Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Once a Bishop

From his birth in 1940 until 1975, he was plain Stephen Bishop, named after his stepfather (typically, he plunged in at the deep end in his recording career with Philips, recording Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in 1968, sleeve pictured above). Then he added his Croatian father's name and became Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich. For many years now, he's been not-so-plain Kovacevich, and as such he celebrated his 75th birthday in high style with former other half Martha Argerich at the Wigmore Hall. Here they are playing Debussy's En blanc et noir - roles were swapped for a stupendous performance of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances -  with thanks to Clive Barda.

I reviewed the curate's-egg programme - still can't quite decide what I thought about the very speedy Schubert D960 Sonata, so very different from his Hyperion version - on The Arts Desk, preceding it with a long, long interview. Which was a privilege and an honour, but how much more I could have got out of it had the Universal box of all his Philips recordings made a timely arrival.

It was, at any rate, a pleasure to dive in and dig out the performances he specially rated: Brahms One and Schumann Concerto with Colin Davis, Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Argerich, and of his many recordings of the Brahms solo piano works, he singled out the Capriccio, No. 8 of Op. 76 as something very special and oh, so hard to play well. The set also plays to my being suckered-in by original sleeve artworks, sadly not of course reproduced at the size of the original LPs, but some are so very 1970s.

I've spent much time with the rest of the 25 CDs - amazed by his Chopin, a composer with whom we tend not to have associated him, and returning most often to the sets of late Brahms piano pieces (Opp. 116-119). He switched me on to some of these elusive, often very interior masterpieces in a 1981 Edinburgh Queen's Hall recital during my first year as a student (it may just have been Op. 117, and certainly a Beethoven sonata was also on the programme - though whether 'Tempest' or 'Waldstein', I can't remember - one of those because I made an only partially successful attempt to learn both in the early 1980s).

These are certainly top of the heap - in the interim, I've also played Nicolas Angelich's interpretations - and no-one captures better or more supernaturally the weird introspection of, say, Op. 116's No. 5 in E minor or the first two of Op. 119. The titanic and the intimate side by side which mean Kovacevich IS Brahms for me are most extreme in the first of the Op. 79 Rhapsodies.

Kovacevich's delicious solo rendition of Brahms's Op. 39 Waltzes provides an appropriate link to a more consistently miraculous birthday celebration more recently at the Wigmore - divine Elisabeth Leonskaja's 70th, surrounded by friends both young and (relatively) old. Again, I've written a review, this time a total paean, over on The Arts Desk, and I was thrilled to hear Jörg Widmann live as clarinettist for the first time - what a complete performer - but the four-handed Waltzes were a special delight.

Fireworks came from Samson Tsoy and Pavel Kolesnikov; taking over for some of the more inward numbers were 'Lisa' and acolyte Alexandra Silocea - whom I've known since writing the notes for her Prokofiev debut CD and like a lot, ditto her delightful husband Sébastien Chonion, who's been garnering awards for his production work at Glyndebourne. I'm assuming he took this picture of the happy Brahms foursome (update: he tells me he didn't, and only Alexandra, giving a Manchester Bridgewater Hall lunchtime recital even as I write, can identify the photographer). Kolesnikov is on the right.

Another good pic of the evening - which wasn't officially snapped - came from Tweeter Odetta. I hope she won't mind my reproducing this one, an alternative to Sebastien's group shot which I used on TAD. Sorry you can't see more at this size.

As for bumper boxes, I finally got to the end of 86 CDs - 50 in a Sony box, 36 from Universal - of Stravinsky, and talked about the experience with Andrew McGregor for about an hour on Saturday's CD Review, with some choice excerpts. I can honestly say it's been a constant enlightenment, and probably no composer weathers such consecutive listening better. Listen to a fraction of the thoughts I had about the two sets for the next 28 days on the BBC iPlayer. The chunk starts at about the 1hr48m mark.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Priez pour paix

Having noticed this piece from January 2011 rising up the most-viewed list, I make no apologies for republishing it now. Not only does it embed the exquisitely simple Poulenc song which is one possible response to the weekend's events - though I hasten to add I don't think of 'prayer' in narrow Christian terms - but it also reminds me to go back and watch one of the greatest films possibly ever. Unless you seek total escapism, it's the right thing to see at the moment, though you'll weep. My review DVD is still in the hands of our Meknes host at the Riadh Laboul, so I'd better get another copy.

