Thursday, 31 December 2009

By mistake


This year we stayed at home on purpose. The time for reflection, dining with folk we haven't seen for a long time, reading, listening and taking a walk on Hampstead Heath with friends Simon and Patricia - with uncanny winter light over the semi-frozen ponds, as above, and little dogs leaping high over streamlets - seemed right. Even the light work load was pleasurable; I'm glad I got to hear two virtuoso piano recitals of mostly rare rep - Liszt Sonata excepted - by Miroslav Kultyshev and Daniel Grimwood. And as I walked back from the Wigmore, the lights of London were indeed pretty, as my godson once remarked on the flight back from Venice while everyone else was being sick from plunging and soaring in 70mph winds.


In the meantime our dear friend the Houri went on holiday, Withnail-fashion, 'by mistake'. His text is worth reproducing as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong with the seasonal spirit of adventure. We've been there.

A text from paradise…started strangely in Colombo where hotel room overlooked a machine gun emplacement. This means a casual holiday snap from room window would have led to imprisonment. We move inland to famous and beautiful jungle ecohotel ‘impressively one mile long’. First night ate like a prince and this followed by four days’ trauma with a violent attack of the two bob bits. I’m on 15 tablets a day. Disgusting rehydration salts and sightseeing, alcohol and food have been cancelled. I’m eating like a sparrow. The sumptuous feasts laid out for hotel guests at breakfast and dinner a rebuke not a pleasure. For me a little dry bread and some bland soup. An Algerian convict would sneer and curl his lip at so Spartan a bill of fare. It is New Year’s Eve and have not been able to have my second set of pills because monkeys entered my room as I slept and stole them from off my table. I lie here texting as my nausea returns with the quaint sight of the monkey mocking me by licking up the remnants of my rehydration salts which it also stole and nonchalantly lifting its tail and peeing down the back of my balcony chair. Yes, I have come on holiday by mistake. Happy New Year.

Jungles are sometimes best viewed, preferably monkeyless, from the safety of the northern hemisphere, as in the case of the Madagascan wonderland at the heart of our now-beloved Zurich's fabulous succulentenhaus.


It should be added that none of this has deterred us from planning our 2010 investigation of the Georgian mountain wilds, as prompted at last week's party by Peter Nasmyth and the excellent little walking book he sent by way of encouragement.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Liminal tales


Past the solstice, that 'hinge of the year' according to the divine Angela Carter 'when things do not fit together as well as they should', we hover in the twilight zone on the threshold of the New Year. It's a time for spinning fantasies and ghost stories, and by strange paths of picking up whatever book took my fancy - a luxury of this time - I've arrived at Rilke via Joseph Brodsky and Marina Tsvetayeva's 'Novogodnee', her New Year's Eve address to the then recently-deceased Rainer Maria. The enigmatic narratives of Chopin's mazurkas and nocturnes have been haunting me, too, now that I've heard them for the first time as complete sequences, courtesy of Ronald Smith and Garrick Ohlsson.

I've also finally taken the plunge, with some trepidation, into our good friend Anthony Gardner's first published novel, The Rivers of Heaven (jacket appropriately adorned with one of Luke Elwes's paintings), and emerged with magical pictures in my head. With the proviso that I don't have to write about anything here if I have doubts best left unexpressed, I can say wholeheartedly that it's an amazing piece of work. Dangerous and difficult indeed to try and define the journey of a newborn soul, not quite detached from the heavenly rivers; but Gardner pulls it off. There's a passage of poetic prose where the rivers are defined; and the interwoven stories of human interaction, deceit, false hopes and wrong paths taken work well, too. It's always amazing to find traits of a person one simply didn't know, and I blush to say that I recognise very little of the daylight Anthony we normally get to see in this. Awed respect to Mr. Gardner.

I keep coming back to the stories of Carter's Bloody Chamber, gleaning even greater pleasure from reading them aloud to J. I thought the 25th was germane to 'The Company of Wolves': 'Midnight; and the clock strikes. It is Christmas Day, the werewolves' birthday, the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all sink through'.


