Thursday, 10 August 2017

Birds, beasts and zoo buildings of Budapest

There's a happy little zoo, if such a thing isn't a contradiction in terms, in the middle of Budapest's Margaret (Margit) Island where the nesting storks are presumably free to come and go as they wish.

Finding it on a hot day's slow stroll around the lime-blossom-scented island was serendipity. But I consciously sought out the main Budapest Zoo not so much for the animals as the architecture.

This may look like a mosque but in fact it's the Elephant House, originally designed by architect and university professor Kornél Neuschloss, who was in charge of the technical works which led to the opening of the zoo roughly as we know it now in 1912. Its chequered history had begun in 1866, and in the interim attempts to liven up the public's reluctance to just come and gape at the animals included the introduction of circus acts. In vain. Only when the Municipality of Budapest took over the site in 1907 did things change for the better. In addition to Neuschloss's work, which also featured the wonderful Main Gate

topped by polar bears

and with a mandrill in the wider design,

his talented former pupils Károly Kós and Dezső Zrumeczky added other houses in various 'exotic' styles (they were influenced, of course, by Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secessionists). Most were destroyed in the Siege of Budapest, when the animal species shrank from 2,000 to 15 and the populace were reduced to eating most of them, but the buildings were handsomely reconstructed or rebuilt after 1945. Among these, I take it, are a mosque in Maghreb style surrounded by zebras and flamingos,

as well as a far eastern Reptile House

and what is now the Lemur House, in its rather splendid decadence within but still spacious.

And my first ever acquaintance with ring-tailed lemurs was actually rather marvellous.

They have the run of quite a few trees in their compound, scurrying and shrieking above a couple of well-placed seats.

The Elephant ('Pachyderm') House, though, is the design highlight, from the archways at front

and back

with a minaret to the side

and the dome splendidly decorated within

along with the corridors,

though the 'rooms' leading off the lanterned hallway are more what you might expect.

One elephant was nearly out of sight beyond the back entrance, though from there one got the best view of the hippos basking in the water to escape the heat, in the company of two unperturbed ducks.

More elephants were to be found in the huge Savannah Complex, designed in 2008 by Anthony Gall,

trunking up for their bales of grass

while a white rhino didn't look quite so happy nearby.

I was also pleased to see my first aardvark, pigging around in the dark. This isn't the greatest of photos, owing to the semi-dark, but it does offer the ocular proof of this strange creature.

As zoos go, though it isn't big, Budapest's example - now, I'm told, run by a rather visionary CEO - is green and lovely. Its south end, which used to be a funfair, is now more a botanic garden with the old iron-structured Palm House of 1912 by Gyula Végh as its centrepiece.

And the central lake, with ubiquitous pelicans, gives a further feeling of space.

My visit was a rather restricted one on the last morning of my week-long Wagnerfest visit, and I ran out of time to hunt out the rarest creatures - Komodo dragons and wombats - but I did catch passing glimpses of an African crested crane

and a not-laughing, in fact rather melancholic-looking kookaburra.

The storks were happier far in their little sanctuary on the island, and with them I take my leave of Budapest for this year.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Shibe the already-great

I've now encountered him live on three different occasions, and each time Sean Shibe (pictured above in electric mode at the East Neuk Festival by Colin Hattersley - amateur photos to be seen on the previous blog entry) had the audience in the palm of his hands. It's not just that he compels you to listen in to every colour he draws from his guitar, which makes him one of the most astonishing recitalists I've ever heard, and way more remarkable than other famous practitioners of his instrument who I now realise left me half-asleep to the guitar's true potential (Julian Bream, John Williams, Segovia);  he also has that centred charisma - at 25! - and hints at a hinterland beyond/behind just making music that all too few performers share. His playing embraces the subtlety of the lute and mandolin within a much wider palette.

I was glad that the other Southrepps musketeers game for this remarkable North Norfolk village's brilliant annual Festival run by top tenor Ben Johnson, three of whom hadn't heard him before - J, Isabel and Cally - feel the same, that this is a musician in a million destined for great things. (Below are two setting out at around 7pm from Jill's place in lower Southrepps up across the fields to the church that evening). Actually future fame doesn't matter as far as we initiates are concerned, though we wish him every further success; we've already witnessed greatness in action.

The even runs, expressive space and dancing elegance Shibe brought to Bach's Fourth Suite were of the essence; a packed house in Southrepps' St James's, famously attentive despite the fact that many are locals who until a couple of years ago hadn't experienced this sort of thing before, held that same intense silence I'd witnessed in the Wigmore Hall two years ago and in Anstruther much more recently.

