Sunday, 19 April 2015

Baden-Baden bei Wien

Unless you're familiar with both places, the title may need some explanation. Baden-Baden, Dostoyevsky's 'Roulettenburg' and I guess not awfully changed since then (more on that in the next post), nestles in a valley on the fringes of the Black Forest. Baden bei Wien is a rather sweeter, resolutely old fashioned spa town a tram ride from Vienna. And Vienna, of course, is the location for Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier, not that you'd really have known it from Brigitte Fassbaender's production at Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. Erich Wonder's first backdrop, which I thought might be showing Dubai without the sea from a luxury penthouse, apparently references a view you can get from a high-rise hotel some way from Vienna's inner Ring.

We based a whole Easter jaunt to Germany around Freund Peter Rose's invitation - there he is above the morning after the show we saw at an outside table of Baden-Baden's Cafe König - to go and see his Ochs for the umpteenth time (always welcome, since he is now - fairly unarguably, I'd have thought - the world's best). With Anja Harteros and Anna Prohaska in the cast more of an enticement than Sir Simon Rattle, his Lady - Magdalena Kožená, improbably cast as Octavian - and the Berlin Phil, it sounded like a good opportunity. The idea was to continue with walking expeditions in the Black Forest, but an invitation from the Thuringia Bach Festival changed all that and turned it all into a very wonderful busman's holiday (fortunately the indulgent diplo-mate found it so too, despite initial misgivings).

Not that this Rosenkavalier, for all its many passing pleasures, was the highlight (Strauss yields to Bach done at the highest level). For a start, the Festspielhaus is a bit of a monster. Sure, Baden-Baden's main theatre, originally a thousand-seater with a too-small orchestra pit as Berlioz found when he inaugurated it conducting his specially-commissioned Béatrice et Bénédict in 1862 - would now be inadequate for many of the operas put on by the Festival (the theatre company was performing a version of Berlin Alexanderplatz there which I'd love to have seen had there been more time). But it's a much more attractive option.

The Festspielhaus, a 2500 seater swaggering as the biggest in Germany, opened in 1998 and funded by a club of 300 of Germany's richest citizens, has the facade of Baden-Baden's grand old station (the present one is way to the north). Sure, the station building itself is handsome and the ticket hall now functions with the same guichets that used to sell railways tickets.

But once you get into the theatre, you feel a million miles away from the action, and the singers, too, are dwarfed by the sheer height of the interior (second only to the ghastly Bastille home of the Paris Opera). We were in row 12 of the Parterre, with tons of leg room - always welcome - but felt detached from the action the minute the curtain rose. Even the Berlin Phil, which started with a horn blooper and ended Act One with a flat high note from the solo violin, didn't exactly sound opulent, though there was a certain fullness and the action music of Act Two seemed to come off best: Rattle's attention to detail paid off there. But the orchestra hasn't played this score since Karajan's time - which means most of them haven't played it at all before - and clearly needed more time on it. First of the production photos below shows the orchestra on stage. They're all, I think, by Monika Rittershaus, seemingly the official photographer; I applied to the press office for images but never heard back.

As in the last Royal Opera production, only the Ochs and the Sophie passed their tests with flying colours. Peter's characterisation, always beautifully sung especially in the upper register, has relaxed so much over the years, and casual dress seemed to put him even more at his ease. Anna Prohaska is another stage animal, proving - as have Marie Arnet, Lucy Crowe and Lisa Milne before her - that Sophie is no generic pushover. Here she is with Kožená in the duet following the trio.

I thought Harteros would be another great Marschallin of our times to set alongside Martina Serafin in Vienna and the most gracious lady of them all, Anne Schwanewilms, whom we saw in Dresden, also courtesy of Peter, and will never forget (can't bear Fleming's over-larded interpretation, never could; though it now sounds like I should see the wonderful Krasimira Stoyanova in the role - the DVD of Harry Kupfer's Salzburg production is now out).

