Friday 30 December 2011

Happy endings

Very well, Hans Sachs and Fairy Edna may have nothing else in common, but they do both help an outsider and a merchant's daughter in difficulties towards a wedding. And to be honest, the panto in Wimbledon spoke more often to my depths - or my shallows, though what's as profound as Homeric laughter? - than the Royal Opera's Meistersinger revival (the final scene of which is pictured above by Clive Barda). There were passing pleasures, all the same, in the second of the two comedies which rounded off a year rich in events.

I tried to unpluck the best from its varied tapestry in my Arts Desk 2011 choice, but even then I found I'd missed a few (how could I not have squeezed in Kazushi Ono's CBSO Mahler Resurrection Symphony?) I needn't repeat the results here except for the crème de la crème: in terms of Gesamtkunstwerk, it was a tough choice between Christopher Alden's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Sasha Regan's riotous but also very moving all male G&S Iolanthe, full of attractive strangers and responding well to Wilton's Music Hall magic (and there's another special event I left out - Alina Ibragimova's recital-happening at Wilton's in colloboration with the Brothers Quay. I think Sussie Ahlburg's photo was taken at the concert's first, Manchester venue, but never mind).

Thought I ought to do a quick coast back over the 2011 blog, too, for other signifiers. Nothing new about the most entertaining book I read all year, Simon Winder's Germania - others rail against its flippancy, but he makes no bones about it - or the most revelatory author, Halldor Laxness, though after Under the Glacier and Independent People, I'm getting stuck with the disconsolate whimsy of World Light. Nothing new either about all seven series of The West Wing, after which everything on telly comes across as flat and unprofitable (dipping into BBC drama, it always seems well acted but poorly scripted. And could you believe the direness of Ab Fab? I couldn't).

The places I fell in love with, either for the first time or again, are too numerous to mention, but I'll try - from Darwin's Down House, the treasures within Cologne's churches and the unpickled German small-town perfection of Göttingen to the wilds of Connemara and the Burren in Ireland, the monastery of Tioumliline, the medina of Meknes and the beautifully-sited Roman town of Volubilis (pictured above again, why not? )in Morocco and - of course, the highlight - the top of Iceland's Snæfellsjökull and its lavafields/slopes running down to a blue, blue sea. Of course the whole place would tell a different story in wind and rain, but that's not how we saw it.

Here's hoping that we do head back to Iceland's south coast in 2012. And may your year be as adventurous as you want it to be.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Bergman filming Trollflöjten

That’s The Magic Flute in Swedish as the greatest of filmmakers (pictured on the left in the above photo) saw it, for me the best opera movie ever. Fellow Bergman buff David Thompson had kindly put together for me a few bits and pieces I’d never seen, and the other evening we got round to watching the Swedish one-hour documentary on the making of Trollflöjten with French subtitles. Would you believe the film itself still hasn’t been issued on DVD in the UK, despite talk last year; I treasure all the more my Criterion copy, and I was pleased to pick up the soundtrack in an Oxfam shop - the libretto is interlaced with further Bergman commentary.

What comes across in these loosely-filmed ‘backstage’ scenes – as in the similar documentary on Fanny and Alexander – is the approach of a passionate enthusiast as well as a skilled practitioner getting right in there, with lots of laughter and freewheeling speeches, plenty of affectionate laying-on of hands (we see the director walking rather comically with the Sarastro, Ulrik Cold, and chivvying a dubious Josef Köstlinger in Tamino’s crucial later trials). It all reinforces the film’s greatest quality – that these are real people delivering their homilies and their humanity to us at very close quarters: chamber-cinema opera, in short. And that’s clearly part of the quality Bergman wanted to reproduce; one of the many magical moments is when he gets Tamino and Pamina at their first actual meeting to stare into each other’s eyes very much face to face, nearly touching but just not quite, at least not until she grasps him when Sarastro punishes Monostatos.

The other magic comes from the way the stage action moves from the truly pretty to the scarily metaphysical, but with a weather eye on all the backstage business Bergman loves to conjure in films from Sawdust and Tinsel to Fanny and Alexander and After the Rehearsal. It’s telling both that we see him examining this watercolour showing the cast preparing for a Weimar performance in 1794 under Goethe’s leadership, and that it graces the cover of the recording booklet. I didn’t find its representation anywhere else.

