Wednesday 28 August 2013

On the coast, at the church, by the lake

I'm paraphrasing Piper/Britten's Quint and Miss Jessel there, managing to squeeze in the first proper mention - which is to say an aspect of the last three-day portion - of our magical Scanditour alongside the second instalment of the 'Britten in Norfolk' strand. I've now left the ghosts behind in the last entry on the subject, which means on to our second evening, at South Creake to see the end results of the Yorke Trust's course work on A Midsummer Night's Dream. That's the church behind the hollyhocks in the central picture; sea holly aka eryngia in situ on the dunes above Holm beach up top; and sunset on the Särna lake, Sweden, after our only day of rain in the third picture.

This Dream was a classy show, no doubt about that, overlooked by the resident angels (several pictured above) and full of perceptive detail from director Jennifer Hamilton, whose calm and insightful character I warmed to so much in our round-table discussion after my Wells talk on the two operas earlier that Saturday. The showman vicar of Saint Mary South Creake had been  happy to let the workforce under set and lighting designer Ian Sommerville loose inside the building for a week, and how they transformed it.

Central was a round pond on which the barque eventually supporting Tytania and Bottom 'floated', with an old green sofa above it and holly over the pulpit, from which Puck and sundry fairies often peeped. I guess the shot-silk effect was due to the costume, make up and hair designer, no less than the best Boris Godunov I've ever seen, South African bass Gidon Saks (a friend of Hamilton). Production photos supplied by the Yorke Trust.

Conductor Darren Hargan seemed to be in overdrive from the start - why not let those eerie woodnotes glissando at more leisure? - but had a superb orchestra with which to conjure the right luminous nocturnes. My first note of inquiry to Rodney Slatford when we started our communication was whether he had a first-rate trumpeter at his disposal to do Puck's acrobatics. I well remembered how Cambridge students in Rosslyn Chapel a couple of years ago were nearly scuppered by a disastrous one. Fear not, replied he, and sure enough they'd had to buy in the best, RNCM graduate Mark Harrison, destined for a great career. The strings were deliciously sensuous; the woodwind gurgled and melted in 'Bottom's dream'.

Singers were more variable, but the Tytania we saw - out of several double-castings - would be welcome on any stage anywhere: Daire Helpin also took part in J's Europe Day concert but made more of an impact on me here. Her Oberon, Michael Taylor, seemed good enough to me though others were more critical. The lovers benefitted especially from Hamilton's lively staging, though the Lysander simply bellowed; the two Belgian girls, Helene Bracke and Annalies van Hijfte, did exceptionally well. Bottom, as so often, overegged the pudding but we laughed a lot at the antics of David Lynn's Flute-as-Thisbe. He'd also sung well in the first afternoon concert over at the chapel - my first live hearing of Britten's Six Songs from the Chinese with guitarist Dario van Gammaran.

One of the boys drafted in for the fairies had an exceptionally brilliant voice, fit competitor for Choirboy of the Year, I'd have thought. I didn't quite get the angle of Dan Robinson's laid-back, dreadlocked Puck. One day we really shall see a breaking-voiced boy acrobat in the role.

Otherwise, full marks all round. Involvement wise, I felt less close to the Glyndebourne Billy Budd at the Proms last night, but that may have had a lot to do with my distant coign of vantage in the Albert Hall. And the Creake pleasure wasn't quite over with the Dream since we returned the following morning to South Creake Chapel to hear world-class cellist Jamie Walton, a keen supporter of the Yorke Trust, in the Britten Cello Sonata with outstanding pianist Adam Johnson. The slow movement's blackness raised the hairs on the back of my neck: what a work. As they had two pianos for the rehearsals, they used them for Britten's unusual rep in that combination. Only in this centenary year, following on from the Tong/Hasegawa duo at Cheltenham, could I possibly have heard the Introduction and Rondo alla Burlesca twice in little over a month.

So we took our leave of matters musical - but not of the coast. I was still angling for the dip I'd failed to have on the previous day when the tide had retreated too far. So off we went to Holm beach, parking the car at the nearby bird sanctuary and setting off across the same saltmarsh we'd last negotiated in the sunset last September.

