Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Suddenly... nothing happened

OMFG a new post on Les Introuvables de Nereffid! Sadly, it's just a meta sort of post pointing out the bleedin obvious that my blogging activity has been terrible of late, an apology for same, and a vague attempt at an excuse. Perhaps I could say that a lot of my spare time (I mean the spare time I have left over after my spare time gets used doing other things) has been largely devoted to getting the 4th Nereffid's Guide Awards in order for its sometime-near-the-end-of-January announcement right here on this very site. Then again, I find I haven't been very engaged with teh internets lately and I've gotten out of the blog mentality. Could this be the end of Les Introuvables? Hopefully not, but I will say that listening to classical music is currently way more fun than writing anything about it, and why should I do things like upload tracks to 8tracks when I could be transferring my CDs to my new external hard drive? So that really useful Samuel Barber mix I had planned never materialised, but hopefully there will be a multitude of mixes to accompany the Awards. I'll try, I really will!
In the meanwhilst, Merry &c.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I was wrong about Qobuz

I was intemperate in my previous complaint about how had started restricting access for people living in this benighted country of mine. Oh yes. I misunderstood. See, they said I couldn't download such-and-such if I lived in Ireland. If I lived in Ireland... Hypothetically speaking, I might live in France, in which case I would type in my French address and post code and they would let me download.
Hmmm... where would I live if I were living in France?
Hey, the Qobuz offices sound interesting, and look, there's their address right on the bottom of every page.
What a shame I don't live in France, eh?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bach's complete organ works for a tenner

A big thank you to eMusic subscriber Dvorak9NW, who alerted me (and the rest of the world) to the fact that iTunes has Peter Hurford's Decca set of Bach's complete organ works for a teenchy €9.99. That's right, a tenner for 17 discs worth of music in acclaimed performances. Go get it. I did: took all morning to download.
(Price on Amazon, were I allowed to get it there: £99.99)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I solve the Classics Today France problem

Progress towards the 4th Nereffid's Guide Awards continues apace, as we move past the "closing date" of September - discs released after then aren't included in this year's awards, so we're just waiting on the various publications to catch up with earlier releases. But this year the number of potential winners in a couple of categories has been disappointingly small, more through a lack of reviews rather than a lack of quality. What to do? There are some review sources on the web that I haven't tapped yet, and I occasionally toy with the idea of including them. But they have desultory coverage or aren't in English, both of which reduce their overall utility to me. Still, I can't help feeling there must be some way I can make use of them.
Classics Today France is a case in point. I use the US version all the time, but my French isn't good so I don't generally read the CTF reviews. CTF does provide a score for each review, so I don't have to read the review per se; but is it fair when compiling the Awards data to give equal weight to "just a number" from CTF and a thorough review from, say, Fanfare? Hence the "Classics Today France problem". Anyway, I've worked out what to do, which is to take a CTF review under serious consideration if it's of a disc not covered by the US version; otherwise, the CTF review has less importance than one from the US or my six other main sources. Complicated? Not in practice.
So then I turned my eye to Klassik Heute and Audiophile Audition, two more sites that don't compete with the main sources but can be of use in highlighting discs that don't get much coverage elsewhere. The German site is particularly good for BIS and CPO, for example, two labels that I don't think get enough attention from the UK publications at least.
Anyway, all this looking at reviews and fiddling with spreadsheets means (a) the Awards will be "bigger and better" (whatever that means), and (b) I haven't been doing much blogging of late. In fact I'm wondering whether I may solve (b) by changing the direction of this blog to reflect (a). But more on that anon, perhaps.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Coldplay or Mozart? Yawn

(via BBC Music Magazine's web site)
Press release from Travelodge:
Alternative rock band Coldplay, the Canadian crooner Michael Buble and the Indie group Snow Patrol are sending Britons to the land of nod - according to findings from a new kip report issued today
The sleep study conducted by Travelodge surveyed 6,000 British adults to investigate which musicians Britons tune into at bedtime, to help them nod off. ...
Listed below are the top ten musicians that help Britons nod off
1. Coldplay
2. Michael Buble
3. Snow Patrol
4. Alicia Keys
5. Jack Johnson
6. Taylor Swift
7. Mozart
8. Barry White
9. Leona Lewis
10. Radiohead
... Twenty per cent of adults reported they love listening to classical music at bedtime, with the most popular sleep inducing composers being Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.
I suppose the main question this, er, highly interesting survey throws out is, who the hell is Jack Johnson?
So I Wikipedia him and discover "His highest–selling album is Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George, with 4 million albums shipped worldwide, due to the success of the 2006 Curious George film".
Oh, him. Now I have to stop this post before it turns into a rant about how much I hate that film.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not a Player hater

So I bitched a while back about Gramophone dropping its cover CD in favour of the web-based Gramophone Player, but having used the Player for a couple of weeks now I have to say it's rather good. It's not too cluttered, the sound quality is good, and the musical excerpts are nice and long. And the presence of video extracts is handy, too. It was a sensible move, timing the player's launch to go with the Awards issue - video of the winners' speeches are there, plus of course excerpts from all the winning discs, so there's plenty to attract the curious.
In terms of what it actually does, then, the Player's an improvement over the cover disc and can be welcomed as a good thing. But my concern over how it will fit my listening habits still stands. With a cover disc, I could come home, slump on the sofa, and listen to the disc while leafing through the magazine. Conversely, though, I'm more likely to listen to the music while doing things such as writing this blog entry. So I think the net result may be that, although the Player does a better job than a CD of supporting the magazine's content, the change in my listening will mean the music nevertheless becomes less an integral part of the magazine.

Incidentally, having noted that last year's Gramophone Awards gave not even a nomination to the 2009 Nereffid's Guide Awards recording of the year, I should point out that Lenny's Mass picked up the Editor's Choice award this year.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Not to sound over-dramatic, but..."

Oh, I'm against illegal downloading and music piracy generally of course, but you can always rely on someone from the record industry to make me want to change my mind. Here's Paul McGuinness in the Irish Times:
Mr McGuinness, one of the music industry's most vocal critics of illegal downloading, said internet service providers (ISPs) such as UPC were being "utterly disingenuous" in stating that they were "mere conduits" and could not be responsible for the behaviour of their customers.
The record industry lost a High Court case earlier this week in which it sought an injunction against UPC to force it to deal with illegal filesharers...
In an interview with The Irish Times , Mr McGuinness said the defence of "mere conduit" was "not an excuse when there are questions of national security, child pornography or terrorism".
Nice move, pivoting from music piracy to raping children.
Oh wait! There's more:
"Not to sound over-dramatic, but frankly it has got to do with the future of civilisation and a culture within our society. If we allow it to become accepted that writers and artists and musicians are not entitled to get paid for their work and they are, in some kind of daft way, pursuing hobbies where we will be in the future? We will get news from Google search and the telcos (telecommunications companies) and the ISPs will dominate the horrible new world".
You hear that, music pirates? If you don't stop, you'll destroy civilization and produce a world run by paedophiles, terrorists, and... uh... Google.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dogs and cats living together!

You can't quite miss it:
IMPORTANT NEWS FOR MEMBERS! In November 2010, eMusic paves the way for more music with a new pricing system.
Oh no they didn't!
Well... no, they didn't. At least, not for European subscribers. They're shifting from "today’s credit-per-track system to monetary pricing", which means that instead of 1 track costing 1 credit, 1 track will cost €0.49. But seeing as I'm currently paying much less than that, eMusic will basically fund the difference. Jolly nice of them. And this will continue for the foreseeable future, until the day when eMusic can give us Europeans some unspecified amount of music that we don't yet have access to, at which point we will see "variable pricing", which is another way of saying "more than €0.49 per track".
I can live with this, very happily; I was expecting a price hike. The "bonus" money they're adding to my subscriptions is greater than the cost of those subscriptions, and when they put it in real terms like that, it brings home just how good a deal I've been getting. When the price hike does eventually come, I'll be okay with it - I mean, I'll drastically cut the amount of music I get from eMusic, but I'll be able to accept that.
But in the U.S., well, it's a different story. The price increase is happening in November, and it's like last year's Sony debacle all over again. The customer response isn't as vociferous - I suppose most of those who'd be most angered left last year. The complaints this time around are more along the lines of "this is definitely the last straw", plus a number that are regretful rather than angry. That's the response I can relate to. Ten years ago, eMusic had a great niche pretty much all to itself, but things have changed too much in the download world since then. The new changes mark the final - well, probably penultimate - step in eMusic's gradual transformation into "just another download store".

