A Belated AOTM – Great Recordings of the Century – Maurizio Pollini

A Belated AOTM – Great Recordings of the Century – Maurizio Pollini

Keen readers of this weblog may well have noted that October was conspicuously lacking in any Album Of The Month (“AOTM”) post. Indeed, the more anxious amongst you may well have begun to worry that an AOTM post for October would never materialise. Fear not, however, for I am happy to present what I believe to be the world’s first “October Album Of The Month But Neither Cedric Nor I Had The Time To Do One That Month So It’s Actually Published In November” post  (“OAOTMBNCNIHTDOTMSIAPIN”).  A catchy title I am sure you will agree. 

It must be said my belated choice for this august blog category is a somewhat unusual one, but nevertheless I believe it to be deserving of the accolade. Released by EMI at the turn of the century as part of their “Great Recordings of the Century” series, my album of the month is strictly speaking a compilation of two earlier recordings by Maurizio Pollini. The first being a recording of Chopin’s piano concerto No. 1 in E minor from April 1960 and the second a recording of a recital of solo piano music by Chopin from 1968.  

Pollini began his recording career as an EMI artist before heading over to Deutsche Gramophone. Although recorded very early in his career, these performances are particularly fine, indeed some have argued that a few of his later efforts at DG have been a little “cold and mannered” in comparison. The performances here are far from lacking in warmth and lyricism, characteristics that are particularly on display in the Concerto’s Romanze second movement and the nocturnes. At the same time, Pollini’s playing on this album displays a clarity of expression that belies his then youthful inexperience. 

For the piano concerto Pollini is very ably accompanied by Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia, albeit given the dominance of the piano in this work, we should be scarcely surprised that Pollini takes centre stage. Written while Chopin was still living in Poland, this is not a piece I know well, although, I must say, I did  enjoy the Romanze movement very much. 

The highlights of the album for me, however, are definitely Pollini’s rendition of Chopin’s D-flat major nocturne and the Ballade in G minor. Pollini handles the nocturne with its dreamlike excursions so deftly, while his playing in the Ballade brings rigour to a piece that at times feels hardly able to contain its (for the time) unparalleled ferocity. The album ends with the Polonaise in A-flat major, a fittingly dramatic and uplifting departure to a truly captivating album. 

The Craven Arms, Birmingham – An Unexpected Find

The Craven Arms, Birmingham – An Unexpected Find

One of the surprising things about returning to a place you once lived in is discovering just how many good things you had hitherto overlooked. Prior to my recent visit to Birmingham, I thought I had a comprehensive idea of all Brum’s best establishments for the imbibing of strong liquour. As always, I hadn’t reckoned on Cedric pulling something extraordinary out the bag when least expected. Upon his first mention of the Craven Arms in fairly glowing terms, I was intrigued. Not long after, a cursory google search convinced me we were in for a winner. With a single-minded resolve not unbefitting the grand old name of Jenkins, I determined the Craven should be the first building I entered upon exiting New Street station. Once I arrived, I was not disappointed. 

The Craven Arms | Black Country Ales

The Craven Arms is owned by Black Country Ales, a very fine brewer of ales with a number of pubs across the Midlands including the Wellington (arguably Birmingham’s very best pub).  While the Craven does not quite compete with the breadth of the Wellington’s cask ale selection (11 pumps to the Welly’s 16), it has one chief characteristic that venerable establishment cannot hope to match: the Craven is never rammed to the rafters. Situated ever so slightly off from the city centre, behind the Mailbox and towards the Peace Gardens, the Craven Arms is a great place to enjoy a pint in relative peace. 

And let’s face it 11 pumps ain’t half bad. The beer is generally very good too. On my first visit I had a pint by Black Country Ales called chain ale and a pale ale by Green Duck called Revolution (but don’t worry I didn’t get up after drinking that last beer and start singing the “Internationale”). On my second visit I opted for a pint of pig in the wall, a nutty brown mild, once again by Black Country Ales. On each occasion I ordered a pork pie with my pint, a pub snack I was delighted to find they served at the Craven. There really is no finer comestible on this earth to be enjoyed with a pint of beer than a pork pie. 

Pig On The Wall - Black Country Ales - Untappd

It was splendid to once again visit this city I used to call my home and may call my home again someday. If I do move back, I know I will be spending many more a happy hour in the Craven.  

High Times at the Wolds Inn, Huggate

High Times at the Wolds Inn, Huggate

The Wolds Inn is situated in the village of Huggate which claims to be the highest settlement in the Yorkshire Wolds, though at only 170 metres above sea level this is hardly East Yorkshire’s answer to Kathmandu. Nevertheless, Huggate undoubtedly is a lovely spot, peaceful and serene. Situated on both the Wolds Way and the Way of the Roses, it is also an ideal stop for walkers and cyclists seeking refreshments.   

Cedric and I had the pleasure of visiting the Wolds Inn recently in August whilst half-way through a little cycle ride I had devised. I consider it to be one the finest pubs in the East Riding. Its exterior is rather pretty in an understated sort of a way with red titles, whitewashed walls and a delightfully old-fashioned pub sign. The interior is equally pleasing to the eye, traditional and cosy  – exactly what you want in a village pub. Most importantly, the drink and grub ain’t half bad either.  

File:The Wolds Inn Huggate.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

I think there were about three real ales on the bar the day we visited. I had a pint of Sleck Dust, a refreshing session ale by the Great Newsome brewery. This was chosen for me as owing to my rather slow and steady pace on two wheels, I was quite a few minutes behind Cedric by the time he arrived at t’pub and ordered. I think they had another Great Newsome beer on that day: Frothingham Best, a delightful best bitter. Incidentally, this terrific little brewery, based due east of Hull, appears to be gradually taking over East Yorkshire and frankly I am all for it!

The Wolds Inn - Huggate | Food & Drink

When it came time to order our mains, Cedric opted for the dish that has deservedly earned British cooking such a disastrous reputation worldwide: bangers and mash. It boggles my mind to think why but then he has always been a fairly inscrutable fellow. I, on the other hand, judiciously selected the steak and ale pie with chips for my main. The pastry was excellent. Chef Cedric tells me it was a little softer in places, indicating the pastry had not quite been cooked through evenly. I am sure he is right, but nevertheless it was a sterling effort for a country pub. The beef was excellent, locally sourced, tender and delicious. 

All in all, this is a fantastic little pub in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds, well worth visiting should you happen to be in the area. 

Casablanca – The Greatest Movie of All Time?

Casablanca – The Greatest Movie of All Time?

I have been given the unenviable task of discussing ‘Casablanca’ today. I say unenviable, partly because I know practically zilch about films and therefore am woefully unsuited to the role of film reviewer, and partly because this film has often been ranked as one of the greatest, if not the greatest films, of all time. It is as if Cedric were to set about reviewing the footballing career of Diego Maradona.

I did not, however, shirk from the task this time. Despite my vast ignorance of the subject, I am keen to express some of my opinions. Occasionally, greatness can inspire greatness in others, and so taking some comfort in that thought, I have decided to plod on and see what I can come up with.

What makes this film so interesting to me is that it is not only set during World War II but also produced during World War II. It premiered in November 1942 in the middle of the conflict. That is almost three years, before well-known Austrian mad-man, Adolf Hitler, killed himself in a bunker in Berlin. Moreover, it is almost two years before the Normandy Landings. Hitler had of course by then made his two colossal blunders that would eventually cost Nazi Germany everything: the commencement of operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941, and the declaration of war on the U.S.A. on 11 December 1941, but it was still not yet clear that the allies would win. The tide was turning but the ship had not yet been sunk.

Theatrical release poster, 1942

So, audiences would have received this film at a time of great uncertainty, searching for hope. I do not wish to get into the plot too much, partly so as to avoid “spoilers” and also partly because on a few points I am confused myself. To lay down the bare essentials however the film “Casablanca” is unsurprisingly set in the town of Casablanca, in French Morocco. The location is significant on two counts. Firstly, at the time, refugees from across occupied Europe were using Casablanca as a staging post from which to travel to Lisbon and thence to the U.S.A. and freedom. Secondly, we are in French Morocco, a colony of a country who had surrendered to Nazi might.

