Monday, 5 January 2009

Yes, we have no flamingoes

I realised, even as we came upon the magnificent sight on 1 January, that migratory flamingoes feeding on the shrimps of the salt lake so close to Larnaca airport would have made the perfect snap for a New Year greeting. Alas, no record either of this or of the snow-covered trees of the Troodhos mountains on our Christmas Day picnic exists, as I'd left my camera in our Nicosian friends' car after a lunch in Vouni.

So the hint of flamingo pink in the sky behind the part-restored, part-ruined Monastery of the True Cross just outside our village retreat will have to do.


Even this is cheating, as the photo was taken at Easter (there were such skies, and such stretches of warm sunshine, in December; though we also had to contend with a two-and-a-half-day storm, bringing the Cypriots much needed rain in torrents, and biting north-easterly winds). But since Juliette, the hostess with whom we spent such a relaxed time then, has demanded that the holiday be somehow recorded on the blog, it will have to do. And of course it reminds me that while on this occasion we were seeking the Byzantine churches of the Troodhos - and very rarely getting inside to see their frescoes - the turn of 2007-8 saw a tougher time in Mali, hunting out mud mosques in hard-to-reach places, like the Sankore in Timbuktu:


We think of our glamorous friend Sophie, whom we met through Juliette and who set a rather more adventurous example for this blog with hers, since although her Hotel Djenne Djenno is thriving, Keita is seriously ill with suspected multiple myeloma and they await the result of further tests from Bamako with trepidation. Thoughts, messages, prayers, whatever those of you who know her care to offer up, will be welcome.

I'll leave you, however, with a jolly paraphrase of a Djenne Djenno jeu d'esprit, in which a Belgian guest encouraged three uncles who'd never been outside their Ardennes village to travel vicariously by photographing their photo in all sorts of unexpected destinations; he intends to present them with an album of such shots for their 80th birthdays. Among the many places the uncles 'visited' was the plantation of the Hotel Djenne Djenno. So while I can't offer you New Year flamingoes, yes, we have some bananas!

Saturday, 3 January 2009

A valediction for Valya


First message on the answerphone when we arrived back from the remoteness of our Cyprus retreat was from Robert White of The Guardian, telling me my already-filed obituary of Valentin Berlinsky (photographed above by Stanley Fefferman) was up and running on the website, and asking me whether I'd like to change or add anything.

That was the first I heard of Valya's death at the age of 83. It also came as a surprise to me since the patriarch of the world's longest-running chamber ensemble, the Borodin String Quartet, seemed oddly immortal, even if he'd only recently retired from the group of which he was a founder member back in 1945. Ever since I first saw it in the programme for the Quartet's 55th anniversary in Moscow - which was also Berlinsky's 75th birthday - I've always loved and drawn people's attention to this photograph from 1946:


There we see Berlinsky, second from the left, as a dreamy, shock-headed youth standing around Shostakovich with first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky and Barshais Nina and Rudolf.

That anniversary event on 19 January 2000 was a wild, intermittently wonderful event. It's true that the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence Sextet with Uri Bashmet and Stefan Metz joining the Borodins hadn't been terribly well rehearsed - I seem to remember Bashmet had only flown in that afternoon - and it's not a piece you can wing, but the inevitable Second Quartet of the group's namesake brought tears to the eyes as usual and the second half featured what to our non-Russian eyes and ears seemed like some outlandish tributes aimed specifically at Berlinsky: piano pieces, Pushkin recitations and a fine ensemble of young cellists Berlinsky had taught at the Gnessin Institute.

I was initially a little nervous under the seemingly benevolent but always watchful eye of the master, though relative newcomer Igor Naidin, the viola-player of the Quartet and Berlinsky's junior by 46 years, was a relaxed intermediary. Later I got to know them better both in London and at the Austrian Attersee Festival, where staying in a simple local inn seemed to put everyone, even the solemn Abramenkov, at their ease.

I'll leave details of Berlinsky's life, and some of the pithier utterances I was lucky to glean, to the above obit. But it is a loss - maybe not as wrenching a goodbye as the one to Slava Rostropovich, but the end of an era all the same.