Thursday, September 11, 2014

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' by Haruki Murakami

11 September 2014

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami combines critical acclaim with huge popularity and the publication of a new Murakami book now feels like a major event. I'm very much a fan and I rushed to read his latest novel, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' (which I read as an unabridged audio book, translated by Philip Gabriel and narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens). After the enormous magical saga of Murakami's previous book, ''1Q84' (reviewed here in April 2012), 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' is a smaller, calmer, more serious work. There is no magic realism (though the symbolism of erotic dreams again plays a significant part). This is essentially a gentle love story. Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year old engineer whose life has been haunted by the mystery of his sudden expulsion, 16 years ago, from a close group of school-friends. Tsukuru never knew why his four best friends suddenly rejected him and finally decides to try to find out what happened. Murakami's writing has a compellingly odd quality. His prose is terribly precise and careful and most of his characters behave in a very logical, straightforward way, but somehow he makes you feel the presence of something deeply mysterious and intriguing in his narrative. Nothing appears to be missed out but you get the impression that the most important things are not being said. Tsukuru Tazaki is likeable and sympathetic but a little dull – but is there anything wrong with being an empty vessel? I enjoyed being back in the strange world of Haruki Murakami and found myself gripped by Tsukuru's pilgrimage, though I missed the humour of some of the earlier novels.


Friday, September 05, 2014

'All The Things You Are' by Leon Fleisher

5 September 2014

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is an often mis-attributed quotation which appears to have been coined by the comedian Martin Mull (see for a lengthy investigation of its origins). As a musician I often find written descriptions of pieces of music (particularly in novels) excruciating. (And don't even get me started on the common misuse of the term 'crescendo'!) So it was a pleasure to come across two excellent pieces of writing this week that sent me scurrying off to listen, not just to the works in question but to the particular recordings that the authors were describing. I rarely listen to solo piano music, so it is an additional testimony to these pieces of writing that both were about this genre.

I've just started reading the new novel by Haruki Murakami, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage', and I was intrigued by this passage: “As they listened to one piano recording, Tsukuru realised that he'd heard the composition many times in the past. He didn't know the title, however, or the composer. It was a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme, played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations. Tsukuru looked up from a book he was reading and asked Haida what it was. “Franz Liszt’s 'Le Mal du Pays' – it's from his 'Years of Pilgrimage' suite, Year One: Switzerland ... The piece seems simple technically but it's hard to get the expression right: play it just as it's written on the score and it winds up pretty boring, but go the opposite route and interpret it too intensely and it sounds cheap. Just the way you use the pedal makes all the difference and can change the entire character of the piece.” “Who's the pianist here?” “A Russian – Lazar Berman. When he plays Liszt it's like he's painting a delicately imagined landscape … there aren't many living pianists who can play it accurately and with such beauty. Among more contemporary pianists, Berman gets it right.”” Apparently copies of Lazar Berman's CD sold out almost immediately after the publication of Murakami’s novel, and a new release is now planned.

I also loved this New Yorker article by Alex Ross: , which persuaded me to listen to the pianist Leon Fleisher's album 'All the Things You Are' – an eclectic collection which includes pieces by Bach, George Perle, Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Ross writes: “In the mid-nineteen-sixties, Fleisher began suffering from focal dystonia, and for several decades he lost the use of his right hand. Eventually, thanks to experimental treatments, he returned to playing with both hands, but he still gravitates toward the left-hand repertory, much of which was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, one of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brothers, who lost an arm during the First World War. Fleisher has expanded that repertory further, and draws upon it in 'All the Things You Are'. The central work is Bach’s 'Chaconne in D Minor for violin', arranged as a left-hand piano exercise by Brahms. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms told of his love for the Chaconne – “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings” – and said that he enjoyed struggling in solitude to execute it with one hand, because “one does not always want to hear music actually played.” The miracle of Fleisher’s account is that, while he performs with astonishing dexterity, he retains that atmosphere of exploration, as if no one were listening. The most wrenching passage in the Chaconne comes toward the end, when, after an upward-striving, light-seeking section in D major, there is a shuddering collapse back into the minor. Here, as sonorous, multi-register figuration gives way to spare, confined lines, you may remember what you might have forgotten, that the pianist is using one hand, and that the impairment of the other has caused him much sorrow.”

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Edinburgh Festivals 2014

28 August 2014

Last week we were in Edinburgh, marking the 20th anniversary of our first visit to the Edinburgh festivals. For several years we went every August but then restricted our visits to every other year, so I'm not sure how many times we have been in total but we've certainly seen a lot of shows. This year we saw 26 performances in the 6 days we were in Edinburgh.

