Saturday, December 10, 2011

I am making history

Part 1 of A History of Classical Music through Recordings is now up on musicisgood.org. It's about Gregorian chant. The introductory post in which I attempt to justify my existence is also up.
I'm currently working on part 2, which brings in polyphony, and parts 3 to 5 have been mapped out. In the introduction I note that 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die doesn't cover early music very well. I'm pleased to note that their (chronologically) first album, of the (original) Carmina Burana, corresponds to my nineteenth. And still I occasionally feel bad about only scratching the surface.
I know way more about early music than I did a few weeks ago. Maybe you will too!
8tracks mix to follow soon, hopefully. It's my ambition to own all the recordings I discuss (makes it easier to discuss them, eh?), so there could be a steady stream of mixes. I intend this to be something I'm very proud of.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Gramophone review survey

Got an email from Gramophone telling me they want to improve their online review archive. No surprise there. The old Gramofile was very useful, but the new version, which relies on accurate OCR'ing of scanned issues, is haphazard, and removing the ability to browse the PDFs didn't help either. If they can get the thing working properly it will be a great resource.
So the accompanying survey seems interesting. One question asks,
If you were looking to read a review of a specific recording on the Gramophone.co.uk Reviews Archive, how would you go about searching for it? Which criteria would you look for first? What would you look for next?
And then I get to pick various criteria from a list (Composer, Conductor, Date of recording, and so forth) and arrange them in a suitable order. Then there's
The following is a list of information which could appear alongside a classical music review. In your view, which of these are essential, which are nice to have and which are not required?
and we get things like "More from this composer", "Reader rating", "Playing time", "Reviewer name" and many more besides.
Some thought went into this, obviously. So much better than seems to be the usual approach (see eMusic for example), which is "Dear customer, We have just completely fucked up our web site. Isn't it great?!"

Monday, November 28, 2011

The integrity of Fanfare

Lately, Norman Lebrecht flung a cat among the pigeons with an article titled "How to buy a record review", in which he offered an exposé of unethical goings-on at Fanfare:
When Fanfare receives a copy of your CD, it asks you to take an advert ‘at special rates’. The bigger the ad, the larger the coverage. No ad, no guaranteed review. Simple as that.
This is accompanied by a copy of the letter that Fanfare editor Joel Flegler sends to the artists or labels. You can read some of the responses from Fanfare readers and contributors, as well as some labels and artists, and some outraged voices, below Lebrecht's article and also on the Classical Music Guide Forums.
Seeing as the Nereffid's Guide Awards, and my CD buying habits, depend on Fanfare and all other review sources having some integrity, am I shocked/disturbed/etc? Not really. You don't have to be an investigative journalist of Lebrecht's calibre (ahem) to notice that Fanfare's features section tends to have lots of adverts for the CDs whose artists are interviewed. I'd always assumed there was some sort of relationship between the interviews/reviews and the ads but didn't know exactly what it was. And of course the artists or labels tended to be toward the obscure or lesser-known end of the scale - it's not like they were chatting to a Gergiev or Domingo every issue - so, again, I figured the editorial decisions weren't based on how much of a draw the interviewees would be to readers. But, yes, I had noticed that the reviews accompanying the interviews were generally very positive. The ethical problem basically hinges on this sentence from Flegler's letter:
If you decide to accept the proposal, I won’t proceed with any aspect of it unless I find a critic who’s receptive to your CD.
To those opposed to the practice, this constitutes clear evidence that Fanfare is selling good reviews. But nobody seems prepared to go that step further and accuse its reviewers of being crooks, presumably because nobody actually believes that they are. My own thoughts on the whole affair are that it's an unfortunate practice but one that's probably necessary for the magazine's survival. As I said, the fact that the interviewees are also the advertisers is blindingly obvious, seeing as both are coralled in the same part of the magazine, which can be safely ignored if you wish (I for one rarely read the interviews). It might be appropriate if a brief editorial note made it clear what was going on. There's no indication that anything in the main reviews section is "for sale".
And now for the bit where we use science to address ethical dilemmas. Sam Harris would be so proud! Seeing as I keep records of all the reviews, I can tell you exactly how morally dubious Advertgate is. Every review I read gets a score from 1 to 5, where 5 is "outstanding" (the equivalent of a Gramophone Editor's Choice or a Classics Today 10/10) and 1 is garbage; 4.5 is "very good"; 4 is "good"; 3.5 is "good but..."; 3 is "OK, bad points roughly balanced with good"; 2 is "poor but...". Obviously these are based on my subjective assessment, but I try to be consistent in my interpretations.
Overall, if you discount "Hall of Fame" articles, Fanfare gives a CD an average score of 3.95 (that's based on the last 6 issues). But the average for "paid for" feature reviews is 4.18, while the average for reviews in the main section is 3.92. So there's a significant difference all right. In those 6 issues there were 312 reviews in the features section (in many cases, the same disc was reviewed by 2 or more people), while there were 2,388 reviews in the main section. Interestingly, I've marked 3 apparently paid-for reviews that gave a score of 1, meaning the reviewer regarded the album as rubbish, plus 2 that gave a 2; in these cases, there was either another, more positive, review or a positive review of another disc by the same artist. So not every reviewer is receptive. But, as you might expect, the reviews are largely positive: about 50% have a score of 4; 35% have 4.5; and 7% get a 5, meaning a rave. The comparative figures for the main reviews section are, respectively, 44%, 27%, and 3%. I wasn't actually expecting that last one to be so small compared with the "paid-for" figure: it shows a clear benefit of going with a "receptive" reviewer, as such reviewers seem far more likely to be wildly enthusiastic about a release. But Jerry Dubins, one of Fanfare's most distinctive voices, sheds more light on this in a response to Lebrecht and moves things further out of the ethical grey area:
The review is written first, and if it happens to be an especially glowing one, only then is the artitst offered the opportunity to advertise and be interviewed. If the artist accepts, great; then the magazine makes some money, and the artitst gets extra exposure in the form of an interview to go along with the already positive review. If the artist declines…and this is the notion it’s really important for readers to be dsabused of…the glowing review, which was already written, still gets published.
I can also compare Fanfare's average review scores with other sources that don't use star ratings or marks out of 5 or 10. Its 3.95 compares with 3.85 for American Record Guide and 4.1 for International Record Review; unfortunately I don't have Gramophone figures yet. So you might say that, on average, an album will be slightly more favourably received in IRR than in Fanfare. But of course IRR reviews far fewer discs than Fanfare - about 1,500 in the past year - so there has to be rather more editorial winnowing-out. An editor deciding that a disc isn't worth reviewing is a whole other kettle of ethical fish, and Divine Art's Stephen Sutton had this to say as part of his response to Lebrecht:
Without checking and from the top of my head I reckon that around 75% of our releases (averaging 40 a year) are reviewed in Fanfare, and only about 5% in BBC Music and Gramophone; we are lucky to get one review a year in BBC Music – and our advertising budget for all three is about the same
So I'm not worried that the Nereffid's Guide Awards are being corrupted by Joel Flegler's attempts to keep his magazine going. If anything, we can be thankful that Fanfare is bringing attention to new releases and artists that might otherwise be ignored. And of course albums that are otherwise ignored won't be making an appearance in the final shortlist anyway!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Montserrat Figueras

Montserrat Figueras has died aged 69 years. She and husband Jordi Savall have enriched the world of early music for a long time.
The music below is the Portuguese song "Senhora del Mundo", recorded as part of their album Francisco Javier: Route to the Orient, one of my favourite albums of recent years.



