Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Malala v malignity, Malaparte the dualist

Of course there are always going to be troll-toads lurking to aim their spit at the dove of progress*, but it came as a shock on the day that Malala Yousafzai had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Indian anti-child slavery campaigner Kailash Satyarthi to find an attack from an official quarter. I won't dignify the Editor of the Pakistan Observer with a name, but it was astonishing to find a supposedly educated man, interviewed on the BBC World Service's Newshour, describing the whole incident of Malala's shooting as a western set-up, asserting that she wasn't even shot and that her father is a sinister manipulator. And Malala herself? 'Just a normal, useless girl'. Well, that says it all. And why give such a creature airtime? Because his views are shared by - or should one say stoked in - thousands around Pakistan.

It's the same old story worldwide: one laughs at the absurdity of such goons, but when they are in positions of power, it's a different matter. Putin, after all, has idiots in place around Russia, as we know from Stephen Fry's interview with the ludicrous St Petersburg homophobe. When ideologies you could knock down with a feather of logical argument become enshrined, lives are at risk. And yes, we have it lurking close to home in the deceptive personage of Nigel Farage.

Frankly I share the view of my old ma who, until our brush with a local Ukip councillor doubling as the taxi driver who ferried us to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for her birthday treat, might have voted for Farage. She keeps telling me how every time Nige appears on the telly she has the urge to 'smash his awful smug face in' (this is figurative, you understand, not a threat of real physical violence). And yet people will still vote for him, even after every week some new fool in the grassroots of his party says something absurd, and even now that he's come out, as it were, with the proposal of banning HIV positive foreigners from entering our sceptred isle (this, it seems, might even have been a jealous hit at the not very prepossessing-looking but presumably slightly brighter Tory MP Douglas Carswell who defected to Ukip and won their first seat in Clacton-on-Sea; Carswell's father was a pioneer in HIV research, and he condemned Farage's cheap trick unreservedly. One can only hope he's a plant to implode Ukip policies).

No coincidence, then, that Clacton Council removed from a town wall the above Aesopian or La Fontaine fable by the great Banksy (as it comes from banksy.org, I assume the reproduction is freely available), one of his best commentaries yet. It's said that people didn't get the real point, but I imagine they got it all too well.

Enough ranting. But it did sadden me, too, to read of the humble Satyarthi's injuries in 34 years of attempting, sometimes successfully, to rescue enslaved children: a broken shoulder, a broken leg and a broken back. Plus the losses of two of his colleagues - 'one was shot dead and one was beaten to death. Most of my junior colleagues have been beaten up many times. So it is not an easy game'.

Two inspiring comments from Satyarthi to wrap up this part of the argument: 'This is a moral examination that one has to pass...to stand up against social evils' and 'India has hundreds of problems and millions of solutions'. The spirit of Gandhi is alive and healthy. By the way, if you haven't done so already, please sign the #upforschool petition.

The connection with a masterpiece of a novel by Italo-German writer Curzio Malaparte, born Kurt Eric Suckert in Prato, may be tenuous. But I get a queasy sense of good and evil, beauty and horror, mixed up in The Skin (La pelle), published in 1949 as an extraordinary literary transfiguration of his experiences as a liaison officer in Naples following the Allied liberation in 1943. I've just read it in a New York Review Books edition which reinstates passages omitted from previous English-language editions (in Italy La pelle was banned by the church for some time). My cover has Luciano Fontana's Concetto Spaziale of 1966, but I like the one above, where the transcendent coincides with the all too mortal just as it does in the book.

At first it seems as if Malaparte is being perverse, almost playing with the paradox of a liberation which is worse for the Neapolitans than the war itself. What does he really think of the rosy, fresh-faced Americans? How disingenuous is he being and what is he making up? Clarification soon comes in the second chapter:

I do not like to see how low man can stoop in order to live. I preferred the war to the 'plague' which, after the liberation, had defiled, corrupted and humiliated us all - men, women and children. Before the liberation we had fought and suffered in order not to die. Now we were fighting and suffering in order to live...It is a humiliating, horrible thing, a shameful necessity, a fight for life. Only for life. Only to save one's skin. It is no longer a fight against oppression, a fight for freedom, for human dignity, for honour. It is a fight for a crust of bread, for a little fuel, for a rag with which to cover the nakedness of one's own children, for a handful of straw on which to lie.

Malaparte cranks up the superb rhetoric and concludes:

The plague had been able to achieve more in a few days than tyranny had done in twenty years of universal humiliation, or war in three years of hunger, grief and atrocious suffering. Those people who bartered themselves, their honour, their bodies and the flesh of their own children in the streets - could they possibly be the same people who a few days before, in those same streets, had given such conspicuous and horrible proof of their courage and fire in face of German opposition?

