Sunday, 29 November 2015

This above all: to thine own self be three…

The unabashed melodiousness of Brahms is without apology.

I like to imagine Brahms wandering around Europe – or even just the Red Hedgehog Tavern – almost permanently singing. Strangely enough, his gruff baritone sounds exactly like mine! (Probably because his figure is not dissimilar.) Seriously, though: I can think of no other composer who wrote such gorgeous, memorable, all-encompassing melodies – not even my beloved Elgar (who, it could be argued, is Brahms’ natural successor).

All week, therefore, in anticipation of last night’s Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra concert in the Town Hall, the opening horn call (delicately wafted into the air by Laura Morris – and subsequently recapitulated perfectly by Kelly Haines) of his Second Piano Concerto – and all its ensuing high-contrast, explosive variations and developments – has been echoing through my head (as well as bouncing off the walls of the Bardic halls). This tune is, essentially, a short, simple thing (appearing as a rising tilde in the score) – which is where its power indubitably lies. But what the aging (‘mature’) composer does with it is nothing short of miraculous: not least the initial arpeggiated, ascending response from the piano (played warmly by the inimitable Peter Donohoe).

However easily lulled you may be by that gentle beginning, you are soon awoken by a cadenza (already! at bar 11!) manufactured from some of the most turbulent, breathtaking Sturm und Drang I can think of. (All those octaves in the right hand I think explain Donohoe’s comment, below.) Although this detonation soon recapitulates the main theme as a short-lived ground bass – and the orchestra then takes over – it is not long before the thumb-bashing returns: albeit after a few fortunate pages’ rest!

So – believe me: I tried and failed to learn to play it; and it nearly killed my hands (and the rest of me) – even though the work has been described as “really a symphony with principal piano” – this is, I think, one of the most outrageously challenging pieces in the solo pianist’s repertoire: “the perfect fusion of inspirational fire with… encompassing technique” – which, thankfully, of course, Donohoe, genial genius, has in abundance. He makes it look (relatively) easy – even those infernal, eternal trills. (Although I suspect he is actually the owner of an extra pair of hands – which may well really belong to Martin Roscoe – such is his wizardry.)

It was the last work Brahms added to his repertory as a pianist, and for someone who had long given up regular practicing to get through it at all is amazing.

Some of the orchestral tutti chord sequences in this first movement even foreshadow those of Shostakovich (see below) with their impudent might – although this may just be a trick of consistent orchestra-scape and canny programming – and yet this is truly beautiful music: albeit with a heart of sharpest diamond. And there is nothing playful at all, either, about the second movement (which tonight featured a breathtaking stop-on-a-sixpence moment from the violins…). “It is a tiny, tiny little concerto with a tiny, tiny little scherzo” wrote Brahms. (Ha‑ha.)

But the work never stops punching you in the guts with its emotional impact, aided by Donohoe’s majestic, ringing, virtuousic keyboard playing. His partnership (which it truly was) with conductor David Curtis and the CSO rendered it a monumental spiritual assault. And, like the Shostakovich that followed – after the well-needed interval – it features a killer third movement: “the slow movement that Rachmaninoff tried all his life to write” – where, temporarily, the cello (beautifully, hauntingly bowed by Andrea Harries: who received rapt, delighted attention from the generous Donohoe) takes the limelight: with what would later become the song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (‘Ever gentler grows my slumber’). Personally, I think Brahms constructed this movement so that the pianist would at least have a few moments in which to plunge their hands into a bucket of ice; or for the trainer to come on to the pitch with a magic spray and a few plasters. (Donohoe is too noble and gifted to require such things.)

[By the way, if you want to know just what a “challenge” this work really is (and not just for my clumsy paws): then I would suggest that you read this tremendous account by Stephen Hough – one of the greatest (and most modest) performers I have been lucky to witness – as well as this marvellous interview with French pianist Philippe Bianconi.]

The last movement – regardless of what anyone-else may tell you; and despite the hint of Hungarian dance rhythm and final march (again heading towards Shostakovich territory) – superbly controlled by maestro Curtis – completes the concerto perfectly. It is what the preceding three movements insistently lead to – it is what is needed… – a romantic, rhapsodic meditation on all that has gone before. It may not contain quite the huge number of previous fireworks: but there are moments where the piano’s bass pulses through the soles of your feet, before the treble gives your heart and head a damn’ good work-out. You have to cheer – especially with a performer as subtle and powerful as Donohoe… – as you really, really wanted to do at the end of the Allegro non troppo and Allegro appassionato, of course. You simply have no option.

And here he rewarded our enthusiasm – demonstrating his finely-tuned prowess once more – with a highly intelligent, but deeply soulful, engrossing encore: exhibiting what I know to be a rare (and valuable) combination of insight and fluid technique. [For the life of me, although I recognized it, I cannot dig deep enough into my fading brain to retrieve its composer or title. If you know, please get in touch! Thank you. (I have now been informed – by a certain Peter Donohoe… – that “The encore was Mozart's Fantasia in D Minor K397”. Many thanks! This was genuinely beautiful playing….)] He also crept into the audience after the interval – a rare and thoughtful act….

The B-flat Concerto dates from the start of Brahms’ ripest maturity, the period when his fame had reached a peak throughout Europe and his physical image as we know it best was fixed: bearded and corpulent.

Whilst the Brahms – one of the greatest Late Romantic ‘symphonies’, by last night’s reckoning – can prove hazardous for the piano soloist; Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony provokes and questions the abilities of each and every member of any orchestra that dares confront it. Here, though, these readily-tarnishing challenges were transformed into golden opportunities – and the CSO explored the very heights of proficiency, authority and exultancy – giving rise to one of the greatest orchestral performances I have experienced. (And I write this – humblebrag alert… – having been around the world; and having witnessed many of the greatest musicians of the last fifty years….)

