Friday 28 July 2017

Lazy Eye: 'an ex-love story'

The subtitle is slightly misleading: the two men who have Tim Kirkman's gem of a film almost to themselves would seem to be the loves of each other's lives, and that's something that never becomes 'ex'. Graphic designer (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is quietly having a mid-life crisis when his lover of 15 years ago, Alex (Aaron Costa Ganis), re-enters the picture. The results could be predictable, the casting of one of the two as the weaker figure tempting to make, but this is far too subtle a script, and the actors way too winning as real human beings complementing one another, to follow the expected course of hundreds of small-scale gay movies. It's also probably in the film's favour that this is just a love-story, period, and could with some tweaks deal with a man-woman relationship, but of course with two such attractive characters I'm glad it is what it is.

A week or so ago we watched a film based on a true story about a gay American activist who went - though of course not convincingly - religiously 'straight', and we didn't give a dam(n) about any of the characters. Here you warm to Dean in the very first scene with his optometrist; his quirky, self-deprecating humour saves him from smugness. And anyone whose favourite film is Harold and Maud has to have something going for him.

The desire that's never gone away is realistically handled, albeit with no cock shots, but it's the tensions between the two lovers that power the film once they meet at Dean's retreat in the Mojave Desert. To reveal the turning-point would be a massive spoiler, but the dynamic is neatly summed up in the scene where Alex says he wants only one thing, and Dean replies that he wants so much more, conflicted in his wishes. I find I can't write much more about the film without dragging in the spoiler, so let's leave it at that. One thing seems obvious to me: the dialogue is so realistic that you can't help feeling it must be autobiographical for Kirkman. And the ring of truth in films both great and small is so elusive that this one should be treasured.

That's all I can think of to salute the 50th anniversary of our gay rights milestone, though I did my bit for The Arts Desk a couple of months ago by reviewing the Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate, and no doubt there will be other events through the rest of the year.

Back on the film front, Bong Joon-ho's fantasy-with-a-message Okja, controversially tied to Netflix, has had the effect of making me forswear pork (only a small push was needed) thanks to its terrifying abattoir scene. I've sat through the cinematic depiction of real ones unmoved, as in for example the one which launches a Fassbinder movie (I think it must have been Fox and his Friends), but this was a trigger.

The CGI for the hippopig of the title is spectacularly good, the chase scene one of the best in any movie, though there are OTT performances from Jake Gyllenhaal (terrible) and Tilda Swinton (good in parts, mostly as the darker of two twin sisters).

We also finally caught up with Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Birdman, an essential companion-piece to Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street - I've just ordered up the Criterion Edition of that - in its atmospheric use of an old Broadway theatre. As with Lazy Eye, much of it could transfer to the stage, but here, too, would you find actors as charismatic as their screen counterparts? Michael Keaton is excellent, the younger ones (Edward Norton and the so-compelling big-eyed Emma Stone*) better still.

And the cinematography is superb. The only false note for me comes at the end, not easy to buy after all the hard truths building up throughout the rest. But a worthy Academy Awards winner, certainly, and way more intelligent than most of its ilk. Finally for something completely different: my Arts Desk review of Fritz Lang's 1921 four-story fantasia Der müde Tod (Weary Death, known outside Germany as Destiny).

*Surprised to see I never wrote up my long-delayed reaction to La La Land. Which, having encountered negative reactions from friends whose opinion I trust, I was surprised to enjoy so much on a flight. It brings us back to the Lazy Eye syndrome - if you're charmed by the lovers, you go with it. And I did. Would happily sit through it again any number of times.

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Leonskaja's Schubert: CD gold

'Who are your idols?,' I once asked a colleague while we were waiting to record a BBC World Service chat in Bush House. 'I don't have idols, I'm a professional critic' came the ludicrous reply. Well, just as I haven't 'grown out of' Der Rosenkavalier, as another pompous Brother in Apollo told me I would, I still have idols, and Elisabeth Leonskaja is the living pianist I'd rather hear more than any other; readers of The Arts Desk will know that I cover every UK appearance of hers that I can, and I still count it as one of the musical highlights of my life that I got to hear four late-night concerts in her 2010 Schubert cycle at the Verbier Festival - the first time she'd ever tackled them all - even if the Verbier experience per se wasn't an especially happy one for either of us (I've no desire to go back, much as I loved the solitary walks in the heights).

My seminal experience in Schubert's piano music dates back to March 1989 and Sviatoslav Richter's Chichester Cathedral recital, when I first heard the heavenly and hypnotic length at which he unfolded the first movement of the G major Sonata D894.

Leonskaja has her own very distinct voice in Schubert, but as Richter's protégée she was bound to follow his example in several respects (there's also a DVD on the lavish set I'm discussing here of the two playing Grieg's two-piano transcriptions of three Mozart piano sonatas and C minor Fantasia which I have yet to watch). One is that you don't EVER omit a Schubert repeat. When I interviewed her in Verbier, she recalled Richter's demands of students who dared to cut the inspiration short: 'what, you don't love Schubert's music?' And how the hell did Brendel dare to inculcate in pupils like Imogen Cooper a truncation which would mean omitting as inspired a passage (eight and a bit bars of first-time link back to the repeat) as this?

