Random Lists (4): possibly underappreciated piano concertos

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…it’s got out of hand

When I first heard Beethoven’s 5th (Emperor) piano concerto, I was completely bowled over. I played it umpteen times. That was a radio recording of Julius Katchen with Pierino Gamba conducting a Swiss orchestra. It was awesome rhythmically, the timing, the joie de vivre in the big tunes, the interplay etc etc. Pretty much perfect, it seemed.

Now I can hear it straight through without noticing any of that, whoever is playing. I would love to rediscover that feeling, but I’ve heard it too often. Not many pieces can survive that sort of exposure (though Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano and Gene Clark’s No Other, as well as a few more, do it for me).

But the piano concerto is a unique invention, there is no better orchestra/solo construct, and there are lots of them about. The usual lists (1, 2) contain the usual suspects though (though here’s an alternative), so here are some that may not have grabbed your attention. They should

1. Mozart no 23 (K488)

It might seem a bit of a cheat for this list, but numbers 20, 21, 27 all get more publicity, and yet this piece is just about perfect. I particularly commend the two DG recordings from Pollini and Horowitz. Just wonderful. And I think that a lot of Mozart is just excessively sweet elevator music that rots your teeth.

2. Busoni

This sat unplayed on my shelves for years, then I tried John Ogdon’s typically human recording in the car, and I was hooked. The famed Alex Ross summarises it perfectly, and also offers the ne plus ultra of this stuff, Marc-Andre Hamelin, giving his views on it. The All’Italia theme keeps cropping up with Busoni, and it is fantastic in the concerto, both the piano part and the wild orchestra (from 46 to 57 minutes in the film below). If you want a genuine bargain, try this, but the best all rounder – as Alex Ross says – is probably staid-looking firebrand Peter Donohoe and Mark Elder, live (though it’s hard to get).

3. Beethoven no 1 

Actually, I now find Beethoven’s first three piano concertos more appealing to listen to than the last two, which is the inverse of most opinions. There are lots of CD’s about with numbers 1 and 2 paired up, and they are just beautiful. They are both very linear, relatively simple and very catchy – particularly in the finales. They’re still genre-busters though, this is nothing like Haydn. My ‘go to’ recording is, no surprise, Pollini with Abbado, but Ashkenazy conducting and playing with the Cleveland Orchestra is just as good really. I hate the overuse of the word genius, but Beethoven was one. No tooth decay here.

 

Short list though. They don’t all have to be 5, 10 whatever. Probably should’ve added Medtner no 2

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Great Landscapes: Hopper

I guess I’m displaying a degree of ignorance in admitting that I’d always associated Edward Hopper – a real American original – only with  airless city scenes, isolated buildings, lonely people and so on. Like this, in fact:

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Office in a small city, 1953. Metropolitan Museum, Manhattan

..and it is a work of genius, completely original. Hopper spent a lot of time In Cape Cod though, and he did produce terrific seascapes that are highly evocative of that frankly blessed portion of the planet. So, landscapes of a sort.

However, it was only a random spot on Twitter that alerted me to his other work in New England, and here it is. Lush, verdant magnificence, totally different in feel to his more famous stuff, but quite marvellous.  This was nearly 20 years before the painting above.

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First branch of the White River, Vermont. 1938. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It turns out that there is a book on this period in Hopper’s life, with this watercolour masterpiece on the cover. More weirdly, in a good way, is this blogger’s realisation that he lives in a Hopper painting. The picture above is the view from his driveway.

How cool is that?

Ayrton Senna: The W126 Mercedes SEC ~ men of taste and distinction (a continuing series)

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…terrible number plate

This is the 6th post I’ve done on this topic, slightly to my surprise (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). They always get regular hits, presumably from people googling Mercedes W126/SEC/coupe. I do it myself.

I previously noted that racing drivers liked to drive SEC’s in their civilian lives, and if you’ve seen the remarkable movie documentary Senna, you’ll know that he was in some ways the greatest of them all, a true archetype.

