Iceland’s Bell

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Iceland 182

“My lord has not seen Iceland rise from the sea…” – Flatey in Breidafjordur, September 2013 (picture by Annette Rubery)

I wrote this longer-than-usual article in 2009 as a guest post on a blog about 18th century history, and it’s also appeared here as well.  It’s meant as an introduction to a favourite novel by one of my literary heroes, the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, and it’s not supposed to be definitive: it’s aimed at an English-speaking non-specialist readership, with no particular grounding in Icelandic literature or culture. I’ve had no further opportunity to write about Laxness or Icelandic literature, but I’d be very keen to do so! (Contains spoilers)


If you love the 18th century, chances are you have a favourite historical novelist. It’s a boom area in literature – and an opportunity for readers to slip, for a few hours, into a world of classical terraces, elegant ballrooms, colonnaded mansions and rolling parkland. But in the right hands, readers have shown themselves more than willing to move beyond the world of Jane Austen and into ever more exotic terrain. Rose Tremain’s 1999 Whitbread award-winner Music and Silence, for example, found a wide readership for a story set in the Royal court of 1630s Denmark.

So here’s a historical novel also set, in part, at the Danish royal court, covering (roughly) the period 1700-1730: the age of the Great Northern War. Epic in scope, it sweeps across nations and seas, a story of oppression, suffering and intrigue; of boisterous humour, deep poetry and star-crossed romance. It’s by a great novelist; in fact, a Nobel laureate. And yet it’s barely known in the English-speaking world. It’s called ĺslandsklukkan Iceland’s Bell – and it’s by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness (1902-1998).

To be fair, until recently you’d have had to read it in Icelandic, or maybe German. Incredibly, Iceland’s Bell was only translated into English in 2003 (it was first published in 1945). Philip Roughton’s translation (which I’ve used throughout; with Icelandic letters such as đ [pronounced ‘th’] used about as consistently as Wordpress allows me) has only now given this extraordinary novel to English-speakers. But the 18th century-loving community still seems to have been rather slow to seize on it.

Maybe that’s because Laxness is best-known as a literary modernist; the author of powerful social-realist novels like Independent People (1934) and visionary psychedelia (Under The Glacier – 1968). You certainly wouldn’t guess from the cover of the Vintage edition that this was a historical novel. Maybe it’s because of the notorious English-speaker’s allergy to literature in translation (though if you can handle Tolkien’s imaginary names and places, you should be able to cope with Laxness’ genuine Icelandic ones). And maybe it’s because when you open Iceland’s Bell, you enter an authentic, brilliantly realised 18th century world that’s startlingly different from anything in Austen or Georgette Heyer.

How different? Well, here’s the oldest surviving building in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavík. It dates from 1762 – in other words, a good half-century later than the period chronicled in Iceland’s Bell:

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At the start of the 18th century, Reykjavík simply didn’t exist as anything more than a tiny fishing settlement, and it doesn’t feature in Iceland’s Bell (for Laxness’ take on Reykjavík, try his enchanting coming-of-age novel The Fish Can Sing). But the fact that this was one of the biggest and most impressive residences in Iceland gives you some idea what to expect in the novel. True, it’s a story of noblemen, elegant ladies, country squires and great estates – but don’t picture Palladian mansions and jardins à l’anglaises. A couple of the locations featured in the novel survive today. Bessastađir, just outside modern Reykjavík, was the seat of the Danish regent, and it’s still the residence of the President of Iceland.

Bessastaðir today

Bessastaðir today (Wikimedia Commons)

This is where Jón Hreggviđsson is imprisoned near the start of the novel, and although it was extensively rebuilt from the 1760s onwards, it’s still on the same site. Here’s how it looked at the start of the 19th century. Remember, in the period of Iceland’s Bell this was by some way the biggest and most impressive building in Iceland – and it wasn’t even as grand as the structures in this picture:

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Bessastaðir in 1834

Only slightly less imposing were the houses of the Danish Monopoly Merchants – the officials licensed by the Danish crown to control and manage all trade with its colony of Iceland. From 1602 to 1786 trade with Iceland was rigorously controlled by Denmark, and in the period of Iceland’s Bell all trade was forbidden except through licensed Merchants in designated Monopoly Ports. The result, unsurprisingly, was poverty and famine. Most Icelanders were subsistence farmers or fishermen, living in turf-roofed cottages. (In the novel, Jón Hreggviđson is initially convicted as a “cord-thief”, and throughout Iceland’s Bell, a shortage of fishing-cord is reported as Iceland’s most urgent problem. Icelanders couldn’t even feed themselves without it). In such circumstances, the monopoly merchant’s houses were symbols of unimaginable power and wealth.

