Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Sue Gerhardt, Aminatta Forna and the Chris Morris biography, though not in t

Lucian Randall, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris

Sameer Rahim in the Telegraph finds that this biography of the man behind Brass Eye and Jam "cites many examples of Morris's personal kindness and generosity", while conceding that he is "not a crowd-pleaser", and his "uncompromising comic vision ... has often landed him in trouble". Elizabeth Day in the Observer notes that Chris Morris "trades on his anonymity", and "the first quarter of Disgusting Bliss is thus hampered by a lack of interesting information." She concludes: "impeccably researched and fluently written, Disgusting Bliss paints Morris as a frantic-minded perfectionist, a visionary unwilling to cede control of his projects. He emerges from this biography as someone maniacally convinced of the rightness of his vision, who steamrollers opposition and approaches controversy with relish." For Arifa Akbar in the Independent, the book is "illuminating, if all too admiring" and an "inspiring read for budding anarchists". Sophie Elmhirst in the New Statesman finds that "Randall offers a feast of anecdotes. It feels as if he has interviewed everyone Morris has ever worked with, a method that can read heavily at times", and restates the critical consensus: "Randall confirms the portrait of Morris as an uncompromising creator."

Susan Gerhardt, The Selfish Society

Phil Hogan in the Observer begins by this describing this book, inauspiciously, as "quite inspiring" and "the latest to join the clamour against consumerism revived in recent times". Gerhardt is "is more understanding than condemning" compared to other commentators on the subject, but "the diagnosis - that acquiring a lot of stuff doesn't make you happy - is the same". Lesley McDowell in the Independent on Sunday is impressed that "Sue Gerhardt's polemic is an unusual thing: it not only pinpoints what is wrong, but also suggests ways to put it right"; she also "knows that she is taking on long-cherished beliefs". McDowell sums up Gerhardt's approach thus: "If we don't change the way we bring up children, beginning from the moment that they are born, we will stay depressed and in debt", and concludes: "I believe her." David Evans in the Financial Times writes that "The idea that broken Britain might be mended with cuddles will attract cynicism, but Gerhardt has the neuroscience to back it up." He also notes that Gerhardt "quotes everyone from Engels to David Cameron along the way".

Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love

For Tim Adams in the Observer, Aminatta Forna's second novel is "ambitious and deeply researched", in which "Freudian archetypes are everyday reality" within its setting in Sierra Leone circa 2001. Adams quibbles that "There is a neatness and a coincidence to this plotting that at times seems strained but serves Forna's wider point that everything is connected if you look hard enough", while praising Forna's depiction of "Sierra Leone's monstrous recent history": "As Forna's forensic reinhabiting of the aftermath of the conflict reveals, these wounds may have vivid physical realities, but it is always behind the eyes that they are felt most keenly." Lucy Atkins in the Sunday Times agrees about the plotting: "This is delicately and skilfully done, and although sometimes the coincidences seem distinctly unlikely, they somehow work." She concludes that "This is a slow novel that occasionally feels as if Forna could have pared things back a little. But then, the steady pace makes the awful revelations all the more disturbing." Jane Shilling in the Telegraph declares that "This is an ambitious project", but finds that in this novel "Forna weaves an intricate tapestry of betrayal, tragedy and loss". Although she agrees that Forna's plot "has something too much of artifice - almost mechanical - about it", she decides that "Forna understands that it is only by making patterns out of chaos that humans find the courage to continue living."

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis