Monday 31 December 2012

The way up

...facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.

The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.

Virgil Aeneid Book 6  lines 126-9, English translation by Dryden

This blog is rarely the place for the confessional, but I did vow that once I felt like my old self again, I'd stop puzzling some of the more inquisitive readers here as to the reason for the latest absence (long-term followers will have noticed the others; the 'episodes' began, for the first time in my life, shortly before I began this blog). After two and a half years of good health, far too much of 2012 was devoted to what I'd call not so much the black dog as the black hole. Around its edge were the constant modicum of working when I could, premature attempts to re-enter the public arena in April, and a return to teaching in September which soon felt natural. We managed trips to friends in the west during the spring and a wholly successful walking holiday around Chamonix in August which proved how crucial a part exercise plays in temporarily raising the spirits.

Even so, full wellness didn't return until November.

The mechanisms and triggers of these devastating episodes I still fail to understand. Did the trauma of extended dental work including a three-hour tooth extraction kick it all off, as I felt it had when the first crisis began six or so years ago? Was it the full impact deferred to the middle years of a bereavement in adolescence - the death of my father when I was 15? Well, in psychotherapy we've been through all that, raised aspects I hadn't considered - how not a single person really asked how I was, since all focus was on looking after mother; how maybe these spells from the mid-forties onwards have been a kind of identification with my unhappy father, disabled for the five years between his first stroke and his second, sitting at home feeling useless. Now I don't think we'll get any further along that line, though who knows?

Still I don't feel equal to defining the abyss. I need others to do it for me. Gwyneth Lewis in Sunbathing in the Rain, 'a cheerful book about depression',  approaches it poetically; Lewis Wolpert's Malignant Sadness and Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon add to the stock of understanding. With the qualification that all-enfolding love never deserted me - and I would insist that my best of men saved me, as before - Solomon's opening definition of depression does the job:

It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connections to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. Medications and psychotherapy can renew that protection, making it easier to love and be loved, and that is why they work...In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaningless of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.

All I know is that on examination of the terrible times, there were oases of love and reassurance, even enjoyment, however much a casual glance back suggests nothing but the black. All this may seem strange since this is mostly a blog about enthusiasms, and, yes, I do love life with a passion when I'm well. Everything in the alternative state is a negative of that, a reversal. Two borrowed ways of defining it have been to say that I lost my soul, and that I joined the ranks of the undead (since at its most seemingly unendurable it did indeed feel like a fate worse than death, which you think about so often in the negative state; I don't believe anyone who denies this). Is there more than a touch of the bipolar? Very possibly. Each doctor, psychiatrist and psychotherapist seems to have different theories. It's not a science, but to be sure it needs medical supervision. If simply mentioning all this helps someone out there, then it's been worthwhile: don't be afraid to ask if you think I can be of use, though I don't suppose I can say more than, endure, this too will pass.

Anyway, here I am back in the midst of abundance, and in the few months of full enjoyment I can easily pick out a list of highlights. There were a few earlier in the year - chiefly an isolated excursion to English National Opera to see my beloved Rosenkavalier, and though there was a veil or two between me and my usual enjoyment of it, I could tell that this was a superlative revival, vivaciously conducted by Edward Gardner with perhaps the most successful third act I've seen. Sarah Connolly trumped her first Octavian at ENO, Amanda Roocroft had the bittersweet presence the Marschallin needed and John Tomlinson's chief asset as a vintage Ochs was his sheer ease on stage. But the voice which blew us away was Sophie Bevan's, blooming every time her Sophie hit a high ecstatic line. Here she is with Connolly in the Presentation of the Rose (photo for ENO by Clive Barda).

Richard Jones's staging of Martinů's Julietta was the next operatic highlight, drawing very few negative criticisms from anybody other than about the quality of the music and its subject, in which I was happy to join battle on the rapturously positive side. Below, three mini-Michels and the 'real' he (fabulous Peter Hoare) photographed for ENO by Richard Hubert Smith.

I seem to have struck very rare Royal Opera gold in July to catch Anja Harteros's long overdue return to the house. Her Desdemona shone Venus-starlike in a Verdi Otello which also included the right-sounding sort of protagonist in Alexanders Antonenko and magnificent work, as ever in the Italian rep, from Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra; shame about the Iago and the lame old production.

It was hard work getting to Glyndebourne for The Cunning Little Vixen, especially as that opera's glorious message wasn't chiming with me at the time, but I reckon Melly Still did a good job on the production. A much happier experience later in the year was talking again at a study day on The Marriage of Figaro while the Glyndebourne tour was kicking off at its home base, and loving the mostly superlative cast of the subsequent performance as well as Jonathan Cohen's vivacious conducting.

December brought my only Wagner live other than the surprisingly satisfying experience of hearing Mark Wigglesworth scale mountains in De Vlieger's potted Ring for orchestra. If any operatic event in anniversary year is better than the Fliegende Holländer in question, I'll feel lucky: Bryn Terfel covering all expressive and dramatic bases as an astounding Dutchman was equalled by Anja Kampe and Matti Salminen in the visiting Zurich Opera concert performance.

