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Friday, 31 July 2015

Passing the salt : Sharing the vision of Sebastião Salgado

This is a review of The Salt of the Earth (2014)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

31 July

This is a review of The Salt of the Earth (2014)

For The Salt of the Earth (2014) (#TheSaltOfTheEarth : the official web-site is, it was a real pleasure, for a change, to be in Screen 2 at The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse (the intermediate size of screen)). Even more so to be able to see Sebastião Salgado’s photographic images, projected on a screen of this size, and appreciate their quality.

A recommendation from Jordi Torrent (@nycjordi) as well as this one from Mark Cousins (@markcousinsfilm) had ensured that one would have to make time to see Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s (his son’s) film :

Yet seeing Salgado’s photography (as one can judge that Cousins must partly be saying) was only a fraction of the experience, for, in his gentle words of commentary, in clear, beautiful French, there was a double pleasure for the ear : both to understand what he had seen (and how, with his camera, he had been able to let us see it), and to hear the poetry that was such an element of his description. In fact, it was hardly mere description, which might have added but a little, but an immensely enriching illumination of his artistic vision, which brought us into experiencing his work more deeply :

Whether, with Wenders, leafing through loose prints (or unbound pages from his books of photographic collections), or speaking as they were shown full size on the screen, Salgado feels like a kindly but serious relative, earnestly talking us through the time that he spent with the people whom they show, so that we can relate to them (or, in later work, to broader scenes) : there is compassion in the way in which he helps us understand his work, from the individual histories of those dying* (or dead) in Sahel (19841986) to those Trying their luck in the combined wonder and horror of a Brazilian gold-mine (his first allusion to Dante’s Inferno** ?), in a country where coffins are for rent. (We see a body simply lying at the bottom of a grave.)

One could not have imagined that there would be such power to be had in hearing Salgado as we looked at his photographs, and it is at the centre of what gives the film its strength (alongside voice-overs, of a more explanatory nature, from Wenders and Juliano Salgado), and makes it a living creature : not for the first time, one likens it to the afternoon at CRASSH in Cambridge (@CRASSHlive, The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), when we had the unknown factor of Murray Perahia, talking The Doric String Quartet (@doric_quartet) through playing the Cavatina of Beeethoven’s Strinq Quartet in B Flat Major, Op. 130, and where we found 1 + 4 = > > 5 to be true.

Only a little eerily (because not aiming at the uncanny, but rather causing us to hesitate as to whether we were really seeing this), it is in commenting on the place by the church in Brazil (where, other than coffins being for rent, many items are on sale) that, for the first time, Salgado’s face appeared to emerge from an image : face and image had, of course, been graded as to texture and tone to match, so that he appeared within it, and it was a telling effect sparingly used to show how he had participated in the life that he has photographed.

Likewise, of course, and worthily of a film about Salgado’s photography and life, the cinematography (by Hugo Barbier, and Juliano Selgado) is excellent. Not that (and one would not want it to be) it is mimetic of the former, except as to its quality, if only for this simple reason, which Salgado gives right at the beginning of the film, when he is being observed, sitting at the top of a high point in his native Brazil, looking out, and taking photographs :

The premise (too little realized, and of which he reminds us) that, because especially at this level of artistry one is drawing with light (the exact meaning of the word ‘photography’), a number of photographers, put in front of the same scene, would produce several different ways of picturing it.

At the risk of seeming to say too much more about the how, rather than the what, one must mention Laurent Petitgand’s music, which, as one would expect from such a film, is subtle and is fully assimilated into the work itself : at first, what sounded like cello and quiet pulsing from an electric guitar, and then, when Salgado is with the Yali people of Papua New Guinea (in 2011), there is also a little percussion, and a hint of piano.

Then, at a tender moment***, when father (Sebastião) is leaning on son (Juliano) to be steady to try to get some shots of walruses (as the latter accompanies the former to come closer to his life and work), gentle xylophone****. Throughout, the scoring is absorbed / integrated into the film as a whole (with its employment of aspects of sound-design, with distorted chimes, echo, metallic timbres).

