A nice profile in the FT, of a writer that I’d never come across, Denis Johnson, who died last May. Sounds like his stuff is worth a try, but I’m quoting his description of a writer’s life here. A lyrical ode to his modus operandi. Sounds kind of fun, and blogging is, perhaps, its pale imitation:
“Writing. It’s easy work . . . You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape . . . Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”
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.
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
Despite Bob Dylan winning his Nobel Prize – the best thing about which was Bob’s indifference/disdain for the whole shebang – pop lyrics are generally asinine. When they’re removed from their protective musical cloak things tend to get even worse.
There are still many gems – I always liked “you ain’t no punk, you punk” (The Cramps, Garbageman) – though rarely ones that involve a multimillionaire self-consciously ‘making a point’.
So here is Sir Mick Jagger (last good song, 1980), who has bestowed on us his lofty thoughts on Brexit:
‘Lock the shutters, bolt the doors, London’s gonna be like Singapore’.
Apparently that’s a reference to the ‘horrific’ thought of the UK becoming a tax haven after Brexit. Mick has obviously forgotten the 70’s.
His piercing insights on politicians are hard to beat too:
‘The world is upside down, led by lunatics and clowns. No one speaks the truth and the mad-house runs the town.’
Those people who are openly dismayed that they see Trump ripping up the institutions and processes of sane stable government are wrong.
They’re also missing the point.
Trump often has the manner and superfical effect of a wrecking ball, but since 1997 in the UK and 2001 in the US, both countries have been decimated by the slow motion wrecking balls of New Labour, the Bush foreign adventures and the Obama Terror. Do I sound like some sort of right wing Trumpian monster? Possibly I do, but like many voters I am not ideological other than in the vague ‘less government in our lives would be better’ way. And like all voters there are specific issues that I would like to see dealt with. We can disagree on our wants and our priorities, but whatever they are, most voters want pragmatic government that works.
Why do I think Trump is not destroying the institutions of power? Well, it’s in the evidence so far. Charles Krauthammer’s take six weeks ago is pretty much spot on:
The strongman cometh, it was feared. Who and what would stop him? Two months into the Trumpian era, we have our answer.
Our checks and balances have turned out to be quite vibrant. Consider: The courts Trump rolls out not one but two immigration bans, and is stopped dead in his tracks by the courts. However you feel about the merits of the policy itself (in my view, execrable and useless but legal) or the merits of the constitutional reasoning of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (embarrassingly weak, transparently political), the fact remains: The president proposed and the courts disposed. Trump’s pushback? A plaintive tweet or two complaining about the judges — that his own Supreme Court nominee denounced (if obliquely) as “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” The states Federalism lives. The first immigration challenge to Trump was brought by the attorneys general of two states (Washington and Minnesota) picking up on a trend begun during the Barack Obama years when state attorneys general banded together to kill his immigration overreach and the more egregious trespasses of his Environmental Protection Agency. And beyond working through the courts, state governors — Republicans, no less — have been exerting pressure on members of Congress to oppose a Republican president’s signature health-care reform. Institutional exigency still trumps party loyalty. Congress The Republican-controlled Congress (House and Senate) is putting up epic resistance to a Republican administration’s health-care reform. True, that’s because of ideological and tactical disagreements rather than any particular desire to hem in Trump. But it does demonstrate that Congress is no rubber stamp. And its independence extends beyond the perennially divisive health-care conundrums. Trump’s budget, for example, was instantly declared dead on arrival in Congress, as it almost invariably is regardless of which party is in power
Not that I necessarily agree with all these opposing moves, the point is that there is relatively little absolute power outwith national crises and wartime, and all presidents must exist within a system. That system is entirely intact. Of course, in those areas where Trump has shown real skill, he gets little credit from the establishment.
The real damage occurred with his predecessors. The same happened in the UK under Blair, it’s happening now in various parts of Europe courtesy of the EU. Australia and Canada come and go a bit, but it really has been a classical Gramsci/Dutschke ‘long march through the institutions’. There is no better example of the occasionally overt nature of this than the US Supreme Court wrangling – surely all judges should be politically neutral in their work? If only.
Trump and inevitably, Brexit, are the most prominent examples of pushback against this infiltrative game changing. That’s all. And despite the risks and occasional misdemeanours, I welcome both. Particularly when I consider the alternatives. The Trump presidency so far, like Brexit and the associated Remain sulking, has done nothing that changes my mind on this.
