Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You have one decade to impress me (Part 2)

The story so far: Hounded by a nagging guilt that he shouldn't have been spending all his time over the past ten years listening to that artsy-fartsy classical music, our hero NEREFFID has resolved to build some sort of CONCEPTUAL TIME MACHINE in which he can revisit the entire decade but this time experience it through the medium of POPULAR MUSIC. He quickly assembles a team: the wise wizards of PITCHFORK and the mighty seer of YOUTUBE, plus of course SCHLEPPY the WONDERDOG. Together they venture forth into the NOUGHTIES and do battle with all manner of INDIE DARLINGS, DISCO DIVAS, and GANGSTAS...
And NOW: The devastating conclusion!

(Part 1 here)

20 The Walkmen "The Rat" (2004)
Well, at least this has some vigour in it, and a rawness, although both those qualities just serve to remind me of my age. Then again, I'm not sure I'd have been a big fan of this twenty years ago either.

19 R. Kelly "Ignition (Remix)" (2002)
First of all, wow, way to go on the post-modernism, with the words "It's the remix to Ignition". Reminds me of the theme from The Sweeney. You can sing it using the lyrics "The Sweeney! The Sweeney! This is the theme from The Sweeney!" Also, perhaps they might not have called R a child molester if they'd heard the line "It's like Murder She Wrote once I get you out of them clothes". Angela Lansbury? Really? Crikey... he's sticking his key in the ignition. Aside from all that... OK, it's catchy. But that's it.

18 Hercules and Love Affair "Blind" (2008)
Hurrah! Lisa Stansfield's back! And this time she's got Giorgio Moroder! Second reaction: Well, Antony's voice makes this more interesting than it might otherwise have been. But that's it.

17 Annie "Heartbeat" (2004)
OK, I think I'm getting the hang of it now. This song = 17th best song of the decade. This song, slightly catchier = Eurotrash. Is that how it works? Seriously. I have no idea. I don't connect with this music at all. What is it about this and the Kylie song and the one we've just listened to that makes them great songs? What do they have that other, similar, songs lack? I just don't know.

16 The Rapture "House of Jealous Lovers" (2002)
I hope this is going somewhere. Hmm... it does, kind of. This sounds like a B-side: interesting, pretty good, you're feeling pretty smug because you actually bought the single and people who taped it off the radio don't have the B-side, but then on the other hand it's obviously not as good as the A-side. But in this case: no A-side.

15 The Knife "Heartbeats" (2002)
I wouldn't have been surprised if Glenn Gregory or Philip Oakey had started singing on this one. Instead it's... oh, I don't know, some sort of Swedish Cyndi Lauper. This would have had a decent chance of making the best of the 80s list too. I also sampled the "Rex the Dog Remix", which only served to confirm my suspicions.

14 Jay-Z "99 Problems" (2003)
God I'm bored. Come on, Jay-Z! Entertain me! OK... I was prepared early on to hate this, but it grew on me. It's got some kind of substance. Unlike the other rappers we've heard so far, this one does seem like the artist might be interested in connecting with an audience other than people who want to be him or think they're like him. Which is presumably why he's higher on the list than the others.

13 LCD Soundsystem "Losing My Edge" (2002)
Oh Christ, not these people again. But this time they win, big time. Well, I think so. It seems to be a thorough demolition of hipsterism. But why do hipsters like it? Are they being ironically self-referential? Oh no... is the song ironically self-referential? Have I completely misunderstood it?

12 OutKast "Hey Ya!" (2003)
Huh. I wasn't expecting this. Cheesy retro pop! Pretty clever, actually, as far as it goes. Which isn't very far.

11 Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" (2005)
Another old-sounding one. But then, LCD Soundsystem has definitively proved that there is no longer any such thing as new music. Or something. Anyway, I quite like this.

And so we head for the top 10. Impressions of nos.20-11? Mostly not impressive. The list seems ever more arbitrary, and reliant on what strike me as tunes you "had to be there for", by which I mean music that captures the essence of the noughts for those who were paying attention all along. At least, that's how it strikes me, but then I wasn't paying attention. The actual "good music" tends to be further down the list. OK, this situation is all nice and zeitgeisty but I was hoping the list would be a little more useful than an aide-mémoire.
Onwards and upwards!

10 Arcade Fire "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" (2004)
...and having said that, here's something wonderful. Odd but smart lyrics, almost like a children's story, and music that comes from the same place. A while back I saw a feature on eMusic where the writer attempted to link Arcade Fire with Mahler. I can kind of see what he meant now, although on this evidence I wouldn't use the symphony no.2 as the exemplar. No.4, maybe.

9 Animal Collective "My Girls" (2009)
A quick glance back up the list reveals that I didn't like the first appearance by Animal Collective, so what can they conjure up this time? A nursery rhyme... a very elaborately created nursery rhyme. I do like it, but it seems to go on for ever. It really sounds like you'd have seen it on Top of the Pops circa 1983. There would have been knitted jumpers, I'm sure of it.

8. Radiohead "Idioteque" (2000)
Ahhh, I think I see what's going on here. This is the Top 10, so we're focusing on the proper stuff at last. Maybe. This one's familiar enough that I can't decide whether I'd like it if I hadn't heard it until now. I know I would be relieved that I was hearing music designed to be listened to rather than simply to lodge its chorus in your brain.

7 Missy Elliott "Get Ur Freak On" (2001)
Yeah, I spoke too soon. From a technical point of view, fine, but take out that 6-note bhangra riff and there's nothing much there to interest me, aside maybe from the intriguing jerky rhythms of the rapping. Seriously, two minutes after listening to this I know I'll have that riff about for me days but already I've actually forgotten the chorus.

6 Yeah Yeah Yeahs "Maps" (2003)
Weird. Sounds like classic early-nineties girl-singer indie pop/rock, but there's this veneer of commerciality over it all, like it's specially designed not to frighten the horses. It's OK, but I can't see what it's doing here. As an aside, Wikipedia has categorized Sleeper's 1994 song "Swallow" under "Songs about birds". It really isn't.

5 Daft Punk "One More Time" (2000)
Oh shit. Really? I have to listen to another Daft Punk tune? Jesus. I confess that I took a bathroom break during this one. And then went to the fridge to get some salami. Then ate the salami. These things were all more entertaining and, arguably, more musical than this rubbish I'm listening to. And there's STILL another fucking minute on the song. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhhhhhhhh. I'm getting more salami.

4 Beyoncé [ft. Jay-Z] "Crazy in Love" (2003)
Like the Missy Elliott song, this one's a fine illustration of how to snatch one little musical notion and use it to highly memorable effect. But at least here they hold the horn motif back for special occasions. Another one of those irresistible songs. Is it good, is it bad? Who cares. You remember it, and that's what matters.

3 M.I.A. [ft. Bun B and Rich Boy] "Paper Planes (Diplo Remix)" (2007)
M.I.A. shows the gangstas how it's done. Fascinating how just a slight change in attitude can make such a difference - something like Clipse's "Grindin'" is just "look at me" but M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" is "look at the world". So it's a shame that Pitchfork went with the remixed version, which distracts from that vision.

2 LCD Soundsystem "All My Friends" (2007)
Again? Pretty good, this one. It's got a relentless forward drive that matches the gist of the lyrics. I have a quick listen again to the first LCD Soundsystem song, and admit I dismissed it too readily. But the band - well, the guy, really - is one I can admire and respect rather than really liking.

And, finally, number one. I am agog.

1 OutKast "B.O.B." (2000)
Certainly one of the most energetic things on this list, but I'm underwhelmed. It does nothing for me, again. What an anticlimax!

So, what have we learned? Essentially, that I found about a third of this music to be worth listening to more than once. But what was I hoping to achieve? At heart, I wanted to answer the question Was it a good idea to deliberately ignore popular music for the last decade? And I think the answer is, if this is the best it had to offer, then yes. I was hoping - wondering, is probably a better word - that I might discover that the best hip-hop is light-years from the grandstanding bullshit I thought it was, or that electronic music is the new classical music, or that there were all these indie-rock or alt-rock or whatever they're called bands that I'd love. But none of these things happened. Most of the music made me just shrug and move on.
Can we blame Pitchfork? Maybe. I chose Pitchfork on reputation rather than for any particular knowledge of what I might find there, but it seems from what I've seen here that their focus is too narrow, or rather that they have a set of parallel narrow focuses. Of the 50 tracks here, only 14 make it into the Observer Music Monthly top 75 of the decade, which on first glance I'd say presents a wider view of the decade and is closer to my conception of popular music (which also presumably reflects some sort of US/UK divide on the matter). Oh no! Am I going to have to do another one of these?!
And I don't want to get all nostalgic about how pop music used to be so much better fadó fadó. Things enter your brain differently when you're young, and over time you forget about all the stuff you hated back then. Most of this music is supposed to be pointless and ephemeral, anyway. One third isn't too bad a success rate, really, and if you take out the hip-hop and dance, which I've never had an interest in, the score is probably pretty good. But ultimately I find I don't need this music any more. My tastes have changed too much.
So, farewell then, Music of the Noughts. We hardly knew ye.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura

From eMedicine:
Immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) is a clinical syndrome in which a decreased number of circulating platelets (thrombocytopenia) manifests as a bleeding tendency, easy bruising (purpura), or extravasation of blood from capillaries into skin and mucous membranes (petechiae).
In persons with immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), platelets are coated with autoantibodies to platelet membrane antigens, resulting in splenic sequestration and phagocytosis by mononuclear macrophages. The resulting shortened life span of platelets in the circulation, together with incomplete compensation by increased platelet production by bone marrow megakaryocytes, results in a decreased platelet count.
It started around the end of November, when we noticed Amelia had some patches of tiny red dots on her skin, and seemed to have a lot of bruises on her shins, and on her butt where her brother had whacked her a day or two earlier. So we took her to the doctor, who immediately said to bring her to the hospital. Fortunately we were sufficiently unknowledgeable to not be thinking about leukemia. After a few hours the doctors had decided it was ITP. It's not known what causes it (which is why it's idiopathic) - it seems to be triggered by some sort of viral infection. Normally you should have at least 150,000 platelets per cubic millimeter of blood, and 20,000 is a worrying level. Amelia had less than 10,000. But most cases in children are acute, and they recover over a period of months without needing treatment. The only advice is to make sure the child isn't playing rough or doing anything that comes with a risk of bleeding. A nosebleed that doesn't stop is a bad sign. We kept her out of school for a few days; 10 days after diagnosis her platelet count was 20,000; still much too low, but not as bad as it had been. Aside from keeping a watchful eye on her, life returned to normal.
7:30, Christmas morning. Ethan wakes us to say Amelia has a nosebleed and it's not stopping.
At least the traffic in to the hospital was light. She spent the day and night in hospital, for 10 hours hooked up to an IV line, delivering immunoglobulin to encourage her immune system to lay the hell off the platelets. She was a star, though: never complained, never cried - of course, she felt fine, aside from the nosebleed. And not only did she meet Santa (and the Lord Mayor of Dublin) when she was waiting to be seen by a doctor, but Santa came again during the night! "I love the hospital", she told me. The next afternoon, she was discharged and told to come back Tuesday for another blood test. Tuesday: by coincidence, her birthday. We had our Christmas dinner two days late, and the trip to see Granny and Granddad and all the cousins was cancelled. With due deference to the billions of people worldwide who are worse off than us, it was officially The Worst Christmas Ever.
Today's Tuesday, and my sweetie-pie is 4. And her platelet count is 43,000. Thank you, doctors, nurses, and medical science.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ho ho hoye como va

Saturday, December 19, 2009

This week I listened to

"Dreamland: Contemporary choral riches from the Hyperion catalogue"
Various choirs

This is a cheap sampler I came across by accident on the Hyperion web site (download for only 3 quid), which gave me a chance to check out some composers I wasn't familiar with. Everything's great, here, as you'd expect from any well-chosen Hyperion sampler, and I must definitely explore this repertoire further. Highlights included Morten Lauridsen's chant-inflected "Ave, dulcissima Maria" and the "angel calls" that open Rihards Dubra's "Stetit Angelus".

"Midsummer Night"
Kate Royal; Orchestra of English National Opera/Edward Gardner

Much as I tend to rely on the various magazines and online sources for advice on what to spend my money on, I know by now that many of the albums that turn out to be my favourites aren't ones that the critics raved about. This one's a good example; reviews were good or better, but it just didn't seem to stand out, at least in the sources I go to. Fr'instance, BBC Music Mag's Michael Scott Rohan called it "something of a mixed bag, often impressive but never quite as overwhelming as it should be". Anyway, I got it, and I'm very glad I got it. Of course, I'm a repertoire person rather than a performer person, and there were several unfamiliar pieces here, all - yes - impressive. If I get round to a final reckoning of my best of the year, this one will be in there.

Frolov: Works for violin and piano
Nicolas Koeckert; Rudolf Joachim Koeckert; Kristina Miller

Talk about not judging a CD by its cover. I knew what I was getting, but what would you think? The cover's got a generic and not especially lovely photo of some church; the composer is Igor Alexandrovich Frolov (b. 1937), and the contents are listed as Concert Fantasy; Divertissement; Romance; Spanish Fantasy. Well, the name and date indicate an obscure member of the generation of Russian composers that includes Gubaidulina and Schnittke, but the titles of the works might make you wonder if the date was a typo and Frolov was actually a contemporary of the "Mighty Handful" a century beforehand. Well, either way, you probably wouldn't be expecting to hear an arrangement of Jerome Kern's "Smoke gets in your eyes", but that's the sort of album this is. The Concert Fantasy is on Themes from Porgy and Bess; there's also a version of a Scott Joplin rag, and various other jazzy shenanigans. The Divertissement starts off like Bach but soon begins to swing. It's a fun album of light music, in short, and one that deserves a wider audience than just the classical nerds who browse alphabetically through the Naxos display looking for curiosities. Naxos's art director needs a beating.

Smetana: Orchestral works
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar

This is a 3-disc set; the one I listened to this week was disc 2, which has the three big symphonic poems Wallenstein's Camp, Hakon Jarl, and Richard III, plus bits of The Bartered Bride as well as three other short pieces - the overture to the puppet-play Doktor Faust and two polkas called The Peasant Woman and To our Girls. Fanfare's much-missed reviewer/nutjob Lynn René Bayley persuaded me to buy it: "This is a recording of very high worth by a conductor of genius". It's certainly a vivid and exciting set (disc 1 is an excellent Ma vlast), and I agree with her enthusiasm for Hakon Jarl in particular.

Friday, December 18, 2009

You have one decade to impress me

Okay, popular music. You and I haven't really seen eye to eye since the late 80s, and let's be honest, we've hardly been on speaking terms in the 21st century. But this seems to be a time for reflection, so for a few hours let's call a truce, and you can set forth the best reasons why popular music of the 00s is worth my time. And for my part, I will listen and write spontaneous snarky comments. Deal? Okay then!