Carter's Red Riding Hood, unlike Perrault's and Dore's, shows little fear of her vulpine adversary. I say no more; read it for yourselves. After the elegant vampire and werewolf stories, we're now back at 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon', and I have to say Carter makes a more concentrated job of Belle et la Bete than the fitfully poetic Cocteau film, which we watched between various Birdcages and - crying with laughter and tense with embarrassment - Bruno.

Finally, Entartete Musik brought my favourite film of all time, Fanny and Alexander, back into the foreground of memory. It's too soon to watch the whole thing again, but I was moved and delighted to find Uncle Isak's parable of the desert road on YouTube - a haunting liminal tale narrated by the wondrous Erland Josephson.



From the sublime to the self-indulgent: this is also the time for making lists. I've so far resisted any here, but the Arts Desk asked for our musical highs and lows of the 21st century's first decade. Having had no trouble providing two sets of top 10s, I started the lows and then thought, with a little prompting from the resident good angel, hell, no, why trash a sphere which has a hard enough time winning its place in the sun? And I'm not as funny as Igor in lambasting the bad. So I stuck to the positive and simply lamented several medias' attitude to 'classical music'.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Xmas in the city


Our first, in fact, for about twenty years (though there must have been one when we cooked a dry duck and one of our guests gobsmacked another with the unanswerable comment 'I hate modern art!') So while we've often shirked all trimmings in, say, deepest Palmyra or a snowy Isfahan, we thought we might as well embrace the traditional.

Which meant the full lessons and carols at St Paul's on the Eve.


Our good friend Father Andrew got us plum seats under the dome, which was as well since the queue was still stretching round the outside of the cathedral when all places had been filled. Even from our prime position, we still couldn't really hear the choir until they came out from the stalls to blaze Tavener's 'God is with us'. Why not have the real Orthodox thing, I was thinking, when the organ suddenly jammed in a fortissimo minor chord a semitone above the choir, a promised coup suggesting a glimpse of the Almighty.

Otherwise, I was wondering if the choir numbers weren't a bit, horrid word, monocultural, but this is high Anglicanism, so why not? I just remembered how international our inspirational maverick choirmaster 'Uncle DAH', David Harding, used to make our All Saints carol services. We all loved best his arrangements of the Czech shepherds' carol 'Pujdem spolu do Betlema' and the Argentinian 'peregrinacion' 'A la huella, a la huella'. I was looking for these on YouTube and all the cheesy versions weren't a patch on his.

Anyway, the Bishop of London resonated at the end of the service and here's a shot of one of his right hand men, Rev. Hammond. Not a bad getup for a mere succentor*, is it?


A suitable anthem for the day? Cornelius's noble 'Three Kings', second only to Howells's 'A spotless rose' (which with typical church-choir whimsy we used to know as 'a spotty nose') in my affections. Just heard Fischer-Dieskau delivering a much brisker rendering, and of course he can manage the bass-baritone solo like no-one else, but this 2006 performance from King's is the best I could find:



Let's move sideways to the greatest of all the late 19th century German song composers: Brahms, and his ineffable Geistliches Wiegenlied. Dame Janet muses while Cecil Aronowitz takes the viola obbligato (apparently a traditional German carol). I'd slightly prefer Anne Sofie but this is also lovely, and bless the poster for the hard work on visuals:



Alas, the usual murk is upon us, so I'll go back to the crispness of Sunday and an excursion to Cally's birthday party up in Kensal Rise. There the snow and ice were thick. Hostess Kitty had just had her Della Robbia imitation restored and put up outside the kitchen


while on the adjoining wall the neighbour's children had been producing temporary pagan counterparts.


Enjoy, whichever way you care to celebrate it. Here's a final image, of Friday prayers during the African muslim festival of tabaski, Djenne, almost two years ago to the day.


*precentor's assistant, responsible for music management.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Muikku!


