As it was, I had in 1939 decided to dedicate my life to Haydn, of whose music there was, in those days, no collected edition; indeed, only one-tenth had ever been published at all. Yet I always considered Mozart something quite alone and beyond any other music, including Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. I ought to say that this view was then considered not merely eccentric, but almost lunatic. I could hardly attribute to a thirteen-year-old schoolboy a special prescience concerning Mozart and the fact that, one day in England, at least, he would become the most popular composer in the concert hall, topping Beethoven’s pre-eminence (which had lasted for a generation). But I did sense that there was a curiously unsettling ambivalence  in Mozart’s musical language which I found at once compelling and of immense emotional satisfaction.

H.C. Robbins Landon, “1791: Mozart’s Last Year”.

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Nightlife, Soho


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From the far left to the far right

David Horowitz’s journey. Odd to think a man who wrote a book as perceptive as the 60s memoir “Radical Son” seems content to be a mouthpiece for someone as crude as Donald Trump.

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The voice

It goes without saying that the new release from Rhiannon Giddens is my record of the week in the Sunday Times:

So much for that “difficult second album” challenge. If the roots singer/banjo player’s 2015 solo debut was a breathtaking showcase for her ability to channel one strain of Americana after another, from Nina Simone to Patsy Cline, then Freedom Highway finds her writing and singing more in her own voice. Recorded in back-to-basics style in Louisiana, the result is a collection that honours the past — Julie is one of the songs to draw on a slave narrative — without becoming an exquisite exercise in nostalgia. Giddens’s unusually disciplined vocals strip the lyrics of all artifice. There may be a hint of sloganeering on, say, Better Get It Right the First Time, yet this is on the whole a timely, politically charged album that avoids easy point-scoring. Giddens has unabashed fun, too: Hey Bebe trips along on a jaunty street-parade beat, embellished with insouciant trumpet.

And here’s the title track, an exhilarating Staples Singers cover, recorded with a little help from that thoughtful indie-rocker Bhi Bhiman.

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We don’t know yet what the televising of the conventions will do to American politics, to elections, to the convention system itself. Some of us fear what one good demagogue with a fine voice and a rousing profile might do to the tyranny of popular government…. The only time that I ever saw Adolf Hitler was at a big rally outside the Braunhaus in Munich in 1931. I was a student who had only just heard of him. I got jammed in there and I watched him and soon felt my heart begin to pound. He was – all morals, politics aside – a superb performer. When he got to his peroration, he ended on a practically meaningless sentence. He shouted, “It is five minutes to twelve.” Nobody knew in his head what Hitler meant. But they felt they had been slapped on the back and a sword put in their hands. Hitler paid a direct physical compliment to the nervous system. I had to fight my frightened way out over fainting women and cheering, sobbing men.

I was glad the next morning to sit down and see it in the newspaper and know that most Germans could sit back and read, and judge the speech unmoved, unseduced by the physical experience of the thing itself. The next Hitler will not suffer from this restraint. Cinerama is wonderful and I shall pursue every show they put on all over town. But I wonder, when the politicians get hold of it, what will be the future for what Edmund Burke said was the guardian of popular liberties, “the dignity of reflection”, when the show is over.

Alistair Cooke, This Is Cinerama, Letter from America, October 1952.

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Remind you of anyone? More fascinating satirical images of Il Duce here. HT @CurseandtheCure

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Good vibes, bad sound

A mixed bag at the Festival Hall. My review of the latest Transatlantic Sessions roadshow:

In the end the joie de vivre pouring forth on the stage made up for the oddly harsh sound mix. Amplification isn’t usually a problem at an annual hands-across-the-ocean concert that has become essential listening. Yet this time was different. In the first half, from my seat in the stalls, it was hard to decipher the contribution of every one of the guest singers.

Things improved after the interval, thankfully, and by the time the fiddler Aly Bain and his co-host, the genial American lap steel guitarist Jerry Douglas, brought the sprawling band back for a well-deserved encore, the Festival Hall had once again been turned into the snuggest of saloon bars. Part of the miracle of these shows is that, even with so many VIPs milling around, you feel as if you are one of the handful of revellers at a private party.

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Careers advice

Courtesy of Nigel Molesworth.

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The Nix, the hype

My Times review of the much-lauded debut novel from Nathan Hill:

Can a novel attract too much attention? That might sound like a foolish question in the age of digital distraction, when writers know they are competing with the cookbooks of the rich and famous and the latest celeb memoir. Who can blame publicists for shouting and tweeting as loudly as they can?

In the case of the debut from the 41-year-old American Nathan Hill, the cascade of superlatives tumbling across the Atlantic seems almost perverse. Any work of fiction would struggle to satisfy those expectations.

One of the elder statesmen of American letters, John Irving, joins in the chorus on the cover of The Nix, declaring: “Nathan Hill is a maestro, a maestro of being terrific.” In fact, the woolly second half of that sentence contains a clue to what is wrong with the book. Hill is simply trying too damned hard to be terrific. He is attempting to dazzle us with a panoramic, Franzen-esque chronicle of a Sixties-generation mother’s dysfunctional relationship with her son, a failed writer who whiles away his time as a jaded professor of English.

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Winter mist


The Thames near Cliveden.

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