K for Kandinsky
J for James
P for Petrosian
N for Nestroy
Kirill Gerstein Piano Recital
Grosser Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus
17 February 2019
This concert was dedicated to Bruno Ganz, whose death had been announced two days before.
Kirill Gerstein had performed with Bruno Ganz previously, at the Konzerthaus itself as it happened, so this seemed very fitting. And certain parts of the programme, which must of course have been worked out some months before, seemed eerily appropriate. So we heard ‘The Exterminating Angel’, Thomas Adès bleak and beautiful meditation on death. And even Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue for Piano in E major (the so-called ‘Eroica Variations’) acquired a certain poignant resonance, following Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 7 (‘Eroica’). You were aware of the fragile, inter-generational enterprise of human culture: one composer building upon the work of another.
Throughout, Kirill Gerstein performed each work with nuance and delicacy, and not at all mournfully. His playing was sincere and piercing, and penetrated to the heart of each work.
A rewarding, very moving concert.
Kirill Gerstein’s website is here.
Details of forthcoming concerts at the Wiener Konzerthaus can be found here.
Music by Tchaikovsky
Wiener Staatsoper, 20 February 2019
The spirit of Nureyev lives on.
This was a high-flying, heart-kindling production of what Jennifer Homans has astutely called ‘the most imperfect but most powerful of Russian ballets’. We were given a Swan Lake with choreography by Rudolf Nureyev as well as Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, a quite remarkable version of the ballet that was, in fact, first performed at the Wiener Staatsoper itself, in October 1964. Then, Nureyev took the role of Prince Siegfried and Margot Fonteyn, his ever constant companion during those days, had the part of Odette and Odile.
It is a Swan Lake where the Prince Siegfried role, here ably performed by Denys Cherevychko, is both more athletically demanding in terms of dance and more prominent within the story as a whole. Indeed, there is also a psychological complexity here which is unparalleled elsewhere.
Siegfried is a hunter who is preyed upon, and in due course cruelly toyed with, by the magician Rothbart. His desire and resolve are tested and, let us be blunt, found wanting; it seems as though Rothbart is his dark shadow, since he seems to know Siegfried better than he knows himself. Like a predator drone, Rothbart can precisely tap into the prince’s feelings of weakness and unworthiness. And he always finds his breaking point.
Ultimately, Siegfried cannot escape his own nature: he wants the princess(es) he cannot have. He rejects the normal ones, the beauties of Spain, Hungary and the like. It is the otherworldly, swan-like creatures, the queer princesses, the captive queen, the damned and fallen that his heart yearns for. He wants something different. And his desire is always accompanied by an undertow of anxiety and dread.
As Odette and Odile, Nina Polakova was merciless. She could melt your heart and enflame it. Her Odette, a subdued and stoic princess, evoked manifold feelings of tenderness. Whilst her Odile, a seductive temptress with a fatal glamour, was irresistible. In Odile’s dance, as performed by the ballerina, you knew that she was too good to be good: her slick movements conveyed a diaboloical craft, held a magnetic fascination. She took no prisoners. (Incidentally, Odette’s back story has always fascinated me. Exactly how did Rothbart gain power over her? Matbe we will have to wait for the prequel to find out.)
For this performance of Swan Lake we were blessed to be in a position (a box on the first floor) where we could fully appreciate the kaleidoscopic geometry of Ivanov’s corps de ballet sequences, the white swans moving en-flock, weaving their star-flight shapes. And Petipa’s dance of the four cygnets, for many people the litmus test of a good Swan Lake, was superb: a wonderful display of mastery and courage and faith in comradeship. It is clearly a product of the same country and culture that gave us the policy of ‘Not one step backward!’ (Stalin’s Order 227) during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Swan Lake is the fruit of much evolution and compromise, which is perhaps in part what Homans meant when she called it ‘imperfect’. There is no overriding vision, or uniformity, to the dance. At root, it is Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score (not obviously ‘danceable’, and certainly not considered so by his contemporaries) that makes it great. That score will continue to challenge diverse choreographers, as here, and they in turn will make further demands on dancers. So, in time, the ballet will become more ‘imperfect’, more powerful still.
Nureyev’s (and Petipa’s and Ivanov’s) Swan Lake is playing at the Wiener Staatsoper now, further details are here.
Josef Bulva Piano Recital
14 February 2019
Few concerts have given me as much delight.
Josef Bulva came to Vienna, played wonderfully and received due applause from an appreciative audience throughout. The evening’s programme was as follows:
- Mozart: Piano Sonata in B flat major
- Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E minor; Piano Sonata in F sharp major; Rondo a capriccio in G major
- Chopin: Piano Sonata in B Minor
- Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Sharp Minor
What Josef Bulva did quite remarkable. He performed a slue of sonatas, without sight of a score. His playing was precise and exact, yet there was great feeling along with austere artistic discipline. You felt at many moments that if the composers had played these pieces themselves, the rendition could hardly have been more authoritative.
And Josef Bulva is keeping their music alive, night after night, with vital recitals such as these.
A wonderful evening.
Josef Bulva’s website is here.
Details of forthcoming concerts at the Musikverein can be seen here.
Egon Schiele: The Making of a Collection
Curated by Kerstin Jesse
Orangery, Lower Belvedere, Vienna
19 October 2018 to 17 February 2019
I caught the tail end of this exhibition, just a few days back.
