Poetry corner: Barack Obama, an appreciation

So farewell then Barack Obama

You were the first black president, which counts for a lot, but

You cynically divided the country

Demonised folk and bullied nuns

And wrecked your own party,

Whilst playing golf, hugely enjoying yourself

And talking a load of rubbish

You were smart to know when the game was up, but

We all know it should have been a lot better

It was good while it lasted, lads

Poetry corner: Walter Raleigh sums it up

Apparently this one (What is our life?) is a high school curriculum regular. It’s a gift in that situation, being short, memorable and easily  read and interpreted. That said, it’s a mini-masterpiece too. Raleigh was 65 when he was executed, having previously enjoyed the favour of (the late) Queen Elizabeth. Given the mood of the times and Raleigh’s own markedly violent martial past, he must have known that there was a good chance that he would fail to make three score years and ten. Still,  65 is pretty good, but you get the impression that he’d lived with death on his shoulder for a long time.

What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,
Our mother’s wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves that hide us from the setting sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.

Life as ‘a short comedy’ is a terrific concept.

“Life expectancy for smokers is at least 10 years shorter than for nonsmokers” [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta]

Alkan – Concerto for Solo Piano, the best recording


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 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.


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

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.




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.

Poetry corner: Alexander Pope foresees the Labour/SNP love in

..forsooth, these Nats are scoundrels or worse..
..forsooth, these Nats are scoundrels or worse..

If you’re prone to pessimism, this seems on the face of it to be a bad time to be keen on keeping the United Kingdom, well, united. Despite being such abject, sorry losers at the independence referendum in September 2014, the Stalinist zoomers of the SNP are gleefully declaring a new route to power that they could never have foreseen.

Doughty unionist warriors in the press, such as Fraser Nelson and Chris Deerin, have even seen their own families infiltrated by the nationalist plague. Depressing times indeed.

The absurdly overrated Nicola Sturgeon – a dictatorial tunnel-visioned health minister in her most significant previous stab at power – is dripping with hubris, and her new swain, Ed Miliband is looking more wretched by the day as he tries to square the circle. His disdain for principle in pursuit of power is predictable. Behind them both lurks the currently gagged figure of Alex Salmond, a regular in this blog (try these: 1,2,3,4), and after careful consideration, and fighting very strong competition, is easily the most repulsive and unpleasant British politician of my lifetime. A man who wants to make a thriving economy and basically pretty good country ‘ungovernable’.

Here is the timeless Alexander Pope, rounding up the final book of his aptly named epic The Dunciad, which is essentially inspired by stupidity. Perfect for the General Election of 2015:

…See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion, blushing, veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

Eck as great Anarch seems to fit. But when it comes to the self praising morons of the Nats, I prefer to recall Ozymandias. Ed, on the other hand, is neatly summed up by Pope:The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, With loads of learned lumber in his head.”

Indeed, Pope has a warning for Ed if does end up being held to ransom by the vindictive but limited  talents of the SNP They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake”, and his wording here seems uncannily appropriate: Party-spirit at best is but the madness of many for the gain of a few.” We’ve already begun to suffer from convenient short termism, with the original devolution of 1997, concocted by Labour to buy off some of the noisier Scots, then the dreaded ‘vow’, days before the referendum. As Pope has it: The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine. Us non-Nat voters are those wretches.

When it comes to Sturgeon, who is currently basking in her version of Cleggmania (itself an omen), Pope has this to say: Never was it given to mortal man – to lie so boldly as we women can.Her popularity with much of the media, just because she’s not as obnoxious as Eck (who still has a journalistic fanclub, and to whom this therefore also applies), is perhaps summed up by: A wit with dunces, and a dunce with wits.”

The Knife, as you may gather, is a fan of Pope. One wishes his equivalent was around today in Britain, as a true wit like Mark Steyn mainly concerns himself with less parochial matters, sadly. However, the spirit of Pope remains with us in his extensive (and very readable) works. So if you want to know who to vote for in about two weeks time….

