Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****

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Cezanne Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, 14th December 2017

Frankly they could have hung the 50 or so paintings here upside down and turned the lights off. I would still have given it 5 stars. It’s Cezanne. The painter who showed all the other painters who have come since how to paint,  by showing them how all the other painters who came before had painted.

Line, mass, volume, light, colour. These are the preoccupations of all painters for sure but it was Cezanne’s obsession with seeing the underlying structure of things that was his gift to the world.

If this meant making the subjects of his portraits sit for days on end then so be it. If this meant working and re-working tiny parts of his paintings or giving up entirely if he didn’t get it right then so be it. Clearly if you are not going to churn out sycophantic likenesses to order then you ain’t going to drum up too much business. So it was with Cezanne. Though fortunately once banker Dad was on board with the painting gig, our Paul didn’t have to worry too much about earning a living. which meant he could paint the same thing, or person, again, and again, and again, and again, and again …. until he, rather than subject/buyer, was satisfied. Though by all accounts he rarely was.

This then is why we have so many likenesses of the same subject, Dad, Mum, Uncles. Mates, son Paul, and, of course, wife Hortense (painted 29 times). This exhibition set out to collate and show these “repeats” to best advantage, and this, together with the insight into his early and late portraiture, is what made the exhibition truly revelatory to me. Odds are, one way or another, if you have a healthy interest in art and seek out most of the great collections in the Western world. you will get to see an awful lot of the paintings on display here. But to see the same subjects, hanging together, is properly thrilling.

Cezanne wasn’t interested in delving into the psychology of his sitters. No journey into the soul, or other such claptrap, on show here. Nor was he interested in mimetic likeness, with or without flattery, in contrast to the portraiture of the previous three centuries. Photography changed all that. Nor, as far as I can see, did he care too much about the social context in which his subjects might be placed. Few of the more mature portraits have much in the way of backdrop or background. The outdoors, famously in the context of that bloody hill, inspired PC but not really when it came to pictures of people. He found it just too difficult apparently, (though right at the end there is a dark, disturbing picture of his gardener, M Valier, ostensibly outdoors though you would be hard pressed to believe it).

On the other hand though I don’t think Cezanne wanted to show himself in these portraits either, even in the self-portraits. I reckon for a lot of the Impressionist, Post Impressionists, Expressionists, Post Expressionists, and anyway else who dabbled in portraiture in the C20, the picture often says as much about the artist as the sitter. PC only wanted to capture what he saw. Nothing more, nothing less. Most of the time his subjects are doing nothing other than sitting and looking.

The first couple of rooms show PC’s early experiments with portraiture. The influences of, variously, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, and in a different way, Zola, are explained. We start to see how the techniques are refined, bolder brushstrokes, use of the palette knife, maybe too much at first, (the renderings of his Uncle Dominique), the building of the whole from little patches of colour, the “constructive brushstrokes” that evolved from his landscapes. Repetitions, eliminations, areas where ground is absent. To capture light, for sure, but also to render shape, mass, volume, in an entirely new way. Making the animate, not inanimate, but very, very still, and properly intense. Cutting everything out between eye and mark. Breaking it down to build it back up. Dialectical painting. The room with the multiple, depersonalised portraits of Hortense is where it all makes sense.

Always the same but always different. Obsessive. Not giving a f*ck what anyone else thought. A cast iron nutter. All, as any fool knows, perfect maxims for any artist to follow.

There has, I gather, never been a comparable exhibition of Cezanne’s portraits. It took a decade to pull this together. Cezanne produced around 160 portraits out of a total 1000 works. That means around a third are gathered together here. If you were in Paris last year you will no doubt have seen this. If you are in London now and haven’t seen this you are a mug. Sorry to be so rude but it’s true. Fortunately you have a month still to put this right. Exhibition of the year in 2017. Obviously. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Probably. So get on with it. Now. And if you are anywhere near Washington, (DC not Tyne and Wear), from March this year, book now.

