For the last few years I’ve looked back at my cultural year in groups of three. This year, after much attempted crowbarring of things into categories where they wouldn’t fit, I’ve decided to upgrade to fours.
Top 4 books
I bought a Kindle in January for the ostensible purpose of reading lots of out-of-copyright Wodehouse for free, but the first thing I read on it was The Pickwick Papers. I get tired of saying it, but what a phenomenal comic writer Dickens was, even by his mid-20s when this was written. It’s probably his funniest book. Drunken Pickwick:
Mr. Pickwick, with his hands in his pockets and his hat cocked completely over his left eye, was leaning against the dresser, shaking his head from side to side, and producing a constant succession of the blandest and most benevolent smiles without being moved thereunto by any discernible cause or pretence whatsoever.
Also, I cannot but approve of a book that features the pie so prominently. John Williams’ recently rediscovered novel Stoner was a book I found absolutely compelling and exhilarating. Like Middlemarch, it seems to point to the possibility of heroism even in a small and unspectacular life (that means mine or yours). Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was a recommendation from a friend, a historical novel about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus told in unadorned but poetic language. I found it disarmingly moving and erotic. Late in the year, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman, another recommendation from another friend, which I fell in love with entirely. It’s a book of essays about transgender-related issues, and is so wise and smart and generous that it really ought to be read by anyone with the slightest interest in humanity, let alone gender identity.
Top 4 albums (classical)
One of my happiest discoveries of recent years has been the early French chanson, so I was pleased to get for my birthday, after a moderate amount of hinting, the Consort of Musicke’s recording of the 1470s Chansonnier Cordiforme, which is full of treasures. The recording of Maria João Pires and Antonio Meneses’ Wigmore Hall Recital became a favourite quickly, an unimpeachable programme of Schubert, Brahms and Mendelssohn performed with the utmost musicality. Avi Avital’s mandolin disc Between Worlds took me by surprise. The vibrancy of his playing in something like the Bartók Romanian Folk Dances is irresistible. I also started exploring Chabrier’s orchestral music, and especially the recordings of Paul Paray, which sound as fresh now as they did decades ago. (Late in the year a friend lent me Hans Gál’s Symphony No. 2, a beautiful piece that might make next year’s list.)
Top 4 albums (other)
I don’t buy film soundtracks often, but I made an exception earlier this year for Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Ghost and Mrs Muir. It was one of Herrmann’s favourites, and it’s one of mine, as evocative of the sea in its way as Britten’s Peter Grimes. In October I sang the role of God in a performance of Joseph Horovitz’s Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo, which gave me a good excuse to revisit the King’s Singers recording for the first time in well over 20 years. Tremendous fun, as is the coupling, Chris Hazell’s Holy Moses, which as a child I wasn’t so keen on. I suppose I should have been listening to Joni Mitchell for ages, shouldn’t I, but it wasn’t until this year that I discovered Blue. It’s pretty good, isn’t it. But the most notable new release of the year, it’s not particularly controversial to say, is Dave Cooke’s ChuckleVision, Vol. 1. It contains music from the programme’s golden age (early ’90s, long before the Chucks started hanging out with Tinchy Stryder) and is fabulous. So many memories. A second volume is out, but it won’t be able to compete with this one.
Top 4 films
I’ve written elsewhere about my cinemagoing, but what of the films I watched on TV or DVD? It’s hard to whittle it down to four, but here goes: Double Indemnity, about which more or less everything is unimprovable upon, from the Chandler/Wilder script through the performances of MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson to the Rózsa score; Jean Delannoy’s 1964 film of Les Amitiés Particulières, a sensitive adaptation of Roger Peyrefitte’s novel, true to the spirit of the book and including some imaginative additions (a scene where the two protagonists play a Bach invention on the piano remains in the mind); Now, Voyager, powerful in spite (or because) of its sentimentality, with captivating performances by Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, and at its heart the pleasing idea that we redeem each other; and Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, a desperately tender drama set in Tokyo about the friendship between a student and a retired professor. The ending is jarring, but Kiarostami’s innate humanity is thrilling.
Top 4 student
I’ve been to some great student productions this year. A couple of Sondheims stand out, as usual: firstly a Cambridge production (my first) of Into the Woods at the ADC in March. The first night had a few techie problems, but by the time I went again towards the end of the run it had become something very beautiful indeed. At the start of May I made a pilgrimage to Brentford to see graduating students of the London College of Music do Merrily We Roll Along, where Claire Hutchinson’s Mary Flynn was the standout in an impressive cast. A CUOS/BATS production of Britten’s Albert Herring at Queens’ College in November was exemplary in every particular (some great production photos here); and later that month, an exciting bilingual version of Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve at the Corpus Playroom, which had some dazzlingly virtuosic performances. I’m pretty lucky to live in Cambridge.
Top 4 live music
The year started on a high with an intriguing recital by Anthony Marwood, Martin Fröst and Marc-André Hamelin at the Wigmore Hall. The programme of works for violin, clarinet and piano in various permutations felt uneasy, but Fröst’s Debussy and Poulenc have stayed in my mind vividly. What a physical performer he is. It was very special to see the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing Mozart’s C Minor Mass in the chapel, a transcendent experience. The finest classical concert I attended this year was at the Usher Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, where I saw András Schiff (now Sir András) playing Beethoven, Bartók, Janáček and Schubert. I hadn’t seen him play live before; his performance seemed utterly devoid of ego, entirely at the service of the music, as the ideal performance should be. And at the end of June, Eels at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. The best I’ve seen them, I think, a sparkly and magical night.
Top 4 theatre
Two of the things I saw last year were so good that they’re being revived in the New Year, hooray! so I will be able to go again: Mr Swallow: The Musical, which I saw at the Pleasance in Edinburgh, Nick Mohammed’s ego-driven Dracula musical dress rehearsal (which is even more fun than that sounds); and My Night With Reg at the Donmar Warehouse, a flawless production of a play that has grown in stature in the 20 years since it was written. Like Reg, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, which I saw when it came to Cambridge, is a play that might have dated badly, it is so of its time (despite the period setting), but it seemed as fresh as ever, and funnier than the film. Lastly, just a few days ago, Jamie Lloyd’s brilliantly lurid Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the first production I’ve seen to make some sense of the musical. Jamie Parker’s Balladeer and Andy Nyman’s Guiteau were among the standout performances.
Here’s hoping for a 2015 as busy and happy as this year has been. See you then!
Tags: Albert Herring, András Schiff, Another Country, Anthony Marwood, Antonio Meneses, Assassins, Avi Avital, Bernard Herrmann, Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo, Chansonnier Cordiforme, ChuckleVision, Double Indemnity, Eels, Emmanuel Chabrier, Into the Woods, Joni Mitchell, King's College Choir, La Cantatrice Chauve, Les Amitiés Particulières, Like Someone in Love, Lists, Marc-André Hamelin, Maria João Pires, Martin Fröst, Merrily We Roll Along, Mr Swallow the Musical, My Night With Reg, Nick Mohammed, Now Voyager, Paul Paray, Stephen Sondheim, Stoner, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, The Pickwick Papers, The Song of Achilles