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Music

Office Soundtrack: Idomeneo (Mozart)

This is a definite top 10 opera for me. Possibly even top 5. I’ve had a blast, this week, reacquainting myself with the six recordings I have of it. Generally accepted as Mozart’s first mature opera, it’s a fine example of opera seria. Despite our man acknowledging Gluck’s reforms – ballet is included and the shipwreck scene closing Act I at least nods to, if not blatantly steals from, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – all the classical Italian tropes are present and correct. Particularly in the secco and stromentato recitatives.

The libretto by Varseco is fashioned from an original text by Danchet, with a strong Mestastasion flavour. Thus both the drama and the music are a skilled amalgam of the French and Italian styles.

As all opera, indeed all music, lends itself to a variety of interpretations, there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ or ‘best’ reading. Most will have their charms. These three, however, are in my view the best three available and cover all the bases both the casual listener and discerning connoisseur might require.

Jon Eliot Gardiner’s authority in this repertoire is, of course, indisputable.  Here, as in everything he approaches, impeccable scholarship and flawless musical instincts combine to produce probably the most authentic Idomeneo ever committed to disc. This is, essentially, the performance given at its premiere but ‘Jegsy’ has included the material an affronted and irked Amadeus was forced to cut from the score so fill your boots, dear listener.

Aided and abetted by his usual sidekicks, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists (they deliver probably the best closing Act III ballet you’ll ever hear, by the way), Eliot Gardiner deploys stellar talent in the lead roles. Consummate pro that he is, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, stamps himself all over his titular role and, for my money, is a far better fit than the more mainstream bel canto tenors found in rival recordings.

But it’s the women who steal the show; Sophie von Otter’s Idamante is moving and never less than convincing; Sylvia McNair is liquid, pure and sumptuous while Hillevi Martinpelto is a mesmerizingly lacerating Elettra.

Charles Mackerras is no less an authoritative Mozartian than Jegsy, but of the old school. Albeit something of a period instrument/performance pioneer. That said, his score is complete, too, so makes for an interesting apples-to-apples comparison.

Bostridge, as Idomeneo, isn’t my first choice; a tad too smooth, shading dangerously close to blandness on occasions. Rolfe Johnson pops up here, as well, in the smaller Arbace role.  While Lieberson (Idamante), Milne (Ilia) and Frittoli (Elettra) are all perfectly acceptable-to-excellent, Eliot Gardiner’s singers deliver that little bit more.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are outstanding, despatching the orchestral score with panache and a relaxed insouciance that disguises their commitment to the maestro’s vision.

With this performance, huge on excitement, the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. While Jegsy delivers gravitas and gripping solemnity, Mackerras winkles out the subtle humour hidden deep in the text, particularly Act II, and provides an exhilarating and good-natured reading. It’s marvellous fun and if encountering Idomeneo for the first time this is the most accessible reading available.

And so to René Jacobs. Crank or visionary? To many the man is marmite but it’s difficult to see why. Yes, he’s certainly idiosyncratic but the firmness of his intellectual grasp means anything he delivers doesn’t need to look long for strong supporting arguments.

His series of Mozart operas for Harmonia Mundi include some of the finest Mozart recordings of the modern age. Here, he goes further than even Jegsy and Charlie and includes every note willingly dispatched by Mozart himself! A courageous decision, to be sure. His reading features the least distinguished cast of the three but there are ample compensations. He is the better dramatist of the three and the human tragedy of the characters shines through stronger than in any other reading. You’ll either like his trademark (comparatively) breakneck tempi or you’ll howl in anguish but, for my money, it’s always at the service of the whole and sounds entirely natural in the context he sets for himself and his musicians.

Other highlights? I like what some might find to be the intrusive continuo and there is probably the best Act III quartet ever recorded. It’s electrifying, frankly.

The sound, too, is first rate. Combining clarity, depth and richness, it’s what hi-fi was made for. There is a bonus DVD, too, where Jacobs explains his thinking and approach which is well worth your time.

Serious collectors absolutely need all three. I couldn’t possibly do without any of them but if you’re an Idomeneo virgin I’d advise the MacKerras recording as your starting point.

