Showing posts with label Vienna. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vienna. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Is Beethoven actually trying to kill me?

I spent last week in Vienna, on the Beethoven trail for my new book, IMMORTAL; what follows is my Letter from Vienna for the Unbound 'shed', which is emailed to all the book's supporters. It's both substantial and quite interesting (I think), so I wanted to bring it to you here too. Delighted to say that the funding is all in place, but if you would like to be part of the IMMORTAL family, be thanked in print, pre-order your copy and receive regular updates on progress, you still can, here.

I came home from Vienna on Friday evening sick as the proverbial dog and barking like one. I was already unwell when I set off the previous Sunday; charging around the city, trying to see everything, walking about 7 miles a day during a nasty cold snap, did me so little good that I wondered if Beethoven is trying to kill me. 
Nevertheless, it was worth every second, because this trip will radically transform the atmosphere of IMMORTAL. Seeing what's available of the pleasant yet very plain apartments that the composer lived in, then visiting the former residences of his princely patrons in a grand city centre where palace piles up next to baroque palace, hammers home the desperately divided nature of that society. Among his chief supporters, Prince Kinsky's extravaganza is phenomenally OTT; Prince Lobkowitz's odd corner block is rather more tasteful (it is now the Theatre Museum, which is handy); and those are just two examples, neither of them the most extreme. 
The fascinating thing about research trips is that what you learn is never quite what you were looking for. One of my most startling impressions was that for tourism purposes, Beethoven is nowhere to be heard (seen, yes; heard, no.) Wherever you find a touristy concert in a church or palace, they are playing... Mozart. Occasionally Haydn, sometimes even Schubert. But Beethoven? Dearie dear - you have to go to the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus to listen to his music. You won't stumble upon it in the street. Nobody touting for tourists' business near the Hofburg is going to say to you "Psst, wanna hear some Beethoven?"
So is he too difficult? Too demanding? Too German? Too...foreign? Beethoven was indeed a foreigner in Vienna. He was an immigrant; he arrived as a student and never went back to Bonn. If not exactly a refugee, he was certainly reluctant to go home after Napoleon invaded the Rhineland (even though Napoleon was his hero for a while). The Brunswick sisters were similarly outsiders. Vienna would have been as foreign to them, from Hungary, as it was to Beethoven. 
Much is intact; much is not. Beethoven's longest place of residence, the Pasqualati House, is high on a hillock beside what used to be the city walls; he would have gazed out over the Glacis and the Prater towards the Vienna Woods from the top floor flat. Today you see only Vienna University, constructed directly opposite some decades later. Josephine's house, the Palais that her first husband built and where she lived on and off for the rest of her life, is long gone, demolished in the late 19th century. On its site you can now find a McDonald's.
But if you walk through the back streets, you come across lanes little changed since the 18th century; straight, well-proportioned channels lined with elegant buildings and occasionally opening onto a cobbled square beside an ancient church. In one such location you discover what used to be the university, run by the Jesuits in Beethoven's time; today it is the Austrian Academy of Sciences. "Beethoven? Oh, you'll want the first floor," says a remarkably relaxed gatekeeper. "It's open, just go in." And there, in what's now a ballroom and lecture theatre, equipped with state of the art AV equipment, is the room in which Beethoven premiered his Symphony No.7 - and in which a gala performance of The Creation was held in the presence of the elderly Haydn himself. There Beethoven broke through the crowds to kneel at his old professor's feet (and not before time).

One could not help noticing that these are some massively significant occasions in the history of music - yet there was nobody else around. I didn't even know, previously, that this place existed. 
Vienna is a layer cake of a city, its historical strata spreading one on top of the other. Century piles after century. The reason I haven't seen the Beethoven sites before is that whenever I've been there I've been looking for Korngold or Mahler or Johann Strauss, or celebrating new year waltzing round the Rathausplatz. My souvenir this time? A Klimt umbrella. Beethoven is subsumed, in a way, beneath everyone he influenced.
The place has its advantages - including a fantastic, easy-to-use public transport system and two of the world's best concert halls - but also its drawbacks. For instance, my specific annoying dietary problem is easier to solve even in Hungary than it is here (honest, guv, in Budapest I found a gluten-free bakery on Andrássy Boulevard). Eventually I came across a vegetarian buffet on the Schottenring that had a good selection, but I've never before eaten so many beans in three days. Otherwise it's tafelspitz or risotto; occasionally a gf cake if you're very lucky. 
Now I am back and setting to work not only on my target of finishing the first draft before Christmas, but also the remedial updating necessitated by the insights of this past week. My feet are covered in blisters, I'm coughing something chronic and I need to sleep for a fortnight, but fortunately writing takes place indoors. If Beethoven is trying to kill me, he hasn't succeeded. At least, not yet.

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Full speed ahead!

I sloped off to Vienna last week and was lucky enough to hear the lady in the cab above play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the Musikverein. Anne-Sophie Mutter is an unpredictable artist, someone who reimagines the music, pushes at all its boundaries - and occasionally, in the view of many, has been known to push too far. Yet her Tchaikovsky had a gratifying edge of danger: she never played one phrase "safe". And much of the finale really was full speed ahead... In terms of sheer technical perfection and fabulous tone, there is nothing she can't do. You may not like everything she chooses to do, but she commands absolute respect nontheless - and her Bach encore was impeccable in taste. She's a one-off.

In Vienna I also went to visit a few old friends...

Above, Haydn's house, his last home and now an excellent museum, well worth a dekko. Did you know he had a grey-and-red parrot? He brought it back with him from London and trained it to talk. After his death, when his effects were auctioned, it fetched a tidy sum.

Hugo Wolf's grave is nearly back-to-back with Schubert's, I find it slightly mean of the (otherwise excellent) sculptor to have carved the unfortunate man's downfall into his tombstone. Poor Wolf died of syphilis.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jonas Kaufmann, wrapped in Viennese gold

If you were wondering where I'd got to... Been here, hearing this. Above: Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch take a curtain call in the Vienna Musikverein after what I think was the third of five encores.

Song recitals in the golden hall are not plentiful - mostly they are given in the smaller Brahmsaal - and this was Kaufmann's first "Liederabend" therein, following a highly successful run as Faust at the Staatsoper. It was a programme of Liszt, Mahler, Duparc and Strauss, which he and Deutsch introduced in Munich last summer (schedule here - Berlin tomorrow, Paris on Monday; London Wigmore Hall not until June, though). And if you think Vienna is not a place that can go nuts, think again. By the time the encores had rounded off with Strauss's 'Zueignung' and a rendering of 'Dein ist mein ganzes Herz' that could have turned even Tauber green with envy, your blogger and her companion were sobbing for joy along with the rest of the city.

Here is the full programme. And here is a video on Kaufmann's website introducing it

I won't keep you sitting here reading this blogpost all day, but a few highlights follow. First of all, Deutsch needs a credit all his own: the glowing, streamlined sounds that emerged from that piano would have wrapped Kaufmann's voice in pure gold even if the hall had not already done so. Deutsch has been Kaufmann's mentor in many ways and their partnership remains exceptional: they shine not merely as singer and accompanist individually, but as a duo even greater than the already phenomenal sum of their parts.

The Liszt's high spots included hushed raptness in 'Glocken von Marling', an engagingly narrative 'Drei Zigeuner' and an emotional roller-coaster of 'Freudvoll und Leidvoll'. Kaufmann's dark-hued tone is ideally suited to the Mahler Rückertlieder, and his ability to capture haunted, mystical atmospheres drew 'Am Mitternacht' towards undreamed-of inward realms. 