The documentary jumps between the sound recording, where Bergman seems to have delivered his rhapsodic observations on Mozart unselfconsciously to all and sundry

and the filming. The heart of the film, stitched together from both, is when Bergman tells the assembled company in the recording studio that the trials of fire and water remind him of Leverkühn’s meeting with the devil in Mann’s Doktor Faustus. He freely paraphrases what the devil actually says of hell – that it’s two vast rooms, one hot enough to melt granite, the other unbearably cold, between which the inhabitants rush frenziedly.

So we have the souls crying out in silent agony as they roast, and writhing at the bottom of the ocean, while all the while the flute weaves its solemn magic in total contradiction of all that visual frenzy.

Curiously the one moment that had the greatest significance of all for Bergman doesn’t figure in the documentary, though he deals with some of its points in general. This is Tamino’s questioning, after his disorienting encounter with the Speaker, whether the darkness will ever end, when the light will come, and the two answers. You may not agree with everything Bergman says here in the commentary accompanying the libretto, but you can see how deeply it affected him:

For me this is the most agitating music there is. These twelve measures involve two questions at the outermost limits of life - and two answers. When Mozart wrote this music, he was very ill, and he felt the touch of death [make of that what you will]. In a moment of despair and courage, he shouts his question: 'O dark night, when will you disappear? When will I find light in darkness?'

And then comes the answer from the chorus, clear and ambivalent: 'Soon, soon or never more'. Mozart, fatally ill, asks his questions in darkness and from this darkness he answers himself - or does he get an answer? I have never felt so close to the deepest secret of spiritual intuition as just here, at this moment.

And then the other question: 'Does Pamina still live?' The music translates the little question of the text into a big and eternal question: Does Love live? Is Love real? The answer comes quivering and hopeful: 'Pa-mi-na still lives!' Love exists. Love is real in the world of man.

It can't save the protagonist of Bergman's most frightening film, Hour of the Wolf. Here, some years before he filmed The Magic Flute, Bergman puts his own sentiments into the mouth of one of his creepiest characters. The puppet-theatre scene occurs at 5'36 into this 'dining with vampires' sequence.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Three church visits and a sermon

Well, that's just about it: one and a half seasonal events over the past week or so - not counting panto and ballet, of course - and a third setting-foot inside a church for a bit of peace and quiet. Events first: the Maytree fundraiser in St Botolph's Aldgate included several eloquent, touching speeches from those wonderful people involved with the 'sanctuary for the suicidal'; vivid readings including an evocation of Mole's makeshift good cheer from The Wind in the Willows, John Julius Norwich's now-familiar take on The Twelve Days of Christmas - always worth hearing when delivered as well as this - and U A Fanthorpe poems beautifully read by Adjoa Andoh; and the handbells - ah, those handbells! Such a surprisingly dulcet art, especially when applied to the little wisdom of Papageno and Pamina in the Act 1 finale of The Magic Flute. And on Sunday after birthday revels for two-year-old Mirabel, we went round the corner with her ma and friends to St Leonard's Shoreditch. 

That's right, 'as seen on TV' in the gently charming and ever so slightly subversive Rev.. The carols-by-candlelight event was packed, and mostly with young folk from the arty-bohemian vicinity - but no mocking renditions of 'Jerusalem' (if you've seen the humiliating Midnight Mass episode of Rev., you'll know what I mean). 

And there may have been a sermonish speech from St Leonard's own laidback Rev., but I blush to say we didn't have a chance to find out since we left our money in the plate and exited halfway through, as intended, for a more profane supper up in Highbury. The sermon I've taken for the season was this. 

