Posts Tagged ‘5 star’

A History of Wales (John Davies)

October 24, 2017

*****

IMG_2255[1]

Reduced *and* patriotically rained-upon

I thought that this book was excellent, and enjoyed spending 765 pages in the company of somebody in such complete command of his material.  As well as relieving my complete ignorance of Welsh history, reading the book gave me some interest in and understanding of English medieval history, seeing it through the prism of how it affected Wales.  I was especially interested in the idea of the English national consciousness as being founded on recovering lands from the Danes, and hence inherently imperialist.

It was interesting to see how the idea of Wales as a nation came in and out of focus at different periods, and it would have been interesting to get Davies’s idea of what Wales as a nation actually was.  He quite rightly says that there is no genetic difference between the Welsh and the English and treats Herderian ideas of nationhood with some reserve at one point, but also seems quite attached to them.

Remembering A Winter in the Hills I might get worried about the lack of agency ascribed to Welsh people here–they rarely get to initiate action as opposed to having things happen to them or reacting to events.  But it could be a fault of history and geography, not John Davies.

The question that really interested me was how it came about that Welsh survived as a widely-spoken language when Irish did not, given that Wales was far more interpenetrated with Anglophone Britain.  The answer given here is that the development of the coal and steel industries meant that people could see hope for a future where Welsh might be relevant while in Ireland they could just see starvation.

Any of our readers interested in Russian literature will wish to know that it was probably on a rail bearing the letters GL (Guest Lewis, the trade mark of Dowlais) that poor Anna Karenina met her end.

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Dash Cafe, Rich Mix Bethnal Green 6 March

March 8, 2013

*****

kibbitz ensemble

I really enjoyed this event, though I wasn’t sure beforehand what it was all going to be about and arrived late after leaving the London Overground station in the wrong direction.

Anyway, the space was in darkness and the chairs were set out cinema-fashion to there was no real need to be brave and speak to anyone.  The introductory numbers by the Kibbitz Ensemble really put me in the mood–Iryna Muha had the roughness you need for folk songs–and for long periods I was enchanted by How to re-establish a vodka empire, a film where Daniel Edelstyn and his wife Hilary Powell played his own grandfather and grandmother in silent film mode in between modern documentary footage of him trying to make a go of it in the vodka business and restore an ailing Ukrainian village.  And finding out unexpected and probably unwelcome facts about his forebears.

Then in the post-screening discussion Dan Edelstyn said that the vodka business had ended up even more disorganised than it seemed from the film; he had a thousand bottles that he wasn’t allowed to sell.  After that more music as people chatted happily and made their way to the bar in search of the free vodka samples.  And the event itself was free of course…

You can see the Dash Cafe programme here.

Rusalka, ROH Covent Garden 01 March

March 3, 2012

*****

Once again, everyone has seen and and commented on this production and once again Intermezzo has proved to be inerrant.

To my surprise, I was completely captivated by Dvorak’s music here, especially when it got into the hopeless melancholy yearning vein–hopeless melancholy yearning followed by suicidal despair: you don’t have to be a water-nymph to realise these are the eternal verities.  There were some passages of undemanding ineffectuality that were more what I expected from this composer, but who cares?

In the amphitheatre with the kind of view shown above we didn’t care about the shock-horror production either.  It seemed to me the typical kind of modern opera production, especially of Wagner, where what you see on stage contradicts what’s coming up from the pit and in the end the music wins.  My companion pointed out that we couldn’t see the allegedly-offensive details from our distance and it would be very difficult to take take seriously a literal representation of a fairyland-and-castle setting.  The production didn’t get in the way of putting the story across, which must be the main thing.

Talking of Wagner, we enjoyed what must be about the best orchestral playing (under conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin) that I’ve ever heard in an opera house.  And we had a tenor in Bryan Hymel who had completely mastered his part.

What do these complainers want?  Are they listening to the music at all?

Побежденные (Pobezhdennye, The Defeated)

February 5, 2012

*****

This is an excellent book.  It is also unfortunately something like Holy Scripture for extreme nationalist-mystical tendencies in present-day Russia.

At the level of a novel, this one answers the same question as Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise:  What happens once you’ve been defeated?  How do you go on?  What do you do?

So the book follows the fate of an interlinked group of former nobles and gentry in post-Revolutionary Leningrad as they survive by selling heirlooms and find they have members of the lower classes billeted on them and they are excluded from labour and higher education.  Even if one is making oneself useful–indeed indispensable–at work, one is only ‘safe’ until the next denunciation. So we see the characters at various stages:  trying to continue life as normal; forming strained communities when exiled to the countryside; in prison and in camps; at the point of death.