And when you look at the surviving examples – such as the Husiđ in the monopoly port of Eyrarbakki (1765), today a museum – it’s impossible not to do a double-take. This is the very house where Squire Magnús of Braeđratunga passes out in the pigsty after selling his wife for a keg of brennivín, in Part 2 of Iceland’s Bell (Laxness stayed in Eyrarbakki to complete the novel). It’s about as grand as Georgian architecture got in Iceland. And it’s not exactly Blenheim Palace:

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Husiđ at Eyrarbakki

This is the world in which Laxness chose to set his great historical novel. Like many of his literary choices, it proved controversial amongst his fellow Icelanders. Laxness was at the height of his career; ten years later, in 1955, he’d be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He worked on the book over the period 1942-45. On 17th June 1944, after seven centuries of foreign rule, Iceland finally achieved independence from Denmark – though with the superpowers already positioning themselves for the Cold War to come, the young Republic’s future looked far from secure. National pride, and nationalist passions, were burning high. Now, at this historic moment, Iceland’s leading writer published a novel set in the most humiliating period of Iceland’s history.

Laxness makes his intentions clear from his very first page:

There was a time, it says in books, that the Icelandic people had only one national treasure: a bell. The bell hung fastened to the ridgepole at the gable-end of the courthouse at Thingvellir by Oxará. It was rung for court hearings and before executions, and was so ancient that no-one knew its true age any longer. The bell had been cracked for many years before this story begins, and the oldest folk thought they could remember it as having a clearer chime. All the same, the old folk still cherished it.

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The church at Thingvellir in 2009 – picture by Annette Rubery

Anyone who’s ever been on a “Golden Circle ” tour in Iceland will have visited Thingvellir – the breathtaking natural gorge where, for nearly a thousand years, the Icelandic Parliament, the Althingi met annually in the open air. Today it’s a World Heritage Site; a wooden church (dating from the 19th century) has replaced the 17th century courthouse. The old bell, sent as a gift to Iceland by King Olaf of Norway in 1015, and known to Icelanders under colonial rule as “the nation’s sole possession”, really existed. And what happens next – like many of the events in Iceland’s Bell – really happened, too:

One year when the king decreed that the people of Iceland were to relinquish all of their brass and copper so that Copenhagen could be rebuilt following the war, men were sent to fetch the ancient bell at Thingvellir by Oxará.

The king’s hangman comes from Bessasađir with a work party of convicts, and the bell is cut down.

The pale emissary took a sledgehammer from a saddlebag, placed the ancient bell of Iceland on the doorstep before the courthouse, and gave the bell a blow […] the bell broke in two along its crack.

The nation’s last treasure has been hacked down and shattered. Laxness’ message could hardly be more clear. He hasn’t just set his novel in the darkest period in Icelandic history – he’s beginning his story at its absolute lowest point. But there’s worse to come. There’s a famine, and an epidemic. By the end of Iceland’s Bell, the island itself has been put up for sale by the king of Denmark – and even he can’t find a buyer.

Meanwhile – and almost as an aside – Laxness has set his story in motion. As the cord-thief Jón Hreggviđson unwillingly cuts down the bell, he cracks a scurrilous joke about the king. That’s a criminal offence. The legal action that ensues becomes the driving force of the whole novel, expanding, twisting back on itself, and eventually, over three decades drawing the whole of Icelandic society into its coils – right up to the king of Denmark himself. It’s a classic Icelandic narrative gambit. Throughout the 1940s, Laxness was engaged in editing new editions of the medieval Icelandic sagas. The single, rash, action leading to a legal dispute that embroils the whole nation (and punctuated by set-piece courtroom battles at Thingvellir), is an archetypal saga narrative. Laxness conceived Iceland’s Bell as a modern saga, and the famous line from Njál’s Saga (known to every Icelander) is a sort of unspoken ground-bass to Iceland’s Bell: “With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste”.

 Laxness borrows a literary style from the sagas, too. We never read his characters’ thoughts or inner emotional conflicts. Like the anonymous saga poets, Laxness simply describes their words and actions – and lets us infer the emotions for ourselves. Instead of manipulating the reader’s feelings, Laxness prompts them. The effect is clear, objective and yet, at the book’s great climaxes, overwhelmingly moving.

And make no mistake, this is a story of epic range and emotion. Jón Hreggviđson’s decades-long struggle for justice is its backbone, and there’s no doubt that Hreggviđson – an illiterate, impertinent peasant-farmer, with seemingly endless reserves of stoicism and a head full of garbled medieval ballads – is the novel’s central figure. Hreggviđson (and the lawsuits he pursued from 1683 to 1715) really existed, but Laxness makes this near-forgotten 17th-century criminal a figure of universal significance.

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Egill Skallagrímsson – from a 17th Century manuscript.

