Wednesday 28 June 2017

Alongside and down the Danube

It was my one full day free from Wagner in Budapest - magnificent, unforgettable, now chronicled on The Arts Desk - and I decided to visit somewhere upstream. The choices were plentiful: Szentendre, Esztergom, Vác, Visegrád. So I set off through the Budapest streets on the hottest day of the year, shaded by its art nouveau-d or neoclassicized tall buildings - no time to pause and namecheck with guidebook -

to the Nyugati Station to see what was going where. Vác cropped up the most as a destination, only an hour away, so I bought a ticket and hopped on a train there (Budapest to Vác, incidentally, was Hungary's first rail line, from the time of this now very quiet town's livelier past). While settled and guide-studying, I realised that another train and a ferry would take me to Visegrád on the Danube bend.

In the meantime, I had a couple of hours in this very pretty place with a grim more recent history.

Claudio Magris, who like Simon Winder in Danubia and  Péter Esterházy in his much more selective and typically funny/quirky/profound The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (down the Danube) ignores Visegrád in his own Danube, sums up Vác perfectly:

This little town, also rich in memories of bloodshed, is really beautiful, with its Renaissance and baroque buildings...on the way from Vienna to the Tartar Crimea, the noble gentleman Nicolaus Ernst Kleeman complained about Hungarian innkeepers in general, and those of Vác in particular, saying that among them one found 'the quintessence of inkeeperish incivility': the food and drink were bad, served in filthy kitchenware at exorbitant prices. But Vac has seen worse. In the Theresianum, the old academy for the sons of nobles built by order of Maria Theresa and later converted into a prison, the Horthy regime imprisoned and eliminated the militants of the workers' movement.

I certainly didn't avoid this edifice on purpose. But my free ramble didn't take me close to it. The walk from the station is one long, mostly pedestrianised, provincial shopping street, very pleasant. It ends in the  Marcius 15 tér. The town is clearly proud of its showcased 12th century remains, central to the square, which is dominated on one side by the Town Hall

and on another by the Dominican Church.

Outside it a holy dedication was neatly formed with rose-petals, lime-blossom and other vegetation.

Not the approximation to the colours of the Hungarian flag on either side.

A blackbird was presumably enjoying the pickings.

It's hard to believe that under Turkish occupation there were seven mosques here. The Catholic takeover lost no opportunity to replace them with churches. The bishops of Vác have left quite a legacy; several of the religious schools are still in use as centres of indoctrination. Heading south-east down Köztársaság Utca, you first hit the Piarist Church and handsome row of buildings alongside it

with a holy trinity statue group dating from the 1750s opposite.

Then there's a big square dominated by the Cathedral.

Its French classical ('revolutionary', though pre-1781) look the result of Bishop Kristof Migazzi's instructions to the architect Isidore Carnevale. The huge Corinthian columns are its most striking feature.

The interior has now been restored to its original pomp; Migazzi didn't like the fresco behind the altar and had it bricked over. It was only rediscovered during restoration work in the 1940s (*shrugs*).

Walking past the lively pupils of the Piarist grammar school, I found my way down to the river with an abundance of trees and the inevitable lime blossom smell which had overpowered us on Budapest's Margit Island a couple of days earlier.

You're looking across not to the main opposite bank of the Danube but to the enormously long Szentendre Island which effectively runs from Visegrád to the northern tip of Budapest. Which is why Danube boat trippers would tend to see either Szentendre or Vác, not both, unless they made a detour.

After a quick lunch in the central cafe, I took another train up what is now the spectacularly beautiful Danube bend to Nagymaros, graced with the best view of Visegrád and a beach which was clearly much enjoyed by people, dogs and swans.

I headed straight for the hourly ferry, which left within minutes and likewise took only minutes to cross to the other side.

'Visegrád' is the name for 'high castle (or city/citadel)', given by the Slav tribes who settled here. The strategic castle on top of the hill replaced a Roman fort; it's both ruinous, though parts have been restored, and not as spectacular as I was anticipating from the description of János Thuróczy in 1788: 'upper walls stretching to the clouds floating in the sky,  and the lower bastions reaching down as far as the river'. Not Valhalla, as it turns out, but still quite impressive.

