Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Memories of late Beethoven at Midnight

In which Igor Levit concludes his Beethoven sonata cycle at the Wigmore Hall

We did not begin until ten o’ clock at night.

The crowd was buoyant, cheered by dinner and wine.

I, arriving with one newly close and full of Chassagne-Montrachet, instinctively felt that things were as they ought. The pale navy overhead, the grand dames wrapped in summer shawls emerging with their husbands from the Venetian restaurant down the way, the burnished scent of Cubans lingering about the awning.

I turned to him and I said: “This feels right.”

He, who knows a lot about old world charm but understands little of the contrapuntal or the 30th’s intrinsically wonderfully free adaption of the sonata form, gave a little smile.

I did not need him to understand but it mattered not.

It was in the late Beethoven sonatas – the very items that comprised his programme tonight – that I first heard the ideas of Igor Levit; the imagination, the surety, the intellect and surprising riposte. I lay in garden quad rooms at Merton, reading Vernon Subutex in a pool of scholar’s gold on hardwood flooring. I listened, agape and piqued, with increasing astonishment at the new subtexts of the Hammerklavier were made apparent with prideful ease never before unveiled. I sat upright, book forgotten, as he approached the 30th, that mark of intimacy which tugs more deeply on my subconscious than all others combined and – oh! The gesangvoll exposed its full lyricism like it had never done before.

The late recital at the Wigmore Hall exposed all this marvellous ingenuity, in a manner that is all too rare. How is it that few young performers are inclined to foray into the realm of late Beethoven, preferring instead the shores of the technically easier early sonatas or the soaring power of the middle-aged great Romantics? Levit exposes how very foolish this oversight is. He has an affecting manner of reaching inside himself, slightly lewdly pressed against the keyboard, and unravelling fascinating intellect together with imposing posture.

I did not realise until a pressed handkerchief was nudged atop my clasped hands that I was silently weeping.

I’m sorry,” I apologised. We stood on the north side of Wigmore Street, which was still balmy in summer heat. It was nearly midnight. “I had no idea I was.

With a serious expression, he looked at me directly. “It’s alright. I think I understand. It’s the cerebral collective. This is your world. Come,” – he offered me his arm – “let’s walk.”

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Hockney Hookah: The Tate Britain David Hockney Retrospective

Model with Unfinished Self Portrait, 1977

Isn’t it peculiar that, for the longest time, I thought David Hockney nothing more than a pro-tobacco campaigner? To this day, when I think of “our greatest living artist” (the slightly grovelling title now commonly attributed to him in the post Lucian Freud world), I first picture a Pall Mall ciggy with a mop of blond hair and the trademark sartorial tortoiseshell specs. Perish the thought.

London can’t get enough of Hockney, the prodigal Northern son. This was the repeated lament of my Sunday companion, who protested most heartily at being dragged to yet another Hockney retrospective. I can certainly see his point of view. Just a few months ago, the Royal Academy paraded eighty Hockney portraits – and, a mere three years prior to that, hosted a swaggering show of his late landscapes. It seems barely a few months ever go by without something of good old David’s gracing some grand, colonnaded space between the Mall and Pimlico. He has infiltrated the national consciousness in the manner of his own icons – everyone can recognise the figure in the pool, the flecks of chlorine froth upon the Mondrian-esque abstraction. City bourgeoisie yuppies defend a favourite print over Napa shiraz at dinner gatherings. We can see his ‘Wolds beaming guilelessly during the otherwise grey traipse from cubicle to loo. It is certainly no surprise that the current retrospective is the fastest selling exhibit in Tate history; after all, it is for the same reasons of foggy familiarity that La Traviata continuously sells out season after season.

Why, then, are we not sick to the teeth of his sun-soaked frolics? The answer (to me) seems simple: joy, sheer and unadulterated. Hockney’s art inhabits a curious world where even moroseness and abandonment are veiled by a gossamer haze of mischief and abstract placidity. It stands out as decidedly un-British and, in lazy comparison to his most significant peer in Freud, Hockney’s art has a primary humanity and visceral heartwarmth that Freud’s more relentless approach cannot match (for direct comparison, proceed downstairs at Tate Britain to the final room of the Queer British Art exhibit, where works of both glare across the walls and you can “smell the balls”).