He’s the eternal underdog; resourceful, facetious and seemingly indestructible. Icelandic readers will have found traces of favourite saga-characters in his make-up – the buffoonish Björn from Njál’s Saga, the bullish Grettír the Strong, and of course the great trickster-poet Egill Skallagrímsson. English readers might be reminded of Baldrick. But Hreggviđson is very much his own man. Whether conscripted into the Danish army or wrestling with trolls on an Icelandic heath; flogged, abused, and pushed around by the mighty, he always comes back with the proud assertion that he’s descended from the saga-hero Gunnar of Hliđarendi – and throws in an apposite verse of his favourite Elder Ballad of Pontus.

Against his story, and intertwined with it, another very different narrative unfolds. And for many readers, the romance of the Lady Snaefriđur, “Iceland’s Sun”, and the King’s Antiquary, Lord Arnas Arnaeus makes Iceland’s Bell one of the most touching love stories in modern literature. Snaefriđur (literally “Fair as Snow”) is one of Laxness’ most beloved creations: daughter of Iceland’s senior magistrate, sister-in-law of the Bishop of Skálholt, she’s universally admired as Iceland’s loveliest and most nobly-born heiress. We meet her first as a figure from a fairy-tale:

She wore no hat, and her head shone with dishevelled hair. Her slender body was childishly supple, her eyes unworldly as the blue of heaven. Her comprehension was still limited only to the beauty of things, rather than to their usefulness, and thus the smile she displayed as she stepped into this house had nothing to do with human life.

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“Snaefridur, Iceland’s Sun” – costume design from the 1950 National Theatre of Iceland stage version.

But Snaefriđur will soon learn about human life, and in full measure. Like Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, the commanding heroine of Laxdaela Saga, she’s proud, determined and idealistic. She’s also in love – and is prepared to break the law, and bring about her own social and financial ruin rather than betray her emotions. One night at Thingvellir, she springs Jón Hreggviđson from the condemned cell and sends him with a ring and a message to her beloved in Denmark. Determined that if she can’t marry the “best of men”, she’d rather have the worst, she marries the brutish drunkard Magnús of Braeđratunga. Meanwhile she sacrifices her wealth, dignity and youth to pursue a long series of lawsuits against her true love, Arnas Arnaeus – who has ignored Hreggviđson’s message (but taken up his case), returned the ring, and quit Iceland in pursuit of a higher calling.

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Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir’s grave, from Helgafell – photo by Annette Rubery

Fire in Copenhagen, the final volume of Iceland’s Bell is dominated by his story, just as the second, The Fair Maiden is dominated by Snaefriđur, and the first, Iceland’s Bell focuses on Jón Hreggviđson. Court Assessor Arnas Arnaeus, the Royal Antiquary, is the highest ranking Icelander at the Danish court, and at first sight he’s little more than another Restoration dandy:

The aesthete in him spoke out from every seam, each pleat, every proportion in the cut of his clothing; his boots were of fine English leather. His wig, which he wore under his brimmed hat even amongst boors and beggars, was exquisitely fashioned, and was as smartly coiffured as if he were going to meet the king.

 But he enters Hreggviđson’s turf hovel in search of something more precious to him than his own status – fragments of old Icelandic parchments. His passion is the ancient literature of Iceland; to him, the proof that his stricken country once created great art. In his elegant Copenhagen townhouse, he collects a library of Icelandic sagas, ballads and poetry. Meanwhile he pays court (Fire in Copenhagen opens with a gorgeous set-piece description of a royal masque in the Danish capital), marries into money, and struggles to improve the lot of the Icelanders – making powerful enemies along the way. It’s all of it necessary to protect his priceless manuscripts, and sacrificing the love of his life is just part of the price that he decides to pay. The tragedy of their love is that Snaefriđur understands this too:

“Snaefriđur” he said as she turned to leave. He was suddenly standing very close to her. “What else could I have done but give Jón Hreggviđson the ring?”

“Nothing, Assessor”, she said.

“I wasn’t free,” he said. “I was bound by my work. Iceland owned me, the old books that I kept in Copenhagen – their demon was my demon, their Iceland was the only Iceland in existence. If I had come out in the spring on the Eyrarbakki boat, as I promised, I would have sold out Iceland. Every last one of my books would have fallen into the hands of my creditors. We would have ended up on some dilapidated estate, two highborn beggars. I would have abandoned myself to drink and would have sold you for brennivín, perhaps even cut off your head –“

She turned completely around and stared at him, then quickly took him by the hand, leaned her face in one swift movement up against his chest, and whispered:

“Arní.”

She said nothing more, and he stroked her fair and magnificent hair once, then let her leave as she had intended.

