Friday, 12 March 2010

Getting to know Vienna

I did not mention the the great number of mistletoe plants to be seen adorning the trees everywhere throughout the city. It reminds me of rural France, for we rarely see so much mistletoe in the south east of England.

Today we had a rich breakfast at Moni's and then headed off to Schonbrunn – a palace of such glamour and luxury it made me feel stifled. Here Marie-Antoinette grew up, and there was such a succession of Emperors and other Hapsburgs it is difficult to keep track of them. One, a lad fathered by Napoleon, was reared in isolation in the court and died aged 21 of a lung disease. He had been allowed to practice 'work' as a gardener, and had a pet lark which is preserved now in a glass case as a tiny brown dusty little relic. His death mask is to be seen, and a portrait... a sad and awful destiny he faced, as the 'Great European Powers' deemed him too dangerous to be allowed into the world. Even his mother had to abandon him, and went off to live in Italy.

The public rooms are magnificently furnished, and form a succession of public spaces in which the various princes and princesses were reared, and audiences were held, and balls and banquets. Inside one doorway, a lavatory working on the English principle was installed behind the panelling. Further along, a whole bathroom was fitted inside a wall.

The truly amazing thing about every building we have been into is the array of chandeliers. They are extraordinary, huge, beautiful, flamboyant, various, brilliant, daring, terrifying, stylish, etc etc etc. Even here in our little stable studio we have a lovely glass one, and the monsters we have been seeing in the concert halls and hotels are incredible. Last night at the Musikverein great cylinders of sparkling light hung down the length of the long auditorium. Tonight, we were at the Konzerthaus where the chandeliers are just massive, colossal, with swathes and drapes of glass set in golden frames and the whole ceiling above them divided into fields and swags of gold. It's the only time I've seen 'bare' lightbulbs looking nice, hundreds and hundreds of them dotted around and shining like diamonds. You see them in homes, shops, cafes, staircases, everywhere. You almost expect to see them in the trains and buses.

Last night at the Musikverein we were listening to the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester from Berlin playing Beethoven and Stravinsky, and tonight it was the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony playing Tchaik and Rachmanninov. Both composers wrote works called Francesca da Rimini, and that was what we were able to compare – no contest by the way. The Rach was stupendous.

In both halls, just about every seat was taken, the audience predictably mostly older and mostly very prosperous looking. We estimate at least 10,000 people a night go to a classical concert in Vienna, which is a huge number given that the city is only about 1.8m people.

Another noticeable thing is that so far this week, with three big concerts under our belt, by far and away the top prize for patent leather shoes worn by the players goes to the Bavarian Radio Syphony Orchestra who we heard at the Festival Hall in London last Saturday. Brilliant playing of course but also brilliant feet. Their footwear sparkled. In comparison the Deutsches and the Moscow orchestral players were poorly shod. However the timpanist from Moscow (playing only in the first half) put on a smashing show all by himself tonight, with immense flourishes, flicks of the wrist, stern anticipatory movements, wild finishes for the left hand only, and an almost matronly silencing of the skins each time he wanted to quieten them down at the end of a riff. He deserved applause in his own right for the great display he put on, more like a blacksmith than a musician, and producing magnificent sounds. In the second half he was replaced by another player who attempted some of the same remarkable moves, but maybe he is just a student of the first man.

I should also say that today, after touring the palace of Schonbrunn and having a fine steaming lunch in a cafe in the city centre, we cried off our rendezvous with a bespoke city guide, arranged for us by Willi, because we were just too tired. We spent the afternoon back in our little studio having a sleep, thank goodness. We were tired when we arrived and yesterday was a long day. Tomorrow we are meeting an American opera singer called Sulie Girardo, to deliver to her a parcel of designer stamps she needs, from a friend in Faversham. Later in the day my conference starts, so I shall be up by the United Nations building for the afternoon while Andrew goes to the tram museum.

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