Saturday, 22 July 2017

Fulham Palace's Walled Garden of Eden

Last time I walked through the old gate to the walled garden of Fulham Palace, a green space-within-a-space in Bishop's Park by Putney Bridge and the river, the greenhouses were dilapidated and broken-windowed, the knot garden still going but scrubby, the rest of what turns out to be an enormous enclosure dating from the 1760s just wild. That must have been four or five years ago, and even back in 1986 the initial view was this (from photos of photos taken on a riverside walk with my Edinburgh friend Ruth). Of course ruins have their own peculiar charm.

And now it's this:

The 'vinery' and knot garden have survived from the 1820s. The wisteria, over a century old, is still going strong. Obviously May would be its peak flowering season but there were some blossoms still on it.

and here you can see how it fringes the glasshouse/knot garden zone.

The gate, with Bishop FitzJames's much-erased coat of arms dating it to the early 16th century, didn't need much doing to it, but it was in danger of collapsing. A rather thin person standing by it in '86

and now (with All Saints Church just over the south-east wall).

Much of the restoration work is due to lottery fund money; the palace, home to the Bishops of London from the 11th century up to 1973 and with main buildings ranging from Bishop Fitzjames' time to those of Bishop Howley (1814-15, the south-east front) and of Bishop Tait (the chapel, 1866-7 - worth seeing, apparently, though it's not been open on my visits), has been a splendid beneficiary. This old map, which I photographed hanging on the walls of the Palace interior, shows the essence of the place with the walled garden clearly defined; the area called The Warren is mostly allotments, generously handed over for that purpose to the public by one of the Bishops, and you see a moat filled with water. Putatively dating from Roman times (!), it's dry now but plenty of work was being done on it when I visited on Wednesday.

At present only a few rooms are open with choice museum exhibits or for rather good refreshments; a further drive for funding will see more visible to the public in the years to come. Already the planting outside the old wing of the palace is a sign of improvement

and within, the offices around the courtyard are to be reclaimed in the further opening-up.

I don't know the proportions for work on the Walled Garden - presumably enough to pay for a head gardener of superlative vision, Lucy Hart, and to encourage the training of apprentices - but the folk I came across all working away in an idyllic setting on a hot afternoon were mostly volunteers. This was the moment of epiphany: ordered glasshouses are one thing, but transformation on this scale, and the evidence of loving human hands on it, brought tears to my eyes.

There are 200 volunteers at Fulham Palace, and I'd like to join the garden team for half a day a week. Fruit and vegetables are sold at an average of £2 per punnet from a 'barrow' just on the edge of the cultivated zone.

I bought tomatoes, a pepper plant, plums and courgettes picked to order. It would have been tempting to pick up and eat the fallen plums from the big tree in the middle of it all, but fair deal - get the folk to gather them for you and pay to support the work.

Returned yesterday, but there was no-one at work, and only baby red onions for sale. So it's a lucky dip. Still, the magic persisted.

Beyond the barrow are beehives - must find out when they gather the honey and put my name down for a couple of jars, if possible, as I used to do at Chelsea Physic Garden before the yield dwindled.

Thousands of dahlia plants with the dark leaves I love line the area, up against the wall and half the way round. Great for the bees, obviously.

I can't resist two more flower-and-bee shots from the central beds.

The cultivation is a mix of vegetable plots and lively planting - marigolds round the edge, obviously, to keep off the pests,

but also gladioli,

lilies (with the early 19th century front of the Palace just visible over the wall)

and more splashes of colour.

They've planted young fruit trees in plots hidden by the long tall grass, but the central rows of mature varieties still thrive

and provide a foil to the garden beyond if you walk round to the quiet southern side.

The greenhouses once lodged more exotic species - in 1853 the head gardener was proud of his grape harvests and his pineapples, while nearby there was a melon pit - but the tomatoes and beans are doing very nicely here, with a flavour you just can't get from supermarket purchase.

