther Festspiele.  The opening night saw the usual procession of German celebrities, high nobility and politicians making their way up the Green Hill towards the literally crumbling  Festspielhaus (the theatre is being renovated). A  Bayreuth festival opening wouldn’t  be complete without the presence of the self-confessed Wagnerian, Angela Merkel, who was accompanied by her husband. I wasn’t there for the premiere (the invite was still in the post), but rumour has it that the German Chancellor slipped off her chair in the restaurant during the first interval of Tristan. Was this a subtle way of commenting on the production or had some Greek waiter perchance sabotaged her chair?
Instead of a review of  Richard’s great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner’s new production of Tristan (which in general was received very well), I can tell you about  the new Wagner museum complex that  opened in time for the festival. The three-pronged museum approach to Wagner consists of the revamped Villa Wahnfried, the ground floor of Siegfried Haus and a completely new concrete-and-glass construction that has sprung up in the garden of the Wagner property. This brand new museum more than doubles the previous exhibition space.

Villa Wahnfried was largely destroyed during the war and much was lost. Siegfried’s son Wieland , who tried his best to give the Bayreuther Festspiele a good reputation, simply moved into the ruins of the building. It wasn’t until 1976 that Wahnfried was reconstructed,  but no attempt was made to fully restore the bourgeois interiors.

After a major rethink and three years of restoration,  a new concept for Villa Wahnfried has emerged.
Some people, who remember the ‘old’ Wahnfried, will complain about the fact that many objects have been removed.  The interiors now give the impression that Richard and Cosima have left the building for an extended sojourn in Venice and draped white dust covers (similar to those found in IKEA!) over most of the furniture and pictures on the wall.  A few choice objects (see photograph below) and pieces of furniture remain on display.

Museum director Sven Friedrich at Villa Wahnfried with Liszt and Wagner portraits. Photo: Ehrnrooth
Museum director Sven Friedrich at Villa Wahnfried with Liszt and Wagner portraits. Photo: Ehrnrooth

The objects that you can actually see, explains Sven Friedrich, the director of the three Wagner museums, are the only ones that are original. The new thinking is ‘no more fakes’.  The covered furniture and pictures represent all the objects that were lost in the war.  Friedrich tells me that by studying old photographs they could establish how the interiors of the rooms on the lower floor appeared when Richard and Cosima were residing here. To me it looks more like a conceptual art exhibition and a momentary solution, until the ‘real’ furniture is delivered.

On the other hand I do like the fact that in some of the rooms the previously white walls have partly been replaced by an impression of what the original wallpaper must have looked like. So, while some  objects have been covered by white cloth at the same time colour has been added to the walls of some rooms.  Downstairs there are few texts but the whole upper floor of Haus Wahnfried is now completely devoted to the composer’s career, family life  and his works.

The good news is that there has been a complete rethink about how to present not only the composer and his wife Cosima, but also their descendants and their relationship with Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, the 1930s, during the war and up until the death of Winifred Wagner in 1980. It was  high time that the family’s enthusiastic support for Hitler was confronted head on. The self-exonerating and insensitive claims that Wagner was misused by the Nazis doesn’t wash any longer, even if you can’t blame the composer for the concentration camps.

The Siegfried Haus now gives you an idea of Richard’s abhorrent anti-semitic writings and how ‘the master race’ used Wagner’s  ideology for their own purposes.  It never ceases to surprise me to hear how easily  the Nazis  (with the help of Cosima and her son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain) turned Wagner’s music, his concept of a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), as well as  his anti-semitic ideology into effective tools for totalitarianism. The texts, photos and films are displayed on block monitors and each room on the lower floor “talks to you”.

Sven Friedrich took me on a personal tour and explained why it was decided that Siegfried Haus should be opened to the general public.  “The former exhibition (only) dealt with Wagner’s works and life and the history of the Bayreuth festival. In the concept of the new museum it was very important to also deal with the very complicated history of Wagner’s effects and the connections between his aesthetics and artificial ideology with the folkish (Völkisch) movement and the history of the Third Reich.”

It is well known that Hitler was a passionate Wagnerian and he made his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth in October 1923. Hitler’s racist ideas were strongly influenced by the English-born author Houston Stewart Chamberlain who was a great admirer of Wagner’s music and was married to the composer’s stepdaughter Eva.

