Saturday 30 March 2013

Back among the palms

Signing in here with Easter greetings, to catch up with last Sunday's Bach cantata - the first for weeks, of course, after the Lenten near-silence - and to explain briefly where I've been: namely in Sicily, four glorious days in Palermo, a city of whose riches I had little inkling, and three roving in the Madonie mountains. Hard to say which was more breathtaking, the civic art or the country sweep.

What's for sure is that the Normans brought to Palermo an Arabic-infused art that no other Italian city can boast. In the Cappella Palatina of the original castle, in the competitive monumentalism of Monreale and in the more intimate beauties of the Martorana church back in the city are mosaics to rival, in my view to surpass, Ravenna. Oddly there are no crucifixion scenes in the stunning chapel, but of many detailed 'pictures' Christ's entry into Jerusalem above stands out. Below Jesus, Peter and the white ass are four children throwing fronds and laying their own clothes before him. The disciples follow behind, while three bearded priests stand at the gate with townspeople of Jerusalem.

We may not be there in Palermo for the wild celebrations of Easter - our last glimpse of Holy Week was trailing behind black-hooded crossbearers and a funereal band on our way to the airport - but we did catch Palm Sunday, which everywhere in Italy other than the Vatican is a matter of olive branches rather than palms.

This processional took place in the former convent adjoining Santa Maria degli Angeli (otherwise La Gancia). The choir processed chanting 'Hosanna, figlio di David, Hosanna, redentor' to the accompaniment of tambourines. Branches raised aloft

were then sprinkled from the priest's thurible. Most of the folk seemed more concerned to get this done and be off to the bosom of the family rather than to stay for the service, which was prefaced with a processional to the peal of bells. This 23-second film is no masterpiece, but hopefully it captures a sliver of atmosphere.

We were off too, touristically eager to catch the next processional in my favourite church of the Kalsa district where we were staying, the Norman Magiana - chiefly because only the cloisters and chapel had been accessible on our first visit, and now the doors of the wonderful church were open for a service too. Again, the majority of celebrants are heading away following the little ritual.

More on all this over the weeks to come (prepare yourself for Sicilimania). The Bach cantata for the day I chose (catching up, not too appropriately, on Good Friday) was 'Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen', BWV 182, written in 1714 when Palm Sunday coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation. The lovely sound of the recorder duets with solo violin against pizzicati as the opening Sinfonia begins; it's a wonderful moment when the collective strings swell their way into the picture.

Palm Sunday celebration (Giotto's peerless Padua fresco depiction above) continues in the vivacious crowd welcome and the bass's robust if unremarkable aria. Soulful preparation for the suffering to come follows in the next pair of solos: the alto's at the heart of it all, with the solo recorder's enfolding descents even more remarkable than the vocal line, and the tenor's determination to follow the stumbling Christ on his Calvary route caught in a continuo maze that several times loses its orientation.

Then it's back to choral celebration with a fantasia on a chorale and an almost ecstatic final dance. Gardiner (my listening choice, as often): 'it needs the poise of a trapeze artist with the agility of a madrigalian gymnast - and is altogether captivating'. Here's Harnoncourt's recording.

Good Friday was our first day back, and much as I'd have loved a day at home before gadding off again, the soloists and ensemble of a St John Passion at the Barbican proved too strong a lure. Almost too moved to write coherently after it, I struggled to put the experience into words here for The Arts Desk. I'm sending off my tenner to support the recording they still need to raise £5,000 for: such a line-up only happens once in a blue moon. Here, finally, is Lotto's sumptuous take on the Crucifixion, still a church altarpiece in a very out-of-the-way and extremely friendly village of the Marche, Monte San Giusto, which we caught on one of our May walking trips in the Sibillini.


Laurent said...

Sicily is a wonderful place and reading this post makes us nostalgic for the time we spent on this beautiful Island.

Susan Scheid said...

I can almost feel the warmth, and certainly see the sunlit color, a welcome sight on yet another chilly day of drab brown and gray here. Technical difficulties of multiplying sorts prevent me from watching the video or playing the cantata, but your words provide some lovely recompense. Welcome back, and I look forward to further bouts of Sicilimania here. (PS: finally was able to confirm that Nagy is pronounced nodge, just as you thought--and am delighted to report he's been accepted to the graduate program at Juilliard.)

David said...

Oh, it has been so HARD enduring the grey and the chill this weekend - much as we enjoyed being in the bosom of Chichester Cathedral thanks to our friends who live there, and the musical feasts of two services, it is not only cold but spring-less. The Bishop's Garden is clearly beautiful in spring and summer, but nothing flourishes there at the moment. And to think that the wisteria and the jasmin were blooming down on the north Sicilian coast...

Susan Scheid said...

Just to say, I've now read yours and the Guardian's review of the Bach. Your writing is so much more present, if that makes any sense. In this case, as in the Adams, the difference is incredibly striking.

David said...

Thanks for saying so, Sue,and for the thumbs up over on TAD. Can you watch the Gardiner telly doc on Bach (BBC 4) on iPlayer over there? A model of how to do it: I learnt things too. At last they're beginning to trust the artists: this is as good as Pappano's three-parter on Italian opera.

Susan Scheid said...

At last, at last, I at my computer proper & have been able to hear those bells (!), and now the cantata you've posted here. Glorious. And I see you have not only a further report from Sicily, but also on Gardiner/Bach up. I savor the opportunity finally to catch up! (PS: As for TAD, I'm amazed that comment made it--I was sure it hadn't!)