The first installment of this super-exciting feature comprises the 50 best tracks of the decade, as compiled by the staff of Pitchfork back in August. Because apparently that's when the decade ended. They actually have a list of 500, but Jesus, I'm not that interested.
How do they compile these things, anyway? I like to picture them in a low-ceilinged room, a big whiteboard at one end, and they're all sitting round with their shirt sleeves rolled up, chewing gum, like they're trying to solve the Zodiac case.

50 Basement Jaxx "Romeo" (2001)
Hey, this is a fun way to start. Stomp, stomp, stomp. This had everyone up on the dance floor, yes? I think the take-home message here is - and I may be wrong - that he used to be her Romeo. Until... what? He thought she was dead, and then pissed off back to Mantua?

49 Sufjan Stevens "Chicago" (2005)
Well, this is wonderful, but I knew that already. Hey, I was one of the first... uh... million... on the Sufjan bandwagon. I love the bigger-than-it-actually-is production here. And "Come on feel the Illinoise" is one of the great punning album titles, up there with Kirsty McColl's "Electric Landlady" and "Al Green was my valet".

48 Panda Bear "Bro's" (2006)
What?! This damn thing is 12 and a half minutes long! That's like four or five pop songs from the sixties. Hey, wait a second, this is a pop song from the sixties. Nice to see Brian Wilson still working. Jesus, it goes on a bit, doesn't it? Naw, I'm being mean. The production on this is fantastic. Well, presumably the production is the point. Aside: what if the band Bros had a song called "Panda Bear"? Would it be any good?

47 Burial "Archangel" (2007)
A big slice of atmosphere. Speaks of empty streets at two in the morning, not many streetlights, the occasional car passing quietly beneath the window, and there's nothing on the fucking telly. And she's not here. Very impressive in its way, but I wonder how much my life would have to change for this to speak directly to me.

46 Robyn [ft. Kleerup] "With Every Heartbeat" (2007)
This had an unappetising beginning, but it grew on me. Probably coming after the Burial track it seemed too poppy. But there's more depth to it than first impressions indicated. I never wondered what would happen if Kate Bush and Jean-Michel Jarre teamed up to write a disco song, but now I know.

45 Hot Chip "Over and Over" (2005)
It's certainly catchy, in an insistent sort of way. A good pop song, I suppose; the sort of pop song you get from a band that isn't a pop band. If you follow me. But is it as good as ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears"?

44 Franz Ferdinand "Take Me Out" (2004)
Bang, bang, bangity-bang. The constant pounding of this song has always done my head in. The massive slowdown near the start is a good idea, but no, I find this one irritating I'm afraid. Have you ever wondered if Alex Kapranos spends much of his time wishing he could be like David Watts? No? Me neither.

43 UGK [ft. Outkast] "Int'l Players Anthem (I Choose You)" (2007)
Impressive exhortatory opening from André 3000 (yes, of course I had to look that one up) but then the other rappers come in and... sigh. I feel soiled. Tristan und Isolde it ain't.

Time out. You know what? This list has been progressing steadily downhill since Sufjan at 49. Come on, people! Get it together!

42 Battles "Atlas" (2007)
Ah yes, this is more like it. Nice funky drum intro, and then - huh? A rhino impersonating Marilyn Manson? A smurf? Wha............ This is awesome. And then after a couple of minutes we increase the swagger. Oh yes. Gene Hunt is going to kick your head in. "People won't be people when they hear this sound". I am not a people anymore! This. Is. More like it.

41 TV on the Radio "Staring at the Sun" (2004)
A touch of sweet harmony, and then... erm, is this Flight of the Conchords, I ask myself rhetorically for a few moments. No, this isn't doing much for me. It's more like the blueprint of a good song rather than a good song itself. Sorry.

40 The Avalanches "Since I Left You" (2000)
Pastiche? Parody? Homage? This is music you hear from far away and it reminds you of something, and you wait for it to get to the recognisable bit. But it never does. It just keeps going, and you keep thinking, "no, hang on... there must be a bit coming up that'll make me go Ah yes! Of course!". But there isn't. It just seems so... pointless.

39 Modest Mouse "Float On" (2004)
INXS! Sorry, that was the very first thing that came into my head, after like a second or two. And now it's... Talking Heads! Kind of. Not really. No. I don't believe these people either. Oh dear! First Franz Ferdinand, then TV On The Radio, and now Modest Mouse. I don't want to say they're insincere, but to my ears there's something calculated about the music. They sound like they're making music because they can, not because they must.

38 T.I. "What You Know" (2006)
Yeah, pretty catchy. But... you know... more Bentleys 'n' bitches. I don't suppose there's any hope that T.I. means none of it?

37 Kylie Minogue "Can't Get You Out of My Head" (2001)
Theoretically, this is rubbish. Theoretically. I mean, there's almost nothing there. But there you go, timeless classic, etc, and we haven't even mentioned the video yet. Actually, you know what you should do, you should listen to Patrick and Eugene's fantastic ska version of this. You won't get that out of your head either.

36 Sigur Rós "Svefn-G-Englar" (2000)
Beautiful, ethereal soundscape - with Sigur Rós, should I be surprised? Although to be honest, after about 5 minutes I was - not bored, just wondering whether I was going to get much more out of it. In the end, yes, I did, but it does bring to mind the difficult question about ambient and minimalist music - how does the composer know the right moment to finish?

35 Animal Collective "Fireworks" (2007)
This seems like two fairly decent ideas - the instruments and the vocals - crammed together for no especially good reason except that the same people came up with both of them. I am wholly unmoved by this one.

34 M.I.A. "Galang" (2003)
Whereas this is a whole bunch of fairly decent ideas that all enhance each other. Good, catchy stuff - smart pop music for the global village.

33 Spoon "The Way We Get By" (2003)
The instrumental combination here makes it very seventies, but the singer's a bit more growly than they used to be. Yeah, I quite like this.

32 Amerie "1 Thing" (2005)
The trick here is the catchy chorus, one of those pseudo-perpetual motion machines that doesn't necessarily have a logical end - it could go on for ever, if they chose to. But it ends soon enough - for what purpose? To start up again; and again, and again, and again. It's irresistible, really. You've got to admire the songwriter for taking a half-idea and just running with it.

31 Jay-Z [ft. UGK] "Big Pimpin'" (2000)
OK, Pitchfork, can you find me a hip-hop song that doesn't involve pimpin'? In fairness, this one's got a good beat to it, and Jay Z's rapping is impressive for what it is. But, guys, I don't give a rat's ass.

30 The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" (2003)
Hey wow, this has an actual guitar solo! How quaint! It's like rock music still exists! So far, most of what I've heard has reminded me of something from the past - no harm in that - but the lyrics here sound very old indeed. In fact, lyrically this is one of the few impressive songs so far.

29 Hot Chip "Boy From School" (2006)
More Hot Chip, eh? They must be good then. This one's all very mellow, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it. Feel sad? Dance? Both? God, there's an unappealing prospect for all concerned.

28 Antony and the Johnsons "Hope There's Someone" (2005)
OK, now I feel sad. This is beautiful - somehow the quivering, slurry voice is perfect - but I wish it didn't go haywire. I guess I see what they're trying to do, but I don't think the song really needs a climax, or if it does, it doesn't need this one. But the first couple of minutes are wonderful.

27 Clipse "Grindin'" (2002)
That apostrophe makes me pause before I listen. Will there be ho's? Yes, although it takes a minute and a half before they show up. But mostly this is about drug dealing. I spent a bit of time on this one, reading reviews 'n shit, trying to make sense of it. So I guess they're against drug dealers, yes? But why then does the song sound exactly like what you would imagine a song glorifying drug dealers would sound like? Is there a Poe's Law for hip-hop?

