Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.
It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).
Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.
Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.
Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (conductor), Peter Sellars (director)
Barbican Hall, 23rd May 2019
Much taken with our last exposure to Peter Sellars distinctive way with dramatising the choral after the OAE St John Passion at the Festival Hall last month, BUD and I set off, fuelled as usual by an excellent carb repast from Bad Egg, to hear and see this version of Lasso’s masterpiece on the Barbican stage.
Now this was an altogether different experience from the Bach. (unfortunately I missed Mr Sellars take on Stravinsky with the Philharmonia and Salonen). Orlande de Lassus (or Roland de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus, Orlande de Lattre or Roland de Lattre, take your pick), was a big noise in late Renaissance polyphony, alongside Palestrina and Victoria, who left his native Flanders at the tender age of twelve to ply his singing and composition trade in Mantua, Sicily, Milan, Naples, Rome, then to France and England, back to Antwerp, on to Munich and the Bavarian Court, where he remained until his death in 1594, albeit with plenty more business trips to Italy. Freedom of movement see, at a time when one bit of Europe was economically and culturally much like another. It works to everyone’s advantage despite what the swivel-eyed Brexit nutters tell you.
In total Lasso wrote over 2,000 vocal works including 60 (mostly parody) masses, passions, psalm settings, 530 motets, 175 Italian madrigals, 150 French chansons and 90 German lieder. No instrumental music remains; though it seems unlikely that a composer this busy and this much in demand would not have turned his hand to non-vocal works. He was just as much at home in bawdy, secular comedy as he was in strictly orthodox liturgy and certainly pushed the limits of polyphony with exotic chromaticism and highly wrought word painting. There he is above. Makes me wonder if it is time for a revival of the gentleman’s ruff to better show off our beards.
His most famous work is this, the work on show at this performance, a penitential cycle of 20 “spiritual madrigals” and a concluding Latin motet, the Lagrime di San Pietro, (The Tears of St Peter), his final work before he died in 1594. It is scored for 7 voices and is divided equally into three sections, (reflecting St Peter’s claim to fame, the thrice-fold denial of Christ, the holy trinity, the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and no doubt much other Christian numerological hokum). In this performance the LA Master Chorale was comprised of 21 voices, 6 “canto” for which read soprano, 6 alto, 6 tenor and 3 bass. The settings use 7 of the 8 “church modes”, the system of pitch organisation on which chant was built, as well as for the final motet the tonus perigrinus, outside of the system to symbolise imperfection, and come from the poems of Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568). It is through composed with no repetition and Lasso uses all of the skills he had developed in his previous works to create the maximum of emotional, (as well as all this symbolic), impact.
You don’t need to know anything about the arcane history of the secular madrigal, nor Renaissance polyphony more generally, nor all this structural mumbo-jumbo, to be moved by the piece. And it is pretty easy to see why Lasso alighted on these texts. And why the LA Master Chorale, (widely recognised, not least in their own blurb, though I have no reason to doubt it after this performance, as the US’s premier vocal ensemble), under conductor Grant Gershon, should have worked so hard to perfect the performance. Nor why Peter Sellars should have alighted on this for his first stage at directing a non-instrumental piece.
It is, thanks to Tansillo’s faintly (actually not so faintly) melodramatic Italian poetry and Lasso’s extraordinary invention, an inherently dramatic piece, even if it isn’t strictly chronological. Bows, arrows, swords, spears, stabs, wounds, tears, pain, sorrow, shame. You get the picture and that’s just the first couple of madrigals. There’s a couple of lighter moments but it’s mostly the usual Christian S&M guilt trip. So much suffering. Mind you I suppose Lasso was staring death in the face so I can see why he didn’t go with “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”.
Mr Sellars wheels out his usual ritual tropes, arm waving and hand gestures which tend towards the literal, lying on the floor, the whole ensemble assembling tableau style into an alarmed or alarming crowd, various combinations of writhing twos and threes. Remove the music and you could be watching a physical theatre acting class or maybe attending an anger management retreat. Costumes from Daniella Domingue Sumi are gym casual monochrome. The lighting design of Jim F Ingalls is similarly unsubtle. There is a faint whiff of 1970s California.
But you know what, it all works. I can see why some of the pukka reviewers were a bit sniffy about the whole affair but for BUD and I, who like a bit of visual stimulus, it hit the spot. Maybe not “visualising the polyphony” as Mr Sellars claims, but certainly telling a non-linear story. What was most extraordinary however was the sound of the LA Master Chorale. Remember they had to commit both score and choreography to memory. Despite all the on stage shuffling their tone throughout was so precise and so smooth, even in the most complex counterpoint, the shifting dissonances and the meanders through to resolutions. Far less austere than when performed by a European ensemble in penguin suits and evening dresses that’s for sure and better for it.
I was idly through some lists of the greatest choral works ever written which, variously, cover the whole gamut from the very earliest organum from Notre Dame to bang up to date contemporary. But surprisingly few of these lists mention this, Lasso’s finest hour, (well 80 minutes ). Which can’t be right.
Here’s my tuppence worth. Usual rules. No particular order. Well sort of chronological. Only one work per composer. Which is tough on old Bach in particular. All blokes. Sorry.
Perotin – Viderunt omnes
Josquin des Prez – Missa Pange Lingua
John Taverner – Mass “The Western Wynde”
Giovanni Pierluigi dePalestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr (harpsichord, director), Lucie Horsch (recorder)
Milton Court Concert Hall, 24th February 2019
Antonio Vivaldi – Flautino Concerto in C major, RV443 (arr in G major for recorder)
JS Bach – Harpsichord Concerto No 3 in D major BW V1054
Giuseppe Sammartini – Recorder Concerto in F major
JS Bach – ‘Erbame Dich’ from St Matthew Passion
JS Bach – Oboe Concerto in D minor BWV1059r (arr for recorder)
JS Bach – Concerto for Harpsichord No 7 in G minor BWV1058
Antonio Vivaldi – Flute Concerto in G minor ‘La Notte’, Op 10 No 2 RV104
Lucie Horsch is just 19 years old. That’s her above, at 14 when she appeared in the Eurovision Young Musician festival. Her first recording of Vivaldi came when she was just 16. Now she may not be a household name outside the world of Baroque music and probably never will be given her choice of instrument, the recorder, but inside that select, (though I think widening), club she is a sensation. The recorder is a tricky instrument to play and to hear. Not in the lads of Ms Horsch. She is simply an astonishing musician. I haven’t heard anyone come close to the articulation, beauty, control and variation of sound that she achieves on these instruments. And her virtuosity in some of the faster passages on show in this concert was dazzling. Richard Egarr and the rest of the AAM, unsurprisingly, looked as pleased as punch throughout.
Now to be fair young Lucie started off with a few advantages. Mum and Dad are professional cellists, Dad with the Concetgebouw. Though perhaps this makes it more surprising that she stuck with the recorder, the “beginners” instrument. Mind you this beginner never even managed to master the basics, his music teacher quietly suggesting to his mother at age 10 that young Michael might want to stick to his books.
Anyway lucky for us that Ms Horsch decided she liked the sound and the immediacy of the connection between this “simple” instrument and performer. Of course the recorder doesn’t have too much in the way of “standard” repertoire beyond the Baroque and as the “pastoral”cue in early operas. There are a few Classical offerings and even one or two later works but generally there is none of the interminable showy sh*te from the Romantic and early C20. The technology of woodwind moved up a gear in the second half of the C18, the concerto became an ever blowsier conversation between soloist and orchestra and the textures of chamber music became more complex.
Go back in time though and it is time for the recorder to shine. Early and Renaissance music is brimful of the little fella, whether in instrumental ensembles or consorts, in dance music or as an accompaniment to voices. It is the Baroque though that shows the recorder at its most virtuosistic with the Vivaldi and Sammartini pieces on show here somewhere near the top of the pile. And this is not just one recorder. Ms Horsch is equally adept across the size range, sopranino, descant, treble and tenor. Mid C20, and some contemporary, composers have explored the unique sound of the instrument, technology has expanded the range and Baroque and earlier specialists are discovering new scores and arranging existing works, as here, for the humble recorder.
Vivaldi’s RV443 is just such an arrangement having been written for a flautino, though frankly it matters little since this is effectively the C17 version of the sopranino recorder. In this performance though the key was shifted down to the less stratospheric G major from the original C minor. This is the Baroque party piece for recorder (and piccolo) players with its lilting Largo monologue framed by showpiece brisk Allegro movements with dazzling solo parts. In the first movement the soloists chimes in with and unbroken string of 84 eighth notes! And that’s just for starters. The final movement calls for a seemingly never-ending run of triplets. Even by AV’s standards this is intoxicating stuff. He wrote a couple more concertos for flautino, RVs 444 and 445 as well as two specifically for recorder RVs 441 and 442. This though is the Daddy and there are literally billions of recordings HIP and not so HIP. I doubt I will hear a better live version that Lucie Horsch’s however. I have no idea where she gets the puff from.
The other Vivaldi concerto in this programme is also a staple. RV439 is one of the six flute concertos which make up ABV’s published Opus 10 from 1728/29. It was printed by the Roger firm in Amsterdam, which first brought out the Op 3 L’Estro Armonico, though a second version was also printed in Venice for recorder for which it will have likely been originally scored with a chamber accompaniment, 2 violins, bassoon and continuo, R10 4. This is explains its suite-like structure with six, blink and you’ll miss ’em, movements. La Notte is the night in Italian, hence the second title of the rapid second movement Fantasmi or ghosts, (though they seem quite playful spirits), and the slow fifth movement il Sonno, sleep. The first movement is a staccato affair, a sort of nodding off, the central Presto has a touch of the REM (dreams not band) flickers about it, and the finale turns very perky, showing off Ms Horsch’s skills to great effect.
Giuseppe Francesco Gaspare Melchiorre Baldassare Sammartini (1695-1750) was renowned in his lifetime as a wind performer, (musical not flatulist, a performance style I for one would like to see revived), notably the oboe, but I can also testify to the invention of his recorder concentre compositions of which this is by far the most well known. There may not be too much to distinguish the accompaniment but as a workout for the recorder player this is up there with Vivaldi, though with more variation and less reliance on repeated arpeggios and the like. Now we must be careful not to confuse Giuseppe with younger brother Giovanni, also a composer and oboist, who was one of the precursors of the galant Classical style, taught Gluck, counted JC Bach as a fan and influenced Haydn through his concert symphonies which are definitely worth a listen, (if only as musical history lessons). It helped the brothers that Dad was a professional French oboist.
Giuseppe wasn’t quite as forward thinking as little bro’ but there is still plenty to admire in his late Baroque/proto-Classical grooves. Outside of the concertos there is plenty of action for the recorder in his sonatas and trios. He kicked off his career in Milan but it took off when he moved to London and the court of Freddy Prince of Wales. Handel no less considered him the greatest oboist ever. (Note to the gammons. You see that those bloody foreigners have been coming over here and stealing your jobs for centuries. Musicians, composers, even the bloody royal family. Worth thinking about, should you ever choose to think, when you are humming the Hallelujah chorus. Actually scrub that. Most gammons in my limited experience couldn’t give a flying f*ck about classical music. Nor culture in general. One reason why they are always so bloody angry about everything especially the very Brexit they craved).
Or maybe they are angry because the Germans got all the best tunes. Well specifically Beethoven and JS Bach. Here were a few of them. Ms Horsch took a well deserved breather when Richard Egarr took centre stage, (actually this is when his harpsichord was moved side on), for a couple of JSB’s harpsichord concertos. In 1713 whilst working at the Weimar court you Bach was assigned the tasking of making keyboard transcriptions of some Italian concertos including 10 by Vivaldi himself. This was the wellspring from which much of his Italianate instrumental music emerged with the harpsichord concertos first performed in the 1730s at his weekly jams in Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum. These two started life as violin concertos and the original scores have no tempo markings. So nothing to stand in the way of Mr Egarr cranking up the rhythm and fiddling with his stops and couplers (don’t ask).
You probably know “Erbame dich” – Have mercy – from the St Matthew Passion with its violin lament supporting the singer’s teary plea to God. St Peter breaking down after his triple denial of Jesus. Here the instrumental version. led by Bojan Cicic’s expressive violin, was effective but lost a little bit by being taken out of context and “de-lyricised”.
So that just leaves JSB’s BWV 1059r. Now pay attention. This is the final one of the eight harpsichord concertos, a companion to nos 3 and 7 above. Except that this only survived as fragments so had to be reconstructed to create an oboe concerto. Utilising the two instrumental outer movements of BWV 35, the cantata Geist und Seele vird verwirret which have long passages of keyboard writing, which probably came from a concerto which might have been written for oboe. And some bars repurposed from another cantata BWV 156. Oh and the slow central movement of the three, (the first has no tempo guidance), is pilfered from an oboe concerto by Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello (also worth a listen) which JSB came across in his Weimar days, see above.
And here the oboe part was arranged for recorder. Confused? I’m not surprised. That’s what happens when composers have to churn out new works for money. Which JSB certainly had to do. No wonder he reused his back catalogue. And if we don’t have the original scores there is more room for interpretation and scholarship. Most of the harpsichord concertos started off somewhere else.
It matters here because this concerto, however arrived at, has some mighty fine riffs even by JSB’s standards. I didn’t know it at all. I liked it a lot, Which probably won’t come as a great surprise to you. As did my new companion, MSBDOB, newly returned to London and keen to hear some tip top playing. This was a fortuitous start methinks.
The beauty of the recorder sound is the connection between player and sound. There isn’t much between their breath and what hits your ears. This vulnerability and innocence, if you will, is also what makes it a sometimes awkward listen. In the best hands though, including these, it is a sublime experience. Lucie Horsch will surely get better with experience and when whatever tosser of a record company executive can no longer surround her with all that sexist, gamine, prodigy sh*te that the classical music world is riddled with.
Aurora Principal Players, Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sally Pryce (harp), John Reid (piano), Nico Muhly
Kings Place, 23rd November 2018
Satie – Gymnopédie No. 3
Thomas Adès – The Lover in Winter
Nico Muhly – Clear Music
Debussy – Danse Sacrée et Danse profane
Brahms – Gestillte Sehnsucht
Nico Muhly – Old Bones (world premiere of ensemble version),
Nico Muhly – Motion
Thomas Adès – The Four Quarters
Dowland (arr. Nico Muhly) – Time Stands Still (world premiere)
A full house, moreorless, for a diverse programme of chamber music and songs anchored by (relatively) well known works from Thomas Ades and Nico Muhly, whose effervescent presence also graced the evening as performer, conductor and even compere. Oh and did I mention he “curated” the event. The evening was part of the year long Kings Place Time Unwrapped season now coming to an end with the pieces ostensibly linked through their meditation on, er, time and music from an earlier age.
The musical backbone was provided by the graceful pianism of John Reid, with strings and clarinet from Aurora principal players, Alex Wood, Jamie Campbell, Helene Clement, Sebastian van Kuijk and Peter Sparks. Against this a number of the pieces showcased the unusual harmonies of the harp (Sally Price whose playing was certainly not backward in coming forward), celesta (John Reid again) and the ethereal countertenor of Iestyn Davies
There was a world premiere of a new chamber version of Old Bones, a song cycle about the rediscovery of the body of Richard III in a Leicester car park in 2012, (an event which also formed the opening sequence for the Almeida Theatre production of Shakespeare’s play with Ralph Fiennes in the lead). The arioso of Iestyn Davies was originally accompanied only by a lute, which can be discerned in the fragments of poems about Sir Rhys ap Tomas, the alleged killer of the king, which follows the news commentary intro. The momentum builds into a processional as the text, from Philippa Langley of the Richard III society, eloquently connects the infamous monarch to today.
Muhly’s Motion for string quartet, clarinet and piano takes as its starting point a verse anthem from Orlando Gibbons, See, see the Word, and applies his trademark post-minimalism energy to Gibbons’s complex vocal counterpoint .
In contrast Clear Music is based on just a fragment of a John Taverner motet. Mater Christi Sanctissima, and is scored for cello. harp and celesta with the latter gifted an inventive solo part for an instrument normally reserved for adding orchestral colour. The texture doesn’t change and the piece is locked in a pretty high register, even in the cello line, but, as usual with Mr Muhly, he creates an engaging piece that doesn’t come anywhere outstaying its welcome.
Thomas Ades’s Four Quarters from 2010 is a string quartet which takes as it subject the ebb and flow of time, in common with the TS Eliot Four Quartets, poems from which it surely drew inspiration. As usual Ades serves up all sorts of striking sounds, a wide dynamic range rhythmic complexity, beginning with the eerie babble of Nightfall, followed by Morning Dew evoked through pizzicato, the steady pulses of Days and the astounding harmonic complexity of the last movement, the Twenty Fifth Hour, which is measured in an unusual 25/16 time.
The evening’s outstanding piece of me though was The Lover in Winter, written when Ades was only 18. It is made up of 4 very short songs, in Latin drawn from an anonymous text. It has a bleak, brittle, chilly feel, just chiming piano chords and Iestyn Davies’s exquisite countertenor, though the last song fails up the passion. Melismatic with candid word-painting.
Mr Davies was also superb in Time Stands Still, a Dowland song which Nico Muhly has re-arranged. The melody is defined by the singer, based on an anonymous love song, with the whole band coming together to provide complementary but recognisably contemporary harmonies.
The programme kicked off with John Reid in Satie’s ubiquitous piano waltz Gymnopedie 3, blink and you’d miss it, as well as a helping of (to me) an unremarkable Brahms song and Debussy’s showcase for the harp with its “medieval” first part and bouncy Spanish inflected second “profane” part. At the end we were treated to Messrs Muhly and Davies presenting an aria from Marnie, which has just finished at the Met, and which I bloody loved at the ENO.
For someone who I gather lives in NYC, Nico Muhly seems to spend a lot of time in London. No surprise that to the Tourist. Indeed he will be back at Kings Place on New Years Eve with the Aurora Orchestra. I can think of worst places to be. Mind you I do have a better offer for once.
If you scroll down you will see a so-called review of the play Switzerland. Though focussed on the author Patricia Highsmith it referenced her most famous character Tom Ripley. One of the most beguiling bad boys in fictional history. However he was a novice compared to Kit Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Assuming you accept that Tamburlaine is, by and large, fictional, even if he is supposed to be based on Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty in the C14 and ruler of vast swathes of Eurasia and defeater of the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans and the Sultan of Delhi. Self-proclaimed inheritor of the legacy of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire two centuries earlier, self-titled “Sword of Islam” and possibly responsible for the death of 5% of the world’s population. His descendants went on to rule much of Central Asia and found the Mughal Dynasty in India.
Now Marlowe being Marlowe, (I’ve banged on before about just how transgressive he was), and, I am guessing, not armed with much in the way of solid facts, it will have been the dramatic potential in Timur’s rise from obscurity (not true) to ruler of a huge chunk of the known world – now southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and even easternmost China – that drew him in. Remember the “real” Tamburlaine came knocking on the door of western Europe, in the process nullifying the Ottoman “threat”, he destroyed the renegade Church of the East and he had diplomatic dealings with France and notably Castile. So he was an ambivalent figure in Renaissance Europe by the time Marlowe came to write his doorstopper in 1587/88, aged just 23. But he was also exotic and bloodthirsty, a combination guaranteed to pull the punters in to the Southwark playhouses.
And it certainly succeeded. Along with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine revolutionised the English stage and laid down the building blocks for the great tragedies of the Jacobean period including those of you know who (clue WS). Thrilling plots, complex themes and richly imagined, evocative blank verse. All of which is still apparent today as this production made abundantly clear. Now that isn’t to say that Marlowe didn’t go on a bit, the original is in two parts and you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours if you watched them back to back. And the language, in keeping with the action, is not what you would call understated. But when cut back for modern tastes, and toned down, it is impossible not to be swept along by the epic events, the OTT posturing and the ostentatious language.
Michael Boyd’s production doesn’t attempt to dilute the drama. Tom Piper’s set may be minimalist in design and intent but when required, cages, platforms, pits, it really delivers. The costumes may be standard issue generic every-age militaria albeit with a twist, a bit of sheepskin here, some leather gloves there, white flowing robes for the whiff of the Asiatic/Oriental, but they are, to use the dreadful contemporary idiom, on point. The themes emerge in an entirely extemporary way: Marlowe the atheist’s dismissal of all religions, his celebration of, and warning against, the rise of the “individual” against the levers of power, the rise of the populist strongman, the creation of Empire, the threats and opportunities wrought by globalisation and exchange.
For this, the episodic tale of Tamburlaine’s violent journey, is, at its heart, a hyped-up history play. There are some remarkable theatrical devices on show from the masterly Mr Boyd and the creative team to bring this to life (and death). The painting on of stage blood, with bucket and brush, for each victim, first by young Callapine (here Dev Prabhakar), the murdered son of the Turkish emperor Bajazeth (a supreme Sagar I M Arya), and then an older version played by Rosy McEwen after her previous character Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s beloved wife. had died. The “ghosts” live on then, on the fringes of the action, underlining the price that is paid for Tamburlaine’s power grab. Callapine comes back to seek, but not take, revenge. Whilst the cage in which Tamburlaine imprisons Bajazeth, and on which he and then his wife Zanina (Debbie Korley) (spoiler alert), dash out their brains, is integral to the play it still presents a startling image when it first appears, as does Tamburlaine’s chariot, pulled by his enslaved enemies.
The platform at the back of the stage, and that which descends from the ceiling, are barely more than the maintenance men might employ at your office, but, when some soon to be vanquished unfortunate uses it to lord it over Tamburlaine and his generals, you are struck by the simplicity of the symbolism. A plastic curtain lends the air of an abattoir, undeniably apposite. Even something as innocuous as Bajazeth pronouncing Tamburlaine’s name in a Somerset, (it must be so as we Devonians are sophisticates), accent, mocking the Scythian shepherd’s upbringing, has resonance. This, BTW, is Marlowe’s chosen origin story for Tamburlaine, a long way from reality in fact and time.
All these touches (have I mentioned the tongue?) are reinforced by a muscular score from composer James Jones and complimentary sound and lighting from Claire Windsor and Colin Grenfell (who bathes the Swan thrust stage in a golden glow, gold being the dominant tone of the text). Much was made of Evelyn Glennie’s percussive score for Troilus and Cressida (which I saw through RSC live), which, like Gregory Doran’s production overall, was only a qualified success. Here the sound and score was spot on.
The production also succeeds because the cast are fully committed. Jude Owusu, in his first major role, belts it out of the park, heads out, picks the ball up, and belts it out again. He is so, so good. And he does it without succumbing to shouty histrionics: he is just well hard from the moment we first meet him. Hard to believe this was the same man who played Charles Darnay in the execrable Tale of Two Cities at Regents Park (though he was the best thing in it). I was much taken with the way David Rubin and Riad Richie painstakingly built out the characters of Techelles and Usumcasane, Tamburlaine’s two lifelong sidekicks. Rosy McEwen was an ethereal Zenocrate, the daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, who Tamburlaine abducts, but with whom she eventually falls in love.
Mark Hadfield, as he usually does, stood out as the Soldan, as Mycetes, the King of Persia, the first to underestimate Tamburlaine’s military skill, and as Almeda, Callapine’s keeper. His comic timing, for there is comedy amongst the carnage, is superb. Who else? David Sturzaker, who amazingly played Cosroe, Mycetes’s treacherous brother, the King of Fez, then in part 2, Sigismund, King of Hungary and finally the Governor of Babylon (whose inhabitants are all drowned), James Tucker similarly takes on the roles of Meander, Mycetes’s adviser (channeling his inner accountant), the Governor of Damascus, who doesn’t have much a plan to assuage Tamburlaine’s wrath, the Lord of Bohemia, and Perdicas, a wheedling lawyer. Raj Bajaj, notably as Tamburlaine’s insufficiently macho son Calyphas, Salman Akhtar, Ralph Davis, James Clyde, Ross Green, Zainab Hasan, Debbie Korley and Vivienne Smith also take on multiple roles. Edmund Wiseman, who is excellent as Theridamas, does not, only because he, wisely it turns out, defects to Tamburlaine right at the start and sticks with him.
There is an excellent programme note from voice and text coach Alison Bomber describing how she encouraged the actors to “connect voice, body and imagination” to bring Marlowe’s text to contemporary life, to bring light and shade, to vary the rhythm of the knotty language, so that the verse feels like speech to us. In this she and the cast succeeded admirably. As you can tell a lot happens even in the cut-down version of Tamburlaine. He and his mates get about a bit and come across, and invariably kill, a lot of people, as you have probably surmised from the above. A quick speed-read of a synopsis, as always for Renaissance plays, never does any harm, but I have to say, even with all the multiple casting and olde-worlde talking, this really is a breeze to follow.
I get that Marlowe, and for different reasons, Jonson, are destined always to lurk in Shakespeare’s shadow, but with a production as good as this it leaves me wanting more. And wishing the poor chap, Marlowe, that is, had stayed away from Deptford that night.