Then again, perhaps the outraged should pause a second and ask themselves this question: if eMusic had never existed, and you learned today of a new download service that, for a monthly subscription fee, allowed you to download albums that were a little cheaper than its main competitors, would you say "hey, that's a pretty good idea - I spend X amount of money on music every month anyway, so I might as well spend a set amount at this one place"? In other words, is eMusic really that bad compared with its rivals, or is it that it's bad compared with what it used to be?

Friday, October 8, 2010

8tracks mixes: Celebrating Hyperion

Here are two 8tracks mixes: 20 selections from some of my favourite Hyperion albums.

Hmmm... 8tracks has changed the appearance of its embedded player. Doesn't look so nice, does it?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Quite agree, quite agree, too silly, far too silly

The world of classical music has been rocked - rocked, I say! - by this quote from Jonathan Harvey:
'Young people don't like concert halls... and wouldn't normally go to one except for amplified music. There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music... The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go and even talk perhaps.. and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. Nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions.'
(from On An Overgrown Path; ellipses not mine).
I'm not much of a concert-goer, or a believer in the concept of blasphemy for that matter, and at first glance this struck me as a sensible idea. But the more I think about it, the less I like it. If you're putting on, say, a Bruckner symphony, and you're happy to encourage the audience to "come and go and even talk perhaps", just what exactly is it that you think you're offering? If you're going to pander to that extent, then surely the battle's already lost. Harvey acknowledges that "It is, of course, not expecting as much of music as those of us who are musicians would want". Too bloody right it's not expecting as much. Have you really heard that Bruckner symphony if during the slow movement you nip out to get a cup of tea and then come back to the hall to have a chat about last night's X Factor? More pertinently, have I really heard it if I have to also listen to you slurping and yammering on beside me?
OK, try this. I confess to not having seen any of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, and I'm reluctant to go see one because they sound rather staid and quiet and perhaps a bit boring. Do you (a) suggest that I rent an Ozu movie, preferably a colorized version, and just leave the DVD running if ever I need to leave the room to use the toilet or make a sandwich or whatever, or (b) tell me not to be an idiot, and go see the damn thing in a cinema, quietly sitting down for two hours like everyone does when they're in the cinema, and if I don't like it then I can just fucking get over it.
Who are these "young people" Harvey is talking about? The ones who are being "deprived" of classical music? Could we not just take them aside and explain to them that there are such things as "recordings" which they can use to expose themselves to lots of classical music, and that if they should develop a wish to see such music performed live, then they can go to a concert hall as long as they're aware that, just like when you listen to a recording, you have to be quiet and pay attention?

This just in: leading artist recommends that, to deal with the short attention spans of today's young people, galleries should mount paintings on those rotating advertising billboards so viewers don't have to look at the same picture for more than twenty seconds...

Happy birthday, Hyperion

It says here, that Saturn's moon Hyperion is "a remarkable world strewn with strange craters and a generally odd surface."
Oh, wait.
This post is supposed to be about the British record label Hyperion, 30 years old this month. Well, speaking of remarkable worlds...

Back in the days before downloads, or before Nereffid's Guide, neither of which is that long ago really, I sat down with a Gramophone Good CD Guide and made a list of all the Hyperion entries. It was a long list, and more to the point it was an intriguing one. I don't think I've lost my fascination, though I still haven't made much of a dent in the list in terms of actually hearing the recordings. As for browsing through the printed Hyperion catalogue, well that's a special pleasure, with page after page of unfamiliar repertoire in performances you just know are going to be wonderful. Along the bottom of each page there's a ticker tape-style running commentary from the label's fans (best quote: 'My wife said to me as I sat studying the pages of your supplement: "I remember when you used to look at me like that"!!!'). Is there another label quite as reliable, that inspires quite as much enthusiasm? Remember, 5 years ago the company faced legal bills of £1 million over a disastrous copyright case and was bailed out in part by donations from the record-buying public (me included; I think I paid for a couple of seconds of Robert King's Monteverdi Vespers).
Unfamiliar repertoire might be one of Hyperion's strengths, along with the occasional highly ambitious project - the complete Schubert songs, for all love - but take a look at Hyperion's "30th Anniversary Series", mid-price rereleases of 30 "landmark titles": Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Fauré, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Schumann, Vivaldi... There's not much there that could be called "obscure", which leads us to our thought experiment of the day...

Imagine a world where no recording made by one of the 4 major record labels, or by any company now owned by a major, does not exist. We lose a lot, of course; in fact we lose almost everything recorded before Hyperion's founding in 1980 (Harmonia Mundi, BIS, and Chandos are older than that). Obviously this would be a bad thing. But what are we left with? Could classical music enthusiasts survive in this terrifying world, barren as it is of so many of the great performers and orchestras? Would a new generation of listeners realise that something was missing, or would they be perfectly happy with the independent labels' take on the basic repertoire?
Such thoughts spring partly from what I wrote the other day about the perils of comparative listening, rather than from any case of "indie snobbery". In many cases we can easily say Somebody Already Did It Better, but history can have a very heavy weight at times.
What if Hyperion were the only label in the world?
I think we'd do OK.

So: Hip-hip-Hyperion!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 6: Philosophical Interlude

It's been quite a while since I did one of these. My simple excuse is that I have been listening to Mahler's music instead of writing about it, which I think we can agree is a better use of my time. But the original idea had been to blog my impressions of the many (many) recordings pretty much as I listened to them, rather than (as has now happened) listen to a huge amount of music and then somehow marshall my thoughts on the whole lot. It wasn't my intention to produce anything resembling Tony Duggan's very useful "synoptic survey" of the Mahler symphonies ("Mrs Kensington, we've performed a synoptic survey of your husband's liver and I'm afraid the results are not good...").

But what this delay in writing about the music has achieved is to give me a chance to consider the nature of what I'm trying to do, why I'm doing it, and what the end result could be. I've never been one to worry about whether recording A is better than recording B, except on the basic practical level of "will I enjoy this as I listen to it?" I trust the critics en masse if not necessarily individually to point me in the direction of excellence but by and large, assuming the performers are technically up to the task, I don't fret over whether my recording of a particular work is "the best", or, if I like a recording, whether I might enjoy another one more. So it's not in my nature to sit down and listen to many (many) recordings of the same piece of music and judge them against each other. That, however, is exactly what I'm doing with Mahler.

It's been fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes baffling. Of course comparing and contrasting recordings isn't just about picking a favourite, but also about learning more about the music. One conductor chooses this tempo, another chooses that tempo, and the question isn't so much which is the right tempo, but does this tempo make sense? Or one conductor's brass is prominent, another focuses on the strings, and the result for me is that I learn more about the work as a whole. Perhaps some sort of Platonic ideal of the music exists in my mind, constantly being subtly refined. The problem there is that it becomes easy to fall into the trap of thinking the music "should" sound a certain way, and if it doesn't then it's "wrong". The best critics don't think that way, but still I suppose everyone has their "did you even listen to the same CD?" moment. The question I'm learning to ask myself at this stage is, "so this recording doesn't necessarily match my concept of the music, but can it be a valid alternative?" And yet... ultimately it all comes down to personal preference, and some alternatives get rejected. Some time ago I formulated Nereffid's First Law of Music Criticism, which is that there does not, nor will there ever, exist a Mahler recording that every Mahler fan will like. From my own listening so far, I know this is true. I'm certainly out of step with Tony Duggan on a few things, and while I will defer to him and any other respectable critic (define "respectable"!) on matters technical and musicological, well, there it is: we disagree.

Sometimes I wonder should anyone even dare to compare one recording or performance against another. Is that what music is for, at all? Obviously if you hear a piece of music you already know well, you can't help but compare it to your previous listening experiences. But maybe we hear music too often, and can no longer live in the moment when we listen. After all, I've heard 13 different conductors and 12 different orchestras in recordings of Mahler's 1st symphony over the last few months. How many different performances did Mahler himself, or anyone living at that time, hear? It would be nice to be able to reset the switch before listening to another, and feel the music anew.