Added, Nov 24:
Blimey. Site traffic increased 16-fold because of this post. Hello new visitor!

A redesign of Gramophone

Back in May 2010 I posted these words:
The thing about Gramophone is, if it didn't exist, would it be necessary to invent it? Reputation aside, the answer has to be no, largely because of the existence of BBC Music Magazine, upon whose general style Gramophone has been gradually converging in recent years.
And now: a "new look" Gramophone! Obviously I am the only person in the world to have had the above thoughts, so you can thank me for single-handedly prompting the magazine's changes. All that bothers me is it took them more than a year to do exactly as I told them.
Actually it hasn't changed hugely, but Gramophone does seem to have refocused itself. Gone is the news section, which was increasingly indistinguishable from its equivalent in BBC Music Magazine, and the letters have been shoved to the back out of the way. Gone too are the columnists, which were at best a hit-and-miss business. And hurrah, "The Trial" has been adjourned; it always seemed an odd idea, that a magazine trading on its reputation for excellent reviewers would run a monthly feature highlighting the possibility that any one of them could be monstrously wrong. Unfortunately the invariably dull "My Music" remains (though hopefully it will never return to last issue's nadir, in which Beethoven fan Jon Voight moaned about how the civil rights movement was a cover for thugs and commies). The artist-related news/bumf in the front section remains, but it will be interesting to see how the features section progresses: this time, we get a decently long article on Naive's Vivaldi Edition and a reasonably substantial one on Jordi Savall. No "composers and their dogs" nonsense here.
Then come the reviews, which we are told "can run to greater length if needed", although they often seem rather too short, especially for those of us who plough through Fanfare every couple of months. And we are also informed that the "esteemed panel of reviewers are even more central", which appears to mean nothing other than the fact that the header of each review section is accompanied by some staggeringly unflattering images of a pair of reviewers. It's like the sketch artist's just come back from the trial of a paedophile ring.
Next comes "The Specialist's Guide To...", which is a good excuse to highlight some niche areas (this month, rare French operas; next month, pianist Paul Jacobs). Finally comes The Gramophone Collection, which is still the same as ever. Oh, no, not finally, there's the Musical Journeys thing and the hi-fi section. No "Tune surfing": a nation weeps.
So, is it an improvement? Yes, it's an improvement, if only in terms of Gramophone no longer being BBC Music Magazine's pompous uncle. It does feel rather different from that magazine again, and I appreciate the direction James Inverne seems to be trying to take. We'll wait and see how future issues go.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Almost the return of Nereffid's Guide

My contributions to musicisgood.org now number two, both of them filed under "Classical highlights". The first provides short quotes excerpted from the reviews of the best-received discs in the September/October 2011 issue of Fanfare, while the second does the same for American Record Guide. I intend to do this for all future issues, and for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, and International Record Review.
So, the venue and the format may have changed, but I seem to be back where I started five years ago, when I first created an eMusic List highlighting what was in the latest issue of Gramophone. Some good things sprang from that initial attempt - not least of them the Nereffid's Guide Awards, soon to make its fifth appearance - so who knows what might emerge from musicisgood?
It's ironic, too, that this harking back to the olden days comes when it does: I fell out of love with eMusic when the site drew down the ire of its customers over adding Sony products; and at the moment there's yet more rage, this time as the company rolls out a completely new design that it seems to have forgotten to beta-test, or perhaps even alpha-test. This is all to "enhance your music discovery", apparently, although it seems to have involved removing pretty much all the tools that people used to find music and replacing them with adverts for editorial content. In the past I would say "ah well, at least the downloads are cheap" but at the moment I'm afraid to download anything because chances are it won't work but I could still be charged. At the moment eMusic seems to be nothing but a good-looking corpse, and even the "good-looking" bit is arguable.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

8tracks mix: Awards 2010, part VII



November? Seriously? Ah well, here it is at last - the two Living Composer categories. Refresh your memory of the awards here. Now sit tight and wait for the 2011 awards!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The EMI takeover by Universal

So, what does it mean for classical music that Universal now owns EMI's catalogue? Well, the first thing is that the regulators may get involved, given the market share that Universal could have in some countries - it would be close to 40 percent worldwide, and much higher in certain places. But let's say Universal gets to keep the full classical catalogue it's acquired. There's two aspects here - reissues and new recordings. At present, Universal seems happy to keep Decca and DG as separate units, so perhaps the same will hold true for EMI and Virgin and there won't be much impact on artist signings or releases. The reissues situation may be rather different though, both good and bad. Efforts such as DG's recent Mahler edition show the value of pooling catalogues, but on the other hand, how many recordings of identical repertoire will Universal want to keep in circulation? And now the recent copyright extension comes into play, because nothing's going to out of copyright for another twenty years, and Universal is sitting on 40 percent of it all. (Wow! It's almost as if European lawmakers didn't properly think of the consequences of their actions!)
So there's a massive opportunity here for consumers to get royally shafted. My guess is that there probably won't be much change overall and we'll continue to experience the exasparating mix of great bargain box sets and completely unavailable recordings. But oh, the potential for something wonderful is so great. If it were up to me, I'd just go completely bananas on downloads and put every damn thing online. Get World Heritage status for it, even.

Incidentally, a quick look at my own collection indicates that, combined, Universal and EMI account for 25 percent of the total. Sony and Warner together make up another 8 percent. This is, I imagine, rather low for a typical classical collection and reflects how my purchasing has been shaped by cheap downloads from independent labels on eMusic.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Introducing Stephen J. Nereffid

So, musicisgood.org is now up and running, and the honour of writing the first post (after the original "welcome" notice) falls to one Stephen J. Nereffid.
Who? Well there was some discussion about what names we would be writing under. After all, we tend to know each other by our emusers or emusic nicknames, but these aren't necessarily appropriate for a blog that wants to be taken seriously. So we seem to have settled on real names or name-like pseudonyms. I thought about using my real name but by now the name Nereffid is so wedded to that part of my life that I couldn't part with it. Things like the Nereffid's Guide Awards would no longer make sense (and yes, I'll be writing about them on musicisgood as well as here next year). So Nereffid needed a first name, or maybe a pair of initials. Somehow the name "Stephen J. Nereffid" appeared in my brain early on in the thought process and refused to leave. I have no idea where it came from. Maybe it was a subconscious homage to Stephen J. Cannell. Maybe now I will have to finish every blog post by casting a sheet of paper into the air.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Thoughts for a history of classical music

