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England's Bach country

When cold winds blow in from the North Sea, the average Londoner, like his counter-part in New York or Boston, might be expected to seek renewal -- skiing in Scotland or sunning in Spain. But unexpectedly large numbers choose, over bleak winter weekends, to bask with Bach at an English country inn.

Visitors to England in the Winter will find that this combination of chamber music, gourmet food, and crackling fire is an easeful way of escaping cold, gray , and expensive London.

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For 15 years, the "Sol Hurok" of the winter weekend, Ivan Sutton has been presenting musical events where guests can enjoy a getaway weekend of solid comfort while immersing themselves in music. It started when the owners of the Swan Hotel in Lavenham, Suffolk, wanted something special that would attract people to a rather remote location. Music, in a word, was Ivan Sutton's answer.

The musical inception he devised featured a simple formula -- good music, good food, and leisure. The Swan continues to give concerts and to attract guests to this most attractive setting in Suffolk. Well-known soloists or ensembles perform in the 15th-century hall of the Swan.

Occasionally the weekend is augmented by a special event, as when Andres Segovia gives a guitar recital in the Levenham Parish Church. The enormous church, rebuilt by wealthy wool merchants between 1485 and 1530, is generally considered the peak of ecclesiastical architecture in East Anglia. And when not listening to scherzos in the Swan, visitors can investigate Lavenham's ancient Market Place with its 16th-century Guildhall and a town full of half-timbered houses.

Concerts are scheduled in a variety of places that are worth exploring. On one particularly bitter Friday last January, my husband and I left London for a weekend at the White Hart in Lincoln which featured Die Kammermusiker Zurich, a chamber music group. We drove up the M1 Motorway listening to radio reports of heavy snowfalls in the north and wondering whether any of the other guests (or musicians) would make it to the destination. Fortunately, we had no problems (except for a dead battery as we pulled into Lincoln) and soon found ourselves at the White Hart Hotel.

We were welcomed by a warm fire and a warm smile from our host. After a pleasant meal, the group adjourned for the first musical event of the weekend: Mozart and Bruckner were the postprandial treats. But with the long drive, the cold weather, the dinner, and the soothing sounds of the musicians, it became obvious that some of the listeners were missing a few measures here and there.

In the morning, after a traditional English breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, and endless quantities of toast and tea), we set off for a tour around the cathedral. The magnificent 12th-century edifice has been called by Ruskin the best piece of architecture in the British Isles -- reason enough to make the 150-mile journey north from London. Some of the other guests opted for coffee and newspapers rather than face the cold morning air, which somehow seemed colder inside the cathedral.

After a morning concert and punch, we set off for an afternoon devoted to exploring the sights of Lincoln. Besides the glories of the spacious cathedral, Lincoln has such attractions as the castle built by William the Conquerer; a bustling shopping area on High Street, highlighted by houses and shops on a medieval bridge; the Usher Gallery, with a Tennyson Exhibition Room paying tribute to Lincolnshire's poet laureate; and an exciting, very steep hill aptly called Steep Hill.

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By the time the evening concert was over (Dvorak and more Mozart), things became very animated. These were notes to compare, people to converse with, good conversation to be enjoyed, and musicians to meet. The viola players were bound together by more than their musical instruments; they were father and son. The cellist gave up a career in medicine for a preferred vocation in music. The artists were delighted to discuss their music with the enthusiastic audience (and to sell autographed copies of their records).

A final Sunday morning concert -- Kodaly and Mendelssohn -- preceded lunch, after which the group disbanded. One is welcome to stay on, of course, to see more of the town or the surrounding countryside, or merely to rest and ponder the unique and pleasing event.

The impresario chooses from the best available talent. To maintain reasonable costs, Sutton searches for aspiring young musicians, many of whom later achieve considerable fame. Some of the fine artists who have appeared in these musical weekends include Jacqueline du Pre (at the age of 17), Svyatislav Richter, Emil Gilels, and Elizabeth Soderstrom.

The package is irresistible. Hotel managers fill their inns on off-season weekends from October through March, and hotel guests enjoy a musical bargain. The cost for the intire weekend (two nights, meals, teas, concerts) is frequently less than the price of a single night in a West End London hotel.

Another popular venue is the Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, formerly the medieval castle of the city. The concerts are given in a handsome room that combines excellent acoustic with an intimacy enjoyed by both listeners and performers. Music lovers who think they do not like chamber music should try listening to it the way it was meant to be heard -- in a chamber.

Now one can choose from a rich variety of weekend and day events, given by outstanding artists at some of the best hotels in England: on the sea at Brudenell Hotel at Aldeburgh, Suffolk; at the famous 400-year-old Lygon Arms in the Cotswold town of Broadway; at the modern Belsfield on Lake Windermere in the Lake District. Performers range from the Medici or Gabrieli String Quartets to Ragtime Plus; from sopranos and harpists to specialists in ancient instruments.

Why not join the English and have a musical variation on a traveling-through-England theme? Why not seek scherzos in Sussex or chase Schubert in Shropshire? Information on programs and costs is available from Ivan Sutton at Acremead, Crockham Hill, Edenbridge, Kent, England.


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