Saturday, January 30, 2010

Nereffid's Guide Awards 2009: Classical Albums of the Year

I am delighted and proud to present the 2009 Nereffid's Guide Awards, celebrating the best classical albums of the past year. Hurrah!
Those readers who know me from the eMusic days will know that there have been 2 previous Awards, but this time round the selection isn't just confined to what's available from eMusic, which means a bigger and better group of winners and runners-up. And yes, I know there's no Nereffid's Guide anymore so it's something of a misnomer, but why mess with tradition?

How do I decide the winners? The results are based on reviews I've read from 7 sources: the print publications Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, International Record Review, American Record Guide, and Fanfare and the web sites MusicWeb International and Classics Today. As best I can, I've identified the albums that get the most-positive reviews, and then all the data are fed into a giant sausage-making machine to produce a quasi-objective picture of the most critically acclaimed albums.

This year, there are 14 awards, with 1 winner and 4 runners-up each. I've treated each award in a separate post, so you can scroll down through the blog to see each one in turn, or follow these links:
Medieval & Renaissance
Baroque - Instrumental
Baroque - Vocal
Solo Instrumental
Solo Vocal
Opera Recital
Living Composer - Instrumental
Living Composer - Vocal

There is also an Afterword involving some vague musings about the whole thing.

In this past year I've engaged far more closely with the world of new classical recordings than ever before, and I've had a wonderful time. For all the fears - unfounded or otherwise - about the death of the recording industry, or CDs, or classical music, or whatever, the overall picture presented by the albums listed below, and the many other fine albums that didn't make the cut, is an exciting and hopeful one. There's a fascinating combination of the standard repertoire and the little-heard, performed by new artists and old favourites. I urge you to reward and encourage these musicians, and their labels, by buying a whole bunch of these albums.

Awards 2009: Medieval & Renaissance

"Song of Songs"
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi

This young British group received much praise for its first two albums, but this selection of Renaissance works nets them their first Nereffid's Guide Award (OK, I'll stop that kind of talk. This isn't the Oscars). The music here comprises works inspired by that book of the Old Testament which many scholars insist is an allegory of... well, anything except erotic poetry. Gramophone's Peter Quantrill suggested potential responses of composers to the texts: "sensuous melismas, perhaps, and anguished suspensions, surging bass-lines and... let us draw a veil there". Anthony Pryer in BBC Music was less circumspect, noting the "melting abandon" of Gombert's treatment of the line tibi dabo ubera mea. Look it up. But what of the performances? Pryer praised the album as "a magnificent display of the very best kind of polyphonic music".

Runners-up (in alphabetical order):
Dowland: "The Queen's Galliard" - Lute music volume 4. Nigel North [Naxos]
Lassus: Cantiones Sacrae. Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe [Harmonia Mundi]
"Musical Banquet". Monika Mauch; Nigel North [ECM New Series]
Vaet: Missa Ego flos campi, etc. Cinquecento [Hyperion]

Awards 2009: Baroque - Instrumental

Handel: Organ concertos op.7
Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr Harmonia Mundi

Outstanding, according to Marc Rochester in International Record Review. "Egarr's virtuosity is never in doubt... he is astonishing both in his technical skill and his sense of ownership over the performances. With the Academy of Ancient Music on absolutely smashing form, I have to say that - questions of authenticity and textural niceties apart - no recording of these concertos has ever thrown up such exciting and invigorating performances". Or, as David Hurwitz put it on Classics Today: "This marvelous release sets a new standard as an imaginative recreation of Handel's genius both as composer and performer". One particularly noteworthy feature of this recording is Egarr's ad libitum bits - as Rochester said, "bringing in polytonality of an almost Charles Ivesian blatancy, and throwing in extraordinary key changes and harmonic convolutions which as often as not seem more the territory of Reger and Karg-Elert". Blimey!