But then I put another recording in the player, and that mysterious seven-octave A shines forth on the strings, and I'm there again...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Passionato finally gets something right

Okay, that is a rather begrudging title, but I've never been fond of Hailed in some quarters as a wonderful classical download site, Passionato's always struck me as annoying to browse and usually overpriced. But credit where it's due, the site's current offer of 50% off Virgin Classics does have some good deals, and I have finally bought something from them. Basically it's €5.99 for a single album, €11.99 for a double. Of course this in itself highlights the major flaw in Passionato's pricing scheme, which like other sites is a one-size-fits-all model: many of those €11.99 double albums are reissues in the Veritas series, and they can be bought on CD for less than that - and that's Passionato's half price.
Or take some of the non-sale items displayed on Passionato's "Chart": among them are a pair of EMI triples - a 3-disc set of Stephen Kovacevich playing Beethoven, and another of James Conlon conducting Zemlinsky. €34.99 for MP3, €41.99 for FLAC. Why pay that when you can go to MDT and, at today's exchange rate, pay a smidgen over €11 for each on CD? Even with postage added, that's still less than a third of Passionato's FLAC price.
If these are indeed the sorts of things that Passionato's customers are buying the most - and not a completely arbitrary list made to look like a Top 30 - then I have to say, shame on you, Passionato customers! Your willingness to pay ridiculous prices is what's encouraging them to charge those prices!
Bah. Rant over.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A last look at 1948: And the winners are...

You know, of course, that I've been making plenty of hay from The Year in American Music: 1948. Before I go on, I should say a word of thanks to the book's previous owner, without whom etc. Stamped on the inside cover is the name of Eddie Hatrak, with an address in Trenton, New Jersey. Google reveals that Mr Hatrak, friend and colleague of pioneering comedian Eddie Kovacs, died in April of this year, about 3 months before I bought the book. Had it been out of his possession for a while, or did it somehow make it to a church fair in Connecticut within those three months? We'll never know.
This last bit deals with one of Les Introuvables' favourite topics... awards!

March 26, 1948
For the second consecutive year, fourteen music critics have singled out for recognition the outstanding recordings of the preceding twelve-month period. The announcement of selections for 1947 was made today at a luncheon held at the "21" Club in New York City. The presentation was made by the Review of Recorded Music which, together with two hundred music stores throughout the country, sponsors the annual awards.
The winners were:
Symphony: Berlioz - Romeo et Juliette; NBC Symphony/Toscanini
Concerto: Bartok - Violin concerto; Menuhin, Dallas Symphony/Dorati
Ballet: Ravel - Daphnis et Chloé suites 1 & 2; Paris Conservatoire/Munch
Overture: Wagner - Die Meistersinger; NBC Symphony/Toscanini
Chamber music: Beethoven - "Razumovsky" quartets; Paganini Quartet
Choral music: Bach - Mass in B minor; RCA Victor Chorale and Orchestra/Shaw
Operatic music: Rossini - arias; Tourel, Met/Cimara
Operatic music - single record: Arias from Orfeo and Rodelinda; Ferrier, LSO/Sargent
Enterprising repertory: Berg - Wozzeck excerpts; Charlotte Boerner, Wener Janssen Symphony/Janssen
Program music: Thomson - The Plow that Broke the Plains; Hollywood Bowl Symphony/Stokowski
Special orchestral music: Britten - Young Person's Guide; Liverpool PO/Sargent
Chamber-orchestral music: Handel - Concerti grossi; Busch Chamber Players/Busch
Instrumental music - keyboard: Debussy - Preludes book 2; Casadesus
Instrumental music - string: Hindemith - Violin sonatas; Ricci
Children's recording: Young People's Record Club Series
Vocal music: Italian art songs; de Luca
Folk music: Disc Ethnic Series
Drama: Henry V; Olivier, London Philharmonic/Walton

April 5, 1948
A poll conducted by radio station WQXR, in New York, among 4,600 members of its advisory committee [that's quite a committee!] to determine their favorite musical works revealed that Beethoven was the top-ranking composer.
The 10 most popular symphonies were
1. Beethoven 5
2. Beethoven 9
3. Brahms 1
4. Tchaikovsky 6
5. Beethoven 3
6. Franck
7. Beethoven 6
8. Beethoven 7
9. Brahms 4
10. Tchaikovsky 5
The 10 most popular concertos:
1. Beethoven piano 5
2. Beethoven violin
3. Rachmaninov piano 2
4. Mendelssohn violin
5. Grieg piano
6. Tchaikovsky piano 1
7. Beethoven piano 4
8. Brahms violin
9. Brahms piano 2
10. Paganini violin (that's what it says - just "Paganini's Violin Concerto". Is it safe to assume the first?)
And the 10 most popular operas:
1. Carmen
2. Don Giovanni
3. La Traviata
4. Tristan und Isolde
5. Aida
6. La Boheme
7. Die Meistersinger
8. Faust
9. The Marriage of Figaro
10. Madama Butterfly

May 1, 1947
The magazine Musical America announced today the results of its fifth radio poll conducted among six hundred newspaper music critics and editors in the United States and Canada.
Voted the outstanding radio event of the year was the performance of Verdi's Otello by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini on consecutive Saturday afternoons of December 6 and 13.
Indeed, go back to the book's entry for December 6, 1947, and you get this:
Olin Downes spoke the rhapsodic enthusiasm of all critics when he wrote in the new York Times: "This was not the best Otello interpretation we have encountered. It was the only one. It serves to accentuate the tragical fact that with Mr. Toscanini in our midst the only opera performances that he gives, which in themselves will not survive him, are in concert form... A performance like yesterday's should be preserved on record. Otherwise, the secret dies with him, in which case future generations may never know the entire secret of Otello."
(Fortunately, this Otello is indeed preserved on record)

And finally, from September 11, 1947:
Today the American Music Conference, an organization founded for the purpose of bringing "more music to more Americans," received its charter...
As a prelude to its activity in propagandizing music, the Conference set out to make a national survey of the role that music is playing in everyday life. This study, entitled "National Survey of Public Interest in Music" was released several months later, in March 1948...
Church music is the favored form among most Americans, with popular dance music second. Others in order of their preference: old favorites, folk tunes, operettas, classical music, cowboy songs, and hillbilly songs.
Six out of every ten adults wished that they had learned to play an instrument.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How do you say "Fuck the record industry" in French?

So, farewell then, It was nice to have, for a while, a viable alternative to iTunes. My French isn't good enough to warrant spending much time on the editorial content, but it's a nice site, with good ideas like 20% off new releases for the first 10 days.
Alas, many, many attempts to buy music from qobuz are now ending in:
Cet article n'est pas encore disponible en téléchargement dans votre pays (Ireland)
which the site helpfully translates:
This article is not available in your country yet (Ireland)
or, more essentially:
The record industry does not approve of your country (Ireland)
Yes, it's the 4 major labels, of course, who have decided that Irish euros are unacceptable. But it's not just the majors - some of the independents don't like us either. I'm not sufficiently interested to explore which ones still consider me kosher. Still, I'm used to it at this stage - no Amazon, no Spotify, no Guvera, no Lala. It's a great shame to have one of the few classical download avenues closed off.
Oh well. In the immortal words of gary.ramsey (in-joke for eMusic stalwarts), I'm going back to iTunes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Trying to get Golijov

I've tried to love the music of Osvaldo Golijov, but it doesn't seem to be working out.
I first came across him before I knew who he was, so to speak, in the form of his La Pasión según San Marcos. I now know that this 2000 work, one of four passions commissioned by Helmut Rilling, was a triumph that helped Golijov on his way to becoming a major name, but at the time it struck me as rather ho-hum. Sure, the use of Latin American rhythms was intriguing, but the whole thing seemed a little too removed from what I would consider a Passion. I had what you might call theological issues with it; there were times when the music seemed a little too joyful considering what was going on. Yes, at bottom the psychological torment, brutal torture, and execution of Jesus are supposed to be a good thing, but I suppose Golijov's La Pasión finally brought home the sheer perversity of celebrating such violence. And although musically the work was entertaining, I just couldn't help thinking the dreaded word "crossover". But then I learned that people who know a lot more about classical music than I do were acclaiming it as a boundary-pushing masterpiece so I thought maybe I better just shut up.
Listening to another Golijov album, a 2007 release with Oceana, Tenebrae, and Three Songs on it, I have to say I'm still bemused by all the acclaim he's received. Oceana (from poetry by Pablo Neruda) picks up where
La Pasión leaves off, or rather vice versa: Oceana is what prompted Rilling to commission Golijov's Passion, and it is in the same idiom. It's all very atmospheric, and aside from the Brazilian scat singing I suppose I like it. The final "Chorale of the Reef" is quietly intense but as I was listening - and enjoying it - I was for some reason struck by the idea that what the work really needed was a beautiful instrumental movement. What popped into my head at that point was Ennio Morricone's Gabriel's Oboe, and that illustrates very well where I stand with Golijov: he sounds like a really good film composer.
This impression was borne out by the next work on the disc, Tenebrae for string quartet. Again, wonderfully atmospheric; Golijov cites as inspirations his witnessing of violence in Israel, a trip to a planetarium, and Francois Couperin's Tenebrae Lamentations. But now I was thinking of Max Richter, last encountered on the Shutter Island soundtrack helping Leo diCaprio feel morose. Golijov's Tenebrae is beautiful but at the same time there seems to be something missing - a feeling of newness. Too often I'm merely reminded of other music - a generic sad bit in a movie; a Haydn slow movement; French viol music. The problem is that I feel like what I'm responding to is that other music, not Golijov's use of it.
It's the same with "Night of the Flying Horses", the first of the Three Songs - what stands out immediately is how wonderfully ethnic-sounding it is (a ballad in Yiddish followed by Gypsy music). Golijov really knows how to use his tropes. For me, this ultimately is what puts me off his music. Yes, I may enjoy it while I listen to it, but I feel like the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Am I missing something, or is that it? Is the thing that I don't like about Golijov's music exactly the same as the thing that other people do like about it? I have a suspicion that one of the reasons for La Pasión's success was that pointy-headed classical types were happy to finally encounter some "proper" music you could actually tap your feet to, and that its acclaim was perhaps something of an overcompensation. Maybe. In Fanfare in 2006, Robert Carl wrote this: "If anyone has noticed, my response to Osvaldo Golijov’s output so far has been ambivalent—I’ve always admired his imagination, deep musicality, and multicultural grasp, but at the same time the music has seemed variable to me. At times I find it enormously inventive, stunning in the risks taken and met; at others it sounds a little generic, relying too much on easy musical tropes from different ethnic traditions". Carl says all this in a review of Golijov's opera Ainadamar, which he praises to the skies, noting "I’ve finally “got it,” in the sense that until now the whole world has been celebrating the composer while I’ve been standing on the sidelines... Above all, this is the first Golijov piece where I hear not just a deeply talented composer, but a great spirit emerging. I’ll still maintain a certain skepticism in future encounters, but I now know that his music can deserve the praise that’s been showered on it."
So perhaps there's still hope for me and Golijov.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

