Wednesday 30 October 2019

Handel's Roman romp

Let's be honest, I was wary of devoting even three classes, rather than the usual five, of my Opera in Depth class to Handel's Agrippina. Could I do much more than just play various performances of the arias, touch on the loosely-adapted history? Would I find a good version on film? The answer to both questions, happily, was a , certo.

You can't help regretting the sometimes lumbering succession of arias in later Handel operas compared to the dramatic speed and agility with which, for instance, he deals with Agrippina's manipulation of the crowds in Act One or the swift reversal in Ottone's fortunes on the Capitol in Act Two (those three ariettas, albeit called arias, in which the two leading ladies and Nerone in quick succession kick him when he's down, one of the best things about Barrie Kosky's hit and miss Royal Opera production, pictured up top by Bill Cooper with Joyce DiDonato in the title role). This is true music-theatre, partly thanks to Cardinal Grimani's agile libretto: closer to L'incoronazione di Poppea than to a later Handel opera like Ariodante.

Filling its energy rather than overdoing it like Kosky is Robert Carsen's ever-stylish production for the Theater an der Wien (pictured second down), and having got hold of that on DVD I decided in the second class that we'd actually have four, and trim Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice back by one (making four, four and two - on Weill's Der Silbersee - in a rather unusual term). For screening, I took sequences from each act in the Carsen production - Agrippina's deception of Poppea with Claudius's first visit to the younger woman's bedchamber (Patricia Bardon and Danielle de Niese, amazingly good, Mika Kares as a Berlusconi emperor, pictured below); the desertion of Ottone (countertenor Filippo Mineccia, new to me, is well complemented by Jake Arditt's well-acted, kid-psycho Nero); and the bedroom farce of Act 3. Never thought I'd find myself objecting to cuts and re-ordering, but I missed the arias Carsen axes, and some of the dramatic sequencing.

Aria-wise, there was one top recording to use as a benchmark, orchestrally the liveliest of the lot from John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque soloists -

and a good chance to catch great Handel voices, among them Ann Hallenberg, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Catherine Robbin (whatever happened to her?), Veronique Gens and Philippe Jaroussky. Most interesting to me were the comparisons to be made with Handel's later adaptations of many of the arias, already drawn from his many Italian cantatas. For these, I'm immensely grateful to Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp in Handel's Operas 1704-26 (Oxford), providing a table at the back showing just what was re-used where. Admittedly this only got me as far as Rodelinda, but I was already tying myself in knots searching for correspondences. Three are particularly interesting, only one of them, I think, as successful as the original: Agrippina's 'Alma mia', splendid in itself - this is Anna Bonitatibus, vocally splendid at the Grange Festival, though the orchestral support is not ideally well sprung -

only needs a couple of notes turning around as Armida's 'Molto voglio' in Rinaldo (Carsen's durable Glyndebourne schoolroom production, with Brenda Rae - a marvellous Lulu at ENO).

Postscript: listening around, as I often do when I don't want to let a subject go, I found an old LP with Janet Baker singing two of Handel's Italian cantatas, a labour of love between her and the late Raymond Leppard conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Contrary to his assertion that 'Ah! crudel, nel pianto mio' 'was probably composed in England towards the end of Handel's life', it's one of the many Rome works dating from 1707. And here, in the extended Sinfonia which has very little to do, mood wise, with what follows, is what can safely be said to be the first version of the oboe tune used in the two arias above. With apologies for the artwork, here's that performance on YouTube.

Ottone's aria which marks the high expressive point and lowest ebb of fortune in Agrippina's Act Two, 'Voi che udite', loses the emotional twist of the first oboe so important throughout the opera (was there a master exponent in Venice?) and some of its depth as Teofane's 'Affanni del pensier' in Ottone; while Claudio's 'Io di Roma' - magnificently rethought as a moment where everything turns nasty for Poppea in Carsen's production - is just the right length, but becomes over-extended as Polyphemus's 'Cease to beauty' in Acis and Galatea. Most surprising is that the splendid and seriously underrated chorus-for-the-principals 'Di timpani e trombe' becomes in part Argante's utterly memorable 'Sibillar gli angui d'Aletto' in Rinaldo (so well sung by Gerald Finley on the Hogwood recording).

