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Listening to pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s dazzling new recording of Burleske by the youthful Richard Strauss under Antonio Pappano got me thinking, for the first time ever, in terms of a Teutonic Petrushka – with similarly dizzy badinage, where piano, drums and orchestra busily nudge each other for prominence, Chamayou more fleet-fingered than virtually any of his rivals – a poet too where needs be – while Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia leap to the challenge of responding to him with boundless enthusiasm (Warner Classics 0190295028459, £13.50 – out soon!). It’s enormous fun, occasionally treading the as-yet distant incoming tide of jazz (a similar playfulness and sense of ‘cool’) and often prophetic of the mature Strauss.
Ein Heldenleben came some thirteen years later by which time Strauss the joker had become Strauss the philosopher, this 47-minute epic taking in a finger-twisting fiddle solo (the hero’s loving but sometimes obstreperous wife, here characterfully played by concertmaster Roberto González-Monjas), a tub-thumping battle scene, works of peace and ‘The Hero’s Withdrawal from the World’. Bearing in mind the horrors that we have all witnessed over the last year or so we might take a caustic look at the work’s second section – ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ (mean, carping woodwinds on the attack) – as a soundtrack for political mudslinging at those who have tried to row us back to safer shores. Here as elsewhere Pappano focuses mood and colour with an acute ear, but never more so than when peace and withdrawal arrive, and the Santa Cecilia strings often play with breath-taking softness.
You may or may not know that the work closes with a reference to Strauss’s Nietzschean masterpiece Also sprach Zarathustra which in this context suggests that the idea of ‘self-overcoming’ (one of Nietzsche’s key philosophical concepts) reflects recent challenges faced and, indeed, overcome.
Antonio Oyarzabal’s piano recital La Muse Oubliée is distinguished by featuring 34 memorable miniatures, and if I say that they’re all written by women that’s less important than the musical standard, which is consistently high. Please don’t get me wrong. All I want to do is take one additional small step for mankind along the path to creative equality. That Clara Schumann-Wieck’s First Romance was written around the same time as Brahms’s Ballades and matches them for harmonic ingenuity seems to me a given. Jacquet de la Guerre was a contemporary of Jean Philippe Rameau and it’s pretty amazing to think that a woman could achieve such a high level of artistic attainment given the restrictions on social advancement for women in those days … but achieve it she did. Lili Boulanger died very young but her output although modest is distinguished (the Cortège programmed here was once recorded by Heifetz) while the hugely talented Vitezslava Kaprálová was admired by both the conductor Rafael Kubelík and the pianist Rudolf Firkusny. There are many more besides, each with one or two novel gestures up their sleeves, each the work of a true original, artistically valid, superbly played and recorded on (Ibs Classical IBS52021, c£13.25)
Years ago, I chanced upon a recording of Ravel’s ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ by Lise de la Salle and was entranced – the control of line, tone and tempo, the phrasing and delicate touch, all were remarkable. Latest to appear from this gifted pianist is ‘When do we Dance?’, where William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag seems to carry more sadness than it can bear. I don’t think I’ve heard a crisper, more eye-twinkling account of Stravinsky’s Tango, nor versions of Gershwin and Art Tatum that draw nearer to the upbeat virtuosity of the originals. De la Salle’s musical round trip is both imaginative and finely tooled. We should be hearing much more from her (naïve V 5468, c£14.00).
When it comes to Londa Armonica’s Vivaldi, this talented band give it some … and more, much more – try the powerfully percussive first track from their fifth volume of bassoon concertos on naïve …. what a thrilling, unholy racket, before bassoonist Sergio Azzolini enters with his nut-brown tone and brings the minions to some sort of order. It’s a big, period instrument band – sounds more like a full orchestra (especially in the finale) – that projects a vast spectrum of sound. There are seven concertos in all, each with a gorgeous slow movement at its core. Anyone who in the past has accused Vivaldi of sameness please think again and without fail search out naïve OP 30573 (c£14.00)
Now here’s a brilliant idea – a Bach harpsichord recital that passes on the option of a specific series (Partitas, The ‘48’, etc) and settles instead on giving us three key-related selections, respectively in A minor, D minor and C minor, the upshot of which – uncannily – is that when listening you imagine that the whole 79-minute sequence is how Bach originally intended it, that it couldn’t justifiably be any other way. Such is the genius of Rinaldo Alessandrini who mixes inventions, sinfonias and preludes (some of them otherwise little known) with pieces from The Well-tempered Clavier (both books), which means that in the case of A minor you’ll hear the fiercely slanting drama of the Prelude from Book One and the fearsome stamp of the Fugue from Book Two (each with their companion pieces of course). Among the other works programmed the D minor Sonata transcribed from the A minor solo violin sonata and to close, the elevated ricercar in three voices from The Musical Offering. As to Alessandrini’s playing, it’s always flexible, never caged by bar lines. In a word, superb, on naïve OP 30581 (c£14.00).
If you’re charmed by Mozart’s Magic Flute you might like to try Lulu for contrast, a version of the same story set by the Danish pianist and composer Friedrich Kuhlau, who in reality was an exact contemporary of Weber (both composers died young) whose decidedly Weber-like Romantic singspiel in three acts has just appeared in a memorable performance from May 1956 led by one Denmark’s much-prized maestros from the past Launy Grøndahl. Quite aside from Grøndahl’s vivacious conducting, there’s the singing, most memorably Uno Ebrelius in the title role …. and if you know and love the princely voice of the great Aksel Schiøtz, there’s a definite similarity …. and Kirsten Hermansen, a ‘Queen of the Night’ sound-alike, brilliant and birdlike and at her best in duet with Lulu “Around Your Eden Drifts Peace” on track 19 of the first disc. There are bonuses too, various solos and duets Danish or otherwise, that serve as makeweights on the second cd. The transfers from mono analogue originals are first-rate. So if you’re up for a life-affirming operatic discovery of real worth, it’s on Danacord (2 cds) DACOCD 886 (c£14.00).
Lastly, the sophisticated but always accessible music of Richard Blackford visits those darker areas of shared knowledge that others tend to avoid but does it in such a way that it sidesteps intimidating confrontation. Take the horrific fact of Nazi death camp inmates playing great quartet music while those nearby are being mercilessly slaughtered. The centrepiece of Blackford’s Kalon for string quartet and string orchestra (conducted by Jiri Rozen) is a harrowing but inspired piece called ‘Beklemmt’ which visits the best-loved movement from Beethoven’s ‘late’ Quartets, the ‘cavatina’ from Op. 130, the central section, music that seems choked with grief and which the Albion Quartet (led by Tamsin Waley-Cohen) play so poignantly. This memorable, well-recorded all-Blackford CD opens to a powerful 23-minute work Niobe for violin and orchestra, music about strong women in fatal combat, ostensibly from ancient Greece but with a knowing nod towards the violence that so many women suffer in our own time. Blackford runs the gamut of emotions and the superb Waley-Cohen follows suit (this recording is also out on its own on the Signum label) while the Czech Philharmonic under Ben Gernon offer support that is both sensitive and dramatic. A third item features cellist Raphael Wallfisch, a love song Blewbury Air, with pianist Adrian Farmer, also memorable. Nimbus NI6420 (c£14.00)
A PERSONAL CHOICE OF RECENT CD RELEASES
Manfred Honeck lights the blue touch paper for a scorching Pittsburgh Symphony account of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, combining explosive climaxes with moments of deep repose. The finale is the highpoint, the angry celli and basses delivering their sermon to the minions – though note the achingly beautiful quiet flutes, oboes and clarinets at around the 2:00 mark – before ushering in the Ode to Joy theme from the far distance. Thereafter, the excellent soloists (Christina Landshamer, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Werner Güra, Shenyang) and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh support Honeck’s superbly drilled players for what is surely his finest recording so far. The quick-marching tenor solo is particularly striking. If the Ninth doesn’t shock as well as uplift, something’s not right – and you can rest assured that here the performance works on every level. Honeck’s comprehensive and well written booklet note (with exact disc-timing cue points) serves as a guide to both the symphony itself and the conductor’s often individual reading of it (Reference Recordings FR-741SACD, £13.50*).
*all prices are approximate
Those in the know will appreciate that the American-Israeli violinist Gil Shaham’s playing style is as natural as breathing, his tone warm but never over-ripe, his grasp of various technical challenges often awesome. His San Francisco account of Alban Berg’s heart breaking Concerto ‘to the Memory of an Angel’ (the angel in question being 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler [once Gustav Mahler‘s wife] and Walter Gropius) is poignant beyond belief, especially in the Concerto’s second half where, beyond highly dramatic material that could as well have originated from a fifties American film soundtrack, Berg ushers in the conciliatory chorale melody “Es ist genug” (It is enough), music used in a sacred context by Bach. Therein lies the nexus of the whole piece, Berg’s aching dissonance framing Bach’s ethereal harmonization (on clarinets), one of the most moving gestures in the whole of twentieth century art music. Not only does Shaham achieve the desired level of emotional restraint but Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony offer him sensitive, well focused support. The same all-Berg cd, which is magnificently recorded, also includes Seven brief Early Songs (beautifully sung by Susanna Phillips) which visit worlds already inhabited by Mahler and Strauss, and the devastatingly powerful Three Orchestral Pieces Op. 6 where the final March takes the Mahlerian axis even further by employing thunderous hammer blows. You’ll search far and wide for a recording that’s more imposing than the one MTT offers us here (SFS Media SFS 0080 [hybrid multi-channel], £19.00).
‘Imposing’ is something of an understatement when it comes to conveying the essence of Benjamin Grosvenor’s Decca recording of the Liszt Sonata, where this most charismatic of young British pianists combines awesome control with what sounds like a fierce temperament. Timing, tone, attack (the fugal third section, where Grosvenor rushes forth without tripping), finger velocity (swirling figurations), mastery of rhythm and rubato, songful phrasing (the andante second section), imaginative pedalling (the work’s mysterious close), not to mention a sure grasp of the Sonata’s overall structure, all add up to a moving and exciting encounter with this greatest of all Romantic piano sonatas. After listening to it I thought to myself, ‘surely this can’t be as good as Horowitz, Cortot, Barere, Curzon, Richter, Gilels, Katsaris [and so on]’, so I checked out all those versions for comparison. Not as good? Absolutely on their level … certainly that’s the way I felt for a good few days after hearing it. The all-Liszt couplings include the three Petrarch Sonnets, passionately despatched, the rarely heard second (thoughtful) version of the Berceuse, the spectacular Reminiscences de Norma and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Grosvenor is the perfect example of a brilliant young player whose principal virtue, namely musicality, is quite unteachable. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Marvellous sound (Decca 485 1450, £12.75).
Rachmaninov is widely considered to have been the twentieth century’s greatest pianist but his skills as a purely orchestral composer have in the last forty years or so benefited from the keen advocacy of such conductors as Vladimir Ashkenazy, André Previn, Mariss Jansons and most recently, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor of the American Orchestra most closely associated with Rachmaninov’s music – with whom he made various recordings – the Philadelphia. That was back in the pre-war era when ‘the fabulous Philadelphians’ (as they’re known) sported lavish string slides and a luscious pooled tone. Since those days, the tone, though still distinctive, has slimmed somewhat and the slides make only an occasional showing. Nézet-Séguin’s coupling of the First Symphony and the late masterpiece that quotes it, the Symphonic Dances (DG 483 9839, £12.75), is impressive, the Dances – which have one foot in the New World while the other remains firmly rooted in Old Russia – making an especially strong impression. These are taut, immediate and warmly expressed performances, but I’m also drawn to an extremely well played and stunningly well recorded set of Rachmaninov’s complete orchestral works by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Lan Shui (BIS -2512 SACD, four discs, £35.00) where the First sounds darker and more authentically ‘Russian’ than under Nézet-Séguin and the problematic finale more convincing. Anyone searching for a relatively inexpensive way to investigate these remarkable works need look no further.