I do think the film is at least in part an exercise in propaganda. This is not to say it is bad art. Far from it. The beauty is that it can be viewed simultaneously as a very personal story too. This is after all a tale about the overcoming of cynicism, about doomed love and about self-sacrifice. The main characters the disillusioned Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, and the beautiful Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman are three-dimensional, living people. The basic plot is simple: Rick Blaine must choose between his love for Ilsa or the safe passage of both her and her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo to the new world via Lisbon. It is a moving tale of love and love’s heartache and could just as easily have been set in any place and at any time.

But the choice was a contemporary setting and the reason is clear. Everything at the time was to be directed towards the war effort. Film-making like any other industry was expected to support the cause. The film, then, is propaganda as well. Propaganda about the U.S.A, the land to which all the refugees in the film are fleeing, where all their hopes are pinned. Propaganda about the importance of the war effort over private interests. Propaganda about the allied world, where jazz can be heard, where black people and other ethnic minorities are visible (think of the wonderful character  of Sam), and where good humour is in ready supply.

Dooley Wilson as Sam

It is of course also propaganda directed towards the peoples of occupied Europe, and above all to occupied France. At no point is that made clearer than in the brilliant scene at Rick’s bar where the customers singing the Marseillaise outcompete the German soldiers’ stale nationalistic anthem. The Marseillaise is of course not just an anthem of the French people, but also an anthem of the French Revolution, and therefore a song for all men, all free men that is.

I suppose what was conspicuous to me as a Brit watching, was the absence of my fellow countrymen from all this. But of course, that is not quite true. The character of Captain Louis Renault, though technically French in the story, is played by an English actor (Claude Rains) who makes no attempt to assume a French accent. Though the character does illustrate some French attributes, his wit is undeniably the wit of an Englishman, just as Rick’s humour is inseparable from the streets of New York. All the main western allies therefore find some role in this film.

Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault

The humour is as brilliant as the romance is heart-wrenching. This really is a film that can make you both laugh and weep. The screenplay is inspired. There are so many classic lines, it is hard not to gasp in astonishment at times. The wit is essential. At this time people needed humour more than ever. They needed to laugh at the enemy, they needed to laugh at the situation, in some ways all they had left was their courage and their good humour. For they had to go on fighting. Go on Fighting for the world that this film in some ways stands for, the world of dissidents, the world of freedom and jazz, a world in which individual “human life was” not “cheap”.

The world they fought for survived and like a phoenix was reborn from the ashes of World War II taking on new life. I am not especially left-wing, but I do sincerely believe in the liberalism that this film encapsulates. Just as much in fact as those claiming to be the Victor Laszlos of today. In some ways in recent decades we have felt this liberal world order slip from our grasps ever so slightly. At times this has been because the liberal order has become corrupt and complacent, and therefore from time to time there has been justification for it receiving flack. Still, we must not to allow it to be lost completely. By watching ‘Casablanca’ we can remind ourselves that it is worth fighting for.

Anton Bruckner – Symphony 7 in E Major – A Modest Man’s Delayed Triumph

Anton Bruckner – Symphony 7 in E Major – A Modest Man’s Delayed Triumph

Note: I have made references throughout this blog to timings for certain highlighted moments (e.g 0:03 of track 1) – this is in relation to a recording of the work I will provide a link to below (follow along should you so desire). 

