Saturday, 31 December 2016

Freud Museum memories on Radio 3

Coming up on New Year's Day at 18.45, Breaking Free: Freud versus Music, Stephen Johnson's examination of the great man's singular relationship to music. The programme is available here, I assume for more than the usual 28 days as that proviso isn't given. Delightful producer Elizabeth Arno, pictured with Stephen above by me in the famous Maresfield Gardens study (yes, in case you didn't know, that's yer actual couch behind - Berggasse 19 has a copy), asked the folk at the Freud Museum who might represent their side of the argument, and Ivan Ward, who arrived as part of the new batch of 'Museum Educators' towards the end of my group's stint, recommended me.

It was a trip down memory lane in more ways than one. I first met Stephen, now my best pal in the music fraternity, during my year at the Freud, which means both the work and the friendship date back 30 years (ouch). Though the blurb says it was my first job, that's not right; I'd spent a year as Assistant Editor on the beleaguered, shoestring-run Music and Musicians and had just gone freelance, with a book on Richard Strauss to finish. The three days a week at the Freud, sponsored by the Manpower Services Commission - I found the job at Golders Green Job Centre - was just right (pictured below: bin in Maresfield Gardens covered with Freud Anniversary stickers).

Not only that, but it will always be my most meaningful time in some kind of 'office'.I even got to put on a concert of Freud-related works, a sandwich of analogous works - Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen in the Schoenberg arrangement, with J as soloist, and Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony - flanked by the only music Freud seemed to care for, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, in excerpts arranged for wind. My friend Andrew Constantine brought his Bardi Ensemble from Leicester and I reckon it was a pretty good concert in Belsize Park Town Hall.

I'd completely forgotten that I'd even given a talk on Freud and Music in the museum, and only when Ivan printed out select quotations was my memory jogged this time to realise that Freud actually references Walter's Morgentraumdeutungweise via Sachs.  Now that there's a catalogue of the 3000 plus books in the library we were also able to find two short psychoanalytic studies of Wagner operas, both of them gifts so hard to tell if Freud read them or not.

More of the issues you can hear in the complete programme, where I'm proud to stand alongside some fine figures in the psychoanalytic world as the more gossipy lifestyle commenter. We'll see what's there, but the main point is that we spent a very jolly couple of hours in the Museum and as always I sensed that extraordinary centredness and serenity that comes from standing in the downstairs rooms, left as they were at Freud's death by keeper of the flame his daughter Anna.

Stephen and Elizabeth needed to get down to editing business afterwards, so I took myself to Louis up in Hampstead, the Austro-Hungarian cafe, which never changes, for a coffee and cake and then wandered down ever-idyllic Flask Walk in peak Autumntime (as pictured above, looking up towards the local school) to Burgh House for a bowl of appropriately autumnal pumpkin soup

via an affectionate cat, appropriate since Stephen and his wife Kate were recently bereaved of the most characterful feline in the world, Agatha (I always called her A-GAA-the a la Freischütz) and we'd been talking about their new pair. Freud's favourite animals were chows, and he recalled that while stroking one of them, Jo-Fi, he found himself humming, 'unmusical as I am,' 'Dalla sua pace' from Don Giovanni - 'on her peace of mind mine also depends'. The words of the melody unconsciously summoned, he would argue in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, usually had a significance.

Anyway, it's nice, after a rather thin year for me on Radio 3, to be featured in something on New Year's Day. May 2017 be a good one for all, as 2016 has been for me on the personal and work levels albeit a horror on the world front - Brexit, Trump and Aleppo offset in tiny ways by victories for Sadiq Khan as London Mayor and LibDem Sarah Olney overturning the wretched Zac Goldsmith's 23,000 majority in Richmond Park. The fight against Fascism is going to be a hard one, but we've got to get tougher.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Off-piste CDs of 2016

Probably all the interesting ones are bound to be off-piste, and the smaller labels have all the best tunes now. The disclaimer is that my listening has been very partial, all the discs here until the Prokofiev footnote are ones that didn't make it to the BBC Music Magazine (or rather one did, but not in a review from me) and as a Martinů addict I'm bound for the second year running to choose a disc that furthered my knowledge of a score I hardly knew. In the case of Ariane, his one-act operatic swansong, it was good to hear it first live earlier this year in an intriguing staging by Rodula Gaitanu for the Guildhall School. But undoutedly Simona Šaturová and Tomáš Netopil (pictured above) have the edge in a concert performance from Essen released by Supraphon.