Yet Harteros didn't seem to know what tone to adopt. Way too much hair-fiddling in the opening scene, nothing inward about the first monologue (apparently it was her idea to have the Notary with her for the start, since she thought she had to address 'Da geht er hin' to someone onstage). A gorgeous physical presence, of course, and how she opened up to golden tone, especially in the Trio - but then I (and J too) kind of wished we were hearing her Verdi again. This is possibly the only time I've not been remotely touched by the closing scene of Act One.

The other blames lie there with Rattle's uncertain tempo relations and above all with Kožená's young blade. Not nearly as grim as I was expecting, and her dreadful habit of throwing her head back for top notes that don't really come out very fully could be ascribed to the impetuousness and exaggeration of the young man. Yet it was so apparent that this is a voice not in the same league as those of Harteros, Prohaska and Rose, and the 'take my wife' thing has never seemed quite right to me*. Quality there undoubtedly was from Irmgard Vilsmaier's ever-striking Duenna, an unusually strapping Faninal in Clemens Unterreiner and of course from Laurence Brownlee's Italian tenor.

Excellent Valzacchi and Annina, too, from Stefan Margita (I thought he was more a Helden- than a light tenor) and Carole Wilson. Their visual gags were the funniest, among several which had to do more with the  wacky costume designer, Dietrich von Grebmer, than with Fassbaender, who claimed she had no concept at the start, and it showed: plenty of interesting ideas, but none of them properly followed through. Our intriguers started as cross dressers. Then for the 'Ecco!' scene they had swapped striped suit and old-lady pink, only to both appear as 'ladeez' for the Letter Scene. I did find that funny. And I loved the Leopold, Ochs's illegitimate son, as a teenager on rollerblades (again, von Grebmer's idea and again, he could have been developed by Fassbaender as far more of a character, though the gag of Ochs sending him off for takeaway pizza when our Baron rejected the inn's expensive fare was a good one).

The photos actually make it all look rather handsome; in the theatre, it seemed cheap and nasty. One spent far too much time working out what Wonder's projections were supposed to be or to mean, and the idea of people doing long entrances back and forth at the back messed up the privacies of Act One.

The Presentation of the Rose was blown by having us see Octavian raised on a pedestal before he makes his entrance among people who've been working on sewing-machines (Faninal wouldn't mess up business with show). Pointless business, too, with producing the silver rose from a bunch of real flowers.

In Act Three, quite apart from the fact that there were way too many people piling on stage (the chorus need be no more than a dozen), Peter was left repeating business to fill gaps where Fassbaender hadn't really thought of anything. And the stupid thing is that Hofmannsthal hands it to the director on a plate. If you throw most of his stage directions out, you have to find stuff that's equally convincing, as did Richard Jones at Glyndebourne. Above all, I kept wishing this was a Glyndebourne-sized experience instead of vacuity in a barn. Won't be going back to this Festspielhaus again, however extraordinary the cast. But still, we had a fun time in Baden-Baden the day after the show, cafe-hopping with Peter and Martin Snell (the Notary, interesting chap who lives in Lucerne).

It's been a driven week since our return, with way too much of me on The Arts Desk starting with the Bach festival writeup, hitting a dud of supposedly radical music-theatre on Tuesday and then soaring with Gypsy (the unsurpassable Imelda Staunton in one of Johan Persson's production shots above), Cheek by Jowl's harrowing Measure for Measure and Sasha Regan's hysterically funny but also very disciplined all-male The Pirates of Penzance (group shot below by Kay Young). And then yesterday we caught the tail-end of dearly beloved old rock and roller Paul Beecham's 70th birthday party, with the master at the turntable and many of his old cronies reunited.

Anyway, the London summer season is on a real roll now, with too many good things to resist. Back to school tomorrow with the first Opera in Depth class of the summer term, on Guillaume Tell. I've just read the Schiller play and it's a masterpiece - way better than the libretto for Rossini's opera. But that will furnish plenty of musical riches.