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The Great Fire of Copenhagen – contemporary print

Laxness based Arnas on the great Icelandic antiquarian Árni Magnússon (1663-1730). Magnússon, like Arnas Arnaeus, built a collection of Icelandic manuscripts in Copenhagen; and like him, led a troubled personal life. And his collection, too, was badly damaged in the Great Fire of Copenhagen in 1728, which forms the dramatic climax of Iceland’s Bell. But unlike Arnas’, it wasn’t completely destroyed. Three decades after Iceland gained independence, and Iceland’s Bell was published, the Danish government started to repatriate the Magnússon collection. Today, the manuscripts are protected by the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík, and the room that displays them in Reykjavík’s Culture House is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of European literature.

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Arni Magnusson

Halldór Laxness doesn’t have quite such a happy end in store for his characters. But he wouldn’t be the writer he is if he didn’t somehow find hope in even the bleakest of circumstances. At one point in the novel, Arnas comments that his countrymen’s “one and only task is to keep their stories in memory until a better day”. In the closing pages of Iceland’s Bell, his life’s work is in ashes, Iceland is more abject than ever, and he has sacrificed love and career in vain. But one thing – one person – has survived it all; the indomitable Jón Hreggviđsson and his head full of poetry. Together, they ride to the harbour where Hreggviđsson, pardoned at last, is to take ship back to Iceland. And as always, the illiterate cord-thief has a verse for the occasion:

“Now I shall teach you an introductory verse from the Elder Ballad of Pontus, that you have never heard before,” he said.

Then he recited this verse:

“Folk will marvel at the story,
There on Iceland’s shore
When Hreggviđsson’s old grey and hoary
Head comes home once more.”

 After both had memorized the verse, they all sat in silence. The road was wet, causing the carriage to sway from side to side.

The Assessor remained lost in thought for some time, then finally looked at the farmer from Rein, smiled and said:

“Jón Marteinsson saved the Skálda. You were all that fell to my lot”.
Jón Hreggviđsson said: “Does my lord have any messages he would like me to deliver?”…

“You can tell them from me that Iceland has not been sold – not this time. They’ll understand later. Then you can hand them your pardon”.

“But shouldn’t I convey any greetings to anyone?” said Jón Hreggviđsson.

“Your old ruffled head – that shall be my greeting” said the Professor Antiquitatum Danicarum.

Arnas Arnaeus gives his life to the written word. Jón Hreggviđsson can’t even write, but his nation’s literary culture bubbles, unquenchably, beneath his “old ruffled head”. It takes a writer of Laxness’ vision to perceive that a nation’s literature can survive without books – but not without its humanity. When Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, the Swedish Academy’s citation was:

For his vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.

 None of his novels embodies that spirit more stirringly than Iceland’s Bell. And nothing captures the spirit of the novel better than Laxness’ response to his career’s crowning moment. As the telegrams of congratulations poured in from around the world, Laxness realised that he couldn’t respond to them all. So he decided to respond only to one – a message of “lycka til” [congratulations] from the Sundsvall Society of Pipe Layers, in northern Sweden. In other words, sewage-workers. Praised by the whole world, Laxness was moved above all by the idea that “men who bent double over pipes, deep in the ground, should climb out of their drains in the midst of the winter in Sundsvall, in order to shout ‘hurrah for literature’”.

August 2009

Review: Gerontius at the Three Choirs

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Worcester Gerontius

Just before Prince Charles arrived

 

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Worcester Cathedral on Tuesday 25 July 2017.


There’s something very special about hearing The Dream of Gerontius in Worcester Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival. “There is music in the air”, said Elgar: and when the very stones of the Cathedral seem to vibrate, as they did tonight when the organ held a deep, quiet pedal-note at the end of Part One, you can almost sense Sir Edward’s invisible presence.

So this performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Festival Chorus under Martyn Brabbins had a lot going for it even before a single note had been played. With the performers located (for the first time in many years) at the east end of the nave, the clarity and transparency of the orchestral sound was evident from the outset, as Brabbins gently blended the misty colours of Elgar’s Prelude.

That set the tone for a performance that was expansive (new layout or not, the Cathedral acoustic doesn’t allow much leeway on that front), but consistently lyrical and loving. David Butt Philip was almost a bel canto Gerontius, and while his voice felt perhaps too fresh for the dying man of Part One, his vocal radiance and sense of wonder made Part Two glow. As the Angel, Susan Bickley had “something too of sternness”, cresting her Alleluias like a Valkyrie – but found limitless compassion in her great Farewell. Roderick Williams was both a warmly expressive Priest, and a majestic Angel of the Agony.

Chorus and Orchestra responded in kind, with the Girl Choristers of Worcester Cathedral giving a gleaming golden top to a Festival Chorus whose pianissimos were luminous, even if they struggled for clarity in the Demons’ Chorus and Praise to the Holiest. But the spirit, clearly, was willing: and in The Dream of Gerontius, nothing matters more.