So the suggestion that participants on the emusers.org message board should create a collective music blog prompts me to wonder about what I might contribute. Inevitably, grandiose schemes push small practical ideas out of the way. But which folly to embrace? Certainly it has to involve recommending recordings, but I run the risk of just repeating the Penguin Guide and similar publications. I want the recommendations to be pointers rather than definitive "best recordings", but what exactly would they be pointing to? Perhaps this could be aimed at the novice, or those with idle curiosity about music they've never heard before.
So it's some sort of Classical Music 101, but how to organise it? As I look at my shelves I see I have two kinds of books for exploring: CD guides, and histories or encyclopedias of music. What I don't have is something that combines the two. Well, I do have one book: the slightly oddly titled Music and Western Man, which arose from a series of radio programmes produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1955. The book comprises 49 chapters over about 320 pages, a chronology of music that begins with a pair of hymns to Apollo and ends with Shostakovich's tenth symphony; each chapter corresponds to the contents of each programme, with - and this is the crucial bit from my point of view - references to the recordings played.
The idea, then, is some kind of history of classical music - although reading the introduction to Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music I am admonished that it would be a mere survey, not an actual history - with plenty of appropriate suggestions for recordings. Because the medium is a blog, it can be done in a modular fashion, going as specific or as broad as I feel the need at any point. So part 1 could be chant, part 2 Hildegard of Bingen, part 3 the troubadours, and so on. The text doesn't have to be too detailed - why compete with Wikipedia? Each bit would come with maybe five or six suggestions for recordings, drawn either from my own ideas or from other sources. Perhaps there could even be an 8tracks mix.
Now to the drawing board.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tarantino and Westlake

Apparently the title Reservoir Dogs comes from a mix of Straw Dogs and Au revoir les enfants, which Tarantino called "the reservoir film" because he couldn't pronounce the title.
Well, here's an amusing coincidence: two years before Reservoir Dogs was released, Donald Westlake - whom Tarantino acknowledges as an inspiration - published his novel Drowned Hopes. The plot basically involves John Dortmunder helping an ex-cellmate recover some buried money that is now under 50 feet of water following the construction of a reservoir. And here we are in Chapter 2, in Dortmunder's thoughts:
And thinking beyond that to the amount of money itself, and the hassle he'd just gone through tonight for petty cash out of a check-cashing place with a bad-tempered dog. He didn't know exactly how you went about digging up a casket from fifty feet down in the bottom of a reservoir but let's just say he had to bring in two or three other guys, say three other guys; that still left nearly a hundred thousand apiece. And there are no dogs in a reservoir.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Speak for yourself

Another rule for critics to follow. There may be a manifesto in this, or at least a doctoral thesis.
Our naughty reviewer this time is Robert Levine in International Record Review, who takes on Claudio Abbado's new recording of Fidelio on Decca:
I fear I could be in the minority when I state that I find this performance almost clinical.
and, later,
As I said, I suspect some colleagues will adore this clean, unaffected, almost bel canto-like reading but I think that, at its core, it misreads Beethoven's intentions.
It's good for a critic to be aware of what others might think - and good for the reader, too, who may be able to judge which side they might be on. It's a well-written review in that sense, giving the reader plenty of information to make up their own mind rather than accept the review as divine writ. But Levine blots his copybook a bit with this:
The entire 'Er sterbe' sequence is, as mentioned above, unimpeachably delivered, but that's just what it does not need: this is a moment of mania, surprise, intensity and horror, and we find ourselves being amazed at its clarity and not at its emotional content.
Wait a minute, what's this "we" business? By switching from "I" to "we" he's pulling the reader over to his side. More than that, he's shifted from personal subjectivity to something closer to universal objectivity. Surely the "some colleagues" are not to be counted among the "we"?
And again:
the final scene is joyous and gloriously played and sung, but it doesn't drive the listener wild, as it should and invariably does.
(Let's be sufficiently pedantic to bring up his use of "invariably", but not belabour it any more than that) He means, obviously, "this particular listener". Doesn't he?
Trivial points, you might argue. And in fact in the case of this review, I'd agree, but it does illustrate how even the conscientious critic can slip into omniscient mode. Yes, it would waste rather a lot of ink for every "This is rubbish" to be replaced with "I think this is rubbish", but it would be nice if reviewers were in general more aware that, ultimately, this is just some guy's opinion.
Maybe I've been a scientist too long.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Public domain now less public

So the EU has extended copyright protection on recordings from 50 to 70 years. If this were a hundred years ago I would have a cartoon in which a young woman representing the public domain is ravished from behind by a leering Paul McCartney. You know the sort of thing.
Gramophone reports on the story with a typical rhetorical subtitle, "But is it good news for classical music fans?" Careful, Gramophone! Don't want to upset the majors! (But try asking this: was it bad news that the recordings of 1960 went out of copyright this year?)
It's pointless now to rehash all the many arguments against the new law, but it's nice to see the Guardian elaborate on a key point that the lawmakers seemed wholly blind to: the law's supposed to be of great benefit to musicians, but they're not usually the copyright holders.
Next question: now that for a 20-year period no recordings will enter the public domain, do you think illegal file-sharing will increase or decrease? Anyone?

Friday, September 2, 2011

ArkivMusic.eu is stupid

Let me quote you from ArkivMusic.com:
The design for ArkivMusic emphasizes the ability to quickly and intuitively find classical music recordings. The peculiarities of classical music do not always lend themselves to standard search tools used on the Web. Spelling inconsistencies, differing search syntax designs, and databases not specifically oriented to the parameters of classical music can often lead to very confusing results. At ArkivMusic, we take a lot of the guesswork out of finding music by letting you click down a logical and well-categorized path to the works and recordings that you want.
It's bloody wonderful, a marvellous resource that's of huge value when you want to examine the options for buying a particular work. My List Of Compositions That I Still Have To Get On Disc would have been impossible without it. I love it.
So now ArkivMusic launches in the EU and they have done a very good job of fucking it up. Yes, they still have the click-down system but the look of the site is just ugly. On the US site, if I click on, say, Handel, I'm immediately greeted by a (granted, unnecessary to me) portrait and biography, beneath which are 2 lists, one of Composition Types, the other of Most Popular Works; there's also links to New Releases, Recommended, and other such things. On the EU site, though, my first reaction is huh? because all I see is an ever-increasing list of recordings in no immediately apparent order. It took me a while to notice that there are also links to Composition Types, Conductors, and so forth. So I click on Composition Types, get a pop-up window listing those, I click on one - Keyboard Works - and ... well, nothing's happening actually. It's taking quite a while. Ah, there we go.
Now. On the US site, which goes at normal speed, it gives me a link saying "See all recordings available (185)" and I can see 20 works listed on my screen. In the EU I don't get that link, and I can see 12 works because for some reason they've put plenty of blank space between items in the list. And in the US it tells me how many recordings there are of each work, and in the EU it doesn't. All right, click on something: in the US I get another "See all recordings" and a list of Performers and a list of Labels, while in the EU I get a list of recordings in release-date order (newest first) plus a link for a pop-up of Performers or Labels (or irrelevant Conductors or Ensembles).
So basically the US site is a single-minded drill-down system that lets you instead look at "all recordings" at any point, whereas the EU site thinks you might prefer "all recordings" but gives you a cumbersome option of using the drill-down system. In other words ArkivMusic has decided to partially hide its USP in favour of something that looks much clunkier than most of its competitors.
And a quick comparison of ArkivMusic.eu with Presto reveals that if I were to buy the first two Handel items I saw, it would be about €7 cheaper via Presto - and Presto's not the cheapest site around, either.
So I can't see myself shopping at ArkivMusic, though I'll still be using the US site to help me plan my purchases elsewhere.

