Tuesday 29 January 2013

Adams morphing Beethoven

I hadn't intended to go to the third concert in John Adams's mini-residency with the London Symphony Orchestra, though I'd certainly been bowled over by the first two (review of no.1 here on The Arts Desk). Rare as the programming looked, Copland's Appalachian Spring is one of those pieces to whose charm I'm deaf - diatonicism taken to artificial extremes? - and Elliott Carter remains anathema to me ('how can you be so hard-hearted?' said my concert companion Hen, 'the poor guy died last year'. That was before she heard his Variations for Orchestra).

It was the Adams piece on the programme that I knew I had to hear after the St Lawrence String Quartet's absolutely stunning performance of his String Quartet on Thursday at LSO St Luke's, where the above photo was taken by Kevin Leighton. I need much more time to get to grips with that complex work, probably a masterpiece.

They were very much at the centre of Absolute Jest, first performed last year with Adams's buddy of 30 years Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I think, then, this must have been the UK or even the European premiere, but there was no fanfare about it.

I'm not sure what connection the title has with the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - though I'm attracted to the book from what I've just read about it, to be sure. What's certain is that this has to be one of music's biggest ever scherzos at around 25 minutes. It begins with the pounding dactyls of Beethoven's Scherzo in his Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra takes to semi-minimalist extremes. But the real subjects are the scherzos of late quartets Op. 131 - that weirdest of chatterboxes - and 135, with its manic repetitions.

It was Adams's idea, presumably, to preface his performance by getting the St Lawrences to play the passages in question, along with the slow fugal introduction to Op. 131 which finds itself interlaced with snatches of the Grosse Fuge in a much-needed if hardly easy slackening of all the frantic activity.

Others like my colleague Alexandra on The Arts Desk have raised the question of whether it's a good idea to submit to your own style the music of a giant. After all, most of Stravinsky's stylisations including Pulcinella, a performance of which was one of Adams's inspirations, are based on lesser composers or lesser music. And co-opting one of the supreme masters is different from finding your own music lined up in a concert programme with Beethoven or Brahms (what Adams charmingly calls 'sharing a bed with the big boys'). Well, I bought Absolute Jest for as long as it lasted, in colour and motion the work of a master. The wind-up from the central section was as accomplished as any of Adams's great transitions, and there was a sequence for the quartet players just before the end that absolutely knocked me for six.

This may be where, I later learnt from Tom May's SFSO note as reproduced on JA's compelling if fitful blog Hell Mouth, the composer references the 'Waldstein' Sonata's opening - you can see how exciting that must have been for Adams in his early almost-minimalist phase. One good result is that Adams has turned me back to the late Beethoven quartets, with which I've always struggled, and I begin to hear them more clearly.

More details about Absolute Jest in Adams's four-minute talk filmed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra last year. Good to see he didn't repeat much of this on Sunday.

I can't see that Absolute Jest strikes out for deeper waters and more poignant climes as the first concert persuaded me again that Harmonielehre does, at least in its first movement.

But it is, after all, a scherzo, and Adams's concert sequence had given us a much less approachable Big Boy earlier. As Carter's Variations began their perplexing journey, I could admire the remarkable orchestration even as I resigned myself to not being able to detect the theme the variations were supposed to be tracing. But, like the composer himself in a grisly evening I once experienced of his string quartets where he talked and talked, the piece does go on. And the Neo-Gothic, brass-heavy peroration suffers from a bad case of elephantiasis. Adams writes superbly about his ambivalence towards Carter, and his acquaintance with Copland, too, on the above-mentioned blog, Hell Mouth.

Appalachian Spring passed swiftly and with lively string playing, but the real dazzler was Ives's Country Band March later incorporated into Three Places in New England, a knockout curtain-raiser if ever there was one. And three cheers once again to Adams for three superbly designed concerts. I'm now looking forward to The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Barbican in March, though reports from the Los Angeles premiere have been very mixed.

Back to Bach as promised, and a cantata for Septuagesima which has nothing to do with either of the Gospel readings for the day, one of which is the parable of the workers in the vineyard (as supposedly depicted by Rembrandt above). 'Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn', BWV 92 (1725, Leipzig again) is more preoccupied with the rough seas, winds and eathquakes God sends to test mankind. It's another of those 'total submission to God's will' texts which don't bear too much examination by agnostics like me. But what invention there is here, as usual.

The chorale that runs through the cantata begins in the sopranos against independent lines from strings and two oboes d'amore, especially winsome in thirds that take some unexpected turns. It punctuates the bass's recitative, where the continuo goes darting and plunging off to imitate the 'cracking and fearful crashing' of mountains and the 'great waters' (an excuse for introducing a stormy seascape by Ludolf Bakhuizen below). The turbulence is sustained in whiplash strings forcing an equally strenuous line from the tenor in his aria.

The bass's comparable number dealing with rough winds, this time in the shape of continuo only, sounded unduly blustery in bass Dominik Wörner's singing for Masaaki Suzuki; I'm sure there are more convincing ways of performing it. But the soprano's calm pastoral after all these elemental surges is a winner, and quite unlike any other Bach aria I know, the vocal line dancing with a solo oboe d'amore against the most delicate pizzicato strings. After the plain sailing of BWV 72 on Sunday, this was a total treat - and rather militates against the 'short cantatas to help choir beat winter cold' theory since it's half an hour long. 13/3 I'm replacing my original YouTube Leonhardt with the superb Koopman, above all because on it is our (re)New(ed) Best Friend Debbie York, who's been to stay as a result of Facebook re-contact with J, her old fellow Glyndebourne chorus pal (and Queen of Spades dance partner). And magic she makes indeed of one of Bach's loveliest arias (around 24'20).

Sunday 27 January 2013

Dyre desire of Light

Heading his manuscript copy of The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar quotes John Florio’s translation of Virgil via Montaigne:  ‘Whence so dyre desire of Light on wretches grow?’ One of James MacMillan’s themes in his lecture for the Royal Philharmonic Society yesterday was how we wretches today, whether religious in the narrow sense of the word or the wider, still desire the light that music’s most transcendent passages can offer us. Actually, that sounds impossibly pompous, as JMacM’s soft-spoken, reasonable speech, eschewing all mention of himself in that visionary tradition, did not. I couldn’t quite work out the connection between his opening thoughts on Blake as an example of a broader visionary vein in English art and his central assertion of the importance of Roman Catholicism in Elgar’s life and work, but it was all food for thought. Bust of Beethoven in my shot below there to mark the RPS's 200th anniversary.

It’s true, we do tend to shunt Elgar’s Catholicism rather to one side, even in discussing the composer’s most overt assertion of his faith in Gerontius (though what more do you want than the Jesuits’ ‘A.M.D.G’ - ‘Ad majorem Dei Gloria’, ‘To the greater glory of God’ - at the top of the above page?). But perhaps it’s also true – a point not addressed yesterday – that the Catholic fervour which came from Elgar’s mother, and certainly not from his staunchly Anglican father, dwindled in later years. I can’t find the quotations I want, but I still have the hunch that the 'single short remark' Elgar made to Ernest Newman on his deathbed so ‘terrible’ that the younger man never repeated them to anyone might have been ‘I lost my faith in God’ (more frivolously, on hearsay, I’d wish it to be ‘I always preferred young men’, but no more of that).

No matter; the speech threw up plenty of points for discussion and, as Jude Kelly in fine presenting fettle said, we could have sat and talked for another hour. Nice to chat briefly to The Man afterwards, and I’m hugely looking forward not only to hearing his Oboe Concerto again in Glasgow on Friday – he will be elsewhere – but also his new Viola Concerto, due to be premiered by Lawrence Power as part of The Rest is Noise festival. I think I’m right in saying, at least from checking the index, that Alex Ross in his book of that name doesn’t give a single mention to MacMillan, one of the major voices in music today – and one of my two favourites (Adams being the other, of course).

Two hours later, I was in the chair alongside venerable composer Anthony Payne, whom of course we have to thank among other things for that rather miraculous realization of Elgar’s Third Symphony, and Heather Wiebe, Virginia academic newly arrived at King’s College London. Our moderator was Tom Hutchinson of the RPS, and the theme, supposedly, was 'The Edwardian Empire: Society and Culture', obviously with special reference to the performance of Gerontius due to follow in the Royal Festival Hall.

I was wrong in thinking that Heather was there as the cultural historian; she, too, is a musicologist, this time specializing in Britten. So we all had to readapt as we launched our little presentations by way of a start. Frankly, I think the esteemed AP should have gone before me, for clearly I’d stolen some of his thunder with the line about Elgar the European; but I also managed to contrast that with the perceived notion of the court composer to Edward VII. And in any case, Anthony was so genial, wise and good at batting the ball back and forth that it all became a delightful discussion in praise of our composer’s terrific originality. Maybe an antagonist could have stirred it all up more productively, but we had fun – even if I seem to have blanked out chapter and verse in all the after-euphoria (hoping there’s a recording. 15/7 Just discovered there is, here on soundcloud, thanks to The Rest is Noise festival's impressive soundarchiving. James's talk is there too).

We were all of us, JMacM included, seated in what’s supposed to be the royal box for Elder’s performance in the evening. I can’t say it moved me much. This conductor works so hard on revelatory textures, gleaming in the hands of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and is a superb chorus master, there with every word for the LPO Chorus and the Clare College Cambridge singers who served as the semichoir. But he doesn’t strike me as having the natural tempo rubato which late romantic music like this requires. Everything seems dotted and crossed with excessive precision; you can see the wheels at work. And sometimes he’s just too slow, in the tradition of his beloved Goodall, which sank the Angel’s Farewell for me, resplendently as the ever-dependable Sarah Connollly delivered it.

I did love Paul Groves’s hard work on extracting every inch of meaning from Cardinal Newman’s text, though, and in pushing his far-from-Helden voice to the right limits of agony and exultation when needed. The clarity of this truly world-class score came across beautifully. But for me, the desired light never quite shone. Have gone over to Sakari Oramo’s Birmingham recording at home to find out what was missing, and there is all the magic in all the right places.

So, from ‘A.M.D.G’ to Bach’s ‘S.D.G.’ (‘Soli Deo gloria’, ‘Glory to God alone’). Much less heavy weather results from this week’s Sunday cantata (someone told me Radio 3 is following the same calendar as I am; I had no idea). ‘Alles nur nach Gottes Willen’, BWV 72, is one of the short cantatas for the third Sunday after Epiphany* - short, it's argued, because the choir would have got very cold at this time of year; they were allowed to slope off before the hour-long sermon. Lucky them; in my treble days we had to sit and read Commando comics under the desks.