There's more, but I mustn't regurgitate everything the students got to hear. Gluck should be a very different 18th century experience. Delighted that Ian Page of Classical Opera, whose performance of the trimmed Orfeo for ducal nuptials was fascinating to hear, and Iestyn Davies - Ottone in the Royal Opera Agrippina (pictured above with the equally fabulous Lucy Crowe ar Covent Garden) and Orfeo in a new recording of the Gluck - will be our very special guests on two of the Mondays.

Friday 25 October 2019

Norfolk churches 207-224: around the Bure Valley

If anyone had chosen to sponsor our latest walk for the Norfolk Churches Trust per church, we might have to lop a few of the 20 off as there was some peripheral driving to one particular glory and its neighbours which wouldn't satisfyingly connect in an on-foot itinerary. But nobody did, so this year's chronicle is a celebration around as well as including the actual walk - 15 miles along the beautiful river Bure from Aylsham to Coltishall (it should have been Wroxham, but that would have meant negotiating the last two miles in the dark along a busy main road).

Having left my other half in London lying up with a pulled hamstring, we set off by car from Lower Southrepps to Wroxham, stopping first at (unmanned) St Peter, Smallburgh. The tower, which fell in 1677, was replaced by a slightly severe but, I think, welcome bell cote in 1902.

The inside is pleasingly bare but not uncared for, with roofbeams painted rather cheerily in 1920.

Both the nave and the chancel are Perpendicular (though the latter has a Victorian east window).

Taster for greater glories to come was the screen, with eight saints, some defacing among them. On the north are St Anthony with pig, a king, St Benedict and St George.

South are St Giles with hart, St Laurence with grid-iron and two figures that can't be made out.

It's unusual to find three more panels mounted on the wall above the pulpit - the patron saint and two bishops.

Next stop, off a very busy road, Beeston St Laurence, with attractive round tower.

The interior was pleasingly Gothicked by the Preston family of nearby Beeston Hall as a kind of private mausoleum, their hatchments complemented by the modest memorials in the chancel. The feeling is light and spacious.

Next, the glory of our motor-detour: St Michael and All Angels, Barton Turf, its high west tower flanked by tall trees. As at Smallburgh, autumn crocuses added colour to the approach.

The North Porch has gaily painted bosses on its vaulted ceiling,

suggesting a church that's still much tended to, and that's the case within (our visit was also enlivened by a jolly terrier).

The banners reduplicate in black and white the exquisite paintings on the rood screen, rather unusually depicting the nine orders of angels as well as three saints. Here St Raphael of the second choir, Powers, is turned towards an angel of the Virtues, with blue feathers not only on the wings but also on the garment.

Reflection of natural light doesn't do full justice to a representative of Cherubim, the second order of Counsellors, with four of the six eyed feathers clear, and another of Principalities, God's Messengers.

There wasn't really ideal time to inspect, and in the rush to meet our timetable in Wroxham, I forgot to take a proper look at the saintly kings on the South Screen, more crudely executed but of great historical interest. In a panel made up of fragments of Norwich School glass of the mid-15th century, there are two more angels peeling back the thatch from the stable roof in Bethlehem to see the infant Christ.

Leaving behind the deeply rural scene without, we soon hit the conglomeration that is Wroxham and Hoveton. Across the Bure, St Mary is right at the end of a housing development. It's been commodified in a not entirely attractive way: this is the interior looking west

and the pride of the church, its rich Norman doorway, is hemmed in by a porch with a less than attractive glass door. But it was worth coming to see, because though taking in the whole isn't so easy,

the detail is fabulous and a fine complement to the splendours of Iffley on the Isis beyond Oxford. Not sure if among the figures depicted are Sheila-na-gigs displaying their privy parts or acrobats.

There's also a luxuriant-haired Magdalene in the Victorian stained glass -  Simon Knott on his Norfolk Churches site thinks the work is hideous, but I've seen a lot worse -

and a monument outside, the Trafford Mausoleum, which is earlier (1831) than it looks.

The vicarage beyond is a house of solitary attractiveness before you hit suburbia,

which we negotiated again to see a smaller church on the other side of the river, St John Hoveton, with its brick tower of 1765.