Mezzo of the year second time running for me is sublime Alice Coote (pictured above by Ben Ealovega), for her Mahler Rückert Songs with Saraste and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and her Purcell, Handel and Britten Phaedra alongside the splendid Britten Sinfonia. Violinist Catherine Martin (pictured below) revealed afresh the strange beauties of Biber's 'Rosary' Sonatas between homages to Bach's Orgelbüchlein in the Tower.

The BBCSO pulled off a sequence of well-programmed concerts but the LPO carries on reaping the rewards of a central intelligence in the shape of their music director Vladimir Jurowski. Hard to choose from his through-planned events, which will continue in 2013, but the last of his programmes I heard this year still resonates, with a spellbinding revelation of Grisey's Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four chants for crossing the threshold) enveloping hyper-agile soprano Allison Bell in a host of original sonorities. The Mahler Five that followed was absolutely fresh, too, as one has come to expect from VJ.

Theatre - I saw too little, though the Young Vic Three Sisters came to seem like a masterpiece of rethinking alongside the music-drenched pantomime of the Vakhtangov Company's enervatingly wilful Uncle Vanya (wish I'd seen Lucy Bailey's Print Room Vanya). So glad, all the same, to have been along to five of the Globe to Globe shows, top of the list the Maori Troilus and Cressida and the Hindi musical version of Twelfth Night (photo below by Simon Annand).

And we did a bit of catching up the week before Christmas with the still-sparkling second cast One Man, Two Guv'nors and a Sondheim treat which has been top of many critics' lists, Merrily We Roll Along at the wonderful Menier Chocolate Factory.

Now I feel more like the youthful Frank and Charley  (Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley pictured by Tristram Kenton above), starting out at the end of the show with wide-eyed optimism. Here's to a much better 2013 - and may yours be what you wish of it.

Thursday 27 December 2012

The Rostropoviches at home

It’s not certifiably a seasonal shot, but you can well imagine the Russian equivalent of a Boxing Day scenario with Slava bowing or strumming while Galina sang – and the kids turned out OK, didn’t they? With Vishnevskaya’s departure earlier this month, virtually all of a great Russian musical generation are no more (though the slightly younger Rozhdestvensky and Temirkanov remain).

True, Russia’s number one diva could be prickly and egotistical - playing endless videos of herself to students at her Aldeburgh course, trying to organize a national uprising against Dmitri Tcherniakov’s ‘desecration’ of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. And she carried on singing roles well past their (ie her) sell-by date, only to astonish everyone with her low-key portrayal of a bewildered grandmother in Sokurov’s haunting film Alexandra.

When Vishnevskaya was good, she was great, at least up until the end of the 1960s. I reproduced on The Arts Desk an interview with her, made in 1988, about her role in Britten’s War Requiem, with a few YouTube clips. I think my favourite, though, is her later recording of Musorgsky’s ‘Where are you, little star?’ This earlier version has a rather oversophisticated orchestration by Igor Markevitch, but the artistry is unmistakable.

Here's an approximate translation for the text, written (it's presumed) by the composer in the style of a Russian folksong, which of course the music evokes:

Where are you, little star, where are you, bright one?
Perhaps you've been dimmed by a black cloud,
A black cloud, a threatening cloud?

Where are you, maiden, where are you, fair one?
Have you deserted your dear friend,
Your dear friend, your beloved?

The black cloud hid the little star,
The cold earth took the maiden.

Vishnevskaya’s was the musical death of 2012 that resonated with me most. I always had reservations about Lisa Della Casa in Strauss - a certain tension in the technique stopped hers being the ideal floaty soprano in his music. And there was a diva in the less good sense, reading about the conflicts with Hilde Gueden on the Solti recording of Arabella (though that's still my favourite). Thinking about writing something on Henze for The Arts Desk, I really couldn’t drum up enough of an all-round portrait, much as I admire a couple of his operas (the symphonies remain unexamined territory). Elliott Carter remains musical anathema – great craft, plenty to comment on there, but it doesn’t communicate to me at all.

Jonathan Harvey’s music I need to get to know – and will do, with the opera Wagner Dream being performed next year (though I do remember talking to him at a Glyndebourne rehearsal of Tristan, which he said thoughtfully had to be the richest score of all, didn’t it?). And now we hear of Richard Rodney Bennett’s departure. Shame the radio tribute had to lead with the pastiche-y waltz from the film Murder on the Orient Express, though that’s the only tune of his I can hum. I loved his duo appearances with sassy Marion Montgomery, too.

(28/12) And Brubeck? How could I have forgotten mighty Dave? I was hoping to find on YouTube the wonderfully bitter-sweet third movement of brother Howard's rather inspired Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra, pitting the Dave Brubeck Quartet against Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, but it's not to be found. So we'll have to make do with the original cover of Time Out, which I nearly wore out in my university years; I owned it in a double set with Time Further Out the second LP.