God’s will as exemplified, perhaps, in the day’s reading from Matthew 8 about Christ's healing of a leper (mosaic above from Monreale), is all there is to it. So it makes for a rather complacent sequence, shorn of questioning or suffering The striking minor-key launch of darting, rather agitated strings slightly undercuts the chorus’s sentiments (‘All only according to God’s will’); the music was re-used, not so interestingly in my opinion, at the start of the Gloria in Bach’s G minor Mass, BWV 235.

The alto reaches to the still-lively heart of the cantata. His/her recitative turns to arioso in the nine lines beginning ‘Lord, if thou wilt’ and moves almost seamlessly into the aria with the addition of two solo violins to the cello and continuo line, fugueing in one of the ritornellos. There’s a simple, dancing soprano number and a chorale based on a text by Albert, Duke of Prussia and an old French theme used in a cantata of the previous year, 1725. There – I’ve got off lightly this week**, but I’m looking forward to being tested rather more by JSB in weeks to come. Here's another from Suzuki's Bach series, Robin Blaze replacing Sara Mingardo whom I heard on another instalment of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage 2000.

*As 'Uncle Toby' points out below, I've got my church calendar in a muddle. This year we miss out on the third and fourth Sundays after Epiphany. This is Septuagesima, so I'll have to add another cantata. But that gives me the excuse of two more (fourth Sunday and Sexagesima) next week.

**Clearly not. The Septuagesima candidate I have to hand is 'Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn', on an altogether grander scale. Shall do my duty willingly some time this week

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Elgar the European

No doubt those Little Britainers who want to batten down the hatches against Europe will be using ‘Nimrod’ or Pomp and Circumstance yet again as the background to their frothing diatribes. Which makes me mad because no composer was more of a true European, or for that matter a true citizen of the world, than Edward Elgar (and I’m talking not of his conservative outer life but his musical world-within-world). He may have suffused his scores with the essence of Worcestershire/Herefordshire woods, hills and rivers, but that hardly amounts to callow nationalism, and it's one of the reasons I love him so deeply.

Forgive me if I repeat myself, but ‘Nimrod’ is a classic example of misrepresentation. It’s actually the portrait of an Anglicized German, A J Jaeger (pictured below), and has its roots in a summer evening conversation Elgar held with his beloved publisher friend about Beethoven’s slow movements. The result is, of course, based on the Adagio cantabile of the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata. So, music about a German based on a German. The stout and steaky tune seconds in to the first Pomp and Circumstance March? Listen to the 'Cortège de Bacchus' from Delibes’s Sylvia, a movement cited by Elgar in a different context, and you’ll hear where the rhythmic idea comes from, note for note (though not pitch for pitch). Bizet and Massenet are other strong influences.

Elgar’s phenomenal orchestration came partly from his many trips to Germany to see Wagner’s operas. There Richard Strauss hailed him, after a performance of The Dream of Gerontius, as ‘the first English progressivist’. His love of Italy follows Strauss’s example in the ‘concert overture’ (essentially tone-poem) In the South, and surfaces elsewhere when least expected. During the First World War, he didn’t so much thump a narrowly patriotic tub as show his musical solidarity with Poland and Belgium. 

More than anything, Elgar is truly international and a world-class composer, as my City Lit students agreed when we looked at the First Symphony and went to hear Andrew Litton's outstanding interpretation of it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. Unfortunately my effusions over Cockaigne the following week - I was amazed to find it has no less than eight memorable themes - were undermined by the bizarre performance of it, which I heard on the Radio: the aptly named Long Yu dragged every slow passage out to an eternity. Inside information told me that the interpretation clocked in at 2m40s longer than the longest previous BBC performance (they keep records of timings, helpfully). 

Which for a 15-minute piece is absurd, of course. Elgar as conductor or Boult will put you right. Boult's Cockaigne was twinned on the original LP with the most opulent recording of the Second Symphony (though it was Boult's classic 1944 recording that I chose on Radio 3's Building a Library).

Anyway, I hope I can enlarge on some of the international and/or European aspects when I join Anthony Payne and Dr Heather Wiebe in a Royal Philharmonic Society discussion before Saturday’s performance of Gerontius.  It’s dauntingly titled  The Edwardian Era: Empire, Society and Culture, and as I can’t contribute too much to that, I’ll be hoping to sound the trumpet for Elgar as part of a wider musical movement. Also hoping to catch James MacMillan’s earlier talk exploring ‘what role faith and mysticism have in artistic vision’.

All the above is loosely connected with Cameron’s long-awaited speech today. To paraphrase a friend of a friend, what it comes down to is a case of one foot forward, two feet back, half a foot forward again: a) the European Union is OK; b) no it’s not, they all have to dance to our tune and if they don’t we’re not playing; and c) actually we’d better play after all. In a muddled message that will generate years of uncertainty, the upshot is that he renegotiates terms to get some of the UK's powers back, and then asks the British people whether they like that or not. That doesn’t account for what happens if, as seems likely, he fails to get what he wants from the other EU countries.

At least the pro-Europeans are beginning to get their voices heard in the surrounding kerfuffle. It’s high time someone of eloquence spelled out the advantages of Europe to counter all the falsehoods in the Mail and the Torygraph (apparently the press office at the European Commission sends correction after correction to the papers, but they never listen – not even the Guardian, which for some reason is giving the appalling Farage houseroom as a funny guy).

So – cue lots of facts and links – let’s try and set the record straight. If this first fact were spelled out, people might begin to think differently. It’s this: that the size of the administration is NOT bloated, as most people believe. The entire staff of all EU institutions, agencies and other bodies totals 55, 000. The Commission on its own employs 32,000 people – smaller than the staff of Birmingham City Council.