Bach: Brandenburg concertos. English Baroque Soloists/Kati Debretzeni, John Eliot Gardiner [Soli Deo Gloria]
Bach: Flute sonatas. Emmanuel Pahud, Trevor Pinnock, et al. [EMI]
Vivaldi: "Il ballo" - Violin concertos volume 3. Duilio M. Galfetti; I Barocchisti/Diego Fasolis [Naive]
Ward: Consort music for 5 and 6 viols. Phantasm [Linn]

Awards 2009: Baroque - Vocal

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Sarah Connolly et al.; Choir & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Steven Devine, Elizabeth Kenny

"As fine a Dido and Aeneas as we have had for many a year", said Gramophone's James Inverne, and his reviewer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood confirms, "Here is England's first great opera presented with a truly cohesive sense of theatrical purpose". Praise all round for Sarah Connolly, the driving force behind the recording; from various reviewers we read of "a regal gravity", "imposing presence, pathos and unassailable dignity", "both majesty and fragility", "a combination of grace and passion", "no finer Dido on disc", "marrying an excellent lyric coloratura mezzo to a first-rate musical mind". Oh, and they liked the other singers and musicians too.

Bach: "Jesu, deine Passion" (cantatas). soloists; Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe [Harmonia Mundi]
Handel: Alcina. Joyce DiDonato, et al.; Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis [Archiv]
Telemann: Brockes-Passion. soloists; RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs [Harmonia Mundi]
Vivaldi: La Fida Ninfa. soloists; Ensemble Matheus/Jean-Christoph Spinosi [Naive]

Awards 2009: Solo Instrumental

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

"Having long held Perahia in the highest regard", says Jerry Dubins in Fanfare, "I fully expected him to deliver the goods in these four sonatas; but I was not prepared for performances this powerful and probative". He praises the "gravitas" of op.14/1, the "lyrical affection and humor" of op.14/2; American Record Guide's William Bender remarks on the "musical royalty" of op.26, and Jed Distler on Classics Today is impressed by the "absolute gem" of the Pastoral sonata op.28. "Under Murray Perahia's hands the works on this disc sound familiar yet fresh, not unlike viewing a famous painting after it's been cleaned and restored".

Chopin: Piano sonatas no.2 & 3. Marc-André Hamelin [Hyperion]
Debussy: Piano works, volume 4 (Images and Etudes). Jean-Efflam Bavouzet [Chandos]
Messiaen: "Hommage a Messiaen". Pierre-Laurent Aimard [DG]
Rachmaninov: Preludes. Steven Osborne [Hyperion]

Awards 2009: Chamber

Beethoven: Cello sonatas opp.5, 69
Daniel Müller-Schott; Angela Hewitt

These aren't really cello sonatas, but sonatas for piano and cello. Tim Perry on MusicWeb says "As much as I admire Hewitt’s Fazioli, which brings its customary lightness and clarity of articulation, she has a tendency to defer to the burring and purring of Müller-Schott 's 1727 Matteo Gofriller cello. And who can blame her? Müller-Schott's tone, by turns gruff and eloquent, is captivating... This is wonderful, life-affirming music making and whets the appetite for more from this exciting partnership". In Fanfare, Jerry Dubins waxes enthusiastic about "one of the most exciting young cellists to come along in quite awhile with one of the great Beethoven interpreters of our time", concluding "Cruel though it may be to say so, after this, others need not apply".

Debussy, Fauré, Ravel: String quartets. Quatuor Ebène [Virgin]
Haydn: String quartets op.20/5, 33/3, 76/5. Jerusalem Quartet [Harmonia Mundi]
Satie: "Avant-dernières pensées". Alexandre Tharaud et al. [Harmonia Mundi]
Schumann: Violin sonatas.
Carolin Widmann; Dénes Várjon [ECM New Series]

Awards 2009: Concerto

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

One key fact every bluffer needs to know about York Bowen is that Kaikhosru Sorabji described his Piano concerto no.4 as the greatest work for piano and orchestra written by an Englishman, and he also said Bowen was a "great Master". Of course, for this piece of trivia to be used wisely one has to know who Sorabji was. Best leave it. Anyway, Jeremy Nicholas in Gramophone says "Hearing these two works, it's hard to deny that Sorabji had a point". Gil French in American Record Guide describes the album as "absolutely stunning... What a way to be introduced to the music of York Bowen!" In fairness, not all critics were as impressed by the music's value in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps the general attitude can be summed up by Ian Lace on MusicWeb: "Derivative but delightful. A wonderful romantic wallow".

