Friday 31 May 2019

Medieval terracotta in Tartu

Have you ever seen the like? Following advice to 'head for the 14th century Jaani [St John's] church and its abundance of statues,' I guess I was expecting something like the interior of Bamberg's magnificent Dom.

There are in fact three 'big' statues, the largest according to their medium, of the Virgin Mary, Christ on the Cross and St John, but that's only relative to the material - terracotta.

I'd long wanted to visit Tartu, Estonia's major university town, but I expected something different, more along the lines of the other Hanseatic cities. It was indeed a member of that league, though very far inland, situated on the river Emajõgi. But it feels so remote: the drive from Tallinn is half an hour longer than the trip due south to the 'summer capital' Pärnu; halfway, you head east towards the Russian border, and similarly you see little but storks, fields, woods and the occasional lake, with only the occasional settlement. Most of the buildings on the hill, including the cathedral, were destroyed by Peter the Great's troops.

I only had time in the centre to walk around the old town, not much bigger than Pärnu's, though it has an attractive square (triangle) at one end rising towards the Town Hall

and includes the neoclassical university building.

The visit of composers and writers from the World Music Days Festival took us first to the National Museum, a vast and impressive new edifice built on a disused airfield 20 minutes' walk from the centre.

After our international group was welcomed by a village band playing some of the songs heard in Estonia's first Choral Festival, a tradition which started here,

we had a lunch, a tour of the 'Finno Ugric migration' exhibition (one of two permanent fixtures, well done but hardly revelatory, though it clarified for me that Estonians belong to this group and aren't Balts like Latvians and Lithuanians) and a rather dreary concert. Much better, in fact a festival highlight, was the programme given by the superlative Latvian Radio Choir in the Jaani Church. For the two of us who walked there, half an hour beforehand permitted a whizz around the university's botanic gardens and a quick perambulation of the streets.

The Jaani Church, its present version essentially of the 14th century, was originally decorated with around 2000 sculptures, uniquely modelled out of wet clay, not put into moulds, and then burnt. In August 1944 the church itself burnt down during the Soviet invasion. It was reconstructed in 1989 to serve as a concert hall.

Further work continued after Estonia's regained independence in 1991, with reconsecration in 2005. The people of Tartu gave a great deal of money for their city's greatest treasure, but there was also funding from the Republic, the Church of North-Elbe and the City of Lüneburg (also full of red-brick buildings; it's a place I'd love to visit). German organisations initiated the restoration of the sculptures, many of which sit on racks along the north wall.

For our evening event, we headed to the riverside

and the perfect small offspring of the National Vanamuine Theatre for Märt-Matis Lill's impressive full-length opera about the First World War, Into the Fire, catching a glimpse of Tartu's most unusual modern tower, the residential Tigutorn, on the way.

Tallinn's walls and towers looked as good as ever through fringes of leaves as Estonia's spring began, on cue in early May. My daily walk took me past the Pikk (Tall) Hermann tower Toompea Castle

before the tower of the Niguliste Museum (former St Nicholas Church) came into view.

Favourite eating discovery: the Väike cafe-restaurant opposite St Nicholas, with the friendliest waiting staff and every detail just perfect (superb bread, excellent soup, exquisite cakes). Two years ago on the way back from the Pärnu Festival, I sat outside here with fellow write Nahoko Gotoh and I remember how they wrote little notes on the napkins, a bit twee, but friendly. This time I got 'may the rest of your day be as nice as you seem to be'.

Another route to the coach stop took me through beautiful gardens, the Dome Church spire just visible here.

Church interiors were for concerts - including the first I've heard in said Dome Church on Toompea. The only rooms I hadn't seen were in the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads - bachelor merchants who took black St Maurice as their saint when the Hanseatic League was established.

The White Hall, walls fanning out from the performance space, had perfect acoustics for the two-piano recital I heard (and loved) there,

but clearly the treasure is St Olaf's Guild Hall upstairs with its splendid vaulting. All was remodelled in the 1920s, but extremely well.

Unpleasant to think that after I'd left the horrible Helmes of EKRE, the far right party, hosted Marine Le Pen here, an act which did not go unprotested. Estonia's horrifying embrace of extremists, gaining seats in Parliament thanks to an opportunistic power-sharing deal, is a blot on the new democratic dream of a young nation. Let's hope it survives the shake up.