(29/12) Howard, in the comments below, reminded me of Ravi Shankar too. So I dug out my Ravi Shankar: The Sounds of India disc, in which he gives modest introductions to the melas and the instrumental combinations of ragas. There's also a useful sleeve note by composer Alan Hovhaness. I like the sound of the sitar against the tabla and tambura, of course; I marvel at the rhythmic variations; but my western ear still can't get attuned in the long term to drone-fixed music that never modulates. My fault entirely.

(30/12) There's also the enormous omission here of colossus Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though I did pay homage in A Fish-Sermon Transmogrified. DFD was the only western classical musician mentioned in the BBC Arts and Entertainment's photo-narrative of great departed. That's right, none of the above composers was included. Hurrumph.

As for the Guardian obits I’ve stockpiled, most of the subjects have defied mortality so far, and may they continue to do so.

Monday 24 December 2012


What’s the vaguely seasonal listening here at home? Bach cantatas, not necessarily tied to the time of year, an always inexhaustible treasury; G&S, thanks to a fellow blogger who may wish to remain anonymous since he dug out some hard-to-find Mackerras radio recordings, including Princess Ida with Valerie Masterson as the heroine and Philip Langridge as Hilarion; and Tchaikovsky ballets, as ever.

I feel I’ve not exhausted the musical strain in my earlier bracketing of Bourne’s and Järvi’s Sleeping Beauties. It seemed only fair to return to Petipa since the New Adventures version had to jettison so much of my desert island Tchaikovsky, in other words most of the fairy-tale homages at Aurora’s wedding. Some earlier fantasy designs featuring high-camp courtiers and animals present themselves online in Bakst’s far from moribund later imaginings for Diaghilev’s surprising 1921 extravaganza. Quite where the Indians, Chinese and blackamoors fit in I’m not sure, but at least we get proper animal heads for Puss in Boots, a passage Bourne ingeniously reinterpreted

and Red Riding Hood’s Wolf, part of a character number not in the Bourne vampire ball.

Poorly filmed though it is, I thought the following link to a strand of the Kirov/Mariinsky’s 1890 reconstruction was worth including because you won’t have heard any of these three numbers in the Bourne version. In the case of the Cinderella/Prince ‘supplementary' as well as the fabulously imaginative Tom Thumb ‘Pas berrichon’, they might not even be on your ‘complete’ recording, and probably not in any recent Royal Ballet production you've seen. YouTube embedding isn't, apparently, allowed but click here to view the sequence. If you want to see the Bourne-absent Bluebird sequence, you can go back to the previous slice.

It seems criminal that the kids-and-ogre routine has been sliced off two CD transfers in order to cram the ballet on to two discs (a feat which Järvi achieves with no cuts but some very fast speeds). This, after all, is the number which a colleague of the young Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatoire remembers them both especially admiring for the way in which ‘the theme is broken up and scattered amongst various instruments at wide intervals of the register’. No Bakst designs for that number, nor for the Bluebird, but here's the legendary Enrico Cecchetti with his Florine in 1890.

Now for a more extended slice of magic, which Bourne did include closer to its entirety than any other choreographer whose work I've seen - the Entr'acte Symphonique 'Le Sommeil', mentioned in the previous Beauty blogslice with copyright discovery of its string tremolo lasting 100 bars. You can check for yourself in the piano score which accompanies it here, and go on if you will to some of the dances in Act III. Of these, Bourne included only the Polacca, aforementioned Puss and, with special percipience, the 5/4 Sapphire Fairy variation last featured in the wacky Björnson-designed Royal Ballet Beauty. I fear the volume levels may be a bit low, and the first two bars of high violin tremolo aren't there, but the Concertgebouw/Dorati recording is an interesting choice,

As for New Adventures absences, you can't miss them for too long in that mostly wonderful show; unless you’re impossibly Petipa-purist (and heaven knows that master fiddled around with the original score himself), its storytelling ingenuity will be bound to win you over.

May it run as long as a show we should have seen long ago, but somehow never did – One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s updating of Goldoni to 1963. In the mood for froth, J picked up two half-price tickets on Thursday, so off we went to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to see how the highly-praised Owain Arthur acquitted himself in the James Corden Truffaldino-ish servant role. I have no comparison to make, but Corden's one-time understudy charmed us even as we sat somewhat nervously on the end of the second stalls row, wondering whether we’d be the next audience participants implicated in the stage mayhem.

As it turned out…well, I won’t spoil the fun, but this is the perfect seasonal treat since it's as close to panto as you can get if you dislike the genre. I was reconverted last year with the Wimbledon Dick Whittington starring Dame Edna Everage, who was wonderful but by no means the only onstage laughter-maker. Likewise Arthur, given exuberant turns from Jodie Prenger as our main man's feisty sex interest (pictured below in the second of two Haymarket production photos by Johan Persson), Daniel Ings as a posturing thesp, Ben Mansfield as arf-arf Stanley Stubbers, Rhona Croker’s dumb blonde and Gemma Whelan excellent in a revival of Vesta Tilly-style male impersonation.

We were also apparently fortunate to be rewarded with the return of the original, award-winning deaf old waiter Alfie, Tom Edden (pictured below by Alastair Muir) in the ever more hysterical slapstick climax of the first half. His walk across the stage with a rattling tray was a consummate comedy turn in itself.

