Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Polish Christmas and New Year's Eve - wishing 'the happy few' who read my ramblings this year a Happy Christmas 2014 and an optimistic and affluent New Year 2015

At Christmas time the importance of the Polish family is ever-present - a force that binds this society together with affection and love. On Christmas Eve a blessed wafer is broken by each member of the family and best wishes are made for the future. The appalling history of loss in Poland meant the family and the Catholic church were often the sole refuge from oppression. Here in Poland the family at Christmas is to be warmly embraced not fled from in anguish.

I quote from the unedited version of Chapter 27 of my book  A Country in the Moon for a nostalgic account of Christmas and New Year in Poland at the turn of the millennium. There has never been a better one for me. The 'Writer's Cut' if you will. Some 30,000 words and many evocative scenes were cut from my original manuscript of this literary travel book before publication - all quite normal in publishing today but what treasures were lost! 

How life in Poland has changed since those far off days. The charm and unique flavour of the country is slowly leaching away in the affectionate embrace of the EU.

Click on photographs to enlarge - far superior - taken in 2000 with a
      Nikon F 2 on Fuji Film


A Yellow Sleigh for the Departing Guests

      No wind and silence. Virgin snow. White lace. A capillary of frost on the delicate network of branches. Deep drifts against the base of the tree trunks. I wandered down to the river past the frozen pond where I had spied a deer on one occasion in the summer. Zosia drew me back to Poland many times over the years that followed. But no visit was more moving and memorable than that at the turn of the millennium. We spent Christmas Eve in Warsaw under a heavy blanket of snow, the heaviest for many years. The Vistula lay half-frozen under a crusted blanket of white ice. A group of nuns were gathered around the swings in the park, giggling and laughing in arcs of joy, their habits like the wings of bluebirds against the snow.

       Preparations for the last Christmas of an epoch were complete. Zosia and her mother seemed to have been cooking for hours, days, weeks. The tree was dressed and lit, piles of presents placed under the branches and the traditional empty place laid at the table should an unexpected wanderer call. The pets had begun to speak in tongues (different languages) – well, that is the folk tale anyway. Twelve dishes are served, symbolizing the twelve apostles. Red barszcz (beetroot soup), carp in jelly, mushroom and cabbage pierogi (similar to ravioli) and other dishes too numerous to list. The blessed opłatek (Christmas wafer) embossed with a Nativity scene was broken and shared among the family with good wishes for the future. Presents were opened and carols sung.

‘Put some fish scales in your wallet, Michałku! It will bring you luck and money!’

       For that special New Year’s Eve we headed into the High Tatra mountains to stay at the great Renaissance castle of Niedzica. This mysterious frontier castle, perched on its limestone crag above a frozen lake had lured me to the region. The eyrie had originally been built by the noble Polish–Hungarian Berzeviczy family above the gorge of the wild Dunajec river early in the fourteenth century.

The author reading in Niedzica Castle. The rooms are furnished with genuine Polish antiques and Turkey carpets

       The castle is situated in the remote area of the Spisz in the south of Poland and to the east of Kraków. I had hoped to hear the folk tunes that inspired Chopin’s Rondo on Krakowian themes written when he was eighteen. We had wandered eastwards into the Spisz, a region that has always attracted me by its backwardness and the music of its festive gypsy communities. 

Domestic chores in the Spisz

Following the snowy valley of the Łapszanka river, one climbs between quaint wooden houses to the old villages of Wyżni Koniec and Rzepiska where the most spectacular view of the High Tatra Mountains of Poland and Slovakia opens out in a vast panorama. At least thirty major peaks, craggy and treeless, covered in snow and  shifting in golden light, slice into a pale sky. The tinkling harness of working horses pulling hinged sledges of logs through the dark stands of fir drift on the wind. The horses emerge from the forest, clouds of steam gushing from their nostrils, the gap-toothed peasants in woollen caps shouting rude intimacies to the animal and cracking their whips, crossing the fields at the base of the mountains in wide arabesques, approaching the village along white paths then to suddenly struggle up a steep slope onto the main street. The drivers holler rough greetings to elderly women leaning out of cottage windows in scenes reminiscent of 1920 or 1820 or 1720 or 1620 such is the unaltered chronology of the place. In many houses merely a thin wooden wall separates man from beast.

A village in the Spisz region of Poland

Small shingled churches are scattered through the Spisz famous for their polychrome interior decoration. In Trybz near the castle there are some exceptional naïve paintings in the seventeenth century church of St. Elizabeth. A telephone call secures the key as long as one is prepared to outface the manic, tethered dog that looks like a ragged wolf circling on a red lead secured to a roof beam in the barn. A young boy quietened the carnivore and we entered an extraordinary damp wooden world of saints, Tatra landscapes (the oldest in Poland) and the naked figures and devils of the last judgement. 

