Music


Picture of CD cover 'Gok's Divas'Until recently I found Gok Wan irritating, possibly because I find the fashion scene irritating and he’s just a bit too ‘camp’ for me. It all changed when I heard him interviewed recently on Classic FM (UK of course). It was interesting to hear what I guess is the real person. It turned out that he loves opera, particularly the divas, and that he “likes, or needs, to be surrounded by strong women”. Perhaps not his exact words but whatever he said it could well have been me I thought. Moreover, I heard that he had curated an album of his choice of divas; so many would have been those I would have chosen, headed by the incomparable Maria Callas. The only amazing omission was Joan Sutherland – as Pavarroti said, “the voice of the century.”

When the interview finished I was on to Amazon and bought the album.

Back to the ’60s

Forgive any lapses of memory please – it is half a century ago and someone disposed of my record collection when I was in Romania. Several of his choices took me back to the 1950/60s; at that time I had several of the operas on LPs with divas he chose. Here are some:

Maria Callas did not have the greatest voice but she could stir the emotions like no other. “The Bible of opera” Leonard Bernstein called her. Like many thousands of others, I was stopped in my tracks when I first heard Casta Diva (Norma, Bellini). It still does it, as it did when it was played during the interview with Gok. Lucia di Lammermoor with Giuseppe di Stefano was among my LP sets in the ’60s.

Montserrat Caballe was just amazing when she sang pianissimo. Quite unlike any other. I had her 1967 recording of Lucrezia Borgia. Much more recent of course, she sang with Freddie Mercury.

Kiri Te Kanawa was quite a bit later. Always a delight to listen to, I can’t remember all the recordings of her I had but Die Fledermaus and Madame Butterfly were among them.

Elisabeth Schwarzcopf was an early favourite singing Wagner, having been taken by my grandmother to hear The Ring at an early age (not with Schwarzcopf unfortunately). The only opera I had been to before was Carmen at 7 years old, which began my love of opera though I had heard a lot before on radio and ‘gramophone’. I think Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg was an acquisition in the ’60s but a much earlier recording.

Victoria de los Angeles was rated no.3 in a BBC list of top twenty sopranos of all time (after Callas and Sutherland). I have two abiding memories of her: a recording of Carmen with Sir Thomas Beecham, from the ’50s I think, and a recording of Madame Butterfly with Jussi Bjoerling. Someone I shared a flat with had this latter recording on tape  (remember those? – 4 track stereo) but mine was on LPs.

Katherine Jenkins is much later of course and, as far as I know, has never taken a leading role in a staged opera. I’d have chosen her singing something Welsh.

Joan Sutherland is, for me, an inexplicable omission. I would have had at least a track of her singing the mad scene from Lucia de Lammermoor in place of one of the ‘musicals’, which I find out of place.

Interesting isn’t it that when we think of opera we think ‘Italian’ but there’s not an Italian among them – Greek, Spanish, New Zealand, Welsh and, with Sutherland, Australian? If we did a similar thing with the men I guess Italians might dominate, though I’d be torn between Jussi Bjoerling and Pavarotti to head my list.

Eclectic

That comment on musicals does not indicate a restricted taste in music, I doubt you’d find one much more eclectic. I just find the sudden change from grand opera to ‘musical’ too much. To make the point, last Friday evening, my first ‘night out’ for more than a couple of years (all down to the pills – I may become as camp as Gok!), I was with members of our writers’ club to hear a couple of indie bands and our own singer-songwriter in a superb smokey church venue (see pic – Left Bank Leeds). She can move me as much as Callas – almost. Click for her recently released CD, which is frequently in the player.

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solitudeAs I said in my post a couple of days ago about social media, very occasionally the unexpected and unrequested intrusions on Facebook are welcome. So it was with a video of Nigel Kennedy‘s performance of his own composition ‘Solitude‘. Not surprisingly it has attracted a few ‘anti’ comments. My own comment, shared to our writers’ club, was:

I think even those of you who do not usually listen to ‘classical’ music might appreciate this. Nigel Kennedy’s own composition, ‘Solitude’, transports me to being alone on some isolated hilltop that I can no longer reach. The piece is dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin, without whose support Kennedy says he may never have played ‘classical’ music. Menuhin, in turn, was taught and supported by the Romanian composer George Enescu, without whom …

I’m hoping that it might prompt some writing from other members. It prompted this 5 minute jotting from me:

Solitude

Being alone
Is not loneliness
For me.
Sitting on some isolated hill or mountain peak
As I used to do
Set thoughts, desperate to escape
Free

A poem, a verse
Tumbling about in wondering head
Till spoken to rocks about, there a while to be.
Being a lover of the ephemeral, not jotted
Words long forgotten
To die, in their happy solitude
With me

cohen
Fulham rooms filled with the lazy smoke of marijuana, hash as we called it then. Chocolate cake which had the bride’s grandma dancing in a fountain at someone’s wedding. Girls without panties in the King’s Road. Charlie coming to work in his pyjamas, reluctantly leaving his one room abode in which all six walls were sky blue, broken only by billowing white clouds, created in an acid frenzy, and a mattress in the centre of the lowest – “if I stand on my tiptoes I can touch the ceiling”, he said, assuring us that the little pills opened the way to the secrets of life. Ruggiero Ricci playing Paganini, Maria Callas and Giuseppe de Stefano in Tosca, spilling through the haze from the slowly spinning vinyl on the Dansette to the entangled forms on the accommodating communal bed. All paused for …


Songs of Leonard Cohen

in 1967.