That of course occurs in arguably the greatest, certainly the most heavenly, of all Schubert's sonata first movements, the Molto moderato of D960. Unthinkable not to have the seismic rumble the only time it appears ffz in the movement (though apparently there's been some debate about the dynamic marking). We get all repeats, of course, on the four CDs in eaSonus's luxurious presentation - and never have I been happier to see such a homage, made to follow on the heels of Leonskaja's 70th birthday in November 2015. It comes with 48 pages of mini-biography in the form of more in-depth interviews than mine, enriched with a fine selection of personal photographs you won't have seen anywhere else. I have to quote two specific answers by the great lady. One is to the question: 'what do you try to pass on to students in a master class?'

1.   Love of music.
2.   Respect for the composer.
3.   Avoiding laziness.
4.   Self-confidence without arrogance.
5.   How to master the technique of playing the piano freely. In Moscow they used to tell us over and over again to sit comfortably and play freely and that's my approach now. That means free thumb (very important!), free elbows and wrists, and sitting comfortably at your instrument. All this leads to an unobstructed energy flow. At the beginning I find all this much more important than to work on the details and specific aspects of a particular piece.
6.   It's very important for me to be friendly, without too much finger-wagging. I simply concentrate on whatever I believe is blocking the student's progress.
7.   Passing my experience on to students without being condescending to them. It is essential to have a good atmosphere in order to work intensely and constructively.
8.   During the lesson, life takes a back seat, only music is important while we work. Teaching is an intimate and transcendental moment.

And to 'What are your sacred rules, your everyday doctrine?':

I think every day about what [Heinrich] Neuhaus [the greatest of pedagogues] used to say: 'Don't look for yourself in the music, but find the music in you'.

And Richter always used to say, 'It is not the what that matters, but the how'.

The 'how' of Leonskaja's Schubert I've tried to grasp over the years, but its essence is absolute clarity, an ability to switch from well-weighted orchestral pianism (something I always think of as the essence of the Russian school) to delicacy in a split second. She talks of wanting the public to have left a concert 'with the feeling of having found the grail', and that's happened to me, right from the first re-connection in the second half of her Chopin recital back in 2009. In the performance of the 'Trout' Quintet at Crail Church as part of this year's East Neuk Festival, I found myself within minutes of the first movement's beginning in that profound state of transport yet total awareness you only get in the best meditations. It's a shame there wasn't an official photographer to document her appearances; my post-performance shots, taken without flash of course, are inevitably fuzzy. See this as an imperfect souvenir.

Nothing is more phenomenal than Leonskaja's 'Wanderer' Fantasy, like the work itself an encyclopedic wonder of the world - I hope a recording will feature on the sequel to this set, due early next year - but she can also be wry and funny with total lightness, as in the finale of the 'Gasteiner' (D850). The physical energy and focus of D958's tarantella-finale are something you have to experience live to quite believe. And not even Richter produced as much shattering power as the time-bomb of D959's slow movement explodes at its terrifying heart.

I'm so grateful to Leonskaja, too, for proving that Schubert's quirky and lovable personality is there right from the first, five-movement sonata, D557, which I heard both in Verbier and Crail (again, I trust it will be included in Volume Two). The relatively early A minor Sonatas sound pretty miraculous in her hands, too; D784 is simply colossal. It's only when you get back to the last five that you realise the difference between great and supernaturally great. Here's to many more years of performances; in her seventies Leonskaja has lost nothing of the strength and clarity which are her trademarks, so there's no reason she shouldn't carry on as long as she wants to.

By way of a Schubert footnote, though it deserves pride of place and should have been included in my 'Music for a few' post, the duo recital of Martino Tirimo and Atsuko Kawakami at the Reform Club back in May (pictured above) reminded me very movingly what a great masterpiece is the F minor Fantaisie D940. Martino, a real gentleman and a seriously underrated top interpreter of Schubert, Mozart and Chopin, understands the ethereal yet still humanly bittersweet quality of late Schubert so well, and the sound of his former pupil was perfectly co-ordinated to match (Martino took the lower part).

The real surprise was Eduard Langer's transcription of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - on the above front page it's clear that Tchaikovsky made the one for two hands, Langer for four - reminding one just how elaborate the composer's genius is in these miniature gems and how wonderful the counterpoint. An especially lovely touch was Atsuko side-tapping a tambourine for those essential ta-ta-ta-ta-taaas in the Arabian Dance. Afterwards I asked if they knew Rachmaninov's similar transcription of the Sleeping Beauty Suite, which they didn't, so I loaned the score to Martino when he came to the Frontline Club. Looking forward to their performance of it. Though if that, too, is to be at the Reform Club, the promoters will have to work a bit harder to get more folk in the audience than they did. These first-rate musicians deserve much better.

