Thursday, December 31, 2020

Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology is a monumental achievement. Its scope is vast, its size is daunting, its scholarship and vision both quite breath-taking on every one of its 1000-plus pages. Ostensibly, it claims to be an analysis of the origins, politics and economics of inequality, but it goes considerably deeper and further than its brief. This work is nothing less than a snapshot of global economic history and politics taken at the time of writing. Though the historical element might be seen in different forms via the lenses of centuries and assumed perspectives, the book’s analysis of current political issues was always going to be subject to faster change.  I doubt whether Thomas Piketty himself would have predicted that, just a few months after his work’s publication, the global economic and political landscape would be redrawn by a new, microscopic virus. But that is exactly what has happened. And, given the effects on wealth and asset distribution the author attributes to the capital-destroying wars that dictated the history of the twentieth century, one wonders what a post-Covid analysis of the mechanisms that create and maintain inequality might look like. One suspects that the political prescriptions in the book’s last chapter may just, out of sheer necessity, have been rendered more likely.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century charted the origins and extent of inequality in human societies. Capital and Ideology follows on by examining current and historical circumstances and mechanisms that determine its extent and influence its propagation. The book charts comparisons of inequality across countries, continents, cultures and eras. In doing so, its author uses much more than statistical comparisons. Historical and cultural perspectives are offered. Economic analyses are suggested. Crucially, societal structures are analysed, especially those of triumvirate societies, where the ownership of religious, scientific and military power provide the justification and the means of establishing and maintaining skewed ownership of assets. Though the book covers much ground, many different civilizations, locations and eras, the overall analytical focus is never lost.

A criticism of such an achievement may seem petty, but the book could have profitably dealt with one of its weaknesses much earlier. A constantly aired opinion of Thomas Piketty’s work is that, like all socialists, he wants everyone to be the same, to compress all to the same lowest common denominator. This, the criticism continues, would stifle creativity and drive in any society that tried to implement his recommended policies or even tried to address the obvious and growing inequality caused by market capitalism. Readers of Capital and Ideology, however, will have to wait until the book’s last chapter before reading this passage.

“A just society is one that allows all of its members access to the widest possible range of fundamental goods. Fundamental goods include education, health, the right to vote, and more generally to participate as fully as possible in the various forms of social, cultural, economic, civic, and political life. A just society organizes socioeconomic relations, property rights, and the distribution of income and wealth in such a way as to allow its least advantaged members to enjoy the highest possible life conditions. A just society in no way requires absolute uniformity or equality. To the extent that income and wealth inequalities are the result of different aspirations and distinct life choices or permit improvement of the standard of living and expansion of the opportunities available to the disadvantaged, they may be considered just. But this must be demonstrated, not assumed, and this argument cannot be invoked to justify any degree of inequality whatsoever, as it too often is.”

Let’s juxtapose this quote from page 967 of Thomas Piketty’s book with the following: “Above all, we will listen to the people who have felt left behind by the last few decades of economic growth and want to have control of their future. (We) will give the public services the resources they need, supporting our hospitals, our schools and our police. We will help people and families throughout their lives…” This latter passage is quoted verbatim from the webpage of the British Conservative Party, from the manifesto upon which they fought their successful campaign for the 2019 election, an election where an unprecedented number of voters from disadvantaged communities (largely as a result of previous Conservative governments’ priorities) opted to vote for the party in the hope they would honour a promise to “level up” the country. There seems to be electoral kudos in levelling, despite the opinion of right-wing politicians who extol the need for libertarian individualism married to economically deregulated separatism. Thomas Piketty analyses such tendencies and offers a paradigm to explain these shifting political alliances.

Capital and Ideology is the perfect text for anyone needing an update on the world. It has so many succinct and pertinent analyses that even a list of its insights would be a tome in itself. Some examples will suffice.

For instance, if anyone finds it hard to understand why certain elite groups from Western democracies might now be sympathetic towards Putin’s Russia, Thomas Piketty can enlighten.

It is important to note that it is very difficult to measure and analyse income and wealth in postcommunist Russia because the society is so opaque. This is due in large part to decisions taken first by the government headed by Boris Yeltsin and later by Vladimir Putin to permit unprecedented evasion of Russian law through the use of offshore entities and tax havens. In addition, the postcommunist regime abandoned not only any ambition to redistribute property but also any effort to record income or wealth. For example, there is no inheritance tax in postcommunist Russia, so there are no data on the size of inheritances. There is an income tax, but it is strictly proportional, and its rate since 2001 has been just 13 percent, whether the income being taxed is 1000 rubles or 100 billion rubles.”

