Category Archives: Travel Articles

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

THE BUCKET LIST ANTIQUE FAIR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Lutheran Black Church seen from Piața Sfatului in Braşov. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

BRAȘOV IN A DAY

Does the city of Braşov need the white Hollywood type of sign up on Mount Tampa? Not really, it can boast a far more interesting history than the sleazy capital of film. Transylvania’s second city is perhaps slightly lacking in confidence in its own tourism product. It shouldn’t, the place is worth a detour.

The Romans called the site Corona and when the Saxons settled in medieval times they named the town similarly in German, Kronstadt. This translates into Brassó in Hungarian. Transylvania was part of Hungaria before the war. In 1950 Braşov was rechristened Orașul Stalin (Stalin City) by some communist committee. Vlad the Impaler had 40 noblemen skewered and displayed on the local mountain, but he was a pussy compared to the Soviet dictator who was honoured here. In 1960 the local Romanians came to their senses and renamed the city Braşov. This is also the city where some of the first fierce protests against the Ceaușescu dictatorship were aired.

Braşov's Saxon wall just below the White Tower. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Braşov’s Saxon wall just below the White Tower.
Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Braşov lies at the foot of Mt. Tampa (940). Its top can be reached by cable car or opt for an easy ascent. The Germanic people started in the 15th century the construction of the impressive wall around Braşov. A large part of it is still intact. Walk the path along the outside of the western section of the fortification, next to the stream. Climb up the stairs to the White Tower which offers a splendid view of the old town. From up here the Council House (1420) with the Trumpeter’s Tower in the centre of the square is the most eye-catching building. More interesting and dominating the skyline is the Black Church (Biserica Neagră). It is a German Lutheran church and exceptionally large for this ( mainly Romanian Orthodox) region. It was damaged and charred in a fire in 1689, hence the ‘black’ in the name. You do not have to be interested in religion to be able to appreciate the very unusual collection of Anatolian and Transylvanian rugs that were donated by wealthy merchants over the centuries and now decorate the interior. The organ (built 1839 by Carl August Buchholz) is also special and there are regular concerts.

Braşov's St. Nicholas Cathedral combines Byzantine and Baroque elements. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Braşov’s St. Nicholas Cathedral combines Byzantine and Baroque elements. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The centre of town with its shops, restaurants, narrow passageways and colourful façades is pleasant enough for a slow afternoon stroll. But the most genuine Romanian part of Braşov is the Schei district. Head past the 15th century Weavers’ Bastion, take note of the Kronstadt cemetery with German war graves from the First and Second World War and continue in southwesterly direction. During many centuries of Saxon rule Romanians were not allowed to live within the walled city. That is why the orthodox St. Nicholas Cathedral is in the Schei district outside the fortifications. The church was closed when I visited but there are a number of (faded) murals painted in Byzantine style on the outside and the carved wooden door is also a minor masterpiece. Next to the church is a 16th century school where the pupils for the first time anywhere were educated in Romanian. The charming church area, the grave-yard, the school and the small square with typical stylish Romanian architecture offers some tranquility, away from the very touristic old town. This is perhaps the most genuine corner of Braşov. For a hearty, traditional and very affordable meal in a rustic setting I recommend Casa Romaneasca in Piata Unirii (Union Square) which also gives you a view of the St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Tehhis is not what it used to be in Romania since the heady days of former world no.1 Ilie Năstase. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Tennis is not what it used to be in Romania since the heady days of former world no.1 Ilie Năstase. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Next day I decide to skip the trip I had planned to Bran and the ‘Dracula Castle’. Yesterday’s taxi driver (see previous blog) has put me off and I really need to visit Sinaia. This resort is on the train line back to Bucharest. I summon a taxi to take me (back) to the station.

This time I have a silent driver. I reckon he is in his sixties. Judging by his driving style he used to be a police officer. He seems to think he has a right to move past a minor traffic jam on the wrong side of the road, ignoring the solid white line and the oncoming cars that have to make way. I am sure this move felt a bit safer in the days when he could flash his blue police light. I also notice that he crosses himself every time we pass a church on the way to the train station. That happens three times and a fourth time he crosses himself from right to left (as is the orthodox way) after he has nearly taken out a car on a roundabout.