What's happened here is even more impressive than the restoration of Chiswick House's gardens - my other nearest haunt on biking breaks along the river from work. The journey itself is treasurable.

On Wednesday the tide was low and a variety of birds including a cormorant next to an Egyptian goose and various gulls were lolling peaceably on the little islands.

Those rather cheery creatures the black-headed gulls, so much more appealing than their bigger, noisy, scary sea brethren, were wading and skreeking in the mud

whereas yesterday, with the tide very much in, they were content to bob along

Sanctuary was now to be found on the old wooden structures mid-Thames

with the cormorants perfectly happy here

while the Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) - please correct if I've misidentified - now gathered together, looking a bit cold and intimidated, at the foot of steps up to a former wharf.

Let's end on another historic contrast: Ruth by Butler's Wharf in 1986

and how it looks now, gentrified into a gated set of flats, with Richard Rogers' Thames Wharf conversion beyond.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

After Pelléas, Ariadne and Tito

'Ah! I breathe at last!...I thought for a moment that I was going to be ill in those enormous vaults.' Following Pelléas's cue as he emerges onto a sunlit terrace after a terrifying time in the depths of the gloomy old castle, I think most of us in my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club were glad to get out into the sunny streets of Paddington after the last of four and a half Monday afternoon immersed in the world of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Some of us will be staying in the light for Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos next Monday. Pelléas was hard emotional work, though. It's probably the most exquisitely refined and orchestrally ravishing operatic score ever written, but as a drama more cruel and harsh than it is soft and beautiful.

We've been aware of its multiple meanings, but above all how it functions both as the most straightforward triangle - as Richard Jones put it to me when I first met him as he was working on the ENO production, 'two men fall in love with the same woman, with disastrous results' - and as so much more, partly intimated by Arthur Symons: 'we have two innocent lovers, to whom love is guilt; we have blind vengeance, aged and helpless wisdom; we have the conflict of passions fighting in the dark, destroying what they most desire in the world'.

Ascribe that first to Maeterlinck's nightmarish play, following his obsession with the destruction of the young by the old. Of course Debussy completely transfigures it with his music of nature, reaching its most dreamlike, minimalist, barely-audible apogee in the scene at the grotto by the sea. But he knows how to unleash the full harshness  - at the end of Act Three and in Act Four, in the scenes of the insanely jealous Golaud's abusive cruelty to his son and wife, the musical violence is extreme. This made an interesting comparison with the pathology of the protagonist in Verdi's Otello, on which we'd spent the first five and a half weeks of the summer term - the difference being that Golaud has real cause for his jealousy, whereas Otello does not.

As well as snippeting sound recordings by Désormière - the classic and text-unsurpassable 1941 recording with Irène Joachim and Jacques Jansen - and by Karajan, featuring an superb José Van Dam and Frederica von Stade, we stuck for visuals with the 1999 Glyndebourne production by Graham Vick on DVD. I'm kicking myself that I never saw it at the time; apart from possibly being the most visually arresting production ever seen at the Sussex house, with its flowers under the floor, spiral staircase and peeling gold walls, the focus on nuance from John Tomlinson, Christiane Oelze and Richard Croft is ideal for video close-up. We came away devastated from the tower scene (Mélisande actually hangs backwards from a huge deco light, as you can see in the DVD cover up top) and, yesterday, from the disturbing death of Act 5, as quiet and strange as the lovers' unaccompanied 'je t'aime'/'je t'aime aussi'.

Much more to say on this, but the advertising point here is that we move on and for the next two Mondays, I've added two extra one-off classes on Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (24 July) and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito (31 July), tying in with the Glyndebourne productions (scene from the Ariadne opera in the 2017 revival, image by Robert Workman). Same time, 2.30pm-4.30pm, location a private house generously loaned by a friend just down the road from our usual venue. the superb Frontline Club. If you're interested in coming along, leave a message here with your email. I won't publish it but I promise to reply.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Around Wagner in Budapest

Seven full days in Budapest, six of them given over to Wagner starting (with the exception of Das Rheingold) at 4pm: it's been a lot to digest and while I've posted about the full Ring + Rienzi + Parsifal experience on The Arts Desk and on the blog about a day up the Danube by train and back again by boat, I felt I ought to cover the peripherals around the musical experience to be followed by a final fling on the animals in the two city zoos.

