Wednesday 30 November 2011

My afternoon with Valery

I've known longer waits than Sunday afternoon's predictably leisurely build up to the Gergiev interview I'd been asked to conduct and write up for the Concertgebouw (which he visits early next year for the first time since 1995). There was the 1991 hanging around in the antechamber to his Mariinsky - then Kirov - office, fascinating to watch the various petitioners come and go; the all-day will-it-won't-it-happen anticipation of a second interview which eventually ended up at 1am in a bedroom of Petersburg's Astoria Hotel; the third wait culminating in a speed along the Neva to the Gergiev family home; and the interviews snatched during the two intervals of an extraordinary Mariinsky concert (viola concertos by Kancheli and Gubaidulina framing a Mahler Six conducted straight through with barely a pause between movements).

You might think me a bit of a masochist if I say it's always worth it. But so responsive, rather than on-transmit, is our Valery that something unexpected usually transpires. Besides, the journey, as it were, can be as interesting as the arrival, and never more so than on this occasion. Columbia Artists Management had suggested I show up at 1pm after the Barbican morning rehearsal and said they'd confirm it. They didn't, weren't to be tracked down, so I blagged my way backstage and then had to furnish a business card for the suspicious trio who greeted me. This seemed to conjure up Columbia's vice president (and Gergiev's manager) Doug Sheldon, who took me in to the conductor's room. And there a lively discussion on various players and halls was to-ing and fro-ing between a very engaged Gergiev and four other musicians including - the one I thought I recognised, and he helped me to place him - heldentenor Simon O'Neill.

Simon needed a short session to sing a bit of Siegfried through with Gergiev, and outside I met a colleague I haven't chinwagged with for some time, vivacious Tommy Pearson, who's made films with VG and wanted to nab him to discuss 3D projection among other things. So it transpired that Valery, Tommy, Doug, the LSO's digital marketing manager Jo Johnson and I all piled into a waiting car at 2.20. The driver had a rather treasurable rendition of the maestro's name stuck up on the window; I needed to edit this shot so as not to put egg on the face of the car-hire firm.

And so we all had a splendid risotto in Charterhouse Square, a lively batting to and fro between us all and Valery curious as ever to know what we thought of this and that. We discussed the Hochhauser tours and visa problems - no prizes for guessing how VG sorts out his - Abbado in Rome (Gergiev was conducting the Santa Cecilia orchestra on the day Claudio arrived for rehearsals), film music, ballet v opera at the Mariinsky and what I thought of Deborah Warner's ENO Onegin which Gergiev will be conducting when it arrives at the Met (I could only be diplomatic and say it might be very different, which no doubt it will be, with Netrebko and Kwiecien).

Also had a good chat with the others while Valery went off to discuss future LSO seasons with its managing director Kathryn McDowell. Then back he came - clutching Muti's recording of the Scriabin symphonies, which may or may not be a clue as to what's in the pipeline - off my other lunch companions went and we finally had our interview at 5pm. Whereupon Gergiev, who had been so delightfully freewheeling and curious though seeming to crumple physically somewhat after his spruce demeanour four hours earlier, spoke with perfect focus and diplomatic charm about the Concertgebouw, Dutilleux and Leonidas Kavakos (who'll be playing the Sibelius concerto). I left exhilarated, as always, and the evening's concert, with the gorgeous Anne-Sophie Mutter on riveting form in a Gubaidulina masterpiece, was much more than just the icing on the cake.

Love this photo of all three artists at an earlier recording session for the work (Gubaidulina centre) by Harald Hoffmann for DG - included it in the Arts Desk review but can't resist repeating it here.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

From noon to dawn in Rome

Which is to say, from Piramide seen here at about 12.15pm to the Piazza del Popolo at 6.20am the following morning. What a serendipitous city it is. I'd been racking my brains for a Shakespeare connection in Rome to go with the Arts Desk piece on Abbado's Tempest/Lear programme I was due to see the night of my latest day in the city. And what happened? The airport bus, contrary to the promise of the ticket sellers, landed us quite a way from the centre, at Rome Ostiense Station (perhaps because it was a Sunday, and many of the main roads were blocked to traffic). But there was Cestius's pyramid gleaming in the autumn midday sun, and beyond it one of my favourite spots in all Rome, the non-Catholic cemetery outside the walls where Keats and Shelley's heart are encased. And there, of course, on Shelley's stone, are inscribed lines from Ariel's song 'Full fathom five'. I had my link among the tombs of this glorified cat shelter, its supremely indifferent living inhabitants still well fed by the charitable organisation so reliant on donations from English felophiles especially.