More snippets from 1948

You thought we were done with The Year in American Music: 1948, didn't you? Hell no. Here's a few more bits...

Laura Bolton
The music instructor at the University of California in Los Angeles returned from her ninth expedition to primitive lands of Africa where she recorded little-known native songs and dances, and collected a number of rare musical instruments. "There is no definite African scale," she explained in an interview. "Every melody and every instrument is a law unto itself. Thus there is infinite variety." She added that Africa natives went for boogie-woogie in a big way, but at the same time were "simply crazy about symphonies."

Lorin Maazel
The seventeen-year-old violinist-composer-conductor was accorded a special "Man of the Year" award by the Pittsburgh Junior Chamber of Commerce for outstanding achievement in the field of music.

Igor Stravinsky
The famous modernist made a bid for the juke-box trade by adapting the Berceuse from his
Fire Bird Suite as a popular song which he entitled Summer Moon. Before it was turned over to the bobby-soxers, it was given an official concert-stage premiere by Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, who included it on her recital program in Lansing, Mich. November 3.

One week after the opening of the new season, on November 18, the Metropolitan Opera Association announced a plan to make sound pictures of opera for exhibition in theaters, schools, and clubs... The project, explained Edward Johnson, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Association, is "one more step in the direction of our ultimate goal - which is, to bring more opera to more people in all parts of the world through world tours, broadcasts, records, and now films."
[Or, as Tom Galley of National CineMedia said, "This Metropolitan Opera series is a unique opportunity for people to experience world-class opera in their local community, plus the movie theatre environment and affordable ticket price make these events something that the entire family can enjoy. If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending a live opera performance before, this is the perfect opportunity to see why this magical art form has captured audiences’ imaginations for generations". Oh, wait, that was 2008...]

January 1
A ban on the making of phonograph records or transcriptions of any kind, by members of the American Federation of Musicians, went into effect today with the expiration of all previous contracts between the union and the recording companies... James Caesar Petrillo, president of the American Federation of Musicians, insisted that the prohibition against recording would be permanent. "We are only making our own competition when we make records," he explained. "I know of no other industry that makes the instrument that will destroy that industry... and... records sooner or later will destroy the musicians."
The major recording companies were not caught napping. For the preceding six months they had gone on a feverish twenty-four-hour-a-day recording schedule to create a stockpile that would last them from between two to three years.

[Remember, kids: Studio recording is killing music!]

March 20
Today, between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M., the first symphonic conert ever to be televised was broadcast over the CBS-TV networks; it presented the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy... One half hour after the termination of this concert, still another great musical organization was telecast - the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini over WNBT in New York.
... Howard Taubman wrote as follows in the magazine section of the New York
Times: "Once you have seen a conductor, his act, so to speak, remains essentially the same... In fact, watching him on the television screen for a solid hour may interfere with proper attention to the music. Television, it may turn out, may establish for good that conductors, unlike children, should be heard, not seen."

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Part of an occasional series in which we compare two reviews of the same recording and ask "Did you even listen to the same CD?"

For Dmitri Hvorostovsky's new album "Pushkin Romances" (Delos), BBC Music Magazine's Michael Scott Rohan goes head-to-head with Gramophone's David Fanning...

Rohan: "[Pushkin's] poetry's proverbially musical, but unlike some great verse it both inspires and repays musical settings"
Fanning: "if you want a disc to reinforce your prejudice that Russian song is all cloying self-indulgence, here it is"
Rohan: "featuring less famous but no less impressive figures such as... Sviridov, and Vlasov's elegant 'Fountain at Bakhchisarai'"
Fanning: "the kitsch-mongery of Vlasov and Sviridov"
Rohan: "Bringing them all to life is Hvorostovsky's performance"
Fanning: "a master of self-regarding baritonal syrup"
Rohan: "compelling delivery"
Fanning: " generalised intensity"
Rohan: "passionate, brooding or forceful with Pushkin's flowing lines"
Fanning: "a deadening uniformity of colour and expression across the board"
Rohan: Disc of the Month
Fanning: "Delos have some nerve expecting anyone to part with money for 45 minutes of such indifferent artistry".

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gramophone Award nominees

The nominations for this year's Gramophone Awards intrigue me, from the point of view of my own Nereffid's Guide Awards. The point of my awards is to reflect an overall picture of critical opinion, so it's not strange for the overlap between the two to be relatively low. Same with the BBC Music Magazine Awards. Obviously it's too early to tell how things will shake out in the NGAs, but one thing I notice is that the Gramophone list doesn't include the disc that's a shoo-in to win the NGA recording of the year (title withheld to induce sense of anticipation in reader). Come to think of it, last year's best, Marin Alsop's Bernstein Mass, didn't make an appearance in the Gramophones then, either.
What can we conclude from this?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Gramophone gives up on CDs

Cover CDs, that is. Editor James Inverne has been looking for a way to fuck up the cover CD ever since he took the job several years ago - talking over the musical extracts, "great composers" podcasts, really short excerpts, and so on - but he's finally decided to just ditch the thing altogether.
Oh! Wait, sorry, I'm coming at this from the wrong angle. Let's start again.
Exciting news from Gramophone! The magazine is soon to launch the Gramophone Player on its web site, promising longer excerpts from the Editor's Choice discs, complete recordings, video, and the like. This is to replace the cover disc. I'm in two minds about this. The disc, as I've said before, isn't as valuable as it used to be, but then again I tend not to listen to music online: my "using the computer" habit is not really connected to my "listening to music properly" habit. Inverne tries a little rhetorical gambit in his blurb for the Player that actually serves to highlight my preferred option: "Have you ever felt that our cover-mounted CD doesn’t contain enough music? Have you, like many of us, wished there was space on the disc for longer excerpts? Even complete performances?" Well, if there are 10 Editor's Choice discs and one Gramophone Collection disc, that makes for 11 tracks, which over an 80-minute disc allows for very healthy excerpts and would, I think, be a fine thing. But it doesn't work like that, unfortunately, with those 11 tracks generally comprising much less than half the disc. I assume they've market-tested everything and explored all the options and nobody agrees with me. No doubt there are other Gramophone readers who are experiencing erections just thinking about the possibility of three hours' worth of excerpts and "treasurable complete archival recordings". A bunch of questions remain as to what this Player is going to involve, which will certainly affect whether I end up using it: will you need to install something on your computer? will the monthly excerpts be available always or will it be a this-month-only sort of thing? will the sound quality be good enough that you can simply connect your PC's earphone socket to your PC's mic socket and hit "record" on your music editing software to get all that music for free?
The bigger picture is more interesting, though. To get full enjoyment from Gramophone, you'll now need to go online. Given that the magazine's archives are now available on the site, and there's some web content that doesn't appear in the magazine, the Gramophone Player seems like another step on the road to a web-only publication. Will the print version survive until 2023, the magazine's centenary?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tonight on "Padmore & Lewis"