As to Wenders and Salgado, the film begins where the former began knowing about the latter, with the scale of those shots from the gold-mine (one of which was what Wender first saw**), and with Salgado telling us about this place, and us seeing him in Brazil, and then on location in Papua New Guinea, candidly photographing people who, amidst what appears to be their celebration / ceremony, look at images of themselves on the screen of his camera. Using photographic portraits, Wenders takes us through Salgado’s early life, student times*****, move to Paris with Lélia, and their decisive choice for him to leave his background in economics (and a post with The World Bank) and devote himself to professional photography, a career that has brought us significant titles, of which the principal ones are :

[The] Other Americas (19771984)

Sahel : The End of the Road (19841986)

Workers (19861991)

Exodus (Migrations) (19931999)

Genesis (20042013)

At the same time as following, in sequence, the making of these publications (the last two titles belong, respectively, to the second and third lives / planets / movies to which Mark Cousins refers (in his Tweet above)), we have Lélia, supporting Sebastião’s work, and bringing up their sons Juliano and Rodrigo a far cry from the dramatic notion that a recent film wants to bring us of a photographer of world events / situations (an unfavourable memory of which was evoked by some stages of his career : better points of connection can be found in In A Better World (Hævnen) (2010) and [at least in portraying civil war / genocide] Half of a Yellow Sun (2013))) :

Whether telling us about the courtoisie of gorillas, and how they will welcome one (if one respects their terms), or of a dead cicada, being incorporated into a tree, Salgado is always making observation about the world.

However, about mankind (and following Workers (subtitled Archaeology of the Industrial Age)), he says (from seeing what happens in the former (supposedly civilized) Yugoslavia) We are extremely violent : indeed, his final experiences in Rwanda (having seen previously how Hell was taking the place of Paradise) led him to see it as the edge of darkness (and to retire from taking images of this aspect of the world).

(At an earlier time, perhaps, he had been able to take heart, travelling 300 to 400 miles on the back of a truck (from Sahel ?), in two men, friends, who were pretending that it was a Sunday afternoon. Yet, as an economist who could see how governments were starving the people whom he saw, he knew early that their suffering was not un problème de portage.)

In passing, where the film ends has already been alluded to*****. In talking about Salgado’s time with the Yali people, it has likewise been mentioned that they looked at his images (not seeing a sinister taking of their souls), and he later says, about taking a photographic portrait : the subject makes an offer to you, to take a glimpse of that person’s life.

In putting Salgado, talking (or silent, reflecting), on the screen, Wenders breaks with ‘the industry standard’ of how to shoot an interview, and puts him right in the centre of the frame. Salgado is offering us a glimpse of him, and, by being filmed in this setting / lighting******, Wenders / Juliano Salgado and the crew graciously accept his offer.


* Often, we are informed, as a result of cholera, from the massive weakening caused by diarrhoea (and the resultant dehydration) and then being susceptible to other infections.

** And a photograph from where was his first point of connection with Wenders, when he bought a print of it, and then another, which hauntingly hangs over his desk, of a woman (the fourth image on this web-page).

*** One is reminded of some of Sokurov’s films, such as Father and Son (2003) (and Mother and Son (1997)).

**** Later in the film (but chronologically earlier, as it is in Kuwait in 1991), with Salgado’s compulsion to spend time alongside fire-fighters from Calgary and partly, as he tells us, damage his hearing from the sheer sound the volume of the soundtrack, and its presence, are necessarily greater. (Translated, Salgado calls this scene, with around five hundred oil-wells that had been set on fire when Saddam Hussein's forces withdrew, A giant stage, the size of the planet.) Further on, there is glockenspiel, but cello (sometimes with tremolo, and also using echo) is a mainstay of Petitgand's score.

***** We hear what Salgado’s father, calling him Tiao, says about his son when younger, and we see where the family farm is, and what has happened to it, as soil erosion has been caused by farming the land with cattle, leading to a lack of plant-life to hold back the flow of water. (Later, we see the relevance, with the founding of the Instituto Terra, and the planting of more than two million indigenous trees.)

