Monday, 24 October 2016

Weekend Deal: a room with a view

Grass, shingle, sea and sky from the first floor window of our friends Anupam and Paul, who have a house at the Walmer end of Deal. We spent a happy time there over the second October weekend just after my return from Edinburgh (which meant we didn't go down until Saturday morning). And 'A Room with a View' is not inappropriate, at least as far as the Coward version goes. He turns out to have been the intermediary in the salvation of what is now Deal's conservation area, a warren of small houses and lanes between the sea front and the High Street.

In short, Charles Hawtrey lived here in what by all accounts were his bitter and acid later years. There's a plaque to prove it.

and I'm afraid that I am playing up to the diplo-mate's insistence that I bear an uncanny resemblance here (if I'm Charles Hawtrey, he is Hattie Jacques, or was, as the recent weight loss is hugely impressive and has not involved a Nigel Lawson implosion. Yet).

When the area came up for a potential second demolition after World War Two, Charlie got on the blower to his good friend Noely, who had a place just down the coast. And Noely had a word with his dear pal the Queen Mum, Warden of the Cinque Ports. She loved Walmer Castle best of the royal homes, apparently, and who can blame her?

So by royal command the place was spared and seems safe in perpetuity. We learnt this from another part-time Deal resident, Colin Tweedie, with whom we had a coffee before Sunday lunch. His partner's mother finally twigged what sort of a place it was from the large number of gentlemen out walking chichi little dogs. It has long been thus thanks to the presence of the Marines, whose time here was of course marked by terrible tragedy when the IRA bombed the bandstand and 11 lives were lost.

Anyway I've never seen more little dogs in one place than along the promenade between Walmer and Deal, which we traversed quite a few times. I sorrow to say that dog poo is a rather predominant smell, as the second notice down on one of the fish huts makes clear.

That apart, it's delightful to stroll up and down (a plan to head for St Margaret-at-Cliffe on foot was abandoned owing to the last weekend over which I had to endure the persistent pain and trouble of my stent - now removed, so we went on a long walk along the Pilgrims' Way yesterday).

Paul accompanied us Walmerwards, a stroll we shared with a group of local walkers young and old,

all the while admiring the clarity of the French coast

and spending all too short a time around Walmer Castle due to the social schedule (I went round it as a kid during annual Whitsun weeks visits with an aunt's place at Tankerton as a base, and still remember how cosy it was for a castle). A circumnavigation of the outside, at least, was possible.

Then it was back and onwards to Deal itself, passing the various flotsam and jetsam around the white huts

and the remnants of weekday sales

plus some more picturesque views out with old boats

and of course Deal's own, more hemmed-in castle

and a few incidental seaside pleasures like the old cinema, which has had some enlivening murals added

until we eventually looked along this side of the channel towards the white cliffs of Ramsgate.

After a leisurely lunch back at the Walmer end, I took yet another walk in different, later-afternoon light

to meet the others at the celebrated Deal Beach (Ice Cream) Parlour, this time to be reunited with the youngest goddaughter, Mirabel aka Dancing Delice, along with her ma and pa. She was got up in her best Alice gear owing to the bond we now share with Lewis Carroll, along with her ma and pa. Here she is with dad Kit at the celebrated Ice Cream Parlour

where immense fun was to be had from the 20p plastic eggs with gifts inside laid by a twirling musical hen. And similar simple pleasures followed simply by throwing stones into the sea (not even any skimmers)

and inviting some unfathomable rushing up and down game with this particular teddy (alas, not Special, who never leaves Aunt Choppy's sight)

while J and Edwina took a spin along what must be the ugliest pier in Britain - but a pier's a pier for all that, and they saw some amusing spectacles.

This slice of London by the Sea has plenty of delights; even if I associate looking at the sea with waiting for the end, the shifting skies over the channel could keep me amused for days on end.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Don Giovanni and Falstaff: choices

So you may have listened to the BBC Radio 3 Building a Library on Elgar's Falstaff by now, but if you haven't, it would be unkind of me to blazon the front runner amongst a mostly fine selection to the rooftops. Which is why I've chosen an image of Elgar the conductor, historical choice from 1930, above, after Klemperer and Mackerras, whose recordings of Mozart's Don Giovanni have so far been my lynchpins in the first three of five Opera in Depth classes I'm devoting to the opera.

And of course I'm in seventh heaven, living and breathing Mozart for so much of the week. I must also say that for all its skewered brilliance, Richard Jones's ENO production didn't affect me as deeply as revisiting Deborah Warner's take for Glyndebourne. I've always admired it the most for taking what I'm convinced is Mozart's and Da Ponte's line in the first scene that when a girl says no she means no. Does it have to be a woman director who has the courage to accept this? Besides which, the students agreed that Gilles Cachemaille is a very convincing seducer with an edge.