The real ruined gem is hidden from initial sight, and you have to take the road into the village proper to see it: the royal palace of King Mátyás Corvinus and Beatrice of Aragon/Naples, who may have plied her influence to make this a place of Renaissance splendour, described as a 'paradisum terrestrium' by the Papal legate Cardinal Castelli.

I only got thus far into the palace site, intending to plough on in my remaining hours up the hill, but I should quite like to have seen the reconstructions of courtyards, Hercules and Lion Fountains (pieces of the originals are lodged either here or in Solomon's Tower, which unlike the palace is, like the citadel, a landmark from a distance.

Maybe best to imagine the palace as Antonio Bonfini defined it, describing 'a large number of magnificent and spacious halls, porticos with snow-white facings and beautiful windows, as well as a terraced garden and splashing fountains with ornate red marble and bronze basins'.

The real hard sell here now is of medieval knights and jousting. There was hardly anyone around on the Tuesday I visited, but you could tell from the craft-y shops and 'armoury' that it could be hell on a weekend. Perfectly good visitors' centre, though, and the lavender planted outside the information office looks good if selectively photographed with the citadel behind it

as well as being a haven for bees and butterflies.

I walked on into the village, poked around a rather interesting antiques shop with plenty of rooms, pondered buying a Napoleon campaign plate, decided against it, found the start of the route to the citadel behind the post office - and quickly realised as my head began to spin that despite all the water I'd consumed and was consuming, heatstroke might seize me if I ploughed on up. So here, above the church, I halted in the shade

and walked onwards for another 10 minutes or so, with fine views of the Danube and the hills when open spaces appeared between the trees

and plenty of bird and butterfly life, as well as these sempervivums on a rock,

before the path started to ascend steeply, whereupon I turned back and down to the pizzeria in the row of buildings leading up to the church

for one of those very special Hungarian lemonades. The heat was going out of the sun and the sky turning bluer as I headed back down the high street - shouldn't omit another bird here, a thrush, pert to my left -

for the 5.30pm, two-and-a-half-hour boat back (the only one - it heads up from Budapest in the morning and I think goes as far as Esztergom on the border between Hungary and Slovakia).

Soon after rounding the promontory past Solomon's Tower,

the scene opened up and for much of the way there were nothing but trees and water. It seemed a shame to be saying farewell to the Danube bend having only just begun to discover it,

but the views back continued to open up in the deepening light

and the vegetation on the banks of the island to our left could be mistaken as Amazonian.

The occasional groups of birds came into sight either on the beaches or up certain creeks. I could hardly see exactly what I was snapping here, but closing in reveals not only two herons but also - widespread through the world, but not that common - a black stork.

A very jolly white-kimonoed Japanese gentleman, two French cyclists and myself seemed to be the only non-Magyars on a lively boat full of Hungarian scouts and elders.

Many disembarked at Szentendre with its Serbian past, the first major sign of human habitation since we'd left Visegrád. I want to come back here on my next visit to Budapest and stroll around at leisure.

Magris calls the town 'the Montmartre of the Danube'; I'd prefer to think of St Ives, but the point in both cases remains the light that draws artistic colonies to such places. It was quiet even here at about 7pm.  Then we moved outwards

and onwards

to Budapest, signalled first by the southern end of Szentendre Island just past a road bridge which connects the island to both banks.

Then there were lots more holiday chalets, then joggers running round the track that surrounds Margit Island in Budapest proper

and the Margit Bridge came into view, with the Gellért Hill behind it

and then the ever-impressive Parliament Building appearing on the other side.

As the boat made its first Budapest stop at Batthyány tér close to where we'd stayed for the first four nights as guests of J's friend Marie-France André at the Belgian Embassy, a bigger pleasure cruiser and a more humble tourist boat negotiated in front of the Parliament

and then we reached our final destination at the Vigaro tér pier just as the sun was setting over Buda.

Alone but not lonely after many days of lively socialising, I headed back to the excellent Gerlóczy Cafe and Brasserie which our friend Ildiko had chosen for our pre-Götterdämmerung Sunday lunch - it was no hardship sitting outside in front of the trees and the statue watching the world - and back to the hotel for an early night before the final assault on Parsifal at 4pm the next afternoon.