The structure is mysterious: a lovely, light prelude which gets repeated a couple of times suggests a commedia dell'arte treatment of the myth, like Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos. But Martinů's source is Georges Neveux, the author of Juliette ou La clef des songes, which of course elicited from Martinů one of the great operas of the 20th century. The action takes place entirely on Crete, and the Minotaur is the self that Theseus needs to slay, saying goodbye to the potential happiness of a marriage to Ariane.

Without the Guildhall's studio-broadcast setting and Nicola Said's convincing Maria Callas lookalike - based on the news that Martinů thought La Divina would sing the role of Ariadne - the essence of the myth became clearer to me simply in listening. And it seemed abundantly clear that with its central theme of man and woman not understanding each other it would make the perfect prelude in a double-bill to Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (the music for the Minotaur even resembles that score's more violent passages). Šaturová is exquisite in the big but tender final monologue, and the tenor who sings in the Prologue is beguiling, too. Always a joy, or the opposite in a good sense, to hear Martinů's most acclaimed masterpiece, the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Timpani and Piano, though it's one of his most light-less pieces - for catharsis, I had to go and put on the finale of the Third Symphony, one of the most transcendental endings to any symphony, with a touch of ambiguity right at the end.

Three soloists have given us outstanding discs. Emily Pailthorpe, wife of flautist Daniel and a top oboist in her own right, makes almost as good a case for a new work by Richard Blackford as she does for the adorable Strauss Oboe Concerto, and it's good to hear some of the BBC Symphony Orchestra wind players alongside here in Janáček's Mládí. Perfect programming; three cheers to Champs Hill Records.

Dunja Lavrova is a most delightful person whose acquaintance I made at the Pärnu Festival this summer where she and harpist Jana Boušková managed not to disappoint (to understate the case) with their Saint-Saëns Fantaisie after the predictable brilliance of Matt Hunt, Triin Ruubel and Sophia Rahman - a good friend of Dunja who brought her in to share the Pärnu spirit - in the best Bartok Contrasts I ever expect to hear. The premise of My Dusty Gramophone is to record violin and piano, or violin solo, miniatures in the style of the old Jascha Heifetz recordings which inspired her. In other words, with the violin very close to the microphone. And her beguiling style or styles withstand the rigorous inspection. I love her legato line in Rachmaninov, and it's good to have the Schumann Intermezzo from the FAE Sonata.

STOP PRESS: Dunja's just put up a YouTube present for her mother which is fun. Introduction included, since I love her delivery and sha'n't forget her and Sophia throwing their heads back and roaring with laughter at the big final party in Pärnu. As she says, you can zoom forward to 2'04 for the music.

Since I met him as a fellow jury-member for the Orkestival competition of school orchestras in the Concertgebouw earlier this year - a real highlight of 2016, and I'm over the moon to have been asked back - Jeroen de Groot has released a beautifully produced two-CD set of Bach's solo sonatas and partitas. I promised him I'd set aside a morning to listen properly before we met in Amsterdam, which I did on Wednesday morning, and was delighted to announce last night how impressed I was.

This is playing you can't possibly have on in the background as mellifluous, objective Bach. De Groot writes in his booklet of how much he respects the 'untouchable' phenomenon of Henryk Szeryng. His own major teacher Herman Krebbers tended to that aspect, making him learn the Bach works by heart as part of a large repertoire - 'but it was not very clear to me what to do with it'.