If any moment of the recital was any less convincing, it was the Duparc: a French group, even such a heady and sensual one, seemed to sit comparatively oddly against the rest of the programme, something brought into focus when Kaufmann launched into his home heartland with the Strauss Lieder immediately afterwards. Duparc is more Wagnerian than Faure or Debussy, yet it could be that these exceptional, kaleidoscopic songs, which feel like musical incarnations of Odilon Redon's late pastels, still need to settle to reach the same level of assumption that Kaufmann has achieved in Strauss. It was the Strauss that stayed with us: laughter for 'Schlechtes Wetter' (it was snowy, well below freezing and very windy out, and we'd have liked to sample whatever cake Kaufmann and Deutsch decided to bake); tears for a 'Befreit' almost too pain-filled to listen to (many pairs of spectacles were removed around us in the hall). 

Dein war unser ganzes Herz.. It's not the first time I've felt that Kaufmann is an artist who thrives on encores. This was when he seemed to relax the most and, frankly, let rip. Like most excellent artists, he seems fed by the audience's energy, which is as it should be. There's something about the creation of atmosphere in a performance that has less to do with the individual technical details than with the relationship between the performers, the degree they can communicate their mastery and passion for music to the audience, and much to do with... well, if anyone could articulate exactly what that "X factor" is, we wouldn't need daft TV programmes named after it.

It's when artists start to fly and take us up to 33,000 feet with them. It's when you can't believe the beauty in your own ears, and you can't hold onto it, either, but you're trying to in any case, and you know you are hearing something you'll never forget for the rest of your life. And you know it when you hear it, and you don't hear it very often. Perhaps 19th century commentators could have recognised its necessity by their very nature and expressed it in terms of touching something divine, which is what "high art" aspired to do. Such terminology is somewhat frowned on today. In a world that's terrified of "elitism", anything that sounds too good will be bashed. But when you get down to it, that is what's happening and that is what great artistry is all about, and that is what all the other very good but less "great" artists wish to do, and that is why we become musicians, because music can do this and that's why it exists. And when it reaches that rare level, you feel lucky to be alive to hear it. It's real. It's true. So just get over it, accept it and open your ears. 

And as if this wasn't enough...the day after, we attended Mitsuko Uchida playing the last three Schubert sonatas - Schubert in Vienna in the snow, with the B flat Sonata a crowning, aching, lonely wonder. Add to this a visual feast at the recently renovated Albertina gallery - two floors of an Impressionist exhibition (yes, with plenty of Redon pastels), one floor of the permanent collection and a top floor of a huge, jaw-dropping and revelatory exploration of Magritte. To say nothing of lunch at the Cafe Central, a romanesque-arched temple to kaffee und kuche once frequented by Trotsky, Freud and many, many more. We had their berry strudel, packed with kilos of purple fruit, and their trademark cake: chocolate, orange and marzipan with the lightest texture and finest flavours...

...look, as the Beatles would say, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter, so please forgive a few of the superlatives above. Right now, I think we deserved to enjoy them a little. All together now: "Wien, Wien, ach, du allein..."

Sunday, January 01, 2012


Greetings from here:

Let's hope that 2012 will be a sane, peaceful, successful, smooth, kind and reasonable year - rather than anything resembling the past one. Don't forget to listen to the New Year's Day Concert from Vienna. This year it is conducted by the mighty Mariss Jansons. For UK listeners, it's on BBC Radio 3 at 10.15am and BBC2 at 11.15, with another showing on BBC4 this evening.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


To get into the Vienna Philharmonic's Neujahrskonzert in the Musikverein, you have to apply a year in advance. They have 1,000 seats and usually around 36,000 applications, and it's done by ballot. The odds are bad, but still better than the National Lottery, so we decided we should try for next year's.

Guess who entered the ballot with the 'egal' tab (= 'any seats') without first checking the ticket prices....???!?