Are EU civil servants overpaid? Hardly. According to one source, ‘comparative studies confirm that the remuneration package…is similar to what is offered by other international organisations that employ expatriate staff. In fact, for many job profiles the EU civil service offers the lowest entry-level salaries amongst international organisations’.

What has the EU/EEC ever done for us? Please read this dazzling list in a letter from Simon Sweeney to The Guardian. That should do the trick. And the TUC is in no doubt of what our government’s up to here. At an Executive Committee Meeting on 15 January it declared that ‘the Government wants to take away the rights working people have gained over the last thirty years from the European Union. Social Europe has provided working people with more equality, more protection from redundancy, more information about what's happening at their workplace, as well as a shorter working week and paid holidays. The Government wants to take that away from working people, and make them work longer hours for less pay’. It goes on to point out the obvious, that Cameron’s ‘dithering’ will play havoc with our economic interests.

If you’re still with me, the full facts of EU policy can be found here (economic benefits), here (social and employment policy) and here (working time directive). Unfortunately I'm probably preaching to the converted, but it's good to have chapter and verse in hand. Now we need a really charismatic apostle to go out and fight the good fight to halt the re-feudalisation of blinkered Blighty: a recommendation also made by Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski in his Blenheim Palace speech last year, full of further strong arguments from a man who might have been expected to be a Eurosceptic.

Finally, a reconciliatory footnote. 50 years ago this Tuesday de Gaulle and Adenauer joined their countries' hands together again by signing the Elysée Treaty. The BBC put up a lovely little piece about a song that encapsulated a respect regained: 'Göttingen', French chanteuse Barbara's hymn to the German university town she adored (and which I came to love at first sight two Junes ago). The sound version of the song in French there (Barbara also recorded it in German) is the best, but here's a filmed performance to complement it.

Sunday 20 January 2013

A Mali without music?

Unthinkable, isn’t it? And yet that would certainly have happened if the Islamist extremists, having taken Konna the other Thursday, had been able to plough on to Bamako. There have been well-reported programmes on the World Service filling us in on the situation in Timbuktu and elsewhere in the north: no sounds of music allowed, not even on the mobile phone. The Festival in the Desert has, of course, been a fatality, though by the sounds of it that had been corrupted from its original Tuareg base to an international event for very well-heeled tourists featuring a lot of crap bands from abroad who wouldn’t have been tolerated anywhere else. Sophie tells me that part of the set-up now reassembles at Segou between Bamako and Djenné.

Just how relaxed the music scene in free Mali is can be seen from these photos, which I apologise to those with a long enough memory for repeating from 2009. Yes, women singing, playing and dancing: something not tolerated in Iran or any of the more extreme Muslim states. It only goes to show the easy-going nature of Mali’s sufi-based religion. We caught the good women of Diabolo (not to be confused with Diabaly, much in the news of late) performing for their village when we took a horse-driven excursion with Sophie from nearby Djenné, and they were quite unfazed by our presence, OKd by the local headman. True, they were performing for tourists the following week, but the crust-earning seemed well deserved.

I’ve been listening to the great, late Ali Farka Touré, guitarist-vocalist ‘king of the desert blues’. The booklet for his last solo album, recorded at Bamako’s famous Hotel Mandé by World Circuit , is exemplary (and unusual in the so-called world music scene) in giving us notes by The Man with translations of the songs. I’ve chosen this one about Beto, the river god of neighbouring Niger, because the text is appropriate: ‘Beto, will you share with us this special day of the new year? Yes, Beto, indescribable Beto, Beto, speak, we are listening. Beto, tell us…are the ancients angry?’

The special sound on the next track, Savane, is that of two ngonis, unusual west African stringed instruments.

The famous Basseko Kouyaté is one of the players, and (27/1) was playing at the Barbican last night when I was duty bound to hear Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius over at the Royal Festival Hall; see Howard Male's review on The Arts Desk. The rest of the photos, by the way, obviously aren't mine.

Ali Farka Touré also recorded a Hotel Mandé session with Mali’s most celebrated exponent of the lovely 21-string harp called the kora, Toumani Diabaté.

It was, as AFT explained, an unusual conjunction ‘since I am from the Songra/Peul culture in the north and he is a Mande from the south. It’s rare that musicians meet like this from different cultures’.All too familiar contrasts between music’s hand of friendship and more common daily hostilities has just been strikingly illustrated by intelligence well documented by Amnesty and in the Guardian that the Malian army, whose fighters are mostly from the south, has been committing atrocities against the Fulani people of the north.

Anyway, the result of the meeting between guitarist and kora-player is, to our ears, pretty basic – improvisations on two chords in each number – but beguiling thanks to the sonorities of the two instruments. This is 'Monsieur le Maire de Niafunké'*.

Meanwhile the Bach cantata for the week is ‘Meine Seufzer, meiner Tränen’, BWV 13, composed for Leipzig performance in January 1726. The Gospel reading for this second Sunday after Epiphany treats of the Marriage at Cana where Christ miracled water into wine (detail below from Veronese’s vast canvas of the scene; the musician on the left is believed to be a self-portrait). 

The subject-matter and the prevailing musical mood of Bach's cantata, however, could hardly be further removed from the expected. Only two lines deal with the happening – ‘God can with ease/Turn bitterness into joyful wine’ – and the rest is numberless tears, groaning, the sickness of sorrow, in other words the earthly misery to be transfigured. John Eliot Gardiner writes that in the opening aria only the tone of the oboe da caccia we met two weeks ago, intermediary here between the tenor and the two recorders, softens the dissonances.

