Great Landscapes: Bruce Pennington

There is a subtle, and possibly snobbish distinction between mere illustrators and painters. The former often have more of a career than the latter, but they all started out the same way.

Some illustrators, like Robert McGinnis – still with us at 94 – are extraordinarily gifted artists, displaying not just the essential technical chops, but also a vivid imagination and scene setting. McGinnis’ brooding and often sexy men and women are instantly recognisable, oozing style and iconicism. He could paint landscapes too. His status is also assured, the combination of Americana and ineffable cool gives him a cachet that some of his peers lack. By way of contrast, the demographic that everyone looks down on is probably the scifi/geek set, exhibit ‘A’ being the Simpsons’ Comic Book Store Guy. They’re all losers, right?

Yet lurking within the genre are some extraordinary works of art – posters, book covers, LP covers, illustrated exegeses and more. The British artist Bruce Pennington (a mere 76 years old) is one of the masters. I had a few of his book covers in the 70’s, and they always had a dark, authentic imagination working away, clearly above the herd. His otherworldiness actually reminds me of Goya (at times), Bruegel and Vereshchagin. An unusually diverse peer group.

…. a Pennington classic…

By coincidence, the daily Office of Readings in the Catholic Lectio Divina, is, in this Eastertide period, excerpting heavily from the Apocalypse of St John, or the Book of Revelation. It’s quite a read. An essential read I’d suggest. Interpreting it is another matter.

The scripture teems with arresting and still terrifying imagery. A lot of it is hard to form as a coherent mental picture. The New Jerusalem is one example. How many jewels in the walls? What are the pearls as gates? There are endless examples.

But the two key protagonists, apart from God, are the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”, and the “great, fiery red dragon”, although you also have numerous angels, the Four Horsemen, the other Beast and many many more. Oddly, given the scriptural roots of much of the canon of Western art, there are very few major depictions of all this going back into the centuries. It is definitely a subject for the modern amateur and numerous contemporary evangelical Christian artists, but rarely of any aesthetic merit. Which brings us to Bruce Pennington, who may be contemporary but is in neither of those two categories**.

The rise of the antichrist

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me the detail, the lighting and the sweeping imagination melding the Mediterranean and the Piazza San Pietro is quite brilliant. The emerging dragon fulfils the requisite threat and enormity superbly. It is indeed a landscape, but of a very strange kind, which fits with the subject matter. The restless sweep, colour and energy remind me of Dali’s late masterpiece, Tuna Fishing. That is quite a compliment.


** In the interests of accuracy, I should add that my reference to Revelation is correct, for the most part, but strictly speaking Bruce was interpreting Nostradamus (in his book Eschatus), although much of the Frenchman’s work seems pretty obviously derived from that book of scripture.

Palm Sunday – a very strange one

Churches locked, empty(ish) streets, a sombre mood gripping the nation – but the usual Palm Sunday good weather. Those of a religious mind may – as I do – wonder about the Coronavirus crisis coinciding with Lent.

In any event, Palm Sunday is intrinsically a precursor of the most joyful period, Easter, which we can all get behind, one would like to think, when it comes.

Three pieces demonstrating the aesthetics/poetics of this day, two of them old favourites. James Ensor (one of the greatest Belgians), the Jerry Garcia Band (God rest his soul), and one of the great Englishmen, GK Chesterton…..

Christ’s entry into Brussels, James Ensor, 1889. Getty Museum, California






Ash Wednesday

Finis Gloriae Mundi, Juan Valdes Leal, 1672. Hospital de la Caridad, Seville.

The Knife (me) found himself wandering round Seville 37 years ago, (I’ll drop the third person) on my own, for various reasons. I had no money, very limited tourist information given that the internet hadn’t been invented, and plenty of time. Accordingly I visited a lot of places that I probably wouldn’t have managed had I been with my temporarily absent pals. The Gothic choirstalls and treasury of the mighty cathedral (at one time the biggest building in the world, it was claimed), various back alleys in the old town, the hot exposed walk along the Guadalquivir, and the Hospital de la Caridad, specifically its chapel.

Quite benign from the outside

There are at least two Spains. The coastal tourist one, which is fine, but is a relatively recent invention in its modernity, trashiness and the ubiquity of non-Spaniards, and the slightly out of the way Spain, mostly in the interior. It is steeped in isolation, blazing heat,  dark interiors, Catholicism, silence and emptiness. That’s the one embodied the Chapel of the Hospital de la Caridad, at least it was 37 years ago, when it wasn’t a Top 5 attraction – it is now.

Prominent in its attractions are two large and intentionally disturbing paintings by Juan de Valdés Leal. There is In Ictu Oculi (In the blink of an eye), with Death cockily lording it over his latest prize, and its neighbour, Finis Gloriae Mundi. They are classic memento mori**. Valdés Leal was a real Spanish gothic master of gloom, and his dramatically horrific corpses are on a par with the Italian wax anatomical models of La Specola and Gaetano Zumbo. This eMaze is  a pretty impressive introduction to him.

…above the door

Since standing there in the nearly empty chapel all those years ago, these two paintings have been hanging in a corner of my brain. Finis Gloriae Mundi is basically a take ‘on all flesh is grass’, and of course, sic transit gloria mundi. The two bodies are those of a bishop, and a knight. Then (and still now, perhaps) they embodied the wealthy and the worldly. So why write about it now? Well, Ash Wednesday, as the start of Lent, is a doorway into reflections on life, death, and how we’re often kidding ourselves about what matters, what the future holds, and what it is to truly live rationally.

Ecclesiastes, which apart from the religious element for the Abrahamic faiths, is an astounding work of literature, can usefully be quoted in this sphere, almost at random. It’s notably prominent in the Divine Office at this time of year. Here’s Chapter 2, 11-20:

And when I turned myself to all the works which my hands had wrought, and to the labours wherein I had laboured in vain, I saw in all things vanity, and vexation of mind, and that nothing was lasting under the sun. I passed further to behold wisdom, and errors and folly, (What is man, said I, that he can follow the King his maker?) And I saw that wisdom excelled folly, as much as light differeth from darkness.  The eyes of a wise man are in his head: the fool walketh in darkness: and I learned that they were to die both alike.  And I said in my heart: If the death of the fool and mine shall be one, what doth it avail me, that I have applied myself more to the study of wisdom? And speaking with my own mind, I perceived that this also was vanity.

For there shall be no remembrance of the wise no more than of the fool for ever, and the times to come shall cover all things together with oblivion: the learned dieth in like manner as the unlearned.  And therefore I was weary of my life, when I saw that all things under the sun are evil, and all vanity and vexation of spirit.  Again I hated all my application wherewith I had earnestly laboured under the sun, being like to have an heir after me,  Whom I know not whether he will be a wise man or a fool, and he shall have rule over all my labours with which I have laboured and been solicitous: and is there any thing so vain?  Wherefore I left off and my heart renounced labouring any more under the sun.

As Valdés Leal knew, as we all know, we’re all heading for the same (earthly) fate.

Act wisely, and act now


** the memento mori is still with us. Here’s a beautiful, subtle contemporary example from photographer Erlich Lowi


Genius, actually

My favourite portrait of Beethoven, by Josef Stieler, in a private collection

No-one is absolutely certain of his date of birth. It was in 1770, and the first record of his existence was his baptism in Bonn. That was on 17th December, and all we know is that he was born before that, possibly the day before. Given general piety and infant mortality, there was none of that 21st century hanging around before getting baptised. It was a practical business, more than a social event.

So this year is Beethoven’s 250th birthday year – cue an explosion of commercial activity, which if it brings new listeners to the great man’s portfolio, all well and good.

It was Robert Schumann, a great composer, who in a review (his other job) of Chopin’s (another great composer) Variation’s on Mozart’s (another great composer) La Ci Darem La Mano, declared ”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”. Well, probably. In fact all three deserve to be called a genius perhaps. But none of them compare to Beethoven.

Everyone knows at least a bit of Beethoven, starting with the opening of the 5th Symphony of course, but what would constitute the archetypal, unmistakable Beethoven? The thorny, melodic, delicate, brutal, assured, architectural, emotional and thrillingly original master.

