Tuesday 31 October 2017

Czech ossuary interlude

Much as I deplore the imported Hallowe'en overkill and the infantilised craze for zombification, I can't help using the occasion as a pretext for catching up with coverage of an extraordinary place I never got round to writing about last summer. The subterranean kostnice or ossuary beneath the Church of All Saints in Sedlec, virtually a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech republic, outstrips the equivalents I've seen in Italy, even if there is no dressing-up of skeletons.

Instead the estimated 40 to 70 thousand complete sets accumulated since the scattering of holy earth from the presumed Golgotha in 1278, an occasion which had the Bohemian aristocracy wanting to be laid to rest in the cemetery, were fashioned into bizarre sculptures.

This happened in 1870, when woodcarver (!) František Rint did his damnedest with the remains, signing his name in bones. His pièce de resistance, a chandelier rendered from every bone in the human body, had been taken away for restoration when we visited, but there was no shortage of kitschy-ghoulish spectacle, and as - rather unusually, I gather, we had the place more or less to ourselves, the atmosphere was strong. First, a view towards the altar

and back towards the west end. The pyramids remind me of similar decoration in the very different context of the 18th century Vogelsaal in Bamberg's Natural History Museum.

Here Rint has even applied his skill to the Schwarzenberg coat of arms

and even the vases on the steps down to the crypt are bone-wrought.

Since we're in Kutná Hora - for which we were so grateful to Zdeněk Porybný's driver for giving us the chance to see on the way back from lovely Litomyšl and Martinů's home town of Polička - I ought to revert to colour to hymn the greater artistic treasure, and one of the most beautiful buildings in Czechia, the Cathedral of Sv Barbora.

Kutna Hora's one-time prosperity as the second finest city in Bohemia next to Prague came about from its copper and silver deposits. They were mined by Germans and circa 1300 Vaclav II set up the Royal Mint here, importing Florentines for the purpose. The minters' chapel is frescoed with their work.

Benedikt Ried's ribbed vaulting, decorated with coats of arms belonging to Vaclav and the local miners' guilds, complements a glorious Gothic east end

and the riot of pinnacles, finials and buttresses makes the outside ensemble - despite additions of later periods - one of the most harmonious of any religious edifice.

Though we actually entered through the gardens at the east end,

the Cathedral is perhaps best approached by a walkway with statues rivalling those on Prague's Charles Bridge to your left and the 17th century former Jesuit college to the right.

Even better are the views from sundry lower paths,

and the woods are always close to hand, full of birdsong in May.

Back to bones to conclude - I only recently found out that Saint-Saëns expanded his Danse Macabre into the celebrated tone-poem from a song set to part of a poem by Henri Cazalis. Who better to sing it than the great José van Dam, with Jean-Philippe Collard?

Monday 30 October 2017

Arts and Crafts day in Edinburgh

I had until 5.30pm in my favourite city the day after Robin Ticciati's predictably wonderful Usher Hall concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I needed a main objective, so in the absence of any exhibitions that cried out for attention, I decided to head for the Meadows Pottery to buy a bowl or two from Paul Tebble and Junko Shibe, parents of genius guitarist Sean Shibe. I'd seen their website, so I know there would be something I'd want to take home.

And on the way back to pick up my bags from Parliament House Hotel and head down the hill to Waverley Station, I stopped off at one of my favourite Edinburgh places of recent years, the Dovecot Studios housed in the former Infirmary Street Baths. The exhibition here was of a perfect small size: Daughters of Penelope, celebrating women weavers and artists connected to the Dovecot's glorious history.

Staying in Parliament House Hotel always puts me in a good mood (I'm not on any sort of commission to say so, by the way). I love it not only because it's close to Waverley Station, comfortable and quiet, but also because it's connected me with the Calton Hill side of Edinburgh, which never figured much when I was a student here. I made this point the last time I wrote about a short time in Edinburgh, which I see was a year ago and also close to a trip to Leeds (this time I travelled on from there, having seen an excellent performance of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and a disappointing one of Janáček's Osud, which I love, from Opera North).

Each room I've stayed in - and the latest was part of a refurbishment at the surprisingly extensive back of the house - has had fabulous views: the first over Calton Burial Ground, others looking north to Fife across the Firth of Forth and Leith like this one, view from one window of which pictured above.