“For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best”,

…which would seem to rule out
both Ed and his new friends

The new SNP/Labour manifesto
The new SNP/Labour manifesto

Poetry corner: GK Chesterton ~ The Donkey

Seeing as today is Palm Sunday, here is one of Chesterton‘s short but artfully worded masterpieces, from 1900, before his conversion, as it happens**

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem, from a Russian manuscript
Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, from a Russian manuscript

** it’s worth reading Christopher Hitchens on Chesterton. He clearly admires him, but can’t get over the bits he disagrees with. It’s a sort of devil’s advocate piece by a fellow English man of letters





Poetry corner: Winterreise

Schubert is the most poetic of composers. His ear for the emotional tune is matched only by Beethoven, or occasionally Chopin. However, if you write more than 600 songs for solo singer, never mind the other works, there may well be a problem with consistency. In attempting to get through every piece on Hyperion’s remarkable 40 CD recording of the complete songs (all 2,851 minutes of it), Damian Thompson of the Spectator eventually admitted defeat. Part of the problem is the words, Schubert always used other writers’ poems.  To quote Thompson:

Despite Richard Wigmore’s sparkling translations, many of the poems are garbage. In ‘Der Liedler’ (1815), a minstrel saves a maiden from a werewolf by smashing his harp against him and then hurling him over a cliff. Even Schubert couldn’t polish this particular turd. Long, corny, cod-medieval ballads never showed him at his best. Short, commonplace love poems weren’t a problem, however. Schubert could invest the plainest lament — his poets were champion lamenters — with emotions far beyond the grasp of the writer. A lilting rhythm jumps into the pianist’s left hand; a flattened sixth creates a flicker of fear; a predictable cadence dissolves into a remote key. Earthbound verse takes flight.

Which makes Winterreise all the more remarkable. The poet is Wilhelm Müller, and, put frankly, it’s a very bleak and miserable trip. The spurned lover sets off into a very cold, dark, threatening landscape, bereft of hope. In the era of the romcom, this is its antithesis. Here is the translation by Celia Sgroi. It’s not great poetry in English, but it’s effective, and the sentiments are clear (and timeless, we’ve all been there to some extent). The German is more melodious, even in plain speech:

Gute Nacht
 Fremd bin ich eingezogen,                      I came here a stranger,
Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.                     As a stranger I depart.
Der Mai war mir gewogen                        May favoured me
Mit manchem Blumenstrauß.                   With many a bunch of flowers.
Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe,              The girl spoke of love
Die Mutter gar von Eh’, –                          Her mother even of marriage –
Nun ist die Welt so trübe,                        Now the world is so gloomy,
Der Weg gehüllt in Schnee.                     The road shrouded in snow.
Ich kann zu meiner Reisen                       I cannot choose the time
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,                       To begin my journey,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen              Must find my own way
In dieser Dunkelheit.                                In this darkness
Es zieht ein Mondenschatten                    A shadow of the moon travels
Als mein Gefährte mit,                              With me as my companion,
Und auf den weißen Matten                     And upon the white fields
Such’ ich des Wildes Tritt.                         I seek the deer’s track.
Was soll ich länger weilen,                       Why should I stay here any longer
Daß man mich trieb hinaus ?                    So that people can drive me away ?
Laß irre Hunde heulen                              Let stray dogs howl
Vor ihres Herren Haus;                              In front of their master’s house;
Die Liebe liebt das Wandern –                   Love loves to wander –
Gott hat sie so gemacht –                          God made it that way –
Von einem zu dem andern.                        From one to the other,
Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht !                      My dearest, good night !
Will dich im Traum nicht stören,              I don’t want to disturb your dreaming,
Wär schad’ um deine Ruh’.                         It would be a shame to wake you.
Sollst meinen Tritt nicht hören –               You won’t hear my step,
Sacht, sacht die Türe zu !                           Softly, softly the door closes !
Schreib im Vorübergehen                           I write in passing
Ans Tor dir: Gute Nacht,                             On your gate: Good night,
Damit du mögest sehen,                            So that you may see

An dich hab’ ich gedacht                            That I thought of you.

The key to it all, is Schubert and his extraordinary gift for plangent melody. Here is Gute Nacht performed by Daniel Barenboim and Thomas Quasthoff. When you consider Quasthoff’s disability, married with his amazing voice., it’s hard not to discern an extra level of poignancy. Try the piece whilst reading the lyrics and translation, that is the real poetic Schubert.


**For interested readers, this blog and its successors are pretty good on the whole Winterreise thing. This podcast is worth a listen if it remains available, and this geeksite is pretty comprehensive re past recordings and other links.

Luck, cancer, me, and you

A colleague of mine wanted to implement an idea put to him by one of his friends, when faced with a pile of CV’s  – a hundred or more – belonging to job applicants. He would throw them in the air, and then chuck half of the randomly scattered CV’s in the bin. He knew he didn’t want to employ them, because “they’re the unlucky ones. I don’t want unlucky people”.

A neat circular argument, and actually, when you think about it, a correct one. They are indeed unlucky. In fact, the best argument against the scheme is to say that ‘luck’ as a personal attribute, irrespective of its ubiquity in everyday speech, doesn’t actually exist.