Bate, Bell: Viola concertos. Roger Chase; BBC Concert Orchestra/Steve Bell [Dutton]
Beethoven: Piano concertos nos.2 & 3. François-Frédéric Guy; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Philippe Jordan [Naive]
Crusell: Clarinet concertos.
Martin Fröst; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Okko Kamu [BIS]
Walton: Cello concerto; Music by Bloch, Britten, Ligeti. Peter Wispelwey; Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate [Onyx]

Awards 2009: Symphony

Shostakovich: Symphonies nos.5 & 9
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko

You're simply not going to get a Shostakovich 5 without the critics arguing over what it should mean. IRR's Peter J. Rabinowitz prefers "more buoyant triumphalism", but Fanfare's Raymond Tuttle notes "Petrenko joins Rostropovich in interpreting the repeated notes that close the symphony not as peals of triumph but as drawn out stabs of pain. The effect is spectacular but almost literally horrifying; if you view the climax of this Symphony as a totalitarian nightmare, Petrenko gives you that nightmare's soundtrack". The critics also offer an intriguing selection of comments approaching Petrenko's 9th from different angles: "makes the music seem a bit more consequential than usual"; "a more subtle, classical account without the humor being as obvious"; "perhaps a little heavy-handed"; and, says Ronald E. Grames in Fanfare, "There is very little of the giddy charm usually found in performances of this most perverse of post-war celebratory symphonies. Perhaps Petrenko is suggesting there should not be. Certainly, this is a darker view of Shostakovich's great sigh of relief". A powerful album, then; to quote Rabinowitz, "All in all, this is emerging as a Shostakovich cycle of uncommon distinction".

Casella: Symphony no.3; Italia.
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Alun Francis [CPO]
Copland: Dance Symphony; Symphony no.1; Short Symphony. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop [Naxos]
Mahler: Symphony no.4. Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer [Channel]
Suk: Asrael. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy [Ondine]

Awards 2009: Orchestral

Haydn: The Complete Overtures
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien/Manfred Huss

Yes, this is a reissued recording from the nineties, so technically a case can be made for excluding it, but it's on a different label, and remastered. Hey, my game, my rules. Go hold your own awards if you don't like it. But you should like it: it's Haydn! As Dominy Clements explains on MusicWeb, "The advantage of collecting the 22 extant overtures by Joseph Haydn in one place is that the pieces chart the course of the composer's creative career from its beginnings in the late baroque, via high classicism to the tender beginnings of that wholly new musical idiom, the 'romantic'". David Hurwitz on Classics Today goes further: "It is the greatest stylistic evolution in the history of music because Haydn was not just a passive observer, but its prime mover". He calls this album "sensational", while Carl Bauman of ARG highlights the "truly exciting" conducting and Richard Wigmore in Gramophone the "brilliant period band".

Grainger: "Lincolnshire Posy". Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin [Reference]
Shostakovich: The Girlfriends, etc.
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mark Fitz-Gerald [Naxos]
Stokowski: Bach transcriptions volume 2.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier [Naxos]
Szymanowski: Harnasie; Mandragora. Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit [Naxos]

Awards 2009: Solo Vocal

Ravel: Songs
Gerald Finley; Julius Drake

As Christopher Dingle writes in BBC Music Magazine, "When it comes to Ravel's songs, there is hardly an embarrassment of riches in the catalogue", but, Robert A. Moore says in ARG, "this [album] allows you to hear most of his best ones". David Vernier on Classics Today completes the thought: "Canadian Gerald Finley and his superb piano partner Julius Drake have not only satisfied a catalog deficiency, but they also have created an essential entry into the Ravel discography." Does any more need to be said? Sure, why not. Moore continues, "In an ever-expanding field of wonderful baritones, Finley is one of today's half-dozen finest, and his partnership with Drake has produced a succession of truly marvelous recordings". As for the music itself, Gramophone's Geoffrey Norris says "the mood might be robust or rarefied, but Ravel's sense of colour and atmosphere is infallible". "Riches indeed", concludes Dingle.