26 Justin Timberlake [ft. T.I.] "My Love" (2006)
Hahahaha. I pause this one after 35 seconds to reflect quietly on the opening words, "If I wrote you a symphony/Just to say how much you mean to me/What would you do?" Presumably her answer would depend on whether he stuck with traditional sonata form for the first movement, or went the Sibelius route of taking melodic fragments and gradually transforming them. But let's end this digression and return to Justin, who is... oh Jesus. Toes in the sand?? You soppy git. No wonder T.I. fancies his chances with her.

25 Rihanna [ft. Jay-Z] "Umbrella" (2007)
Quite an old-fashioned song, when you think about it. You've got your central metaphorical conceit, viz, the collapsible rain shield, and you've got your basic romantic sentiment. I mean, you can imagine Fred and/or Ginger singing words like these. Fred could do the Jay-Z part, I suppose. This song was pretty much unavoidable at the time, but somehow I pretty much avoided it. That's how tuned in to popular music I am.

24 Radiohead "Everything in Its Right Place" (2000)
Liked it at the time; still like it. This was the time when Radiohead forsook for ever the chance the be the next U2. For some reason I'm wondering what the band would sound like if Thom Yorke were replaced with Rick Astley. It's worth a shot, surely?

23 Daft Punk "Digital Love" (2001)
You will need: a little musical hook from The Rockford Files theme; the ability to sound like The Buggles and, if necessary, ELO. Hey presto! There are only 22 songs better than yours in the whole decade.

22 LCD Soundsystem "Someone Great" (2007)
Why did they decide on the name "LCD Soundsystem"? Probably because the name "Shitty Knock-off of Early Depeche Mode" was already taken. Sorry. But come on, LCD Soundsystem! You were right after Daft Punk! How hard would it have been to sound a lot better?

21 Kelly Clarkson "Since U Been Gone" (2005)
The editor in me reaches slowly for his pistol. The environmentalist in me raises a conciliatory hand and points out that spelling "you", or indeed "you've", with only one letter saves a lot of ink and computer energy and will ultimately put an end to global warming. You are in my bad books already, Kelly. Be very careful. And... go. Oh! Right, I know this one. Or rather, I recognise the rather excitable chorus. The song ends. I've forgotten the rest of it already.

Another time out! What the hell's going on here? The list is starting to turn into an argument against popular music. We're now entering the top 20. So far, 50-41 has been on balance better than 40-31, which on balance is better than 30-21. I am fearful.

This thrilling adventure to be resumed.... soon!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Are you sure you want to quit Opendisc?

Yes. I am sure.

Trust a major record label to "add content" that makes routine use of the product more annoying.

Monday, December 14, 2009

This week I listened to

Johann Christian Bach: "La dolce fiamma - Forgotten castrato arias"
Philippe Jaroussky; La Cercle de l'Harmonie/Jérémie Rhorer

"London Bach" was the only one of that family to tackle opera, and this album presents a variety of arias written between 1760 and 1778, plus a couple of scenas. I've heard some of his overtures before, but none of the vocal music. I've always associated him with the classical era proper, but this reminds me that the castrati didn't disappear with the age of Handel. Philippe Jaroussky sounds very much at home here - I've only heard him in Vivaldi before. Hearing his voice the first time, several years ago after having heard quite a bit of Andreas Scholl, was quite the what? wow! moment, and he still impresses. Another piece of the vast jigsaw of music history falls into place.

"Bad Boys"
Bryn Terfel; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paul Daniel

From high to low. This is a great showcase, as well as a sad reminder that in the "olden days" Terfel would probably have made complete recordings of a lot of these operas. He brings such variety to the roles that it's more like a perfect sampler disc than a recital as such. Obviously for a Sweeney Todd fan such as me the opportunity to hear Terfel sing the part couldn't be passed up; you could argue that a Broadway singer brings more spontaneity, but then again Terfel's operatic performance has great subtlety to it, plus you get a Cockney Anne Sofie von Otter. Another particular highlight is his smooth Scarpia, but really for my money there's only one weak thing here - the Les Misérables song. I know Bryn always keeps one eye on the wider public, but this sticks out like a ... well, like a Les Misérables song in an album of opera excerpts. The closing number sees Don Giovanni on his way to hell, with Terfel singing the Commendatore and Leporello as well. An intriguing, though not wholly successful, experiment that suggests the possibility of the Don's punishment being all in his mind.

Walton: Cello concerto / Solo works by Bloch, Ligeti, Walton, Britten
Pieter Wispelwey; Sydney Symphony/Jeffrey Tate

Interesting selection of works here, but the music didn't quite capture my imagination - perhaps it was just that there's quite a bit of dark material here and I wasn't in a receptive mood. The Bach-inspired Bloch suite and the Ligeti sonata stood out the most. I should return to this soon.

El Cant de la Sibilla I: Catalunya
Montserrat Figueras; La Capella Reial de Catalunya/Jordi Savall
Alia Vox/Astree

I'm surely not the only person for whom John Cleese has forever ruined the word "Sybil"? Anyway, these are realisations of what you might call mystical entertainments from medieval times. They're typical classy Jordi Savall productions and a steal from eMusic at 3 tracks.

Lang: The Passing Measures
Marty Ehrlich (clarinet); Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; members of CBSO Chorus/Paul Herbert

I seem to have been coming across David Lang quite a bit lately. We watched the film Requiem for a Dream recently, whose score he arranged for the Kronos Quartet, and then this year's Thanksgiving Mix featured his laconic version of "Born to be wild", performed in perfect deadpan style by Andrew Russo. This one I downloaded from eMusic, having miscalculated by 1 how many tracks I had left for the month. It's a lovely piece of minimalism; as Lang writes, "A single very consonant chord falls slowly over the course of forty minutes. That is the piece". That's it, all right: a forty-minute sigh.

Dacapo Records makes a friend

Denmark's Dacapo Records is doing a nice Christmas promotion - a sort of "advent calendar" where every day they give out a promo code for you to download any one track off a specified album. It's a great way of gaining some familiarity with various obscure Danish composers (and Carl Nielsen).
December 10th's promo code didn't work, and rather than shrug it off I decided to let the company know - just in case similar things happened in future (witness what's happened with's free weekly download, which is such a tagging/naming fiasco that I don't bother with it anymore, and will never buy anything from them as a result). Later I get this email:
I am very sorry you experienced failure trying to use the DEC10 promo code.
It has now been fixed so that it works. For the inconvenience I will offer
you the full album of December 10 for free in any download format.
And that's how you gain customers.
Granted, with an eMusic subscription I probably won't be doing much downloading from Dacapo's own site, but now I'm so much more favourably disposed to the company, and those free tracks will no doubt inspire further exploration.
Thanks, Dacapo!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Brian Cox masterclass

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sometimes it helps to have the sleeve notes

So enamoured was I with the album "Belle Virginie" that I decided a download from eMusic wasn't good enough, and went out and bought it on CD as well. Now I understand what's going on! From the back cover:
Belle Virginie is inspired by the intrepid adventures of Captain Le Golif, the king's truculent corsair. Shanties sail the seas between Old World and New, spanning baroque and traditional song. A music fusion for youngsters and grown-ups.
I can certainly attest to that last point - last night I heard Ethan humming the chorus of "Le Grand Coureur", so the CD became his bedtime listening.
But this whole "Captain Le Golif" thing isn't the whole story at all. Turns out Le Concert de l'Hostel Dieu were inspired by the "memoirs" of said buccaneer to create a "family seafaring opera", but in fact the sea songs used are largely songs collected by Marguerite and Raoul d'Harcourt from Quebec and Acadia and don't have any connection per se with Le Golif or any other truculent corsair for that matter. There are a couple of sea-battle songs all right, but there's also quite a few songs of immigration or departing on long voyages, and the first track, "La Drave", could be characterised as "I'm a lumberjack, and I'm not OK".
So now I know.
But why the CD case includes several photos of orchids, that's a complete mystery.