Try this. Look at someone you know very well. Look at them again. Then stare at them. For a vey long time. Think about what you see. It is a revelation. Look at a Cezanne portrait. Really look. That is what he was about. Never really occurred to me to do this until I started reading about “art”. Just goes to show. You may look but you rarely see. Of course it also means you will be prone to spouting all manner of dreadful, pretentious guff.

Dali/Duchamp at the Royal Academy review ***

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Dali/Duchamp

Royal Academy, 29th December 2017

I don’t really get Salvador Dali. Maybe it is the over-familiarity with images of his work. Maybe it is the obviousness of the in-yer-face Freudian, symbolism. Maybe it is the flat, lifeless effect of his paintings. Maybe it is the fact that once he found a formula that worked he didn’t let go. Or maybe it was the fact that he was a bit too full of himself. I admit there is a lot of fun to be had in scouring the canvases, (and, in this fairly concentrated display, you get a fair few for your money), for his wackier conceits. But it is a transitory, and for me, slightly cheap, pleasure. Mining the sub-conscious always seems to require Surrealists to think just that little bit too long and hard about what they want to show and tell. Contrived not automatic.

Now in contrast your man Marcel Duchamp was the real deal. I am glad I have no artistic talent, (actually I am not but I have learnt to live with the disappointment), because if I were a plastic artist then I would be constantly peeved by the discovery that any great idea in modern art had already been realised by M. Duchamp. The rejection of painting and embracing of “non-traditional” media, ready mades, “anti-art” and the challenging of the commodification of art, conceptualism, game-playing and changing identity, Scratch the surface of many a contemporary artist and M. Duchamp will be visible and, without him, public discourse on the question of “what is art” would be far more muted.

The exhibition does an excellent job in portraying the friendship between these ostensibly disparate figures. Both were driven by a need to tear down convention, in art and life, and their understanding clearly went beyond a shared passion for smutty jokes and dodgy puns. IMHO though Dali’s impact, in retrospect, has been superficial, a poster art dead end, whereas, as this exhibition fleetingly shows, Duchamp’s artistic enquiry was profound. Whatever your reaction to a urinal turned upside down and signed R, Mutt you will have had a reaction. And this is 2017, (well 2018 since it has taken this long to get off my lardy arse to write this). Imagine what those lucky few observers must have thought when then first saw this 100 years ago. An artist with a female alter-ego. Commonplace now but revolutionary then. A bloke who convinces everyone he has given up art to become a chess professional. Brilliant. Taking stuff he found and sticking it together to make new things. Most major modern and contemporary artists from the middle of the last century onwards, and students today, will have had a period when they have a go at this. The results are normally awful. But Duchamp got there first. Sticking a tache on the Mona Lisa. A bona fide meme if I am not mistaken, so be grateful to M. Duchamp. Chance, language, gesture, semiotics, maths, provocation, the rejection of “craft”. All fundamental tenets of the today’s artistic conversation, all “invented” by M. Duchamp.

As you might expect carving a way through the work of these two boundary-breakers, given their eclectic output, and constraints on what they could beg, steal or borrow, likely presented a headache for the curators. They have chosen to cram as much as they can into a few of the RA rooms, which highlights the imaginations of both artists even if it does make viewing a jostled affair. It also means there is little escape from the overt misogynism of both. I was most interested in Duchamp’s early paintings (Cezanne’s influence plain to see), the wealth of holiday snaps, Duchamp’s St Sebastian, that moustache in L.H.O.O.Q. , Dali’s experiments with Cubism, then Duchamp’s (so much better). Best of all The Bride Stripped Bare …. , reconstructed by Richard Hamilton, and Duchamp’s messing around with optical discs.

I suspect I was in the minority but I would have been so much happier just with Duchamp alone, with as much contextual material as the curators here, Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, Sarah Lea and Desiree de Chair. would have dared to throw at me. Even so there was much to chew on here and more to go away and learn.