The world was never the same again.
It’s ended with a string quartet and a heart-rending plea for a treaty.

Playing the trout. In the hot June sun, the fly arches towards a cooler spot, suspended for a moment then alighting, still yet ominous. Only the midges bite, swooping again and again on bare skin. The daisies behind smile at the sun, a white army, each bearing his shield of gold. Buttercups spread their delicious gold. No rod here, no hook with barb nor tortured fish. Just Schubert’s quintet, spilling with joy from an iPad.


Some of you will know of my love for the ‘traditional’ haiku, the discipline of writing to a very short set format – 5-7-5 syllables – to communicate a thought or feeling.

Recently I was introduced, by Becky whose blog is called Evening Scribbles, to another format which appeals to me for similar reasons: to write a story or introductory stand-alone paragraph of exactly 75 words. They may be published, if accepted, on the website: http://www.paragraphplanet.com/

I have just submitted my first, though have yet to hear whether it will be published on the site. It was prompted by seeing a neighbour loading his car to go fishing shortly before I ventured downstairs to sit in the sun for the first time since my recent surgery, where I wrote the above 75 words. 

New Year vies with Easter as the most important celebration in the Romanian calendar, the latter being the most important religious celebration of course. New Year’s Eve, Revelion, is an important date in our home as it is Petronela’s birthday – so ‘open house’ in accord with Romanian tradition. All are an ‘excuse’ for a magnificent feast which would please any Yorkshireman. Our tiny flat was stuffed, as were our bellies, with traditional Romanian New Year dance and celebration music as a background (see video clips links at the end of this post).

Carp skeleton

Eaten – crap remains 😉 !

(more…)

I’m repeatedly surprised by wonderful, sometimes life-changing, experiences rising up out of dreadful situations. I had one on 11 March, when I returned by air to Yorkshire from seeing my grandchildren in Dusseldorf.

Helen1

What has this lovely lady to do with disaster at Dusseldorf? – Read on

This is usually a very quick, easy (and low cost) journey thanks to Jet2.com as my grandchildren live only 20 minutes from Dusseldorf and I live even closer to Leeds/Bradford.

The security personnel at the German airport decided to have a 24 hour strike. We were warned to be there at least two hours before our flight was due to board. I took heed.

If anyone suggests to me again that the Germans are masters of organisation they will get a very rude retort. This usually efficient, pleasant, modern airport descended into complete chaos and the most obvious measures – like getting passengers to sit comfortably and call the flights in order – did not happen. I stood in a queue for 2.1/2 hours but even after that I would not have got on the plane had I not used some subterfuge. I was one of only seven passengers who made it on to the plane, despite delaying the take-off till a minute before the airport closed (yes, this major German airport closes at night!); over 50 were left behind.

“I’m going to Istanbul!”

The subterfuge? I noticed that passengers for Turkey were being escorted through (there are a lot of Turks who work in Germany – at the airport too?). So I said I was going to Istanbul and in I went!

Then wonderful things began to happen. At the boarding gate I began to chat to a fellow passenger – clearly not British but speaking English extremely well. However, on the plane I saw that she was anxious to study a music manuscript so I left her alone. But as we arrived at Leeds/Bradford we began to chat again and I mentioned that I was lucky as I lived close by, and hopefully the buses would be running. She said she was being picked up by a friend, asked me the name of the place where I lived, and promptly telephoned her friend and asked whether I could be dropped off there. I was taken to my door.

In the car, remembering the music manuscript, I asked her what instrument she played. “The human voice”, she said. “And what is your name, so I can look out for your singing?”, I asked. “Helen Lepalaan”, she replied.

Now Helen Lepalaan (pictured above) is a wonderful Estonian mezzo soprano, and it turned out she was coming to sing with Opera North, in a production of Mozart’s ‘La clemenza di Tito’, a work of which I was unaware though I’ve been going to the opera for about 65 years. There were only two performances left in the season – the nearest in Manchester but I could not make that, the final one in Nottingham. So I determined to go.

Tito

I was not prepared for ‘La clemenza di Tito’. A stupendous production which belied what seemed at first to be a sparsely simple set with equally understated costumes. Without exaggeration, I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish, as gripped as in any episode of Spooks (a UK television ‘spy’ series). David Cameron would do well to watch it attentively. I can tell you it was the most exciting experience of opera since I saw Aida in Verona, elephants and all, or my first opera ever – Carmen with the Carl Rosa company, in Bradford over 60 years ago.