Pullman's central conceit is of two brothers, one of whom is hellbent, if you'll pardon the expression, on making his sibling's not entirely good but always human words and deeds - glad Pullman doesn't go soft on the angry, militant side of Jesus - sexier for posterity. Interestingly, Jesus's most extended speech, in Gethsemane, isn't overheard by brother Christ but, of course, related by the narrator - and it distils the very simple message of this alternative story: 'as soon as men who believe they're doing God's will get hold of power, whether it's in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them'. As for the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ - well, that's a punchline I realise I may have given away. It's clever and rings true enough for me but still feels somehow a little undernourishing. Tuesday's church visit was made spontaneously during a visit to the ma-in-law down in Rye. I always like to do a circuit of the cobbled streets up the hill, and no matter the time of year the 'square' - more a graveyard with houses around it - at the top is quite a sanctuary. But I'm not sure I've been inside St Mary's since I was a child. Its size is surprising, with the Clare Chapel to your left as you enter and Norman remains embedded in the North Transept. 

The glass is all Victorian and 20th century, but I'm developing a fondness for those later angels like the one up top (Kempe, 1896, I think). A Burne Jones design executed by William Morris & Co is dismissed by Nairn and Pevsner with one word - 'sentimental' - but it's characteristic. 

I do like the big windows local literary hero E F Benson had dedicated in the late 1920s and early '30s to family members: at the east end to his parents - J's just read a book about the very remarkable mother - and in the south transept (finest of all but too dark to capture) to brother A C of 'Land of Hope and Glory' fame. The nativity of 1933 is slightly twee but colourful.

And I suppose one of the original Quarter Boys whose fibreglass replicas stand either side of the clock outside will serve as suitably seasonal cherubic ambassador of good will to all readers. 

Monday 19 December 2011

Death in the south

Romantic their poetic aspirations and their post-mortem canonisation may have been, but there was nothing mythical about the deaths of Keats and Shelley. I thought I owed my latest, serendipitous visit to their graves in the quiet corner of Rome that is the non-Catholic cemetery by the pyramid of Cestius a bit more background reading. Daisy Hay's Young Romantics proposes not only a more social history of the way in which the lives of the Shelleys were entangled with Byron as well as the lesser figure of Leigh Hunt, but a bigger celebration of those long-suffering half-sisters Mary Shelley and Claire (Jane) Clairmont.

Keats, alas, is a marginal figure in Hay's history - a shame, since he was probably the nicest of the male pack. Hay makes it clear what a catastrophe was his last-minute bolt for Rome in late 1820 with the helper who's buried beside him, the artist Joseph Severn.

The idea was to seek a warmer clime for Keats's advanced tuberculosis, but they should never have left England: the stormy channel crossing in cramped conditions was a nightmare for a sick man, and all Severn could do in those cramped lodgings by the Spanish Steps was try and allay his friend's 'dread of never seeing [England] more' and attempt to ease a horrible death. There's still a waft of bitterness from the inscription on Keats's grave, designed by Severn and Charles Brown

though a fairer plaque is set into the wall nearby.

This is the most open, green corner of the cemetery with views over to the pyramid.

Three-year old William Shelley had been buried nearby, one of several young victims of his parents' roving around Italy. He succumbed to malaria in Rome; not long before his baby sister Clara had fallen sick on an unnecessary, hasty and uncomfortable journey to Venice, and died in her mother's arms. The cause, as with so many unhappy instances in the fates of the Shelleys, sprang from Lord Byron's unfortunate liaison with Claire, which led the Shelley-Clairmont trio to Italy in the first place. This is hardly the place to try and untangle its web, but the offshoot of that relationship was in many ways the most tragic figure of all, the little girl Allegra - separated from her doting mother after the early months, and consigned by Byron against all Claire's pleadings to a convent on unhealthy land, where she died aged five.

In all this, one thing seems clear: for all the vaunted equality of the women - for which Mary's mother Mary Wollstonecraft had fought so hard - the men always closed ranks. But how young, how untested, they all were! Mary was still in her early twenties when, having suffered miscarriages, the loss of two treasured children and several depressions which seem all too explicable, Shelley (depicted by Severn in a posthumous image above writing Prometheus Unbound in the Baths of Caracalla) was drowned in the Bay of Lerici - an inexperienced boatman in a poorly constructed vessel, the Don Juan. Shelley's preferred name had been the Ariel, which may partly account for the inscription on the grave I found so useful for my only-connect Arts Desk piece on Abbado's Shakespeare programme.