One of my patients knew him from back in his Formula 3 days, and has nothing but praise for him as a driver, naturally, but also as a man.

Well, the excellent Mercedes Enthusiast magazine has done some detective work and unearthed Senna’s original 500SEC, which clearly has had a harder life than some. It’s been somewhat transformed, but this car has real pedigree, something not very common in the used vehicle market.

As before, here are expandable .jpeg files (just click) and a pdf…

AS6

AS7

AS5

…and…

French election special ~ The W126 Mercedes SEC: men of taste and distinction

It’s always nice to have an excuse to go on about the awesome and beautiful SEC series of Mercedes coupes from the 1980’s. In fact the two previous posts on the topic (here and here) have been among the most popular things on this blog in the last 7 years. It’s partly the aesthetics, courtesy of the genius of Bruno Sacco (1, 2), and partly the sheer joy of zooming around in one, although they’re almost primitive by today’s standards. Such simplicity is is appealing in itself – and easier to fix when there’s a problem. I had a well used 560 SEC as a taster, I now have a 500 SEC, and it’s a keeper.

When you find out that it’s the favoured car of Clint Eastwood and the late Ayrton Senna amongst others – who could buy any car they liked – then you realise it must have a special allure, or pace the female readers, a certain manliness. It’s the antithesis of a highly capable yet boring and ugly modern car – the Nissan Juke, say.

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L’homme lui-même

Which brings me to today’s post. It takes a gallic sang froid to walk into the nearest Mercedes dealership to your appartement on the Champs-Élysées and order the absolute top of the range 560 SEC, with pretty much all the extras. The buyer in question, back in 1988, was Pierre de Bénouville, a prewar  literary critic who became a general and a hero of the French Resistance. Here’s a sample of his New York Times obituary:

…like many French rightists, he was a patriotic nationalist and a bitter foe of the Germans,” and he rejected the occupied government’s call to capitulation and collaboration and went into the underground. An ardent supporter of Charles de Gaulle, to whom he was close in his later political career, he was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war and organized French forces in Algeria. In 1944 he was promoted to brigadier general in the French Army because of his achievements as the commander of a unit of Moroccan sharpshooters on the Italian front. He went on to be a major general. A high-ranking member of the Legion of Honor, he received other decorations, including the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance.

Impressive n’est-ce pas? Although he was a ‘rightist’, whatever that is, he was a long term pal of Mitterand (not necessarily a recommendation) and his post-war career was of a fiercely patriotic and successful establishment fixture. His views on the EU are not known to me, but as a Gaullist he was probably for it, as long as the French were in charge, and against the Brits. A couple of other obituaries make interesting reading (Guardian and Telegraph).

Tomorrow is the highly consequential French general election. What a patriotic and brave high achiever like de Bénouville would make of the lightweight effete Blair manqué Emmanuel Macron is a tricky one. His own career path has some similarities to that of Marine Le Pen’s dodgy father. My guess is he would emotionally sympathise with Le Pen but pragmatically vote for Macron, to keep le projet Union européenne alive.

So here, from the outstanding Mercedes Enthusiast magazine, is the full feature on de Bénouville’s exceptional W126 coupe. I’ve provided it as a jpeg and a pdf for any SEC geeks out there.

Vive la France, mais vive la différence!

Z
C’est magnifique

and….

Genius and despair: John Donne and Christopher Falzone

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide, says article 2282 of the Catechism.

The story of Christopher Falzone is a tragic one, and it’s  wrapped in claim and counterclaim. It is probably unwise to take sides in the wrangling during his short adult life between his parents and his apparent wife, Lily, though one senses his parents’ pain. He killed himself by jumping from the 10th floor rooftop of a Geneva hospital on 21st October, 2014.This may have been his fourth suicide attempt. In a previous one he’d been badly injured, and ended up in a wheelchair in a care home, still playing the piano miraculously.

