I went to London yesterday for the first time in six weeks. Indeed, it was one of only handful of times I've been anywhere apart from Colchester since mid December. An AGM just over the Suffolk border in Stratford St Mary, a garden lecture in Stowupland, and coffee in Mistley has been about as far as I've ventured, and I was exhausted by the trip to Stratford St Mary. But I had a ticket for the lunchtime concert at LSO St Lukes, bought months ago, and a keen desire to catch the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A. One of the exasperating things about lingering chest infections and colds is the way you go through a phase when you feel a lot better as long as you don't do anything, then discover you aren't really better at all as soon as you do. But I was feeling as though I might be quite a lot better, so set off to the concert on the basis that if I began to flag I could come home afterwards. That would have been a terrible waste of a rail ticket, but the alternative was to give up before I started, and I didn't want to turn into a hypochondriac.
The concert was the first of four Radio 3 lunchtime concerts focused on the Russian piano repertoire written before and after the 1917 revolution. Revolution is in the air: the Royal Academy has just opened an exhibition of Russian Art 1917-32, and Tate Modern will be opening Red Star Over Russia in November. I hope to go to both. Russian piano music is not necessarily my thing, but the pianist yesterday was Elisabeth Leonskaja, and I had a feeling that I had heard of her. She is now in her early seventies, born in Georgia and resident in the Soviet Union for the first half of her life, and she was twice the age of the other three pianists in the series. They will doubtless go on to have long and glittering careers, but I fancied seeing a major figure of the last century.
She played Shostakovich Piano Sonata no 2 followed by Tchaikovsky Grand Sonata in G major. Originally the programme was different, and LSO St Lukes wrote to me a while back to warn me of the change, but I was perfectly happy either way. I didn't know either of the pieces on the revised programme and I don't think I knew the original programme any better. I just wanted to see Elisabeth Leonskaja. I was rather taken aback when reading the programme notes before the performance over my customary coffee and millionaire's shortbread to see that the Grand Sonata had been described by Tchaikovsky's biographer as 'a strong candidate as the dullest piece of music Tchaikivsky ever wrote', the Scherzo being judged the best movement partly because it was the shortest. If Elisabeth Leonskaja and the LSO thought that then why perform it at all, and if not then why put it in the programme notes?
I won't actually be rushing out to buy a CD with the Tchaikovsky on it, but I was mightily taken with the Shostakovich. Written in 1943, deeply creepy, melancholy, unsettling, it was music of its age. And it didn't have too many notes so as a non-musical person I could follow what was going on some of the time. My list of albums I'd like to get is rather long, but I'd like to listen again to Shostakovich's second Piano Sonata. Elisabeth Leonskaja was magnificent. She never spoke once through the entire concert, no slightly toe curling interview with Fiona Talkington for the Radio 3 listeners about her long career or what the music meant to her, and I never discovered what either of the two encores were. Coming on to the stage at the beginning she sat down at the piano and began playing almost before the opening applause had died away, and continued in the same vein for the whole performance. She played everything from memory, and when she hammered the low notes on the piano I could feel it through the soles of my feet. At the end I thought as I left that I had seen greatness. If you want to hear as much greatness as survives the medium of radio the concert will be broadcast on Tuesday 14 March at 1.00pm.
Then, as I was still feeling quite energetic, I went on to the V&A to see Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery. It's been on since early October, and I wanted to visit from when it was announced some time before that, after watching a very good TV documentary about Opus Anglicanum, but with one thing and another I never got there and thought I'd missed my chance, since it finishes this weekend. The V&A always feels a step too far from Liverpool Street, as though my natural territory ends at The Queen's Gallery, even though it is only one tube stop further than Sloane Square on the Circle Line, and from LSO St Lukes you can do it with one tube change, Northern Line to Kings Cross and then the Piccadilly Line to South Kensington. And those central London Piccadilly Line stops are really close together. So objectively speaking it is not that far at all. Maybe knowing that it is beyond comfortable walking distance makes it seem further.
Opus Anglicanum was one of England's great artistic contributions to the art of Medieval Europe, an embroidery technique that allowed an incredible amount of shading and detailing. Not much survives now, textiles being inherently fragile and many examples having been destroyed in the Reformation or cut down and reused. The V&A have gathered together copes and other ecclesiastical garments and fragments from across Europe's churches and museums. They are very beautiful, once your eyes adapt to the low light they have to be displayed in, with extraordinary vivacity and detail. Their main business is to tell stories from the bible and portray the saints, but lots of other things get included as well, birds and all sorts of creatures, and six winged seraphim, and angels playing musical instruments. The cope is an interesting garment, being a semicircle when laid flat but designed to be seen as a cone when worn, and the Medieval embroiderers used various of patterns to divide the space, some taken from Islamic art. The art form began to go downhill in the fifteenth century after the Black Death, as wages rose for the survivors and the cost of making the incredibly labour intensive Opus Anglicanum became too great.
I enjoyed the exhibition very much, although an hour of looking at such fine detail in such low light was all my eyes could manage. So I came home, and the trains were running to time, and I was not shattered. Onwards and upwards.