This week I listened to

Ravel: Songs
Gerald Finley; Julius Drake

Another area of repertoire I'm not familiar enough with - French song generally, I mean. So this was all new to me (apart from, er, Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon), and highly enjoyable. Gerald Finley it seems can do no wrong these days. Expect to see this one in the Nereffid's Guide Awards.

Bowen: Piano concertos nos.3 & 4
Danny Driver; BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins

There's something of a York Bowen revival going on in recordings at the moment, although such things are relative I suppose: I note from ArkivMusic that his most-recorded work is the Toccata for piano, op.155, which has 4 available recordings (including one from Bowen himself). These concertos are wonderful late Romantic works - premiered in 1908 and 1937. The opening of the 4th in particular makes me think we're in for some Rachmaninov. Kaikhosru Sorabji called this one the greatest work for piano and orchestra ever written by an Englishman. But had he ever heard the Warsaw Concerto? (Or "the bloody awful Warsaw Concerto" as Spike Milligan was wont to call it). Working from a tiny knowledge base, I shall agree with Sorabji.

Purcell: Fantazias
Harmonia Mundi

Fantasies for viols were something of an anachronism when Purcell wrote these in 1680, aged 21. It would be like... I don't know... modern rock bands making music that sounds like it's from the 1980s. How crazy would that be?! Someone should try it. But back to Purcell: I'm a little ambivalent towards viol consorts. The homogeneity of sound can at times veer into boring, and it's easy to imagine 17th-century English listeners cheering at the introduction of some continental-style violins and a harpsichord. On the other hand, that homogeneity also has an admirable purity to it, and it's not as if there's nothing going on in the music. What I'm trying to say is, I like this; sometimes I like it a lot, sometimes not so much.

Mahler: Symphony no.4
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer
Channel Classics

Next year is the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth; the year after that is the 100th anniversary of his death. I don't know if the "official" plan is for a 2-year "Mahler year" or whether "they" are going to pick one or the other. Well, in Laboratoires Nereffid we are going for the 2 years. There will be a lot of Mahler listening, and hopefully a blog series to go with it. Right now, it's been so long since I heard any other recording of the 4th that I can't compare this one to anything else, but I can say it's excellent in its own right, and Miah Persson's voice seems spot-on for the finale.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hyperion downloads

I discovered yesterday that Hyperion is now offering downloads on its web site. Details here. One great thing is that shorter albums cost less to download than longer ones. This makes sense - in as much as a download is a physical product, the physical product will be smaller. Well, whatever the logic, it makes certain albums very competitively priced. A longer album will be £7.99 (= €8.78 today) but a shorter album will be just £5.99 (= €6.58). Both compare well with, say, Quboz's €9.99 and MDT's current Hyperion CD price of £9.54 (= €10.50, not including p&p). Add in the bulk-buying discounts Hyperion gives, and suddenly I see Simon Perry pocketing a lot more of my dosh in the future.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

PG Tips

One of the (many) things I learned from Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise is that, back in the seventies when times were tough, Steve Reich and Philip Glass briefly owned a furniture removals company.

"Philip! Do you know this piano's on my foot?"
"You hum it Steve, and I'll play it!"

Another thing I already knew about Philip Glass was that he also worked as a New York cabbie. Hey, maybe he should have been in Taxi Driver instead of de Niro. Remember that scene where Travis Bickle stands in front of a mirror repeating the same phrase over and over again...?

Oh, I'm on a roll here...
What about that classic German comedy movie, where the Berlin Philharmonic's Asian tour goes horribly wrong? You know: Karajan up the Khyber.

I will stop now.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

This week I listened to

Belle Virginie: musique pour la Nouvelle France
Le Concert de l'Hostel Dieu/Franck-Emmanuel Comte

This is fantastic, one of my favourite releases of the year. Inspired by the possibly fictional French buccaneer Le Golif, it's a selection of folk music, sea shanties, and the like, but approached from the classical side of the street. It's a mix (a crossover, even) that works wonderfully: lusty choruses are leavened by a countertenor, and on the other hand there's still a place in the music for the accordion and the Jews harp. You know what, I'm not going to say any more, and instead I direct you to the album page on MySpace, where you can hear the first three tracks.

Lamentations: Victoria, Gesualdo, Palestrina, White
Nordic Voices

Or "that depressing music", as my mother calls it. Well, yes, they are lamentations, but that didn't stop these Renaissance composers from producing sublime beauty. There's just 6 singers in Nordic Voices, but they make a marvellous rich sound. Not in the least bit depressing.

Vivaldi: Concerti per violino III, 'Il ballo'
Duilio M. Galfetti; I Barocchisti/Diego Fasolis

Everything fizzes here. I'm listening now, randomly, to the 3rd movement of the first concerto on the disc, RV352, and it's got such joyful spontaneity in it. They really do sound like they're exuberantly making it up as they go along. Sheer pleasure from start to finish. I see that five of the seven concertos aren't listed on ArkivMusic, which just goes to show that undiscovered treasures always lie in wait.

Carter: Piano music
Ursula Oppens

I hate to end on a downer, but there you go. I've tried to like Carter's music, but it just doesn't make much impression on me. If I better understood the technical aspects, would I like it? Maybe. But it just doesn't have the visceral appeal, which has little to do with technicalities. Right now it seems wholly arbitrary - I just wonder, why these notes? (And in one stroke Nereffid disqualifies himself from ever uttering a word about modern music again. Hurrah!)

8tracks mix: Les Introuvables de Nereffid #3

11 tracks, 50 minutes.
I discovered that it's a nuisance forgetting what's in these mixes, so I'm including a track list this time - in the comments.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving treats

We have a tradition now, where every Thanksgiving I compile a CD of odd cover versions to amaze, delight, and upset the guests. Was this year an exception? No it was not. Here's a couple of things that, in their studio versions, made it into the mix:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Insert pun involving the name "Leifs" here

Alex Ross had an interesting post on Jón Leifs the other day, prompted by his receiving a biography (in Icelandic) of the composer. I love this: "My excitement at seeing the book was only slightly tempered by the fact that I couldn’t read a word of it."
Ross's recommended Leifs recording, BIS's album with Hekla on it, happens to be the only Leifs album I have, and oh yes it is indeed recommendable. Hekla's one of those pieces that's so loud that it's the silence afterwards that hurts your ears. Which leads me to an anecdote told by Robert von Bahr in an interview with MusicWeb several years ago:
This particular CD [BIS's recording of Leifs' Saga Symphony] did achieve something of a cult status in Japan thanks to Nagaoka-sensei, the guru of Classical music and stereo equipment in Japan. Nagaoka-sensei was actually quite hard of hearing in his later days, and usually cranked up the volume quite loudly. When I released the Saga Symphony, I advised my agent to go personally to him, put on Track 4 something like after 2'35, let Nagaoka-sensei fiddle with the volume, and then make a run for it. After 20 sec the house fell apart, and Nagaoka-sensei emerged from the rubble, a beatific grin over his face, with a glowing review to follow.

Last week I listened to

Yes, yes, I know I'm late. It was a busy weekend.