Schumann: Frauenliebe und -leben; Brahms: 8 Songs, op.57; etc. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Julius Drake [Wigmore Hall Live]
Schubert: Lieder. Elizabeth Watts; Roger Vignoles [RCA]
Schubert: Winterreise. Mark Padmore; Paul Lewis [Harmonia Mundi]
Tchaikovsky: Romances. Christianne Stotijn; Julius Drake [Onyx]
(Yes, that's right - Julius Drake is accompanist on 3 of the 5 discs here)

Awards 2009: Choral

Bernstein: Mass
Jubilant Sykes, et al.; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop

Gramophone Editor's Choice. BBC Music Magazine Choice. International Record Review Outstanding. Classics Today 10/10. MusicWeb Recording of the Month. Fanfare's Raymond Tuttle said "this is a terrific recording, and if it's not on my Want List at the end of the year, it's only because I like to reserve that space for relatively unknown music". Look, the worst review I could find for this one is from Philip Greenfield in ARG, who said "[Marin Alsop] has done her mentor proud... In sum, no one who loves (or even likes) Mass should be without this". No more needs to be said. This is the Recording of the Year.

Leighton: Symphony no.2; Te Deum. BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox [Chandos]
Marx: Orchestral songs and choral works. soloists; choirs; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek [Chandos]
Mendelssohn: Choral works. RIAS Kammerchor/Hans-Christoph Rademann [Harmonia Mundi]
Verdi: Requiem. Harteros; Ganassi; Villazon; Pape; Coro e Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano [EMI]

Awards 2009: Opera

Shostakovich: The Nose
soloists, chorus, and orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev

This is the debut release from the Mariinsky Theatre's own label, a performance of what Calum MacDonald tells us in BBC Music is the "most brilliantly anarchic of all Shostakovich's works". "Where does one start in discussing Shostakovich's The Nose?", Robert Levine asks on Classics Today. "Funnier than the last quartet, more laden with irony than Babi Yar? Well, it's a start... Valery Gergiev, obviously in his element and with his own orchestra and (spectacular) chorus, gives the work form and pathos while making certain that absurdity and satire reign supreme".

Bellini: I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Elina Garanca; Anna Netrebko; Wiener Symphoniker/Fabio Luisi [DG]
Mozart: Idomeneo. Richard Croft, et al.; Freiburger Barockorchester/René Jacobs [Harmonia Mundi]
Terradellas: Artaserse. Anna Maria Panzarella, et al.; La Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara/Juan Bautista Otero [RCOC]
Wagner: Lohengrin. Johan Botha, et al.; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Semyon Bychkov [Profil]

Awards 2009: Opera Recital

Renée Fleming; Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Marco Armiliato

John Steane in Gramophone remarks, "There are still those who shrink from operas of the verismo school as they might from a huddle of knife-carrying hoodies... a pity for here is a recital which might prove acceptable even to the most resolute of the anti-verismo brigade. It is all heart, but not worn too shamelessly on the sleeve". "Renée Fleming's creamy vocals are stunning and in quite beautiful condition", according to Michael Cookson on MusicWeb, while Michael Cameron in Fanfare says "At age 50, one might expect her to be a shade past her prime, but there is no evidence of that on this disc... Fleming sings these treasures as well as anyone active today, and her melding of power, range, flawless legato, and her soulful mastery of the verismo style make this disc a must for opera and vocal fans".