Saturday 22 July 2017

Fulham Palace's Walled Garden of Eden

Last time I walked through the old gate to the walled garden of Fulham Palace, a green space-within-a-space in Bishop's Park by Putney Bridge and the river, the greenhouses were dilapidated and broken-windowed, the knot garden still going but scrubby, the rest of what turns out to be an enormous enclosure dating from the 1760s just wild. That must have been four or five years ago, and even back in 1986 the initial view was this (from photos of photos taken on a riverside walk with my Edinburgh friend Ruth). Of course ruins have their own peculiar charm.

And now it's this:

The 'vinery' and knot garden have survived from the 1820s. The wisteria, over a century old, is still going strong. Obviously May would be its peak flowering season but there were some blossoms still on it.

and here you can see how it fringes the glasshouse/knot garden zone.

The gate, with Bishop FitzJames's much-erased coat of arms dating it to the early 16th century, didn't need much doing to it, but it was in danger of collapsing. A rather thin person standing by it in '86

and now (with All Saints Church just over the south-east wall).

Much of the restoration work is due to lottery fund money; the palace, home to the Bishops of London from the 11th century up to 1973 and with main buildings ranging from Bishop Fitzjames' time to those of Bishop Howley (1814-15, the south-east front) and of Bishop Tait (the chapel, 1866-7 - worth seeing, apparently, though it's not been open on my visits), has been a splendid beneficiary. This old map, which I photographed hanging on the walls of the Palace interior, shows the essence of the place with the walled garden clearly defined; the area called The Warren is mostly allotments, generously handed over for that purpose to the public by one of the Bishops, and you see a moat filled with water. Putatively dating from Roman times (!), it's dry now but plenty of work was being done on it when I visited on Wednesday.

At present only a few rooms are open with choice museum exhibits or for rather good refreshments; a further drive for funding will see more visible to the public in the years to come. Already the planting outside the old wing of the palace is a sign of improvement

and within, the offices around the courtyard are to be reclaimed in the further opening-up.

I don't know the proportions for work on the Walled Garden - presumably enough to pay for a head gardener of superlative vision, Lucy Hart, and to encourage the training of apprentices - but the folk I came across all working away in an idyllic setting on a hot afternoon were mostly volunteers. This was the moment of epiphany: ordered glasshouses are one thing, but transformation on this scale, and the evidence of loving human hands on it, brought tears to my eyes.

There are 200 volunteers at Fulham Palace, and I'd like to join the garden team for half a day a week. Fruit and vegetables are sold at an average of £2 per punnet from a 'barrow' just on the edge of the cultivated zone.

I bought tomatoes, a pepper plant, plums and courgettes picked to order. It would have been tempting to pick up and eat the fallen plums from the big tree in the middle of it all, but fair deal - get the folk to gather them for you and pay to support the work.

Returned yesterday, but there was no-one at work, and only baby red onions for sale. So it's a lucky dip. Still, the magic persisted.

Beyond the barrow are beehives - must find out when they gather the honey and put my name down for a couple of jars, if possible, as I used to do at Chelsea Physic Garden before the yield dwindled.

Thousands of dahlia plants with the dark leaves I love line the area, up against the wall and half the way round. Great for the bees, obviously.

I can't resist two more flower-and-bee shots from the central beds.

The cultivation is a mix of vegetable plots and lively planting - marigolds round the edge, obviously, to keep off the pests,

but also gladioli,

lilies (with the early 19th century front of the Palace just visible over the wall)

and more splashes of colour.

They've planted young fruit trees in plots hidden by the long tall grass, but the central rows of mature varieties still thrive

and provide a foil to the garden beyond if you walk round to the quiet southern side.

The greenhouses once lodged more exotic species - in 1853 the head gardener was proud of his grape harvests and his pineapples, while nearby there was a melon pit - but the tomatoes and beans are doing very nicely here, with a flavour you just can't get from supermarket purchase.

What's happened here is even more impressive than the restoration of Chiswick House's gardens - my other nearest haunt on biking breaks along the river from work. The journey itself is treasurable.

On Wednesday the tide was low and a variety of birds including a cormorant next to an Egyptian goose and various gulls were lolling peaceably on the little islands.

Those rather cheery creatures the black-headed gulls, so much more appealing than their bigger, noisy, scary sea brethren, were wading and skreeking in the mud

whereas yesterday, with the tide very much in, they were content to bob along

Sanctuary was now to be found on the old wooden structures mid-Thames

with the cormorants perfectly happy here

while the Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) - please correct if I've misidentified - now gathered together, looking a bit cold and intimidated, at the foot of steps up to a former wharf.

Let's end on another historic contrast: Ruth by Butler's Wharf in 1986

and how it looks now, gentrified into a gated set of flats, with Richard Rogers' Thames Wharf conversion beyond.