Naive polychrome in the Church of St. Elizabeth, Spisz, Poland

The paintings executed by a priest long ago were intended as an encouragement of faith for a simple congregation unable to read. A fairyland waterfall like a piece of miniature theatre scenery tumbled nearby. Unspeakable smells erupted as a man mucked out a cow shed sharing a wall with the living room of his dwelling. A woman dressed in black had cut an opening in the snow and ice of a stream and was washing clothes in the freezing water. Preserved in time and  surprisingly distant from civilization, the Spisz passed whimsically to and fro through history between the Austro–Hungarian Empire, Slovakia and Poland

The Castle of Niedzica in the Pieniny region  in the south-east of Poland. The 'Ghost Room' is in the second pepper-pot tower from the left
        Zosia and I spent the previous night listening to odd noises in our room, the Komnata ‘z duchami’ or Ghost Room, located in one of the corner towers of the castle, formerly a chapel. The irrational was soon forgotten as the New Year’s Eve ball began with a sumptuous feast. Opulent jewellery, bright in the flickering candles, rose and fell on the low-cut gowns of women breathless with dancing and amorous laughter. Polish mazurkas and polonaises together with Hungarian gypsy music accompanied flurries of snow whispering past the icy windows. In the heat of dancing the gentleman removed their dinner jackets and hung them on the high backs of the mahogany chairs.  A little girl in a voluminous, yellow ball-gown galloped about in red shoes. A fierce fire burned in the fireplace below the ballroom, the walls covered in antlers and artless Polish family portraits.

'Zosia' (real name Barbara) in the 'Ghost Room' on the eve of the Millennium Ball at Niedzica Castle, Poland

      By midnight it had begun to snow heavily as we climbed the castle keep with a bottle of champagne and sparklers. The spotlights illuminating the turrets created remarkable effects on the clouds of rushing snow. Champagne toasts were drunk and impossible Slavic
promises were made for another thousand years. I pulled my sheepskin jacket over my dinner suit, made a brief excuse to Zosia, my Polish princess, and wandered alone into the snowy courtyard beneath the golden clock to smoke a celebratory aged Dunhill Club Havana. 

     Snow fell from the trees in a muffled hush. The night was silent, clear and minus twenty degrees, the moon full and the sky hectic with stars. The air was like cold steel to breathe. I lit the cigar and watched the smoke drift listlessly in the air above the rugged walls and ancient  windows. Entrance to the castle is gained through an oak door banded in iron strap-work strengthened with massive studs. Feeling restless and in need of air, I heaved it open and wandered out onto the frozen carriage ramp. An arch loomed above, bearing the device of the Hungarian Horvath family, owners of the castle from the eighteenth century until the communist takeover after the Second World War.

     After my return to the dining hall suddenly at 2.00 am the heavy tapestry curtains of the entrance hall were flung wide and three flaming piglets were wheeled in on silver trolleys. Cheers filled the vault as carafes of vodka glowed once more on the tables. Portions of the succulent meat were carved with a flourish.

    The scintillating ball was meandering to its close as we emerged into the night. A yellow sleigh was drawn up waiting for departing guests, its curved sides decorated in crimson banding. A horse covered in a rustic blanket munched some hay carelessly thrown on the ice. Torches burned on either side of the driver, who appeared to be asleep. Flames glittered off the steel runners as I leaned against it and loosened my bow tie.

‘Have you seen the ghost of Umina walking by the lake?’ 

A disembodied voice emerged from the recess of the driver’s fur-lined hood. I could scarcely reply from the surprise of hearing a human voice cracking the silence.

‘No. Umina? Who was she?’

‘Ah, a visitor who comes to the castle and does not know the story of the haunting. Shall I tell you some of it? I used to be a guide here. But now my legs . . . the steps to the dungeon . . . too old now.’

He pushed back the cape to reveal a weathered face, the face of a mountain dweller. His Pieniny dialect was difficult to understand at times, but the tale he told me on that millennium eve has fascinated me ever since.

    It was a confused account, as he delivered it, involving an impoverished eighteenth-century Polish–Hungarian nobleman, his voyage to Peru and marriage to the last princess of the Incas, their flight to Venice after a public execution of revolutionaries, the family forced to flee to Poland from the Venetian island of Burano carrying with them a golden treasure protected by a coded curse. Pursued by Spanish assassins and Serenissima spies they had sought refuge in the ancient castle of Niedzica in the High Tatra mountains of Poland.