Malaparte's philosophical games on the edge of politics are perhaps embodied in his biography: an early supporter of Mussolini who soon turned against the dictator in powerful prose, was exiled to the island of Lipari - an era which coincides with a tragic narrative in The Skin about his dog Febo, pictured there with him below

and woven in with the main gist about a dying soldier - and ended up after the war a committed communist. But he is, first and foremost, a deadly serious artist, and his chameleonic tone is what puts The Skin as a work of literature above the mere, if excellent, sometimes selective reportage of Norman Lewis in Naples '44. There is, besides, a metaphysical dimension, a use of Homeric similes and a conscious, often parodistic parallel between the post-war situation and Greek or Roman mythology which, like music, Malaparte knows and describes so well.

There are too many vivid embodiments of his savage irony to cite here, but I'll just touch on the linking of two dazzlingly described gatherings.. The first, in my favourite chapter 'General Cork's Banquet', makes absurd contrasts between the fine, Capodimonte-laden table beneath a fresco by Luca Giordano in the Duke of Toledo's palace and the food served up, including fried Spam and boiled corn which sends Malaparte off on one of his grotesquely enjoyable riffs. 'The ancient and glorious house of Toledo had never witnessed so tragic a humiliation, ' he summarises. He makes fun of the guest of honour, Mrs Flat - a seeming 'monster of purity and virginity' in command of the WACs, and the piece de resistance is the fish course.'The famous Siren from the Aquarium' has been sacrificed, like other prize specimens, 'to General Cork's mental cruelty'. Unfortunately it resembles a dead girl; Malaparte tortures both us and Mrs Flat with the possibility of cannibalism. I can't see it myself in images of the eel-like siren fish, but this superstitious concoction brings us closer to the semi-fantasy:

If that's priceless and relentlessly horrible, almost more so is the way Malaparte takes his revenge on his fellow diners at a camp outside Rome, discussing what's fact and what fiction in his previous novel, Kaputt (about his time on the eastern front, partly resurrected in The Skin. Thankfully Kaputt is also in the NYRB series, and I've ordered it up from Daunt Books). A General Guillaume opines that 'in Kaputt [Malaparte] is pulling his readers' legs'. Malaparte, previously silent, goes into a long and eloquent disquisition about how in his couscous he had discovered the hand of a Moroccan soldier which had just been blown off by a landmine. And ate it. We almost begin to believe him. Then in an aside to his best mate Jack he asks him if he saw 'how skillfully I arranged those little ram's bones on my plate? They looked just like the bones of a hand'.

But it's not all so gruesomely joky. I came to respect and marvel at Malaparte's role as a truth-telling jester of paradox, of the gulf between seeming and being. In the last chapter he transcends his own descent into hell by telling a less brilliant American than Jack: 'it isn't true that Christ saved the world once and for all'.

'Christ died to teach us that every one of us can become Christ, that every man can save the world by his own sacrifice. Christ too would have died in vain if it were not possible for every man to become Christ and to save the world.'

'A man is only a man,' said Jimmy.

'Oh, Jimmy, won't you understand that it isn't necessary for a man to be the Son of God, to rise again from the dead on the third day, and to sit on the right hand of the Father, in order to be Christ? It is those thousands and thousands of dead men who have saved the world, Jimmy.'

Kurt Vonnegut, my recent obsession, who loved the simple message of the Sermon on the Mount, would like that, I think, even if Malaparte has stopped playing the Vonneguttian holy fool. So, I hope, would Malala.

*French proverb which I like, 'La bave du crapaud n'atteint pas la blanche colombe'. The nearest English equivalent, 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me', isn't quite so poetic.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Go, Girl

Puccini's La fanciulla del West certainly went for gold on the first night of Richard Jones's new production for English National Opera. There's not much I can add to my Arts Desk review, or the BBC Radio 3 Music Matters chat with Tom Service and Alexandra Wilson, about Minnie's return to the original Americanization of David Belasco's The Girl of the Golden West. One thing I ought to admit in a marginally more private sphere is that, once past the thrill of being hurtled into Puccini's sheer showmanship in as brilliant a grab-you-by-the-throat start as any he composed, I wept to the point of sobbing at the miners' yearnings for the folk back home, and at the sheer candid insecurity of Susan Bullock's Minnie (pictured above by Robert Workman for ENO at the end of Act Two with Peter Auty's half-dead Ramerrez and Craig Colclough as the defeated Ramerrez glowering through the window) in the beautifully paced, clinch-postponed scene with the man she loves at the end of the First Act. I love it that Richard, in his typically pithy responses for the Music Matters slot, described the plot as being about 'three people with very low self-esteem'.

The key word about Jones's careful stagecraft is truthfulness, not easy in a piece which can slide into hammy melodrama. It's overwhelmed me to the point of obsessiveness since I saw the show on Thursday, reminding me that any imperfections in the purely vocal qualities of the principals can be far outshone by the lasting impression of a terrific piece of staging. For vocal thrills untroubled by questions of dramatic fidelity onstage, you still have to go back to peerless Birgit Nilsson* on the 1958 studio recording with Teatro alla Scala forces. Her tenor, the now more or less unremembered João Gibin, ain't bad either. But what surely makes this one of the great opera recordings is the perfect theatricality of Lovro von Matačić's conducting. It's all here on YouTube.

