Tuesday 28 January 2014

My Borgen Hamlet

It came to me before the second series of Denmark's West Wing-worthy political drama was out. Nationality had nothing to do with it; I only saw Pilou Asbæk's magnificent acting as the tormented Kasper Juul fit for Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark, Sidse Babett Knudsen's authority tuned to a different pitch as Gertrude, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen's vocally well modulated beauty ripe for the steel that enters Ophelia's grief-maddened speeches.

Any number of fine Danish actors in the series would fit the bill of Claudius, depending on what the director wanted: inscrutability from Søren Malling  (TV editor Torben Friis and pictured below with Hjort Sørensen) or rugged threat from Mikael Birkkjær (the now ex-husband Phillip, so much more compelling than Birgitte's new love and 'celebrated British architect' Jeremy, a nasal-voiced blank canvas; let's not even look up the actor). Then there's old former communist Soren Ravn, as played by Lars Mikkelsen whom I find almost as attractive as his brother Mads: he could be a seemingly ice-cold Claudius who goes into meltdown. I'm usually a bit perplexed that Polonius, as the father of Laertes and Ophelia, should be as old as he's usually portrayed but were that the case, then Lars Knudson, the avuncular Bent, fits the bill.

Since I spun that fantasy, the thespian influx has already begun, given our national mania for what is so broadly and erroneously termed 'Nordic Noir' (they're trying to sell Borgen as a 'political thriller', which it only occasionally is, though there's always a nail-biting dilemma per episode). Hjort Sørensen is possibly wasted in Coriolanus at the Donmar -  I haven't seen it yet and I'm no great fan of the play, brilliant though it is - while Knudsen is due on stage here anon, I forget in what. Now The Killing's Sarah Lund, aka Sofie Gråbøl, is down to play Queen Margaret in The James Plays at the Edinburgh Festival. It's one in the eye for American starpower on the British stage, and of course it says much for Danes' impeccable English - though my 'Borgen Hamlet' would be performed in the actors' native language.

We've been gripped by the interior psychology of The Killing - well, the first and third seasons, anyway, since the second was ruled out for me by a ludicrous spoiler-identification of the criminal on The Arts Desk - and the rather gorier, incredible scenarios of The Bridge, because in spite of the loose ends crimebusters Saga and Martin make a compelling double-act.

But it's Borgen which takes the palm for subtle characterisations down to every member, in Series Three, of Birgitte's New Democrats. We've been devouring it, somewhat late, on DVD.  I love the way each episode investigates the complexities of various issues - in this season, harsh immigration laws, pig-farming, prostitutes and the spectre of communism, to name but four. And have we not all shed tears over - spoiler notice - Birgitte's finally coming clean about her pre-cancerous treatment?

As in The West Wing, we're stirred - unless we're right-wingers, who of course would not enjoy the disciplined liberal sentiments - by the big speeches. I was interested to read creator Adam Price - a Dane, too, despite the English name - talking about how Borgen was never aimed at an international market; they'd be lucky, he reckoned, to get their neighbours picking it up out of solidarity. But of course truthfulness crosses national boundaries.

Maybe you have to watch Birgitte acting out the big what-we-stand-for speech in episode two of the third series, but I'll reproduce a bit of it here. She's reacting to the media pressing her on the group's defection from the Moderates: 'I know the journalists don't understand idealism, but at the core of this is a desire to change the world.' And later, with reference to the Moderates' intention of deporting immigrant citizens for small misdemeanours:

We're passing more bills which border dangerously on breaching the Constitution and human rights. Bills that are the waste product of political horse-trades. They're rushed through because they're too shameful to discuss. The people don't get to have their say and it's not just slovenliness. It's decidedly undemocratic. Democracy is dialogue. And that dialogue is fading out. New Democrats will fight to re-open that dialogue.

Sound familiar? Of course. And that's the beauty of it: how Borgen began by being local and ended up touching the universal.

Monday 20 January 2014

Addio to the master

I can add little more to the Guardian obit now up, various blog posts and Arts Desk features - a joint tribute with Ed Seckerson being the latest - jammed with superlatives about Claudio Abbado, who has died surrounded by his family in Bologna at the age of 80. His Indian summer with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra yielded simply the best Mahler I've ever heard: I got myself out there on the strength of the Second Symphony on DVD, to be stunned first by the Seventh, later by the First; as for the Ninth, it was simply an out of body experience.