The warm-up skiffle band and the vaudeville musical numbers by various members of the cast added to the simple but uproarious pleasures of the evening.

After the Boheme and Robert le Diable plunges, we’ve been lucky in our catching-up going-out, culminating in as classy and dramatically varied a Handel Messiah as I expect to see and hear at St John’s last night – Arts Desk review (probably the last for a while) here. It’s been a delight to have flying visits from dear friends overseas, encompassing two goddaughters and a godson (our adored Lottie came to London as a member of the Zurich Opera Dutchman chorus, and the Buma-Hills-es, over from Amsterdam, met us for dim sum today).

We’ve enough reading to keep us happy in the quiet spells between the socialising: I’m working my way through Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, a Christmas present two years ago but only sampled until now, wondering at his highly critical masterclass in the art of lyric(s) writing, and Ulitskaya continues to amaze in an affirmative tale about Russians gathered round a dying friend in a New York attic, The Funeral Party (with the stress decidedly on the ‘party’). Season’s greetings to any readers who are still dropping by at this quiet time.

Thursday 20 December 2012

The primrose path

In Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along it leads backwards in time from the hell of compromise and failure to the sunlit plains of youthful optimism. In Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable it meanders ineffectually until finally fizzling out in the face of an equally pallid angelic challenge. Having seen the two works on consecutive nights – the opera first at Covent Garden, the musical next at the Menier Chocolate Factory - I know which path I’d rather take. But let’s put duty before pleasure and have done with the French devil first.

Is Robert really a grand opera? Its length and scenario would suggest so; the music, apart from the passing low brass threat, would better be suited in selective dollops to semi-disposable opéra comique. That Meyerbeer could write a good tune we know from Constant Lambert’s arrangements in Les Patineurs, drawn from Le Prophète – yes, it really did have a roller-skate ballet – and L’Etoile du Nord. There’s arguably one catchy number here, the Sicilian song in the first act. Otherwise you wait and wait for the promised improvements in later acts. Like so many second- or third-rank operas, this one always seems about to deliver and always stops short at foreplay.

 Instrumental colour can be interesting – good girl Alice’s arrival in a dangerous place is marked by a sweet woodwind chorus – and one ungainly novelty stands out, the a cappella trio in which the tenor and soprano shoot up to insane heights while the bass hits rock-bottom (its concluding counterpart makes the most of its half-tune, blueprint perhaps for the better effort towards the end of Gounod's Faust). If Princess Isabelle’s plea to Robert to forsake his wicked ways is another hit, the second replacement coloratura, Sofia Fomina, failed to make it so despite the support of harp and cor anglais.

In fact of the four principals only Bryan Hymel, a surprisingly beefy tenor capable of hitting the top notes, seemed in technically good shape. Usually reliable bass John Relyea (pictured above with Hymel) struck gravel in his upper register and the picture-pretty Marina Poplavskaya did her usual of swooping in and out of focus and tuning (so frustrating – there’s certainly something there if only a good teacher could bring it out). Conductor Daniel Oren didn’t seem to be helping anyone much. Laurent Pelly’s production restricted itself to naff rhythmic steps for the chorus and didn’t bother much with trying to mine any psychological truth from the principals (probably there’s no point). 

Some of the 19th century style picturebook designs were fun, but only the ballet of zombie nuns in the graveyard where Robert has come to claim a magic branch, strikingly choreographed by Lionel Hoche, managed to triumph over anodyne music. Worth staging? I think not. A concert performance would have been enough to show us the bits that influenced Wagner* – and Sullivan, so much creepier in Ruddigore. If the Royal Opera wants to do a French grand opera, albeit one of less historical significance, it could try Massenet’s Le Cid. But no more Meyerbeer, please.

On, vitement, to Merrily We Roll Along. I hadn’t really wanted to bother with it again, having taken away so little from the Donmar production 12 years ago with Daniel Evans and the gorgeous Julian Ovenden. But then I learned from colleague Matt Wolf's enthusiastic review that the leading trio this time round included Damian Humbley, so dazzlingly good in the ill-fated and unfairly maligned Lend Me a Tenor, and lovely lady Jenna Russell, outstanding star of the Regent’s Park Into the Woods. Josefina Gabrielle, who eclipsed Tamsin Outhwaite in the Menier’s Sweet Charity, was also playing a chunky role. So I decided to give it another try.

Even before the night, assisted by the 1992 Leicester Haymarket cast recording with Maria Friedman – the present production’s clearly able director – I was hooked. The show is based on a Kaufman and Hart play and follows the blueprint of a (usually resistable) self-referencing showbusiness rise and fall, but told in reverse. As Sondheim points out in the excellent Finishing the Hat, Merrily not only traffics in the regular 32-bar songs of the musical golden age but, thanks to the time-travelling premise, previews them in fragmentation or dissolution before piecing them together in their pristine state. Thematic transformation is almost as skilful and pervasive as in Into the Woods, a work of incredible musical sophistication. The winning song penned by the musical’s composer and lyricist, ‘Good Thing Going’, is cheesy but earwormy, and there’s an infallible blend of post-G&S patter with pathos.