The eryngia was just flowering its purple-blue

and taller bracts - of aloe? I'm not sure - stood out against the cloud-studded sky.

And so across the sands near Brancaster

to swim in the warm shallows of the North Sea. This is as far as I'm going for documentation that I did it

though there is better ocular proof of daily swims in the lake at Särna, 20 kilometres from the border between Norway and Sweden.

This area once belonged, in fact, to Norway; it was gained without a struggle for Queen Christina by chaplain Daniel Buscovius in 1644. Hardly surprising that no-one contested the claim: at that time there were 20 farms on 4500 square kilometres with a population of around 100. I found all this out at the lovely wooden church a hundred metres from our log cabin which was superseded by a bigger one in 1881. More on that in a Dalarna churches survey; in the meantime, following Susannah's blog-entry which I linked to last time, here's our, erm, cosy cabin, No. 8.

And the Finches' campovan outside which we consumed our daily breakfasts.

First night was, as I've written above, one of wild skies with the rains only just abating (and still falling a little on the surface of the lake) - hence the most spectacular of sunsets -

while the second followed a radiant day in Fulufjället National Park, due a chronicle eventually. Fellow campers silhouetted walking their dog

and, to the north-east, a moon rising above other farm buildings.

On the second morning I rose to impenetrable mist which in 20 minutes was burning off

so that by 8.30 it was warm enough outside to swim. And yes, pace Susannah's blog, J gladly joined me and Susannah rushed in for a 10 second immersion, followed by half a minute - long enough for Jamie, firmly shore-bound, to photograph her 'swimming'. 13 degrees? No problem, which I can't say for 8, the temperature we experienced one alarming morning further south-east in Lake Siljan. But more of that, too, anon.

3/9 The full Stavanger International Chamber Music Festival chronicle is now up on The Arts Desk. I'll have more to say here about Norwegian ecclesiastica.

Friday 23 August 2013

Malians before midnight

Azeris too: all of them great and serious musicians, which more or less confirms the evolved consciousness of there being no such thing as 'world music', only 'world pop' and 'world classical'. Actually the inspirational Bassekou Kouyaté's ensemble of ngonis (West African boat-shaped lutes) and percussion, Ngoni Ba, crowned last night's late 'World Routes Prom' with a real pop festival to which those of us in the arena all danced or jigged around unselfconsciously (the band pictured above in the first of the irrepressible Chris Christodoulou's shots for the BBC, Bassekou in what looks like a bogolan design from Sophie's MaliMali workshop). Godson Alexander was down from Glasgow, so I think this was a good introduction to promming for him.

As I've written before, Bassekou is every inch as much a classical master of his craft as Lassana Diabaté, the balafonist pictured below on the left with the deliciously communicative lady they dub the 'Mahalia Jackson of Mali', Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, and Bassekou's youngest son Mamadou Kouyaté, who plays both in the first group of the evening, the Trio Da Kali, and Ngoni Ba.

All these names! But once you hear the sounds, they'll never be forgotten. The tone of the balafon, a very distinctive kind of bass xylophone, is something that went straight to our hearts in Vienna, when our widely-travelled friends Tommi and Martha - whom we met in Eritrea - took us to a heurigen to hear a fusion between another interpreter of this redoubtable instrument and a schrammel band of accordion and violins. Even then we didn't quite witness the kind of so-fast-you-can't-see-it strokes Lassana Diabaté wielded. Looking him up on YouTube introduced me to another divo, Kassy Madé Diabaté - relation to Hawa, presumably - and the young man who sings first is very fine, too. Couldn't download that one, for some reason - watch it here - but at least I can feature the balafon solo.

It was good to get the contexts of the songs and dances in the excellent programme; as I've written before, too much 'world music' can pass in a haze of uncomprehension. You'd probably have got the message that the Trio Da Kali's first number was a field-work song when Hawa Kassé took up a scythe and did an imaginary cropping dance around the stage. Then there are the recently-topical references to the violence of the Islamist extremists in the north. Ngoni Ba's 'Sinaly' is based on a song about a 19th century royal protester against Islamic oppression, and 'Ne me fatigue pas', as exuberant as the group's other three numbers, protests the problems of Malians at the time of the 2012 military coup.

