Masked players of wind instruments

Seen on Twitter:

I’m sure that historians could easily think of many times in history that were just as stupid as ours, but yes, that is pretty stupid.

Schubert Piano Sonata D959: Andantino

Towards the beginning of Lockdown, I was bingeing on Haydn symphonies. And I did that posting pretty much so that I could remember having done this. I don’t suppose many of my mere readers even read that posting.

Now here’s another posting about another classical music binge I am still not entirely finished with, again, so that I at least can have a record of this binge having happened and what triggered it. This recent binge began as a mere attempt to have another binge, which can be interesting, but which is not the real thing. I would binge, I decided (you don’t decide these things – they decide you), on the piano music of Franz Schubert.

However, this pseudo-binge became genuine when I listened to the CD by pianist Christian Zacharias the cover of which you now see to your right. I had found myself concentrating not on Schubert’s piano sonatas, but on the smaller pieces, with titles like Dance (of some sort), or Moment Musical, or Impromptu. And I was finding the first of the “other pieces” on this disc, the one described as “Sechs Deutsche D820”, particularly diverting, not least because I don’t recall ever having heard it before. I must have played this CD through when I first bought it, because I play through all the CDs I buy, but that piece at least left zero impression on me.

But, probably because when it had finished playing it I couldn’t be bothered to get up and change it, I started listening to this CD again from the start. And the second movement of the big piano sonata that the CD is mainly devoted to, the one snappily entitled “D959”, really got my attention. This movement begins with a gently conventional tune. But then, after about two and a half minutes, perhaps because Schubert was a dying man and he knew how this felt to him, it starts to veer off into a strange parallel universe, all of it composed by Franz Schubert, but sounding more like the arrival of a demonic anti-Schubert from the future, who shoves real Schubert off his piano stool and instead starts improvising around the theme that real Schubert had been playing, with ever more oddity and ferocity and lack of good taste, culminating in passages of such manic brutality that it sounds more like some fifth-rate failure of a late twentieth century German would-be classical composer whose only means of attracting any attention is to take a masterpiece from the established repertoire and smash it to pieces, and then con Deutsche Grammophon into making a recording of resulting mess, which is bought by gullible idiots, or by people like me because it’s in the £1 box on the floor of my favourite second-hand CD shop, and we all then listen to this derangement once and never again. This bit of genuine Schubert really is that deranged.

The illustration above on the cover of that CD, ought to include an angel of death, or some such thing, in the background of that cosy domestic scene.

Here is how expert music critic Misha Donat describes this movement and this extraordinary episode in the middle of it, in the sleeve notes that he wrote for this Mitsuko Uchida box of Schubert Piano music:

Like several of Schubert’s late slow movements, it has a more dramatic middle section; but never did he conceive a more astonishing outburst than occurs at the heart of this piece. It is a moment that offers a vision of wild despair, if not actual madness, and its impassioned style anticipates the keyboard writing of a much later generation of composers.

So it’s not just me that is astounded by this extraordinary musical moment.

If you want to hear what I and Donat are writing about, here is a video of Alfred Brendel playing this amazing movement, which lasts about eight minutes in all by the time it has almost (but never quite) calmed down again. I have already gathered up every recording I have of it, and am listening to it again and again.

Bingeing on Haydn symphonies

Every so often, a combination of my ever more gargantuan classical CD collection, of my own shifting tastes in classical music, and of my particular life circumstances result in me experiencing musical binges, of various sorts over the years, during which I binge-listen to a particular category of music.

Sometimes a binge will focus on a single piece of music. At other times, as recently, it consists of constantly listening to a particular category of music.

When Lockdown began, at that now vanished time when I and millions of others were genuinely scared that our lives might be about to end prematurely, I found myself listening to, of all things, Haydn symphonies, again and again and again and again. I possess many CDs of Haydn symphonies. Here are about two thirds of them:

That’s a lot of Haydn symphonies, and there are about half as many again still on the shelves, which I also listened to. Plus I even bought another great box of them, because I already had one of the CDs in question and really liked it when I listened to it again.

Haydn is in many ways the “ideal type” of the Classical Music Composer. If you really like his orchestral music, then it can be said with confidence that you really like classical music. What makes me say this is that his music seems to me to posses an absolutely satisfaction with the musical means that were available for its making, and no feeling whatsoever that “art” means in some way feeling obliged to transcend these means, in the manner of someone breaking out of a prison or of dreaming of such a breakout. Put it like this. If Mozart or Beethoven had lived at a different and later time, when musical technology had expanded, you get the strong feeling that their music would have sounded very different and a lot more dramatic. With Haydn, I feel as if it would probably have sounded much as it sounds now.