Likewise, surprisingly, Tchaikovsky's The Tempest in Rome with another super-orchestra made up of the Orchestra Mozart based in his home town of Bologna and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. Abbado's Tchaikovsky Sixth with the Simon Bolivar then-still-Youth Orchestra in Lucerne was only part of a poleaxing programme. Bruckner Five at the Festival Hall didn't quite do it for me - blame my problems with the piece - but the preceding Schumann Piano Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida was one of THE great partnerships. Both concert photos here by the great Chris Christodoulou.

All the qualities which made these performances peerless I've ennumerated elsewhere, not least in the obit -  strange to think it was begun before the Lucerne dream took wing - but I'll just recall a few more. Live, way back, Debussy and Tchaikovsky with the LSO, more recently, Brahms with the Berlin Phil. On CD, the early Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet and Chout excerpts, Verdi's Simon Boccanegra with a dream cast, a Wagner disc with Bryn Terfel.  

Later: in the City Lit class, too swamped by Abbadiana to do justice to Tippett's King Priam, I put together a sequence, mostly operatic to suit the students:

Wagner, Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Arthaus Music DVD of the 1990 Vienna production)

Verdi, Prelude to Aida  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG CD, 1997)

Prokofiev: Dance with Mandolins from Romeo and Juliet and Final Dance from Chout  London Symphony Orchestra (Decca CD, 1966)

Berg: Lulu Suite (first three movements) Anna Prohaska, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (Accentus Music DVD of  2010 Lucerne concert with encore: 'Ach, ich fühls' from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte). To my amazement, I see the entire performance is there on YouTube. It starts with the most blistering opener ever, 'The Adoration of Veles and Ala' launching Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, and ends with a great Tchaikovsky Pathétique. I remarked at the time that Abbado brought his own sound with him, especially in the beauty of the Berg, and that was especially evident when Dudamel took over the following night, good as he was.

Then there should have been something from the Rossini Il Viaggio a Reims, but time was short.

Finally, Mahler: Symphony No. 4 - third and fourth movements  Juliane Banse, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (Medici Arts DVD of 2006 Vienna Musikverein concert).

And what could have been more appropriately bittersweet than that?

Anyway, I wish Abbado had recorded more Wagner - it's criminal that we don't have his Parsifal preserved for posterity - and my one great regret is that he never tackled the two Elgar symphonies, for which his own supreme gift of the most flexible rubato in the business would seem to have been made. Back now, anyway, to listen to the Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream music which he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic last year (friend Debbie was first soprano in 'Ye spotted snakes'). I was so looking forward to hearing the same with the Orchestra Mozart in Dresden's Frauenkirche this June; sadly it's not to be, but we've had our visions. Though we'll hugely miss him, there's nothing to regret: no-one lived a fuller life, one so much longer than illness would have led anyone to expect.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Down Mabey's way

Back in late September, three of us were on the train bound for Tring station in the Chilterns, my plan being that we should walk the ridge of common land above it back to Berkhamstead via the most massive and haunting trees I've ever seen apart from the redwoods of California and the kauris of New Zealand's north island, the grove of coppiced giants known as Frithsden Beeches. Our acquaintance with them two years earlier was due to Beechcombings by that finest of writers about nature, Richard Mabey, who grew up and lived in the area until a severe depression prompted a move to pastures new (the very different landscape of Norfolk).

All that he describes in perhaps his wisest and most pithily poetic book yet, Nature Cure. The actual description of the dark days takes up a relatively small part of his second chapter, 'Lair'. But it hits the spot for me in so many of its paragraphs. Not least the way Mabey describes his (our, though no one experience is entirely the same) depression, throughout which nature was no more a cure in his case than music was in mine:

There's no random physical 'accident' behind it and nothing which benefits, no opportunist virus or evolutionary climber. It seems to have no connection with the biological business of living at all. And what it did to me was unearthly, in that it negated, cut dead, all the things in which I most believed: the importance of sensual engagement with the world, the link between feeling and intelligence, the inseparability of nature and culture.

I couldn't have, haven't, put it better myself. I agree, too, when he takes up Oliver Sacks' definition of 'vegetative retreat'. And what I haven't seen anywhere put better is the way Mabey describes the slow return to life as we know it, the convalescing which one is so unprepared to acknowledge:

If my illness was a vegetative retreat, this was a kind of vegetative advance, a slow, grinding, mindless pull back to some semblance of self-sustaining behaviour.

Well, my own experience took a year in between the Frithsden excursion and this trip, which has since been followed by an all too short return on a brilliantly sunny afternoon towards the end of last year (second picture above of heading towards the model village of Aldbury). On that intended return visit I realised before we arrived that the now-famous wood purchased by Mabey in 1981 and subsequently kept open for all to use thanks to Heritage Lottery Funds after he sold it could be part of a different route, heading south west to Wigginton before recrossing the railway line up towards the ridge.

Mabey writes beguilingly about Hardings Wood in both Beechcombings - now somewhat cynically repackaged, itself an 'opportunist virus' of the publishing world, with a new preface and epilogue as The Ash and the Beech, more fool me for buying it online - and the earlier Home Country, which uses as its cover one of Paul Nash's many emblematic renderings of the beech clumps which distinguish this part of the world. The group which fascinated Nash from 1911 to the end of his life were the groves on top of neolithic earthworks known as Wittenham Clumps.

We saw a presumably younger but still impressive relative group as we headed along what turned out to be part of the Ridgeway from Tring station

before crossing the A41 towards Wigginton. It had always lodged in my mind somewhat mockingly, as the childhood home of an old friend, and truth to tell it's more a commuter village of no great interest, but still it's charmingly situated and we met a humorous old man at the church lych gate who invited us to an afternoon bridge drive. When I asked him if he'd lived in Wigginton all his life, he said 'not yet'; and as it turned out he'd come from Worcester in the 1960s.

St Bartholomew's Church, essentially 13th century with a 15th century west chapel but (over) restored in the 19th, is one of those that would never make the selective guide books (as for Pevsner, I don't know because his guide to Hertfordshire is a serious omission in my collection). Yet as usual with such places it had charms of its own, not least the Victorian archangel windows and a funny old organ with a trompe l'oeil book ready for the organist. My leaflet has vanished and all I could find about it was an English Heritage note that it's painted in medieval style, but thats all. No matter; it's quaint.

The church's mid-Victorian curate wrote a report to the diocesan bishop, kept secret for 150 years as Mabey tells us, lamenting the loss of picturesque Wigginton after the odious enclosures. In 1766, Mabey discovered from an old map, Hardings Wood was part of a much bigger woodland, one mile and a half long and a mile wide, adjoining the Tring and Wigginton commonland which was lost owing to the greed of the landowners. Fortunately we know that the other side of the canal and the railway line, things turned out differently thanks to momentous local engagement stirred up by a London man of the people, preserving wood and meadow free to all from Norman times and now preserved for the same by the National Trust.

Hardings is, Mabey writes, 'slung like a hammock across a dry coombe'. It is 'two woods really, an old and a new':

The ancient part, by far the largest, had both species of native oak, hornbeam, ash, cherry, holly and hazel, mostly grown up from stumps and seeds since the last war...Next to this old wood was a plantation of 90-year-old beeches. It occupied a third of Hardings' seven hectares, but I barely glanced at it in those early days...The trees were magnificent. They had never been thinned, and rose to immense heights.

When we began working in the old wood we ignored these soaring columns. They were out of scale with what we were doing. Too remote. Trees for grown-ups, as they had been when I was a child.

The first change was when the primary school held its Ascension Day service in this 'green cathedral'. And once Mabey had learned to relax and stop thinking of managerial priorities, he came to respect this area's rhythms and unexpected life.

It certainly seemed magical that sunny afternoon, the tracks bright browny-red with fallen leaves but the green canopy still there higher up. Everything felt that much more fragile because we knew that another major storm was on its way which would break that evening, destroying swathes of trees across the south but leaving Hertfordshire more or less undamaged. In any case, as Mabey teaches us, a big hurricane is not the disaster for nature the media whips us into believing.. The spring after the big 'un of 87, regeneration had already begun. Beeches, despite their shallow roots, are extraoardinarily resilient. And so it proved this time and the next.

All this felt very enfolded and secluded. But the main road, to be recrossed, was not far away, And then we wound our way up to join the Ickneld Way in the bigger woods on the opposite rise. Darkness was falling quicker than I'd anticipated, so we carried on to descend into the village of Aldbury, which with its duckpond, stocks, church and pub now very gastro-oriented - but none the worse for that - is quintessentual old Hertfordshire (and, like Lacock, has been used for film shoots so many times). We had tea there before walking back to Tring station in darkness, only to pick up the route a month ago and to approach it from the opposite direction.

This time, too, it was already late afternoon and there was to be no lunch-idling. So we got the very friendly pub staff to make us up some sandwiches, had a quick drink and sped on our way westwards (walking, as it turned out, the last hour past Frithsden beeches, in mud and dark, but none the worse for that). The Church of St John the Baptist, however, I wanted to revisit in brighter light.

The outstanding treasures come from elsewhere - namely the monastery at nearby Ashridge. The gem is the
Pendley Chapel, enclosed by Edmund Verney in 1575. He had the chest tomb of Sir Robert Whittingham (d.1471)

and his wife brought here along with the wonderful stone parclose ('clunch traceried', says one guide) screen.

It seems so wonderfully apt for the way that Aldbury is half-cradled by the forests - and presumably the monastery was encircled by them - that Sir Robert has at his feet a wild man of the woods complete with knobbled club.

The detail on this hairy man is, literally, fabulous.

Lady W has to make do with a now-worn hind, keeping up the forest imagery.

The two look noble enough in repose

and now face Sir Richard and Lady Anderson, deceased much later in 1699 and 1698 respectively as the wigs atop their not too solemn busts tell us.

Also from Ashridge is the Purbeck marble altar tomb with brasses of Sir Ralph Verney (d.1546) and his wife with four shields, the two above clearest here,

and their 12 children (nine boys here, three girls to their right) in between.

Plenty of other details from various ages catch the eye in various odd places, including - and I missed this on the first visit in the dark - 16th century German stained glass of the Crucifixion and Christ of Piety with original 15th century English canopies in the heads.

There, that's one more church done in cursory fashion, but others have accumulated, so expect the usual punctuation of things musical, literary and dramatic in the months to come. And I've just returned from a post-concert stay in the Scottish Borders with two of the godchildren and my dear friend Christopher Lambton, the ultimate woodsman, so more treestories are bound to follow.

Thursday 9 January 2014

St Petersburg 1914

So now I can stick on my CV that I've written a monologue for a famous actor. I've had scripts for two Glyndebourne 'Opera Bites' - a sadly defunct CD series of introductions - read by Fiona Shaw (Bizet's The Pearl Fishers) and Timothy West (Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery), but this one 'for' Jonathan Pryce is slightly different. It seemed like a crazy thing to have to do when Radio 3 approached me to provide a 'musical postcard' from St Petersburg for its series Music on the Brink, about Europe in early 1914. 'Present it like an "I was at a great concert last night" type of thing', I was told, and groaned far too audibly.

Then it came to me. First, why not just snippet from Prokofiev's extensive diary for that year? Not quite the format they wanted. So how about this: write the postcard as from one of SSP's fellow St Petersburg Conservatory student friends, waiting for his climactic participation in the student competition to claim a Schroeder grand piano as prize (he won it playing - in an unprecedented move - his own First Piano Concerto as well as Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture)? That did it: thus I could cover not only SSP's new steps in music but also the ongoing Wagner craze and his first live hearing of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in a Koussevitzky concert. Picture of SSP below is a bit later, from the American period.

You can hear the results this afternoon at some point during In Tune starting at 4.30pm, and thereafter for the next week on the BBC iPlayer, perhaps maybe for all time on this clip added tonight which I've just (23.00) heard (as a matter of personal pique, although I'm assuming Suzy Klein gave a credit in the back announcement, there's none as it stands in the presentation or the broadcast here, which is a bit poor; but what's a script hack compared to a 'star of stage and screen'? UPDATE: my gripe has been answered, the credit added. So I'd wipe the rest of the parenthesis were it not for the sake of the comments making sense).

My mention of a chess game Prokofiev held during the competition with a female rival got cut, but in any case I stopped short of chronicling a simultaneous,  momentous event in his life, his participation in the 1914 St Petersburg International Chess Championships held that April.

I have a fair bit about it in the biography, and there's more in the ever compelling diaries, but until today I didn't know this extraordinary photo existed. That I now do is courtesy of Edward Winter's Chess History website

Spot the composer? I thought I saw him at the back. This partial key from some diligent chess fan made me look again. You'll need to click on the pic to enlarge for the numbers.

1-Alekhine, 2- Janowski, 3-Capablanca, 4-Bernstein, 5-Marshall, 6-Blackburne, 7-Lasker, 8-Tarrasch, 9-Rubinstein, 10-Nimzowitsch, 11-Gunsberg, 12-D.D. Korelev, 13-A.I. Alekhine, 14-J. Taubenhaus, 17-N.A. Znosko-Borovsky, 21-E.I. Talvik, 22-Boris Bashkirov-Verin 23-P.A. Saburov, 24-S.S. Prokofiev, 25-J.O. Sossnitzky, 26-­A.A. Chepurnev, 27-R. Gebhardt, 29-B.E. Maliutin, 31-P.P. Saburev, 33-A. Burn, 35-Vainshtein, 36-P.A. Eftifeev, 37-Lochwitsky, 39-Ed. M. Nabel, 40-P.P. Potemkin, 56-B.Z. Kolenko, 58-Frau Lasker

So that includes not only SSP (24) but also the great contestants whose game was taking place around the time of the picture, Prokofiev's soon-to-be firm friend José Capablanca (3) and Emmanuel Lasker (7), whom the composer compared respectively to Mozart and Bach (see pages 99-100 of my Vol. 1), as well as his feckless chum Boris Bashkirov who wrote poetry under the name of Boris Verin (22). Also in the biog's appendix is the simultaneous chess game victory Prokofiev gained over Capablanca on 16 May.

As for the wider events leading up to the terrible, unanticipated* explosion of August 1914, I've been reading more about them with horror and a heavy heart in between the wit and wisdom of Simon Winder's sequel to his captivating Germania, Danubia.

Oh, the pointlessness not just of the Great War but all those lives lost in the carnage of the Habsburgs' earlier conflicts. What especially makes the heart sink is the shifting Realpolitik which dogs every conflict even today, the principle of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' which afflicted the patchwork of nations and languages making up the ever-shifting Austrian (and Austro-Hungarian) Empire.

Even so, despite all those mid-19th century feckless battles, Winder constantly reiterates, as he did in Germania, how 1900s Vienna didn't especially see itself as the dancer on the abyss it becomes with hindsight. He's fascinated by the social life which leaves none of the traces we use as signifiers - film, music, art, literature.

Winder's most extravagant flights of fancy come in accounts of visits to often melancholy sites around the former empire. Marienbad/Mariánské Lázně gets the 'attractively brittle...pointless fraud' treatment, harmless on the surface and horrible underneath, Winder concluding that section brilliantly: 'This framework for polite, empty circulation, a regulated, closed environment for the right kind of people, now seems to stand for a lost and enviable pre-1914 world, but in practice it has always been toxic and peculiar'.

His paean to the architecture of Budapest Zoo culminates in a delirious ('demented' would be Winder's word, sometimes a bit overused in his second volume) description of the Guinea-Pig Village. Below, the 'faux-Tamerlane' Elephant House, 'possibly the maddest of all Hungarian "Turanian" fantasies about national origins in some vague but grand part of Central Asia, with the unique displacement activity of also granting the nation's elephants a shared Hungarian ancestry'. Winder goes on to tell us how during the brief, unlikely re-alignment with the Ottomans in the First World War the suggestion of a mosque for pachyderms caused offence, so the minaret had to be removed for a bit.

Buy, read, marvel at the lightness with which Winder wears his polymathy. His curiosity is boundless and he's left me with an enormous list of places to see - aforementioned zoo, the perfect Bohemian town of Český Krumlov on the Vltava and Sibiu in Romania right at the top; of literature to read - time to pick up my three-volume Banffy, but also to seek out other Czech and Hungarian novels; of films to see and music to hear (Winder is one up on me in knowing, and making attractive the prospect of listening to, the four Zemlinsky string quartets - shame I couldn't get to any of the concerts in the Hampstead Festival cycle). But to make the full 'follow up' inventory I need to go back to the book and comb through. It's certainly one for the ages.

*A tart commenter takes me to task for the irresponsible use of that word - I reply (see below) that I should have qualified it with the acnowledgment that it was the extent of the explosion, its ramifications, which could not have been anticipated.

Monday 6 January 2014

Evviva the classical independents

It came as no surprise to find that all the CDs I'd enjoyed most last year had come from small outfits, most of them promoting unusual repertoire and helping little-known artists to spread the word. The mascot of them all ought to be Odradek, the non-profit-making promoter of pianists based in Pescara. It burst upon us with its first disc, Mei Yi Foo's ingenious programme of contemporary miniatures Musical Toys, which only just got picked up in a mini-review for the BBC Music Magazine.