At last, Zumsteeg

I browse through the latest International Record Review, fresh in my postbox today, and I come across a review that makes me smile. Many years ago, when I first began to get properly interested in classical music (and had plenty of time on my hands) I built up a database of composers and their works, with dates of composition, thanks largely to the Collins Encyclopedia of Music. Ultimately there were close to 10,000 entries in it. This was before teh internets of course.
So I got a very warm and fuzzy feeling to discover that conductor Frieder Bernius has gone right to the alphabetical end of that list and given us a recording of Die Geisterinsel by Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg, a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest first performed in 1798. IRR's Mark Pullinger says "Zumsteeg's opera may not quite be 'such stuff that dreams are made on', but it passes a pleasant two hours, in an assured, lively performance".
And now I notice that the Collins Encyclopedia of Music called it Der Geisterinsel.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Copyright extension uh-oh

Official silence, plus rumours, according to Christian Engström.
The interpretation of the various rules of procedure in the EU are pretty much a mystery even to people who have spent years trying to understand them, and I am certainly not one of those people.

Pass the salt

In the latest American Record Guide, Steven J Haller reviews a reissue from Regis:
This Dukas program from Jean Fournet and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic was originally a Denon CD (Nov/Dec 1993) and comes with its own review on the back, courtesy of the Penguin Guide: "amongst the best... second to none... marvellously expansive yet well-focused recording... deserves a strong recommendation".
That's why you need to take so many Penguin Guide huzzahs with a grain of salt.
And there it is: the Science of criticism. The Penguin Guide really liked this CD; Haller did not; therefore we must not trust the Penguin Guide. And the basis for this argument is... uh, I dunno. The implication is that the means by which Haller assesses the worth of a CD is more objective or empirical than that used by the Penguin Guide. We saw this a couple of posts below with Dudamel's Mahler 2 - one guy liked it and the other didn't, so clearly the one guy had a hidden agenda.
Obviously I don't object to the differences of opinion. It's when "I liked it and you didn't" gets mutated into "I'm right and you're wrong" that I start to shake my head sadly. Yes, if one party is an expert and the other's clueless (eg, Ebert vs Transformers fans), then one can be righter than the other, but that's not the scenario we've got here.
And it doesn't take long to find an example to illustrate the silliness of the situation. Haller included on his 2010 Critics' Choice list a Chandos release of Johan Halvorsen's Symphony no.1 and other orchestral works, conducted by Neeme Jarvi. He described the symphony as "a warm-hearted and sweeping performance that will have you wondering "Where has this symphony been all my life?"" Whereas over at Fanfare, James A Altena listened to the same disc and said of the symphony "It is pleasantly tuneful, thoroughly undemanding, and decidedly inconsequential throughout its 35-minute compass, and nothing more need be said of it". Of course, what he did not say was "That's why you need to take so many Steven J Haller huzzahs with a grain of salt".
"But Nereffid", I hear you thunder, "you have to admit the Penguin Guide isn't all it's cracked up to be, and we really do need to take their reviews with a grain of salt".
Well, quite. We need to take everyone's reviews with a grain of salt.
Including our own.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Don't buy Katherine Jenkins's new album! (Really!)

She says so herself:
Katherine Jenkins has urged fans not to buy her new album.
The classical singer claims her former record label Universal has put together a compilation of old material and doesn't want her loyal followers to purchase songs they already have.
Katherine - who quit the label in 2008 to sign a huge £5.8 million deal with rivals Warner Brothers - tweeted: "Universal Records are putting out YET ANOTHER compilation album of my music.
"Considering I haven't recorded for them since 2008 it's stuff you already have."
She later told fans: "Don't want you to feel conned."
Katherine instead urged her fans to buy Warner album 'Daydream' as it features "all newly-recorded tracks".
She added: "Make sure you get the right one!"
Just to be on the safe side, I'll buy neither.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

8tracks mix: Awards 2010, part VI



8tracks has been screwing around with its embedding process again, it seems. Anyway, here's the Opera and Opera Recital winners and runners-up from way back in January.

Did you even attend the same concert?

I can't remember now why it was that I decided I didn't want to watch Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler 2 with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra when it was on TV. I just wasn't in the mood at the time. Oh, I wish I had seen it now, just so I could have an opinion about it. Yes, I am late to this story but I was on holidays for a couple of weeks. I think BBC Four might be showing it again on Sunday, but how can I approach it objectively now, seeing as I already know it was rubbish or brilliant, depending on who I believe.
This is a great one for the whole debate over the value of criticism. Dudamel seems to divide critics, as there is a lot of media enthusiasm about him that some feel may not be justified, but at the same time it may be drawing new audiences into classical music, which is good, but then again maybe it's at the expense of other more talented musicians, but then again maybe Dudamel is actually a cut above the rest and... It's quite a dilemma, I'm sure you'll agree. So you can adopt any one of several stances regarding Dudamel. Not just "he's totally overhyped" but "he shows great promise that hasn't yet been fulfilled", or "he's doing too much too soon", or "OMG he's so wonderful I want his babies and he makes me want to MAMBO!!1!" From a Nereffid's Guide point of view, perhaps in terms of reviews of his recordings he doesn't fare any better or worse than any other young conductor, but he seems to be scrutinized that little bit more, by both supporters and detractors, and so opinions are a little stronger. Anything you say about Dudamel has to be done in the context of justifying your opinion of him. So if you don't like his new CD, this supports your claim that he's overhyped, or explains why you're ambivalent about his success; if you like it, well, that proves you were right to think he's a great conductor, or helps to resolve some of your ambivalence. What it boils down to for Dudamel is that he's unlikely to win a Nereffid's Guide Award anytime soon.
Anyway, back to the Mahler concert at the Proms. The Guardian's Guy Dammann gave the performance five stars, prompting accusations of editorial bias from Pliable at On An Overgrown Path, who cited Geoff Brown's "curate's egg" review as a more accurate reflection of reality. (Incidentally, when claiming "consensus", are you allowed cite just one thing? And can you claim to be "at" a concert if you were in fact listening to it at home on the radio?) Me, I'm a little suspicious of both reviews, not being familiar with either reviewer: Dammann's a little too gushy, Brown's rather too smug. Dammann acquitted himself well in response to Pliable, though:
Finally, you ask in your last comment for balanced Guardian articles about Dudamel. I would argue that my article is balanced, but I think what you mean is an article expressing only moderate enthusiasm.
Indeed. If only everyone thought exactly the same way I do, there would be no bias!
As you might expect from comments about an opinion expressed on the Internet, the comments on Dammann's review generate plenty heat and sod-all light, but I love this one:
Well, I enjoyed it anyway - just as well I know nothing about music, otherwise I guess, from comments above, I might not have enjoyed it half as much.
That is pretty much the official Les Introuvables de Nereffid policy on responding to all musical performances.

Monday, August 1, 2011

They're listening

In my inbox this morning, from EMI Classics:

We're Listening!

The BPI (British Phonographic Industry) is conducting a consumer survey on behalf of UK classical recorded music companies which will help us understand more about our customers and classical music lovers in general.

The survey should take you no longer than 10 minutes to complete and you can enter a competition to win an iPod Touch.

[After a few preliminary personal questions such as age we get to the meaty stuff]

5. How often do you buy classical recordings on either CD or download?
Usually 5 times a month or more
Usually 3 or 4 times a month
Usually 1 or 2 times a month
A few times a year
Once or twice a year
Never

6. When buying classical recordings, which of the following factors do you consider the MOST important
Record label
Artwork
Artist(s)/performers
Price
Repertoire
Other (please specify)

7. Which retailers do you buy classical music from?
(Please tick all that apply)
Specialist independent music shops
HMV
Online CD store (Amazon, Play, MDT, Presto etc)
Digital download store (iTunes, eMusic, Amazon MP3 etc)
eBay
Amazon Marketplace
Supermarkets
CDs from record label websites
Downloads from record label websites
Other (please specify)

8. In the past year have you bought classical music as a gift for someone else on any of these occasions?
(Please tick all that apply)
Mother's Day
Father's Day
Christmas
None
Valentine's Day
Birthday
Wedding Anniversary
Other Religious Festivals
Other (please specify)

9. How do you buy your classical music?
Digital downloads only
CDs only
CDs and digital downloads

10. What proportion of your classical music spending is accounted for by digital downloads?
0-25%
26-50%
51-75%
76-99%

11. Which digital download stores do you buy classical music from?
(Please tick all that apply)
iTunes
Amazon MP3
Play.com
HMV Digital
Record label sites
Passionato
Napster
TheClassicalShop.net
eMusic
Other (please specify)

12. Please look at these statements about digital music and tell us how strongly you agree or disagree with each
Digital downloads are convenient to buy
Digital downloads are good value for money
I like to create my own playlists
I buy fewer classical compilation albums since I started downloading music
I would like to get better digital artwork and sleevenotes when buying downloads
The sound quality of recordings is important to me
The sound quality of downloads are usually very good

13. Have you ever downloaded an album in a 'high quality' digital format such as FLAC or AIFF?
Yes
No
Don't know

14. Please look at these statements about high quality digital formats and say whether you agree or disagree
I always try to buy downloads on 'high quality' formats
The sound quality is noticably better than other downloads
I wish high quality formats were available for all classical music
I am more likely to buy a high-quality format for classical music than I am for other types of music
It is worth spending a bit more money for 'high quality' formats

15. Which radio stations do you listen to? (tick all that apply)

16. Do you use any of the following social networking sites?

17. Please tell us which of these devices you own, or have access to in your household (please tick all that apply)
[iPhones, iPads, HDTV, that sort of thing]

18. Please indicate which, if any of the following online services you use to listen to classical music (please tick all that apply)
Last FM
Naxos Music Library
Spotify
Napster
we7
YouTube
Vevo
None of these
Other (please specify)

19. You say that you use streaming services to listen to classical music. [No I didn't, I said I used YouTube] Please take a look at these statements and let us know how strongly you agree or disagree with each one.
I think the selection of classical music on streaming services is good
I often find it difficult to find the classical music I want to listen to on streaming services
Streaming services help me to discover new classical artists and recordings I am unfamiliar with
Using streaming services means I don’t spend as much money on classical recordings as I used to
If there was a streaming service that specialised in classical music, I would be interested in paying a monthly subscription fee to use it

20. Do you listen to music on your mobile phone through apps or services such as Spotify?

21. On average, how many classical music concerts do you attend per year (including ballet and opera)?
None
1-4
5-9
10-15
16-19
20-29
30+

22. Do you ever buy CDs of the performing artist or the music performed when attending classical concerts?
Yes, I often buy CDs when at classical music concerts
Yes, I occasionally buy CDs when at classical music concerts
I have only bought CDs at classical music concerts on one or two occasions
No, I choose not to buy CDs when at a classical music concert
No, but I would be interested if they were available

23. In the past year, have you attended any of the following?
(Please tick all that apply)
An outdoor concert of classical music
An opera screened at a cinema
A school concert of classical music
Glyndebourne
BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Glastonbury festival
Any other non-classical music festival (eg Reading, V, Latitude, Cambridge Folk Festival)
None of these

24. Which of these television programmes have you watched in the last 12 months? (Please tick all that apply)
Classic BRITs
Popstar to Operastar
New Years Day Concert From Vienna
Classical music TV programmes on BBC 3
The Culture Show
BBC Proms
BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year
Classical music on Sky Arts
None of them

25. Would you like to see more classical music programmes on TV?

26. What sort of classical music programmes would you like to see more of?
Please tick all that apply
Concerts and recitals
Ballet
Opera
Documentaries / interviews
Review programmes
Broad based arts programmes
Other (please specify)

27. What type of classical music do you prefer to listen to most?
Choral
Opera
Chamber
Orchestral
Vocal
Contemporary
Piano
Popular/crossover
Early
Other (please specify)

28. Which period of music is your favourite
Baroque (examples of composers include Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Purcell)
Classical (examples of composers include Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn)
Romantic (examples of composers include Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Bruch)
Contemporary (examples of composers include John Cage, Philip Glass, Stravinsky, Walton)
Don't know

29. Which other types of music do you listen to?
Which other types of music do you listen to?
Alternative
Rock
Easy Listening
Reggae
Blues
Country/folk
Electronic
Rap
Jazz
Soul/R&B
Rock/Pop
Soundtracks
World
None - I just listen to Classical music

30. Which of these publications, websites and radio shows do you find useful in finding out about classical music releases?
(Please tick all that apply)
BBC Music Magazine
BBC Music website
BBC Radio 3 CD Review programme
BBC Radio 3 In Tune Classical Chart programme
Broadsheet newspapers
Classic FM Chart show
Classic FM magazine
Classic FM website
Classic FM's New CD Show
From online retailer websites
Gramophone Magazine
Gramophone website
Review websites
Other (please specify)

31. .....and which of these publications, websites and radio shows do you find the MOST USEFUL of all in finding out about classical music releases?
(Please tick only one)
[Same list as above]

32. Please tell us who your favourite classical composer is
Bach, C P E
Bach, J S
Barber
Bartók
Bax
Beethoven
Berlioz
Bizet
Brahms
Britten
Bruch
Bruckner
Byrd
Chopin
Debussy
Dvorak
Elgar
Fauré
Franck, C
Gershwin
Grieg
Handel
Haydn
Howells
Janacek
Liszt
Mahler
Mendelssohn
Monteverdi
Mozart
Palestrina
Prokofiev
Puccini
Purcell
Rachmaninov
Ravel
Rimsky Korsakov
Rossini
Saint-Saëns
Schubert
Schumann
Shostakovich
Sibelius
Strauss, J, II
Strauss, R
Stravinsky
Tallis
Tchaikovsky
Telemann
Vaughan Williams
Verdi
Vivaldi
Wagner
Walton
Other (please specify)

And that's it. Staggeringly, on those questions where they provided the option "Other (please specify)", they didn't provide a button to tick, so if your preferred answer was a write-in one, you first had to choose a "wrong" answer". How stupid is that? I berated them in one of the "please specify" boxes.
What of the questions themselves? The technology- and purchasing-related questions are sensible enough, and no doubt will be used to justify some future decisions. Given that they don't know how to properly design a survey, can we be hopeful that they understand that participant recruitment via email produces an inherent bias in any of the questions that relate to the web?
Leaving aside the "Other (please specify)" snafu, questions 27 and 28 are pretty stupid (are you allowed call it "borderline retarded"?). Undoubtedly there are people who prefer opera above all else, but could the survey designers not countenance the possibility that I might like two or more genres equally? If I say I prefer Chamber music, what does this say about my interest in Piano music? Yes, I know the British are "first past the post" people, but still. And why give Early music as an option of the kind of music you prefer, but omit it from the list of musical periods you prefer? And you've got to love that catch-all "Contemporary", haven't you? Of the, erm, highly disparate Cage, Stravinsky, Glass and Walton, Glass is the only one who's been alive for the last 19 years.
Will the BPI learn anything useful from this survey, ultimately? It would be nice to think that a large majority of respondents will disagree with the statement "Digital downloads are good value for money" and that the industry will act accordingly. It would be even better if a large majority of respondents chose Telemann as their favourite composer. Think of the implications!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From dusk till... Don?

From Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat:
To me, a native New Yorker, "dawn" rhymes with "lawn" and "gone" with "on." When I worked with Leonard Bernstein, who was born near Boston, he insisted, to my horror, that all four words rhymed with each other. For a musical version of "The Boston Strangler," that might have been acceptable. For a show about New York street gangs, it was not.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Skips

If I were somewhat more sensitive I would say that my faith in humanity has been shattered - shattered! Last night was one of those nothing-on-the-telly-and-I-don't-feel-like-putting-on-a-CD sort of times, so the inevitable response was to put on Classic FM. We heard something that turned out to be Delius's piano concerto, and as the presenter (David Mellor, as it happens) was telling us about it... his voice skipped. Like a scratched CD. And then suddenly music started playing, and it skipped like a scratched CD for a moment, and then everything went back to normal. And after that piece of music had ended, David Mellor didn't say oops, sorry about that track skipping because he wasn't bloody there, was he? The program was recorded earlier.
I don't know why I should have been naively thinking that radio shows such as this one should be live. After all, surely David Mellor has better things to be doing on a Sunday evening than sitting in a radio studio for a couple of hours. I think the thing is that the show is presented in a manner that attempts the appearance of being live. This is the sort of illusion that doesn't work quite so well on television, but when it's just one voice speaking between pieces of music it's rather easier to fake.
Christ, I've now just realised that I'm naively thinking that there is some two-hour period in which David Mellor records an entire radio show. He presumably just comes in at his convenience, records whatever script he needs to read from, and some producer puts it together with the music for later broadcast.
What a lazy fucker. I hate him.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rescuing von Otter

Who knows what exciting journeys my copy of Anne Sofie von Otter's "Watercolours" album has been on? "Watercolors", I should say, for it is the US edition of the 2003 release. We shall never know the circumstances under which it travelled from the USA to end up in a County Waterford branch of Game Stop, nestled among the unloved McFly and Alannah Myles CDs (poetic licence - I can't remember what the hell else was in the racks), with not just an eye-catching "€3.99" sticker but also a somewhat demeaning "Buy one get one free".
So buying it was an act of liberation, really. Sort of like going to the animal shelter and saving a dog, or in this case an otter.
As for the "Buy one get one free", that involved a bat, a cat, and a penguin, as it happens.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Word Police Squad!

I love the little "Word Police" boxes that crop up around American Record Guide. I suppose the title "Misguided Word Fascist" was already taken. The latest issue, for example, tells us this:
Target is not a verb, but a noun. You aim at a target or goal; you don't "target" it.
Hmm. Let me check Merriam-Webster's.
target vt (1837) 1 : to make a target of; esp : to set as a goal
Fancy that! First documented use in 1837, you say?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The performer as portrait painter

Which of these images depicts Pope Innocent X? They both do. The painting is of course Diego Velazquez's portrait. The sculpture is by Alessandro Algardi. If you think "Innocent X", the Velazquez is probably the image you have in your head. Would you have known who the one on the left was if I hadn't told you? Which one is the more accurate? Does that question even make sense?
Yes, I'm still puzzling over why Calum MacDonald chided pianist Khatia Buniatishvili for what she wrote in her notes for her Liszt recital album:
'I was always aware that my first recording had to be a portrait of Liszt,' says Khatia Buniatishvili in her stupefying booklet note. 'Only he would enable me to present as a unity the many aspects of my soul.' Well, pardon my ignorance: I always thought a performer's prime duty was to convey the essence of the composer, not of themselves.
In my last post I pointed out that he was criticising her for saying something she didn't say, so the whole discussion is moot anyway. But it did get me thinking about what this means, "to convey the essence of the composer, not of themselves". What is this "essence of composer", and how can it be distilled out from "essence of performer"? Of course, if you are performing Liszt's music then it should sound like his music. But why can't it also sound like yours? Are all the great pianists great because they are ego-free and give us just the composer's intentions? If so, why don't they all sound the same? Obviously they bring themselves into the equation. Calum MacDonald complains about "the self-regarding aspects" of Buniatishvili's disc, but is it possible to be any more than vague about where the dividing line between objectivity and subjectivity should be? On the same page of the magazine, Malcolm Hayes praises Garrick Ohlsson's "objective immensity" in Busoni's version of Liszt's "Ad nos" fantasia, and again this notion of "objective" makes me uneasy.
I found this apparently anonymous sculpture online and it too depicts Pope Innocent X. The eyebrows are more obvious, the face gaunter, and I even suspect this man might have a higher-pitched voice than the two above. He's quite different from Velazquez's pope. Is this because the sculptor was more objective or less objective? It seems a pointless question, doesn't it? Are Algardi's sculpture and/or Velazquez's portrait objective? Doesn't the portrait look a bit too Velazquez-y? Surely the answer is that Velazquez's painting isn't just "a portrait of Pope Innocent X", and it isn't just "a painting by Velazquez" - it's both, and we're fine with that.
And I think a lot of the time, critics are fine with that concept too. When it suits them, that is. For instance, a quick Google search gives us a quote from an Amazon review: "Once you hear Argerich's Liszt, nothing else will sound adequate". You may nod at such a sage assessment. Or you may grumble, paraphrasing Rosalyn Tureck, "Argerich can play Liszt her way; I play it Liszt's way". Alas, I fear the notion of "objective" performances is just one of those clichéd critical rules that get dragged into play after the critic has already made up his mind about what he's heard. Until I see evidence otherwise, I shall assume "objective" is shorthand for "the way I think it should go".

What does Calum MacDonald mean?

BBC Music's Calum MacDonald gets snotty while reviewing Khatia Buniatishvili's new Liszt disc:
'I was always aware that my first recording had to be a portrait of Liszt,' says Khatia Buniatishvili in her stupefying booklet note. 'Only he would enable me to present as a unity the many aspects of my soul.' Well, pardon my ignorance: I always thought a performer's prime duty was to convey the essence of the composer, not of themselves.
Unless he's omitted some context from the Buniatishvili quote, MacDonald's arguing against a straw man here: she never said it was the performer's prime duty to convey the essence of themselves. I read this quote as "My first recording had to be a portrait of Liszt because he's the composer that speaks so closely to me personally". If there's a "me" in there, it's because, well, it's her recital, and pianos don't play themselves. So why did MacDonald bring the point up, especially since he goes on to give the performance 4 stars out of 5, thereby endorsing her approach?
Welcome to a special edition of "Did you even listen to the same CD?" with only one reviewer.
You see, we have "focused intensity" for the Liebestraum no.3, and we have a "mesmeric sense of inwardness" in the transcription of Bach's Prelude and fugue in A minor, and we have an "eloquently desolate account" of Lugubre gondola no.2.
But! "There's not a trace in this recital of Liszt's philosophical depth".
He can't seem to get past what he calls "the self-regarding aspects of the exercise". While conceding that "there's some dumbfounding playing", he contrasts this recital's "deranged conviction" with the "magisterial perfection" of Nelson Freire's new Liszt disc. But he does admit that "this is probably how they played in the 19th century".
Wait a second, didn't Liszt live in the 19th century?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

