Review: Sex and Sensibility, BBC 4

Set against political scandal, mass immigration and growing cultural hysteria, this three-part BBC d

Despite, being a dazzling time full of progress and change, as the turning of a new century loomed, drug abuse, sexual deviance and syphilis were rife. Europe in the late 1800s was a hot bed of radical ideas and “there were also more ominous undercurrents”. Indeed, as Smith points out Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, at art nouveau’s height.

The first episode, broadcast last Thursday, explores the rise and fall of this flamboyant decorative style from it’s emergence in the Bohemian underbelly of Paris onto the streets of the city, giving us an insight into both the flourishing aesthetic of art nouveau and the lives of some of the city’s most glamorous and controversial fin de siècle figures.

Smith looks at the iconic, sensual images of actress Sarah Bernhardt, the exclusive architecture of the famous Maxim’s restaurant, Paris’s art nouveau metro stations as well as the exquisitely gaudy beauty of jewellery designed by Renee Lalique. But Smith’s exploration of this decadent world is  not just a flick through the picture books, as he reveals how some of art nouveau's stars risked their reputation to give meaning and purpose to work they thought would affect social change.

In Episode two Smith shifts his exploration to Britain wherein the “sensuality of exotic foreign influences met the genius of British craftsmanship”. Our art nouveau heritage is excavated revealing the “meteoric”, “dazzling”, “controversial” yet brief career of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley whose illustrations and association with Oscar Wilde scandalised the British public of the day. Smith also looks at the work of William Morris and Charles Rene McKintosh as well as lesser-known talents such as Margaret Macdonald.

Episode three, airing on Thurdsay 5th April, will see Smith journeying to Vienna to take a look at the master of art nouveau, Gustav Klimt.

The series uncovers glimpses into the world of art nouveau. Through visits to their private houses, previously unseen collections of their work and interviews with their enthusiasts, Smith talks engagingly and intriguingly about this fashion fad that disappeared almost as fast as it emerged. Whether you are a fan of the art nouveau style or not, the scandalous lives of its fin de siècle’s participants more than makes up for its over-the-top and whimsical aesthetics.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State