...his luck ran out
…his luck ran out

A tricky one. Napoleon famously said “I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?”, which suggests that he did view it as a personal quality. He muddied the waters a bit by expanding in a subsequent conversation: “All great events hang by a hair, I believe in luck, and the wise man neglects nothing which contributes to his destiny”. Which suggests that the ideal, where someone is so fortunate they can sit around without making any practical efforts, probably didn’t entirely convince Bonaparte either. This chimes with the associated famous quote of Gary Player, which everyone knows, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”.

This is on a day when the papers have latched on to the tantalising concept that most people who get cancer are just…unlucky.  All those bad habits – and a few good ones  – usually aren’t involved.

This unlucky thing makes sense, at first. The scenes out of Breaking Bad, or the British TV ads that show the bad news being delivered – you’ve got a tumour – are pretty close to the mark. Not a moment you forget.  And yet, there is another perspective. Richard Smith was the editor and (former) clinician who transformed the august British Medical Journal into the public health/global warming obsessed lefty house rag that it is today. After accomplishing that he then amusingly skipped off into the enormous international private healthcare business. For all his faults though, he’s not an idiot, and he’s just got himself into some trouble with the counterintuitive (at first sight) observation that getting cancer could actually be a lucky thing. The caveat, perhaps, is it depends how old you are. Here’s the Daily Mail quote:

Death from organ failure – respiratory, cardiac, or kidney – will have you far too much in hospital and in the hands of doctors. ‘So death from cancer is the best… You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.

‘This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky. But stay away from overambitious oncologists, and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.’

As it happens, I blogged on this a bit last May. Smith has a point. The original BMJ blog is beautifully observed, and well worth reading, as is the thoughtful response after he’d endured his 10 minutes of gleefully overhyped public indignation, and a Twitterstorm. As I write, I can report that the acute takes in my hospital are crammed with elderly people with variable degrees of cognition, multiple pathologies and travelling from care home to hospital, then back again. Many are in their nineties. There is such a thing as living too long.

A semi-detached clinician like Smith, then, gives a valuable ‘alternative’ perspective. Two economists of sorts provide more. Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs has a brilliantly acerbic blog which performs the truly valuable function of skewering numerous self regarding ‘public health’ initiatives and propaganda. Here he is musing on the bad luck argument versus the ‘ban everything’ crowd:

This is really just another way of imparting the same information. ‘Large minority of cancers caused by lifestyle factors’ is no different to ‘Most cancers not caused by lifestyle factors’ except in its emphasis…….But the change in emphasis is very significant. The Boxing Day story was inspired on a Cancer Research UK press release whereas today’s report is based on a study published in Science. Moreover, the CR-UK press release gives a much higher estimate of how many cancers are lifestyle related. It attributes more than 40 per cent to lifestyle factors (smoking, diet and drinking, mostly) whereas the new study finds that only a third of cancers are due to lifestyle factors, environmental factors and hereditary factors combined.

None of this is to decry cancer research or cancer medicine, but a more philosophical overview has its place. We’re all going to die eventually, as Richard Smith eloquently notes. Tim Worstall, something of a polymath, offers a counterweight,  in this blog from the invaluable Adam Smith Institute:

But we’re afraid that it’s still an insane thing for anyone to say that we should not try to cure cancer. The mistake is akin to that made by so many of the slower thinkers about market interactions. Sure, if there’s only one single market interaction then as game theory tells us the incentive is to rip off the other party. But most market interactions are not one off transactions, they’re simply a part of a number of iterations of the same transaction. In which case the incentive is to cooperate to mutual advantage.

Looking to cancer the assumption being made is that OK, once suffered from one should simply fold one’s tent and steal away into that long dark night. Which is to entirely ignore the fact that as cancer treatments get better it’s possible to have a series of iterations. That first, that skin cancer, say is treated and two decades later the luck of the draw brings on, say, colon cancer which may or may not be treatable. The whisky and heroin option taken at that first iteration would then have robbed one of that 20 years of life. It’s entirely possible that cancer is that “good death” but surviving one or two brushes with it before succumbing would be even better.

This post began with luck, and ends with it. Worstall again:

It’s necessary not to starve to death, avoid being eaten by sabre toothed tigers, not get smallpox, for long enough for those multiplying cells to go wrong. Something is going to get you and the later, whatever it is, the more luck you’ve had.

...here's one I made earlier. Genuinely.
…here’s one I made earlier. Genuinely.



Christmas again

A wonderful, evocative, Betjeman poem, Christmas,  with its typically English postwar feel, It was published 60 years ago:

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

…and indeed, Dali’s nativity scene, produced, incredibly, by Hallmark cards in 1960


..and lastly, the late Alex Chilton’s Christmas song to beat them all, I humbly suggest, from Big Star’s otherwise dark but brilliant Third/Sister Lovers


Merry Christmas