I live 40 minutes from Bath. And yet I am a totally focused on London. I therefore tend to overlook the cultural delights that the elegant city with its crescents, palladian mansions and Georgian buildings can offer. Yes, I am aware of that many theatre shows that end up in London’s West End pass through Bath. The best thing is that you can see them here for half the price.
The famous Bath Assembly rooms were designed in 1769 as a venue for music and dancing. They are still used for intimate concerts and both the Bach- and the Mozartfest offer many opportunities to experience this venue that once was the centre of Bath’s social scene.
Bath established itself as a fixture on the classical music calendar long before the proliferation of music festivals up and down the country. The Bath Assembly (later the Bath International Music Festival) was founded in 1948 by the legendary promoter and serial festival organiser Ian Hunter. During the heady days of Britain’s post-war cultural renaissance the Bath Festival became a hot spot for emerging young musicians (like Colin Davis and Janet Baker). When Yehudi Menuhin took over as director in 1959 the festival for a while went from strength to strength, but the market for classical music is much tougher today and there is so much more competition from other music happenings. The International Festival appears to have been superseded by a multicultural event simply called the Bath Festival (19 – 28 May 2017) which offers a little bit of everything, including Ed Balls “Speaking out” ( thankfully no dancing involved). There is still some classical music on offer and booking has just opened. Check out the programme here ;
Bath may have lost one festival exclusively devoted to music but it has gained another one, albeit much shorter. Bath’s Bachfest (16-18 February) has only been going for six years and I must say that they have managed to stay under my radar.
But this year there is no ignoring this fest, because the lineup is nothing short of stunning. There are only five concerts over three days, but every one is a winner. The Academy of Ancient Music, one of this country’s very best period instrument orchestras, opens the proceedings tonight. The concert focuses on works for violin, harpsichord and oboe by JS Bach, Vivaldi, Albinoni and Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe and strings in D minor which the young Johann Sebastian transcribed for harpsichord.
On Friday the 17th the Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang gives a lunchtime recital accompanied by the Heath Quartet that last year won a prestigious Gramophone Award. The programme consists of music by Bach originally scored for lute and violin, transcribed by Xuefei for guitar.
The Tallis Scholars are making an appearance on Friday and their repertoire looks particularly relevant in this year that we celebrate that half a millennium has passed since Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, which set in motion a huge religious shake-up that had a profound influence on JS Bach’s music. The Tallis Scholars are led by Peter Phillips and they will perform German works by by both Catholic and Protestant composers like Schütz, Lassus, Hasssler and Bach. The concert has been sold out for some time.
This will be the first Bachfest I am attending. I have picked the concert in the splendid Bath Abbey on Saturday the 18th where The Sixteen (choir and orchestra), regular visitors to both this festival and the Mozartfest, under the direction of Harry Christophers will perform some movements from cantatas, a motet and the third Brandenburg Concerto in G major by JS Bach.
All the concerts are now nearly sold out but check out the impressive programme and make a mental note for next year. More on the Mozartfest (which hasn’t announced its concerts yet) in June.
The days are getting longer and before you know it the Spring/Summer music festival season is upon us. All right, that was a (snow) white lie. It is still seasonally cold in the UK and I just peeked out between the curtains and it has started to rain. Oh joy! I’d much rather frolick in the snow, ideally in a Swiss alpine setting. I am starting to pine for Verbier and the best of both worlds – mountains and classical music. I was there last year in July for the yearly festival. The snow was clinging on to the highest peaks and craggy rocks, while the meadows were basking in the sun. Up on Mont Fort (3 329 m) you could spot Mont Blanc’s icy hump in the far distance. The snow cover (which leads to increased UV levels) and the sun were conniving to turn my rather high forehead a crabby red. The evidence can be found in the photograph below. It was the third week of July and this was my first visit to the Verbier Festival. And my third visit to Verbier. I have visited twice previously, in the distant past, for a skiing holiday. It is a fantastically versatile place for ski enthusiasts and thanks to the Verbier Festival’s director Martin Engström the town (with only some 3.000 permanent residents) has also established itself as one of the highlights of the Central European festival season.
There can’t be many destinations that offer a more inspiring setting for classical concerts. Clearly some of the major stars in the classical music firmament agree with me, because each year Martin Engström and his team manage to attract so many of them. The Verbier Festival fills seventeen days ( 21 July 21 – 6 August, 2017) with concerts, workshops, learning experiences and conversations taking place in various venues all over town. But when the weather gods offer an open blue sky smile it is hard to resist your inner wanderlust.
There are some 400 kilometers s of mountain bike trails suitable for riders of all levels (and a similar amount of marked ski runs in the whole 4 Vallées area). During my three day stay the weather was, except for the odd evening downpour, anything between pretty good and stunning. For me there wasn’t much time for play, but I wouldn’t mind working in this kind of environment more frequently.
I had an opportunity to interview the South Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung and wanted to know if it made any difference to her to perform against a backdrop that is fairly reminiscent of the Sound of Music scenery. Kyung Wha Chung had a couple of days earlier opened the festival with a splendid performance of the Brahms violin concerto.
“Nature for an artist is such a direct connection to the music… When I was playing Brahms concerto, Brahms loved nature more than anybody. Like Mahler loved nature. You take in the wildness of these mountains. When I played a recital in Baden-Baden I know that I was treading the place that he walked, to perform Brahms concerto with Vienna Phil, recording there. Brahms was standing right there. Nature is important for everyone. Music started in nature. Sound of the wind, sound of the bird, sound of the thunder. It is all in nature and it is all music. “
So, maybe the mountain air can enhance a performance. Kyung Wha Chung (68) was a huge star in the 70s and 80s, but an injury to her left hand in 2008 put temporarily a stop to her performing career. She has made a full recovery and in May she will perform JS Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas in a concert at the Barbican in London. More details just click here.
The highlight of my splendid sojourn in Verbier was experiencing the super virtuoso pianist Daniil Trifonov in action for two solid hours. The Russian has over the last five years taken the major concert halls by storm. Many of his colleagues were present in the Salle des Combins and they may not always have agreed with his at times idiosyncratic interpretations, but at least there is never a dull moment. Trifonov showed off his wide ranging palette in a sensitive and luminous interpretation of Schubert’s piano sonata in G major, D 894. Then he pulled out some of the stops with Brahms’ devilishly difficult Paganini variations. After the interval, when I thought I had seen it all, he took on Rachmaninoff’s first ‘Faustian’ piano sonata. This is a bastard (the second is more rewarding), going off in all directions, low on melodic poise and firing on all cylinders in the last movement. Trust Trifonov to tame the beast, and make it roll over on its back. I have never heard it performed more convincingly, although it is rather long.
Many of Trifonov’s performances can be watched (for a modest price) on Medici.TV on YouTube:
Why am I regaling you with concert reviews of the past?
First of all, I really think the spectacular setting and the mountain air brings out the best in many musicians, who very often also bring their own family to stay in a chalet or apartment for a couple of days or a week.
Secondly Daniil Trifonov will be back this year for four concerts. He will play Mozart’s piano concerto no.25, accompany the bass Ildar Abdrazakov and participate in two chamber concerts. The details can be found here.
This year Verbier will focus particularly on piano music. Some 20 pianists will give solo recitals. That is more than one a day. When you look at the names, it means that over a period of two weeks in July and August the absolute pinnacle of piano playing can be found in a mountain village in the Canton of Valais. Here are some of the pianists on show:
Pianist Kirill Gerstein, Evgeny Kissin, Richard Goode, Nikolai Lugansky, Grigory Sokolov, Vladimir Feltsman, Yuja Wang, Barry Douglas.
If appearing at the World Economic Forum in Davos is the glittering highlight of the year for any economist , this year at least, the Verbier Festival must be considered the absolute summit of piano playing.
More on Verbier and Martin Engström, the founder and executive director of the Verbier Festival in the near future.
Australia’s Impressionists, National Gallery in London 7 December 2016 – 26 March 2017
The context and inspiration for this exhibition is the fact that the National Gallery last year for the first time decided to display a painting by an Australian artist on a permanent basis. The Australians are making inroads at the NG in style with this special exhibition.
