Wednesday 27 September 2017

Mastery in two bars

And by two exceptional, mature artists still in their twenties, my (now) good friend the New Zealand violinist Benjamin Baker and Hungarian-born pianist Daniel Lebhardt. It's slightly frustrating that I can't with a good conscience review Ben's concerts on sites like The Arts Desk any more - last time I legitimately did so was here - but this is my blog, so my rules, and you can believe what I write or not.

What I do know is that after 30-plus years in the business, I can tune into what's truly exceptional from a performer pretty quickly - whether it's in the all-ears circumstances of a recital or on those occasions where I put a CD on for pleasure, not for review - though there is pleasure, of course, in that too, but I'm always sitting there with a score, which in the former instance isn't usually the case. There something idiosyncratic and strongly communicative in the playing makes me stop and listen more intently. A PR sent me some Beethoven violin sonatas discs on DG featuring an artist she thought I might like to interview, Francesca Dego. Perfectly cultivated playing, nothing special, so - no thanks. Whereas in Ben's and Daniel's performance of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata in a Young Classical Artists Trust Wigmore lunchtime recital last Tuesday, there was individuality from the start. And, it especially struck me, in two specific bars, starting with the last one here.

You couldn't take them in isolation; all musical argument springs from the relationship between one note and another. I was just wondering at the way both achieved a unanimous, atmospheric diminuendo on the final unison F of the central Andante con variazioni (above), fading to nothing, when Lebhardt burst in with the ff A major chord that launches the Presto finale.

Perfect timing, and the essence of drama in musical extremes.

It was a perfect pairing with Janáček's typically fierce, jagged and shining Violin Sonata (remember that Janáček also based his First String Quartet on the horrific drama of Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata - I'm hoping that Ben's pal from Yehudi Menuhin School days, Jonathan Bloxham, might feature Terje Tønnesen's string orchestra arrangement of that in next year's Northern Chords Festival, with Ben and Daniel on hand to play the Beethoven original. Violinist and conductor/cellist teamed up, of course, at this year's superlative Europe Day Concert).

Fierceness and painful beauty were in perfect balance here - and the duo have been playing it a lot recently, not least on a tour of China. The encore was a surprise, serious and not showy - I was guessing some homage to Tchaikovsky or other, but by whom I couldn't guess. It turned out to be a Dumka by the young Janáček. Here's a film of Ben in the Sonata with another partner, Shir Semmel, at Ravinia's Steans Music Institute.

Ben's next London concert sees him tackling another Everest - Berg's Violin Concerto - in a fabulous programme from the Salomon Orchestra at St John's Smith Square on 16 October which also include's Schmidt's Fourth Symphony. Having heard the Second at the Proms - Vienna Phil under Bychkov, embodied now in a sensational recording - I can't wait to experience that one live, too.

Sunday 24 September 2017

Baltic island magic

It's there in this little philosophical gem, on a par with Tove Jansson's The Summer Book

and the singers, dancers and musicians of Estonia's Kihnu island brought it with them, along with smiles, laughs and a general happiness you can't fake, to the 12 Star Gallery of Europe House the other week (photos by Jamie Smith).

More on Mare and friends anon. In the meantime, I'm so glad I came across the American edition of Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg's The Fly Trap while browsing in Kensington Books (the author pictured below). A specialist in hoverflies, this splendid writer, translated with obvious style by Thomas Teal, has a rondo theme: 'the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation,' living as he does - or did, at the time of writing in 2014 - on Runmarö, a Swedish island of 300 inhabitants, much augmented by summer visitors. Here's the gist of it:

For an entomologist, 15 square kilometres is a whole world, a planet of its own. Not like a fairy tale you read to the kids again and again until they know it by heart. Not like a universe or a microcosm, similes I'm not willing to accept, but like a planet, neither more nor less - but with many white patches. Even if I were to swing my net an entire summer without adding a single species to my collection, the gaps in our knowledge will still be great, if not quite immeasurable. The fact is, they keep growing, keeping pace with our knowledge.

The issue, reduced to Strindberg's dismissive term 'buttonology,' connects with a parallel interest in the geologist's 'feeling for time' and Sjöberg's own attempt to 'grasp...temporal spaces so great they border on eternity' (Chapter 15. 'The Legible Landscape', is a masterpiece of writing about what we can grasp and where we stop).

