Thurifer considers music and politics
Within a couple of weeks I was fortunate to hear two of Beethoven’s choral masterpieces, his Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis. The latter was given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It is a mighty and demanding work. Someone once said that it was Beethoven’s attempt to convince himself that there was a God. It is difficult to believe he was not convinced when the gloria is so impassioned. Perhaps his doubts were more evident in the credo. Thus far it was a gripping performance. You could understand why Beethoven wrote on the manuscript, ‘from the heart to the heart.’ After those huge demands, there was a pause, entirely understandably. Several members of the chorus drank from bottles of water, as did the conductor—again, entirely understandable, but for a few seconds the spell was broken and it took a little time for the Sanctus to find its feet. At one point several chorus members stood too early. A few bobbed back down. After a few bars the full chorus rose. However, the outstanding, ravishing violin solo by the leader, Carmine Lauri, revived the spell. The earlier performance of the Ninth Symphony was given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and LSO Chorus (even better than in the Missa) conducted by the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel. A thrilling, whiplash performance, taken at breakneck speed but never losing colour, texture or detail. Pinpoint technical accuracy did not lead to a lack of emotional impact. There is a recording of Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic during the War (see YouTube: Goebbels in prominent attendance, with cutaways to rapt Aryan youths and wounded soldiers) that for spiritual depth transcends its setting and surroundings but for sheer joy Dudamel was hard to beat one spring evening in London.
If you live long enough history comes back to haunt you. The death of Jeremy Thorpe in 2014 triggered memories and books about a scandal forty years earlier. Michael Bloch was able to publish a biography of Thorpe written years before and, more recently, John Preston wrote a highly entertaining book, A Very English Scandal, which formed the basis of a BBC production which was seen in May. It seems as incredible now as it seemed then that the leader of a major political party could be party to a conspiracy to murder. It may be, however, that we are more cynical or realistic and nothing will surprise us. I remember that as the trial unfolded and was, memorably, summarized every evening by the reporter Michael Cole, that what seemed a ludicrous mixture of farce and tragedy became all too plausible. The verdicts of not guilty came as a surprise. The programme admirably captured that flavour. The hit-man, Andrew ‘Gino’ Newton, was played by Blake Harrison as a Pythonesque, amoral chancer but one with a crisis of conscience before he eventually shot the dog whilst failing to kill Norman Scott. Hugh Grant was superlative as Thorpe and led an excellent cast, among them the excellent Alex Jennings.
Amidst an authentic re-creation, two scenes have raised questions. Thorpe’s partial, elliptical, fumbling explanation of his relationship with Scott to his wife Marion over a supper of cod in parsley sauce (a nice period touch) was queried. Only they know what was said between them, but the scene was psychologically compelling both for Thorpe but even more so to explain Marion Thorpe’s stoicism and her life-long support for an increasingly ailing Thorpe. It distilled her background as a refugee from fascism, her friendship with the Britten-Pears set at Aldeburgh, and her experiences, as wife of the Queen’s cousin, the Earl of Harewood, which gave her an insight into the stoic qualities of royalty and the aristocracy. Russell T. Davies, the writer, and Stephen Frears, the director, convincingly invented and realized the encounter. Waiting for the verdict, Thorpe’s QC, George Carman, revealed his bisexual dalliance and Thorpe responded with an explanation for such feelings. It came out of the blue and jarred, but then I remembered Dominic Carman’s book about his father and it seemed entirely plausible. Only at the last hurdle did the production fall. Court scenes are a minefield for a director and a cornucopia for the pedant. Since when have witnesses ‘taken the stand’ rather than gone into the witness box? It may, sadly, be current usage now, but not then. Why was Adrian Scarborough directed to leave his place and wander up to the witness box during his cross-examination of Scott (Ben Whishaw brilliantly compelling, by turns attractive, vulnerable, manipulative, needy, neurotic)? Which ignoramus could caption Mr Justice Cantley as ‘Chief Justice’? His infamous summing up was given full measure and an extract from the memorable spoof from Peter Cook was also included: ‘You will now retire, as I should have done long ago, carefully to consider your verdict of not guilty.’ The final verdict was delivered by Patricia Hughes as Thorpe’s mother, Ursula: ‘You’re ruined. You know that don’t you?’
The death of John Julius Norwich (second Viscount Norwich) in June severed another link with a more civilized past. He was a stalwart on Round Britain Quiz where, partnered by the late, lamented Irene Thomas, they tackled questions along the lines of what connects some Merovingian king, an eighteenth century recipe for syllabub, the Derby winner for 1874 and Aston Villa. He also wrote popular history, notably on Byzantium, Venice and Sicily under the Normans, and this year his last book, a history of France from Gaul to de Gaulle, was published. Professional historians disdained him. Accused of reviving discredited ideas and theories, he happily conceded that ‘deep down I am shallow… I have never discovered a new historical fact in my life.’ But he was an enthusiast and could communicate that enthusiasm and joie de vivre to a general readership. Dusty historians can write learned papers to other dusty historians with footnotes that can go on until the crack of doom, but for history to live more widely it needs the like of him. We rarely hear the voice of a well-read and well-stocked aristocratic mind on the airwaves. The mindless, ignorant faux plebeian drawl of the irredeemably superficial to which we are too often subjected is no substitute.
Jonathan Meades descends to television or the public prints from time to time like an avenging angel. A recent BBC 4 documentary on jargon was a forensic annihilation (see iPlayer). His coruscating prose, diamond-sharp satire, sarcasm, lambent wit and ridicule pierced the ‘net curtain of language’ in most areas of public life: politics, art, business, media, sport. He catalogued jargon’s obscurity, evasiveness, pomposity, obfuscation, dishonesty, a tin-eared and tawdry excuse for thinking and straightforward communication. He is the Hazlitt of his age. He concluded with: ‘We shall go on mocking.’
The first quarter of the eighteenth century was a golden age for castrati, well captured in the film of the career of the great Farinelli who took opera houses by storm. An early twentieth century recording exists of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, and rather disconcerting it is. He died in 1922. Fascination with the high tenor voice remains albeit with less drastic ways of achieving it. We seem to be in a golden age of the counter-tenor. It was almost single-handedly revived in England by Alfred Deller and he has been followed by many others, not least the marvellous James Bowman and currently Iestyn Davies at the height of his considerable artistic and musical powers. Beyond these shores I particularly like Philippe Jarousky, the up-and-coming Polish singer Jakub Jozef Orlinski (whom I heard in ‘Rinaldo’ earlier in the year), and an American, John Holiday, who recently made a sublime contribution to a performance of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. I added another to my personal pantheon in June, having heard the Argentinian Franco Fagioli, accompanied by the virtuoso Venice Baroque Orchestra, in a programme of Handel and Vivaldi. Full of voice, flamboyant of gesture, dramatic and theatrical, he scaled the heights and mined the depths with some notes from the lower register, before he ended his second encore with a flamenco stomp. Quite a performer.