Not for Happiness

I just discovered that Khyentse Rinpoche’s new book about Ngöndro practice is available as an eBook on Amazon. It seems they ‘published’ a preview version yesterday, which means there’ll be typos, etc, but if you decide to buy it you can sign up for a copy of the corrected version. I think Khyentse Foundation website has an amazon link that generates money for the foundation, so please consider using that link if you want to buy the book.
I think Rinpoche designed the cover himself, and Vladimir from Prague realized it for him. I love the look of it. What do you think?


Death hath ten thousand several doors…

I’ve never seen the Duchess of Malfi on stage, but I feel as though I know the play quite well from all the references to it that I’ve come across over the years—even in Hollywood movies. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, for example, which is one of my all-time favourites. Reggie is in love with Pandora (Ava Gardner) and because she won’t marry him, takes some poison and dies with the words of the Duchess on his lips. It’s marvellous stuff—both Reggies OTT death and the original scene in what must be one of the bloodiest and most violent of all plays. Not to mention the incest.

But it’s because I’ve seen Pandora so often that the “death hath ten thousand several doors” bit sticks in my memory. Here’s the original text from the play, followed by a clip from the Pandora movie.  Reggie actually dies about 3 mins 45 seconds in, so don’t let the fact this bit is ten minutes long put you off.

DUCHESS. What death?
BOSOLA.       Strangling; here are your executioners.
DUCHESS.  I forgive them:
The apoplexy, catarrh, or cough o’ th’ lungs,
Would do as much as they do.
BOSOLA.  Doth not death fright you?
DUCHESS.                             Who would be afraid on ‘t,
Knowing to meet such excellent company
In th’ other world?
BOSOLA.  Yet, methinks,
The manner of your death should much afflict you:
This cord should terrify you.
DUCHESS.                       Not a whit:
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways:  any way, for heaven-sake,
So I were out of your whispering.  Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.
I would fain put off my last woman’s-fault,
I ‘d not be tedious to you.
FIRST EXECUTIONER.           We are ready.
DUCHESS.  Dispose my breath how please you; but my body
Bestow upon my women, will you?
FIRST EXECUTIONER.               Yes.
DUCHESS.  Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength
Must pull down heaven upon me:—
Yet stay; heaven-gates are not so highly arch’d
As princes’ palaces; they that enter there
Must go upon their knees [Kneels].—Come, violent death,
Serve for mandragora to make me sleep!—
Go tell my brothers, when I am laid out,
They then may feed in quiet.

Pogorelich, the Concert

Such a sad evening. The Chopin Sonata was unrecognizable, the Mephisto Waltz might just as well have been played backwards, and clearly, the Wunderkind I fell at the feet of thirty years ago has completely lost it. ‘Incoherent’, which is how a journalist at the New York Times described his playing in 2006, was the least of his problems. He no longer appears to have a technique, an appreciation of rhythm, or any memory of the notes. He slammed his foot down on the sustaining pedal with the subtlety of a pneumatic drill. It was both horrifying (that he even gets a gig these days) and tragic (he was such an artist). The best playing he managed was before the concert began, as he sat at the piano wearing a beanie and chatting with passersby (see below). Not a good sign. We left after the first half.

The Konzerthaus itself was as gorgeous and alluring as ever. We sat in Loge 8. We’ve never sat there before, and had never seen the fish (ditto) or the detail on the ceiling (double ditto). The best thing was that the chairs were freestanding and extremely comfortable.

I suffered a fit of nostalgia today, so I played his recording of the Chopin Sonata to Andreas. It was just as fabulous as I remember it. And made me feel even sadder.

The Luck of the Irish

Imagine you were checking in for an international flight and the nice lady at the desk told you that your passport had expired. What would happen next? If it happened to me, nothing would happen next. I’d simply have to accept that the only place I’d be going that day was home.

Now imagine my husband, Andreas, bouncing up to the check-in counter, as he did on Wednesday, and presenting his German ID card to the same nice lady. (Germans don’t need passports on flights within the EU, just their IDs—the kind the English refuse to carry.)

It’s true, he looked shocked for a whole thirty seconds after she told him the ID had expired, but his confusion was over almost as soon as it began. He smiled at the nice lady and asked, politely, if there was anything he could do to resolve the situation. She smiled back and explained, with admirable clarity, about the office in the other building where a nice policeman was waiting to help hapless German-ID-expiry-date-forgetters, and that he should trot over there straight away. There was time, she said, before the almost empty flight to Dublin would close.

So we trotted over. Well, Andreas trotted, I stormed. Again, if this had been me in a similar situation in England, I would have had to walk for half an hour simply to reach the office. Then, even if I found it, the nice policeman would definitely not be nice and anyway, he, or she, would be on a break.