This is no extravagance; no overstatement. The music breathed. And therefore every single person who contributed to tonight’s astonishing achievement should be immensely proud of themselves. This was musicianship of the very highest order – from the conductor to the clarinets; the brass to the bass drum; the piccolo to the piano. (It is just so sad that the hall was only half-full. I am pretty sure we all knew how utterly blessed we were, though….)

From the symphony’s opening battle between the lower and the upper strings and its soaring melodies, to the sounds of hopeless oppression and finally to the triumph of the human spirit, Shostakovich brilliantly captures the conflicting moods of a time, place and people.

It would be all too easy, at least on the surface – especially considering the (parodic) startling re-entry of the triumphal (but threatening) brass in the last movement (with a rising three-note motif that echoes Brahms’ welcoming call – although this time in the minor: depressing that final note…) – to believe that, in writing his Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich had capitulated to Stalin’s directives in producing grandiose music to support his evil dictatorship: demonstrating the supposed superiority of the mighty Russian Bear during the godawful ‘Great Terror’. However, there is – right from the warlike get-go; its call to arms – and at its deep, deep, lyrical, tortured heart – what Peter Gutmann describes as “the clash between stifling ideology and irrepressible creative impulse”:

According to Stalin, music had to inspire and unite the Soviet people with uplifting messages. His taste was simplistic, but his power absolute. The Pravda party newspaper… branded Shostakovich an enemy of the people and condemned his work as chaotic, vulgar and perverted…. He was snubbed, performances of his works were cancelled and his career seemed over. Yet, he soon found a constructive cure for his pain…. He plunged into work on a new, more traditional symphony. There would be no mistaking its purpose. Shostakovich titled it “An Artist’s Creative Response to Just Criticism” and announced its program as “the stabilization of a personality of a man with all his experiences”. He proclaimed: “There can be no greater joy for a composer than… having assisted by his works in the elevation of Soviet musical culture… to contribute to the growth of our country”. When presented in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Revolution, it was acclaimed a masterpiece, embracing the soul of the Russian people.

The composer initially described the finale as “resolving the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living”. But, later, he rechristened it “a false optimism created under a threat” – akin to the “sadistic torture of being forced to smile while being beaten” – and implied that Stalin was “too dense to see through [his] parody and satire”: not realizing the “deeper and sardonic musical truth” (which, surely, to modern audiences – with the symphony’s industrial, weaponized brass section; satirical marches; and pleading, lyrical melodies – is so blatant that it cannot be ignored…).

I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Modest Mussorgsky’s opera] Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”, and you rise, shaky and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing”. What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that. People who came to the premiere of the Fifth in the best of moods wept.

The crux of that weeping, for me (and, I suspect, for many others), is the brass-less Largo, which “is the work’s emotional core” – “one of the most despairing pieces of music ever written, a memorial for Mother Russia and all those sent to the labour camps”. And, although this exquisitely-scored lament uses themes from the preceding two movements, I think it is as close to the surface, and as close as you can get, to reading Shostakovich’s true intent: his fear and agonized despondency – even his hatred.

I agree: “there are no words” for last night’s rendering of this. All I need write is that I closed my eyes; and let the music immerse me in the inevitable purity of sorrow; the inescapable sobs gently washing and wracking my face…. The pace was perfect; as were the dynamics. I will jump to the end, therefore, and just say that those concluding ethereal harmonics from the harp are tough enough – for both audience and orchestra – without the following building Blitzkrieg chord from the full forces of the brass, woodwind and timpani which set off that last, knife-twisting lurch toward death. Thankfully, Curtis paused.

Here, in the coda, he then once more showed his shrewdness – and fulfilled his desire to “always tell a story” with the music – in finding a middle way between the ‘traditional’ fast and triumphal European dash to glory; and the more Russian, slow, tragic and disintegrating weariness. What we experienced was therefore no victory parade – hollow or otherwise. On the weekend of the Stop the War protests and the Climate Change March, these hammered, screaming, repeated chords felt like a forced procession to the scaffold for the whole of humanity.

Like the Brahms concerto that preceded it, this confrontational, testing symphony could be by no other composer. (The works share an expertise in orchestral technique and exploitation – for want of a better word – that is almost unsurpassable. And yet they are Germanic chalk and Soviet cheese in their differences: despite their parallel, emotive appearances and similar dynamic oscillations.)

Pardon my Cyrillic: but Shostakovich’s Fifth, with its gradual, initially deceptive, relentless urge – especially in this performance – builds to such a ball-kicking climax that it is sometimes hard to breathe. (The Brahms achieves such damage in a markedly discreet and more riverlike way.) As it progresses, the symphony swings from gentle massage to such exquisitely-timed assault that you may also find yourself – as I did – almost panting with the inflicted pain. It is tragedy of the most heart-piercing kind – a “long arc… of a bittersweet, aching intensity” – and I do not envy those who have to perform it – although the CSO, under the tight helmsmanship of an obviously emotionally-wrought Curtis – were sensational in their pure and sure commitment.

At least we in the audience had the release of tears, and the comfort of our handkerchiefs. All these poor musicians could do was play on through the terrifying, harrowing, inferno. (Even when Shostakovich appears to be lightening up a little – or even taking the mickey – he is nothing less than intensely serious in his aims and methods. And it shows. (I think the same can be said of Curtis, below, by the way.))