When this is placed alongside the fact that Europe in general and the European Union in particular is a global outlier in the extent of its greater equality of wealth and income and we can see immediately why the libertarian, individualists of the political right, who for example favour Brexit for the United Kingdom, might also cast an envious glance towards Russia’s largely unregulated treatment of wealth, no matter how it was amassed.

Thomas Piketty offer numerous such insights. He analyses India’s castes, charts the French Revolution, analyses politics in the USA and takes long hard looks at colonialism and empires. And what is more, all of this is accomplished with transparency and fluidity, so that at no stage does a reader feel presented with a mere list. The analysis of current political strands is particularly enlightening.

Piketty rejects the term “populism” as meaningless. He prefers to use “identitarian” to describe the tendency for many voters in democracies to retreat behind promised protectionism and fortified borders to exclude foreigners. In doing so, he sums up both cause and effect in a single idea, a summary that is both more accurate and more enlightening than “populism” in terms of understanding the political direction being followed. But he goes beyond description and offers analysis of motives. He cites, for example, evidence relating to Poland and Hungary, both of whom currently have governments that have displayed tendencies to restrict freedom or roll back liberalism, even to the extent that they are at odds with a European Union they were once eager to join. Many observers are perplexed by this phenomenon, noting that both countries have benefitted hugely from European development aid and inward investment. Piketty’s analysis, however, examines net transfers and finds that for both countries, capital flow has consistently been out of the country and towards Europe’s epicentres of wealth. And electorates are aware of this bloodletting. The only solution, he maintains, is greater political integration, not less.

He analyses politics in the USA, though obviously not in great depth. He does, however, make enlightening points about race to illustrate how the Democrats became transformed from the party of southern slavery to the natural home of the “ethnic” vote. It is a process that happened over a century, from the Civil War, when the Republicans were the champions of opposition to slavery through the New Deal and into the late 1960s, when it was the Democrats who espoused civil rights.

The author spends much of the early part of the book identifying the structure of triumvirate societies, where a peasant majority is ruled by an alliance between warrior and priestly classes who, combined, rarely accounted for more than ten percent of the population. He then shows how this structure developed into proprietarianism, which preserved the right of the ruling classes to own property. This later evolved into capitalism when the owners of property increased the scale of operations and created industrialization. He makes a convincing case in relation to the political control claimed by an alliance of religion and sword that was used to justify and then preserve property ownership of the ruling minority. Piketty offers the following, again late in the book:

“I have defined proprietarianism as a political ideology based on the absolute defense of private property; capitalism as the extension of proprietarianism into the age of large-scale industry, international finance, and more recently to the digital economy. At bottom capitalism rests on the concentration of economic power in the hands of the owners of capital. In principle, the owners of real estate capital can decide to whom they wish to rent and at what price while the owners of financial and professional capital govern corporations according to the principle of “one share one vote”, which entitles them, among other things, to decide by themselves whom to hire and at what wage.”

And then there arose democracy and later war. It was not that wars had been unknown in the pre-modern era, but he suggests that the industrialization of war after the dawn of the modern era rendered it more thoroughly and extensively destructive than it had previously been. Because of its destruction of property and the creation of debt via interruption of economic life, war threatened proprietarian societies in a way they had never before experienced. Democracy also threatened ownership directly unless it could be manipulated, of course, and both of these threats to the classes born to own had to be managed. Ownership had previously coped with war losses, the twice national income debt in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, having been turned to the owners’ advantage by the issuing of bonds their capital bought and a century of poor people’s contributions rendered lucrative to their owners via interest and redemptions.

Democracy posed a new type of challenge to the owners of assets, and still does. So, to explain how systems of inequality can be maintained after everyone, at least in theory, has an equal say, Thomas Piketty needs to examine in detail how politics have changed over the last century. He now finds there exist four almost equally popular political ideologies. He writes:

“In 2017, 21 percent of voters could be classified as “egalitarian internationalists” (pro-immigrant, pro-poor); 26 percent are “inegalitarian nativists” (anti-immigrant, pro-rich); 23 percent are “inegalitarian internationalists” (pro-immigrant, pro-rich), and 30 percent are “egalitarian nativists” (anti-immigrant, pro-poor).”

