September Miscellany (2010)

September has been a very good month. A score of  7.07 on the Depression Scale which is the second highest ever and by far the best September. This may be partly because I am now marking more generously. It may also be partly because there is always something of a positive reaction when I emerge from a long and serious bout, and March to July was the worst bout since I started making records in 2005, as I have commented before. Whatever the cause I am grateful.    


A brilliant blog by Ellen Moody on her reasons for blogging. This says much of what I have tried to say at but in a fuller, more eloquent and more considered way.                


 A Very Short Introduction to Kant by Roger Scruton is an extremely dense and weighty read, and I am not sure that I am that much the wiser at the end of it. This is not altogether Scruton’s fault for as he says in his Introduction ‘Kant is one of the most difficult of modern philosophers, I cannot hope that I have made very aspect of his thought intelligible to the general reader. It is not clear that every aspect of his thought has been intelligible to everyone, even to Kant’! Scruton advises that it will probably be necessary to read the book more than once ‘to appreciate Kant’s vision’. However I am not tempted to do so. This may be partly because Scruton’s construction and interpretation of Kant reflects his own philosophy – ie: is from a [very] right-wing perspective. I found as I read that I was either disagreeing with much of what was presented as Kant’s thought – to take a central instance I do not believe in the possibility of disinterested reason which forms the basis for Kant’s ethical thinking; I do not see how in the wake of Marx and Freud anyone can believe in this [in fairness Scruton would have no time for these two thinkers].  More important perhaps than my disagreements though, is the fact that I am not particularly interested in many of the problems with which Kant was obsessed: in particular I am not concerned with the attempt to establish the limits or otherwise of objective knowledge. Wittgenstein’s famous conclusion to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ‘That whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence’ ,with which Scruton also concludes this book, seems to me either a pointless tautology [‘pointless tautology’ is probably itself a tautology since are not all tautologies pointless?] or, if what it is saying is that we can only speak of that of which we have objective knowledge, bunkum – I will speak of what I like thank you very much Messrs Kant and Wittgenstein. There was not a single thing in this book which really made me want to find out more about Kant and so I think I will leave the categorical imperative well alone.            


This year, for the first time, we have booked for a really substantial number of CBSO (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) concerts. There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place I am more and more interested in and engaged with classical music. Secondly, in this season, 2010-11, there is to be a complete Mahler cycle and Mahler is my favoururite classical composer. And thirdly because Andris Nelsons is such a wonderful conductor and obviously we should make every effort to see him while we can. The first concert was on September 16th and was a performance of Mahler’s 8th (the symphonies are not being done in any particular order). It was exciting both because it was the first in our ‘season’ – a little like turning up to the first home match when I had a Season Ticket for BCFC (Birmingham City Football Club). That sense of anticipation and pleasure ahead (though the latter is somewhat more assured with the music!). Although we do not have exactly the same seats for every concert they are all pretty near each other. And then there is the work itself. Any performance of Mahler’s 8th generates its own intense excitement, if only in respect of the massive forces involved. The concert was sold-out, but then the chorus takes up a good proportion of the lowest balcony, as well as completely filling its normal position to the rear of the orchestra. Mahler’s 8th grips and immerses from the very start with that spine-tingling opening – ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’. The music is often overwhelming and demands total surrender. There is no option but to abandon oneself to this emotion and drama. The performance from orchestra, choruses, soloists and conductor was of the highest standard: everything clearly delineated, with the climaxes gloriously realised. Nelsons is like a possessed elf on the podium, seeming to live and breathe every single moment of the music. I am not sure that Mahler 8 is my favourite, in fact I am fairly sure it is not, when considered in any context other than live performance. As a live event it is a different matter however: doubts and reservations are swept away by the power and the passion. A great live musical experience. (A good review which conveys both the problems with the work and the brilliance of this interpretation may be found at                     

In complete contrast, the very next day, September 17th, I went to a lunchtime chamber concert at the CBSO Centre. I had not been to this venue before (how incomplete is my knowledge of my home city!), which is in fact the CBSO’s rehearsal space: a splendidly converted building, in which the main room is a large, high and spacious rectangle. The concert comprised two Piano Quartets performed by members of the CBSO; they played Mahler’s Quartet in A Minor and Brahms’ Piano Quartet 3. The experience and pleasure of listening to chamber music strikes me as significantly different to listening to an orchestra. I think in part this is due to the fact that I can clearly identify which instrument is playing at all times (as a musical novice I am unable to do this with an orchestra). Beyond this however the experience is somehow more of an intellectual one. I do not mean that the music lacks passion or emotion or beauty, but somehow I feel that I am better able to concentrate, to attempt to follow what is happening. As usual my writing about music is wholly inadequate, as I lack the knowledge to analyse properly and the words to translate my experience. I have noticed that programme notes for classical concerts rely to a considerable degree on technical phrases and descriptions, in a way that would seem jarring and unlikely for a play or even an opera. At all events the Brahms was a wonderful piece with a stunningly beautiful slow third movement introduced by the cello. As a whole the piano (and these were the first piano quartets I have heard) introduced a percussive, rhythmic element which I appreciated. So this was another musical treat, albeit of very different dimensions.             

 On my Birthday (54th for anyone interested!) we went to another CBSO concert. This time the first half featured Brahms Violin Concerto, brilliantly performed by Christian Tetzlaff, which was a lively and enjoyable piece. It was however rather over-shadowed by the performance of Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony which formed the second half. What an extraordinary piece of music! The raw pain and anguish, the near screams which come out of the orchestra (especially in the second and third movements), the near ear-splitting climaxes, the contrast with passages of intense quiet conveying a weary exhaustion, the battles which seems to go on between some lovely music (mainly on the violins) and the threatening, destructive chords which often overwhelm. The passion here kept me on the edge of my seat for long periods. Before the Symphony began Andris Nelsons gave a short speech reminding us of the conditions in which it was composed – in 1943 just as the tide of WW2 turned in Stalin’s favour – and saying that although the opening and middle were dark and depressing he, like Shostakovich himself, saw the ending as positive : there is always hope Nelsons said, which we need to remember in times which while in no way to be compared to 1943 are increasingly bleak (Nelsons is a passionate supporter of comprehensive funding for the arts which does face a bleak future). I have no way to convey just how sensationally brilliant a conductor Nelsons is, how he lives and breathes every moment of the music; on the podium he crouches, covers his ears, dances, explodes. We are quite extraordinarily privileged to be able to witness a great conductor leading a terrific orchestra in a wonderful hall playing this amazing music: yes that is a lot of superlatives and sounds excessive but I assure you that every statement is true. Nelsons is now officially one of my heroes – and I have precious few of those (well among the living anyway!).       


A mention for a small,  unheralded series called Churches:How To Read Them presented by Richard Taylor. This is a 7 part documentary looking at what parish churches in England and Scotland tell us about history, especially theological history. I am especially impressed because it is precisely this kind of series where I generally end up screaming at the television in rage and turning off after about ten minutes. Unfortunately we have only caught numbers 5 and 6 covering the 16th to 18th centuries (the last has not yet been screened) – but then it is exactly when presenters cover this period that I become most irate at the inaccuracies, stupidity and bias. Taylor by contrast is wonderfully even-handed. For instance he does regret the loss of medieval art, but he carefully explains the theology behind it and admits the power of the religious faith which the iconoclasts displayed. And this was very far from a tour of the well-known, tourist trail churches. Taylor goes to Scotland (wonder of wonders!) and explains the theology behind Scottish churches. He goes to a Baptist church and shows us how adults were baptised in the 18thC (something I have never seen before – and this example is fairly local ; when I saw this  it suddenly struck me that I had never actually been in a historic Baptist church). He goes to a Methodist chapel – the oldest in the world. He very deliberately and obviously avoids Cathedrals – the programme is called Churches and it means that (although of course the Methodist example is, as Taylor explained, very much a chapel – Wesley saw it originally as additional to the parish Church, not a replacement or rival). Of course he does show some architectural gems –  stunning Wren and Hawksmoor London churches (which I have also never visited) to demonstrate Enlightenment thinking and values for instance, but there would be quite a lot of his examples which would not cross-over with Simon Jenkins’ invaluable guide to the best English churches, which is much more aesthetically based. I hope that Taylor produces a book of the series. This was a model small-scale historical documentary: very well-informed and informative, personal, occasionally passionate, wry (the description of the way the local squires pews replaced the rood screen at Whitby was very funny), always careful to present both points of view but still individual. Give the appallingly low standard of most historical documentaries these days it was a real pleasure to encounter a programme like this tucked away in the recesses of BBC4.    

Bon Mots                          

 From Reginald Hill’s excellent The Woodcutter (2010)…..” Choice is a largely delusional concept, her tutor used to say. Whether in politics, morals or shopping, we have far less than we imagine. In the end what we have to do often doesn’t even figure on our list of pseudo-options.”  

Not a position that would have appealed to Kant: but then I am increasingly sure Kant doesn’t appeal to me!        


From Victoria Glendenning’s biography of Trollope. She describes AT as a ‘student of the brutal politics of human relations’. A wonderfully decriptive phrase.      




























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