Sunday 27 September 2009

That Philadelphia song - from Andrea Chien-ier

What an extraordinary divertissement in the plunge from an exhilarating day with pianists and Rachmaninov experts/enthusiasts in Manchester (more anon) back into work on the script for next Saturday's Martinu 4 Building a Library. I wanted to share the above with the distant beloved and this seemed like the best way to do it.

My gratitude to whoever first posted this on Parterre for giving me such a laugh in the middle of the heavy workload. Usually singing dogs are, well, enough already after ten seconds. But this spaniel is really listening to Maria, trying to match her pitch when he can - and the film-maker, obviously someone with a camp taste in furnishings as well as music, lets it run to the end (do I detect a would-be dizzying homage to the room revolving around Tom Hanks as the aria takes wing?)

Don't get me wrong - I do think the original is an amazing use of an aria in a film, dangerously close to kitsch but that's the point. And this is something else.

You may have gathered that doggies don't have to do very much to make me chortle. We've just been touched by the latest in our fast-growing collection of John Burningham masterpieces, the tale of an ugly mutt with a stumpy tail who found salvation as a cannonball.

The illustrations are High Art, believe me. On now to Trubloff the balalaikaing mouse and Borka the featherless goose.

Friday 25 September 2009

In praise of shadows

I can't think of a better title than the one already given to this small-scale but beguiling exhibition, consigned to the treasure-house basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the London Design Festival. I thought I only had a few days to draw it to your attention, but I've just heard it's been extended for another week, until Sunday 4 October. Even so, I want to get this up and running even though Martinu, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky are all crying out for major attention.

In praise of shadows is a showcase for new European lighting design exploiting alternative low-energy sources, coinciding with the EU directive to phase out low-efficiency light bulbs by 2012. If that sounds worthy but a little dull, it's not, chiefly because the designs are installed in some of the V&A's most delightful but least visited galleries, normally closed awaiting refurbishment but with plenty of gems of European furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries.

It's the juxtaposition that especially fascinates, given that you go in with a wind-up torch and illuminate dark corners - a Chinese vase here, a ram's head there. Several of the new lights are outstanding, though. The first room, shown at the top, presents the UK's 'W08', advertised as 'a modern take on the classic Anglepoise lamp' using 'simple, honest materials', and Pieke Bergmans's 'Light Blub' from the Netherlands.

I could live with the 'solar lampions' of another Netherlands-based designer, Damian O'Sullivan, Chinese lanterns to go with the vases that also look to me like Indian tablas.

The Dutch continue to lead the way with 'Fragile Future' by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, a light sculpture

made up of real dandelion seed heads (how do they stay on? Are they glued individually?)

while Poland's Puff-Buff Design gives us a Queen's Chandelier made of PVC pockets with LEDs inside. Looks heavy, feels light.

Everyone loves Finn Mikko Paakkanen's jellyfish-like Medusa, expanding

and contracting.

And finally you reach a real showpiece from Rachel Wingfield and Austrian Mathias Gmachl. Sonumbra is a parasol by day which lights up at night from energy collected in its solar cells.

Kids would especially enjoy this, the Medusa and going around in the dark with their torches - and they'd learn something very up to the minute into the bargain.

All this comes thanks to EUNIC, the European Commission in the UK and the excellent work of curator Jane Withers. We swanned around the Sculpture Gallery on Monday evening, sloping off to the exhibition downstairs and out into the courtyard to look at the Wallpaper*-commissioned Chair Arch, reflecting the one constructed in 1877 for Queen Victoria's visit to High Wycombe.

If the human shadow is the symbol of the soul, there wasn't much of it to praise in Bernard Haitink's second Festival Hall concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last night. 'A dose of the boring Bernards', as Martin Hoyle used to say in Time Out, isn't quite fair: Haitink is too vigilant and musicianly to let anything torpid pass muster. He knows exactly how to shape climaxes, master the long line and give his players their head. But I did find the CSO's Haydn 'Clock' Symphony awfully humourless. OK, so the players and the conductor don't have to smile - personally I feel it helps - but if nobody in the audience does either, then part of the enterprise has failed. Haydn was so young at heart when he wrote this; Sir Charles Mackerras, about Haitink's age, is too; but Sir Bernard does seem to be going through the motions these days. That wasn't true of his Concertgebouw Beethoven Seven earlier this year, but it happened in routine Brahms Second and Third symphonies with the LSO, and it happened here too.

Bruckner Seven did finally win me over. I find the Chicago string sound dead behind the eyes, always have done in live performance, but when it's a question of volume - first movement crescendo-coda - and speed, things improve, and so the finale really was rather special and uniquely convincing. My pal Ed Seckerson found the Wagner tubas' tuning very problematic, but you have to allow for it, I reckon, and they did redeem themselves handsomely at the end of Bruckner's adagio homage to the master. Still, players did look so bored when they had nothing to do. You could hardly blame the cymbalist and triangle player in that respect; and of course Haitink could have let them off their one chance to shine, as Bruckner is supposed originally to have done, if he'd been so inclined. They didn't even get a shot at a noisy encore.