Review: Madam Butterfly (Welsh National Opera)

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wno_madam_butterfly_2017_cast_photo_credit_jeremy_abrahams

It really is that brown

 

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday 27 June 2017.


Welsh National Opera has been doing some interesting things this year, but in the Second City it’s mostly been Puccini revivals. To say we’ve seen this all before is an understatement: Joachim Herz’s production of Madam Butterfly is nearly 40 years old, though to be fair Reinhart Zimmermann’s designs – with their hanging cherry blossom and little wood and paper house – have aged well. It’s only the tie-dye drapes and preponderance of the colour brown (it’s all very Habitat) that make you realise this production dates from 1978.

And of course each new cast, conductor and revival director (Sarah Crisp on this occasion) has the potential to breathe new life into it. The staging’s telling little details – Trouble’s toy lighthouse, the ugly locks that Pinkerton has fitted to the delicate-looking house in Act 2 – were matched by vivid, detailed performances: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s calm, compassionate Suzuki, and David Kempster, as a gruff, warm-toned Sharpless, wagging his finger in warning as he tries to make Pinkerton do the decent thing. As Pinkerton, Paul Charles Clarke was determinedly oafish. His hard-edged, blustery singing and the way he let the cowardice flash across his face won him a chorus of pantomime-baddie boos.

But of course there’s no Butterfly without Cio-Cio-San, and Linda Richardson had it all: unsinkable assurance shading into heart-breaking fragility and (at the end) chilling resolve, all conveyed in a voice that never stopped glowing – whether quiet and poised, or soaring above the orchestra at the climax of an Un Bel Di that really blazed. Andrew Greenwood conducted with red-blooded sweep, and the WNO Orchestra responded with a passion worthy of the only UK opera orchestra from which I’ve never heard a lacklustre performance.

Review: CBSO / Canellakis / Tiberghien

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CBSO 2 c. Upstream Photography resized

CBSO: hangin’ with my homies

 The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Symphony Hall on Wednesday 17 May 2017.


 

We need to hear more César Franck. Historically speaking, Debussy is meaningless without him – and his blend of fervent Wagnerian harmonies with high Gothic grandeur makes Franck’s orchestral music intoxicating listening. So huge plaudits to the CBSO’s guest conductor Karina Canellakis for opening her Birmingham debut with Franck’s terrific symphonic poem Le Chasseur Maudit. With its hell-bound horns and eerie moments of calm, it’s a real white-knuckle ride, and the CBSO sounded as if they were enjoying every bar.

As well they might: in her enthusiasm, Canellakis went at it with off-the-scale energy, generating within the first few minutes the kind of volumes that some CBSO chief conductors reserve for the climax of Mahler’s Eighth. She’d dialled it back slightly by the final item in the concert, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. This was an intelligent bit of programming, with the baleful chimes of Rachmaninoff’s finale echoing the Franck, and Canellakis conducted with a powerful sense of direction. I’ve never been more convinced that this piece is a symphony in disguise, and the CBSO’s strings were so lush that you felt you could almost reach out and squeeze the sound.

In between, Cédric Tiberghien was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Egyptian”. Given that the CBSO won a Gramophone Award for its Saint-Saëns concerto recordings a few years ago, you’d think we’d hear this more often too. But its blend of Parisian glitter and sunny orientalism make it worth the wait, and Tiberghien played it with a winningly light touch – and in the sultry second movement, a surprising amount of muscle. Canellakis accompanied with loving care, reinforcing the impression that this is one young conductor it’d definitely be worth asking back.

Review: Orchestra of the Swan

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Orchestra of the Swan

Orchestra of the Swan

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday 24 May 2017.


A change, they say, is as good as a rest. It’s rare that we get to hear the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by anyone other than David Curtis. But it’s no reflection upon Curtis’s tireless work to say that under the American guest conductor Franz Anton Krager, they sounded like a band renewed. Krager served as OOTS’s principal guest conductor back in the noughties, but this was his Town Hall debut, and on the strength of this performance it’d be good to have him back rather sooner next time.

True, Schubert’s Fifth Symphony and the teenage Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto aren’t the stuff of which ovations are made. Still less, the symphony formerly known as Mozart’s 37th – actually a work by Michael Haydn to which Mozart, for reasons known only to himself, added a short introduction. Under Krager, OOTS played it in big, buoyant phrases, propelled by buccaneering horns and a real feeling for this underrated music’s ebullient personality.

That verve and sense of colour were even more noticeable in the Schubert, with some of the most stylish playing I’ve heard from OOTS. Krager brought out the shadows in this usually sunny symphony, letting woodwind lines sing through the texture, and weighting the stormier string passages towards the basses to generate a powerful momentum. It all went with a terrific swing, as did Jennifer Pike’s larger-than-life account of the concerto – delivered by Pike with a glinting tone and a series of brilliant, startlingly Romantic cadenzas. Krager and the OOTS were more than ready to meet her on the same terms. Played by a symphony orchestra, these three pieces can seem like miniatures. Here, they became whole worlds.