Better still, though, was such an auspicious start for walking the city from a place that isn't often open (and at 1pm the Roman picnickers and the handful of tourists were all very politely sent packing). Well, I'd better save a few discoveries for a separate cemetery piece, and trace my four-hour route as succinctly as I can. My options were to branch off for a lunch in an excellent little restaurant we know in Testaccio, or head up the Aventine, another relatively quiet glory of Rome. And as time was short, I wanted to be the all-devouring tourist again. So up it was from the park behind the Post Office where Russian ladies were all dining off tinfoil on the benches and past the relatively modern sanctuary of Sant'Anselmo where plainsong is still sung so beautifully and the little garden alongside the Romanesque campanile of Santi Bonifacio ed Alessio

to one of my favourite churches, Santa Sabina, strictly a basilica, with its beautiful prototype Corinthian columns - curiously not palimpsested from ancient Rome, but constructed specially for the occasion.

The Parco Savello next door leads down an avenue of pines

to one of the best views in the city, and as close as I wanted to get this time to St Peter's.

A quick lunch at a friendly cafe on the Viale Aventino, and then up to pay homage to the obvious, barging through the hordes of Chinese tourists, Indians touting identical forms of tripod-souvenir (do they ever sell any?) and South American panpipe bands. The old Romans would have seen auspices in the flocks of birds above the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum

though apparently the migratory rush-hours at this time of year are seen as threatening by present-day citizens; men in white bodysuits stand on the hospital island making frightening noises through megaphones to stop the flocks from shitting on the earthlings. I was also surprised to see Italian twitchers down by the Tiber. But not before I'd headed via Largo Argentina to the three Tosca locations I know pretty well - though I've only been inside overdone Sant'Andrea della Valle (not on this occasion). Retraced old steps past the Campo dei Fiori, the Palazzo Farnese and the Fontana del Mascherone on handsome Via Giulia. The mask and the basin are ancient Roman objects re-used by the Baroque.

One thing I'd not done on previous visits was to step down to Tiberside and walk between the Ponte Sisto and the Ponte Cavour. Which in effect meant spectacular views from several angles of the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Finally it was up the tacky end of the Via del Corso to the Piazza del Popolo, from outside which I made the big mistake of taking a tram northwards to the hotel near the Parco della Musica. I should have finished off the walk, but I wanted to check my route for the reverse journey early the following morning. Which meant that when I enquired of a local on the tram whether the stop I thought I wanted was indeed 'Ankara Tiziana', he must have misheard and thought I wanted 'Tiziano', three further on.

Which got me well and truly lost, since it was off my maps, in a rather interesting residential part of Rome. I even walked in ignorant curiosity past Zaha Hadid's amazing new MAXXI (Museum of the 21st Century) building, but was too flustered and time-conscious to stop and check it out. Including the two old ladies who sent me off in the wrong direction to Piazza Mancini when I was in fact nearly there, no-one I asked was able (or, in most cases, bothered) to identify the Largo in which the hotel was situated until finally a kind young couple walked me there. The Hotel Astrid, run by Best Western, was a convenience stop organised by the Accademia, but really I can't recommend it too highly: the staff were delightful, the rooms refurbished and (around the courtyard at least) quiet, the lift not working but the grand (Edwardian-era?) marble staircase splendid, the cafe on the top floor - though I had to leave too early to breakfast there - graced with superb views over the Tiber to St Peter.

And the Parco della Musica is spectacularly state-of-the-art, too, with a huge book/CD shop, fine cafe and outdoor space before Renzo Piano's three copper-domed halls which doubles as an amphitheatre in the summer.

The concert I don't need to recapitulate here, but I must also praise the simple, excellent restaurant I went to with Nicky Thomas afterwards, La Vignola, where the waiter apologised for the lack of porcini but showed us instead a basket of freshly gathered mushrooms. Another plus is that you can eat locally well away from the tourist trail, so good food is guaranteed.

One last bonus: as the tram got me back to Piazza del Popolo at 6.15 the next morning, I had enough time to skip the Metro and walk to Termini for the airport train. Which meant another stroll down (or up) memory lane, past the Spanish Steps with the rosy dawn and the crescent moon still showing behind the Virgin on the Colonne dell'Immacolata

and up past Bernini's Triton

as well as the four other water-figures by Borromini's fabulous San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, illustrated - 2/11 update - in a later 'Roman fountains' post.