Then he saw a documentary on Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations, which showed him the way to an individual approach. With the prize money from winning at the Oscar Back Concourse de Groot went to study with the great Sandor Vegh, linking back to a tradition which included Joachim and Liszt. Vegh's words in interview which de Groot reproduces in the booklet should be carved out for every interpreter:

Music is a creative art, but so is the interpretation of it. The expression is revived in every musical phrase, and this is different every day. There are mysterious powers, vibrations and radiations that influence my feeling and that I, humble being that I am, cannot grasp at all. I can only say I have good days and bad days.

I assume that de Groot regards the day, or days, on which he recorded the sonatas and partitas, as among the good. The sound is so centred and golden, with the instrument matched to a baroque bow, that the graded forcefulness of the playing never grates. Here he is playing the most famous 'track' of all the solo violin music, the Preludium from Partita No. 3 in E.

There's immense power of expression throughout the two discs, and I love it all - though I'd be inclined to listen in four instalments as there's so much to take on board. And I'm happy to hear it over and over again - a treat to set alongside the Christmas Day 1723 assemblage of glorious Bach on the Dunedin Consort Magnificat disc which I discovered only last week.

Disc of the year hit the mat as late as this December, but I was in no doubt that it's the one, since anyone who storms the heights and conjures all the half-lights in Prokofiev's overwhelming masterpieces the Sixth and Eighth Piano Sonatas can be called a true Olympian, and Alexander Melnikov is one in a million. The sound allows for shattering force, too. More than that I can't say as this one is for the BBC Music Magazine and the review has yet to appear. As there are presumably two more instalments to come, more of this in 2017, please. I'd like to hear the entire Prokofiev piano works from grand master Melnikov.

Shouldn't really presume to make 'best of' choices in genres other than classical and opera, as I didn't see so much theatre, film and art. But I do know that the two December Saturdays devoted to great women in the theatre - the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy and two consecutive performances of Mary Stuart with Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams swapping roles (pictured below by Manuel Harlan) - were as exhilarating and thought-provoking as anything I've seen in the theatre.

Disappointing cinema-going earlier in the year was offset by finally catching up with Anomalisa, that astonshing animated meditation on alienated man and a woman in a million, on the telly. And William Kentridge's Deep Time at the Whitechapel Gallery was as full of wonder as any exhibition I've seen. Thought I'd written about it here, but apparently not; must go again and follow it up.

And that's my year's picks over and done with. You can read my Best of Classical 2016 on The Arts Desk here and Best of Opera here.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A Beethoven trifle for a time of feasting

No, not one of those ever more elliptical Bagatelles, but a Gerald Barry concoction for Christmas Day, images of which he sent to me as a morning surprise and has given me his kind permission to reproduce here. No prizes for guessing why the trifle is called '5', though funnily enough the image reached me upside down, prompting me to quip that the only thing it brought to mind was one of Janáček's musicalised Czech words (like the example he gives in one of his essays of an old woman calling a chicken, 'na, pipinka, [na, na]'.

Proof that the confection hath a bottom.

And a chance for me to spill a bean or two ahead of 2016 choices. Classical and Opera picks are due out on The Arts Desk tomorrow and Thursday, and I hope I can get round to doing a selection of a few CD oddities here. One which I'll flag in advance, Barry's typically off-kilter homages to Beethoven and other whimsies, I've already reviewed for the BBC Music Magazine - rather typically, it doesn't seem to have made it to their online directory of reviews - and have played three times already.

