Saturday, 11 May 2013

Champagne and sonatas at Glyndebourne

Last Sunday I went to Glyndebourne, the famous opera venue not far from Lewes, but to hear a piano recital, not to see an opera. The annual Brighton Festival had just kicked off, and I had a ticket to see Paul Lewis play Schubert's last three piano sonatas (numbers 19, 20 and 21).

Paul Lewis is a Big Name and has made rather a speciality of Beethoven and Schubert - see

Schubert was a prolific composer who died in 1828, aged only 32 - see The three sonatas were all composed in September 1828, and must represent his very last work - see

I went with two friends, V--- and K---, and at least part of the attraction was the chance to enjoy a champagne picnic in a bucolic setting, for Glyndebourne is situated in rolling East Sussex downland, and there were sheep and lambs in fields very close by. Here are a few scenes of the lawns we picnicked on, and our own setup on the grass. For once I'll have to break my usual rule of not showing shots of my companions:

As you can see, we had lovely sunny weather! V--- and K--- supplied the food and champagne (two bottles). I supplied the groundsheet and blankets to spread over them, and transport in Fiona. The grounds opened at 1.00pm, and the performance began at 3.00pm, so we had ample time to eat and drink, and then find our seats in the auditorium.

Glyndebourne has been a venue for opera since 1934, but the present large modern building dates from the 1990s. It is basically a round layer cake in red brick, with a dome where the auditorium is, and a vaguely cloister-like gound floor, mostly open to the breeze:

Some of the architecture seems questionable to me, and I hate the monstrous grey cube that sits on the roof over the stage, and presumably houses all the paraphernalia for raising and lowering curtains and stage sets:

Inside however all is well. The auditorium is large and well-appointed, the acoustics are excellent, there is ample legroom, and the loos are handy and very nice. Here are a couple of shots:

The auditorium was packed - very nearly a complete sellout. Fortunately V---, K--- and I all had good seats in row C, though not together. They'd booked a few days in front of me, and so I was off to the left, and they were off to the right, with twenty or so people in between. They could see Paul Lewis' face, but not his hands. I could see exactly how he played, but not his facial expressions. This was in fact what I saw of him from my seat - a pretty good view:

The three sonatas each seemed to be experiments in emotional expression, full of variations on a theme, and although each sonata was a little more tuneful than the last, there was no continuous melody in any of them. It all sounded complex and meaningful, and Schubert had obviously been exploring something important, especially as he was ill and probably thinking that he might die shortly (as indeed he did).

As you can see, Paul Lewis had no score in front of him, and had to play hundreds of thousands of notes entirely from memory, an amazing feat. I found myself paying more attention to how he played than to the music itself. I could see that he attacked the keys in such a way that, even in a melting sequence of rapidly-played notes, each note was distinctly and crisply heard. Schubert's scoring apparently demanded that certain phrases had to be played with immense vigour, so Paul Lewis hammered at the Steinway piano with a ferocious determination. Occasionally he would jerk his arms back from the keys as if electrocuted. It all looked terribly passionate, and V--- and K--- told me that they saw an incredibly intense look on his face. I could well believe it. The piano actually needed a slight retune during the interval, such had been its punishment. The man doing the retuning played some very short test pieces of course, and, unbelievably, I raised a laugh among the crowd shuffling towards the exit by remarking that 'he wasn't quite as good as the main man'. It's the way I say them.

We had only twenty minutes, hardly enough time to grab a coffee and get back to our seats, but V--- insisted on this shot of K--- and myself:

Although the sun was still shining, it was beginning  to get a bit cooler, and a cardigan was in order.

After the last sonata, which I thought ended a trifle abruptly (as if unfinished, like Schubert's symphony), Paul Lewis took a very well-earned round of applause, followed by two more. A pity he  wouldn't stay still for a good shot:

Thus ended my first visit to Glyndebourne for years.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing that I never randomly bump into you. Julian and I were visiting Glynde and had the tour of Glynde Place and tea in their tea rooms only this last Monday! Despite a seeming care for things cultural, a glance at the ugly architecture of Glyndbourne and its hideous wind turbine seems to through their judgement into question.

    You inspired me to begin blogging and an update to mine is long overdue.


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