Still, obligatory (if not for me) standing ovation notwithstanding, this was hardly the kind of passionate, communicative music-making I've been experiencing with the Rasumovsky Ensemble, the Faust/Melnikov Beethoven sonatas or most of the Czechs I've been listening to in Martinu Four. A swift return to the Festival Hall this morning as I can't catch Vladimir Jurowski's live Mahler Resurrections tonight or tomorrow put it all right again.

I can't reveal anything more until the London Philharmonic admin, reasonably enough, check over what I might have to say about a private rehearsal, so I'll just throw in a couple of well-worn but apt adjectives - 'fresh' and 'revelatory' - and leave you with a couple of minutes of the ever-alert Jurowski drawing the 'Spielmann' movement of Mahler's Das klagende Lied to a close at the start of his LPO tenure. There's light and shade, there's engagement for you.

*their asterisk, not mine. Couldn't be bothered to find out what that's all about.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Farewell Proms, hello new season

The next time you see Jiri (and you shall pay, but not a lot), he'll be back with a stick in his hand rather than the recalcitrant 'Henry'. Chris Christodoulou's photo from That Last Night features Belohlavek and violinist Jennifer Pike as part of a hoovering quartet in Malcolm Arnold's Grand, Grand Overture. Along with David Attenborough and Stephen Hough, they were eventually shot by deerstalkers Martha Kearney, the rather more irritant Rory Bremner (who's written libretti but never heard of Villa-Lobos?), cheery Goldie and double-bassist-cum-presenter Chi-Chi Nwanoku - which in Attenborough's case, as Clive Anderson pointed out in one of his few rather restrained quips (I thought he did a good job), is a bit like shooting Mother Teresa.

Yes, mebbe the silliness is very British, but if you're going to do a flag-waving second half, you might as well start it off like this. And that underrated one-off Arnold works his usual wonders on an outrageously over the top big tune. Worth watching? Take it or leave it.

You'll have gathered it took me a week to wade through bits of the Last Night marathon. Although even that's all over now, immortal fragments are left behind on YouTube. I extolled La Connolly in the first half below, have to say that the Gershwin wasn't quite right but still, 'Rule, Britannia!' has never been delivered with that sort of panache, and it gave her a chance to flash about her Handelian ornamentation.

What a good figurehead for a brassy lady (in the orchestral sense) is Alison Balsom. Yes, she's a gorgeous blonde, no, she ain't anything like the trumpet's answer to That Jenkins Woman, thank God. They forced on us a bit of La Jenks murdering 'Una voce poco fa' in Hyde Park, and I think must deliberately have chosen the worst (worse still, though, was a wildly out of tune Chris De Burgh in Salford). No wonder oor Alison rejects the comparison with the busty Welsh one - and in any case, she's far more natural-looking in my opinion. While I could have taken or left the Villa-Lobos in the first half, I thought she did as good a job on the Piazzolla Libertango arrangement as she had on the Haydn.

I like this little film because it also spotlights a few of my new-found mates in the BBCSO, and shows you briefly what a superb first trombonist is Helen Vollam, still the best I've ever heard in Mahler 3. Vienna Phil, please take note.

There's a fantasy 'best Prom' line-up in my head from the ones I attended. I'm afraid it's three-quarters Ravel: let's have Esa-Pekka's Ma mere l'oye and Bolero to bookend, Martha's G major Concerto one side of the interval, with Scarlatti encore to boot. And then (or before), the kaleidoscopic Martinu Concerto for two pianos as performed by fluid Czechs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Nine-year old Lucien is still talking about it. Perhaps I could just about justify the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and Nott in Ligeti's Atmospheres to begin (and segue into Mother Goose?)

Can I have two encores? Jurowski conducting the LPO in the slow movement from Brahms One, followed by the Strauss polka so idiomatically inflected by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Then I'll have the whole Crumb programme as my Late Nighter, and JEG's Bach cantatas for breakfast. Oh, and Mahler Ten too, this is getting ridiculous, so stop right there.

Anyway, I don't doubt we are in for great treats when Jiri and the BBCSO get going again. Their first programme on 3 October is a corker - Mozart 29, Gerry Finley in Mahler Knaben Wunderhorn songs and the Musorgsky/Shostakovich Songs and Dances of Death, and Martinu's First as the beginning of Belohlavek's Martinu symphonies series. I'll be giving the pre-performance talk in the Barbican Centre's Fountain Room at 6, so do come early and say hello.