Categories
Politics & Current Affairs

You don’t Need No Education

Terminally bitter and chronically cynical as I am – or maybe just because This Is England – I’m picturing this heartbroken kid; dreams snuffed out by an ex-fireplace salesman promoted to a position of incompetence. A glittering academic career in ruins. His future shoved up against the wall and downgraded by a volley from the Eton Rifles.

And then, somehow, by enormous chunks of good fortune and several truckloads of help from a cast of thousands, making a success of his life.

Later, just a scant few years later, by which time our crumbling state schools have been reduced to a cross between Lebanese refugee camps & Salvation Army soup kitchens; when strafing migrants in the Channel is an actual Saturday night reality TV show hosted by Nigel Farage and Isabel Oakeshott; when the Tories’ newly minted Volunteer Gammon Army arrest citizens for calling racists racists and wearing poppies smaller than the regulation six foot-squared; when Keir Starmer holds down the care home residents so Matt Hancock’s cuff links don’t get splattered by old people’s drool as he smothers them; when, during our annual three days of summer, the sun shines its now red, white and blue rays and your dad nips down the Dog and Swastika for a pint after his shift at the statue defending factory, our ripped-off kid is now a man.

Complete with fuck-you-peasants mock Tudor pile and smirking Audi on the drive, he endlessly lectures his own kids to stop whining and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Striding smugly to the polling station, past the dead homeless people swept into the gutters, to rot until the state collects them for Potters Field, all pious and self-righteous and desperate to sock it to the scroungers, wasters and lefties; to pass on the family tradition of destroying the futures of your own kids and grand-kids by voting Tory.

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Politics & Current Affairs

#BlackLivesMatter: Erasing History?

One of the more surprising consequences of the recent Black Lives Matter protests has been the sudden and passionate interest in history amongst portly, middle-aged, white men of a right-wing persuasion. This demographic, it is not unreasonable to suggest, have hitherto exhibited a knowledge of their own national history that extends no further than Two World Wars and One World Cup. Inevitably, they’ve been joined, or rather incited, by our nakedly racist Prime Minister, sundry right-wing columnists and MPs.

 A thirst for knowledge, however, and a desire to improve one’s grasp of history is to be welcomed. Indeed, a constant complaint from those of us on the left has been the abject absence of knowledge regarding Britain’s historical story. Particularly those chapters concerned with its Empire, colonialism and, yes, slave-trading. Let us, then, in a spirit of cooperation and a mutual thirst for historical knowledge render what assistance we may, using the current removal of historical statues as our medium.

Firstly, removing the statue of Edward Colston, Bristolian slave-trader and Conservative MP, now residing in the salty brine, does not equate to erasing history. Quite the opposite. The removal of the statue is itself now added to the historical record. People who had never heard of Colston and those who had passed by the statue and, quite naturally, assumed this was one of Bristol’s philanthropic sons honoured in bronze for great works are now far more well-informed.

The statue, with absolutely no accompanying information detailing Colston’s sickening crimes against humanity, was an establishment attempt to erase history; to whitewash one of its own and to deny access to history of his many thousands of black victims. Thus the statue in its original form and placement was a deceit perpetrated upon all of us. Not to mention a grotesque insult to the descendents of Coslton’s victims, still resident in Bristol. Its removal, however, has done far more in one weekend to educate British citizens in Colston’s blood-soaked legacy than in all the years combined since its erection. Odd, then, that the aforementioned portly, white, middle-aged history buffs aren’t nodding in approval, isn’t it?

But, they ask, where does it end? Do we dig up Roman roads? Do we destroy the history around us because some of it was bad? Er, no. No one is suggesting any such thing. At all. What people are objecting to is the public glorification and celebration of tyrants, racists and monsters by erecting statues in their honour. If I may invoke Godwin’s Law there are no remaining statues of Nazis left standing in Germany. Yet still the world is well-informed and aware of the Holocaust. Auschwitz, however, is preserved as a warning from history. The difference isn’t that hard to grasp, is it?

And so, with objective historical fact as our mutual desire, with the preservation of British history our passion, can we now look forward to the right-wing insisting that a full and frank disclosure of Britain’s role in the slave trade, colonialism and the Empire be added as a mandatory element to the National Education Curriculum? Don’t hold your breath, dear reader.