Braşov and Hollywood have nothing in common except for a white sign on a hill.

When he drops me at the station, he allows himself a smile and utters “Goodbye”. It is probably  the single English word he masters and the only smile he gives out professionally.

 

Braşov's Council House dating back to 1420. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

THE BRASSY CABBIE FROM BRASOV

“My friend – Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina; a place on it is kept for you. At the Borgo Pass my carriage will await you and will bring you to me.” *

I did sleep well, but the Count never picked me up and I had to make my own way by train to the Carpathian mountains. You may have guessed that the quote comes from Bram Stoker’s absolutely brilliant novel Dracula. Stoker of course never visited Transylvania, but he did do Romanian tourism a huge favour.

Transylvania, the name conjures up images of wolfs, bears, gothic castles and forested mountains. Amazingly, all that and more  (hearty good food!) can still be found in this region. Transylvania is a surprisingly large province. As a matter of fact it is larger than Hungary, which it used to be part of, and has less than 7 million inhabitants.

After three days in stiflingly hot Bucharest (see previous blogs) it was time to explore the countryside. Bucharest to Braşov is a 2 ½ hour journey with a fast train. I recommend you book first class. It is not the Orient Express (which used to cross Romania),  but you do get that extra bit of legroom and it only costs the equivalent of £3 more than II class. The total cost of the 166 km journey is 70 RON or £ 13.80.

It is another sweaty late September day when I set off from the train station in Bucharest North. Ventilation is not included in first class. An old lady sitting opposite me takes out a wad of bills from her wallet. Is she really going to count money, openly like some gangster in a C movie? No, she spreads them out as if they were cards and then proceeds to fan herself with them! The notes are too thin and flimsy to do the job properly, but it is an amusing sight.

The first 45 minutes of the journey are no great shakes. Endless, flat stubble fields that have recently been harvested.  But slowly one by one wooded hills drift into view.  Having passed the massive oil refinery in Ploieşti the train track starts to follow the lower reaches of the river Prahova. I have read about Ceaușescu’s delusional renewal plans and how he ordered the destruction of thousands of villages and I am therefore pleasantly surprised to see that  at least some traditional architecture has survived in Transylvania. This stretch could potentially be a lovely train journey but the river and its banks needs cleaning up. The concrete weirs do look solid but they remind me of communist era defence lines.

After a while the hills increase and become fully grown mountains, peaking dramatically in the resort Sinaia. In the winter months this holiday centre will transform into a half-decent ski-resort. In my next blog I will make a stopover here, on my way back from Braşov.

 Braşov's medieval centre in the shadow of Mount Tampa. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Braşov’s medieval centre in the shadow of Mount Tampa. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Having arrived in Braşov I head for the taxi stop. I know it is only about 4 km to my hotel and I ask the driver what he is going to charge me.  50 RON, he says, which is almost £11. I haggle it down to half that price, knowing that even that is far too high. The little fellow then asks me with a sly grin if I am Russian. Should I take that as a compliment? It turns out that this ride comes with an unsolicited sales pitch. Tomorrow my trusty new friend wants to take me on a day trip to Bran and several other spooky castles. Bran is advertised as Dracula’s castle because Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Count Dracula) was imprisoned there long enough to register on a tourist map. It is a popular destination, looks sinister enough in the pictures and I am initially ready to consider my fixer-cum- taxi driver’s offer.

