2013 threesomes

Another look back at the year in threes. What have I been doing? Watching? Reading? Well, let’s see.

Top 3 Britten
It’s been Benjamin Britten’s centenary year everywhere, but more than usually with me, and quite a year it’s been. I’ve had a bunch of very special firsts – my first live Little Sweep and Saint Nicolas and Rape of Lucretia (a brilliant university production directed by Kate Kennedy and Samantha Spiro), the supreme Glyndebourne Billy Budd at the cinema, and in September a lively community production of Noye’s Fludde in the unlikely venue of the Clore Ballroom at the Southbank Centre. But the top three were all big guns: Grimes on the Beach in Aldeburgh in June, an experience it is beyond my feeble powers to describe, a very fine The Turn of the Screw conducted by Jason Thornton at Cooper Hall as part of the Frome Festival in July, and on Remembrance Sunday the War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall, under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, with Sabina Cvilak, Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams. Finally I begin to love a work that has always seemed ungainly to me. One of the joys of the ubiquity of Britten this year has been the push it has given me both to get to know new works and to reassess old ones. The discovery of Britten’s handful of recordings with boy alto John Hahessy has been a thrilling one, and I sense there are many more still to come.

Britten

Top 3 live music
Without Britten, the field is quite narrow. I’m classing musicals as theatre, so they’re not here; more on that story later. As it happens, there are three events that do stand a little higher than the others. It was a thrill to be front row centre to see Stephen Hough play the Brahms first piano concerto at the Barbican in April. The critics were a bit sniffy about the concert in the reviews I read; they can’t have been close enough to the front. It was like watching a prizewinning thoroughbred put through his paces (I imagine). Tippett’s oddball opera The Midsummer Marriage received a spellbinding semi-staged performance at the Proms, with Allan Clayton (again) and Ailish Tynan particularly lovable as Jack and Bella. And Eels at the O2 Academy Bristol on Good Friday. Jumping up and down to Dog Faced Boy is probably the closest I have ever come to being young. About time, probably.

Top 3 new films
It’s not been such a vintage year for films as last year was, perhaps, but I’ve had some wild nights at the cinema. Perhaps unsurprisingly all of my favourites have been from abroad. Top of the pile is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, a story of two boys separated by their parents’ divorce who plan to reunite the family by making a pilgrimage to the place where two bullet trains pass each other. Kore-eda is often compared to Yasujiro Ozu, and this film has some of Ozu’s gentility and quietness. It is entirely lovable. More than any other film made in the last, say, 25 years, this is the one I would like to share with people. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour is no less impressive, once you get past its longueurs and controversies. I’d seen a spellbinding performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos in Pieces of Me at the Cambridge Film Festival earlier in the year, so I expected something good. She and Léa Seydoux are both magnificent, and the film captures the thrill and the terror of first love like few others. Watching it is a bit like being eviscerated. It’s also enormously erotic. Lastly, Ramon Zürcher’s brilliant The Strange Little Cat, also at the Cambridge Film Festival. It observes a family coming together for a meal. Each character is introduced carefully, not merely the humans, but also a cat and a dog, a rat, a pigeon, a sparrow, and some ostensibly inanimate objects which assume lives of their own. In Zürcher’s hands the mundane is transmuted into poetry. I hope it will get a nationwide release in 2014. It’s a small film, but it deserves a large audience. Watch out for it. If you want an alternative Anglophone three, I suggest The Selfish Giant, Behind the Candelabra and Frances Ha.

i wish film

Top 3 old films
I’ve watched a bunch of films on TV and DVD as well. A lot of Laurel and Hardy later in the year, but I already knew that was great. Some recent films, newly discovered: first, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. I think perhaps I’d assumed Almodóvar wasn’t my kind of director. I was very wrong. This is a twisted but somehow beautiful story of two men keeping vigil at the bedsides of the women they love, who are both comatose. It’s a drama of human relationships and identities that is both meditative and exciting, and moves in the most unexpected of directions. Then, A Separation, the Iranian film that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar a couple of years ago. It begins with a husband and wife agreeing to separate, and then shows the ripples that spread out from the separation, affecting everyone. A horrific accident – or is it a crime? – is deconstructed and reconstructed in forensic detail, and our loyalties shift constantly. It’s hard to watch, but undeniably a masterpiece. In a lighter vein, I loved The Final Test, Anthony Asquith’s Rattigan-scripted cricket comedy from 1953. Rattigan being Rattigan, there is a careful and considered study of a father-son relationship in the foreground, but it’s also uproariously funny. Of many highlights, the camply pretentious TV play starring Valentine Dyall has remained in the memory; and what a marvel was Robert Morley. Every second of his screen time is delectable.