Well, again, quite a few pieces. There are no duds. However, I’ll go ultimately with Op 106, the Hammerklavier. I wrote about this seven years ago, and I still think it reads well enough. My reason for tackling the Hammerklavier is in that piece – I was intrigued by the reference to it in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider:

There is a premonition of such a faculty in Van Gogh’s Green Cornfield and Road with Cypresses; there is a premonition in the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, as well as certain canvasses of Gaugin, and page after page of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Outsider believes that he can establish such a way of seeing permanently in himself. But how?

Indeed. What on earth was in that last movement? Beethoven was pretty much deaf by 1814. He would live another thirteen years. The Hammerklavier was published in 1818. He was totally deaf when he wrote it. When you listen it seems unbelievable that this was the case. How did he perceive it? The long slow movement, the best metaphor for which is an icy lake at night, feels like it reflects his isolation and likely despair. That’s always been my impression, but how to summarise the entirety of this initially impenetrable, gigantic and forbidding creation?

Well my efforts are somewhat puny. I pass you over to someone who would have a plausible claim to the title that used to crop up in the Sunday supplements, The Cleverest Man in London, were he not so modest. Polymath Jonathan Gaisman is a QC with a remarkable range of interests, and a regular contributor to the now changed Standpoint magazine. Here is his truly essential piece from 2018 on the Hammerklavier:

My first recording of it was by Emil Gilels, followed swiftly by the Chilean master, Claudio Arrau. Gilels had the measure of it, but I felt rebuffed by his long austere adagio, Arrau was more humane. The sonata arouses such feelings all the time. One thing is for sure – you have to be technically brilliant, there are no hiding places. The final fugue must sound almost impossible, without compromising pace and vitality. Here is the reliable Jed Distler’s review of your options from the most recent Gramophone magazine. It’s a terrific discussion:

Interesting conclusions. I have Bax on my list now. I already have 40 odd recordings on CD and LP. Pollini was my preferred choice for a long time, but it changes.

Beethoven however is not just found in works like this, which is just as well. In this year there will be mountains of articles added to the already enormous literature on the man, and in the non-technical category, I can do no better than to point you to fellow pianist Damian Thompson’s most recent Spectator piece:

Finally, YouTube has a huge library of classical music now. Slightly to my surprise, I was highly impressed by Valentina Lisitsa’s beautifully filmed and recorded version of this piece. Watch as well as listen, and you’ll see what a superhuman feat it was to write – and play.

We live in an era where the word ‘genius’ has been so trashed by applying it to any old hack that we have almost lost the comprehension of its true expression. Well let the great man recalibrate us all in his anniversary year…

”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”



Katsaris ~Cziffra redux!


This is one is for classical piano geeks, and hopefully others too. If that conjures up an image of wimpy aesthetes, think again. As a veteran of the punk era and most other genres in music, including the extremes of free jazz, let me assure you that the classical piano literature has some of the most exciting, edgy, gripping and downright pleasurable musical experiences known to man.

But… of the problems is that such is the level of virtuosity and technical accomplishment with certain musicians, for example the legendary and still prolific Marc-Andre Hamelin, it’s not unusual to paradoxically lose the sense of struggle and tension that should make the experience so compelling. In a related genre, compare Nathan Milstein’s extraordinary take on JS Bach’s peerless Chaconne for solo violin, with that of the routinely lauded Itzhak Perlman:  Milstein runs the entire gamut of emotions, Perlman verges on elevator music. Both are technically perfect, but one leaves me almost cold. With Hamelin, his Schumann Symphonic Etudes are great, wonderful if that’s your first exposure. But compared to Pollini? It’s not even close. Same with his Albeniz Iberia – the horrendously difficult made almost glib. Close, but no cigar.

All of which is a roundabout way of coming to the point that some artists never seem to suffer from this problem of incipient blandness**. Vladimir Horowitz, Denis Matsuev **** and Glenn Gould spring to mind among the big names, and so does the remarkable Cyprien Katsaris.

Katsaris is an all round talent, with an international career, and a polyglot French- Greek Cypriot heritage. I’ve never heard a dull recording from him. His repertoire is vast, exploring some of the most arcane nooks and crannies – though curiously very little Beethoven, on record at least. His piano transcription recordings are sensational, and he’s a composer/improviser to boot.