We all loved the first scene with Zerlina, so softly persuasive with the bizarre on-the-spot suggestion that she marry him; so convincing that Juliane Banse's gorgeous virgin feels like she's in a dream; so clever to have Giovanni dress her rather than undress her, putting on the wedding accoutrements instead of taking anything off.

As for Klemperer, I ordered up his recording thinking I'd want an extreme opposite to Mackerras's perfect and mostly brisk pacing. But I ended up mostly convinced: when I talked it over with Stephen Johnson, who was staying here on Wednesday night before we travelled up to my old workplace the Freud Museum to record for a Radio 3 documentary on  Freud and music, he pointed out the energy of Klemperer's rhythmic articulation, which means that slow rarely feels slow (he used the example of playing OK's Fidelio, and his wife Kate being smitten and surprised that it felt faster than it actually was). Of course there are exceptions rather beyond the pale - his late Mahler Seventh and Cosi, for instance - but this Giovanni brims with energy. And I love the battle of two intelligent basses, Nicolai Ghiaurov and the great, underrated Walter Berry as Leporello, rising to three when the statue of the Commendatore (Franz Crass, also magnificent) comes to dinner.

Here, too, we 'bought' a mezzo Elvira, Christa Ludwig, and Mirella Freni is at her youthful best as Zerlina. Curious that there are two married couples featured - Ludwig and Berry were still together when the recording was made, Ghiaurov was yet to wed Freni (I wonder if the wooing began in the studio here). So, paraphrasing RuPaul, it's a case of 'Klemperer's Don Giovanni - bringing couples together'.

Berry even trumps the superb Alessandro Corbelli, Mackerras's Leporello, in the Catalogue Aria. And the recits are no less brilliant, though of course Mackerras has the greater sense of theatrical pace. We'll be turning to Giulini for the great Quartet and the most ineffable Trio in the middle of the Act One finale. Otherwise, curious how simply wrong early Don Gs were in the conductors' approach to tempi - Andante should never mean Adagio, and Mozart's Andante is brisker than, say, Brahms's (another Johnson apercu).

So, two more weeks and then on to The Nose, with an interpolated visit from Mark Wigglesworth. Seeing Shostakovich's first opera last night reminded me that quite a lot of it doesn't pass muster without the visuals, and Barrie Kosky failed to lift a couple of rather otiose scenes. But there are certainly flashes of genius like the dancing multiple noses (pictured above by Bill Cooper for the Royal Opera). My current earworm, though, is Britten's Billy Budd, which Opera North did so clearly and unforgettably. That was a worthwhile trip to Leeds.

By happy coincidence after we'd finished recording at the Freud Museum yesterday, we walked up to Hampstead and passed the site of Severn House, where Elgar composed Falstaff inter alia. The plaque is getting tatty; how about a proper light blue roundel? Freud has one, after all.

Final teaser with spoiler warning: this is how the Building a Library top choice looked when I first bought it on LP. If you don't want to know whose the performance is, don't read the small print.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

European gardens, American nightmares

Asking around about good Edinburgh exhibitions over pasta and pizza at the excellent Bar Italia after Robin Ticciati's Scottish Chamber Orchestra Mozart over the road at the Usher Hall, I found my friend Julie passionately recommending the careful selection of Glasgow-born photographer Harry Benson's American photographs at the Scottish Parliament. Further consultation revealed that Painting Paradise: the Art of the Garden, drawn from the ever-amazing Royal Collection, had moved on from London - where I missed it - to the Queen's Gallery at the entrance to Holyrood Palace just opposite. So that sorted my free afternoon for me.

Having done some of the tourist things I mostly missed in my four years as a student - I feel a Calton Hill chronicle may be in the pipeline - I descended into the valley and headed first for the Queen's Gallery. Greetings and farewells here were very personable, and I ought to briefly mention my post-exhibition chat with a Hungarian postgrad classics student - working as attendant here, undertaking very specific study on the nature of the ancient Greek koinoi within a narrow timespan - about the whole Brexit disaster, how much freer I feel up in Scotland, as I did just after the Referendum, and how none of the European employees without whom nothing would function seem to have had any of xenophobic grief I've been so horrified to report in north London.