Review: Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Symphony Hall on Tuesday 16 May 2017.


It’s not every day you hear a sheng played by a virtuoso – at least, not in Birmingham. This Chinese instrument looks to western eyes like a miniature organ played through a bassoon mouthpiece. It sounds something like an accordion. And sensitively played by the Beijing-trained Lei Jia, it was the centrepiece of this first ever Birmingham concert by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra under its music director of 14 years, Long Yu.

Strictly speaking, Jia shared the limelight with cellist Jian Wang; the work in question, Duo by Lin Zhao, is effectively a double concerto for sheng, cello and orchestra. Inspired by the ancient Chinese story of the monk Xuanzang’s journey to the West (remember the 1970s TV series Monkey?), it’s a lush, lyrical score with melancholy overtones, and Wang in particular played it with sincerity and considerable refinement. After the interval came another discovery (for me, anyway): Xiaogang Ye’s Cantonese Suite. The subtle, fantastic orchestral colourings of these four instantly-appealing settings of Cantonese folk melodies sounded uncannily French; the finale, Thunder in Drought, was a dead ringer for Ravel’s Laideronnette.

Both these works were GSO commissions – and how refreshing, amidst the endless parade of Tchaikovsky-touting Russian orchestras and Czech bands with their inevitable New Worlds, to encounter a touring orchestra with a bit of imagination and daring. The risk paid off handsomely; and the GSO’s brilliantly colourful playing carried over into a vivid account of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird suite and a disarmingly fresh and forthright performance of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Wonderful, too, to see the players smiling and swaying in two deliciously-played encores based on Chinese folk melodies. Who says all orchestras sound the same these days?

Review: Patience (English Touring Opera)

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Patience ETO

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre on Monday 10 April 2017.


You have to be pretty silly to take Gilbert and Sullivan seriously. But a lot sillier not to. With the CBSO’s superb concert performance of The Yeomen of the Guard still fresh in the memory, English Touring Opera’s staging of Patience arrived in Wolverhampton (it visits Cheltenham and Warwick shortly). Patience is G&S’s satire on Aestheticism: the 19th century fad for languid sighs, poetic airs and generally wafting about trying to live up to one’s blue china.

And if we don’t see it more often, that’s probably why. Gilbert’s never sharper and Sullivan’s score is Mendelssohn-level ravishing, but unless you’ve got a sensational Reginald Bunthorne (G&S’s version of Oscar Wilde), you haven’t really got a show. The great news is that ETO have. Bradley Travis drifts in wearing a velvet beret and brandishing a peacock-feather quill. With a hand to the brow and an infinite variety of languorous poses, he sashays away with every scene in which he appears.

Which, given the quality of the rest of the cast, is saying something. Ross Ramgobin is dapper and droll as his rival Grosvenor, Lauren Zolezzi is picture-perfect as the milkmaid Patience and Valerie Reid gets the audience very much on side as Lady Jane – another of Gilbert’s ladies of a certain age. The singing throughout is both clear and expressive; Ramgobin’s baritone is particularly handsome and Zolezzi shapes a line with real style.

Add lovesick maidens, a detachment of heavy dragoons who deliver patter songs with rollicking vigour, Liam Steel’s lively direction and Timothy Burke’s luminous, feather-light conducting, and it’s hard to imagine Patience being revived more persuasively. Or indeed a funnier, fresher or more delightful night at the opera. Abandon any lingering prejudices about G&S: this was delicious.

Flashback (Good) Friday

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Paul_von_Joukowsky_-_Bühnenbild_Parsifal_-_Gralstempel

That Friday Feeling

Something seasonally appropriate: a sort of beginner’s guide to Parsifal that I wrote in 2015 for the CBSO’s in-house magazine, ahead of Andris Nelsons’s concert performance.


Cards on the table: if you’re a regular orchestral concert-goer, there’s a fair chance that you’re a bit suspicious of opera. If you’re a normal sort of opera fan, it’s more than possible that you’re a little intimidated by Wagner. And even if you snapped up tickets for Andris Nelsons’ CBSO concert performances of Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman and Tristan und Isolde, you might still view Parsifal with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Because this is the big one: Wagner’s crowning achievement. It makes the Ring seem down-to-earth, and The Flying Dutchman sound like The Pirates of Penzance. Read much of the vast literature about Parsifal and you’ll quickly find yourself lost in an impenetrable thicket of medieval mythology, political theorising and the worst kind of musicology. Meanwhile, try and explain the plot to a modern English-speaking listener and it’s hard not to be reminded of Monty Python. I’m here to tell you that none of that matters. Anyone can listen to Parsifal, anyone can understand it, and anyone can be moved by it. No prior experience is required: in fact, Parsifal might even be the ideal entry point into Wagner’s world. But, without question, it’ll tell you a powerful and timeless story in some of the most heartfelt, involving and transcendently lovely music ever written. And if all that’s stopping you from having that experience are a few questions – well, here’s an attempt at a few answers.

