At last, with the summer revelries over, some peace has returned to the city. There are still many tourists, but the schools have now re-opened in the northern hemisphere, and the streets and stores are blissfully free of champing children.
The social clubs have re- opened, and there are joyful reunions with friends returned from their summer travels – about which we avidly exchange news and views.
The first of these reunions was with our Hungarian friends. Together we took the two-and-a-half-hour ferry trip east of Stockholm to Sandham – one of the outer-most islands in the magnificent archipelago. Named for its predominantly sandy terrain, this popular island has several beaches, and several picturesque stores and eateries. It is the yachting haven of the wealthy Stockholmers – some call it the “Swedish Riviera”.
The island was first mentioned in the writings of Magnus Ladulås during the 13th century. Up until the mid-17th century it was used mainly for grazing, and then became a piloting station. The hotel built then near the harbour still stands in the same place today.
Throughout the 19th century the increasing traffic brought by the steamboats made Sandham a popular holiday destination within easy hail of the city. The locals supported themselves with piloting and tourism, customs and handcrafts.
We had lunch at the Seglar Bar (Sailors’ Bar): typical Swedish fare of crumbed pan-fried herrings and boiled new potatoes with lingonberry sauce, and local beer. The wind was fresh but the sun bright, and although it was no longer warm enough to swim, we found a warm sheltered beach where we dozed, listening to the sound of the waves, enjoying the tangy scent of the sedge, and simply being.
From this window I watch the inexorable cycle of the seasons – Nature’s ceaseless cavalcade of different moods and characters, dressed first in spring green, with a halo of daffodils, followed by deep green, then gold, and then barren nakedness – later decked in soft snowy shawls, and new green once again.
In September the days become shorter, as the sun turns his smiling favours to the south, and the leaves begin to turn, showering the pathways with copper confetti. Crimson rose-hips sprout in the hedgerows, and the pear and apple trees stoop, laden with overripe fruit, their cidery scent mingling with the loaminess of fallen leaves. Bonfire smoke trails upward, and the musky fragrance of baking scents the chill air with a hint of cozy hearths.
This is the time of year for mushrooming – a favourite autumn activity in Sweden. Many hours are spent wandering through the dappled woods seeking Nature’s bounty: the edible mushrooms – Carl Johan (Cep), Tallblodriskor, kantareller and tagsvamp – avoiding the toxic fungi that do irreparable damage to the liver and kidneys. Once home with our baskets of woodland booty, we chop and fry them in butter; on toast they make a delicious snack.
It is also the time to pick blueberries – eaten fresh from the bushes or baked in a pie.
Asparagus is also plentiful in autumn, delicious baked in a paj (quiche) or savoured with Bearnaise sauce.
It is a time of glorious abundance. Apple juice and cider are made from the locals´own crops in the presses, and jams, jellies, and preserves are traditionally bottled for the long lean months of winter. The open-air markets fill with the glorious fruits of autumn, especially berries and mushrooms.
Sometimes autumn arrives suddenly, with a clap of thunder and a belligerent storm. Sharp winds tear away leaves and wilted blooms with malevolent glee, shrieking at windows and plucking at buttons. Soft rains ensue, and temperatures drop to single figures. Other years the change steals upon us slowly, and summer’s heat fades imperceptibly into autumn’s golden glow – a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Then, on the 23rd, it is Höstjämningen the autumn solstice, marking equal hours of light and dark. The ebullient birdsong of summer seems suddenly to cease, following the sun to my native land. Gone are the breezy calls of the seagulls and terns. Only the little brown sparrows twitter and bicker in the hedgerows, and the blue tits return to the bird-feeder. The harsh caws of crows and jackdaws will be nature’s concert now, until spring returns nine months hence. The old topers hang around on park benches, still able to spend much of the day out of doors, and the gubbar (old men) talk politics over coffee or a beer, for this Kommun has a large Middle Eastern population, and there are many distressing current affairs to discuss.
There is a great deal on offer culturally, combating Nature’s fickle withdrawal: the RSPO symphony concerts resume at the Konserthus, and Sveriges Radio Symfoniorkester at Berwaldhallen. The Operan reopens its doors to eager lovers of opera and ballet, and the delightful lunch-hour concerts resume in the cozy Gustav III’s Cellar. This is a good platform for young up-and-coming artists, including dancers. A half-hour of lunch – salad with cheese or smoked salmon with knäckebröd (crisp bread), a glass of wine, and coffee – is followed by a half-hour of music, in the warm glow of candle-light.