Turning to the ‘lighter side’ of orchestral music Neeme Järvi conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in French Music for the Stage (Chandos CHAN20151, £11.50), seventy-nine minutes’ worth of cheery repertoire starting with a dazzling account of Thomas’s tuneful overture to ‘Raymond’ (or The Queen’s Secret’. Much of the music programmed is less than familiar though I doubt it’ll remain so once you’ve auditioned the disc. I’m thinking of Massenet’s Espada, and the ‘Scène de Bal and Vieille and Chanson’ from Le Roi s’amuse by Delibes. Also included, music by Auber and Boildieu. Great sound, too. And if you’re attracted to the idea of some fun French music on a smaller scale, ‘Belle Epoque’ (French Music for Wind) featuring the Orsino Ensemble and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov (Chandos CHSA 5282, £11.50) should fit the bill ideally. Elegant playing of predominantly lyrical works by Roussel, Saint-Saëns, Debussy Chaminade, Koechlin, Caplet (his 27 minuet Quintet, the most substantial work on the programme), all of it extremely well recorded.
As to Baroque instrumental repertoire, how do you fancy venturing beyond the worlds of Rameau, Handel and Telemann to something completely new? Why not try Hannover-born Francesco Venturini’s Concerti di camera (Audité 97.775, £13.50) works that are French-Italian in style and infused with varied textures, seductive melodies and bouncy rhythms (often buoyed by prominent percussion). In 1698 Venturini became violinist in the court chapel of Electorate of Hanover where he had married in the previous year. La festa musicale has come up with an enticing programme, the highlight of which is probably the Concerto No.9 in G minor with its texturally rich Aria third movement, music dominated by its telling use of bassoons. And for gale-force winds and recollections of Rameau try ‘Furies’ from the Concerto No. 11, where a wind machine and drums suggest thunder and lightning. The brief gigue that closes the ‘Overture No.5’ with what sound like castanets is a real earworm. These are substantial pieces, musically memorable and superbly played.
More tempestuous fare arrives courtesy of Antonin Dvorák whose relatively youthful String Quartet No.4 (which the composer subsequently rejected) opens to what sounds like a quarter-of-hour confessional, intense, impassioned music with lyrical episodes for contrast. But the heart of the piece is the ‘Andante religioso’ second movement, music that Dvorák went on to reuse, most popularly as an orchestral ‘Nocturne’ and that the Fine Arts Quartet plays most beautifully (Naxos 8.574205, £7.50). Dvorák’s early chamber music is a real treasure trove even if occasionally prone to overstatement. The coupling though, written some eight years later, is a masterpiece. The String Sextet was premiered in 1879 by an augmented Joachim Quartet. Here the additional players are violist Anna Kreetta Gribajcevic and cellist Jans Peter Maintz. As to where to dip your toe in first, I’d say very the opening, which is surely as glorious as the openings to either of the Brahms Sextets or Serenades. The icing on the cake is the rarely heard Polonaise for cello for and piano played by the Quartet’s cellist Niklas Schmidt with Stepan Simonian at the piano.
Although known primarily for his uplifting symphonic narratives, in his day the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner was also celebrated as a brilliant organ improvisor. These two aspects of his art are neatly brought together by the conductor-scholar-organist Gerd Schaller whose recordings of the complete symphonies for the Hänssler Profil label feature familiar scores in rarely heard – and therefore textually revealing – editions. Now Schaller has ventured onto a brand new path, transcribing the often terrifying Ninth Symphony for organ and playing it himself on the handsome Eisenbarth organ of the former Cistercian Abbey Church of Ebrach (2cds, PH21010, available via Select Music & Video Distribution). The upshot of this enterprising exercise is surprising in that rather play to the ‘cathedral in sound’ cliché that is so often applied to the symphonies, Schaller brings to the music a rawness, depth and austere intimacy that takes us to a moonlit, wooded terrain where mystery reigns alongside feelings of awe.