Furthermore, he finds that there is now a tendency for there to develop an alliance between the two factions of nativism, an alliance that does not challenge property rights.


And, crucially, he finds that the social democrat model that made significant inroads into inequality in the middle of the twentieth century has now been transformed into an ideology of a Brahmin-like educated elite, leaving the votes of the losers in the distribution of wealth to be hoovered into an identitarian trap by the owners of an increasing share of property. This, in essence, is not dissimilar in character to the concept of false consciousness that Marxists find they have to apply in order to explain why masses of people regularly vote or act against their own interests. Here, Thomas Piketty offers a rational mechanism and a convincing argument by which false consciousness can be cultivated and exploited, an approach which does not fall into the distasteful trap of branding poorer people merely stupid.

There is so much in Capital and Ideology that it is almost impossible to review. Reading it comes close to a life-changing experience. Please do read it. Do persevere with its length. Take it at a steady pace and read something else, something contrasting, alongside. Readers will immediately and repeatedly find themselves amazed at the scholarship, the revelations and the rationality of the book’s argument. Anyone interested in our own times should regard it as essential reading. The presence of a virus, however, probably demands a companion volume, since the political and economic landscape is now surely transformed, just like war ripped up its design a century ago.

Eventually, Thomas Piketty champions the politics of social democracy as the solution to growing inequality and, eventually, environmental degradation. He cites the example of Sweden, in that:

“it shows that inequality is not the product of some essential cultural predisposition: in the space of a few years Sweden moved from the most extreme hyper-inegalitarian proprietarian system, which survived until 1909-11, to a quintessential egalitarian social-democratic society once SAP came to power in the 1920s and then ruled almost continuously from 1932 to 2006.”

With the right policies and crucially an end to the retreat into identitarian separatism, the author sees a future where, during an individual lifetime, people can be as entrepreneurial and as successful as they like, but where tax systems and inheritance management ensure the recirculation of wealth and capital to ensure it does not become the permanent property of an ever-smaller elite. A still far from perfect Europe is the example, while the libertarian, identitarian deregulators pose the threat.


Monday, December 28, 2020

From The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s From The House of the Dead is not a novel. Though its principal character, its narrator, the upper-class Goryanchikov, is probably a fictitious identity, it is also probably the author, himself, masquerading, so the overall impression is that of a recollection of real experience. We do not know if the other inmates of the prison camp where the book is set are faithful descriptions of real people, but they certainly come across as such. If there is anything that lingers after reading this book, then it is the immediacy of its realism.

Dostoevsky spent years in such a camp, in Siberia, of course, after surviving his own execution via a last minute reprieve which arrived, apparently, as his executioners as were ready to take aim. It was a bit of a wheeze and quite often used by the Russian royals and their system. Perhaps they were always late in the signing of such orders, since they were probably preoccupied with the counting of their serfs’ earnings, or should I say the earnings from the serfs. One has to be careful to look after the welfare of one’s subjects, after all, because if these people were actually to starve to death, one would take a cut in income and one might have to run the fountains at Peterhof half an hour or less each month. I exaggerate, perhaps but one senses that Dostoyevsky did not.

And it is the detail of the descriptions offered by its author that bring this living death to life. When he describes how even a misplaced word or glance could result in a prisoner receiving literally hundreds of lashes, one begins to understand the nature of absolute power derived from God.

It is perhaps the descriptions of these beatings that linger the longest in a reader’s memory by the end of this book. Dostoyevsky, via Goryanchikov, of course, describes the state of the flesh on the backs of the persons who had just returned from their ordeals. He even allows those tasked with the delivery of these disciplinary measures to describe the minutiae of their technique. We learn, for instance, that the ultimate weapon for the corporal punishment artist is the birch. It was the particular flexibility of this wood that enabled the true expression of the beater’s persona, in that its ability to store energy meant that a few tens of lashes from the birch could be as destructive as a hundred from a cane. The reader should take note of the advice. It may come in useful.

One of the more book’s arresting memories is how often such punishments appear to happen. After all, it’s the deterrent effect which is their most important function, so to be effective in this they should be used as frequently as possible. It will make them think twice, then thrice and so on…

But in the end, as the composer Laos Janacek concluded, it is the humanity of the people involved that shines through. Some of these people committed the most horrible crimes and most of them enjoyed relating their stories. And there was always, it seemed, an internal logic in their stories that arises to justify action, no matter how disastrous the effects may have proved, no matter how dire the consequences may have been. It is not that they were proud of what they had done, but its reality had become part of them, part of their present and future, as well as their past. One wonders if the royals and their loyals used to indulge similarly by recounting the histories of those they condemned.