The work that last year was added to the collection is Arthur Streeton’s Blue Pacific (1890) which depicts the headland near Cogee Beach in Sydney. It was a popular spot for tourists and painters that loved to practice their trade in the open air. This work is a decent enough effort, but it is by no means one of the highlights of this long overdue exhibition.
Somewhat surprisingly the focus is only on four Australian artists : Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Tom Roberts (1856 – 1931), Charles Conder ( 1868 – 1909) and John Peter Russell (1858-1930). But neither Conder nor Roberts were authentically Australian; they came to Australia from Britain as teenagers. Conder actually only spent seven years in Australia before he returned. Russell was born and died in Sydney, but he lived and traveled for nearly 40 years in Europe. He was the only truly impressionistic Australian painter and he also got involved with the avant-garde in France, which was reflected in his work. Russell is the only Australian who successfully embraced French impressionism but Aussie art historians have until fairly recently simply ignored him. This exhibition proves that he was the most fascinating and talented painter of the lot.
A decade ago most Australian art history books still devoted a long chapter to the ‘Heidelberg movement’ which was considered to be more or less the Australian equivalent of French impressionism. Recently Heidelberg has been more or banished as an art terminology. Why it was named after the Melbourne suburb Heidelberg in the first place, is a bit of a mystery. The artist camp that Roberts, Conder and Streeton set up was actually based in Box Hill (which has been swallowed up by Greater Melbourne). OK, they painted from time to time in Heidelberg.
Ten years ago the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne put together a show under the banner of Australian Impressionism. The sheer size was was pretty impressive and I thought some of the best work clearly demonstrated a burgeoning sense of nationhood expressed through landscape. But at the same time I was not convinced I was watching impressionistic paintings. Well, at least not in the French or even European sense of the word. Yes, there was evidence of rapid, broken brushstrokes and scenes of everyday life. But there was very little evidence in any of the 245 works of high keyed or primary colors. The lack of experimentation was also quite surprising. No one could have accused any of these artists of being anarchistic, unpatriotic or even particularly socialist (which were some of the accusations hurled at the French impressionist) in their depictions of nature or ordinary life.
The last French impressionist exhibition took place in Paris in 1886, but another three years passed before the first Australian event to be marketed as ‘impressionist’ was organised in Melbourne. In London we can now see seven small paintings that were on show at the original, artist-led ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition‘ in Melbourne in August 1889. There are no works that would have shocked the conservative Australian public, but the fact that many were oil sketches and not finished works irritated some critics. The title of the exhibition was derived from the size of the cigar boxes, roughly nine by five inches, and of course the French movement. But the manifesto of the young artists seemed to hark back to the ideals of plein air painters from the Barbizon school, led by Jules Bastien-Lepage who was mainly active between 1830 and 1870. Bastien-Lepage had a huge influence on van Gogh, Monet and many Scandinavian painters.
The seven oil sketches on show in London are moody, tonal landscapes and streetscapes, clearly influenced by the work of the American James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903).
Tom Roberts returned in 1885 after a spell in Europe where he trained and soaked up influences in London, Paris and on his journey through Spain. He had nailed his coulours to the mast of outdoors (plein air) painting and Whistler. It was Roberts who introduced his younger colleagues, who looked up to him, to Whistler’s magic.
In Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1886) Roberts paints a dynamic picture of ‘Marvelous’ Melbourne’s main drag. With some fine detail, he records the dusty haze and the bustling street life in one of the British Empire’s richest cities. But he is at his most memorable in A Break Away (1891). The lunging jackaroo trying to stop a mob of thirsty sheep bolting towards a waterhole has a heroic quality. In the next instant the sheep will crash into each other and in the ensuing crush many of the animals will drown, causing a great financial loss to the farmer. Here we see an early example of the ‘Aussie battler’, so beloved by today’s politicians. This picture became iconic because it shows a very Australian landscape, including parched grass, dusty road, sheep dogs and eucalyptus trees. Many of the artists working in Australia in the first part of the 19th century depicted the continent as a sort of exotic Europe, practically ignoring the local flora and fauna. The Heidelberg movement really tried to immerse themselves in the landscape and became pretty good at catching the unique light, the glare of the Australian sun in oils. But in general these ‘impressionists’ show a distinct lack of interest in typical Australian animals and plants. Streeton’s ‘The purple noon’s transparent might‘ is pretty stunning but the title quotes a poem by Shelley. The pastoral dream that is depicted shows a land and river tamed and mastered in accordance with British imperial standards. As beautiful and serene as this scene is, in my mind there is nothing particularly Australian or impressionistic about it.