All of us present at the BBCMM Awards, I fancy, fell for her engagament and her choice of pieces; and I did so further at a squeezed-in Kings Place recital. Probably my most returned to track of 2013 was another Odradek pianist, Domenico Codispoti, playing Granados's 'El Amor y la Muerte' from Goyescas, which I must investigate further.

But I've written about those discs and, in passing here as well as for the BBCMM, about the Mythos accordion duo's phenomenal transcription of Stravinsky's Petrushka - Arts Desk colleague Graham Rickson's top choice in our obligatory best-of-year selection, and mine too. This film, in the absence of the excellent Orchid Classics' more perfect trailer for the CD, has enough of 'Petrushka's Room' to give you a good idea of how the amazing orchestral score works in this arrangement.

Top image is from Andreas Cellarius's 1660 Harmonia Macocosmica reproduced in the Accent label's gorgeous presentation of Bach's B minor Mass. The set was only one of many discs which Jan Kucera, a Prague-based music enthusiast, has been showering me with  - and if I haven't worked my way through a fraction of his gifts, I can at least thank him by acknowledging that the Collegium/Collegium Vocale 1704's performance under Václav Luks is perhaps the very best I've heard of this greatest mass.

Luks seems to have an uncanny instinct for the right tempi, by which I mean breathable ones with which I happen to agree (I used to say the same about Sir Charles Mackerras's Mozart). The six soloists, including two very natural basses, are superlatively good; it says much about the plethora of fine countertenors around that I'd not encountered Terry Wey before. The choral singing is both focused and, when need be, ecstatic, and the three trumpets - or should I say clarini - as remarkable as the ones I heard in a weekend of Bach before Christmas (the B minor Mass at Kings Place and four parts of the Christmas Oratorio at St John's Smith Square). I may not be re-embarking on the cantatas pilgrimage which only got up to Easter last year, but I'll be bathing at the source whenever I can.

Beethoven wouldn't usually figure among the must-hears for me, but Bettina Schimmer sent me a captivating disc which isn't even out yet: the young Ukrainian pianist Alexej Gorlatch in three very well-known sonatas - the Pathétique, the Moonlight and the Tempest - on the Oehms Classics label.

The wonder here, and some may not like it as much as I do, is the lightness, the deftness which avoids Sturm und Drang in favour of something much more delicately spiritual. The finales are a miracle of expressive precision. I can't wait to hear Gorlatch live, but I may have to travel to the continent to catch him some time soon*.

Ditto the most unexpected discovery, for me, of three days at the Stavanger Festival. It was a late night cabaret evening in the former workers' meeting place, and after much of the day spent travelling we thought we could always slip out after one or two numbers. But we were captivated by Music for a While, chanteuse Tora Augestad and the most unexpected of quartets (coolest of jazz trumpeters Mathias Eick, tuba-player Martin Taxt, percussionist Pal Hausken and man of many instruments, but chiefly accordion, Stian Carstensen - also a much-loved stand-up comedian in Norway, but needless to say his spiel went over our heads while everyone around us fell about).

The next day, inspired above all by their Weill arrangements including the best 'Surabaya Jonny' I've heard, I bought their CD from the charming lady who owns an adored music shop down the road in Sandnes and has a stand at most concerts. I've played it a lot. And when I bumped into the charming Tora at a Stavanger Cathedral concert, she said she'd send me a copy of their latest, 'Graces that refrain'. And she was as good as her word.

I wasn't quite so sold on the Dowland arrangements live, but there are treasures here too, most surprisingly a cool version of Desdemona's 'Ave Maria' from Verdi's Otello which, to my amazement, works brilliantly on its own terms. I'm campaigning to bring the group to the UK, so if there's any help or interest out there, let me know. In the meantime, here's 'Surabaya Jonny' on film.

Another Norwegian group I have yet to experience live - but will do so in Oslo later this month - is baroque violinist Bjarte Eike's Barokksolistene. This time not exactly my milieu, but I was genuinely captivated by their BIS collection The Image of Melancholy which, like Gorlatch's Beethoven, has yet to be released here. Like Music for a While's discs, it's eloquently annotated by the artist(s). There's a new concert-programming creativity in the air - I've just witnessed the best use of it in the Aurora Orchestra's 'Road Trip' at Kings Place on Saturday - and this bears witness to it.

