John Ruskin: the great Victorian- 200 this year and still a force to reckon with

The great Victorian John Ruskin, who died on this date in 1900 and whose birth bicentenary we celebrate on February 8th, was once a household name, which is what he should be today. Few thinkers or writers from the Victorian era more clearly anticipated such issues as climate change, social injustice and ways to overcome it, sham renovation (specifically with reference to his beloved Venice) or the artificial polarity between left- and right-thinking politics.  Although not a liberal in the strictest sense, Ruskin had a synoptic overview of politics that we could benefit from revisiting. His most famous aphoristic thought – and his work is crammed with meaningful aphorisms – is ‘There is no wealth but life’ and his alarmed response to the ‘storm cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ (as both witness to a natural phenomenon and prophet of damaging industrialisation) is deeply significant.

Ruskin was born into comfortable circumstances and as a boy was inculcated by his mother into reading the Bible daily, a process that would greatly influence his writing style, though it wouldn’t nail his thinking to any conventional religious template. Early travel among family and friends awakened his senses to the beauty of art and nature abroad. His discovery of Turner was pivotal: a devotion to Turner’s work helped consolidate the great painter’s reputation and he was destined to accept the role, initially unwillingly, of executor to Turner’s will.

Ruskin was himself a superb draughtsman, whose pencil sketches of important buildings and scenes from nature vied with the best for sensitivity and a feeling for perspective. He was a great literary stylist whose magisterial pen lightened somewhat with the passing years. He was also a significant influence on the pre-Raphaelites.  A fine teacher and lecturer, Ruskin initiated ‘The Guild of St George’ (which survives to this day), where the idea that urban folk can enjoy, and work, the countryside was revived under his supervision.

Most controversially, there were Ruskin’s women who, from an amatory point of view, were all very young. His marriage to Effie Gray was never consummated, an issue widely misunderstood until recently when motives other than a ‘distaste’ for her actual body (the long-held theory) were discovered as far more significant.  Gray eventually went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais with whom she had eight children. Ruskin’s love for the wealthy Irish girl Rose La Touche (he fell for her when she was ten) survived her premature death at the age of 27. No evidence has survived that he ever attempted physical engagement with younger girls whose attentions he craved and whose company he enjoyed so deeply. Nowadays he would probably have been deemed a pedophile, which I’m convinced he wasn’t. Ruskin was in many ways an eternal child himself, reaching the age of 80 at his eventual home in Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water (now a Ruskin museum).

What I’ve written hardly touches the surface of a life that although fraught with problems, even occasional bouts of madness, was richly fulfilled and crammed with fascinating literary production.

An early volume of poetry is heavily derivative but Ruskin’s mature work – and there’s a great deal of it – impressed the likes of Tolstoy, Ghandi (whose life’s direction was changes by Ruskin’s Unto This Last) and Proust, who translated key material into French. This influence can be seen to extend beyond Wilde, Chesterton, Pound and Eliot to this very day.

As to further reading, I always recommend going straight to the source, in this case with Unto This Last (variously published at reasonable prices), a brief but powerful book on economy where Ruskin proves himself an eloquent precursor of social economy. The Brantwood Diary (Yale) offers many insights and there’s a useful ‘Selected Writings’, published by OUP. The complete works edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn and stretching to 39 volumes is magnificent in both form and content and includes one of the most impressive indexes ever published; it’s pricey but would provide a lifetime’s worth of reading.

As to biographies, Tim Hilton’s comprehensive work – the one I’d most recommend – is divided into ‘The Early Years’ and ‘The Later Years’ and available either as two separate volumes or as a single-volume 947-page paperback from Yale. A Cambridge Companion and various writings by Robert Hewison (especially on Ruskin and Venice) are valuable; Robert Brownell’s fascinating ‘Marriage of Inconvenience’ researches the Ruskin-Gray debacle and its various implications and if you can find it, Derrick Leon’s ‘Ruskin: the Great Victorian’ (Archon Books) is couched in a literary style that virtually levels with Ruskin’s own. It’s a joyous read. Beyond that there’s Cynthia Gamble on Ruskin as translated by Proust and so much more that to reach further into the critical bibliography would be to court confusion, at least initially. The important thing to remember is that John Ruskin ventured into the future without breaking the tablets of the past. That for me makes him a major thinker, one to be reckoned with.