Yet the perceptions are not random, despite the fluidity of Sjöberg's ruminations, often tinged by wryness; and there's a parallel character study, of the marvellous man who invented the giant fly trap of the title (and pictured above), René Malaise, a Swede (despite his French name) born in Stockholm in 1892. What a life! Malaise might have limited himself to one area of expertise, study of the sawfly, but like Sjöberg he had interests elsewhere, too - there's a fascinating final chapter on his collection of grand masters - and he travelled. A lot. In 1920 he left Sweden with five other adventurous folk, four men and two women in total, to explore the remote Kamchatka peninsula. Sjöberg's news that the collection from a later expedition to Burma was lodged in Gothenburg's Museum of World Culture - here's a specimen -

gave me a special quest when I was there the other week for Santtu-Matias Rouvali's first concert as the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor. The helpful folk on the desk couldn't locate it, but there was a screening downstairs of photos from the Kamchatka adventure, one of three selected Swedish explorations.

A shot of Malaise himself came up on the screen, so I presume the Museum is happy for me to use the original online.

He took some splendid photos, like this one (though it may well be in Japan, which he visited after Kamchatka, and where he experienced a devastating earthquake).

And here's company, though I have no idea why the woman's face is scratched out.

One more in the context of the big room downstairs at the Museum

and a crate for the sort of thing I was actually hoping to see tucked away in the corner.

It's a very splendid building with a cafe on a kind of mezzanine level

which extends on to a terrace.

The exhibitions are there mostly to make schoolchildren think of the world around us. I loved the forthrightness of the display panels (in Swedish and English) in the way they described the plunder of the earth and the quashing of human rights. Like this: 'One could use many grave words to describe how a small percentage of the world's richest population have exploited the world around them in the past hundred years: irresponsibility, arrogance, greed and egoism'. I half expected an added 'so f*** you, 45th!' We could afford to be more direct in our language here. The fourth floor exhibition included a refugee boat whose occupiers had all drowned

and this cabinet of items owned by Mexicans and south Americans trying to cross the border to the north, with information about some miserable fates.

Which leads us back to the colourful woven dresses of the Kihnu islanders, living under happier circumstances and one of the most enlightened governments in the world. I first wrote about them describing our unforgettable day trip from Pärnu last summer, and I've managed to cut down for accommodation here one of the putatively 2000 year old wedding songs still in their repertoire, which they performed for us in a room of the island's museum.

It was so good to see once more Mare Mätas, the Tallinn-trained lawyer who'd returned to her native island to foster its UNESCO-protected culture, and the sweet accordion-playing girl who's won all sorts of awards in music competitions and has grown up quite a bit since then (she must be 11 now). There she is on the left.

This time it wasn't just dancing ladies. The most jovial chap imaginable sang ballads to his accordion in a very splendid and idiomatic style, and his son came along too. They're demonstrating their splendid traditionally-designed and knitted jumpers, two months in the making, for Mare here. I want one (jumper).

This was the other book-end reception of an exhibition of really superb Kihnu-people photos by the Frenchman Jérémie Jung, some of which formed a good backdrop to the performances. Clearly they loved him there, from their genuinely warm words about him, and when it came to joining in the dances, he knew all the steps (not featured here, but there was audience participation later).

I do hope there's funding for a book of the pictures. And still, deep in my soul, there's the wish to spend a whole year on the island to see nature through all its seasons. No reason that shouldn't happen some time, if not for a while yet.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Norfolk churches: Happisburgh to Winterton

9 September 2017, and another walk for the Norfolk Churches Trust, covering edifices 179 to 191 in 16 miles of coastline, farmland and our first stretch of Norfolk Broads. So possibly the most varied ever, complete with rainbow over seal-dotted sea at Horsey Gap, cranes flying overhead - the rare settlers of Hickling Broad and around Stubb Mill - and a barn-owl flitting around a field. Rainbow also implies showers, and we had two heavy ones, but how much more dramatic the skies on Saturday than on the grey days around it.

Strictly speaking, we started at Winterton, where Jill left the car,

and then took a bumpy old (London) taxi to Happisburgh (pronounced 'Haze-bro', in one of those typical Norfolk surprises), the official start.

By the time we reached Winterton again, it would be 8pm and getting dark, the church of course closed, so best to visit at 9.45am.

Both churches have high towers, Happisburgh's second only to Cromer, which serve as lighthouses (though Happisburgh has one of those two, as you see from the top picture). Pevsner, staunch socialist, denounces Holy Trinity Winterton's as 'the work of some donor filled with the hubris of prosperous Norfolk merchants in the C15'. It did look splendid, of course, with rooks flitting around the gargoyled top,

though the interior is 'obscured by a drastic restoration of 1877-8 (H J Green)'. Its interest lay in the reminders of Winterton and its Ness as a danger to shipping: not only are there nets lining the north wall

but there's even a crucifix with a ship above it next to the font.