His name is Victor, I learn. He tells me to give him an offer he can’t refuse for a private tour. But I haven’t got a clue what the going rate is, so I change the subject to football. You can hardly go wrong with that in Romania, as they haven’t qualified for the World Cup 2018 in Russia. This theme brings out another, not completely surprising streak in the unshaven little chap with the glowing eyes. I ask him about the local football club. He launches into a shockingly sweary rant. He hates the effing  rich owner who, Victor claims, has destroyed his beloved FC Brașov which is currently lingering in the second Liga. The expletives continue to fly during the rest of our conversation and we cover an amazing array of subjects for a short ride.  I try to imagine what it would be like to have him as my personal chauffeur for a day, transporting me from one lugubrious castle to another,  while uttering profanities.  I am not given much time to contemplate this before Victor has changed tack. He tells me he recently bought a car in Leicester. Huh, did I hear that right!? Yes, it is cheaper to fly to Leicester, buy a second hand car and drive it all the way back to Romania, than it is to buy a vehicle locally.  Victor paid £600 for a luxury car and would I like to hire it?  It is a right-hand drive and therefore ideal for me, he says. All kinds of horror scenarios involving me and the right-hand jalopy in the Transylvanian countryside flash through my mind, before I politely decline Victor’s offer. Luckily we have arrived before he can come up with more sales pitches. Victor has delivered me slap bang in the middle of the old town without any problems. He did claim initially that it was rather complicated to get to the centre with all its narrow roads and therefore he would have to charge some extra money. It turns out that a major road cuts through the medieval market place where my hotel is. Before Victor gets back into his car he signals with his hand ‘phone me’.  His eyes light up like saucers and his cunning smile bares a perfect set of pearly whites, with the tiniest hint of fangs. Then he adds: “You can call me if there is anything you need! Anything! ”

I think I need a drink.

 

 

  • This passage is from Count Dracula’s letter to Jonathan Harker. It is taken from the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 

Ateneul Roman or the Romanian Athenaeum, a gem of a concert hall. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

A MUSIC JEWEL IN BUCHAREST

Bucharest is not a place you fall in love with straight away. It might take a few days. Or, as in my case, a return visit.

Seventy years ago the monarchy was abolished and instead a Romanian People’s Republic was proclaimed. 43 years later the first democratic elections were held in Romania. The communist era had a devastating effect on Bucharest and many other cities and villages.  Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship  (1965-’89) initially could count on tacit support from the West. But as the leader’s policies  became more and more outlandish  and the secret police secured an iron grip on every aspect of society,  it seemed only a matter of time before something had to give. Ceaușescu ordered the destruction of thousands of villages and flattened whole neighbourhoods in Bucharest, replacing them with soulless blocks of flats and offices. It will take at least another generation before the ugliest edifices have been pulled down. Meanwhile they have a function in housing people and gathering pollution.

There is one fantastic exception from the communist era that deserves to be preserved: the Palace of Parliament, Ceaușescu’s crazy project that was started in 1984 and never finished. There may be no administrative buildings (technically it should not be classified as a palace, as it has no bedrooms) on you bucket list, but this has to be seen to be believed. There are more than 3000 rooms, taking up 330.000 sq. metres. Only the Pentagon is bigger. But only a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex could have ordered a building like  Palatul Parlamentului. Yes, Nicolae and his horror of a wife both were very involved in the design and many of the details. Book the full tour and take some time to contemplate the  views from the balcony. This could be the HQ of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World.

There are a number of other places in Bucharest that are well worth a visit. No, I am not very keen on the Historic Centre and the Old Princely Court area with all its restaurants and bars. The streets are narrow and during the summer months the terraces take up half the space. During the weekend the throng of tourists and locals pushing through this area I find unbearable.

to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest.Photo;Albert Ehrnrooth
to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest. Photo; Albert Ehrnrooth

For a more relaxed atmosphere I recommend the area between the Romanian Athenaeum and Bulevardul General Gheorghe Magheru. Here you will find several good restaurants serving ‘honest’ Romanian food (La Mama is a good example).

I do have a soft spot for the National Art Museum which used to be a ‘real’ Royal Palace. It houses the country’s largest art collection in two separate galleries. I particularly recommend the medieval collection. The 19th century palace, with a 1930s façade stuck on to it, looks out over the Revolution Square. Cross the busy Calea Victoriei, walk past the Rebirth Memorial without reflecting too much on the quality of the work and pause a moment in front of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building. This is where more than 100, 000 Romanians in December 1989 were forced to listen to, what turned out to be, Ceaușescu’s very last speech. The masses quickly became unruly and the leader was completely taken by surprise by the people’s loud protestations. It all happened on live television. Nicolae and his wife Elena had to withdraw while the police and the military that night mowed down more than 1000 demonstrators. The next day the dictator again tried to address the crowd but was jeered and fled in a helicopter with his wife. Four days later they were executed after an unanimous and anonymous court decision.