Overall, one marvels at how these prison camp inmates simply get on with their lives. They eat their food, whatever it is, involve themselves in illicit trade, run their own drinking establishments, of sorts, and probably engage in conjugal acts of whatever character can be imagined. And they cooperate when they are not getting beaten. The next century had Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and frankly, little would appear to have changed, apart from the eventual ownership of the facility.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Master of Petersburg by J M Coetzee

J M Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg had a particular effect on this reader in that it prompted me to read From The House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky. It’s a book I have wanted to read literally for decades and have never been before properly begun. And the motivation comes directly from J M Coetzee’s analysis of the Fyodor Dostoyevky’s conscience, or perhaps his lack of it in The Master of Petersburg. Coetzee’s book is a novel. It does not claim to be history, nor does it base itself on historically recognizable individuals, except for the principal protagonist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But the scenario it examines becomes compellingly convincing, the dilemmas posed both credible and realistic.

The novel starts in 1869, a year when Fyodor Dostoyevsky was resident in Germany. The setting is more than a decade after his experience as a political prisoner in Siberia, a decade on from anything that is described in From The House of the Dead. The past may have been water under the bridge, but the flow was apparently continuous.

Dostoevsky has received a note saying that his stepson has died in St. Petersburg. There are administrative issues to settle, debts, possessions, people to inform, so the author returns to his own city and embarks upon the reconstruction of his stepson‘s life and death. There is an element here of who-done-what because the circumstances surrounding the end of the stepson’s life remain unclear.

The author has to live somewhere. There is a landlady and she has a family. There are the stepson’s contacts to trace, contacts which he made for a variety of reasons, not all of them completely legal. There are political movements to understand, perhaps penetrate, because that is the only reliable way to encounter untainted memories of a life passed away, a life that lived its own version of action. And, inevitably in Czarist Russia, there are police who are interested in the nature of every contact Dostoyevsky makes. They shed light not only with his stepson’s possible associations with the officially undesirable, but also on the author’s own past and the origins of his own incarceration as a political prisoner.

In pursuing this quest, Dostoyevsky encounters people and memories from his own past, and it has to be acknowledged that he has form. In reality, he can do nothing in this town in his own name without it being noticed by someone, registered by some authority. It is inevitable that something will be dragged up from the past, even if merely to facilitate interests in the present

And inevitably, the writer forms new relationships and these further complicate already complex relationships. There are debts to honour from the past and there will be new ones as a result of unfolding events, of that we are sure. There are previous associations. There is, eventually, perhaps the very reason that he himself came under the official scrutiny all those years ago, events that led to his conviction and incarceration as a political prisoner, and thus provided the experience that led to From The House of the Dead. And, most important of all, there is a contemporary political movement known to his stepson, involvement in which could potentially repeat the allegations and charges the previously led to his own conviction. People within those movements are aware of the author’s quest and his need for information. The problem with some of this information is that it comes with its own health warning.

But what J M Coetzee accomplishes in the midst of all this is a historical context, in The Master of Petersburg, is the creation of a scenario and as associated narrative that never enters polemic. We feel that we are in the same voyage of discovery as its principal character and we experience events alongside his own perception. We are never told what to think.

J M Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is a superb book that surprisingly even displays relevance to contemporary events. It reminds us that societies often can often be constructed by those with an interest in finding in the world precisely what they seek.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Anarchy by William Dalrymple

Occasionally, quite rarely, in fact, one reads a book so powerful that it is impossible to review, at least until the dust its disturbance has scattered starts to settle. It can happen when something causes anger, revulsion, jaw-dropping admiration or raw emotion. And it is not often that such a book is from the non-fiction section, even rarer that it might be pulled from the shelves labeled Economic History.

But William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is such a book. The Anarchy should be more literally entitled The Company, since it presents the history of a single commercial entity, couched in the form of a biography of a being that had a life of its own. The title does convey the author’s ultimate judgment on this entity but, given the detail of this history, it is probably an understatement, even generous in its recognition.