A prestigious new crime drama comes to ITV this autumn...
Not too many details as yet, but our spies tell us that the first episode sees DCI Padmore and trusty sidekick DS Lewis investigate the puzzling death of a homeless man, apparently at the hands of a busker. A dark, brooding tale is promised. In episode two, a young miller is found drowned in a brook, but this apparent suicide raises too many questions: why was the dead man obsessed with the colour green? And who is the mysterious Hunter?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

V for Weinberg

Many years ago I was browsing through a branch of Golden Discs in Cork and noticed an album by The Shadows filed, with impeccable logic, under C. For "Cliff Richard", I believe, and not because Hank Marvin's a c**t.
A couple of discs in what shall hereafter be known as Nereffid's Montreal Bounty are causing filing problems. I came across multiple copies of an Olympia compilation from 2001 called "Discover Vainberg". Mieczysław Vainberg or Weinberg or Vaynberg or Wajnberg or Вайнберг was born in Poland but spent his working life in Russia, leading to all sorts of transliterative shenanigans. There seems to be a shift away from Vainberg and toward Weinberg, so that Vainberg is going to stick out like a... well, hardly stick out at all unless you're a compulsive indexer. Thank goodness nobody seems to have followed up on the suggestion that Tchaikovsky should be spelled without the T, a la Chekov.
Meanwhile, the Huelgas Ensemble's album of motets by Jacobus Gallus can sit neatly on the shelf between Fux and Galuppi, but the fact that he also went by the name Jacob Handl has thrown a spanner in the works as regards my database. Why are composers so selfish?

Friday, August 20, 2010

1948: You heard it here last

The Year in American Music 1948 includes a list of "the most important world premieres which took place in this country during the calendar period of this Yearbook, i.e. June 1947 to May 1948, inclusive". Over 300 composers are listed, with over 500 works. I certainly hadn't heard of most of the composers, let alone their compositions. Many of the premieres are mentioned in the book's main chronological section, so I suppose they're the most important of the most important:

James Aliferis: Symphony no.1
Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Medea, ballet suite
Marion Bauer: Sun Splendor, for orchestra
William Bergsma: The Fortunate Islands, for orchestra
Nick Bolin: California Sketches, for orchestra
Henry Brant: Symphony no.1
Alexander Brott: Fancy and Folly, for orchestra
Henry Cowell: Big Sing, for orchestra; Hymn and Fuguing Tune no.2, revised; Short Symphony
Paul Creston: Fantasy, for trombone and orchestra
Norman Dello Joio: Concerto for harp and chamber orchestra; Symphonic Dances
David Diamond: Music for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; Symphony no.4
Edoardo Di Biase: Music for Orchestra
Walter Eiger: American Youth Overture
Herbert Elwell: Pastorale, for voice and orchestra
Alvin Etler: Passcaglia and Fugue, for orchestra
Grant Fletcher: An American Overture
Isadore Freed: Princess and the Vagabond, opera
Edwin Gerschefski: Half Moon Mountain, for baritone, women's chorus, and orchestra
Don Gillis: The New America, for orchestra; Portrait of a Frontier Town
Percy Grainger: The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart, for band
Camargo Guarnieri: Prologo e Fuga, for orchestra
Guido Guerrini: La Citta perduta, for mezzo, bass, chorus, and orchestra
Roy Harris: Mass for men's voices and organ; Theme and Variations, for accordion and orchestra
Philip Henry: Pacific Nocturne
Frederick Jacobi: Symphony in C; Two Pieces in Sabbath Mood, for large orchestra
Walter S. Jenkins: Prelude and Passacaglia, for orchestra
Ernst Krenek: Symphony no.4
Dai-Keong Lee: Capriccio for Band
Benjamin Ludlow: Fantasy on Christmas Carols
Otto Luening: Evangeline, opera
Alan Macneil: Procession of the Kings from Act II of Macbeth
Gian Francesco Malipiero: Symphony no.4
Bohuslav Martinu: Three Madrigals, for violin and viola
Harl McDonald: Saga of the Mississippi, for orchestra
Peter Mennin: Fantasia for Strings
Darius Milhaud: Sonata a trois, for violin, viola, and cello
Douglas Moore: Farm Journal, suite for orchestra
Jerome Moross: Ballet Ballads
Harold Morris: Symphony no.3, "Amaranth"
Nicolas Nabokov: The Return of Pushkin, for high voice and orchestra
Herman M. Parris: The Hospital, suite for orchestra
Vincent Persichetti: Symphony no.3
Walter Piston: Symphony no.3; Symphonic Suite
Quincy Porter: Viola concerto
Karol Rathaus: Chorus from Iphigenia in Aulis
Gardner Read: Pennsylvaniana, suite for orchestra
Wallingford Riegger: Symphony no.3
Leroy Robertson: Trilogy, for orchestra
Bernard Rogers: Symphony no.4
Robert Rohe: Prelude, for orchestra
Artur Schnabel: Rhapsody for Orchestra
Tom Scott: Johnny Appleseed, portrait for orchestra
Elie Siegmeister: Symphony no.1
David Stanley Smith: Quartet no.10
Igor Stravinsky: Orpheus, ballet; Symphonies of Wind Instruments, revised
Alexander Tansman: Symphony no.7
Virgil Thomson: The Seine at Night, for orchestra
Ernst Toch: Hyperion: A Dramatic Prelude, for orchestra
Godfrey Turner: Gregorian Overture
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Madona, for orchestra; Mandu Carara, symphonic poem
George Volkel: Symphony of Psalms
Robert Ward: Symphony no.2
George Wargo: Symphony no.1
Powell Weaver: Fugue for Strings
Alec Wilder: Piece for Orchestra
Efrem Zimablist: Violin concerto in C sharp minor

As I look over this list I realise it's really just a vain attempt to make this blog fodder for obscure Google searches...
Of the 77 works listed, I've heard 6. And yes, I did look thoroughly on ArkivMusic to see how many of the works are currently available in recordings, and the answer is 19, so I suppose 6 isn't too bad. (And of the 66 composers listed here, 21 didn't appear on ArkivMusic at all.) What of those works that aren't currently available - have any or many of them ever been recorded? And more to the point, are they worth recording? Are we missing out on some gems? Could George Wargo's Symphony no.1 be a masterpiece? Who the hell was George Wargo anyway? What about the intruigingly named Half Moon Mountain by Edwin Gerschefski? Well there's an interesting story to that - it was inspired by, and uses the text of, a Time magazine article about a recluse named Gilbert Pitt; read about it here. According to The Year in American Music, "The ballad, written in four sections, begins with a spectacular choral repetition of the title; it combines folksy rhythms with romantic themes contrasted to the more raucous sounds of automobile civilization". Will I ever hear this work?

Lacking the benefit of hindsight (or excellent foresight), The Year in American Music attaches no significance to one premiere in Los Angeles in April 1948: John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, or "Sonata and Interludes, for piano" as it appears in the list. Well - who knew? Americans were perhaps more interested in "A festival of three concerts devoted exclusively to the music of Ernest Bloch" at Juilliard in November 1947 ("one of the great creative figures in the music of our day"); or attending a February 1948 performance in New York of music by "One of the greatest but most rarely heard masters of contrapuntal choral music of the sixteenth century" - Josquin des Prez; or Wanda Landowska playing Book I of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier, where she "shattered tradition in the employment of tempi in many of these works"; or perhaps being wowed by "A Wunderkind of the baton, eight-year-old Ferruccio Burco of Milan, Italy" conducting an orchestra at Carnegie Hll on February 28 in a program of mostly preludes and overtures. In the New York Sun, Irving Kolodin wrote, "Does driving a car make one a mechanic? He is a new kind of musical phenomenon - a backseat driver, rather than a leader or conductor... until he goes out and builds a vehicle of his own, he can hardly be considered a musical technician in any mature sense". Thomas Beecham is quoted as saying, "The child should be in a kindergarten, sucking a lollypop".

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More from 1948

Here's some more snippets from The Year in American Music 1948...

November 30, 1947. "An innovation in program-making was offered tonight by Edward Kilenyi, pianist, in a recital at Fullerton Hall of the Chicago Art Institute. This was believed to be the first audience-participation event in American concert history". Basically, Kilenyi performed 4 Beethoven sonatas voted on by the audience before the concert; they chose one early work, one middle-period work, one of the 5 "best-known sonatas", and one of the last 5 sonatas. What did the audience pick? The sonata op.10 no.3, the "Appassionata", and opuses 90 and 111.