The Rebirth memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The Rebirth Memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

To the west of the Interior Ministry (the former Central Committee building) you will find the very impressive Romanian Athenaeum (1888), which probably is Bucharest’s finest building. Reading about it, I get the impression that it was designed by a whole host of architects and advisers. But the Frenchman Albert Galleron gets the final credit. A number of different styles have been incorporated for good measure. Amazingly it is a very good mix. The façade with its lean ionic columns supporting the pediment suggests Greek temple, the dome says baroque and the circular auditorium seems to indicate that we are in a circus. This is Romania’s premier concert hall. The impressive marble entrance hall is spacious and palatial. Four spiral staircases made of Carrara marble lead up to the concert hall on the first floor. There is seating for nearly 900 people and the acoustics are surprisingly good for this slightly odd concert space. The richly decorated vaulted ceiling and the monumental fresco on the circular wall certainly will keep you occupied should the performance not capture your imagination. The fresco (1933), relating the history of Romanian peoples in 25 painted scenes, is hardly a masterpiece, but certainly worth a few glances during a concert. The fresco starts with the Romans and the Dacians reminding us of the roots and rich heritage of the Romanians. The 75 metres long and 3 metres high painting ens with the unification of the Romanians.

During the biennial Enescu festival this is definitely my favourite concert venue. There is much to be said for a visually attractive venue . It enhances the musical experience.

In Bucharest stunning buildings are few and far between, but the Ateneul Roman is a gem and a gift to all the people who are looking for a holistic concert experience.

 

Many concerts at the Enescu Festival take place in the magnificent Romanian Athenaeum.Photo: Andrei Gindac

CLASSICAL MUSIC STARS GALORE IN BUCHAREST

The Enescu Festival, 2-24 September, Bucharest, Romania

The 23rd edition of the George Enescu festival has just finished. This biennial event held in the Romanian capital Bucharest manages to be both bizarre and totally marvelous. Bizarre because when it comes to classical music there is no other event in Eastern Europe  on this massive scale . Come to think of it, I don’t think there is any other classical music festival in the whole of Europe that can come up with a line-up as impressive as the Enescu Festival. What is admirable is that over a period of 23 days the organisers manage to pack in 80 events.  Local orchestras and soloists certainly feature and there is even ample room for new music, but the Romanians  clearly favour the big-ticket names. The first week saw visits by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This star-studded week also featured conductors like Marc Minkowski, Michael Pletnev and Vladimir Jurowski (who is also the new artistic director of the festival). Oh, and then there were performances by soloists like Lang Lang, Nikolaj Znaider, Philippe Jaroussky, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Nikolaj Lugansky.

But where does the money come from?  To be able to invite many of the world’s highest paid classical artists and orchestras you need deep pockets. Bucharest doesn’t look like it’s awash with dosh. Far from it, and I can’t say that I noticed any major improvements since I last visited the city two years ago. But perhaps I should be glad that some money is directed towards the arts instead of ending up in the pockets of corrupt councilors and politicians.

The George Enescu Museum, formerly known as the Cantacuzino Palace. This was never really the composer's home but he stayed here after 1939 whenever he was in Bucharest.
The George Enescu Museum, formerly known as the Cantacuzino Palace. This was never really the composer’s home but he stayed here after 1939 whenever he was in Bucharest.

Internationally the festival is already making a name for itself and I heard many different languages spoken among the audience members. I genuinely believe George Enescu (1881-1955) deserves to be even better known. He was an excellent violinist, teacher, pianist and a decent enough conductor to be asked by the New York Philharmonic to replace Arturo Toscanini as chief conductor (he turned the offer down). Today he is mainly remembered as a composer of the two Romanian rhapsodies. But Enescu had many strings to his bow and that also goes for his compositions. He was taught composition by no less teachers than Gabriel Fauré and Jules Massenet, who both declared that he was one of the best pupils they had had ever had. Enescu wrote in many different styles which makes it difficult to categorise his music. I have been told that his individuality is one of the reasons why it is so tricky to fit his music into a symphony orchestra’s concert programme. Another contributing factor is that many of his finest works are quite complex and challenging and would probably require extra rehearsals. The brilliant Spanish cellist Pablo Casals called Enescu “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”. George Enescu remains Romania’s most prominent musical genius. His best works deserve to be heard more often in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin.