'A single heart may share itself with a thousand people. Let's be friendly and mindful human beings, let's be friendly to each other'. That's the gist of Tasnif Mehriban Olaq by Azer(baijan)i composer Shafiqa Akhundova, who died last month, and it was another upbeat end to a generally more introspective sequence from the group gathered together by mugham singer Gochaq Askarov. Here, too, are masters of their art: not just Askarov with his highly inflected and ornamented poetics, but also Mirjavad  Jafarov on tar and oud, Shirzad Fataliyev playing the double-reed balaban, veering from mellow to raucous, and violinistic microtonal refinement from Elnur Mikayilov (I liked, too, the unblinking seriousness of percussionist Kamran Kamirov on naghara).

Most touching, though, was the core of BBC Radio 3 World Routes Academy's scheme to twin a maestro (in this case Askarov) or maestra with a young British-based immigrant musician. This was the beautiful 18 year old Fidan Hajiyeva with highlights in her long flowing hair, looking very apprehensive until she opened her mouth, and there was the soul of another true artist, uninhibited in the difficult coloratura. She didn't sing as much as Askarov, but her future looks bright. See how proudly and encouragingly Askarov looks at her below. Must be a nice man.

Today I wept at individual stories of dignified Syrian refugees on the BBC World Service's World Have Your Say, probably because it's been so hard to take in the scale of the chemical attacks, but I rejoiced at a Turkish reporter's news of how devout followers of Islam had joined hands in true brotherhood and sisterhood with gays, transexuals and political activists near Istanbul's Taksim Square. The good news of the Malian election, despite certain anomalies, should have made a bigger impact in the UK media than it did, and this concert was another symbol of closer understanding, how joy and humanity can connect us all.

In any case, the event doubled the evening's pleasure. In the night's first concert, which I've written up for The Arts Desk, spunky Yannick Nézet-Séguin twinkled and moued his way through much the best - by which I mean the most multi-faceted and the deepest - Prokofiev Fifth Symphony I've heard in concert.

And I've heard a lot  - too many, I was thinking before the performance when I joined James Jolly and late lamented Noëlle's perfect successor at the now ill-starred Prokofiev Archive*, Fiona McKnight, for a 5.15 talk in the Royal College of Music.

James's chairing was very accomplished, especially in steering us back to base from a rather oblique question from a member of the audience, and Fiona impressed me by covering points that I'd just realised I'd missed. Where there's deep knowledge and love, the expression of both should flow freely. Anyway, a 20 minute version of our 45 minute chat was swiftly edited by Janet Tuppen and co - how do they do it? - in time for the interval broadcast. You can hear it here for nearly a week. Less pressingly, the Discovering Music I 'did' on the symphony is available long-term here. More important than either, watch the concert - well, at least the Tchaikovsky and the Prokofiev - while you can on the BBC Four iPlayer. You'll be entranced.

Only my pre-Prom duties brought us back from the Swedish wilderness, where we'd been blissed out by the simple life for the last three days of our three-centre (Stavanger, Lake Siljan, Särna) holiday. Had it not been for that and a few other commitments - those might have been shiftable - we would have ditched our £50 return flights from Stockholm and stayed on another week. While I hang fire downloading photos and writing up aspects,  there's a bit about the final idyll on serendipitously-met friend Susannah Finch's blog. In which I am embarrassed to be cast as tough child of nature. I take the liberty of reproducing her husband Jamie's shot of a morning lake dip (for me one of five in varying places and temperatures).

We did indeed meet up with Sophie for our central sojourn in Dalarna. She'll  be back in London to host us in her reclaimed Ladbroke Grove flat for a Notting Hill carnival afternoon. I hope we'll be able to listen to the Malian bits of the Prom then, too. Catch it now**, too, while you can, and dance.