Needless to say I'm not the only one on TAD who thought the UK concert premiere of Barry's Alice's Adventures Under Ground was an operatic highlight of 2016 (and see the slightly daft entry on using 'to berserk' as a transitive verb). Hoping that next year might give us a production, but there would have to be animation in it to keep up with the velocity which is its chief characteristic (we got score directions flashing past on the supertitling). I thought that brilliant company 1927 would do the trick; Barry has been interested in the work of Barrie Kosky, who collaborated with 1927 on his Komische Oper Zauberflöte, so maybe there's the answer.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas, Hanukkah - and Tabaski

Much has been made of the coincidence of the Christian and Jewish holidays today. In the name of interfaith peace and goodwill, I also wanted to go back to 25 December 2007, when we happened to be staying with our enterprising friend Sophie in her (then) new mud hotel in Djenné, Mali, and Tabaski, African Muslims' version of Eid al-Adha, shared the same day as our Christmas. Thus the photo of Djenné's men in their finest boubous praying outside the adobe wonder of the Great Mosque, which I take the liberty of repeating from one of my earliest blog entries back in January 2008.

It's a reminder, too, to get on with my reading of the Quran, which so far - two-thirds of the way through Book One - has revealed nothing but tolerance and welcoming of other religions on the grounds that we all share the same God. Plus some liberal ideas on divorce.

Owing to a postponed operation - one of the many in the current NHS crisis - Sophie is still with us in London, and later we'll be heading over the parks via other chums in Bayswater to share the big lunch with her and former attendees of her Tuesday soirées at another mutual friend's.

Salaam, and here's a medieval Virgin and Child from the east window of Merton College Chapel, taken after an Oxford Lieder Festival concert which we attended with Sophie's godmother Juliette (she's actually younger, a bit), her partner Rory and her mother.

Saturday, 24 December 2016


The white stuff might seem to be all that connects Orhan Pamuk's dizzyingly rich tale of fundamentalism in Kars, eastern Turkey

and Janne Teller's adult fairy story with a dark core.

But an underlying seriousness of intent and contemporary/timeless commentary underlies both books. They are Snow - the Turkish word, kar, gives an extra layer of wordplay alongside the name of the town and the abbreviation of the protagonist's name Ka - and Odin's Island. Ostensibly the richer, because of its complicated layers, is Pamuk's masterpiece (or one of them - I've quite a few of his still to read).

The framework is semi-playful: Ka is supposed to be the friend of the author, who refers to himself as Orhan, tells us that his hero's key work is a book of poems which has been lost - I was amused to see a critic complain of this as a shortcoming - and takes the liberty of leaping back and forth between Ka's time in Kars and his two spells in Germany. Still very curious how to disentangle fact from fiction, but the internet is no help. Humour is sometimes there in the narrative, too, though it always turns to a heart of darkness.

Nothing is quite what is seems, not idealism, so-called fundamentalism, love, hatred. We have some unlikely revolutionaries in a theatrical couple whose aim is to stage an English classic with a spine-chilling denouement, a poet who pretends to be a reporter and whose ability to see many sides of an argument leads to fatal compromise, love-object sisters who are not quite what they seem. It's a page-turner with plenty of compelling digressions; it speaks both of Turkey's fatal split between those who look west and others who want to preserve Islamic roots. And on it goes, with the latest news the attacks of Erdoğan's right-wing press on Pamuk and Elif Shafak as 'western stooges'.I was going to quote, but it's nearly Christmas and more remains to be done.

Likewise with Teller's Odin's Island. It starts and ends as a Christmas story, with the old chief god lost and forgetful on a Utopian northern island, trying to cope with a reindeer's broken leg. Grown-ups might think this is child's stuff, but when Odin walks across the frozen sea to the troubled mainland, a fantasy with parallels to the Götterdämmerung that is Norse mythology's Ragnarok unfolds compellingly. In between the prologue and epilogue comes the chronicle of an eventful year, presumably the eve of the new millennium, which is when the book was published.

Teller has pure fun as well as tragicomedy with the religious factions who take Odin as a new Messiah (or not). Her semi-mythic boat people are fascinating, too; though the book keeps its feet on the ground with its torn heroine. And the island of the mysterious disappearing act(s) is the other main character. Again, further description would spoil the plot. A thoughtful book to read as we move into what may be the darkest year, at any rate in my life. Good, then, to end with a poem reproduced in full online by the admirable Sam West, Hardy's The Darkling Thrush. The photograph is by Andreas Eichler of Mannheim.