Beethoven: Piano sonatas opp.26, 14 & 28
Murray Perahia

You know me - I like to explore every part of the repertoire. But it's good to come back to the core works every now and then, especially with an album as wonderful as this. In fact I got this as part of my efforts to make sure I've heard as many Nereffid's Guide Awards contenders as possible (place yer bets now...). The piano sound is gorgeous, and Perahia gives one of those performances where it's all about the music, not the pianist. Add to that an equanimitous set of sonatas, and it's a winner. This was, incidentally, the first major-label album I've ever downloaded.

Virtuoso Italian vocal music
Catherine Bott; New London Consort/Philip Pickett

A classic in its day (released 1988), apparently: the booklet notes say it "provided modern audiences with one of the earliest opportunities to experience the finest work of some of the most talented and exploratory composers writing at the start of the Italian Baroque". It certainly passed me by at the time - a quick check reveals that U2's Rattle and Hum was released around the same time, so that's where I was at. By now, this music no longer comes as a revelation, but the pieces themselves are unfamiliar. A very useful addition to the collection.

Grainger: "Lincolnshire Posy"
Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin

You can never go wrong with Percy Grainger, what with the catchy tunes, the clever orchestrations, the intriguing sonorities, and the occasional heart-melting harmonies. John Eliot Gardiner's disc on Philips with the, ahem, English Country Gardiner Orchestra is probably the single best sampler of Grainger's music, although Chandos has a very useful "An Introduction to Percy Grainger" featuring highlights of their big series. But the Dallas band's new set is very high on entertainment value too, and sounds great.

Fibich: Overtures and symphonic poems
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Vladimír Válek

Fibich was until now just a name, but I have since learned he would have been in the triumvirate of Czech composers along with Smetana and Dvorak were it not for the fact that his music isn't particularly Czech-sounding, and anyway Janacek is there instead of him. The four works on this album are big orchestral monsters, full of drama, big tunes, and not much subtlety. You know what you're in for once you've heard the first half-minute of the Comenius overture, and by the time the massive organ shows up at the end of The Fall of Arkona 50 minutes later you won't be a bit surprised. Oodles of good clean romantic fun!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Times' 10 best classical albums of the noughties

With fewer than 50 days left before the end of the decade everyone's been getting all listy. I was wondering how or even why anyone would come up with a "best classical albums" list, because more so than other genres (what with the concept of repertoire as opposed to original music) it would seem wholly arbitrary. But The Times has gone with a top 10 for new music, which makes things easier.

10. Violin Concerto/Rocana by Unsuk Chin (Analekta)
9 Ayre by Osvaldo Golijov (Universal)
8. Violin Concerto by Thomas Ades (EMI Classics)
7. Book of Hours by Julian Anderson (NMC)
6. The Veil of the Temple by John Tavener (RCA Red Seal)
5. Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg (Ondine)
4. Chiffre-Zyklus by Wolfgang Rihm (CPO)
3. St John Passion by James MacMillan (LSO Live)
2. Notes on Light/Mirage/Orion by Kaija Saariaho (Ondine)
1. Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams (Nonesuch)

I've heard the Anderson and the Lindberg, a bit of the Saariaho, Golijov, and Ades, and the Adams opera on which the symphony is based. Heh. The article offers 2 alternative descriptions of Golijov: "joyous blending of global traditions" and "cynical schmaltz". I veer toward the latter but I haven't heard enough of his work yet. I certainly preferred the Anderson to the Lindberg, I was highly impressed by Doctor Atomic, and I know I want to hear the rest of the Saariaho. Ades is a composer I try to like but don't always. MacMillan's one of my favourites, Taverner certainly has his moments, I know nothing of Chin, and I have a vague suspicion that I might not like Rihm.
The list seems pretty safe (I don't mean that as a bad thing necessarily) and dare one say even accessible. I'm not qualified to say how "right" the list is. But I thought On the Transmigration of Souls was supposed to be the Adams "hit" of the decade?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's only a Thierry

Oh Thierry Henry! You and your left hand have snuffed out the one bright glimmer of hope we had left in this country.
Bloody French, they let us down in 1798 and now they let us down again.
In the name of the most holy, WHY???

Seriously, though: why is it that in soccer, major success or failure should be allowed to rest on a single score? The aim of the game is to put the ball in the other team's net. That's the whole thing. And if your opponent fails to do that at all, and you do it only once over the course of 90 minutes, or 120 minutes, or even 120 minutes plus penalty shoot-outs, then you score a massive victory and win the World Cup or whatever. Obviously, the best team often wins, but isn't there a little too much riding on chance here? An unexpected bobble of the ball or la main gauche can have quite an influence on the outcome. Whereas in, say, hurling or basketball or tennis or snooker or indeed most sports, any individual scoring incident isn't quite so important.
I don't know, maybe they could make the goals bigger or something.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The same cliché 400 times

Have you noticed how often it happens that, when a critic is discussing little-known Vivaldi concertos, he feels obliged to decry Stravinsky's claim that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 400 times? We get the message, lads. We know he didn't write the same concerto 400 times. You don't need to keep bringing up this quote only to dismiss it.
To which ancient hard-shelled seed are we referring?
That hoary old chestnut.
What's worse, there's considerable variation in the number of concertos mentioned. You can find any multiple of a hundred from one to six (although a Google search suggests 200 is rare, for some reason!). That's probably because the Stravinsky quote may well be apocryphal. According to my Dictionary of Musical Quotations, Robert Craft's Conversations contains the line "Vivaldi is greatly overrated - a dull fellow who could compose the same form over and so many times over". Not quite as memorable. So who did come up with the line?

Aside: I'm reminded of something I read in a newspaper column somewhere (yeah, sorry) along the lines of "It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone writing a newspaper column about Jane Austen has to begin with the phrase "It is a truth universally acknowledged"."

Creationists: Are you smarter than a 7-year-old?

Fascinating dinnertime conversation with Ethan last night. Well, it all started when Amelia threw up (suspected winter vomiting bug, fortunately a very mild case) and he wanted to know why the food in your sick is always in such small bits, which obviously led onto a discussion of digestion and mastication, which led to talk about teeth and the different kinds of teeth used by different animals. Then he asked, "Why do apes have sticky-out jaws and people don't?" That is a good question, and a fine illustration of how a parent's life is made easier by the existence of Google. Short answer - the jaw became tucked under the brain case, reducing the angle of the lower jaw bone, with a corresponding increase in grinding efficiency (Principles of Human Evolution, Roger Lewin & Robert Foley). I also discovered that humans lack a functional copy of the MYH16 gene, which encodes a myosin protein that in primates is found only in particular jaw muscles. Stedman et al. speculate that this mutation could relate to the change in skull size during early human evolution and to the development of speech. Whether that's the case or not, Ethan found it intriguing.
Then he threw this one out: "If people evolved from other animals, how come there are still other animals?" Yes, the classic creationist objection, but one posed out of genuine curiosity rather than willful ignorance. Had all my reading of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers prepared me for this moment? Or would my faith in evolution be shattered by this innocent child's query? Pffft. A simple sketch of Ethan's family tree and the rhetorical reply, "If you're descended from Granny and Granddad, how come you have cousins?" sorted that one out.
Then I had to deal with "How come first of all there were apes who didn't know how to cook, and then there were people and they did know how to cook?" This obviously required a discussion of gradual change. Your fun fact in this department is that early humans may have been using fire 790,000 years ago. Also, irrelevantly, blue eye color appears to have spontaneously arisen by mutation somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.
This morning I got "When were the first trees?", for which my chronology was a little sketchy, but Ethan helped me out, telling me the first flowers appeared during the time of the dinosaurs, which he learned from David Attenborough.
What a shitty parent one would have to be to answer all those questions with reference only to the Book of Genesis.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rothleder retaliates

I mentioned a couple of months ago Richard Kaplan's assault on Burton Rothleder in the pages of Fanfare. Well, Rothleder's given his response, and the explosive fight I was hoping for hasn't ensued: "With Richard Kaplan now on my case, the safest review would seem to be a bland review. But it's more fun to have Richard Kaplan rant and rave, even when he's right about some things."
Fireworks might have been more entertaining, but it's a sensible response - just shrug it off and don't give your critic any more ammunition.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

This week I listened to

Tragédiennes 2: from Rameau to Berlioz
Véronique Gens; Les Talens Lyriques/Christoph Rousset

A marvellous showcase of the many unhappy women who populated French opera from the mid 18th to the mid 19th century. There are a lot of "Ah!"s and imploring of various divinities. Seriously, though, it's all great stuff, mostly completely unfamiliar to me. Véronique Gens is in fine voice, and Rousset and his band get to show off in some instrumental pieces too. Remarkably, this is my first recording of Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits; how I managed to avoid it for so long, I have no idea.