George Enescu was also a well-respected teacher and mentor. He taught both Arthur Grumiaux and Ida Haendel and his very first pupil was the teenaged Yehudi Menuhin. Yehudi managed to persuade Enescu to take him on after his studies with Ysaÿe had gone awry. Menuhin remained a life-long friend and one of his greatest admirers. They performed a number of times together and particularly their 1937 recording of the Bach Concerto for two violins has lost none of its lustre and perfect interplay.

Zubin Menta visited the fetival with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta was also the event's Honorary President.
Zubin Menta visited the fetival with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta was also the event’s Honorary President. foto: Alex Damian

The first festival in 1958,  organised three years after the composer’s death,  was an initiative by Enescu’s good friend George Georgescu. He was a respected conductor and international stars were eager to play in Bucharest. But by the 1970s the fine arts were no longer appreciated by the party hierarchy.  The communists cut the budget and were now mainly keen to invite artists and orchestras from countries that were friendly towards the Ceaușescu regime. By the end of the 80s the festival was more a nationalistic event with very few visiting stars.  After the 1989 revolution the festival surprisingly quickly took on an international character again. The Romanian government came on board in the mid 90s with some generous funding and nowadays the Ministry of Culture is responsible for 70% of the total budget! Most of the concerts with major artists are televised by Romanian TV.  Music students and many schoolchildren are offered free tickets or at greatly reduced prices. The concerts with renowned orchestras tend to sell out very quickly and the organisers claim that the interest in classical music is slowly but surely growing.

Highly relevant Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten’s last opera, seen at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 23 June 2015

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten Garsington Opera at Wormsley Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Benjamin Britten composed Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s much admired novella, knowing that he didn’t have long to live. He prioritised composing the opera over the need to undergo open-heart surgery.

In the spring of 1973 he finished Death in Venice and only then admitted himself to hospital. After the operation he was still too unwell to attend the opening night. The pressure that Britten put himself under to finish the work is quite revealing and relevant to the interpretation of the work. Did he have something to get off his chest?

Luchino Visconti’s film version of Death in Venice (1971) I saw as a young adult. Particularly Dirk Bogarde playing the novelist Gustav von Aschenbach made a lasting impression. The director’s marvelous use of the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony inspired me to explore Gustav Mahler’s music and I am grateful to Visconti for that. I found out that Thomas Mann had based some traits of the Aschenbach character on Mahler, who he had once met. Mann learnt of Mahler’s death while working on his novella in Venice in June 1911 and it greatly saddened him. Britten was also a great admirer of Mahler’s music.

But when I revisited Visconti’s film a decade ago I found it sentimental, slow and morally quite hard to stomach. I was not familiar with Britten’s opera, but to say that I was apprehensive about seeing an opera on the same subject is an understatement. Luckily Garsington Opera persuaded me to experience their splendid new production. Now I know that Britten together with his librettist Myfanwy Piper composed an adaptation of the novel that intellectually is much more satisfying than Visconti’s film.

Benjamin Britten was still recovering from heart surgery and a stroke when Death in Venice had its world premiere in June 1973. Britten’s assistant Steuart Bedford was given his international break. Bedford proceeded to conduct the first recording of the work as well with Britten’s life partner Peter Pears, for whom the role was created, in the lead. Bedford is alive and well and now musically in charge of Garsington Opera’s new production. I can’t think of anyone else who is better suited for the job.

William Dazeley (Elderly Fop), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Gustav von Aschenbach – Paul Nilon – The Traveller – William Dazeley © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Some of the members  of the Garsington Opera Orchestra have been performing together for some 20 years but they only get together for  three months a year. They certainly don’t sound like a temporary band and they need to be on their toes for Britten’s work. The score is quite tricky with exotic rhythms and dodecaphony thrown in for good measure. I know, the restraint is deliberate but in my ears various bits seem a touch too ‘under orchestrated’.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there is only one passage with an orchestral tutti and the fragmentation doesn’t always seem to serve a real purpose.