Sunday 25 June 2017

Music for a few

Not that any of these fine performers would have had any objections to playing and singing to as many folk as possible. But I count myself immensely privileged to have been among a select crowd for three heartwarming events over the past month-and-a-bit. First came my young friend Ed Picton-Turbervill performing Bach's Goldberg Variations in the comfortable surroundings of the Master's Lodge within St John's College Cambridge prior to the launch of a beautiful and original book (more on that anon).

Then I was in the lucky position, following our very own Europe Day Concert, of hearing four more extraordinary musicians from the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in a Nordic programme at St Clement Danes' Church, starting with American soprano Francesca Chiejina accompanied by Artistic Director David Gowland (photos of this event courtesy of Roger Way).

Last week, on a hot evening, a standing crowd mostly made up of so-called 'classical industry' folk was supremely responsive to the irresistible exuberance and art-concealing-art sophistication of Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike and his 'Alehouse Boys' in another evening of hyper-crossover at the very highest level (photos in this instance by Matthew Long).

Ed had already played the Goldbergs once already before a packed house on the previous evening. This one was for friends and family, lucidly paced so that brilliant fanfares really did steer us towards a natural ending. He speaks so well on music too, and justified prefacing the Bach with the favourite piece about which he'd written the dissertation which went towards his double first. It's one I love to bits too, Brahms's A major Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2 and with a flair for potent programming, EPT went straight on to the Bach, having asked us not to applaud.

We left the family to a picnic which eventually got broken up by a heavy downpour and went for sausages in a nearby pub, then I to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, about which I should write more, but here in the meantime - in case I don't - is a view from above of the totem pole and other ethnographic treasures in the MAA's big upstairs room.

Back to the Master's Lodge for a reception and presentation. Facsimiles were generously provided for those of us who didn't have the dosh for either version of the big specially-printed original. Which was open at the end of the dining table where our copies were also lodged for collection.

Talking Through Trees is a free ramble - mythos rather than logos, the author tells us - around the splendid specimens, great and small, of St John's substantial territory by the Cam, with which EPT as arborialist supreme (climbing included) entered into intimate communication while an organ scholar at the college (he's now studying in Heidelberg and debating whether to go into environmental work or train as a doctor).

Each short paragraph has a number by it indicating its place in the chronological order of writing  (beginning, consequently with 219 followed by 79, 179, 80 and so on. I believe this was a hint taken from How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence by Christopher Potter, who came to lunch at our place with Ed and his then partner Kristaps). What kind of a work is it? 'As a book is to a booklet, so this "treetise" is to a pamphlet. It is therefore a "pamph" '.

EPT is often poetic. I give you a brief sample, about the Wordsworth Oak: 'The finest feature of this Oak is undoubtedly its bark. Under tremendous pressure as it expands outward from the cambium, it buckles and snaps into rocky canyons, rivers of clefts that spread across the smooth surface of the tree'. But he can also be witty - having quoted four lines of Wordsworth which, after lofty inspirations by Gerald Manley Hopkins and Ovid via Ted Hughes, made me titter, he comments 'If it were not by Wordsworth, I would never have put that nasty piece of doggerel into my pamph'. Here's the author alongside his original benefactor Lady Margaret Beaufort.

When six years ago (ouch!) I went to Eton to talk on Prokofiev at this enterprising scholar's instigation - his father told me at this meeting that he'd pushed him forward after my Salome talk at Covent Garden to make the invitation - he told me he was saving his pennies to buy the very special books produced by a press in Wales. This was The Old Stile Press, and this is his first publication in conjunction with them, generously funded by the moneybags college and illustrated with woodcuts by Angela Lemaire, a regular OSP collaborator.

The perfect excursion ended with a special Evensong in St John's Chapel. As I've remarked before, the choir and its director are infinitely superior to those of King's College (sorry, Father Andrew). Once in a while they incorporate a Bach cantata with college instrumentalists into the service. This time we got not only 'Bleib bei uns', BWV 6, but also Vivaldi's Magnificat and, to frame the service, the Adagio from Bach's Concerto for Three Violins, BWV1064 and the Overture from the Orchestral Suite No. 4. Then we left the young 'uns to their parting and went over the road for a cheap and cheerful Chinese with Fr Andrew (who's just, incidentally, been filmed singing with Courtney Act. You'll either know that name or you won't. Suffice it to say that Season Nine of the series in which Australian drag superstar Courtney was a finalist way back when has just come to an end. I can't say I cared who won this time, but certainly the best lip-syncher took the crown).