The very friendly people within weren't too dismayed by the housing estate about to be built directly opposite; they were going to get a car park out of it. Their church was obviously much loved, like Barton Turf, and though with less to show for it, a vicar had clearly made a habit of collecting old glass - I doubt if the Netherlandish roundels and ovals are original to the church, but along with fragments of medieval glass they've been effectively placed within windows otherwise admitting plenty of light.

The hatchments and monuments pertain to the ubiquitous Blofeld family (did Ian Fleming know the name from around here and attach it to villain Ernst Stavro?)

and there's an attractive octagonal font of the 1620s.

Crossing the busy main road now heaving with Broads traffic, we made our way to the Wroxham terminal of the Bure Valley Railway, 'Norfolk's longest narrow gauge railway' - seemingly equally for the kids and oldies who love their steam trains. Oddly, the little compartments aren't cramped once you're in them - here are Jill and Cally trying to give me encouragement -

and the station at the Aylsham end especially is admirably tended (I was seduced by a box of second-hand records in the station shop, but this was not the time to pick any up). You can see why the Thomas the Tank Engine look appeals so to the tots.

And so at last we had reached the start of the walk proper, John of Gaunt was Lord of the Manor here from 1372 - this sign proudly proclaims Aylsham his, and it became the chief seat of the Duchy of Lancaster -

but he probably never came here. Not only that, but there's another anomaly to note about Shakespeare's mouthpiece for Little England, beloved of Brexiteers with the 'sceptred isle' speech. Fintan O'Toole puts it so well in his superb historical background to our present plight, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain: 'when the actual people of England rose up in the Peasants' Revolt, John of Gaunt was at the top of their hit list. He was Jean of Ghent, as in the city that is now part of Belgium. He was a French-speaking Plantagenet who spent much of his time in Aquitaine and became, for 15 years, titular King of Castile'. Pleased, anyway, to see this banner in a window of the handsomest house in town.

Aylsham certainly doesn't have the wonders of Ghent, but it's a very attractive town, with the best bakery I've come across in Norfolk - an excuse for further lingering -

and the churchyard nicely close to the market-place, where a girl with an exceptional voice was singing ballads to an approving crowd (we certainly applauded her loudly).

A wedding was imminent at St Michael's Church, though the bride was already a quarter of an hour late

so we diverted to tick off three other places of worship: Aylsham Methodist Church - Methody always good for a friendly greeting -

with the Catholic St John of the Cross just over the road

and the Quaker Meeting House (where, like the Catholics, they had a stamp for our forms). I had betted on the good old Quakers offering a more personal form of refreshment, and sure enough they had home-baked cookies.

Back at St Michael's,

the bride and groom had been spliced and the assembly was dispersing. We entered by the north-west door, by the side of which is a monument to the great landscaper Humphrey Repton, whose master-landscape at Sheringham we've twice wandered on non-church-walking visits to Jill (the first visit is blogged here, the second in rhododendron time here).

In case you can't read it, thus Peter Sager in his flavoursome, idiosyncratic East Anglia, on the Repton inscription:

He wrote his own epitaph, which is also his creed as a landscape gardener  'Not like Egyptian Tyrants consecrate,/Unmixed with others shall my dust remain;/But mold'ring, blending, melting into Earth./Mine shall give form and colour to the Rose,/And while its vivid blossoms cheer Mankind,/Its perfumed odours shall ascend to Heaven.' A Romantic, pragmatic, very English farewell.

Annoyingly, I've not caught the roses in the shot.

A decided bonus of the after-wedding was how the bellringers looked to us from behind the glass in the west tower arch. This might be the most idiosyncratic shot for the annual photo-competition (grateful to win two awards last year).

There are two winning fixtures in the Victorian-restored, very  much parish-church living interior. One is another fine rood-screen dado, dedicated to Thomas Wymer who died in 1509, though apparently the work is older.

It's less remarkable for the  remarkable for the 16 painted figures than for the carvings in the spandrels, including a faceless St George fighting the dragon.

I very much liked the 17th century pulpit, unremarked by some, for its perspectives.

The font is fine, 15th century, though Pevsner says its crucifixion and symbols of the Evangelists was 'very much retooled in 1852'.

There's also a fine German St John in the south chapel.