Last time the cemetery had been closed, but here it was again chiming with the autumn mood,

offering its own view over Old College and the Castle one way

and its sister hill the other.

Autumn colours beneath the Nelson Monument

and a view across to Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat from one of the several flights of steps downwards past the Old Parliament Building (you see, I became a tourist yet again).

Headed up again past picturesquely ruined buildings which a council worker was, alas, denuding of the luxuriant growth on them, and came out on the lower end of the Royal Mile - again a part of town I only ever visited as a student when guests wanted to head to Holyrood Palace - and it still looked grand in the clear skies, swept by a warm wind after the freezing cold one the previous evening.

Up again past the Pleasance to the South Side, where I had a blissful half-hour at a friendly cafe serving Greek cakes and good coffee (started out in the sunshine outside, but went indoors as intermittent clouds dropped unpredictable rain). This is a view of said street from a pub with a sign that nicely conjures how it was - not so very different from now.

Another happy half-hour in my kind of bookshop which has sprung up near to where Seeds, our favourite vegetarian restaurant, used to be in West Nicholson Street - Lighthouse, 'home of radical books'. That disposed me to want to spend some money here. Serendipity led me to three volumes of nature-writing: Findings by Kathleen Jamie, whom I've admired ever since The Golden Peak, which reflected our own travels in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and whose style is elegant here, but there's a bit of a 'why' about it for me so far; Thoreau's Walden in a Thrift edition (cheapskate that am, but it's pleasant to handle); and Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain, a revelation to set alongside the thrill of J. A. Baker's The Peregrine. I'll be waxing lyrical about both anon. Anyway, I liked the spirit of Lighthouse, and I have to agree with the comment above the book below, not least because I disliked Clegg's use of paradox to sell a book and the way he went about marketing it.

How had George Square and environs changed since the 1980s? Well, there's now the mosque nearby, which has a sensible notice outside making it clear that Allah is the God we all share, if you believe.

And I liked the shadow of the old chimneypots on a completely new facade.

The major damage was done in the 1960s, when nearly half of the square's Georgian houses were pulled down to be replaced by monstrosities like the David Hume Tower. I have very fond memories of hours in the classics library, though, and the views out were fine. The fifth and sixth floors are no longer home to the classics department, though, so having seen how the basement cafe has been transformed beyond belief and taken the lift up, I wandered down and snapped a view with which I became very familiar over four years.

On a sunny autumn day from the other side of the Meadows, even 'the DHT' doesn't look too bad.

Then it was into Marchmont, an area I for some reason envied other students for making their home, though I couldn't have been happier in Dundas Street. I could still live here. This is a nicely maintained front garden, not doing badly in the northern October.

And then I more or less sniffed my way to the Meadows Pottery. Junko, it turned out, was just in front of me as I crossed the road, though she disappeared to work while I spent what must have been nearly an hour chatting with Paul, not least about how Edinburgh had changed for the better since the 1980s. Here are Paul and Junko at the end of my visit, purchase completed.

Paul made the interesting observation that the big increase in Oriental students made street life much livelier: Auld Reekians tended to be closed in public, whereas these folk felt comfortable making public spaces their living room. And I'm glad I flourished my books, because that encouraged Paul to talk about his and Junko's close association with a poet and friend who, sadly, died just after their joint show. I can call her 'the wonderful Elizabeth Burns' because I bought on the spot the volume of poetry from which Paul read, Held, not least for its cover image of a Chosan Dynasty moon jar which I have to seek out in the British Museum.

Much here is about transience and mortality; the central sequence, 'The Shortest Days', was originally published as a pamphlet coming to terms with two then-recent losses. Paul hooked me simply by reading 'The enfolding', which I hope will resonate with you too.

As the potter enfolds air with porcelain,
making, in this new vessel,

a presence round an absence,
containing what's invisible,

and at the same time smoothing into being
something that the hands can cup,

so, walking through October woods
I find myself reaching out

in some ancient gesture
of holding and encircling

as if I clasped my hands
around your body in its sickness -

as if by this I could give you,
for a moment, strength,

fastening more tightly
your spirit to its fragile skin.

Already that makes me perceive the objects Paul and Junko craft very differently. Perhaps it was why I was especially attracted - and rightly judged that J would be less so - to the tea bowls or chawans, some of which are displayed here (I chose one for myself, and a different bowl for J).  I love the sensual feel of holding them, the spiral within inside a symbol of the energy between the hands.