Nothing had prepared me for the chaos at Fiumicino - at least 500 travellers waiting for a single x-ray baggage security check - or the one-and-a-half-hour delay when, in some panic, I finally got to my flight with an official five minutes before take-off. But that's all part of the authentic Italian experience, too: what is it they say? ALITALIA = Always Late in Takeoff, Always Late in Arrival. Anyway, I did get back to London with just time enough to stop off at home and pick up my teaching stuff for our fourth Tosca class at the City Lit. But I'd had my 18 hours of Roman vision, and really hadn't expected to be so smitten afresh by a city I thought I could almost take for granted.

Friday 25 November 2011

Tchaikovsky's elusive Tempest

Well, have you ever heard this most imaginative of ‘symphonic fantasias’ live in concert? I hadn’t until Sunday, when I reckon a trip to Rome – with which I fell headily back in love with again after a long absence from a city I thought I knew well enough not to swoon over any more – would have been worth it for twenty-odd minutes of Abbado magic alone. The man IS Prospero, for God’s sake, as one of the violinists of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, sharing the concert with Abbado’s Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart, suggested in a roundabout way (‘it is not conducting, it is a Shining’). That the second-half attempted synching of various Shostakovich musics for King Lear with butchered fragments of the masterly Kozintsev film didn’t work is neither here nor there, and certainly not here in this instance because I must hold fire until I’ve got the Arts Desk piece sorted for tomorrow. Anyway, here's an Accademia-furnished photo from the occasion in the interim.

The point is just to say how ashamed I was to have forgotten Tchaikovsky’s most supernaturally beautiful Shakespeare fantasy. Heck, it’s not even on that 60-CD Brilliant set (I wonder if someone got confused with the earlier orchestral work based on Ostrovsky’s play about Katya Kabanova, The Storm?). But it seems to have been a constant in Abbado’s rep: there are two recordings, with the Chicago Symphony and then the Berlin Phil. There’s also a clip on the BPO’s website of a live performance from some time back, sadly not the bit I would have chosen, but worth seeing.

But none of Abbado’s previous performances could quite have had the tear-jerking, jaw-dropping tonal beauty which enveloped us on Sunday in the very first bars within the spectacular panavision space of Renzo Piano’s big hall. That’s a good little snippet to play blindfold to a listener and ask him or her to guess the composer (I think I might have gone for Sibelius, whose own Tempest music is peerless): this is the isle, and the sea around it, full of mysterious noises. Here’s one in the best sound I could find on YouTube – the Toscanini radio broadcast, alas, sounds awful - conducted by Eliahu Inbal

The lovers’ music may be rather more tied up with Tchaikovsky’s sense of yearning for happiness than about the more innocent Ferdinand and Miranda, but how it ravishes on each appearance (such scoring – and we’re talking the youngish Tchaikovsky of 1873 here).

Ariel and Caliban, too, he gets exactly right. Only the development is a bit perfunctory alongside the final, perfected version of Romeo and Juliet. But I salute the composer’s courage in ending where he started, with the island magic. A great piece, worthy to set alongside Sibelius’s late universe of illustrative numbers. I also dug into Sullivan’s incidental music, and there are some winsome dances there.

Tchaikovsky’s genius burned brighter than anyone had led me to believe last night when Neil Bartlett’s production of The Queen of Spades for Opera North played in the Barbican Theatre. Perhaps I was overcompensating for the sheer unfathomable blandness – Toby Spence excepted - of Deborah Warner’s fuzzy, traditional ENO Eugene Onegin; but I did find myself swept up in the tension that takes hold halfway through and, in the right hands, doesn’t let up until the final requiem.

At first I wondered. Richard Farnes’s way, though accomplished, with the doomy Prelude seemed a bit too leisurely: would there be enough narrative sweep in the drama proper? That soon surfaced, but then Kandis Cook’s multipurpose cheapish set with its moveable walls didn’t seem amenable to atmosphere and wasn’t always well lit. It did the opening garden scene a disservice but worked for Lisa’s room, the party

and the Countess’s bedchamber. And soon a not too laboured pattern emerged in Bartlett’s production – a thousand times clearer and more definite with the characters than Warner’s over at ENO. In every little diverting scene or number, somebody’s out of step or mood with the conformist, and usually uniformly costumed, group: a bullied boy soldier, unhappy Lisa when Paulina and the girls try to entertain her, the affianced couple in the party intermezzo, Yeletsky in the gambling room, even Tomsky himself, a bit of a seedy outsider – though not quite as much, of course, as poor Herman.