Our group attended a concert at Edsberg Slott beside Lake Edsviken in Sollentuna. This is a satellite school of the Royal Academy of Music, and the students’ performances take place in a charming eighteenth century drawing room painted Wedgwood-blue and gold, the walls decorated with portraits of elegant ladies. Crystal chandeliers illuminate the room, competing with the autumn sunshine which pours through tall windows onto the parquet floor.
The lake can be seen through the windows, edged with brightly-coloured trees which lean, Narcissus-like, over their reflections in the water. Afterwards we savoured hot chocolate and conversation in the Edsviken Konstgalleri Café.
Raili, a retired primary school teacher, offers her voluntary services as a Swedish teacher at nearby Maria Kyrkan. We have an interesting time debating Swedish semantics, and I am grateful for her long-suffering patience as I grapple with the grammatical intricacies of her lyrical language. Raili´s is an interesting story: she was a Krigsbarn (war child), sent during the WW II by her mother from Finland at the age of five with her baby brother to a better life in Sweden. The Russians bombed her hometown, and her poor mother sought shelter with relations elsewhere in Finland. She has had a good life in Sweden, she tells me, and a good education.
On a quest to replace my mislaid Beethoven volumes, I was delighted to find an unlikely source for second-hand musical scores. An eighty-two-year-old gentleman, Bo, runs a cavernous warehouse filled from floor-to-ceiling with scores for every imaginable instrument, ensembles, voice, and orchestra. Having found the rent in his erstwhile shop too high, he moved his precious wares to a warehouse on Lidingö island, east of the city centre. It is a veritable Aladdin´s cave of musical material, and includes text books – reference books, musical lexicons, biographies and autobiographies of famous composers and musicians. You can find Enhöringen Antikvariat at Kyrkgatan 4, Lidingö.
One blustery afternoon we were treated to afternoon tea and a tour of the antique Drottningholm Palace Theatre – a UNESCO World Heritage site situated in the magnificent Drottningholm Royal Park on the island of Lovön in Lake Mäleren.
A gravel driveway, in the middle of which stands a circular flowerbed with a statue of Apollo, sweeps up to the front doors of the theatre. The setting is one of Classical order and symmetry – man’s mastery over the unruliness of Nature. The approach to the Palace is flanked by an avenue of white marble statuary and majestic trees, and green lawns roll down to the lake´s edge. Here local and foreign visitors stroll in the capricious sunshine, enjoy a picnic, or order coffee and cake at the outdoor café. Drottningholm, meaning “Queen’s Islet”, was begun during the late 16th century. It was the seat of the Swedish Royal Court for most of the 18th century, and now, apart from being the private residence of the current Swedish Royal Family, it is a popular tourist attraction.
The theatre was built in 1766 at the instigation of Queen Lovisa Ulrika, who had been given the Palace as a wedding present when she arrived from Prussia to become consort to the future King Adolf Frederick. She was a great patron of science (including Swedish taxonomist Carl von Linné) and the arts – and highly cultivated in the French tradition. The younger sister of Frederick the Great, she had a powerful personality; her political ideal was absolute monarchy.
The Theatre was constructed of simple materials, mainly wood, and is artfully decorated in the Rococo style with painted tromp l’oeil motifs, stucco, and papier mâché. It is a unique attraction, with its original 18th century scener, and 200-year-old stage machinery which works on a pulley system entirely operated by hand. There are also wind, thunder and cloud machines, as well as traps and moving waves. Scenery changes were practiced á vue – that is, in full view of the audience. About thirty stage sets have been preserved, all representing themes from the 18th century stage repertoire.
The first “golden age” of the theatre was initiated by Lovisa Ulrika’s son Gustav III in 1777, and, using celebrated actors, ballet masters, composers and architects, he brought new life to the Swedish opera and theatre. Until Gustav’s assassination in 1792 (the subject of Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera), the repertoire included Gluck’s works, opéras comiques, French Classical dramas, and pantomime ballets. Thereafter, as the fashion for such repertoire became less popular, the theatre fell into disuse, and it lay forgotten for a century and a quarter, until “rediscovered” by the historian Agne Beijer in 1921. After extensive refurbishment, it was reopened to the public soon after.