His sequence of Villa-Lobos Preludes and Etudes led us into an hallucinogenic dream in a way that reminded me, albeit at an even more inward level, of Simon McBurney's Amazonian fantasia The Encounter. This journey left us with a heart of darkness in the shape of the Etude No. 11. It's not often that you hear simultaneous colours, different ones in melody line and support, on a piano, let alone a guitar; some of the chords above the fragments of theme were supernatural in their beauty. This film is from 2008, when Sean was a mere 16, and yet it still gives you some idea of the hypnotic fascination in his Villa-Lobos interpretation.

But in any case here we were even more prone to the Shibe magic given the wonderfully concentration-friendly air of North Norfolk in August, with the setting sun lighting up St James's west tower

and raking the scallop design homaging the church's patron saint.

Later there was the walk back down the hill, with moonlight ahead

and - I promise you this is the same time - looking back to the last glow of sunset with the distant tower.

Of our daytime bliss in walking around the area and, further west, through Sheringham Park to bathe at the resort of that name and back, another blog entry will have to tell. Meanwhile, a full accolade is due to Shibe's solo debut disc Dreams & Fancies on the excellent, Edinburgh-based Delphian label.

It indulges my slight obsession with Britten's Nocturnal, like Lachrymae presenting us with puzzle-pieces before eventually unfolding the Dowland tune. The master lutenist's numbers are mesmerising too, of course. But while I wasn't won round to Lennox Berkeley, the Malcolm Arnold Fantasy is another earwormer, its lovely simple-essential Ariettas flanked by more angular and occasionally grotesque inspirations. At any rate here's another Shibe performance of the immortal Britten, which I want to hear played in, or even outside, a country church at midnight.

Should you be at the Edinburgh Festival any time between 21 and 26 August, don't on any account miss Sean's SoftLOUD happening on the Fringe, which is bound to be a highlight of the Festival overall - I promise it will change you in one way or another. Not least for the LOUDest (earplugs provided on request, though we didn't need them in Anstruther's Dreel Halls), a staggering transcription for electric guitars (recorded and otherwise) of Julia Wolfe's Lad, originally composed for nine bagpipers. That, and Shibe himself, could become something of a cult if it reaches the most influential ears.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Around the East Neuk Festival

This is going to read like one long weather report, but frankly it matters when you're in a beautiful place by the sea (and I've done the full write-up of the marvellous music over on The Arts Desk). I've been used to changeable conditions over the parts of the previous East Neuk Festivals I've attended, but not to the non-stop wind and torrential rain on the day of my arrival this year nor the grey, drizzly day that followed. On Saturday morning our spirits lifted with the arrival of radiant light and stayed that way. Still, the Friday had its (musical) pleasures, of course, for me chiefly the discovery of the superb young Castalian Quartet - three of the players seen here at Kilrenny Church with Spanish oboist Cristina Gómez Godoy -

and an encyclopedia of soft and loud from guitarist Sean Shibe and clarinettist Julian Bliss at Anstruther's Dreel Halls in the evening. This is the only shot, unprofessional or otherwise, to prove that the two really did appear together.

By this stage the drizzle had stopped and there was the faintest promise of light on the horizon from the graveyard and the harbour where I had my only swim of last year.

Sean's dad Paul came out at the end to talk to me - such a friendly, delightful guy. He and Sean's mum Junko run The Meadows Pottery, which I intend to visit when next in Edinburgh. Here they are with Sean and his sister.

8am the next morning, and the promised sun still hasn't appeared, but it's clear with a hint of light on patches of water from my Crail B&B window.

And by 10am, from the shore at Crail, a fishing vessel this time in full sunshine is what we've got.

Crail and district is one of the spots along the Fife coast where the rock formations change with pleasing frequency, There are rather more spectacular shapes lower down in this entry, but it's good to see all these rocks around the settlement itself. 

Plenty of folk out walking their dogs beneath the castle with its orielesque folly

and some taking instruction from a local rower.

The harbour, of course was, looking more picturesque than ever

and it still has its uses - fishing continues, even if the old mechanisms are now of only archaeological interest.

You can buy fresh crab and lobster from a shack.

I was lucky with the crab - the boats hadn't been out for the previous two days, I snapped up what there was and when I came back to collect it, they'd sold out of the rest.  Then it was off to the first concert of the day, via the magnificent Schubert sand sculpture. I've given a full-frontal on the Arts Desk article, but it's worth noting the roundel behind to Thomas Kingo, Crail-born weaver who emigrated to Denmark, where his descendant was famous for his hymn tunes (Sunday's concert would celebrate that).