Hitler landed in jail after the failed Munich beer-hall putsch but the composer’s son Siegfried and the rest of the family decided to openly show their support for him when, for the first time since the war, the Bayreuth festival reopened in 1924. Hitler had already become a close friend of Winifred (Siegfried’s wife) and in an infamous interview filmed in 1976 she made no attempt to dissociate herself from “Wolf” (as the family called him) and continued to express her admiration for him long after the second world  war. Siegfried Haus remained unscathed during the war despite being located next to Wahnfried. Winifred occupied the house until her death in 1980.

“Hitler lived here during his Bayreuth stays between 1936-1940 and it is absolutely impossible to deny this part of the history”,  says Friedrich.

The dining room looks exactly as dark and joyless as it would have in the 1930’s and nothing has been added or replaced. It feels quite eerie when you realise that the Führer sat here and chatted (perhaps even flirted) with Winifred and the rest of the Bayreuth circle over a vegetarian meal. There are not many places in Germany where you can see such an authentic 1930s interior that can be linked closely with Hitler. One can only hope that Siegfried House doesn’t attract the kind of people who secretly worship Hitler.

Sven Friedrich’s predecessor already organised an exhibition about Wagner and the Jews in the 1980s and there have been conferences on the same theme, but this is the first permanent and extensive display about this subject matter at the Wagner property.

Verstummte Stimmen (Silent Voices) photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Verstummte Stimmen (Silent Voices) photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Two years ago the very moving  Verstummte Stimmen ( Silent voices) exhibition was installed in the park beneath the Festspielhaus. Panels show pictures of singers, conductors and musicians (mainly) from a Jewish background that performed at the Bayreuther Festspiele. A short biography explains when and in what role(s) they appeared in Bayreuth. The fact that many of these performers had been very successful at Bayreuth made no difference. If they were Jewish, they were at some point not rehired.

Long before the Nazi era Cosima Wagner took exception to some Jewish singers and three years after her death (in 1930) a production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg became the first Jew-free production in Germany.  Many Jewish musicians and people married to Jews went into exile during the 1930s, but unfortunately most of them stayed in Germany and ended up in concentration camps.

The large bust of Richard Wagner in the park is nowadays permanently  surrounded by Jewish musicians who once performed the Master’s works at the Festspielhaus. But instead of being covered in glory, they are now mostly remembered for having perished in concentration camps.





ROBERTO DEVEREUX by GAETANO DONIZETTI  Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano

Bayerische Staatsoper, seen at the Nationaltheater in Munich, 15th of July 2015

BQueen Elizabeth I salutes her rival the Duchess of Nottingham
Queen Elizabeth I salutes her rival the Duchess of Nottingham © Wilfried Hösl

Age is no hindrance, when you are singing. Placido Domingo is 74 years old and has during the last decade gone from tenor roles, to transposing passages down a note or two, to baritone roles that don’t quite suit his voice.

The coloratura legend Edita Gruberova is 69 years old but she makes no compromises. She still goes hell for leather in major roles in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. As a matter of fact, according to Gruberova’s website, she is booked well into 2017 to appear in the major opera houses of Vienna, Tokyo and Munich in productions of Anna Bolena Norma and Lucrezia Borgia.

At the Bavarian State Opera in Munich she now and then makes a very welcome appearance as Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) in Donizetti’s ‘tragedia lirica’ Roberto Devereux. It is clearly one of Gruberova’s signature roles and after seeing her in action I can understand why she is still at it.

Christof Loy’s staging from 2004 depicts the corridors of power in Westminister as a pretty shabby place in need of some freshening up. Sara’s private apartments are no more luxurious. The Duchess of Nottingham lives behind plexiglass screens that are scratchier than a London Underground train. Yes, this is reminiscent of the London I knew in the early 80s, before the property boom.

When Elisabetta (Gruberova) is about to show some steel and sentence her young favourite Deveruex to death, she appears dressed as the Iron Lady in turquoise skirt and jacket with matching beige handbag.

Whenever the choir makes an entrance in the Palace (of Westminster) there is also that distinct whiff of the 80s with the men and women dressed as your typical civil servants, butlers and domestic servants. But here is a missed opportunity, as Roberto Devereux (or the Earl of Essex) is not dressed as your stereotypical ‘Essex or even Mondeo man’. It is a small, perhaps irrelevant detail that probably would only have been picked up by a British audience

But most importantly there is some excellent singing.

