Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Sondheim’

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.

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2016 foursomes

December 30, 2016

What a year it’s been. Bring on the nuclear holocaust, that’s what I say. But for some of us, whether we like it or not, life goes on, and so here is the annual trawl through the handful of things that have made me grateful to be alive in 2016.

Top 4 theatre
The year began and ended with exciting plays at the Hampstead Theatre – Tom Stoppard’s typically complex but fun Hapgood in January, with Lisa Dillon as the titular spymistress; and Tony Kushner’s irresistibly sprawling The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures in November, with Luke Newberry particularly catching the eye. The Helen McCrory-led production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre was more moving than I’d dared expect it to be. And the most fun I had all year was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, where Nicholas Le Prevost reduced me to helpless laughter (as he has in the past).

ayckbourn

Top 4 student theatre
I’m very lucky to live in Cambridge. The Marlowe Society’s production of Measure for Measure at the Arts Theatre in February was outstanding in many respects, not least the speaking of the text. I’ve sat through enough bad productions of Shakespeare to notice the difference when the actors really understand what they’re talking about. Alexandra Wetherell’s Isabella and Tom Beaven’s innately funny Lucio were two of many standout performances. At the ADC, a gripping production of David Hare’s Murmuring Judges in March has stayed in the memory, and Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was very well done in October, as good a production as I can imagine of this ingenious, frustrating play. Outside Cambridge, the Eltham College production of Merrily We Roll Along that I wrote about here was super.

Top 4 albums
This year I have been mostly listening to popular music from the 1920s, but there’s none of that here. Still, I advise all readers to dig out some Roger Wolfe Kahn, zip up their cocktail slacks and get frigging. Quite a catholic selection this year. In April I bought the 17-disc box set of the studio recordings of Marcelle Meyer, a pianist of preternatural elegance and taste. I love her way with French repertoire especially, and not just the expected Ravel and Chabrier but also Rameau and Couperin. Try her Scarlatti. The original Broadway cast recording of A Chorus Line has afforded me considerable pleasure. It’s a joy to find there’s more to it than simply ‘One’, catchy though that is. Joni Mitchell’s Blue I already knew, but it wasn’t until this year that it got under my skin and became an obsession. The single album that’s been most in my ears, though, is Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis. I’ve loved the Sprouts for years, but have only recently begun to explore their back catalogue in depth. They really are the most harmonically inventive pop group of their era, and every track on this album is a jewel, from old favourites like ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ to the less familiar. Give it a try.

Top 4 books
It’s been another busy reading year (more on that anon), but if I had to whittle it down to four… I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal early in the year and it dazzled me, all the more for being quiet and reserved in tone, without the aggression of something like The Birthday Party, though there’s a great deal of surface and below-surface tension. It’s more straightforward, more ordinary than his other plays, the non-straightforward thing being the play’s reverse chronology, which is just the sort of thing I love. It never feels gimmicky. I listen to music backwards too. I’ve been making my way through Anthony Trollope for about ten years now, and The Last Chronicle of Barset tied up a lot of loose ends in the most satisfactory ways imaginable. Bishop Proudie’s revolt, a very long time coming, is the most exhilarating thing I’ve read in yonks. David Garnett’s short novel Lady into Fox was an unexpected delight, a whimsical story of metamorphosis, an unorthodox but touching story of trans-species love. And I can’t omit Angela Carter’s wildly fun and funny Wise Children, the deliciously gossipy theatrical memoir of 75-year-old Dora Chance, owner of the only castrato grandfather clock in London.

It was all right until Grandma fixed it. All she did was tap it and the weights dropped off. She always had that effect on gentlemen.

Top 4 new films
The cinema used to be a second home to me. Well, not really, but I used to go to it more often than at present. I thought Spotlight, a good old-fashioned procedural drama about Boston journalists trying to uncover a sex abuse story, was fully deserving of its Best Picture Oscar, smart and tense. Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway impressed me early in the year, and Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of its three interlinked stories, Julieta, was just wonderful, romantic and mysterious and beguiling, with Rossy de Palma’s standoffish housekeeper stealing the show. How wise Almodóvar and Munro are about the dynamics of human relationships. Ira Sachs’ Little Men was a poignant offering, about how the relationship between two boys in early adolescence is threatened by a dispute between their families. Like last year’s Carol, it felt to me more than anything else like a love story, a film about falling in love, and about growing up. Fourth and lastly, I’m not a horror aficionado, but I was thrilled by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy. It looks sensational, shot in a palette of greens and greys, and works an eerie kind of magic. Two twin boys live in a remote house with their mother, who is recovering from facial surgery. Her behaviour to them since her surgery feels changed, and they begin to doubt her authenticity. What it lacks in subtle commentary on power relationships it makes up for in creepiness. I was a bit freaked out.

