Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Cleo from 7 to 8.30

I've made my homage to Friday's special event on The Arts Desk, and I don't have many more words to add; I just want the excuse to add a couple more photos taken at Friday evening's astonishing event by Patrick Anderson. J and I, reeling out stunned by the high level of the 90-year-old's delivery in four songs - that's technique and soul for you - and by her obvious Menschian qualities, recalled that La Laine was always in the background as we grew up - her jazz and scat-singing, endlessly impersonated, at a more sophisticated level than that of a torchsong belter like Shirley Bassey (often watched at home with the sound down, my parents' idea of fun). Yet she is undeniably one of the greats.

I see I've already told how when I shared a flat in No. 32 Dundas Street in my second year at Edinburgh University, we wore out a budget-price reissue of Cleo singing in the 1950s. And in the review I mention the sensation, at her appearance in Michael Tilson Thomas's LSO series The Gershwin Years, of feeling as if she was singing to me alone, so direct was her communication. Those flashing eyes roving round the audience and fixing on individuals were still at work on Friday. Kudos to Jude Kelly, again, for choosing so well in the Southbank's (B)Old - as in 'Be Old', creatively - festival. Sorry to have missed Julie 'Going to the Zoo' Felix in the Clore Ballroom earlier.

Feeling dizzy from ten days of spectacular events. This would have to be the greatest, but the reminder of what peerless ensemble acting is all about in the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg's meticulously observed double whammy was wondrous and has sent me back to Grossman's Life and Fate to try again (this time I'll stay the course).  Cédric Tiberghien's exquisite and encyclopedic Chopin playing redeemed Paul Kildea's narrative in the spectacular setting of Brighton Pavilion's Music Room (more on that little excursion anon). The accompaniment to the 1926 silent film all too loosely based on the operatic Der Rosenkavalier in the carefully renovated Queen Elizabeth Hall was a treat - the first real sugar rush of the week.

The second was the opera itself, on Sunday at Glyndebourne. I've written up my second visit to the Richard Jones production, with a very different revival cast, here on The Arts Desk. But I ought to add here the interesting perspectives given by my companion, artist friend (and mother of our youngest goddaughter Mirabel) Edwina and her friend Christine. Here's Edsy before our picnic in blissful seclusion.

They found the opera spooky, weird and unsettling - the Jones effect, but it's definitely there in the music's queasy gearchanges and timeleaps. As Bill Knight took a special batch of photos for The Arts Desk, it's a pleasure to have the excuse of using more than the original four over there. Here are Rachel Willis-Sørensen, a redhead taking very well to the raven-haired look of original Marschallin Kate Royal, and Kate Lindsay, the most lustrous of Octavians (Tara Erraught first time round was funnier in the cross-dressing comedy, but not quite on the same level vocally).

No question about this Leopold, bastard son of Ochs and acted once again by Joseph Badar  as a crucial component of the drama, presenting the silver rose.  Here he is flanked by Brindley Sherratt as his feckless dad and Willis-Sørensen.

Erraught's and Lars Woldt's were the faces made for comedy last time: on Sunday the winning mug belonged to Elizabeth Sutphen as a feisty Sophie.

Rose-presentation: again unforgettable the slight swaying, prefaced by raised heels from all which get a laugh, but the seriousness kicks in again very quickly.

Time for Sherratt to step forward fully in his visual transformation (gammon make-up and hideous wig). Ochs and Annina (Stephanie Lauricella, classy casting),

delight in the letter as the retinue unfold girlie cards to parallel the fashion pictures for the Marschallin's levée in Act One

and payup time in Act Three (oddly Bill doesn't have any pics of the big stuff thereafter).

After that claustrophobia it was good to get out into the gardens in a blissful evening light overlooking the fields and downs.

I don't always make the first Glyndebourne weekend, so I'd forgotten what flourishes in the garden at this time. Irises everywhere, of course

complemented by alliums

and the yellow variety by the lake.

Wisteria still flourishing by the house

and the first roses along the wall.

Dicksonia antarctica springing up from its winter sleep

and one final shot of picnickers with the mulberry in the foreground. What a lush time of year.