There is only one disappointment. The Siberian tenor Alexey Dolgov as Devereux sounded rather dull, made no impression in the cabalettas, but acted his pants off. You can see and hear why Sonia Ganassi continues to be hired as Deveruex’s secret lover Sara  by many of the world’s best opera houses. She can be both intensely passionate and love-torn tender. Equally impressive is her husband, the jealous and spiteful Duke of Nottingham (Franco Vassallo). Vassallo is another one, I must admit, of these wonderful Italian baritones that I haven’t encountered before on my operatic travels. Vassallo portrays his character with gusto and his deeply rounded voice makes full use of the open and clear cut vowels that his mother tongue provides.

The odd thing about this opera is that there are many duets but only rarely do the protagonists sing together.

The Slovak soprano Edita Gruberova thrives on her own and is, despite her age, still a force to be reckoned with.  Gruberova was for many years the reigning Queen of the Night and perhaps after Beverly Sills the finest Tudor Queen in Donizetti’s trilogy Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux.

Elisabetta (Edita Gruberova) manages a hair raising situation
Elisabetta (Edita Gruberova) manages a hair raising situation © Wilfried Hösl

But whereas Mrs Sills declared that taking on Elisabetta in Roberto Deveruex had shortened her career by at least four years, the same role has probably lengthened Gruberova’s life on stage.

Her voice has now lost lustre on the top notes, but she makes up for some of that by totally inhabiting the role from start to finish. It is all there: first the affection she shows Devereux, then the anger, the cold hearted death sentence, followed by doubt, the realisation that she has made a mistake, the blame she puts on the Nottinghams and finally the grief – Gruberova makes it all seem very believable. I guess she could manage the notoriously difficult final scene purely on technique, but this singer has no intention of coasting. She gives the aria ‘Quel sangue versato’ the full whack, and some. The very final Bs and the high D don’t come off and turn into a kind of wail. But it doesn’t matter because Elisabetta has gone mad with sorrow and on her knees hands the power to her nephew, King James VI of Scotland.

Edita Gruberova received a standing ovation and much credit should also go to the conductor Friedrich Haider. He actually re-discovered the score of Roberto Devereux. Although hardly a masterpiece, this is a perfectly dramatic opera, provided all the main roles are sang convincingly.

This production of Roberto Devereux remains on the repertoire and if you value strong acting, you have to see Edita Gruberova as Elisabetta before she passes on her coloratura crown.


ARABELLA by R. Strauss/H. von Hofmannsthal

Seen at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich 14/07/2015

Arabella (Anja Harteros) and her sister in breeches (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller)  photo:Wilfried Hösl
Arabella (Anja Harteros) and her sister in breeches (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller) photo:Wilfried Hösl

I have been racking my brain for a couple of days now, but I am pretty sure it is called an ‘archaic smile’. Anja Harteros’s lips are turned up only slightly, but enough to suggest a smile. You can see the same rather flat, but ambivalent expression in Greek stone figures of young naked youths from the 6th century BCE, the so called kouroi. Little did I know, until I wrote this piece, that Anja Harteros, actually is half-Greek.

Not only does Anja Harteros do the non-committal expression rather well, she sings the title role of Arabella effortlessly in a production that is superb all around.

Arabella knows the score photo: Wilfried Hösl
Arabella knows the score photo: Wilfried Hösl

The Bavarian State Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Arabella is musically almost as sound as it gets. Very strong singing and acting from virtually all the main characters. As a singer you could hardly wish for a better orchestra in the pit and a more attentive conductor than the Swiss maestro Philippe Jordan. Act one is dramatically weak, probably due to the fact that von Hofmannsthal died 4 years before the premiere and didn’t have the opportunity to fine-tune the libretto. Particularly acts two and three are staged very effectively by director Andreas Dresen, helped by the most dramatic and symbolic staircase(s) you will ever have seen on stage (reminiscent of the’ stairways to heaven’ in classic Hollywood musicals). The set is designed by Mathias Fischer-Dieskau whose father was a much-praised Mandryka half a century ago. The orgy after the Coachman’s ball that takes place on the stairs and in the stairwell is not irrelevant but perhaps a bit distracting. I literally nearly lost the plot, I was so busy looking at the half-naked goings-on in the background.

Sinful and symbolic stairs photo: Wilfried Hösl
Sinful and symbolic stairs photo: Wilfried Hösl

But seriously, I think the director has managed to find the right socio-political balance throughout. To set the action during the time that Strauss premiered the opera (in 1933) is a logical move. In the early years of the Nazi Party’s rule Strauss was quite happy to support their culturally restrictive and anti-Semitic directives. Yes, Richard Strauss must have recognised himself in the opportunist that Arabella so clearly is.

