Posts Tagged ‘Johannes Brahms’

2017 foursomes

December 31, 2017

In which I celebrate another year of having successfully cheated death by looking back at my cultural highlights of the past twelve months.

Top 4 theatre
My two best shows of the year, towering above the rest, were Angels in America and Follies, both at the National Theatre, sublime and superlative achievements, thrillingly staged and acted. I’d like to list the entire casts of both, really, but the performances that have stayed most in my memory are those of Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Aidan McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Angels, and Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, and the central quartet from Follies, perhaps especially Imelda Staunton, desperately vulnerable as Sally. I saw excellent productions of Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at Stratford, but my Shakespeare highlight of the year was Twelfth Night, again at the National, with Tamsin Greig imperious as Malvolia, Tim McMullan swaggering all over the place as Belch, Daniel Rigby as good a communicator of Aguecheek’s damagedness as I’ve seen (the man bun clearly a cry for help), and Tamara Lawrance a touching Viola. (Also, anything with Oliver Chris in it ticks my box.) And She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which I saw in January as a post-Christmas treat, a twinkly production of the most chocolate-boxy of musicals. I’d gone expressly to see Mark Umbers as Georg, but in the event his understudy Peter Dukes proved excellent. The decision to use British accents worked a treat, with ‘A Trip to the Library’ in Katherine Kingsley’s broad Cockney the high point.

Top 4 student theatre
It’s been a very good year at the ADC in Cambridge, starting with my first García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba, done by an extraordinarily strong cast of future stars (the performances of Xanthe Burdett, Daisy Jones and Emma Corrin among the standouts) in Jo Clifford’s translation. Alecky Blythe’s London Road received probably the finest student production I’ve seen of anything ever, an exacting musical done brilliant justice by a cast and band who clearly knew it inside out (Footlight Orlando Gibbs, playing one of the press photographers, even managed some improvised business when the lens fell off his camera). Its composer Adam Cork saw the production, and I can only imagine he was thrilled. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce is a bit dated now, but still very amusing, and was fortunate to have some of the funniest people in Cambridge in its cast, most notably Colin Rothwell, having a ball as the perpetually whinging Nick, and John Tothill, who must surely be recognised before too long as one of the great character comedians of his generation. And recently, Gypsy, a show I begin to see the point of. Ashleigh Weir (Rose) is one to watch, but everyone in Cambridge knows that by now.

Top 4 Edinburgh
Although I didn’t have the energy to blog about it here at the time, I had a good few days at the Fringe this August, the highlights being as follows: Colin Hoult as Anna Mann (‘Oh, fuck off!’) in How We Stop the Fascists, fabulously warm and witty, the funniest part for me being the point at which Mann asked the audience what we thought a fascist looked like, then slyly produced a mirror for us to look at and pass around, concluding with ‘Anyway, you get the point – fascists look like mirrors!’ (Maybe you had to be there.) Joseph Morpurgo’s Hammerhead, the discussion following his nine-hour one-man performance of Frankenstein, was a tour de force. Then there was Ivo Graham’s fun and exciting Educated Guess, a stand-up show with a difference, the difference being a quiz in which Graham’s encyclopaedic knowledge of MPs and their constituencies was put to the test. The night I saw it he fell down tragically on Jeremy Wright (Con, Kenilworth and Southam), but the video at the end helped to soothe the pain. And lastly but mostly, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the worthiest winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award, though as she says it’s not really comedy, it’s very dark and very important. She made me feel worthless, and somehow in a good way.

Top 4 live music
I’m surprised at how few concerts I’ve attended in 2017. Theatre seems to be usurping music in that respect. But it was special to see Joshua Bell and Dénes Várjon in Edinburgh playing, among other things, the Brahms G major violin sonata, which almost moved me to tears, an effect music almost never has on me. Brahms has not shifted from his place at the top of my personal pantheon, and seeing the Endellion Quartet and Barry Douglas play the G minor piano quartet in October was exciting, especially that furious Hungarian finale. I saw Mitsuko Uchida twice, playing two different Schubert programmes, the better of which was the one at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where the ‘Con moto’ movement of the D.850 sonata was particularly divine. And it was great to see Max Raabe and Christoph Israel at the Wigmore Hall, where Raabe sang a lot of unfamiliar songs by the likes of Walter Jurmann. Especially lovely was Jurmann’s ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, complete with whistling duet.

Top 4 albums
Of this year’s releases, up with which I have very much not kept, Nelson Freire’s Brahms recital has been on repeat – I hadn’t known the third piano sonata, but it’s beautiful; the shorter pieces are exquisite, and exquisitely performed. My great discovery early in the year was the fourth symphony of Franz Schmidt, in the recording by the London Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst, a masterpiece whose organicism excites and entrances. I’m pacing myself, but want to get to know the other three (and got the Bychkov recording of the second for Christmas). The NT production sent me back to the 2011 Broadway recording of Follies, admirably exhaustive and addictive. And lastly, loads more Prefab Sprout. Why has it taken until my thirties for me to become properly obsessed with this band I have known from my teens? Maybe they’re too good for the young. I’ve listened to their 1985 album Steve McQueen constantly, as literate and elusive and romantic a collection of songs as anyone could wish to hear.