But what's in the grave? All that remained from a messy attempted cremation of the disfigured, washed-up corpse on the beach at Viareggio was an organ Hay surmises was the liver rather than the heart, and even that was squabbled over before being handed over to Mary. And there it is, cor cordium. Bit of a mystery why Edward Trelawny, Shelley's bragging friend of less than a year, should be buried alongside him; but he'd bought the plot of land, and there he was interred at the age of 88 in 1881. Mary as keeper of the flame had lived on until 1851, always doing the decent thing by her late husband and preserving a measure of immortality through her Frankenstein. Claire maintained an uneasy independence as governess and died in 1879, almost 60 years after Shelley's drowning.

Friday 16 December 2011

From Tarby to Edna in Wimbledon

My jaw aches. That's partly because the root-canal treatment continues weekly, with various attendant degrees of horror, but mostly because I went from a grim hour or so in the dentist's chair yesterday to laughing 'til I cried at the most relentlessly funny show I've seen since the last production of Noises Off. Yes, good people, a panto. The Arts Desk needed Dick Whittington at the New Theatre Wimbledon covered, and I went with the idea in mind that the global gigastar of Moonee Ponds, Dame Edna Everage, would be up to her usual tricks if all else failed.

She was, but how I underestimated the rest, and what a shame the ten-year-old I thought would love it turned his nose up at the idea of a drag star (my fellow child-at-heart Edwina came instead, and marked it way above the Hackney Empire panto she'd seen the previous evening). The comedy hardly ever let up; different kinds and levels of humour, all first-rate, came from Renaissance writer-director-dame Eric Potts as Sarah the Cook (alas, the only picture they sent me of him, along with the above, has the dame marginal to the Dame)

as well as Kev Orkian charming the pants off us as a stand-up Idle Jack - Charles Spencer, how could you not be amused? - and break-dancing small personage Ben Goffe. The three of them pulled off an endless - and endlessly funny - routine in the second act of which the Marx Brothers would have been proud. But here I repeat myself; read the review.

There I also self-indulgently divulged when I last saw panto in Wimbledon: as a cub scout, lured backstage by peer pressure to get Jimmy ('Tarby')Tarbuck's autograph after Jack and the Beanstalk*. Strange to tell, I don't remember nearly as much about it as I do about an earlier Cinderella at the London Palladium with Cliff Richard and the Shadows, no doubt prompted by the soundtrack which I still possess.

The songs are good! And so are the Shadows' instrumental numbers. And look at young Cliff back in 1967.

I'm told I had one of my usual agonising childhood ear infections, and remember being propped in front of the black and white telly shortly afterwards. The only other panto of which I have any memory is one in which a muscle man in leopardskin underpants did his routine to the usual tune, though don't ask me where that was.

As for Wimbledon Theatre, now the New Wimbledon Theatre under the very canny management of the Ambassador Theatre Group, it hasn't changed within and strikes me now as rather beautiful and well-preserved of its ilk. Certainly the best thing I saw there in my youth, apart from very good London Transport Players shows which my grandfather, who worked for LT, always insisted we saw, was a London Festival Ballet Nutcracker. This would have been 1970 - must dig out the season programme, which I think lurks in a box in my mother's loft. Galina Samtsova and Alan Dubreuil were the Sugar-Plum Fairy and Prince Orshad-Coqueluche (that's Coughdrop to you, so much for the poetry of the Pas de Deux), but of course I was much more struck by the sets and the score. And this was probably the fullest Tchaikovsky version ever; when elsewhere has anyone seen Mother G(C)igogne, that fabulous number which ought to end the divertissement (and did in 1892; how surprised I am to find Vsevolozhsky's original design reproducable)?

And I bet few of you have seen the English sailor's dance in the divertissement. Which as it resurfaced many years later on CD, turns out to be John Lanchbery's arrangement of Tchaikovsky's sketches for a Gigue or Jig. That was class, and I'm sure I sensed it: no Nutcracker since, other than Matthew Bourne's reinvention, has come anywhere close for me.