January 13, 1948. Staying in Chicago: "The directors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced firmly today that at the conclusion of the present season, Artur Rodzinski would not be re-engaged as musical director... It was generally felt that Dr. Rodzinski's refusal to adhere to advertised programs, his repetition of programs in defiance of the policy of the orchestra, and his insistence on expensive opera productions were some of the factors involved in his dismissal".

March 26. The book devotes a full 2 pages to the "voluntary deportation" of Hanns Eisler, who the previous September had been hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which called him "the Karl Marx of the musical world". After his questioning, he was arrested over "irregularity in entrance" into the U.S., mainly because he sworn an oath that he was not a Communist. "During the period of his travail, prominent musicians throughout the country as well as distinguished citizens in all other fields rallied to his support... Statements were issued pointing out his international eminence as a composer not only of film music and of workers' songs, widely sung by anti-Fascist forces throughout Europe, but in the field of concert and chamber music as one of the more famous of Schoenberg's pupils". Eisler's "voluntary" deportation allowed him "to go to any country to which he could obtain a visa except Canada or Mexico". He went to Prague and then Vienna. "Eisler himself reiterated as he left that he was an anti-Fascist but not a Communist and that he was without rancor toward the American people".

May 12. In other "red menace" news: "In the State Supreme Court of New York, four Soviet composers today asked for restriction of the use of their music in the film, The Iron Curtain, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox. These composers - Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Prokofieff, and Miaskovsky - maintained that the use of their music without their consent for a film that was anti-Soviet put them in a treasonable position. The injuction was sought on four legal grounds: it violated their right of privacy under Section 50 of the civil rights law; that it constituted a libel on them; that it deliberaetly caused them injury without just cause; and that it abused their "moral rights" as composers". On June 7, the motion was denied "on the grounds that the civil rights of the composers had not been violated and that the music in question was in public domain enjoying "no copyright protection whatever"". The Iron Curtain starred Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney and has an IMDb score of 6.3 with 183 votes.

On the subject of movies, the book has a section listing "motion pictures, foreign as well as domestic... in which the musical interest warrants bringing them to the attention of the music world". There are several Italian productions of an operatic nature, including Elixir of Love, "A rather vague adaptation of the Donizetti opera", and Anything for a Song, starring Ferruccio Tagliavini as "a young man who quits the eggplant business for a singing career". English-language films include Song of Love, with Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henried as Clara and Robert Schumann and Robert Walker as Brahms; The Magic Bow, "A screen story supposedly built around incidents in the life of Paganini"; and Song of my Heart, "purporting to be a biography of Tchaikovsky".

Monday, August 16, 2010

At last the 1948 show

I just couldn't pass this one up when I came across it at a church fair: The Year in American Music, 1948 edition, edited by David Ewen. In its own words, it's "A comprehensive chronicle of major events in the American musical scene amplified by a number of detailed and valuable appendices and checklists". It was a great idea but alas, despite dust-jacket praise from the likes of Virgil Thomson ("A useful reference book, and pleasant to peruse"), this second edition seems to also have been the final one. I'm a sucker for this sort of book - a hindsight-free snapshot of a moment in time. It's a fascinating browse, and I suspect the next several entries in this blog will be devoted to it.
The first two-fifths or so are dedicated to a day-by-day account (not every day) of concerts, premieres, and other musical news from June 1947 to May 1948, beginning with the American premiere of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and ending with the first modern performance of Pergolesi's Lo frate 'nnamorato (in English, as The Brother in Love). Let's take a look...

June 4. "The Music Critics Circle of New York announced awards for outstanding new compositions by American citizens heard for the first time in New York during the 1946-47 season". The two winners were Copland's Symphony no.3 and Bloch's String quartet no.3; honourable mentions went to Douglas Moore's Symphony no.2, David Diamond's String quartet no.3, and Weill's Street Scene. Also, "Five American chamber-music works, reheard during this period, were singled out as worthy of a permanent place in the repertory", these being Barber's Capricorn concerto, Copland's Sextet, Ives's String quartet no.2, Moore's String quartet no.1, and Piston's String quartet no.2. Not all have received that permanent place, of course: the number of recordings of each listed by Arkivmusic is, respectively, 10, 5, 6, 0, and 0.

August 23. "Margaret Truman, soprano, daughter of the President of the United States, made her concert debut today by appearing as guest artist with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, directed by Eugene Ormandy". Alas, critics were not kind. Mildred Norton in the L.A. Daily News said "Her performance... proved her ill-equipped for any vocal exhibition outside the most kindly and intimate of gatherings".

October 5. Poor old Jean Hubeau. This French composer's Violin concerto in C received its American premiere from Ruggiero Ricci and "was rather universally condemned as weak in imagination and platitudinous in materials". Twelve days later, Arnold Eidus performed Hubeau's Violin sonata in C minor, which was dismissed as "merely old hat".

October 9 saw the beginning of the new season for several orchestras: Stokowski conducted the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York in Bach's Sinfonia from Cantata no.156, Brahms' Symphony no.2, Debussy's Nocturnes, and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe suite no.2; Artur Rodzinski was in Chicago conducting Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Brahms' Symphony no.2 again, Copland's Appalachian Spring, and, er, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe suite no.2. Meanwhile Georgen Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra brought us Weber's Euryanthe overture, Debussy's Nocturnes, Smetana's Moldau, and Brahms' Symphony no.1. Yeah. The following night, Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony performed Bach's Brandenburg concerto no.1, Hindemith's Mathis der Maler symphony, and Beethoven's Symphony no.5, while in Cincinnati Thor Johnson conducted a Concerto grosso by Vivaldi, Griffes' The White Peacock, Strauss's Don Juan, and Beethoven's Symphony no.3.

October 30. Edith Piaf makes her American debut: "Her authentic repertory of ballads of the unprivileged and the outcast, and her effective and highly individual style and personality not only threatened to start a cult but inspired columns of scholarly comment by some of America's most important music critics".
More to come...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Blog entries I missed

Seeing as how I'm on "vacation", as they say in these "united" "states", blogging has been even lighter than promised. These are some of the posts I have so far failed to write:
So this is what I'm missing
A brief overview of the classical selection on eMusic US - what Sony offers, basically. Some comments regarding the venerable but by now rather aged Columbia/CBS/RCA catalogues. General expression of "meh". Voicing of relief that I don't have to pay nearly twice as much for the privilege of downloading this stuff. Followed by observations regarding's download options. A degree of "meh" here also. Clicking of heels; there is no place like home.
I saw Inception
...and it was [redacted in accordance with blog policy].
Some notes on the state of classical radio locally. Invocation of basic rule, "if in doubt, play Mozart". Discussion suddenly moves, along with its author, to Montreal. Observation that the presenter of CBC Radio 2's "Tempo" program is so frigging chipper she really needs to be smashed in the face with her own coffee mug.
Blame Canada
Extensive travel-blogging from "North America's most European city" (you could not get away with that sort of thing in the US, let me tell you) is eschewed in favour of brief complaint that industrial action by Montreal municipal employees meant that the Biodome was closed and this made my four-year-old daughter cry.
Emergency Telemann stop
A short laudatory note recounting how there were two excellent used CD shops within 5 minutes walk from where we were staying, almost side by side and practically across the street from the local Metro stop. Weeping, the author tells of one occasion when he says to his companions, "you guys go back to the apartment - I must just nip over to get that Telemann disc I didn't get yesterday". Music of the north German baroque mingles in the author's mind with "The Big Rock Candy Mountain". Concludes with fireworks, dancing bears, &c.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Toll booth, Whitestone Bridge, NY

Driver to Toll booth attendant: How you doing? You got air conditioning in there?
Toll booth attendant: Oh yeah. Since Obama got in, we all got air conditioning.

Yes, Les Introuvables de Nereffid is coming to you live from the U.S.
Expect fewer posts and lots of typos that mix up @ and ".

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 5: Songs and Songs

Mahler's first volume of Lieder und Gesänge comprises 5 pieces, but which of them are lieder and which are gesänge? Deryck Cooke begins his commentary on this collection rather dispritingly, saying "Only three are of real interest", and Donald Mitchell remarks that "The five songs... are not of equal importance". They both agree that the 3 decent ones are "Frühlingsmorgen", "Erinnerung", and "Hans und Grete", the last of which we've already encountered as one of the songs Mahler wrote for Josephine Poisl.
I'm not going to go into the details and relative merits of the various recordings of these songs that I've been listening to, as things would get very bitty. Suffice to say I've heard Janet Baker and Geoffrey Parsons (Hyperion) doing all 5 songs; 2 each from Christianne Stotijn/Julius Drake (Onyx) and Christian Gerhaher/Gerold Huber (RCA); and the mixed contributions on the EMI and DG "complete Mahler" sets.