More not enough information

How nice! An email from Amazon.co.uk especially for me!
Since you like classical music, we thought you might be interested in the free EMI Classics MP3 sampler we have available until the end of July.
Hey wow, I do like classical music! But of course I live in Ireland so I can't follow through on this like by actually paying to download some of it from Amazon. This post isn't about geographical restrictions, though. This is about:
Oh noes! The track listing does not provide the names of the composers!
This is indeed very shoddy, but unfortunately par for the course for sites that don't specialise in classical. Three outraged Amazon customers have dragged the sampler's average rating down to 2 stars, which is quite impressive for a freebie featuring good musicians in critically well-received performances.
This is absolutely unprofessional and absolutely useless. Who is the target audience? Those who know nothing about music? This will not help them.
says reviewer Tatiana Rybina.
So our reviewers helpfully provide full composer details. Oh, no, wait, they don't. "This will not help them" cuts both ways, I suppose.
Beethoven. Handel. JS Bach. Beethoven. Schumann. Brahms. Chopin. Grieg.
How hard was that?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Not enough information

Why do record companies do this? I was in Tower Records yesterday, browsing the new releases, and came across a 10-disc box set of French baroque from Warner called "Court of the Sun King". Looks interesting, but who's performing on it? They do not say. At all. Is this not useful, or even essential, information? Or are we, because it's a cheap box set, not expected to care? The blurb accompanying the disc (on Presto's site) is rather more helpful: "classic [Erato] recordings from the 1960s and 70s, featuring French musicians and ensembles such as Jean-François Paillard, Louis Martini and Marie-Claire Alain". How hard would it have been to stick this information somewhere on the box?
Meanwhile, countertenor Daniel Taylor has a new album out called "Shakespeare: Come again sweet love", which as you might expect gives us English songs and madrigals. The track listing does not provide the names of the composers. We are told this is music by "some of the great masters of the Renaissance period, including Purcell, Dowland and Gibbons". The knowledgeable buyer will probably have a reasonable idea of what's what, but wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what you're buying before you buy it?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Won't someone not think of the children?

Allow me to weigh in on the ongoing furore over the cancellation of the community opera Beached, which, according to a BBC News report, "featured a gay character and 400 school children". That is not a full description of the opera, but in news terms it is all that counts. In fact Beached is described by its librettist Lee Hall as "a comedy about tolerance and inclusiveness". Bay Primary School, Bridlington, head teacher Emma Hobbs is showing her tolerance and inclusivity by withdrawing 300 performers at the last minute because of "the language and the tone of the scene in question", and most certainly not because the main character is gay. What is Hobbs' only concern in this matter? Why, "The emotional wellbeing of our children", of course. Phew, thank goodness for that.
She clarifies: "I have made the decision that our 4 to 11-year-old children have the right to be protected from offensive language and to be able to learn about the impact of upsetting insults in the appropriate manner". I'm not sure what sort of 4- to 11-year-old children they've got in Bridlington, but if they're like ordinary children then probably the best way to protect them from offensive language is to gag them. The offensive language in question is, apparently, "queer". You will be relieved (if that's the word) to hear that Lee Hall was already persuaded to remove the word "pee-pee" from the libretto. What the hell sort of head teacher is concerned about the emotional wellbeing of children but won't let them hear the word "pee-pee"? That would make a four-year-old's night, for goodness' sake!
But what about learning "about the impact of upsetting insults in the appropriate manner"? I believe Head Teacher Hobbs is saying that it is inappropriate for children to see a sympathetic character deal maturely with verbal abuse. Maybe that's not what she's saying. What is she saying? I notice that there is a scene in the opera where the protagonist's son is swept out to sea. Is an opera the appropriate manner in which to learn about safe swimming? Let me stress that I am not hydrophobic, and my comments should not be interpreted as such.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fricsay's Beethoven 5

I've been listening to Ferenc Fricsay's 1961 recording of Beethoven's Fifth with the Berlin Phil, and by gosh it is slow. How slow is it? The second movement is more than 13 minutes long, is how slow. It's common to see it done in less than 9.
Let's bring in someone with more expertise. Here's Edward Greenfield's review in the February 1963 issue of Gramophone:
I can only assume DGG have decided to issue this now just to show how superbly responsive the Berlin Philharmonic is to the most hair-raisingly contrasted demands. Where Karajan in the new complete cycle is all strength and light, Fricsay is slow and heavy. Klemperer for one can make such speeds as these sound convincing and even inevitable. But even Klemperer comes nowhere near Fricsay in his speed for the slow movement.
To illustrate with statistics, Fricsay takes no less than 87 seconds by my reckoning for the first subject to bar 22. Karajan in his new version takes 53 seconds for the same passage, and both Klemperer's versions come closer to Karajan than Fricsay-60 seconds and 62 seconds respectively. Fricsay's speed is just grotesque, with no thought for the marking con mote, and so it is again in the Scherzo. The double-bass passage at the beginning of the Trio has been likened to the lumbering of elephants, but under Fricsay that is the movement's most impressive passage, and it is the rest which is elephantine. The outer movements, too, are very much on the slow side, but there simple massiveness and orchestral efficiency help to make some amends. But not only are the basic speeds slow, Fricsay tends to drag still further with exaggerated rallentandos and pauses. The recording is dim and cloudy by comparison with that given to Karajan. A depressing issue, though for once there can be little complaint about the Fifth taking two whole sides: this must be quite the longest version ever put out.
So yes, it's slow. Very slow. But depressing? I disagree. What the slow movement has a lot of is sadness, and I also hear a dignified stoicism. Perhaps Edward Greenfield didn't know when he was writing his review that Fricsay was dying of cancer (he died on February 20, 1963, aged 48). Perhaps the nature of the slow movement has nothing to do with Fricsay's illness, but it's hard now not to make a connection. Certainly the performance makes more sense that way, if not as the conductor's personal tragedy then something more universal, to see it more in the mould of the Eroica's slow movement - or, in places, prefiguring the rapt nature of the Ninth's. Otherwise, the symphony doesn't really have a slow movement, only a "relatively slow" movement.
The Scherzo is rather slow too. It's not a Scherzo. But if we're already accepting the darkness of this reading of the symphony, well then here's more of the dark. The Trio is certainly lighter, but that doesn't last especially long. Dubbing the rest of the movement "elephantine" rather misses the tensile strength of the music that comes after the Trio.
Ironically, the last movement is shorter than usual, but that's because he's left out the repeat. Whereas in your typical reading the battle's been won by the time the fourth movement starts, with Fricsay there seems to be some lingering doubt - not much, but the triumph's not quite as clearcut. The climactic bit before the return to the third-movement material has more than a hint of menace about it. But we do win out in the end; again, the rest of the Finale is a bit slower than others, and you might at this stage hope for a little more release. But there's glory here, and the payoff is worth it, because by dragging out the final chords Fricsay makes the ending not just fun but funny, really emphasising the "I'm finished - no, I'm not finished!" aspect. I doubt if he conducted this with a twinkle in his eye, yet there's a suggestion that he's just daring you to applaud too soon.
I must point out here that I came to this recording with no preconceptions at all about it or Fricsay; I was instantly struck by its slowness, and yet also very quickly convinced that this all made sense. Perhaps I was caught on a good day; maybe a week earlier I'd have dismissed it as "grotesque". But that is part of a larger thesis about criticism and perception that can be saved for some other time. Our thoughts for today are two: first, Fricsay's Beethoven 5 is really different but really good, and second, I wonder what he'd have sounded like in Mahler's symphonies?

(The above image, by the way, is from one of those here-are-lots-of-recordings blogs, Sentidos. If the transfer is from the original 1961 LP, then next year it will be perfectly legal in Europe to download the transfer.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

About Cardiff

Valentina Naforniţă won the Cardiff Singer of the World last Sunday, so she had better get used to people spelling her name without those diacritics at the end. I admit to being a bit disappointed she won it, or rather that somebody else didn't win it, but I realised subsequently that what put me off her somewhat was her acting style, with arms and face in constant motion. When I just listen, I'm much more impressed. Andrei Bondarenko, who won the Song Prize and was my favourite, does most of his expression with his eyes; actually in comic arias he's reminiscent of a young Michael Palin. His final piece in the Song Prize final - the last song in Sviridov's Russia Cast Adrift - was a real discovery for me, a right barnstormer for the pianist.



Other favourites for me were Máire Flavin - I expect to be seeing her name show up in recordings of baroque operas and the like - and Olesya Petrova, who I thought might win in the final. A couple of other highlights were Wang Lifu's impassioned, despairing performance of Mahler's "Der Tamboursg'sell" and Hye Jung Lee's spectacular "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung" from Adams's Nixon in China, which starts at about the 7-minute mark below:



Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This just really annoys me

We interrupt normal Les Introuvables de Nereffid programming to bring you some casual bigotry. Over on Bloomberg View, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about a retired airline pilot who died when he tried to save his son from drowning in an 8-foot-deep septic tank. It was a post for Father's Day, you understand. As it happens, the man was a devout Catholic. So far, all very human-interest and a touching story of what a parent will do to protect their child. Then Goldberg tosses this out:
I’m reasonably sure an atheist would sacrifice his life for his child. But I also don’t doubt that Thomas Vander Woude’s powerful faith cleared the path into the tank. A person who has an articulated calling, who believes in something larger than himself, could more immediately accept the gravity of the moment.
For fuck's sake. He's reasonably sure an atheist would sacrifice his life for his child? He's not certain, of course. I mean, atheists, you know... it takes them that little bit longer to accept the gravity of the moment.
Leaving aside the absurdity of this last claim - might not an atheist regard death as rather more significant if there's no happy-ever-after afterlife? - what we have here is the implication that atheists are pretty much by definition lacking a certain morality, or as Cardinal Murphy O'Connor so obnoxiously put it recently, "not fully human".
A subtle piece of hate-speech. I don't know if Goldberg or others who use this kind of language even realise how contemptible it is. Or am I giving too much benefit-of-doubt? Commenting on Goldberg's post, I suggested that the atheist/religious comparison could be replaced with (as an example) a Jew/Christian one, to clarify how unpleasant it sounds.
As for whether atheists make good parents... I'm reasonably sure an atheist wouldn't have his son tortured and executed in order to save the world from a punishment that he himself devised.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A spelling error

I do apologize. In the previous post I misspelled Petroc Trelawny's name. And in the course of confirming this, I discovered that the first couple of pages of a Google Image search for "Trelawney" will give you nothing but variations of the one here.
Oh dear. Now I have contributed to the hype over the final Harry Potter film.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Drama in Cardiff

I've been making a proper effort to catch this year's Cardiff Singer of the World - sorry, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World - on TV and radio.
On BBC Four, they've made the decision that this is a sort of highbrow X Factor, while accepting that you can't really do anything to interfere with the performances themselves. So in the thrilling buildup we get things like shots of the singers in a group, with a slow zoom followed by a sudden, rapid zoom. You know the one - achieved not with a camera but in the editing room afterwards, so it's jerky. They even add a "whoosh" sound effect so that the visually impaired will know the editor is doing amazing things. And they get each of the contestants and judges to pose so they can swirl the camera at them while they look menacing, lovable, or just perplexed, all the while accompanied by extremely dramatic music, so dramatic that you're half expecting one of them to be Russell Crowe. So dramatic that you might think that at some point in the program David Warner's going to get decapitated by a sheet of glass. I suppose the program makers do have to commission new music for the occasion, but if you want operatic-sounding music for a song contest, well, you could do worse than model yourself on Wagner. He could tell the difference between a song contest and the siege of Minas Tirith.
Elsewhere, presentation descends to the banal. In an effort to, I don't know, make the contestants seem more human or something, we get little vignettes in which presenter Josie d'Arby hangs around with each singer and asks them complicated questions like whether winning the competition would be important for them. This kind of interviewing, or perhaps more accurately this way of editing and presenting an interview, seems to be aimed at viewers who lack all empathy with the person being interviewed and need to hear the bleeding obvious spelled out. It also tends to infect Petroc Trelawney's brief conversations with judges.
Trelawney: Reknowned Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård, do the judges have to make tough choices when deciding whom to declare the winner?
Hagegård: What do you think, you gobshite?
Then there's the awful bit where, after the singer has walked off and Trelawney asks one of his guests something, we quickly go backstage to where d'Arby finds out how the singer is feeling. You may be fascinated to know that their feelings tend towards being pleased with how it went, some relief, perhaps a few little things went wrong but overall they're happy. As you would imagine, but it's nice to be told directly, isn't it? Otherwise you'd go to bed that night wondering about it. In fairness the singers haven't yet told d'Arby to fuck off and leave them alone, not even Olga Kindler of Switzerland, who forgot where she was in her aria from Aida.
You just know that somewhere in the BBC was a producer desperate to get footage of Kiri Te Kanawa swearing at Kindler and saying "You're fired!"
Are there any good things about the show? Yes. The music, and the singing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Let's Televise the Proms!

I have sent in a patent application for a FUN new game called "Let's Televise the Proms!"
Each player is provided with a full Proms schedule and must allocate a specified number of concerts for showing on BBC television. Players agree in advance how many concerts are broadcast and how many of those can be live. Once the broadcast schedule is complete, players judge each others' work, awarding points based on pre-agreed criteria. Players must try to promote classical music to a wider audience while also satisfying the existing population of classical lovers. Customise the game to prioritise one over the other! In one version, give extra points for managing to show a Prom on BBC One or BBC Three; in another, take them away! Appearances by Wolfgang Rihm and Petroc Trelawney can be scored accordingly.
For two or more players. Age 8 and up, as in "Jesus, who designed this schedule? An eight year old?"

The BBC loses major points for not showing the September 2 Prom, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Mahler and Liszt. It is my birthday. I demand Mahler and Liszt on the telly for my birthday. I pay the TV license, you know. OK, maybe not the British one. (Yes, obviously we can listen to the radio transmission. It's not the same though.) They are showing Roger Norrington's Mahler 9, though. I'm sure BBC switchboard personnel are to be taught how to respond to the anticipated tens of thousands of complaints about the orchestra's lack of vibrato. What else? Ooh, Tim Minchin in a Comedy Prom. No doubt it'll be broadcast while I'm on my holidays, like the Sondheim one last year. And I'll miss the Grainger one also, buggerit. See? This is why we need board games that allow us to control the universe.

Still scratching your head over the picture above? Simple! It's a shot from Apocalypse Now, with Chief Phillips played by Albert Hall.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

8tracks mix: Awards 2010, part V

You never know, I might get these done in time for next year's awards.
This is the Solo Vocal and Choral categories - same as before, one winner and four runners-up in each.