*In the light of more recent events, 'lured' may sound a bit ambivalent. Anyway, he was very nice to me.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Emperors and popes: mostly bad, some mixed

What a sorry but enticing saga is the history of Rome – rather oddly told, it has to be admitted, in Robert Hughes’s popular and understandably art-skewed book bearing the city's name as title. Odd and skewed since, once the glory days and the era of the Grand Tour are over, Hughes seems to be stumped for specifically Roman material and goes tramping all over Italy, and sometimes the rest of Europe. He’s also no Simon Winder – see one of my endless paeans to Germania – in that the personal flavour of the Prologue gets lost in the chronological, if still selective, account that follows.

Yet Hughes can be entertainingly wrathful on the grandeur and follies of emperors and popes. He questions, as any good historian must, the story of Rome as told entirely from a Christian perspective. Horrible things happened to the early Christians, to be sure; but equally horrible and worse tortures lay in store for the so-called Pagans (a term I had to reassess, since of course it embraces so much of the humanities) under the so-called Christian emperors.

I do like the sound of the emperor Julian – some ‘Apostate’; it simply transpires that the fledgling Christianity didn’t speak to him; but he never went round stoking any fires under the believers.

Besides, one forgets that Julian’s predecessor Constantine wasn’t exactly a ‘Christian emperor’ in the all-embracing way we think of it. Tolerant of the Roman majority and no zealot after his ‘vision’ at the Ponte Milvio, he was nevertheless another of those family monsters – putting his own son by an early marriage to death on the accusation of a later wife, boiling her alive in the hot-room of the palace when it turned out she’d lied. No wonder mamma Helena sublimated her sorrow by going off round the middle east buying up bits of cross and less easily transportable objects.

Much worse for history, though, was the later, forged ‘Donation of Constantine’ which gave free rein to papal infallibility. And it’s no surprise, of course, that most of the later popes wallowed in luxury and persecuted the faithless with a zeal that puts even Caligula and Nero to shame. But here the paradoxes accumulate, especially since many who would seem to us the worst have given us Rome as we so wonderingly know it. Most likeable to a libertarian is Leo X, Giovanni de’Medici, who kept a pet elephant, led a shameless gay sex life and honoured scholars and poets.

But his feckless spending led to that sale of indulgences, posts and art treasures which gave his polar opposite, Martin Luther, fuel to his rightful indignation. Nevertheless I know which I’d rather invite to an ideal dinner party.

Even the anti-religious Hughes has mixed feelings about the ‘manic-impressive’ Sixtus V. Stalin could hardly have done a better job on purging the criminality which beset Rome when Sixtus, born Felice Peretti, came to power in 1585.

He drove many of the spectacular lines we see through Rome today, often at the expense of the classical, with which he held no truck – other than to show its inferiority to Christianity; the tale of the dragging of the Egyptian obelisk from the back of St Peter’s to stand at the centre of the square in front takes on Neronian dimensions. He also stuck a statue of St Peter, cast from melted-down classical bronzes, on top of the magnificent Trajan’s column. As Hughes reports, ‘in dedicating the statue of Peter, His Holiness explained that such a monument as Trajan’s could become worthy to bear the effigy of Christ’s Vicar on Earth only if it were rededicated in the cause of the Catholic Church – an astonishing piece of casuistry’.

Another tale chills the blood but simultaneously warms one’s spirit to know that ordinary Romans did sometimes fight back: here's what followed an accusation carried out in the traditional dialogue between the messages posted on the old statue called the Pasquino (a BC Greek sculpture of Menelaus) near the Piazza Navona and those on the river-god Marforio outside the Travertine Prison (now at the entrance to the Capitoline Museums on the Campidoglio). Let Hughes tell the tale:

…one day during the reign of Sixtus V Pasquino was seen wearing a horribly filthy shirt. Why, Marforio wanted to know, did he wear such a stinking rag? Because Donna Camilla was the pope’s sister, who in her humbler days had been a washerwoman but had just been ennobled by His Holiness.