What some top-notch singing can be without staging of Jones's peerless know-how and thoughtfulness struck me all too forcibly when I went to see ENO's other new production of the season so far, of Verdi's Otello, two evenings later. I don't doubt that Stuart Skelton will make a great Otello sooner or later. But David Alden's was not the production to help him. Maybe it was an especially lethargic, energy-dimmed Saturday night, but I didn't even get the sense of any outsider status in this tormented warrior to make up for an avoidance of the elephant in the room, the racial issue (which matters less in the opera, certainly, than in Shakespeare, who makes Othello's apartness the crux of Iago's manipulation).

Sadly, there was little dramatic spark until Skelton's protagonist fell to his knees and launched into a suddenly thrilling 'Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro' (or whatever that is in the rather dreary, antiquated-sounding English translation). Veteran Jonathan Summers backed him up and suddenly we were experiencing again the true theatrical spark (the two below pictured by Alastair Muir for ENO).

For me, that was it. No doubt it wasn't Summers' fault but the production's that Boito's text for Iago's Credo just struck me as downright silly. I didn't see or hear the feistiness many had detected in Leah Crocetto's Desdemona, either. She can do the works, the top and the pianissimi, but I didn't hear much pathos or lower tones in the bright, well-schooled soprano voice; not was there the bearing which can make Desdemona effective even when the voice is lacking (as it certainly wasn't with Crocetto). Alden's mise en scene conveyed very little to me, but the real death blow was the fatal unpaciness of Edward Gardner's conducting. Yes, the orchestra delivered all the detail on top form, but why did we come away at the interval - despite that duet-finale - feeling so torpid? The score should fly like an arrow until the bedchamber scene, which was neither set where it needs to be nor affecting in any way. Here was a case where fine singing and playing didn't constitute the musical supremacy which might have made up for the sheer incoherent movement and apparent indiscipline of the dramatic picture.

Back to school tomorrow - or rather today, since it's now past midnight - but no longer to the City Lit; slight regrets about having sacrificed Fanciulla, which was on the menu there before it all went pear-shaped, in favour of Prokofiev's War and Peace, so as not to be accused of replication. My Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club kicks off at 2.30pm, and I'm confident about the fabulous resources of the place; this was the right choice. Loyal students, and some new faces, have helped to make it happen. And I'd particularly like to acknowledge the generous support of David Pickard, Laura Jukes and James Hancox at Glyndebourne in giving the course a big push in the house's October e-newsletter which went out on Saturday. On Thursday we'll see how the Nielsen/Sibelius course works at St Andrew's Fulham Fields; for the first week we'll be in the church proper while there's a winetasting in 'our' lecture room.

One disappointment was that the BBC Symphony Orchestra management came back to me, after three weeks of persistent e-mailing on my part (some staff were away, others weren't) to check whether we could have the usual student discount, to tell me that wasn't possible for 'privately-run courses'. So with the agitated action that I've been prone to since having to start afresh, I approached the London Philharmonic Orchestra and they'll give us 50 per cent discount on selected concerts next year. I've opted for two classes on 12 and 19 March to cover three Ballets Russes scores being conducted by Jurowski - Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe on the 14th, excerpts from Prokofiev's Chout and Stravinsky's complete 1911 Petrushka on the 21st. One of Bakst's paintings associated with his designs for the original production of Daphnis pictured below.

Then on 23 April we anticipate the last concert in Jurowski's Rachmaninoff: Inside Out series on 29 April. So that's a new start, and I may well add other one-off classes depending on how things go. But it's a fun adventure so far, not least to discover that I can administer my way out of a paper-bag; I have the internet, and xls, to thank for that. Again, my e-mail, if you'd like further details: david.nice@usa.net.

*This is serendipity, since I'm off to Stockholm for the Birgit Nilsson Prize, recipients the Vienna Philharmonic who'll be playing under Muti. I look forward to hearing the reasoning.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Extraordinary women

That's three on a stage in the spooky-spectacular Union Chapel the other week, and about three times that many, all in prison. But let's start with the divas. Courtesy of the Royal Society of Literature and the unfortunately-titled but really rather good magazine Intelligent Life, we were promised The Lives of Others from great dames Harriet Walter and Hilary Mantel, moderated by a less visible genius of the theatre, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, productions of whose classic Our Country's Good and of her translation of Gabriela Preissova's Jenufa remain among my theatrical highlights. All shots of the evening courtesy of Mike Massarow via the RSL.

It was perhaps only because I've seen Harriet in action before, rivetingly at the Garrick and - if I'm the right person to judge - achieving miracles of transformation as 'my' Marschallin, Prima Donna, Brünnhilde and Moses in the German Opera Discovery Day up in Birmingham, that the lion's share of my wonder this time goes to Hilary Mantel. In putting the spotlight on her I know I sidestep the theme of inhabiting male characters from the fictional or real past, about which Harriet was so eloquent. But our greatest and most versatile living novelist is also a consummate performer; I hesitate to use the word 'actor' because a lot of what she said seemed spontaneous, a direct response to questions or comments, whereas with Robert Macfarlane in conversation at the East Neuk Festival I found that a lot of his phrases came straight out of his books.

In any case I'm usually sniffy about attending literary events - I have the feeling, possibly unfair, that the writer's life's his/her work, to paraphrase Henry James. But here there was almost a sense of possession, as Mantel made clear in paralleling her work with that of her medium in Beyond Black (the first of her books I read). She began by saying how as she was about to begin Wolf Hall and wasn't sure how to, she heard a voice directly above her saying 'now get up', found herself 'in Thomas Cromwell's body - and then all the decisions about the novel had been made'. And she ended in response to an audience question about how much was imagination and how much 'what you know' in much the same seer's vein:

You may know more than you think, and there's a turning point where you recognise that, you gain authority...People suppose that imagination is an airy quality and that employing it is a genteel act that might be done on a chaise longue. But to imagine properly, you have to imagine strenuously, it involves your whole body, from feet to head.

That was richly embodied in what she said about the novel I found the most shattering of all, A Change of Climate, her Heart of Darkness which transports us back from Norfolk to Africa, in the writing of which she told us how the 'secret' had to be torn out of her.

My gratitude here to good friend and impressive novelist Anthony Gardner, who pointed me in the direction of his write-up in Intelligent Life as I hadn't written down the quotations I found most interesting. It came as no surprise to find he'd selected most of them. Read his article for more from Harriet.

And then we had to spoil it all by going off to a truly dismal late night Prom with Rufus Wainwright.

There's a parallel here between being so utterly swept off our feet by two whole series of the Netflix prison drama from Jenji Kohan Orange is the New Black that dipping diligently into several supposedly 'arthouse' gay-themed movies has been disappointing. If I could have done, I'd have walked out of Rufus - I couldn't because I had to write about it - and we've given up on the three films since the last Orange episode.

You think, perhaps, it's going to be a campy American equivalent of Prisoner of Cell Block H, but being based on a writer's prison memoir, a mostly less grim version of Dostoyevsky's autobiographical From the House of the Dead, it already has a claim to truthfulness. But then there's the extraordinary script, plotting and acting (every character a winner in one way or another). Our guide, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), is slammed up for just over a year for having carried drug money 10 years earlier at the request of her charismatic lover Alex (low-voiced Laura Prepon, a woman I can well imagine falling for). So this is the chronicle of Piper's 'time'.

Well, if prison is as full of characters like this, give me a sentence ('you wouldn't last a week', says J scornfully, telling me unrepeatable things about why not). While it teaches you a lot about the American prison system - not least that a cancer sufferer will probably die in prison (Barbara  Rosenblat turns in a terrific performance as 'Miss Rosa')

and an old lady with Alzheimer's will be dumped out on the streets if she becomes too much bother inside - the biggest message is about the waste of talent and creativity. We all love the wit and wisdom of Sophia (Laverne Cox, a transgender actress playing a transgender prisoner). The black group hanging out together - presumably this isn't racism but just how it is - includes characters with a fabulous sense of fantasy and language (gongs, please, for Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley). So we (I, at least) get really upset when they nearly all come under the sway of one hard-nosed businesswoman, the evil Vee (superb actress Lorraine Toussaint).

I won't provide any spoilers by describing what Vee gets up to, but suffice it to say POSSIBLE SEMI-SPOILER ALERT  that by the penultimate episode of Series Two I was wanting to leave the show alone because it was so upsetting. But whereas Series One ended on a bout of terrifying violence, this one wound up in more of a feelgood way.

Praising the good actors would just turn in to one long list: they include the men, not least the prison counsellor (Michael J Harney) of warped good intentions and the large guard who had us in tears of laughter rapping about his humiliation in a Catholic school to a group of nuns protesting outside the prison. The one I find most consummate of all is Taryn Manning as the appalling hick Pennsatucky; how the hell does that actress keep the gravel in her voice?

She, as much as anyone else, you're allowed to feel for over the course of time. So no-one is there for cheap laughs, at least  not in the long term during which we get flashbacks to their former lives. Absolutely a case of Dostoyevsky's epigraph 'In every human, a spark of God'.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

If this isn't nice, what is?

Thank Kurt Vonnegut's Uncle Alex for the great writer's most valuable piece of wisdom, which I'm proud to say has been taken up by our nearest and dearest young generation (more anon). That it had a huge impact on America's sharpest and funniest literary polemicist is obvious from the places where he quotes it (or rather, to be precise, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'), not least often in a series of graduation speeches probably not meant to be anthologised. But it achieves its best definition in the nearest KV got to an autobiography, or rather a little book of wit and wisdom, A Man Without a Country (subtitled A Memoir of Life in George W Bush's America, misleadingly since its timespan is far greater. I only wish he'd lived to pen his thoughts about Barack Obama's Amerca - that might have given just a little glimmer of hope).

The context begins with a negative before accentuating the positive.

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, 'You're a man now'. So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they seldom noticed when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.

Just before the great happiness of our Garrick birthday dinner for four of the godchildren - two reaching 21 this year, two 18 - along with their parents, a close friend and my mother (to celebrate her whizzing back to health after hip and heart ops), I picked up a copy of the graduation speech book compiled after Vonnegut's death.

I didn't use anything from it in my own speech, which was mainly to praise the two sets of estranged parents for each and every one passing on so many intimations of their own rich hinterlands, their culture and essential decency, to the fine young four who are now very much their own people. But Evi, Maddie and Alexander have all enjoyed the Vonnegut books I bought them; every teenager/twentysomething should read him. I think Kurt would have been pleased with Evi playing up to - which means half taking the piss out of - the taboid photographer at the Oxford May Ball in this pic which we saw to our surprise in London's free morning rag: at first I didn't think 'Eva Hale' was my very sensible goddaughter. How we all laughed.

Having shared Slaughterhouse Five with Alexander, I was delighted that he's been finding my personal favourite among the ones I've read, Breakfast of Champions, even better - if, of course, not quite as significant for Vonnegut's personal history.

The big payoff came when Alexander and father Christopher came to join me at the East Neuk Festival's all-day Schubertiade. Plans for lunch boxes to be delivered to Crail had failed, and we were more than happy to wait for some of the best fish and chips in Scotland. Which we took back to the house where cicerona Debra Boraston was staying with festival CEO Svend Brown and his partner Roy McEwan. In the garden by the sea, we ate our f&c to the strains of the Belcea Quartet warming up inside for their afternoon recital. And Alexander said exactly what I was thinking, as if on cue: 'if this isn't nice, I don't know what is'. Featured, clockwise, David Kettle, the Waltons, Debra, me, Alexander (Christopher must be taking the photo).

And from the other angle, shot taken with Ken's camera and duly posted by him on social media.

'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is' could also have been applied to the previous evening's post-concert time by the sea, just down the valley from Cambo House where I was lucky to be staying, with Alexander's ma Julie and her partner Andy. The sun was setting at the end of the concert (one of two photos taken with my crappy mobile, as the pocket Olympus had just given up the ghost)

but it still wasn't entirely dark at nearly 11pm.

Another moment of happiness was on the last day, where I took my bathing trunks and borrowed a towel at a lunchtime party hosted by the very charming, easy festival chairman and his wife at Elie. The garden gate has steps beyond it down to this most glorious of beaches - photo taken with Debra's iPhone - and there, once I'd cleared the jellyfish zone, I had a blissful North Sea swim looking over to North Berwick and East Lothian, and up to a flotilla of eider ducks who didn't paddle away.

Despite all the mounting world horrors, these happy times to treasure have been so many, this year so far at least, and they bring me back not only to Vonnegut but also to my own favourite poem, Auden's 'A Summer Night' and this stanza especially, which no doubt I've quoted before:

And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Swimming in Respighi, swaying to Wolf-Ferrari

In fact the Respighi binge is past now, but I still ought to honour it. After Dutoit's surely unrepeatable Proms feat of running Roman Festivals, Fountains and Pines together as a single second-half sequence, I reeled again from the surprising depth of the invention: quite apart from the superlative orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov's pupil, it strikes me more than ever as a question of feeling, not painting or picture-postcarding. Which is why, perversely, I thought to launch this entry in Piranesian black and white. The darkest colours and some of the most haunting invention, to be sure, reside in the last of the trilogy to be composed, the four interlinked Festivals, which Dutoit wisely placed first since the ultimate Albert Hall spectacular would have to be left to the organ and the three extra trumpets capping the revived glory of the Roman cohorts in the 'Pines of the Appian Way'.

Feeding the Christians to the lions in the Colosseum obviously leads Respighi to invoke early Panavision and Technicolor garishness, though even this sequence is a cut above most film music (though not the scores of Nino Rota, Respighi's best follower. I'd put La Strada third only to Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible and Shostakovich's King Lear music in that sphere). More haunting are the sounds rising at the start of the second 'picture' and, supremely, 'Ottobrata' from the sleighbell-accompanied passage onward, eerie and suspenseful. Here's Toscanini, followed by an outrageously fine performance of the final Epiphanic bacchanal from our own National Youth Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko at the Proms: apt, because his interpretation of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony with the European Union Youth Orchestra was my absolute highlight of this year's Albertine festival, alongside the Stemme/Runnicles Salome (the NYO Petrushka under Gardner was stunning, too. Just to show that I'm not exclusively obsessed by complicated orchestral scores, I'd put William Christie's late-night Rameau motets in there too, and why not bung in the impassioned debut of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic earlier that evening).

The introduction of the mandolin in 'Ottobrata' is especially magical: the whole of the nocturnal slow fade sequence matches the  second 'Nachtmusik' of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Which I'm sure Respighi must have known. There's also a bewitching night picture in the first of the Brazilian Impressions, conducted by Dorati on a CD of early-stereo Mercury recordings which also includes the delicious suite of discreet arrangements The Birds - Going for a Song probably doesn't mean much to the younger generations these days - as well as the two usual subjects. The second Brazilian Impression here is of a visit to a snake institute, complete with Dies Irae.

I finally got round to listening to Respighi's Sinfonia Drammatica of 1914, and the Mahler influence is undeniable in this monument to the shock and grief around the outbreak of the First World War. I expected it to be turgid and overblown, but the varied use of orchestra, a year before Fountains properly made the composer's name, can be extremely subtle and on a superficial listening to the late, lamented Ted Downes's recording with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, I could already grasp that Respighi is doing something unique with form in the slow burn-out which marks the last third of the first movement.

From there it was on to investigate some of the songs, in a disc I'd been given some years back by a Dutch friend and never listened to; the singers are a perfectly Italianate soprano, Andrea Catzel, and a barely adequate tenor whom it would be fairer not to name, but I'm grateful to pianist Reinild Mees for masterminding the project, of which the CD I have is the second volume.

It's so marvellous to hear beautifully set parlando Italian, as in the early 'Storia breve', and I'll never forget 'Nebbie' performed by Teresa Berganza in an encore to a Royal Opera House recital. Among the songs of 1909 there's charming pentatonic style, more suitable to evoke China, in 'Serenata indiana', a setting of Shelley, and more word-sensitivity in 'E se un giorno tornasse', an adaptation of Maeterlinck. And Respighi's gift to be simple but still individual comes in an ideal encore, 'Canzone sarda'.

The big number for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra of 1918 Il tramonto, a winner as performed by the glorious Christine Rice on Pappano's EMI Respighi disc, is also a Shelley setting, by the way. How the poet of  'The Sunset' must have wished there were a word as beautiful as 'tramonto' in the English language.. Any excuse to re-use my shot of Shelley's grave in Rome's English cemetery from the 2011 Death in the South blog entry.

Then it was time to revisit Respighi's orchestrated selections from Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux, and back to the best Fountains I've ever heard - even in less than state-of-the-art sound, from Victor de Sabata. This sets the seal on the work itself being my favourite of the Roman trilogy for its poetry as a whole (I've been there already on the blog, but de Sabata's exceptional interpretation merits a revisit). Sadly the entire recording of 1947 isn't up as a single unit on YouTube, which means that the highlight, the horn blasts for the Triton fountain, lacks its proper impact bursting out of the silence of the Valle Giulian poetry. Still, you get a sense of de Sabata's electricity as well as his control.

This was a serendipitous discovery bringing me back full circle after a coincidental excursion into the delicious music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: I knew de Sabata's recordings of his Overture to Il segreto di Susanna - the Gardelli recording of which was a favourite LP in my teens, sadly never on CD to my knowledge - and the Intermezzo from I quattro rusteghi, an encore winner if ever there was one (so is the quirky little waltz from I gioielli della Madonna).

They're on a two CD EMI set as fillers to the Verdi Requiem, but I don't think I'd ever got as far as the Respighi or the Rossini William Tell Overture, a lesson in articulation that almost outdoes Toscanini.

It may have been an unconscious echo from my Respighi listening, but I came back to Wolf-Ferrari simply as a result of seeing an unheard disc on the piles of unindexed CDs and popping it on.

Most of the Violin Concerto could have been written in the 1890s - in fact at least one of the themes dates from that time -  but was actually premiered, close to its composition, in Munich on 7 January 1944. Hardly an auspicious time or place, and I still haven't quite got to the bottom of why Wolf-Ferrari and his muse-violinist, Guila (sic) Bustabo were there (nor indeed clarified Respighi's links to the Fascists).

The anachronistic quality isn't, to my ears, as much of a liability as it is in Korngold's sticky concerto of the same period. While Korngold was mired in late romanticism, Wolf-Ferrari somehow kept his favoured neoclassical mode fresh. Heavens, the tag - Arthur Lourie's re Stravinsky, contrasting Schoenberg's 'neo-Gothic' - was nearly two decades in the future when the Italo-German gave the cue to the next similarly duo-national composer, Busoni, with the Goldoni-based operas Le donne curiose (1903) and I quattro rusteghi (1906 - and yes, dear reader, I've seen it, in Zurich. Charming in parts but way too long-winded, though that may have been a false impression given by a rather cumbersome production).

The Violin Concerto certainly charms in its opening dream-tune, brought back Dvořák and Elgar style in the otherwise sparkling finale's nostalgic cadenza. The work even surprises us with galloping anger in the third-movement Improvviso, which while not exactly stylistically of the 1940s may express something of the pain Wolf-Ferrari felt at what he and his beloved Guila were going through. It's all well documented in the CD's 96 page accompanying booklet. Looking for something to demonstrate from YouTube, I came across this performance, accompanied by the violin part. Seemingly it's not embeddable, but do click on the link. Maddening that there's no credit for the performers, but I'm fascinated to see a comment asking if this is the Bustabo/Kempe recording - I didn't know there was one. Anyway, it's very fine, but then so is the slightly cooler one I've been listening to at home.