What’s the story?

In the castle of Monsalvat an order of knights guards the Grail, a sacred relic with the power to renew life itself. They’re supposed to be pure of heart; but their king, Amfortas, has succumbed to worldly temptation, fallen into a trap laid by the demonic Klingsor, and is now incurably wounded. The order is ailing with him, until the arrival of an outsider – Parsifal, a naïve young man. Initially baffled by the knights and their rituals, Parsifal seems like easy prey for Klingsor, but – being truly pure of heart – he resists even the temptations of Klingsor’s unwilling slave-seductress Kundry, and in doing so, starts to understand Amfortas’ suffering. He defeats Klingsor and returns to Monsalvat on Good Friday to restore life and hope to the keepers of the Grail.

Isn’t it complicated?

That’s the thing with opera plots – explain them on paper and they sound ridiculous (It’s not only opera: try summarising Game of Thrones. Or, for that matter, The Archers). And it’s true, there’s more to Parsifal than the outline above: infinitely more. Wagner thought about this opera for nearly 40 years before its premiere in 1882. The Christian imagery of resurrection and the Grail, the philosophy of Schopenhauer, plus Buddhism, with its ethos of renunciation: they’re all encoded in Parsifal, and you can take them at face value, or dig as deep as you like. But like so many great stories, it all feels – somehow – familiar. The story of the Knights of the Grail comes from the legends of King Arthur (where Parsifal is Sir Percival); Kundry is the eternal femme fatale and the wounded king appears in both Celtic myth and Star Wars. Terry Gilliam retold the tale with Robin Williams in The Fisher King; Shakespeare, Tolkien and CS Lewis knew it too (we’ll pass over Monty Python for now). Elements of Parsifal keep popping up in western culture, sometimes startlingly close to home. An ancient artefact known as the Nanteos Cup was stolen from a house in Herefordshire last July – it’s believed to have healing powers and had been loaned by its current owners to a sick friend. “Village pub raided by police in hunt for Holy Grail” was the headline in The Daily Telegraph.

Wagner uses powerful symbols and characters, but after five decades working in theatre, he knew how to tell a story too. His libretto (he wrote his own) explains everything necessary, at a comprehensible pace. And it’s supported by truly miraculous music.

Is the music loud?

Ah, the old prejudice about Wagner, born from years of hearing only edited fragments like The Ride of the Valkyries and the Meistersinger prelude. Yes, Parsifal is thrillingly loud – when it needs to be. But for long stretches – most famously, the ecstatic “Good Friday Music” in Act Three, where a spring meadow blossoms with hope – it’s blissfully quiet and tender. Wagner travelled in Italy while writing the music for Parsifal; his set-designer travelled with him, and the Grail Temple of Monsalvat is modelled on Siena cathedral. Klingsor’s magic kingdom was inspired by a lush sub-tropical garden at Ravello, near Amalfi.

This isn’t the stormy Nordic world of The Flying Dutchman or the dark German forest of Siegfried. Parsifal is Wagner’s Italian opera, and it sounds it: long, singing melodies, distant bells, and warm, glowing orchestral colours. There’s a reason why David Hockney loves this music. Books have been written on the orchestration alone – Debussy famously described it as “lit from behind”. But the important thing is that it serves the story, gently, persuasively taking you where Wagner leads, and quietly gathering power as it goes. Before you know it you’re on that Good Friday meadow – don’t be surprised if you find yourself in tears. And if Wagner’s story still hasn’t won you over? Never mind: at least you’ve heard what Debussy called “one of the most beautiful monuments of sound ever raised to the eternal glory of music”.

But Wagner wasn’t a very nice man, was he?

Not especially. Artists are often a nightmare to deal with: the personal lives of John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Dickens (to choose a few names at random) don’t bear very close inspection either. Yet even Wagner’s bitterest enemies seem to have revered him. After Wagner had stolen his wife, the conductor Hans von Bülow called him a “glorious, unique man”. Friedrich Nietzsche – after publishing a series of vicious anti-Wagner polemics – still described him as “the greatest benefactor of my life”. Wagner’s personal prejudices are a matter of record; the ends to which Hitler (who wasn’t even born until six years after Wagner’s death) twisted Wagner’s artistic legacy have been well-documented. Interestingly, although the Nazi hierarchy enthusiastically patronised the annual Wagner festival at Bayreuth, no performances of Parsifal were given there during the war years. However readily the Nazis were able to misrepresent Wagner’s other works, Parsifal eluded them. Its compassionate vison is entirely true to itself, and at odds with any political agenda. D H Lawrence – a devoted Wagnerite – summed up the issue with typical bluntness. “An artist is usually a damned liar but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth”.

