Tuscan postcards … 3. Montalcino

Montalcino had been under the influence of Siena since the Battle of Montaperti in 1260 and as such became involved in the conflicts between Siena and Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. After Siena had been conquered by Florence under the rule of the Medici in 1555, rebels from Siena settled in Montalcino where they held out for almost four years before eventually falling to the Florentines.

Today Montalcino is known for its famous Brunello wine made from the sangiovese grosso grapes grown within the commune. Brunello, which must be aged for at least five years before release, was the first wine to be awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status.


Fra Angelico and more in Cortona

Although Cortona has an Etruscan background it eventually became a Roman colony before becoming an independent city-state in the thirteenth century. However, after being conquered by Ladislaus, King of Naples, in 1409, Cortona was sold to the Medici in 1411.

More recently its picturesque, steep narrow streets have provided the backdrop for the film ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, based on Frances Mayes’ book. However, I was here to see the collection of the town’s Diocesan Museum, especially a most beautiful ‘Annunciation’ by Fra Angelico.

The altarpiece was originally executed for the church of San Domenico in Cortona. Amongst the columns and arches of a loggia, the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, uttering the words “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee”, from the Gospel of Saint Luke. To the left of the loggia, above a delicately painted garden, can be seen a depiction of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise.

The predella depicts scenes from the Life of the Virgin, including a ‘Visitation’, which is said to include the first identifiable landscape in Italian art.

Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’ (1433 – 34)

The Museum’s collection includes a second Fra Angelico, ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’, known as the Cortona Triptych, also painted for the church of San Domenico in Cortona. Its predella depicts scenes from Saint Dominic’s life.

Fra Angelico ‘The Cortona Triptych’ (1436 – 37)

Other works include a ‘Madonna with Child Enthroned and Four Angels’ by Pietro Lorenzetti and a large ‘Crucifix’ by the same artist.

Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Madonna and Child Enthroned and Four Angels’ (c.1320)

Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Crucifix’ (1320s)

Luca Signorelli, best known for his frescoes of the ‘Last Judgment’ in Orvieto Cathedral, was born in Cortona and has his own room in the Museum.

Luca Signorelli ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ (1501 – 02)

Luca Signorelli ‘Communion of the Apostles’ (1512)

Surprisingly, amongst the collection of Renaissance masterpieces is a collection by the Italian Futurist, Gino Severini. However, Severini was born in Cortona in 1883, where his father was a junior court official. After meeting fellow artists Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla he was invited by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti to join the Futurist movement and was a co-signatory, with Balla, Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Luigi Russolo, of the ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Painters’ in February 1910.

The Diocesan Museum has an impressive collection of cartoons for Severini’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ mosaics.

Gino Severini cartoon for ‘Stations of the Cross’

Piero della Francesca in Arezzo

Arezzo also has Etruscan origins; indeed it is believed to have been one of the most important cities of the Etruscan League. Today it is the capital of Arezzo province and is one of Tuscany’s wealthiest cities, in part due to its production of expensive jewellery. It is also famous for Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco, the purpose of my visit.

Piero’s ‘Legend of the True Cross’ fresco cycle tells the story of how the cross was found near Jerusalem by the Empress Helena and was adopted by her son, the Emperor Constantine, as his battle emblem. The frescoes are believed to have been painted from around 1452 to 1466 and were commissioned by the Bacci family

The story begins with the death of Adam and the planting of a branch (or seeds) from the tree of life in his mouth. The tree that eventually grows will be made into the cross used for the crucifixion. The Queen of Sheba discovers the wood and tells Solomon that his rule over the Jews would eventually be destroyed by a man who would die on it. Servants of Solomon bury the wood in the hope that the prophesy would not come true. However, Helena tortures by starvation a Jew who knows of its whereabouts and so recovers it.

Before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine has a vision in which an angel tells him that the cross will lead him to victory, which, of course, it does. Another battle scene depicts the defeat of Chosroes, who had stolen the cross, by Heraclius, who then returns the cross to Jerusalem, thus completing its story.

The Queen of Sheba meets with Solomon

The Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes

The Exaltation of the Cross

‘Montmartre: fin de siècle’ in Albi

At the musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi for the exhibition “Montmartre: fin de siècle’. Nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, posters and other printed materials from the collection of David Weisman and Jacqueline Michel celebrating the avant-garde artists who lived and worked in the Montmartre area of Paris at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

The collection is particularly rich in the works of Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Suzanne Valadon and Théophile Steinlen, the latter much involved in producing graphics for the famous ‘Le Chat Noir’ nightclub, which form an important part of the exhibition.

Théophile Steinlen ‘Le Chat Noir’ (1896)

Théophile Steinlen Part of the frieze ‘Cats and Moons’ (c.1895)

Henri-Gabriel Ibels ‘Mensonges’ (1893)

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Charles Maurin ‘Prostituée en colère’ (c.1892 – 95)

Charles Maurin ‘Loïe Fuller (robe jaune)’ (1895)

Suzanne Valadon ‘Nu assis sur un Canapé’ (1916)

Suzanne Valadon ‘La Roue’ (1916)

Suzanne Valadon ‘Bol de fruits’ (1917)

Quartetto di Cremona in Paunat

At the ‘Musique en Sol’ festival in Paunat in the Dordogne to see the internationally-renowned Italian string quartet, Quartetto di Cremona. They played a diverse programme which began with two Italian compositions, Puccini’s short but beautiful ‘Crisentemi’ elegy followed by Verdi’s String Quartet. In the second half, Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 1 was followed by a wonderfully-played String Quartet no. 2, ‘Intimate Letters’, by Leoš Janáček. An encore from Bach’s Art of Fugue rounded off an extremely enjoyable evening.

Quartetto di Cremona

Puccini ‘ ‘Crisentemi’ movement for string quartet; Verdi ‘String Quartet in E minor’; Shostakovich ‘String Quartet no. 1 in C major’, opus 49; Janáček ‘String Quartet no. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’.

A Postcard from Marmande

Marmande, in the Lot et Garonne region of south-west France, was founded in 1182 by Richard the Lionheart, then Duke of Aquitaine and future King of England. For the next five centuries, the town experienced a turbulent history including the crusade against the Cathars, the Hundred Years War, plague and the Religious Wars. The church of Notre Dame de Marmande was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and the cloisters are now fronted by a formal garden with impressive parterres and topiary.

2021 Festival de Pâques, Aix-en-Provence

The Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival, founded in 2013, is establishing itself as one of the leading events of the international classical music programme. However, the Covid pandemic meant the cancellation of the whole of the 2020 edition. With the current on-going restrictions in France, the organisers led by Artistic Director, French violinist Renaud Capuçon, were determined that this would not happen in 2021. They therefore took the brave decision to stream the entire festival for free to ensure that not only would it go ahead but that it could be seen by as many people as possible.

One concert every day for the sixteen days of the festival, 27 March to 11 April, was streamed live from the Grand Théâtre de Provence and the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume in Aix. The world-class line-up included Canadian conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan, Les Siecles led by François-Xavier Roth, Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, pianists Maria João Pires, Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, as well as Renaud Capuçon.

The festival opened with a weekend of delightful chamber music, on Saturday we were treated to Beethoven’s Archduke and Ghost Trios, beautifully and impeccably played by Renaud Capuçon, violin, François-Frédéric Guy, piano and Edgard Moreau, cello. On Sunday it was the turn of Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta and French pianist Bertrand Chamayou. They have been playing together for more than fifteen years and this is evident from the amazing understanding that they have developed together. They performed a programme they have been playing on some of their current European tour dates, in fact I had already seen a recording of this same programme from Venice’s La Fenice. It began with Schumann’s ‘Fantasy Pieces for Cello and Piano’ opus 73, written in 1849, originally for Clarinet and piano. This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s ‘Sonata for Cello and Piano’ opus 65, originally written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. Chopin’s ‘Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor”, opus 65 completed the programme.

Sol Gabetta and Bertrand Chamayou

The first week also saw a wonderful performance by Japanese pianist Momo Kodama of Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus’, a piece she has performed many times and also recorded. She played with a beautiful touch, showing a complete mastery of the composition’s technical difficulties.

The following night’s concert was, for me, the highlight of the festival – a most sublime performance of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ from l’église de la Madeleine d’Aix-en-Provence. Ensemble Pygmalion playing period instruments under Raphaël Pichon were excellent and the vocal parts were beautifully sung, particularly by tenor Julian Prégardien as the Evangelist and baritone Stéphane Degout as Christ. Also impressive were soprano Sabine Devieilhe and alto Lucile Richardot, especially in the duet ‘So ist mein Jesus’.

The second week included concerts by some of my favourite performers: Les Siecles conducted by François-Xavier Roth, Barbara Hannigan and Martha Argerich. First came Les Siecles accompanied by Renaud Capuçon and Bertrand Chamayou in an all Camille Saint-Saêns programme. Included were a well-played ‘Piano Concerto no. 5’ and the effervescent ‘Africa’, but most enjoyable for me was an impressive performance of the well-known ‘Dance macabre’.

The concert advertised as ‘Barbara Hannigan and Friends’ was something quite different. One of the ‘friends’ was French composer and experimental musician David Chalmin, who was responsible for an unusual but interesting electronic treatment of Rameau’s ‘Tristes Apprêts’ from ‘Castor et Pollux’ as well as Ernest Chausson’s ‘Les Heures’. The concert also included more conventional performances of works by Paul Hindemith, Camille Saint-Saêns and Gabriel Fauré.

Barbara Hanningan

Pianists Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, who have known each other since childhood, played a wonderful concert of four-handed works. They began with Mozart’s C major sonata, K521, technically demanding but delightfully played. This was followed by Debussy’s ‘Épigraphes antiques’, originally written for the stage work ‘Les Chansons de Bilitis’, sounding quite oriental. Bizet’s ‘Jeux d’enfants’, a suite of twelve miniatures, made a delightful finale.

Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich

‘The Golden Twenties’ – Berliner Philharmoniker

After the end of the First World War, Germany saw enormous changes. The Weimar Republic, proclaimed after the flight of the Kaiser into exile, meant that the new Germany was a democracy, but not all Germans were happy with the new order. Many were unhappy with what they saw as the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, many others would have preferred a return to a more traditional order.  

The economic problems of the country increased after the invasion of the Ruhr by France and Belgium in 1923 in response to the lack of payment of reparations – but worse was to come. After the Wall Street crash in America in 1929, Germany was hit extremely hard and suffered from massive unemployment, abject poverty, housing shortages and rampant inflation that would eventually leave the German Mark virtually worthless.

Yet despite all this, Berlin became, for a decade at least, an exciting and fascinating centre of artistic creativity.  Described in the novels of Christopher Isherwood and seen in Bob Fosse’s 1971 film ‘Cabaret’, Berlin became a modernist metropolis and centre of the avant-garde. All this would, of course, eventually come to an end in 1933 with the rise of the National Socialists, but while it lasted Berlin became the ‘Babylon of the 20s’ – a utopian centre of creative freedom for all the thrill-seekers who flocked there.

Otto Dix ‘Metropolis’ central panel (1927 – 28)

Over two weeks of a Covid-hit February, Berliner Philharmoniker presented an online festival entitled ‘The Golden Twenties’ that celebrated the music of this fascinating period. With chief conductor Kirill Petrenko and guests Christian Thielemann, Marie Jacquot and Thomas Søndergård they performed works by Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Paul Hindemith, Franz Schreker and Richard Strauss.

The opening night, Saturday 13 February, saw performances by the Philharmoniker, under its leader Kirill Petrenko, of two very different works:  Kurt Weill’s first symphony, ‘Symphony in One Movement’ (1921), and Igor Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1926 – 27/1948)

Although Weill’s symphony was written in 1921, when he was studying with Ferruccio Busoni, it was not performed until 1957, seven years after the composer’s death. Whilst it opens with some dissonant chords they soon give way to multi-layered sections that alternate between calm and climactic, the calmer passages sounding more like chamber music. This was an exceptional performance which brilliantly brought out the varying textures and rhythms of the piece and it provided a perfect start to the festival.

Stravinsky’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ is based on Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Greek drama of incest and murder. The work is sung in Latin, with the narrator’s part usually spoken in the language of the performance venue, in this case by German actress Bibiana Beglau. The US tenor Michael Spyres performed the part of Oedipus, whilst mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, from Belarus, sang that of Queen Jocasta. The part of Tiresias, the Oracle, was sung by the Italian bass Andrea Mastroni. The members of the chorus, the Rundfunkchor, as befits current Covid restrrictions, were dispersed throughout the empty seats of the concert hall. All parts were wonderfully sung; but Michael Spyres, who I think was singing his role for the first time, was particularly outstanding.

Kirill Petrenko conducting ‘Oedipus Rex’, with Ekaterina Semenchuk and Michael Spyres

Tuesday 16 February saw more Kurt Weill: his ‘Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra’ and ‘Symphony no. 2’, as well as Hanns Eisler’s ‘Suite for Orchestra no. 3’. This time the performers were scholars of the Karajan Academy led by French conductor Marie Jacquot, who looked as if she was thoroughly enjoying herself throughout.

The concert opened with a very enjoyable performance of Eisler’s orchestral suite based on music written for the early sound film ‘Kuhle Wampe’ which, coincidentally, I also watched recently. (It tells the story of unemployment and homelessness among the working classes during the economic crisis and is much recommended.) The Suite is a ten-minute concert version of four sections from the film score. It begins with a lively Prelude which, in the film, accompanies unemployed men racing around the city on bicycles looking for work. This is followed by a more plaintive Intermezzo and then a jaunty Rondo. The final movement, ‘Die Fabriken’ (The Factories) has brass and banjo representing the sounds of the factory machines.

Weill’s 1925 ‘Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra’ is in three movements; the opening uses a twelve tone approach with angular, often agitated rhythms before moving into a second movement in three parts in which the violin, here played by former concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Kolja Blacher, duets with first, a xylophone, then a trumpet and finally a flute. The final movement goes back to more agitated rhythms, reminiscent of Stravinsky.

Weill’s ‘Second Symphony’ was partly written whilst the composer was in exile in France, having had to leave Germany. It was a commission from the Princess de Polignac, an heir to the Singer sewing machine empire. Despite the conditions of its writing, the opening movement is quite lively, although sometimes a little agitated, however, this eventually gives way to a march-like largo at the beginning of the second movement, sounding almost like a funeral procession at times, sometimes with a bluesy feel but at other times much darker and more melancholy. The final movement is much more lively building up towards a stirring coda but eventually it resolves to a more calm ending. It was extremely well performed by the Karajan Academy scholars.

The third concert saw the return of the Berliner Philharmoniker, this time under the baton of Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård. The concert was originally planned to be led by Sir Donald Runnicles and to include works by Alban Berg and Franz Schreker; however, with Søndergård stepping in as a replacement the programme was also changed, which explains its more international flavour, It opened with the Suite from Serge Prokofiev’s opera ‘The Love for Three Oranges’, then came Sibelius’s ‘Symphony no. 6’, before another operatic Suite, this time from Kurt Weill’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’.

Thomas Søndergård conducting ‘The Love for Three Oranges Suite’

The concert opened with a lively performance of Prokofiev’s six-movement suite from ‘The Love for Three Oranges’, a zany, surreal opera and one of my favourites since I twice attended the English National Opera’s famous ‘scratch and sniff’ production in 1989. Prokofiev’s orchestral reduction retains the madcap approach of the original and is always enjoyable.

Sibelius’s ‘Symphony no. 6 in D minor’ is, of course, a very different affair, in fact it is different to the composer’s other symphonies. Unusually for Sibelius it deploys the harp, in fact two, although their sound seems a little overpowered by the rest of the orchestra. It was composed in stages between 1914 and 1923, whilst the fifth and seventh symphonies were also being written It has an almost pastoral approach, gradually building up textures which evoke the Scandinavian landscape and whilst the melodies are often beautiful they rarely become exciting. It was not until the fourth, final movement that Søndergård really breathed life into the work and it ended with an almost breath-taking coda before subsiding to calm in the final bars.

The final piece was a seven-movement Suite from Kurt Weill’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’, with the orchestra augmented by the addition of saxophones, guitar and piano. Whilst it was enjoyable and performed with great energy I feel that the orchestral reduction doesn’t really succeed in recreating the atmosphere of the opera.

German actress Dagmar Manzel was the host for the next concert, which recreated ‘A Night at the Moka Efti’. Moka Efti, the legendary Berlin nightclub named after its Greek-Italian owner, Giovanni Eftimiades, was more recently featured in the first series of the German television drama ‘Babylon Berlin’. The club was completely over the top and boasted its own barber shop, post office, pastry shop, billiard hall, a room for chess-players and a correspondence room filled with typists ready to take dictation from businessmen customers. Whilst at night it was one of the most successful dance halls in the city, during the day it was a café and is said to have served up to 25.000 cups of coffee a day.

Dagmar Manzel singing ‘Belin Lit Up’

The concert saw the Berliner Philharmoniker perform 1920s songs and dance music in a programme put together by Michael Hasel, the Philharmoniker’s flautist, who took up conducting duties for the evening. Kurt Weill was again featured with ‘Berlin Lit Up’, ‘Panamanian Suite’ and ‘Little Threepenny Music’. Mátyás Seiber’s ‘Two Jazzolettes’ and Stefan Wolpe’s ‘Suite from the Twenties’ completed the programme.

‘Berlin Lit Up’, sung by Dagmar Manzel, is a slow fox-trot which was commissioned for the opening of the ‘Berlin im Licht’ exhibition, which celebrated the installation of street lighting in the city in 1928 after the opening of the new Charlottenburg power station. The toe-tapping ‘Panamanian Suite’, written in 1934 when Weill was in Paris, was only rediscovered in 1988. It comes from Weill’s music for Jacques Deval’s play ‘Marie Galante’, the story of a girl who is kidnapped and taken to Panama by a lecherous sea captain, she then turns to prostitution in order to earn money to return to France, but ends up being murdered the night before the boat sails.

In the interval and between the music Dagmar Manzel recited from autobiographical texts by Lotte Lenya, the great performer of cabaret songs and twice Kurt Weill’s wife, French entertainer Josephine Baker and German actress Trude Hesterberg. It is a quote from the latter which probably best sums up Berlin in the 1920s: “Everything became shorter: hair, clothes, love and sleep. Life began after dark. Night’s sequinned mantle covered day’s terrible nakedness. Dark figures crept from dark hallways with even darker offers: cigars?, cigarettes? cocaine? That’s Berlin!”

Hungarian-born composer Mátyás Seiber, who studied with Zoltán Kodály, travelled much during his life. He played cello in the orchestra of a ship which sailed from North to South America, he was director of the jazz department at Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, he spent two years working in the Soviet Union and then eventually found his way to England, where he married and settled. He composed a wide range of music: operas, cantatas, film and ballet music and jazz and popular works. Whilst in Germany he composed ‘Two Jazzolettes’, a sextet for saxophones, trombone, piano and percussion, which uses a variety of jazz effects and rhythms, but which also begins to explore twelve note music. It was played with great stamina and skill.

The Berliners brought the same qualities to Stefan Wolpe’s ‘Suite from the Twenties’, a collection of six short pieces written between 1926 and 1929, which together make a joyous, rhythmic whole that includes tangoes and a Charleston, but also again hints of twelve-tone techniques.

The final piece was Kurt Weill’s suite from his famous ‘The Threepenny Opera’. There are eight movements in all, including the best-known numbers from the opera: ‘Polly’s Song’, ‘The Ballad of the Easy Life’ and, of course, ‘The Ballad of Mack the Knife’. Writing to his publisher in 1929, Weill said that “I believe the piece can be played an awful lot, since it is precisely what every conductor wants: a snappy piece to end with.” And so it proved to be!

The festival ended on Saturday 27 February with Christian Thielemann leading the Berliner Philharmoniker in performances of some lesser-known works from the 1920s: the Overture from Paul Hindemith’s opera ‘Neues vom Tage’ (News of the Day), Ferruccio Busoni’s ‘Tanz Walzer for Orchestra’ and the ‘Künstlerleben Walz’ by Johann Strauss II. These were followed by ‘Die Tageszeiten’ (The Times of Day), a cycle of works for voice and orchestra by Richard Strauss.

Christian Thielemann conducting ‘Neues vom Tage’

The evening began with the overture from Paul Hindemith’s comic opera ‘Neues vom Tage’, a satire on modern life and all its problems. The overture is an extremely enjoyable work, featuring wind instruments, saxophones, piano and percussion, with only a small string section. It is a pity it is not more frequently performed. Busoni’s waltz extravaganza,’Tanz-Waltzer’, is also a rarity. Composed in 1920, it is often played in a piano version, but here the original orchestral version was highly enjoyable. Although not to my personal taste, Thielemann and the orchestra gave an excellent performance of Strauss’s ‘Künstlerleben Walz’, written in 1867 and first performed at the Vienna Carnival that year.

The final items in the programme were orchestral songs by Richard Strauss, most featuring Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who sang beautifully. The evening ended with Strauss’s ‘Die Tageszeiten’ (The Times of Day), published in 1928, a settings of poems by Joseph von Eichendorff, unusually scored for male choir and orchestra. It consists of four movements: ‘The Morning’, ‘Afternoon Peace’, ‘The Evening’ and ‘The Night’ and was, for me, a pleasant new discovery.

Camilla Nylund singing Strauss with Christian Thielemann and Berliner Philharmoniker

As with the Weimar Republic, all good things must come to an end, and this was a fitting ending to the festival, which, like the cultural life of the Republic, was great fun while it lasted.