Arabella’s aristocratic family counts on her to help them out of their financial dire straits by simply marrying the wealthiest of her many suitors. She is perfectly confident to wait until the right man comes along. She shows very little empathy for her little sister Zdenka who runs her errands and has to dress in men’s clothing because their pathetic father, Count Waldner, can’t afford to buy her the kind of clothes that a woman of her status should wear.

Before Arabella then decides to fall in love with Mandryka (Thomas J. Mayer) she makes sure that he is wealthy enough to support the family. She is not at all concerned about the fact that he seems to have picked her mainly for her looks. Neither does it seem to bother her that he is boorish and jealous. His determined (over-my-dead-body) mentality is quite typical of the new master race that will terrorize the world during the following 12 years.

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Mandryka and Fiakermillli do some serious exercising Photo: Wilfried Hösl

Surely Strauss’s frequent use of waltzes is meant ironically. And yes, there are many things about this opera that are reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier, but it certainly isn’t second rate ‘The Knight of the Rose, part II’. No, this opera, unlike Rosenkavalier is all about money,  money and how to get it. Arabella quickly forgives Mandryka’s resentful and brusque behaviour, when she remembers how rich he is. Arabella also heartlessly fails to defend her sister Zdenka when she is in a spot of bother at the very end. Arabella is just concerned with catching the man who can pay for the lifestyle that she thinks she deserves.

Don’t be fooled by the musically lightweight passages with waltzes and sentimental flair. Scratch the surface and you will find some very fine orchestral scoring. Strauss cleverly intertwines the various ‘leitmotifs’ that accompany both Mandryka and Arabella.’ Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein’ says it all and Harteros and Mayer manage to take romanticism to the hilt. Anaja Harteros seems to just float up to the top notes.

Arabella wonders if this is the man for her? Photo:  Wilfried Hösl
Arabella wonders if this is the man for her? Photo: Wilfried Hösl


Towards the end, after Mandryka has shown himself to be an irascible hot head, Harteros almost convinces us that Arabella has chosen love over money. But there is a giveaway at the very end when Arabella offers Mandryka (Thomas Mayer) a glass of water as a symbol of betrothal (according to his Croatian custom). Harteros approaches Mayer with her archaic smile and you expect a loving embrace, but instead she flicks the water in his face.

The plot is fairly basic and von Hofmannsthal would surely have wanted to improve some scenes, had he lived a bit longer. That said, some of the libretto’s entanglements and intricacies Strauss’s favourite composer Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte would have been proud of.

Count Waldner (Kurt Rydl) is skint but funny. Photo: Wilfried Hösl
Count Waldner (Kurt Rydl) is skint but funny. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The ‘mega bass’ Kurt Rydl is excellent as Count Waldner, whose middle name seems to be failure. Von Hofmannsthal wanted to create a commedia dell’arte figure and Rydl achieves that in every sense. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is totally convincing in the breeches role and actually quite delectable as Zdenka. Mandryka does have to win our hearts as well. Not easy, considering that he is blunt, pathologically jealous and threatens to get very physical with both sexes. He disturbs bears, openly flirts with the Fiakermilli, and dresses like a Nazi. On top of that the stage director seems to suggest that his helpers are members of the Gestapo. The baritone Thomas J Mayer’s looks are ideally suited to the role, he is a solid actor and his voice is strong and dark, as required. Despite the character’s unpleasant traits Mayer manages to make Mandryka quite likeable.

The libretto and some of the staging is genuinely amusing and the man sat next to me was chuckling throughout the performance. His wife (or perhaps his lover?) would every now and then squeeze his hand and waltz with it on the arm rest.

Arabella was premiered at this year’s Munich Opera Festival but will remain on the repertoire next season. It is well worthwhile to make a detour to Munich’s Nationaltheater to see this production.



Seen at Grange Park Opera June 24, 2015

Samson et Dalila -Samson (Carl Tanner) Dalila (Sara Fulgoni) © Robert Workman
Samson (Carl Tanner)  and Dalila (Sara Fulgoni) contemplating what haircut to get © Robert Workman

The story, taken from the Book of Judges, about a classic haircut is well-known. We are all familiar with that sinking feeling and loss of potency after a horrific hair makeover. But in the face of defeat Samson, just like the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, found strength and ultimately victory. Come to think of it, Samson is one of history’s first suicide bombers and his self-destructive act appeared to have God’s blessing. What the Lord made of Saint-Saëns’s opera on the subject is not known, but its success lay for a long time in the balance.