It featured all of Egon Schiele’s works held by the Belvedere: about twenty or so, I think. Most are portraits, though there are self-portraits (naturally), landscapes, cityscapes, symbolist tableau, etc. The bulk of Schiele’s work is to be found across the city someways, ensconced in the Leopold Museum in the MuseumsQuartier.
Together with the artworks, there was some background information (not entirely complete) about how the works were acquired. When the Nazis entered Austria in 1938, many Jews had to give up their possessions, including art works they had collected, or sell them at a pittance, in order to leave the country and escape with their lives. That’s one common, recurring scenario. But even when a family had managed to keep hold of a precious artwork, or in the unlikely event that it had been returned to them after 1945, they were not able to take it out of the country (an export ban saw to that). So they were often reduced to selling it for below market value, either to a collector (the ubiquitous Leopold), or a museum, or the Austrian state.
What one should say is that Austria is probably the most up-front, proactive country in the world when it comes to being open and transparent about the provenance of the art held in its museums, and that is due in no small part to the efforts of the brilliant Sophie Lillie, author of Was einmal war. Most other countries: the USA, Russia, Italy, and (yes) the UK are way behind. They are reactive and often fight claims for restitution, tooth and nail.
As a first step, all museums should know the provenance of all artworks in their collections acquired between 1933 and 1945 (or even slightly later). Where there is doubt or uncertainty, there should be a presumption of foul play. You might well ask: why aren’t they doing this now?
Further details of Egon Schiele: The Making of a Collection can be found here.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
Written & Directed by Suzanne Andrade
HOME, 7 October 2019
Set in and around a tenement block on the outskirts of a corrupt, sinful city, 1927’s latest offering is a dark amalgam of The Threepenny Opera, Beasley Street and The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
The story was OK, nothing special – a do-gooder and her daughter take a crib in the block in a bid to save the souls of the slum kids, that was part of it – but Paul Barritt’s expressionist graphics and atmospheric animations were stunning. They made the play, or perhaps distracted you from its shortcomings. There were scenes that evoked Grosz, Schiele (those houses tumbling one upon the other) and, of course, Edward Gorey. Besides the graphics, another way in which the play resembled Gorey’s work was in its hostility towards children: here the feral street pretties are drugged, kidnapped or otherwise contained by the adults around them. However, while I found the dystopian world of the play utterly convincing – a world populated by people who could be grotesque, eccentric or perverse – the narrative too often felt episodic, simply a series of black comedic gags strung together. It waned and dragged.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is showing at HOME until 16 February, further details can be found here.
By Georges Simenon
Translated by David Watson
Penguin Classics, 2019
A brutal portrait of human weakness and venality.
As I got into this very decent, good enough crime novel (Simenon does not write masterpieces but he doesn’t do duds either), I recalled something I read once concerning Walter Benjamin’s reading habits. Benjamin is a celebrated intellectual, of course, and he was as well, for his sins, an inveterate consumer of detective stories. He read loads – it is pretty much certain that he read Simenon, actually – and believed that crime novels (and maybe literary novels too?) should be read in one go, wolfed down in at most a few days, while the human passions contained within them were fresh and immediate and intense. What is interesting here (the reason why I recalled and record all this) is that Benjamin read novels in the same way that Simenon wrote his, that is over the space of a few intense days. Given his writing practice, it is no wonder that Simenon was so prolific, pulp fiction’s very own Balzac.
What I like about Simenon’s fiction is its opulent polyphony; there is always a lot going on. There is more than one case, as often as not (here robbery – a series of jewel heists – segues into murder), and a bevy of intriguing suspects and seeming innocents to keep tabs on. Maigret has an infinite number of junior detectives that he can direct to do the donkey work, perhaps by following persons of interest, though you wouldn’t get that nowadays, what with the current level of cuts to the police budget. And this rich incident always makes for engaged and entertaining reading. Hardly surprising, then, that Hammett, a crime writer who did write masterpieces, admired him so much.
His great detective, Maigret, is not unlike Sherlock Holmes: a pipe smoker, yes, yet, more importantly, a man who is remorseless in the pursuit of truth. even as he realises that it is all – most of what he does, anyway – ultimately futile. And Maigret’s Paris (by Paris I mean Paris, France) is as vividly wrought as Holmes’s London. It is not so much a city as a Circle of Hell that twists its denizens into queer shapes, swerves them toward unstable alliances that make betrayal more or less inevitable. Paris, City of Light, has a civilised veneer but it is in fact a savage, merciless jungle.
Mind, Simenon has a darker, a more profound or, at any rate, a more complicated understanding of human beings when compared with Conan Doyle. Each novel (in the present one, Maigret is hunting for the killer of a jewel thief) offers an unwelcome peek into what low evil people are capable of. But while evil comes – can only come – into the world through human beings, there is one bright consolation. Human beings are weak. Their petty, ambitious schemes for advancement tend to come to nothing in the end; their carnal, scherzo passions soon enough peter out. Here criminals are unhappy failures, participants in a petty tragedy. Maigret’s patience, his staying power, ensures his triumph.
Penguin is apparently reissuing all of Maigret novels in new translations. This is number 64. If you want to finish them all in one lifetime, my advice is learn to read jildy, like a certain Walter Benjamin.
The publisher’s description of Maigret’s Patience can be read here.