Thursday 23 May 2019

Europe Day Concert 2019: past midnight, still alive

And kicking, or rather dancing and riffing, in the most electrifying official finale we've had at St John's Smith Square in the past 11 years, a fine way to celebrate the fact that the UK didn't leave the European Union on 29 March. When Jonathan Bloxham, our superlative conductor, announced a Norwegian soloist for the wacky arrangement by Cristian Lolea (violin and strings) of Enescu's First Romanian Rhapsody, I ummed about the nation - not exactly EU. Then he told me it was Eldbjørg Hemsing, who wowed both live (in Bodø) and on her CD championing a concerto by compatriot Borgstrøm (the coupling on the disc is a first-rate performance of Shostakovich's First Concerto). Top notch, pure class, with a poignant unaccompanied encore of Grieg's 'The Last Spring'. The fact that she was playing with young equals, the pan-Europeans of Jonathan's Northern Chords Festival Orchestra, led to improvisatory fireworks with leader Agata Darashkaite and cellist Sébastien van Kujik.

The theme was '25 and under: young European composers', because youth seemed like a timely theme for celebration. No shortage of great examples here: Jonathan opened with the Rossini-esque first movement of Schubert's delicious Third Symphony, one of the six he completed in his teens, and as mid-point we had Mendelssohn's Legend of the Fair Melusine, the water-music of which indisputably influenced Wagner when he started his Ring in the depths of the Rhine. Both catered for a brilliant regular, first clarinettist Joe Shiner, whose first solo CD is due out soon. The wind as a whole were superb, as they have been for the past three years; flautist Sarah Miller, oboist James Hulme, bassoonist Carys Ambrose Evans and horn-player Stephen Craigen joined Joe for the best performance I've heard of Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür's Architectonics I. Erkki-Sven had been dubious about unearthing this relatively early piece of his, describing it as 'naive', but the response of so many in the audience proved its durability.

The interpretation of Lili Boulanger's D'un matin de printemps also left others I'd come across way behind; I heard this delicate fantasy in a completely different light. Sure, it sounds like filtered Debussy, but also has more of an identity of its own than I'd thought. The other favourite choice of people I spoke to - musicians and not - was soprano Valentina Farcas's exquisite delivery of the aria 'Dopo l'oscuro nembo' from Bellini's first opera Adelson e Salvini, later reworked for Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Valentina was representing her native Romania, which currently holds the EU Presidency. I heard her float a gorgeous line in 'Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit', for me the highlight of the 150th anniversary performance of Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem in its original location, Bremen Cathedral, with Paavo Järvi conducting the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (Matthias Goerne was at his most committed, too).

That gave plenty of promise for true bel canto style, and the way emotion informed what was sung brought tears to my eyes in a way that rarely happens for me with Bellini or Donizetti. Rossini is in a league apart, though, and Valentina returned to treat us to Amenaide's big scena 'Giusto Dio' from Tancredi. She was very sincere in her praise for the way that Jonathan provided perfect stylistic support in this repertoire, in a way - she said - that many top names on the podium have not. In fact his adaptability never ceases to amaze me. This time I didn't attend the afternoon rehearsal, so each performance gave fresh cause for wonder. A personal favourite, Elgar's 'Fairy Pipers' from the first Wand of Youth Suite, brought more period-conscious yet breathing portamento then I've heard before. So exquisite, and counterbalanced by the rugged string sound for Bartók's Romanian Dances and the Enescu.

And finally, the European Anthem, this time more truly an Ode to Joy after last year's unanticipated minute's silence at the end. The Romanian Ambassador's speech came at the end, rather than at the beginning as is customary, and gifts were distributed.

A few post-show party shots (like all the rest, with the exception of the first singer-orchestra-conductor photo, by Jamie Smith). Two Estonians, cellist and agent Maarit Kangron and violinist in the orchestra Marike Kruup, with Jonathan's girlfriend Jess Wadey;

two Bulgarians, composer Dobrinka Tabakova whose work Bell Tower in the Clouds gave such zest to last year's programme and assistant conductor Dorian Todorov;

and Jonathan - who was at his happiest this year, having hand-picked all the players he wanted and feeling more relaxed about his relationship to the music - with Eldbjørg, whom I'll see next in Svalbard.

Only sorry I didn't take a photo of my 88-year-old mum, who gamely arranged to be driven up from Banstead and back to attend her first Europe Day Concert, lovingly cared for by her goddaughter Sara while I flitted about. It was, unlike last year which had an elegiac tone, the jolliest of occasions. We're not out yet, the European Commission Representation in London lives to fight another day, and we're feeling more optimistic. Please get out and VOTE for a pro-Remain party today, those of you who can. I'm popping round to the local polling station before I depart for Sweden - alas not, like admirable Greta Thunberg, on the train. Transport around Europe is going to need some serious rethinking over the next year.