On the 30th December 1884 , in the world-famous Leipzig Gewandhaus, the premier of Anton Bruckner’s 7th symphony was received with rapturous applause. At the age of 60 Bruckner had now experienced his first taste of success with an audience. But why had it taken so long for this modest but industrious Upper Austrian to find favour with the public? One reason was simply that Bruckner had started surprisingly late in life to compose large-scale works, he had not approached the genre of the symphony until near the end of his fourth decade on this earth. The other perhaps more important facet was that he had found himself, quite by accident, at the fore of central Europe’s raging musical conflict between the supporters of Johannes Brahms and the supporters of Richard Wagner. At first glance, the tremendously modest Bruckner, who had little to no literary interests would seem an unlikely member of the Wagnerian camp, but nonetheless, that was the group he had found himself pigeonholed into. In fairness, Bruckner had gained a deep appreciation for Wagner’s music since the early 1860s and was known to have practically worshipped the older composer. What made Bruckner more offensive to the other side, though, was that he had had the temerity to compose abstract symphonies, and what’s more to compose them in Vienna, where Brahms, and perhaps more importantly the critic Eduard Hanlick resided and reigned supreme. Brahms had derided Bruckner’s symphonies as musical ‘Boa constrictors’, but Hanslick was the more abusive, orchestrating venomous attacks in the Viennese press. It goes without saying that the conservative orchestras and audiences of Vienna were by no means receptive to Bruckner’s symphonies which were both long and in their mind lacking proper rigour.

10 Anton Bruckner Facts – Interesting Facts About Anton Bruckner ...Painting of Anton Bruckner

The audience that heard Bruckner’s 7th symphony for the first time in Leipzig, however, was far more open to this music, and Bruckner had at last found a talented and sympathetic interpreter in the conductor Arthur Nikisch. It was a captivating success from the first bars onward. As with most of Bruckner’s symphonies, the opening is presented with utmost mystery, as a long arching and searching theme takes its course over tremolo strings. This theme had apparently come to Bruckner in a dream, in which his mentor from his Linz days, Ignaz Dorn, had played the melody on a viola promising the composer that it would bring him ‘success’. One of the main characteristics of this theme is that it modulates from the home key (or tonic), e major, to the dominant, b major. This is in part what give it its searching quality. It also sets up what is essentially the slow drama of the entire movement, the takeover of b major from the tonic and the painstaking process whereby the home key reasserts its position. In a truly ground-breaking manner, Bruckner will delay this resolution until the coda.

Arthur Nikisch - The History of the Berlin Philharmonic - Classic FMPictured here the much younger Arthur Nikisch

The first theme slips back to the tonic, for a restatement which again modulates to the dominant (1:22 of track 1). The second subject which starts in b major, wanders through several keys, generating a strong sense of forward movement (2:46 of track 1). It is important to bear in mind that although Bruckner’s music has a tendency to be slow, and interpretations have a tendency to be even slower, there is still often a feeling of steady forward propulsion. The music builds to a climax resolving on the key of b minor (a dark and solemn key). A theme with a new rhythm now begins in b minor, passing through several keys til it leads to a fanfare and the music dies away softly in b major (5:51 – 7:44 of track 1). This comprises effectively the exposition (the section in which the themes are first presented), and now it is time for the development. Bruckner inverts many of the movement’s themes for this section (this means the ascending intervals of the melody become descending intervals and vice versa), presenting for example, a beautiful inversion of the second subject played cantabile by the cellos (9:16 of track 1). A crisis point is reached in which the inverted version of the opening theme is presented menacingly in c minor (11:18 of track 1). Effectively any strict recapitulation in which the opening material is presented securely in the tonic, has now been severely undermined by this outburst so near the end of the development.

A traditional recapitulation was not in fact what Bruckner had in mind at all. Although, we do eventually hear the main theme in e major, and although this is felt by the listener as the home-key, it is far from a secure and solid resolution (13:06 of track 1). Again the theme modulates to b minor, which leads to what is the greatest crisis in the movement, as the music floats into dark and mysterious harmonies, beautifully orchestrated (14:13 of track 1). Bruckner’s wandering second subject again reaches a climax, but this time we arrive with the new rhythmic theme in g major, not the dominant, which provides the impetus to bring about the long-delayed resolution of this movement as the key of b has lost its pre-eminence (16:58 of track 1). Again the music passes through several keys, before it settles down for what is without a doubt one of the greatest codas in the entire symphonic repertoire. On a pedal point (a technique originating in organ music) in the bass over which the rest of the orchestra plays wandering harmonies, the music rises to a crescendo (18:25 of track 1 onward). The music gradually resolves to e major for what is, at last, the resolution we have been looking for throughout the entire movement, accompanied by glorious fanfares in the brass.