11th November was turning into a very busy day for the Tourist. Fresh from the heady Edward Burne-Jones phantasmagoria at Tate Britain and a proper Sunday lunch, it was off to the National, now solo, for these Old Masters, before rounding off at the Barbican for a bit of choral pleasure (I realise that sounds a little dubious).
Anyway this double header was everything the Burne-Jones wasn’t. Indisputably, vibrantly, thrillingly, alive. Now I know that endless bible extracts, with Jesus suffering and the Virgin Mary looking beatific might not strike you as the stuff of reality, any more than the silly romantic legends that make up the pre-Raphaelite world, but trust me they are. The religious settings, like the music of the time, were just the templates to tell more human stories as well as create work of astonishing beauty. If the Church is the only patron, or rather religious images are what wealthy patrons require, then that is what artists will provide. Can’t buck the market. For me this very restriction on subject is what creates the conditions for supreme innovation.
And in this exhibition we get the ultimate BOGOF. In 1453 Andrea Mantegna, already an established painter, trots in to Padua to marry Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of the venerable Jacopo, to become the brother in law of Gentile, and, our subject here, Giovanni. Giovanni, a relative novice, picks up on Andrea’s compositional experimentation and fascination with antiquity, and, in time, for me at least, overtakes him. Mantegna in turn harnesses Bellini’s facility with landscape to produce his greatest works when he moves in 1460 to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Bellini stays in Venice, but even apart they tread similar paths, though with different results. Mantegna’s precise, flinty, sculptural, sharper, masculine, intellectual work contrasts with Giovanni Bellini’s lighter, softer, airier, more lyrical, enigmatic and emotional output. Same subjects and stories. Radically different ways of seeing and showing them
Guess which is which in the The Presentation of Christ in the Temple above? 20 years separate top from bottom. I’ll leave it to you.
This is not the only direct comparison in this superb exhibition. It would be fascinating just to play that game over a few paintings but here they just keep on coming across the six rooms. Some may be familiar to you (from the National Gallery, British Museum or Berlin museums from which they are drawn) but it doesn’t diminish the wow factor. Saint Sebastian, The Agony in the Garden, Crucifixions. The curators walk you through how and why the brothers-in-law created their own interpretations, which, for the interested layman is insightful, though you have to make sure, post comparison, you take the time to examine each painting individually. However there are enough individual unique subjects to offset the comparisons and avoid being overwhelmed by the scholarship.
The exhibition opens with a book of drawings. Pretty much all that remains of Daddy Jacopo’s art. We have to assume, given the importance of family and patronage in making and selling art in the C15, that Jacopo will have had a big hand in the direction of the business. He certainly kick-started the expanded artistic ideas that would emerge from the extended family. Alas this is the last we hear of him. Still the eye is probably already alighting on the two Presentations and your first starter for ten.
What did Mantegna bequeath the next generation of the Italian Renaissance? The rise of the classical theme. The big picture. Literally in his Triumphs (of Caesar) of which just three are shown here (check them out in Hampton Court Palace when they return). Maybe the birth of the individual in art. That he was a master of perspective following in the footsteps of Masaccio and Uccello, and, in a different way, Donatello, is made pretty clear here.
And Bellini? Colour, back-stories, people you can identify with, even if they were in deserts or on crosses or generally undergoing some sort of taxing trial or trauma. Maybe Mantegna was the more obvious influencer in his day, but Bellini, “the best Venetian painter of the C15”, may have endured for longer. I reckon I can see in him a thread through to Courbet and, eventually, the modernists.
Mantegna imposes his narrative from without. Bellini’s flows from within. Pretentious w*ank. Maybe but fast forward to the end and compare Bellini’s OMG portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan, the cerulean background, the gold and silver impasto cloak, the confident, steely gaze. Perfectly lit. A very formal, contemporary portrait, that also looks timeless. In oil. Which Mantegna never used. Look then at his Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, painted in his 70’s. A complex, symbolic, Classical allegory. Intellectual to a tee. Painted for private contemplation not public edification.
Warm flesh. Cold marble. Head or heart. Fortunately in this exhibition you don’t have to choose.