18/7 Our wonderful godson departed yesterday, well satisfied, I think, with my Proms triple bill and with J's exhaustive London walking tour on Friday while I caught up with some work. He was regretful about the late announcement of a Saturday night gig with his band, Lieutenant Tango, in Edinburgh's Grassmarket, which meant he had to leave earlier than planned. The group really has something, as I wrote before: sunny, upbeat numbers with a lot of creativity (though Alexander wants to write meaningful lyrics rather than the nonsense sounds-good ones we've had so far). Having posted the infectious 'Charlie Brash', I now give you 'Geronimo':

*The news is it's moving from Goldsmiths College to Columbia University, New York, in a year or so. Nothing on earth, it seems, we faithful few can do about it. 
**Radio only. My TAD colleague Peter Culshaw, who also reviewed the concert, has just written an excellent piece on how TV has failed so-called 'world music' here.

Monday 12 August 2013

Dream, Screw and Serenade in Norfolk - 1

Britten's two spookiest operas and his exquisite songs of sunset melting into night had the most poetic settings imaginable the other weekend. I was up in beloved north Norfolk to talk about the connections between The Turn of the Screw and A Midsummer Night's Dream - they turn out to be more legion than I thought - in the intimate little Granary Theatre of old-fashioned Wells-next-the-Sea, pictured in the middle above. Seastar Opera's all-women cast with piano had joined, by serendipity, with Yorke Trust Summer Opera's full-scale production of Dream in one of Norfolk's loveliest churches, St Mary's South Creake (above), players and singers from all over the world working mostly for free on a course with a very splendid end.

The bonus to those, and the events connected with them, was to discover that the Britten Sinfonia would be at the Theatre in the Woods of Britten's (and Auden's) old school, Gresham's of Holt, with its amphitheatre canopied by beautiful beech trees - third photo - and that we could squeeze it in between walks, bathes and other performances.

First of the major trio up was Susie Self's Screw; though there was a treasurable warm-up act. That great double-bass player Rodney Slatford, driving force of the Yorke Trust and seen here in the South Creake chapel where the smaller happenings took place,

had arranged a number of events to educate us all around the Dream. So King's Lynn-dwelling friend Jill and I hurtled to South Creake to hear Rodney in very, very lively conversation with that unstoppable but never boring or self-regarding anecdotalist, director John Copley, and the more quietly amusing violinist Nona Liddell, both of whom had participated in the 1960 Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall premiere of the Dream. Stories that made us laugh are too countless to record - all should have been mp3d but sadly weren't - but Copley had his own take on why Mackerras became a Britten ghost (I'd heard another, but this is choice). He was there when Mackerras was rehearsing Screw with the tenor who'd taken over from Pears on tour. Quint was out of synch offstage - 'miles out, miles out' as Charlie shouted - and apparently couldn't find the peephole in the drapes to see his conductor. 'I can't find Peter's hole' he wailed. 'Lucky for you', snapped back Mackerras.

Anyway, our Quint was very apparent over at Wells in the shape of Susie, singing the Prologue before heading to the conductor's stand, and her stage double, co-director Marina Sossi. Britten and Piper's very present ghosts can be a problem, especially in a smaller space;  I'd have liked more play with lights, and the valiant scene-shifters were just as distracting in the interludes as I, the great Bob Ling and a fellow Hesse student had been at Aldeburgh back in 1983 (Myfanwy Piper found us very irritating). But on a limited budget, Susie's wonderful Michael Christie did an excellent job as Lord High Everything Else. Here they are together outside the Granary.

And as you can hear in the Woman's Hour excerpt, Susie makes a very compelling Quint singing at tenor pitch.

Our Governess, of two, was Nazan Fikret, not so long ago the most frightening Flora anyone's seen at English National Opera. Her voice has a piercing sweetness and her innocence was touching, though the hysterical fixity needed a bit more playing up in a second half where everyone adopted bright colours. The church scene worked best as theatre, with the children at 'prayer' before turning gargoyles.