Saturday 18 May 2019

Fairford's gallery of glass

I knew there was a magnificent early 16th century west window to be seen in St Mary's, Fairford, in Gloucestershire, with the most Boschian devil in English stained glass (above, hell; below, the ensemble).

What I hadn't realised is that the church has. uniquely for England, an entire late medieval set, give or take a few repairs and a major restoration between 1988 and 2010. The master of works was Barnard Flower, King's Glazier, and the design more or less of a piece with what Betjeman calls 'a complete and perfect Perpendicular church' of 'warm and mellow' freestone instigated by Cirencester wool merchant John Tame and completed after his death in 1500 through his son Edmund, knight at the court of Henry VIII.

Four grotesque demi-figures beneath padlocks guard the tower, while below one of them a boy is climbing over the string course.

Recent local history deserves a look-in, too; the medieval craftsmen would no doubt have incorporated Tiddles the church cat into their work, but the tabby's regular attendance at services - usually sitting on parioshioners' laps - until her death at the age of 17 in 1980 ensured a memorial from local stonemason Peter Juggins.

I understand there was a Tiddles 2, but not for so long. The post is currently vacant. Other beasts were taking up residence, though - bees were swarming around several holes in the stonework, complementing the black bees we'd seen in their multitudes earlier at the gateway of Quenington.

So to the stone-panelled, fan-vaulted south porch

and in to a nave which, despite glass in every window, is surprisingly light, at least on a brilliantly sunny Easter Day. The bells, thanks to Perpendicular placement of the tower, are between the nave and the chancel.

The pictorial Bible running all round the church begins officially with Window One to the north, just west of the Lady Chapel.

Of the four scenes from the Old Testament, three foreshadow the New. Eve is tempted by a blue serpent with woman's head and bust and cat's paws.

The Burning Bush, unconsumed, betokens the pure body of Mary. At first I thought the kneeling figure was a fox, but it's Moses with his beard jutting at an angle, and wearing those horns which Michelangelo also gave him, thanks to a mistranslation about the fire surrounding his head.

Gideon, handsomely armoured, kneels before the fleece covered with dew though the ground is dry

and a handsomely coloured Angel of the Lord protects him.

The Queen of Sheba giving a silver casket to Solomon foreshadows the Adoration of the Magi.

In figurative panels facing each other, the Twelve Apostles are matched by twelve prophets. All are worth examining in detail, but so as not to bore you with the similarities, I've chosen a one-off  of four Latin doctors: Saints Jerome, Gregory the Great, Ambrose and Augustine.

The Great West Window (how it deserves its capitals) needed substantial restoration above the transom in 1863, but I still like the detail of the angel hosts around Christ.

Other judgements flank the big 'un: David and the beheaded Amalekite who stretched forth his hand against Saul are to the south,

and King Solomon settling the dispute over a child between two women to the north.

There are some fun details of folk leaning out of the windows in the upper row.

Christ's story runs across the Lady Chapel, chancel and Corpus Christi Chapel. Presentation, Magi, Nativity and Annunciation appear not in the Lady Chapel's east window, but to the north,

while the Flight into Egypt, Assumption and Christ among the Doctors have pride of place.

Passion and Crucifixion, as you might expect, are above the main altar,

while Window Six features Deposition, Entombment and Harrowing (missed it; how could I?) Most pertinent to our visit were the lovely greens and blues of Resurrection Morning,

so I took a detail of Christ meeting the holy women as they leave the garden.

Fabulous architectural details grace the Supper at Emmaus and Thomas putting his finger to Christ's wounded side

and rich colours prevail for Ascension and Pentecost: the draught of fishes, the Mount of Ascension and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Misericords, or rather the wood carvings on the undersides of the tipped-up ledge on which monks would perch while seeming to be standing, have been an obsession of mine since the church-visiting of my youth, so I was delighted to find a complete set in choir stalls which predate everything else in the church; they possibly came from Cirencester Abbey after its dissolution. Some forcing of the woodwork was done to make them fit, but their completeness mirrors the glass gallery. And since it was a joint labour to shine torchlight and snap them all - at a point when I didn't think there was a leaflet on them (the kind warden actually found me one later - you're going to see them all in their wit and vigour. Starting on the south by the entrance to the Corpus Christi Chapel - and I'll take the captions from the leaflet - the first is of a woman dragging a youth by his hair and beating him with a washing beetle.