     The narrative was rudely interrupted by the arrival of some fifteen sanie (sleighs) with flaming torches for the kulig (sleigh ride) and bonfire in the forest which would conclude that magical evening. I rushed inside to collect the Princess. Amid the drivers shouting and arguing harshly in peasant Pieniny patois, the tinkling of bells, the neighing horses and cracking of whips we set off in minus twenty degrees of frost. A spectacular group of perhaps twenty sleighs snaked between the pines, the women wrapped in furs and the men in heavy overcoats covering their dinner jackets, some smoking pipes and cigars.

   Pale blue light reflected off the moonlit snow, limestone crags and wooden cottages as we bowled along, each sleigh a pool of warm light, the occupants laughing and chattering as sparks from the bitumen torches flew onto their clothing and lodged in their hair or fur caps. The torches blew wildly in the wind and suddenly we were racing. Passing and re-passing on the narrow icy road, the faces of the occupants bathed in light were gleeful, urging the driver on to even greater efforts, the excited horses’ hooves slipping, sparks from the torches speeding in long trails now. 

   Two huge bonfires had been built in a clearing and mulled wine with plenty of cinnamon was served from steaming cauldrons warming our frozen bodies and sedating our minds. Kielbasa (sausages) were attached to long poles and cooked over the resinous flames. Humorous and obscene folk songs were sung around the fire about ‘Maria’ lovingly making pierogi for her faithless husband. The blanketed horses dimly visible under the trees were eating hay.

     Slow on the long return, a heavy pull up the hill to the castle and a luxurious feeling of exhaustion as the steaming animals rested and the fur blankets were taken from around our knees. It was 5.00 am when we finally passed under the stone cross and crawled into bed in the ghost room of the castle. It was noon when I awoke with Zosia in my arms and decided to move to Poland for good. I could not have known then it would take another six years.

                          Christmas scene in Białowieża village in the far north-east of Poland 1993

For details of my book on Poland in both English and Polish 

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland  
(Granta, London 2008 and Czarne, Warsaw 2010) 


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Edward Cahill Biography Completed

Eddie Cahill and his Ridgeback bitch 'Noni' in Somerset West, South Africa 1952.  When she felt she had heard enough of his practicing, she would place her paws on the keys as above to indicate 'Enough!"
Photography by the distinguished English travel writer H.V.Morton, a friend of Edward Cahill.

Just to say briefly to the 'happy few' who may be following this blog that the first draft of my biography of the brilliant Australian concert pianist Edward Cahill (1885-1975) announced in June this year has now been fully edited and completely revised. The work has been recast from being a straight biography to the far more entertaining form of a 'family quest', the subject of the search being my great-uncle. 

The story is so similar  to that of Billy Elliot. An artist emerges from a humble working class background full of prejudice but with extraordinary artistic perseverance and courage triumphs. The difference is that the experience of his formative years takes place in another country (Australia) and in different art (music). This the story of a man wanting to play the piano as a career in a macho, unapologetically masculine late nineteenth century Australia and the prejudices he battled against in the family, in his home town but culminating in adulation in aristocratic circles in Europe. 

The quest into the background of this relation of mine certainly turned up some unexpected treasures and unsettling insights into myself! This journey of discovery - planetary travel, researching, writing and reading has taken me 5 years.

Now I must attempt to traverse the treacherous cliff face of publication in 2015, a year of unprecedented transition in the publishing industry . 

I feel that today we are experiencing a change at least as revolutionary as that from monastic  illuminated manuscripts painted on vellum to the numberless reproductions of text possible on the Gutenberg Press.

The extraordinary private recordings of Cahill's playing that survive from 1935 played on a Grotrian Steinweg instrument (especially commissioned by him from the Braunschweig factory) can be heard here:

Edward Cahill plays Chopin:

Edward Cahill plays Liszt:

Monday, 17 November 2014

Grigory Sokolov - Warsaw, 16 November 2014 - A shattering musical experience

Strangely I go to few concerts in Warsaw these days. The reason became perfectly clear last night. As Thomas Mann said in Dr. Faustus 'Music is a cabbalistic craft.' The problem is that few musicians touch the soul with arcane magic, the spiritual source of all music as in the manner of this evening. I felt the entire programme was perhaps overshadowed, possibly even inspired, by reflections and elegiac thoughts on the recent death of the pianist's wife. Fanciful? Possibly. Certainly there was nothing 'interpretatively standard', no obeisance        towards the conventional in this recital. The utterance of a creative artist.