Let this be a retrospective diary of sorts, then, starting with 15/6, arriving with only an hour or so to spare before the 6pm start of Das Rheingold in the evening - a beautiful, balmy one, as you can see in the picture taken from the balcony of the Müpa concert complex after Rheingold looking out on the ziggurat which seems to have sprung up at the same time as the halls, no-one seems to know quite why, and the Danube looking north towards the Buda hills. And let me introduce you to the American couple who put on a show of their own at all six performances.

Apparently they travel the world to see Wagner, being something of a Bayreuth fixture, and while many folk I spoke to tutted at their show-offiness, I thought their ritual walkabout before and during the intervals of each opera added a bit of extra theatre. You'll gradually note that each day brought forth a new colour in design, though since I wasn't going to behave like a paparazzo, what you mostly won't see is that he wears colours to match her dress, hat and parasol somewhere in his apparel.

We stayed for the duration of the Ring in an apartment kindly loaned by J's friend Marie-France, Belgian Ambassador living in a very done-up old building on the north-east side of Buda's Castle Hill. We got back late after Rheingold, having failed to find an appropriate eatery open near to the Residency, but we did sit on the terrace drinking champagne with Marie-France into the small hours. On getting off the No. 2 tram to cross the Chain Bridge, we'd had a splendid post-Valhalla encore from a man on the musical glasses: this is the reprise of his Khachaturian Sabre Dance.


On 16/6, Walküre day, late rising meant a leisurely breakfast at the excellent Coyote Cafe near  Batthyány Square, then a climb up the nearest steps past a fine neo-Gothic/Medieval mansion

and down again

via a park below the walls with one of several old Budapesters sleeping quite happily in the company of pigeons

to the northern end of the citadel. I noted the Museum of Musical Instruments with its Bartók Archive but never got back to visit either that or Bartok's house out at the Buda Hills (saved up for a future visit; there were too many options and not enough time).

A storm was about to break

so we took refuge under the awning of the nearby Hungarian Kitchen and had an average lunch in pleasant surroundings,  watching the downpour

as well as the lady opposite inspecting it from her first-floor window.

and afterwards looking at the decoration on neighbouring buildings in the street, modern like the one opposite and otherwise of varying antiquity.

It has to be remembered that the Buda Hill, naturally a strategic point, has been so overrun by various hordes and wiped out at various times that very little of the original fabric remains. And now Orbán in his vulgarity is making things worse around the Royal Palace. These bullet-holes are a reminder of the storming of Buda by the Russians before the end of World War Two.

Our setting off for Müpa on the three afternoons of the main Ring operas saw us weave our way through the local streets down to the riverside - this is a shot from the next, sunnier, hotter day -

cross the Chain Bridge and take the No. 2 tram to the halls - always a lively mix of locals and Ring-goers. I noticed on one return journey especially how lively and expressive the Budapesters are in public places, a bit like the Neapolitans (who in turn struck us as so vivacious alongside the sober Romans on our first visit to the great southern cornucopia-city).

Arrival in good time meant one of those delicious lemonades laden with chopped-up fruits in which the Hungarians excel - at Müpa I always had one with cherry syrup; since J won't permit a shot of the ritual since he's in it, I have to settle for a look at the diverse crowds gathering.

Something I either missed before Rheingold or which only happened in the three-acters, was the Bayreuth-style brass fanfares on themes from the Ring, played on escalators, the balcony where we often sat, and in the main foyer. Here's the Volsung call to action, first of more little films with which I'll plague you in this post.