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Falzone & Argerich in happier times

His tale is that of a child prodigy in Richmond, Virginia, going on to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and commencing a sparkling concert career. He won prestigious awards, toured successfully, and came to the notice of Martha Argerich, who when she’s not making slightly boring chamber music (a subjective opinion, I know) with her pals, can be one of the fieriest pianists on the planet. Argerich is good at promoting young pianists, but at some point, Falzone’s life and career began to unravel. Whether it was primarily a mental health problem, which seems likely, or money, family and relationship difficulties he ended up in a pretty bad way. By February 2014 he’d twice jumped off the Walnut St bridge in Pennsylvania, getting injured in the process. His parents applied for and received a court ordered guardianship, and by May 2014 his wife broke this and took him off to Switzerland. This  disturbing GoFundMe request ostensibly written by Falzone, to obtain funding for a new life in Europe, was possibly penned by his wife. It certainly doesn’t read like an intelligent English speaking American wrote it.

After his death was announced, the internet helpfully chimed in with statements attacking his parents such as this one by ‘road rage’ virtuoso pianist Leslie Howard: “He was a very nice man, and an extremely good player and transcriber. His parents’ treatment of him was, to put it mildly, bizarre, and they have much to answer for. Poor dear chap“, or off the wall ‘psychiatry is evil’ schtick from an unusual Swiss lawyer,  Edmund Schönenberger, with Scientology links. Sad, desperate, controversial and painful stuff.

Why, you might ask, am I writing this? One reason is to note, unoriginally, that some of the most talented artistes have been cursed with mental health problems. Creative genius and mental fragility often go hand in hand. Another is to pay tribute to a truly extraordinary gift. As far as I know, all we have are individual memories and YouTube, and thankfully the latter is a rich deposit.

There are lots (and lots) of technically perfect pianists about, with what seems like an endless supply from the former Eastern Bloc, and the Far East. All perfectly listenable, but one suspects that the ultimate value of many of them will be to provide ‘standard’ recordings of repertoire – safe bets, not earth shattering.

There is a much smaller number of truly special musicians, many of them now dead. My own living piano hit list would include Hamelin, Pollini, Zimerman.  Amongst the dead there’s more, such as Rubinstein (Artur), Gould, Richter. No surprises there, in either group. Plenty of the big names are actually just a bit dull, though: Goode, Lewis, Aimard etc. Some of the best recordings are by people who never made it big, such as Latimer or Nicolosi.

Then along comes a guy like Falzone. His playing is brilliant – technically, rhythmically (often neglected), dramatically and emotionally. Not only that, he has charisma and flair. He’s not just a pianist. He is a terrific exponent of the almost dead 19th century art of piano transcription. He doesn’t just play Busoni’s enormous Piano Concerto, he transcribes it for solo piano, along with lots of other similar feats. Dull pianists don’t major in transcriptions, thrilling masters like Marc Andre Hamelin and Earl Wild do, and now Christopher Falzone. He’s just as good in venerable classics such as the Liszt Sonata or Beethoven’s awesome Appassionata

I used to dislike John Donne’s phrase “Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind”, as taken on its own it seems a trite observation regarding the one inevitability in all our lives (the whole poem is a different story). It is probably not to my credit that it takes a life like that of Christopher Falzone  to make me realise that Donne had a point.

 

Rembrandt: I have nothing new to say, I just love this painting

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The man with the golden helmet, 1650, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, by Rembrandt, OK?

Art appreciation is a subjective business, art history shouldn’t really be. However, great though Rembrandt is in so many of his paintings, I think that this portrait is one of his finest works, an out and out masterpiece, in a field where that word is routinely abused.

Except, it’s not by Rembrandt, after all. That’s the conclusion reached by various experts around 1985, on what you might call fairly trivial grounds. Not everyone agreed, implied in this fine article from the New York Times back then. Indeed, with a painting so wonderful, does the attribution actually matter?