Sreuart Bedford has total confidence in the work, paces it calmly, adds fluency and holds it all together, while at the same time guiding some of the less experienced singers and dancers.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley
Garsington Opera at Wormsley  photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The libretto is quite faithful to Mann’s surprisingly complex novella. Gustav von Aschenbach ( Paul Nilon) suffers writer’s block and decides to visit La Serenissima where surely the inspiration will start to flow. On board a ship to Venice the ageing novelist meets a simpering, extremely irritating fop who fancies strapping young men. At the end we discover that we have seen a mirror image of von Aschenbach’s fate. He will become a foppish figure himself.

As soon as Aschenbach arrives in Venice messengers of Death begin to pop up everywhere. The sinister gondolier who takes Gustav to the Venice Lido surely is Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Then there is the hotel manager, the hotel barber and various other ill-boding and even menacing characters that are all performed by one and the same bass-baritone. At Garsington these roles were taken by the excellent and versatile William Dazeley.

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Chris Agius Darmanin (Jaschiu) credit Clive Barda
Lighting Designer Bruno Poet Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

A young Polish family staying at the same grand hotel fascinates Von Aschenbach. Very soon he realises that he has become infatuated with the teenaged son, Tadizio. In the novel and the opera Tadizio very much embodies the Greek ideal of beauty. Perhaps he is also Hermes, the God who guides the recently deceased to the afterlife. The contrast between Apollonian and the Dionysian aspects, or in other words measure and harmony set against unbridled passion and excess, is what also made Britten tick. Aschenbach’s dream sees Apollo and Dionysos battling it out to win the writer’s soul and the (unhealthy) sexual tension is not held back in this production. Aschenbach thinks he is self-disciplined and in control, but Dionysus (William Dazeley ) stirs his uncontrollable feelings and obsession with Tadizio.

In the book Tadizio never speaks and in the opera he also remains mute. Britten’s brilliant move is to turn the Polish family into dancers. To stress the boy’s ‘otherness’ he is often accompanied by pitched percussion instruments and quite taut music which contrasts with von Aschenbach’s more dynamic and diverse accompaniment . For the beach games and children’s play Britten creates an exotic sound reminiscent of the Balinese gamelan.

Britten also incorporated the sounds distinct to Venice. He took note of the popular songs and calls of the gondoliers and incorporated them in the score. During the boat trip a scrubbing brush is deployed very effectively on the snare drum to mimic a ship’s steam engine. There are many similar instances.

When a cholera epidemic breaks out in Venice people start to leave but von Aschenbach chooses to stay so he can follow the Polish family around the city. The weather is sultry and his dreams become feverish and obsessive. After a rejuvenation make-over at the barber’s he looks like a fool. Tadizio for the first time acknowledges him but at the same time laughs at him. It all ends in tragedy. Or does it? Some people would argue that the ‘sick’ von Aschenbach gets what he deserves for being a pervert.

Britten  identified himself with von Aschenbach in many different respects. There are too many pompous Greek mythology references that perhaps try to present a more respectable, Hellenistic angle on paedophilia. But after the Jimmy Savile scandal and the avalanche of sex abuse trials we have a less forgiving view on these issues than people had 40 years ago.

Britten was without a doubt attracted to underage boys and his behavior at times showed a paedophilic inclination. There is no suggestion that he ever overstepped the mark and none of the boys (nor their parents) that he liked to host at home ever complained. It seems that Britten managed to successfully repress his sexual inclinations in that respect. Could it be that Britten’s insistence on finishing off his adaptation of Mann’s novella before undergoing the heart surgery was his way of dealing with sexual desires that he morally felt uncomfortable with? In a way Death in Venice, with all the moral questions it asks, is today even more relevant than 40 years ago.

Visconti’s film made Björn Andrésen ( in the role of Tadizio) quite famous and he was much admired for his blond and blue-eyed, cool Scandinavian looks. Celestin Boutin who gets to dance the same part in the opera is not bad looking either and he has a nicely toned body. Just like the other dancers he is clearly not a minor. Boutin has just completed his studies at Ellison Ballet in New York and here he gets to show off in many solos. Boutin doesn’t possess natural grace, but he compensates with muscular flexibility and athletic poise.

For female singers there isn’t an awful lot to do in this opera but the choir gets to mill around a fair bit. The staging is straightforward and economical. There is nothing wrong with that (except for the backdrop of the Venetian sky, which I find unconvincing). I loved the large white voile(?) curtains that can be pulled across the stage to create shadowy figures, secrecy and successfully evokes the rippling effect of lapping waves or the arrival of the dusty scirocco wind.