Daisy Pulls It Off at the Park Theatre review ***

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Daisy Pulls It Off

Park Theatre 200, 16th December 2017

Funny thing the memory. Even more curious is consciousness itself. It used to be that clever folk conceptualised consciousness as a kind of “theatre of the mind”. Apparently now the cutting edge of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy says this dualism is claptrap and tends towards a more functionalist explanation. As the bard said “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. A very clever man, and great admirer of Mr Shakespeare, a certain Mr Tom Stoppard even had a crack at writing a play about The Hard Problem.

Anyway the point is that I distinctly remember really enjoying Denise Deegan’s play Daisy Pulls It Off at the Globe Theatre, (now the Gielgud), when it was such a smash hit in the mid 1980s. As did the SO. It was very funny. Or so I thought.

This latest revival at the Park Theatre was OK. Occasionally funny, but quite often a bit of a chore. Daisy Drags It Out. Now as I understand it this production, directed by Paulette Randall, presents pretty much the original script. It reverts to the original seven strong cast, which means some doubling or trebling up for all but two of them. Which, in my view, led to some of the more amusing moments in the play. Ms Randall and her creative colleagues have chosen to cast the production in a largely age, colour and gender blind way. Anna Shaffer, who debuts as Daisy, was most age appropriate. In contrast, Freddie Hutchins doubled up as Belinda alongside his Mr Scoblowski, Pauline McLynn was a plucky Trixie and Claire Perkins revelled in her roles as Monica, Mr Thompson and Mademoiselle. The rest of the cast, Lucy Eaton, Melanie Fulbrook, Shobna Gulati, are all excellent actors, based on other stage and TV performances I have seen, and it was hard to fault their industry or execution here. The production was played moreorless “straight”, as intended, with any hamming up emerging largely from character or costume changes and not from an overly arch, or slapstick, delivery. Libby Watson’s set and costumes were on the money and, in the hockey match and the rescue scene on the cliff-top, the cast conjured up some fine visual drama from inventive movement, using only minimal props.

So why was this such a disappointment, for me, and for LD, who gamely agreed to come along, despite being somewhat suspicious about Dad’s big build up. Well, as I say, I don’t think it was the production, or the cast. I see that some, though by no means all, other proper reviewers got a real buzz out of this. Three possible explanations then. Either it wasn’t as good as I though it was first time around, (though, with the magnificent Lia Williams, alongside Samantha Bond and Kate Buffery, this production did launch some extraordinary acting talent). Or I, and the world around me, has moved on, such that reverent spoofs such as this are no longer novel. Finally it may be that my memory has, to coin the vernacular, “played tricks on me”. This third explanation is likely scientific fact, and not just doddery middle age, the second explanation probably has a great deal to do with it, but I worry that the first may actually bear the bulk of the responsibility. It just may not be as good a play as I thought it was.

I wouldn’t put you off from seeing this if you are new it. There are laughs, (though apparently, to my surprise, there is nothing amusing about the words “frightful muff”), some spirited performances and some fine stagecraft. It does warm up in the second half but never really takes off. The underlying message, snobbery can and will be routed, is so gentle as to be barely perceptible and, it turns out, the whole thing is just a little too in thrall to its sources.  An A for effort, a C for achievement, I am afraid to say.

Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Titus Andronicus

Barbican Theatre, 13th December 2017

Titus Andronicus is a comedy right. Yet I see it is customarily bracketed with the other Shakespearean tragedies, and here forms part of the RSC’s latest take on the quartet of Roman tragedies, entitled, er, Rome.

