An Insufferable “Sherlock”

[N.B. For those of my American readers who are still waiting to see Sunday's premiere episode of Season 2 of "Sherlock" on PBS Masterpiece, I would advise that you not read this blog post until you have had a chance to see it.  I will not be giving too many spoilers, but nevertheless there is always the possibility that my take on the show may color yours.  So for the rest of you, let us carry on.]

If you remember the old Jeremy Brett “Sherlock Holmes” series for Granada Television, in which he played the famous detective with a mix of hyperactive theatrics and detached insouciance, no doubt like me you found Holmes was at times a rather annoying figure.  However on the whole, the producers of that series, though they took liberties with the original stories, tried to remain faithful to those tales, and to consider ideas that were interesting to Conan Doyle and those of his times: the effect of advances in the sciences and technology on both the practice and investigation of crime; curiosity in the phenomenon of spiritualism as obtained from far-flung pagan cultures; the global political implications for the British Empire of certain events, and so on.  If Brett’s Holmes was not exactly by-the-book for purists, on the whole his manifestation of the character and the series itself were at least rooted in Holmes’ era, and the environment from which he arose.

I have always thought that the premiere episode of the Brett series, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which features the mysterious and alluring character of Irene Adler, to be one of the finest of them all.  Holmes himself is always portrayed as being somewhat asexual, with no romantic life to speak of and an attitude toward women which is one of the respect a gentleman owed a lady, coupled with a disdain for the occasionally irrational, emotional outbursts of the fairer sex.  The fact that Holmes falls, if one could put it that way, for Irene Adler, and keeps a memento of her among his possessions, brings a wonderful, unrequited quality that is touching in the great man of thought who cannot quite bring himself to be as conventional as other men are.  This is in keeping with others of his type whom we know from history, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, or even arguably C.S. Lewis, who was as surprised as anyone when late in life he met and was briefly married to his wife, Joy.

When Sunday’s episode of “Sherlock” began,and I saw that the title was “A Scandal in Belgravia”, meaning it would be a take-off on the Irene Alder story, I knew at once that we were in for trouble.  Having seen Season 1 of “Sherlock”, I was aware that the goal of the producers was to produce something hip and cool, trying to mix elements from such disparate elements in British cinema and television as the action of “Casino Royale”, and the near-nihilism of “Waking The Dead”.  I sat through Season 1, enjoying some of the more interesting parts such as the use of text across a scene when a character receives a message, or having a camera give us a sense of how Holmes’ brain works in analyzing a group of objects or people.  However, I was always distracted by the fact that apart from the bumbling Watson, there was no grounding of morality in what I saw.

Whereas in the Brett series the characters talked of virtues such as a man’s personal honor and dignity, respect for women, charity for the poor, love of Queen and country, and so on, there is often no higher purpose to the actions of the characters in “Sherlock”.  The title character himself is simply interested in the process, which was not the case in the Brett series: no matter how much the earlier incarnation of Sherlock might have professed to be detached from emotional concerns, what drew you in was the fact that every now and then, out of some word or gesture or action, you got a sense that maybe Holmes did in fact care just a tiny bit more about what we might call old-fashioned British standards than what he let on.  By contrast in “Sherlock”, it is clearly every man – and woman – for himself, and there is nothing redeeming about anyone.  To paraphrase another Conan Doyle story, it is a study in selfishness.

In the Brett series Irene Adler was a woman who had finally found a man who loved her for herself, not for her fame, and wanted to take her away from all the glamour and glitz of high society; she wanted to sacrifice herself to marry him and to finally lead a good and quiet life, so she could get away from the King who was still besotted with her.   In her new incarnation for “Sherlock” however, Irene Adler turns out to be a bisexual professional dominatrix, who has had a dalliance with a female member of the British royal family, and kept the pictures as protection.  At the revelation of this rather repulsive plot point I probably should have turned off the television altogether, but morbid curiosity kept me tuned in to see exactly how low the series would go.

At one point, the actress playing Adler makes a rather triumphant introduction of herself to Holmes, stripping off completely naked and sitting down to chat with him and Watson in her living room, almost like a nod to Christine Keeler in the Profumo scandal.  The problem is, this rather juvenile attempt at titillation of the audience speaks more to a teenage mind than an adult one.  This Irene Adler is not a temptress: she is simply a tart.