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
      The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

I wish us all some measure of how that 'blessed Hope' may come to pass.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Swanning round the Scandies

Some would argue that Finland isn't strictly part of Scandinavia, but as it seems to be possible to include it, I can add it to a week of visiting embassies or ambassadors also representing Denmark, Norway and Sweden, courtesy of J. I'm not much of a one for too much 'canapes and mingling', a profession for some folk, but the Nordic countries do know how to celebrate Christmas in music as much as food and convivial atmosphere.

I'm not rating them from 1 to 10 as each had something different to offer. Strictly speaking, the event at the Danish Ambassador's residence - I call him Mick because he could have become a rock star and knew Jagger well, his wife Ingrid because she looks like La Bergman - was to augur well for Aarhus as European Capital of Culture next year (I actually missed the proper Christmas bash the following week because of a long and complicated eye test#). The Norwegians boasted a grand Christmas tree - they'd come hotfoot from lighting up the big one in Trafalgar Square -

and tables of sweet delights

as well as the chance to see the pretty lights within from the garden.

Perhaps more important, I met three people for the first time whom I liked a lot.

Ditto at the Finns', where the fish was heavenly.

Inevitably the Swedes has a trump card: the annual Santa Lucia ritual, lovely Swedish carols sung by excellent choristers in candlelight. I experienced it for the first time in Örebro a year ago and wrote a bit about the (rather recent) tradition in the blog entry on that visit.

Eventually I succumbed to joining the many pointing their cameras and smartphones at the ensemble and filmed the choir singing "Jul, jul, strålande jul", composed by Edvard Evers in 1921. Unfortunately it's too big a file to be uploaded here. So we'll make do with the pretty visuals.

The Swedish Ambassador's Residence at 21 Portland Place is one of the gems of the Adam brothers' original Georgian designs, with stunning decorative work both on the staircase

and on the ceilings of the main rooms.

Gustavus III , the same assassinated by Anckarstroem in Un ballo in maschera, got the seasonal Swedish getup

and the Christmas tree looks especially handsome below the grand staircase.

One more, this time outside the Richard Rogers restaurant and offices which are my entry-point on my bike to the Thames.

An advantage of neglecting to get out in these short days before the light has begun to fade is catching some spectacular winter sunsets. This one was already well underway when I reached the river

and the bend at Hammersmith revealed an especially fine pink beyond.

Here's a constant wonder of the route, Hammersmith Bridge (by Joseph Bazalgette, an 1887 replacement for the original by Tierney Clark, the same man who designed the Chain Bridge in Budapest)

with ducks

also caught looking back from the bridge to the Harrods Furniture Depository, saved by redevelopment as flats.

Which permits another riverside/sunset diversion, taken the previous Sunday after a very lively gathering at the Hermitage Basin home of the delightful Claudia and Stephen Pritchard. This is their outlook

and just beyond is London Bridge.

Heading east, I retraced steps taken on a Wapping walk with City of London Guide and erstwhile student Julia Kuznecow.

The centrepiece of the Wapping trail is undoubtedly the symmetrical terraces and garden of Pier Head,  once the main maritime entrance of the London Docks (built in 1805).

These were the homes of Dock Company officials, customs officers and merchants; now quite a few celebs live there (someone told me whom last week, and I've immediately forgotten).

Reverting to the day of the big Hammersmith sunset, as I cycled home I suddenly saw the last full moon of the year - still a supermoon - through the trees of Queen's Club Gardens

and in its full glory.

The next night I went out to see it again, and orange was the colour.

As I snapped away, an odd man who thought I was photographing him and stopped to chat told me his theories of how the moon was an illusion, a NASA-dominated conspiracy theory, and how he'd been reading on the internet that the earth was flat. Very Zeitgeisty, and of course the fight back against post-truth online is already under way.