Earlier in the week, Curtis had said to me that “after the Shostakovich, I’ll need a stiff drink”. (Only one…?!) And so did I. This was music that really, really hurt – but in a good, masochistic, cleansing sort of way. (Oh, the power of a good tune…!) But, although he headed homeward for “a stiff gin and tonic” (there must be a musician’s punchline in there, somewhere…!), a thick, dark coffee had to suffice for me (albeit tinged with brandy) – otherwise this review would simply have been one very sharp, climactic expletive.

By the way (just to lighten things up a little): the concert began with a warm-up overture – again, as the programme notes told us, “Three arresting brass chords open the piece… they symbolize a vow of vengeance” – by some obscure ‘Joe Green’ bloke. (Thank you, Dad!) I’ve never really liked Verdi – apart from the heavenly Requiem (it’s great to sing; and features some muscular timpani and bass drum parts…) – but this was entertaining enough!

What it did achieve – seriously and melodiously – was to set the stage for the themes of agonizing tragedy and false triumphalism – the magnificent and dramatic “forces of destiny” – which followed. If Brahms paints paradise, Shostakovich hollows out for us the horrors of hell on earth. Both of which have left me utterly wrecked. Wow.

The moon emerged from behind the earlier storm-clouds to guide me home. I did not want the glow of my iPhone to compete; nor the sound of anything to disturb the now-Russian melodies entangling themselves in my overwhelmed brain. This music of “thought-provoking programming” and formidable skill will stay with me for a very long time. And yet I still must luxuriate in its vigorous freshness. For as long as I possibly can. Thank you; and good night….

Thursday, 26 November 2015

All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey…

…I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day: well, autumn’s – but that breeze, “after summer evermore succeeds”, truly felt like “Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold” puckering at my face and fingertips. Certainly: “Life’s autumn past, I stand on winter’s verge”. And with meteorologists marking the season’s change on the first of December; last weekend’s bitter frosts; and only just over eight hours between dawn and dusk; it really does feel like “dead-cold winter must inhabit here still”.

When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms makes men expect a dearth.
All may be well; but if God sort it so,
’Tis more than we deserve or I expect.
– Shakespeare: Richard III

Our young oak discarded almost all of its leaves abruptly and unceremoniously in the recent gales: scattering them far and wide – and only a small handful of hardy, corroded bracts still flicker tenaciously but tenuously in its stark silhouette. However, wandering around the area between Baddesley Clinton and Packwood House, on Wednesday, I noticed that most of the oak trees there – albeit more full-grown; and huddled together, in damp, deep, fecund ground (some of which still clings to my poor boots) – yet hoard their marcescent foliate treasures: with glowing, backlit hints of jade amongst the gold and bronze; vivid under the gelid sun, against the sapphire sky. (Who needs a rainbow…?)

These more-developed specimens stand in the precise line of a hedgerow (above) that had not long been flailed, military‑style, within an inch of its life – if not just beyond. Cropped so short that I could easily see over it; and transparent as chicken wire – despite a large uncultivated strip between crop and boundary – this act of agricultural barbarity has left no shelter for any overwintering flocks; and therefore no chance of sustenance from within its boughs. The deep marshy tyre-tracks also showed how very recently this savaging had taken place – the footpath churned into a series of treacherous ankle-snapping, puddled diagonal ridges.

If this compulsive cut had been set against a major thoroughfare, I would have had a little sympathy, perhaps. But this was well-removed from civilization, between two extensive arable fields; and seemed to represent an over-attentive brutal addiction to unnecessary neatness for which I can conjure up no justification. As Nicola Chester – one of my favourite observers of the natural world – recently opined: “It’s the hedges way off the roadside that get me; tractor tracks slewing all over the verges and for why?” And she described my recent encounter with a decapitated waymarker as “Ridiculous, extreme unnecessary hedge cutting!”

I would hope, as the warmth returns – bringing with it our summer flocks – that these torn branches – already “too short and thin”; and just as they begin to recover, with their emanating buds – are not subjected to the same repeat indignity: leaving no space for nests, huddles of sparrows, retreating small mammals or endangered moths and butterflies. (Although, with a rule change effectively banning such trimming after the first of March, each year – unless in exceptional circumstances – I am starting to feel a tad more confident….) Such an action, then, would reduce the availability of food for any emerging chicks: and it is no wonder, therefore, that the RSPB is concerned about the future of agricultural wildlife – especially when you learn that “over 40 years the long term decline in farmland birds is 50 per cent”.

I do understand why hedges are trimmed. [Although, in my day – nearly forty years ago – this was a more intensive, manual undertaking: and the small mixed farm I worked on was run by a family who cherished the brambles and the resultant, eager wildlife. (If you truly want to see how much has changed in a few generations, the Ladybird book, above – What to look for in autumn – from 1960, reads like ancient history.)] What I don’t grasp is the seemingly modern trend of too-frequent, over-enthusiastic, reiterative cutting: especially where – as here – such wide field margins exist: which surely negate most of the reasons for this intrusive (and expensive) form of land management in the first place.

If farmers want to reinforce their credentials as custodians of our natural environment (not that there are many – if any – places truly wild, or “natural”, anymore, on this small island); and keep the respect of those who also use and enjoy the land, then perhaps they – although accepting that many already do… – need to apply a little more thought (along with the Government, of course), and balance the social issues with the economic. Just imagine the outcry if our mature oak trees were all trimmed so severely every year.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me…

The Ballad of Windmill Hill
For Keith…

The man clambered to the windmill, blunt pencil in his hand;
Head empty as his notebook: as nothing yet was planned.
But he sat down on his jacket: spine cold against the stone
Where the bread had once been moulded; the seed had once been blown;
Where the stooped-back miller once had toiled for hour upon hour
To turn the labour of the harvest into finest golden flour;
And he soon began to scribble, as the wind began to call
From the houses far below him; from cottage, church and hall.
And this is what he registered – inspired by what he learned –
Never passing any judgment on what his neighbours clearly yearned.

All we want is something simple, that we all can understand:
Nothing complex or beyond us; notions rooted in the land;
A village with a future; where each to each is known;
A place which folk find welcoming; that is everybody’s own;
Where, gradually, in union, with corresponding power,
We spread this presence evenly, and remember well that our
Stay upon this well-tilled soil means little to time’s sprawl;
Though man is one of many visitors whose impact may be small
Next to heaven’s mighty globes and the voyages they’ve turned;
But that yet we must be wary of the furrows that we’ve churned.

What wisdom can we manifest; who amongst us will take stand
To garner our agreement; stop our wishes turn to sand?
How will we ever vanquish those who want to reign alone:
Whose voices shout much harsher, whose only word is sown
On fallow ground, whose every thought is selfish, sharp and sour;
With no empathy or sympathy: their lust set on the tower
Of ruling over everyone; of leering over all;
Of meeting our petitions with an egoistic bawl?
Are there those amongst us brave enough – whose regard we know is earned –
Who will help us stand together; guarantee such fools are spurned?

And then the breeze veered westerly; and light glowed on the hand
Of one, then two, then several more, until a mighty band
Of villagers of every class who all had always shown
Great steadfastness and loyalty to the place in which they’d grown
Stood strong and straight in unity – no longer would they cower:
This was the land they loved – each tree, each bird, each flower –
And they would hold forever, brought together by that call,
To ensure that all three Tysoes could never ever fall;
Would from here deal right and fairly with each resident concerned;
Would from here shine bright with passion that in every heart now burned.

Upon the hill, the man awoke; his blank pad on the grass;
Yet sure that all he’d seen and heard would shortly come to pass.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Now sing recover’d paradise…

“Where’s your church?”
     “We’re standing in it.”
     “But this is a bookstore and it’s a Friday.”
     “Yes, but you might also choose to see it as a cathedral of the human spirit – a storehouse consecrated to the full spectrum of human experience. Just about every idea we’ve ever had is in here somewhere. A place containing great thinking is a sacred space.”
– John A Buehrens & Forrest Church: A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism

Last Friday was a delightful day of discovery (and therefore one perfectto be happy in”) – possibly prompted by the fact that it was my (blog’s) second anniversary – although I had initially lacked a way of marking it. However, happenstance (as is its wont) provided divine inspiration (‘theopneusty’), by way of a necessary visit to our nearest railway station; and a consequential impulsive diversion to Books & Ink: “Banbury’s Independent Booksellers” – which has just celebrated its tenth birthday. Huzzah!

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?
Henry Ward Beecher: Subtleties of Book Buyers

The fact I only left with five small(ish) volumes is something of a miracle – but, as a lifelong bibliophile (especially one with a reading mound that is beginning to resemble Haystacks – both in outline and immensity), I know that one must only enter such an Elysium after a lengthy pause; a very deep breath; and an establishment of sensible(ish) limits. (Plus, of course, books are weighty things: and I am not as strong or youthful as I was – once carrying home every single work by Plato I could lay my hands on in the university bookshop – albeit in paperback. (I was studying engineering.))

Jake went in, aware that he had, for the first time in three weeks, opened a door without hoping madly to find another world on the other side. A bell jingled overhead. The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home.

Samantha Barnes – who “runs the shop single-handedly apart from her mum” – is utterly representative of the business she has built (or possibly the other way around: this is definitely an archetypal “room of one’s own”): an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable lover of all things literary. Talk of books – what else… – and her face lights up with what I can only describe as encyclopaedic joy!

Usually when I enter a bookstore, I feel immediately calm. Bookstores are, for me, what churches are for other people. My breath gets slower and deeper as I peruse the shelves. I believe that books contain messages I am meant to receive. I’m not normally superstitious, but I’ve even had books fall from shelves and land at my feet. Books are my missives from the universe.
– Laurie Horowitz: The Family Fortune

Consequently, my first time there went all too quickly: helped, of course, by our similar, overlapping tastes – albeit somewhat omnivorous… – and a shared reverence for the power of print, and its relevance to life (as well as the fact that it is simply wonderful to be surrounded by cocooning walls of wordage). It’s always a treat to wander into any bookshop – but especially one that is as welcoming, beautifully kept and organized, and well-stocked as this: and where a large majority of the books are demanding to be taken home. (I was so engrossed by the contents of the ground floor that I never even made it up the enticing stairs! Next time….)

Fiction will be much the better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy.
– Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own

This is therefore a place to linger (especially if you are lucky enough to arrive when it is experiencing what must be a rare quiet moment – although there is also something exquisite about being immersed in the gentle hum of parallel exploration and discovery). And it must be said that the shop itself has a mystique that would not feel out of place on Diagon Alley: such is its magical allure. (No wonder those who visit White Lion Walk – a sort of modern muggle facsimile – rarely do so only once; and that loyal customers may travel quite some distance to visit.) In fact, its location – “up a pretty alley I’ve never noticed before” – in Banbury Old Town, seems so apposite; and makes it a place you have to actively seek: knowing that the rewards for doing so will be immeasurable, unquantifiable by any tangible means (apart from arm-ache, of course…).

Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.
– Virginia Woolf: Street Haunting

With Saturday morning’s flurries of fading snow, and trenchant northerly winds, now seems an apt time – even for me: no fan of its early arrival… – to mention Christmas: if only because Books & Ink – to me – is the ideal setting in which to commence the hunt for presents for those of all appetites and ages; as well as a self-indulgent reward for doing so…. Whatever your predilection, this place is a perfect paradise.