There is a good analogy. When I was a teenager back in the 70’s the British cultural and music scene was hardly vibrant. Superannuated hippies made dull long winded and overhyped LP’s, gigs were often tedious doped up snooze fests. Even one’s parents were comfortable with it all. Then came punk. Not just a musical phenomenon (though the best is still great), more of a kicking over the traces cultural paradigm shift that was in some ways absolutely tremendous. The country had a totally different mood. And the Establishment suffered acute Fear and Loathing in response. But there was no threat, no real damage, no real animosity. It was fun. By 1981 it was over, pretty much, as the appalling New Romantics took over, and we’ve never had it again. Four years max.
In fact, as I survey in middle age the current music scene (indeed, nearly everything since the mid 90’s) I shudder at the complacency and derivative boring rubbish that is out there. Punk was great.
And that’s how I see Trump (and Brexit). How I hate the proclamations of stultifying conventional career progressing professional political types, of whatever party. Boring earnestness usually goes with platitudes, sanctimony, virtue signalling and complete ineffectivenness. That applies to all parties – though some are worse than others. If you become an apostate then the humourless horde try to destroy you. Trump is an antidote, possibly only temporary, like the Punk Era, but welcome all the same. He doesn’t give a toss, he’s spontaneous, he often means well, he’s unconventional**, deeply flawed, funny and rides his luck. His enemies almost uniformly underrate, dismiss and fear him, in one confused bundle. Good for him.
One of the mission statements of this blog is from the late John von Kannon: “If I can’t have good government, give me entertaining government”.
And you only have to look at who’s against him (and Brexit), to get that little heartwarming glow.
**fascinatingly, the day after I wrote this, here is the highly experienced Robert Gates – former CIA and Defence Secretary, with bipartisan support – talking about Trump:
Broadly philosophically, I’m in agreement with his disruptive approach. So in government, I’m a strong believer in the need for reform of government agencies and departments. They have gotten fat and sloppy and they’re not user-friendly. They are inefficient. They cost too much. I also think on the foreign policy side that there is a need for disruption. We’ve had three administrations follow a pretty consistent policy toward North Korea, and it really hasn’t gotten us anywhere. So the notion of disrupting and putting the Chinese on notice that it’s no longer business as usual for the United States I think is a good thing. Now the question is, obviously, in the implementation of disruption. On the foreign policy side, there’s the risk of being too spontaneous and too disruptive where you end up doing more harm than damage. Figuring out that balance is where having strong people around you matters.
The Knife is a subscriber to the excellent Standpoint magazine, which as Guido details, is in considerable financial trouble. The only problem I have with it is getting the time to read it. The magazine is edited by the genuinely cerebral Daniel Johnson (as opposed to the casually applied ‘cerebral’ epithet to the likes of Barack), and could at a stretch be described as containing the thinking man’s version of the new bogeyman, the alt right. That is not the loose melange of far right cranks, but rather a ‘right of centre’ group of people who are prepared to confront the shibboleths of the formerly ascendant mad lefties, exemplified by Ed Miliband, Hillary (and Barack much of the time), who continually strafe the political landscape with infantile Hitler accusations and similar, in order to stifle dissent.
Taking another publication with intellectual pretensions, the Guardian, it schizophrenically publishes trite editorials on the alt right theme, whilst at the same time encourages the superb journalism of people like John Harris, whose far more nuanced interpretation of the reasons for Trump and Brexit have been among the journalistic highlights of 2016.
Back to Guido. Here is one of his regular commenters, Kevin T, on the Standpoint situation, and their version of the alt right:
Why all the sniping at the alt right? The alt right actually get shit done. Brexit won, Trump elected. Traditional conservatives have given us sod all since Reagan and Thatcher left office. They mostly just sit there looking timid on Question Time, giving in to the left on everything except taxes. Thank Harambe something else has come along.
When visiting the splendid museums and galleries of New York, it becomes pretty obvious that we much of what has been casually labelled ‘modern’ art – such as in the hugely popular MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, of course) and the Whitney – is in fact not very modern at all. Iconic he may be, but the somewhat limited Warhol’s screenprints have the air of musty history about them. Edward Hopper is great, but he’s redolent of the era when my dad was still at school. Picasso too, even the wackily named Futurists, much as I like them, are from more than 100 years ago. There are lots of similar examples.