There is also a tinge of wholesomeness in some of these monumental paintings (and many are rather large). In Streeton’s Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) we see a shepherd boy standing in the late afternoon shadow looking out over a sun drenched field and a homestead a short distance away. It is evocative but also bordering on good ol’ Victorian schmaltz. Bear in mind that Streeton at this point had never set a foot outside of the federal state of Victoria. In Streeton’s Fire’s on you can see some miners bringing out the body of a colleague on a stretcher. He has been killed in an accident while digging a railway tunnel. This is the cost of building the new Australia and many lives will be lost in this magnificent land in the name of progress. Yes, this Australian impressionism can get very sentimental.
In the last room of this fairly modest show containing 41 works you will find the real treat. John Peter Russell was born in Sydney and thanks to a very generous inheritance from his father he could for many decades live comfortably in Europe without selling many paintings. He attended Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he befriended Tom Roberts, and continued his studies in Paris, where he came into contact with Rodin, Monet, van Gogh and many other now famous colleagues. The slightly older Dutchman encouraged Russell to be adventurous with colours and gave him more self-confidence. The portrait that Russell painted of Vincent in 1886 is apparently (and according to his contemporaries) the best likeness of van Gogh, more accurate than any of Vincent’s selfportraits. Vincent wrote to his brother that he was very fond of Russell’s painting. This painting can be seen at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. They have also done more for Russell’s reputation than any Australian museum. Until van Gogh’s death in 1890 Russell remained in contact by mail. Russell had some years earlier moved to the island Belle-Ile, off the coast of Brittany, where the weather can get pretty wild. He married his Italian mistress Marianna and they had 11 children. Not only did she model for him, she also sat for a number of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures.
Russell dares to play with colours and reality like no other artist back home. In his breakthrough work A clearing in the Forest (see the featured image) the palette seems to have been chosen almost arbitrarily, it is so out there. The shadow falling onto the grass is turquoise and the sky has also taken on an alien hue that should make you worry. But in the context of the composition it seems spirited and natural.
In Aiguille de Coton, painted on the island Belle-Ile, we see the needle rock from above and the horizon is just a slither. The outcrops seem to come alive with downwards spiraling double-quick brushstrokes, their glow powered by electric blue, purple and violet. The sea zig-a-zigzags and swerves like giant serpents away from the rocks. The influence of Claude Monet, who came to visit and painted the same coastal motifs, is obvious. Russell in his turn tutored the young Matisse who visited the island thrice in the second half of the 1890s.
Russell’s art developed and matured while moving towards post-impressionism. In the painting Rough sea, Belle-Ile (1900) he practically goes overboard in his eagerness to pay tribute to J.M.W. Turner. This is fearless, immediate and improvisatory painting that borders on the abstract expressionistic. No Australian attempted anything as daring and wild as this back home.
In 1905 he submitted Cruach en Mahr, Matin, Belle-Ile-en Mer to the Paris Salon d’Automne. His work was barely noticed by the critics, because the “wild beasts” Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck caused so much upheaval with their “orgy of tones”. This was the occasion when a critic coined the derogatory term ‘Fauvist’ for the artists mentioned.
John Peter Russell never made it into the major impressionist or fauvist league. The worst thing is that he was forgotten by his fellow Australians. His beloved wife died in 1908 and Russell just lost his mojo, according to all accounts. He gave up oils and instead started painting luminous, but mostly decorative watercolours. He returned to Australia in the 1920s but showed no interest in the local art scene and by the time of his death in 1930 he was forgotten. When he was rediscovered some 50 years ago it was initially because of his friendships with much more significant French artists. And yet he still wasn’t considered Australian enough because he hadn’t contributed to the image that the Australians wished to forge of themselves.
Luckily John Peter Russell is finally being recognised by some experts and curators back home for what he was: the bravest and most talented Australian artist of the lot. And the only real Australian impressionist. Go see if you love Australia!