Isn’t it long?

With intervals, it’s a little over five hours long. “The first act of the three occupied two hours” quipped Mark Twain, when he saw Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1891 “and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing”. That’s just the scale on which Wagner operates. It’s still only the length of two DVDs (basically half a series of Mad Men).

 And I promise you this: you won’t notice. “Here, time becomes space” comments the knight Gurnemanz in Act One, and once the music starts and Wagner begins to cast his spell you’re simply drawn in. There’s no experience in all music so compelling, so immersive, so moving and consistently, ravishingly beautiful. Absorbed in this unique soundworld” writes the critic Jessica Duchen, “we become someone else. We blend our spirits, and Parsifal shows us how.”

A bit much? People do get like that after hearing Parsifal. There’s only one way to find out if you’re one of them. And with Andris Nelsons conducting, odds are that when, five hours later, you finally leave Monsalvat, you’ll want to go straight back in and hear it all over again.

Bax to the future

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November Woods 3

November Woods in March

Travelling overseas at the weekend, I took Arnold Bax’s autobiography Farewell My Youth to read on the plane, and since it was a beautiful morning when I got back to Heathrow, I decided to break my journey back north and try and solve a musical puzzle that I’ve wondered about for years – since I first heard Bax’s November Woods in my student days, in fact. I’m very fond of Bax’s tone poems, but I’d always felt the need to put a slightly more tangible image to this piece (no such problem with Tintagel or The Garden of Fand). I’d read in a sleevenote that the woods in question were above Amersham, where in the autumn of 1916 Bax used to meet his mistress Harriet Cohen for stolen afternoons. He wrote one of his typically OTT poems about it, in fact – entitled Amersham.

…Like frightened children, silent, hand in hand,
Down the wet hill we stepped towards the flare;
Storm, a mad painter’s brush, swept sky and land
With burning signs of beauty and despair;
And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake,
And in our hearts tears stung and the old ache
Was more than any God would have us bear.

Then in a drowsy town the inn of dreams
Shuts out awhile October’s sky of dread;
Drugged in the wood reek, under the black beams
Nestled against my arm her little head…

Helen Fry’s biography of Harriet Cohen filled in a few more details. The inn was the Crown; Harriet used to travel out to Amersham by the Metropolitan Line, and therefore there’s only one candidate for the wood where the two lovers sheltered from that autumn storm, and which Bax later put into music. It’s Parsonage Woods, just under the railway bridge as Station Road falls away down towards Amersham High Street at the bottom of the valley.

I’m pleased to say that it’s all still there: the Crown Inn is still recognisably as black-beamed as Bax describes it, and very much open for business. (Dalliance with beautiful pianists not being an option, the breakfast menu looked quite tempting). And the woods themselves – well, they didn’t look much like their musical self on this bright spring morning, though looking westwards towards the other side of the valley you could certainly imagine them dripping and shuddering in an equinoctial gale. I may return in November just to double-check, though.

 

Review: Louis Lortie at Birmingham Conservatoire

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Conservatoire on Tuesday 17 March 2017.


 

ABH

Not in here. It’s just a huge hole in the ground now.

These are the end times for the old Birmingham Conservatoire building. The demolition crews circle, and all eyes are already turned to the promised land of Eastside. But artistically, the Conservatoire is already well more than halfway there. For proof, look at the sheer calibre of the artists giving this spring’s concerts in the doomed Recital Hall: Jennifer Pike, the Heath Quartet, and on this occasion the eminent French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, playing music by George Benjamin and Chopin.

This is not a time for sentimentality, and Lortie’s Chopin was defiantly unsentimental. No romantic languour here; the emphasis was on tone-colour and rhythmic clarity. Lortie instantly and unfussily found the character of each of Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op.28: letting the melodic line of the swifter pieces glint like a darting fish in a crystal stream, making bass notes snarl and thunder, and in the gentler Preludes, allowing the melody to find its own level: falling easily over its accompaniment without any undue prodding or tugging.

Lortie can generate a blindingly intense tone on a single note, and after an emphatic finish to Prelude No.12, he seemed to expand into the second dozen. These were freer, more fantastic, and often fierce, and the cycle peaked with a Prelude No.15 that moved from limpid tenderness to a central climax of blazing severity. The softness and transparency of No.23’s spring shower felt all the sweeter for it.

George Benjamin’s Shadowlines – frigid, angular studies in grey – didn’t hold up well next to Chopin. But Lortie approached them with the same focus, offsetting the harshness of the musical foreground with misty echoes in the left hand. A musical reminder that there is, after all, a world elsewhere.