"Amoureuses". Patricia Petibon;
Concerto Köln/Daniel Harding [DG]
Martinu: Fragments and Suite from "Juliette". Magdalena Kozená; Steve Davislim; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras [Supraphon]
"Sehnsucht". Jonas Kaufmann; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Claudio Abbado [Decca]
"Tragédiennes ". Véronique Gens; Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset [Virgin]

Awards 2009: Living Composer - Instrumental

Nørgård: Symphonies nos.3 & 7
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard

Nørgård, as Richard Whitehouse tells us in IRR, "has long been established as the leading Danish composer and is increasingly regarded among the seminal figures of post-war music. His latest symphony is included on the present release, along with one whose aesthetic shock-waves continue to reverberate over three decades after its prèmiere.... this disc sets a new standard for the interpretation of his orchestral music". On Classics Today, David Hurwitz says of the composer, "His music has exuberance, brilliance, and the freedom from inhibition or routine that we expect of a true symphonist in this post-Mahlerian age... If you're looking for some really good contemporary music, challenging but rewarding, full of personality and integrity, then this powerfully engineered production offers a perfect opportunity to satisfy your craving".

Carter: Piano music. Ursula Oppens [Cedille]
Daugherty: Fire & Blood; MotorCity Triptych; Raise the Roof. Ida Kavafian; Brian Jones; Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi [Naxos]
"For David". David Russell [Telarc]
David Matthews: Symphonies nos.1, 3 & 5. BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins [Dutton]

Awards 2009: Living Composer - Vocal

"The NMC Songbook"
various artists

It's only right that such a smart, ambitious venture should prove a winner. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, new-music label NMC commissioned a whole bunch of songs from a wide range of composers - in all, there are 96 songs on the 4 discs. "This is a stunning anthology", Carla Rees said on MusicWeb, "and NMC deserves to be justly proud of both this celebratory collection and its success over the past 20 years in bringing new music to the public". In Fanfare, Robert Carl hailed it as "an exceptional time capsule of the state of British composition in the early 21st century. What can one say generally about this? Well, the level of craft is superlative. There's hardly a clunker in the entire project. Performance level is equally outstanding". Peter Quinn in IRR praised the enterprise as "A Lucullan feast for the ears". Classicists and, er, those of us with a good dictionary handy will no doubt agree.

Jackson: "Not no faceless angel" - choral works. Polyphony/Stephen Layton [Hyperion]
MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross; etc. The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross [Naxos]
Pärt: "In principio". Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Tōnu Kaljuste [ECM New Series]
Saariaho: L'amour de loin. Ekaterina Lekhina; Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Daniel Belcher; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano [Harmonia Mundi]

Awards Afterword

So, there you go, a year of classical recordings summarized in 70 albums. I've made it my business to hear all 14 of the winners, and in fact I've got about half of all of the albums, and as I said at the beginning, it's been a wonderful experience immersing myself in a world that previously I've only partly paid attention to. Can I come to any overall conclusions, profound or otherwise?

The first thing to reflect on is the change to my Awards since I moved from the eMusic-only perspective. Estimates from the last couple of years indicate that focusing only on that one site meant I was ignoring maybe two-thirds or even three-quarters of all releases (reissues included). So inevitably the quality of the final selection had to improve by widening the scope. But it's interesting that 7 of the 14 winners are on eMusic. As an extension of that fact, it's worth noting that 12 of the 14 winners are from the independent labels - Murray Perahia on Sony and Renée Fleming on Decca being the exceptions. In fact, only 12 of the 70 listed albums are from majors, and Opera Recital is the only category where the majors are in a majority. Harmonia Mundi made the most appearances overall, with 11 of the 70; Hyperion won 3 awards, and Harmonia Mundi and Naxos 2 each. Of course, we've known this for years - the majors may have most of the big-name stars and the attendant hype machines, but when it comes to great recordings, it's the independents who are doing the heavy lifting.