Which brings me to a bit of a revelation. Most modern composers and new piano pieces are what you’d politely call an acquired taste. I quite like Michael Finnissy for example, or a Pollini take on Webern, perhaps. But I have to sample in smallish doses, more like musical palate cleansing. That said, there is a steady trickle, every few years I’d say, of truly great new piano pieces, of a more tonal/classical kind. I wrote here about the obscure yet brilliant Hatikvah Variations by an amateur pianist (and jeweller), James Raphael. There are now quite a few versions of Rzewski‘s sensational variations piece The People United Will Never be Defeated!, in which Hamelin, as it happens, is stellar. The Japanese have an interesting sideline in the modern transcription for piano, that works amazingly well – try the wonderful Yui Morishita here in Die Gewehrbrecher Fantasie, quite magnificent. Liszt would be delighted.

Variation form is timeless and pretty much always works, so does one of my other favourites – the often derided piano transcription. Liszt and the routinely underrated Thalberg were the giants of the form, then along comes Katsaris. Like the other two, he takes catchy but perhaps banal tunes from someone else, and transforms them. The 19th century paradigm was a chunk of someone’s opera. Liszt’s amazing Reminiscences de Norma, as a classic example. Katsaris does it with film music, basically an update on the same practice, and in his case, it’s Zorba the Greek. Yes, that Zorba the Greek.

Actually, film composition is probably what a lot of the great composers of yore would be doing now, I’m pretty sure, and Zorba’s soundtrack is by a remarkable musician, the Paris Conservatoire trained political activist, Mikis Theodorakis. Quite a life story, and still with us at 94. He is a friend of Katsaris, and with a background in both classical pieces and songwriting, has a remarkable gift for an original melody. The ‘hooks’ one associates with the great composers, sadly absent through neglect or lack of inspiration in much of the 20th century canon, seem to come easily to Theodorakis***.

The upshot of all this is that with the original composer’s blessing, Katsaris has written, performed and thankfully recorded (in 2017) a massive (53 minutes) epic fantaisie/transcription entitled Grande Fantaisie sur Zorba – une Rhapsodie Grecque. If like me, you see a title like that and have high hopes that it will be up there with pieces like Thalberg’s La Sonnambula, Liszt’s Danse Macabre, or even (given its length) Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano, you can breathe easy.

It is.

It begins like Busoni, and has the same overarching ‘diamond’ shape of the Liszt Sonata. In between it has everything, and the furious middle section reminiscent of a tarantella gone free jazz is simply stunning. Utterly brilliant. It teems with those hooks, with pathos, drama and pure musicality, and Katsaris’ extraordinary technique is rock solid. In particular his rhythmic precision is sublimely thrilling when it gets angry.

Why it isn’t better known yet is a mystery. It is a huge achievement, a serious contribution to the usually arid desert that is the modern classical piano literature. I’ve not seen it reviewed in Gramophone, yet I’d be amazed if their go to guy in this area, Jeremy Nicholas, wasn’t as awed and thrilled by it as I am. In fact, as of right now, I can’t find a single independent review of it online, including Amazon.

Here is Katsaris, le Cziffra de nos jours talking about the piece, with his customary charm (and it’s no surprise that he cites the legendary Hungarian as his idol). And the following video is the whole work. The sound on YouTube is OK, but is a shadow of the magnificence of the CD – it needs to be played loud (the download is OK too). If you want a flavour of what I mean, try from about 27m30s, but I really don’t want to detract from the brilliance of the whole work. It is stunning. Hamelin and the others really should all try their hand at it, but the composer has set a very high bar indeed. In years to come this will be regarded as a true classic, and rightly so.

Σας ευχαριστώ ο μαέστρος Κατσαρής!!


**you don’t have to be a big name to meet this exalted standard. Try Harout Senekeramian’s brilliant version of, by coincidence, Hamelin’s Etude no 4, d’apres Alkan.

***there’s a taste of Theodorakis’ original piano pieces on the rest of Katsaris’ CD. It is superb.

**** it’s no surprise that Horowitz, Cziffra,  Matsuev and Katsaris have an affinity for jazz as well

Great Landscapes: Geertgen tot Sint Jans

If you’re in Berlin there’s a tendency to go to the museums around the island, and if you do, you’ll probably end up at the Alte Nationalgalerie which is sensational, especially if you’re drawn to the mitteleuropean romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, Moritz von Schwind, the sensational Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Spitzweg and others. I am, you probably should be. They are an amazing group.