The whole of this coast has been notorious as a danger to seafarers. Defoe writes about it in A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-6) thus:

The danger to ships going northwards is, if after passing by Winterton they are taken short with a north-east wind, and cannot put back into the Roads, which very often happens, then they are driven upon the same coast, and embayed just at the latter.

He then goes on to describe a catastrophe in 1692, when 'above a thousand people perished in the disaster of that one miserable night, very few escaping'. My source, Literary Norfolk, adds: 'it is no coincidence, then, that it is also at Winterton that Robinson Crusoe experiences his first shipwreck'. Must read that book - an acquaintance recently surprised me by saying that it was his very favourite.  Of course as kids we had an abridged version (Dent Books) and a television series whose title music I still recall, but clearly Defoe deserves better.

Our morning, at least, was a blissfully sunny one, which made the light-filled church especially attractive

and St Mary Happisburgh, with its handsomer leading, even more so.

You get a good idea of the light from the outside of the (mostly Perpendicular) windows, too.

The first thing to greet you inside St Mary's, once you pass the porch with an interesting central boss on its wooden roof

is the font.

Simon Knott in his excellent Norfolk Churches guide - we'll never catch up with the number he's seen - noted that 'it is entirely recut [presumably in the extensive Victorian restoration]. Who can say what it looked like before?' But presumably the very attractive design is the same, and of course I'm a sucker for the wodewose or wild man of medieval imagining. There are four of them here, interspersed with four lions, against the stem

and against the bowl musical angels and the signs of the evangelists.

We had a friendly chat with the lady on the desk - ex Royal Navy, had lived in Wiltshire but was happiest here in Happisburgh. Of course it's such a poetic setting, with the graveyard running down to the cliffs and the sea on the doorstep - this view from the door of the west tower -

and the village seems very unspoilt, no straggle.

 Walking out along the road, we were quickly out, with the lighthouse to our left

and next to it a barn with some picturesque overgrowth on its north side, and the dunes behind it.

The ensemble spread out across fields the further away we got

and then we were on footpaths inland to our next destination, All Saints Lessingham

with several other towers seen but sadly not to be reached on this itinerary as we turned left by the haystacks.

All Saints was 'very ruinous' when the Rev Edmund Farrar visited it in 1885, but major rebuilding work on the nave and tower began in the next decade.

The chancel was left to nature.

Presumably this is why there's no place for the celebrated rood screen here (its panels are now stored in the archive of the Gressenhall Rural Life Museum, and Knott went to see and photograph them. You can see the evidence in his Lessingham entry here - but you're about to be rewarded with some of the best panels of all when we reach the next church).

The intimate, well-kept interior boasts an oak pulpit dated somewhere between the late 1500s and 1650.

It looks rather grand with its tester or sounding-board, but a sign inside says 'please do not use this pulpit until father notice', so presumably the preacher delivers on the level.

Next to it is a splendid tripartite window dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Locke Kendall, the son of a former rector who died near Jerusalem in 1917. St Andrew and Richard Coeur de Lion flank a typically handsome St George with the Norfolk Regiment badge above and Windsor Castle behind.

The font is weirdly mixed: Purbeck marble for the bowl, oolitic limestone legs.

Most touching is the survival of the handwritten roll of honour as war memorial in the porch.

As we left the church, we met two jolly Norfolk men at work - as Jill pointed out, you could imagine them as gravediggers in Hamlet.

Little can have changed around here for centuries - the way to the next church, St Andrew Hempstead, remarkably close, does eventually join a little-used road, but it still feels intensely rural.

There was a promising sign on the way - cakes every second Saturday, which meant OUR Saturday. Well, that would be a first, though we did get home-made cookies last year. These, of course, were to buy, but we did so with a good grace from the ladies manning the table. I do sigh when I get a message like the one from Chris Mann, walking in Kent on the same day and telling me that the full refreshment works were being offered at each church.

Our real sustenance here was a treasure that Jill, in her capacity as the most distinguished art restorer of the period in question, keenly anticipated (and thought she'd get a couple of extra quid from colleagues in her profession): a rood screen with painting of a high quality, and from no later than the end of the 14th century - in other words, early, the saints' faces reminiscent of the Wilton Diptych.