The magic word had us all smiling: Soile Isokoski (right), her pianist Marita Viitasalo, the man behind the camera (me) and a handful of remaining diplomatic onlookers at the Finnish Ambassador's Residence. English-speakers say 'cheese' - or something quite unrepeatable, which Robert Tear uttered and surely got us all laughing at the Beeb the other week; the Finns invoke their favourite fresh-water fish.


This made me especially jolly as I became addicted to muikku at Savonlinna in 2008. Anneli Halonen, who fixed for Soile to sing to a privileged few last Sunday, always brings us some when she's over (which is, alas, all too rare these days). She'll be pleased to see the results of her Christmas concert, and here's one of the tins she gave us, alas past its sell-by date but given a new lease of life as artfully placed on my Savonlinna-at-sunset screensaver.


Well, I feel a bit of a cad and a bounder, not having been too sold on Isokoski's Marschallin (Gavin Plumley felt differently at a later performance). This little concert reminded us of why she's up there as a top lyric soprano. The magic really started with several Schubert songs I ought to know but don't, and consequently missed the finer nuances of Goethe's German. I'd also forgotten that 'Ave Maria' is really the song of Walter Scott's Ellen, and Isokoski put the urgent pleading across very movingly.

I heard the late, lamented Soderstrom in the voice when she turned to Bernstein's 'I hate music' kiddies' cycle. Musorgsky's Nursery it ain't, and it can be very icky, but not as done here. And the Kuula songs, though I understood not a word, showed more power and an easy, gleaming top which we hadn't really heard at the first night of the Covent Garden Rosenkavalier. I do think our Soile could present rather charmingly a la Soderstrom; in company she has such an easy manner and such vivacious, attractive eyes. Here's another shot with the lady who now holds the Suomi fort on the London-based cultural front, the delightful Pirjo Pellinen. Kippis!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Painted ladies



My favourite building in the world in terms of what it contains, the National Gallery, is currently more than living up to its dynamic manifesto. Not only can you see Cezanne's big bathers and other nudes on the same wall as Titian's fiftymillionpounder Diana and Actaeon in the main gallery, with a stag display opposite; two exhibitions also hit very different heights.

The Sacred Made Real is represented above by the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, circa 1620, from the workshop of Juan Martínez Montañés (1568–1649), normally lodged in the Iglesia de la Asunción, Seville (photo from the National Gallery © Imagen M.A.S. Courtesy of Universidad de Sevilla); and a still familiar Amsterdam scene, where all the whores' bodies are modelled from life and their bizarrely framed heads taken from shop mannequins, is part of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz's Hoerengracht 1983–8 (photo also NG, © Kienholz Estate, courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA).

About the walk through the red light district - the Kienholzes have simply added an 'o' to the name of the poshest Amsterdam canal, the Herengracht - I'll say only that you should experience it for yourself, and be convinced by the introductory link to Dutch genre painting.

The Sacred Made Real has seriously dented my religious scepticism, waxing monstrous since the Jerusalem experience and further fuelled by dipping again into Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. There in the fabulously atmospheric half-lighting of the Sainsbury Wing's ever-adaptable exhibition space, you come into awesome contact with the chastening, sometimes horrifying, realism of the 17th century Spanish sculptors in wood and the elaborate work of their artist colleagues.

The polychrome statues are infinitely more expressive than waxworks. I was reminded of strange dialogues with living sculptures in Rome years ago when here I came face to face with Saint Francis Borgia as carved in wood c.1624 by Montañés and painted by his genius equal Francisco Pacheco. Again this comes from Seville's Iglesia de la Asunción(© Photo Imagen M.A.S. Courtesy of Universidad de Seville).


The then newly-beatified nobleman-turned-Jesuit has been 'made up' by Pacheco with brown to accentuate the cheekbones, black eyelid liner and eggwhite varnish to the eyes. His tunic, like that of the nearby Saint Ignatius Loyola, is of real cloth stiffened with glue. Of course the polychrome woodwork can also be used to convey horror, as in the hideous anatomically correct muscles inside the decapitated head of Juan de Mesa's John the Baptist, and the seeping wounds of Gregorio Fernandez's Dead Christ.