And, finally, what of the lawless mob responsible for these wanton acts of vandalism? For the moment lets ignore the British Empire, Britain’s most successful criminal gang, and the British Museum, one of the world’s most impressive lock-ups housing the proceeds of violent crime, and concentrate on Black Lives Matter activists and their allies. They are, quite simply, living proof that physical force protest works. Asking nicely never got women the vote. Singing Kumbya around the campfire didn’t end segregation in the United States. Strongly-worded letters to The Times didn’t abolish slavery. Peaceful protest did absolutely nothing to destroy apartheid in South Africa. The lesson from history is consistent, clear and unambiguous; it isn’t the rebels in the world that cause the trouble; it’s the trouble in the world that causes the rebels. If the establishment doesn’t want oppressed people to rebel then stop oppressing them. It really is that simple.

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Politics & Current Affairs

#BlackLivesMatter: Self-Defence is Never an Offence

Self-defence is never an offence. Even a cursory glance at history, if we’d ever bother to study it and learn from it, would show the provable, demonstrable effectiveness of violent resistance.

The Chartists, Suffragettes, the Stonewallers, Freedom Riders, Black Panthers, the Levellers and every other marginalised and oppressed group, anywhere in the world, throughout the entire span of human history, only ever succeeded once all peaceful and legal means had failed. When, exhausted and all out of options, they were forced to rise up and kick off. A simple shining historical truth that, tragically, has escaped far too many of us.

Black people have marched, peacefully protested, lectured, organised, petitioned and lobbied for longer than we’ve been alive. They’ve prayed, they’ve pleaded and they’ve begged and still they are oppressed, still they are victimised, still they are murdered. Holding hands around the campfire, singing Kumbaya, never prevented a single lynching.

I cannot even start to imagine the indignity, the humiliation, the sheer outrageous injustice of having to justify my life; to fight for my right just to exist free from discrimination, abuse and violence. Year after year. Decade after decade. Generation after generation.

And when finally they explode what do we do? We presume to know better; we condescend, from the purified planes of our moral white ground, to define the limits of their resistance. We, breathtakingly, arrogantly and ignorantly, dare to tell the victims to fight their oppressors in a manner we deem acceptable.

We should be embarrassed by our historical illiteracy; discomfited by our appalling arrogance; disgusted by our wilful ignorance. And utterly ashamed of our crushing lack of empathy.

Someone once said something like those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. Sad but true. And it looks like that “neo-fascist gangster in the White House” – to quote Cornell West – is absolutely determined to learn this the hard way. Well, he can’t say he wasn’t warned.

If you are offended by how black people are protesting, rather than why they are protesting, then you, dear reader, are part of the problem. Don’t be. Be part of the solution.

#blacklivesmatter

Categories
Politics & Current Affairs

#BlackLivesMatter

I have few-to-no illusions left in progressive change any time soon in England. I have zero expectations of any sort of class-based resistance in the short and medium term. Indeed, my personal maxim is don’t give into hope; it’s the hope that kills you.

That said, even I’ve been surprised by the ignorance and racism emerging in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. ‘ALL lives matter’ is the new racist signifier, isn’t it? It’s the new ‘I’m not racist but…’

It’s surprisingly simple to grasp, fellow white folks. Not one bad thing that has ever happened to any of us, in our entire lives, has ever happened because we’re white people struggling under the burden of an institutionally and systemically racist anti-white society. Not once. Not ever.

And if you’ve yet to utter word one in protest at black people murdered by the state while you’re busy condemning ‘looting’ and ‘violence,’ well, you’re probably racist as well as ignorant.

You should really work on that.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Kittens Led By Donkeys

Incredibly, Dominic Cummings and his charge, Boris Johnson, the putative Prime Minister, still have their defenders. My own MP here in Broxtowe, Darren Henry, slavishly trotted out the party line he’d been given following a Zoom conference for backbench grunts yesterday. As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the gutless, near-invisible and entirely useless Henry might imagine, he fell unquestioningly into line behind Cummings. As instructed by his party capos. If an independent thought ever found its way into the seemingly infinite chasm that exists between Henry’s ears it would surely die of loneliness. Emily Maitlis he is not. Which is not a particularly high bar.

