Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Tales from the cup shelf #1: Prague

For years now, whenever we travel (often), we try to buy a souvenir mug. Looking at the cup shelf the other day (well, there are three of them actually - I did say we travel often), I realised that collectively they amount to quite a story.

The first one comes from Prague, our first trip there together in 1993. The Communist era was barely over yet the city was already transformed, cleaned up and full of life. Music was everywhere. Walking around, we were constantly being given fliers for evening chamber concerts, while street performers gave excellent impromptu recitals on nearly every corner.

When I was a teenager - no mugs from then I'm afraid - I happened to buy an album of harpsichord recitals by an artist called Zuzana Ruzickova (give or take a few accents). I was enthralled by it, it's by far the best harpsichord album I've ever found. So you can imagine how I felt when one of the fliers was for a performance by none other than Ms Ruzickova herself. And it was extraordinary. Unlike a piano, a harpsichord can only produce notes of one intensity. No matter how gently or hard you hit the key, the sound is always the same. So the only way to make it louder is to play more notes. That's why harpsichord music always has passages with an incredible number of short notes - to make it louder. Just as I was wondering how she could possibly move her fingers that quickly, in a passage composed entirely of demi-semi-quavers, she doubled up again, to hemi-demi-semi quavers. The effect was electrifying.

All of these concerts - we went to others too - were in delightful buildings, older than the music itself, with mysterious inner courtyards and staircases. These led to small rooms - whence chamber music - where you could literally reach out and touch the musicians (not that we did, though I did introduce myself to Ms Ruzickova after the concert, to thank her for such a wonderful introduction to what is often quite frankly a pretty boring instrument).

Of course we visited Wenceslas Square, site of Jan Palach's 1969 self immolation. And the beautiful Vysehrad Park on top of the hill overlooking the Danube, and Prazsky Hrad, the castle high up on the banks. Everyone does. But my memories are of other places, of the quiet cloistered side street leading to the unforgettable Blue Duck restaurant, where we spent a long and largely afternoon-destroying lunch. Or of the tram ride from our hotel, which was in the suburbs, rattling through bustling residential neighbourhoods to the city centre. And then there was the Tatra museum - a whole collection of those odd Czech luxury cars with their rear-mounted, air-cooled V8 engines.

The mugs, the perfect size for after-dinner coffee, were once six, but now only two remain. They've done better than the crystal glasses, though - of the twelve we bought, only one is left, and even that is chipped. (Quite how we brought all this booty back with us on the plane, I do not recollect.)

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