Today there is an annual Summer Festival of opera and ballet performances, from May to September, offering new productions of 17th and 18th century works – such as those by Monteverdi, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Gluck and Rameau – to audiences from all over the world. Performances are authentically historical, complete with musicians in period costumes, playing period instruments: old wooden flutes, oboes, the newly invented clarinets, and bassoons, valveless trumpets, horns and trombones, a pair of timpani, and harpsichord basso continuo – all with delicately muted timbres. This Theatre is truly a jewel in the Swedish Crown, and here is where I heard – amongst many others a performance of Mozart´s Così fan tutte, the role of Gugleilmo taken by our very own South African baritone Lothando Qave!
On this particular tour I learned about the Swedish Baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman (1694-1758), who composed the so-called “Drottningholm Music” for the Royal Wedding of Lovisa Ulrika to Adolf Frederick in 1744.
Another group tour was to the old Skåneleholms Slott located in the Sigtuna municipality not far from Stockholm. Despite the rain, it was a most enjoyable day trip, beginning with the old medieval chapel, and then this pale pink brick “confection”, looking like a dolls’ house, situated on a lake:
It was built in the Late Renaissance German-Dutch style in around 1639-1643 by Andreas Glydenklou, then the President of the Court of Appeal. The name of this farmstead actually appeared in a deed long before, in 1276, when one Magnus Ladulås sold the property to Sko monastery. The property has had many different owners, including, from 1742 to 1918, by the Jennings family. Herbert Rettig bought it in 1929, and was to be the last private owner, for he donated it to the Royal Academy in 1962 stipulating that is be “kept intact as memorial culture”.
Inside we saw antique furniture, art, books and numerous rustic objects – including 16 flat-irons! – all collected by the Rettig family. There is also a fascinating 18th century Materia Medica, a significant hoard of postcards on the back of which are detailed accounts written by Rettig during the WW II, and a collection of 19th century carriages.
The cultural – and entertainment – highlight of this month was indisputably a riveting performance at the Stockholm Konserthus by the feisty Italian mezzo soprano, Cecelia Bartoli (b 1966) accompanied by I Barocchisti. This small ensemble, directed by Diego Fasolis, play on “original” instruments, the softer-toned Baroque instruments like those at Drottningholm, and include a theorbo – a large plucked string instrument of the lute family, with an extended neck and a second pegbox.
The ensemble performed both alone, and with the Diva. Mme Bartoli specialises in bel canto arias of incomparable beauty and tenderness, but what really brings the house down are her rapid semi-quaver passages, delivered with impeccable articulation, agility and flexibility. She is utterly astounding, and the audience – usually politely passive – was thrilled to the edge of their seats, eliciting no less than four encores. Indicative of their delighted appreciation thereof were several vociferous and enthusiastic standing ovations. For more than two decades Bartoli has thrilled audiences with her operatic performances and recitals, and delighted listeners with recordings of her finely crafted vocal accomplishments – over 10 million copies sold, according to the programme. This was the second time that I have heard this unparalleled artist perform in Stockholm, and I was relieved to procure a programme in English. The concert was the last of her Scandinavian tour, which included the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, Musikkens Hus in Aalborg, and the Oslo Konserthus. Titled “From Venice to St. Petersburg”, the programme included works by Vivaldi, Hermann Raupach (German-Russian) Galuppi, Araia, Hasse and Nicola Porpora. And Mme Bartoli always knows how to dress the part: during the first half of the programme she wore a flowing light blue gown edged in gold trim – with her signature low-cut décolletage showing to great effect her magnificent bosom, and for the second, a blazing white gown with white fur cap and coat. A dazzling sight indeed, to match a dazzling voice.
Basic pie crust: 100 g butter, 200 ml sugar and 300 ml flour
Don’t roll out the dough, just press it into a 24 cm pie dish.
Fill it with 3-4 cups of fresh blueberries, and sprinkle with about 1 tbsp sugar to taste (quantity depends on the sweetness of the berries).
Bake at 200 degrees C for 30-40 minutes
Serve warm with whipped cream or vanilsås (custard)