The Menier cast was, as anticipated, flawless. Russell (pictured above with Mark Umbers) doesn’t really get the limelight she deserves as Mary, but manages the backward transition from overweight, outspoken drunk to hopeful author beautifully. Humbley brings the house down with impeccable timing in Charlie Kringas’s self-destructive rant against his sellout buddy Franklin Shepard ‘Inc’ during a 1973 TV interview. Handsome Umbers achieves the difficult task of winning our sympathy as we regress to understanding a little more about Frank’s compromises.

The biggest transformation is realized by Clare Foster as his first wife Beth, maintaining a stillness in heartbreaking anguish in the first, divorce-scene rendition of ‘Not a Day Goes By’ – no easy task considering we’ve only just met her – before lighting up the stage with her younger enthusiasm (Foster's in the top picture with Russell, Umbers and Humbley). Gabrielle (pictured below with Glyn Kerslake), like Russell, doesn't quite get to strut all her stuff. She's a terrific dancer and the show number adapted with Sondheim's permission could give more room to that. As her first husband, Joe Josephson, Kerslake comes magnificently if briefly into the limelight in the middle of the fabulous young-professionals number 'Opening Doors'. 

The scene-changes are evocative bearing in mind the Menier’s limited space, the band excellent, but I have the one usual cavil in this place: why mike in a small theatre? You can’t tell where the voices are coming from in ensemble scenes, and you lose their natural timbre. Anyway, on with the West End transfer, and here’s to Broadway for Friedman and Co.

It's been an equally mixed week for Arts Desk assignments. I'll be damned if the Zurich Opera's concert performance of Wagner's Die Fliegende Holländer wasn't the best event of 2012 thanks to the Senta (all-giving Anja Kampe) and Daland (relaxed veteran Matti Salminen) rising to the superhuman level of Bryn's Dutchman.

But then there was a 26th-revival Copley Bohème at Covent Garden cruelly exposing the current problems of Rolando Villazón, and no-one else really making it worthwhile (though Elder's orchestra, despite being too loud and slow at times, revelled in the detailed beauties of Puccini's fabulous score). As for the old Copley production, at least Act Three looks good - below, Villazón with Maija Kovalevska's bright but unItalianate Mimì.

*though I reckon the Abbate/Parker claim that Senta's Ballad would not have been possible without the example in Robert's Act One must be wrong; the one in Marschner's Der Vampyr, which when I saw that opera in Munich struck me as close to the world of Dutchman, predates Meyerbeer's example by three years.

Production photos of Merrily We Roll Along by Tristram Kenton for the Menier Chocolate Factory
Production photos of Robert le Diable and La Bohème by Bill Coooper for the Royal Opera
Photo of the Zurich Dutchman by T+T Fotografie

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Books - for cooks?

Probably not, in the case of our flamboyant friend and artist and Lord High just about Everything Else Jonny’s samizdat ramble. Given a style which is very much the man as he holds forth, Cook au Vin deserves to be hailed as the Tristram Shandy of its ilk. And it really should be read from cover to cover (the illustration above is by his pal David Hockney, perhaps not one of his best...). From his fastness in the foothills of the Alpes maritimes above Nice, the Broon has compiled recipes of sorts with a little help from friends with mysterious names such as ‘The Saintly’, J-J and Chinkers (one of the few to be properly introduced to us). So beguiling are the digressions that I was almost disappointed when we finally reached ‘Appetizers and Aperitifs’.

I needn’t have worried. The footnotes and the Chinese-box off-pistes continue. Musing on the order of wine serving, JB floats back to Edinburgh in the 1980s – which is where I met him – and a Queen’s Hall recital by Roger Woodward; he’d written the notes in chronological order for a programme of three Chopin sonatas, only to find that Woodward had decided to play them 3-2-1. But before we get to discover the reason, there’s a note on why artists’ Green Rooms are so called, and after it another on Woodward carving a duck ‘like a swashbuckler from a Chopin Polonaise’. Here's a snap I took of the author at a splendid Edinburgh Gesamtkunstwerk event to launch his roadmovies exhibition and book (J sang Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, amongst other musical plums).

The food? Well, you’d probably eat it. We have, on various excursions to Duranus - that's me looking bleary and unwashed below with my morning coffee after a night on the floor of JB's record room - though I remember the gaggle of weird guests rather than the flavours (how could I forget Belinda and Belinda, who were writing a book called Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll: A Year in Provence? ‘It’s in real time’, they told us, ‘and you’ll be in it’. Given our failure to click, it’s probably a mercy that said publication does not appear to have reached the light of day).

At least the advice on ingredients is probably sound. Thereafter they are mashed into what JB calls ‘gunk’ spread on bread or else pickled in various kinds of alcohol (James Hamilton Paterson’s semi-dud Cooking with Fernet Branca springs to mind – does Jonny know this book?) OK, so the worst is definitely tongue in cheek, the ‘gunk’ for pan-fried foie gras wittily titled ‘Sauce tirée des boîtes’ – the boxes in question containing fish fingers and cornflakes, preferably mixed with retsina. This priceless volume, complete with plenty of JB's artworks like the one below and reproduced bottom-of-wineglass stains, is printed to order by Brown Paper Editions. Apply to or (less preferably) buy a copy from Amazon.

A step up the evolutionary ladder is the beautifully produced three-tone Goodbye Cockroach Pie from London friends Rosanna Kelly and Casilda Grigg, celebrating the launch of Rosanna's Inky Paws Press. It stems from a 1986 discussion around the same Dundas Street (Edinburgh) kitchen table I had only recently deserted for London after graduation.  Rosanna and law student Gail Halliburton mooted the idea of a cookbook especially aimed at students. They gleaned many vintage recipes from friends, but the idea hung fire until this year when the concoctions were refreshed and punctuated with jolly illustrations.

Very well, so this Carabosse is in mild dudgeon not to have been asked for his perfect student recipe. Needless to say I no longer cook it, but it became a staple in the Dundas Street kitchen: a fish curry consisting of smoked mackerel (!), cooking apples, desiccated coconut, onions and the usual powders. Decidedly an improvement on the meat loaf cooked with a lump of lard in it by flatmates Mary and Helly, or the Spaghetti Carbonara of Simon without the carbonara. I blush to think of the pride with which I served up to visiting mother and stepfather gammon and pineapple. Happy days, as the delightful co-winner (hurrah, a woman!) of Masterchef: The Professionals would put it.

This has not been the best of years for reading, but the finest is probably what I’ve now reached: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Sonechka – A Novella and Stories. The shorter form seems to suit this author best: she is so keen to give us her many heroines’ backstories that a longer novel like Medea and Her Sisters can get overloaded by multiple strands. But what compelling histories these are, usually tales of fortitude in the face of adverse Russian circumstances and – unfashionably – of happiness descending in time from banal or manipulative situations.

Within a couple of pages bookwormish Sonechka, her big breasts her only physical asset, is courted by an equally unlikely artist and soon can’t believe the joy to be found in the mundane. Zurich magics up a love story between a Russian girl looking for a westerner and a westerner looking for a one-night stand. The outcome of The Queen of Spades, its nonagenarian matriarch tyrannizing her daughter and granddaughter much as the Countess tyrannises Lisa in Pushkin’s short story, is less happy, but emancipation is so close at hand. I so want to read more by Ulitskaya, but currently only The Funeral Party is translated into English, and my Russian probably wouldn’t be up to Imago, which Vladimir Jurowski selected as one of his 2011 summer reading books for The ArtsDesk.

Before Ulitskaya, I’d had something of a Patrick Gale binge, with a slight sense of diminishing returns as I worked my way back from the most recent to the earlier novels. Gale excels in his polyphony of family voices and sense of place, especially Cornwall in the two I enjoyed the most, A Perfectly Good Man and Notes from an Exhibition. No doubt if he’d tackled the subject matter of The Facts of Life today, he’d have cut and shuffled voices and times more flexibly than he did back in 1995. The jackets and the Richard and Judy commendation do tend to put these books at  lower than their real value. For once, here’s a novelist who incorporates music and – as far as I can tell – art with real understanding, who usually has a sympathetic gay character or two but doesn’t necessarily make us see the world entirely from their point of view. I know I’d like him as a person, and there are plenty more novels for cosy company when I wish.

Otherwise, I don’t know why I was so compelled by the sometimes dodgy preaching of Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part Two of which I’ve also read since the Vaughan Williams stint, and I’m not sure whether I was in the right mood when I read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, but the Boleyn saga didn’t seem to me quite as singular as Wolf Hall. Music book of the year – not that I’ve read many – is Anthony Phillips’s superb translation and footnoting of the Prokofiev Diaries, Volume Three. But further comment on that had better wait until after the BBC Music Magazine review appears. Other reading highlights of the year here and here.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Bach plus seven in the Tower

Here’s an absolute gem I would have missed, had it not been for the diplo-mate and European Commission/EUNIC support for a fabulous cause. Organist William Whitehead is masterminding a project to ‘complete’ the Orgelbüchlein, Bach’s miniature collection of chorale preludes for organ. The exquisite little book has titles of 164 chorales, but Bach only completed 46 of them. Whitehead had the brilliant idea of commissioning composers to fill in the gaps, providing as he puts it ‘a “Gesamtorgelbüchlein”, a complete hymnal...a sort of 21st century tribute to Bach posing the question “what would Bach have done if he’d been alive today?" '.

Looking forward to getting inside my beloved Tower of London and sitting in the airy Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, I nevertheless approached what I imagined would be an all-organ programme with some trepidation. I only partly josh that too much organ music makes me sick, simply because during one Aldeburgh Festival when I was on duty as a Hesse Student, I had to leave Gillian Weir’s recital in Norwich Cathedral to throw up just outside the porch. In truth, it was probably something I’d eaten, though Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on BACH is chromatic enough in itself to turn the stomach.

As it turned out, Whitehead had devised a sequence of dazzling intricacy and variety. The real depths were plunged in the wonderful Catherine Martin’s exploration of three Biber ‘Rosary’ Sonatas, accompanied by Whitehead: I’ve heard Andrew Manze’s performances on CD, but I was hardly aware of all the musical symbology, such as the sign of the cross, in these searing representations of the Annunciation, the Agony in the Garden and the Crucifixion. And only rarely have I taken on board how vibrato-free playing as expressive as this can pierce the soul. It was helpful to have an introduction from Catherine explaining the use of scordatura; each of the sonatas requires retuning of the strings to create its special quality. I came across the scheme while I was seeking further web enlightenment:

Two of the Biber sonatas were placed strategically as part of the Orgelbüchlein sandwich, respectively prefaced and concluded by two of Bach’s big Preludes and Fugues as played with magnificent control and the occasional freedom by Colm Carey; the one in G major (BWV 541) sent us out treading air. Carey also played the Bach originals and the new works in the Orgelbüchlein’s sequence, broken only by the central Biber meditation on Gethsemane. In another inspired touch, Susan Gilmour Bailey gave expressive rein to the original chorale melodies, so we could hear what the six new composers as well as Bach had done with them.

Or not. In two cases, undoubtedly the most original, Spanish composer Benet Casablancas and Lithuanian Justé Janulyté had sent the melodies underground, Casablancas’s wild fantasia – much the longest at just under the commission limit of five minutes – asking the organist to pull out a multitude of stops. Most interesting, perhaps, was the range of approaches: in addition to these mysteries and complexities, Thomas Daniel Schlee gave us a 21st century version of Bachian polyphony, Ēriks Ešenvalds contented himself with chaste homage to Bach and Jonas Jurkūnas’s reflection on the surprisingly cheerful Am Wasserflüssen Babylon burbled along cheerfully, if a little aimlessly, in minimalist style.

I was delighted to see Benet there (pictured above right with Whitehead), since we’d enjoyed a lively correspondence following our pre-performance conversation when the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the brilliant Josep Pons played his Seven Scenes from Hamlet. And I hadn’t realized that my connecting Jurowski with Casablancas, as a composer in whose music he might take no small interest, resulted in a performance of the composer’s Darkness Visible when the LPO and their principal conductor visited Barcelona this February.

I’ve said little of the circumstances surrounding this Spitalfields Winter Festival event. It began unpromisingly with our queueing at the Tower entrance in the freezing cold, being roughly herded by an uncharming Beefeater while penguin-suited Esso employees swanned past us to their reception. But it’s always wonderful to enter the inner sanctuary at night, the White Tower looking more imposing than ever

As you can see from the top photo, the lights of St Peter ad Vincula glowed invitingly. Inside it was warm and bright. We admired the monuments, and the sanctuary inscriptions to the three ladies who lost their heads on Tower Green and were buried here – Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey – alongside sanctified Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. The organ case sat in the Banqueting House Whitehall from its construction by Bernhard Schmidt in 1699 to its removal to this royal chapel in 1899, by which time additions had made it three times larger; more recently it has been restored to its original dimensions. The pipework is recent and the instrument sounds in good health, for all I can tell. One thing’s for sure: sitting in the first row of the left aisle and watching foot and fingerwork, as well as having superlative Martin playing right in front of us only added to the pleasure of an unforgettable evening.

One footnote while we’re in chapel: should I have been surprised when the government’s Maria Miller announced that the Church of England would be legally exempt from the current move to allow gay marriages in church* (ie limiting such marriages to a very restricted number of venues)? After all, isn’t the CofE the Tory party at prayer? For myself, I don’t care: civil partnership is good enough for me, and I was reminded that in early January we celebrate seven years of our ritual and the ‘Just Not Married’ party which followed, jumping in as we did to tie the registry office knot three weeks after it all became legal in the UK. But why should those who do want a church event be treated like second-class citizens? Erstwhile blogger pal Jon Dryden Taylor, who doesn’t post enough these days, gives a brilliant exposition of why our rights should be extended here.

*It now turns out this was done 'on the hoof', without consulting the CofE

Sunday 9 December 2012

Being Beauteous: Bourne and Järvi

Here’s my chance to wax more or less lyrical about two quirky but undeniably loving homages to Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, which the more I hear it the more I’m convinced is his meisterwerk. I had to own up to the BBC Music Magazine that since I’d written the very long, number-by-number notes for Neeme Järvi’s absolutely complete recording with the superb Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, I couldn’t review it for the publication. But I can attempt to do so here, having got that proviso out of the way. As for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures Sleeping Beauty, ‘A Gothic Romance’, I went to the Sadler's Wells press night on Friday courtesy of my Arts Desk colleague Ismene Brown, who writes brilliantly about it as ever and almost convinces me about points over which we disagreed. The nub of which is that I warmed to it much more than she did.

What I admire most is Bourne’s way of telling a story, and in this case one that is very much his own spun from some of the elements of Perrault’s tale. I’m not sure how much of the plot one should give away, since I spent part of the first half wondering how the gardening boy/groundsman with whom young Aurora has such a sweet and sometimes funny first-love romance would survive one hundred years. A bite on the neck from Christopher Marney's Count Lilac, aka fairy leader (pictured below with fellow winged things in the Prologue, first of Simon Annand's production images) gave a good hint. You can see how effective Bourne regular Lez Brotherston's designs are, though there aren't enough pics of them in the image gallery.