I make no apologies for juxtaposing the peaceful song-title - bearing in mind Poulenc's inward setting of Charles d'Orleans's invocation under threat of war - and the violence implicit in Caravaggio's painting. Both the juxtaposition and the image play key parts in Xavier Beauvois's near-flawless film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux): Luc (the infallibly sympathetic Michael Lonsdale) leans against the wounded body in a poster of the picture on the wall of his Algerian monastery and we begin to understand what 'love of Christ' might actually mean.

In fact all the best aspects of faith are to be found in the exquisitely chosen dialogues and quotations of the film's awe-inspiring script, with the Koran playing almost as large a role as the Bible. I'm hoping to obtain a copy of the text as it's a collection of wisdom in itself. In the meantime, read Dom Christan de Cherge's testament, written in Algiers on 1 December 1993, produced at his monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine on New Year's Day 1994 and opened on Pentecost Sunday 1996 shortly after the murders of Christian and his fellow Trappists (is it possible to talk about this film without foreknowledge of its end? I don't think so, though clearly an audience which didn't know the outcome would find it even more suspenseful). This is the voice not of a missionary - the director had said he would have found it hard to make a film about that - but of someone who dearly loved Algeria and his Muslim brothers.

Of Gods and Men works simply on so many levels: as a meditation on sound and silence - the popcorn crunching next to me soon stopped, and the Curzon Mayfair was still for the rest of the screening - in which music plays a minimal but essential role, Tchaikovsky as much as religious chant, and we understand what's not verbalised (as when, for instance, Lambert Wilson's Christian touches the trunk of a huge, ancient tree); as an unsentimental embodiment of what it might really mean to live and work in a community which may worship differently; and above all, ultimately, as a palpitation-inducing speculation on whether fear or faith will have the last word (the final procession which melts into the snow leaves the question open).

Unusually, I don't want to say much more, or to sully the film with any clips: just go see for yourselves. If only it could be screened in Iraq and Egypt in their current times of trouble, too*: not, of course, as anything as crass as a Christian tract, but just for its simple reflections on the 'all men are/should be brothers' line. It's enough, as Golaud says in Pelleas et Melisande, to make stones weep. But not in a bad way.

Anyway here's Poulenc's 'Priez pour paix', the first of four songs delivered here by Charles Panzéra with his wife at the piano (I wanted the Ann Murray recording, but it's not on YouTube; now - 17/11/2015 - Felicity Lott is there with Pascal Rogé, but for some reason not embeddable). The simple poem is by Charles d'Orleans (1394-1465)

And how could I not reproduce the most moving final scene in all opera, the nuns to the guillotine in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites? This is perhaps director Robert Carsen's finest achievement, seen in the Scala production conducted (magnificently) by Riccardo Muti and with Dagmar Schellenberger giving a stunning performance as Blanche. When I encountered Carsen at a BBC Music Mag awards gathering, I asked him what working on it had signified. He replied with tears in his eyes that his mother had just died and it meant the world to her. A pity we don't get the brutal Prokofiev-style march before the Salve Regina here, the equivalent to the simultaneous noise of hovering helicopter and chant in one of the film's most powerful sequences.

The Carmelites, of course, have high-profile martyrdom thrust upon them; one of the points in Of Gods and Men is that the brotherhood wants to live as long as it can simply to do good to its flock as - in the words of one village lady - the branch on which they sit, and does not seek death. But the way in which the men individually come to terms with what it means to stay or to leave is another remarkable aspect of this cinematic masterpiece.

*17/11/2015 Hard, isn't it, to think of a time when Syria wasn't ripping itself apart (that started in March 2011, two months after I wrote this post)? Or that any of us wandered free and happy through the souks of Damascus and Aleppo, or the ruins of Palmyra and Qalaat Samaan, meeting kindness at every turn.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Farewell Katerina, welcome Leonora

Prefatory note: this was mostly written before I heard the news today. Not that there's anything to say except, thoughts not just to Paris but to the families of everyone blown up or mown down indiscriminately in tens and thousands around the world so far this terrible century. It's almost too much to bear..