There are only thirty exhibits, but each deserves special care and reflection. The reason for seeing these works here rather than in situ, which I'd also like to do in time, is that the National Gallery has placed the painted carvings alongside several great pictures which, the argument goes, might have been inspired by the new sculptural art. I'm very fond of Velazquez's early portrait of the Immaculate Virgin standing on the moon, but the clear masterpiece is Zurburan's 1627 Christ on the Cross, lit as originally intended from the right. This reproduction (image courtesy NG and © The Art Institute of Chicago. Robert A. Waller Memorial Fund 1954.15) can't convey the way it hovers as a light in the darkness.


So we wandered out into the wet Monday and the near-deserted streets of pre-Xmas London. And there was the Borgia saint again, watching over one approach to the fairground follies of Leicester Square.


All this was serendipity, as no trains were leaving from Charing Cross for Rye and the in-law. So we compounded the unexpected NG spell, including this view of Nelson from the seasonally-decorated windows of the cafe,


by following it up with lunch at Sheekey's oyster bar


which always serves up the best fish stew I've ever tasted and an all-seasons hit of Scandinavian frozen berries melted by hot white chocolate sauce.


Plenty of work remains to be done, but such interludes of sheer indulgence are increasing as indeed they should now that we've decided to stay put for a bit. And the diet of show CDs is very, very nourishing.

Since J suggested the snappier title above (I had 'polychrome to Hoerengracht'), I decided to indulge in a happy summer shot of the painted lady butterflies which came in their thousands this year from the Atlas mouintains and reached as far as Scotland, where we found them posing on the Lambtons' alchemilla* with a red admiral.


A necessary reminder of what's only six or so months away now that 'the worlds whole sap is sunke...life is shrunke, Dead and enterr'd'.

*now buried under inches of snow. Peebles seems to be something of an epicentre.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Jones sharpshoots again



Yee-haw! Three days on, and my heart still belongs to Berlin. Irving Berlin, that is, who passed his early years as Isaiah Beilen speaking Yiddish in a Byelorussian shtetl and graduated to write words-and-music numbers that are glories of the song form equal to those of Cole-y and Noel-y. I knew we couldn't fail to enjoy Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic, given the songs and the off-centre light Richard Jones was bound to shed on it. But could Jane Horrocks, pictured here in one of the Young Vic production shots taken by Keith Pattison, really 'do' an Annie Oakley to match Ethel Merman and Kim Criswell?


Well, she did it on her own extraordinary terms, with a little help, I guess, from Jones and a presumably superb dialect coach, and she was so charmin', darn' it, that I had tears in my eyes from the moment she turns up as a confident, wide-eyed teenager and charms the pants (another yee-haw) off the macho Frank Butler of the all-singing, all-strapping Julian Ovenden - and everyone in the audience, I guess.


We knew our Bubbles had a bit of a pitch problem from her Little Voice (great impersonations, less spot-on with the notes), and this show suggests she may have discovered more comfort in the mezzo range. But as an ingenue with the most peculiarly winning twang 'doin' what comes nat'ru-lee', she banished all memories of anyone else. There's no weakness in a very all-inclusive cast. Everyone sings a lot (including some splendid a cappella harmony), gets round the need to dance in various ingenious ways, and is blessed with inspired support from four consummate pianists in brilliant, almost pianolaish arrangements by Jason Carr.


I won't spoil any of the Jones sight gags, as for instance what the above accompanies, or the fun of the Ultz designs; if you haven't seen it, go, go, go, before it closes on 9 January. Take the whole family, if you have one, or borrow a friend's; small boys will love the cowhands and the dignified Indians, the little girls will want to BE little sureshot Annie, and everyone will want to sing along to 'Anything you can do'. And probably to half a dozen other numbers, too, because I can't think of a musical with a higher stock of infectious tunes which fit the words like the classiest of speech-melodic gloves. Verily, it's the Carmen or Figaro of the musicals world in terms of stockpiled hits.

