Festive spirits

Avoid a nightmare before Christmas with December's wine club

It is not yet politically incorrect to refer to Christmas by its proper name; but the pressure is on to add both the word and the concept to the list of discarded things, along with coronations, surnames, starched collars, pinstripe suits and chastity. Even a Christian might prefer "holiday season" to describe the dread days when children are at their worst, adults scarcely better, and the house is awash with plastic rubbish from the appalling new China - it combines capitalist consumerism, communist dictatorship and ecological vandalism in a unique synthesis of the worst aspects of modernity.

Still, we have to go through with it, and the question, as with all such ordeals, is how to drink your way to a state of surrender. It has become customary to begin the great sacrifice with a glass of champagne. This overpriced and so often characterless drink can be exchanged for a variety of equally stimulating substitutes at half the price. Corney & Barrow's sparkling white, on offer as part of its Christmas wine club, would suit the bill perfectly - crisp, but with sufficient weight to pierce the veil of bubbles and plant fistfuls of giggles in the guts.

The Chablis has the kind of elegant stiletto finish that enables you to walk away straight-faced from the job - which might be a few whelks with a splash of vinegar, or a clean despatching of that overloaded aunt.

Chablis, once a catch-all term for dry white wine, now signifies a synthesis of the Chardonnay grape and the Kimmeridgian clay of the Yonne. It is drunk with relish by those, like us, who live on the Kimmeridge clay of north Wiltshire, and who know how mean and unfruitful this soil can be, and how bitter it is to live in a place where it is not planted with the only fruit that matters.

Of the two reds, the Pinot Noir, which comes with the benediction of a certain M Bourgeois - and therefore represents everything that Balzac celebrated and Sartre detested - is a fragrant and fruity version of the Burgundy grape, light enough to see you through the turkey and with enough depth to give you something to think about when the jabber begins.

This is a poetic wine, with a gentle, allusive character that invites communication. Why listen to the drivel of all those soap-watching and text-messaging relatives of yours, when this little bit of rescued earth is calling from within?

A good year for claret was 2003. The Château Mazeris throws out fistfuls of fruit, spiked with hidden shards of tannin. I am less convinced by its virtues than those who are trying to flog it to you. Still, in two years' time it will get its act together; and meanwhile it is full enough to inspire your closing gesture, as you make your excuses and sit with a glass beneath the Christmas tree.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic

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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