Study for a Self-portrait, Schjerfbeck in Japanease mode: silvery background, kimono and clearly influenced by Kitagawa Utamaro's (the picture has been cropped).

A FINER SELF-PORTRAITIST IS HARD TO FIND

Helene Schjerfbeck at the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, Royal academy , London. On until 27 october 2019

How many Finns with an artistic bent can you mention?

I don’t blame you if you can just think of two and  at a stretch three: the composer Jean Sibelius, the architect Alvar Aalto and maybe you are even familiar with the creator of the Moomin characters, Tove Jansson. I would like to add another Finn to that list: the artist Helene Schjerfbeck. The Royal Academy of Art seems to agree  and has organised her first solo exhibition in Great Britain, featuring 65 works.

Self Portrait, (1884-85), is there a slight anguish in that look? Helene’s English fiancé broke off their engagement in 1885, but nobody has ever found out who he was.

This century there have been a number of successful Schjerfbeck retrospectives in The Netherlands, France, Germany and Japan. In Nordic countries Schjerfbeck is celebrated and seen as Munch’s, Hammershoi’s and Zorn’s equal, but in this country she is virtually unknown, despite the fact that she spent two extended periods in Cornwall (in 1887/88 and in 1889/90).

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) lived through a transitional period in painting and she was no stranger to experimenting. But she was already in her forties when she started to find her own distinctive style. Throughout her career she portrayed herself and through these self-portraits we can see how her technique changed from naturalism to pared-down modernism. In her final years her portraits and still lifes become so stark as to appear almost abstract. The portraits she created in her youth feel more like a mirror image. But at the dawn of the 19th century we are offered a glimpse of her physical and psychological state of mind. And then in the last decades of her life Schjerfbeck presents a kind of mask, without hiding behind it. Yes, she is willing to reveal her anxieties and pain without sentimentalizing.

Schjerfbeck’s extraordinary talent was discovered early on. At eleven she was the youngest student ever to have been given a scholarship and to study at the Finnish Art Society’s drawing academy. After passing her exams she continued her studies with a private teacher and in 1880 she was awarded a travel grant by the Finnish Senate. She took herself off to Paris, which was starting to attract women artists from all over the world.  Over the years she attended several academies in Paris and became good friends with a number of female colleagues. She exhibited at the Salon, became part of the emerging artist colony in Pont Aven and embraced the naturalistic French style.

The Door (1884) feels like an almost spiritual painting. Just a door in a monastery with a glowing light emerging from underneath. who will emerge through that door?

My personal favourite from this early period is The Door which shows an empty grey chapel interior with a brown wooden floor and a closed black door. But it is the warm light that shines from underneath the door that turns this slightly abstracted picture into an almost spiritual experience. Who is about to come through that door? The crucifix in this same chapel inspired a self-portrait by Gauguin.

Schjerfbeck’s friends Adrian Scott Stokes and his Austrian wife Marianne invited her to come and join them in St Ives where a small colony of artists were establishing themselves in this traditional Cornish fishing community. She immediately felt very inspired by the quaint setting. One of her most loved paintings, The Convalescent ( see below, 1888). We see a bright-eyed child recovering from illness, which was quite a common subject in those days,  looking at some “first greenery” (the original title). Is it a form of self-portrait? Schjerfbeck broke her hip as a child and had a limp throughout her life.

The Convalescent (1888) is possibly a ‘disguised’ self-portrait, Schjerfbeck broke her left hip as a child. It is a typical ‘Victorian’ subject matter, and it is undeniably rather well-crafted  picture.

In St. Ives Helene picked up painting technique tips from Adrian Stokes. She participated in local exhibitions and also exhibited in London where at least one of her works sold for good money. The pictures from that period were well crafted but today we tend to classify them as Victorian and the fact that they more often than not feature children makes them err on the sentimental side.

In the 1890s Finnish art collections only contained a handful of masterpieces of  international standard. Schjerfbeck was sent by  the Finnish Art Society to St Petersburg, Vienna and Florence to make copies of works by masters like Velazquez, Giorgone and Holbein. It is clear that copying the grand masters also influenced her own work. For a number of years she took up a teaching position at the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki, but her health remained fragile and she suffered long bouts of illness.