However, there’s a lot more to Berlin public art than that, and it’s always a surprise that the slightly out of the way Gemaldegalerie is often relatively empty, despite being chock full of masterpieces. Is there a better Rembrandt than this one, for instance, despite its unusually (for him) radiant colouring?

Which brings me to Geertgen tot Sint Jans, painter of exquisite detail and great devotion, without being in any way sentimental. If, like me, you’re a sucker for the backgrounds in Bosch, Bruegel and Patinir, then he is your man, at least in some of his works.

Here is Paul Johnson, from his characteristically personal take on the history of art…


..indeed, and that city of domes is reminiscent of the intriguing ‘blue landscapes’ that have a mesmerising otherworldly quality and which crop up time and again in Netherlandish art of the era. Here we are lucky to have an excellent Masters thesis online, from a VJG D’haene at the University of Utrecht. It’s a great read, and he/she has really identified a theme in this genre. I digress, however. Here is the wonderful landscape in question (click on it):


…though the foreground is pretty good too. It really is a kind of Garden of Eden, rather than a wilderness. Here is the full painting:

Geertgen tot Sint Jans – St John the Baptist in the Wilderness ~ 1490, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin


…just for comparison, given what’s been written above, here’s Bosch, a much more famous painter, in his druggy feeling take on the same topic. It’s in the other gallery in Madrid (ie. not with the Bosches in El Prado) The landscape is beautiful and dreamy, but with some slightly menacing forms, and the detail is not quite as exquisite. Painted at around the same time, these two were giants of their craft in every way.

Hieronymus Bosch, St John the Baptist in the Wilderness ~ 1492. Musee Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid.

The kings of deconstruction

There is no better jazz, I submit, than taking a known song – not necessarily the typical Broadway tune – and taking it apart, whilst remaining faithful to the original. Props to Brad Mehldau for updating the tradition. The sine qua non of this was John Coltrane, with umpteen takes on My Favourite Things. By the time (late career), he made Live in Seattle and Concert in Japan, things were deliciously out of hand – the tune barely makes an appearance. They are for the hardcore though. This post is to recommend four such pieces, that are a little easier to take.

Firstly, and sheer melodic joy from start to finish, is the extended Coltrane version of Greensleeves, from Africa/Brass, in which McCoy Tyner’s delicately balance piano controls the structure. Henry VIII would’ve loved it, I think.

It is strange how timeless Greensleeves is, and how it lends itself to jazz. I can listen to this one over and over again. Jazz violin anyone?

That is Matthew Shipp on piano, who I was lucky enough to see playing with Coltrane’s true heir, the late David S Ware, in his last quartet. They were something else. The bassist was the irrepressible William Parker, and he collaborates with just about every modern jazzer in New York it seems. He has an enduring relationship with Shipp though. Here are two classics, almost unaltered at first glance, from their 1999 DNA recording. Magnificent.

…and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Listen to Parker’s bass churning away…

In the circumstances it would be wrong not to extend my admiration for musical deconstruction to The Clash. A Brexit anthem, I’d say…

Poetry corner: Beethoven and Clive James

I found this in an old edition of the consistently excellent Standpoint magazine. Clive James, despite his ‘Saturday night TV’ persona is a true intellectual and a magnificent poet. In theory he hadn’t long to live, due to  leukaemia, but thankfully he is still with us. He had an affair which clearly brought great pain to his marriage, but it survived. This piece is a tribute to his wife and also to Beethoven – perhaps the greatest artist of them all. The dense, perfectly formed string quartet opus 131 is ostensibly the other subject of this terrific poem. See the videos below, for that and Pogorelich (as mentioned in the verse), himself a somewhat otherworldly artist.

Holy Saturday

This is a regular post, about an enduringly mysterious day.

The dead Christ, Mantegna, c1480. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

This video is worth watching. An unprecedented, extraordinary work of art. It was still lying in his studio when Mantegna died.

Hades III (The harrowing of hell), Peter Howson, 2011

Howson is a compelling figure, with – like his predecessor, Bosch – a sincere religious belief informing his painful art.