St Eligius was stolen in 1982, but that hasn't stopped them keeping the rest of the screen in situ. On the north side are St Juliana with the devil on a halter, St Helen, St Theobold, St Denis, St John of Bridlington with a fish and St Giles with hart at feet.

Theobold and Denis, carrying his severed head, have a lovely olive-green background

while St Giles stands out in black and gold against red.

The south side

offers a red-bearded St George with banner aloft and St Erasmus with his entrails being unwound,

St Stephen with his martyr's stones and St Lawrence with his gridiron - these are the most beautifully coloured of all, I think -

St Blaise, St Francis as a friar with stigmata and St Leonard in fetters, looking quizically towards the missing panel.

To the north of the screen, two panels of medieval glass include a St Michael

and that's it for the interior, though the outside provides plenty of coigns of fascination as you walk around the edge, from the tower with high trees

which extend to make a handsome fringe to the north side of the church as you take the footpath towards the sea

and a fine view back.

Then it's chaletville this side of the dunes, but once you step up and over

you can't see a sign of habitation other than the lighthouse and church of to the north

and to the south there are only a line of essential beacons to show man's part in nature, starting with the one in the distance on the left below.

These now serve as perches for cormorants, one on each.

We might, decades ago, have found the remains of Eccles Church on the beach, which Pevsner describes as 'no more than two heaps of flint on the beach, the size of two beginners' sandcastles' - but that was in 1962, and Knott has confirmation that they are no more. He did download some old photos of the round tower from Norfolk County Council, but the link gives us 'page not found', implying that the trouble he had getting permission to show them continued.

Anyway, further south the sand was smoother

and the route along the beach wilder,  complete with massing crowds and glitter of waves,

until we reached the lifeboat station at Sea Palling, which is where people find it safe to bathe. Cally and I were determined to take the plunge before our habitual churches walk lunch of chicken and chutney rolls (Jill's mother, warden of Burnham Thorpe, in whose memory we still walk, used to make them so her daughter continues the tradition). The beach had a smattering of lively children and dogs,

though the sky waxed ominous. In the water - delicious, bracing but not that cold - the two of us were collared by a large lady on a yellow lilo. A local from Eccles, she and her husband swim all year round when they can, minding the seal breeding season further down the coast. She sang the praises of a church we only just missed, Holy Trinity Ingham, and filled us in as we bobbed on the care of a local historian there. She continued that it was in a German guidebook, hence lots of visitors who 'must be very glad to get out of there'. I knew what was coming. A cousin told her of how a group of 'Muzzers' surrounded German girls in a Lido and groped them. At which point it was time to smile and swim on and out.

The first heavy shower begun just as we got changed, and we had a soaking as we walked up the narrow strip of unlovely Sea Palling - ticking off a former Methodist Chapel on the way - towards the Church of St Margaret, which is just on the fringes of the sprawl so quite attractive in its own right. The tower is old, the nave Perpendicular but subject to a heavy Victorian restoration.

Here everything is plain 'Palling', though the sea is very present. The great flood of 1953 claimed seven lives from two families here.

The Sea Palling lifeboat's mission boards are the singular and touching thing here, unusually placed along both walls of the chancels.

There are also an octagonal 14th century font, seen here through a fine old wooden door

and some medieval work remaining on the dado of the rood-screen.

Rain over for the while - though the brilliant sunshine was short-lived - we could have gone back over the dunes to the seashore further down towards Waxham, but decided to keep to the other side, which was a good idea because the view over a field of staring sheep to the three buildings of that very remote-feeling settlement was singular

and we still got the church tower as we edged duneland.

This double-act gives a sense of how St John's would look on a bleak winter day.

Like All Saints Lessingham, it has a ruined chancel

but a rather fine porch with shields above the entrance.

The interior, where Pevsner detects Norman traces, is simple and has three focal points. First, the rather fine board above the altar.

Then there's the monument to Thomas Wodehouse, according to Pevsner 'a good typical Early Elizabethan monument, ie without an effigy and with comparatively restrained classical detail' and a simple inscription recording the date of death, 21 January 1571.

And finally the plain, quatrefoiled font, temporarily tinted a rather attractive green by what the nice lady in the church told us she thinks is a spring underneath, more apparent in the winter.

Over the wall is the fine barn, twin to the one in Paston.

To reach it you have to walk round along the road, past the walls of the forbidding Waxham Hall.