The book tells the story of the East India Company, the British one, not the Dutch one, not the French one. Surely there are similar corporate biographies elsewhere. They may even exist, but we can be sure that the impact, though possibly qualitatively similar, would be quantitatively less significant.

The bare and unadorned facts of this company’s history begin with its founding in the City of London in the late 16th century as a joint stock venture by a group of investors. It grew courtesy of its participation in the spice trade and slavery in the 17th century, before achieving almost imperial status in the 18th century, when it effectively ruled India. It continued to expand in the 19th century until its implosion in the middle of the century, when its sheer size took it down, after it had failed to cope with the consequences of the Indian Mutiny, which its own practices and policies had arguably caused. The book’s title, The Anarchy, indicates clearly the author’s position that this group was morally and economically a different kind of entity from a company, but the work is far from polemical. The term ‘company’ suggests at least some level of organization, cooperation or community. But, as Adam Smith noted in his Wealth of Nations, this company’s defining characteristics were personal profit, corruption, war, violence and political intrigue, always directed towards furthering its own, already monopolistic position. I understate.

In fact, William Dalrymple makes a little use of Smith’s judgment of the company’s activity, despite the fact that it fits perfectly with the characterization he offers. It is nothing less than a strength of his analysis that secondary sources of criticism, such as Smith’s, are largely ignored. Throughout, William Dalrymple relies on primary sources that relate directly to the company’s dealings in British politics, Indian politics and international trade. Listing such areas of activity might suggest that an air of legitimacy surrounds this corporate presence, but rest assured, this company was involved in mass murder, assassination, exploitation, profiteering, deception, and the list could go on to become a rogues’ gallery of transgression. People who doubt this analysis are free to remind themselves of Smith’s published opinion in 1770 that this, the only extant multinational corporation at the time, represented the anathema of free trade, competition or economic health, and the epitome of corruption, deception and graft, and this from the person who extolled the concept of free trade.

Two particular points lodge in the memory after reading this book. The first is a simple number, one half. There was a time in the early nineteenth century when half of Britain’s wealth - there were no GDP figures then of course - was derived from this company’s activity. They were selling drugs into China at the time and it was lucrative, despite their having to fight wars against the Chinese state to retain the right to do so. The second is the role the company played in the creation, for that can be the only word, of the Bengal famine, which was the greatest famine recorded in India’s history. Let’s ignore the firing of people out of cannon, double dealing and deception, alongside the expected naked exploitation and personal profiteering, all of which had their impact on the politics and economy of the United Kingdom, as well.

Anyone thinking that this might be a dry, over detailed, desiccated analysis of history should ignore their fears and be enlightened by this book. The Anarchy is a complete eye-opener to colonial history, the origins of wealth in our colonial societies and the consequences for the colonies. It should be read by everyone, especially those people who might admit even a residual pride in Britain’s Imperial past.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Mariozzi-Mariozzi-Rucli in Brahms, Beethoven and Rota and Palomares-Espi in Musica Iberoamericano

Live music in December 2020 is probably not the commonest of commodities wherever you live. In our corner of south-east Spain, we have some. In normal times, whatever that phrase might now mean, there would be at least the opportunity of attending two or three concerts a week in this area, but our new normal here has for several months changed the situation. Whether it is this new scarcity, this new normal, or indeed whether it is simply the quality of what we hear, I have no idea, but I can record without hesitation that everything now sounds more vivid, more committed and more beautiful. And so it was for the two chamber music events presented by Alfas del Pi’s Classical Music Society this weekend.

On Saturday 12 December in Casa Cultura, the society hosted a piano trio with what looked like at first glance a fairly standard program. The trio comprised the clarinet of Vicenzo Mariozzi, the cello of Francisco Mariozzi and the piano of Andrea Rucli. This was in fact the fourth concert of the trio’s mini tour with the same program and, if the other three venues had provided rehearsal time, then this fourth concert’s perfection might just have another explanation apart from the obvious and sustained virtuosity of the musicians.

We began with the Brahms trio opus114. Its gentle, almost flickering lines assemble to present a mind in turmoil. The phrases may be short, sometimes very short, but the statements are long and sometimes convoluted. But eventually this is direct music, despite its almost constant asides, whose surface a listener can enjoy at an aural glance. But there is much more here only just below the gloss. There is the aftermath of depression, an obvious, but, one feels, an unfulfilled desire to reflect on a past that has some powerful memories. There is nostalgia alongside fear of the future and the unknown. The music seems to reek of regret. Its style and hand are both utterly assured, but the composer is suffering new personal doubt, so we are presented with a contradictory and compelling mix of late Brahms, personal doubt expressed via assured technique, intangible feelings precisely described. It was a picture that Vicenzo Mariozzi, Francisco Mariozzi and Andrea Rucli conveyed via a remarkable skill of understatement.