For one thing Lara Pulver, the actress who plays Irene Adler in “Sherlock”, is a perfectly nice looking woman, but nothing special.  A Gayle Hunnicutt – the stunning, red-haired actress who portrayed Irene Adler in the Brett series – she is not. It is hard to believe that someone so ordinarily pretty as this new Irene Adler could convince high-powered members of both sexes to risk everything in order to be with her.

And while stripping off to disarm her pursuers might be considered daring television, in truth in the earlier television version what made the character so appealing was her mysteriousness. The character of Irene Adler was an opera singer who made her way into the upper classes of Europe by her beauty, talent, and graciousness, and into the beds of the men she met because she learned, as a true courtesan knows, that it is what is not revealed that entices. This new Irene Adler is little more than a lower-class stripper from some seedy burlesque club in Soho, rather than a woman trained in the art of seduction.

I will avoid going through how the rest of the story goes downhill from here, other than to say that I spent more time asking myself about plot holes than paying attention to what was going on. Why did Watson have to go to Dublin, which had nothing to do with the plot, for example? Why does the overcoat worn by the rather tall Sherlock Holmes fit the rather short Irene Adler like a tailored garment, rather than an oversized bathrobe when she puts it on? Why is Mycroft Holmes’ assistant working for Irene Adler when she comes to pick him up at Baker Street? These and many other problems will have you scratching your head repeatedly, if you choose to watch this episode.

For my part, I am now finished with “Sherlock”. I have no interest in seeing what happens to a midget Moriarty ripped from a particularly bad episode of “Gossip Girl”, running around pretending he is as good an actor as Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight Rises” (which he most certainly is not.)  And as Sunday’s episode featured Watson punching the stuffing out of Holmes – something I have wanted to do ever since I started watching this series – I believe I am now emotionally content with leaving it where it is.

A series which has gone to such great lengths to insult my intelligence and my sense of taste is worth no further consideration on my part – nor, if you take my advice, should it have any further attention from you, gentle reader, either. It is a trashy thing, albeit for admittedly trashy times, and does nothing to build up our culture or provide worthy entertainment.  My children, if and when I am fortunate to have them, will never see it in my home.  Instead, I will be very happy to sit down with them, when they are old enough, and watch the Brett series which, however dated it may be, still upholds both a certain dignity and a belief that there is a difference between good and evil, right and wrong, which is sorely lacking from this new and childish production.


Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in “Sherlock”

Sprezzatura Tuesday: The Courtly Music of Fournier and Curzon

As the deadline for my readers to enter the Blog of the Courtier birthday contest approaches, we continue with this week’s theme of looking at people who embody some element of “sprezzatura”: that kind of effortless, self-effacing grace which Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, thought that courtiers should aspire to achieve in their work and lifestyle.  Today we look at two musicians whose recordings I have always enjoyed, cellist Pierre Fournier and pianist Sir Clifford Curzon.  One of the reasons I appreciate their respective efforts is that both men clearly love what they are doing, and want to perform each piece as perfectly as possible.  Moreover they each have a certain indescribable something – a kind of innate good taste one senses in their playing, that sets them apart and which embodies, I believe, Castiglione’s ideal of sprezzatura.

Before we take a look at these two musicians whom you should get to know, let me offer an important caveat.  I love classical music, as indeed I do many diverse genres of music, from Gospel to Hardcore; the first album I ever owned was a recording of Haydn’s “Surprise” and “Toy” symphonies, which I received at about the age of 3.  I grew up in a musical household where everyone sang or played an instrument, I took piano lessons for many years, as well as pipe organ lessons, and I sang in both church and school choirs.

That being said, I am no musicologist. I know what I like, but I do not hold myself out to be an expert on music, any more than I am on wine, coffee, etc.  Therefore, if you are seeking something more than the opinion of an armchair aficionado, I suggest that you look elsewhere to those more educated than I. My hope is simply to introduce some of you, who may not be aware of them, to the work of these two great musicians, and for those of you already familiar with their work, to have you reflect on whether they do, in fact, embody the ideal of sprezzatura in their recordings.

French cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-1986) is often called the “aristocrat of cellists”, and it is not hard to understand why. There is a confident, upright style to the way he plays a piece of music, eschewing any kind of exaggeration which, appropriately for our discussion, always strikes me as very courtly. As an example of his brilliance, I would point to Fournier’s 1961 album of Bach’s 6 Suites for Solo ‘Cello.   I particularly like his interpretation of these compositions, because there is a definite sprezzatura in these recordings, beginning with the familiar first movement of the first concerto, and continuing all the way through, though especially notable in the 5th suite.

I always feel as though Fournier approaches the music as something that is to be played bearing in mind what the composer intended, rather than as a set of parameters to be ignored as one wishes.  He keeps the pace of the music going steadily, as to my mind I would expect a musician of the early 18th century performing for members of an aristocratic court to have done.  Much as I may appreciate the work of the arguably-more-famous Miroslav Rastropovich on recordings of Romantic period composers such as Dvořák, I always think that fooling around with Baroque music and trying to romanticize it leads to a loss of focus. Trying to turn Bach into Grieg just does not work, and Fournier always understands this.

And speaking of Grieg, let us turn to the work of British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon (1907-1982), a contemporary of Fournier. I have never been able to determine whether the two of them ever recorded together, but I suspect if they did that it was either a great joy in the meeting of two kindred spirits, or it was a complete shambles. For Curzon, like Fournier, was a perfectionist when it came to his recordings, but unlike Fournier, Curzon was possessed of what became a legendary level of stage fight, to the point that he could completely botch a performance because of nerves. In the last few years of his life Curzon was hardly able to perform at all, whereas Fournier was giving concerts and recitals almost until he was 80.

Curzon’s 1959 recording of the Grieg A Minor Piano Concerto, with Oivin Fjeldstad conducting the London Symphony Orchestra has become, for me anyway, THE recording of this piece. When I am out and about somewhere, perhaps driving or in a shop, and the Grieg A Minor comes on the radio, somehow I can always tell whether or not it is this Curzon recording. I say this not because there is anything noticeably strange about it, but because there is, like with Fournier’s recordings, a kind of intangible, gracious quality.  In this case, after the thunder of the 1st movement, the 2nd movement makes you want to take a small boat and glide off into a fjord, with some Nordic maiden sitting astern, languidly trailing her hand through the water. I have heard many other recordings of the Grieg, but the combination of passion and perfection which Curzon set out to achieve in his work makes this particular example my favorite.

Count Castiglione writes a great deal about the power of music in his “Book of the Courtier”, explaining that music itself, as well as the ability to perform it well, are gifts from God. “We find it used in holy temples to render praise and thanks to God,” Castiglione writes in Part I. “And we must believe that it is pleasing to Him, and that He has given it to us as most sweet alleviation for our fatigues and troubles.”

It is no surprise, then, that Castiglione goes on to write that the ideal amateur musician is one who embodies the same spirit of sprezzatura in his musical performance, as he does in all other aspects of his life:

As to music I hold the same opinion: hence I would not have our Courtier behave like many, who are no sooner come anywhere (even into the presence of gentlemen with whom they have no acquaintance), than without waiting to be urged they set about doing what they know and often what they do not know; so that it seems as if they had come only for the purpose of showing themselves, and had that for their chief profession. Therefore let the Courtier resort to music as a pastime and almost unwillingly, and not before vulgar people nor very many. And although he may know and understand that which he is doing, in this too I would have him hide the study and pains that are necessary in everything one would do well, and seem to value this accomplishment lightly in himself, but by practicing it admirably make others value it highly.

No doubt both Fournier and Curzon had to perform before some rather vulgar people in their day, and both were professional musicians rather than professional courtiers. Yet each embodies this ideal of Castiglione in their playing, a kind of perfectionism that is kept hidden, making the sound of their recordings seem effortless, and without exaggeration. Both of them are well-worth getting to know, as musicians whose sound comes about as close to sprezzatura in classical music as one can get.

Pierre Fournier (L) and Sir Clifford Curzon (R)