I'm deep in Martinu Four at the moment, dreaming it, too, in preparation for the Building a Library on 3 October which will be followed later by a Music Matters discussion (they finally decided it was OK to let me loose on Radio 3 twice in the same day). Not too many versions, most of them Czech though alas Kubelik has vanished (got to hear that). Listening around, I haven't heard a dud Martinu work yet, not at least from the late phase on which I'm concentrating - the Serenades, the Oboe Concerto, the later piano concertos, the lovely light Three Ricercars and the buoyant endgame of Estampes. What a master, so utterly unpredictable and himself; even when he brings up that Czech syncopated dance-mode for the umpteenth time, he never lets it stay still for long.

So what remains is finally to make the pilgrimage to the bell tower in Policka where Martinu was born.

Apparently the ideal day trip is to set out from Brno, take in Smetana's birthplace and theatre, and head on to Policka. Couldn't deviate from Tommi and Martha's marvellous Austrian 'programme' back in August, so will have to try harder next time.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering why I've gone quiet on the opera front, I'm hugely looking forward to seeing Ligeti's Le grand macabre on its second outing at ENO. I'm giving the Royal Opera Don Carlo a miss this time as I didn't think much of Hytner's production in the first place, Kaufmann ain't my idea of an Italian tenor - though evidently he'd be better than Villazon on last showing - and Poplavskaya is still in place. I think I read that Anja Harteros, the real Verdian thing among sopranos, will sing Elisabetta in 2010, so that's the one I'm waiting for.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Norfolk churches: Walpoles to Wiggenhalls

Forgive me for slacking on this one, those of you who are expecting a full report before you part with your cheques for a good cause, I just didn't know where to start. I have far too many photos of just about every corbel, bench end and misericord, because on this sixth of our walks for the Norfolk Churches Trust, we saw some of the great treasures among English churches. Then I found Simon Knott's Norfolk churches site, and his enthusiastic, thorough and pictorially well-documented coverage saves me from mentioning every jot and tittle. Don't be daunted by the list of those he's seen; go straight to the one you want to read about, and marvel. Opinion is abundant, certainly, but I sense he doesn't have Simon Jenkins's self-regard in that irritating but well-produced handbook, and he really does care more for the churches than his own ego. Congratulations, Mr. Knott: keep up the good work!

This is going to take some time. The light on that rare Saturday was so exceptional that I went wild with the camera. I hope I've selected the best.

This is fenland, south-east of King's Lynn where we spent so much time on the last churches walk. Jill and I knew we had to show the third member of our walking party Walpole St Peter after our December visit, but I was also intrigued by the Wiggenhalls on the River Ouse after reading Jeremy Page's evocative novel Salt.

We started at the overshadowed Walpole church which symbolises in its semi-dilapidated state what we're walking for: the fine 15th century St Andrew with the first of many mostly brick towers we were to see that day.

This is work in progress for the Churches Conservation Trust, which has restored so many buildings to something like their original purity: museums rather than living places of worship, no doubt, but in marked contrast to the frequent happy-clappy overlay. Walpole St Andrew awaits treatment of its crumbling floor and rather attractively peeling pillars - damaged, I'm told, by upward-seeping salt water.

The greatest curiosity was the name of a 19th century vicar, the Rev Demetrius P Calliphronas: how did he end up here, I wonder?

It was then a ten-minute walk through the built-up but eerily quiet development of the Walpoles to St. Peter, Alec Clifton-Taylor's favourite English church. I see why more than ever. Like St Andrew, this much bigger and more active church was locked. Rang a number on the porch message board, got a lady who said she'd send her son over. The temporary rector had, apparently, biked off to do his own Norfolk Churches thing, forgetting to unlock, setting the fast-assembling villagers abuzz with indignation.

But there could have been no better church to spend twenty minutes waiting outside in the morning sunshine, aware though we were of the passing time.

The exterior of this long and lofty giant - one of several candidates for 'cathedral of the fens' - is rich in decorated battlements and corbels like these ones.

The great glory, as I tried to show in the December blog entry, is the two-storey south porch

with its abundance of elaborate roof bosses, from Last Judgement to the rather realistic local fauna.

The interior is rich and comfortable despite its grandeur, De Hooch in stone as we must grudgingly admit Jenkins to be right in saying. The Dutch chandelier of 1701, which was being repaired back in December, adds to the handsome impression.

Fine woodwork adorns the beautiful chancel, where the altar is raised nine steps to accommodate the open passageway beneath the east end (seen from the yew hedge in the churchyard).

Last time we admired the bench ends; this time we had the opportunity to look at handsome misericords such as the pelican in her piety.

I could go on about the pulpit and the Jacobean font cover, but I'll refer you to Simon Knott and take us onwards to Terrington St Clement, a big loop of a detour which meant twice crossing an impossibly busy road, but well worth it.