The feelgood effect lasts, I'm anticipating, for a very long time. I'm back with the Criswell/McGlinn spectacular on EMI, admiring the way that even the second song for the second-string couple and the one which got an earlier chop are just as catchy as those we know and love.

Enjoyed what I read in a very well-produced programme about the real Annie and Frank. His history is almost as amazing as hers, and it really was one of the great love stories, all 50 years of it. While the show sassily updates the action to the time of the musical's composition in the 1940s, Phoebe Ann Oakley challenged an all-male world in 1875 or 1881 (sources differ; the first would make her fifteen years old) when she won a shooting match against the man who became her husband soon afterwards.


The rest is history; she really did meet the world's great leaders, though not the ones encountered in an hysterically funny film at the start of the Young Vic show's second half.

Here she is in later life


and, most amazingly of all, YouTube has footage of her prowess back in 1894. That's a little bit of history, ain't it?



As for the sharpshooting Richard Jones, he goes straight on to Prokofiev's The Gambler at the Royal Opera. I'm mighty proud that he called upon me for the programme, which was going to happen anyway, and for a study day at the end of January, which wasn't. He has not forgotten the Prokofiev chap since our chat about The Fiery Angel all that time ago in the First Out cafe, when he seemed very struck by the notion that Prokofiev had nearly died from scarlet fever and seemed (to me, at least) to reproduce delirium extraordinarily well. How that resulted in the Monnaie show I don't know as I had violent food poisoning on the day I was due to take a then-functioning Eurostar to Brussels.

Anyway, I get to talk before, and with, two of my idols, Jones and Pappano. One of several big Prokofiev-related treats to look forward to in the New Year.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

In the midst of life


It ought to be 'Adeste, Fideles', I know - which our friends Mary and Roberto's three year old son Lorenzo quickly picked up from the nuns at his Roman pre-school - but my head is rather more full of 'Dies Irae'. The reason being that on Thursday I went into the Radio 3 studio to do my slice of Sara Mohr Pietsch's interval slot on the scary theme, due for broadcast before a performance of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique in late January.


My brief was to run the gamut from Berlioz in 1830 to Rachmaninov over a century later. The medieval source had already been tied up, and apparently there wasn't much between Lully and his distinguished French descendant, perhaps because of the Enlightenment? The danger is to hear the ubiquitous Latin plainsong chant everywhere and to end up with a shopping-list, but fortunately there were pleasing links. Liszt, whose very modern-sounding Totentanz of 1849 is the next major stop, was there at the first performance of the Symphonie fantastique and helpfully described the finale in question as a mixture of Shakespeare's Macbeth witches and Goethe's Brocken orgies. And Rachmaninov conducted a performance of the Totentanz with Ziloti as soloist in 1902, taking the piano role himself in 1939, the year he recorded the Third Symphony - what sensational conducting - and embarked upon the Symphonic Dances.

Both works, of course, stand alongside the Paganini Rhapsody in using the Dies Irae even more explicitly than in the pre-war Isle of the Dead (my pretext for including Bocklin's self-portrait with fiddling Death above and the more famous image below).


But in the interim, the composer's fascination with the theme is somewhat more subterranean, and as it often merely suggests the chant with the use of three or four notes, it could well be unconscious. My far more Rachmaninov-knowledgeable colleague Elger Niels, who was kind enough to phone me and take me through his own thoughts on Thursday, is especially struck by its transfigured use in the last major song for Nina Koshetz, 'Son' ('The Dream'). It's a consolation here, and in the eighth of the Op. 39 Etudes Tableaux. Playing those examples to Sara and producer Emily Kershaw relieved them of the heavier burden they'd been carrying around with their own obsessive listening: at last a haven! And what a haven is the song in the incredibly ethereal performance of Elena Brilova and Alexander Melnikov.