As on the stage of the London Coliseum, so in my Opera in Depth course - we've said our goodbyes to Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (ENO production image by Clive Barda) after six Monday afternoons and found ourselves hooked by Verdi's La Forza del destino (or rather "Force" as they have to call it at ENO, though I'd be happier with The Power of Fate as an English title. All ENO photos by Robert Workman). We had a very distinguished transitioner, new ENO chief conductor Mark Wigglesworth, to talk us through a retrospective on Lady M and what to expect from his second opera of the season. He's generous with his time, candid and of course absolutely the best thing that could have happened to ENO after Edward Gardner, able to apply his own deep sound to an orchestra (and chorus, too) in top shape.

Even more amazing is that I asked him if he'd mind mentioning to American soprano Tamara Wilson, making her London debut and giving possibly the operatic performance of the year as Verdi's Leonora, that we'd like her to visit us at the Frontline. She said she'd come, with wit and verve, and so Monday 23 November will be a love-in with La Wilson. If you'd like to attend this one-off, contact me at I've even been able to schedule an extra class at the end of term so we don't miss out on going through the opera (and four two-hour sessions still aren't enough).

I'm able to divulge what I thought of Force now that my Radio 3 Music Matters chat with Tom Service, who was very much on the same wavelength, has been broadcast; it's up on the iPlayer and as podcast here*. As expected, Calixto Bieito's production was a maddening mix of woolly, repetitive grimness and the odd scene of penetrating brilliance. Certainly I wept and was left shaken when our pitiable heroine seeks consolation in a monastery and meets - wrench of Verdi's intention, this, I know - only sadism and brutality. But as this is the Spanish Catholic church, is it that surprising? Coincidentally, I've just been reading in Glenn Watkins' beautifully written The Gesualdo Hex a document testifying to Spanish monks' infinite misogyny (we're talking Civil War with Bieito, though it's too much to the fore rather than providing a context for the private pursuit of revenge).

Bieito, as usual, overstates that misogyny; there's hardly a scene where a woman isn't on her knees having her hair pulled, or worse - and the expensive set on the revolve isn't usually as effective as it looks above, though the video projections are always impressive. But thanks to Wilson's magnetic acting with voice, face and body, and her fusion with Wigglesworth's phenomenally dramatic and stage-attuned conducting, pity and terror were the keynotes at the end of ENO's first half. There are plenty of hallucinatory moments, like 'Piu tranquillo l'alma sento' and the ghostly clarinet and violin solo reprises of the big phrase in the preceding aria. James Cresswell played his metallic-grim bass part in this superbly: could he play Wotan to Wilson's Brünnhilde, if she stays the course and develops as expected? Mark MUST do a new Ring at ENO, and Richard Jones has said he's willing to look at it again after one and a half productions, so how about it?

We have, of course, to wait another act and a half for Leonora to return, whereupon the tension levels rise again, and the floating of the lines in the great trio of Verdi's revision banish regrets that Bieito didn't go with the first version, very much his line with two corpses and Alvaro throwing himself off a rock cursing God. The other payoff is the most intensely quiet of pianissimos from the ENO Orchestra. Heck, they could all do Aida *now*.

For me, neither of the genre scenes works. Bieito insists on decontextualising them, replacing the old messes of his Don Giovanni et al with chorus stock still in lines; the patchy lighting means you can't often see who's singing when. Predictably, every moment is brutal here, no light and shade (though I wouldn't condone a completely cosy Preziosilla either). Andrew Shore was presumably engaged to make a funny Melitone, but he's just horrid according to Bieito.

The two principal men don't blend well, though each is good. Gwyn Hughes Jones, as we know from his Walther in the ENO Mastersingers, is tireless but a bit bright and underballasted for a tenor of his build; Anthony Michaels-Moore is now merely solid in middle range, inaudible below - I used to like him a lot. Still, he plays the war-crazed veteran compellingly in a Klaus Kinski kind of way. Bieito doesn't help the two stagewise, keeping them apart until Alvaro rants about pulling a knife on Carlo when he's pinioned under him with no chance of doing so. GHJ does fire on all cylinders in the last act, though.