Below is The Couple nicely framing love's young dream, typically attractive Budapesters who give you an idea of how pleasantly mixed the audiences were (see it as a homage to Weegee but with youth replacing poverty). Lots of Brits and Americans - so a bad idea to give supertitles in Hungarian and German only - but very many Hungarians. I'm told a good seat for the whole tetralogy is 250 euros, which I'd gladly have paid for the best Wagner imaginable - indeed, this Ring means I don't need to see another in its entirety for another 10 or 20 years.

And now, here's the second interval summons of the day, the annunciation of death .


Shortly before it, I noticed the wild skies, the mix of sun and rain,

and rushed to the other side of the hall where on the north-facing balcony I found what I was looking for.

The second of those images is even more pertinent than anyone who hasn't seen the always imaginative visuals for Fischer's concert staging can imagine: up in Valhalla in the gods' scenes of Rheingold, we see just such a crane, against a clear blue sky actually, and after a glimpse of the building itself - which must have been new when the film was made 10 years ago - there's a rainbow too, of course.

Not sure why I don't have a film of the fanfare to the third act, just one more shot of the dramatic massing of clouds at sunset.

17/6, Siegfried day: sunny but windy and chilly in the shade. As it was the weekend Marie-France was at liberty. So, too, was her adorable Alsatian Király ('king' in Hungarian), a rescue dog who was in a terrible state when he first came to the German Embassy but is now a sleek soppy who leaps all over you. His favourite toy is a battered plastic watering can.

We had only to walk five minutes up some of the steps and along to breakfast with our adored and brilliant friend Ildikó, who's made a life back in Hungary after her days as cultural diplomat in London, a city she loves and a post which suited her - but it wouldn't under the new regime. She now works for an animation company, independent of the government. Her breakfast could hardly have been more sumptuous,

and the views from her balcony rather wonderful - you can just see the Parliament Building in the distance here.

Our stroll back to the Embassy took us down more steps further along, with street scene duly adjusted,

back past a splendid Baroque fountain with two sides to the statue

and up along Donáti Utca, where the neighbouring mansion is even more splendid.

This Saturday was fatigue day - it's tough on the spectator not having two days' grace between the three big Ring operas - so we napped until it was time to make our usual way to Müpa. And there, as we sipped our lemonades, was The Couple, in blue this time.

I'll give you the three fanfares in close succession this time.




One more sunset shot between Acts 2 and 3, looking towards the Buda Hills.

18/6, Götterdämmerung day. I'd noticed a Bach-linked service at the Evangelical Church on Castle Hill, so appropriately in Luther anniversary year, I found myself singing along to one of his chorales - in Hungarian, thanks to the hymn-book.

The pastor set up the organ and choral numbers to come, presumably telling us that the organ had been restored and that these were old and new pipes.

The congregation sang very lustily, backed up by the choir in the organ gallery (general shot - obviously they're not singing at this point).

What a balance to the decadence of Wagner's endgame to come. As I had time before meeting Ildikó, Marie-France and J for lunch over the river, I did the touristic thing of sitting with a lemonade opposite the much-restored cathedral, which I remember disappointed me in its Victorianness on my first visit in 1983, so I didn't go in. At least the restoration gives the best possible tower to the skyline.

Then down past a very overwrought Art Nouveau building

to Ildikó's favourite cafe-restaurant, Gerlóczy , facing a quiet triangle with a statue in the heart of Pest. Not sure why she's looking so startled here, but I loved the white outfit with the red adornment.

Then along the streets with the big buildings to Ildikó's car

with only just enough time to catch The Couple - she's going up in flames ready for the Immolation -

before the first fanfare, for the Dawn Duet, which turned out to be identical to the third so you're only going to get it once (or rather twice, from the balcony - three times was for indoors).


During the first interval, Marcell Németh of Müpa kindly arranged for me to meet Peter Eötvös, whose hand I wanted to shake after the huge impact of his Halleluja - Oratorium Balbulum last November. I also wanted to say how much it had meant to discover the novels of his good, and sadly late, friend Péter Esterházy, who wrote the wonderful Halleluja libretto. 'I will tell him,' he responded with what turned out to be characteristic wit. 