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.

As two years of putting this together is – again, for me – a momentous achievement (especially as my ‘readership’ seems to be experiencing a growth spurt – thank you…!), I thought it worth attempting to explain what this blog is about. Well, unlike many, it’s not single-topic (as you may just have noticed…). Like a good bookshop (which I obviously do), it’s about what fascinates me and delights me (hence the Connolly quote, above – courtesy of Sam at Books & Ink: who also provided most of the photographs – thank you…!) – although I do try and concentrate on championing all that is wonderful about living here in Shakespeareshire (and sometimes further afield): especially the natural and cultural environments; and how someone who is deafened and disabled wends their way through them (trying to keep a smile on his face, whilst putting one on yours…).

So – hoping that some of your interests coincide with my somewhat eclectic variety; and that’s why we’ve both made it thus far… – thank you for your attention!

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.
– Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own

Saturday, 21 November 2015

With apologies to Zola…

For those who live in Tysoe: I have just received a copy of the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group’s vile, solipsistic, spoilt, infantile, misleading and propagandist j’accuse-style resignation letter to the Parish Council. I think, from its wording and the misinformation it contains, that it may have been penned with the help of Jeremy Hunt, or possibly Grant Shapps. Its insulting lack of self-knowledge – blaming others for their own actions; not recognizing their own obvious faults… – and the absence of reason, are phenomenal (and yet somehow hilarious)! However, as tempted as I am to crow about vindication and my utter joy at this turn of events – and the painful, long-drawn-out, apparent victory for common sense – this paragraph is all I will write on the matter. If you need more information, please attend the next Parish Council meeting (on 7 December 2015); or contact your nearest Parish Councillor. The truth is out there.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life…

If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.
– Raymond Inmon

As I closed the wooden garden wicket, gently, carefully, quietly, I heard St Mary’s bell mark midnight: muffled by distance; but transported gently by the dying gusts, veering lethargically from northerly to westerly. And, as the night’s squabbling furore dissipated temporarily, so did the warmth and the earlier cohorts of cloud: and the rump and tail of omnipresent Ursa Major hung – a perfect, italic, pointillé question-mark – above the ghostly tower, exhorting me onwards. No other sound surpassed that of the indelible breeze apart from the uncanny, sporadic creak of wood – of tree or fence, I cannot be certain. The natural world existed only above me, it seemed.

The heavy iron church gate was also closed: but pivoted quiescently. The edifice itself, although anchored centuries-solid into the earth, illuminated only by the graveyard lanterns, appeared evanescent under the crystalline vault of heaven: as if its rheumy form would retreat from my approach, my touch. And yet, I could have plucked any star easily from its tranquil ambit.

Once away from the inconvenient streetlights – and as my pupils relaxed – more and more constellations seeped into my vision: a wonderful reward for patience and seclusion. But, forlornly, I espied none of the meteors I had so coveted.

In contrast, the horizons above Banbury and Stratford glowed with a deceitful dawn: delineating the familiar contours of the Edge Hills and still-straining boughs, finally stripped of all summer decoration.

As I turned for home, the clock marked the third quadrant of the hour with its repeated song; and the ostensible three pearls of Orion’s belt – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka – slid effortlessly from behind the returning, blurring, ethereal veil: revealing a resplendent warrior poised for battle with his club of solid bronze. The decaying Betelgeuse thus twinkled orange beneath the raised arm: an ancient jewelled fibula more fiery than paired blue fighter Bellatrix. At Orion’s heels, Canis Major snapped half-heartedly – with Sirius, more eager as his gleaming wet nose – at Lepus, the bounding hare. And, at the least obvious corner of the Winter Triangle, the puppy Procyon straggled behind the hunt: lost in the bluster of night.

Home, the storm and dark retreated behind me, as I locked the door. And yet sleep would not come.

It is not easy to walk alone in the country without musing upon something.
– Charles Dickens

Sunday, 15 November 2015

For words divide and rend…

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
– Robert Frost: Acquainted with the Night

Often during this rusting, rustling, melancholy quarter of the year; or when enduring this archetype of autumn weather – a cold that penetrates my rheumaticky bones, lubricated cruelly by the insistent damp – or in a twisted combination of both time and type – my usual incessant aches transform into an imposition, an encumbrance, that I struggle to deal with: both physically and pharmaceutically. My well-honed response to this is to cake myself in layers of Thinsulate and Gore‑Tex, and “Lear-like, [head] out into the dark, the pelting rain, and howling winds, to try and gain some perspective”.

But, tonight – as the clouds began to shuffle clumsily apart, corralled by the gathering breeze: revealing tantalizing glimpses of the star-punctured colander of our distant firmament – I failed. A gentle slope to the church evolved into a brutal slog: sharply concentrating my riddled brain on the pain, rather than distracting from it.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Home. And on to Plan B, then. Music. Not just any old music, neither: but some of the greatest – and so familiar to me that its embrace is akin to that of a strong, comforting friend. And I know no better than Elgar’s stirring Introduction and Allegro “for Strings” (Op.47). Looking through my music collection, I discover I have over twenty recordings of this. (Indeed, it is rare for me to possess only one version of any Elgar work.) So you would think – as, indeed, did I – that no new interpretation could take me by surprise; or delight me more than those I already possess.