****** In the hide, before father and son drowsily succumb to sleep (and after the polar bear has frightened away the walruses), Salgado says, about the bear on the endless shingle, that it does not make 'a well-framed photo', because there is no action, anything. The set-up for filming Salgado's face precisely makes it a well-framed image, respectful of him : who he is, and what he does.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Female directors' short films : LSFF and The Guardian at Festival Central

Short films from London Short Film Festival in conjunction with The Guardian

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 July

This programme of seven¹ short films at The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, was from London Short Film Festival (@LSFF) and presented in conjunction with The Guardian² (@guardian / @guardianfilm)

Whether it mattered that all of the films had been directed by women, taking these four³ in turn... :

Zima (Winter) ~ Cristina Picchi

One of two films (in the whole programme) to show the vastness and coldness of the Russian lands, this one had a much better soundtrack, employing sound-design that uses low-frequency electronica, broadcast speech, and the sound of the wind, and which complements, and so strengthens, the effect of the visual element :

Occasional narration tells us of the deprivation of living within The Arctic Circle (when ‘the polar day’ is dominated by darkness), and of levels of cold that make one not wish to venture out and check the gauges at the weather-station, but the approach of Zima (Winter) is principally visual : slow pans, scenes of snowy streets reflected or from above, and full, static shots of ships, etc. Or ice-fishing on Baikal Lake, with sound captured of being underwater to accompany the threatening tales of what happens to the unwary who venture there…

Across Still Water ~ Ruth Grimberg

This is not a film that imagines that an adult audience needs its story laid out from the start : it dares to have us knocking around in an underground space at the beginning (where elongated, protective bags are in evidence, but are we clear that they do not contain hunting equipment ?), and running through shots, by the water (and using natural light ?), of night-fishing, before a scene where John is talking to his mother in her kitchen.

His disability, or its nature, escaped us, but now and with scenes of practising casting in daylight we realize that what can be reached with a rod symbolically is a sort of measure of it. Across Still Water, in its pace and editing, has a considerable sense of still, and space, in which to contemplate what we now see. And the dark, and the moonshine, of the final scenes by the water serve as metaphor, as John comes to the point of saying to his friend Gonna have to swallow and do it in the end.

Gan-Gan ~ Gemma Green-Hope

A film that includes incredibly fast sequences of montage to imply the vitality of and variety within a deceased grandmother’s life, interlaced with personal narration about the film-maker’s and her times together. Full of repose, when the fast-flicker takes its times to subside, and a melding of word and image that defies one not to be impressed by it.

An All-Encompassing Light ~ Chloe White

We guess at what that light was, for our Korean-born narrator in Japan, but we do not guess that he and others in his position will have been discriminated against for having witnessed it (as if he had not already faced discrimination because of his race) : this comes out of his involved, but calm, recollection, contained in a film that gradually takes us beyond a house, and a man emerging from it, to the life that led up to, and reasons to remember, 6 August at 8.15 a.m. (An anniversary which, he tells us, was still being marked twenty years ago, and whose being forgotten encourages him to relate what he had never planned to tell.)

With excellent music from Thomas Carrell, which ebbs and flows as with waves, the film is careful in pace, and in mixing imagery from then and now. At the centre of the memories, the emotional, but measured, telling of his mother’s warm tears on his neck : of the pus from where he had been burnt, and the infection, and the maggots, which cause her to tend him, but to wish him Hurry up and die for fear wrongly so of what his later appearance would be.


¹ Originally wrote 'eight', but cannot count !

² Whose story-led films of up to fifteen minutes we were encouraged to find at, and which, we were told, are intended to build up to a film per week.

³ The full programme was :

1. Zima (Winter) ~ Cristina Pecchini

2. Not as old as the Trees ~ Jessica Sarah Rutland ??

3. Memoirs ~ Susan Aldworth

4. Across Still Water ~ Ruth Grimberg

5. Sleepers’ Beat ~ Anastasia Kirillova

6. Gan-Gan ~ Gemma Green-Hope

7. An All-Encompassing Light ~ Chloe White

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 27 July 2015

Big glasses to Big Eyes

This is a Festival review of Iris (2014)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

28 July

This is a Festival review of Iris (2014)

Having seen Iris (2014) at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015, one was struck straightaway by how it is a lesser account than Advanced Style (2014) of the phenomenon of not just #irisapfel, but these other women, becoming a style icon later in life is that why it is only now on UK release (when there seems to be relatively little more to say about the film) ?

We admire Iris Apfel's obvious flair, but her acquisitiveness - though hardly unique - makes her hard to like much...