Sokolov is what Russians call 'a soul' and this became evident from the opening note of his recital. The tempo he adopted throughout was rather moderate for those accustomed to a sparkling, energetic Bach. For me this was all to the good. The Bach Partita in B major BMV 825 (1726). I play the harpsichord and many feel such works should only be performed on this instrument. Such a consideration is utterly superficial and superflous when you hear a musician such as Sokolov transform the work on the piano. Every note, every detail of the rich polyphony was in evidence at this moderate tempo. He extracts so much music from the implications within the score. He added some extra notes here and there which was quite in keeping with baroque performance practice. Bach tells us nothing except what notes to play not how to play them. This = the genius of Sokolov. He deeply considers the dynamic, articulation, phrasing, tone, touch, pedalling (a touch here and there), structure in fact everything he perceives musically he expresses beyond the notation in penetrating detail. And then he forcibly communicates this to us with his mind, heart and soul.

The early Beethoven Sonata in D major Op.10 No.3 was the next work before the interval. I think I have never heard this work in concert before.  Here again he adopted very moderate tempi which revealed usually unheard internal details. Sokolov made much of the small motif that begins the First Movement and allowed it to grow organically, even relentlessly with his phenomenal control over extraordinary varieties and degrees of staccato and legato. The melancholy and pathos of the Largo e mesto would move the very stones to tears. The audience was at one with the pianist in this movement. A powerful silence reigned as this conjurer drew us into the music. We were no longer simply an audience listening to a concert, we were inhabiting the heart of Beethoven's spirit. An extraordinary musical moment I shall treasure. This made the lyricism of the Menuetto even more powerfully joyful and sweet as if the sun had suddenly emerged from behind a cloud. The humour of the Rondo too benefited from the poignancy of the Largo. Then a central mood of rage erupted alternating with shifting emotions punctuated by grotesqueries and quirkiness. Sokolov has the ability to raise previously familiar and possibly underrated early works to extraordinary heights of magnificence and spiritual significance through his deep musical perception and the profound vital force that courses through him.  As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood;

What can I say about his recondite interpretation of the Chopin Sonata in B Minor Op. 58 that could be of the slightest significance? Under the fingers and within the soul of Sokolov the work was transformed into a mighty edifice in an intensely individual conception of the work. Not everyone will like his view of this Chopin sonata...some I am sure would have been irritated. He added extra or different harmonies and progressions here too which did not bother me unduly. It upset the well-informed musical couple seated in front of me who gave a little tremble at this Chopinesque 'blasphemy'. However it may be a variant reading from another autograph edition of the sonata that Sokolov happens to have researched and likes. He does not strike me as a whimsical pianist.  

Again the glorious sound he produces, ravishing tone and his magnificent technique in so many different parameters of keyboard playing, we were drawn inexorably into the heart of his vision of the music, a rare and singular view of the work - so visionary and 'disassembled' in fact that it verged at moments dangerously on the mannered as Sokolov extracted every atom of meaning from the score. 'There are the notes, there is what is behind the notes and there is what is between the notes' to quote the great Ignaz Friedman. But this is to quibble and betray my own musical mediocrity faced with coming to terms with a unique yet self-consistent interpretation. 

Tumultuous applause and 6 encores that lasted another 45 minutes! The new fashion is for three part recitals! Sokolov is very generous with encores in Warsaw. 

Three sublime pieces of Schubert - two of the Impromptus Op. 90 No: 2 and No:4 and the most heartrending account of the Klavierstucke in E-flat major D.946 No.2 I have ever heard. Sokolov understands Schubert as no other living pianist including Alfred Brendel - he conceives of a far more overtly romantic Schubert, a man of a more touching sensibility than the great Austrian pianist envisages. Tears.

Two dreamy and lyrical Chopin Mazurkas in luminous tone (no peasants present here) that drew us into the intimacy of a drawing room presided over by Prince Antoni Radziwill. His tone glorious, his touch like velvet in these works. The seductive perfumes of Sarmatia.

The last encore was a charming waltz by Aleksander Gribojedow that I had never heard before.

Tumultuous applause - shouts and general pandemonium. Cries of 'Genius! Genius!' which were a little too much for me...a new need by audiences betrays itself? Up house lights otherwise we would have been there all night!

How lucky you are if you were in company with me as part of the audience in the Warsaw Filharmonia this evening. Such exceptional musical experiences are given to few of us. Not everyone would have liked this concert however as it was deeply reflective and elegiac in character, perhaps given the recent tragic circumstances of the pianist. 

The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler considered music-making by composer or interpreter as an act of love. He felt Beethoven had clearly ‘loved humanity’ when he was composing the Ninth Symphony. This I felt tonight. I felt at once demolished, wrung out emotionally as I slowly walked home through the clammy autumn night. Yet I was also uplifted and inspired by this powerful manifestation of the tender and creative spirit of man in the face of the great reality of death, surrounded as we are by unspeakable contemporary horrors on every side.