So to the path alongside the narrow-gauge railway and out into open country. Slightly dull by the track, enlivened by passing trains,


but much better to head down via a channel of the Bure to two fine churches in close proximity. Here in the distance on the left is the tower of St Mary the Virgin, Burgh-next-Aylsham,

but we chose to deviate first to St Peter, Brampton, its round tower topped by a 16th century octagon.

The Bramptons of Brampton are the subjects of two fine sets of brasses, one with a pleasing Virgin and Child above, and others are mounted on the walls, or leave traces where they've been removed.


There'/s a pretty octagonal font with shields (plus harvest festival offering)

and a Roman pot atop a staircase.

Our approach to Burgh's church could not have been more enchanting - by a bridge over the Bure, under a willow and then out into full sight of  building and churchyard.

A very gracious American lady married to a Brit who now regarded this very much as 'home' welcomed us, and told us that we wouldn't have the interior to ourselves for long as a large party on a walking tour tracing Roman remains would be heading here shortly. So we relished in virtual solitude, and with the surprise Pevsner also observes, the spacious (mostly) Early English chancel, 'as if something from Lincoln Cathedral were shrunk down and transported across the Bure Valley', Knott neatly notes. The easternmost part, including the lancet windows, is the work of Victorian diocesan architect Richard Phipson, but it helps complete a light and harmonious picture.

There are also some delightful pecking birds on the shafts in front of the chapel on the north side.

St Mary's other treasure is a seven sacraments font, one of only 40 in the country (22 of them in Norfolk - I recorded the one in All Saints Gresham here  and the one in All Saints Walsoken here). The Catholic traces were not wiped out by the later Henrys, though there's some defacing. The eighth side of octagon shows the Crucifixion and there are fine, if faceless beasts plus angels beneath. I seem to have been too distracted by the chancel to spend more time on this.

I liked the singular copy of (part of) Gentile da Fabriano's ornamental Adoration of the Magi on the west wall.

So to a late picnic lunch on a bench outside and on to the most blissful stretch of the walk, entirely along the Bure, from mid-afternoon to the darkness of early evening (equally evocative in a different way). Sheep, swans, cattle, finches in the hedgerows, a kingfisher (whose flitting I missed, as the last in the line of three) and two kayaking couples kept us company as we traced the meanders, adding on more mileage than one would have thought from the as-the-crow-flies mapping.

Eventually the riverside view of what remains of Oxnead Hall came into view, with much discussion about whether what the present owners have done to recreate the original gardens is naff or stylish. I tend more to the former, but with the proviso that it's probably true to form.

This was the home of the grand Paston family (of 'letters' fame - I very much liked the slightly deracinated quality of their church in the place of the same name).

By 1744 much had been demolished and what remained was 'in utmost Ruins'. Now there's just a service wing with a 19th century extension at right angles. A wedding reception was in progress but the couple certainly hadn't got married at the run-down church of St Michael in woods we had to walk around the house

to reach.

In marked contrast to the decay are the monuments to Sir Clement Paston (d. 1597)

and Lady Katherine Paston (d. 1636), the latter described by Pevsner as 'white, rather dull bust on a pedestal with two volutes'.

The light and the stretch of the Bure around St Andrew Lammas  - two 'ms' or one? sources disagree  - were the most beautiful of the entire walk (pictured up top) and remained so beyond it.

To get to the church, on the opposite bank, would have meant a big detour along a road, but I'm glad we visited it from that side the following morning.

The opening lines of Gray's 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard' would be most apt to the time of walking day, but a friend was reminded of this -

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, 
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, 
The plowman homeward plods his weary way, 
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. 

- by this, actually a Sunday matins shot.

The situation of Lammas I found the loveliest of all, even more so than remote-feeling Brampton and Burgh. St Andrew's is entirely surrounded by water-meadows and fields, with only two 'halls' in the immediate vicinity.

You might not bother to venture inside on the strength (or weakness) of Pevsner's 'all over-restored', but we knew we had to for the sake of our good friend David Damant - the local Damants' heraldry is 'sable a turnip proper, a chief or guttee de larmes'.

It features on the floor memorials

and at the foot of the east window.

Besides, I liked the cared-for feel of the church, reflected in its nicely-produced guide, and the interest in its (late Victorian) chancel being out of plumb with the nave.  The organ of 1845, moved here from Scottow Church and Hall, was gaily painted by parishioner Hilda Cary to mark the end of the Second World War and VE Day. It sits nicely alongside the early 16th century octagonal font with its Tudor roses.