The other significant item I like to reflect on in the post-Awards glow is the general quality of the review sources. At some date soon I should post on my opinions of each of the publications, but for now it's worth considering their collective impact. It's easy to deride individual critics, or even individual publications, but the very fact that I can do these Awards things shows that, collectively, they know what they're talking about, and there can be such a thing as a general consensus. But sometimes not. Here come the statistics!
Number of albums on the long list (based on a minimum number of very good/excellent reviews): 252.
Number of these albums reviewed by all 7 sources: 39.
Number reviewed by 6 sources: 116.
Number reviewed by only 2 or 3 sources: 23.
This last figure means that about 9 percent of all albums that 2 or 3 sources said were excellent were simply not reviewed by any of the others. There may be various reasons for such neglect, but it does go to show that any given magazine or web site is pretty much guaranteed to ignore something you might love.
For each of the 7 sources, the number of long-list albums they reviewed (out of 252) was:
Gramophone 208; BBC Music 198; IRR 203; ARG 207; Fanfare 210; Classics Today 114; MusicWeb 181.
The 5 print magazines are very close together, aren't they? You can generalize this, I suppose, to state that if you rely solely on one review magazine, you'll miss out on roughly 20 percent of the good stuff. (But, looking further at the numbers, you can halve that figure if you're talking about the really good stuff).
That's quantity, what about quality? This will be a subject of another post in the near future. Suffice to say there were 11 albums that received the best possible review from one source and the worst possible review from another source. But for about two-thirds of the albums, there was a reasonable consensus on their merits.

Finally, what about the winners and losers themselves? I've spent a lot of time with these albums, listening to them, reading reviews of them, and gazing cross-eyed at their titles on a spreadsheet. Of course I have favourites, but I've done my best to keep my own opinions out of the results. Look, the whole process is subjective: the reviewers are subjective, my interpretations of the reviews are subjective, and although I use numbers and calculations to come to a final result, I'm no statistician. But, as I said, consensus can be reached a lot of the time. Furthermore, the one thing I really like about my system is that, unlike the awards in the real world, there's no jury selection to produce a short list that is then voted on. The votes here are "live", with no reviewer's hindsight and no comparing one album with another: each data point stands alone, and then they're all gathered together to produce a final result. The overall process is as close as I can get to simply summarizing my experience of all the reviews I've read over the year. If you were to do the exact same thing, you'd get a different result. But probably not very different.

Right. That's it, show's over for another year. I don't know who you are or what you want, but let me repeat my exhortation: buy these albums.
Thanks for your time and interest. Normal blog service will resume in a few days.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Expect delays

I should have known better. Publicly stating a deadline for the Nereffid's Guide Awards was a guarantee that sudden obstacles would appear. The more I thought about what I'd put in this post to explain why I won't be getting the Awards done by the weekend, the more I realised that it would sound like something from a Laurel & Hardy short. You know: the gruff shouty man has summoned them to his office so they can explain why they've failed to accomplish some easy task he's set them. Ollie looks sheepish, nervously fingering the brim of the hat he's holding, and then Stan pipes up brightly, "Well, first the kitchen cabinet fell off the wall..."
Which is what happened. I kind of wish I'd been there to see it, although if I'd been in the kitchen at the time I probably wouldn't be writing this now. What seems to have happened is, at about 02:15, Wednesday morning, some plaster in the wall at the very end of the kitchen gave way, causing one double cabinet to fall, which then - because they were attached so well - pulled with it the fan unit from above the cooker, which then - because they too were attached so well - pulled down the next double cabinet, which pulled down the single cabinet beside it, by which stage there was only one cabinet left and the force had dissipated by then, so this cabinet clung on to the wall, albeit at a slight angle.
The weird thing is, they all managed to land upright on the floor. Possibly, the first one landed on some stuff on the countertop underneath it and then slid off, dragging the rest with it. So when I came downstairs to find out what the hell was that noise, I was met by an empty wall, an almost perfectly normal countertop, and a long row of cabinets sitting on the floor, their broken contents spilling out. My first reaction was, of course, OK, now I want to wake up please.
Once I got over the shock, I realised that, given the images that have been coming from Haiti, I actually wasn't going to be upset about this. Sometimes nice stuff falls off walls and breaks. We can move on.
But the frigging Nereffid's Guide Awards will probably have to wait a couple of days longer.

