Thank Harambe for the alt right

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.

He has a point.

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Who knew The Donald was musical too?

Beethoven at the Guggenheim

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Boccioni at MoMA: Dynamism of a Soccer Player (the painting), and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (the bronze). Both 1913. These Futurists…

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.

How to write about music: Bach’s Chaconne

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).

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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 unique Gidon 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).

The thrill has gone – advice from 1600 years ago

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4th century dudes

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 translationrecommended) 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’.

Alkan – Concerto for Solo Piano, the best recording

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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.

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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 admirable Jed 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.

 

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.

 

How to write about music: Beethoven

One of the things I cannot do is have music I really like – or want to like – on in the background. I’m referring to classical music primarily, and in particular, Beethoven. There is so much to hear even in the early less radical stuff, but it easily goes in one ear and out the other if I’m not giving it my proper attention. It also feels vaguely disrespectful. Less so with Mozart, who for all his genius, definitely churned out a lot of filler.

Describing what you’re getting is hard to do well. Having got to know, sort of, Beethoven’s late string quartets, as they’re usually called, though you can probably never fully ‘know’ them, I’m starting from the beginning this year. Opus 18 no 1, the string quartet in F major. Here is a fine brief summary of it, by the pianist Peter Hill. I quote: “The opening of the first movement bristles with the suppressed energy and explosive contrasts we expect from early Beethoven, while the music’s continuity arises from the perpetual transformation of ideas, in particular the opening motif with its characteristic turn“. Not a bad description, and here is the coiled energy of that first movement, played by the uber precise Afiara Quartet

Wind it back to 1957 though, and here is the altogether more vivid prose of the late Roger Fiske , in the essential Chamber Music, edited by Alec Robertson, a legend of British classical music criticism:

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You don’t have to be able to read music – I barely can – to get the gist of that and its  ‘philosophical point among equals’. The last phrase is exactly right: the first movement in question is indeed basically six ‘dusty looking notes’ polished to 24 carat gold. Beautiful and concise. You get the feeling Beethoven would have liked it too.

**If anyone is interested in guides to Beethoven’s amazing quartets, try 1, 2 and 3

 

Christmas Day

Here is the astounding version of Oh Holy Night by Al Green, from back in 1992. Al is as good as he’s ever been. From the heart…

…and here is a brilliant animated map of the spread of Christianity over the centuries – and other religions and empires. Despite the ISIS neds in their tenuous caliphate, it makes a very profound and impressive point

Happy Christmas!

*This is worth reading

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.

James Raphael and the Hatikvah Variations

I suppose you could have too many Beethoven sonata sets. Possibly
I suppose you could have too many Beethoven sonata sets. Possibly

Classical piano fans, a group which includes myself, have loads of favourites, prejudices, quirky tastes and so forth. For example, I can’t be bothered with critics’ darlings like Paul Lewis, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Richard Goode and others. I love Glenn Gould (reviled in numerous editions of the Penguin guide), I like Lang Lang and the way he upsets the self-appointed cognoscenti, I find the mighty Maurizio Pollini anything but cold, hard and austere. We can probably all agree on one thing – Sviatoslav Richter was a genius.

The trouble is that both in the music industry as a whole, and in our prized CD (and record) collections, much of it revolves around different artists performing the same repertoire. Really brilliant new works are rare as anything, and most recent works require you to have a distant relationship with melody, and a taste for atonality and chromaticism. This has been going on for the best part of the last 70 years.

So along comes the occasionally acerbic and highly knowledgeable Damian Thompson with a surprising recommendation: Michael Finnissy’s ‘History of Photography in Sound’, a recentish British composition, all five and a half hours of it. Finnissy is indeed a difficult listen, but worth a try – see also his Concerti for Piano Solo.

Thompson’s piece is well worth reading, and raises the question: what is there coming up, outwith the usual diet of Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Schumann etc – all wonderful, but even with Beethoven you sometimes need a break. The Knife is a bit of an Alkan obsessive, but even though he’s regarded as a little bit left field, it was all written well over a hundred years ago, and there’s been an upsurge in new recordings, he’s no longer hard to find. So what else is new?

Well, a couple of years ago in Edinburgh I was browsing the bargain bin in one of the few remaining classical CD shops, McAlister Matheson, and came across a piano CD with a cheesy cover by a guy called James Raphael. The immediate attraction was that he’d recorded stuff by Nino Rota, based on the Godfather theme no less, and excellent it is. The eye opener though was a magnificent piece by Raphael himself, a theme and variations on the Israeli national anthem, Ha-Tikva (‘The Hope’). If you appreciate piano variations, from the Goldbergs to Rzewski via the Festin d’Aesop, then this is definitely the business.

Raphael is something of a maverick. A wealthy jeweller, he competed in the Van Cliburn competition, and performed for Golda Meir, at the Vatican and similar prestigious stuff, whilst remaining an amateur. This posting tells you all you need to know about the work, and about Raphael. The problem is getting to hear it. There’s some Raphael on YouTube from the Cliburn competition, but Hatikvah isn’t there, though it’s usually somewhere on Amazon.

So, to promote a terrific pianist, and as it turns out, composer, with something new, brilliant and tonal, here, via SoundCloud, are James Raphael’s Hatikvah Variations.