A Separation

Top 3 books
I’ve read about 80 books this year, most of them pretty good, some of them outstanding, the three best all being love stories, after a fashion. First things first: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, a devastating story of obsession and desperation told from the perspective of one of the most memorable and pitiable characters in fiction, George Harvey Bone, a man with a split personality. I loved him dearly. Then, after reading about it on the excellent Entartete Musik blog, I read Call Me by Your Name by the Egyptian-American writer André Aciman, which tells of a love affair between a 17-year-old boy, Elio, and Oliver, an American visitor to his parents’ home on the Italian Riviera. It has some of the exquisite intoxication of Blue is the Warmest Colour, and will become a favourite book of mine. Following the lead of another blog, Savidge Reads, I read quite a bit of Graham Greene in August, the pick of the bunch being The End of the Affair, a preternaturally brilliant study of love and hatred. Greene is also a brilliant comic writer.

‘It’s in the boy’s capacity,’ Mr Parkis said with pride, ‘and nobody can resist Lance.’
‘He’s called Lance, is he?’
‘After Sir Lancelot, sir. Of the Round Table.’
‘I’m surprised. That was a rather unpleasant episode, surely.’
‘He found the Holy Grail,’ Mr Parkis said.
‘That was Galahad. Lancelot was found in bed with Guinevere.’ Why do we have this desire to tease the innocent? Is it envy? Mr Parkis said sadly, looking across at his boy as though he had betrayed him, ‘I hadn’t heard.’

Top 3 theatre
It’s been a very good year for theatre, and that’s because I’ve started taking advantage of one of the great resources on my doorstep, the ADC Theatre, a building I barely set foot in during my undergraduate days. I’ve seen some excellent student productions there, two of which are good enough to make the top three. In early February, the CUMTS production of Sondheim’s Company was an eye- and ear-opener, and the prelude to a year of falling in love with Sondheim. 2013 was a Sondheim year as much as a Britten one for me. Later that month, a production of the first part of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America featuring a brilliant cast of undoubted stars of the future reminded me of the joys of this play, one (i.e. two) of the most moving and exhilarating of recent years. The best of all was the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Merrily We Roll Along, which I saw twice in its West End transfer in the summer, including its last night, and then again at the cinema in October. Nothing else I’ve seen or done this year has had quite the thumping effect of this masterpiece.

Top 3 CDs
CDs! How quaint. But of course I don’t listen to them as CDs, I rip and sync. The things I have listened to mostly this year have been Sondheim – the Encores! cast recording of Merrily and the original Broadway cast of Company, plus various other things – but in the interests of diversity, I’ll name three other items. Firstly, Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg. French stuff is cool. Secondly Sir Adrian Boult: From Bach to Wagner. In Britten’s early diaries, which I read around Easter, few musicians get it in the neck as much as Brahms and Boult. I enjoyed reading little Britten’s rants, but was reminded a Boult LP of Brahms’ 4th Symphony (I think) was my exciting introduction to that composer. It’s been a delight to immerse myself in the variety of this box set. His Brandenburgs may not be the last word in authenticity nowadays, but they’re a joy. Lastly, it has been an unutterable pleasure getting (re)acquainted after some time apart with Hugh Paddick and Kenneths Horne and Williams in The Bona World of Julian and Sandy. I can’t quite pin down the alchemy that makes this one of the funniest things of all time – the campery, the outrageousness, the feeling of complicity perhaps – I just know I love it.

Other stuff
If there’s one thing that doesn’t quite fit in my categories but is worthy of mention here, it is Bathtime with Tom’s Dad, the award-winning Edinburgh debut from sketch troupe Staple/face. Tom’s dad is also my dad, I state here for the sake of transparency, but it’s not merely fraternal pride that excites me about these young men; I get excited about young men in general. Three to watch. A small quibble: not enough brine.

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