There’s a great deal of very high-grade novelistic description of the relationships and arguments in a communal apartment, and the way in which hostile reality seeps into the heroes’ attempts to maintain their values and relationships as they were, at least in their own apartments, at least in their own rooms…Author Irina Golovkina was the grand-daughter of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, and members of her real family make episodic appearances in the book.  She also like Vassily Grossman goes to the edge in saying what it is like to be be executed and I think she does it rather better, since it comes more from the inside than being imposed from the outside as something that has to be included.

You can raise objections.  The characters sometimes have something of the schematic about them, as though they are representing natural or hidden forces rather than themselves.   But Golovkina does deal with the experience of bearing and rearing children in difficult–near-impossible–circumstances, which is a level of realism that even women writers tend to shy away from.

The mystical-nationalist and anti-Semitic views expressed by the positive characters, together with the extreme length of the book (570 pages in my large-format edition) and the sheer Russianness of the subject-matter probably mean that the book is not a suitable case for translation into English–I don’t believe that there are any translations in existence.  Which is a pity.

Gerhard Richter exhibition, Tate Modern 01 November

November 1, 2011

*****

Uncle Rudi

I was very impressed with this exhibition–not so much with the blurry paintings from photographs (as in Uncle Rudi above), as with the large and thickly-impastoed abstracts, like Hedge below.

Hedge

There was one room of grey Germanic grimness of the sort I had rather been fearing.  It was dedicated to pictures connected with the Baader-Meinhof group, though the Record Player (in which a gun had been hidden) was affecting.

Record Player

I think my favourite might have been June, but an awful lot of these abstracts had the strange beauty of shadows falling on us from another world (a good German Romantic idea and entirely appropriate given the references to Caspar David Friedrich in the paintings on show).

June

A lot of the people present were Germans (or at least talking among themselves in German).  The exhibition wasn’t very crowded and there’s even a 2-for-1 offer here.

I say:  Go, go now, go several times, go with your friends.

Nox (Anne Carson)

November 14, 2010

*****

When I read the reviews of this work, I thought that the combination of raw pain and classical learning would appeal to me, and I was quite right.  But it’s a bit hard to say what it is!

Physically, we have an accordion-style scrapbook in a box. In general, the left-hand page carries a dictionary entry relating to the words from Catullus 101,  an elegy on the poet’s dead brother, while the right-hand side illustrates the troubled death and life of Carson’s brother Michael.

The title Nox is of course Latin for ‘night’, a word that doesn’t actually occur in the Catullus.  Instead, the dictionary entries on the left-hand side are steadily invaded by the word nox in its various forms and by references to night, for instance:

muneredebita nocti munera gifts owed to night

cineremTroia virum et noctium acerba cinis Troy, bitter ash of men and nights

intereacontra ius interea solum nocte against the law yet only at night

quaequod homo est non est hoc nox a man is not a night!

manantiaomne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat the whole pointless night seeps out of his heart

atquesimiliter atque ipse eram noctuabunda just like him I was a negotiator with night

valeparum valent Graeci verbo the Greeks have no precise word for this (but we call it ‘night’)

Some at least of these are variations on phrases from Latin authors, for instance Troia virum et virtutum omnium acerba cinis (‘Troy, bitter ash of men and every noble deed’) from Catullus 68b.

The right-hand pages include some scraps of conversation with Michael (and with his widow):

I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I'd been asked to translate them

and also some lines from other works of Carson’s, for instance As in some cave may lie a lightless pool.

And there is elucidation if you work at it:

Take the word “entry” as used of the arrangement of the contents of a lexicon.

What if you made a collection of lexical entries…

…I came to think of translating as a room,….,where one gropes for the light switch.

In one sense it is a room I can never leave, perhaps dreadful for that.  At the same time, a place composed entirely of entries.

You could ask whether this–at least the right hand side of this–is something that ought to be exposed to the public gaze.  Certainly the Canadian mother with the hard blue gaze on her deathbed is far too near my own experience for comfort.  Of course, Catullus 101 doesn’t tell us anything at all about his brother, but I think that’s just playing by the rules of Roman elegy.

Tate Modern 10 November: Gauguin and Sunflower Seeds

November 14, 2010

***/*****

So this was a nice day for a visit to the Gauguin exhibition, as I thought.  The first thing to strike me was that the painter looked like a Frenchman in his self-portraits.  Well, obvious enough when you think about it I suppose.

The second was that the visitors to the exhibition were rather older (by a factor of three or so) than those to the main collection–well, you had to pay for the exhibition…Then a lot of the paintings were pre-staled by familiarity–you’d seen them in reproductions and it seemed as though you’d always known them.

My companion felt that the Yellow Christ merely looked tired and I agreed that a nasty attack of jaundice would leave you feeling lethargic.  But in the very last room we were certainly impressed by the bare-breasted Tahitian maidens.