Lovely weather for the wedding, too, the previous day. Yes, I watched the service live, switching off rapidly as the coach hit Windsor town and the blether of the BBC commentators became too much (only Kirsty Young kept it real). Loved the contrast between Tallis's 'If Ye Love Me' and the Gospel choir. Both performances were excellent, but I'm glad that cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason had the limelight. He'll stay calm and centred now that he's a megastar, and no-one deserved the success more; he's a natural.

Decca issued this photo (uncredited) to celebrate big sales for his debut album, also far from the usual bits and pieces (it includes a complete performance of his signature Shostakovich First Cello Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by the superb Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - her CD debut too, I think I'm right in saying).

We're a long way now from Cleo. Or perhaps not... The title, by the way, homages one of my favourite films, which I wrote about here.

Friday, 18 May 2018

The last Europe Day Concert in London?

Maybe on this scale. If all goes according to the most badly-laid of all plans, the UK will be out of the European Union on 29 March 2019 and the European Commission Representation in London, which has mounted these concerts for the past decade, will be dissolved. Even if that happens, we can't let the youthful talent which came together to give us the two best concerts of the series in 2017 and 2018 disappear from our ken. Dobrinka Tabakova, whose Bell Tower in the Clouds proved a huge hit last Wednesday with everyone I spoke to, MUST be commissioned to write Brexit Piece No. 2 (Matt Kaner's Stranded in 2017 turned out, quite without warning, to be the first), and Jonathan Bloxham with his Northern Chords Festival Orchestra (pictured above) must be involved once more. Funds CAN be raised.

That's Dobrinka pictured above in Bulgarian green after the concert by me - all event pics by Jamie Smith - in the company of compatriot conductor-composer Dorian Dimitrov and my other New Best Friends, BBC Young Musician winners Martin James Bartlett and Lara Melda, whom I met at the Proms launch and promptly invited. Congratulations, by the way, to this year's laurate, 16-year-old Lauren Zhang. I haven't yet had time to watch the final, but I'll be doing so here, and very curious to know what she made of Prokofiev's titanic Second Piano Concerto. Wouldn't necessarily have chosen her from the piano final, the only strand I've seen so far, but all the competitors were phenomenally gifted and showed a staggering level of technical wizardry.

Meanwhile, it's too soon to think of 2019 now. Of one thing everyone who was present must be sure: the whole concert worked at the very highest level of engagement, professionalism and sheer love. Only at the very end was there a chance to mourn - which the audience seemed to do, totally spontaneously, with their 90-second silence at the end of a beautifully-phrased Ode to Joy, for which we always stand.

The film, part of the complete concert which will follow in due course, has already had 27,000 hits on the EC's Facebook page - if you haven't already seen it, here's the place.

Otherwise, this year's programme was more celebratory and exultant than the last one, which I think came off equally brilliantly but had a more elegiac tone (not least Martinů's Ariane threatening to throw herself off a cliff, which resonated unexpectedly with Brexit). What more effervescent way to start than with Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, a performance of which better articulated at high speed I've never heard? And it ticked so many boxes of the 'crossing borders' theme - operatic treatment by an Austrian composer of a French play set in Spain with an Italian libretto. Matching it for sheer brio were the two numbers from Massenet's ballet music in his underrated opera Le Cid. Getting the dance idiom right is tough - I had the Israel Philharmonic/Martinon classic in my head - but Jonathan and Co pulled it off at the highest level.

At the rehearsal - let's have two shots I took in the afternoon sunshine -

I was stunned by the strings' imitation of far-flung trumpets at the start of Britten's Les Illuminations. This may have been the best group yet; engaging leadership by Thomas Gould, leader of the Britten Sinfonia and a well-established soloist in his own right (well netted, Jonathan; TG pictured below with another born leader, Agata Darashkaite, on the right) certainly helped, and it was so good to see him looking back to the second deskers from time to time.

Tenor Ben Johnson (pictured below) is a justly celebrated Britten interpreter. He certainly knew what to do to press the right tonal buttons and to put across the text - wittily so in 'Royauté,' with rapturous wonder in my favourite song from the cycle, 'Antique,' the A major lovesong Britten composed, along with Young Apollo, while under the spell of 17-year-old Wulff Scherchen.

Ben's protegée, soprano Jenny Stafford, sang 'Villes'and 'Marine' in this first half of the work - an experiment based on the fact that Britten wrote Les Illuminations for Sophie Wyss, but it was his long-term companion Peter Pears who immortalised it. The floridity suited Jenny well, and later she faced the many challenges of Donna Anna's 'Non mi dir' with high style - vivid, meaningful recit and expressive plangency made of the tricky rapid runs towards the end.