What’s in a name? – recordings by a great but unknown pianist rescued from the vaults

In the January 2019 issue of Gramophone the distinguished critic Jed Distler wrote a usefully comprehensive resume of the finest younger pianists, citing, at one point, Benjamin Grosvenor whose dazzling, old-school artistry brings to mind the finest of his feted forebears. Jed’s mischievous suggestion that were we to lay a sheet of shellac surface noise across the best of the Grosvenor’s recordings we may as well be listening to, say, the legendary Josef Hofmann, poses the question: suppose we were to apply that principle in reverse and somehow magic away vintage sound so that the likes of Hofmann, Rachmaninov, Cortot, Schnabel, Rosenthal, Friedman, Lhevinne and others sound, in sonic terms, as immediate as Yuja Wang or Daniil Trifonov? Would we then be talking about a sort of interpretative continuum where the generations meld onto an elevated bloodline that will only admit the best, and forget the issue of this or that historic ‘period’? I’d say, definitely not. My contention is that the blooded divide that sliced the world pre- and post-War somehow soiled the concept of Romantic idealism, which is why Rachmaninov’s Chopin Second Sonata or Schumann Carnaval and Friedman’s accounts of various Chopin Mazurkas awake in us levels of fantasy that no post-War pianists, however insightful, quite manage to achieve.

So, are we then slaves to ‘big name’ syndrome? Can we only experience awe if the name appended to it is ‘legendary’? Well, here’s a test for you. You know the great Sidney Foster (1917-1977) don’t you. Sorry? You’re telling me that you don’t know him? This cultured prize-winning virtuoso, one time resident of Bloomington, Indiana, who gave the Boston premiere of Bartók’s Third Concerto under Aaron Copland and wrote his own cadenza for the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Concerto, pupil of David Saperton (Godowsky’s son-in-law and teacher of Shura Cherkassky and the like) is a pianist whose range of imagination and ability to cue audible thunder will make you think again about everything he plays. A 7-cd set of live performances on the Marston label (57001-2) includes a remarkable recording from 1941 where this 23-year old winner of the Edgar M. Leventritt Prize (the judges included Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin) played the Beethoven Concerto. The rest is from the 1950s through to the 1970s, Brahms’s Third Sonata raging wild, the Scherzo bursting upon us in a state of great agitation, and the four Ballades, the First massive in conception, the Third, restless, impulsive, and the polar opposite of the marmoreal Michelangeli.

This is the thing about Foster –  he’s a player who you feel has rushed to the keyboard on impulse in the privacy of his own studio just for the  love of performing a favourite work. The concertos programmed also include Tchaikovsky’s First (with a notably poetic slow movement), a characterful Bartók Third with Copland (recorded around the time of the Boston premiere), and a cleanly articulated Schumann Concerto from Japan. Schumann’s Carnaval treads the Rachmaninov route with drive and eloquence but for me the set’s high points are two Chopin masterpieces, the Fourth Ballade and the F minor Fantasy, both works played with a combination of storm-tossed passion and structural awareness. Foster was less the refined practitioner than an intuitive musician who seemed au fait with the muse’s fiery breath. Intelligent too, of course, but reaching beyond the notes was his special skill

You listen and you wonder, why was this man’s commercial recording career restricted to a couple of LPs? Why is his name virtually unknown while the names of his pianistic inferiors fill our households?  Sadly, it’s not an unknown situation but at least in this case Ward Marston has had the courage and enterprise to make amends. Please don’t just take my word for it. I won’t guarantee you’ll like everything in the set but, to return to Jed’s conjecture, were I to present you with say the Chopin Ballade in modern sound I’ve a feeling you’d say, ‘this guy is one hell of a player! Where has he been? Let’s hear more of him’.