Until now, the version I tended to turn to – for sheer exuberance, obvious deep love and involvement; and bought because I had been wowed by a live performance at Malvern (where else) – was that of William Boughton conducting the English String Orchestra. (You can listen to A Portrait of Elgar – the wonderful collection from which this comes – on Apple Music, here.) But, as part of my burgeoning addiction to Stratford’s resident band, the Orchestra of the Swan – and having had my socks similarly blown off by their rendition, a couple of years ago – instead, I picked up the CD that fortuitously arrived in yesterday’s post: which begins with Tamsin Waley-Cohen blasting superbly (and thoughtfully – if that’s not a contradiction in terms) through Vaughan Williams’ oh-too-rarely-aired Violin Concerto in D minor. (You can also find this on Apple Music.)

This fantastic, rigorous presentation is followed by what I can only describe as the most muscular, cogent, potent and compelling reading of the Elgar that I have ever experienced. This was way beyond the distraction I required – and you may call me biased for my undoubted mission to promote our local artistic organizations: but there is a reason I count myself beyond blessed for living here… – this was an injection and exclamation of such guttural joy that I sat enraptured and still for its fourteen minutes; wiped my blurry eyes; and then immediately set it to repeat.

It is not just the urgency of the playing that hit me smack between the ears; or the spotless control of Elgar’s rapidly-varying tempi; or even the skilful dominant display of dynamics; but the transparency that threatened to utterly dismantle me… – not just between the lines, the instruments; but, as someone recently wisely wrote: “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies…”. (Thank you, Mr Curtis. For it is he….)

How to explain this? Well: there is a magical moment (one of many, many, many) in The Dream of Gerontius, at figure 120, where Elgar has positioned a pause mark over the bar-line – at the instant the soul is “Consumed, yet quicken’d, by the glance of God”; but before, as the composer writes, “‘for one moment’ must every instrument exert its fullest force” (as well as “If any extra Timpani Players are available, they must play the 3 bars…”); and then Gerontius begs, in his agony, to be taken away “and in the lowest deep There let me be”. I have heard this gut-wrenching climax ignored; rushed through; or marked simply by a slight hesitancy before the crashing weight of the orchestral universe pins you to your seat. To my mind, the world should vanish completely at this mark – but it is a brave conductor that will use his powers to make it do so.

However, at figure 30 in the Introduction and Allegro, there is a similar pause – this time over a semiquaver rest. (Perhaps the composer felt the need to be more explicit.) Again, the planet should cease rotating; the audience cease breathing. But it is again rare that this is truly, fully the case. Here, David Curtis, though, extends time with aplomb; grabs it with both hands; stops it dead; and there is – even with the beautiful resonance of St Augustine’s, Kilburn (and the skills of the recording engineer, Mike Hatch, and assistant, Robin Hawkins) – a momentous, awe-inspiring “stillness Between the two waves of the sea” before the orchestra continues, confidently, molto sostenuto, with a resurgence of one of the most beautiful, singing, melodies Elgar ever penned. (And that really is saying something….)

Modestly, in the sleeve notes, Curtis writes: “If we have revealed a little more of this aspect [music of an incredibly vitality, written by someone who enjoyed striding across the Malvern Hills] to the listener perhaps that is a useful contribution.” This is, I believe, the understatement of the century, Elgar-wise. He also worries “what can I add to the canon”. Well, here is his answer. He puts a ruddy big brass ball down its muzzle; and projects it heavenwards with such explosive force that this music will never be the same for me. It’s as if he has so thoroughly dissected and reassembled the music that it gains new Frankensteinian powers. “As with any iconic work many have their own favourite recording,” he states. Yup. This is now mine. And my heart has grown because of it.

It feels unfair not to dwell on the purity of the performance of Elgar’s accompanying Serenade for Strings, or Waley-Cohen’s transcendent soaring clarity throughout The Lark Ascending – immediately transporting me back to Chiselbury hill‑fort (from where all these photographs were taken); watching one flutter vertically into the air so memorably, delicately, strongly, insistently: with a song as plaintive as the curlew’s – fading to yet another of those remarkable silences. This is a wonderful CD: that is certain. But it is that point in time where the music stops that will always stay with me.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Bach and forth…

Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.

It is something quite astonishing, this journey (nay, this pilgrimage) back to live music that I am on – although I am fortunate that I have not had to travel far, yet: with the recent visit of the enchanting Eboracum Baroque; and the accomplished, enthusiastic Orchestra of the Swan crouching figuratively on my doorstep – both, up to now, performing familiar repertoire. And it was to Stratford ArtsHouse I returned, last night, for another concert in OOTS’ scrumptious 2015‑16 Shakespeare 400 season: ‘Bach Doubled’.

Revolving around three Bach violin concerti – be still, my beating heart… – the ecstatic solo E major (BWV 1042); the entrancing Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043); and the utterly engaging one for violin and oboe (BWV 1060) – this was a programme that played to the orchestra’s and soloists’ undoubted strengths. [Although I am not sure the pieces were necessarily played in the right order: firstly because of the printed sequence (which implied a last-minute change of heart or plan); and, secondly – to judge from the audience reception, and repeated calls back to the stage for Tamsin Waley-Cohen and David Le Page: both extremely popular, locally (and with good reason) – the double violin concerto should almost certainly have closed the concert. (I would be interested to learn if this pattern is repeated at tonight’s Town Hall Classics in Birmingham….)]

I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.

Handel’s overture to his magical opera Giulio Cesare provided the Shakespeare connection, this time around – opening proceedings with a too-short burst of utter baroque cheer: but a great way of warming up the orchestra, and bringing the audience to rapt attention.

Next came the sumptuous double violin concerto, and – although I think we should have been left waiting, licking our chops, to hear it (especially as it was the one work that appeared to have pulled us all in to the justifiably full house) – as you would expect from performers of such calibre, the two soloists did not disappoint: with wonderful interplay and interwoven dynamics.

I had gone thinking I would have been more than happy to hear just the Largo ma non tanto (although the more largo, the better) from this: which is heart-breakingly beautiful; and proof that Bach is no mere rude, technical, mechanical. It has always been one of my favourite tear-jerkers; and a work I know inside and out from repeated playing, coaching and listening… – but the oboe and ‘single’ violin concerti’s slow movements also completely absorbed me: demonstrating that the man could not help but write sinuous emotion of the highest order – and, as Waley-Cohen rightly stated in the pre-concert talk, his music is still, somehow, fascinatingly “contemporary”. Gripping stuff indeed.

However, I have to beg to differ (boo, hiss) with David Curtis – whose judgment as both artistic director and principal conductor is usually flawless – and his assertion that an orchestra this small (this “chamber”) doesn’t need ‘managing’ during performance. (This was also proved recently – and positively – by Eboracum Baroque; and I believe that there is an ineffable power in – and which stems from – befitting, expert musical direction.) Although tempi were generally crisp and cohesive, the dynamics were not as subtle or as controlled as when the maestro is in charge: for example, during the wonderful explosive precision of the Stravinsky (and its challenging, first-movement shifts of pace); and the happiness of the too-short Handel. (I also missed Curtis’ habitual interpolated words of wisdom – one of the major draws of any OOTS appearance.)

It may be the acoustics of the ArtsHouse’s “wooden O” – perhaps combined with my mortal hearing – but I felt that both Waley-Cohen and Le Page struggled, occasionally, to float above the level of the orchestra (especially in that gripping central movement) – although this should not detract from the sheer charisma and crystalline radiance of their joint performance. They obviously have a rapport and gladsome mutual respect – both of which shone through the whole work.

Bach is the supreme genius of music…. This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way.

The same should be said for Waley-Cohen’s partnership with Victoria Brawn in the Concerto for Violin and Oboe. The heart-rending, astonishing, beautiful, smooth, sustained reed-playing of Brawn was musicianship and soul of the highest quality – producing a stunning “overheard intimate conversation” (as Curtis described it before the concert): and, again, they complemented each other perfectly. [Although the Stravinsky was flawless – and over far too quickly: as was the whole concert – this heavenly music, with heavenly musicians – and that includes the orchestra: who are never anything less than magical – was (albeit marginally) the highlight of the night.] Here, because of the lighter, pizzicato accompaniment in the Adagio, the lines scintillated and hung in the air miraculously: clear and strong as gossamer. I think I may have stopped breathing….

Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure.
After the interval, the Stravinsky; a shuffling of chairs – it was good to see the violas brought to the fore for the Bach and Handel; although it would also be nice to see the violins balanced this way, one day, in Elgarian fashion (or ‘continental-style’), for more modern works… – and then on to the joyous finale of the E major concerto.

The Stravinsky Concerto in D, as I have hinted, was mesmerizing: and was the ideal piece for demonstrating the innate, supreme talent of OOTS – their control of timing and volume, lyricism and tone; their strength and cohesion in small numbers. This was simultaneously wonderful, witty and addictive! And Curtis proved, yet again, what a subtle master he is at the helm.

Waley-Cohen made the fieriness of the first and last movements of the Bach seem so effortless: with fantastic tonality throughout the range. (The bottom G‑string on her “1721 ex-Fenyves Stradivarius violin” has a wonderful, muscular growling richness: which she emphasized perfectly – a wonderful complement to the singing top E‑string, and her ventures up towards the higher, soaring, lyrical reaches of the fingerboard.) Joyous stuff indeed – especially the enthusiastic, almost perpetuum mobile of the uplifting first movement.

The Adagio, with its hypnotic ground bass – surely inspiration for the Morse soundtrack… – was yet more proof of Bach’s uncanny ability to worm his way deep into your heart: and it was this low, lowing ‘melody’ that resonated through my mind as I headed home; as well as the shimmering, subtle harpsichord playing of (the uncredited) David Ponsford – obviously also much admired and appreciated by Waley-Cohen. I’m not sure I remember much of the final Allegro assai – although I do recollect wanting to cheer…!

It was good to see the ArtsHouse full for such wonderments. Although I noticed, as I left, that one seat, behind me, was taken up by a happy chap in tails and natty socks, for some strange reason dressed as a conductor…!

At the end of our visit, Fleisher agreed to play something on my piano, a beautiful old 1894 Bechstein concert grand that I had grown up with, my father’s piano. Fleisher sat at the piano and carefully, tenderly, stretched each finger in turn, and then, with arms and hands almost flat, he started to play. He played a piano transcription of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, as arranged for piano by Egon Petri. Never in its 112 years, I thought, had this piano been played by such a master – I had the feeling that Fleisher had sized up the piano’s character and perhaps its idiosyncrasies within seconds, that he had matched his playing to the instrument, to bring out its greatest potential, its particularity. Fleisher seemed to distill the beauty, drop by drop, like an alchemist, into flowing notes of an almost unbearable beauty – and, after this, there was nothing more to be said.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

That is the question…

123 or not 123…

a jay punctuates the air
and suddenly the sky is full
of apostrophes and commas
parentheses and chevrons
asterisks and hyphens
colons and ellipses
all in syntactic flight

the primates are at Hamlet again
stuck on the numeric keyboard

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Don’t try this at home…

This knave would go sore

I’m riddled with pain like a rat is with fleas;
And yet I’m not ill – I don’t have a disease:
I’m simply disabled – it’s all in my neck –
But, bugger, it hurts: and I feel like a wreck.

No pill has an impact; no medicine helps;
And each time I move my poor body it yelps.
There’s no chance of sleeping with comforting dreams –
Only dark, spiky nightmares, riddled with screams.