Tapestry by Helene Schjerfbeck (1914-17). This picture reminds me of a non-existing painting by Edward Munch. The rather flat background looks like a theatrical backdrop.

In 1902 she finally quit her job and moved in with her mother who lived about 50 km north of Helsinki. For the next 15 years she never visited the capital. She opted for a fairly isolated existence and her mother and local friends and acquaintances became  her main subjects. It was in Hyvinkää that Schjerfbeck developed her own brand of modernism.  The increased intimacy is combined with a pared down colour scheme. She focuses on facial expressions that increasingly reveal the deepest human emotions. But as she gets older the faces  loose their individuality. Is she depicting a type? The contours are sharply drawn, with clear lines, and faces are devoid of too many details. I am reminded  of Japanese kabuki masks, but the painter lets the viewer make up the story behind the mask.

Then there are the self-portraits, easily the highlights of this exhibition. Each one seems to reflect an element of her ‘tempestuous inner life’.  Schjerfbeck’s social reticence didn’t stop her from keeping up to the date with the latest art trends. She studied the international art magazines that her friends sent her. But she refused to involve herself in the lively art scene that developed in Helsinki at the start of the 20th century. After the journalist-art dealer Gösta Stenman  started to buy and champion her works they  appeared more regularly in exhibitions. Not long after she met Stenman in 1915, the forester, author and artist Einar Reuter also came into Schjerfbeck’s life. Their friendship was (probably) never sexual but it was very important and close . Reuter encouraged and admired her work and wrote a biography that has proven to be invaluable for biographers following in his footsteps. Stenman managed to persuade her to visit an international exhibition at the Ateneum in Helsinki where she saw works by Gauguin and Cezanne. It’s obvious from her extensive correspon-dence that they fired her imagination. once more.  Some of her other sources of inspiration were Daumier, van Gogh, Matisse and Othon Friesz.

Self-portrait with black background, 1915. The silvery letters spelling out Schjerfbeck’s name are reminiscent of a gravestone. But the glowing red cheeks and the self assured gaze indicate that she is most certainly not at death’s door.
valokuvaaja: Eweis, Yehia

Studying the techniques of these painters changed her own working methods. The perspective becomes flatter, she deliberately distresses the canvas by scraping, reapplying and once more scraping paint in order to achieve a dampening of colours. By doing this she can also very effectively mimic the materiality of the textiles.

Self-portrait, Helene Schjerfbeck, 1935
Is this a defiant or surprised look? The artist is once more playing a role, a type.

With age Schjerfbeck looses interest in creating likenesses. She is still trying to portray the truth, but it is the psychological truth she is after. By the 1930s her models appear to be more concerned with their own inner thoughts and give a restrained impression. Droopy or half-closed eyelids help to create that image. By giving the portraits titles like The Obstinate Girl, Circus Girl, the Teacher and Girl from California the identity of the individual becomes irrelevant. The  model (and most of them are women) is a type and has been picked for that purpose .

After her mother’s death in 1923 Helene settled in Ekenäs. a coastal town where the locals mainly spoke Swedish (Schjerfbeck’s mother tongue).  Stenman (her trusted art dealer) encouraged her to return to some old subject matters and this resulted in some revealing works that added much to the original. In the 1930s Stenman also persuaded her to paint more self-portraits and some of the most powerful ones can be seen in this exhibition.  It is in these late self-portraits that she opens up and stops hiding behind a mask.

While the war was raging she moved in 1944 to a comfortable hotel  just outside Stockholm to get some peace and quiet. Stenman supports her financially  but her contract stipulates that she must sell all her work via him. This keeps the pressure up and she never stops working. There is no time for being complacent.  The last series of portraits are even more harrowing and  brutally honest.

She is petrified and staring straight at the viewer or there is resignation and introspection.  At times there almost seems to be an unexpected sense of humour.  She has already recorded her decline before she moves to Sweden, but without any self-pity.  In the last few years she emphasises her own mortality. The paint is often troweled on and then partly scraped off.  Her eyes have become empty sockets, the oval head  resembles  a skull, but she remains defiant until the end.