Britten: "Unknown Britten"
Sandrine Piau; Michael Collins; Rolf Hind; Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair

An intriguing collection of rarities - essentially, unfinished work - from various periods of Britten's life. Sandrine Piau sings Les Illuminations plus 3 extra songs Britten wrote but didn't orchestrate (Colin Matthews does the honours). Interestingly, a quick glance at ArkivMusic reveals a paucity of recordings from outside the English-speaking world. The extra songs are fine as far as they go, but the cycle seems exactly the right length without them. Other highlights of the disc include Matthews' "realization" of three movements for clarinet and orchestra, and a Rondo concertante for piano and orchestra whose 2nd movement is remarkably gloomy.

Hommage a Messiaen
Pierre-Laurent Aimard

I confess to respecting rather than liking much of Messiaen's music (I love the Quartet for the End of Time, though). But Aimard has impressed me a lot. Here we have the 8 Preludes, which are early works from when Messiaen was about 20 but do seem characteristic of the composer (who else would write a piece called "The Impalpable Sounds of the Dream"?), plus a couple of pieces from the Catalogue d'oiseaux and two from Quatre Etudes de rythme. Those crazy birds! Long long ago I won some random CDs from Classic CD magazine, one of which was a disc of books 4, 5, and 6 performed by Peter Hill. I was baffled, intrigued, and in the end not bowled over. But Messiaen went somewhere fascinating in those works. As for the last couple of pieces on this particular album, they're small powerhouses.

Shostakovich: The Girlfriends, etc
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mark Fitz-Gerald

More rarities, this time in the form of three Shostakovich scores for screen and stage from the 1930s, plus a symphonic movement that was originally intended for his Ninth Symphony. The Girlfriends tells the happy tale of three friends who grow up in pre-revolutionary times and then become nurses in the civil war. It's mostly scored for chamber instruments, with some songs and a bizarre deconstruction of the Internationale on solo theremin. An absolute must for Shostakovich fans. Rule, Britannia! and Salute to Spain were plays for which Shostakovich wrote incidental music; it's your basic Soviet-issue patriotism. The unfinished symphonic movement is a dynamic piece that is more in keeping with what was expected of Shostakovich's Ninth; again, essential for the Shostakovichian or whatever they're called. By the way, if you're the sort of person who watches Fox News: don't buy this album! You may find yourself humming catchy communist songs at inappropriate moments.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tchaikovsky, P.I.

Meet Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, St Petersburg's hippest private detective!

One of the most popular TV shows of the 80s (the 1880s, that is), Tchaikovsky, P.I. followed the escapades of lovable tough-guy Pyotr Tchaikovsky as he solved crime and composed beautiful melodies on the mean streets of St Petersburg. Millions of fans tuned in every week to watch Tchaikovsky clatter across the cobblestones in his red carriage, duke it out with the bad guys, and always get home in time to write a timeless classic. Women adored him; men were bemused but secretly wondered what would happen if, you know, maybe they'd been having a few beers, and one thing led to another and... ahem. Although occasionally accused of sacrificing formal structure at the expense of dramatic sweep, Tchaikovsky, P.I. quickly established itself as one of the greats, as evidenced by its perennially high Sibelius ratings (this was before the Nielsen ratings).

Season One Episode Guide:

1. "Pilot"
In the feature-length first episode, we meet Tchaikovsky, honorably discharged from the St Petersburg Detectives' Conservatory after being wounded in a cello incident. He is hired by the mysterious Madame von Meck, whom he is never to meet, receiving all his instructions by telegram. Tchaikovsky's lively banter with the telegram delivery boy was to become a much-loved feature in every episode. Madame von Meck's first case for Tchaikovsky involves an international ring of music smugglers attempting to illegally bring Lisztian dotted rhythms into Russia.

2. "The Slavonic Falcon"
Tchaikovsky is hired to track down a priceless bronze statue in the shape of some sort of bird of prey (possibly a buzzard). Regarded by many fans as the best episode of the lot, although some are unconvinced by the surprise ending, in which the statue flies off and does the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs.

3. "The Sam of Spades"
Madame von Meck is on the run from a deadly gang of bridge players, convinced that she knows the secret of a perfect hand. Urged on by her increasingly desperate telegrams, Tchaikovsky and the delivery boy race across the bridge clubs of Tsarist Russia to find the criminals. But with only the ace left to play, will it be a bridge club too far?

4. "The Big Sleeping Beauty"
Certainly the most complicated of all the plots, this episode sees Tchaikovsky tangling with a potato baron and his two wilful daughters, one of whom is narcoleptic. Tchaikovsky is drawn into a web of intrigue as the family attempts to cover up the narcoleptic one's possible involvement or lack of involvement in one, two, or less murders on any of three separate occasions.

5. "Murder on the 1812"
Tchaikovsky is traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, on his way to Vladivostok to receive his Detective Of The Year award (the 'Dickie'), when he discovers that there is a murderer aboard. Armed only with the French and Russian national anthems, oh yes, and a cannon, Tchaikovsky must find the killer before he strikes again. Of course he doesn't find him until he has struck several more times, which helps reduce the suspect list considerably. It's a long journey.

6. "Farewell, Mazeppa"
On the way back from Vladivostok, the train is hijacked by Cossacks who plan to drive it straight into the Winter Palace and bring down the Tsar. Tchaikovsky patiently explains the concept of railway tracks to them while simultaneously composing an opera. Eventually, the Cossacks give up and the opera is a success.

7. "Nut Cracker"
Tchaikovsky teams up with hard-drinking, heavy-gambling criminal psychologist Modest Mussorgsky to solve the murders of several fairies. The chief suspect is Volgograd FC supporter Albie Borodin, eager to avenge his side's 10-0 thrashing at the hands of Sugar Plum Rovers. Tensions mount as Mussorgsky analyses Tchaikovsky's deepest secrets and Tchaikovsky accuses Mussorgsky of being unable to finish anything except a litre of gin.

8. "Veronica Lake"
Prince Siegfried returns from the Crimean War (he went the long way) and discovers to his horror that his girlfriend has been frequenting Bruckner concerts. The next day, she is found transmogrified into a swan, and Siegfried becomes the chief suspect. He enlists Tchaikovsky to catch the real killer, and for a time Tchaikovsky finds true love, although he feels terribly guilty afterwards.

9. "Manfred, She Wrote"
Popular novelist Jessica Fletcher is in St Petersburg to publicize her new book, 'A Day In The Life Of An Interfering Old Bat'. Inevitably, several people are killed. Jessica's nervous publishers hire Tchaikovsky to make sure her next signing doesn't end in a bloodbath. This episode is especially memorable for Tchaikovsky's re-orchestration of the theme to 'Mame'.

