Tuesday, 5 January 2021

And a darkling thrush sang on New Year's Eve

With a single suggestion, JohnG in his comment below brought a jangling deep in the brain to the forefont: the situation fits Hardy's wonderful poem 'The Darkling Thrush' to perfection. Like Hardy, I had my epiphany, on New Year's Eve when even the walled garden of Fulham Palace seemed bare of interest in the grey and cold; only a few sprouts remained to be taken off their stalks.

Anticipation of 11pm, last midnight for Britain as far as continental Europe was concerned, intensified a plunge in mood, probably the most intense I've felt for a long while.

Then, against the irritation of the parakeets' shrieking, I head a more liquid tone. Two films, too big to upload here, apparently, start with two of those green cheekies high up, though the prolonged singing is worth it. Eventually, I found the songster, and filmed it directly, even if only for 21 seconds. 

The river scene could hardly have been more different from Christmas Day, when I made a quick bike trip near sunset. Thus the 31st 

and below, the 25th - what looks like 'seven swans a-swimming', fitting for the 31st, is in fact seven Canada geese in convoy. I used to berate these populous birds with their nasty poo messing up the lawns at Kew, but I love to see them gliding and flying up and down the Thames.

Xmas evening also gave us a very clear moon.

which somehow I still find more fascinating than the close conjunction of Saturn and Neptune - momentous because of the fact, but not in itself spectacular, two stars close together in the sky. With a telescope that would let you see Saturn's rings, sure.

Meanwhile there was an avian wonder to get excited about in a more recent stroll through Margravine Cemetery, very bird- and tree-rich. This bird, part of a flock flitting from tree to tree, I thought was a mistle thrush, as opposed to the song variety in Fulham Palace Gardens, but my ornithological friend Freddie says it's a redwing, like the ones we saw (but not so close) in the (now closed) London Wetland Centre the other week. In a couple of months, they'll fly back to Scandinavia or Iceland.

Old Brompton Cemetery is more spectacular to wander in than its Margravine counterpart, but less rich in diverse fauna. I did make a conscious effort to search for the first snowdrops, and found some where I always see them, to the left of the main avenue.

I even came across a solitary clump of daffodils; here's the sun lighting up one of them.

But I get ahead of myself, in more ways than one; my autumn photojournals are still not yet done, and I shan't give up. We need hope of more light at the moment, our darkest time in terms of another lockdown that's going to be the grimmest, even though there's more long-term hope. And I'm acutely aware of friends who are on their own. If you need a call and happen to be reading this, let me know.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Fidelio/Leonore and more Russians: Zoom 2021

Zoom has been my salvation in 2020, and not just in terms of keeping financially afloat. To realise how much it's meant not just to an ever-expanding group of students but also to the great performers who so generously found the time to make special guest appearances has been (and I don't use the term lightly) humbling. We've had wonderful appearances from Sue Bullock, Anne Evans, Richard Jones and John Tomlinson (captured below, looking more Gurnemanz than Wotan - he was in fact talking Hagen - at the class by a student) over the 10 Mondays on Wagner's Götterdämmerung, completing our Ring survey over three and a half years. In the latest Russian music term covering 1910 to 1917 there's been enlightenment on Stravinsky's Petrushka from Gergely Madaras, on his Rite of Spring from Andrew Litton and Catherine Larsen-Maguire (extended to two whole classes), and on Scriabin from Alexander Melnikov and Peter Jablonski.

For all of us involved on a regular basis, it's given a shape to the week, and for many, an alternative to live performances (for which, of course, there's no real substitute, but needs and circumstances must). Take the two one-offs on the Tchaikovsky ballets - The Sleeping Beauty on 30 December and The Nutcracker on the 21st. They came about because one student lamented that she would no longer be able to go to any of the planned, socially distanced Nutcrackers given the third, and severest, lockdown of the year. We could at least share our pleasure in the beauties of these amazing masterpieces. I can't resist featuring again the late, much missed Maria Björnson's most ravishing design for the Royal Ballet Sleeping Beauty that came in for so much stick (I hymned the whole achievement on the blog here). Watched the entire DVD again yesterday and for me it's still the most magical Beauty. This is the Panorama from the second act, turned into a winter's tale.

These were also interludes between terms on Russian music - the first two have taken us from Glinka to Prokofiev's observations on the end of 1917, while the next covers 1917 to 1953, mainly but not exclusively Soviet (we have to follow the adventures of Prokofiev and Stravinsky in the west, too). I planned the Opera in Depth term to begin on 11 January with Beethoven's Fidelio (image up top, of the excellent Garsington Opera concert staging, by Johan Persson) and its original version, Leonore - on the special urging of Mark Wigglesworth, who's just conducted Fidelio for Opera North and wants most of all to 'do' Leonore at English National Opera - before moving on for the following five Mondays to Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel; as far as I can remember - and my records are still stored on the previous computer which went bust - I haven't covered it in over 30 years of Opera in Focus/Depth and it would tie in with what we're doing in the other course. It's also unclear what the main companies will be staging, so why not take advantage of an opera that's not appearing in any repertoires for the foreseeable future? By summer it should be clearer what the two last operas of the season should be.

Here's my planned itinerary for Russian music 1918-1953, subject to change depending on circumstances and special visits. Pictured below: Nikolay Myaskovsky and Sergey Prokofiev, friends born 10 years apart, in 1927, detail of a photo taken from the first volume of my Prokofiev biography (sorry to link to Amazon, but my online seller of choice, hive.co.uk, reports it out of stock).


1: Adventures abroad, dark times at home  7 January

Prokofiev travels to America while Myaskovsky stays at home and remains true to his characteristic moods of gloom and pessimism. Myaskovsky's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies contrasted with Prokofiev's shorter works of 1918-19 and the exuberance of The Love for Three Oranges.

2: Stravinsky in Switzerland; the Ballets Russes transformed   14 January

Stravinsky's Russian trilogy begins with the small-scale experiments of Renard (Baika) and L'Histoire du soldat. Ever the seeker after novelty, Diaghilev engages a fresh range of artists to work with composers old and new. With special emphasis on Prokofiev's Chout (Larionov design pictured below) followed by Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Les noces (Svadebka).

3: Enter Shostakovich  21 January

A precocious teenaged Petrograd/Leningrad Conservatoire student bursts upon the scene with his First Symphony, and goes on to mark the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution with his Second. 

4: State control  28 January

The move to bring unruly proletarian musicians' associations under one main banner looks encouraging to Prokofiev, encouraging him to develop closer ties with the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, though, suffers for the outlandishness of his two brilliant full-length ballets.

5: 1936  4 February

The Pravda attack on Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (pictured below: Svetlana Sozdateleva in Helikon Opera Moscow's production at Bologna) is a further blow to freedom of musical expression. Prokofiev arrives back in Moscow with his family at the wrong time. What he and Shostakovich did next.

6: New steps in film music  11 February

Shostakovich has long been experienced in writing for both silent and sound pictures before Prokofiev takes centre stage in 1938 with his music for Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky

7: Terror and war  18 February

How Russia's dramatic entry into the Second World War opened up freedom in music again. With special emphasis on Prokofiev's so-called 'War' piano sonatas (6-8) and selected Shostakovich quartets.

8: Three great symphonies  25 February

Prokofiev's Fifth and Sixth, Shostakovich's Eighth - the apogee of dark expression in the symphonic sphere. Pictured below; Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian in 1940

9: The screw turns again   4 March

Zhdanov's notorious trials of 'formalism in music' banish the possibilities of dissonance and anguish expressed in music. How 'Soviet' composers coped in the aftermath.

10: An end and a new beginning  11 March

Prokofiev's death on 5 March 1953, the same day as Stalin, has often been described, with sorry understatement, as 'ironic'; it was one of many Soviet tragedies. It was left to Shostakovich to celebrate his survival in the Tenth Symphony, completed after both men's deaths. Pictured below: Shostakovich in Leipzig, 1950.

I can see from this that I haven't managed to fit everything in: there may well be an extra class on Prokofiev's War and Peace. But let's see how we go. If anyone wants to join who isn't already on my list of students, just leave a message here with your email address. I won't publish it, but I shall certainly reply.

Friday, 25 December 2020

Season's greetings: sacred and profane

Two images to wish you a reflective day and a better 2021. The first is a detail of two Nativity panels from the magnificent medieval east window of St Peter and St Paul East Harling, greatest glory of our walk this year for the Norfolk Churches Trust. Between four of us we raised £2,700 - but the real achievement was being able to do it, and finding two-thirds of the churches open, with careful social distancing rules fully observed.


The second is a detail of our alternative presepe - Gloria alla Josephine Baker. Yes, we have some bananas. It's a fairly international scene including Czechs, Swedes, Italians, Indians and a famous Spaniard.

I doubt if you'll be short of things to watch, and the day is beautiful, so walk while it's light if you can, but this is what we saw this time last year - a consummate concert performance of Tchaikovsky's glorious score for The Nutcracker conducted by the adorable Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I used portions of it in one of my classes for the 19th century segment of the Russian Music course on Zoom, and again in the one-off session on The Nutcracker I held on Monday, to try and atone a bit for the fact that some students were bereft of the live Nutcrackers they'd planned to see. Today we'll finally catch up with Balanchine's Nutcracker - a quick dip shows that he does the crucial tumescing-Christmas-tree sequence justice, AND includes the usually excised Mother Gigogne number.

Enjoy the day and switch off from all dire news from the outside world. We meet again for two hours on the complete Sleeping Beauty score on the afternoon of the 30th - let me know if you'd like to join. More on next term anon.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

60 days of London autumn: 2 - October

Since a mostly golden October declined into a sombre November and December, with a few hours here and there of light and the most spectacular sunsets, I've managed to keep the afternoon walks up on days when I don't have Zoom classes (it's already dark by the time those end at 4.30-5pm). There's a certain beauty to the skeletal frames and shapes of leafless trees. But this sort of autumnal peak seems like a very long time ago. October was also the month when I finally discovered the London Wetlands Centre on my doorstep, a gift that will keep on giving with the winter migrations. 

Yet that will largely be the subject of the November diary. Meanwhile, until the last week of October also comes into the picture, we have the usual suspects. I dealt with the wet but inspiring Mile End weekend here. Two days later, it was back to the Walled Garden of Fulham Palace, which keeps showering us with surprises. On our September picnic, a swarm of giant dragonflies; on 6 October, a flock of goldfinches. I wondered if I one would settle long enough for me to catch it, but this is one of several obliging poses.


 Robin, yes, much commoner, but always singing (several still are - territorial even in November).

And just one rewarding clump of bracket fungus on a noble ash.

Another of those jolly autumn times with ma in Banstead, excurting to the Chai cafe and sitting outside in warm sun, gave me more chance to commune with my favourite churc, because so known over years as a chorister, All Saints Banstead, with its square tower once presumed a kind of defence and lookout (Banstead is one of the three highest places in Surrey, apparently - I know Leith Hill is No. 1).

The light was almost too bright for the faces in the Victorian stained glass, but since it's relevant now, here's an Annunciation

and the Adoration of the Kings.

Next time I must check out the west window, usually difficult to see because you can't get at the belfry, which includes saints designed by Rossetti and Morris. But I've long been fond of the above.

Kensington Gardens was a frequent haunt for social-distance walks with Sophie in the spring - I hope to see her there tomorrow now that our Xmas Day together can't go ahead - and in earlyish autumn it was still lush.

No sign of the solitary, ever-diving Great Crested Grebe, but here's a Shoveller - I've become very fond of this duck with its spade-like beak from observing a constant pair in the Wetlands -

and the cormorants like to hang it with the seagulls on the row of posts across the northern end of the Serpentine, drying their wings.

The sculptures in the Victorian Water Garden also repaid closer examination, a fine ensemble with the water beyond.

Much was still flourishing in the Chelsea Physic Garden on 14 October (I grudgingly renewed my membership despite their depriving us of the Tangerine Dream cafe). Dahlias still thrive well into November; this. I think I'm right in saying, is the 'Honka Pink' in the richest-flowering zone of the Dicotyledon Order Beds.

Artichoke flowers nearby are all but over, yet still striking (more of this sort in Battersea Park still to come).

Last leaves on a potted fig

and plentiful shiny, inviting fruit on Punica granatum (bark excellent for dealing with tapeworm) - the pomegranates last well into late winter, even when the leaves have gone.

Basella alba 'Rubra', with the loveliest of leaves at this time 

and tinted varieties of the long-running sunflower, their heads turned away from the statue of the resident deity, Sir Hans Sloane (*slavery alert*, but we're Fotherington-Thomasing right now).


Lemons in October - Citrus trifolliata from China/Korea

in the formal beds, close to Impatiens tinctoria.

Magnolia grandiflora has lost its flowers and thus its heavenly if sometimes overpowering scent, but the seedhead remains compelling.

Not a fungus in sight here - though a return to Kew on the 16th helped me locate the trees under which I've always found the wax-cap (or related) mushrooms in plenty.

Nearby, a lone magnolia bud was going against all seasonal instincts and hoping to flower.


 Into the wooded zone, and the colours were at their peak on beeches, maples and oaks.

More myceliums at the roots.

The river scene, unchanging except in terms of leafing,


and colour alongside the Temple of Bellona by the Victoria Gate.

More of the same on the main thoroughfare through Kensington Gardens alongside the Palace the next day.


Holland Park was deep into autumn, and visitors packing out the Japanese garden. With difficulty, I excised the crowds and tried to keep my distance.

Carp, meanwhile, swam lazily in the leaf-reflecting pond 

 and acers provided a red backdrop to the ever-growing bracket fungi on a tree in the woods.


Back at Fulham Palace's Walled Garden, or - here - just outside it, the gingko leaves still hadn't turned

and the bees were still finding sustenance in dahlia flowers

while produce was still being gleaned from the vegetable beds (on a last visit, only a netted group of Brussels sprout plants remained).

More towers, the one known as the Shard barely seen through the low rain clouds to the right of the church by Lambeth Palace on my way from coffee with Richard Jones at Tate Britain (good to walk with a handful of others through the collections here).

The Shard's illuminated night-time self is more clearly seen to the right of Southwark Cathedral on 22 October.

I came here with Sophie and J for the first of two inspiring concerts presented under relaxed circumstances by the City of London Sinfonia. Perumbulations were possible - here I'm passing the monument featuring Alderman John Humble, his wife and daughter, made by Flemish craftsmen settling in the area (Southwark is proud to note its long-term welcoming of refugees).

Another excursion westwards, can't remember what for exactly now, to Hammersmith's King Street led me on to cycle around an area I'd never explored, but heard about from our friend Cally who lives on the other side of the Great West Road, blight of late 1950s planning, which now bifurcates a treasurable part of Hammersmith/Chiswick. St Peter's Square has very grand houses with eagles above somewhat pretentious columned porticos.

Eagles, I'm guessing, because of St Peter, the church to whom was consecrated in 1829 when there was nothing around it but meadows, market gardens and smallholdings.

Architect Edward Lapidge followed the neoclassical style, and the stone Ionic columns and portico aren't bad.

Thence to the undisturbed Mall by the river on the other side, where you can't hear the rumble of traffic on the main road. This big house which, like all the others, has a 'front garden' on the other side of the road, right by the edge of the Thames. You can just see its prize dahlias over the wall, where purple-flowering sage (not illustrated here) is still going at the time of writing (23 December). 

And so, finally, to the first revelation of the London Wetlands Centre on the afternoon of Hallowe'en. The first distinctive bird we saw from one of the hides was a solitary visitor listed in their daily round-up, 

Herons of course are ubiquitous, but characterful both in flight and in repose

This one foregrounds the main mere rather well, and we are told to pay more attention to the wintering range of seagulls.

Over at the hide by the Wader Scrape, we could hardly believe our eyes - a crane! But surely they're not to be seen in the wild here. On the route to the west, there are zones with wildfowl of the world, each in a separate zone. And here, later, I saw one of the two Demoiselle cranes - this must be the other, and it must have been able to fly out to the wider spaces. Anyway, there's a hope soon that cranes may breed here, just as they have spontaneously in the Norfolk broads, where I heard but didn't properly see them.

The first of many spectacular autumn/winter sunsets over the Wetlands followed - I have some greater beauties in store for November and December - and by the time I cycled into the home square, the full moon was up

and bids this post an elusive farewell between the branches and leaves of the London planes.