Try the deathly clanging of high-flown bells evoked at around at 14:46 into the first movement or, in the scherzo (which shimmers and roars rather than stamps), a dense cacophony approximating angry chatter. The third movement climbs from a simple affirmation of faith near the start (the ‘gates of Heaven’ episode at 1:56) to the sombre melody that restfully takes over soon afterwards. The movement’s clinching climax explodes on a blooded bed of dissonance (that builds from 18:50 – and thunders mercilessly from 19:59), here sounding as if ringing from the bowels of hell – there’s no escaping the pitch-black Gothic images that between them Bruckner and Schaller bring to mind.
But that’s just the start of it. Beyond the third movement (don’t forget this symphony was left incomplete, the finale a jagged mass of disparate fragments) Schaller summons chorales, crushing chords and flames that lick this way and that. His coda achieves closure, after a fashion, but the real power is not in how the tale ends but in the questions that follow on from it. We’ve already had performing versions of the Ninth from (among others) Rattle and Harnoncourt but maybe Schaller’s employment of a totally new sound medium allows us to approach it as a separate experience, one that’s divorced from what we already know. It won’t replace the Ninths you own, but it will likely haunt them forever.
Back in the 1990s Nigel Kennedy, Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony made a rousing case for Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Kennedy as ever affectionately abrasive with a wannabe cockney slant to his playing – right from his aggressive initial entry – while Rattle’s contribution was bold and assertive. Then last year saw Rattle, a Good European with the British cause at heart, return to the work, this time with the LSO (forthcoming on Erato 0190295112820), putting his music where his mouth is and lending our greatest violin concerto a degree of gravitas that none before him – save perhaps Elgar with the young Yehudi Menuhin as soloist – have quite managed to do. Replacing Kennedy is a suave and deeply persuasive Frenchman, Renaud Capuçon, and his first entry conjures a very different world, one where mellow fruitfulness predominates. And while in the second and third movements Rattle’s tempi are significantly swifter than they were before, he now takes us to fresh climes, venturing behind the Concerto’s gnarled surface to significant countersubjects, inner voices and bold rhythmic figures that thanks to a superb technical cooperative (Alain Lanceron and Stephen Johns) and possibly aided by enforced social distancing (the accommodating venues are in Hampstead and Old Street) come across with impressive presence. As a sampling of how beautifully things knit together, follow the rolling hills and dales from around 5:22 into the first movement, reaching that wonderful second principal theme at 6:37 beyond which Elgar stops singing and starts to speak. Is there any Violin Concerto lovelier than this? Not in my book. I’m tempted to label the deeply romantic second movement ‘English’-sounding but, no, ‘Pastoral’-sounding is better, just as when, for the finale’s long cadenza (10:52), set against a shimmering carpet of gently strummed strings, Elgar repeatedly calls his soloist back from flights of fancy with that second theme from the first movement.
But, tell me, could you honestly describe this music as English first and foremost? Well, the work’s dedicatee Fritz Kreisler protested Elgar’s greatness beyond any national identity and Elgar never thought of himself as a specifically ‘English’ composer. So, the answer to that question has to be ‘no’. As musical exports go the Concerto’s climate recalls parallel worlds where Dvorák, Brahms, Bruch, Fauré, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Bruckner and others had already set up shop. Our wares might not be identical but they’re similar. The violin concertos of Bruch and Brahms are somewhere in situ (as is Schumann’s long hidden masterpiece, though it wasn’t actually premiered until three years after Elgar’s death), and so is Max Reger’s, written around the same time as Elgar’s. So you could call Elgar’s far-reaching imagination and emotional ambiguity typically European. And it’s those aspects of the work that Capuçon and Rattle take to their hearts. The Violin Sonata, a late work, is half the Concerto’s length, perhaps more ethereal (Fauré’s late sonatas spring to mind) but as played by Capuçon and the superb pianist Stephen Hough draws you in to a more abstract world. A disc to order without hesitation.
The exact date of Bob’s death, 9th November. When I first knew him I was the ‘Young Turk’ among Gramophone’s venerated roster of old reviewers, though he was always hugely supportive, and enthusiastically encouraged new or refreshing viewpoints. We’d spar and laugh regularly, sometimes over a jar of this or that, or a meal. I have missed his writing of late and often wondered what he would have made of new Sibelius symphony cycles (a speciality) conducted by the likes of Segerstam, Paavo Järvi, Storgards etc. How, according to Bob, would they have stacked up against say Sir Colin Davis in Boston, Anthony Collins in London, various symphonies that Karajan recorded and so forth? And what’s more important, how would you rate his opinions alongside those of his various successors, especially in Gramophone? Have reviewing standards dipped, stayed level or risen? Does the fact that unlike Bob’s forebears the modern critic has sometimes to consider hundreds of rival versions of a particular symphony invalidate his/her opinions simply because it’s impossible to listen to everything? And how does the presence of so many unedited websites/blogs etc – some of them impressively authoritative – alter the state of play when it comes to assessing officially published critical viewpoints? How valid is record reviewing anyway? Do you simply learn to trust those who you regularly agree with? And was the scholar/broadcaster/musician Has Keller right when he called record criticism a ‘phoney profession’? Thoughts please!
There are few losses worse than a parent losing a child or, when an adult, losing a child of one’s own or a younger sibling. Sad to relate that alongside my brothers Jonny and Jezz (and our children) I have to mourn the passing of Andrew, the youngest of four (just 59) from what was an as-yet undisclosed illness. He died on 26th October at his home at Mill Hill, London, having failed to phone his friend Jason on his birthday, very uncharacteristic, which was why Jason took the trip to check on him … and found him as if asleep. He was devastated as are we and others who were close to him.
To say that Andrew was a one-off is an understatement. He made his various dislikes forcefully known so I shan’t attempt to camouflage him here – he could be irascible, wildly funny, passionate, cantankerous, loving, aggressive, gentle, caring, dismissive, all these things and more, often in the space of a single day. But most people took an instant shine to him. As a kid, though naughty, he was adorable. When Georgie and I were first married he would stay with us, full of fun though irritated by our two kittens who would regularly tickle his feet when he was in bed. Animals were his thing. There was a stretch of rough land near our Finchley family home where he collected, fed and nurtured all manner of creatures, mice, rats, snakes, voles – everything you can think of (and that he could lay his hands on), sometimes bringing them home. And there were the family dogs, ostensibly my father’s property though it was Andrew who took care of them and walked them. Andrew and Dad could be very similar. In fact had the Old Man been famous Andrew could have lived off his frighteningly realistic spoofs. Dog-wise, though, his last and most beloved companion was Wilbur, a handsome and devoted lurcher/greyhound ‘cross’ that was at his side for many years and that Andrew had to have euthanized at the onset of lockdown because, being old, he was in so much pain. Having Wilbur put to sleep wasn’t a problem – he couldn’t bear to see him suffer – but what was unbearable was not being with him when the lethal injection was administered. Because of COVID restrictions no one was allowed inside the vet’s surgery. Of course with Andrew, anger was invariably caused by issues way beneath the surface.
He was devoted to music, Hendrix and especially Zappa. He’d taken up bass guitar practicing daily after a previous bout of illness that he’d recovered from – and was just a stone’s throw away from sounding fully professional. He loved playing but could also respond to contemporary concert music (as did Zappa). I once put on Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite (Chicago Symphony/Doráti recording) and he was so keen on what he heard that I immediately had to burn him off a copy. He was interested in any number of my oddball pursuits, bound back issues of London Illustrated News, for example, which fascinated him.
Andrew was larger than life and …. loud? You bet! But he was so real. I think of Blake’s words ‘no bird soars too high that soars with its own wings’. And that’s how I’ll always think of him, his wings won through his playing, circling high above us while occasionally swooping down to lovingly perch on our shoulder or peck an admonishing rebuttal. As for religion, he loathed it – not his racial heritage (he was certainly no self-hating Jew) – but the rituals and external trappings. He was once over at ours for his favourite chicken lunch when I showed him Robert Alter’s recent translation of the Old Testament. ‘Go on, read some of it to me, demonstrate just how wonderful it is,’ he said mockingly. So I told him the story of Abraham and Isaac which believe it or not even as a North London Jewish lad he didn’t know. He was horrified by the story, oblivious to its ‘test of faith’: all he could imagine was the knife at Isaac’s throat. In that respect his reaction chimed with various modern anti-religious thinkers, Christopher Hitchens, and the like.
So in remembering my nature-loving, widely travelled kid brother Andrew, what can I say? Certainly not ‘Rest in Peace’. Rest was beyond his apprehension – he couldn’t rest, ever – and I’m not sure that peace was even in his vocabulary. It certainly wasn’t in ours when he was with us. I’ll pass on The Bible and recall instead another big, larger-than-life, creative force, the American poet Walt Whitman, a hospital wound-dresser during the American Civil War who embraced the world with a huge bear hug, ‘One of the Roughs, a Kosmos’ – very Andrew. This is from his most famous poem, Leaves of Grass – and I think it’s how Andrew would want to be remembered. It’s certainly how I’ll remember him.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
With ‘diversity’ a current buzz word, I’ve been pondering what it means to me, personally. Take the idea that black culture matters (which is what ‘diversity’ has come to signify in popular modern parlance). A no-brainer as far as I’m concerned, but whereas others are identifying black musicians or writers to back up their cause I’d rather ponder the great, ride high on their gifts – I’m thinking Langston Hughes, Parker, Mingus, Walcott, Baldwin, Morrison, Armstrong, Holliday, Ellington, Basie, Fitzgerald, Angelou, the MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet) and so on – accepting the riches they’ve given me and forgetting the issues of colour or racial origins. When I first encountered Fitzgerald, Ellington and Bechet (as a kid I’d play their records constantly) I had no idea they were black, but I did know that they were better than virtually anyone else in the genre at the time – and still are. Quality is what matters and it’s still the Number One priority, at least as far as I’m concerned.
I listen to the enriching music of Max Reger – who’s about as dead and white as it’s possible to be, stylistically at least – watching a video where the conductor is Wayne Marshall. Would either you or I guess that Marshall is black without foreknowledge? Not by listening, that’s for sure. Take the MJQ’s late pianist John Lewis playing straight Bach, or Keith Jarrett in Bach or Shostakovich. The stew is boiling and no one sensitive to culture can resist its powerful aroma. Celebrate individual ingredients by all means, but never forget that context is everything. A good deal has gone pear-shaped since the Sixties, but one Sixties legacy has remained potent: cultural cross-pollination (and by that I don’t mean multi-culturalism, which is a very different subject).
What prompted this heartfelt outburst is a recent book on poetry, the best ‘history’ I’ve ever read as it so happens, John Carey’s ‘A Little History of Poetry’ (Yale, £14.99). Most studies on the subject ply their narrative with a certain level of pedantry, dotting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s where eagerly pushing forwards would be a far better option, and which is precisely what Carey does here. He starts with the Epic of Gilgamesh, enters the realms of war, adventure and love with Homer and Sappho, then proceeds among the Latin classics (including Virgil), Anglo-Saxon poetry and, beyond that, the likes of Dante, Petrarch and Villon, the Elizabethans, John Donne, then the age of individualism, including the gnomic Herrick whose work I hardly knew. Happily, and with thanks to Oxfam in nearby Watford, I was able to acquire a handsome Herrick ‘complete works’ and am currently lapping it up. Religious individualists are covered, as are the Romantics and the likes of Yeats, Pound and Eliot, their vices as much illuminated as their virtues. Major Americans such as Whitman, Stevens and Dickinson are prominent, and so are the Germans Goethe, Rilke and Heine, though oddly Hölderlin is absent. Meaningful – and memorable – quotations are plentiful and, yes, [Langston] Hughes, Walcott and Angelou are all there. The beauty of Carey’s book is that it gives you reasons to take poetry on as an urgent project (20th century Brits such Larkin, [Ted] Hughes and the likes fire straight from the hip), making it a necessary subject. Of writers on music only Alex Ross, whose newly issued ‘Wagnerism’ is a modern masterpiece, can compare. So if you’ve a friend or relative who reckons he/she doesn’t like poetry, this is your chance to prove them wrong.