The frisky side of a classical master: National Gallery’s Poussin and the Dance reviewed

In the winter of 1861, visitors to the Louvre might have seen a young artist painstakingly copying one of the museum’s 39 paintings by Poussin. The subject was ‘The Abduction of the Sabine Women’ and the artist was the 27-year-old Edgar Degas, then at work on his own classical battle of the sexes, ‘Young Spartans’. Although lumped with the impressionists, Degas was a classicist at heart. ‘The masters must be copied over and over again,’ he believed, ‘and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature.’ A dedicated copyist himself, Poussin would have approved. The paintings in

Vocal heroes | 9 May 2019

We’ve all read the article. It does the rounds with the dispiriting regularity of an unwanted dish on a sushi train. Classical concerts are dying and if they are to survive they need to evolve, to innovate, to banish (variously) seating, silence, dress codes (for musicians), dress codes (for audience), programme notes, formal venues… But among so much institutional hand-wringing and professional self-loathing I’d like to take a moment to celebrate one classical tribe getting innovation exactly right: period music groups. Theirs is a repertoire with a natural advantage; it belongs to an age in which music was still soundtrack rather than event — an inevitable accompaniment to drinking or

Period drama

Harpsichordists are supposed to make love, not war: Sir Thomas Beecham famously compared the sound they make to ‘two skeletons copulating on a tin roof’. But now two masters of the instrument, the Iranian-American Mahan Esfahani and the German Andreas Staier, are locked in mortal combat. For connoisseurs of finely tuned insults, it’s riveting stuff. For their colleagues it’s a wretched business, because one of the two musicians is setting fire to his own reputation. Also, a third harpsichordist — a gifted young Frenchman, Jean Rondeau — has been cruelly dragged into the feud. It goes without saying in period instrument circles that Esfahani picked the fight. The 33-year-old has

Rescuing old Nick

In the conclusion to his very substantial study of England’s least known and most misunderstood Baroque architect, Owen Hopkins discusses some of the modern folklore that has developed around Nicholas Hawksmoor over the past 40 years, showing how swiftly a myth can capture the public imagination. The bulk of this unevenly written, fact-packed book is devoted to discussing Hawksmoor’s life and work. The last chapter considers the myths which recently gained him a large public and, ironically, brought him the critical recognition he failed to receive either in his own lifetime or for almost two centuries afterwards. A yeoman farmer’s son, born in Nottinghamshire in 1661, Hawksmoor joined Wren’s office

It may have a meagre script and no plot but Farinelli and the King is still a major work of art

Philippe V was a Bourbon prince who secured the throne of Spain using his family connections. Claire van Kampen is a writer who relied on the same method to secure a West End opening for her play about Philippe. It stars Mark van Kampen (aka Mark Rylance) as the charmingly dotty Frenchman. Philippe was a manic depressive who regarded his Spanish subjects as a puzzling inconvenience. He had no interest in governing them and preferred to laze around the countryside, looking at stars, listening to music and indulging his eccentricities. We first meet him in bed trying to hook a fish supper from a goldfish bowl. Courtiers secretly plot to

Rio’s rococo genius

The surname is pronounced ‘M’shahdo j’Asseece’. There are also two Christian names — Joaquim Maria — which are usually dispensed with. K. David Jackson, professor of Portuguese at Yale, confines himself to ‘Machado’ and has invented an adjective ‘Machadean’. Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in the very Machadean town of Petropolis, called him ‘the Dickens of Brazil’ which is not true — he has not Dickens’s range or sustained ebullience. I used to say he was the Gogol of Brazil — particularly in his short stories — but re-reading Dom Casmurro, one of the five novels of Machado’s maturity, I can see he has not Gogol’s hatred, which gives the