Now I know this comedy/tragedy/history play division is confusing at the best of times, but here, trust me, it is piffle. Big Will packed sad bits and sundry trials for his heroes even in the lightest of his confections. And, even in the most miserable passages of the serious stuff there are plenty of gags, (though sometimes a bit obscure I admit). In this play though all I really see is one long, (it only just about stops short of one scene too many), parodic, black comedy. This kind of thing is ten a penny now, particularly in the world where art-house and horror cinema mix, but big Will was on to this over 400 years ago. Since there has never been anyway to match him, in English at least, in most other forms of dramatic expression, it should be no surprise that he could effortlessly turn his pen to a genre p*ss-take.

After all the revenge tragedy had been a sure-fire box office hit in the previous three decades before Titus Andronicus hit the South Bank in 1594. Jasper Heywood had translated Seneca’s tragedies, Troades, Hercules Furens and, most famously, Thyestes, in the 1560’s. Thyestes particularly spawned a whole host of imitations, not least of which Titus Andronicus itself which draws on elements of Seneca’s gore fest. (I see that the Arcola staged a version of Caryl Churchill’s version of Thyestes directed by Polly Findlay a few years ago. Wish I had seen that). Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc came out in 1561. First early modern tragedy, first blank verse drama, a veiled commentary on contemporary politics. (Wish I had seen that too. Especially with Lizzie I in the room). And, most successfully, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy had wowed audiences in the 1580s already.

So Will S and chums were keen to meet the public demand for extreme violence on stage. And a few plot holes, (Will was never one to worry overmuch about these), wasn’t going to stand in their way. Lest we forget though young Will wasn’t yet the dominant force he would become in English drama. One farce, The Comedy of Errors, one decidedly dodgy comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, and a few, albeit brilliant, propaganda plays, Henry VI (1,2,3) and Richard III, might not have been enough to guarantee a hit. So Will collaborated with one George Peele, who apparently contributed the busy first Act, (where Titus A, bloody livid after losing most of his sons in the war with the Goths, sets up the cycle of revenge), the scene at the beginning of Act II when the dastardly Aaron goads the Goth brothers, Chiron and Demetrius, into planning their heinous crime, and the beginning of Act IV, the reveal with its classical allusions, specifically Ovid and the rape and revenge of Philomela. Remember dear readers the several hundred year veneration of Classical Antiquity ushered in the patriarchy’s very unhealthy obsession with sexual violence as well as nice pictures of urns.

Anyway it seems to me that Peele’s contributions provide the stout backbone of the classically driven tragedy plot which then leaves Will to engage in the genre twisting anddark humour. Now I admit that a lot of what I thought was funny in the play was not always shared by the entire audience. There were a few other titterers at some of the smutty innuendo and the ludicrous ,cartoonish violence. There may even have been others wryly smiling at Marcus Andronicus’s flowery blank verse when he stumbles across the mutilated Lavinia. For this is the only way I can fathom this bizarre incongruity. He should be hollering for the Roman equivalent of an ambulance not waxing lyrical about her fragrancy and showing off his classical education.

What else? Saturninus suddenly getting the hots for Tamora. The Roman brothers “accidentally” falling into the pit containing Bassanius’s murdered corpse. Titus A thinking it is a good idea to chop his hand off. His chat with that poor fly. Lavinia spelling out the names of the Dumb and Dumber bad boys in the sand. Little Lucius’s knowing asides to us followed by a gag about Horace’s poetry. Aaron taunting us with his “will he, won’t he” dangling of his new baby and then the unsuspecting Nurse talking herself into an early grave. The gruesome pie, of course, and finally the three blink-and-you-miss-them concluding deaths in as many seconds

Others may want to take this all at depressing face value. I can’t. The only way to accommodate the abrupt shifts in tone, I reckon, is to assume that Will was trying to subvert the very thing he had created. I think director Blanche McIntyre is happy to go with the blackly comic flow without over-egging it. Well maybe the messenger on a bike was a bit over the top. Though it got the biggest laugh of the night, proving that nothing works better than a blatant sight gag in Shakespeare.