I suspect that just as you wouldn't have known Susie and Marina were women beneath that effective make up, you'd never know Eleanor Kramer wasn't a boy. Her 'Malo' was as touching as they come, her screams terrifying; again, only a bit more dramatic vividness as the screw turned wouldn't have gone amiss. The Flora (Alex Saunders, who took the two production photos) and Mrs Grose (Louise Mott) were impeccable, and we heard a big Wagnerian voice from Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz as Miss Jessel. Richard Black worked his socks off at the piano, but it only made you realise how specifically Britten, for all his wonderful pianistic skills, writes specifically for each of his 13 players.

Saturday morning was the talk, to a rather small but very participatory audience, followed by a round table in which I was specially impressed by the common sense and insights of Dream director Jennifer Hamilton. After our second F&C of the day, a later-arrived J went off to see the matinee while Jill and I walked out to the beach past the famous Wells huts/chalets (£60,000 a pop, can you believe).

The tide, alas, had retreated beyond reach of swimming, a pleasure to be postponed until the following day, and a haar was rolling in.

The Holt experience provided further confirmation - as guitarist Dario von Gammeran's Friday afternoon performance of the Nocturnal after John Dowland had suggested - that so much Britten would benefit from the al fresco treatment. Several of the works from Jackie Shave and her nearly all-women strings I'd loved at the Wigmore pre-centenary Brittenfest last year. But the works with tenor were fresh, and Irish-born Robin Tritschler is a new wonder on the scene. I'm indebted to Rodney Smith of the Photographers' Gallery at Holt for this picture.

Infinitely flexible, full of vocal colour, lightish but never forcing the sound, Tritschler was perfection in Finzi's Dies Natalis. And how wonderful that its newborn infant's-eye view of the world was paralleled by a gently mewling baby in the audience.

Inevitably, the Serenade crowned the glory of the late afternoon. Tritschler excelled in the difficult Dirge and flecked off the runs in Jonson's Sonnet to Diana. But an effect I'll never forget was fabulous horn player Stephen Bell's retreat to the woods for an offstage call to give us supernatural goosebumps. There were more of those in the Dream that evening, but I need to save it up for another day.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Onegin as tool?

Updating last week's argument, which began with hero Desmond Tutu and ended up at the Met,  I draw your attention to a petition set up by 75 year old composer (Charles) Andrew Rudin. Its title quickly clarifies: 'The Metropolitan Opera: Dedicate 9/23 Opening Gala to support of LGTB [don't we usually say LGBT?] people.'

The reason? The deep irony that the opera is Eugene Onegin by that not exactly closeted, but hardly 'out and proud' composer Tchaikovsky*, due to feature Anna Netrebko as Tatyana and Valery Gergiev as conductor, two artists who have explicitly lent their support to Putin's campaign.

Should they be forced into the position of decrying their leader now that he has unquestionably gone too far and taken a leaf out of Hitler's rulebook? That's a difficult one, but asserting their support for the LGBT community worldwide might release them from explicitly condemning their friend and supporter. Should they be dis-engaged if they don't speak up? No, of course not. But in that instance it would be up to the individual whether to go to their performances or buy their CDs if they carry on remaining silent. Each person must make his or her choice, but imperatives - as I wrote, paraphrasing QE2 in Gloriana, 'the word MUST is never to be used to Princes' - won't get us anywhere. Come to think of it, Deborah Warner, whose oddly anodyne production this is, might be in a better position to say something.

Working on an article for Kasper Holten's much more vivid (to me, at any rate) Royal Opera production of Eugene Onegin earlier this year (scene above with Krasimira Stoyanova, Peter Rose, Simon Keenlyside and a recumbent Pavol Breslik by Bill Cooper), I came across an essay in the annual Bard publication, in this instance devoted to Tchaikovsky and his world - I think it might have been by Alexander Poznansky, whose refutation of suspicions about the composer's sudden end I don't entirely buy - giving me more chapter and verse on Tchaikovsky's attitude to his gayness than I'd seen before. I'm indebted it to it for these lines following the usual report on the composer's decision to marry Antonina Milyukova:

Pyotr Ilyich certainly had no intentions of fighting his nature. Of Modest’s charge, the eight year old deaf mute Kolya Konradi, he would no doubt have gone no further than to admit that he ‘adore[d] him passionately’ and to write to the boy ‘ I kiss you warmly 1,000, 000, 000 times’. But he continued to have (buy?) sex with the likes of a high-school student in Vienna and a coachman on a friend’s country estate which he described as ‘nothing but a homosexual bordello’. He told Modest that he could not think of his loyal manservant Alyosha Sofronov ‘without being sexually aroused…[his] boots I would feel happy to clean all my life long’. In January 1877 he fell in love – admittedly without the wish or the hope for consummation - with the coquettish 21 year old violinist Josef Kotek [pictured with the composer up top] and remained so during the whole affaire Milyukova; Kotek was even one of the two witnesses at the wedding [official photo below].

Amazing how much we have come to know. Of course the whole confusion over Kolya and later over his nephew Vladimir 'Bob' Davydov brings in the horrid equation of homosexuality with pederasty: exactly the sort of grim muddying of the waters in which Putin's laws are currently revelling. But then, as Stephen Fry points out in a passionate polemic I've already eulogised, if you were to even bring up any of the above in the Russia of today, you could find yourself in jail. Enough; I feel my blood pressure rising even as I think about it. Action is what we need, and quickly.

I must note one funny thing that's happened since I started blogging about all this: the number of weekly Russian pageviews which had hovered for ages between the 200-300 mark has dropped to about 20. Now I only noticed the original figures because they seemed rather high - bots, possibly, thought I - but now it's the sudden drop which seems weird. But it's easy to get paranoid about these things.

Let's end, though, with the consolation of Tchaikovsky. The story behind the performer gets us into muddy waters again, I'm afraid; if I understand aright, Russian law helped Pletnev get out of a sticky situation when rape charges were brought against him by the family of a teenage boy in Thailand, where he was living at the time. As a performer, he stopped being welcome in the UK, though not in France, where I heard him conduct a typically inconsistent performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. His pianism has always been on a higher, if still sometimes maddening level; I'm sorry to hear he's stopped playing. Anyway, here he is in the Kremlin with the 12 miniatures that make up Tchaikovsky's The Seasons (properly The Months). If you want to indulge in elegy, try the June Barcarolle at 15m40s or the October 'Autumn Song'  at 27m20s.

(9/8) I've just read here on the Limelight site that Gidon Kremer has enlisted his great long-term collaborator Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, inter alia, to give a concert in Berlin on 7 October in support of Russia's jailed or persecuted opposition.

Kremer, too, has made his own observation on Netrebko's and Gergiev's support, which you can read in the link, but no harm in reduplicating it here as it rounds off everything so eloquently:

I don't want to point the finger, but it always upsets me to see talented colleagues more interested in self-promotion than in their art form becoming state delegates rather than artists. I'm highly suspicious of patriotism that identifies itself with the government. An artist, in my opinion, and historically, should be independent.

6/9  Mr Rudin's petition waxes stronger - over 8,000 signatures and 10,000 likely by the time of the Met gala. He also drew my attention to the isolated but magnificent voice, among singers, of Joyce DiDonato, great artist and clearly true Mensch (I guess you can use that word about both sexes). She has written an eloquent blogpost here, telling us that she'll be dedicating her Last Night of the Proms performance of 'Over the rainbow' to 'to all of those brave, valorous gay and lesbian souls whose voices are currently being silenced – either by family, friends, or by their government'. What a woman.

12/9 In response to the Arts Desk piece ('When artists could speak out') and my statement that if only to square my own conscience I wouldn't be attending a Gergiev concert until he says something, a reader responded: 'I’m afraid Mr. Nice is unlikely to be found at one of Gergiev’s concerts anytime soon. Gergiev was asked about it by a Dutch newspaper. Today there was an article about his festival in Rotterdam. He said the law was misunderstood abroad: “In Russia we do everything we can to protect children from paedophiles. This law is not about homosexuality, it targets paedophilia. But I have too busy a schedule to explore this matter in detail.” ' So the heinous confusion between the greatest of crimes and a natural human instinctcontinues here. Nice.