Grange Park Opera’s new production of Samson et Delila contains some powerful singing and a very good orchestra to boot.

Why did Camille Saint-Saëns devote so much time to creating this work? Many of his most famous compositions seem effortlessness: the 4th and the 5th piano concertos, the Carnival of the Animals, the Danse Macabre and the Organ Symphony also show off his versatility.
Samson et Dalila started out as an oratorio and was performed at a number of private concerts. In the 19th century the use of a biblical subject for an opera was frowned upon in France, Great Britain and probably in most other European countries. After the humiliating Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 Saint-Saëns for some reason decided that he had to rework the oratorio and ignore the censors and the self-appointed gatekeepers of the Christian faith.
But when Samson and Delilah was finally ready to be performed in 1877 nobody in France was willing to stage it. With the help of Franz Liszt it was therefore first seen in Weimar. Then it took 13 years before anyone in France showed interest and another 4 years before the country’s foremost company, Opéra de Paris, staged the work!
Certainly not an easy ride for an already very well respected pianist, organist and composer. In the end Saint-Saëns had reason to feel vindictive because the opera became a resounding success and in Paris alone it was performed 500 times during the next 30 years.

Samson (Carl Tanner) Grange Park Opera © Robert Workman
Samson (Carl Tanner) Grange Park Opera © Robert Workman

Samson et Dalila is now the only one of Saint-Saëns’s 12 operas that is performed on a fairly regular basis, but I had never before seen a production. I cherish my recording with Placido Domingo and Elena Obraztsova singing the title roles and Daniel Barenboim conducting. I made my mind up that I was not going to be unfair and expect the production at Grange Park Opera to musically reach those heights.
I needn’t have worried about the music, because all the musicians are equal to the task. But I want to take issue with the director of this production. Setting the opera in Vichy France during the German occupation doesn’t add anything to the action other than the most obvious. In the ballet scene it turns out that Delilah is a film star and instead of dancing we see the singers reacting to the action in the (oriental sounding) film that they are supposedly watching. I would still have preferred an orgiastic (bacchanale) ballet, but this solution is acceptable, because it is quite a sensible cost saving. But if the director wants to make a modern or even contemporary parallel why not portray the Philistines as Arabs, Palestinians (like Opera Flanders did) or ISIL. That last option could truly have been controversial and more relevant. I could do without swastikas and nazi saluting chorus members in opera production for a little while.

But the positives prevail over some poor directorial decisions. In the end the music comes first and overall the singers deliver  the goods. Ex-bounty hunter Carl Tanner may not have the dashing looks but he has the CV to claim the part and certainly displays both the ‘helden’ tenor voice and the firm ease required in the love duet.
Sara Fulgoni sounds darkly seductive and at the same time possesses the regal air of the film star she is meant to be. She builds up the tension and expectations very well with long phrasing,  before pulling out all the lyrical stops in the famous aria and subsequent duet  ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’.
The youthful High Priest (Michel de Souza) is a man without a conscience and Christophoris Stamboglis as the Old Hebrew is as rock solid as the Masada fortress.
There are still clear elements of the original oratorio (Bach and Händel come to mind) in the first act and some of the rather static scenes can be blamed on the composer’s and the librettist Ferdinand Lemaire’s shortcomings. There are two choirs (Hebrews and Philistines) and the (mainly) young singers in the chorus get a marvellous opportunity to gain acting and singing experience.

Gianluca Marciano conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with restraint but certainly doesn’t underplay the Wagnerian mellifluence and pomp. Grange Park Opera is very lucky to have such a fine orchestra as its house band.

View the 2015 programme


Grange Park Opera  photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Grange Park Opera photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


It is a perilous business running an opera company (even if it is only during the summer season) and perhaps even more so if you are dependent on incredibly generous, private donors. But Wasfi Kani clearly knows how to make the wealthy depart with their money for something as ephemeral as an opera performance. Grange Park Opera was founded in 1998 by Wasfi Kani and she remains the lynchpin. The location certainly plays a big part in the success of the whole operation

English Heritage’s property The Grange at Northington is surrounded by a landscaped garden and lush Hampshire countryside. An excellent setting for some heavy duty opera and a light picnic. The house has a Greek revival facade which could double as a backdrop for quite a few productions. The partly stripped and distressed Georgian interior are brought back to life every year when the bar and the restaurant are opened for the season.