When I entered the Hockney exhibit, it was with a dreamy eye and induced serenity. The first room is an exorbitant overture; the grand prologue. Alive here the components of the possible impossibility that comprises the gentle, post-coital glow of Hockney’s art. It is present in the breathtakingly tender male beauty of the supine figure in Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait, the intrusive warmth of which is later re-seen in Schlesinger’s detached profile (Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)) and the coy archness of Ossie Clark’s gaze. It is in the gentle teasing of the absurd and preposterous, which is manifest even in the near childlike graffiti of his Royal College days. Disbelief is suspended, the improbable is bare but unquestioned; because in one fell swoop, we stop being playthings of memory and hateful of the marvellous. 

Play within a Play, 1963

It is the abiding themes which are irrevocably Hockney that stay in my mind. It’s like that much-abused Allen question; what are the things that make life worth living? Hockney provides his own tailored answer in the luxuriant sweep of his brushstroke, persistently throughout his voyage through adolescent semi-abstract protest, to Californian masturbatory abstraction, to naturalism and late Cubism. It is:
  • The indulgent sink of Ossie’s feet into the gleaming white rug
  • The wild spangle of pink and turquoise adorning the Californian hills behind Peter Schlesinger
  •  The thirsty delirium of the Canyon-side dirt paths
  • The demonic phallic possibility of a Play within a Play
  • The cackling derision of Colgate and Vaseline
  • The unreal pre-Raphaelite and glazed depiction of Celia Birtwell, at once discordant and fecund against her partner’s immediacy
  • The rebirth and reinvigoration of beauty in the inanimate dually alongside an abstraction of the distance between human subjects 

Peter Getting out of Nick's Pool, 1966
As for Hockney’s later works, there is perhaps some credence to the view that, “In some senses, the subsequent 40 years of Hockney’s career look like a series of heroic attempts and strategies to manufacture the intensity of his early years”. Yet, this dismissal might be too unilateralist. With advancing age, Hockney’s art seems to assume increased sanguineness, abandoning the shackles of gleeful contrivement that mars the unproven and unrecognised.  There is a wonderful, almost lyrical, arc to the two mid-sized paintings of Breakfast at Malibu, Wednesday and Sunday, 1989. In both, a window flanked veranda is set for tea. Wednesday has two chairs and allegorical fussiness. Beyond the floor length glass lurks an ocean; vast, uncontained, ribbed. Its seizures melt into the greenish sky. On Sunday, the chairs are withdrawn. The surface has been covered with sheened titian. There is only the smallest strip of navy sky, below which stirs placid crests. I moved from one to the other. And back. It was magnetically compelling.

Days later, I recalled the Malibu waves to a close friend on a transatlantic phone call, though words were a poor imitation. They, recently sobered by the departure of loved one, looked at the prints. Their perception was altogether different. Where I had been assuaged by the calm of Sunday, they found artificial freedom and a locked-up dream. The human activity of Wednesday, the milk jug slightly off line, to them signalled comfort, as did the febrile activity of the waves. Our conversation wandered, to an old man who feared death with spiteful acuteness. We never returned to Hockney, but the understanding was clear.

As for my begrudging Sunday companion – well, he stood over my shoulder watching the Malibu waves for a good twenty minutes and didn’t complain once. I daresay he even rather enjoyed it, as gauche and mainstream as he had previously made it sound. That encapsulates, I think, the enduring strength of Hockney's appeal; few can worm their way into public affections in such easy, unassuming manner. Even after all these years, it is easy to simply fall in love again. 

Breakfast at Malibu, Wednesday, 1989
Breakfast at Malibu, Sunday, 1989

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Mayerling: Watson, Osipova, Yanowsky and a cast to end all days

Credit: DanceTabs

Ed Watson is now so synonymous with the role of Crown Prince Rudolf, the making of Macmillan’s mad male masterpiece, that during a recent sojourn to Vienna, I was disappointed to stumble upon a portrait of the Prince in which he wasn’t even redhead. More fool me – but the opening night of the Royal Ballet’s latest run of Mayerling has only cemented this impression more firmly in my mind.
Some of the quickest impressions of Friday night’s performance before an action-packed bank holiday weekend whizzes me away:

The first cast is perhaps the strongest Mayerling cast ever fielded. Eight principals: Watson’s Rudolf; Osipova as his Mary (role debut); Lamb as Countess Larisch; young starlets Hayward and Campbell as Princess Stephanie and Bratfisch respectively; the soon-departing Yanowsky as the Empress, and; even principals in comparatively marginal roles of Mitzi Kasper (Nunez) and the lead Hungarian soldier (Hirano). For a discipline often stereotyped as intensely political, it is remarkable to see the coherent and united front presented by the highest rank of the company.