*Worse - she's going to sing the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius at the Proms, with Sir Si conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. How could he, when he's worked with Dame Janet? One to miss. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Bach's Dresden jaunt

That noblest of riverside views* was snapped in a heatwave last summer; in fact I've been in the contrasting strongholds of Baden-Baden and Thuringia, and nothing could have been closer to heaven than the greatest of B minor Masses on Easter Sunday in the Bethlehem of Bach-lovers, Eisenach. Bach was baptised there on 23 March 1685 in the very font (pictured below after the concert) we saw flanked by players of Prague's superlative Collegium/Collegium Vocale 1704. I've written something about this and other wonders of Bachland over on The Arts Desk.

Then, if ever, was the time to take with me John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the Castle of Heaven and read it from cover to cover (which I now nearly have, excepting the lengthy descriptions of the two major Passions, which I'll save for when I next listen to them properly). Even in a volume full of JEG's extraordinary blend of passionate enthusiasm and intellectual rigour - with plenty of speculation, given the gaps in the JSB biography, all of which strikes me as entirely plausible - the chapter on the B minor Mass is overwhelmingly impressive. Extreme care in devotion is needed when dealing with the greatest mass ever (yes, I know, there's Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, but sorry, that's a bit of a blind spot for me, and a lung-busting horror to sing, though I can see the genius) and Gardiner is as good on the history as he is on the music in detail.

It's fascinating, for instance, to read of what may have happened when Bach went to Dresden in 1733 to see his eldest son, Wilhelm  Friedemann, settled in as organist of the Sophienkirche. Clearly the Kyrie and Gloria - the only two mass sequences admitted in Lutheran practice - featured, like nearly everything else in what was to become his complete mass masterpiece, 'parodies' of earlier inspirations, but seen to have been specially tailored for the sumptuous Court Orchestra and its Italian operatic soloists. The rest, as we now know, wasn't entirely ready until two years before his death, but it's exciting to know about the music's intermediate putting-down of roots.

That turned me back to the two other Collegium 1704 recordings which a Czech benefactor sent me a couple of years ago featuring church music by Jan Dismas Zelenka, then the main man in Dresden and Bach's good friend. Of course anything is going to seem one-dimensional after the four of Bach, but I was charmed by the Requiem in D Zelenka composed for the year-long obsequies, also starting in 1733, in honour of that mostly ridiculous ruler and fortune squanderer Augustus the Strong. Charmed? Yes, because it's not the usual heavy-hearted affair. How odd to hear a Kyrie begin in bold major with drums and trumpets - the emphasis being on the 'lux per perpetua', presumably - and a Dies Irae that starts in incredibly jolly fashion.

Nothing outstays its welcome here, and though the writing for solo or paired instruments is penny-plain alongside Bach's, it's good to hear the chalumeau and to savour the bassoons chuntering downwards at the bass's Offertorium lines about Tartarus (Gardiner tells us how delighted Bach must have been by the Dresden bassoonists; apparently the Leipzig fagottist was feeble).

The Officio defunctorum, also for not-so-strong Augustus, on the other disc is more long winded but also stranger in parts; ditto the Responsoria pro hebdomadad sancta of 1723 in a second Collegium set, with some astounding chromatics and firework word-setting.

Above all, of course, I've been back to Collegium 1704's B minor Mass, which reveals how much that vital conductor Václav Luks has changed since the recording was made. I'd love to know what the players felt about the very special circumstances of the Eisenach performance.

I'll certainly never forget it - the crowning glory of an Easter Sunday which began in style with a Cranach masterpiece as focal point, and a more modest Bach mass to punctuate, in Weimar's Herderkirche. This shot, I hasten to add, taken long before the service began, with the church packed when we arrived.

*One that Bach very nearly lived to see. At the end of Gardiner's Chapter 13 there's another beguiling speculation - that he was readying the B minor Mass for the inauguration of the Catholic Hofkirche (the church on the right), finally completed the year after his death. The famous Frauenkirche (the dome to the left), a people's venture, which rose only to fall in World War II and rise again, improbably, in recent years - I saw both the ruins and the completion - must have been appearing on the skyline too.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


That's actually a leap over the beltane bonfire on midsummer night, a Johannissprung, rather than a celebration of the day itself, but I felt quite like jumping high after 10 weeks with the Opera in Depth students on Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, culminating in our own Johannistag two Mondays back, a good few months before the eagerly-anticipated time itself.