The profane was the order of the afternoon at St Clement Danes on 9 June, though the power of love is well expressed by Sibelius and Grieg, among others. And how rapturously through the lyric-soprano gold of Francesca Chiejina, starting the programme with songs from  Grieg's gorgeous Op. 48.

Any fast vibrato here is offset by luminosity; I can't wait to hear her in Strauss. And as the picture tells us, she really engages with the audience. It's something that Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim and Ukrainian baritone (or so he now advertises himself; I would say the near-miss with 'Erlkönig' and the lower-register beauty of his Lange Müller 'Diset hede' suggests he's still very much a bass-baritone) Yuriy Yurchuk have yet to do (Yurchuk pictured below). Augen! Eyes, please, gentlemen!

But that's why they are, or in Yurchuk's case have/has been, on the YPYAP programme, to develop their performing skills. And facing an audience at closer range in a song recital is perhaps more daunting than acting on stage. The quality of their instruments was never in doubt for a moment, and even if Kim's 'Ich liebe dich'/''Jeg elsker dig' seemed a bit stretched out for the spontaneous effusion of rapturous love it ought to be, the climax was pure operatic-tenor bliss. Here he is with conductor-repetiteur James Hendry, who made exquisite work of two Aquarelles by Niels Gade.

Gowland was impressive, too, in Stenhammer's epic B minor Fantasy, though the sound of the piano made me guess either Yamaha or Fazioli; Yamaha it was. Never understood why Richter favoured it for Rachmaninov. The rebuilt Wren church acoustics are over-reverberant, too, but it's a splendid place to be with its RAF accoutrements and what I also guessed correctly to be a Grinling Gibbons pulpit (sadly not quite visible here).

And so to a venue with which I fell in love immediately, the Bush Hall, a converted Edwardian dance venue on the Uxbridge Road which I have my eye on for a future party. The ensuing photo courtesy of the BH website.

Not only was this the perfect place for Bjarte Eike's blissfully unamplified 'Alehouse Boys' - in other words players from his Barokksolistene and friends - but the atmosphere was one of the most extraordinary I've experienced in any sort of concert. I've heard them in action twice before, and each time - at the Spitalfields Festival and in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse after Barokksolistene's The Image of Melancholy programme - it was wonderful, but this rose if possible even higher.

First, let it be said (again) that all the artists are not only at the top of their game but absolutely charming - and not just the Norwegians (I have to say that for me the cherry on the cake this time was the absence of a certain English vocalist who is not quite in the same league and lacks their total ease. Note to players: stick to the unique vocalising of viola-player Per T Buhre). You do wonder whether a woman or two might join the boys, but as they're all in touch with their feminine side there are no worries about it being just a 'blokey evening'.

Add to that an audience of folk in the know, ready to go with anything, and you had the most amazing symbiosis - we 'Prommers' knew when to clap along, when to keep silence on a moment's notice, how to respond so that the 'magic triangle' Britten talks about of composer, artist and listener really was at its most magnetic.

The basic numbers were the mix as I've experienced it twice before, but the special charm and 'liveness' is in the improvisations. I well remember how Fredrik Bock can turn his guitar flamenco, what artistry we get from double-bass player Johannes Lundberg, the exhilarating foot-stamping and leaping of genuine oddball Steven Player.

I'd hoped to take along two of the godchildren, who couldn't make it in the end, but 17-year old Lucien with his mum Clare, who's disappointed to know that Bjarte is a married man, along with the two very switched-on sons of my friend Joe Smouha, left me in no doubt that this absolutely works for everyone. A stunning evening. The band is back at the Globe in October, this time in the big O rather than the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but they also need and deserve a late-night gig at the Proms. In the meantime, do buy their CD. I have certain reservations about the vocals for reasons stated above, but I've made my own mix with soulful numbers from Eike's CD masterpiece, The Image of Melancholy, and that to me is perfection.

What better way to end than with a YouTube 'taster' for the disc which includes several very typical improvisations? Obviously they have to issue a DVD next. But being there's the thing.