 Ben prefaced it with a lovely performance of 'Take a pair of sparkling eyes' from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. I'd already twice admired his funny, touching and diction-perfect Lord Mountararat in ENO's Iolanthe. He has such a gift for comedy and applied it, too, in the midst of the pathos of the Fiordiligi-Ferrando duet here.

Jonathan is a gifted Mozartian, but he had to embrace a whole lot more here. He told me after the rehearsal that changes between styles were exhausting, but he and the orchestra brought them all off with magnificent focus, and I can't imagine even the most unmusical member of the audience finding anything boring or otiose. The rich orchestral sound at the start of Bruch's Adagio on Celtic Themes took the breath away; young Bulgarian cellist Michael Petrov brought tears to the eyes with his first entry. My companion Edwina with her artist's eye noted how he never looked at his instrument, and engaged with his conductor very lovingly (they've know each other since student days, and Jonathan himself is a top-notch cellist who's duetted perfectly with Michael in Vivaldi).

Dobrinka's piece impressed everyone - not just the ethereal bell sounds, but also the precision with which the Northern Chords strings placed their vigorous pizzicati within intense rhythmic passages. And the darkness-to-light finale from Brahms's First Symphony was a total triumph in more than one sense. Never heard the horns play their Alpine counterpart more convincingly (the first horn is on trial with, I think Jonathan said, the Philharmonia) nor the trombones intone the chorale better. And the big melody was done with grace and smiles.

An appropriate height to hit before the apparent requiem of silence that greeted the European Anthem. With folk like this involved, how can one be bleak about the future? Very best wishes, meanwhile, to Jonathan's Northern Chords Festival, which launches tonight with many of the same artists; if only I could be there.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Jewel Thais-Williams: American diamond

I'd never heard of her until I watched a wonderful documentary on Netflix last week. Why is this truly great human being not world famous? Is there still a hangover from the fact that she started out with four disadvantages: being poor, black, gay and a woman? In a sense, she's a paradigm of the wonders you can achieve on a local scale. In 1973 she opened the first nightclub in Los Angeles that welcomed people of colour as well as gays (and, this is the point, everyone else. This was an all-inclusive venture, and even the straight celebrities who frequented it in the 1980s felt it was a place where they could just dance away without feeling watched).

Catch One ran for 42 years, weathering the hostility of the police, the AIDS crisis (in which the club clientele was decimated by about 50 per cent), an arson attack which destroyed half the building... It was a haven for gay people who'd been rejected by their families in the AIDS era and young people who had thought of suicide in their isolation; it continued to nourish the area. Only when, in her mid-70s, Jewel - if I may so refer to her throughout - decided she was ready to take a different personal journey, as she puts it, did she finally say farewell.

There's a fine joint interview with Jewel and the maker of the documentary, C. Fitz, here (I've also taken the liberty of using several photos the article describes as given by permission of JTW, making the assumption that she'd be happy for them to appear again here). I'll leave it to do most of the talking and the detail, except to add what our heroine has to say about how the tree of Catch One sent out vital saplings:

When the AIDS crisis came along, another purpose was added. From that, the Minority AIDS Project came out of the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church. And later, Rue’s House was born [taking the name of Jewel's lovely wife], which was a home for [mothers and] children with AIDS. What the Catch afforded me personally was the ability to do all these other service things I wanted to do. If that wasn’t there, I couldn’t do what was in my heart, which was to serve the community.

What's left is also the Village Health Foundation, a clinic offering acupuncture, vitamin supplements, herbal remedies and general health advice to everyone in the community - they pay what they can, even if it's only two lemons (Jewel has an MSc in traditional Chinese medicine as well as a BA in History and Psychology from UCLA). And so we see the capacity for change in a district of a country which leaves it to grassroots activism. Now, watch the documentary. Here's the trailer.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Happy Europe Day

Let's just celebrate it to the full while we can - probably for the last time on the scale of the usual Europe Day Concerts held in St John's Smith Square for the past ten years. Do stay with the above film until it breaks out into Andrew Manze's Lully/Rameauification of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' setting*. We were lucky to have the brilliant Rachel Podger with us in 2016, and I'm happy to share another piece of good news today: Irish soprano Jennifer Davis (pictured below at the 2017 Europe Day Concert), who sang Nielsen, Mozart and Bizet so well alongside tenor Thomas Atkins as our Royal Opera Jette Parker Young Artists participating last year, is to take on the role of Elsa in the RO's new production of Wagner's Lohengrin next month.