It went on and on, with Rembrandt as the primary victim of warring art ‘experts’ with some pretty odd theories. This great piece in the FT from last year makes the point well:

..we might ask who are all these mysterious, supremely talented “followers of Rembrandt”? Who are the artists able to paint works as fascinating as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” in Rembrandt’s studio, but who have left no trace of any independent practice? I doubt many exist – they are a spectre of modern Rembrandt scholarship.

Funnily enough, this seems to be one of the most popular Rembrandts out there, judged by web hits, despite the claims about authenticity. The Knife loves most of his stuff (see here and here), and in these days of atavistic violence posturing as a challenge to Western cultural values, there is no better cultural riposte than this endlessly fascinating meisterwerk.

 

 

 

Corbyn is a rubbish Marxist compared to Blair

Rudi: channeling One Direction
Rudi: channeling One Direction
There’s nothing original in this observation, but Peter Hitchens summarises it so well that I’ve pinched a chunk of his Mail on Sunday column. It’s been noted previously that New Labour adopted the tiny Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s ‘cultural hegemony’, revamped by noisy revolutionary Rudi Dutschke, a sort of intellectual German Tommy Sheridan, as the  “long march through the institutions”, to change the nature of Britain, and its public life, by stealth.

They pretty much succeeded, with the best example being the rule of much of what we do by quango, and the people who still control these mostly pointless bodies.

Here is the mighty Hitchens:

The continued rage about Jeremy Corbyn’s rather dated Leftism baffles me. Most British journalists weren’t (as I was) members of the Labour Party in the 1980s. In the months before I quit, I used to be angrily called to order by the chairwoman of my local party. She was cross with me for (as she put it) provoking too much heckling from noisily pro-IRA, ban-the-bomb types.

Meanwhile, the real Left worked by stealth. That is why our political media never understood that the Blairites were in fact far more Left wing than Jeremy Corbyn. The Blair faction’s ideas came from a communist magazine called Marxism Today. The magazine, in turn, got the ideas from a clever Italian revolutionary called Antonio Gramsci. He wanted a cultural revolution, a Leftist takeover of schools, universities, media, police and courts (and of conservative political parties too). That is exactly what New Labour did.

An astonishing number of senior New Labour people, from Peter Mandelson to Alan Milburn, are former Marxist comrades who have never been subjected to the sort of in-depth digging into their pasts that Jeremy Corbyn faces. Why is this? Is one kind of Marxism OK, and the other sort not? Or is it just that most political writers are clueless about politics?

To the list above, add many of the institutions of the medical profession and the NHS. There is one impressive thing about these mad lefties – they often had big hair.

The tiny Marxist himself
The tiny Marxist himself

From Beethoven to Gunbuster

A few posts ago I followed up a theme of Damian Thompson’s, namely where is the good or great modern classical music? I don’t subscribe to the cliche that it’s all atonal rubbish or syrupy choral stuff, but there’s still a lot of both. We are not in an era comparable with Beethoven et al, fair enough, but nor are we in an era comparable with Rachmaninov and other 20th century greats. We’re not even close.

Anyway, my nomination was a piece called The Hatikvah Variations (we’re talking about piano here), by James Raphael, which is magnificent, and right up there with other great Romantic piano masterpieces. Then to my surprise, along comes another.

Japanese culture, where it meets Western styles, is remarkably open minded. They loved atonal screeching experimental period John Coltrane when nearly everyone else hated it, they made 70’s British hard rock bands very rich, they even lap up rockabilly. However, some of the homegrown stuff is a little outre. Violent manga and anime are par for the course, and the 21st century curse of electronic lifestyles is producing some pretty odd results with hikkomori.

Anime is massive in the Far East, and to a degree over here. The plots are a bit childish at first glance, but one of the older ones, Gunbuster, is hugely popular (a sort of outer space Top Gun, with evil space monsters), and regarded as fairly tear jerking, surprisingly, with a memorable soundtrack.