Make no mistake TA was a huge hit in its first few years but thereafter was confined to the scrapheap by most every commentator until, surprise, surprise, Messrs Brooke and Olivier, worked their magic in 1955. Trying to take this too seriously just want wash in my book. It isn’t a sick pantomime for sure, there is too much stunning rhetoric to allow that to happen, but neither is this a proto-Lear. I don’t see any point in trying to fight against the dramatic conventions which shaped its construction, or in trying to pretend there is some great insight into the human or political condition here. The creative team seem to be suggesting this could be a metaphor for our uncertain political age. Nonsense. Things might look a bit sh*tty out there, and civic discourse is coarsening, (in part because every Tom, Dick and Harry think they can have a view – ah the irony), but government in Western democracies isn’t yet based on vendetta and cannibalism.

David Troughton as Titus A kicks off his performance as stiff, martial hero, a wizened Coriolanus, wedded to the justice of the battlefield and certain in his pronouncements. A brass band follows him around – a smart touch. Limbs and mind unknot as events unfold so that, by the end, he is as batsh*t crazy as you like in chef’s whites and a nice line in one-armed knife work. Martin Hutson’s toddlerish, paranoiac Saturninus is very amusing, and the similarity with a certain contemporary leader well observed. Attempts to shoehorn in other echoes of a chaotic White House administration, and some street riots signposted “austerity”, are less effective however. Hannah Morrish didn’t get much of a look in as Virgilia in the RSC Coriolanus but here, as a noble Lavinia even when mute, she was excellent. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora was a little underpowered. In contrast Stefan Adegbola as Aaron, once he get to open his mouth after prowling around in Act I, didn’t hold back. Let me say it. Aaron is an ugly, racist caricature which pandered to Will S’s contemporary audience. No Othellian complexity here.

Having guffed on above about embracing the funny side of TA I must say that, when the mutilation comes on stage, this production doesn’t hold back on visceral impact. A couple of nurses, a surgery trolley, a saw and some top-drawer illusion courtesy of Chris Fischer mean TA’s hand-job, (as it were), is the best of the gruesome bunch with the stylised throat-slitting of the two bad boys, suspended upside down, coming a close second. Lavinia’s rape and mutilation was genuinely shocking. 

So a production that, with a few maybe superfluous details, looks (and sounds) the part and delivers unflinching horror realism. A memorable central performance, with some excellent support in large part. A director who is not afraid to go where the words and plot take her, even if this points up the anachronistic structure of the play. Ms McIntyre is also very alert to the nature of our “enjoyment” of the play. Is it a bit sick to laugh at some of this? And if you are horrified then why did you turn up in the first place? Just how far can we go in pretending that Shakespeare is always “for all ages” or should we recognise that, early on at least, he was bound to his own time?

Of course it could just be that the diet of Tarantino and Korean revenge films which brings BD and I together has left me inured to this kind of thing. Anyway go see for yourself. There are a few tickets left for the remaining performances. And don’t forget to insert your tongue firmly into your cheek as you walk in.

 

The Florida Project film review ****

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The Florida Project, 13th December 2017

I missed out on Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, shot entirely on an I Phone camera. It was on the “to-see at the cinema list” but I failed to get round to it. More fool me. This clearly needs to be put right based asap based on The Florida Project. This really is a very fine film. Mr Baker, and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s, story of people living on the margins of Walt Disney World, (the grimly ironic Seven Dwarfs Lane), in Florida, both geographically and economically, is an immensely humane film which tellingly points up the divide in modern America. And this reality of living on the edge is only made more vivid by being largely seeing through the eyes of a child.

Halley, (an astonishing debut performance from Instagrammer Bria Vinaite), does what she has to support herself and 6 year old daughter Moonee, (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince, a veritable acting veteran at just 7). Selling knock off perfume, pinching passes to Disney World and re-selling them and, eventually, having no option but to sell herself. Friend Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at the local diner, helps out with smuggled out leftovers, and kind, and infinitely patient, motel manager Bobby, (William Dafoe who wisely refrains from stealing the show), watches over mother and daughter. Halley’s justifiable pride and desperation lead her to, sometimes, to reject the help of others. In the end she, unsurprisingly, breaks.