In an incidental pleasure, I clarified in my own mind what Berlioz intended for that still-shocking 'burlesque parody' in his Witches' Sabbath. Nowadays it's mostly two unison tubas with the four bassoons, an option the composer allowed for; but he preferred two ophicleides or big bugles because the sound down there is rougher.


He even had an option in his manuscript for one of the two to be a serpent.


I love what Berlioz writes about this proto-bass ophicleide in his Treatise on Instrumentation:

The truly barbaric tone of this instrument would be much better suited for the bloody cult of the Druids than for that of the Catholic church, where it is still in use - as a monstrous symbol for the lack of understanding and the coarseness of taste and feeling which have governed the application of music in our churches since times immemorial. Only one case is to be excepted: masses for the dead, where the serpent serves to double the dreadful choir of the Dies Irae. Here its cold and awful blaring is doubtless appropriate; it even seems to assume a character of mournful poetry when accompanying this text, imbued with all the horrors of death and the revenge of an irate God.


In place of 'cold and awful blaring', George Crumb achieves last-judgment wonders with his four sets of tom-toms and seven trumpet tuckets in Star-Child. That was among portions of the unforgettable Total Immersion day included on Radio 3's performance slot yesterday evening. I was there live in the studio to comment with Petroc Trelawny, and there was plenty to react to: Echoes of Time and the River works so much better when you don't have to watch orchestral players looking embarrassed at having to sing and process and play unfamiliar instruments. It's available on BBC iPlayer for the next five days. The other works from the two concerts are going out late on Boxing Night.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Norfolk expects...


...to attend at least to a bench end or a brick in Nelson's home church of All Saints Burnham Thorpe, now that we're finally stumping up nearly a grand (La Connolly plays the Admiral above, dragged up yet again for 'Rule, Britannia!' at this year's Last Night of the Proms; photo by Chris Christodoulou). We three who walked from the Walpoles to the Wiggenhalls between us raised £878 for the Norfolk Churches Trust which will, after much shilly-shallying, be handed over this week to Mary Heather at Burnham Thorpe. Apologies, those of you whose cheques have been sitting in envelopes for the past few months, and thanks, everyone, with a nostalgic reminder of that golden September day which started near the Wash and ended up along the Ouse.


I blush to say that, while we rove the country in search of Britain's best churches, I haven't always paid attention to what's in our own back yard here in west London. For some reason - timid, perhaps, of the 'gay orgies' touted in the local press - I hadn't passed through Brompton Cemetery until this autumn. Now that I know there's cycle access, and that it makes an attractive short cut if I'm heading towards the river, I'll be doing it all the time. The Friends of Brompton Cemetery have a very active programme, though the literature notes somewhat tongue in cheek that the amenity is open 'for the purposes of passive recreation'.


On a site of brickworks and market gardens, the West of London and Westminster Cemetery Company, established in 1836, planned a vast open-air basilica. Its vast ceremonial drive culminates in the arcades and catacombs of the 'nave'



and an octagonal chapel at the end. The grand plan was never completed, but the essence remains.

So, too, do many splendid tombs and monuments. The most famous incumbents (or should I say recumbents) are Richard Tauber and Emmeline Pankhurst, close to the Old Brompton Road Entrance, and Constant Lambert tucked away in the south. Finest of the artworks is Burne-Jones's monument to Frederick Richards Leyland, shipowner and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites.


It's in white carrara marble with a copper roof and bronze curlicues.



Just a little further south lies his son-in-law, the architect and painter Valentine Prinsep, thinly disguised as 'Taffy' in George du Maurier's Trilby.


The 'medieval Sienese monument', handsome though it is, turns out to be nothing of the sort; the real thing would not have weathered so badly.

Continuing our route to the Chelsea Physic Garden, we popped into the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Didn't the chapel house a Tintoretto? It turned out to be a Veronese, and recognisably so, a resurrection in a very fine frame (contemporary with the painting, but not the original).


Who knows what other treasures remain to be discovered within a twenty-minute radius? As we're not off to Mali this year, the quiet days around Christmas could be a good time to explore further. Here, by way of contrast, is an idyllic view over Djenne's famous mud mosque, with footballers in the foreground, from Sophie's Hotel Djenne Djenno, and sigh for warmer climes.


In the meantime, the BBC, in raising a 'stark and disturbing question' over what another African country's parliament might like to do, proves there's a lot of people out there casually wishing a lot of other people dead. Let's not forget it's a scary world, even close to home.

Later: the title has been modified to save Have Your Say's streaky bacon, and the comment facility closed, but helpful updated observations, on taxing the gays and other such modest proposals, are to be found on the wonderful spEak You're bRanes blog, 'a collection of ignorance, narcissism, stupidity, hypocrisy and bad grammar'.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Scorched by the flames


The image I have in mind is the fire of art; but let's try another. How many singers have flown too near the sun and tumbled earthwards after singing Brunnhilde, Isolde, Tristan? At the Glyndebourne Janacek study day, I learned with sadness and shock that you could also add Jenufa and Katya Kabanova to the lists. Jenufa cover Miranda Keys confided movingly what Peter Wedd had told her: that wonderful Susan Chilcott believed the cancer which was to kill her had partly come about from taking her Janacek heroines home with her and letting their problems weigh heavy.

So how far should you go with a character who demands everything? Do you protect yourself and make the audience weep, but stay calm and objective? The question arose on Thursday night when glorious Christine Brewer (pictured below by Christian Steiner) seemed very much in command of her Isolde Liebestod and Brunnhilde Immolation Scene.


In terms of expression and colour, everything was there (see my review of this and Mackerras's equally commanding second concert on theartsdesk). But one distinguished audience member felt that she 'didn't quite go there'. Is that the price for survival? It put me in mind of all the great singers I've seen who gave what the X Factor folk like to describe as one hundred and fifty per cent, but who didn't last. Maria Ewing, yes, don't laugh, was an electrifying Composer when Glyndebourne brought Ariadne auf Naxos to the Proms. A few years later she was a ghost, or a parody, of her former self. Susan Dunn delivered the 'Libera me' in Verdi's Requiem as I've never heard it before or since, but less than a year later was off the scene.

And then, of course, I come back to Linda Esther Gray, whose problems were triggered by a life-or-death operation, but - never mind that; her Isolde with Goodall is a reminder of someone very distinctly 'going there', admittedly with more than a little help from her conductor, and taking us with her. She came to the Mackerras Wagnerfest with me and was as generous and exuberant as ever, quietly chuckling with joy when Brewer hit her top notes spot-on and clearly carried away by the return of Sieglinde's theme.

Afterwards, having gone backstage to see an understandably disoriented Brewer and Mackerras, we had a drink with Anthony Negus, backbone of Welsh National Opera and a superb conductor; I heard him take over from Jurowski in the baked-beans Wozzeck, and his last-minute rescue act for The Sacrifice when Jimmy MacM was stuck in Glasgow fog is soon to be heard on Chandos (I was delighted that JM, knowing I love this opera, asked me to write the notes, and seemed very pleased with the results). Here is a somewhat demonic looking AN with Linda, who guaranteed he wouldn't mind the picture appearing.


Having started with Rackham, let's end with Walter Crane. I was very, very moved by Angela Carter's re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast story in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and struck by the links she makes with The Bloody Chamber. This is, indeed, the redemption of romance: A Winter's Tale to follow Titus Andronicus.


OK, so Crane's Beast is a boar and not a lion. But I still want to trouble you with Carter's ending. The spaniel mentioned in the last line, by the way, is Mr Lyon's pet, usually adorned with a necklace rather than a plain dog collar before she gets into a sorry state with the Beast's decline.

When her lips touched the meat-hook claws, they drew back into their pads and she saw how he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers. Her tears fell on his face like snow and, under their soft transformation, the bones showed through the pelt, the flesh through the wide, tawny brow. And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all the beasts.

'Do you know', said Mr Lyon, 'I think I might be able to manage a little breakfast today, Beauty, if you would eat something with me.'


Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals
.