Clouds had rolled in by the time we got to Elie that afternoon, but the glorious sands of this very des res seaside town, much more expensive than Crail probably because it's that bit closer to Edinburgh for commuters, still looked good under louring skies.

We were here to listen to the local Tullis Russell Mills Band, one of several who'd been playing all along the coast at various times.


Their maestro for the extraordinary site-specific project we'd be experiencing later was the redoubtable John Wallace, scion of a local mining family. He was more than happy to be one of them,

Edinburgh friend Julie was down for the weekend, so we went to all the Schubertiad concerts together. Here she is on the beach talking to wonderful ENF PR Debra Boraston

and seemingly stopping or conducting more band players on their way to join the ones already there.

I had my annual vision of a perfect summer evening in Crail Churchyard in the interval of the final Schubertiad (Leonskaja, the Belceas, Alois Posch - perfection), with rooks

and a walk around dead-quiet Crail at 11pm, catching Schubert with the sunset behind him - sorry to hear that subsequently his nose was broken in a pointless piece of vandalism -

as well as more of the moon above the jetty steps

and another sweep of the bay.

Sunday morning brought glitter of waves again and an equally lovely morning down at the harbour.

Yonder beach is where I had my annual quick dip in the North Sea, Julie having bought lobster rolls from the shack which we consumed on the sand .

It was way too cold to swim for more than two minutes - when you're not warming up at all as you move, you know your time is limited - but from sand to not being able to touch the bottom in clear green water was wonderful. I thought, I could work here for six months if I had a table/desk with a sea view and a dog to walk, a dip every day weather regardless; little happens in Crail outside the Festival - and not much around the concerts either - but I could be content.

Long walks would be a must, too. I've still not achieved the aim of walking from the Cambo Estate up to St Andrews, but instead did a short (4 mile) haul to Anstruther for the afternoon concert. Julie came with me a short distance before peeling off to visit her brother. While you're still on the road, views quickly open up over the harbour

and then you're on a grassy path which gives you a view over the whole of Crail

heading out to sea

before turning right, and more or less southwards, past attractive ruins

and fine rock formations looking across to the Isle of May - another must for a future visit, it's a bird sanctuary with puffins galore in June. The rocks show the tectonic shifts of the Carboniferous period, when Scotland (hard as it is to believe) lay at the Equator - there was plenty of volcanic activity both here, in East Lothian and of course in Edinburgh.

Looking inland, the flower meadows were profuse at that time (the second shot here is actually taken en route to St Monans, but it fits the theme)

and coastal thistles are good for the bees.

Closer to Anstruther, the furthermost development of which can just be seen in the first pic below, there's a holey group of sandstone rocks called Caiplie Coves, which I only now discover were the site of early Christian worship. What I did know was that a hermit used to live in one of them. All I saw was a CND motif sprayed on the inside wall.

I fantasise how nice it would be to spend time in the nearby settlement, with its magical clump of trees and beautifully tended gardens.

Out to sea, with cormorants perching on nearby rocks as they were last year, the Isle of May looms clear while Gull Rock and Berwick Law can now be made out further round.

And so, over hastily as our beach idyll with bathing and lobster rolls had left me with too little time to arrive in Anstruther in good time for Debra's suggestion of ye famous fish and chips, I strode into Cellardyke, the hardier part of the resort. I love it that washing is still hung out to dry in the small harbour there.

Time was too short for more than a few chips at the famous Anstruther Fish Bar, but the lively concert in the Town Hall was well worth the sacrifice - pictured below, a heady mix of players from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who go by the name of Mr McFall’s Chamber with Shetland fiddler Chris Stout, Dundee-born harpist Catriona McKay and - first-half poets who came back for the encore Norwegians Nils Økland and jazz-rooted double-bassist Mats Eilertsen. Again, there's no professional record of the occasion so this will have to do.

Chuffed to find a treasurable box of vinyl for sale - 50p each for LPs including rare Gliere LPs and Lilac Time (slightly tongue in cheek owing to the Schubertiad but since my old dad liked it I thought I should hear 'the Schubert Musical'). A final bask in the revenant sun in another graveyard, opposite the hall with the sea in the distance

and then the first half of the last concert before I was whisked to Edinburgh Airport for the flight back. 

The Bowhouse is where the site-specific wonder, 'De Profundis', had taken place; I was pleased to see it as it usually functions, a rather plusher successor to the Cambo Potato Barn (which still, I think, has better acoustics).

And a last glimpse of Fife countryside looking inland from the Bowhouse.

Lovely part of the world - but in winter? Not so sure.