Much of  our attention though is focussed on the Twainesque adventures of sassy Moonee, Ashley’s son, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and new arrival Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Whilst I would hesitate to call their childhood innocent, these are the scenes where Mr Baker’s vision, along with cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who mixes digital with 35mm film, is most effectively conjured up. The ice-cream pastel colours of the motels, and the other outlets and buildings that make up this part of Kissimmee, contrast with the brilliant blue skies, sugar-sweet, urban sunsets and the surrounding grasslands which are reclaiming any abandoned lots. It is, as it is intended to be, magical. Indeed it is the “real” Magic Kingdom inside the park where Moonee and Jancey sardonically escape to at the unresolved end of the film. (Shot in secret apparently: no way the Disney behemoth was going to be sullied by this project).

Mr Baker is a detached observer. There is no attempt to romanticise the plight of Halley and the other residents of the motel, nor to elicit our pity or anger. That is not to say that you won’t feel for Halley and Moonnee, just that Sean Baker doesn’t engage in the typical Hollywood emotional hand-wringing. There is no real plot: it doesn’t matter though. The mix of shots, the use of first time actors and real life authority characters, the accumulation of small but telling scenes, the presence of the other, richer America, literally yards away, (the drone of helicopters flying tourists in and out is ever present), all add up to a memorable whole. I particularly liked the rising panic on the faces of the honeymooners who accidentally booked themselves into the motel, the reaction of the residents to the arson of a nearby abandoned condo block and the way Bobby dispatched a nervous predator.

The “Florida Project” was apparently Walt Disney’s code-name for the original ideas for Disney World. The motel may not look exactly like the infamous “projects’ of inner-city America but the play on words is still acutely apposite. The fantasy of the original purpose for which this environment was first created stands in stark contrast to the economic reality of today. Many coastal resorts in the UK share this destiny.

Great idea, great eye, great film, perfectly wrought. I doubt there has ever been a film with better mother-daughter performances. I can’t recall any. Go see.

 

 

Peter Wispelwey (cellist) at Kings Place review ****

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Peter Wispelwey, cello

Cello Unwrapped: Bach Through Time Concert III. Kings Place Hall 1, 8th December 2017

  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 1 in G, BWV 1007
  • Benjamin Britten – Cello Suite No 3, Op 87
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Sonata for solo cello
  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 3 in C, BWV 1009

If I had to pick my favourite venue in London for classical music it would probably be King’s Place. The design is lovely. The acoustic is perfect, especially upstairs. The welcome is warm. (I lost a book there once. They found the book and then they found me). The programming is interesting. In particular the year long seasons which artfully pull together chamber music across a genre or theme. This year, Cello Unwrapped; in the last couple of years, the Baroque and Minimalism. Next year, Time Unwrapped, a more ambitious conceit which is chock full of interesting programmes. To be fair it has helped that the last three years have focussed on particular favourites of mine in terms of period and instrument but, even so, I heartily recommend Kings Place to anyone who isn’t already a regular. Bear in mind too that I am only really a consumer of the classical events: there is plenty of other stuff, music, comedy, spoken word, going on there as well. Finally they make a decent cup of tea in the caff upstairs, the loos are spotless, and there is usually some free art to soak in before, after or during the interval. And, in the summer, there is a pleasant saunter available along the canal.