Self-portrait with a red spot, Helene Schjerfbeck,1944. Photographer Tuomi, Henri
Self-portrait with red spot, Helene Schjerfbeck,1944. Photographer Tuomi, Henri
The Queen Mother (Claire Booth) is a bit of a party pooper, but her singing is a joy. Photo:Simon-Annand

THE SIXTEEN MAKE BELSHAZZAR A FEAST

Belshazzar by Georg Friedrich Händel seen at The Grange Festival, Northington, UK, July 4,  2019

Bizarrely this is the first professional production of Händel’s oratorio Belshazzar (1744) in the UK. It is true that oratorios  originally weren’t intended to be staged with scenery and costumes, but this tale about the hedonistic son of the last Babylonian king works a treat as an opera. The one weakness is that it doesn’t have all that many truly memorable arias, but on the other hand the choir has a lot of good tunes.

When you have a bunch of singers like The Sixteen for this kind of material and with Harry Christophers, who started the choir 40 years ago, in the orchestra pit, not much can go wrong.  At least not musically. But is there enough drama for the staging to hold up?

The Babylonians make fun of the Persian commanders. They will learn the hard way not to mock the enemy.. Grange Festival 2019 ©Simon Annand.

With a 5.30 start and 9.50 end Harry Christophers has no intention of hanging about. He conducts the overture with crisp and brisk determination. Director Daniel Slater starts off the proceedings with a brilliant move: the coffin with the body of the slain Belshazzar is brought on during the musical opening and then his mother Nitocris (Claire Booth) enters to mourn his violent death. The choir mocks her silently. This makes  Nitocris’s,  the Queen Mother, opening recitative and aria on the nature of human fallibility all the more powerful. Then we swiftly move back in time and see the Persian Prince Cyrus ( Christopher Ainslie) and his general Gobrias (a Babylonian nobleman who has defected to the Persians) stand in front of the city walls of Babylon. On top of wall the cheerfully dressed Babylonians deride the Persians. When Cyrus gets to sing his air Dry Those Unavailing Tears, I couldn’t suppress a smile. It seems slightly ridiculous that this conquering king has to sing in a counter-tenor voice. But you get used to it and Ainslie is throughout excellent at portraying both the warrior and the magnanimous ruler.

Despite wielding knives, Cyrus ((Christopher Ainslie) and Gobrias (Henry Waddington) are the good guys in this oratorio.  photo:Simon Annand.

The chorus gets to do many costume changes due to the fact that they perform three different roles. One minute they are Babylonians, next minute they are the Jews held captive by those same Assyrians led by Belshazzar. On top of that they also get to double as Cyrus’s army. Just when the plot seems a little bit dull and moralistic it turns out that the Babylonians are inveterate party people. The threat of the Persian army invading the city can’t deter this pleasure-seeking lot living it up. Director Daniel Slater has hired three acrobats to liven up the feast of Sesach and it works a treat. Were it not for Robert Murray’s attention grabbing performance as the sybaritic Belshazzar, Haylee Ann’s excellent aerial acrobatics would have stolen some of the party scenes. Murray brings all the enthusiasm of (relative) youth to the role and suggests that this immature co-regent (his father, the king, has gone into temporary exile) never will be fit to be a respectable king. Murray is a consummate performer with an all-round tenor voice. When the writing on the wall appears (mene, mene tekel upharsin) the prophet Daniel is summoned to decipher the mysterious words. Daniel, is not a very grateful role, despite a couple of decent arias, but James Laing managed, after some initial roughness at the edges, to redeem himself after the long interval.

The acrobatics are an added bonus in this production. Photo: Simon Annand.

The prescient Queen Mother is a real party pooper and Claire Booth gets to show off her versatility in the role. She is never better than in the heartfelt Regard, O son, my flowing tears. With Gobrias leading the way the Persians enter the city without much opposition. Cyrus fights Belshazzar but in this version Gobrias gets to kill him. It is a bit of luxury casting to have the excellent bass baritone Henry Waddington in the smallish role of the vengeful Assyrian military leader.

Cyrus is finally shown to be goodness personified. He grants the Jews freedom and promises to rebuild Jerusalem. He also wants to be like a second son to Nitocris. Christopher Ainslie is the perfect Händel countertenor who effortlessly taps into the range of emotions that Cyrus shows. He avoids becoming a goody-goody as Cyrus the Great, which doesn’t stop him from adding a layer of sweetness to the voice.

But it is the The Sixteen that in the end convince me that this is an oratorio worth staging (and I enjoyed designer Robert Innes Hopkins’s clever use of the Breughel-inspired Tower of Babel).

The Tower of babel design has been borrowed from Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting. The Jews are occupying it. Photo; Simon Annand.

The members of the chorus often clearly reveled in the different guises they could assume and their lively acting made some of the heavy handed texts more palpable.

It is no surprise that Händel in his music quite clearly illustrates the differences when underscoring the Jews, the Babylonians or the Persians. Conductor Harry Christophers and The Sixteen Orchestra are in this production showing that they are now also ready to become major players in the opera genre.

A visit to the the Grange Festival has for the better part of this century been a  must on the Country House Opera calendar.  The splendid English landscape garden has now been restored to its original best. Together with the tastefully distressed interiors and façade of the Grange building they form an ideal backdrop for a picnic during the long opera interval. Despite being nestled deep in the Hampshire countryside, the festival attracts major orchestras like the Academy of Ancient Music, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and The Sixteen. It is also great to see that these country house events no longer mainly have to rely on fairly inexperienced singers but also attract major players.

 

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

BERNSTEIN IN ALL HIS GLORY (SLAVA)

Prom 60, Royal Albert Hall, 27 August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Mark Elder conducting the Hallé

HALLÉ AT THE PROMS: WAGNER, DEBUSSY AND STRAVINSKY

The Hallé is one of  Britain’s oldest orchestras and it is no surprise that they have championed many compositions at an early stage, before they became true classics.

The orchestra’s founder, Charles Hallé, put Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture on the repertoire (in the 1860s?). Under Hans Richter’s stewardship (1899-1911) the Manchester audiences would have heard quite a lot of Wagner. After all, Richter worked closely with the composer and conducted the first performance of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. Therefore the Hallé can claim that it has Wagner in its DNA, a fact that the orchestra’s current Music Director Sir Mark Elder is well aware of. Elder is an expert Wagnerian and member of a select group of British conductors that have conducted at the Festspiele Bayreuth. The orchestra recently performed Siegfried, thereby completing its presentation of the Ring Cycle while at the same time consolidating its reputation as one of the foremost Wagner orchestras in the land.

At home with the Wagners. Wahnfried in Bayreuth. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
At home with the Wagners. Wahnfried in Bayreuth. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Prom 16 saw the Hallé present the original Dresden version (1845) of the Tannhäuser overture. The horns, clarinets and bassoons were incredibly pianissimo in the opening Pilgrim’s Hymn theme. The trombones were not much louder when they repeated the tune. With the lure of the Venusberg the volume increased, but Elder made sure that the bacchanal remained a fairly measured affair. Only when the profane and the sacred clashed was the orchestra let off its leash. When the pilgrims returned, hailing ‘salvation’s grace’, the murmuring violins were doing just that, murmuring, while the wind instruments were giving it some brass. This was the Hallé at its rich, harmonic best, replacing Wagnerian pomp with English understatement, but it was perhaps not the most theatrical of interpretations.

Debussy had a love-hate relationship with Wagner’s music. He was so aware that his first version of Pelléas et Melisande sounded too Wagnerian that he destroyed it and started anew. La damoiselle elué (1887-8) was luckily not ripped up by Debussy, despite the fact that there are hints of the Siegfried idyll and the spirit of Parsifal clearly inhabits this masterful cantata. I own three different recordings of the work, but had never heard it in concert and clearly didn’t really appreciate its celestial beauty. Inspired by a poem by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti Debussy composed ”a little oratorio, in a mystic, slightly pagan vein”, as he put it.

La Blessed Damozelle by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painting based on the poem that inspired Debussy
La Blessed Damozelle by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painting based on the poem that inspired Debussy

The work is scored for two sopranos, female chorus and orchestra (the piano version is also perfectly charming). Amazingly this accomplished work was Debussy’s first orchestral work to be performed (in 1893). The symbolist poetry seems to evoke the Victorian idea of medieval imagery. The blessed and chaste damozel, ‘leaning out from the gold bar of Heaven’, laments the brief time she spent with her lover. The narrator sets the scene, but musically has little to offer. It is the female chorus that has all the best lines and music. The combined forces of the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir executed this to perfection. The subtly shifting harmonies would have confused some contemporary listeners, but shocking or incomprehensible it wasn’t (like the opera Pelléas). Harp, oboe, English horn, flute and the strings provide the most memorable colours and to me, this sounds like Art Nouveau set to music. The title role was sung by Sophie Bevan who took over from the indisposed Sabine Devieilhe at very short notice. After an initial, slight hesitation she was marvellous and the Hallé could hardly have been more supportive.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale takes its inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Nightingale. Stravinsky set out in 1908 to compose an opera but he didn’t get very far because he received a commission from Diaghilev in Paris to write The Firebird. This made the critics take notice of the then-unknown composer. Two more ballets, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring followed resulting in fame and fortune. In 1913 Stravinsky took up the opera project again and Le Rossignol(The Nightingale) was premiered just before WWI with the singers in the pit and Ballets Russes’ dancers miming and dancing the roles! After the war, Stravinsky created a symphonic poem with music from the opera. I am not sure how much of this music I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read a synopsis of the story provided in the programme. It helps to know what characters the instruments represent, but the music is a bit too descriptive for my liking and gets tedious. The musical ‘Chinese’ references sound comical because they are pure cliché. But there are ample opportunities for various soloists in the orchestra and they execute their solos well.

After this not wholly satisfying symphonic poem, we were treated to two short Russian folksongs sung by the Hallé Choir. The reason being that these songs are quoted in The Firebird. This was followed by the third version of the suite (1945) which has some added extras but also boasts a tighter orchestration and a stripped-down orchestra. Today the Firebird doesn’t sound as exotic (the eight-note diminished scale) as it originally did, but the magic of this music is that it hasn’t dated in any way. Surely this music appeals to anyone (?)almost everywhere,  and particularly when it is performed so well. The soothing horn solo that signals the end of the berceuse and the start of the vibrant finale summed up perfectly, in 40 seconds or so, why the Hallé at the moment is such a wonderful orchestra that doesn’t seem to be able to set a (dance) foot wrong. I can’t recall that I have heard The Firebird performed better anywhere and this is a Prom I will revisit in the BBC Prom archive.

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

SAMSON AT HÄNDEL FESTSPIELE HALLE

Sunday 27 may 2018, Handel Festival Halle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunedin Consort will perform Samson at the Edinburgh Festival

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

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

WAR AND PEACE IN HALLE, DIDONATO WINS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BERENICE FINALLY CONQUERS HÄNDEL FESTSPIELE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scandinavian paintings at Tefaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BUCKET LIST ANTIQUE FAIR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Titian (dit), Vecellio Tiziano (vers 1489-1576). Paris, musée du Louvre. INV746.

CHARLES I HAD A HEAD FOR ART

Did Charles I’s marvelous art collection play a part in his downfall and consequent execution? No other royal, apart from possibly George IV, devoted as much money and time to acquiring works of art.

He may have lacked political nous but the stunning ‘Charles I, King and Collector’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London makes it clear that this Stuart was a true lover of paintings, carvings, and engravings. In little over two decades the king managed to amass some 2000 works of art.

The Royal Academy is  celebrating its  250th birthday and their gift to the nation is to reunite 140 of the most stunning paintings, tapestries, drawings and sculptures that were acquired by Charles I nearly 400 years ago. Reunite, because Cromwell, after the beheading of the King in 1649,  sold off most of the magnificent collection. This meant that  many of the works disappeared abroad.

Seeing this show is like discovering a completely new museum with nothing but masterpieces. The majority of the works come from the present Royal Collection, which today contains some 7000 pictures. Compare this with the National Gallery in London which ‘only’ owns a third of that amount.  But some of the highlights  are on loan from the Prado, Louvre and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. A number of those works rarely travel abroad but an exception was made for this ambitious project.