*8/9 Not according to Putin's Russia. Just read this in Private Eye: 'a new state-sponsored film by the director Yuri Arabov presents him [Tchaikovsky], ludicrously but in line with what seems to be official policy, as heterosexual. Attacked for this deception, Arabov has said it's "absolutely not the case" that the composer fancied men, adding: "I am opposed to the discussion of such things, particularly in the arts." Who said the old ways of the Soviet Union were gone?'

And - 18/9 - Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky has jumped on the revisionist bandwagon, commenting on the film: 'There is no evidence that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual'. How many explicit references in the diaries and letters - faked, no doubt - does he want?  

Tom Service has the right idea of how to answer this in today's Guardian: Beethoven made up his deafness to bolster his reputation! Brahms wore fake beards! Britten kept secret his marriages to several women! And so the game goes on. My own contribution: Mahler concocted his Jewishness because as the bored son of a perfect Viennese Catholic bourgeois banker, he wanted to kick against the grain.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Ninety minutes in Cefalù

It should have been an entire morning, but bus connections for the return from Castelbuono to Palermo were awry on Easter Thursday, so we had to skip the desired climb up the crag which dominates this perfectly situated town, La Rocca, and made for a swift spin around Cefalù's old town. First stop after a walk along the sandy beach was another of Sicily's great Norman treasures, Roger II's Duomo.

We followed two wimple-windswept nuns into the special service taking place

which was packed and scheduled to last the duration of our visit, so I only stayed long enough to take a discreet token shot of the 1148 mosaic dominated by a third great Christ Pantocrator to follow the one in Monreale - which none can surpass, surely - and to be succeeded, on our last day, by the more intimate King of Kings in Palermo's Cappella Palatina.

Left J with Cefalù at prayer and went to see the Mandralisca Museum, because I'd heard that this important private collection of Baron Enrico Piraino di Mandralisca (1809-64)  was under threat of closure; a newspaper article told how its staff had been working unsalaried for nearly a year.  There's a petition to sign  if you want to make a drop in the ocean of Italy's not-so-steady arts dismantling.

The Barone collected all sorts of stuff, much of it closed off no doubt due to warden shortages when I went and including a picture collection mostly interestig for its eccentricity. The treasure, unquestionably, is Antonello da Messina's Portrait of a Man (obviously not my image).

It's rather weirdly displayed and the 'legend' gives out some speculative nonsense about a local fisherman. Certainly the gentleman has a sly-peasant look about him. The identity, though, we shall probably never know. I curse myself for missing the Antonellos in the Palermo gallery - we'll return, without a shadow of a doubt,  fate of course notwithstanding - but have made amends by looking more closely at the four in the National Gallery and enjoying the unusual Saint Sebastian in Dresden's Gemäldegalerie.

The only other stand-outs in Mandralisca's collection, or at least the part of it I saw, are a quaint picture of Orpheus taming the beasts and the famous, if crudely executed, Greek vase showing the tuna dealer which I posted back in my Capo entry to show that, as far as street markets go, times have hadly changed at all. But it's always evocative to see works of art displayed on their patron's premises. Long may it stay that way in Cefalù.

We saw more fellow travellers here than anywhere else on our trip, but the locals are not at all absent. They hang out around the central bars, were frantically buying festive cakes at this pistachiocentric pasticceria

and frequented the central pharmacy, still so proud of its old status.

Further along Corso Ruggiero stood a giant Easter egg to foreground the Chiesa del Purgatorio

and the streets on our left all led up to the foot of La Rocca,

the climbing of which we must leave to another year. Torniamo, certamente, dio volente. I'll leave you with an 1830 view of the town by the German artist Carl Anton Joseph Rottmann. Cefalù may have since succumbed to modest urban sprawl - the train station is just beyond the furthest green clump - but otherwise not much has changed.

This is, I promise, the penultimate instalment of my Sicilian retrospective. By the time I finish it with a fond look back at Castelbuono, it will probably be time to go again. And it won't be soon enough.