There Vienna-based violinist Benjamin Schmid and conductor Friedrich Haider, who's obviously worked wonders on the Oviedo Filarmonía, were discoveries for me. Haider loves his special composer-project to bits, and it's quite something that his performance of the delicious, encore-worthy Rusteghi Intermezzo is every inch as good in its way as de Sabata's. That miniature is surely the very essence of what protagonist Adrian Leverkühn tries to define, rather surprisingly, in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus when he speaks of his old teacher:

For him, music was music, if that was what it was, and his objection to Goethe's statement that 'art is concerned with the serious and the good' was that something light can be serious, too, if it is good, which it can be just as easily as something serious can...I have always taken him to mean that one must have a very firm grasp of the good to be able to handle what is light.

Spellbound by my re-reading of this extraordinary novel, which is nothing like what little I remember of it from my teens, and now I can't wait to get to the end; it's turned into quite the metaphysical thriller. But in the meantime, some 'serious-light' music (Prokofiev used the term interestingly, too). JEG's performance of the Rusteghi Intermezzo is almost as fine as the ones I cite above, and you get a glimpse of Wolf-Ferrari's Venice, though I apologise for the naff dancing.

Finalmente, let's wheel back to Toscanini in what sounds like a very early (pre-electrical recording era?) performance of the delicious and authentically neoclassical overture to Il segreto di Susanna.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Between the James Plays

Though I may not have seen a single thing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, three days in or near my Alma Mater gave as good a panorama of events as any I can remember. Central, of course, were Rona Munro's three wonderful James Plays: enough said about them already on the blog except to note that seeing them on consecutive evenings was a real festival experience, with much musing between.

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock cheered us after a dreary first afternoon in Edinburgh; J had been up since the weekend and it had stayed unremittingly cold, drizzly and grim. Then off he went back to his tiny cubby-hole in the otherwise spacious New Club, still in the thick of his conference, I to our dear friend Ruth Addinall's in Gilmerton (no further from Princes Street than Belsize Park is from the centre of London). Waking there was bliss. Ruthie had gone off for her early morning swim, so I padded around snapping. Here in quick succession are glimpses of the space where she teaches her lucky pupils, looking out on the wee garden she's always coveted,

the studio

and the desk beyond the kitchen, quite a picture in itself.

Avian activity in the garden continues, despite the loss of a favourite blackbird to a sparrow hawk. The Putins are still here, Mrs P always eager to take berries from the lady of the house's hand.

Wish I'd been here when a flock of waxwings* landed early in the year. One is preserved in an Addinall special.

After a typically generous and healthy breakfast, I took the bus to the Queen's Hall for one of the best recitals I've ever heard, friendly cellist Alban Gerhardt and a pianist who should need no introduction, the versatile Steven Osborne in Britten, Tippett and Beethoven (with a melting Schumann encore). No need to reduplicate anything on the Arts Desk review here. Then lunch up the road at Mother India, a Glasgow branch of which I'd taken the student godchildren to recently, and to the nearby Dovecot Studios, a favourite venue since the discovery of both it - no longer the Infirmary Baths of old, which I well remember - and the work of the wonderful John Burningham.

Before we hit the studio proper, J wanted me to see what he'd already watched - four very beautiful films featuring the special Harris Tweed designs of Dalziel + Scullion, immersing the models in four different Scots landscapes for the exhibition Tumadh (publicity image pictured above). I have to go to Lewis with its inland beaches, and the river-valley setting for Recumbent, allowing the wearer to lie down boulder-like with its pads on the back, was so evocative. I'd have liked a Recumbent myself, but at c. £3,000 for a tailor-made commission it's a bit beyond my budget. Sadly there are no available images of the tweedwearers in landscapes beyond this one.

Upstairs, on the balcony of the main studio where the Burninghams had been hung, the space was shared by a delicious selection of Craigie Aitchison paintings, etchings and tapestries, and a celebration of the links between Dovecot Studios and the Australian Tapestry Workshop. A few of them appear below, above work in progress on Magne Furuholmen's Glass Onion design.

I'd forgotten what a strong painter Aitchison was. This showcase from the Timothy Taylor Gallery included several of his Crucifixions: apparently his Slade tutor had told him that the subject was 'too serious' for him, prompting the devil of opposition.

Over the road in the Talbot Rice Gallery of Old College, the show Counterpoint was more variable -  a selection of eight artists representing '25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland'. Most topical was Ellie Harrison's installation After the Revolution, Who Will Clean Up the Mess?

On 18 September, 'the four large confetti cannons installed inside Talbot Rice's Georgian Gallery will only be detonated in the event of a YES vote'. Which, of course, is coming to seem increasingly possible, and all the very best to the idealists and their unknown future if that happens**.

The one exhibit I'd like to follow up is Alec Finlay's Global Oracle, much preoccupied with the future (futurist fantasy) of bees. The book produced on the subject, with a fine compilation of poetry and prose, is one I have to get. Below, Navstar Satellites.