There was a limit to what great figures would endure from Pasquino, and this crossed the line. It got to the ears of Sixtus, who let it be known that if the anonymous satirist owned up to writing it, his life would be spared and he would receive a present of one thousand pistoles, cash. But if anyone else found him out and denounced him, he would be hanged. Naturally the nameless graffitist – for who was going to turn down such a reward? – confessed. Sixtus V gave him the money and spared his life, but unsportingly added that ‘We have reserved for Ourselves the power of cutting off your hands and boring your tongue through, to prevent your being so witty in future’. But nothing would shut Pasquino up; he had a hundred tongues and two hundred hands. The very next Sunday he was seen draped in a freshly laundered, still-wet shirt, to dry it in the sun. Marforio wondered why he couldn’t wait until Monday. ‘There’s no time to lose,’ said Pasquino, thinking of His Holiness’s taxation habits. ‘If I stay until tomorrow perhaps I’ll have to pay for the sunshine’.

Anyway, it’s Sixtus we have to thank for some of Rome’s avenues and the fountains I much admired on my dawn walk back to Termini the other Monday. But as far as the human cost is concerned, compared to all this, the caprices of Pio Nono in the 19th century and Mussolini (and Berlusconi) in the 20th seem like childsplay.

15/12 - a neat addition from Banksy and his disfigured cardinal in Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery. Read about it here, or just enjoy/abhor the seasonal sentiment I've extrapolated: 'The statue? I guess you could call it a Christmas present. At this time of year it's easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity - the lies, the corruption, the abuse.'

Monday 12 December 2011

A great Britten symphony

Had he not styled it a Sinfonia da Requiem, and run its three continuous movements - 'Lacrymosa', 'Dies Irae' and 'Requiem Aeternam' - at a highly compressed 20 minutes, Britten's early masterpiece would be officially up there with Elgar's and Walton's two symphonies and the best of Vaughan Williams's nine, not to mention the darker monuments of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Britten's two, showing he could achieve symphonic continuity outside the opera house, are this and the even thornier Cello Symphony for Rostropovich, which I love yet more dearly. This CD is an indispensible one, though Rattle's recording of the earlier work is one of his best.

Our new Rattle, Ed Gardner, dared to harrow us with the Sinfonia da Requiem right at the start of another BBC Symphony Orchestra blockbuster event on Saturday, and you can hear the results this afternoon on Radio 3; for some reason, broadcast has been delayed, but it will soon be on the iPlayer for the next week. My colleague and perceptive Britten scholar Alexandra Coghlan reviewed the concert for The Arts Desk. As I'd discovered for the class, and consequently for the pre-performance talk, there were several points of connection with the other epic bookender, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, which I haven't heard in concert for years. That reminds me I ought to get to the John Martin exhibition soon; his doomy canvases used to appeal to my adolescent love of extremes.

The links? Not only were Walton in 1929 and Britten a decade later young men still in their twenties when they set out on adventures which changed course; both works start - though Walton's takes time to settle - in a D minor lament. Britten's resolves in D, Walton's in the relative major, F, with jazzy accents to the last and a hint at the tritone which, of course, holds the tension to the end of Britten's later lamentatory masterpiece, the War Requiem.

Much to illustrate in the talk, then - too much bearing in mind the BBCSO brief of covering all bases, which meant a not unwelcome injection of what I could bring to bear on the three fascinating Sibelius orchestrated songs in the programme - 'On a terrace by the sea', much blacker than its title suggest, also holds tritonal terrors and modernistically anticipates the Finn's Fourth Symphony by some years - and Sibelius's little suite of incidental music to another Belshazzar's Feast, modest but personal as ever. One thing I hadn't realised at the time was that Sibelius made his orchestration of the Twelfth Night setting 'Come away, death' just before his death in 1957. Delighted to find it on YouTube in Jorma Hynninen's performance. I'd been blown away by his performances of the songs when I was preparing the talk, and though Gerald Finley was fine and cut through a sometimes very heavy orchestra, he doesn't have Hynninen's lower centre of gravity.

All the more fascinating, given the terminal circumstances of the arrangement, that the last chord leaves matters unresolved. 'Komm nu hit, död' ties in two other dying composers' significant end-pieces, Rachmaninov's piano transcription of Tchaikovsky's 'Cradle Song', written in the year of the junior master's birth, and Stravinsky's instrumentation of two pleading-with-God Wolf songs.