At first, one just put the following simple paragraph in the round-up of events (without intending a piece that would end up in Seen at Sheffield : Doc/Fest films with full reviews) :

Iris (2014) (Odeon Screen 8) unlike with Mavis !, a film that was not exactly awash with humility, although Iris Apfel is a great encourager and collector with definite tastes and flair, and where doing a deal having justified the concept of haggling in its appropriate place seemed part of the thrill of the chase in remorseless acquisitiveness (although tempered by giving archive material, both temporarily and permanently)

Now, however, as the wheels of publicity are pushing this big imagery of Iris Apfel from film-posters and trailers though, really, when one has seen a few outfits with an excess, in size and number, of necklaces / pendants, and bangles / bracelets, one has a pretty good guess at how she will dress next it seems germane to ask a few more things :

Iris Apfel

* Maybe Apfel was an inspiration, too, to Ari [Seth] Cohen to write the book on which the film that Lina Plioplyte made is based, but one does not have to root around in Advanced Style to find what makes it a story worth telling (please see below) : not just true-life feature films, but documentaries, not only need stories that are substantially factually true, but that have a truth about them as to why they need to be told*

* By contrast, Apfel’s story is very static, consisting essentially of having had a big break of being asked [or did she offer ? (one forgets)], by someone who knew of her private collection, to display some costumes (and, inevitably, accessorize them) when an exhibition fell through true The diva is indisposed stuff (where the understudy gets to shine and be loved)

* Yes, the exhibition was the first of its kind, and it has led to other breaks, but that is the essentially recognition late in life territory of the other film, except that we are not forced to have just Apfel as our focus her collection of couture may be well chosen and curated, but that, apart from stories of her husband’s and her days and expertise in interior design (where only the cognoscenti knew them and what they did), and seeing them together now, is all that the film, over and over, is about

Tziporah Salamon

* It is not just that Advanced Style can be multi-stranded in a way that, for the reasons given, Iris is not (though that is not to say that a way of reanimating the rather plainly presented material could not have been employed), but that, for women such as Tziporah Salamon (, it is all happening in the time of the film for her and others to be invited to appear on covers (rather than for us to be told that it happened for Apfel, and to see her do others, and make what are not new kinds of appearances in the fashion world)

* And, in those whose endorsements are quoted on the poster (please see above), we notice not cinema reviews, but that they are from lead fashion magazines Marie Claire and Elle UK (as well as Red Magazine)...


* And Iris feels more like a Big Eyes (2014) amongst documentaries, in that, however remarkable the story may be, does that per se make it one that needs to be, or benefits from, being told as a piece of cinema ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Film Festival frenzy (#CamFF 2015)

Recollected in tranquillity : Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (#CamFF)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

27 July

Recollected in tranquillity :
The bustle that was Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (#CamFF)

Cambridge Film Festival (@camfilmfest / #CamFF) is just around the corner from putting on its big show again amazing to think that, when one first attended screenings there, all the programming was for a one-screen cinema, and one almost took for granted getting to see the new Woody Allen early…

As the Festival gears up for the thirty-fifth time (that’s where, behind the scenes, the frenzy comes in !), no less, a little moment to reflect on last year…

* Well, one was seeking to promote the Camera Catalonia (Catalan) strand, by providing reviews ahead of the screenings : a double pleasure, first to do so, and then to see how beyond the confines of 'a screener', watched on a laptop the full potential of the image blossomed in proper screenings

Composer Ethan Lewis Maltby, on the far right, during the Q&A for Fill de Caín (Son of Cain) (2013) (with Ramon Lamarca next to him, and director Jesús Monllaó)

* Relatedly, meeting and interviewing three Catalan film directors and happening to take two of them punting on the Cam (and even giving one a punting lesson)

Punt pupil (and film director), Hammudi al-Rahmoun Font

* Plus lovely Festival photography from Tom Catchesides (@TomCatchesides) and David Riley (@daveriley) ! (That as well as being with the winning team of Catalan curator Ramon Lamarca, and intern-cum-interpreter Cristina Roures)

Ramon Lamarca and Mar Coll at Festival Central image courtesy of Tom Catchesides

* The chance to watch both screenings of some Festival favourites at, and see especially how Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) (2014) (but also Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy) (2013) repaid renewed attention

* The coffee, the chats, the news – in passing, as one dashed to different screenings – of other viewings, and the celebrated insanity of the TAKE ONE (@takeonecinema) crew (and of a Vine into which we were all cajoled, which was later banned (Not me, guv’ !)…)

* Meeting Dunstan Bruce (@dunstanbruce) for a fun, late-night TAKE ONE interview about A Curious Life (@a_curiouslife), his film on The Levellers (@the_levellers) (with a microphone-wielding editor in chief hiding under a table ?)