Hey, they can keep their sodding seats. The Rathausplatz is far better. You can see everything. The digital sound is great. You can dance to the waltzes. You can eat bratwurst and drink punsch. Who needs to fork out E680??!? (and that's for ONE ticket...).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ah, Vienna...

Just about recovered from a thrilling New Year in the city of waltzes... Appropriately enough, since 2007 is the 50th anniversary of Korngold's death and the 110th of his birth, we spent New Year's Eve dancing the night away outside the Rathaus, where Korngold and Luzi von Sonnenthal got married.

Oh boy, do the Viennese know how to party. The city centre turns into one big celebration, with different music going on in various squares and pedestrian areas until 2am, and all the sausages, langos, gluhwein and schnapps you could wish for, not to mention strudel, with fireworks zooming about overhead constantly - none of that wait-for-midnight nonsense here, thanks... Apparently Vienna entertained about 700,000 people that night, double the number who risked chaos in central London (where organising so much as a p***-up in a brewery seems to defeat even the most well-intentioned). A few firecrackers to dodge along the way, and it's best to avoid the most crowded areas like the Karntnerstrasse, but otherwise the atmosphere was simply wonderful.

One learns some startling things about one's partner in these circumstances. Good old Tomcat turns out to be an unreconstructed old rocker! After the operetta crew finished The Blue Danube after midnight (yes, we waltzed, or tried to), on came a band called Remembering Elvis. Tom doesn't have much hair, but a few bars of Blue Suede Shoes and what's left came down in spectacular fashion. After that, along came a band called Montevideo and Tom discovered that I'm a frustrated South American at heart, itching to learn salsa and samba (our tango classes tragically having ended in abandonment of all hope). 2007 resolution: learn to waltz and go back next time - maybe even to a ball...???

The next morning, we watched the New Year's Day concert on a big screen in the Rathausplatz. The Vienna Philharmonic sound as glorious as ever. BUT it's still very odd only to see one woman in their ranks. Read some interesting info about this here (thanks to Ionarts for the link). How do they get away with it? I interviewed two of them for Classical Music Magazine about 15 years ago when the orchestra played in London, and asked them why they don't employ more women. They told me it was because of maternity leave laws: apparently they'd have to keep the job open for three years (or was it five?). I can't say I was convinced. It's tempting to wonder why other Austrian orchestras seem to manage fine, or why some fabulous female musician who doesn't intend to have children should be excluded. In Britain, there'd be no rest from the negative media over something like this. At least on this occasion they had an Indian conductor...

Vienna's an odd place. What was once the capital city of the biggest empire in Europe now feels like a small, isolated town with a lot of beautiful cafes and some very good music. It always takes me a day or two to stop thinking about the Korngold family and those like them fleeing the Anschluss, Hitler waving to the cheering crowds from the hotel balcony, and all that followed. But once I've got past that and started drinking in the Klimts in the Belvedere, the shades of Mozart at Schonbrunn, and on this occasion one of the best Chagall exhibitions I've seen, not to mention coffee with liqueur and schlagobers, it's impossible not to enjoy it.

Stars in the pavement of the Kartnerstrasse and Graben pay tribute to the likes of Weber, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Kreisler, Rubinstein, Chopin, Schumann and Clara Schumann and more (though I couldn't find Korngold or Schoenberg). Two youngsters from Ankara asked us the way to the Figarohaus, where Mozart lived; for my part, I was sorry to leave without paying tribute to Schubert's spectacles in the house where he was born. And during our last coffee-stop we chatted to a Viennese couple at the next table who knew all the gossip about the New Year's Day concert reviews (catty indeed!). But the strangest thing is that you can spend a happy holiday in Vienna without setting eyes on that famous river even once. If you want to see the Beautiful Blue Danube at its finest, go to Budapest.

Most important, this is Korngold year. There'll be plenty going on all over the world and I'll try to keep posting about the most interesting events to come my way. For starters, watch out for a major exhibition about the composer opening in late October in Vienna, and a very special concert series right here in London in the autumn.