Cut back to Andreas, in Germany, at the old Schönefeld airport, which looks a bit like an IKEA but much smaller. Firstly, the office was precisely where they lady said it would be and it took us five minutes to get there. Secondly, there were two nice policeman ready and willing, nay eager to help. And thirdly… well, thirdly, this is Germany, and everything works.

Andreas isn’t blood Irish, he’s German, but during his many visits to the Emerald Isle has clearly hoovered up a fair amount of her legendary luck, because fifteen minutes and 8 Euros after the initial discovery that the ID had expired, he was back at the check-in counter with a boarding pass in his large hairy paw. He even had time for a couple of cigarettes before going through security. Which is why I want to be Andreas next lifetime.

Anyway, here’s a silly snap of some more art from the streets of Berlin. I think kids painted these knobs, but god knows what they were doing there in the first place.


So, now my mind is back in the 80s and busily sifting through memories of many wonderful theatrical and musical experiences. Between 1978 and 1985, I usually spent four or five nights a week at some Lonodn theatre or other; these days I prefer a plate of steamed veggies and a dvd. How things change.

I was at music college when the shit hit the fan at the 1980 Warsaw Piano Competition. Ivo Pogorelich, the boy Martha Argerich dubbed ‘a genius’, was placed third by the panel of judges, much to Madame Argerich’s disgust, but had his revenge by going on to become one of the most talked-about pianists of his generation. As I’ve completely forgotten who actually won the Warsaw that year, losing seems to have been a pretty good game-plan.

I was lucky enough get tickets to sit in the orchestra for his Festival Hall debut in 1982. The place was packed, not a seat to be had, and I must say, he gave an astounding performance. Tall, a bit gangly and thin, but very romantically beautiful, not only could I not unglue my eyes from his physical form, what I heard was so intense and unexpected that I could barely breathe. It was all so strong and in-your-face. But there’s no real point in trying to describe in words how he played back then, especially when it’s so easy for you to hear for yourself.

He was also ‘interesting’. All kinds of gossip flew around about his relationship with his piano teacher, who was thirty years older than him (I think he was in his early 20s) and whom he later married. She died a couple of years ago of liver disease. One journalist wrote that as her husband bent down to kiss her good bye, her liver burst, plastering him in her blood. She was dead. And he didn’t wash for days…

Anyway, his debut was stunning. The programme included some Boulez, which I couldn’t be much bothered with, and his supremely muscly interpretation of  Schumann’s Symphonic Studies. I bought the recording the moment I left the concert hall, on credit, naturally, then played it dry.

Ten years later I travelled up to Oxford to hear him at the Bodleian Library. There, instead of the beautiful boy I’d fallen for so heavily a decade before, I found a vile, fat, sycophantic alien who, lacking any semblance of musical aspiration, sneered smugly at his audience then beat the piano into submission with laser-like precision. I endured his Mozart, but left before he started flagellating anything else I loved.

Richter didn’t like him at all. Or at least, he didn’t like his early recordings—I don’t think he ever heard him play in the flesh. I wonder, though, if it was really the wife he didn’t like. I think she turned up on his doorstep to promote her protégé husband and extract some kind of endorsement from him, which, naturally, he twigged immediately and as a result took against her before she’d even opened her mouth. He wrote in his notebook that the boy didn’t understand Beethoven at all. But I loved the Op. 111 recording, and the Schumann (as I’ve already mentioned), and his Gaspard la Nuit was quite astounding.

Pogorelich has played in Berlin since I’ve been here, or at least, advertisements pasted in the U-bahn have announced, optimistically, that he’d been booked at the Philharmonie, or the Konzerthaus, or somewhere. But as far as I can tell he cancels more often than he actually plays. Nevertheless, when the Konzerthaus wrote to me this week saying there were a couple of tickets left for his concert next Tuesday, I snapped them up immediately.

The thing is I really want to love him again. I want to reinstate him in my pantheon of ‘greats’. And that’s why I seized the tickets with such eagerness. So, as part of my attempt to rehabilitate the now Croatian musical superstar, here’s a clip from youtube of one of the pieces he played during his controversial performance at the Warsaw Competition. It’s one of Chopin’s virtually-impossible-to-play Scherzos, and I think this recording shows just how keenly he fingers the keys. My great hope is that the 50 year old Ivo will have rubbed off a few of the sharper corners that afflicted the 30 year old. Let’s see.


I remember reading an article by Anthony Burgess, or was it in the interview he gave to Antonia Byatt? I can’t remember. What stuck in my mind was his story about being told he had an inoperable brain tumour. Obviously, he recovered, but for a while he thought he was going to die, and made a conscious decision to spend what time he had left making money for his family. So, he started writing novels. Naturally, he had no choice but to work quickly and in this interview/article announced quite coolly that he found it quite easy to knock off 2,000 words before breakfast. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from the shock of that statement, and ‘2,000 words before breakfast’ has become the unattainable bar of productivity that I never have and never am likely to attain this lifetime. I can barely manage a 300 word daily blog entry…

So, Anthony Burgess has a great deal to answer for, yet until now, I’ve avoided reading his novels. His translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, though, is a great favourite of mine. It was commissioned for a production by the RSC in the early 80s and Derek Jacobi was cast as Cyrano. I went 5 times, and as the RSC tended to decamp to the restaurant I worked at after the performance, I served Derek and his boyfriend, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige and Sinead Cusak, plus many other members of the cast, throughout the play’s run. Gerard Depardieu’s very popular version was in the cinema’s at the same time, but I didn’t like it. I much preferred this theatre piece.

Sadly, one or two prominent critics of the day lambasted the RSC for wasting the talents of their company on such unutterable rubbish. It made me sad at the time because there was so much to enjoy in this extremely rich, albeit extremely romantic play, not least the marvellously vivid language Burgess had conjured from the French original. Personally, I feel it was the end of one of the RSC’s richer periods—especially when you remember that their next big hit was the inexorable ‘Glums’.

Anyway, all the above was inspired by the discovery that some kind soul had videoed the BBC TV presentation of this production that was aired in 1985, and posted it on youtube. I vividly remember sitting on the floor in a friend’s tiny Alma Square apartment (I was crashing on the sofa for a couple of months between ‘jobs’) to watch the show, and both loving and hating it at the same time: ‘loving’ to hear the words again, especially as spoken by the wonderful Derek Jacobi, and ‘hating’ the sad lack of excitement and atmosphere that I always felt in the theatre.

And now, after more than twenty years, we can see it again. True, it’s been broken it up into 17 parts, so if you’re interested, you’ll have to endure a fuzzy picture and ten minute mouthsful, but if it lives up to my memory of it, you’re in for a treat. I feel I can’t wait, but am determined to discipline myself to save it for the weekend.

In the meantime, here’s a good bit— the humour and vibrancy of language deserves the description ‘good’, not the quality of the video. Here’s Cyrano’s first appearance on the stage and his masterclass in wit to the pom-pom wearing men of fashion he despises so roundly. Sadly, this clip lacks the final stanza of the speech, so if you have time, do find the next bit and let Cyrano finish.

The Liebestod

Phil went to the Staatsoper’s Tristan and Isolde last night and it got me thinking about Wagner (a shitty bastard if ever there was one, but quite a musician) and all the Liebestod’s I’ve heard and loved this lifetime. This particular outpouring (one of the most beautiful death scenes ever written) comes, as you know, at the end of a five hour opera. The snag with this opera, though, is that everything interesting has already happened before the curtain rises. Typical Wagner!

The recording I remember owning, which I never once listened to from beginning to end in one go (five hours is a big commitment), was the 1966 live Bayreuth recording with Brigit Nilsson singing the Liebestod. The woman was a force of nature. I have never seen or heard a singer with a more secure technique or such absolute confidence. It doesn’t even occur to her that she might not rise to the many technical and emotional challenges of the piece. Amazing stuff, really.

In my teens, the great Hildegard Behrens was flavour of the month amongst the Wagnerians (I was more interested in the Italians myself) and the only other really great Wagnerian soprano I knew of at that time was Kirsten Flagstad. Most of the Wagnerian spoofs comedians indulged in—back in the heady days when popular culture had the wit to lampoon high culture without worrying about whether or not they were alienating their audience, which these days are assumed to be dimwitted and lowbrow—tended to home in on Flagstad’s and Nilsson’s looks and delivery. A shame really, they were extrordinary singers in so many ways.

Just the idea of posting a recording of Wagner’s music is itself a painful contradiction for Wagnerians (an obsessive and often touchy breed). Although I’m sure Richard himself would not only have embraced today’s new technologies, but have pushed the envelope to the limit, I doubt he’d ever be thrilled by the idea that all the layers of luscious sound he created is so often mashed and filtered through very inadequate speakers. But needs must, and I really don’t care that much about Richard Wagner’s sensibilities.

My offering today is a very bizarre confection. Maria Callas—not a noted Wagnerian, but hired by some madman to sing Isolde and Brünnhilde in her early 20s, if memory serves—recorded the Liebestod in Italian, and amazingly the recording still exists. So although I feel sure I’ve played it for Phil at some time over the past couple of decades, as his memory is even lousier than mine, I’ve decided to play it for him again, to celebrate the loss of his Wagnerian virginity, and hope you too enjoy listening.