The biggest twists are unveiled in the second half, with more than one awakening kiss failing to lead to the expected resolution. Shall we say that the grand Caradoc ball – yes, he’s the tall and sexy son of Carabosse, who expired some time after the Prologue – entails radical re-jigging and major cutting of Tchaikovsky’s score. What Bourne does use of it, and where he uses it, always has a strong musical/dramatic motivation. First change is the royal March of the Prologue banished in favour of the Act One garden hustle and bustle, which suits the 1890s bedchamber intimacy of this narrative and involves a delightful puppet baby climbing the thick curtain drapes. The musical number is reprised in its proper place when we meet the 20-year old Aurora in a Juliettish playfulness with her nurse before her boy evades detection in her bedroom (charming Hannah Vassallo and cute Dominic North pictured below).

Re-ordering in the garden scene, mostly Edwardian whites, means that Aurora’s variation is played out with interloping Caradoc. Surely Bourne means parallels here with the male Odile of his Swan Lake - who can forget Adam Cooper there? - especially since both numbers have eloquent violin solos (other witty references I thought I spotted are to Macmillan's Anastasia and, as I've already suggested, his Romeo and Juliet as well as other scenes in Bourne's own Swan Lake). He brings back another virtuoso sequence for violin, the Entr’acte of Act Two which has surely never been danced in ANY previous choreography of Sleeping Beauty, for a climactic Pas de Deux in the last act (obviously the Aurora-Desiré adagio is saved up for when good has triumphed over evil). The Rose Adagio is less successful. What Ismene writes about real dance never being properly carried through applies here, as choreography gives way to precipitate mime and Aurora falls swooning from a prick on the thorn of Caradoc’s black rose; that doesn’t work for me. But the curtain certainly does.

Gone are the courtly dances of Act Two – Bourne has moved in the opposite direction from his Cinderella, which was the first to rehabilitate Prokofiev’s world-travel divertissement – but we get the vision imaginatively treated, and more of the Entr’acte Symphonique’s spellbinding sleep music than ever before (still not quite the crucial 100 bars I discovered it to be, but everything except a repeat; the charismatic Jurowski lookalike Ben Bunce pictured with Vassallo below).

Of course there are no fairy-tale animals at the ball, but the radical, near-atonal Puss in Boots number is brilliantly staged when our hero infiltrates the black and red Walpurgis Night and the brilliant 5/4 Sapphire Variation is a welcome survivor from the second fairy sequence. A shame the Bluebird enchantment wouldn’t fit into this context. But the real problem is that chunks of a divertissement can't really be pressed into service for the long-term dramatic narrative which Tchaikovsky has abandoned (in favour of something equally wonderful) at this point. Anyway although by and large the biggest orchestral climaxes aren't matched by the fitful classicism of the choreography, the corps numbers, the Polonaise and the Mazurka, get vintage Bourne creepy-mannerist treatment. And the fashionable Twilight/Buffy links are canny.

The Apotheosis brings a neat return to the best idea of the Prologue. How prescient was it to give a major role to a royal baby?

Forewarned was forearmed in the case of the pre-recorded score. I’d hated the over-amplification of Prokofiev’s Cinderella music, and when I met two of Bourne’s team with J at the Garrick on Monday, I asked if this couldn’t be at a more natural level. Well, it was, and truthful enough to tell that Brett Morris had mostly done a wonderful job, with especially good violin solos from Gina McCormack. I loved the tempo for the Lilac Fairy music at the end of the Prologue, and the ‘Sleep’ Entr’acte sounded as spellbinding as it can.

That bewitching sequence came as a bit of a shock on Järvi’s recording: virtually double the tempo, with the Carabosse chords broken rather than sustained. He also has a Panorama at a speed which the woodwind and horn support can only just articulate, and a sprint at the end of the sublime Bluebird Adagio. But, for all that they probably couldn’t be danced to, how filled with energy are the faster passages. Järvi (pictured below by Till Veerhae) offers characteristic rubato that's often so subtle as to be barely perceptible but gives so much life to the symphonic passages, and a spectacular recording provides extended dynamic range which is especially impressive at the piccolo end.

Was it necessary to bring in James Ehnes and Robert deMaine respectively for the violin and cello solos? I wasn't sure at first, having heard Aurora’s Variation in Act One more powerfully done. But Ehnes’s sophistication creates wonders in the big Entr'acte Bourne found such a good use for, and the cello’s Andante Cantabile offshoot in the vision has wonderful life and line. There are some wackily extended harp cadenzas, and the woodwind in the animal portraits are a dream.

I did a Radio 3 Building a Library on the ballet score some years back, when Ermler’s Covent Garden performance came out on top; now I reckon it would be a very close-run thing between that, Lanchbery’s dansante Philharmonia recording, which took some time to appear on CD and now Järvi’s. His has the most demonstration-quality sound of them all. And I can say here, hoping to be believed, my devotion has nothing to do with the fact that I have a stake in its success…