More Dowland, this time with Byrd and Holborne, but interspersed with Norwegian traditional numbers ( a wedding march is - and again I find myself using the word - captivating). Not sure about the Slovakian interpolation or the pure but to me bland soprano of Berit Norbakken Solset, but otherwise it's a wonderful sequence, and not all melancholy (though I'm told it's very much tied up with the death of Eike's father, and he thinks it's the most important thing he's ever done).  Niel Gow's lament for the death of his second wife makes for a transcendental conclusion.

I've been much more restrained in my CD choice than I was in what turned out to be not so much a pick of the classical/opera live scene for TAD as a survey of it. Where was I to stop? How could I have forgotten the magic of Irish tenor Robin Tritschler's Finzi Dies Natalis and Britten Serenade with the Britten Sinfonia in Gresham School's woods, capped by the horn sounding somewhere from within the high beeches surrounding the platform? Here he is as one of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists in a sublime Christmas song by Cornelius. Over the hols I'd been listening to all of Cornelius's little Weihnachtslieder, a sequence most famous for the 'Three Kings' setting, in Fischer-Dieskau's performance with Gerald Moore, and this compares well, to say the least. Shame the pianist isn't credited.

If Tritschler is definitely one young artist of the year, there are others among the singers I've heard, not least  Andrew Staples, Marcus Farnsworth and Kitty Whately doing the new generation proud in the Barbican Albert Herring - and that reminds me about another discovery on disc, mezzo Karen Cargill in Berlioz's Les nuits d'été and, best of all, La mort de Cleopâtre with fab Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Where does it come from, this intuition for greatness? Oor Karen seems an ordinary enough Glasgow girl in 'normal' life, but here she's a queen.

Ir was a shame there was no ballet choice of the year on TAD. I'm only reminded because I've been listening to so much dancy-dancy music in the early days of 2014, and reliving the splendours of English National Ballet's homage-to-Nureyev Raymonda Act Three (photographed below by Dave Morgan) in going through Alexander Anissimov's amazingly good complete recording of the fantastical Glazunov score.

Maybe Neeme Järvi can carry on the winning streak of his Tchaikovsky ballets with the Bergen Philharmonic, once The Nutcracker is in the can, with this. Though Anissimov's recording, to be honest, is fine enough, and I hope NJ will act on my pleas for him to follow in Ansermet's footsteps with his Suisse Romande Orchestra in a complete Delibes Coppelia and Sylvia.

I realize (7/1) I can also indulge a Best of Theatre 2013 slot, too, though I hardly ran the gamut. Even if I had, hopefully Best Actor and Actress would be the same. Among actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor excelled by a long way as a rangy, charismatic Patrice Lumumba in Joe Wright's joky-scary Young Vic staging of A Season in the Congo (photo by Johan Persson).

Wright's work would win him Best Production too, though equal contender was Richard Jones's characteristically unpredictable take on Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (as Public Enemy) in the same theatre (how I love the Young Vic, and what treasures it has in store this year). This time the play, a complex masterpiece, was as compelling as its treatment. Here's another risk-taking actor, Nick Fletcher, as Stockmann, photographed by Keith Pattison.

Kudos to the Barbican, too, for showcasing French classics I'd never seen on stage before from French companies, Rhinocéros and Ubu Roi, and linking them to the superb Duchamp et al exhibition. Standing out from what looked like a sea of middle-of-the-road stuff at the National Theatre were Joe Hill-Gibbins' disorienting production of Marlowe's Edward II, hopefully a sign of more experimental things to come under Rufus Norris, and the melting/zesty child's eye take on Emil and the Detectives accompanied by breathtaking designs/video projections

Best Actress award, again no question from my limited experience: Hilde Kronje as a spoilt young Afrikaaner of infinite variety in Mies Julie at the Riverside Studios (which need saving now from the greedy property developers). How she and Bongile Mantsai (the two pictured below by William Burdett-Coutts) kept up the intensity night after night is one of the mysteries of live theatre.

But now it's time to leave the self-indulgence and froth behind, get down to work and - sigh- sort out the tax return.

*Bettina tells me he's playing Beethoven and Chopin concerts with the Royal Northern Sinfonia in April, but I'm waiting on a recital.