The calm of Old College, with only a lone seagull for company

was in marked contrast to Potterville (see It's a Wonderful Life) down in the Cowgate. I guess it was always a mass of drinking dens - we used to enjoy frequenting Bannerman's, especially around concerts in St Cecilia's Hall, but now, or at least in festival time, the street has a daytime reek of beer and is lined with big pubs offering multiple screens (and free fringe events - godson Alexander and his new band Tumfy and the Deecers played a gig at 2am after I'd left. He says, none too approvingly, that the Fringe is really the Edinburgh Festival of Drink).

Time out in the comfort of the New Club quickly yielded to Sister Marie Keyrouz and the Ensemble de la Paix in Greyfriars Kirk. The chief virtue for me was getting to hear music inside the Kirk for the first time ever. I never went in during my university years, even though my most regular haunt in first year, the Bedlam Theatre, is as close as could be, and only once or twice walked through the extraordinary graveyard. Anyway, quick shot of the done-over interior

and of the Greyfriars Bobby merchandise.

The faithful wee doggie's grave is close to the main entrance

keeping most tourists away from the fascinating decrepitude of the rest. I don't have any details about the chapels abutting the houses to the south, but admire how buddleia and ferns thrive.

This ensemble on the north-eastern side struck me as so quintessentially Scots.

So to James II: Day of the Innocents, a late-night drink in the astonishingly transformed space of the Dick Vet College and back to the Lambtons' at Chapelgill, Broughton-by-Biggar, where we've seen the godchildren grow up over the years. Here's the beauteous Kitty, sweet 18 and soon off to Aberdeen Art College, with her new kitty Milo (I could bore you with some very cute solo kitten shots but let's leave it at this).

The next morning was taken up with review writing and other chores, but we managed an afternoon excursion to one of my favourite botanic gardens, or rather arboretum, nearby Dawyck. I always like to head up the hill via the mossy stone terraces of Sir John Naesmyth's commissioned 1830s stonework

and the view towards the (private) house, designed by William Burn to replace the one that burnt down in 1830

towards Heron Wood and the cryptogamic sanctuary. The beeches were looking lovely as ever - father Lambton is inspecting a grey squirrel in a trap at the foot of the nearest, part of a campaign to save the reds -

but there was little sign of above-ground fungal activity other than these young 'uns barely visible.

I love the mosses and lichen wrapped around, or dripping from, the silver birches at the top of the garden, but I've already shown them in all their glory in a mycological post as well as one from 2009, so here's a record of one of the oldest trees, a European larch (Larix decidua) planted in 1725. I like the idea of Naesmyth going round planting this and its like in the company of the great Linnaeus.

Nearby is the peeling bark of Betula chinensis, the Chinese dwarf birch, looking in both layers like a pianola roll (aren't the dashes purely ornamental?)

One conifer I should have noted down the name of really does boast blue cones

and the variety of greens across the valley was especially stunning at this time of year.

Must go back at the right time in spring to see the amazing blue meconopsis, which I've failed to grow down here. But that will depend on the future of Chapelgill; by then, Christopher may have moved back to Edinburgh.

After tea and cakes from Dawyck back home, it was time to catch the bus from Peebles for James III: The True Mirror and excellent fish and chips next door. This time J accompanied me back to Ruth's afterwards and we had another sunlit morning in her ineffable company before heading back for the train via lunch with Alexander in the superb Cafe de St Honoré. It won in two categories this year at the 2014 Catering in Scotland Awards - 'Sustainable Business of the Year' and 'Chef of the Year' (Neil Forbes, who uses only sustainable local produce). Check out the website, a beautiful piece of work. Over two days, J could attest to the restaurant's excellence across the board, though I'd have liked more spice and/or seasoning on my risotto. Since the diplo-mate does not permit any but the most remote of shots, here's a severed shot of our boy, much in demand now as a saxophonist, at lunch with J's hand to the right.

More on Alexander 'Betty' Lambton and Kurt Vonnegut in a post to come.

*Thanks to Sue below for banishing the 'lap'
**It didn't, and Europoliticians J knew didn't think it would, despite the polls. Received some quite strong pleas from the 'bettertogether' campaign which I brushed aside. Had I had the chance to vote, I would probably have abstained, if there had been a politically-active category for doing so, since the polyphony of voices pro and con never resolved for me. And from what I gathered from reading a City analyst, a 'yes' result most likely wouldn't have been a financial disaster, just have made things either a little bit better or a little bit worse.

Anyway, I'm not unhappy with the result, and nor, it seems, were many of the 'Yes' voters interviewed in Glasgow's George Square by the World Service (apart from a very unstable sounding Australian Gaelic speaker). Scotland has wrung more measures from a panicky Cameron, so - onwards and upward for that country I love so much. 

22/10 But oh, it could all turn nasty if the appalling self-interest of Cameron in threatening to limit the powers of Scots MPs in Westminster goes through. Is this man totally cut off from the real world, and so in fear of the lunatic far-righters that he would so go against popular opinion? It seems so. All the more reason, then, to carry on what 84 per cent of Scottish voters began.