Though the interior was given over to a wedding reception, its lively guests outside pictured here,

we were allowed to get a decent coffee in the cafe, from which we watched a dog going crazy over the giant bubbles produced in a sideshow. Then it was time to hit the coast again, once more pursued by the edge of a black cloud which held off more than few spots of rain all the way to Horsey Gap.

Said nature reserve is famous for its seals, and it wasn't long after we left Waxham that their heads popped up to take a look at us.

This is probably the best of a characterful bunch, and we were still watching them as we sheltered under the dune reinforcement wall from spits of rain.

Here's another from our time transfixed at Horsey gap - I used up a lot of camera power zooming in just to watch -

before the others decided the precipitation from the edge of the black cloud was moving away, and climbed up the dune towards Horsey Church. I was still on the beach when the natural wonder occurred.

It made me a bit delirious, dancing and shouting by myself on the beach in a peculiar fusion with nature. Love the way the edge of the main rainbow divides the black from the grey clouds.

The seals were still popping up, too, to add to the vision. But the others had something similar from the dunes. Here's a token shot of me with rainbow fascinator.

As we moved inland closer to what Jill knew was the territory of the cranes who'd resettled in this part of Norfolk - they've been reintroduced into the Somerset levels, but what happened here was wholly organic - we thought we saw two in flight. They could, we thought, be herons, but the latter tend to be solitary birds. But as one settled, it was clear that herons they were.

There's something especially enchanting about All Saints Horsey surrounding by a tree-grove just before the bend in the l-shaped road through the attractive tiny village. This was the first octagon-topped Saxon round tower of our walk, with one more to follow.

The inside was beautifully kept and simple, with the lovely pink patches of paint offsetting three rectangular aumbries (unusual, no?)

and a fine assortment of poppyhead bench ends - some Victorian, many 15th century.

The rood screen adds to the attractiveness - 1500, restored 1855 - along with the lovely (though not medieval) timberwork of the roof.

There's also a singular window to the memory of the otherwise forgotten artist Catherine Ursula Rising (died 1890). She stands beside the drawing-room window of Horsey Hall.

Passing another - this time operational - Methodist chapel, we headed for Horsey Drainage Mill, National Trust owned, across fields, and this is where we glimpsed our barn owl skimming around a field (there are photos in the church of the owls nesting in the tower). An exact parallel with a similar sighting at the same time of day (c.6pm) returning to Southrepps two church walks back. This time, the shot is saved; I lost the two I took back then along with the camera....

And here's the mill, undergoing a thorough restoration which will eventually restore its sails.

We were now truly into Broads country, and before my camera ran out of juice, I caught a partial essence of it looking towards the coast.

It's a pity I didn't have photopower left for the very atmospheric detour we took around the edge of the mere where the cranes hang out. We could hear their cackling and hooting, along with sundry other reed birds, and the others - walking far ahead of me - had a flight overhead pointed out by a local man - just as they entered ~West Somerton. Not surprisingly, St Mary's Church there, in a fine isolated position up a hill, was closed by 7.15pm, but Jill captured the evening light on the building

and the sunset in the opposite direction.

We peered in through the windows to see a trumpeting angel on one of the wall-paintings - must return to inspect them properly. And then we headed through woodland round the edge of East Somerton's Burnley Hall to find - not as difficult as a notice said it would be - the ruins of St Mary in the semi-darkness.

An oak tree grows in the middle of the nave. The chancel has disappeared. All very evocative, especially at twilight. Then it was a mere half a mile down a track and the tower of Winterton came fully into sight as we turned right past smallholdings, reaching the car at about 8pm.

Ensconced ourselves in the local pub, only to be told that food would take an hour, so back we drove for fish and chips in Southrepps. With the blissful knowledge of a good meal and another rare church ahead at Gunton Park on Sunday afternoon. But that will have to wait on another entry. If you've enjoyed this chronicle, or just the pictures, do give, please. A message here with an email won't not be published - though comments, as usual, otherwise welcome, if solicited in vain - and I'll tell you how to contribute. Thanks to all those who've donated so far - we're well past the £1000 mark.

Here, as usual, are the links to narratives of previous Norfolk church walks:

Honing to North Walsham 2016
Cromer to Southrepps 2015
Mileham to Bittering, 2014
Beechamwell to Gooderstone, 2013
Ingoldisthorpe to Thornham, 2012
East Rudham to Helhoughton, 2011
Wormegay to Castle Acre, 2010
Walpoles to Wiggenhalls, 2009
King's Lynn to Sandringham, 2008

Earlier walks back to 2002 BB (Before Blog).