Watson as Rudolf – what is left to say? What more can possibly be added? The very build of his body seems ideally suited – lanky, pale, long-limbed, slightly waif-like and tragic. No-one tells a story quite like Ed Watson. Rudolf’s internal monologue throughout is clear and loud; his wavering over the strong-arm opinions of the Hungarian soldiers, his maniacal desperation when left alone. There is vulnerability and insanity in his solo variation upon spying the Empress with her lover, and ferocious negative capability in every pas de deux with Mary. Also exceedingly well acted is the slightly vague nature of his feelings towards his doomed mistress. History dictates that while Rudolf was certainly the great love of Mary’s short life, his affections did not extend quite so deeply. It wasn’t Mary’s “deep, black eyes,” that drove him to seek respite, but a more grandiose obsession with the macabre. This is expressed beautifully and devastatingly in both Act Three pas de deuxs. The first, in Rudolf’s apartments, is disturbingly harrowing to observe. When his Mary approaches to coax him out of catatonic stupor, Rudolf is slow to react but then snatches blindly, ferocious, the very upturned tilt of his palms angular and detached. Too often does the final pas de deux, in the Mayerling lodge, verge upon a great lovetorn farewell. There is nothing to suggest that here; Watson’s Rudolf is lavish with the physical, but mentally depraved and already departed.

If previous experiences with this dancer have taught anything is that you must endeavour to catch his final performance of the run. Such is the gruelling nature of the role that – pragmatically – there may have been a slight tinge of calculation in his Act One portrayal, a need to pace himself early on. Rudolf requires complete, immersive abandon – so, see it on the 11th and weep.

Now to Mary. I think the moment the casting announcement was made, it was instinctively apparent that Osipova’s Mary was going to be something different. Indeed, it was. Let us ruminate upon the Baroness Vetsera herself. We know that Rudolf comprised her world. While she perhaps lacked the intellectual savant that the Crown Prince valued so highly, her adoration for his person was limitless and fanatical; she both bought into and channelled anew Rudolf’s unhinged world-weariness. On Osipova, this latter aspect was disconcertingly wonderful. She is the first Mary, in a long time, who seems to amplify Rudolf’s intense obsessions and triumphs, not luxuriates, in his physical attentions. She has her own perverse afflictions, separate from his – in the bedroom pas de deux, she seemed to break free of convention and entered a state of frenzied hedonism. Rudolf, weakened and world weary, is almost prone before such a sybarite display. In this interpretation, while Mary was not perhaps the love he chose to take to death, she was the catalyst without whom it never would have materialised.

The other emotional standout of the evening was Yanowsky’s Empress, a complex cool icon. The strength of her gaze alone conveys the unhappiness that seems to overshadow her person. Her Act One pas de deux with Rudolf was heartrendingly uncomfortable to observe; yet, she facilitates the character’s internal conflicts so convincingly with the stolen pas de deux with Gary Avis as her lover a snatched, suspended moment. There is an elegance about Yanowsky few can emulate; she has time, she has reason, under all of which simmers tremendous dramatic capability. I shall miss her something terrible.

It should perhaps suffice to say that all roles, across the board where beautifully conveyed (one nervous moment with a costume mishap in Act One aside), and time is not on my side to lavish sufficient attention on each. Sarah Lamb’s Larisch is grand, coy and authoritative – when she circles Rudolf, together with Mary, there is a marvellous internal gravity underpinning the interchange of the two women. With every shared bouree, Osipova’s Mary seems to be guided from and learn from this much more worldly being. I long to perhaps one day see Ryoichi Hirano’s Rudolf, such is the depth of his style and I believe that dramatically, he has much to give. Most of all, I long to see this cast immortalised to the end of days.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Live from the Met: Eugene Onegin with Netrebko and Mattei

Credit: Metropolitan Opera

I rarely see opera cinema broadcasts because the purist in me believes nothing quite emulates the live experience and I end up stewing with irrational jealousy that I am not present in person. But there are certain operas and singers that encourage me to discard such snobbisms. The combination of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, one of my favourite operas and Anna Netrebko’s Tatiana inspired such a cinematic trip.