Joanne said that Gauguin got better as he got older [which is undeniable] and he was interested in his subjects as people, not merely as objects [which I have my doubts about–maybe you need ‘sex objects’ in place of ‘people’].

And after lunch we ended up returning for the porcelain sunflower seeds, all 100 million of them.

And this is the nearest I got to taking an unblurred close-up:

I was much more impressed by this:  in spite of having seen pictures in the papers, I still found the contrast between the detail and the mass fresh and unexpected, and the viewers were also much more like what I expected Tate Modern denizens to be.  Well done Ai Weiwei!  Well done Tate Modern!

Petrushka etc (Bolshoi Ballet/Covent Garden) 29 July

August 1, 2010

***/*****/**

Petrushka/Russian Seasons/Grand Pas from Paquita

This time we had even invested £45 (each!) in seats in a slightly less remote part of the Upper Amphitheatre.  I was interested in seeing Petrushka the ballet, since I was familiar with the music and I remembered the story from some ‘music and movement’ thing when I was in primary school a very long time ago (but all the same, some time after the invention of radio).

Well the music was certainly well-played, and Nina Kaptsova was impressively precise as the Ballerina, but otherwise it didn’t really do what I wanted from a ballet.  There were two scenes with too many characters bracketing three scenes with too few, and there was too much static display of elaborate sets and costumes–in fact the lighting left the no doubt fearfully expensive costumes in darkness for quite a lot of the time.  We couldn’t see Petrushka’s ghost  at the end from where we were sitting either…

You *can* see the costumes (and indeed Nina Kaptsova) here

We had no idea what to expect from Russian Seasons (music by Leonid Desyatnikov, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky) and we were well impressed.  The groups of dancers forming and reforming, the soulful melancholy of the solo violin, the simply-set songs, the music that encompassed romantic minimalism without lapsing into drivelling idiocy, the transfiguration of  the yellow-clad characters into white at the end…I was transported t0 another  world of feeling, except that I wanted to know what the words were.  Some of them sounded like the refrain from a folk song, others like заумь (nonsense words resembling Russian), the one at the end was presumably Church Slavonic…In fact I’ve now largely worked the words out here (they were in Russian dialect!)

Dancers dancing in unobstructed space, that’s what we want–when the ballerinas had their caps on, their costumes did rather resemble Aeroflot air hostess uniforms of a certain era (especially the acidic orange and green ones), but never mind.  My companion said that she kept on being afraid of missing something through not looking at the right part of the action, but we agreed that this was part of the excitement of seeing something new, for the first time, without the encrusted layers of memory and expectation.

Then the Grand Pas from Paquita, which the very well-informed lady sitting next to us said she’d never seen before.  It was like being force-fed several boxes of chocolates, all of them strawberry cremes, or like an end-of-term show where everyone does their party piece, but with far too much padding as well.  45 minutes of going nowhere musically, dramatically or choreographically…

Still, the middle item was worth the price of admission on its own, and we set off home well pleased with our evening’s entertainment.  Once again, the orchestra (conducted by Igor Dronov this time) played very well, and Irina Blank’s solo violin contribution to Russian Seasons was exquisite.

Another friend writes:   So agree – loved Russian Seasons, was concerned that parts of Petrushka were in danger of verging on having what I dread most : celebratory rustics dancing (even of they had been displaced to an urban context). Almost fell asleep in Paquita.

The Defence of the Realm (Christopher Andrew)

July 31, 2010

*****

As the cover helpfully says, this is an authorised history of MI5 (more lately, the Security Service) from its beginnings shortly before the First World War to more-or-less the present day.

And I was certainly kept very interested–I spent more-or-less a whole day in my dressing gown since I couldn’t tear myself away from the book to get dressed.  There are 1044 pages in my Penguin paperback, of which 861 are the main text and the remainder are appendices, notes, and an index.  Actually the index isn’t that useful–it really only allows you to look up proper names and isn’t very helpful for general themes.

Why is it so interesting?  I think it’s because everything’s so clear at the beginning where it’s clear who the bad guys (Germans) are, what they want to do, how we want to stop them and what happened.  ‘What happened’ is clear because as well as the action being relatively simple, the author isn’t constrained by having to wriggle round what he’s not allowed to say.  So you follow him confidently into the murkier areas of Soviet espionage, counter-subversion and counter-terrorism.

Can you believe what he says (or is he hopelessly constrained by his position as authorised historian)?  Well, writing about Bloody Sunday (on p 620) the author says:

Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, insisted that ‘There is absolutely no doubt that the`Parachute Regiment opened up only after they were fired on.’  Nationalists were convinced that, on the contrary, the British soldiers were guilty of premeditated murder.

That’s entirely even-handed, and we now have the conclusion from the Saville Enquiry that the military view given above is not in accordance with the facts.