Mark prepared us well the Monday before. Interestingly he had been engaged, before his big appointment, to conduct the opening opera of the season, but that had changed to Carmen. And he was already down to return for another Lady Macbeth. I can't remember everything he said - should have recorded the talk - but among the most interesting observations was one in which he said that while singers will do anything a director asks - because they've come from a musical, rather than a theatrical training, and lack the confidence to speak out - they won't take notes from the conductor half so readily. Though I imagine Wilson did both, so closely bound to her orchestra in sense and intensity, so committed to the sometimes cruel hoops through which Bieito put her, did she seem.

In the first hour of that class, we finished off Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - or rather Katerina Izmailova, since it was Shostakovich's revision, further cut, which Mikhail Shapiro used in his 1964 film. Mark came in to see the very end, Vishnevskaya so devoted as Katerina that she was prepared not to have a body double for her character drowning self and fellow convict Sonyetka in the Volga.

Memorably she spoke about it some years back - 'weather very cold, water very wet' - and writes in Galina: A Russian Story of how because a reel had been lost the scene had to be re-filmed, not in warm water near Odessa but in the much chillier Gulf of Finland. Well, it was worth it. We also used scenes from Martin Kušej's Amsterdam production with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris; the class agreed that the wedding scene was more convincing than it had been in Tcherniakov's ENO staging. Otherwise, I beg to differ with some of them that his Act Four was unsatisfactory; for me, that was pure genius.

In the meantime, Georg Friedrich Haas's Morgen und Abend really worked for me at its Royal Opera world premiere last night (we're back to the great Clive Barda for the last image, of Sarah Wegener as Signe and Christoph Pohl as her dead, or departing, father Johannes). Wish we could have asked Graham Vick back to talk about it; apparently he adores the music, and I can well see how it would get under one's skin. Haas is fascinating talking to Tom on that same Music Matters episode: the notion that if you love something enough, there will aways be people in the audience who love it too is beautifully put.

*And/or you might like to listen to Tom Jones interviewed by Cerys Matthews on the BBC World Service. Total tonic on a day bleak in more ways than one.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

More on Captain George

Exactly a year ago, on Armistice Day 2014, I shared what I'd only recently found out about my paternal grandfather, Captain George Nice. As I wrote then, my father never brought so much as a picture of his dad when he married my mother, so my cousin's box of photos and medals revealed Cap'n George's face to me for the first time, as well as his Croix de Guerre and a mysteriously sourced iron cross.

Two people have been in touch as a result. One was medal collector Barney Mattingly, who has written several interesting articles on the Fifth Dragoon Guards.

Though I should, of course, have gone and looked at my grandfather's records in the National Archives, Barney's information was helpful to clarify that Captain George entered the "Great War" on 16 September 1914, served in France throughout - until 11 November 1918 - and served with his regiment, first the Seventh and later the Fifth Dragoon Guards, until 12 August 1921. He went to Palestine, as I knew already, and was a trainer in horsemanship, seen here in baggy white trousers in Colchester in 1919.

This is one of several more photos I'd never have seen had it not been for a surprise contact, Helen Barrull, director of the Jairo Barrull Flamenco Company, whose step-grandmother Brenda Elva Tomkins had died, leaving a legacy to a sister who unfortunately died just before her. Helen had been amazingly diligent in tracking down all known relatives - Brenda had 11 aunts and uncles on the Tomkins side, and 10 on the Nice side. My cousins have been elusive to find, but the legal process is underway.

Whether it yields anything or not legacy-wise is, so to speak, immaterial contained to the revelations with which Helen furnished me. And it probably won't, since my grandfather turned out to be first a King, and only a Nice when he took up his stepfather's name on joining the army some time in the late 1890s or early 1900s. His half-brothers and sisters assumed he was a full sibling.

He was born in Lexden, Colchester, in 1882, the illegitimate son of 18-year-old Esther King, a housemaid - so presumably his paternal name will never be known: could it have been a master or another servant? Impossible to say. Esther married George Nice in 1886. While serving in South Africa, her son tracked down his maternal grandfather in an internment camp during the Boer War; the man later died in a Salvation Army Hospital out there.