Our constant companions have been three DVDs and snippets from the seven recordings I possess, and over time it became clear which stood out among the others. None of the films matched up to Richard Jones's ENO production throughout. Stefan Herheim's Salzburg staging is far too mannered to home in on the human qualities of its leading characters; we watched wildly overacting chorenes and/or actors around David in Act One and an expressionistic handling of Act Two's opening scenes. McVicar's Glyndebourne show is beautifully filmed by Francois Roussillon, but I already knew its shortcomings, namely some serious miscasting - less in Gerald Finley's Sachs than in the Eva and Walter - and a cramped , unfocused final scene. I used it for the scenes with Beckmesser, since Johannes Martin Kränzle is the real star.

The cameraman for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Zurich Meistersinger wanders all over the place and tries too many arty angles, but there's definitely a core here. When I saw that team in concert on the South Bank, José van Dam's Sachs seemed a little blunted in timbre, but he's such a sympathetic actor and makes us believe so in Sachs's serious disillusionment that the decision to help his love-rival seems all the more heroic. And who could not warm to Peter Seiffert's Walter? Michael Volle's Beckmesser is all the better, too, for being a real person, the proper mixture of arrogance, nastiness and insecurity. More gravitas needed from Welser-Möst, but there's plenty in an oddly disconcerting - but not unjubilant - final scene with hints of Regensburg's neoclassical Valhalla and the chorus in contemporary casual dress (I see our Lottie in there from time to time, too).

When I compared Parsifals for Radio 3's Building a Library, the leader was crystal-clear: Kubelik's studio recording with a perfect cast, only buried for decades because of Karajan's jealous machinations. And Kubelik's 1967 Meistersinger comes out on top for me, too. I wouldn't chuck out my Karajan, especially for the midsummer night tenderness of Act 2 and the Staatskapelle Dresden sound which seems to move him to more warmth than usual. Norman Bailey is good for majestic Goodall and majestic for bumpy Solti, while the old Kempe moves so easily and has the best Eva in Elisabeth Grümmer. But Kubelik's cast is the best overall, and while Gundula Janowitz is a bit tremulous in the bigger Wagnerian moments, she lights up the conversations and the best quintet since Elisabeth Schumann, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr et al for Barbirolli. So three more cheers for Arts Archives in keeping this recording in the catalogues.

We've all of us, I think, been on a high - one student said he left every week walking on air - and we've also been lucky in picking one of the great operatic achievements of recent years. Richard Jones again showed incredible generosity in coming to talk; I little thought, years back, when he picked my brains on Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, that he'd return the complement with three visits to date. It would be indiscreet to cite his characteristically unexpected views on wider issues, but I can precis a few highlights.

I started by asking him if he found himself moved on first night, as so many of us were again and again. Oh no, he replied, much too worried. About? The minute and a half's scene change in Act Three: it had never been right in rehearsals and he couldn't rest until it worked on the night. He talked a bit about backstories, a part of his work I know from what singers told me about the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier and from what he himself had told the class about Gloriana. Chief surprise this time was to find out that Sachs's mistress had been absent from Nuremberg for six weeks, which was why he found himself more than usually susceptible to young Eva's charms.

We asked him about changes since the Welsh National Opera production. The last-act set, for a start, and the romping of the principals, finally allowed - Beckmesser included - to step Mozart-like out of character as they held up their historical figures on the placards. And I didn't remember Beckmesser being starkers with only a mandolin to cover his privates. That was thanks to Andrew Shore's willingness, he told us: he'd seen him naked, very movingly, in Tippett's King Priam, suggested it to him and Shore agreed. We must get him along to talk, said Richard: such a nice man, and so many interesting ideas especially about English text (Shore's Beckmesser pictured below with Iain Paterson's revelatory Sachs by Catherine Ashmore for ENO).