I’ve come to expect excellent voices from Opera North. It wasn’t always so. When I first began to go to their performances in the late 1970s I was often disappointed; I was used to the likes of Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland and of course Maria Callas on my vinyl discs at home. I usually found the men even less satisfying – but with discs of recordings from Tito Gobbi to Robert Merrill and Jussi Bjoerling, and of course Pavarotti, at home that wasn’t surprising.

No such reservations now. The singing was superb and it was an odd satisfaction that the tenor Paul Nilon (Tito) is a fellow tyke; he comes from Keighley, a few miles from where I live now and where I went to school.

Sesto - the man that Helen becomes so convincingly, even to me

Sesto – the man that Helen becomes so convincingly, even to me

But I came to Nottingham to hear Helen Lepalaan. I had listened to a short clip of her singing on YouTube so her beautiful voice was no surprise; what was a surprise was her acting. Cast in the role of a man, despite the ‘affinity’ I felt I had with her having met her off stage, she just became Sesto.

He (she) has two wonderful arias, one in each act. What a pity there’s no recording of the production. I’d be listening to it again and again, especially these two arias.

Of course one of the great roles for a mezzo soprano is Carmen, for which not surprisingly I have a special fondness. Helen has played the principal role and you can hear her singing from it on the following clip.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsyYYeSv0EU

So my disaster in Dusseldorf introduced me to a fascinating opera and a beautiful woman with a divine voice. I could live with that kind of disaster on a regular basis.

 

Because I have no particular theme for this blog, I am often torn between several subjects. I’ve shunted off classic photography to another blog, but even that’s a problem as there are so many commonalities between cooking, which I often write about on this blog, and the processing side of ‘classic’ photography (ie on film) – measuring, timing, weighing, careful attention, care (even love) – come to think of it, much of that applies to the taking of photographs too.

fragi

Fragi – tiny Romanian wild strawberries

As I’ve said before, I’ve no need of the WordPress daily prompts; my problem is how to find the time to write about everything which motivates me to write, especially as I have an hiatus in my soujourns on internet as I spend two days away from home attending to the ‘communications’ needs of the small charity for which I work (and I’ve recently introduced  a weekly blog for that, though it’s a very simple one).

Then there’s the whole ‘grump’ thing; I originally set up this blog to ‘have a go at’ so much I find wrong with the world, particularly the UK, today. And I’ve written almost nothing about music, which has been an inseparable companion for the whole of my life. It’s coming: I’ve got a major grump boiling up about ‘Classic FM’ radio, which – X-Factoring everything including Beethoven – is getting close to being shut off permanently in my home.

This afternoon I made a small pot of tea (my Romanian wife doesn’t drink it), Yorkshire tea of course (no, it doesn’t grow on the moors here but we know how to select the best) and, fancying something sweet, I spread a couple of slices of my home-made bread with ‘strawberry’ jam. But I don’t like strawberry jam! Except for a very small summer window, strawberries with any really ‘good’ taste no longer exist. The ‘window’ coincides with one of my pet hates – Wimbledon – but this is the English strawberry season.

However, the strawberry jam I ate this afternoon would blow your mind. I say ‘strawberry’ but this was made with miniature versions of the fruit we buy, or maybe grow, here – between 0.5 and 1 cm across. They grow on the lower slopes of the Romanian mountains and are called ‘Fragi’ (that’s ‘fradge’). Even as jam they taste extraordinarily good, but picked fresh on a Romanian mountain they explode in the mouth insisting “This is what a strawberry should taste like”.

Red cabbage with quickly seared pork shoulder (forget the old wives' tale that pork must be well cooked if you want some flavour)

Red cabbage with quickly seared pork shoulder (forget the old wives’ tale that pork must be well cooked if you want some flavour)

That’s not to say there’s nothing in the UK which tastes good – there are many British bloggers I read who show that to be untrue – so today I’d like to sing the praises of red cabbage, which I’ve been cooking to accompany quickly seared slices of pork shoulder around taking some pictures and processing the film for a grumpytykepix photo post – probably tomorrow morning.

The picture above isn’t up to much but I forgot to tart up the plate and take a photograph before I dived (or is that dove?) in.

So, for two people: chop up quarter of a small red cabbage (they’re actually purple of course). Chop up a large shallot (or onion) alongside. Spread freshly ground black pepper over it, sprinkle on a pinch of salt and a handful of juniper berries, tip into a saucepan with a knob of butter and a bit of oil (any good oil will do so long as you avoid the over-publicised poison – margarine). I’d add a chopped up Granny Smith or Bramley apple but then my wife wouldn’t eat it. Put on a low heat with a tightly fitting lid for about 45min, stirring occasionally, until it’s well cooked. Delicious and the perfect accompaniment to pork. I tried some Stella Artois cidre with it (it was a cheap offer in the local supermarket). OK, but a poor substitute for the real thing from Somerset, or Britanny.

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