While my father was alive he never mentioned a brother, George, who died of tuberculosis as a young man. Now Helen had discovered the death certificate of another sibling, Phyllis, who was only eight months old when she died in Abbassia, India - not long before my father's birth in Secunderabad in 1912. Here's another extraordinary picture furnished by Helen of my grandmother Elizabeth, nee Wass, daughter of a mariner, holding my auntie Edith.

Other than that there's not much more to add so far, except one more picture of my grandad putting another dragoon through his horse-paces while in Egypt.

As I wrote a year ago, the mind runs riot when confronted with unexpected fragments of a family jigsaw. So I can well understand how Patrick Gale, a gripping story-teller, made a gay romance out of his great-grandfather's unexplained exile to the Canadian prairies in A Place Called Winter. I'm two-thirds of the way through, and while it may not have the deepest psychological depth, it certainly constructs a world.

Later: two pertinent photo footnotes. First, this amazing image of 650 officers and enlisted men from the cavalry in 1910 - could then Second Lieutenant George Nice be among them? - forming a horse's head.

With hindsight, it could be seen as a prescient memorial to all the horses who were killed in the First World War (of a million, 65,000 came back, and another figure suggests eight million horses were lost on all sides). I hope the source, the valuable educational side Hungry for History, approves me appropriation under the circumstances.

And as a sign that life goes on, here's a NASA satelllite image of India, the land where my father was born a child of Empire in 1912, all lit up for Diwali on the night of what we know as Armistice Day.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Gilead, Matterdale and Montelepre

I've never visited any of them, though probably been within 10 miles of the last two. All are places richly evoked in fact and fiction. Gilead, as anyone already hopelessly in love as I am with the poetic, pithy prose of Marilynne Robinson will know, doesn't exist but is modelled on Tabor in Iowa. It seemed too much to hope that there would be a third angle on the events described from the perspective of Rev John Ames in Gilead and mostly - though not in the first person - through the eyes of Glory Boughton in the even richer Home. But here it is, the breathtakingly bitter-sweet narrative of the woman called Lila, from the wanderings of her youth with the woman who kept her from starvation in the Great Depression to the unlikely love of the old pastor which, as far as her natural pessimism and wariness of other humans permit her, Lila reciprocates.

In a way it's a 'prequel' - horrid but useful word - because it predates the events of the first and second books. You can read them in any order and they'll be just as rewarding in different ways - indeed, having finished Lila I now feel inclined to return to Gilead and Home. These are books for life, or rather for revisiting at different stages in one's existence, like Tolstoy's War and Peace, Cervantes' Don Quixote or Lampedusa's The Leopard (I cite these because I've viewed them differently over 20 or 30 years).

The beauty of the very genuine marriage that is the heart of the book is how Ames questions aspects of religion he has taken for granted, and how a guarded Lila gropes her way towards finding names and words for the big issues of life, things for which she never had the time or the need when she was simply trying to keep alive.

He writes to her: 'You must have thought I say the things I do out of habit and custom, rather than from experience and reflection. I admit there is some truth in this. It is inevitable, I suppose'. She's trying to make sense of the one thing she's known, existence, which she's only learned to name through listening to Ames' sermons:

Poor was nothing, tired and hungry were nothing. But people only trying to get by, and no respect for them at all, even the wind soiling them. No matter how proud and hard they were, the wind making their faces run with tears. That was existence, and why didn't it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much of existence is all that bitterness and fear?

Later, there's the kind of distillation which makes Shakespeare great (I think time and again of Parolles' 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live'). Their child has been born; Ames says 'it's all a prayer'. She says 'The best things that happen I'd never have thought to pray for. In a million years. The worst things just come like the weather. You do what you can'. Just beautiful in its simplicity.

James Rebanks' simplicity in The Shepherd's Life is often distilled poetry - literally, he tells us. But as the most practical of Lake District farmers with a parallel career outside that world, a rare voice from the inside, he's not inclined to sentimentalise the landscape. And as a scholar who came late to Oxford after flunking exams and messing about at school, he's come to value the things he used to laugh at, like the best of Wordsworth's poetry. He sees all that beauty, but he's part of it. And this shepherd's life is very, very complex.