He was here for the cycle - first time since Chéreau's in Bayreuth - and he thought he was grasping for the first time the full richness of the score, as well as understanding the text better thanks to the Hungarian supertitles (his German, incidentally, is good). We spoke about the incredible acoustics; he thinks the orchestra sounds marginally better in the pit which was part of the original design rather than on the platform. Had I not spoken to him, I might not have known that he's going to be conducting his Senza Sangue in a double bill with Bluebeard's Castle in, of all places, the Hackney Empire (which recently played host to a Hungarian Magic Flute). Such a nice man, though the music might teach you to be a bit afraid. Anyway, here's the bridal fanfare just caught at the end of the first interval.


I'm not a fan of backstage glad-handing unless the event has been overwhelmingly good. This certainly was, and it seemed churlish not to congratulate Iréne Theorin not just on her birthday but also for singing her first Brünnhildes on consecutive nights. As I wrote on The Arts Desk, she seemed as fresh as a daisy after a tireless final stint - and the most ferocious Act Two I think I'll ever witness in a Ring. In the absence of decent publicity pics - Müpa has not been great on that front, even for production images of the whole - here's a rather dark shot of the diva with her flowers.

She made a robust speech, Fischer a touching one, and we further chatted outside her dressing room, which the adoring management had strewn with rose petals; it smelled heavenly.

Among the singers we got to chat with the terrifying Hagen, Rúni Brattaberg from the Faroe Islands, a pal of our good friend and fellow-bass Peter Rose and a very genial chap (what a battle of Nordic giants this Götterdämmerung was). Here he is with Ildikó.

That seemed like a good place to leave friends and prepare for the next stint. J was leaving the next afternoon, so we spent a blissful morning on 19/7, Rienzi day, taking it easy on Margit (Margaret) Island, a wonderful oasis for the Budapesters. I'll return there for my zoo pics entry, as there was a delightful little one with nesting storks in the middle of the park. For now, let's leave it at the Parliament seen through one of the lime trees which line the embankment, the blossom smelling heavenly in June,

and from the Margit Bridge.

In the absence of fanfares for the Rienzi performance - with another Hungarian orchestra, neatly cut down to three hours, though I'd have liked to hear the music for the 'pantomime' about Lucretia - I only have one token shot from the day, of our Couple who were still here for the last two operas.

20/7 was Frei-tag, which I've already chronicled, so on to 21/7, Parsifal day. I finally managed to meet up with young Eszter, whom of course I also saw in November at a lovely tea-house she recommended and who'd stayed with us when applying to music colleges here; she got a place at the Guildhall but not a grant. Now she's at the Liszt Academy, being worked to the bone and having got a small stipend for coming top in all her subjects, but she wants to try again for London. We had lemonades and I a bite to eat - it was too hot for Eszter - opposite the Academy

where I'm pleased to see the European Union flag flying alongside the Hungarian one by the statue of Liszt

and I'm sure Sir Georg Solti, whose statue stands alongside the Academy, would approve of that.

I love the little down-a-few-steps stations and the  two-carriage metro trains which ply the first line to be built in Budapest, taking you up to the Liszt Academy and beyond to the big park with the museums and the zoo (Thursday morning's excursion).

Then it was a last tram-journey back to Müpa. The Couple dressed quite restrainedly for this one. I do have a pic of them in the crowd, but best that you catch them to the right as the brass play the 'Dresden Amen' before Act 1 of Parsifal. Followed, inevitably, by the other two, suiting the format to perfection.




I passed on the post-show hubbub backstage this time, but took the liberty of snapping the curtain call when the orchestral musicians appeared on stage - a nice touch that I've also seen Pappano initiate. 

Here's Ádám with his single rose, musicians to his right and Vienna Boys to his left. 

And the great Violeta Urmana with Klingsor, male chorus, more instrumentalists and Flower Maidens.

So that completes the Wagner stint (though I had a wonderful, if rushed, morning after prior to departure). Let's end as we began, with a sunset shot, this time a week later.