Rozhdestvensky CD hit list

With the sad passing of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky at the age of 88 what do posters reckon to a list of his greatest recordings. For what’s it’s worth – and this off the top of my head – here is mine, just for starters

Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet complete ballet

mono, Melodiya – and still the most thrilling ever recorded

the other Prokofiev ballets, and the symphonies

no-one captured the glare and rage of No. 2 like GR and I’d love to hear his Edinburgh Festival No. 3 again – 1960s. Had a reel-to-reel of it, now long gone

Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini/Khachaturian Gayaneh – Leningrad Phil at its greatest

… DG with a Sabre Dance that’s as terrifying when the playing is quiet as when it’s loud (and VERY loud)

Tchaikovsky symphonies and ballets (Melodiya)

emotionally arresting but well structured readings (ie, in the symphonies)

Glazunov complete symphonies (Melodiya)

Readings that honour the music’s ballet groundsprings, but that also make the symphonies add up AS symphonies 

Vaughan Williams complete symphonies (Melodiya)

(Melodiya) – Not. 4 and 6 sound almost like Shostakovich

Please add your own suggestions.




Alfred Deller Magic

A real boon to see the American Vanguard catalogue return to local circulation by stages, especially some matchless recordings by the countertenor Alfred Deller, ‘the daddy of them all’ in my view, not just because his actual voice is so beautiful but because of Deller’s musicality, his phrasing, the way he colours the line and reduces his tone to the quietest pianissimo. Modern scholarship might baulk at the sweet-toned style (sometimes) but no one surely could question such elevated artistry. The first volume of ‘Alfred Deller: the complete Vanguard recordings’ (Vanguard Classics MC193) extracts folk songs and ballads from a number of Deller’s original lp releases for the Vanguard label, including arranged ‘Tavern Songs, Catches and Glees’ Volumes One and Two, ‘The Cries of London’, ‘Tavern Songs’ Volume Two, ‘The Three Ravens’, ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gipsies’, ‘Folk Song Album’ (arrangements by Vaughan Williams), ‘English Lute Songs’, ‘Awake Sweet Love’, ‘The Cruel Mother’, ‘The Western Wind’, and so on. And there are the other singers, often contributing to a beautiful tonal blend, April Cantelo, Honor Sheppard, Wilfrid Brown, Gerald English, Edgar Fleet, Owen Grundy and Maurice Bevan and the Ambrosian Singers, some tracks with the London Chamber Players, others, mostly the ones where Deller sings solo, with Desmond Dupré playing the lute. There’s also a bonus CD-ROM with all the original notes and texts so when you access the texts for the first disc ‘A choice collection of the most diverting Catches, composed by Mr. Henry Purcell,’ and you check out track 5 ‘Once, twice, thrice’, you can confirm …. yes that is what they were singing! I shan’t let on further.  But if it’s beauty you want to sample first then Deller solo has to be your initial port of call, preferably ‘In Darkness let me Dwell’ (disc 5, track 3), once so well known from an earlier version on a plumb-label HMV 78 but just as entrancing here. I can’t wait for further volumes, Deller’s version of the ‘Agnus dei’ from Bach’s B minor Mass being one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’.

So how do you reckon Deller in comparison with say Scholl, Jarrousky and other modern countertenors? Does the style of singing ‘age’? I’d be interested to know what you think.




Would the music for Bach’s St Matthew Passion have been possible without the prompt of St Matthew, Christ, or God?

The question here is whether this work – and other works on the same elevated artistic level (the few that exist) – would have been possible without the awe-inspiring presence of deep-rooted religious faith. Or could nature and her mightiest representatives, whether mountains or distant stars, have prompted the same sublime music without the presence of a deity? Please discuss. My view, for what it’s worth, is that it wouldn’t have been possible.