Anecdotes from the life of Anton Bruckner (II ... Anton Bruckner at the organ (he was best known as an organist for much of his career)

The second movement is marked adagio. Bruckner’s adagios are often seen as being at the heart of his symphonies, and this is especially true here. The seventh’s adagio is probably one of the greatest slow movements of any symphony, let alone any Bruckner symphony. It begins in the relative minor to the home key, C-sharp minor (a key hitherto not touched upon), and with a theme of sombre feeling (first heard at 0:01 of track 2). Apparently Bruckner was inspired to compose this theme because he realised that Wagner was not far from his dying day. Wagner was in fact to die during the period in which Bruckner composed the symphony. The movement’s structure is a set of variations upon two themes. The second which begins in f-sharp (first heard at 4:57 of track 2), has been described beautifully by Bruckner expert and conductor Georg Tinter as:

something which transcends ordinary sorts of feelings. You can’t even say ‘Is it jolly?’ ‘Is it sad?’ ‘Is it that?’ ‘Is it that?’. You can’t say that with a late Beethoven tune either. It is above these things

The adagio utilises 4 Wagner tubas, an instrument designed to be used in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Half way through the movement during the first recurrence of the first theme, the music reaches a climax in g major, which prepares the audience for the movement’s most important moment later on. That in turn is reached following a long crescendo, which climaxes in C-major accompanied by one of music’s most famous cymbal clashes, supported by a triangle (19:15 of track 2). This was apparently suggested as an addition by Nikisch, a change Bruckner agreed to. In the manuscript this addition is marked as invalid, but not in Bruckner’s writing. The fact that a similar passage is accompanied by a cymbal clash in the adagio of the 8th symphony suggests that Bruckner did want to retain this part for percussion in the 7th contrary to the manuscript’s direction. Some performances will include this use of percussion, others not. After this climax the music dies away and ends in funeral character.

Six Interesting Facts About Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Richard Wagner

The third movement scherzo is based on a driving dance theme in A minor with an octave leap (first heard at 0:02 of track 3), while the contrasting trio section has a slower tempo (3:25 of track 3). The latter is full of beautiful orchestration in the brass and woodwinds. Overall, this movement is the perfect foil for the immensely moving and sombre second movement. The finale is an odd mixture of the sublime and the light-hearted, it begins with a theme of jaunty character which has some resemblance to the opening movement’s first theme, and which is again accompanied by tremolo strings (0:01 of track 4). The second subject of the finale is a more serious chorale theme (1:00 of track 4), while the third subject takes up a more menacing mood in the minor mode (2:56 of track 4). In the recapitulation, the themes are presented in reverse order (just one of the factors that make this movement difficult to define in terms of form)! The coda features the jaunty theme alongside the opening theme of the symphony, climaxing with an E-major chord ablaze with glory (10:49 of track 4 onward)!

With this ending, Bruckner had capped off a work which would bring him fame and renown for the first time in his compositional career. In one of the great ironies of music history, the timid, shy, and deeply conservative catholic composer, with an awed reverence for music of the past, would become the new poster-child for progressive modern music. Anton Bruckner, the peasant from upper Austria, had secured his place in the great pantheon of German music, a position from which not even Hanslick could dislodge him. In some ways it is not exactly surprising that it was the 7th symphony that brought him this recognition, its lyrical and moving themes continue to have charms for audiences to this day. The long-delayed resolutions and slowly built climaxes contained within will forever deserve our special attention, representative as they are of that most Brucknerian quality: his sacred patience.

By Nicholas Jenkins

Here is the recording upon which the timings are based, you are more than welcome to choose your own performance but please note the timings could be very different if you do: