Bird droppings from Estonia: Chamber music in Catherine's house
Archived Articles 09 Jun 2006 Hilary BirdEWR
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Have you ever heard chamber music in a chamber? I have now. A few weeks ago I tootled off across the Ema river to the Tartu Town Museum to hear mezzo-soprano (my favourite voice) Annaliisa Pillak, from the National opera, and pianist Naily Saripova perform music by Mozart, Schubert and Shostakovitch, none of which I was familiar with.

The museum is housed in what the locals call 'Catherine's House' It's a nice thought but, alas, not true, although Catherine the Great visited Tartu twice. Once on her way to be married to a half wit and the second time when she was Empress of All the Russias.

In 1744 the 14 year-old Princess Sophie Augusta Fredericka of tiny Anhalt-Zerbst in Pomerania, Prussia, was chosen by the Tzarina Elizabeth of Russia to marry her son, Peter. The whole family left Zerbst in January, 1744, stopping in Berlin to see King Frederick II of Prussia and a few days later Sophie said good-bye to her father when she and her mother crossed the river Oder en route to Russia, travelling incognito on the post road to St Petersburg.

The journey, in the middle of winter, was long and arduous. They were met at the border by sledges sent by the Tzarina Elizabeth and travelled the rest of the way in luxury, via Tartu. The second time that Sophie visited Tartu was eighteen years later, when she was Ekaterina Alexeyevna II, Tzarina of all the Russias, and on an imperial progress of the Baltic provinces. Her entourage was suitably grand - three hundred horses were made ready at every posting stage, ten times the usual amount.

The first stage of the progress was overland from Petersburg, to Narva, Tallinn and Paldiski and then by boat to Pärnu and on to Mitau (now Jelgava) the capital of Courland. After this the entourage headed north to Riga, Valga and Tartu. Catherine arrived at Ropka manor, Tartu, in July, 1764, where she was met by Count Karl Sievers and his family. That evening she was entertained by the local nobility and the Yaroslav regiment in great style.

The following day Catherine came into the town. A triumphal gate had been built, her way was strewn with flowers and a choir sang. The Tzarina took a walk around and was greeted by Russian merchants with traditional bread and salt. Later Catherine met the local officials and clergy, followed by a tour of the town fortifications with Governor George von Browne. Governor Browne (1698-1792) was a great favourite of Catherine. His family had been supporters of the last Stuart king of Britain, James II. After the defeat of James at the Battle of the Boyne, the Brownes of Camus, County Limerick, seeing no future for their young son in Ireland, sent him abroad. He joined the Russian imperial army and began a life of high adventure. He was imprisoned three times after various battles, sold as a slave to the Turks, and eventually released. Having shown exceptional skill and bravery, he was appointed Field Marshal by Peter the Great. As Count George von Browne, he became Governor General of Livland. Catherine would not consider letting him go, so he remained in Russia, dying there at the age of 94.

On day three, after lunch, the Tzarina started out for Narva, and then on to St Petersburg. The visit served Tartu in good stead. After a great fire in 1775, Catherine was generous in her response to the catastrophe. The Soviet Arch bridge is a truly poor substitute for the elegant first stone bridge in the Baltic donated to Tartu by the Tzarina after the fire, 'for the augmenting of the Baltic Provinces' and Catherine also made other gifts and subsidies.

Catherine was long gone, however, by the time the city museum house was built for a local nobleman. It's had a chequered career - it has been a lodging house, a club house, a library and a print shop. Nowadays this elegant house - the only one left in the row after the Germans and Russians had finished smashing the town up in 1944 - doubles as a museum and concert venue.

My concert took place with the bright spring sun streaming into a large neo-classical room with a pale parquet floor, pale pink and white faux marbled walls with stucco bas reliefs of Roman arms , two white chandeliers, two large white tiled stoves decorated with cherubim in each corner and several rows of reproduction 18c upholstered chairs. The venue was to die for and the girls certainly rose to the occasion although the room was only <= full of a small but very discerning audience. The programme was wonderful - a set of miscellaneous songs by Mozart and Shostakovich's Spanish Songs and a piano sonata by Schubert. I've never been keen on Schubert but Naily Saripova played the lilting tune so beautifully I'm going to acquire some. And to top the pleasure the whole wonderful hour was a real Euro-treat - both young women were trained in Estonia, the singer had studied at the Sibelius academy in Finland, the Mozart was sung in German and Italian and the Shosters in Russian and the girls have performed in Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany Greece and Italy. More please!
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