We briefly joined the road at Buxton, by the splendid mill - one of many to be found along this stretch of the Bure, which opened up to navigation at the end of the 18th century.

St Andrew, Buxton, is most striking for the massive yews that flank it as you approach from the road. They glinted in the setting sun when we reached it on our walk, but perhaps look even better on our Sunday morning visit to catch the church open (it was, but a service meant we drove on to Lammas and back again).

Friendly folk here - we were given several slices of post-communion cake - and a well-used feel to a building that otherwise doesn't have a great deal to offer, though I liked the memento-mori-s on the ledger stones immured in the Victorian paving.

Good primitive corbels, too,

and a curious memorial to four-year-old Mary Kent, slain by inoculation (the atavists who persist in putting their children, and others, at risk from grave infection, would love this). The inscription declares that her parents 'suffered the rough officious hand of Art to wound the flourishing root of Nature, and rob the little innocent of the precious gift of life.'

This onwards towards the setting sun, and the outline of Little Hautbois Hall, accompanied by the distant sounds of more wedding-reception revelry.

Persuaded that there were church ruins in the ground, and wanting to take an up-close look the following morning, we found nothing specific, though maybe the low walls in the garden have something to do with it.

The real picturesque ruin is some way along, off the road to Coltishall. On our walk, it was now nearly dark, and we could have been negotiating a tropical river, though the shrieks, bat-flits, voles and frog ribbits were very English. I loved this poetic early-nocturnal finale. But the remaining churches still had to be seen - the old church of Hautbois (Norfolked as 'Hobbis'),

with a roofed but neglected chancel, otherwise also picturesque as a ruin,

and the later Holy Trinity, by Thomas Jekyll, unloved, it seemed, and locked.

On Saturday evening we reached Coltishall to find the church illuminated. Stopped off at the pub to see if we could call a taxi for the last two miles of the busy road back to the car at Wroxham, but one firm was fully booked and the other didn't work at weekends (!) So we reconciled ourselves to an exorbitant call out from Norwich and while waiting ate what turned out be be surprisingly good Thai curries. Wouldn't have missed much by not seeing the interior of St John Baptist, hassock hell cancelling out the plus of the Norman Purbeck marble font.

There's also an odd Victorian circular window lodging a Netherlandish roundel of Salome receiving the head of John the Baptist at the centre.

The exterior is impressive, though, with a tall west tower,

and good detail/flushwork around the doorway.

Final church we were presumptuous enough to put on the list was a Sunday newcomer, which we'd have caught on Saturday had it not been for the steam-train timetable, St Peter Belaugh (pronounced 'Bee-la'). It's famous for instilling the young John Betjeman with 'a passion for churches', as documented in the 1974 BBC film of the same name. It even starts with JB rowing down the Bure to behold the outline which so inspired him. Not so visible now on its eminence, as trees have grown up all around it - this is from the path down to the river -

but you can approach it higher up to take in the whole (the situation, incidentally, reminds me more of Cornish river valley churches than anything else in Norfolk).

Essentially, we end where we began - with a painted rood screen, this time another one finely done  but much defaced.

with 12 saints. I'll properly show ten: St James the Less, St Philip, St Thomas, St Bartholomew, St John the Baptist, St Peter,

St Paul, St John, St Andrew and St James.

No idea what possessed Pevsner to describe the nave and chancel as Norman - I don't see it - though the font is, a blue stone cauldron,

and fine corbels gaze down on it like this one.

Belaugh was our last stop on Sunday before Cal and I returned to Wroxham to take the train to Norwich, and onwards to London. Except that it didn't come, and only on looking belatedly at the sign did we notice that it had been cancelled (no announcements, no station staff). Fortunately we found a couple just outside who'd called a cab to Norwich, which we shared, and so I made it in time for the last two concerts of the Wigmore Hall's Beethoven weekend. In the meanwhile, I'll end with the usual retrospective and before it the chance for you to watch Betjeman's sober little film. Donations still being gladly received on invalid J's JustGiving page.

Previous church chronicles within the lifespan of the blog (earlier ones would take us back to 2002):

Metton to Hanworth 2018
Happisburgh to Winterton 2017
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