There's also a poem in Held, 'In the butterfly house', which applies the difficulty of the creative life to a feeling for it within to Sean and his sister when they were younger. I don't want to spoil it by quoting the relevant lines out of context, but it seems Burns was prophetic, for  I've never encountered a performing artist more conscious of the responsibility to go deep and take time than Sean.

By the time I left, it was pouring with rain, so I stopped off at Richard DeMarco's transfigured Summerhall next door for a very late bowl of soup (excellent), and then popped in next door to that, a very odd second-hand shop where I had an odd conversation with an old Edinburgh eccentric about the LPs and blush to say I bought one of The Black Mikado, which for obvious reasons (not least its original cover artwork) isn't available on CD, and I'd never heard the treatment of G&S, which is extraordinary.

Jamie's essay on Surgeons' Hall reminded me that I've never visited, but time was too short as I passed to explore something new, so I reverted instead to Dovecot, and I'm glad I did. Daughters of Penelope was just the right size, and everything in the big space worthy of attention. The first thing I looked at screamed 'Delaunay', and it was - Sonia as realised in fabric.

More local were other eye-catchers in various mediums. Caroline Dear's Soundings iv – hearing the reed’s voice (2016) stitches together reed leaves and casts shadows which compliment the physical work (deliberate, I assume).

Joanne Soroka's For Irene Sendler (2015) rewarded on every level. Simply in the composition of its mixed mediums - cotton warp and wool, linen, metallic tweed and ash keys - it's harmonious.

But there is a deeper significance here. Sendler was a nurse who smuggled 2500 children and babies out of the Warsaw Ghetto - their number represented by the ash keys, which Soroka gathered from an Edinburgh cemetery and painted gold to signify their importance.

Soroka was Artistic Director of Dovecot from 1982-7, Fiona Mathison Director of Weaving from 1976 to 1984. Mathison kept her Sink (1972-3) of cotton warp and wool in her Edinburgh tenement flat, where visitors took it for the real thing. It's been recreated specially for the exhibition and seen for the first time outside her private dwelling.

I love it that the exhibition is haunted by the sound of Hanna Tuulikki's spinning-in-stereo (2013-14), the voices of herself and Mischa McPherson, a singer from the Isle of Lewis, on LP taking a traditional Gaelic spinning-song and treating it to a series of upward transpositions.

For once in an show like this, audio really does complement visual.

After the making, the demolition. I'd already seen and heard the work on razing to the ground the always unattractive St James [Shopping] Centre where Princes Street joins Leith Walk.

It has some resonances - after I'd graduated, I sold cameras in the Boots branch here until I got my summons to my first job in London, as Assistant Editor on Music and Musicians. There is always pause for thought in seeing something once regarded as terra firma so subject to the wrecking-ball of change.

I still had a bit longer than I'd thought I would before returning to the hotel, so I bought some honey and a slice of orange polenta cake in Valvona and Crolla, still somewhere to homage despite its transformation into a mighty empire shortly after I left university, and walked up the side of Calton Hill to catch the late afternoon light over Fife.

I always have fresh experiences each time I return to the Alma Mater, and this splendid day was no exception.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

The Estonian Wolf Hall

Yes, I know, publishers love to jump on the latest sensation by finding counterparts, preferably wrapped in covers that mimic the original (I could hardly believe one recent book ripping off the very entertaining if perhaps disposable Swedish hit by Jonas Jonasson, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared). But I was grateful when Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow spawned a translation of Kerstin Ekman's Blackwater, which led to my reading a much greater novel of hers, The Book of Hours. And I'm mighty glad that the justified hullabaloo over Hilary Mantel's unfolding Tudor chronicle led to the long-overdue appearance in English of an Estonian classic: possibly its country's greatest work, if the well-read Kaupo Kikkas is to be trusted (and trust him I do).

I actually heard about this through my beloved blogpal Susan Scheid, who's been a champion of many young American-based musicians including the unquestionably worthwhile Lembit Beecher. She told me that Lembit's Estonian mother, Merike Lepasaar Beecher, had just translated the first volume of an historical three-parter by Jaan Kross (1920-2007). I looked it up, was fascinated and ordered the hardback, coincidentally published as it turns out by our friends in the enterprising MacLehose Press, on the spot. Now the second volume, published this year, is sitting waiting, and I'm postponing the pleasure for a while, knowing I'll have to wait at least another year for the final instalment.