Whom I pitied, as one should. I know the never over-finessed big tenor of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts has run into difficulties up top; he needs time out to firm it up with a good coach or teacher, I don’t think it’s too late, and the middle range remains strong as well as diction-clear. Nor are he and statuesque Orla Boylan ever going to be Love’s Young Dream.

But I’m not sure Tchaikovsky, already bending Pushkin’s cynical story overmuch, intended that. The more truthful a production, and the pithier the translation – by unfairly maligned Martin Pickard, as in the Onegin, this time with Bartlett’s collaboration - the more artificial their stock protestations in the first love scene are going to seem.

What the English text does stress is that the third man seeking the Countess’s three-card secret is a lover as well as an obsessive, and this is novelly played through thanks to Jo Barstow’s incredible characterization. She made very little impact in the nothing-doing Zambello production at Covent Garden, but here she moves through a succession of bewigged mannequin poses

to reveal the woman who still thinks she’s beautiful and alluring – and in this case, remarkably, is, as she uses her dancer’s arms to shed the years in the Gretry aria. Its second verse even out-pianissimo’ed the immortal Felicity Palmer in the classic Glyndebourne production. And Herman’s persecution, more a wooing until he pulls his pistol out (make what you will of that), is as compelling as her death and her sensuous ghost-appearance.

As for Orla – well, I adore her. I heard hardly any of the avowed pitching problems last night, and she does the stricken pathos of the Canal Scene better than any soprano I’ve seen on stage (and more on disc, like Gergiev’s Guleghina, tire at this point; Boylan’s strong semi-dramatic voice doesn’t). The smaller roles all mean something, as none did in the ENO Onegin. William Dazeley's very fine Yeletsky (in the shot below right taking on Herman's final challenge) suggests he'd have been a much better choice of Onegin over at ENO. I liked the contraltoid Paulina of Russian-born Alexandra Sherman - though the 'Chloe' to her 'Daphnis' in the pastoral was poor - and wondered who was singing the excellent Gouvernantka telling off her charges so charmingly in Act 1 Scene 2. It turned out to be that veteran characterizer Fiona Kimm.

The final scene maintains the tension Bartlett and Farnes have established from the bedchamber encounter onwards, helped out perhaps by the second of two cuts (bit of a shame to lose some of the only authentic Pushkinian lines in the gambling-den romp, but never mind). Farnes has true music-theatre instinct; though the Opera North violins need a few extra members, the orchestral sound is strong and true and survives the hideously dry Barbican Theatre acoustics. And there was no problem in having most of the brass and the timps on either side of the stage. What a great and inventive opera it is, even in its padding; and Bartlett saw to it that even the extra stuff tied in well. And thank God - after the leaden waits in Warner's Onegin - for fluid scene changes. Can’t wait for Ruddigore tonight.

Production photos of Opera North's Queen of Spades by Bill Cooper

Thursday 24 November 2011

Seeking the Queen Beech

It's been quite a week for soul-food even outside the musical sphere: Durham, Rome (more anon) - and, by no means least on the list, the Chilterns. I've been wanting to go and gawp at some of the biggest, most awe-inspiring trees in the country since reading Richard Mabey's Beechcombings, but a succession of dull or busy Saturdays got in the way. Then, after it had seemed, as Eliot put it in Murder in the Cathedral, as if golden October had well and truly declined into sombre November, we had a patch of brilliant late-autumnal weather. And so, perhaps a bit late after Saturday lunch, we took a half-hour train journey from Euston, got out at suburban Berkhamsted and, armed with Ordnance Survey Explorer Map, headed for Frithsden Beeches.

We were there to enjoy the beauty of Berkhamsted Common on the Chiltern ridge, one of those free-for-all stretches of land which miraculously escaped enclosure over the centuries, and rather more specifically to search for a gigantic tree that rather paradoxically is a needle in a forested haystack, one I'd expected to be signposted, especially after its transient spell of fame in one of the Harry Potter films. It isn't, praise be, but we certainly happened to be in the right vicinity when I asked one man and his dog the whereabouts of the Queen Beech.