As usual we took advantage of some of the free BBC Radio shows at Potterrow, starting the day with BBC Radio Scotland's 'MacAulay and Co', with Fred MacAulay and Susan Calman introducing a wide selection of the best comedy acts on the Fringe. We also enjoyed an excellent edition of Radio 3's 'The Verb' hosted by the inimitable Ian McMillan.

The PBH Free Fringe continues to grow in scale and stature. We saw some wonderful free shows, including 'Prufrock and Me' – a personal account of one man's relationship to T. S. Eliot's poem 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' by Dave Williams – and stand-up comedian Josh Howie's clever, edgy and hilarious show 'AIDS: A Survivor's Story' in which nothing was quite what it seemed.

We saw two Edinburgh International Festival performances - both in huge venues that were completely sold out. The James Plays – Rona Munro's new history play cycle, directed by Laurie Sansom for the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain, have been the talk of the festival. We saw 'James I' at the Festival Theatre and it did not disappoint – it was ambitious, spectacular, fascinating and surprisingly funny. Munro has created a drama that bears comparison with Shakespeare's history plays, but uses modern language to give the action a contemporary feel. Having recently seen 'Richard II', 'Henry IV Parts 1 & 2' and 'Henry V', 'James I' felt like a natural next step as it starts with Henry V of England releasing James after 18 years in captivity to take his place on the throne of Scotland. We also saw a fantastic concert at the Usher Hall where Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti got a deservedly rapturous reception for her performance of Erich Korngold's 'Violin Concerto' with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. The concert concluded with Martinu's lovely 'Symphony No 4' with the Czech Philharmonic on top form.

We visited the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square to see our new favourite novelist Ned Beauman promoting his latest book 'Glow' (reviewed here in June 2014). He shared the platform with the young Austrian novelist Clemens J Setz and I am looking forward to reading the first of his novels to be translated into English, 'Indigo'.

It was great to rediscover the zany musical world of New York's Kenny Young and The Eggplants who we first saw on the Fringe about 18 years ago. They played at the Acoustic Music Centre at St Bride's in front of an enthusiastic audience who seemed to know all their lyrics - 'aubergenius!' as one review said. We saw a few comedians including the ramblingly brilliant 'Simon Munnery sings Soren Kierkegaard' and an old Fringe favourite of ours, Owen O'Neill, this year performing in the 'spoken word' section of the Fringe with a mixture of storytelling and poetry.

But most of our week was spent watching some wonderful fringe theatre, the highlights being 'Last Christmas' – a monologue by Matthew Bulgo about a man returning home to Swansea a year after his father died of a heart attack, performed by Sion Pritchard at the Assembly George Square Studios, which was warm, funny and very moving – and 'The Initiate' by Alexandra Wood, performed by Paines Plough at Summerhall, which told the story of the reaction of a Somali-born taxi driver in London to the kidnap of a British couple by Somali pirates. It was a very clever play, excellently acted by three actors (Andrew French, Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis) without the need for any set, props or costumes, in which the unseen events between the scenes created an intriguing ambiguity and really made you think about the morality and motivation of the characters.

We had an exhaustingly wonderful week in Edinburgh.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

'The Last Dragonslayer' by Jasper Fforde

14 August 2014

Regular readers will be aware of my enthusiasm for the work of the comic-novelist Jasper Fforde. Having exhausted his books for adults (all ten novels reviewed here between April 2007 and April 2012) I thought I would try his 'Dragonslayer' young-adult fantasy novels. I've just finished the first book in the series, 'The Last Dragonslayer' (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jane Collingwood). It was a very enjoyable read – with much more in common with his other novels than I was expecting. This tale of dragons, wizards and magic is set in an alternative-reality version of Hereford (a similar model to the Reading of the Nursery Crimes novels and the Swindon of the Thursday Next series). We follow the perilous journey of teenager Jennifer Strange as she is drawn by her destiny into a struggle with royalty, the media, big business and big magic. There are some familiar Jasper Fforde themes and some recognisable villains, though this feels like a very stripped down version of Thursday Next and I was sorry there wasn't more of Fforde's trademark silliness. Nevertheless 'The Last Dragonslayer' is great fun, with some great characters. I loved the trivia-expert William of Anorak and the apprentice dragonslayer Gordon van Gordon, and who couldn't love the Quarkbeast with his one-word vocabulary. “Quark!”


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

'Skylight' by David Hare

5 August 2014

On Sunday we made a first visit to the wonderful Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton – a delightful little cinema with some of the most comfy seats I've encountered – to see the recent NT Live recording of David Hare's play 'Skylight' at the Wyndham's Theatre in London. I had heard a radio version of the play during its first run in 1995, but this was the first time I had seen it. It's a clever, subtle piece of writing, with three actors in a single room set, teasing out political themes through a very personal story. Stephen Daldry's production created a very realistic setting (with a wonderfully squalid set by Bob Crowley) and the acting by Bill Nighy (reprising his role from the original 1995 production), Carey Mulligan (making her London stage debut) and Matthew Beard was excellent. The NT Live cameras revealed some very delicate touches in close-up that added to the painful reality of the situation. Carey Mulligan's incredibly expressive face managed to say much more than appears in the script and she generated an impressive volume of real tears. The play was much funnier than I had remembered and Bill Nighy delivered some brilliant set-piece lines in the uncomprehending deadpan manner than has become his trademark.

