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Benjamin Britten at 100

I very much liked Neil Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music.  Also very good is Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century.  They are both also useful for understanding English intellectual life during the 20th century, most of all Auden but even Keynes and also the broader history of homosexuality in England.  Both are already out in the UK, where I picked them up earlier in the year, and both will make my best of the year list in late November.

Here is a good Anthony Tommasini survey of Britten at 100.  I will offer these bits

The Britten pieces you are most likely to enjoy: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, that disc has Les Illuminations and Nocturne too and is the single best Britten disc to buy, and also A Ceremony of Carols.

The ones I think are best: Cello Symphony, Winter Words (song cycle), and perhaps Billy BuddWar RequiemNocturne is a powerful spare late work.  I like Curlew River for its connection to Balinese music, although I would not put it among his best compositions from a strictly musical point of view.

My most significant Britten heresy: I’ve never enjoyed listening to Peter Grimes and I find most of the experience oppressive.  More generally, for much of my life I never felt close to Britten’s music, as it made me crave Stravinsky and Mahler instead.  But I’ve listened to it quite a bit since January and have enjoyed it more than expected.

Two points: I think he understood the English language better than any other major composer, and how he sets and understands a text is without parallel, in English at least.  Furthermore as a conductor or pianist he is superb, try his Brandenburg Concerti or his piano on Schubert’s Winterreise, Peter Pears singing, among other works.  Those are two of my favorite recordings in all of classical music.

What I’ve been listening to

Here is what has been sticking with me most so far this year, this list is drawn from full recordings rather than individual songs:

1. Sd Laika, That’s Harakiri, a new sound world, best on vinyl.

2. Calypso: Musical Poetry in the Caribbean 1955-1969, best on vinyl.

3. Shostakovich string quartets, Pacifica Quartet.  The best versions of these ever?  Very Soviet-sounding, muscular in approach, totally bleak.

4. Complete Haydn string quartets, Mosaiques Quartet.  My favorite of all the complete recordings of these.

5. Mala, Mala in Cuba.  Think Buena Vista Social Club for dubstep fans.

6. Deafheaven, Sunbather.  “Black metal for people who don’t like black metal.”  Alternatively, “Serving as an artistic lucid dream of warmth despite the stinging pain of life’s cruel idealism.”

7. Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano, five CDs, quite familiar music, some of it corny even, nonetheless these remain remarkable pieces and they are impeccably played.  A joy of rediscovery.

Lots more Benjamin Britten, including String Quartet #3, and many versions of Mahler’s Sixth.

Best non-fiction books of 2013

There were more strong candidates this year than usual.  The order here is more or less the order I read them in, not the order of preference:

Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschmann.

Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities.

Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.

I liked Neil Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music and also Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century.

M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.

Rana Mitter, China’s War With Japan 1937-1945, the US edition has the sillier title Forgotten Ally.  The return to knowing some background on this conflict is rising.

Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.

William Haseltine, Affordable Excellence: The Singapore Health System.

Clare Jacobson, New Museums in China.  Good text but mostly a picture book, stunning architecture, no art, full of lessons.

Mark Lawrence Schrad, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.

Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: An Authorized Biography, from Grantham to the Falklands.

From books “close at hand,” I very much liked John List and Uri Gneezy, Virginia Postrel on glamour, Lant Pritchett, The Rebirth of Education, and Tim Harford on macroeconomics.

Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia gets rave reviews, although I have not yet read my copy.  From the UK I’ve ordered the new Holland translation of Herodotus and Richard Overy’s The Bombing War and have high expectations for both.

If I had to offer my very top picks for the year, they would all be books I didn’t expect to like nearly as much as I did:

Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region.

Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy, Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.

Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, volume I.

Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.

Apologies to those I left out or forgot, I am sure there were more.

Aldeburgh notes

I long had imagined a perfect English seaside town and it turns out Aldeburgh is it.  Attending a German-Nigerian wedding here makes it all the more so (photos of town are here).

It is more like New Zealand than any other part of England I have visited.

Other than those here for the wedding, there seem to be few non-English people walking around town.  The working class people are fond of discussing the best fish and chips in the area, while one of the (apparently) visiting English women standing next to us in line started lecturing us about “Maggie the Milk Snatcher.”  Even the minister performing the wedding ceremony got in a dig at Thatcher (NB: this is not not not the Vicar of Aldeburgh, who sometimes comments on national affairs, but rather a visiting minister).

In 1908 the town elected the first female mayor in England.  The ships of Sir Francis Drake were built here.  The Benjamin Britten homage scallop-like sculpture structure has been vandalized thirteen times and there is a petition to have it removed.  A long time ago the “North Sea” was called the “German Sea.”

Once you get past London, Oxford, and the like, England is more exotic than most of the places I visit.

The local chocolate caramels go under the brand name of “Seagull Droppings,” with comparable packaging.  (No need to leave this link in the comments.)  You can find them in the Royal Navy store next to the water and the fishmongers.