Now I appreciate that the very best chamber music is likely to be found elsewhere in London, specifically the Wigmore Hall. The Wigmore certainly has its charms, but the legroom isn’t up to much and, if you intend to spend a fair time in her formidable company, you had better get used to seeing the back of other peoples’ heads. I am partial to Cadogan Hall but the repertoire is mostly orchestral and requires careful sifting. St John’s Smith Square delivers some stirring stuff for Early Music, Baroque and Contemporary enthusiasts like the Tourist but there is no hiding the fact that it is a Church, atmosphere therefore trumping sound and comfort. Mind you it is a beautiful lump of Baroque, fancy enough to satisfy, but not so fancy as to make one queasy. Thomas Archer’s buildings have taken a bit of a hammering in London, (go see St Paul’s Deptford if you don’t believe me), so it is good that this, maybe his best, looks so perky. I am also very, very partial to Milton Court Concert Hall, largely for the same reasons as Kings Place, and St Luke’s Old Street, where the interior has been brilliantly re-crafted by architects Levitt Bernstein. But, in both cases, the number of concerts which match the Tourist’s tastes, is constrained.

I digress. It was the programme here that attracted me as I confess no knowledge of Ms Wispelwey before this evening. Bach obvs, it being impossible to hear the cello suites too many times in a lifetime, but also the Britten which echoes old JSB, and the Ligeti, which, in its own way, is also an homage to the old boy. Ligeti is rapidly becoming my favourite mid/late C20 Modernist. It’s great this “finding out about new music” lark.

Apparently Britten intended to emulate Bach and compose six cello suites but this, unfortunately, was the last, written in 1972. His last operas, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, and then his failing heart, got in the way. Shame. I prize Britten’s chamber pieces above all of the rest of his glorious music. Obviously more personal but deeper, spikier and, if it is possible, cleverer. There are times, though, when Britten’s genius can be too satisfying, like a musical Vermeer, You just want him to cut loose. In some of the knottier passages of the chamber music this is what you get.

Actually scrub all the above. The reason why BB is the greatest English composer since Byrd, (sorry Purcell and Elgar fans), is the operas, of course. You can keep your Italian melodramas: give me Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw or Curlew River, (yep opera doesn’t have to be full orchestra and divas belting out love arias, in fact it is better when it isn’t), any day of the week. The whole must always be greater than the sum of the operatic parts in my book, and singing cannot smother drama.

Now this last suite has some deceptively simple ideas but the overall effect is still one of immense variety of expression. A four note motive is set against a repeated bass in one of Britten’s favoured mournful Passacaglias, with repeated pizzicato, which precedes the 3 Russian folk songs arranged by Tchaikovsky and the Orthodox hymn the Kontakion chant, which act as the conclusion. Remember this was written for, and first performed by his friend, the great Russia cellist Mistislav Rostroprovich, after hearing his performance of the Bach suites. After BB’s death Mr Rostroprovich couldn’t bear to play this piece.

Earlier in the piece we have a very quick, unsettling Moto Pertpetuo which appears to invert the motif and a stately Fuga which sets it against the main line, and suggests the counterpoint which JSB famously conjures up in his suites. Elsewhere we hear a Dialogo, marked allegretto, which flips across two staves, a Barcarola, which echoes the famous Prelude from JSB’s No 1 Suite which opened this recital, a jittery Marcia, and a strange Canto. Mr Wispelwey, in very droll fashion, introduces the piece by, er, introducing each of the short movements, which provided both bearings and an insight into Britten’s compositional process. All in all, a very satisfying rendition of one of BB’s finest works, IMHO.

The Ligeti sonata is made up of two movements, both written relatively early in his career, 1948 and 1953. The first, Dialogo, a slow movement, was written for a cellist who GL fancied. It is based on Hungarian folksong, (always a rich source of inspiration for the great man), and alternates from high to low ranges, apparently representing a conversation between a man and a woman. The Second movement is a Capriccio is a rapid Moto Perpetuo that, in places, would be tricky enough on a violin, let alone cello. It’s brilliant. Like the Britten the debt to JSB isn’t hidden, notably in the manic string crossing, as ears and mind rush to keep up with the musical invention. The thing about Ligeti for me is that his music always seems to be having a laugh. None of this thorny intellectualism that can so often block your path into contemporary music. There is a celebration of Ligeti’s music at the South Bank in May. Yea. I am signed up.