All doctors can offer are ways I should cope:
Not proven solutions; or proffering hope.
I’m all on my own with my torment and hurt –
Descending so low that I’m left in the dirt.

So I form my own methods to deal with the aches:
A very large whisky; and a mountain of cakes.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Straight outta Compton (Wynyates)

Written on Windmill Hill

A walk – a metaphor for a life –
beginning and ending in mist:
the spindrift confetti of gulls
and crotchety staveless rooks
bursting beneath the robbed-out windmill,
and fading facets of connection
kidnapped by the crawling clouds.

As pants the hart…

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
     I bring to life, I bring to death:
     The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
     Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
     Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
     And love Creation’s final law –
     Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed –

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
     Who battled for the True, the Just,
     Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson: In Memoriam

Context is everything. If I’d have encountered a pricket sitting like this, ostensibly relaxed, in Charlecote Park, I would possibly have photographed it, but then walked on by: so common a sight is it. Although part of me would have wondered why such a young deer was on its own; and then questioned why I could get so very close.

Within touching distance – although the small buck paid me no attention – the previous few catastrophic minutes of its short life were etched on its body; as well as its behaviour. Stock-still: blood and sputum dribbled slowly from its gasping mouth; and when it did eventually try to rise, the pain was too much to bear. At least one of its back legs was badly broken; and it had almost certainly suffered internal injuries.

And so it collapsed again. And again. In the middle of a busy, damp, dark road. Lined with the shelter of trees it so craved. And, although, on the surface, it appeared alert – as all fallow deer must – its ignorance of the cars that flashed and swerved solipsistically within inches of its failing, agonized frame, was proof that these intense moments were almost certainly and sadly among its last.

It was utterly helpless: and yet my sympathy and empathy counted for naught. I could do not a thing to help it. There was no way of comforting it; diluting its undoubted panic and shock. To touch it, stroke it, as one may do with an injured pet, would just have made things worse. All I could do was wait for the vet – and his inescapable conclusion.

My incident report sounds so matter-of-fact:

I was travelling relatively slowly up the hill (40 mph in a 60 mph zone), as I had witnessed deer here, before, and there was still patchy fog; and was overtaken by the car… which then collided, as it pulled in front of me, with the deer crossing the road from Red Hill Wood (from the left). The animal suffered at least a broken rear leg, and was obviously in shock, and could not raise itself – even when approached, or passed closely by other traffic. The Police and Ambulance services attended at my request (the car’s front airbags had deployed), and a local vet was called – I presume to euthanize the poor animal.

All the above forces arrived within minutes of my call; and dealt calmly and admirably with the situation: taking care of the driver – who was also in some distress, of course – protecting the injured deer; and directing the traffic: which, until the police arrived, had obviously just seen the two cars stopped, with their hazard lights on, as a deliberate inconvenience – hooting their horns; chicaning around us at speed (without paying any attention to oncoming vehicles or the poor, anguished, headlamp-highlighted animal); and thanking me for my consideration with a veritable volley of V-signs.

No-one else stopped to help. Or to ask if any help was needed. To my accident‑jaded eyes, everyone actually appeared to be trying to make things worse. The importance of dinner, and an evening in front of the gogglebox, obviously more pressing than the fate of any of the creatures involved. (As a similar accident nearby, last week, demonstrates: such selfish behaviour could have easily increased the situation’s severity.) No-one but the actual driver will have learned anything from the incident. Nothing will be impressed on anyone-else’s tiny minds that could save them from a similar fate.

This is not a post to demonstrate my Good Samaritan status in reacting – from sad experience – calmly, and doing The Right Thing. Nor to thank The Good Lady Bard for putting her life at risk in moving the driver to a safe place: calming them down until the ambulance arrived. We simply, I feel, obeyed our instincts – but I am at a loss as to why we were alone in doing so.

No: this is simply to thank the emergency services for their superb professionalism and care; and to ask – yet again – that people drive within their limits, taking account of conditions; rather than looking no further than the end of their car bonnets; trying to get everywhere in the shortest possible time.

There is plenty of advice and information on the Web about the tragic number of deer-vehicle collisions – as well as what might be done to reduce them:

Warning signs
Signs that warn motorists of high deer-crossing probabilities are the most common approach to reducing deer-vehicle collisions (Putman 1997). Romin and Bissonette (1996) suggested that deer crossing signs may be effective if drivers would reduce their vehicle speed. However, deer crossing signs may not be useful in the long term because warning signs are common for long stretches of road and drivers become complacent unless the warning on the sign is reinforced by actual experience (Putman 1997).
     Lighted, animated deer-crossing warning signs were evaluated in Colorado. Animated deer crossing signs reduced vehicle speed by 3 mph (Pojar et al 1975)…. [They] concluded that motorists observed the animated signs, but their reduction in speed was not enough to affect the crossing per kill ratio.
     Pojar et al (1975) indicated that when motorists were shown that a danger existed, they exhibited a greater response than if they were merely warned of danger by a deer-crossing sign. They evaluated this assumption by placing three dead deer carcasses on the shoulder of the ROW [right-of-way], next to a deer-crossing sign. Vehicle speed was reduced by 7.85 mph after passing the carcasses. The test was quickly discontinued for liability reasons, but the idea that the association of danger with a warning sign produces a pronounced response appears valid.
The above review is also summarized well on Wikipedia. And a very throrough round-up of UK statistics can be found here. Additionally, there are useful comments and suggestions on the BBC Autumnwatch The deer rut webpage; as well as on the East Sussex Wildlife Rescue & Ambulance Service (WRAS) website; and, of course, from the RSPCA.

And finally, as well as calling the police, all such collisions should be reported online. Please be careful out there.