I can't do better than Mabey in his page two description of this 'antic and indomitable matriarch':

It seems elephantine, an impossible mass for a living thing. It is, I guess, between 350 and 400 years old: two centuries of being repeatedly beheaded for firewood, two more as a picturesque monument. It grew up in the open, unrestricted by other trees, and its long low branches trail out like the arms of a giant squid. Its trunk is vegetable hide, a mass of burrs, bosses, wounds, flutings, fields of scar tissues congealed around the points where the branches were lopped.

There's more - about what lives within and on it, about the extraordinary attempts by forestry professionals at a misguided recent era in tree history to fell this 'insult to the forester's craft', this health hazard and nuisance; an 'epic local uprising' saw that one off.

Now, unlike then, there are no notices other than footpath or bridleway signs - and since there are so many options, it's hard to know which way to turn. We came straight out of the north side of Berkhamsted Station, walked past the ruined castle

and headed to the ridge past a farm, fields of horses and the odd lovely oak

towards the south entrance of the wood

which was still glowing in the late afternoon sun

and rich in mushrooms.

Yet once we headed towards what we were explicitly seeking, Frithsden Beeches, rather loosely marked on the map, the sun barely snuck through the high treetops. There was one splendid glade of beeches to the right of the path, with clear signs of nature's gnarled reaction to all that coppicing

and J thought due north was the solution

until the man and his dog put us right and led us to the spot. Nearby, slightly less pachydermal sisters of the Queen like this one

bore some monstrous black fungal growths well worth viewing

but Her Majesty was indeed the one to stop and wonder at, for a good half-hour.

Could nature and necessity between them, not art, really have created this? Even her mossy roots against the bed of shed leaves are impressive.

The sun was quickly setting, so we proceeded some distance along the Hertfordshire Way on the ridge before doing the circuit back via Northchurch

the last bit in a very magical, damply autumnal dark. But here's another resource on London's doorstep which we really ought to discover much more. For easy-access country walks we've always headed to my old stamping-ground of Surrey, or the Sussex Downs; but the Chilterns are no less unique.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Hard times for the little man

Germany in 1932 is both the setting and the place/time for the writing of Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now?, but the artistically enhanced realism depicting a rather nice young couple trying to make ends meet while the economy crashes around them rings alarm bells today (and no doubt always has since then, in some parts of the world). Unemployment had risen since 1929 from 1.4 million to 6 million, wages had fallen by 50 per cent and social welfare was in tatters, a bureaucratic system made it difficult if not impossible for the poor to claim their dues - and Hitler was poised to take power, most plausible (for some) of a bad bunch of politicians.

All photos of 1932 here courtesy of the Bundesarchiv, which has a huge selection on Wikimedia Commons. The writing on the wall in the tenement shot up top, between the Nazi and communist flags, reads 'first food, then rent' - a slight ringing of the changes on Brecht's 'erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral' ('first comes a full stomach, then come ethics').

Not that you'd really be aware of the ultimate stormcloud about to burst in 1933 from the little world of Fallada's novel, apart from the presence of the odd Nazi in various institutions. The focus is on the personal realm in which the novel's hero, Pinneberg, and his adorable young wife Lammchen (no umlaut in the English translation), almost exclusively exist, though her backbone seems to come from a politically committed family. Quickly recovering from the news that Lammchen's pregnant, they marry and move to Berlin to lodge - at a cost - with Pinneberg's louche mother, soon find they have to flee to more secluded lodging, and depend on the young man's job as a very good salesman in a department store. The couple will have to mind every mark - it's no mere social documentation that Lammchen draws up a meticulous sheet of expenses - even if they want something as basic as an evening out (though they do go to the cinema, and see a film that's anything but escapist).

Emma Pinneberg, sweet-natured Lammchen, is one of the most plausible good characters in any novel, with a core of steel and an unassailable sense of what's just and fair. Her husband is more complex, if not necessarily more interesting, and many of the most striking passages in the novel deal with his sense of, and sensitivity to, the insecurity of his position. There's a troubling early scene where the doting husband, having just got a job thanks to the string-pulling of his mother's dodgy lover, stands in a desolate autumnal Kleine Tiergarten among the unemployed waiting for they know not what.