Top 4 old films
Or, the ones I watched on TV. Not an old film, but Sean McAllister’s documentary A Syrian Love Story is a very great piece of work, more eloquent on the subject of displacement than a thousand news reports. It follows a Syrian family of two parents and three boys over the course of several years and several different homes, as the changing political situation forces them to leave Syria and alter their expectations of life. Thomas Vinterberg’s revenge drama (of sorts) Festen was electric, epic in scope, Shakespearean even (I don’t think it was just the setting that made me think of Hamlet), making the self-imposed limitations of Dogme 95 seem a virtue more often than not. My film of the year, without a doubt, was Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, made when the director was still a teenager. Based on a true story with (mindblowingly) the protagonists playing themselves, it’s about a father who keeps his two daughters confined to their house, and the efforts of members of the village to liberate the girls. Enigmatic, humane, endlessly fascinating. Last of all, Manhattan. I could easily get into Woody Allen if all his films were this warm and funny and beautiful. I loved every frame. A proper, grown-up romantic comedy that makes you smile.

Top 4 New York
Watching Manhattan was a prelude to going to New York in October. I suppose I’d always assumed that going to America was something done by other people, people I had no desire to emulate, but when my brother said he intended to go I suddenly realised it was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. It didn’t disappoint. The National September 11 Memorial made me emotional in a way I hadn’t expected; the views from the Empire State Building were spectacular; seeing the Tom Harrell Quartet at the Village Vanguard made me think I ought to start going to jazz clubs in the UK; and, on our final day, Brooklyn’s beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where I paid visits to people like Gottschalk and Bernstein. I hope to return one day.

new-york

Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Edinburgh 2016

August 17, 2016

Another flying visit, another bunch of shows demolished. My findings:

The first show I saw was also probably my favourite, Mr Swallow – Houdini at the Pleasance Courtyard. Two years ago I loved Mr Swallow’s Dracula! so much that I went three times, twice in Edinburgh and once in London, but his Houdini tribute ups the ante. Not merely songs and hilarity and clowning and magic (and breathtaking magic at that; nice to see the return of the satsuma/sashu) but a genuine sense of danger and a mix of exhilaration and bewilderment at the climax. For logistical reasons I can’t see it going on tour, but a London run must surely follow that anyone down south would be foolish to miss. I marvelled at the all-round song-and-dance-and-physical-stuff excellence of Nick Mohammed and his stooges David Elms and Kieran Hodgson. The Guardian review is spot on.

Houdini

Another highlight, entirely predictably, was Kieran Hodgson’s solo show Maestro, Hodgson hotfooting it across town to the Voodoo Rooms every night. On further acquaintance it might even turn out be an improvement on last year’s unimprovable-upon Lance. It’s about Hodgson’s love of Mahler, his attempts to write a symphony, his unsuccessful love affairs. So much for me personally (as a freak of a child who not only listened to Classic FM aged ten but even appeared on it) to relate to. At some point midway through the show it became apparent to me that I was Kieran Hodgson’s ideal man; by the end I was devastated. It’s got a great deal of heart and an uncanny Christoph Waltz impersonation.

The established stand-ups didn’t let me down. Lucy Porter’s Consequences was cosy (this is a compliment) but incisive. I think her great virtue, as with Mae Martin (see below), is her innate likeability. When she’s not making you laugh, she’s making you smile. Paul Foot’s ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Piglet was a different beast. I’d never seen him live before. His manic aggression and posturing are a delight to watch if you’re not in the front row. The people on the receiving end of his scattergun attacks might have felt differently. I laughed most at the teacher’s absurd address to children informing them of the dismissal of a member of staff: ‘We always suspected Mr Trundle was gay, but what really took the biscuit was when he stole the minibus.’

Paul Foot

Mae Martin’s Work in Progress show is as enjoyable as last year’s Us. She starts with 15 minutes or so of material before answering questions submitted by the audience at the start and improvising a song. You just love her. Not stand-up exactly, but I also saw a great show by Dr Phil Hammond, Life and Death (But Mainly Death), a funny and moving story of his family history, ending with a stirring entreaty to love one another and embrace life. Hard not to leave without a smile on your face.

Of the up-and-comers, I enjoyed Naomi Petersen’s I am Telling You I’m Not Going. Ostensibly about her agoraphobia, it’s really a trawl through childhood memories and traumas. Favourite bit: ‘Jennifer’s teasing was water off a duck’s back – if the water was tears that I’d cried on to a duck.’ The Pizza Express aficionado will find a lot to identify with. Sam & Tom’s Peter Fleming and Wilbur Bilb: Over the Airwaves I loved very much, family loyalty or no family loyalty. Fleming’s twisted take on 1960s children’s TV had me helpless at times. The furore surrounding the ‘mechanical synagogue’ was one of many golden moments. I’ve never been less ashamed to be his brother. And the joke I contributed got a laugh, so I was happy. Sam’s semi-improvised anarchy provided an excellent contrast to Tom’s discipline and tightness. I was proud to be shot in the head by him.

If I had to name a favourite Sondheim musical I’d probably be torn between Merrily We Roll Along and Company. This festival I saw productions of both, each excellent in its way. Eltham College’s Merrily We Roll Along was slick right from the off, the overture underscoring a montage of images and newspaper headlines moving forward in time up to the starting point of the musical, which occurs in reverse chronology. Condensed into a single act of under two hours, I didn’t miss the couple of songs that were jettisoned, but I did regret the absence of the reprise of ‘Not a Day Goes By’, which should be a gutting moment. Most reviews and online comments have (rightly) drawn attention to Ruari Paterson-Achenbach’s Charley, but the central quintet were all remarkable, and I was blown away by Sophie Holmes as Gussie, who wouldn’t have been out of place in a professional production. The band was impeccable. The Lincoln Company’s Company was on a smaller scale, a ninety-minute abbreviation with an unmiked cast of ten, an electric piano and a few black boxes in the cavernous Saint Stephen’s Stockbridge. When (female) Bobbi asked ‘Are you ever sorry you got married?’ and the play moved straight on, my heart sank. How can you have a production of Company without ‘Sorry-Grateful’? But it worked, multiple gender switches and all, because it’s such a malleable show and because the talented performers were so committed to it. The nature of the building’s acoustic meant their diction had to be excellent, and it was. Alice Saxton’s ‘Getting Married Today’ justifies the price of admission alone. It runs for the rest of the month and deserves an audience: do go, and sit near the front.

Merrily We Roll Along

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, on the other hand, is a play that defies truncation, given the mathematical precision of its perfection. Could the Pembroke Players’ 90-minute abridged version possibly satisfy? Not wholly – I missed Septimus consoling Thomasina over the loss of so much Ancient Greek drama – but there were a number of things to love. Not the performance space, perhaps, which was sweltering and had the players competing against ceiling fans to be heard; but the performances, especially those of Daisy Jones, the embodiment of Thomasina, sweet with a hint of archness, Colin Rothwell as Bernard, and Xanthe Burdett as Hannah (doubling well as Noakes). If Os Leanse’s turned-up-to-11 Chater felt a bit overdone (he was excellent as Valentine in the modern scenes), it was at any rate audible, a virtue not shared by everyone on stage. I also missed Gus; but with limited resources and playing time this must count as a success. I saw the first performance; I suspect its fluency will grow.

Last but not least, a play by the children of the Dolphin School Theatre Company, Tales from the Tent by Judy Seall, the final performance of which I caught on Saturday morning. It’s a piece that grew out of the school’s involvement with the Refugee Relief charity. Two Russians (played touchingly by bilingual brother and sister Andrei and Ulyana Roberts) pass through a refugee camp, whose other residents pass the time by retelling familiar stories. One girl is the Librarian, who looks after all the books. She has one member of staff: ‘I’m the Assistant Librarian, and I … help.’ One boy plays the violin throughout. The highlight for me was the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, the boy playing the Tortoise (Jamie Thorogood, I think) quite remarkable in his comic instinct. I don’t think you can coach such things: this was an innate funniness, as (for instance) in his deadpan lament when the Hare upsets tea all over his tank top. Some great physical theatre (lights waving in the air), and at its heart a message of tolerance. Very hard not to be inspired by the talent for acting and music and dance on display. Looking at the pictures here brings back how magical it was.

Tales from the Tent

I also had my first deep-fried Mars bar.

2015 foursomes

December 30, 2015

Following the example of previous years, a trawl through what I’ve been up to. It’s felt rather a mean year, but looking back there have been a handful of very high points.

Top 4 live music
The best classical concert I went to was a piano recital by Richard Goode at Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall. His Brahms op. 76 Klavierstücke were a thing of wonder. Later in the year, Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr playing the Bach viola da gamba sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, fabulous. Though it’s been a Sondheim-light year I saw a couple of productions of Sweeney Todd. The all-star ENO version with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel was all well and good, but better was the CUMTS one at Cambridge’s ADC Theatre. Among some spectacular performances, Aoife Kennan’s Mrs Lovett stood out. A star of the future. And, as chronicled elsewhere on this blog, Šimon Voseček’s Biedermann and the Arsonists at Sadler’s Wells, an excellent production of a very fine opera.

Top 4 theatre
The best theatre piece I saw all year, probably the best thing of all, was Trans Scripts at the Edinburgh Fringe, which I wrote about in detail here. The performances (I was going to write the performance of Rebecca Root, but in fact all of them) are still vivid in my memory. More recently, I’ve got back into the habit of attending the ADC regularly. I’d forgotten how exhilarating student theatre can be when it’s done well. The pick of the bunch were Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Nina Raine’s Tribes, and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy. Let’s keep doing this next year.

Top 4 comedy
The best things I saw, I saw at Edinburgh in an intensely concentrated couple of days towards the end of August. Three shows I liked so much I saw them again in London post-Festival, Mae Martin’s entirely lovable Us, Kieran Hodgson’s virtuosic Lance, and Sheeps Skewer the News, messy in Edinburgh, more refined and brilliant in London (David Cameron to Ed Sheeran: ‘Samantha and I love to listen to your music when we’re spooning in our isolation tank’). And fourth, Alex Horne’s madcap Monsieur Butterfly, the hit of 2014’s Fringe, which I caught on its return. I’d go and see it again in a second if it hadn’t finished forever.

Sheeps Festive Bash

Top 4 albums
I haven’t really been listening to albums recently – I’ve been on shuffle all year – but one that has been on repeat is Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s The Rascal and the Sparrow, which mingles transcriptions of Edith Piaf songs with original piano pieces and assorted song transcriptions of Francis Poulenc. It’s an irresistible concoction, beautifully played. Listening last month to John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir’s recording of Beethoven’s Mass in C on a train, I heard it as though through new ears. It’s a piece I’d forgotten I liked, but as I get better acquainted with this performance I know I will grow to love it. A late purchase has been the first volume of Fats Waller’s Complete Recorded Works on CD, which contains a lot of his smashing organ recordings, including many underappreciated gems. You can tell from his playing what a warm person he must have been. Lastly, Peter Pears’ A Treasury of English Song continues to prove itself a treasure trove. Pears, it becomes increasingly apparent to me, is more than a mere appendage to Britten, and a piece like Alan Bush’s cantata Voices of the Prophets is a genuinely exciting discovery.

Top 4 new films
I wish I could recommend something obscure, but the films I loved most at the cinema this year were all critical successes. Firstly, right at the start of January, Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s darkly comic film about a washed-up former action star staging his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story on Broadway as a last stab at success. Whiplash was a rollercoaster ride, perhaps a bit questionable psychologically but enormously exciting, with a bravura final sequence that stays in the mind for a long time. The film adaptation of London Road, one of my favourite theatrical experiences of recent years, was mightily impressive, and achieved (I thought) a profound sadness that the stage version missed. And just this month, Todd Haynes’ latest, Carol, emotionally involving precisely because of the restraint of its use of emotion – the look, the quiet declaration. I left the cinema thinking the most beautiful three words in the English language are ‘I miss you’.

Top 4 old films
My film watching is down on last year, but I’ve seen some goodies. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, for instance, exciting and weird. Or Héctor Babenco’s hard-hitting Pixote: a lei do mais fraco, a portrait of Brazilian street life that is grimly unsentimental and disarmingly poignant. There were two films that blew me away, though. Firstly, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. I don’t know what Bogdanovich was on in the early ’70s, but this and my beloved Paper Moon are two almost flawless films. A portrait of small-town life full of atmosphere and music on radios, and somehow more black and white than the black and white films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I think it made me cry. Film of the year, though, was Carlos Saura’s Cria cuervos, which automatically became one of my favourites. It’s an allegory of Fascist Spain, but I didn’t appreciate that on first viewing, I just saw a portrait of loss in childhood, a meditation on the nature of memory. It’s a film full of beauty, full of tender observations about the connection between memory and music, the lack of sentimentality there is in childhood, children at play, grief and guilt and coping, the blurring of dreams and reality.

Cria Cuervos

Top 4 books
In the most reading-heavy year of my life (more on that anon) a small number of books have stood out. Firstly, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, which I loved. I saw so much of myself in her, particularly in our obsessions and compulsions, our childhood diaries, our solipsism. The best non-fiction book I read was Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, angry and incisive and eloquent and eye-opening and (perhaps most crucially) readable. Required reading. I’ve not read as many novels this year as previously, but one that immediately struck me as a masterpiece was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, dense and demanding but undeniably beautiful, and enormously witty (in places raucously so). The handful of Tom Stoppard plays I read late in the year left me reeling at their inventiveness, none more so than Arcadia, a work of almost mathematical perfection. Joy and sadness abound, and though the poignancy of the final scene stays long in the memory, so too do the jokes.

LADY CROOM: What hermits do you have?
NOAKES: I have no hermits, my lady.
LADY CROOM: Not one? I am speechless.
NOAKES: I am sure a hermit can be found. One could advertise.
LADY CROOM: Advertise?
NOAKES: In the newspapers.
LADY CROOM: But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.

See you next year.

Fun Home