Classic Jones: 'the libretto is a bit Rupert Bear' (the other analogy out of the two choicest it would be indiscreet to reproduce). I asked him why Eva's arch line about 'the trouble I have with men' wasn't supertitled: he doesn't like it. Did the audience laugh at it? Not much, I said. Good. And he doesn't care at all for Sachs's self-regarding Tristan/King Marke reference. Would he do it again? No, it doesn't leave enough scope for the director's ideas. The Ring he definitely wants to tackle once more. When he visited to talk about Gloriana, he was looking forward, albeit  to Tristan und Isolde. Now he's rejected it: he spent two months with those two characters in the second act, and couldn't decide what to do with them. Christof Loy's Royal Opera production got it pretty much right, he thought, and that decided it.

I know what big operatic project we can expect next, because we had a dramaturgical pow-wow about it in Carluccio's near the Barbican: Musorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera with Bryn Terfel and Pappano (this is hardly confidential news as I've seen it touted in various biographies). Despite agreeing that the Polish act was so wonderful, brought a different atmosphere to the piece, he's since decided on the 1869 original. Apparently my thoughts on the bells in three scenes have been helpful. We talked Sondheim - 'his' cast had just been on a reunion outing to see the film, would love to have been a fly on the wall then - and he's interested in Follies, having had a long chat with the Old Vic's Matthew Warchus (I think because Warchus had done it in New York). Imminently, of course, there's an adaptation of Kafka's The Trial at the Young Vic with Rory Kinnear: our doughty director, after having watched 2000 episodes of a certain telly classic for a putative project in the States, has just spent two weeks agonising over the novel's adaptation.

Meanwhile the opera class moves on to two summer specials: Rossini's Guillaume Tell, which I'd originally thought of devoting a whole term to, and Strauss's Intermezzo, in anticipation of Garsington's production.

Do join us at the fabulous Frontline Club or leave a message here - I needn't send it live - if you want to contact me about it. We kick off again on the 20th. And listen to my Building a Library on Sibelius's Fourth Symphony on Saturday (I wrote something about the background on The Arts Desk). It will be up thereafter in perpetuity* and downloadable as a podcast, so plenty of time to hear it.

*14/4: Here it is in 'clip' form, which presumably outlives the 28 day format. 

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Hannah Arendt: thought made visible

This is one of those unpremeditated posts where I rush to gush, I hope not too indiscriminately, about a pleasant surprise just witnessed/experienced. On an idle Sunday afternoon, both shaking off thick colds which have evolved with all sorts of hideous offshoots like eye, lip and sinus infections (gross, yes), we watched a film I imagined would be a little solid and grey, Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt. It was good enough for me that I'd read and admired Arendt's study of Adolf Eichmann's 1963 show trial  in Jerusalem, and that the film featured two actresses I love to the point of idolisation, Barbara Sukowa (consummate for Fassbinder in Berlin Alexanderplatz and Lola, spellbinding reader of the Stefan Georg poems for Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire with Mitsuko Uchida) and Janet McTeer (perhaps still top of my No.1 great stage performances list as Ibsen's Nora, though Juliet Stevenson's Winnie is now joint first).

Forget Downfall and The Lives of Others, both films I found well made and acted, but a bit too mainstream-conventional: if you're sober enough to face it, this is the most masterfully understated non-documentary film I've seen about the Nazis. Except, of course, it's about so much more: the integrity of examining a problem philosophically, the refusal to compromise a point of view, staying intensely human all the time. And humanity in her women - Rosa Luxembourg (also starring Sukowa, must see it again) and Hildegard of Bingen (must simply see it) - would appear to be a von Trotta keynote.

Nobody puts a foot wrong here. It's not often you think you see inside someone's mind - though that happened recently, the understanding and then the enigma, with Rylance's Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, another film - even more remarkable on BBC Television these days - which was not afraid to focus on reaction without dialogue for long stretches. Sukowa is astonishing in the way she expresses the power of thought (she also looks nothing like Hannah Arendt, for what it's worth, but compelled me throughout all the more by her resemblance to my own beloved, incorruptible and bloody-minded academic Noëlle Mann).