The descriptions of breeding, rearing, knowing your flock make you wonder how he does it - and, of course, the answer is, by sheer hard work, instinct and by a collective experience that goes back generations. His father and grandfather play a major part in the narrative, but the tradition is much longer than that:

Our farming system is not about maximizing productivity, but producing what we can sustainably from the landscape.

It took traditional communities often thousands of years to learn by trial and error how to live and farm within the constraints of tough landscapes like ours. It would be foolish to forget these lessons or allow the knowledge to fall out of use. In a future without fossil fuels, and with a changing climate, we may need these things again.

Rebanks is now 'full of hope for the future', seeing young people coming to the old way of farming, changing and adapting and 'juggling it with more modern lives, but the heart of it will remain'. I hope so too.

Strange how 'tough landscapes' can sustain, or not, such different peoples. Was Sicily's ongoing human waste man-made or rooted in that island? Norman Lewis in The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed and Gavin Maxwell in God Protect Me From My Friends have different propositions that are not exactly answers. At the centre of Lewis's typically eloquent account, full of irony and savage indignation, and the subject of Maxwell's study is bandit Salvatore Giuliano, a son of Montelepre who, it's implied, had the capacity to be something better in different circumstances.

I feared Maxwell was going to romanticise him, but he has his own fierce take on how this half-educated peasant was, after all, a mass murderer, even if he tried to justify his behaviour as a kind of Robin Hood bound to a code of honour which turns out to be fatuous and destructive. The best context for such a mass of contradictions comes in Lewis's summing-up of the period between 1943 and 1964:

For centuries, and as a matter of coolly considered policy, the feudalists had kept back huge areas of Sicily from cultivation. They had developed a neatly effective system for suffocating the periodic outbursts of despair this policy engendered: the desperate spirit turned bandit was enlisted in emergency in the feudalists' private armies, employed like a prison camp trusty to quell the mutinies of his fellow sufferers, and then, the crisis past, coldly destroyed...Slowly they had fused with the Mafia - detached from the peasants it once protected - as the richest men of honour became landowners and the most astute of the feudalists joined the Honoured Society, The Mafia-feudalist combination had pulled the wool over the Allies' eyes in 1943, and the Allies had been tricked into assisting the Mafia's reanimation [because, believe it or not, Mussolini had pursued it close to the brink of extinction, or at least pushed it further underground]. Giuliano had been the puppet of the Mafia-feudalists, and their finger had been on the trigger of his machine-gun when he set off at Portella della Ginestra to teach the peasants what they must face when they dared to vote as free men [this terrible massacre has to be at the core of any book dealing with Giuliano]. The supporters of the feudal system had littered the streets and the waste places of Sicily with the corpses of their opponents, but the damage done by outright violence was nothing by comparison to the crushing of the Sicilian spirit and the anaesthetising of the Sicilian conscience in an artificially prolonged climate of illiteracy, ignorance and fear.

Both Maxwell and Lewis bring novelistic tension to the turning of Giuliano's right-hand man, the romantically handsome Gaspare Pisciotta, both before and after the leader's once-mysterious death. Pisciotta, in fact, is the protagonist of a parallel sweep of story interlocking with Giuliano's. I was captured by his character, too, and surprised to find the name 'Pisciotta' on the card of the nice man who drove us from Scopello to Palermo airport back in June.

Unless you hunt it out, the Mafia tradition in western Sicily needn't be part of any tourist's experience. The reality of life there must be much as Mary Taylor Simeti describes it with so much careful nuance in On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal. Here's an American intellectual who has a right to talk about Sicily as both outsider and insider - the classic 'double consciousness' of Henry James - since she married a man from Alcamo and her children are natives of the island. And a year as she describes it in her multifarious journey weaves Mafia shocks into a narrative of farm and city life - a presence, and potentially fatal, but not the only one. I mention this because it's important, if you love Sicily as I do from superficial experience, to strike a balance between the narratives exclusively devoted to the Mafia and others focused too entirely on the traveller's constant amazement at the archaeological and historic riches such a culture constantly brings forth.