Again, a key was needed, though this time there were refreshments for the church walkers/cyclists within and a patina representing, erm, a certain taste which indicated that this must be a well-frequented hostelry on Sundays. And again, much to see without including a detached tower with sunflowers neatly arranged at its base and this unusual arrangement of six windows in the incomplete south transept, with little figures clinging to the stonework.

Undoubtedly the greatest of many individual gems here is the font - 15th century, with a 16th century cover and what are believed to be 17th century Flemish paintings dealing with the Temptation of Christ.

Of a piece with the more naive designs of earlier stained glass, they include a wealth of animals including a bear

and a snail.

On which note, on our way back south we crossed a splendid field of cabbages

heading towards yet another rich offering of sorts, Tilney All Saints. A wedding had just come to an end and a somewhat haughty visiting vicar - not the incumbent, Diana Penny, who looks very jolly in the church guide - turned his nose up at our telling him that even when weddings had been taking place on previous walks, the locals had set up a table outside to greet the sweating toilers. 'These are not the leafy glades of Cambridgeshire' came the retort. Not that I thought there were any more glades in Cambridgeshire than there are around here. Anyway, the church, which kind regulars did usher us into through the back door, boasts a nice combination here of decorated Norman arches

with our first angel roof of 2009.

This, at least, tallied with the description fen-reared Dorothy L Sayers gives of 'Fenchurch St Paul' in what some claim to be the top detective novel of all time, The Nine Tailors. Halfway through it at the moment, with some theory of my own as to what's been going on, I'd have to agree (I photographed the book, by the way, on one of the misericords of St Margaret King's Lynn the next morning).

Sayers not only captures with brio and humour the individual language of each character, but also evokes the sense of place with very poetic prose. I can't resist quoting a passage, with, forgive, a few onomatopoeic omissions:

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes...every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells - little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St Paul.

What makes me think that Tilney is the most likely candidate for elements of the evidently composite 'Fenchurch St Paul'? Chiefly the plaques commemorating the noble art of bell-ringing in the tower, kicked off by a peal of 1848 rung in that year on 31 December (Sayers also begins on New Year's Eve).

There are also fun photos on the same tower wall of Tilney ringers down the ages.

The plan of the church corresponds roughly to the one given in The Nine Tailors, too, though the squat 13th century tower has a 14th century spire.

The lovely churchyard is full of interesting old tombstones. This one isn't especially antique, as it dates from the mid 19th century, but the design of the reading girl took my fancy.

Then it was southwards to another too-close church which has fallen into ruin, though again with the Churches Conservation Trust keeping a weather eye on it. This is Tilney-cum-Islington.

By now it was late afternoon and, owing to the wonders of our first three churches as well as the key problem at Walpole St Peter, we were way behind schedule. So we legged it down farm tracks and past sunflower fields to the Ouse, and then, sagging a little from dehydration in the late afternoon heat, back along another channel to the first of our Wiggenhalls, St Mary the Virgin. This has a magical approach, across an overgrown bridge disused by all but walkers

and an especially welcome tree-flanked churchyard, where another red brick belfry is crowned by four gurning gargoyles, one of which is visible from the western approach.

The Shell Guide to Norfolk claims the carved bench ends as the finest in the country, and you can see them all on the Norfolk Churches website. Yet I was impressed more both by the Kervile monument, with two children who died in infancy carved on the tomb beneath their recumbent parents

and by the more robust bench ends of Wiggenhall St Germans. This boasts the most evocative setting, on the banks of the Ouse with its disused brother Wiggenhall St Peter visible in the distance

The bench ends here include the Seven Deadly Sins, among them a lustful couple in a demon's jaw,

and among the pews on the south side, there's a dog with a duck in its mouth.

The homeliness of this church was complemented by the ONLY parishioner in any of the buildings we visited this year present to greet us, a delightful old lady who responded to my observation with a 'thank you, kind sir' and a coquettish curtsey. Sadly funds are short and it showed in the present state of the church. But time was pressing, as the hourglass in the 1631 pulpit reminded us

along with the clock on the tower

so off we sped along the banks of the Ouse, via the picturesque ruin of St Peter, to our grand finale, Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene, on the other side of the river. Its glory is supposed to be its stained glass in the tracery lights of the north aisle windows. I've seen much more spectacular, but since this was the first glass treat we'd had, I recorded the saints anyway.

Scaffolding covered the south facade, but round the back the north was flaming in the early evening light.

Then we took ourselves off for a well-earned pint in the skanky pub by the river before crossing the Ouse and its parallel canal

for the train back to Lynn.

There, haven't I gone on. If you like what you've read, or just peeked at the pictures and enjoyed them, might I end by reminding you that cheques can be made payable to the Norfolk Churches Trust. I'm a bit behind on my fundraising...