Friday 27 March 2020

Adieu to Kew and Fulham Palace Gardens

What a shame people couldn't do the right thing and resist flocking in groups to the places that keep us sane. I hope I've scrupulously observed the social distancing but saw packs picnicking in both places. Well, there's still the bike, and the Royal Parks remain open for now - I understand a rumour about enormous Richmond Park closing was a misreading of roads through being closed to traffic (and what bliss it was on Wednesday to cycle up there and see stags in a stream - more Richmond Glen than Park. But that's for another post).

Anyway, I'm truly thankful for catching the onrush of spring while I could. While I made a conscious effort on Sunday to cycle down to Bishop's Park and Fulham Palace Gardens, knowing closure was imminent for all Hammersmith and Fulham enclosed spaces, it was serendipity that not only did I make the effort to get to Kew once or twice a week, and finally on Saturday, when there was no warning of what was about to happen (but again, I can't blame them).

First visit on a bitterly cold, showery, intermittently sunny February day, passing early-blossoming Prunus subhirtella 'Pendula rubra'

and carpets of the Greek Scilla forbesii (glory-of-the-snow) beneath the Temple of Aeolus

was mostly Alpine House, rockery and magnolia grove centric. Irises and Mediterranean tulips were flourishing outside, and these saxifrages

while under glass much was made of the heavenly-scented Narcissus papyraceus

and a couple of anemones were flowering early. Pulsatillas next.

Steps quickened,  as black clouds loomed beyond the sunshine, towards the magnolias. Coming from the north, the one you tend to see first is Iolanthe, beautifully budding.

Then there's the grove over the lawn, dominated on that first visit by Magnolia campbellii, the pink tulip tree. Trust the remarkable Joseph Hooker to be behind it. He introduced the tree to Kew in 1848, the information tells us, 'naming it after his friend Dr. Archibald Campbell, Political Resident at Darjeeling, India, as a result of an eventful expedition they took through the eastern Himalayas'.

Around the Big One, others were in various stages of flower and bud.

That ensured revisits. My second trip focused on Magnolia X loebneri, 'Raspberry Fun' (maybe stick to the Latin name)

while there were pearls on a line from Magnolia cylindrica

Magnolia X soulangeana further north

is more or less opposite Iolanthe, flourishing on that second visit.

and here's the other side of the pine, where Acer opalus, the Italian maple, is beginning to flourish.

Third visit was to catch the cherry blossom around the Temperate House, so heading south. The vegetation around the Temple of Bellona had evolved in a fortnight.

There are more magnolias here, including a high-towering soulangeana (understandably sub-specied as superba)

and a tree coming into leaf with which I wasn't familiar, Tilia heterophylla or White Basswood, from south-eastern America.

So to the cherry avenues. The one north of the Temperate House is still in bud, but my absolute favourite, the profuse and fluffy Yoshino (Prunus X yedoensis), was much frequented - it's often used as a background for shots of models. One with her photographer had cleared off by the time I took this.

In the apple-tree groves few were flourishing, but Malus x purpurea 'eleyi' was shining dark-red with the pagoda in the background.

Another glory is Prunus 'taehaku', the Great White Cherry', in front of the Japanese temple.

We have a man as remarkable as Hooker to thank for its survival. Captain Collingwood 'Cherry' Ingram. There's an excellent article about him by his biographer, Naoko Abe, in the latest Kew magazine. 'Taihaku' became extinct in Japan, but Ingram reintroducd it there from cuttings taken in Sussex. Down the slope there's a cherry bearing his name, 'Prunus Collingwood Ingram'.

More cherry trees flourish at the back of the Palm House,

and in 2017 a group from Gifu prefecture in Japan donated 35 Somei-yoshino trees  which flourish at the edges of the rose garden.

Heading back to the magnolia grove for the third and final time, I found to my amazement that the fritillary meadow had sprouted. There was nothing but grass the previous week, and here were those most fascinating of flowers with their snakeshead/chess-board patterns, in abundance.

One public asset is staying open for the foreseeable future - the park of Chiswick House. The walk there from home took us along a jogger-laden riverside, admiring the gardens separated by the road from their houses on Chiswick Mall, with the curious little eyot beyond.

There's a clump of bushes and shrubs where I always hear the most vocal of blackbird song, but that day it was robin singing its little heart out.

We did our usual circuit of the lake over the splendid bridge, with bird activity lively as ever, and daffodils opposite the back of the temple.

The cafe was still open then - I had a good distance chat with the Polish manager, who said how proud she was of the staff's adapting to (even) higher levels of hygiene, and how good it was to have the park to walk through on her way to and from work - but the camellia house not, for obvious reasons. Soon the wisteria outside it will be blooming in spring's next stage.

but at least there are splendid specimens outside

and quite a few around Fulham Palace.

My farewell visit was too late for the walled garden of Eden, as I always call it (maybe it hadn't opened that day at all),

but not to walk around the outside, for which I'm grateful not only for different perspectives over walls and through gates

but also for the discovery of what had been done to the former no-man's-land between the churchyard and the entrance on that side, a wonderful planting of daffodils

and, thanks to a couple of feeders, a fine presence of birds. I thought this was a goldfinch, but the colourings aren't quite right. UPDATE: Robin Weiss in a comment has identified it as a chaffinch - very common bird, but I wasn't familiar with it beyond the name.

Horse chestnut in the drive beginning to flourish, and that's a farewell to the roof of the palace for now. We're lucky that this is early spring and not autumn declining into winer, to still have our one-a-day exercise, and to be able to take it - in the case of those who can get there without public transport - in the Royal Parks. There was decent space in Kensington Gardens yesterday.