"Frühlingsmorgen" ("Spring Morning") is charming; in it, the singer is encouraging a "sleepyhead" to get out of bed - "the bees and beetles are buzzing, and I've already seen your lively sweetheart". The song itself is rather sleepy, and you suspect the singer's rather sympathetic to whoever it is that's cosily tucked up. Some singers more than others highlight the lullaby nature of the ending.
"Erinnerung" ("Remembering") is, as its title might suggest, a nostalgic number, the singer thinking about some lost or failed love and how it inspires songs. It rises to a passionate climax before sinking down into sadness and finally a very dark conclusion on the piano. Donald Mitchell points out that this song provides an early example of progressive tonality in Mahler's music - it begins in G minor and ends in A minor - and cites Schumann as an influence.
And, indeed, the first song in Schumann's Der arme Peter begins with the line "Der Hans und die Grete tanzen herum", which brings us neatly to Mahler's "Hans und Grete" - which, as I've said, we've already encountered. I suppose I can interject here that the DG Mahler edition includes, rather oddly, 2 of Luciano Berio's orchestrations of these songs ("Frühlingsmorgen" and "Hans und Grete") at the expense of the original piano versions. I'm not sure what the thinking was there. Berio's versions are certainly worthwhile, though the orchestra seems unnecessarily large. But it did help me notice a little bit of accompaniment in "Frühlingsmorgen" that shows up in the second-movement trio of the Symphony no.1.

The two unloved songs here are "Serenade" and "Phantasie", both using texts taken from Tirso de Molina's Don Juan. Go on, admit that you don't know who Tirso de Molina is. There's no shame in it. But why are Cooke and Mitchell so dismissive of these two songs? Well, with "Serenade" it's pretty obvious. There's nothing wrong with it as such, but it just doesn't sound like Mahler at all. You could fancy that there's a few notes of accompaniment that prefigure the Symphony no.9, which would I suppose open up a whole critical can of worms, but by and large I think it's possible to love every single thing Mahler wrote except this one.
Poor old "Phantasie", though. It's a short ballad about a "fisher-maid" who "traps hearts" but whose own heart "reflects no love". It starts with a tune that makes me think of one of those fanfares from the Knaben Wunderhorn songs, although Mahler's instruction was that the piano should try to sound like a harp (it also reminds me of a guitar). Like "Serenade" it can be regarded as insufficiently Mahlerian, but I must say I like "Phantasie" a lot. It helps to have heard Christian Gerhaher's recent recording - he invests it with a darkness I don't hear elsewhere that moves it away from being a lied and into the realm of folk song. As I noted in my comments on the Piano quartet, there's a constant tension between what the professionals may consider good music and what your humble listener thinks.

And that concludes "Mahler: the early years". What will happen next? Will Mahler mature into a great composer who produces magnificent symphonies encompassing all of human emotion, or will he just spend the rest of his life writing incidental music to second-rate plays? Join us next time to find out!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bayreuth in non-controversy shock horror

A report on Bayreuth from Irish Times correspondent Derek Scally today sort of missed its own point. "New score at Bayreuth as opera upstages warring Wagners" says the headline, and beneath it "The buzz at the festival is all about the performances for the first time in years". And indeed Scally begins with "For the first time in many years the on-stage action – a Lohengrin premiere and the Bayreuth premiere of star tenor Jonas Kaufmann – has attracted more attention than the off-stage intrigues of the composer’s warring descendants". Well, that's good, you're thinking. This is one (soap) opera that's gone on long enough and it's nice to talk about the music for a change. Unfortunately most of the article's about Gottfried Wagner, Wolfgang's disowned son. (Wolfgang is the grandson of Richard and is also Brunnhilde's uncle and half-brother and husband. Ask Anna Russell.) And in the print issue that picture of Jonas Kaufmann is accompanied by one of Eva and Katharina Wagner, and of course... Winifred Wagner and her chum Adolf Hitler. Sorry, did somebody mention music?

Avoiding Inception

I'm really looking forward to seeing Inception but I probably won't get to it for a couple of weeks. And I want to see it on my own terms, which means significant portions of the Internet and other media are now temporarily closed off to me. One of the reasons The Matrix impressed me so much is that I had no idea what it was going to be - didn't know much about it, apart really from "it's supposed to be good". There were no expectations to be met or disappointments to be avoided. Unfortunately the world and her uncle are keen to talk about Inception and tell me what I should think about it before I come within 5 miles of a cinema. I don't want to know. I have a rough idea of what might be the general basic concept, and I know there's a good cast, and that's it. I don't want to know if it's rubbish or the best film ever or the best film of the summer or the worst film of the summer or the most overhyped piece of crap since Avatar or the most staggering work of genius since The Dark Knight or a bit meh or it's got a surprise ending or the surprise ending is stupid or the CGi is crap or the acting is rubbish or it's just a rip-off of The Matrix or it will leave me in floods of tears and deserves at least fifty Oscars and/or Razzies. Just leave me the fuck alone. Why in the name of arse do you think I want to hear your opinion? Go away.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Charles Mackerras, RIP

Those of us who like the music of Janáček are of course forever in his debt...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 4: The Singing Bone

Das klagende Lied (The Song of Lament) was completed in 1880. It's a "dramatic cantata" for soloists and chorus based on a folk tale - or rather, on two similar folk tales. In one collected by Ludwig Bechstein, a prince and princess compete to succeed the queen, who has decreed that the winner will be whoever finds a particular flower in the forest; in the Grimm brothers' tale, it's two brothers who are competing for a wife. In both cases, one murders the other and wins the prize, but later someone (a child or a minstrel) discovers a bone in the forest and carves it into a flute. When he plays, a voice emerges from the bone, telling the whole sorry tale. In Mahler's cantata, two brothers are competing to win the queen's hand in marriage, and the bone is discovered by a minstrel, who brings it to the castle on the day of the wedding and simply ruins everyone's day.

Mahler was 20 when he finished the work, and by now much of the groundwork for the Mahler we know has been laid. You can have fun playing "guess the influence", though - a mix of German romantics from Weber to early Wagner and Bruckner. Das klagende Lied has an odd compositional history, in as much as Mahler wrote it in 3 parts but subsequently dropped the first part entirely. How could he manage that? Part I tells the story of the brothers and the murder, and then in Part II the minstrel discovers the bone and learns the story; so there is a certain amount of dramatic repetition (Part III covers the minstrel's appearance at the wedding). Part I remained out of sight until 1969 (according to Wikipedia), and I think it's been essentially reinstated - aside from whether it's good music, the point is it's nearly a half-hour's worth of Mahler and so can't be ignored.

And yet, when listening to it for the first time in years, in the recording by Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI), I could see why Mahler chose to drop Part I. For all its musical qualities - already he's a master of the orchestra - the dramatic pacing's not great. He really shouldn't need 25 to 30 minutes to tell this story. I suspect he was enjoying himself a bit too much, revelling in the use of the orchestra to paint the tale. But then again, a couple of months later I heard for the first time the recording from Riccardo Chailly/Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Decca) and found that I enjoyed it a lot more, and time seemed to pass much quicker. Was this just a case of increased familiarity, or is Chailly's performance better than Rattle's? Probably just the former; dramatically speaking there's not much to choose between them, I think. So yes, we could in theory dispense with Part I but then we'd be missing out on so many wonderful moments, not least the intriguing depiction of the murder itself. The relevant verse is His eye gleams with savage joy, Its look has told no lie; A sword of steel hangs at his side, Now he has drawn it! The elder laughs 'neath the willow tree, The younger smiles as in a dream. (This is from Eric Mason's translation with the Rattle disc). The big climax here is on the last two lines - and on the word "smiles" (lächelt), the choir descends in a weird, well, laughing phrase that we can assume is also the sound of the sword descending. Almost immediately, the music becomes serene and beautiful and gradually transforms into something that is recognisable as the ending of the song "Die zwei blaue Augen" from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, where again it's associated with a death-like sleep or sleep-like death (more on that ambiguity when we get to those Lieder). This is the sort of psychology we Mahlerians love - death, happiness, murder, and peace all mixed up together. And indeed in Part III we get another such juxtaposition, when Mahler uses an off-stage wind band as part of his depiction of the wedding festivities. After the minstrel has revealed the terrible truth, and everyone is stunned to silence, the band strikes up again, completely unaware of what's going on. It's a wonderfully twisted moment.