Paul Nilon as Gustav von Aschebach is without a doubt the star of the show. His characterization is excellent and he really inhabits the role, revealing new layers in scene after scene. The many recitatives are inspired by 17th century technique where the rhythmic profile is not determined. The singer is given quite a lot of freedom and Nilon nails it. The high lying lyrical lines pose no problem and his deep colouring is also very solid.

Finally I would like to thank the sun for making an appearance. Yes, the natural light really adds a special ‘summery feel’ to the staging, something that never could be achieved in an ordinary theatre. Venice was Britten’s second (after Suffolk) favourite place and there are moments when the serene magic of that city seems to radiate across the stage.

END OF REVIEW

GARSINGTON OPERA at Wormsley © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL
Patrons in evening dress strolling and picnicking GARSINGTON OPERA at Wormsley © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

 

GARSINGTON OPERA, the BUILDING

Every year over a period of seven weeks Garsington Opera at Wormsley park (just off the M40 between Oxford and High Wycombe) stages four different operas. The whole costly operation is run completely with the help of private funding and donations by foundations.

Garsington Opera’s Pavillion at Wormsley Park (owned by the Getty family) was designed by architect Robin Snell and is worth a visit in itself. The construction is very clever and was surprisingly ‘cheap’ to build ( £1.8 million in 2010). Incredibly the auditorium can be put up and pulled down in a matter of weeks, but It has remained in place since it was first built. The Pavillion does have a Japanese feel to a it (particularly seen from  afar) with huge transparent fabric wall panels that welcome the natural summer ambience and provide natural light for the staging. In the unlikely event that you get bored during a performance, the garden views  visible from the auditorium offer a splendid alternative. The long interval gives you ample opportunity to picnic and explore the parkland setting with a rose arbour,  cricket pitch, lake, island pavilion and roaming deer.

Stressed fabric sails enhance the acoustic and the orchestra pit is placed in the  ha-ha which would go some way to explain the finely balanced sound.

 

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WHAT A SHOW!

Re-enactment Battle of Waterloo July 20, 2015

Order of Battle Allied Forces
Order of Battle Allied Forces

I am watching thousands of men armed with muskets and baker rifles, hundreds manning canons, all firing blanks at each other. With my binoculars I can also spot quite a few young ladies (Amazons?) dressed up as Grande Armée and allied soldiers. The French cavalry charges and the ground shakes as hundreds of horses and their riders add a bit of speed, sword and sabre to the spectacle. After a short while the smoke from the blanks envelops most of the battlefield. When the temporary mist caused by the black powder lifts, the spectacle can truly commence. And what a spectacle it turns out to be! This surely is the most ambitious re-enactment battle ever staged.

The show takes place on the actual battlefield where 200 years ago Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington confronted each other for the first and very last time. I find it incredible that the ‘Iron Duke’ and the Emperor never actually met in person. If you are interested in all things Napoleonic (Wellington never appealed to the general public in the same way) you wouldn’t have wanted to miss the re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo. For two evenings only (the 19th and 20th of June, 2015) one of Europe’s most famous battles was portrayed by 6,000 re-enactors in front of a crowd of 120,000 spectators.

Charging Cavalry
Charging Cavalry

I probably don’t need to point out that these re-enactment battles can never come close to the real thing. During the Napoleonic era battlefields quickly became gruesome fields of slaughter with limbs getting ripped off by bouncing canon balls and grapeshot causing equally nasty injuries, if not death. At Waterloo, which was a relatively small battlefield, bodies would have quickly piled up and dead or wounded horses would have formed obstacles for both the advancing French and the defending Allies.

Napoleon’s strategic brilliance modernized warfare but the technology (weaponry) remained ‘old school’. Incredibly, some weapons (I am thinking of lances) had not changed much since the Middle Ages, but despite this the French lancers proved to be surprisingly effective at Waterloo. Their three meter long pikes often turned out to be more deadly than the pistols, sabres and swords that the cuirassiers and dragoons wielded to no avail when faced with Wellington’s infantry squares.

Battle formation and camp followers
Battle formation and camp followers

Particularly the re-enactors on horseback look like they are having quite a bit of fun charging through the rye field. They get to hack the poor fusiliers with their swords. OK, it is just pretend, but viewed from ground level it must give you an idea of how vulnerable you are. The horses are very well behaved and don’t appear to trample anybody. However it is rather difficult to practise mock combat with sharp lances and accordingly the lancers have no role to play in this re-enactment. Nobody wants to see real blood flowing and we all know this is a big show, despite the fact that it is presented under the guise of a commemoration. And accidents do happen. The guy playing Marshall Ney fell off his horse the first night and broke his arm (see my photographs) and only reappeared to witness the victory parade of the Allied forces on Sunday.

Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield
Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield

What does come across fairly realistically at this portrayal of the battle is the effect on the fighting that the smoke from the guns must have had. During the re-enactment the 100 canons and the 2000-3000 muskets created quite a bit of mist that occasionally hampered the visibility for the spectators. It is quite easy to imagine that 200 years ago the smoke produced by 400 guns and 100,000 muskets firing continuously for 10 hours must have enveloped the battlefield in a thick fog that would have hampered both armies at various stages.

Oh well, 200 years have passed and nobody who is alive now, will have met anyone who fought at Waterloo. Many people were, until recently, not even aware that their family fought in Belgium for the Allied cause. Throughout the year the French have been reminded of their defeat at the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean (Napoleon never adopted Wellington’s name for the battle). The Belgians minted a commemorative coin which the French rejected. French politicians have turned out to be sour losers. But so was Napoleon who fled from the battlefield and then blamed everybody else for the crushing defeat.

Napoleon and his generals
Napoleon and his generals

There was a point during the show that I came to realize that all the people that I could see around me – 60,000 in the grandstands in addition to the 6000 re-enactors out there on the battlefield – more or less equaled the number of soldiers that were wounded or died during the battle of Waterloo. The crying, the wailing, the groaning from the mortally wounded would have been soul destroying. It seems rather pointless to try and mimic that drama, but the soundtrack (with dramatic music) seemed to give it a try.

Wellington certainly didn’t celebrate his victory with a glass of champagne. Apparently he collapsed in a heap on his bed after the battle and cried over the loss of so many friends and colleagues. Only after that did he pull himself together to write his now famous dispatch from Waterloo. So, next time leave out the music, the commentator and sound effects! Just leave it to our imagination.

The re-enactment event has been a huge success in so many different ways. It was worth seeing all this just for the costumes. The time and money the re-enactors put into getting the uniforms and the paraphernalia just right is admirable. Many of them have been saving up for this occasion for the past five years. It is also worth bearing in mind that all these good people gave up their time for free to participate in this event. The organizers did provide the food, the tents and the black powder. But this spectacle could only take place because re-enactors came from all over the world to take part in it.

Allied bivouacs
Allied bivouacs

I loved walking around the bivouacs and at the French camp I spoke to re-enactors from the Czech and Slovak republics, Germany, Belgium and France. The Allied bivouac hosted an even greater multinational force. I met re-enactors from Portugal, Canada, USA, Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium and even some from Sweden and Finland.

In 1815 the Swedes didn’t participate in the battle, but the troupe representing the Älvsborg regiment were undeterred by this inconvenient historic detail. They were determined not to miss such a major event so obligingly the organizers incorporated them into the scenario. One of the Swedes confided to me that back home re-enactment events rarely attract more than 200 participants.

This business of portraying different battles is not just a nerdish obsession of a happy few. It has become quite a movement and tens of thousands of people get involved in Europe and North America in various events during the spring and summer. I believe these enthusiasts – who can spend a fortune on jackets, shakos and plates alone – truly help to keep some of our war history alive. By spending time more or less living the life of a bygone soldier they can enrich our understanding of what it was really like to be in battle and help us to appreciate the incredible resourcefulness of soldiers 200 years ago.

I have in the past made a number of radio programmes about Napoleon and Waterloo for Finnish and Swedish media and believed I was fairly knowledgeable on the topic. But I have learned more about the Napoleonic wars from talking to re-enactors and visiting their bivouacs over one weekend than I have from watching Andrew Roberts pompous, and at times poorly argued and self-serving TV series on Napoleon, currently airing on BBC 2.