This triple portrait was sent to Rome and was used as a reference by sculptor Bernini to create a marble bust (which was lost in a fire). Charles I in Three Positions, 1635–36 by Anthony van Dyck Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen
This triple portrait was sent to Rome and was used as a reference by sculptor Bernini to create a marble bust (which was lost in a fire). Charles I in Three Positions, 1635–36 by Anthony van Dyck Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The first room introduces us to the artists and art buying agents that worked for the King.  Cue splendid self-portraits by  Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens. Van Dyck’s famous ‘Charles I in three positions’ and Rubens’s uncharacteristically stiff  rendition of  ‘George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham, on horseback’ are also noteworthy. It is all very fine and impressive,  but I think a more powerful introduction to the exhibition would have been achieved with van Dyck’s  two  equestrian portraits of Charles I. These monumental works are placed midway through the show. They both portray the King dressed in harness and make it clear that he is in control and ready for action. If there was one lesson that Charles learned during his visit in Madrid (see below) it was that owning  and displaying great artworks could increase your status and power among the aristocracy and foreign ambassadors.

For a true patron of the arts  it was also essential to commission works of art and have artists working for you in-house. Enter Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) who had been an apprentice of Rubens. Van Dyck settled in London in 1632 and within a year he was appointed the King’s ‘Principal Painter’.

Van Dycks two equestrian portraits are  here joined by ’Charles I in the Hunting Field’ which the Louvre was willing to lend. This is the most personable portrait of the King that I know. ‘The Merry King’ looks positively relaxed, helped by the fact that he is grounded (that is, not on horseback) and wears no armour.  His expression is less aloof, stubborn or blank than usual. I don’t care if it creates a false image,  van Dyck gives it a genuine sense of honesty.

The King looks almost friendly and confident, displaying some swagger. Charles I in the Hunting Field, c. 1636, by Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), This is a work that is rarely lent to other museums Musée du Louvre, Paris, Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)
The King looks almost friendly and confident, displaying some swagger. Charles I in the Hunting Field, c. 1636, by Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), This is a work that is rarely lent to other museums Musée du Louvre, Paris, Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)

In an adjacent room there are even more  royal portraits by van Dyck, but they are not all terribly gripping. But his portrayal of the Five Eldest Children of Charles I ( 1637 ) is another highlight. The future King (Charles II) poses comfortably and takes centre stage. He looks straight at the viewer, but am I wrong in thinking that he is just slightly cross-eyed? I love the fact that he is not looking a day older than his 7 years, while at the same time with regal bearing attempting to laconically control the massive mastiff dog sitting next to him. His baby sister Anne is particularly well captured and a lesson in how  a small child’s fidgety motion can be suggested in a ‘frozen’ image.

If this exhibition had been organised chronologically it would have started with James I (1566 -1625), who was clever, but showed scant interest in the arts. Apparently he was physically quite repulsive and therefore it should come as no surprise that his wife, Anne of Denmark, preferred pictures to men. She enjoyed walking alone in the picture gallery. In many ways it was Anne who gave the impetus for starting a Royal collection.

Henry Frederick, James and Anne’s eldest son, showed some interest in commissioning paintings but died very suddenly in 1612. On his deathbed he gave his brother Charles a small equine bronze statue by Pietro Tacca, which is shown in the exhibition. The 12-year old Charles became the heir apparent, but he was a physically weak child, short in stature and for a while he was made to wear reinforced iron boots. Charles overcame his weaknesses by practising strenuous exercise (running around the palace grounds, etc.).

Eventually the Prince of Wales decided to look for a wife.  Charles traveled in 1623 incognito to Madrid together with his best mate George Villiers (later the Duke of Buckingham). He intended to woo the younger sister of Philip IV, Infanta Maria Anna. It was a pretty daring move because the Spanish were certainly not allies even if the war was over. The so called ¨Spanish Match’ negotiations didn’t go to plan because the Infanta had no intention of marrying a non-Catholic. But the visit was not completely unfruitful. Charles had a chance to study the finest collection of paintings in the world, amassed by Philip ‘el Grande’ who almost certainly would feature in a top ten of the greatest patrons of the arts throughout the ages. The Spanish king gifted Charles a number of important paintings  and sparked a genuine interest in art in the jilted Prince of Wales. Charles returned to England and almost immediately started devoting himself seriously to collecting art.

The long and short of it is that Charles acquired a head for art in Spain. But it wasn’t Spanish paintings that he had fallen in love with. It was Renaissance art from the  Italian Peninsula that took his fancy.

Read my next blog to find out how Charles’s agents managed to outwit many other royal competitors  who were trying to buy an outstanding collection that the Gonzago family had put together over the period of more than a century.

 

Charles I, King and Collector is on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until 15 April, 2018

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Journalist, photographer and social commentator.