Andrew does seem keen to discredit the various renegade (or repentant) Security Service operatives like Cathy Massiter and Michael Shayler (and indeed Peter Wright) who have surfaced over the years.  That leads to one asking if they were so awful, how did they get taken on in the first place.  In fact Andrew seems to be broadly sympathetic to Security Service attempts to join the modern world in recruitment, training, and indeed having a legal basis, while sharing its antipathy to performance indicators.  One could ask would he (or indeed they) like to live next to a nuclear power station that eschewed quantitative indicators since an explosion would only happen once.

It’s interesting to see things from a different angle:  for instance, the Official Secrets Act as a necessary and overdue piece of legislation, rather than an instance of war hysteria.  And similarly to see what we have lost:  the Post Office refusing to allow opening of suspects’ letters, since it would destroy public trust in the mail, and the meticulous respect for private property.  We were free once, and now we’re just frightened…It’s interesting to contrast the detailed description of procedures for intercepting mail and obtaining Home Office Warrants for telechecks (phonetapping) with the complete silence about more contemporary methods of communication.

Certainly a completely absorbing day’s reading.  It’s actually a very easy read–I can’t remember any instances of acronyms of personages being introduced without prior explanation, and there weren’t any of the authorial tics that can become so irritating when repeated over 1000 pages or so.

Picture of Christopher Andrew from 'Novoe vremya'

Among the reactions in the Russian press, Vedomosti are surprised that Klaus Fuchs expected to be left alone even after being found out, that MI5 had to mount a PR campaign to expel the 105 Soviet ‘diplomats’ in 1971, and the amount of freedom that Andrew was given indeciding what secret materials to refer to, while Novoe vremya are most interested in the details of defectors from the Soviet side.

Lads in Their Hundreds: Free and very very good

May 23, 2010

*****

Rehearsal picture from guardian.co.uk

The title of this caught my eye since I had recently grown more sympathetic to A. E. Housman, and I went along for my first visit to Theatro Technis accompanied by my cold and headache but without any very great expectations.

In the event I was deeply impressed–the performers were students from GSMD, and the show consisted of four female singers and six male ones (and two pianists) performing songs and poems on the subject of war.  The songs were arranged so that (for instance) everyone got a turn in the title number (Butterworth’s setting of Housman) and even those whose native language was  not English speakers bravely contributed to the poetry.

What I found most effective were the changes of mood when music-hall songs were interpolated for contrast; the segue from Is he an Aussie, is he, Lizzie? to And the band played Waltzing Matilda; and the return of The lads in their hundreds at the end, transformed from song to poem, followed by Butterworth’s setting of With rue my heart is laden.  The cast showed absolute commitment to communicating with their audience in every way possible and no praise could be too high for them of for Iain Burnside, who devised and directed the whole thing.

There’s an interesting interview with Burnside here, and I’ve scanned in a list of the numbers below, together with some credits:

LADS IN THEIR HUNDREDS

Glyn Maxwell from My grandfather at the Pool
Butterworth With Rue my heart is laden
Butterworth The lads in their hundreds
Somervell The street sounds to the Soldiers’ tread
Wilfred Owen The Send-off
Elgar War Song
Jessie Pope Socks
Darewski Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers
Britten Slaughter
Carl Sandburg Grass
lreland Her Song
Siegfried Sassoon from Death-Bed
lreland The Cost
Brian Elias Meet me in the Green Glen
Butterworth ls my team ploughing
Butterworth Think no more, lad
lvor Gurney First Time ln
Trad arr Hazell Ar Hyd y Nos
Lincoln Kirstein Snatch
lves He is there!
Edward Rushton Life’s an ocean crossing
Kerry Dinneen from Kurdish Blankets
Edward Rushton Agony
Jimmy Webb Galveston
Richard Swanson Baghdad Email
Bridge Journey’s End
lreland The Soldier’s Return
Flotsam and Jetsam ls he an Aussie, is he, Lizzie?
Eric Bogle And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
AE Housman The lads in their hundreds
Butterworth With Rue my heart is laden

LADS IN THEIR HUNDREDS

Devised and directed by Iain Burnside

Victoria Newlyn Movement
Emma Belli Designer
Giuseppe Belli Designer
Jarnes Southby Lighting Designer
Pamela Lidiard Producer

Nazan Fikret Soprano
Katie Grosset Mezzo-soprano
Aurelia Jonvaux Soprano
Anna Livermore Soprano

lan Beadle Tenor
Adam Crockatt Tenor
Osian Gwynn Baritone
Barney Rea Bass
Ashley Riches Baritone
Luke Tracey Tenor

Maite Aguirre Pianist
Patrick Leresche Pianist

Jack Chandler Technical support
Fernando Pinho Technical support
Molly Sayers Technical support