Dunstan Bruce

* With Screen 1 in gala mode, the warmth and energy in a film tribute to the late Tony Benn, Tony Benn : Will and Testament (2014)

* Warmth and energy of a different kind in, having guided one of the Catalan directors there, Festival regular Neil Brand (@NeilKBrand), with Jeff Davenport, playing to Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (1930), an early picture credit for Billy Wilder

* And, of course, the expected preview of the new Woody Allen, Magic in the Moonlight (2014) (and the brief delight of a vocal from Ute Lemper) a tetchy role for Colin Firth that also made some people unnecessarily sceptical of historical fact that men of his age married women of the age of Emma Stone ?

* Closing-night party ? No, sorry, one does not know anything about that !

See you at Cambridge Film Festival, daily during the eleven days from 3 to 13 September !

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 24 July 2015

Czech classics in Cambridge

This is a Festival review of Melvyn Tan and The Škampa Quartet

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 July

This is a review of a concert given, as part of Cambridge Summer Music Festival, by Melvyn Tan and The Škampa Quartet at West Road Cancert Hall on Friday 24 July 2015 at 7.30 p.m.

Cambridge Summer Music Festival (@cambridgemusic) has, in years past, given opportunities to hear both the Quartet and Melvyn Tan one well remembers the latter in Messiaen (Quatuor pour la fin du temps same page-turner !), and in a piano recital (also at West Road : @WestRoadCH) and the former at The Union Society (@cambridgeunion), and here they were together !

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Beethoven ~ Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109

Janáček ~ String Quartet No. 2 (‘Intimate Letters’)

Dvořák ~ Piano Quintet No. 2* in A Major, Op. 81

The review begins with what is most immediate in one’s mind, where Melvyn Tan (@Melvynbetan) and The Škampa Quartet played together

Antonín Dvořák (18411904) ~ Piano Quintet No. 2* in A Major, Op. 81

1. Allegro, ma non tanto

2. Dumka : Andante con moto

3. Scherzo (Furiant) : Molto vivace

4. Finale : Allegro

The huge scale of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 (in A Major, Op. 81) (from 1887), is necessarily influenced by the scale of the quintets by Schumann (1842) and Brahms (1864), and its principal themes will not fail to be known to and impress us.

So Dvořák gives us one of his telling melodies on cello, before it is passed to the first violinist (Helena Jiříkovská) : we could not only see, later, Melvyn Tan’s facial pleasure at how she rendered it, but also smiles from Adéla Štajnochrová (second violin), Lukáš Polák (cello) and Radim Sedmidubský (viola) at playing this music from their homeland, which they were going to develop for us with commitment and verve :

Into the structure of the movement, Dvořák inserts dance measures, and we hear him, through them, reaching to make a grand assertion with the material. Then, when Polák brings back the theme, it is controlled, with piano set against it, and Tan goes on to punctuate and facilitate the movement, with the music revealing itself, and its expressive potential, in the repeats, and with the intervallic leaps giving us a sense of reaching for the stars.

The scoring seems to use the piano and the quartet as if they are desks of instruments in an orchestra, ranging the former against the later, and, in the rise and fall, do we hear echoes of the composer's symphonic sound from the late 1880s / early 1890s ? (It is a different approach from the more integrative one of Brahms, but with the same orchestral possibilities at work.) With the sound of the piano closing the movement, there was a strong feeling of excitement in the ensemble to be performing this work.

At the opening of the second movement, Tan placed the theme before us with articulation and great delicacy, and then, as the others handled it, continued to do so in the capacity of embellishing and enriching it. We are a little reminded, by a melodic line in the cello part, of the slow movement of the Schumann quintet, and then Dvořák lulls us, again and again, into a restful state with each time that the piano restates the initial theme.

New vistas open with a feeling of holidaying (or journeying), and, with an undercurrent from the cello, of traversing summer meadows. Very tender playing from Polák, with the merest of gestures on violin, brought in a section of enchanted quietude : the other players were profoundly hushed as he played tremolo writing with a powerful strength of feeling. Then, full of energy, a new motif, and Tan’s face said it all, as that motif turned into a modified form of the theme. Just before the end, the holiday mood resumed, and so did the magic, in this respectfully unhurried and quiet music-making almost a lullaby.

Albeit in proportion to the rest of the work, this is a biggish Scherzo**, and it is almost an anthology of themes, with the same feeling of yearning / journeying. This was playing with every appearance (though we know the hard work that it belied) of effortlessness, and Dvořák makes us feel a measure of ease, though he is shifting the tonal centres, and also playfulness, with Tan giving us a profound legato, echoed by the string-players. That moment of yearning briefly recurs, before the use of variation-form reminds us of the Beethoven Piano Sonata, and the Scherzo closes with very definite, clear strokes.

The Finale is written with, and was played with, graciousness and also propulsive force, and Dvořák subdivides, by sounding the violins against the cello and the viola : the stage arrangement chosen, with the first violin to audience left, and the viola to the right, was good visibly, but also separated the voices here. Rhythmic patterns are used in the scoring, as well as little, playful gestures of the notes of another key, and the effect of small pulses.

As the Allegro moves, it develops into a fast, modulating fugue with a lively piano voice, but then bringing back a theme from an earlier movement. The harmony becomes ambiguous, and there is a play-fight of a tussle as to where we are rooted, before reducing to a hush, for a simple statement on violin, to which the other strings add descending figures.

They provided exceedingly quiet harmony to a piano passage, before what must have been one of the softest sections of pizzicato ever. From there, first violin Helena Jiříkovská took the lead, but, with competing material that desired to come to the fore, Dvořák left us guessing right to the closing bar to see how he would end this thrilling, lively piece.

One took great pleasure in and in hearing this work, and was most impressed both by the integration of all the players into the work, and by the deployment of what Ralph Vaughan Williams (in praising a performance under Sir Adrian Boult) called a true pianissimo (or ppp). The Festival audience was abundantly happy to have finished the varied programme with this compelling playing, where attention had been intense all round.

* * * * *

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) ~ Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109

1. Vivace ma non troppo / Adagio espressivo

2. Prestissimo

3. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung. Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo

Melvyn Tan (image from

Performances vary as to whether the two sides of the first movement are ‘run together’ with another in that of the second movement, but these so-called five (or six) ‘Late’ sonatas are their own kind of beast : probably, one guesses more (as one listens), not because Beethoven only came technically to think in terms that broke the mould at this stage in his life, but because, as Bach was, he must have been aware of his legacy, and could dare to say the things that had been in his heart for a long time ? [For CRASSH (@CRASSHlive) in January (also at West Road), Murray Perahia’s compelling analysis of, and guided performance with The DoricString Quartet (@doric_quartet) of movements from, the original form of Beethoven’s Opus String Quartet Op. 130 revealed the roots of his thinking, and of his future-proofing compositions.]

Melvyn Tan, who saluted the one nearest to him, clearly had not seen before the distended urns, bearing plants with green foliage, that had been arranged at either end of the piano : as they did not disturb him, they served to give a certain balance to the backdrop of what can, visually, be an exposed stage at West Road. As is usual with him, he seems to catch himself as much as us by surprise in starting to play, i.e. without any grand preparation of holding the arms aloft above the keyboard :

He threw us straight into something that causes us to ask what Schubert (17911828) would have made of this theme (or of the use of variation form ?) he whose mere thirty-one years alive were, apart from the last twenty months, coincident with when Beethoven was alive (17701827 : as we do not always realize ?). Beethoven gives us here with typical, and undimmed, Beethovenian fire, drive and energy a mix of feelings and techniques straightaway, with a great sense of balance, and of modulation, momentary touches of great beauty, and the hands gradually separating to the ends of the keyboard.

In all this, Tan felt immensely prepared, but not to have premeditated the exact interpretative choices that he brought to the performance which is what one values so much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score except that it was always going to be rhythmically very live, and played from the inside outwards.

A Schubertian theme of tenderness (or Schumannesque, ahead of its time ?), which was right at the outset of the Andante, Tan repeated slightly more softly. Pacing the playing as if it were breathing, he brought out its quality as a chorale, and, emphasizing some of the not obviously significant internal lines, led us into the variations : the heart of the matter, infused by dance-forms, and also with wonder at what the world might have made of this music at the time...

If one had judged by appearance, and been unable to hear Tan’s playing, he did not look at ease, and one would not have imagined that he was creating such a beautiful, appropriately precise sound much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score as part of which, as the variations progressed, he also brought out some spikiness in the writing. In working on Beethoven with The Doric Quartet (as mentioned above), Murray Perahia talked about a moment when, to try to paraphrase the religious conception that he evoked, Heaven comes to meet Earth, and we had that feeling from Beethoven here much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score and then building to an expansive treatment.

Yet, at root (as with, say, The Goldberg Variations), all that development comes back to a simple statement, and then further decoration / ornamentation, in which we hear Tan exposing the full feeling within this sonata, and enwrapping us in it : we are willing it on, to where we hear it to be going, and he is maintaining our engagement, by keeping something back. It is, though, in a simple statement again that Beethoven, through Tan, seeks a conclusion, with much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score reminding us of the chorale element much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score a nigh Lutheran, quiet close to this thoughtfully vibrant interpretation.

* * * * *

Leoš Janáček (18541928) ~ String Quartet No. 2 (1928) (‘Intimate Letters’)

1. Andante Con moto Allegro

2. Adagio Vivace

3. Moderato Andante Adagio

4. Allegro Andante Adagio

The Škampa Quartet (but one got away, Adéla Štajnochrová) : Radim Sedmidubský (viola), Helena Jiříkovská (first violin), Lukáš Polák (cello)

The opening Andante sees paired violins against, first, viola in an extreme Sul ponticello, then cello : in all this, there is the assurance of mastery of language and form from, especially here, Radim Sedmidubský (viola) and Lukáš Polák (cello). Propelled by writing for the latter, the work opens like a flower, but one that is both vibrant (energy, passion, enthusiasm, from Janáček and his interpreters) and, at the same time, shy and delicate, exemplified by an almost imperceptible Sul ponticello passage from Polák. Throughout, the members of the quartet are communicating to each other, as well as to us, links in its episodic structure, where it moves from a slow and reflective feeling of the rhapsodic to intensity. Brought in by quiet writing for viola and touches from the violins, the movement came to a high, bright close.

The Adagio starts with sinuous writing for viola, which passes back and forward with the second violin : we hear not only the full, rich sound of the quartet, but also Janáček’s pleasure and skill in writing for what is best in the viola. Beginning with very fast figurations for lead violin, the Vivace is heartfelt in its harmonies, but there are also ambiguous notes and discords as it progresses to the rhythms of a march or dance, there is the ambivalence of Will it, won’t it ? to the mood.

We noticed the quartet’s careful use of a range of dynamics, and how contributions to the dialogue from the viola are a significant part of the work***. It is with a sensation of inner irresolution (in some version of Janáček whom we fictionalize having all these experiences of mood- and thought-patterns) that we conclude.

Led by first violin Helena Jiříkovská, the third movement has a formal, but not icy, tone, before sounding triste and regretful. Just for, initially, a short episode, it is like a folk lullaby – when, after other material, it recurs, it is quieter, but with intensity and feeling in the realisation. With an element of squeakiness (from the score), the violins quietly proceeded, but, then, the players are on full, with an alternation of a dance and a firm pulse. With a highly energized section, from which a frenetic version of the lullaby emerges, and we come back and back to its theme, it is as if the music (as art is sometimes thought to be) is therapeutic. Janáček seems to be seeking a soft resolution, and, twice, ushers in an open sound, although it is to be with the end of its outbursts that it is over.

As we had been used to, The Škampa Quartet brought overwhelming musicality to the familiar theme with which the last movement asserts itself then, a quiet interlude, before a little moment of fireworks, and resuming the theme, now full and clear. Still, all is not well with the interaction between the inner and outer in this work, and Polák had some stark statements to make on cello, and there are tensions in the harmony, and with keys and rhythms pulling against each other.

A first use of playing pizzicato (first the viola, then the two violins) led into a ‘jogging’ line for cello, of which the violins were then mimetic. In this, a sense, still, of unease and even pain, and a reduction to a very gentle dynamic. However, there is no way except up, and then all four elements of the quartet in several bars’ worth of a hugely scratchy, amorphous character : it is to resume, louder and longer, but, before it does so, the viola gives us the big theme. On the edge of our seats with the emotion in the viola part and somewhat as with the Dvořák quintet (please see above) we are asking where does / will / can this music end.

But end is what it forces itself to do, and we know that we have heard what offers great understanding of this soul-searching piece : Yes, factually the players are Czech, and share that with the composer, but they really felt, on some quite different level, to be magnificently in tune with this repertoire, and to have done far, far more than entertain us with it : taking us into their world.

For now, the review ends there, with a continuation / completion to come...


* Wrongly identified, in the Festival programme, as Piano Quintet No. 1, which was Dvořák’s Opus 5 (in the same key) : although he destroyed the manuscript soon after, it did have a premiere, and one understands that it was having borrowed a copy to revise the work, fifteen years later, that caused him to write anew, and produce this masterpiece in the tradition of those already mentioned.

** Not unlike the scale of that, marked Andante, of Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B Flat Major, Op. 99 (D. 898) ?

*** Maybe it was an instrument favoured by Kamila Stösslová, who (despite being a married woman who did not return his feelings) corresponded with Janáček for many years, and was with him when he died ? (We understand that she was Janáček’s inspiration for Kát'a in Katya Kabanová, the vixen in The Cunning Little Vixen, and Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Affair.)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Cambridge Open Studios 2015 : Images kindly supplied by Cathy Parker

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

23 July

In two versions, the paintings described in the companion posting Cambridge Open Studios 2015 : Sunday 12 July (Weekend 2) Happy viewing ! :

Images, speaking for themselves

And / or

Images, with intended characterization underneath

* North York Moors [CP2] oil, £290

The view is characterized by ruddy clouds, with water represented, as it recedes, by purples and violets what we feel most clearly in the landscape is the flatness, and the sense of distance

* Wicken Fen, November [CP8] watercolour, £190

The eye is drawn to cherry browns, with yellow touches in the sky, and the blue-grey rendering of the trees that skirt the scene

* North York Moors [CP7] watercolour, £190

In the heavy blackish brown of the foregorund, there is a detail of green, with, in the distance, a wash of cloud, and bluey-purple hills

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Cambridge Open Studios 2015 : Sunday 12 July (Weekend 2)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 July

On 12 July, a day had been planned despite the rain, which was not light at one stage to visit the Cambridge Open Studios displays of three favourite artists...

Anna Pye

And now :

Gina Ferrari

Then (after elderflower at Anna's) a no less welcome invitation from Gina Ferrari (@FanMyFlame) :

Cathy Parker

Later, deliberately to see Cathy Parker’s work (which had been long admired, and often got one’s literal vote, at exhibitions by Cambridge Drawing Society), one ventured out to the church of St Mary the Virgin (?*) at Swaffham Prior : there turned out, still, to be relatively little of Cathy's on display (although there were some unframed works, notably a watercolour, Wicken Fen, Baker’s Fen [UF7]), but one engaged more with it than with that of her fellow exhibitors.

Here are some highlights, described :

* North York Moors [CP2] oil, £290
The view is characterized by ruddy clouds, with water represented, as it recedes, by purples and violets what we feel most clearly in the landscape is the flatness, and the sense of distance

* Wicken Fen, November [CP8] watercolour, £190
The eye is drawn to cherry browns, with yellow touches in the sky, and the blue-grey rendering of the trees that skirt the scene

* North York Moors [CP7] watercolour, £190
In the heavy blackish brown of the foregorund, there is a detail of green, with, in the distance, a wash of cloud, and bluey-purple hills

A good round of visits during Open Studios before needing to make it to Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW) to review Neil Brand's (@NeilKBrand's) score for Blackmail (1929), performed by The BBC Symphony Orchestra (@BBCSO), conducted by Timothy Brock


* None of the web-sites seemed, despite the fact that there are two churches in one churchyard, to take sufficient trouble to tell one which is which, so the venue was as Cathy Parker kindly advises** actually the Church of St Cyriac and St Julitta (dedicated, according to the detail of the Wikipedia® web-page, to Saint Quiricus and Saint Julietta)...

** She has also usefully provided images of the three paintings described : for those who like the words on their own first, they have been put in a separate posting...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)