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Tom Robinson

5 August 2014

I'm a little too young to remember Tom Robinson's first 15 minutes of fame - in 1978 when the BBC banned his song 'Glad to be Gay' - and, although I do recall his second moment in the sun (the 1982 hit 'War Baby'), I didn't really discover Tom Robinson until much later. I think it was around 1994 when we went to see him performing at the South Holland Centre in Spalding. By then there was no Tom Robinson Band, just Tom himself handing out promotional postcards before the show, acting as the support group and providing his own backing vocals. But we were impressed - by his musicality, his storytelling, his songwriting and his political passion - and we joined his fan club (The Castaway Club) and saw him perform many times across the country over the next few years. In 1996 he was joined by the brilliant young guitarist Adam Philips (then a painfully shy twenty-something) and we saw them try out material for the 'Having it Both Ways' album. I think the last time we saw Tom Robinson live was at The Stables in Wavendon in about 2001, where he was supported by a young Mancunian singer/songwriter Lee Griffiths. Then Tom Robinson was recruited as a regular presenter on the new BBC digital radio station 6 Music and he decided to stop touring. So it was wonderful to have the chance to see him perform a rare one-off gig at the Jazz Cafe in Camden last Friday. After getting "the six songs of mine you've probably heard of" out of the way at the start (including songs he wrote with Peter Gabriel and the inevitable "medley of my greatest hit" - '2-4-6-8 Motorway') this was a performance that focussed on more obscure songs from his extensive back-catalogue requested by fans on his Facebook page. It felt great to step back in time, rediscovering what we had always liked about Tom and being reunited with some long-forgotten songs. We had been prepared for the fact that he would be looking older than we remembered him (which he was) but it was more of a shock recognising the older versions of Adam Philips and Lee Griffiths in his backing band. Tom Robinson has always generously supported emerging young artists - through his live concerts and latterly through his 6 Music show - and we enjoyed hearing the young support band, from Derry/Londonderry, 'Best Boy Grip' (in London to record a set for Tom's radio show). But this was a celebration of the career of Tom Robinson - a great performer and an intelligent and accomplished songwriter.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

'The Silkworm' by Robert Galbraith

1 August 2014

I enjoyed 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith – J K Rowling's first detective novel (reviewed here in May 2014) – and I was looking forward to the sequel. I've just finished reading 'The Silkworm' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Robert Glenister) and I wasn't disappointed. 'The Silkworm' is more of the same, but it's well done, gripping, puzzling and satisfying. The private detective, Cormoran Strike, and his assistant, Robin, are likeable, sympathetic characters. My only gripe is that, amongst the clearly carefully researched, realistic London setting, there are a few small anomalies that I would have expected an editor to spot – Cormoran Strike must be the only person able to watch live football on his television at 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon! But this is a minor quibble – 'The Silkworm' is a good read and I will be eagerly awaiting the next novel in the series.


Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games

1 August 2014

We had a brilliant time at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the beginning of this week. It was very well organised and there was a fantastic atmosphere throughout the city. It was great to see the Clydesider volunteers making such an important contribution – and being properly recognised for it. On Monday we attended an extended morning session of athletics at Hampden Park and were lucky to see our local hero, Greg Rutherford (from Woburn Sands), in the long jump, Kenyan world-record holder David Rudisha in the 800m, the amazing David Weir in the T54 1500m, and Scotland's Eilidh Child in the 400m hurdles. The stadium was packed and, even though we were mostly watching heats rather than finals, it was a thrilling experience which finished with a fascinating decathlon pole vault competition won by Ben Gregory from Wales. Watching events like the pole vault or high jump you find yourself genuinely delighted when any competitor manages to clear the bar – regardless of which country they are representing. In the latter stages of the competition, when there are more failures than clearances, any success is truly exciting. On Monday afternoon and evening we were at a long session of badminton at the Emirates Arena. I have never watched badminton before and I really enjoyed it. We could see matches going on simultaneously across four courts and there was plenty to hold your attention, even in some fairly one-sided first round matches. The rallies in badminton tend to be lengthy and dramatic and there is a balletic athleticism to many of the shots. It was great to see some of the smallest competing nations and territories taking part in the mixed doubles – including teams from the Norfolk Islands and St Helena. On Wednesday morning we were back at Hampden Park for a second session of athletics which included the women's high jump and long jump qualifying and the heats of the men's 200m. It was great to be in Glasgow and to see the excitement generated by the games. Waiting in Glasgow Airport for our flight home we saw two young members of the Australian swimming team, being persuaded to pose for photos with their medals by fellow passengers who were thrilled to meet them. You can see a selection of my photos from Glasgow 2014 at:


WOMAD 2014

1 August 2014

2014 was the hottest WOMAD I can remember. It was also the busiest - the first time the Festival has sold out since it moved to the enormous Charlton Park, near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, in 2007. The weekend was full of musical superlatives too. Every year WOMAD is a showcase for the best music you had never previously heard of. I don't bother looking at the line-up until I arrive because it's invariably the unknowns that provide my personal highlights. This year my favourites included four female singer/songwriters – the Swedish 'cellist Linnea Olsson, the lively swing of harpist Lucinda Belle (this year's 'Caravan Palace' moment), Cumbrian folkie Maz O'Connor (the recent beneficiary of an English Folk Dance and Song Society Fellowship) and the former Mercury Prize nominee Kathryn Williams (whose latest album 'Crown Electric' is wonderful – highly recommended). It was a privilege to see the veteran Indian Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan performing with his sons Ayaan and Amaan Ali Khan. The warmest applause of the weekend was for two sisters from Iran, Masha and Marjan Vahdat, who break Iranian law every time they perform in front of an audience that includes men. They got a deservedly rapturous reception. But my pick of WOMAD 2014 was a performance by Justin Vali and the Ny Malagasy Orkestra from Madagascar. Justin Vali is famous for championing the valiha – a bamboo zither from which he can conjure both beautifully delicate and rousingly percussive music. His set with the Ny Malagasy Orkestra included a wide variety of styles and was moving, charming, lively and very danceable. You can see a selection of my photos from WOMAD 2014 at:

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

'Two Gentlemen of Verona' by William Shakespeare

24 July 2014

On Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' – one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and possibly his first comedy. It's not often performed (the last RSC performance on the main Stratford stage was 45 years ago) and you can see Shakespeare developing the technique that he would use to create later greater works. But Simon Godwin's Royal Shakespeare Company production is great fun and well worth seeing. It's fascinating to spot the prototypes for scenes in 'As You Like It', 'Twelfth Night', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 'The Winter's Tale' and other plays. And I enjoyed watching a Shakespeare play without knowing exactly where the plot was heading. 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' is a fairly bonkers romp and the RSC's swashbuckling production reminded me of the marvellous Not Man Apart production of 'Pericles Redux' we saw in Edinburgh some years ago (reviewed here in August 2008). The RSC cast were all impressive – with Roger Morlidge giving a great comic turn as the servant Launce. The RSC is very good at introducing wave after wave of stunning young actors. Michael Marcus, Mark Arends, Peal Chanda and Sarah Macrae, who played the four young lovers, were all excellent – and all four are in their RSC debut season. But the star of the show was undoubtedly the lurcher Mossup who played Launce's dog Crab. Mossup was clearly an experienced actor and it was good to see that she had her own biography in the programme (she has previously appeared in 'Legally Blond' (in Glasgow), 'Casualty' and 'The Tudors' on TV, and the film 'The Invisible Woman'!). I also enjoyed Nicholas Gerard-Martin channelling Morrisey in his desperate singing of 'Who is Silvia?'. 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' is a hoot.

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

24 July 2014

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra Friends' Concert, each July, always feels like an 'end of term' party. This year it was also our final concert with conductor Alexander Walker. Alex has been conducting NSO since 2009 and, looking back over the past five years, he has been presided over some stunning concerts and I think he has helped to create a marked improvement in our playing. Alex has been a reassuring presence during concerts, often steering us calmly to safety when a wrong entry threatened to derail our performance. And I think we have learned a lot from his particular knowledge of, and passion for, Russian music. My personal highlights from Alex's tenure as our regular conductor include the incredible experience of playing Mahler's 'Symphony No. 6' (reviewed here in November 2011), a stunning performance of Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’ with Katherine Crompton (featuring an exquisite horn solo in ‘September’ by David Lack) (reviewed here in November 2010), Shostakovich's immense ‘Leningrad Symphony’ (reviewed here in November 2013) and our 'Love and Death' concert earlier this year (reviewed here in February 2014) which included the Richard Strauss tone poem 'Tod und Verklärung' ('Death and Transfiguration'). Alex's final NSO programme, last Sunday, included Dvorak's tone poem 'The Water Goblin' (a lovely piece), the 'Danse Macabre' by Saint-Saens and Rimsky Korsakov's rousing 'Capriccio Espagnole'. But I most enjoyed playing Wagner's 'Siegfried Idyll' – an achingly beautiful expression of love.

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