Very sorry for the delightful Kristine Opolais, who's had to pull out and has had a tough time of it recently, but hoping this will launch Jennifer properly on the international scene.

We'll also be waiting with nervous anticipation to discover how the best guitarist I've ever heard, Sean Shibe, fares at tonight's Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards: he's been nominated as one of three in two of the categories. We hope he'll hotfoot it over for the post-concert party at St John's, but if not, we'll raise a toast, whether he wins or not.**.

Tonight's programme is about 'Crossing Borders' - Mozart into Spain and Italy, with tenor Ben Johnson and soprano Jenny Stafford also sharing half of Britten's homage to Rimbaud, Les Illuminations, Dobrinka Tabakova transporting us to the Dolomites with her Bell Tower in the Clouds, fellow Bulgarian Michael Petrov as soloist in Bruch's Adagio on Celtic Theme for cello and orchestra, Massenet in Spain, Sullivan in Venice and a grand final flourish from Jonathan Bloxham and the Northern Chords Festival Orchestra, superlative last year, in Brahms - the homaging of Swiss alphorns is the pretext for the finale of his First Symphony. Its big theme will set us up nicely for the model, Beethoven's, always an anthem worth standing for.

*Most recent update (11/5): this year's Ode to Joy and a bit of the intense silence after it is now up and running as a film here. The rest will follow in due course.

**Brief update (10/5): Sean won the RPS Young Musician award. Congratulations, and what great choices throughout (meaning that I agree with them). Meanwhile, a phenomenally well executed Europe Day Concert at St John's hit the heights before ending on an elegiac note as the Ode to Joy was followed by a one-minute-plus silence, ended only by someone's mobile phone going off. We vowed that there will be another next year, however difficult it may be to raise the money.

Full report of the latest Europe Day Concert ere long.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Dante in Eden, Bach after Easter

Maybe there was a part of me mildly disappointed by Dante's arrival in the Garden of Eden at the very top of Mount Purgatory for his crucial meeting with Beatrice. I guess I'd expected more description of the natural paradise à la Milton, whereas it's subordinate to allegory and rather too much theologising towards the end of Purgatorio. But then I missed the chance to hear Dr. Scafi and Professor Took spread their own special love for these Cantos, overrunning as I did on the last class devoted to Janáček's From the House of the Dead (we had to see two acts of Chéreau's production, and even the extra time I'd allocated overran).

Certainly, though, the official leavetaking speech of Virgil is moving, and concise. I ought to reproduce it here so that, like the examples quoted in my previous Dante/Bach entry, I can try and memorise the Italian when I have time. Translation once again the literal but effective one by Robert M Durling.

in me ficcò Virgilio li occhi suoi, 
    e disse: "Il temporal foco e l’etterno
veduto hai, figlio, e se’ venuto in parte
dov’io per me più oltre non discerno. 

   Tratto t’ ho qui con ingegno e con arte;
lo tuo piacere omai prendi per duce;
fuor se’ de l’erte vie, fuor se’ de l’arte.
    Vedi lo sol che ’n fronte ti riluce;
vedi l’erbette, i fiori e li arbuscelli
che qui la terra sol da sé produce.
    Mentre che vegnan lieti li occhi belli
che, lagrimando, a te venir mi fenno,
seder ti puoi e puoi andar tra elli.
    Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno.

   Per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio"

Virgil fixed his eyes on me
   and said: "The temporal fire and the eternal
have you seen, my son, and you have come to a 
place where I by myself discern no further.
   I have drawn you here with wit and with art;
your own pleasure now take as leader: you are
beyond the steep ways, beyond the narrow.
   See the sun that shines on your brow, see the
grasses, the flowers, and the bushes that here the
earth brings forth of itself alone.
   Until the lovely eyes arrive in their gladness
which weeping made me come to you, you can sit
and you can walk among them.
   No longer await any word or sign from me: free,
upright and whole is your will, and it would be a 
fault not to act according to its intent.
   Therefore you over yourself I crown and mitre. 

The interrupted dialogue between Beatrice and Dante is certainly unusual. At first, 'regal and haughty in bearing, she upbraids him, and only deigns eventually to show the warmth he craves, finally smiling towards the end of the last Canto, 33. On with the summer term, anyway, where our Dante and our still present Virgil at the Warburg will lead us through Paradiso.

It seems ages since we last met for the final Purgatorio class I was able to attend; and it's been too long since I actually listened to a Bach cantata on the Sunday for which it was intended. I have the five after Easter to deal with here, and since sharp memory of all of them fades - I have the notes in my book still - I must head only for the high points, and three arias especially.

BWV 42, 'Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats' begins with an almost Handelian sinfonia - the only cantata to start that way in Bach's second Leipzig cycle - before the tenor introduces the opening text over throbbing strings (perhaps the beating hearts of the Disciples as Christ walks among them). And then, and then, one of the loveliest arias in all the cantatas, surely, and that's saying something (one would probably have to include at least two dozen in the top list). The first of the two oboes made me want to get my long-neglected instrument out of its case. Gardiner describes how he found 'Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind' 'unbearably pained and sad at our first performance, and far more serene and consoling at the second'. Can't find a recording to match Rilling's two oboes and mezzo Julia Hamari, so here's the whole thing from the cycle to which I'm adhering. The aria is at 6m42s.

BWV 85, 'Ich bin ein guter Hirt' starts with bittersweet pastoral and flows beautifully. BWV 146 begins originally with a surprising adaptation of the D minor Harpsichord Concerto - brilliantly rendered, incidentally, on the Jean Rondeau disc we nominated as BBC Music Magazine concerto disc of the year, and I'd have been happy had it won. Wonder of wonders, there's even a film of the first movement to go with the recording on YouTube. If, like me, you're not usually excited by the harpsichord, this should help you change your mind.

The cantata continnues with a slow, astringent choral movement, also concerto-based. It has the next ineffable aria of my three, 'Ich säe meine Zähren', conjoined with a very expressive recitative, also for the soprano, haloed by sustained strings. Helen Donath is the best possible substitute for Arleen Auger, Rilling's most frequent soprano. One wonders if Mozart's exquisite woodwind ensemble writing stemmed from Bach - nothing could be lovelier than the quartet of flute, two oboes d'amore and bassoon on the bass line. Because I don't actually like Rilling's organ in a couple of stops, I've chosen Gardiner for the complete recording. Recit and aria are at 24m13s

It's a contrasting expression of sowing with tears and reaping with joy. These 'twixt-Easter-and-Ascension cantatas seem much to do with earthly sorrows, heavenly promise, but maybe that's the essence of the Lutheran texts throughout. I'm going to pass swiftly over BWV 166, with its striking short phrases for oboes and violins around the bass's 'Wo gehest du hin?'s and another lovely weave of solo violin and oboe around the tenor aria, and end with BWV 87, 'Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten'. The winner here is another alto aria, 'Vergib, o Vater, unsre Schuld', with elaborate writing for oboes da caccia, a rising bass line and one of Bach's most involved middle sections, winsome when it breaks out into triplets. The mezzo/alto needs superb breath control here. Alas, no Rilling on YouTube, and some weedy countertenors are no substitute, so I had to make do with Koopman - too slow, I think - because of Bogna Bartosz at 2m44s.

The tenor's recit ties in nicely with Dante's far from easy journey to the top of Purgatorio: 'When our guilt climbs all the way to heaven, you see and know my heart, which hides nothing from you; so seek to comfort me'.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Spring in Lucerne, Bremen and London

First caught a real sense of strong sun on the late March Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning of my time in Lucerne attending four days of the Easter Festival.

Warmth day and night suffused Bremen at the time of the 150th anniversary performance of Brahms's German Requiem in the Cathedral (10 April, to be precise) while Spain (as a critic from El Pais told me) and the UK were shivering under grey skies.

Then, finally, there was a week of summer in London when plants and trees finally flourished. The 100-plus-year-old wisteria in Fulham Palace's walled garden was incipient

and then flowered in the more unstable conditions of the following week (sunshine and hail showers).

Spring in cities can be emancipating because you suddenly find everyone sitting outside cafes or lying/playing in the park. Lucerne was buzzing on Saturday lunchtime even as the ice melted away,

though there had been heavy snow two nights earlier as I returned from a stunning Schiff C minor programme and dived into a kebab shop to buy a falafel on the way back to the hotel (that entailed a wistful conversation with a melancholy Kurd who could not understand Erdoğan's 'crazy-man' behaviour; I commiserated most sincerely).

The Friday had been taken up with six hours of Haitink masterclasses, though the walk to 'work' was of course beguiling, with a crested grebe swimming beyond the reflection of a steamer's Swiss flag,

the lake later clearing to this

and mists over the mountains as I arrived at the KKL,

with the other side of the lake including the Hofkirche (St. Leodegar) looking very inviting during one of the breaks.

Saturday was entirely free until late afternoon, when I had to meet Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cellist Lionel Cottet for more material on my Haitink piece in the BBC Music Magazine. That was a total pleasure. So was the stay in the Hofgarten, what the French would call a 'hotel de charme,' and I'm not on any sort of commission to sing its praises; let me just say that the large room with sets of windows on two sides, and views of the Dom and the mountains if you made an effort, was one of the nicest I've ever stayed in.

When J arrived after the first two of the Haitink sessions, we had an excellent fish lunch in the Hofgarten restaurant, and the staff were all delightful.

I've explored the Hofkirche before, but it was especially inviting to climb the steps in brilliant sunlight and take in the courtyard with the well and the noble Renaissance porch, partly concealed here.

The late-Renaissance interior is nearly all of a piece, dating from the years immediately following the fire that destroyed the Romanesque/Gothic church in 1633 (the rebuilt towers commemorate that style). An impressive high altar was partly concealed by the familiar pre-Easter/Lent purple

while a rectangular carving of the Virgin surrounded on her deathbed by the Apostles survived the fire and was shining in shafts of sunlight.

I hadn't explored the graveyard-cloister around the church before. It was good to see so many well tended with spring floral arrangements.

The sudden view of Mount Pilatus over the roof as I was looking at the crucifix on the west side took me by surprise.

Then it was down for lunch in town, just catching the end of a lively riverside market including stallholders from the Italian part of Switzerland, among them this vender of giant carciofi just packing up,

and a post-prandial walk around and along the 14th century towers and town walls. Here you get surely the best views in town - here, looking down on the old quarter with the KKL beyond.

and to the south-east with the towers of the Jesuitenkirche which would later that evening be one of the locations for the Lucerne Opera's stunning site-specific Schumann Faust-Szenen.

Birdsong was riotous and everything in flower or bud, including a horse chestnut in front of the Zytturm with its clock the first with the right to chime since the Middle Ages, 'maintained' by two giants.

Clear half-moon through branches

and snowdrop/primrose/crocus-rich fields above the descending walls and towers

before you head down from above the Hofkirche.

A final wander on the route behind the KKL towards Tribschen - I'd finally intended to go inside the Wagner house, but it didn't open until April -

with swan photobombing another attempted shot of a crested grebe (this one is actually more interesting).

The few hours spent indoors in sunny Bremen were well spent (see the entry on Paula Modersohn-Becker). But how wonderful to see the central Marktplatz thronging with people, either sitting outside or going about their business (as the Rathaus and the Bundesrath still fulfil their original purpose). En route from the hotel to the centre on my first morning, I came across a scene you might more readily associate with the Netherlands not so far to the west:

The bastions above the old Stadtgraben are now a pleasant park (there's a much bigger one to the north of the station). Coming from that direction, you then hit pedestrianised streets, the back of the people's Liebfrauenkirche, badly bombed during the war and now restored with abstract stained glass,

and then the glory of Bremen, the central square with the 'Wesel Renaissance' facade of the Rathaus central between the Church of Our Lady

and the Bishops' seat, the Dom where we heard the Brahms concert that evening.

60 per cent of the city was destroyed in World War Two bombing; the Rathaus and the 1404 giant statue of Roland, defender of civic rights, survived and have UNESCO world heritage status.

The original Gothic part of the Rathaus lies behind the late Renaissance facade of 1608-12; the lower market and assembly area is used for exhibitions (when I was there, fascinating photos of integrating immigrants into the community). An 'arcade of almost Italian lightness' (Phaidon) has benches for citizens to sit and enjoy the Marktplatz scene.

The Phaidon Cultural Guide describes the balcony-balustrade as 'excessively lavish', but the mythological and early-historic detail repays attention.

I was delighted to find the upper hall open during a drinks reception before the concert, and I'd like to have had a guide to hand to tell me more about it. I discovered it with one of the best companions on press gatherings, Peter from Hamburg

Bremen's Hanseatic splendours are represented by the ship-models and the paintings of whales and other sea-creatures on the walls.

This councillors' banqueting hall is again Renaissanced by the splendid Güldenkammer, once used for confidential sessions and with a musicians' gallery above.

Even more secret conference was held in a special room in the Ratskeller, approached by candlelight

and giving high-altar prominence to the oldest barrel of wine in Germany, dating from 1653.

The whole room is permeated with a port-y fragrance. Bremen was granted monopoly of the wine trade by the church in 1405. Bacchus reigned here thereafter, and 400 wines can still be sampled.

The barrels were transported up the Weser, less spectacular now but rather attractive, on the north side at least, down from the Marktplatz with the sailors' church of St Martin as backdrop (sadly it was locked when I tried to visit).

Near the Ratskeller entrance - we had an excellent lunch among the giant barrels - stands the 1951 statue of the would-be Bremen town musicians by Bauhaus sculptor Gerhard Marcks. This is their pyramidal moment where they create an almighty racket to frighten robbers out of a house in the woods.

As the charming Grimm version makes clear, the unwanted animals seem never to have got as far as the city, but settled down in their new home and presumably lived happily together for what remained of their lives.

Sunset as we entered the Cathedral for the German Requiem would be a good place to say auf wiedersehen to Bremen, but the next morning, which I've described elsewhere, was the proper coda. At the end of the excursion I discovered the city's best coffee, at the end of Böttcherstraße preserved thanks to the inventor of decaff. None of that, thanks; chlers hat die beste Bohnen, and I brought some back.

I also met colleague Nahoko in there - a nice parallel to our last coffee together in Tallinn last year, and similarly she was writing a postcard (she'd gone off to hear the carillon when I took this).

So homewards, and happy to settle here for a bit. Or I would be if the weather hadn't turned so unremittingly vile and cold again. Anyway, it turns out I was right to take parts of several afternoons off while the sun shone. And since my first visit to the Garden of Eden that is the restored walled garden and greenhouses of Fulham Palace was last July, I still have the chronicle of a year in the life to complete. The last magnolia flowers were still framing the Tudor gateway on a first inspection this year.

The only blight would seem to be the downsizing of the hives - for whatever reason, two beekeepers were dismantling some of the old ones

leaving one single stack, glimpsed here in the distance through apple blossom

which is - well, pretty is the only word; and the bees seem to like it.

There seems to be one old survivor, bent close to the ground

but the alleys are in good shape

and saplings have been planted in the grassy meadow. As for the wisteria, it's glorious both in the walled garden

and on the south wall of the house,

glimpsed here through the copper beech

which was only incipient in the sunny week

but flourishing the next (part of it on the left in this ensemble).

There's a gorgeous specimen in Old Brompton Cemetery, which makes this scene look positively autumnal.

Time for a fauna interlude - meeting up with goddog Ted and his owner Chris in Kensington Gardens during a brief cloudgather on a generally balmy Saturday.

In the distance here, were you to enlarge the picture sufficiently,

you'd see a flock of parakeets bobbing in the grass. I only caught one in focus.

They still delight with their exoticism, though they're shriekers and possibly getting a bit out of control along the Thames. On the other hand I can never see too much of the blackbird family resident in the back yard, and very insistent on clean water supplies daily in the birdbath, which I duly provide. Here's Mr B in the branches of the prunus after immersion.

My last excursion before the rains and bitter cold returned was to Chiswick Park further up the Thames.

Tulips grace a new planting in the formal beds in front of the greenhouses which boast a fine camellia collection

and up against the walls more wisteria flourishes,

rather gaudily complemented by more tulips.

My usual Rundweg via the ornamental bridge revealed the moorhens nesting prolifically in the middle of the lake/pond and a solitary swan completing a picture of wildness at the back of the temple.

And here's the most recent flourisher of all beyond the cascade, laburnum, which usually takes its place in the seasonal parade after wisteria's begun to flourish, but this year has come along simultaneously.

Let's hope normal spring progress will be resumed as soon as possible.