Exhibit 1 isn't European at all, but in the first place it refreshed my memory about how 'paradise' comes from the Greek, coined by Xenophon to describe the wonder of Cyrus II's desert oasis, and in the second the image has as its centre what I'd regard as essential to every garden - and what we briefly had in our back yard until the management destroyed it: a fish pond. It's an exquisite miniature by  Hamse-i-Neva'i from around 1510, added to a manuscript when it was transferred from Herat to Bukhara.

From these beginnings you can move on within the exhibition either to some fine paintings illustrating the Christian imagery of the garden (the 'Hortus Conclusus') or to the more realistic images for the late 16th century Renaissance garden. The work of art used on the poster is Isaac Oliver's miniature A Young Man Seated Under a Tree, with the exhibition poster closing in on the knot garden in the background, drawn from the age's leading manual on garden design.

There's a touch more fantasy in the garden maze placed, by its background, in Venice. This comes from the imagination of  Lodewijk Toeput.

Needless to say, the Royal Collection is rich in paintings of the royal gardens. Most fascinating to me was what part of Bushey Park once looked like

as well as Kew, a couple of centuries later 

and it's fun to see the gooseberry trees in the plantations at Windsor.

Close-up details of plants and flowers come among others from Leonardo, no less, who needless to say took a scientific as well as an artistic interest in such marvels as the seed-heads of two rushes. If he planned a botanical treatise, as seems likely, it was left unfinished at his death.

Alexander Marshal's 17th century watercolours, pictured up top as placed in the exhibition around Adriaen Kocks' two pagodaesque tulip vases. Here are an (unspecified) tulip with common milkwort and white buttercup.

Detail is more witty and accurate than elegant in mid-18th century specimens from the Chelsea Porcelain Works 

and I liked another indoor oddity, the Vincennes Sunflower Clock of c.1752, acquired by who else but George IV in 1819.

There are token nods at the landscape garden, a fine high background to Gainsborough's painting of the Cumberlands and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell.

and one of Victoriana's most Biedermeierish images, by Landseer, focuses on the Queen, Prince Albert and the Princess Royal with selected animals and the East Terrace of Windsor Castle beyond, along which the Queen Mother is being pulled along in a bath chair.

The last swagger exhibit shows how Buckingham Palace's garden parties were conducted in 1897, when this one was painted by Tuxen, the exhibition disdaining to bring us up to date.

The 20th century takes over with more than a bang or two in Harry Benson's photographs of the American great and good, humble and dispossessed. His career properly took off on the wings of the Beatles' big success as American No. 1 in 1964, and there are plenty of fun, if posed images, like the famous pillow fight sequence

and their meeting with Muhammad Ali.

Two years later Benson was among the few photojournalists to accompany James Meredith on the March Against Fear, encourgaing African Americans to vote, and he has photographed all the leading political figures since. What's especially fine about this (free) exhibition is that both good and bad things come in twos and threes. The following pictures I went round taking at the end because there are no catalogue or postcards (copyright issues, apparently, but the warden was encouraging of my snapping). Compare young Hillary and Bill - the hammock image on the right is justly famous as a symbol of youthful idealism and love

with Donald and Melania. On the left he's holding up wadges amounting to a million dollars in one of his casinos, on Benson's suggestion, and the right image is pure trophy-wife-ism.

The tragedies and horrors are especially potent. Benson was there on the Robert F Kennedy campaign event which ended in assassination. Stunned like everyone else, he hung around to catch the horror of the event and the aftermath. The centre photo, of a bewildered young supporter at the end of a terrible day, really got to me. I found myself in tears more than one walking around.

The funeral of Martin Luther King shows the bewilderment of children

and there's a chilling contrast between Benson's photograph of Lennon's killer in jail and the protest against the murder.

Anti and Pro Vietnam War protesters in very strong juxtaposition: 

The three photos up top were taken at a Klu Klux Klan rally. The queasiness of the 'madonna and child' image has made it a classic.

Time and again idealism meets a terrible end, a paradigm of American history repeated again and again. But the showbiz side of the Presidency gives us some wonderful portraits; you can't hate the Reagans when you look at them in the picture on the left.

Troupers include Liza Minnelli,  Truman Capote, Sinatra and Farrow at the masked ball he organised,

Warhol and Bianca Jagger together, Dolly Parton in superb silhouette.

Two northern shots set the seal on Benson the photographer - one which captures the visionary side of Solzhenitsyn, and the other of Bobby Fischer among Icelandic horses on a lavafield  in between chess bouts in Reykjavik.

In such carefully chosen portrait scenes, Benson shows he's not just a photographer of circumstance. A true artist, I reckon.

All Queen's Gallery images - deemed as non-commercial fair use  - from the Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2016. Harry Benson main images © Harry Benson