This is especially true of his earlier symphonies, which I found myself preferring, during my binge. My habit was to assemble all the performances of Haydn symphonies by one conductor and ensemble, and then listen to them in chronological order. And I found that the later symphonies, to my ear, had a bombast and an assertiveness about them that I found, by comparison with the earlier ones, unappealing. Basically, the symphonies he wrote for his aristocratic bosses in Vienna and nearby places struck me as wonderful, utter perfection. But, the later symphonies that he wrote for bigger and less grand audiences, less old money and more new money, in places like Paris and London, London especially, felt to me like Haydn forcing himself to express feelings that his audiences felt more strongly than he did.

It may very well be that actually, Haydn felt horribly imprisoned when he wrote his earlier symphonies, and liberated when writing his later ones. But what I was hearing was a case of one kind of atmosphere, which I found perfectly (and I do mean perfectly) appealing, compared to another that was less congenial. Raucous brass instruments, and above all the percussion, started to interrupt the serene perfection of the earlier symphonies. Bang bang bang, wah wah wah. The later symphonies sounded to me, by comparison, to be bourgeois, in a bad way. Nouveau riche, rather than old riche. New money waving itself in the air, rather than old money simply taking its ease, without fuss or the need to assert itself too stridently. It was as if Haydn had moved from a world where he was in perfect command of his art, to one where he was stressing and straining after something that came less naturally to him.

The irony being that the official programmes of many of Haydn’s earlier symphonies are concerned with exactly such stressfulness and strain. There is even a famous group of earlier symphonies collectively know as the “sturm und drang” – storm and stress – symphonies. But these felt to me like serenely detached descriptions of such emotions, rather than any sort of effort to be engulfed by such feelings on behalf on an emotionally incontinent audience of upwardly mobile poseurs.

I suspect that finding myself being treated as a gentleman of leisure by Haydn, rather than as some sort of new man, a stresser and strainer after such things as “improvement” and “solutions” and “radical progress”, was exactly what I was finding so congenial. Lockdown demanded nothing of me. Literally, it demanded nothing. And, as the owner and operator of a CD player, I could pause the music at will with one touch of a button, which made me even more of an aristocrat than Haydn’s bosses were. How they would have loved to be able to push a button and pause their musicians in mid bar, while they, having been delayed by other business, sat themselves down and made themselves comfortable at the beginning of a musical performance, or while they needed to deal with a discreet interruption from an underling about something that needed a quick answer. And how the likes of Beethoven and Wagner, Wagner especially, would have been outraged by my pause button! My music, Wagner would have shouted, takes precedence over your little life! Shut up and listen, in darkness, and have your emotions aroused and sculpted by me, the Great Composer. I am not hear to amuse you with my art, you are hear to worship me and my Art.

Haydn, especially in his earlier Viennese, pre-bourgeois form, made no such demands upon me. And during the early, serious bit of Lockdown, he was, for me, the perfect musical companion.

If you have read this far, thank you. I hope you’ve already worked out that I am not asking you to agree with me about Haydn. Rather I ask you to think of whether you have had similar bursts of aesthetic enthusiasm, and to reflect on them, as I have on this recent one of mine.

The main thing about such episodes, I would say, is that they can’t be forced. You can’t decide to have one of these binges. They just happen.

Beatrice and Titania

Badly needing to get out and exercise, so quota photo, of the above mentioned ladies:

Photoed with my old Canon A70, way back in 2003. Behind the two yellow ladies, you can just make out the Wheel.

I do miss them, and their various Shakespearian sisters. They were driven out of business by the Big Sewer.

This photo already had a name in my archives, so I wondered if I’d shown it here (or here) before. But all I found was mention of a Beatrice (Rana) who plays classical piano, one of many.

See also this recent posting, for my take on why you don’t often see boats with wheels, even though this is technologically very easy to contrive.

No sport and strange sport

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that one of the weirdest features of what you might describe as “classic Lockdown”, Lockdown when Lockdown was at its most Lockeddown, was the complete absence of professional sport for a sports fan like me to be keeping half an eye on. Nothing. Whole months would go by with nothing of a sporting nature distracting me, either in the morning (cricket), in the afternoon (soccer), in the evening (soccer again), or in the night (cricket in faraway places). A lot of the reason why this blog accelerated around then was this total lack of sport to distract me.

Now, almost equally weirdly, we are having a spell of professional sport with no studio audiences present, but with all the electronics going strong and telling the likes of me about it all.