In retrospect the next two works on the program formed a similar pair, an unexpectedly similar pair in that they seem to share an unusual conceptual framework. Beethoven was a young man when he wrote his opus 11 trio, the Gassenhauer. He wanted to show off. He wanted to make his mark on the citys life, future earnings being the goal. He thus wrote a serious trio that showed off his melodic, conceptual and compositional gift. But crucially he adopted a contemporary earworm for the main theme of the finale. It was a tune that everyone was whistling around the town. In Beethovens hands, it became a set of variations where the main variable is rhythm. This trivial little idea then becomes something grand, even grandiose at times, despite its humble origins. It was rather what Beethoven himself wanted to do in his own life.

The final piece in this program was the trio by Nino Rota. The work’s first two movements are both highly melodic and very rhythmic, but the musical language is couched in a style that can only be described as astringent neoclassicism. This may not be Hindemith, nor Stravinsky, but it is music with a hard, sometimes spiky surface. The finale, however, is like a scoop of ice cream on a crumbly biscuit, an almost hackneyed ditty that sits somewhere between Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops. Its a moment that reminds us not to take anything too seriously, except, perhaps, a sideways surreal and thus revealing view of life. Beethoven chose a silly ditty to self-aggrandise, whereas Rota seems to make fun of the whole process until, however, one realizes how beautifully written and constructed is the entire work. And the fact that this commentary deals almost exclusively with the impressions delivered by the pieces is testimony to the perfection that Vicenzo Mariozzi, Francisco Mariozzi and Andrea Rucli brought to the playing.

And then, on Sunday lunchtime Alfas del Pi Music Society presented a violin and guitar duo in Albir. Its a combination and a concert we have heard before and hopefully we will hear again. The society’s vice-president, virtuoso violinist Joaquín Palomares renewed his performing partnership with guitarist Fernando Espí in a program they titled Música Iboamericana. In theory, these might be viewed as lighter pieces, an assemblage to pass a pleasant hour on a clear and sunny December day by the sea.

But the understanding between these two virtuoso musicians renders everything they play not only elegant but also exciting and ultimately moving. The program was the Serenata by Malats, the Brazilian Dances of Machado, a Milonga by Tavolaro, Amasia by Boutros, three of Manuel de Falla’s Popular Songs and two movements from The Story of the Tango by Piazzolla. The music went from bossa nova to tango, from Europe to South America, from folk music to dancehall, a journey which, when contrasted with the trio of the previous evening, really did illustrate how far music can transport an audience and the different places it can take us.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Middlemarch by George Eliot


Having never read it before, I decided that this must be the time. It is impressive, but it comes across like a middle-class Brookside. The writing style is convoluted, verbose and forever playing God. It did have its moments, but as Rossini said of Wagner, it’s the hours in between that are the problem. I’d read it again, however.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I am really surprised by the simplicity and transparency of the writing. I expected something much thicker than this, especially since it was written largely as early as 1818, though I consumed the 1831 edition. Yes, disbelief has not only to be suspended, but hung by the neck from the highest branch, and left there. Not only do we have the assembly of human bits, but we also have the being’s own story, which is couched in the same manner as Victor Frankenstein’s memoir, despite the fact that the “thing” claims he has yet to learn language. He does this, and then proceeds to read Paradise Lost, which is just hanging around the rural areas of Switzerland. But overall it is a very rewarding read, with lots of surprises, such as, for instance, that Frankenstein never refers to his creation as a “monster”. And it’s only as a result of the being’s mistreatment and the breaking of his word by Frankenstein that he embarks on his retributions against the family.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - ADDA Simfonica in Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Mozart

The symphony orchestra may rank among the most important of all human inventions. The fact that the very idea is absurd makes it a gem of human achievement. Around a hundred human beings, who have devoted their lives to mastering techniques in the use a technology invented specially for this product-less purpose. They join together in the presence of an audience, who is only in attendance to share the both intangible and abstract experience of hearing sounds, sounds that have been concatenated by the imagination of others who generally are not even present. The absurdity of the exercise can only be imagined. The permanence of its effect cannot be overstated.

The fact that we have concerts at all in these virus-dictated times is, in itself, a miracle. Duly temperature-checked at the door, socially-distanced and only in attendance by virtue of the musicians’ willingness to perform the same program twice each time, at six o’clock and then again at nine, we are privileged to assemble in Alicante’s ADDA concert hall. And this has happened three times in the last two weeks for this particular participant.

And, after some months away from real live orchestral sound, the opening phrases of Edward Tubin’s Estonian Dance Suite provided an immediate and major thrill. Tubin’s reputation for musical conservatism does not prepare the listener for the harmonic and rhythmic surprises in his work. We followed that with the performance by Adolfo Guitiérrez of Shostakovich’s second cello concerto, whose almost neurotic, obsessive concentration seemed to tap the general anxiety we are all feeling these days. Adolfo Guitiérrez had the time and energy to play and a little encore by Benjamin Britten, despite having to do the whole thing again just two hours later. We then heard the Symphony No. 1 of the fourteen-year-old Felix Mendelsohn. The music seems to fit the mental image of the early teenager in a frock coat and a cravat parading as a precocious adult. In some ways, the almost deliberate recourse to complexity, the calculated varied modulations of key speak of this lad frantically staking his claim to adulthood. The fact that the work convinces and generates communicative experience is testimony to the young mans invention and genius, indeed success in his personal project. Anu Tali’s conducting debut in Alicante was thus a brilliant success.

The second trip was for a concert devoted to the memory of José Enrique Garrigós, who was a significant figure in the business and cultural life of the province. He died last year and was clearly an acquaintance of Joesp Vicent, ADDA Simfonica principal conductor and artistic director. Josep Vicent also clearly has special regard for the major work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique.

But the concert began with a finale, the final jota from the Three Cornered Hat of Manuel de Falla. The piece was perhaps a long-term favorite of José Enrique Garrigós and perhaps gave an insight as to how he himself wanted to be remembered. There followed a performance of Raise The Roof, a timpani concerto by American composer Michael Daugherty. To describe Javier Eguillor’s performance as soloist as virtuosic would almost belittle the achievement. Rarely silent throughout the work, the work began with an aurally blinding flash of a cymbal roll. The timpani then offered their notes to the orchestra, which then proceeded to play with and amongst them throughout a first movement that was almost entirely pentatonic. Overall, the piece layered gloss on gloss, sparkle on glitter to provide almost an evaporation of emotion and brilliance.

And then we had Tchaikovsky six. Certain pieces of music, quite rarely, it has to be said, only grow by greater exposure. Each time such pieces say something bigger, reveal layers of nuanced meaning previously missed or merely impact on the listener in a more vivid, immediate way. This Tchaikovsky symphony is one such piece. This particular performance I would place a few centimeters short of life-changing. A closer brush with raw experience might even have been dangerous. After the turbulence, the paroxysms and the joy, we were left with the pianissimo of two notes on the basses, sawn rather than bowed, the cuts of the last ties with hope. Strangely enough, such overt despair makes everyone, eventually, feel better, because the only remaining way is up. I am reminded that in the same hall in less than two months I expect to hear a performance of Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, which finishes with precisely the same two note fate in the basses, but repeated like a torture.

And so to the third of the recent orchestral events. Programmatically this one was unusual in that it presented a Saint-Saens-Mozart sandwich. Three shorter pieces by Saint-Saens, the Andromache overture, Spartacus and the Dance Macabre, surrounded the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20. The Saint-Saens showed off the orchestra to great effect, the brilliant orchestration producing color and effect in an almost Proust-like stream of consciousness, albeit considerably shorter. The brilliance of the composer’s orchestration contrasts with his musical conservatism, but the whole assembles like an Impressionist painting, albeit of a generation earlier than the composer’s own life.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 is a different experience from those previously described. This is a quiet, understated, deeply personal work the bursts with emotional states that are not advertised like self-promotion or worn like jewelry. The writing is subtle, reticent, suggestive of some deeper emotional experience than that being related to the listeners. It is a piece that needs a pianist with perfect touch married to an ability to communicate, a transparent virtuosity that allows the music to quietly come before technique, but a technique perfect enough to admit moments of sympathetic variations of emotion. The soloist achieving this perfection with apparent ease was none less than Maria João Pires.