Externally, he didn't belong to them, his outer shell was smart. He was wearing the reddish-brown winter ulster that Bergmann [his previous employer in a provincial town] had let him have for thirty-eight marks, and the hard black hat, also one of Bergmann's, no longer completely in fashion, the brim's too wide, so shall we say three marks twenty, Pinneberg?

Externally, then, Pinneberg did not belong to the unemployed, but internally...

He had just been to see Lehmann, the head of Personnel at Mandel's department store; he had gone to get a job and he'd got one, it was a simple commercial transaction. But as a result of this transaction Pinneberg had the feeling, despite the fact that he was to become a wage-earner again, that he was much closer to these non-earners than to people who earned a great deal. He was one of them, any day he could find himself standing here among them, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had no protection.

He was one of millions. Ministers made speeches to him, enjoined him to tighten his belt, to make sacrifices, to feel German, to put his money in the savings-bank and to vote for the constitutional party.

Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't, according to the circumstances, but he didn't beliecve what they said. Not in the least. His innermost conviction was: they all want something
from me, but not for me. It's all the same whether I live or die. They couldn't care less whether I can afford to go to the cinema or not, whether Lammchen can get proper food or has too much excitement, whether the Shrimp [the child they're expecting] is happy or miserable. Nobody gives a damn.

And all these people standing around in the Little Tiergarten, and a real zoo it was, full of proletarian animals rendered harmless by lack of food and lack of hope, they shared the same fate. Three months' unemployment and - goodbye, reddish-brown overcoat! Goodbye to any prospects for the future! Jachmann
[his mother's lover] and Lehmann could have a quarrel on Wednesday evening and suddenly I'll be worthless again.

Despite the hopeless tone here, and the notion that you carry the seeds of your own failure if you perceive it despondently from the start, there's some humour throughout. Not least when Pinneberg's distinguished fellow-salesman takes him along to a naturist evening at a local baths and, in a marvellous tragicomic scene, he has a melancholy conversation with a stocky Jewish middle-aged lady who sadly and matter-of-factly tells him of the daily abuse she faces. The scenes of Pinneberg's anxiety when Lammchen stumbles to hospital to give birth and the awkward domesticity with the Shrimp are charming, too.

As is Lammchen, always - real enough not to be too good to be true.

Fallada must have drawn all this from a life which had even more severe problems that Pinneberg's, though it seems he was never on the breadline in the same way. I can imagine this would make a marvellous TV adaptation, as it's mostly dialogue. There was indeed a 1934 American film starring Margaret Sullavan, which I'd love to see, even though I imagine it must be compromised in some details.

That as much as anything, due to its Jewish artistic team, counted against Fallada in the eyes of the Nazi regime. And then, of course, we have the terrifying but always human picture of Alone in Berlin. This author is one of the greats, Tolstoyan in the way that seemingly unsympathetic characters become more likeable when you least expect it. Ultimately it's the humanity of the central couple and the way they face their vicissitudes - or, in Pinneberg's case, don't always face them - that makes Little Man, What Now? unique.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Durham night and day

Or, if you prefer, come rain, come shine. The rain fell not last week but on Durham’s first LUMIERE festival two years ago; the biggest brolly in Matthew Andrews's top picture belongs to the diplo-mate and gives a good plug to the European Commission which made a substantial contribution to feature European artists (this year, 30 of them from nine member states plus two from elsewhere). The sun shone, on the other hand, on the day this year’s jamboree officially began, giving us the perfect autumn take on the cathedral from the surrounding, wooded banks of the River Wear.

I’ve written about Artichoke’s inspired advocacy of a great civic-pride event that turned out some fine art too over on The Arts Desk, so this is a chance just to rhapsodise intemperately about one of England’s most perfect small cities, and certainly its most imposing, awe-inspiring – though not necessarily its most beautiful – cathedral. I hadn’t returned since the early 1980s, when I was part of a group of Edinburgh fellow-students who travelled down to hear friend Ruthie’s brother Patrick Addinall play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in the cathedral with his then orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic. We then all drove off – in a minivan, can memory serve me correctly on that one? - to spend a night at the Addinall homestead in Carperby, Wensleydale.

I’d been to Durham for the first time a few years before that, to audition and be auditioned by the university town through the UCCA process. It was second on my list; Oxford, the first, I’d flunked in fifth-term entrance attempt. York wouldn’t consider being third, but it was the fourth – Edinburgh – which I'd already seen a month earlier and loved at first sight. Durham had charm but much as I enjoyed my weekend jaunt, staying with my ma’s goddaughter who was studying there, I couldn’t really envisage being walled up with only the occasional excursion to Newcastle for the Big Arts. Edinburgh had two orchestras and an opera company – that was vital at the time. And I’ve never regretted a moment.