Dying of the light

It’s a comfort that the creation of a new ballet inspired by French court entertainment can still happen in the amnesiac ballet country that Britain has become. The idea of making a modern-day meditation on the first ballet — Louis XIV’s 12-hour epic Le Ballet de la nuit (1653) — is as intellectual as Wayne McGregor’s roping in of cognitive science as source material. It faces many of the same traps when it comes to capturing that elusive necessity: theatricality. Only David Bintley could do this, deploying his artistic authority as the 20-year director of Birmingham Royal Ballet as any French despot would. The scheme’s theatricality is innate. Le Ballet

Why we should revel in the empty virtuosity of Handel’s pasticcios

Before the jukebox musical, back when Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and Viva Forever! were still dollar-shaped glints in an as-yet-unborn producer’s eye, there was the pasticcio opera. Literally a musical ‘pastry’ or ‘pie’, these brought together arias from different operas, often by different composers, in a single work, designed as a way of feeding an 18th-century public whose appetite for opera was greater than composers’ ability to sate it with new music. Everyone did it — Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn, and of course that ultimate musical pragmatist Handel — but that didn’t make the practice any the more respectable, as one satirist’s pasticcio ‘recipe’ makes clear. Pick out about an hundred

An earthquake with a Baroque legacy in Sicily

Syracuse is a handsome place, steeped in a rich historical broth. At the tip sits Ortygia, an island offshoot, which has been the backdrop to many Mediterranean sagas: Hellenic, Christian, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque — take your pick. By day, Via de Benedictis is filled with local men selling sea urchins, milky balls of ricotta and bunches of mint. At night, we went to the Piazza Duoma for aperitifs. The cathedral’s broken pediments and exuberant sculpture cast strange shadows on to the square and a zephyr blew. It was November and the place was empty, aside from a small boy on rollerskates and a dog. In summer it must swarm with

From classical to post-modern: a beginner’s guide

My career at school and after was greatly enhanced by a series of books called The Bluffer’s Guide to….These gave mischievous advice, often on the reliable when-in-doubt-confuse-the-issue lines. A favourite of mine, still in use in emergencies, was: ‘I think Jack Kerouac was more a Franciscan Christian than Buddhist, don’t you?’ Martin Kemp’s Art in History is several clicks up the ratchet of sophistication, but, being a beginner’s guide, retains something of the character of a prop for the indolent. The curious title betrays a little uncertainty. It is one of the publisher’s ‘Ideas in Profile’ series which includes Shakespeare, Criticism and Politics. But why the preposition between ‘art’ and

Royal Opera’s Orfeo, Roundhouse: shouts its agenda so loudly the music struggles to be heard

What a week to stage an opera about art’s power to challenge institutional authority, oppression — even death itself. Orfeo’s weapon might be a lyre rather than a pen, but the metaphor is silhouetted clearly against the monochrome backdrop of the Royal Opera’s new production of Monteverdi’s opera. Director Michael Boyd, former artistic director of the RSC, has taken a world of nymphs and shepherds and stripped it for conceptual parts. A battle between Gods and men is reinvented as a struggle between individual creative autonomy and faceless obedience to church and state. In Tom Piper’s designs, meadows and bucolic loveliness are out and 24-style metal walkways and gantries are

Christopher Hogwood: the absolutist of early music

The death of Christopher Hogwood has deprived the world of the most successful exponent of early music there has ever been, or is ever likely to be. It has also reduced by one the quartet of conductors who have been called ‘the Class of ’73’, a term coined by Nick Wilson in a recent study of the early-music revolution of the 1970s and 80s. It refers to four groups that were founded in that year that are held to have changed the face of modern concert-giving: Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music; Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert; Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Choir; and my own Tallis Scholars. Of these

Why everyone loves Rembrandt

Talking of Rembrandt’s ‘The Jewish Bride’ to a friend, Vincent van Gogh went — characteristically — over the top. ‘I should be happy to give ten years of my life,’ he exclaimed, ‘if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.’ Without undergoing such rigours, visitors to Rembrandt: the Late Works at the National Gallery next month will be able to see the picture that drove Vincent to such a paroxysm of enthusiasm, along with many other masterpieces from the artist’s last years. It may be that in recent decades other 17th-century masters — Caravaggio