10. "That Talentless Bastard"
Tchaikovsky crosses musical swords with Johannes Brahms when Clara Schumann asks him to investigate the death of her husband Robert several decades earlier. Was Brahms working for a sinister organisation that deliberately gave talented composers syphilis? Or was Schumann's near-fatal plunge into the Rhine actually a murder attempt by Brahms? By the end, Tchaikovsky has lost all interest and is writing a new symphony.

11. "Eugene One-litre-of-gin"
This episode sees the return of Mussorgsky, who is now being pursued by a psychotic student named Tatanya. Mussorgsky seeks the help of his old sparring partner for what he hopes will be a quick resolution. But when Mussorgsky's friend Lensky is found dead, the two composers realise that Tatanya is playing a far more dangerous game. As you might expect, it all culminates in a witches' sabbath.

12. "Pathetique Suspect"
All of St Petersburg is in the grip of a cholera epidemic. A fatal series of coincidences throws suspicion on Tchaikovsky. Special Prosecutor Ilyena Mironov contemplates sleeping with him but settles for browbeating a confession out of him instead. Tchaikovsky's prospects look grim until Ilyena drinks from the wrong glass of water.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In memoriam 2/Lt J. D. Shine, and all the others

2nd Lieutenant John Denis Shine, Royal Irish Regiment, died of his wounds at Mons, Belgium, on August 25th, 1914. He was 19 years old. His younger brother 2nd Lieutenant Hugh Patrick Shine, Royal Irish Fusiliers, died at Ypres in May the following year. Their older brother, Captain James Owen Shine, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was wounded at the Somme and was subsequently killed in action at Wieltje in August 1917.
John Denis is the only one of the three to have his own grave.

They were my step-uncles - three of the five children from my father's father's first marriage. Their mother died in 1924. Kevin Myers, in a column in the Irish Independent this time last year, put it well: "she died of whatever it is that mothers die of when all their sons are dead."

Estimates vary, but roughly 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died in World War I. The most recent figures from WHO, for 2002, put that year's casualties of war at 170,000.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Piracy and restraint

Huh. Call me naive, but there's a whole subculture of classical music fans on the Internet of whom I was wholly unaware until today. It all started innocently enough, with RonanM's blog Ceol na Sidhe, on which he provides links to downloads of performances mostly recorded from the radio. Well, I know about "private recordings", all right, which are the same as rock bootlegs but sound posher. But when I followed a link from RonanM's site, one thing led to another, and the scales suddenly fell from my eyes. There's Problembar's Classical Vault, Soap and Plum Preserves, Blogger Musical, In My Room, Music Is The Key, Classical for everyone, Alio modo, Fauteuil d'Oreille, and presumably many more. What are they? They're just... they're just... it was kind of flabbergasting actually. They're just blogs where you can download whole albums for free. Obviously I don't think classical music fans are somehow above file sharing. But these blogs are so... enthusiastic. They write about the music, they provide reviews, they provide track lists and cover art - so much effort goes in that it just doesn't seem like music piracy. You know - music piracy is a sordid affair, nothing but anonymous zip files hosted on seedy servers. Pirates don't put so much love and hard work into their piracy. And here's what Music Is The Key says: "This blog does not promote piracy, on the contrary, it supports the artists by making their works available to the major possible number of people. If you liked any of the albums buy the original CD. SAY NO TO PIRACY. Thanks".

Well, sorry guys, but it is piracy. You're letting people you don't know obtain high-quality (sometimes lossless) copies of CDs they didn't pay for. A person could happily create a large and impressive collection of music just by relying on these blogs, without giving a cent to the artists that the bloggers claim to support.

But Nereffid! Surely you're exacerbating the problem by giving us links to all these blogs? Well, quite. (I'm reminded of a front-page article in the Danbury News-Times during the summer, which reported in horrified tones that one could buy all manner of drugs paraphenalia in various shops throughout Connecticut, and then helpfully listed which items could be bought in which places). The thing is, I'm not sure how much of a "problem" it is. Sure, a person could use these blogs to avoid ever paying for music, but how many classical fans are really like that? I suspect we generally understand that ultimately it's a bad idea. I should point out, too, that RonanM, for example, offers radio recordings which wouldn't be for sale anyway, and other sites resurrect items that have been unavailable for years.

Also, there's only so much music we can listen to. I've certainly reached the point where free music is close to being a burden: oh great, more stuff to add to the pile of things I'm not going to listen to for months. Restraint is the key - get something because you really want it, not just because you can get it.

It's worth noting, too, that all of these classical blogs link to each other, and each one provides music from its creator's own collection, so if anything what we're looking at is a network of mutually supportive CD buyers. This is the other key point, one I mentioned recently in relation to overpriced downloads: there's only so many things we can buy. If I download a particular album for free, it's not necessarily a sale lost. If I'm an inveterate collector - and that's what these bloggers are - then I'm going to be buying X number of CDs or legal downloads per month, regardless. The chances are I was never going to buy that CD anyway. Yes, perhaps I'll definitely choose not to buy the CD now that I've got the pirated copy, but the money I would have spent on that CD will go on another CD instead. Or perhaps now that I've heard the pirated copy and loved it, the CD becomes a mandatory purchase.

Or maybe this is all wishful thinking, and these blogs are just hastening the death of the classical recording industry. But I can't be the only one with a conscience, can I?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

This week I listened to

Jonas Kaufmann: German tenor arias
with Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Claudio Abbado

I'm certainly not among those who are constantly weighing singers against each other and keeping some sort of semi-formal ranking for every single aria ever sung by anyone. So please don't ask me where Kaufmann stands in relation to anyone else in this repertoire. All I know is this is some great singing by one of today's big stars. The Wagner is very impressive, and it's good to make the acquaintance of the Schubert pieces - although when listening without looking at the track listing, I initially thought the aria from Fierrabras was Mozart - there's a bit that sounds like it's riffing on the Queen of the Night's aria.

Telemann: Flute concertos
Emmanuel Pahud; Berliner Barock Solisten/Rainer Kussmaul

I'm not being patronising when I say this album can be characterised as "lovely". Pahud plays a modern flute, and the result is a beautiful sound that still fits well with the Berliners' period instruments. It's a pity Telemann doesn't have any real "greatest hits" the way Vivaldi does, but then again like Vivaldi there's so many gems out there to be discovered. Add this one to the pile, somewhere near the top.

Dufay: Mass for St Anthony Abbot / Binchois: Motets & mass movements
Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman

The Binchois Consort are among the best in this repertoire - a gorgeous sound. This post probably isn't the best place for a lengthy reflection on what I get out of medieval choral music. Although I have listened to quite a bit of it, I don't yet have a decent grasp of it - such as how composers and styles relate to one another, and why or how one piece might be better than another. It's all part of the learning process. So I can't say I notice any particular difference between Dufay and Binchois. Yet.

Chisholm: Piano music
Murray McLachlan
Divine Art

This guy again. This time I heard some of the 24 Preludes from the True Edge of the Great World, which are short pieces in what is now a recognizable Chisholm idiom, and also the Cornish Dance Sonata, which despite some folksy movement titles is by and large a big noisy thing that, if you're not in the mood, can outstay its welcome. Overall conclusion on Chisholm: most definitely worth exploring in depth.

Sondheim: Sweeney Todd
George Hearn, Patti LuPone, et al; New York Philharmonic/Andrew Litton
New York Philharmonic

Big long post about Sweeney and me to follow.