The bass lament at the heart of the piece has to be one of the bleakest numbers ever composed (the Germans have a word for it I found applied by Hofmannsthal to Elektra: ‘lichtlösigkeit’ or ‘light-less-ness’). This time the recorders double the violin obbligato at the octave, wraith-like; the soloist only partly fills the chasm between them and the bass line. Even when the central portion of the text speaks of solace and joy, there is hardly a sliver of light. Detail below from Rogier van der Weyden's Deposition.

On the other hand, the alto’s earlier chorale, crying out to God in vein, is wreathed in joyful strings, as if to contradict the hopelessness with a promise of better things. Otherwise, this is a stark revelation of the human condition, and I marvelled at Gerald Finley’s restrained performance of the big number in the Gardiner Bach Pilgrimage performance. Once again, there's a slightly less special alternative on YouTube, part of Masaaki Suzuki's Bach Collegium series:

We had extremes of joy and despair in last night’s bumper LPO/Jurowski Strauss concert launching the Southbank’s much-touted The Rest is Noise festival, including a revelation of mighty Richard's death haunted symphonic poem for voice, violin and orchestra Notturno. Read all about it on The Arts Desk - a long review for a very densely packed programme. Ambitious though it was, I got more consistent enjoyment out of the execution in John Adams’s LSO spectacular three days earlier, as recounted here. Much more to come now that the concert season is back on the boil.

*STOP PRESS The ever vigilant Sue Scheid has alerted me to a wonderful video of Mali's great musicians uniting to plead for peace. I can't say I know them all, but if anyone can tell me who's who among the terrific lady vocalists, I'd be grateful. Though Sue has the links below, I'm posting it here for easy access. I believe it's our kora-ist, Toumani Diabaté, kicking off.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Sopa de ajo

That's garlic soup, very much with a Spanish twist. And while it's true that the old woman cooking eggs in  Velázquez's pungent early bodegón (painting with still-life ingredients) is frying them in a substantial amount of olive oil rather than poaching them in a soup-mix, the atmosphere is right for this fabulous recipe - as Sam and Sam Clark note in their seminal Moro cookbook.

I've never dined at Moro, but I love this book and its stylish layout. It's yielded firm favourites like baba ghanoush - the muhammara with which I usually accompany that as a starter is to be found in Claudia Roden's even chunkier Book of Jewish Food - and a few one-off fish and meat dishes. This, though, seems to have garnered the biggest raves and is a fine staple in these cold winter days.

It's so simple to prepare yet satisfying in the contact with its main ingredients: you fry the cloves of three or four garlic bulbs with their skins on for about 20 minutes and then squeeze out the flesh almost as paste (in fact you can purée them or leave them as they are). Fry chorizo, add the garlic with thyme leaves and smoked paprika and then one litre (probably two is better) of  good chicken stock (better the tubs from Waitrose than melting stock cubes). Once properly simmered, you add toasted sourdough/ciabatta bread and throw in an egg to poach for each of your guests (given a large number, I downsized from hens' to quails' eggs).

J and I first had sopa de ajo in Asturias, travelling to the town of Cangas de Onis at the foot of the Cantabrian mountains. Both of us had stinking colds - it rains a lot in northern Spain - but were determined to carry on walking, and this soup was sheer balm. Our friend Florian cooks an Austrian garlic soup, Knoblauchcremesuppe, which I love, but this one is better, of course, for the lactose intolerant or the sinusitis-plagued like myself.

Anyone else crazy about garlic, pictured above in a detail I took from another Velázquez bodegón, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary? I was obsessed about the noble bulbs to the point of unsociability at university, eating raw cloves when I had a heavy cold (never again). In San Francisco, I was tickled to discover the Stinking Rose restaurant, the motto of which is 'we flavour our garlic with food'. The garlic ice-cream to finish, needless to say, was not as successful as the rest. Anyway, our visit was poorly timed, as we were catching the plane home later that afternoon, and boy did we stink. I think the virtue of cooking the garlic in this recipe is that you don't stink much, as far as I can tell. ¡Buen apetito!

Food features amusingly - I can think of no better segue - in Two Days in Paris, starring and directed by the hugely talented Julie Delpy. She does a neurotic, pacy double act with Adam Goldberg that reminds me of early Woody Allen with Diane Keaton; though while our Woody has so gone off the boil as to treat Paris and other European cities like one big tourist cliché, Delpy avoids the obvious sightseeing highlights (Goldberg's Jack wants to see Père Lachaise and the Catacombs) and undermines the isn't-Paris-romantic adage.

We wept with laughter at the scenes with the cat ('my father calls him "Eat-Shit-Sleep" ' - no doubt sounds even pithier in the French), the cooked rabbit, the eccentric father scratching cars as he wanders down a posh street, volatile maman coyly confiding her racy past; all the more astonished am I to learn that the actors playing these two are Delpy's own parents. As J said, it's an insight into hetty love life, I would add with sometimes more information than you want - Allen and Keaton couldn't have got away with this level of frankness in the 1970s - and I only wish there were a gay romcom on the same level (though Andrew Haigh's real and true Weekend, admittedly not a comedy, is in a class of its own). I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't find Two Days in Paris hysterically funny; fail to laugh uncontrollably, and I guarantee you your money back.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Sophie's scoop

It’s now been a very long time since tourists like us could watch the sunset over the river Niger from a bar terrace in Mopti, central Mali. Which by Thursday afternoon was the scene of panic as the hard-line Islamist rebels occupying the country’s Sahara region took the town of Konna, 55 kilometres miles to the north of Mopti, freeing up their southward route to Bamako.

Our Sophie Sarin, on the eve of leaving Mali and her hotel in Djenne for two weeks to come and attend the Chelsea Arts Club wake party for her beloved Princess Lulie, who died recently at the age of 97 (read Sophie’s tribute to an extraordinary life in The Independent), stole a march on the world’s press. On Thursday evening, just before leaving Bamako on Moroccan Airlines, she heard from her husband Keita first that French and Nigerian troops had landed at Sévaré Airport near Mopti, then that they had retaken Konna. The events unfolded with dramatic immediacy on her blog.

All this by 9.45pm (our time as well as Mali’s). It wasn’t until 5pm the next day (Friday) that François Hollande officially announced the involvement of his country's troops. More than 24 hours after Sophie’s statement, it was confirmed that Konna had been retaken*, no doubt all under the circumstances of hush-hush which are a necessity in war  Whether the French troops' brief is to liberate Timbuktu (market pictured below, like the Niger at Mopti above, on our 2007-8 visit) and the other towns suffering under the harshest interpretation of sharia law remains to be seen.

Sophie is right to have a certain pride in all this. But of course she is deeply worried by the state of emergency in Mali and her friends left behind – delighted though they (and it seems all Malians) are by this already overdue intervention.

There she is below chez nous, contemplating the timeless truths of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and trying to adapt to our English freeze. On Friday evening we went to a splendid Barbican concert. Some contrast that must have been for our Djenneista. Will Sophie be able to return as planned in a fortnight’s time? Who knows. Never underestimate Thucydides’ ‘persistence of the unforeseen’ in warfare.

In the meantime, here we are suffused by the balm of peace in the form of this Sunday’s Bach cantata. It’s ‘finding in the temple’ time, based on those verses in Luke where Mary and Joseph lose their twelve year old son for three days in Jerusalem and eventually discover him in the temple, listening to the learned doctors and questioning them. It’s an event surprisingly under-represented in Renaissance art, so I settled for this diligently researched ‘realistic’ representation by Holman Hunt.

Of the three options on Vol. 18 of Gardiner’s cantata pilgrimage series, I went straight to Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32. Unveiled in Leipzig on 13 January 1726, it’s a dialogue between Jesus, a bass (big boy for 12!), and a soprano who turns out to be not the searching mother but the Christian soul. She gets an opening aria with one of Bach’s most wonderful oboe solos, chromatic and weaving around the vocal line - I could play this! – against searching notes from upper strings marked piano e spiccato. He is twinned with a solo violin, all gracious triplets and trills.

After a string-haloed recitative dialogue in which the soprano quotes Psalm 84’s ‘How lovely are thy dwellings fair’, they sing the bounciest and most operatics of joyous duets. Gardiner, who performed the three ‘first after Epiphany’ cantatas in Hamburg and gives us interesting background on the opera-fixated city in Bach’s time, celebrates Bach in this duet ‘rivalling the lieto fine [happy ending] conclusions to the operas of his day, but with far more skill, substance and panache’. The usual chorale rounds off the dialogue, but it was the duet which Gardiner and co encored on 9 January 2000. Here, as usual, is the YouTube alternative - this time from the rival Suzuki series.

*Now (15/1) it appears that it hasn't. Which just goes to show how tough the going must be.

Friday 11 January 2013

Beauty by the book

With apologies to the balletophobes, it’s Aurora time again. And on this occasion I don’t disagree with anything in the Arts Desk review by my eloquent colleague Ismene Brown, who took me along to the English National Ballet Sleeping Beauty (photos - only four to choose from, sadly, which is why you'll see them so often - by Patrick Baldwin for ENB). Perhaps, with infinitely less knowledge of the steps and technical difficulties involved, I have more than just one reservation about ace ballerina and ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo’s Princess, pictured above with Vadim Muntagirov. 

It’s not just that she goes to the altar untransfigured by love, but that there’s not a hint of girlishness about her 16-year-old in Act One. She tackles the absurd number of early challenges with aplomb, but the face is mask-like, except for when the mouth opens and closes in preparation for a hair-raising sequence. Which only, for me, highlights the narrative brilliance of Matthew Bourne in making Aurora a bit – Ismene thinks way too much – of a wild child.

But otherwise the shows are not really comparable: one is a consistent piece of novel storytelling, a dance-panto, whereas this lavish recreation of Kenneth MacMillan’s Petipa-faithful homage for the American Ballet Theatre preserves the aristocratic tradition without quite pickling it in aspic.

You’ve got to do it at the highest level, though, and ENB can. The Nicholas Georgiadis costumes are a wonder; as Ismene points out, they are as lavishly detailed for minor figures like the nurses, the Puritan spinning women and the haughty, stylishly hatted ladies of the Prince's court as they are for the individual fairies and regal mortals. Peter Farmer’s old-fashioned leafy painted flats are a bit minimal by comparison, but provide a pretty framework. You also need to be able to cast the character variations from strength, too, and this was for me the most amazing aspect of the production. 

The highlight, perhaps, is the Prologue’s Pas de Six. What extraordinary patterns Petipa demands from the 6x6x6 combinations of fairies, cavaliers and lilac entourage, and how perfectly that's realised here. What character there was in Nancy Osbaldeston’s finger-pointing Golden Vine and Shiori Kase’s sweetest of songbirds.

Maybe Kase’s smile is in default mode, but she used it to equally winning effect as Princess Florine in Act Three, partnered by the muscular but agile-legged Yonah (nephew of Carlos) Acosta, confirming the promise we’d already enjoyed in Le jeune homme et la mort. Osbaldeston shone again as Red Riding Hood, and lest we thought the royal couple’s thunder might be stolen, Muntagirov's immensely likeable Prince used his tall personage to peerless advantage in his tarantella. Rojo does aristocratic best, and was fine as a glacial Vision Aurora in Act Two. It would be hard to find better personifications of Good versus Evil than Daria Klimentová’s imperturbable Lilac Fairy and James Streeter’s Carabosse, memorably dressed as a wraith Queen Elizabeth who gestures stylishly enough to avoid toppling over into camp.

Of course I’m going to moan a bit about the cuts in Tchaikovsky's greatest score, more within numbers – often musically illogical – than with respect to the usual casualties. There, though, we could have had 20 minutes' more music rather than an unnecessary interval between Prologue and Act One. But how good to have an excellent live orchestra with such first-rate wind soloists (Gareth Hulse a real luxury in the best Grand Pas oboe solo you’ll ever hear).

I always wonder who dictates the tempi, conductor or dancers; two of the Prologue variations as well as Aurora’s in Act Three feel way too slow. There were a few smudgy ensembles but overall Gavin Sutherland led a confident performance. No doubt about it, though, this is the highest-level Gesamtkunstwerk Beauty on show. The regions who’ve already seen it must have wondered what hit them (Oxford and Southampton have yet to benefit). And you may well get a different Aurora and Prince, who should be as good if not better. But don’t be too timid to try out the Bourne Beauty too.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Three kings, two good men

There’s no point in saying ‘now here’s a gem’, because I suspect that with each Bach cantata I discover this year there will be treasure.  But Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (All they from Sheba shall come) BWV 65, the Epiphany conclusion of JSB’s first Christmas cycle for Leipzig in 1724, has an especially rich, jewelled instrumental cortege for its three wise men (Bassano's sumptuous depiction of the homage illustrated above).

One commentator reckons the additions to the usual strings and continuo – two each of horns, oboes da caccia and recorders – respectively stand for gold, frankincense and myrrh (associated with embalming; apparently recorders were especially connected with funeral music).  John Eliot Gardiner, whose 6 January 2000 performance in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche I’ve just heard, associates the recorders with ‘the high pitches..[of] oriental music’ and the oboes da caccia with eastern ‘shawm-like double-reed instruments (salamiya and zurna)'.

Whatever the significance, the pairs gild a splendid opening processional with a hint of drone bass before the chorus parts’ canonical entry, and the tenorial singularity of the oboes da caccia (model illustrated below) dances around the bass aria.

The diamond, though, is the tenor’s number. We’ve moved from the splendid gifts of the magi to the ‘humble heart’ offered by the reciter, with ‘the gold of faith, the frankincense of prayer, the myrrh of patience.’ As if to show how rich the non-material gifts can be, the three pairs plus two violins play delightful little one-bar figures off against one another in a lilting 3/8. This is more opulent and multicoloured even than the kings' opening procession.

Bach's choice of concluding chorale, set to a French 16th century tune, begins with the first line of what we know as ‘O God, our help in ages past’. Another great gift then, infinitely more memorable than the compromised Bach concert at Kings Place I heard last Thursday (which won't stop me going to more with different ensembles in KP's Bach Unwrapped series). Here's another Harnoncourt performance on YouTube so you can hear what I've been writing about - though nothing can match the trumpet-like splendours of Gardiner's horns.

One strand of the Christmas reading was to devour the rest of Ludmila Ulitskaya’s works so far translated. The two books in question are diametrically opposed in style. The Funeral Party is a novella I shall read again, engaging as it is from first paragraph to last. It's a quirky evocation, in the manner of the last act of La Bohème but more cheerful, of friends gathered in a New York attic round a dying Russian émigré artist, Alik, a free spirit whom everyone adores (and we do, too, thanks to deft strokes from Ulitskaya) His crazy wife and former lovers among the women initiate rather haphazard events such as the consecutive visits of a priest to give the last rites and a rabbi. The death seems inevitable, and not to be feared; the burial is followed by a funeral party which turns out, as all such should, to be a vibrant celebration of a life.

Throughout, Ulitskaya’s skill is in the little things that the characters say and do. There’s not much room for any of this in the relatively epic Daniel Stein, Interpreter. It’s a curious semi-fictional testament to Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who saved others while working for the Gestapo as an interpreter before emigrating to Israel and becoming a Carmelite priest. He’s clearly a good man, and Ulitskaya uses his reconciliatory words and deeds as a reflection on the riven religious factions in the beleaguered holy land. It seems that Stein/Rufeisen visited his old friend Karol Wojtyla in the Vatican and encouraged him to recognize Israel – I had no idea the Catholic church didn’t until then – and to be the first pope ever to visit a mosque.