2. 'A well fed man asleep beside a table on which there is a bowl of food'.

3. 'Two men and a wheat sheaf; the man on the right has a mug in his hand'.

4. 'The man on the left appears contented and shows an empty dish to a hungry man who looks upward in despair'.

5. 'A man squatting [to pee or shit; we thought we could make out the exposed member but you can't here] and two dogs'.

6.'Two wyverns [biped dragons] with their tails entwined possibly representing the devil'.

7. 'Two women holding a bird between them, and possibly discussing its merits'.

8. 'Dog stealing food from a cooking pot while a woman spins'.

9. 'A woman threatens to hit a man with a ladle as he places a shoe at her foot. Alternatively it may be a frolic with the man attempting to tip her over backwards'.

10. Grotesque figure.

11. 'A drunkard scene; a man fills a cup from a barrel and urges a woman to further excess'.

12. 'Two birds, possibly courting'.

13. Angel with shield.

14. 'A fox having killed one goose has another over its shoulders with the neck in its mouth. A third goose is attacking the fox from behind.'

You think I've overdone it? Nothing like. As I was left last in the church, I felt I ought to catch the others up - and forgot about the clerestory windows high up (which I could easily have viewed with my Leica zoom lens). The four windows with 12 martyrs and confessors of the faith look lovely from the illustrations, but it's the four with the 12 persecutors of the church which fascinate with their 23 overlooking demons. Here's the bottom half of a page from the handsome (and reasonably priced) church guide to whet the appetite. The 'wicked priests' are Annas, Judas and Caiaphas.

And partly for the demons' sake we have to return with Cally and Jill and do a big sweep of a walk taking in Cirencester and the Ampneys. The heat was rather confounding over Easter weekend, so our tramping was restricted to a short circuit around the lovely town. Not for nothing is it called Fair Ford, with various waters meeting the river Coln (and an impressive system of flood defences in place).

Our original plan had been to walk from idyllic Quenington (more anon) to Fairford and back, but no on the Ordnance Survey, the public footpath near the Coln seemed to break off less than halfway there. In fact, there was a permissive path, open every day except Tuesdays, along a parallel brook. Here were more of the marsh marigolds we'd already seen at friends Deborah and Andrew's amazing garden in Lacock - the image from there is more striking, I think, because of the way the trees are reflected in the water by the late afternoon sun -

and a multitude of orange-tip butterflies, early lepidopteral arrivals. I had no idea they had leaf-camouflage on the underside of the hind wing until I saw this.

Timeless views across to cattle on the other side of the brook

and spring glory of white poplars.

Quenington has a waterwheel beneath the bridge over the Coln at the bottom of its hill

but its glories are the two Norman doorways and tympana of St Swithin's Church. The north doorway within a protective porch (unlike the south one at even more remarkable Iffley, which as I remarked on the post about that marvel had lost the one that ensured its good condition)

has a tympanum of the Harrowing of Hell

earlier than the mid-12th century three-ordered doorway proper, 'of unusual richness and splendour' says David Vevey in Pevsner.

He adds that 'the south doorway is a finer composition, as it is all of one piece'.

Unrelated space-filling in the tympanum is lively; the theme is the Coronation of the Virgin, complete with a 'little domed temple of several storeys, perhaps indicating the heavenly mansions' (Vevey) plus emblems of the Four Evangelists and two seraphim.

Beakheads, as at Iffley, are complemented by ox and horse, animal magic equal to that of the corbel table at lovely Kilpeck.

Had the church been locked, we wouldn't have missed much inside; a brutal Victorian restoration has robbed it of much charm, though corbels and stones line the walls towards the west end. The outside and the graveyard, though, have a quiet charm.

The gatehouse to Quenington Court, or rather to the Preceptory of the Knights Hospitallier which preceded the house on the site we passed on the way down,

but only on the way back did I trace the humming of innumerable bees to fierce activity around the nooks and crannies. I took a little film, but the sound doesn't register as it did in the moment, so here's Deborah watching all the coming and going.

All this and a perfectly good lunch at the quiet and snug Keepers Arms - excellent place to base yourself for a weekend in this wonderful area, I'd imagine -

heightened the pleasures of a perfect Easter Sunday.