Still, I wonder what being in such a beautiful place as Durham for so long does to your psyche. Certainly I’d never thought of it as more like an Italian walled city, and the cathedral towers as not so much grim-grey – Walter Scott’s description of the 'mixed and massive piles', as inscribed on the Prebends Bridge – as the sandstone colour they really are.

The enchanting walk along the forested riverside – all a perfect nature reserve thanks to cathedral ownership – allows 280 degree perspectives around the building. Actually the towers are later than I thought, 1500s rather than Norman like the bulk of the building – but all is so massy in intent that it seems pure Romanesque in feeling if not in reality.

And so we moved on past the west fa├žade of the cathedral, accompanied by autumnal rowers

And dazzling beechscapes.

I couldn’t resist a peek into the church on the left bank, as it were, in the district named Elvet or ‘Swan Island’. St Oswald’s was opened for us by a nice chap from Leeds up to earn a bit of cash from festival stewarding – ‘the organeer’s in there practising, I’m sure he won’t mind if I let you in’. The church is most interesting, perhaps, for its dedication to the Northumbrian king who founded Lindisfarne. He ties in with two other local saintly worthies – Hild of Whitby, whose day it happened to be, and Aidan – and his head was brought to Durham in the coffin of the man who made Durham rich through pilgrimage obeisance, St Cuthbert. Ford Madox Brown’s window executed by William Morris & Co. shows Oswald felled at the Battle of Maserfield.

Other than that, the church seems to have been much loved and tended since the mid-19th century, when vicar Dr Dykes of hymn-composing fame imbued it with the spirit of the Oxford Movement. I liked the feel of the place, and especially the late 16th century chancel screen and the 15th century poppyhead bench ends in the choir.

Then round the head of the Wear’s horseshoe and across the Arup bridge which had looked so wonderful by night with Canadian artist Peter Lewis’s Splash tumbling from it (another photo by Matthew Andrews, much better than mine).

Heading up to the porch, we met Artichoke press officer Anna Vinegrad, who said how amazed she was by the daylight appearance of Cedric Le Borgne’s Voyageurs lining the South Bailey that winds down to the river around the cathedral. So we had to take a look, and she was right. By day

and by night (didn’t get to see these in the dress rehearsal, alas).

I especially liked the wraith-like figure on a garden wall, barely decipherable in the autumn morning sunshine (though I put up a clearer image from the side in the TAD piece).

Equal to the splendour of the Lindisfarne Gospel projection on to the cathedral in the nocturnal Crown of Light by Ross Ashton with its dynamic soundscape from John Del’Nero and Robert Ziegler were the rising and falling of medieval glass

though little remains inside the cathedral itself. What there is has been fabulously arranged in the Galilee (Lady) Chapel at the west end where the Venerable Bede is buried, my favourite part of the building with its imposing chevroned arches.

Alas, no guide tells us what’s what in the glass, but could this be Oswald?

And the trumpeting angel is splendid

along with the surreal arrangement of fragments.

By day, the suspended miners’ vests of Compagnie Carabosse’s installation detracted a bit from the massy space; nothing can outshine those massive incised pillars.

But the ball of fire in the central tower was a good addition

and by night, you can see how magical the illuminations looked both in the nave

and in the cloister.

I must say the cathedral’s been a bit tackified by most of its own more recent art; by all means inject a living contemporary presence, but make sure the craftsmanship is at least partly equal to what’s gone before. Anyway, the evensong I attended – choir-wise disappointing after recent Hereford and Christ Church Oxford experiences, for an all-girl treble section just doesn’t make the same sound – incorporated thanksgiving for the Cathedral Broderers, who were all trooping off to the Gothic Nine Chapels behind the altar for the extension of the service. I discreetly slipped out at that point, but I’d be happy to spend more hours in and around this most extraordinary of edifices.

Nightshots of LUMIERE all copyright Matthew Andrews except the last, from the plinth of Jacques Rival's tongue-in-cheek snow-shaker ridiculing of the pompous Marquess of Londonderry statue in the Market Square; that and the rest of the photos (interior ones all sans flash, please note) are mine.