No need for me to rabbit on about the Bach in detail. You will know these pieces. They are, in essence, just dances. But what dances. If you don’t know them then you should. No point living a life without the best of Bach. Make it your New Year’s resolution.

I shall be looking out again for Mr Wispelwey’s recitals. He made these technically demanding pieces look easy, (well maybe not that easy), and has a very direct style which made it relatively straightforward to follow the line of the music. He has a winning charisma, and a natty shirt/waistcoat combo, but when it all got seriously emotional on stage, we were rapt. He knows the Bach suites like the back, front and sides of his hands, he has recorded them three times. I just bought the last recording, played on a Baroque cello, tuned at a lower pitch (392 vs 440 normally). Apparently he plays fast and loose with the usual tempo interpretations. Can’t wait to find out what it sounds like.

 

Happy End film review ****

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Happy End, 7th December 2017

Michael Haneke is a light-hearted fellow. At least that is what he claimed in a recent interview I read. I still have my doubts. Mind you he clearly has a sense of humour. Albeit of the dark variety. As his films reveal. It is a very specific sort of humour, as he provokes and prods you into sniggering at the absurdity of his characters and their situations. I admit it is a little bit more hidden in Cache (ha ha) and The White Ribbon, and most apparent in Funny Games, but it was there also in Amour.

With Happy End, (obviously there isn’t one), the pointed comedy really comes to the fore whilst the everyday horror is dialled down, though don’t worry Haneke fans not by much. All of Mr Haneke’s obsessions are piled up, surveillance, invasion, transgression, alienation unhealthy dependencies, duplicity, secrets, collective and individual guilt, family dysfunction, domestic servants, end of life choices, but here they range across a dynastic family. Like in a soap opera mini-series. Well actually quite unlike.

The magnificent Isabelle Huppert plays the unforgiving matriarch, Anne Laurent, who runs the family construction company in Calais. Her ageing father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants to die. Her younger surgeon brother Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz) has to look after his 12 year old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) after Eve’s mother (Thomas’s first wife, whose face we never see) has apparently overdosed. Thomas is having an affair unbeknown to his younger second wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden). The negligence of Anne’s useless son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has left the family company exposed but Anne’s English lawyer fiancee Lawrence (Toby Jones) is there to smooth things over.

The haute-bourgeois family all share the same manor house which is looked after by Moroccan servants Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari). Like I said, just like a mini-series. Except that Mr Haneke isn’t interested, obviously, in offering us the requisite genre cliches. The imperious Anne has only criticism and scorn for Pierre. Georges’s dementia is interrupted by bouts of lucidity. Eve, an extraordinary performance from Fantine Harduin, (maybe she will be the next Isabelle Huppert), is alarmingly imperturbable as she watches her nervous father or connects with her grandad. Please avoid Eve. The family treats Rachid and Jamila with misplaced familiarity, undercut with casual racism, and they obviously resent this.

Mr Haneke can’t be doing with the conventional ways of dramatising and filming this tale. The light, internal and external is harsh. Long range shots abound so that action, and conversation, is concealed. Social media visuals pop up. Scenes begin and end abruptly or jump forward. Close ups come when you least expect. The camera often follows the subject. The presence of the refugees in Calais is apparent but only intrudes into the family right at the end.

So it is a Haneke film. No mistake. But without the punch in the guts of his previous works which leaves us having to put the pieces together, if we are so inclined. It feels like he is needling you into seeing something that isn’t quite there in terms of form, structure, story, plot, character but at the same timing saying all of this guilt, damage, psychosis, anger, deception, is really just ordinary. Well if you are posh that is.

I saw another black comedy this week that sometimes does its best not to look like one by another writer who loved showing off and referencing himself. Titus Andronicus. Preposterous comparison I know though, to be fair, both portrayed families I would studiously avoid becoming involved with and both ended with unfortunate celebratory banquets.