This morning I tuned in to the final day of test match cricket this summer, the radio version, and of course it was, as predicted, rain stopped play. So instead, they were replaying that amazing last wicket stand between Stokes and Leach that won the test match against Australia at Headingley. This was apparently exactly one year ago today. At first, they introduced this, and then everything stopped. It took me a while to work out why. It was because I can’t stand listening to cricket commentaries where they have spliced in an “atmosphere” backing. I just want to hear what they’s saying with no blatantly fictional crowd noises bolted onto the back of it. And that was why the commentary from a year ago wasn’t working. The default setting for TMS includes the fake atmosphere, and only when I switched to that did the commentary from a year ago kick in.

And I listened to that whole last wicket stand. Having already watched it a while back, on YouTube. I really like radio commentaries. And I find that I get surprisingly little more from actually seeing it on television. Oh, I do get some more, but not as much more as you might suppose. And when it came to this unique passage of play, exactly one year ago, listening to the radio version, which was what I did first time around, proved at least as gripping as watching it on TV.

I think this could be the consequence of my childhood, when radio was an option, and only later in my childhood did the telly cut in. From about six to around ten, all I had was radio, and I loved it.

Something similar happened to me with classical music on the radio. That started even younger, with my mother controlling the radio nobs, not me in my baby chair. But presumably she kept it on because I seemed to like it, and also because it is universally understood, by the sort of person my mother was, that classical music is Good For You, like green vegetables and like the ancient latin and ancient greek I was made to do at school, despite the lack of moral uplift supplied by classical music to the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Adolf Hitler.

Beethoven String Trios concert on video

Having been at the Wigmore Hall for the concert, right when Lockdown was getting serious, I note with pleasure that I can now watch and listen to the complete Beethoven String Trios, at the Wigmore Hall website.

Neither with orchestral music nor with solo instrumental music does actually seeing it add much, or not for me. But when it comes to chamber music, I find that seeing the musicians communicating the musical meaning of what they’re playing to each other, either by me being there or me watching it on video, can make a big difference.

The South Bank (red) Lion

There has been lots of photo-reminiscing here lately, so here are some photos I took much more recently. Well, in May of this year anyway:

Yes, it’s the lion at the South Bank end of Westminster Bridge.

This South Bank Lion has quite a history, the strangest thing being that it used to be red. I was going to show you the “photo” of the lion when it was red that I found here, until I realised it was faked with Photoshop. But that link is worth following.

The lion hasn’t always perched on the bridge. His first home was on top of the Lion Brewery, a booze factory once based on a site now occupied by the Royal Festival Hall.

I bet the brewery would have made a better concert hall than the accursed RFH.

This photo, on the other hand, of the lion with men and scaffolding is genuine:

The photograph above was kindly shared by Nick Redman of London Photos, whose grandfather (second on the left) was one of the scaffolders who helped move the lion from the soon-to-be-demolished brewery.

I found that here. Also well worth clicking on.

I assume this must be why so many pubs are called “The Red Lion”.

Apparently Emile Zola was very fond of this lion. Blog and learn.

First photos with the FZ150

I can still remember the Great Leap Forward that the Panasonic Lumix FZ150 “bridge” camera was. For me if not for all of photoer-kind. For me, the best “bridge camera” I could have was my perfect camera. Tons of zoom, but no faffing about with different lenses to at once capture whatever scene presented itself to me, near or far.

I went rootling through the photo-archives looking for some early photos I photoed with this wondrous new contrivance, looking at the first photo-expeditions I embarked upon, along the River, to the Victoria Docks, or just to Westminster Abbey and Bridge, to photo my fellow photoers, to pick out some photos that brought back the shock of pleasurable surprise I had when I first got my hands on it.

But then I realised I was looking in the wrong place. What I needed to see were not merely some “early” photos, photoed days or even weeks after I got this super-camera. What I wanted to see were the absolute first photos I took with this camera, on January 26th 2012.

And the very first one of all was this:

That scene, of my kitchen window and surroundings as seen from my swivel chair around which most of my life revolves, if you get my meaning. (It’s the chair that does the actual revolving.) I am happy to report that the big grey Thing, bottom left, which was for making ice, has been replaced by a slightly bigger black box, which also makes ice, and also looks after food of many other sorts, including in particular ice cream. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

On each side of the window are CD shelves, and the next few photos I photoed were all close-ups of CDs, edge on:

That was when it hit me, and I believe I can still remember this glorious moment. This was the camera I had been waiting for, all my life. The key point was not just that these were successful photos of distant details. I can tell from the numbering of these photos in the archive that there were no failures. None. All of my first dozen or so photos with this new camera came out fine, even the one of my pop music department, which was where it still is, way off to the left and way up near the ceiling.