Go to the Guggenheim, and if you’re unlucky, you’ll find that the best thing on display is the enduring brilliance of the building itself, given the vagaries of contemporary art. Getting an exhibition in the Guggenheim is a meal ticket for any artist, but perhaps only 50% on a good day is actually any good (I know it’s subjective, and that’s my take on it). What it is though, is modern. Even the crap stuff usually has a freshness that has its own beguilement.
Which brings me to Beethoven.
Stravinsky – referring to a specific piece, the Grosse Fugue for string quartet, op 133 – famously described his work as ‘contemporary forever’. That work was described by an 1826 critic as “incomprehensible, like Chinese” and “a confusion of Babel”, and I would add that it is indeed an ear splitting gem of furious dissonance and angst – which sounds rather 21st century as a description , I suppose. It was written in 1825. If you’re a piano geek, you may know that the biggest, most brutal, most intense and most impenetrable of all the 32 piano sonatas is the Hammerklavier, from 1818. It has a lot in common with the quartet 7 years later. The Hammerklavier is opus 106. I have heard probably 30 or more different versions of it over the last three decades, and I still haven’t fully fathomed it. Far from it (this marvellous review is very insightful). Like the Grosse Fuge, it is absolutely, resolutely contemporary. It knocks modern classical piano compositions out of the park. It is more far reaching or ‘daring’ than any 20th or 21st century piece.
Which is why I was intrigued to find opus 107, an obvious next step that I’d never really considered before. It couldn’t have a more twee 19th century title: Ten National Airs with Variations for Flute and Piano, the national airs being folk songs from Scotland, Ukraine, Austria, Ireland and Wales. Beethoven sanctioned a piano solo version, sacrificing the flute. My copy is played by the slightly maverick Finn, Olli Mustonen. He always seems to apply great dexterity and precision, but with a slightly spiky quality. You can hear the spaces between the notes. A lot of the critics don’t like this applied to Beethoven, but given the points I’ve made about Beethoven being anything but trapped in the 19th century style, I reckon it works. The spaces around the musical line remind me a bit of the Second Viennese School, though Beethoven is reliably tonal. In any event, hear how he takes likeable jaunty folk tunes and turns them inside out. It’s far from the Hammerklavier (though it’s nearly the same length at 41 minutes) and the Grosse Fuge, but it’s still, well, contemporary. See what you think.
I was at a funeral last week, and the music in the crematorium as we filed out at the end, was Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine, which although appropriate to the deceased, was another example of the sometimes irritating quirkiness in the current vogue of remembering our recently departed. I’ve heard Queen’s I Want to Break Free more than once. The relevance is that for a good while I’ve thought that I’d like to have the mourners at my own send off have to sit through the entirety of Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin, which usually comes in somewhere between 14 and 15 minutes.
This is not some sort of revenge fantasy, but rather a reflection on the fact that I do not think that there exists, in the entire canon of Western music, a piece that contains within it so much of what is to be human. It’s all there: Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, War and Peace, and the Judaeo-Christian belief system. If that sounds like hyperbole, it’s not intended to be, it genuinely does seem to me to contain all human experience, particularly all that is noble and good. Sorry if that sounds pretentious, but it’s true.
The trouble is, I cannot say why it seems to contain all that. It just does. My earlier post on this theme applying skills in one discipline (writing) to an entirely different one (music), was about Beethoven’s string quartets, emphasising the brilliance and verve of Roger Fiske’s prose, in conjuring up what made Beethoven’s Op18 no 1 so special. Here all I can offer is an entirely different take, which is the veteran violinist Kyung Wha Chung providing a technical analysis of the Chaconne, interspersed her expert enthusiasms (taken from Gramophone magazine, September 2016. Click on each picture).
My feelings on this are not remotely original. It’s probably the most famous solo violin piece of them all. Many people will already know that it’s really just the final movement of BWV 1004, Bach’s remarkable Partita no 2 for solo violin. There are literally hundreds of recordings, but my favourite is still the first I heard, by Nathan Milstein. The almost equally profound piano arrangement (by Busoni) is similarly ubiquitous, and again my first recording, by English gentleman Ronald Smith, is still my go to option. To close with, and see if any newcomer can see what I mean, here is the uniqueGidon Kremer, a Jew, playing this truly universal masterpiece by Bach, a Lutheran, in a Catholic church, as recommended to you all by The Knife (a Catholic).
Illicit pleasures, whatever they are – drugs, sex, you name it – pall rapidly, but they often continue for extended periods, even lifetimes, because of the difficulties of physical, mental and emotional addiction, and sometimes the sheer logistics of breaking free.
Licit pleasures though, can fade too, becoming drab and humdrum, sometimes more quickly than with forbidden fruit: music, for example. When I first heard Beethoven’s astounding Emperor Concerto, I played it again and again and again. I couldn’t get enough of it. That was years ago. In this consumer driven world I have to admit that I probably have about 15 different recordings of it, impelled partly by an urge to recreate that original buzz from back in 1984. I never have. I can still enjoy it, but the thrill is gone.
We’ve probably all experienced that ennui or hollowness in relation to something we previously couldn’t get enough of.
What is that about? Is it really just the old cliche that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’? Actually, it’s not that I no longer admire/respect/love the work, it’s more that it no longer satisfies. Consumers – myself included – spend a lot of time and money on trying to recreate that initial feeling.
…let it not cleave too close in love to things through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide, they pass, and who can follow them with any bodily sense? Or who can grasp them firm even while they are still here?
Our fleshly sense is slow because it is fleshly sense: and that is the limit of its being. It can do what it was made to do; but it has no power to hold things transient as they run their course from their due beginning to their due end.
That was St Augustine, the most modern of the ancient writers, in his Confessions (Sheed translation – recommended) who would I think completely understand the vicissitudes encouraged by technology and easy access to all sorts of media and entertainment in the 21st century. He was in part referring to his failure to cope after the unexpected death of his closest friend, but he applies it equally to our material treats and desires.
You might think, being a saint, that he automatically turned to God and religion. Not so, he held off for as long as he could (hence his most famous saying), and he describes it with a degree of reflection and wit that means, like Beethoven, he’s one of those figures from the past who is ‘contemporary forever’.
Reader advisory note: This one is for piano geeks, strictly speaking, and possibly only a select, but highly discerning group of them.
There used to be only two or three easily available recordings of this, the most gargantuan, brilliant and extraordinary piece in the Romantic piano literature. These days, relatively speaking, there are lots of them. The piece is so hard to get right though, that a number of them might be fairly described as feats of technical endurance, rather than providing the listener with the rare reward of a performance loaded with the essential brio, speed, rhythmic accuracy, and Alkanian elan.
Back in 2007, the magazine International Piano used its regular ‘best recording’ feature to focus on Alkan’s Concerto, in a piece by John Kersey. Kersey is an unusual fellow. Not only is he a genuinely accomplished pianist (with a pretty good disc of Alkan rarities under his belt), he also has another life as “eighth elected Prince-Abbot of the religious and chivalric foundation of San Luigi, the sixth Mukungu of San Luigi in the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara, and Primate of the Apostolic Episcopal Church”, which is as far as I can determine, an eccentric offshoot of Anglicanism. In addition he’s President, Director of Academic Affairs and David Hume Interdisciplinary Professor at European-American University (EAU). Normally I would be a bit suspicious of this collection of unusual titles, but the fact is, Kersey is a knowledgeable and discriminating musician who writes beautifully and with a hard focus on what matters in performance.
So here are the scans of Kersey’s piece, just click on them to expand, they can be saved as images.
Since then there have been new recordings from Vincenzo Maltempo, a second version from Stephanie McCallum, Stefan Lindgren, and various pieces on YouTube. All worthy, but none of them usurping the recordings summarised in the 2007 review. What I like about Kersey, is that while he pays the traditional and appropriate homage to Marc-Andre Hamelin (whose earlier version is his best, in my view), he very shrewdly identifies the qualities in Mark Latimer‘s raging and highwire performance which most other reviewers hopelessly failed on, for example the normally admirableJed Distler. Latimer is a fascinating musician. He plays jazz, pretty well on record, brilliantly live, and he’s involved in all sorts of other artistic ventures. He’s a very modest and engaging man, but in a tragic twist his pianism has been badly affected by Dupuytren’s disease – no laughing matter.
Hamelin is Canadian, but Latimer aside, the two other finest performances are also by Brits, Jack Gibbons and John Ogdon (friend and mentor to Latimer). Ronald Smith, a quintessential Englishman, may not be particularly competitive in this company, but he gets the credit for repopularising Alkan, and also writing the highly readable and definitive book on our hero. Strange how the avowedly Parisian recluse Alkan has no French champions of note. A final point, even if you don’t read music as such, buy the (bargain) score and follow it with basic pattern recognition, it’s genuinely revelatory.
If you’re already an afficionado, I hope you enjoy the review. If not, get the Gibbons CD and marvel.