Readers may recall the temporarily embarrassed Newsnight host enthusiastically leading a charge against Jeremy Corbyn, set against a mocked-up background of the Kremlin; all lurid reds and agitprop imagery, in an infamous episode of the BBC’s current affairs program. Ridiculously, even the cap Corbyn had sported in the image had been altered to emphasise its Lenin-like qualities. To no one’s surprise, such treatment of the Leader of the Opposition breached no BBC impartiality rules. Unlike Maitlis’s opening monologue addressing the Cummings affair, which drew the fire of the government and resulted in her replacement by the, one presumes, Tory-approved Katie Razzall.

So far so predictable. Less understandable, however, are the strident defenders of Cummings amongst the wider public. As if we should all just uncomplainingly accept this ongoing clown car-crash of hubris, criminal negligence and staggering incompetence. It is, apparently, time to move on.

Any democracy worth a damn, even the tawdry, patronage-ridden, class-dominated embarrassment that is Britain, needs a questioning and fearless press to speak truth to power and hold governments to account.

That anyone could be indignant at the toothless, Tory-dominated public relations courtiers that pass for real journalists in this servile nation is just another mark of how low we’ve sunk; how little we value ourselves and how eagerly we kiss the boots that kick us.

It isn’t the job of real journalists to uncritically relay government press releases. It isn’t their job to be sycophantic cheerleaders for the establishment. It is their job to unflinchingly tell the truth to the public. That a rare example of a British broadcast journalist doing just that can excite such ire is an appalling indictment of us all. We are kittens led by donkeys. The furious public backlash against Cummings and Johnson, however, points to our capacity to become lions. Given the next four years will see the establishment seek to recoup their recent losses and balance the books on the backs of the rest of us, that feline metamorphosis now assumes even greater urgency.

Categories
Music

Office Soundtrack: The Hub of Hubbard

This is a simply ferocious session. The incendiary brace of Without a Song and the pedal-to-the-metal death-driver Just One of Those Things must surely comprise one of the most uncompromising openings to any hard-bop date ever recorded. One can only imagine what Cole Porter would have made of Hubbard’s scorching assault on his material.

Freddie was in Germany when he cut this session, straight off the back of intensive road-work and the resulting tightness of the quintet is a joy to hear.

From 1969 It’s fascinating, too, as he stands at the junction of the hard-bop he would soon leave behind and the electro-jazz funk he would embrace in barely a year’s time. The band barely pay lip service to the heads of each take before tearing them off and then reconstructing their charts in a white-hot blaze of unrestrained passion.

Freddie, himself, lays down at least three of the greatest solos he ever recorded and, frankly, they are worth the price alone. Add to that the self-penned Blues for Duane (Hubbard’s son), featuring a mellow and lyrical Daniels solo, and everything else is a bonus. That your buck is banged to beyond the max by Richard Davis on bass, Roland Hanna on keys and the too-little heard Louis Hayes on drums, means The Hub of Hubbard is both essential and, at under a tenner on CD, grand theft audio.

Go get it and thank me later.

Categories
Politics & Current Affairs

Protection Racket

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I’ve just watched a report on Sky about the current PPE scandal. I watched doctors and nurses cutting up binbags and other assorted crap to fashion their own.

I cannot even imagine the sheer guts, the humanity, the selflessness of these people.

Imagine going to work, exposed, unprotected and risking your life to save many of those responsible for voting you into this horrowshow in the first place.

Watching patients die, watching your colleagues die, clocking off spent and shattered, wondering if you now have a Corona time-bomb ticking away inside you.

And then being told the time to discuss a wage you can actually live on is not now; being patronised on the correct use of the PPE you don’t have by a Tory Health Secretary even worse than Jeremy Hunt; watching the media fawn over a Prime Minister whose staggering hubris and incompetence led to his own infection after he and his mates cheered when they blocked your payrise.

Watching your foreign-born colleagues hounded and bullied from the country they thought was home by empathy-free racists masquerading as a government.

And still you turn up to work. Still you do your duty. Day after day, shift after shift.

I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. I only know that this nasty little rock doesn’t deserve you.