Here we follow Arendt through the Eichmann trial, where von Trotta uses the extraordinary archive footage and shows us the shrivelled, unthinking man not just on the wide screen but also on the TV format which viewers would have experienced at the time. My thanks to The Orphan Film Symposium for putatively permitting me, since I give a link and advise you to go over and read, to use a juxtaposition of stills. My further juxtaposition is to show Sukowa's Arendt watching the telly in Jerusalem.

We know what Sukowa's Arendt is thinking before she explodes in her reasoning, fascination, horror and disgust - not just at Eichmann. We follow her believable incorruptibility as America and Israel go crazy over her refusal to tone down the facts about the Jewish leaders who collaborated, under unthinkable pressure (and if you read Amos Elon's wonderful introduction to the Penguin edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem, you learn that Arendt was not as measured in some of her original expressions as we are usually led to believe). The naked explosion of hate, usually by folk who hadn't read the New Yorker articles or - more often - said they were too disgusted to get to that point, is so familiar today today.

A Jewish New Yorker friend of mine says you famously can't discuss certain things rationally with folk who are so rational on most other issues: viz the madness over Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met. But it happened here, too, in blatant misunderstanding of the Tricycle's refusal to screen its annual Jewish Film Festival last year because funding from the Israeli state was involved and they simply couldn't be seen to be partial (they wouldn't have taken money from Palestinian organisations either). We see, month by month, the hideous parallels between the oppressors and the once oppressed: I'm glad Obama laid it on thick to Netanyahu that he had crossed the line in trying to get votes by being alarmist about Arab voters were rushing to the polls. His own people - Jewish citizens! Substitute 'black voters' or 'gay voters' and you see how far it's got. No politician in this country, not any that seriously expect to be elected at any rate, could possibly get away with it (even Farage tries to cover up most of the time).

Too much of a digression there. But this is a real riff in itself, so let it stand. There's no hysteria in this film. Sukowa's Arendt gets her big speech to the students in the face of dismissal, decidedly a 'yesss...' moment.

But all the performances work as an ensemble to keep this a perfect example of an understated biopic, real marriage and strong friendships (where McTeer's Mary McCarthy comes into her own). Essential watching for all schoolchildren and university students. Even though you should still read the book, tough as it sometimes is, this is no filmic watering down of it, but rather something different that works flawlessly on its own terms. A final shot of Arendt - who, as Sukowa and von Trotta make clear, was as often vivacious as she was steely - in 1972.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Hunter's gift to Glasgow

On those many excursions from the alma mater, Edinburgh, to breath-of-fresh air Glasgow I used to make as a student in the 1980s, I now realise that I only ever saw the Hunterian Art Gallery and the reconstructed Rennie Mackintosh House on the Glasgow University campus, never the Hunterian Museum itself. I'd not even wandered into the two quads behind the famous bell tower, consecutive works of Giles Gilbert Scott and his son Oldrid. Valuing this sort of thing much more now, I find there's more to it than just the mere statistic of this being the second largest Gothic Revival work after the Palace of Westminster.

The original Hunterian collection goes back further. Doctor William Hunter, obstetrician, royal physician, anatomical surgeon and passionate collector of much more than merely scientific objects, was born near Glasgow in 1718, graduated from the University in 1731 before going on to study Medicine in Edinbugh and moved to London 10 years later, where he died in 1783. The collections he bequeathed to Glasgow were transported up north and the first museum to house them was on the old university site, an edifice on the High Street dating back to 1451 (who'd have thought it? Another statistic - Glasgow University per se is the fourth oldest in the English-speaking world).

That site was moved to the splendid eminence where the clock tower stands proud, Gilmorehill, with the river Kelvin winding around beneath it, in 1870. So large is the Hunterian collection that it's been split over four different buildings. I'd love to see the zoology department on my next visit - from the below picture in the main hall, it looks as if all those stuffed animals once stood in the grand hall which is the centrepiece of the current displays.

While there's no chance of reconstructing how the galleries once looked - I suppose I was hoping for something as authentic as Bamberg's phenomenal Vogelsaal - the mix after the 2011 re-opening still has a little of that cabinet-of-curiosities jumble which has intrigued me ever more since reading Simon Winder's Germania. Very few postcards available, so with approval I snapped some of the objects. Needless to say most have been accumulated since Hunter's day, but there's a whole assemblage of his items in the first room, and I believe these specimen jars on the mezzanine level are his.

Many other distinguished academics have bequeathed their collections, including Professor Bernard Hague, whose musical instruments stand proud in several central glass cases - our friend Andrew van der Beek will approve of the serpent -

and William Thomson, First Baron Kelvin, hugely distinguished mathematical physicist and engineer, is represented by a wide range of objects, including this French horn of 1840 which he used to demonstrate acoustical properties in his lectures.

Richard Fortey's The Earth has acquainted me with some of Scotland's specific geological wonders, so I wasn't too surprised to find that these three stones from the mines at Ledhills-Wanlockhead 60 miles south east of Glasgow are unique to the area and take their names from it: they're leadhillite, the yellow one with small blue caledonite crystals; caledonite itself, turquoise blue with deep blue tinarite; and lanarkite, shiny transparent needles with greenish-yellow pyromorphite.

Rocks and stones are beginning to have as much appeal to me as human masterpieces, all this in preparation for my next life as a zoologist. This goethite from Queensland, Australia is eye-catching because of its iridescence, but it's a nice link to Johann Wolfgang, after whom it takes its name, because I so treasured the objects from his own cabinet of curiosities, including fossilised fish, which sat alongside the Tischbein portrait - enormous, much to my surprise - in the British Museum's excellent German exhibition.

These kyanite crystals in quartz are beauties, too, purchased from Capelinha in Brazil with assistance from the NFA, so presumably rather precious.

Back to Scotland for this deep sea coral, Lophelia pertussa, can you believe, dredged up by fisherman from the sea between Colla and Barra off the west coast.

Around the hall are, inter alia, mummies and scarabs, a Maori artifact believed to come from one of Captain Cook's expeditions and this skull of a young Neolithic man discovered near Clachaig Falls in Arran.

On the way out I just had time for a whizz around the permanent collection of Roman sculpture from the Antonine Wall

before heading downhill to what used to be my favourite Glasgow museum, the Kelvingrove

to meet godson Alexander for a quick tea before catching the train south. Blowing bubbles from a strange 'gift' donated by a student seeking election, he had to admit that though up on the campus most days, he'd never been inside the Hunterian. Can't blame him: it took me years to visit the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh's Old College. Anyway, he and fellow student/godchild Evi had a good time the night before, getting a meal, a talk and a BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert in the glorious City Halls. I may be biased, but these two - who don't, I hasten to add, see each other between my visits other than in the University Library - are as fine and good young people as any I know, wanting to do good in the world.

My train from Glasgow Central only took me as far as Penrith, where I stepped out and hit the splendid site of a much older building than the Kelvingrove, the castle with connections to much-in-vogue Richard III.

Then it was off to stay with friends in Lorton, a lovely corner of what I've always called - in the wake of a friend's Freudian slip - the Rain District. This time it started out as the Wind District, with gale force weather whipping up the waves and the spray on Crummock Water, and allowing our dear Tom Pope to be held up, strip of a being as he is, by the wind.

The elements made us take three shorter walks that Saturday rather than one long one, which allowed for love at first sight of Buttermere, a really fine lunch at the Pheasant Inn and an excursion to idyllically situated St Bega's on Bassenthwaite Lake. On Sunday morning the wind had dropped, the clouds were rolling away above Crummock Water

and blue skies headed in from the Lorton Valley in the opposite direction.

So by the time our hosts Rosanna and Anthony, seeming to dance here beyond the snowdrops on the lawn of Lorton Hall, bade us farewell, it was a vintage Lakes afternoon.