Friday 20 March 2020

Four last happenings

By 'last',  I mean 'for now' - the big shutdown happened, on the 'advice' but not the command of a weak government, on Monday afternoon - and under 'happenings', I include two concerts and two operas. At three of the events there was a decent distance between audience members (because so many didn't come), and at all four the astonishing phenomenon of hardly any coughing or fidgeting. A background of intense silence makes so much difference to a live performance: it really is the ideal of Britten's 'magic triangle' (composer, performers, spectators).

Such was very noticeably the case with Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan giving a heart-piercing and unflinchingly dramatic performance of Bach's St John Passion at the Barbican on Tuesday 10 March. I've written about the concert on The Arts Desk (likewise the ENO Marriage of Figaro on Saturday evening and the stunning LSO concert on Sunday, a searing farewell as it turned out, which is why the lion's share of this article will be devoted to the new opera already covered on TAD). Images up top and when we come to Denis & Katya by Clive Barda.

What I haven't mentioned was the splendid lunch some time back now hosted by the concert manager of Masaaki and his equally delightful (and talented) son Masato, Hazard Chase's James Brown*, in a very pleasant, intimate room of 2 Brydges Place. I went not to be wooed, but because I already respect Suzuki senior so completely and wanted to talk Bach with him - that we did, and so much else besides. Pictured above clockwise from 7 o'clock are James, Moegi Takahashi of BCJ, my good friend of a fellow writer Nahoko Gotoh, James's hyper-efficient and engaged daughter Damaris Brown, who's one of the best PRs, Masato, Martin Cullingford of Gramophone, Masaaki, Roderick Thomson also of Hazard Chase and myself.

Had I not gone, I wouldn't have learnt about the extraordinary cantatas-plus lunchtime event Masaaki was giving with superb Royal Academy of Music students the following afternoon, nor that Masato had taken up the (unadvertised) conductor-harpsichordist's place in a Milton Court concert that evening as part of the Barbican's Bach weekend (not a fan of Benjamin Appl's, and that seeming prejudice was only fed by the event, but MS's part in it was beyond reproach. Both events reviewed here).

Bach-crazy as I always am especially after events like that St John, I was doubly delighted to be able to turn to the new BCJ recording of the St Matthew Passion - perfect in (eco-friendly) presentation and a similarly direct interpretation. Perhaps I should return to it at a closer-to-Easter point when I have time to listen more carefully, but it will certainly have a place of honour on the shelves alongside Gardiner and, yes, Klemperer (for the opposite pole, which is fine if the intensity is there). Another passion-play of sounds took place in the same venue the night before the shut-down: an LSO  programme which was already impressive on paper, of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and bludgeoning/desolate Sixth Symphony separated by another deep masterpiece, Britten's Violin Concerto. No praise could be too high for the performers; for review link, see above.

Having been spellbound by Philip Venables' opera 4:48 Psychosis, a powerful setting of Sarah Kane's amazing play, I was keen to see his latest work, premiered and toured (for a bit, before the ban set in) by the always enterprising Music Theatre Wales. Denis & Katya came to the Southbank's Purcell Room for two nights, and I went to see it with my excellent colleague Alexandra Coghlan (Stephen Walsh had already covered its Welsh opening for The Arts Desk).

Well, Venables, this time in conjunction with a layered text from Ted Huffman, has done it again. Within the 70 minutes of Denis & Katya we never meet the two Russian teenagers who barricaded themselves in a summer cabin, shot at the TV set, a police van and even the visiting mother of one of them, all the while broadcasting their antics on the video app Periscope to the damaging responses of online watchers. With his more lyrical episodes, Venables makes one's heart ache for the waste of life at the end of it, mired in the unknown: did the 15-year-olds kill each other, or were they killed by the police (such a possibility in Russia, alas)?

There are only two singers, Emily Edmonds and Johnny Herford, who set up the action with a spoken prologue and then take on, singly or together, the roles of teacher, friend, neighbour and others in variously treated words (Russian included). Four cellists from the London Sinfonietta at both sides of the acting space add their propulsion to timed beeps on a video conversation about a programme on the subject, a kind of rondo theme to begin with. New expressive kicks come with the pacing round of a medic, and finally the deliberate lack of any film footage is broken with a film of a train leaving the station at Strugi Krasnye, where the catastrophe took place. The later stages are formed by a kind of passacaglia which gets twisted by tonal descents and a grim plunge (oddly parallel to the terrifying final descent of Sean Shibe's electric guitar in Georges Lentz's Ingwe), just as the train journey takes us into darkening woods.

So the structure is as sure in effect as the substance. This is another utterly gripping music-theatre piece from Venables which is here to stay, pity and terror held in perfect counterpoise. There was abundant laugh-out-loud wit in Joe Hill-Gibbins' staging of Figaro, which I'm so glad reached its one and only performance on Saturday night, but less of the necessary depth in the later stages. Visually, it was spare, but a gift to the photographer, so in addition to the photos which punctuated the review, I've included a further gallery of Marc Brenner's splendid work for ENO - head over to The Arts Desk for the cast.

In one last burst of careful indulgence, if that's not an oxymoron, I was totally buoyed up by a fifth spectacle, of the Titian poesie at the National Gallery on its last day before closing for the foreseeable future; but that's for another blog entry. UPDATE: I ought to add before I do the full works that the Gallery was mostly deserted, but the Titian exhibition room was fuller than I'd anticipated - though it was still possible to keep 2 metres away from everyone else. Empty West End freaked me out and I won't be cycling into town again for the foreseeable future.

*Update: I am so shocked and saddened to hear that the management agency has just gone into voluntary liquidation. I know that James and his team were honourable people; I don't know the circumstances, but the current horror must have everything to do with it.