Categories
Politics & Current Affairs

The Great British Death Cult

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Eventually, Boris Johnson resumes ‘work.’

Thanks to him and his fellow Eton Rifle eugenicists, UK’s death toll is the highest in Europe.

No need for all that mass testing, contact tracing and quarantine nonsense. We’re British. We know better.

Urged on by Sir Kier Starmer an ‘Exit Strategy’ is formulated; we’re all forced back to work early to die for The Economy.

Starmer continues to be ‘constructive’ and act ‘in the national interest.’ i.e. he doesn’t call for a public enquiry, he doesn’t demand Johnson and Hancock’s resignations but he is ‘deeply sad’ so many have died. So that’s OK.

Johnson introduces Austerity V2 to recoup his mates’ losses for them. Rachel Reeves thinks the measures don’t go far enough.

The bootlickers vote the Tories back in for a second term.

Austerity V2 kills another couple of hundred thousand people.

Bootlickers go ‘ah but how much worse would it have been with Corbyn in charge?’ There are some racist non-sequiturs about Diane Abbott, flags and assorted drivel.

Hundreds of thousands leave the Labour Party, it reduces to an England-only rump of middle-management centrists.

Unemployment, homelessness and poverty reach even greater levels.

The NHS continues its Tory-driven death spiral. Salami-slicing privitisation continues apace.

The servile electorate, face down, eagerly lapping Etonian shoe-leather, pauses only to denounce opposition voices as ‘traitors’ ‘communists’ & ‘snowflakes.’

Repeat to fade.

If you want a vision of the future, picture a Union Jack-boot stamping on the face of an NHS nurse. Forever.

Welcome to The Great British Death Cult.

Categories
Life Politics & Current Affairs

Boris Johnson: a Life Less Honourable

Boris Johnson; a man who has lived his entire life recklessly, selfishly, irresponsibly; without any regard for the consequences. Because he’s never needed to. His enormous privilege has protected him from any repercussions.

He is a proven pathological liar, swaggering through the years with no empathy or concern for anyone but himself. Indeed, recently bragging about shaking hands with Corona virus patients. As if it was just another laugh; a jape; just another moment in a life less honourable.

There is a grim irony to him finally, in this manner, being confronted by the consequences of his behaviour. Even he can’t lie and bluster his way out of this mess.

One can only hope that the Prime Minister, as he languishes in intensive care, courtesy of the NHS that he and his party have done so much to destroy, deeply regrets the cheering & jeering doled out to nurses by he and his colleagues; when they voted down a pay-rise for those heroes. If he’s lucky he’ll now be finding out exactly how valuable these people are.

My brother, sadly, wasn’t lucky. On March 28th, Jas, 54, died of Covid-19 in Nottingham’s Queens Medical Centre. Unlike the Prime Minister, Jas was denied a ventilator. ‘Operation: Last Gasp’, right, Prime Minister?

I then stood on an empty street, shouting to be heard over the wind, no privacy, no dignity, to tell an old man on a doorstep his child had died. The most indescribably awful duty I’ve ever had to carry out.

There will, of course, be those idiots, those hypocrites, those bootlickers, who will condemn me for ‘politicising’ both my own loss & Boris Johnson’s condition; those who can’t grasp that politicians making political decisions and political choices impact people’s lives. And sometimes end them. As Jas found out.

Do I wish Johnson dead? No. Do I wish dead the selfish, the greedy and the stupid who voted for him and still, even now, support him? Those who were perfectly happy to ignore the systematic destruction of the NHS while they were all right Jack? Again, no.

My sympathy, however, remains with the terrified & heartbroken victims of this crisis. The appalling & callous mishandling of which is unavoidably the responsibility of Boris Johnson.

It would be nice to think that lessons will be learned; that, individually and collectively, we will discover our self-respect and grasp that governments only ever treat us the way we allow; that, when this is over, an enormous reorganisation of the nation’s priorities will be undertaken, by both the politicians and the electorate; that, finally, people  will concern themselves with the value of others and much less with the cost of things.

If Boris Johnson, in any way, might be that catalyst then he will have done at least one noble thing in his life.

My breath, however, remains unheld.