Top 4 old films
Don’t judge me, but I’d never seen Ninotchka before. Actually I’m not sure I’d ever seen a Greta Garbo film before. But I love Ernst Lubitsch, and it has his usual gemütlich charm and cosiness in spades, while at the same time, like his To Be or Not to Be, commenting smartly on the politics of its time. Garbo is fabulous, especially in her stone-faced incarnation, and Melvyn Douglas is a pleasing foil, but Felix Bressart steals every scene as usual. Is there any film actor pre-1950 I love more? Sidney Lumet’s bleak masterpiece Fail-Safe, a sort of Dr. Strangelove without jokes, left me deeply discomfited, a chilling film to watch at a time when the threat of nuclear war seems greater than ever before during my life. And two Japanese films: Juzo Itami’s ‘ramen western’ Tampopo, playful, erotic and hilarious from start to finish; and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, a straightforward drama of human relationships made with such delicacy and acuity that it’s exhilarating to watch. Kore-eda has an amazing hit rate in recent years, and this film is up there with I Wish and Still Walking. It’s been a very good year. Films that narrowly failed to make the cut: Ikiru, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Nobody Knows (more Kore-eda), Girlhood, Love is Strange, Holy Motors, In the House.

Top 4 new films
It’s been a great year at the cinema too. Most of all, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name, one of those films I felt might have been made just for me. Given the novel is a favourite book of mine, the film had a lot to live up to, but it succeeded in almost every particular, a sensual, slowly intoxicating adaptation, sensitively scored, gorgeously performed, delicately devastating. Earlier in the year, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight had a similar effect on me, brutal and tender, poetic and pulsating. (I know, I’m overdosing on adjectives again.) Toni Erdmann was an unexpected delight, a film about an eccentric man’s dysfunctional relationship with his daughter. Sandra Hüller is tremendous as the daughter Ines, but my favourite moments were those where I suddenly became aware of Peter Simonischek’s Toni in the background, half Clouseau hunchback, half Les Patterson, simply being funny. It has its melancholic side too, but there’s a lot to be said for fun and funniness. And of course, Paddington 2, supremely entertaining. Not only are Paddington and the Browns lovable (hardly a given, considering how few film families one would wish to spend time with), the supporting cast is stunning. Tom Conti and his various physical indignities, randy Simon Farnaby, forgetful Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Hugh Grant giving the performance of his career (and even starring in a ‘Prisoners-of-Love’-style rendition of a number from Follies that was the cherry on the cake). Irresistible. Honourable mentions for The Big Sick, The Florida Project, and My Life as a Courgette.

Top 4 books
In a pretty good reading year there are a handful of books that stand out above the rest, among them Andrew Hankinson’s gripping You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Maggie Nelson’s audacious The Argonauts, Peter De Vries’s heartbreaking The Blood of the Lamb, and Muriel Spark’s wicked Symposium. But if I had to pick four, I’d choose three of my Grand Tour reads – Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom, the perfect book to read this Christmas (though you may have left it a little late); Margarita Karapanou’s darkly beautiful Kassandra and the Wolf; and of course Tony Parker’s housing estate compendium The People of Providence – and for a fourth, probably Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s mesmeric tapestry of early 20th-century America. I also loved his The Book of Daniel.

More of this stuff in a year, if we all make it.


Diary excerpts 6 — walking to work edition

November 30, 2016

7 January
Chalked on the back of a lorry in Trinity Street: HAPPY XMAS MUMMY

17 March
Seen on the way to work today: a builder singing ‘Cowabunga’ to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus, and a cyclist wearing a baseball cap with horns attached.

12 April
Woman dragging her heels in front of me this morning. When I got to where she’d been dawdling, I saw why – a female blackbird hopping about on a wheelie bin. Just the most beautiful of birds. I didn’t care for blackbirds as a boy, I liked the showy ones, kingfishers and peacocks, even pigeons with their shiny feathers.


13 May
On the way to work this morning: a father bending down to kiss his 10-year-old son as they walked to St Luke’s. A swan with a titanic wingspan flapping under Magdalene Bridge. Boulez on a bike. Daniel Zeichner. A male blackbird alighting on the King’s Parade wall, flapping his wings and stomping his tail and tweeting vociferously. I wanted to put him in a little box.

18 September
Senses simultaneously heightened and blurred by slight drunkenness last night. Waking up with my voice a fifth lower because of the beer, singing along with songs down the octave as I got dressed, humming pedal D’s on ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ as I walked to work.

22 September
A few days ago I walked past a dead pigeon on the pavement at the bottom of the road. I didn’t stop to inspect it, but it appeared to have died peacefully, albeit surrounded by its own droppings. Now the body is gone, but the droppings remain. Can a bird shit itself to death, I find myself wondering.

29 September
Listened to the first movement of Brahms 2 (Harnoncourt) as I walked to work through the teeming rain. A realisation later that Brahms is my great hero, maybe my greatest hero, for that piece as much as for anything else. It’s remarkable.

3 November
It’s not every day you get leered at on the way to work by a ponytailed man carrying a banana in a threatening manner. Just some days.

Piano progress

July 23, 2016

Four weeks ago, as a refuge from despondency, I decided to learn some new piano music. I love the late Brahms piano pieces, but don’t play many of them. They always sound so forbidding, but although the music is complex the notes aren’t, always, and so I made a longlist of about ten that I thought were surmountable, starting with Op. 118 No. 2. This is how it’s sounding at the moment.

Simon at Stuck in a Book writes that ‘maintaining the good things in life in the face of evil is as much a defence as most of us can manage’ – more or less my attitude in turning to Brahms. On a possibly related note, I’ve been pleased recently to note that I’ve not lost my ability to fall in love with new things. So many of my favourite books, films, pieces of music are things I’ve known since childhood or adolescence, but within the past week I’ve started to explore for the first time the piano music of Billy Mayerl, which contains many jewels, and just last year I watched for the first time Carlos Saura’s spellbinding 1976 film Cría cuervos, which has already become important to me. In that film, Geraldine Chaplin plays for her daughter Ana Torrent this Mompou piece, which I learnt last weekend. (Only now does it occur to me that one of my childhood memories of my own mother, rather neatly, is of her playing the Brahms intermezzo, Op. 117 No. 2.)

2013 threesomes

December 31, 2013

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.


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.