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






The Ode to Brexit Joy

The Eroica copy in the library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, with the hole where Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication to Napoleon

One of the greatest Europeans of them all hugely admired Napoleon, until one day, he didn’t. Beethoven famously wrote his Eroica Symphony (one of his many paradigm leaps) in part as a homage to the tiny Corsican, but when the latter’s superstate ambitions and ego took over, Beethoven lost the rag. He had principles that weren’t for sale.

So it’s both irksome and ignorant of the EU to claim (in 1993) the Ode to Joy from the Ninth (21 years later, from a tired and reflective genius), as some sort of superstate anthem. Beethoven would not have approved.

The nadir of this cultural appropriation was when the routinely stupid SNP whistled and gurned it to ‘protest’ about Brexit (narrator: normal Scottish people are indifferent at best to the EU, don’t believe the hype).

In the real world, intelligent EU types, particularly in the German media, have sensed that the game is nearly up. Merkel has been a disaster, ultimately, and the future without the UK’s dosh and common sense looks scary to them. As it should. Here is one such piece in the mighty Der Spiegel, published on Brexit day, and written by the prescient Romain Leick.  I have copied the whole thing.  One of the key points in the road is spelled out: “Brussels did nothing to help the lamentable Prime Minister David Cameron win the referendum”. In fact they treated him like a turd on their elegant shoes.

Essential reading and reflection:

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”



Merry Christmas, 2019

This has been a tumultuous year, with lots of political anger and anxiety, and yet it seems in the UK with a very happy ending, even if the Remainer fraternity haven’t grasped that yet. As JFK said: a rising tide lifts all boats.

To celebrate what I hope will be a very happy Christmas, try reading this celebration of winter in art (in this case the truly great Peter Brueghel the Elder), and here’s a Northern Renaissance nativity from underappreciated Albrecht Altdorfer:

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Birth of Christ, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, 1513.

…and may I offer a few Christmas musical favourites, all a little out of the ordinary…..

Merry Christmas!!

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

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.

Palm Sunday

It was 1981 when I had the pleasure of seeing The Grateful Dead live, with Jerry Garcia on great form. I was surrounded by Austrian hippies smoking dope, which made it hard to stay awake. The band were terrific though.

Jerry was a pure musician. Here is his remarkable take of Palm Sunday, from his Jerry Garcia Band career. Without being overtly religious, it captures some of the numinous essence of what’s about to unfold.

Writing as music: unexpected economist addition

In the previous post I gave a few examples of superior prose, to the point where it conjured up music, in my mind at least. Who would have thought that economics, a notably dry specialism, would be associated with a sparkling example of this (for which I am in debt to Paul Johnson):

How can I convey to the reader, who does not know him, any first impressions of this extraordinary figure of our time, this siren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity? Mr Lloyd George is rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings; he is an instrument and a player at the same time which plays on the company and plays on them too; he is a prism which collects light and distorts it and is most brilliant if the light comes from many quarters at once; a vampire and a medium in one*

Like much great poetry, I’m not entirely sure that can I decipher all the meanings and allusions in that short paragraph, but it is quite brilliant. The author? None other than John Maynard Keynes (in Essays in Biography), the King of Bretton Woods and undoubtedly the most abused economic theorist of the 20th century, in terms of his message being distorted – like Lloyd George’s light.

You may pick your own musical parallel, for me its crammed and elusive vituperation is definitely Berliozian, with a touch of Ravel’s glassy menace.

Keynes, also known as an economist


* something of Tony Blair in this description, I would say


Writing as music

It takes more than the ordinary journalistic literary skills to come up with an opener like this:

Ithe geography of the arts, Canadian is to American as Irish is to English and Jewish is to everyone. Social imitators by proximity, but intellectual ironists by distance, Canadians are the same as Americans, but more so—more obviously stranded in the wilderness because there is so much of it and so few of them, and more similar in politics to the Old World than the New. Their Liberals are centrists, not leftists ashamed of their leftism, and their Conservatives are even Tories.

…a gem of taut prose, I’d say,  setting up a sharp critique of the (overpraised) Saul Bellow, by Dominic Green, whose taste also runs to some of the best jazz. The paragraph’s formal interlocking and anticipatory pulse has a little in common with the technical facility and improvisatory chops of a Dave Brubeck.

Or, in a complete change of mood,  the closing paragraph of the first chapter of Dombey and Son. In fact, the very last line in it:

..the little voice, familiar and dearly loved, awakened some show of consciousness, even at that ebb. For a moment, the closed eye lids trembled, and the nostril quivered, and the faintest shadow of a smile was seen.

‘Mama!’ cried the child sobbing aloud. ‘Oh dear Mama! oh dear Mama!’

The Doctor gently brushed the scattered ringlets of the child, aside from the face and mouth of the mother. Alas how calm they lay there; how little breath there was to stir them!

Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar within her arms, the mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world.

To be repeated in a sad variation, at the end of chapter 16, when the Son, Paul, dies:

‘Now lay me down,’ he said, ‘and, Floy, come close to me, and let me see you!’Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them, locked together.‘How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it’s very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!’

Presently he told her the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest. How green the banks were now, how bright the flowers growing on them, and how tall the rushes! Now the boat was out at sea, but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him. Who stood on the bank?—He put his hands together, as he had been used to do at his prayers. He did not remove his arms to do it; but they saw him fold them so, behind her neck.

‘Mama is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! But tell them that the print upon the stairs at school is not divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!’

The golden ripple on the wall came back again, and nothing else stirred in the room. The old, old fashion! The fashion that came in with our first garments, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll. The old, old fashion—Death!

Oh thank GOD, all who see it, for that older fashion yet, of Immortality! And look upon us, angels of young children, with regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean!

You might find that mawkish, but to me it captures the ineffable strangeness of what is taking place in the mind of a dying person – we can only glimpse it, despite its inevitable role for each one of us. Dickens’ rare gift takes us to the bedside. As music, it’s a Beethoven late quartet, or one of Schubert’s extraordinarily powerful sad, slow, second movements in a piano sonata – D850 perhaps.

Completely different, but just as vivid, with a hard edged resonance identifiable with cool jazz, I’d suggest, is Raymond Chandler:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

…taken from Red Wind, and I’m not the only one who finds it carries an almost impossible to define extra layer of meaning and precision. It is the West Coast of Shelly Manne and his era…

A lot of people think like this – certain forms bring to mind unbidden parallels in other fields, classically synesthesia, or a variation on it. Over to Wikipedia:

… a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

There’s no message here, just an observation on the extended gifts provided by reading and music.