Saturday, 27 April 2013

Variable Dutch cooking and excellent German music

'Van Dobben' croquettes, with odd accompaniments.
Amsterdam, day two: it dawned rather brightly, but with winds of around 25mph mitigating against any desire to wander very much.

Besides, we’d done a lot of walking the day before and very much felt the need for an easy day – not least since a concert awaited in the evening.

More than once I’ve made the mistake of thinking one has to run around – and forgetting that the day’s main event is in the evening and needs treating with due respect.

So after a stroll and a coffee in blustery Vondel Park, where the wind roared in the still-bare trees, we headed back to the Centrum and had lunch at the Café Americain, an Art Deco glory, where Mata Hari legendarily had her wedding breakfast.

I opted for the ‘Van Dobben’ – beef croquettes on sourdough bread, with mustard. Croquettes are popular in many forms in the Netherlands – another national dish is bitterballen, which is like a small, spherical croquette.

These were okay – although the vast doorsteps of bread seemed rather off-putting.

The place was not doing particularly well. Since we were staying at the adjoining hotel, we’d had breakfast there the day before, and decided that it was both overpriced and limited.

Latté – with caramel!
Indeed, the buffet breakfasts that I’d enjoyed in Lübeck had been far, far superior in so many ways. So that morning we’d settled for a coffee (latté with a caramel swirl! Who knew that burnt sugar could be so wonderful?) and a choc chip muffin at one of the cafés on the Liedseplein.

After lunch, the next few hours were spent in rest – much needed – before we headed back out and down to the Concertgeboew.

It had largely been a question of deciding, once we knew when we were going to be in the city, of looking to see if anything was on.

Since it turned out that Riccardo Chailly was conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a performance of Mendelssohn’s second symphony, with a modern piece by Hans Werner Henze to complete the programme, I had booked tickets.

We’ve been to the hall before twice. First, to a ‘family’ matinee to hear Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals and Ravel’s Bolero, and then on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2009 we were there to see a traditional Netherlands concert that left us simply confused, turning out to be nothing that we could understand – not least because we had no clue who the TV personalities that were involved were.

This, however, was a horse of an entirely different musical colour.

But to start with, it’s worth noting that the hall, which was designed by Adolf Leonard van Gendt and opened in April 1888, has a reputation for some of the best acoustics around.

We had decided that, since there is a café, we’d eat there in the evening.

It didn’t look promising when we discovered that there was just the one option for a hot meal – chicken breast with a crust, served with a whole, roasted apple with a coconut meringue on top, and gratinéed endive.

Chicken, gratinéed endive and a baked apple.
As it happened, it also came with huge bowls of salad and more doorsteps of dark bread. And it turned out to be really very pleasant.

It was perfectly complimented by a glass of Grüner Veltiner 2010, an Austrian white wine, on the side.

And so to the music.

The Henze piece (a Dutch premiere) was Elogium Musicum, a choral piece, written in 2008, just four years before the composer’s own death at the age of 86, and as a form of obituary for his partner of 40-odd years, Fausto Moroni.

It is a setting of a specially-commissioned libretto by Latin scholar Franco Serpa – but the Latin here is not liturgical.

We had a sheet that gave a translation into Dutch, but I was able to find one into English via my phone: just as Amsterdam is not merely Sodom and Gomorrah, the internet is not just about porn and kittens.

At present, there is no recording of the work – although it has been performed in a number of countries and been critically acclaimed. It’s not difficult to understand why.

The music is fascinating – very modern, but with moments that hark back, in places, to the lyricism of the 19th century.

A rather fine concert hall.
There is a great sense of the natural world here, rather than any religious one – although the final poem does suggest a more deist idea of life.

But this is not a pastoral idea of nature – rather, it seems to link to that German forest again: here is darkness; foreboding; threatening sounds hidden amongst the trees; something at once primal and ancient.

It reminded me of the echoing crows in that small wood on the way back to the station at Travamünde.

Indeed, the second piece, for instance, talks of “vultures, dark crows, black menacing monsters raucously cawing”: this is Henze’s pain and loss reflected through a nature that is dark and threatening.

In the third piece, the female voices become chattering crickets, with the male voices complaining, and it ends with a dramatic ‘Basta!’ (‘Enough’).

I do hope that someone records this soon, because I very much want to listen to this again.

In sharp contrast, Mendelssohn’s second is the choral symphony known as ‘Lobgesang’, or ‘Hymn of Praise’, and has three orchestral movements, followed by 11 vocal ones.

The perfect end to an evening.
It was written in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of printing – which rather reminded me of the little corner of the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where a replica Gutenberg press stands, ready to turn a coin into a medal to mark your visit.

The role of printing in the Reformation is a point of reference too – not least in that original Catholic and later Lutheran church.

The music soared in true 19th century Romantic fashion, with fine singing from both the choir and the three soloists. In particular, Genia Kühmeier has a beautiful, crystal-clear soprano.

It was a fascinating counterpoint to the Henze.

But by gum – what an energetic conductor is Chailly: it intrigues me just what utterly different styles different conductors have.

Back at the hotel, we hit the cocktail bar to finish the night.

There we were, sitting sipping a Black Widow in my case, and something blue in The Other Half’s, when a woman nearby suddenly asked what they were.

No, ‘excuse me’ or ‘pardon’ – just: “What are those?”

Older people these days, eh?

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