First of all we must mention an absence sorely felt onstage; Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who was to perform the role of Onegin, has temporarily retreated yet again from the stage as he continues his battle with illness. Onegin is a role fortuitously interwoven with his starry career; his showing opposite Renee Fleming is widely considered one of the definitive interpretations of the difficult role and it was again as the diffident Eugene that he graced the Covent Garden stage for his first London appearance post-diagnosis. Such is his deep mastery of the character and unique velvet-coated-iron voice that mere mention of him coaxed a scattered applause from the cinema audience. Dima, get well soon and return once more to the frost-ridden dawn!

The opera may be named after the St Petersburg cad but make no mistake, such is Tchaikovsky’s adoration of the pensive Tatiana that it is difficult to stage any production which provides more than a cursory understanding of the titular Byronic character (curiously, the preceding minimalist Met Opera production achieved this remarkably well). Tchaikovsky declared himself madly in love with Tatiana during the opera’s creation, and it is upon her (and the idealist Lensky) that he bestows his most lyrical arias. This is the template of both score and libretto – and with Anna Netrebko, perhaps the single most charismatic soprano alive, as the older Larina daughter, Tatiana is inevitably the opera’s pulsating core.

And how marvellous she is! Suspend the disbelief that, under the unforgiving glare of HD cinema, our Tatiana is a few springs over seventeen. Forget the annoyance that she writes her doomed lovesick missive in a conservatory, a clunky and unimaginative space. Luxuriate instead in her intense charisma, the changeling dark eyes, the dark timbre hinting at otherworldly wonder when she soars to the episodic refrains the letter scene aria. Her Tatiana is less knowing than some others. Unusually, against the flow of modern interpretation, Tatiana’s Act One appearance is not tainted by pensive melancholy. Rather, this Tatiana looks to tomorrow with optimism and is congenial, if a little shy. Under this filter, we too experience the confused flush of this early Tatiana – the sudden rush of impulse of adolescent adoration, the gawkish shyness and agonising over social failings. Netrebko also succeeds in drawing to the forefront musical interchanges that can be lost; I have never found Tatiana’s exchanges with her nurse (Diadkova) that bookend the letter scene particularly illuminating, but she draws out the adolescence of the girl’s curiosity and the dearth of romantic fulfilment that surrounds her.

Special mention must be made of the letter scene, a self-contained ten-minute exploration of adolescent yearning. It is symbolic of the entire opera; seemingly placid and uncomplicated (if strong) emotions on the surface which are contained by a crust of reserve under which churns a torrent of bated afflictions. Netrebko, alone and exposed, is bigger than both stage and life. She recognises that the power of the aria lies in its arc, both vocal and theatrical, and captures both ecstasy and pain in the same descending scale (“Вообразия здесь однаНикто меня не понимает” / Remember, I am here all alone! Nobody understands me”). Netrebko was not perfect (still retaining that life-long intonation problem including a tendency to be sharp) but she was magnificent.

Our second replacement Onegin was Peter Mattei (taking over from Mariusz Kwiecien, who sang the opening nights of this run). Theatrically, he is pure and his grave deportment successfully drew clean characterisations opposite Dolgov’s fidgety Lensky. If this Onegin appears of little incidence opposite a powerful Tatiana, it is hardly his fault, such is Netrebko’s vocal fortitude. But he was hampered in other regards; his tone, though pleasingly stately, has introvert tendencies. This worked handsomely for his Act One closing aria of paternalistic condescension, but left the final duet rather flat and lacking power. And, in a completely personal gripe, he committed that cardinal tenor sin of falling dramatic to his knees and pounding the earth under the apparent romantic agony.

The rest of the Russian cast was largely well-balanced. As Lensky, Alexei Dolgov was invigorated, if not entirely lyrical and slightly reedy, presenting an affectingly pathetic and earnest character. Elena Maximova’s flighty Olga made the most of a limited role. Our Gremin, one of the great bass operatic roles, was curiously baby-faced and lacked the grizzled gravitas of the soldier that ought to draw effective comparison to the dark Onegin.

This is the second outing for the Met’s new production, and it does not seem to improve upon revival. The pageantry interrupting the peasant chorus sits ill with the mournful weariness of the folk song, the dancers cluttering an already fussy space. The sets, the work of Tom Pye, are disconnected, with the near-abstraction of the final Act meshing oddly with the homely reality that preceded it. In the final scene, with repressed emotions laid bare across the bleak Russian landscape, it is in the unmatched realism of Netrebko’s Tatiana that we take wing, with or without Onegin.