So it was quite a death-haunted programme as we enter the silly season; and we can still go deep this Friday when that phenomenal Sibelius interpreter Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts Sibelius's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. Why the Bosch above? Well, partly because the Sinfonia da Requiem is a triptych, too, though with a fast-motion hell at the middle, and partly because that Dies Irae's fluttertonguing flutes and muted brass delineate Boschian creatures while not forgetting to hothouse the terror and weave in on alto sax the ever-changing lament of the first movement (it achieves resolution in the finale, but not a falsely triumphalist one).

Such details would have led me to guess that the work was influenced by Shostakovich's even more harrowing Eighth Symphony, were it not for the fact that the Russian masterpiece had not been composed at the time of the English one's belated premiere. That took place under Barbirolli in New York in 1941, the Sinfonia having been unsurprisingly exiled from the concert for which it was commissioned, a 200-player celebration of Japan's 2,600 year old empire at which Richard Strauss's noisy occasional-piece Japanese Festival Music WAS performed, and at which the Nazi salute was held during the playing of the Japanese national anthem. Once again, the unwitting Strauss was in the wrong place at the wrong time; but so would Britten, and Britain, have been, had the Japanese royal representatives not objected to his 'gloomy', 'discordant', 'Christian' and of course very uncelebratory work of youthful genius.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Protests great and small

I little thought, when Tunisia set the democratic trail blazing at the beginning of the year, that 2011 would draw to a close with Putin-dominated Russia joining the party. But there they were south of Moscow's centre, about 50,000 of them, all protesting against parliamentary elections that no-one seems to doubt were rigged.

The top photo was swiftly placed on Wikimedia Commons by one of those ever-growing people whose courage we can't begin to grasp, Dmitry Mottl; below it is a kind of Where's Willy? shot by Brian Rybolt - who also took the next image - in which I am one of quite a few grinning gleefully not (knowingly) at the camera but at the fabulous Henry Goodman's witty song-plea to keep Gaby's Deli safe from needless obliteration by the ghastly Westminster City Council. Here's Henry with the owner, Gaby Elyahou, at the more or less impromptu 'Cabaret Falafel' on Thursday afternoon, where they were preceded by another wry ditty from Gaye Brown.

It's a drop in the ocean, yet equally reliant on force of numbers - as well I know in the dismal lack of response to save the black poplar trees on the south side of our gardens from a very dubiously reasoned execution - and once a London landmark is gone, it's gone for good. Daquise, unchanged since Coronation Year, outlived plans to redevelop the row of shops by South Kensington but then had a horrid makeover by New Polish Prosperity and is now unrecognisable. Here the proposition is to replace thriving Gaby's, which caters for salt-beef addicts and vegetarians alike, with a 'Strada-like chain restaurant', of which there are already hundreds in the West End. My colleague Judith Flanders set the ball rolling on The Arts Desk, clarifying the situation: sign the petition, please.

And I hope we'll have sound and/or vision of Henry's speech and song up soon. With that easy charm which makes everyone instantly jolly, he remembered sitting in Gaby's at various times with Jeremy Irons, Alun Armstrong and Ute Lemper. Whose image on the Chicago poster next to the cafe here - my pic as they were assembling for an outdoor shot - is both apt and a reminder that Gaby's is tied up with the soul of West End theatreland.

Then I was off, buying myself on the way a Chinese pork bun and a strong Italian espresso from other Soho stalwarts, to pure escapism and the fabulous Anne Schwanewilms digging luminously deep into Mahler at the Wigmore. But what a year it's been for people power. Not always successful - pray, or whatever it is you do, for the Syrians - and often with an ambiguous outcome; yet I can't remember a time in my life where the tide of the world seemed to turn so momentously in such a potentially hopeful direction. More, no doubt, to follow in 2012.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Old-age troubles Tranströmed

I've not read enough on the biographical side about Liszt to know if he died in despair. But his later years were not happy ones, as a clutch of photos including the above underlines. An earlier chasm opening up from the loss of two children must have deepened, and - naturally prone, it seems, to depression - he knocked back the absinthe. But unlike Rossini or Sibelius, he kept on composing, and left us some of the most forward-looking fragments of gloom or despair in all 19th century music.

The suspended or abandoned tonality wasn't exactly new - check out certain Chopin - nor was he first off the line in developing the whole-tone scale (only last week I heard another American academic trotting out the line that it was really Debussy's invention, but of course it goes way back to Glinka in the 1840s and possibly earlier). But I've been hearing these epigrammatic mood-musics this week in compelling recitals by Louis Lortie and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and while Lortie made an epic balance of all-Liszt light and shade, Aimard's all-grey-to-black first half was quite a lowering experience, slipping in though he did neutral Wagner as well as unconsolable early Berg - straight out of Liszt's Nuages gris - and late Scriabin. Here's Aimard's most striking contribution - the one where the whole-tone scale and not just the tritone lollops about - Unstern! sinistre, disastro (only approximately translateable as Dark star! Sinister, disastrous)

So, no consolation for the old Abbe, nothing of Verdi's Falstaff fugue or Strauss's sunset song. By another of those many online serendipities, though, my blogger-ideal Susan Scheid on Prufrock's Dilemma - ie endlessly curious, responsive, encouraging one by an articulate enthusiasm to explore more - introduced me to a poet I'd heard of but never read, the Swedish visionary - and I hope I don't use that word lightly - Tomas Tranströmer. 80 this year, he's just received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sue's informed post was on his attitude to Haydn, the stroke that in 1990 partly inhibited movement down his right side - encouraging Swedish composers to write left-handed pieces to keep his love of piano-playing going - and a real masterpiece of a poem, Schubertiana.

So I sent off for the latest collection immediately. Do read Sue on the essence of Schubertiana, which contains for me the most profound written sequence on what music can do for struggling man, but let me get to my point. Which is that between recitals, I was able to read Sorgegondolen in Robin Fulton's translation. The poem which gives this collection, written in the year of Tranströmer's stroke, its title is centred around Liszt's two pieces both called La lugubre gondola, composed while he was staying in Venice's Palazzo Vendramin between November 1882 and January 1883.

The host was his son-in-law and junior by less than two years, Richard Wagner, whose death on 13 February 1883 the gondola pieces supposedly forecast (Liszt also wrote a musical epitaph, which Lortie included in his Italian journey). Hence the 'two old men' of the poem's first line, 'staying by the Grand Canal/together with the restless woman who married King Midas/the man who transforms everything he touches into Wagner' (Cosima, naturally). Tranströmer intersperses his visions of that Venetian trio with three 'Peep-holes, opening on 1990', counterpointing his own dreams during a more clinical near-death experience. But of course it was the lines on La lugubre gondola which struck me and came in useful for the Aimard review. I hope I'm permitted to quote them more fully, as I did in a message on Prufrock's Dilemma; sadly this format doesn't permit the right indentation.

Liszt has written down some chords that are so heavy they ought to be sent
to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis.
too heavy to rest, they can only sink and sink through the future right down
to the years of the brownshirts.
The gondola is heavily laden with the crouching stones of the future.

My YouTube choice would have been the interpretation of Krystian Zimerman, but these extremely evocative performances have the benefit of the score put up by the loving poster.

Redemption? I reckon it comes both through how these pieces can be programmed - Aimard was perhaps too austere in his first-half grimness - and how we approach them. Tranströmer does indeed transfigure, and what a contrast in those blue eyes (at least as captured in the cover photo for the New Collected Poems), that unsentimental glimmering optimism, to poor old Liszt. I'm reminded of what another great writer, Stefan Zweig, wrote in The World of Yesterday of another great composer, Richard Strauss, who was 68 when Zweig worked with him on the comic opera Die schweigsame Frau:

At first his face impresses as almost banal...But only one glance into the eyes, those bright, blue, highly radiant eyes, and one instantly feels some particular magic behind this bourgeois mask. They are perhaps the most wide-awake eyes I have ever seen in a musician, not daemonic but in some way clairvoyant, the eyes of a man fully cognisant of the full significance of his task.