Turns out Burne-Jones isn’t quite as awful as I had previously thought. Don’t get me wrong. All that hippy-dippy, fey, dreamy. dusky-toned, doe-eyed, ginger-permed, long-bodied, nymph-y, mannequin-esque, briar-strewn, Arthurian, industrialisation-denying, fake-Medieval, cod-Renaissance daubing is still guaranteed to do my head in. But I will concede that he could draw. Really draw and there are details, even in the worst of the fairy-tale illustrations, that deserve a properly good look.
I can’t change my immediate reaction to art but I can try to explain it to myself. And, if I am honest, with Burne-Jones, and the rest of the original pre-Raphaelites, and their Arts and Crafts and Neo-Gothic mates, it is in part the context in which they produced their art (and design) that winds me up as much as the work itself. As with this exhibition there are elements that I can concede give me pleasure, the colour (when vamped up as in the stained glass for example), the line and form (notably in drawings, textile, church interiors, tapestries) and the belief in the power of the aesthetic. They started off with the right inspiration, the jewels, (and working practices), of the early Flemish and Italian Renaissance, (the clue is in the pre- moniker) and their vaguely humanist intention to eschew purely religious imagery is commendable. But that doesn’t excuse the lifelessness of their subjects and the utter irrelevance of their mythologies. At the end of the day Burne-Jones ended up churning out knights in armour and pretty ladies for the great and good in Victorian society; the fate of many an artist through history for sure, but these chaps ended up as the reactionaries they purported to abjure.
The kindness of strangers, well friends in this case, may also have had an effect on my viewing. We were a big party, with the SO, who inclines to the hyper-real in art, (though understanding that paint on canvas in two dimensions could hardly be more artificial), KCK who is an admirer, BUD the ever-curious and the Blonde Bombshells, who know their artistic onions. Me banging on about the preposterous narratives in the paintings, creepy friends and family who are persistently featured (after raiding the dressing-up box), the cut and pastes from Renaissance masters, the pointlessness, introversion and body fascism of this obsession with “beauty”, the upper-class, biscuit tin sentimentality, the failure to move on or develop his art, the dodgy androgynous eroticism, the all-round sameyness, would clearly have been border-line patronising.
Particularly since I could be found avidly staring at many of the works looking for all the world like some-one who might be enjoying them. And as I discovered that Burne-Jones was not the la-di-dah toff I had assumed but working-class and self-taught. And Jimmy Page has pitched in with his Holy Grail tapestries. Which seems apposite. Led Zep were often musically at their very best (Immigrant Song, Stairway, Achilles Last Stand, No Quarter) just as lyrically they were off with the fairies.
What was most interesting then? The early drawings, Going to the Battle, Buondelmonte’s Wedding, the stained glass from the V&A (if you ignore the pretty faces), the various pencil studies, the bodycolour nymphs enhanced with metallic paints, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, The Morning of the Resurrection, Love and the Pilgrim, the Lucien Freud-like portraits, details of the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty and Perseus/Medusa series, The Fall of Lucifer and certain of the tapestries, like the Adoration above. Though I can’t say I “liked” these works, admired might better cover it. And much of the rest still annoyed me.
So Burne-Jones. Sublime or ridiculous? You decide. For me he was both. Simultaneously. Conservative Victorian or symbolist visionary? Again a bit of both. Style over substance? Certainly but that is exactly what he and his peers set out to deliver I’ll warrant. I can see why people like Burne-Jones’s art. I just can’t quite see exactly what it is they like. It is, at least in the big, showy, famous works, very, very detached from any reality, yet seems to be prized by many for its verisimilitude. I have a feeling you could use Burne-Jones as the ultimate artist in one of those sociology attitude tests. All that useless beauty as Elvis (C not P) once said.
Me? I would still rather spend a couple of hours with one van Eyck. More beauty. More skill. More reality. More meaning. More life.
I can’t fault the curation though, Surprisingly this is the first full-scale survey in London of EBJ since 1975, amazing given his popularity, and the Tate has built handsomely on its own catalogue to give us the whole shebang. Downstairs in the tomb-like Manton St galleries. Which doesn’t suit every artist but sets EBJ’s sleepy melancholy and false colour palette off to a tee. There is a kind of cumulative surrender in seeing so many, large-scale, paintings hung together.
And can anyone tell me who the bloke with the chiseled features and scary eyes is who keeps cropping up?