So, East meets West. Here is Yui Morishita playing what seems to be a technically demanding Romantic era piano sonata-fantasy replete with big tunes. If it wasn’t called in its endearingly naive way, The Gunbuster Fantasy, but rather, if you chose German, Die Gewehrbrecher Fantasie, it could easily be a concert standard. I think it’s superb.

..and Morishita is a terrific pianist, with a great gift for a Knife obsession, Alkan. He doesn’t appear to have made any CD’s (that I’ve found), but he has the true virtuoso spirit. Here he is aceing Alkan’s rarely heard and extremely demanding Scherzo Focoso. Bravo.

We all need a (working) bullshit detector

Iran/Belgium fashion week
Iran/Belgium fashion week

Men who wear bow ties, cravats, and/or glasses on a string. People who join MENSA. Middle class people who go on a bit too long about ‘their’ football team.

All these categories may be victims of blind prejudice, or alternatively they may simply be stimulating a fully functioning bullshit detector, which is an essential piece of one’s armamentarium these days.

In medicine, beware of the patient loudly proclaiming they have a ‘high pain threshold’ – they will squeal like a pig as soon as you examine them. Junior surgeons who boast of their huge list of operations, personally undertaken are often the most callow and ineffective, prone to panic and misjudgement. Patients who enthusiastically medicalise their every feeling, for whom new diagnoses with arcane names such as fibromyalgia are the gift that keeps on giving. Doctors who are anxious to tell you how busy they are always have all their holidays booked, know their exact leave allowance, and go to silly meetings and get out of clinical duties more than any of their quieter colleagues.

So when I first saw Camila Batmanghelidjh, now of Kids’ Company notoriety, I think on Question Time a few years ago, I assumed she was of Nigerian heritage, or something similar. Why would she dress like that otherwise? The bullshit detector should have kicked in. Her exotic Belgian/Iranian gene pool doesn’t suggest an immediate affinity for sub-Saharan Africa.

Of course it now seems evident that at best she was naive and bad at running things, but today’s revelation that she had an expensive chauffeur, because she didn’t like walking or getting public transport, suggests a more calculating persona, perhaps.

Normally I’d be indifferent to this sort of nonsense, were it not for the fact that her organisation seems to have hoovered up literally millions of taxpayers’ cash, with, as it happens, not much to show for it beyond a few anecdotes. Dave’s own involvement suggests he needs a new bullshit detector. Worrying in a prime minister.

Most people reasonably assume charities compete for money that the public may or may not choose to give away, not just sign up with the government for enormous handouts. If you did want to spend all that public money on the disadvantaged, you’d be far better handing it out in the street a la helicopter money, rather than funnelling it through some loosely structured inefficient fiefdom like Kids’ Company appears to be.

So, I have to add to the above list, which is far from exhaustive anyway, a proclivity for dressing flamboyantly in a manner suggesting a different ethnic group. There are parallels here with the defiantly white black activist Rachel Dolezal, and indeed former candidate for the Democratic nomination, 1/32 Cherokee Elizabeth Warren.

Douglas Murray’s neat discussion of the ‘halo effect’ is as good an explanation as any of how previously well functioning bullshit detectors can be disabled:

It has often occurred to me that if you wanted to perform any great con trick these days you could do no better than to have a hard to pronounce name, wear achingly ethnic clothing and cultivate a sort of ‘mother earth’ persona. The search for authenticity is such that before long every culturally embarrassed media and political creep would beat a path to your door, sit at your feet and hug you like a tree. In reality you would never need to do anything much because you’ve already ticked all the culturally correct boxes.

Those of us who feel this way could be accused of being wise after the event, but once you’ve identified, well in advance of their current diminished popularity, Tony Blair, Bono, Richard Branson, Alex Salmond and many others, I feel one is entitled to claim a degree of authority in this emerging discipline.