Although in terms of story-telling there may not be much to choose between Rattle and Chailly, I much prefer Decca's sound to EMI's, which is a little too close up and doesn't allow the orchestra much delicacy. This might well have been a contributing factor to why I was happier with Part I once I heard Chailly. A more pertient fact is that overall I prefer Chailly's soloists - Susan Dunn (sop), Brigitte Fassbaender (mez), Werner Hollweg (ten), Andreas Schmidt (bass) - to Rattle's - Helena Döse (sop), Alfreda Hodgson (mez), Robert Tear (ten), Sean Rea (bar). (The score calls for a baritone, not a bass, but I've written them as they appear on the discs. I just compared the 2 singers in one passage and I'd have said Rea was the bass and Schmidt the baritone. Go figure.) One key piece of casting I've omitted here is the singing bone itself. Mahler's original idea was to have a boy soprano and boy alto, the alto combining with the contralto when the flute begins to sing. He dropped this idea, but Chailly reinstates it, or rather has a boy alto (Markus Baur) without the contralto. The effect is ghostly - he's not an ethereal child soprano but is still not quite in the world of the regular singers - and certainly adds to the drama.

Conclusions, then: we're not quite at mature Mahler, and indeed the handful of songs that we'll look at next may even be regarded as a step backwards, but pretty much all the elements are in place by now. Hopefully Das klagende Lied's appearance in DG's and EMI's Mahler editions (the two recordings above, in fact) will prove an impressive surprise to those who haven't yet encountered it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Now that's service

Went out this morning to put some things in the recycling bin, while idly thinking that the latest issue of International Record Review should be arriving some day soon. Just as I'd completed that thought, up walks the postman with that very issue in his hand.

(I really should use Twitter, shouldn't I?)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The size of the niche

The latest (July/August) issue of Fanfare brought me up short when I read the annual "Statement of ownership, management, and circulation", which is required by U.S. law. The (average) total paid circulation per issue over the past year was a tiny 3,420. In 2009 it was 3,412; in 2008, 4,367; in 2007, 4,297. Why the drop between 2008 and 2009? They seem to have stopped over-the-counter sales, which only accounted for about 800 copies.
Of course, Fanfare is available as a web-only subscription too, which these circulation figures don't address. But still, 3,420 is pretty damn small. Playboy has a circulation of 2 million in the U.S., but obviously collecting classical music recordings is not as common a pastime as masturbating reading interesting articles. Or shooting things - the NRA's American Rifleman sells 1.7 million copies. So Americans are 500 times more interested in Glocks than Gluck. Rolling Stone, nearly 1.5 million; and so on. Jesus, Canadian Home Workshop sells 97,000 copies (all figures via Wikipedia, of course).
American Record Guide doesn't have a web-only option, but is still available on (some) shelves. Its January/February 2010 statement puts average total paid circulation in 2009 at 4,611, including 1,093 non-mail sales. For 2008, it's 5,905 (2,112 non-mail); for 2007, 5,617 (1,886 non-mail). So in terms of mail subscriptions, Fanfare and ARG have roughly the same circulation. I wonder how much overlap there is - probably quite a bit, collectors being what they are.
But we can safely say that there are between about 4,600 and 9,000 people, presumably mostly Americans, sufficiently interested in collecting classical recordings to purchase a magazine dedicated to that pursuit.
In 2008, there were 16,272 murders in the U.S. My hobby is less popular than killing people.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Part of an irregular series of comparative reviews where we ask "Did you even listen to the same CD?"

Mozart: Piano concertos nos.24 & 25.
Valerie Tryon; London SO/Robert Trory

Our competing reviewers today are Erik Levi of BBC Music Magazine and Gil French of American Record Guide.
Levi: ***** for performance, ***** for recording.
French: "The less said about Tryon-Trory's Mozart the better"
Levi: "The immediate interest... lies in the featured cadenzas... [both] work equally well in their very different ways"
French: "The cadenzas by Godowsky and Hummel are leaden"
Levi: "playing of great delicacy and subtlety"
French: "She has heavy fingers on quarter-notes... lack of tone color..."
Levi: "considerable affection... no lack of sentiment... great tenderness and musical sensitivity..."
French: "a generic, prosaic recording with all the notes and no character..."
Levi: Orchestral Choice of the Month.
French: "... the kind usually found in bargain bins in discount chains".


I'm really bad at spelling "sonata" when I type quickly. It often comes out as "soanta". I suppose the left hand is so keen to get to the a that it preempts the right, which has to move down from o to n. But I'm not the only one. Google "piano soanta" and you get 10,700 hits.

This blog post was sponsored by the Society for People Who Don't Feel Like Using Twitter.

His first concert

Well, technically not his first concert because early in the school year they went to a Music in the Classroom event in the Helix, so for the sake of argument let's say that Tuesday was The Seven-Year-Old's first trip to the National Concert Hall. And my first trip in far too long. I figured a summer lunchtime concert would be a good introduction, as the program is short and the music's not too demanding. The theme this year is "Musical Postcards", so as you'd expect each concert features the music of a particular country. Tuesday's was "Northern Lights: Norway". Would there be Grieg? Well, name another Norwegian composer. Sinding, of course. And Halvorsen and Svendsen and Tveitt. Yeah, okay, your imagination exceeds that of whoever programmed this concert. We got Grieg. But things were complicated by the fact that each concert also features a "rising star" who gets to show off their talents. Sadly nobody seems to have thought to match "rising star" with "musical postcard". So mezzo Rachel Kelly sang arias by Mozart, Rossini, Handel, and Meyerbeer. I guess she did a good job - we were up in the side balcony so she was projecting away from us; the audience applauded warmly. I thought before the concert that her contributions would seem out of place, mingled among the Grieg (the program went Grieg - 2 Norwegian Dances; Mozart; Rossini; Grieg - a Symphonic Dance; Handel; Meyerbeer; Grieg - another Symphonic Dance) but in fact it was the Grieg that seemed incongruous by the end. After "Sta nell'Ircana" from Handel's Alcina and "Nobles Seigneurs, salut!" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, you're in the mood for more opera, not folksy Grieg. So the end of the concert was something of a damp squib for me.
As for The Seven-Year-Old, he'd lost interest by the end of the second Grieg piece, but he stayed well behaved for the rest. Maybe if the Black-Eyed Peas had been playing he'd have enjoyed it more.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Typing Tchaikovsky

If your job involves a lot of typing, I highly recommend Stephen Hough's new Tchaikovsky concertos recording for accompaniment. What you do is, you time yourself to finish a lengthy paragraph just as a concerto finale approaches its thrilling climax. You end with a dramatic flourish, and the audience cheers!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Playing with the Proms

The BBC Proms now has an archive of all past performances. Watch as your afternoon fritters away! Sure, you could have been working, but then you would have missed the chance to find out what the prommers heard on your birthday every year since 1895...
Hmm. No prom on September 2nd, 1895. But next year's was mostly Mendelssohn - three overtures, the violin concerto, the Italian symphony, and a handful of songs. That would be enough for modern audiences, but the concert also included Henry Wood's "Grand Fantasia" on Carmen, some songs by now-obscure figures such as Frederic Cowen (middle name "Hymen"!), cornet player Howard Reynolds's arrangement of Schubert's Ständchen, Halvorsen's Entry of the Boyars, and, to conclude, the overture to Auber's Fra Diavolo.
Let's jump forward to 1913: Weber's Oberon overture, the Act 2 prelude from Humperdinck's Konigskinder, "O don fatale" from Don Carlos, Vaughan Williams's Wasps suite, Tchaikovsky's Hamlet, the first Peer Gynt suite, a bit of Coleridge-Taylor's Song of Hiawatha, Sibelius's En Saga, Rossini's Semiramide overture, WH Squire's "When you come home", Arturo Buzzi-Peccia's "Lolita", and finally Elgar's 4th Pomp and circumstance march.
This is all very Classic FM, really, isn't it? Nothing to frighten the horses these days. But it is interesting to check out the dates of composition of these works - Rossini 1823, Weber 1826, Verdi 1867, Tchaikovsky and Grieg 1888, Sibelius 1892, Coleridge-Taylor 1898, Humperdinck 1900, Elgar 1901, VW 1909. What would the chronologically equivalent Prom from today include? How about Ravel's La valse, Honegger's Pacific 231, an aria from Barber's Vanessa, John Adams's The Chairman Dances and Maxwell Davies' An Orkney Wedding, maybe Rautavaara's Piano concerto no.2... after that it gets a bit tricky. Today's equivalent of a composition from 1898 is one from 1995, so I suppose we'd have to plump for - heh - Birtwistle's Panic. After that, my old spreadsheet and Wikipedia start to fail me. What's been written in the last decade-and-a-bit that will still be doing the rounds in 2107?