The problem is that because reflections on Daniel/Dieter are mostly testaments in epistolary form, we miss the more immediate human idiosyncrasy which is Ulitskaya’s strength in the three other books of hers I’ve read. The scope, ranging from 1930s Poland to the 1990s, is certainly ambitious, though I can think of other masterpieces which convey the theme of what entails true Christian goodness more succinctly (that wonderful French film Of Gods and Men remains a benchmark). And I don’t know whether Daniel is supposed to have a fault, but for me it inevitably comes when he fails to acknowledge the right to inclusion of a parishioner’s gay son, protesting that homosexuality is beyond his understanding because ‘women are so beautiful, so attractive’, and advising the mother to send her son away from home so that he doesn't trouble her. So much for Christ-like acceptance.

Interesting, isn’t it, that just because a novel takes a big theme like the Holocaust and the Jews in Israel, that doesn’t make it more of a masterpiece than one which adopts a slice of life and infers the larger resonances from what’s done and said in its duration. The Funeral Party is for me the masterpiece of the two (and has the advantage of such simplicity that, like Chekhov’s stories, I imagine I could struggle through it in the Russian). But I still want to read everything Ulitskaya has written, especially the novel Vladimir Jurowski selected in his typically challenging summer reading list for The Arts Desk back in 2011, Imago. Hopefully that's next on the list for translation.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Cantatas by the calendar

I guess what triggered the cantata-hunt this time was having to miss out on the Trinity College Choir/OAE St John’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on the Saturday before Christmas (I was pledged to a marvellous party instead, though we did get to the classiest of Messiahs in the same mini-festival the following evening). So on the day we turned to John Eliot Gardiner’s recording and I realized it could be parcelled out over six days’ worth of what in effect are discrete cantatas. After three days, that meant cheating slightly by leaping forward prematurely to the Feast of the Circumcision (New Year’s Day, the deed illustrated in Bellini’s lovely painting above), the first Sunday of the year and Epiphany.

Snip-day itself marked a proper start, which I intend to follow each Sunday, or as close to it as schedules allow (it’s a good way of getting to know the church calendar, too). I had three options, and the one most readily to hand was BWV 41, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, in Masaaki Suzuki’s BIS recording with the Bach Collegium Japan. That entailed going back a decade from the mid-1730s cornucopia of the Christmas Oratorio to the Leipzig chorale cycle of 1725. Maybe there’s nothing as giddying as the weird harmonic progressions at the start of the Oratorio’s Epiphany cantata, but the treasury of obbligato solos is here, too, and one short but telling combined recitative where the bass is dramatically amplified by an urgent chorus on the line ‘Der Satan unter unsre Füße treten’ (‘May Satan be trodden under our feet’).

Unlike the oratorio, there’s no narrating Evangelist, so nothing about the snip ceremony (Signorelli's version above). Instead, this is a straightforward thanksgiving celebration of the new year, beginning with a 16th century hymn melody embroidered by three exultant trumpets and three oboes as well as leaping strings and continuo. Its novelty is an adagio episode when the chorus reflects on having ‘in good peace’ fulfilled the old year. The oboes adorn the soprano aria; to accompany the tenor’s central sentiments Bach asked for a cello piccolo, which Suzuki tells us was played laterally by a first violinist. His version uses a small five-stringed cello. Here’s the complete cantata in the old Harnoncourt recording on YouTube

Our quiet January the First turned out serendipitously well. The New Year’s Day concert from Vienna was a bit of a damp squib, without the esprit of Jansons or even Mehta (quite a pleasant surprise a couple of years ago), and certainly nowhere near the classic Carlos Kleiber or Karajan experiences. I can’t make Franz Welser-Möst out: he’s quite an elegant conductor, but Danube water rather than blood seems to flow in his veins. No comparison, then, with Kleiber's 1989 or 1992 concerts, both of which are absolutely complete on YouTube. I've been listening to the sound recording of the second, and recommend especially the ideal waltz, which as so often comes from Josef rather than Johann I or II: Dorfschwalben aus Österreich, beginning at 14'40.

Yesterday we had ze laughing, Austrian style, in the one 'comedy' routine of the programme proper – FWM self-consciously dolling out pertinent toy animals and a Valkyrie helmet, inter alia, to the orchestral soloists in the interminable Carnival in Venice variations (weren’t they more fun a couple of years ago?). And the percussionists' lame dialogue in the encore Plappermäulchen Polka, my favourite thanks to the lines we gave it on holiday in Venice with the godson and his little chatterbox sister, felt uncomfortable too. Verdi's Don Carlos ballet frolic put some of the Strausses' tamer stuff into the shade, including a dull Quadrille on mostly banda stuff from Macbeth and Rigoletto amongst others. I learnt one thing – that one of Stravinsky’s two ballerina-moor waltzes in Petrushka comes from Lanner's otherwise dreary Styrian Dances. The women count in the orchestra remains lamentable and inexcusable - two violinists sharing a back desk, harpist and third flute were all I saw (though that's considerably more than in the 1992 concert above).

The day was bright, so we walked from South Ken up to the meeting of the parks, around the Serpentine and via the human zoo of the Winter Wonderland to Marble Arch. J’s long expressed desire to see the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, was thwarted at the Odeon here, but we found it was on at Whiteley’s so continued the walk westwards and arrived just in time. Mendes's accomplished direction was much what I expected, the obligatory opening chase crowned by bikes on the roof of Istanbul's Covered Bazaar, but graced throughout by a Henry IV Part Two feeling of ‘I grow old’, and requiring the ever-dependable Dame Judi to be more than her previously cool M. The consummate performance in a good line up, though, surely comes from Javier Bardem, funny and hugely charismatic, out- (but not over-)acting our muscular but battered hero.