Louise Glück: Faithful and Virtuous Night – a masterly book of poems

The American poet Louise Glück (born 1943) doesn’t waste words, but neither does she economise to the extent that we suspect that words might be missing. As a poet she passes on the all-to-common option of ‘adjectival pebble-dashing’ and instead cuts to the chase with precision-tooled imagery that draws you in. Straight from the off, in ‘Parable’, she’s inviting us to divest ourselves of worldly goods ‘in order that our souls not be distracted’ and there’s the shock tactic in the cover poem where the drilling of her aunt’s sowing machine ‘vanished’ –



You have no idea how shocking it is

to a small child when

something continuous stops



In ‘Utopia’ a child needs to board a train. But is it the right train? Yes, ‘because it is the right time,’ is the answer. The time comes to disembark, and the strange sound of a foreign language prevails, ‘something more like a moan or a cry’.

But most affecting of all, another poem that seems to allude to Glück’s Jewish roots (and the baggage that any Jew in his/her mid-seventies will carry) is ‘A Foreshortened Journey,’ where, at a train station, a little girl spots, on the staircase, what she assumes is a dead man. Her grandmother is reassuring. ‘We must let him sleep,’ she says, ‘we must walk quietly by.’ We’re told that he’s at that stage in life where although deciding to stop makes him an obstacle to others, he – and we – must not give up hope. The child wonders whether they will see him when they return. Then she kneels by his side and says the Jewish prayer for the dead. She will not be there to sing it at the right time, to soothe him in his terrors, but – and in this is the really heart-breaking gist of the poem –


When you hear this again, she said, perhaps the words will be less intimidat-

ing, if you remember how you first heard them, in the voice of a little girl


Of course my paraphrase does little justice to the complete poem, a mini-masterpiece and extremely moving. As is the entire book.


Louise Glück

Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), 71 pp

Carcanet ISBN 978 1 84777 479 8  £9.95




The one book that you simply have to read this year – Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to Chaos.

12 Rules for Life: An antidote to Chaos. [Allen Lane, 2018, £20.00]


Unsurprisingly, the idea of tackling a book that has lobsters, the shire of Tolkien’s hobbits and the stumbling stability of chaos crop up in its earliest pages had me scratching my head, eyebrows raised, rather than eager to turn to the next page.

Here is a book that brooks no compromise but rather wipes the slate clean, lifts you shoulder high and has you confront the big issues that we all have to face but too often shade our eyes from: self-respect, responsible child rearing (no soft-soaping with Peterson, nor damaging over-protectiveness), education, sharing, setting your house in order before criticising the world, the pursuit of what is meaningful, truthfulness, having the humility in the face of people who may well know more than you do, and verbal precision. Also crucial to Peterson’s enterprise is a dry-eyed and mercifully objective take on the value and limitations of science, as well as on gender and its attendant complications, and narcissism. Most interesting though is his attitude to religion, which passes on the anti-God-squad dogma that has become so fashionable nowadays and instead takes an informed, objective and compassionate look at the great sacred texts but without ever promoting the idea of single-denominational worship. Peterson’s mode of prayer, such as it is, resides in the open air, under the stars, rather than within the walls of a church or a temple. The texts he calls on include Plato, Genesis, Lao Tzu, the Sermon on the Mount, Goethe, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot, always in a useful and revealing context. I read the heart-breaking account of his daughter’s battle with severe polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and her heroic attitude to the trials, often excruciatingly painful, that recovery involved with tears running down my cheeks. As I read I listened to the uplifting conclusion to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, setting Goethe’s text (from Faust, Part Two), ‘all that passes away is merely a likeness; the inadequacy of earth finds fulfilment …’ I know that this will sound hopelessly sentimental to some but It was as if Peterson and Mahler had somehow found each other, Mahler’s unique brand of humanism having nearly always escaped a precise lens. Here it has found one. And that’s not all. For years I’ve cherished the idea of setting a children’s story to the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. As I imagine it, in the early stages of the movement, a child contemplates nature, alone. Then, as the music gradually becomes more animated, he’s joined by a group of mates who rush, helter-skelter, to the edge of a sky-high ridge beyond which lies a blinding light. It’s a place that many have wondered about but as yet no one has had the courage to tackle its heights. This is where Peterson comes in: these fearless kids summon that courage, and up they run. When they get to the top Mahler provides the devastating soundtrack with his full-orchestra ‘Gates of Heaven’ outburst. What have they seen? The physical manifestation of J M W Turner’s dying words, ‘the sun is God’.

Vinyl/shellac …. the ‘good old days’ … or not?

Years ago, during the vinyl era, an old friend bemoaned the long-gone days of 78s when putting a record on the turntable was a sacred ritual: you’d play a disc containing, say, two Chopin Nocturnes (one either side), settle to enjoy the first, then pause to turn the disc over and play the other. It took time. You attended to what you were listening to and there was a certain magic in watching the playing arm journey across the disc surface in pursuit of the miraculous sounds that were emerging from the speaker (or even the ‘tone arm’ if it was a genuine 78 player). Of course when vinyl was the principal music ‘carrier’ (I’ll omit tape for the sake of focusing my point) no-one imagined that a few years hence CDs topping the 80-minute mark would enable us to put on a disc and either attend to what was on it, or not, according to our mood. My question therefore is, have we lost the knack of listening with awe? Did the effort needed to play 78s, 45s and lps help us (even make us) concentrate on what we were listening to? Is some sort of education process necessary to reclaim the value of quality home listening? Do you still play vinyl/shellac yourself – or do you think that those who do are caught in some sort of generational time warp. Your views would be welcome.

Does great music have a moral force?

Back in 1994 I interviewed that superb Beethoven interpreter the pianist Richard Goode who said to me, regarding great music, that ‘it has the potential to express powers that lie outside of context, of period, language, translation, to reach something more basic. Moral idealism, for example, which might, through music, be translated into a universal language – without the particulars.’ And without the conceptual limitations and misunderstandings engendered by mere words [as I added at the time]. These words struck me afresh when I finished listening to Murray Perahia’s new recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Deutsche Grammophon  479 8353), possibly the most moving account of this cripplingly difficult work ever committed to disc, the Sonata’s kernel – a heart-wrenching Adagio sostenuto – approximating a pained confessional in the way that only Artur Schnabel back in the 1930s managed, and then within the context of a performance that although profoundly well-intentioned was technically flawed elsewhere. For me Perahia inhabits the same elevated plane as Schnabel, Backhaus, Charles Rosen, Brendel, Yvonne Loriod and indeed Goode himself, though for me he climbs just a rung or two further up the celestial ladder. It’s a combination of control and unfettered spontaneity. Quite magnificent.

In the booklet interview with Jessica Duchen, Perahia claims that ‘often Beethoven experiences music as a liberation, reaching towards many things, even making you a better human being.’ Now this is very interesting. Think about it for a moment. Does Beethoven have a moral agenda here? In the fiery opening movement he sets out his main thesis, then there’s a discursive scherzo, the soul-bearing adagio and a vast fugal finale [played by Perahia with sovereign technical command) that surges forwards and brooks no compromise but reaches CLOSURE. That’s it! CLOSURE. The same with the Fifth Symphony – argument, nobility/repose, proud declamation, fierce assertion, triumph and … again, CLOSURE. Quite aside from the presence of chemistry and neuroscience in our make-up, what about the emotional impact of what’s happening, the element of therapy or even counselling that is syphoned through the music? The fact that we’re emboldened after listening to it is surely significant.

And there’s the curative aspect of music, too. Years ago I felt terribly ill and lay on my bed listening to Schumann’s 4th, a particular recording – Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the point beyond the scherzo where Schumann cues a hushed transition that eventually catapults us into the fast finale, the rush of adrenalin suddenly helped me recover. It was a physical happening – one I will never forget. Views, please?