Only the following day did I photo anything beyond my front door.

The first outdoor photo I photoed with my new FZ150 was this, dated January 27th, i.e. the following day, just before it got dark:

That’s looking across Vincent Square at the building activity in and around Victoria Street, which has been pretty much continuous, one place or another, for the last decade. Mmmmmm, cranes.

Since then, I have upgraded to the Panasonic Lumix FZ200 and then to the FZ330. But they are both really just the FZ150 with frills added. If my current camera, the FZ330 were to be snatched away from me, and I was given another FZ150 and told that this would be my last camera, I’d not be that bothered. Were I told that I would have to go back to the crappy camera I had before the FZ150, that would be a disaster. Soon after acquiring this FZ150, I wrote about it at some length for Samizdata. This confirms what, up until re-reading that, I had merely remembered. The FZ150 really was a huge step forward.

Hurrah for capitalism. It really is ridiculous that the world’s schools are now cranking out a whole new generation of nitwits, an appallingly significant proportion of whom seem genuinely to want to put a stop to this glorious process.

On how I may now not resume buying classical music magazines

Every month for as long as I can remember, I’ve been buying paper copies of Gramophone and the BBC Music Magazine, “Music” being how the BBC refers to classical music.

All over my home, these magazines have accumulated in shelves and in heaps:

I haven’t had these magazines on order, because I don’t trust my neighbours not to let in burglars through the front door we all share, and because I like the exercise of actually walking to a shop and buying these magazines.

Which means that during the recent Plague, I’ve not been getting either of these magazines. The shops where I would have bought them have all been closed.

One of the many changes I am now contemplating in my life is: Not resuming buying these magazines. Are many people now contemplating a similar decision with regard to these or other such printed publications? Surely, they are. Are many people contemplating buying printed publications they do not now buy? I doubt this very much.

If “normal” ever returns, it will, for most of us, in big ways and in small ways, be a different normal, not least among those who publish the magazines like the ones in my photo. It’s not just the obvious ways in which we will remain nervous of the Plague returning, though that will definitely happen also. It’s that by being jolted into doing this for the first time, and not doing that any more, we are all now shedding old habits and being pushed towards acquiring different habits. I try to resist generalisations involving words like “we all now …”, but I really do think that the above generalisations are largely right. (You need only look at the recent numbers for postings here per month at this blog, on the left, to see this kind of thing happening to me and maybe therefore also for you.)

So, habits are being dropped, and acquired. And, are you, like me, and provoked by the above experiences, going beneath and beyond such changes of habit, and asking yourself: What other habits should I now decide to shed, and decide to acquire?

After all, and especially for the likes of me, life has just got shorter.

Get your fake-photos Rendaroed

So I open up Guido Fawkes to see what political bullshit is happening (that posting being an example of Guido at his considerable best) and top right, there’s an advert for something along the lines of (it’s gone now so I cannot be exact) “3D renderings of 2D architectural plans”. Having long wondered about who does all those fake-photos, like the ones that I like to stick up here from time to time, such as the ones in this earlier posting here about a possible new City of London concert hall. (I wonder how that’s coming along.) So, I click on the advert, and find my way to Rendaro.

Here is a fake-photo example of their work:

What I would really like (Google?) would be an advert by an enterprise which which 3D prints 3D models from 2D architectural plans, and better still, somewhere I could go and take a personal look at such 3D models. And where I could photo them.

But meanwhile, these fake-photos are a fascinating fact about modern life, and especially modern architectural life. They mean that both architects and designers can see what they are cooking up even as they do their cooking (the design equivalent of sticking your finger in the stew and sucking it), and all manner of onlookers can look over the shoulders of the designers, and also see what’s being cooked up. People like me can see London’s Big Things coming, years before they’re actually built, while still having time for a life doing other things besides.

However, the very ease with which these 3D renderings can be churned out has the paradoxical consequence that, unless you are paying very careful attention (that is, unless paying such attention is your full-time (see above) job) you can never be sure what will actually end up getting built. I, for instance, constantly image-google for some London Big Thing that I happen to hear about which is in the planning permission pipeline, and I immediately get half a dozen different visual versions of it, each recording a particular stage that the design went through while they were trying to get decide what they wanted and then trying to get permission for it from the politicians.

Which means, strangely, that the only way that you can be sure how a new London Big Thing will actually end up looking is to go there and actually look at it when they’re actually building it, and see if there are any fake-photos of what they’re actually doing on the outside of the actual fence around the actual site. Failing that, you just have to wait and see. See, that is, the actual Thing itself.