Kross's masterpiece tells the story of Balthasar Russow (c.1536-1600), about whom something but not too much is known. To quote the translator's very helpful introduction,

Russow lived in old Livonia (the territory of present-day Estonia and Latvia). He is the author of a remarkable work: the Chronicle of the Province of Livonia, in which he recounts the history of Old Livonia from 1136 to 1583. Russow wrote the Chronicle during the Livonian Wars, which spanned the years from 1558 to 1585, and this 25-year period is its focus. Old Livonia was a battleground for warring powers, with Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Poland-Lithuania scheming and battling for domination of this small corner of northern Europe. It was a terrible, turbulent time...Central to Kross's narrative is the story of how Russow's Chronicle...came to be written....Kross has described it as 'the first classic of Estonian literature'.

As you can imagine, it takes an exceptional imagination to bring the past to life as if it were only yesterday. And through the character of Russow, as fascinating a figure as Mantel's Thomas Cromwell if not, of course, as powerful, everything lives and breathes. Like Cromwell, he has a divided consciousness, born the son of a coachman in a village outside Tallinn but going on to acquire an impressive education, and he moves between at least two worlds. We don't often get to see him through the eyes of others, but there's a nice, typical stream-of-consciousness summary from his German brother-in-law Meus:

What strange folk these peasants are, after all...even this one here...this big-boned, rough-hewn titan with his round head...When it comes to learning, he's second in Tallinn only to the academicians, and he can get the better of some of them in matters of concrete knowledge...a philosopher, in some ways, but still a stripling in others...the way he looks at you with those wide-open blue eyes, naive and all-knowing at the same time...and he exudes something - the devil-knows-what - something like the hot steam from the sauna stoves in this region, and he's prepared to work as a coachman for the rector in Marburg or as a proofreader or a ploughman...

Kross gives clever Bal a rooting in a country expedition where he outfaces wolves, sees an old tree-god and follows his Aunt Kati's instructions to help in the birthing of a calf by getting up on a stove and bellowing like a bull: 

His rational self smirked at all this, the witching made him anxious, and he worried about what Epp [the village girl who's taken his fancy] might think of his calving antics. And yet he also felt how the stove, made of stones dug out of the fields, was somehow humming along with him and with the cave-like house and the earth under the house. He would remember this moment all his life: of that he was certain even before the cow's plaintive lowing changed to a long clear moo-oo-oo. It seemed to be such a direct response to his bellow that it shocked him, for it appeared to prove that he had extended his hand over the gate and into the realm of witchcraft.

There are plenty of more extended set-pieces, starting with the pell-mell brilliance of the virtuosic first chapter, in which Bal climbs the high tower (still the highest in old Tallinn, as walks around it and indeed our wonderful summer meal over the bay revealed - see below) of St Olaf to join a group of Italian rope-walkers -  hence the title of the first volume, applied to the hero's own balancing act.

and an astonishingly evocative account of his night journey over the frozen Baltic to Finland to deliver a message to Crown Prince Johan of Sweden. As for Bal's character, it is often stripped bare - the world for the young man seems to consist of 'only two categories of people...There were those whom he envied - whether the envy was strong or vague, there was no denying it. And there were those whom he pitied - whether the pity was deep or superficial, there was no denying that, either'.

The historical circumstances of Kross's own life help to give the picture of the past incredible potency, too. He had suffered, like most of the Estonian intelligentsia, from the German and then the Soviet occupation of Estonia - arrested by the Nazis in 1944 as a promoter of independence, then imprisoned by the NKVD in 1946 and sent for eight years to the Vorkuta Gulag and to work in the Inta mines, two more to eke out his time as a deportee. He became a writer on returning to his homeland in 1954 because his early legal studies were null and void under the Soviets. 

Debating with his wife, the poet Ellen Niit, what could and could not be written in the 1960s, the time of the Khrushchev thaw, they drew two circles - one of what should be written, the other of what could be. The area of overlap still left them with quite a lot to write about. 'History would allow me to write obliquely of the present and play with paradox and ambiguity', evading the censors by doing half of their work himself. He tried, he said, to write about the 16th century, 'its intellectual atmosphere and conditions in a way that some kind of parallels with the present would shine through...though nothing too stark or obvious'. In this he succeeded magnificently, and reading this translation today, we find his vivid imagination untrammelled and in need of no apology