Monday, January 25, 2010

BBC Music Magazine Awards

Don't forget to get your votes in for this year's BBC Music Magazine Awards. Because as we all know, the best way to decide anything is via an online poll.
Is it ethical to vote if you haven't heard all the nominated albums? (I've heard 9 of the 18). Well, consider the fact that all entrants are put into a draw in which both the winner and the 2 runners-up receive copies of all the albums. So I guess they're assuming that the voter generally doesn't have all the information needed to make a rational decision. Just like most voting situations, then.

Of course, long-term Nereffid fans will scoff (thus: pah!) and declare that there is not, nor ought there be, any classical music recording award as prestigious as the Nereffid's Guide Awards, to which I am currently putting the finishing touches. Expect the results by the weekend. It will be exciting! I may even use different coloured fonts or something.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bonjour, Polynésie française

Have you seen the Flag Counter I installed on the blog? Over there, on the right... no, down a bit... too far - up a bit...
There's quite a few countries on it already, but I assume all those single-view countries are people who've come across the blog randomly, by doing what I do occasionally - clicking on Blogger's "Next Blog", or just poking around in profiles, following links to see where they take you. So I suppose they don't really count. But it's pleasing to think that there might now be someone in Argentina or Turkey or, yes, French Polynesia who knows what I think about Batt O'Keeffe. (Of course, Flag Counter says that its "advanced geolocation technology" has "over 99% accuracy", so there's a possibility that any of those countries is incorrect).
Also, I assume that those multiple visits from Denmark are all from the same Dane (you know who you are).

... which offers a completely gratuitous link to this...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Listened to: Louis Andriessen

Andriessen: "Gigantic Dancing Human Machine"
Bang on a Can

Andriessen: De Staat
Nederlands Blazers Ensemble
NBE Live

It's been a while since I listened to Louis Andriessen, and I've never heard much of his music, though I did like what I heard - De Snelheid, a bit of De Stijl, and (remembering only vaguely) his M is for Man, Music, Mozart score for Peter Greenaway. The two discs above contain 4 works between them. Three are from the mid-1970s, when Andriessen developed his minimalist style. De Staat is a wonderful, brash piece, full of the drama that almost by definition isn't often present in early Glass or Reich. Certainly a highlight of seventies minimalism for me. Hoketus is another impressive one, although this time for technical reasons; like the medieval "hiccup", the stop-start melody is shared between two voices (ensembles). Listened to from a distance, it's menacing but a little dull, but when you get the stereo separation you hear its fiendishness. The other seventies work, Workers Union, has a delirious sort of propulsiveness to it. Bang on a Can's album is rounded off by a piece from 1991, Hout, which is not so minimalist but is recognisably from the same composer.
More Andriessen must follow, I think. I'm intrigued by Norman Lebrecht's comment (in his Companion to 20th Century Music) "The Symphony for open strings (1978) has an unvibrated plangency that could be Balinese or medieval Dutch".

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

One composer's response to an earthquake

A massive earthquake hit Lisbon, Portugal, on November 1st, 1755, killing tens of thousands of people. One intriguing "side effect" of the earthquake was the response of Georg Philipp Telemann, who composed a cantata, Die Donner-Ode, in commemoration. It was performed in Hamburg the following October, and proved such a success that Telemann added a second part a few years later. Whereas people like Voltaire used the Lisbon earthquake as evidence against a loving God, Telemann's cantata adapts a couple of psalms and offers a different view, one that would hardly have comforted a survivor of the earthquake. It's nowhere on the Pat Robertson scale of offensiveness, but still, it's pretty harsh - God smashes stuff up because he can, basically, and he needs the attention. The epitome of this idea - and also the musical highlight! - comes in the duet for two basses that closes Part I (hear it, in Richard Hickox's recording for Chandos, on YouTube).
He thunders that He may be glorified.
Give thanks in His temple!
From the temple to the ends of the world
shall sound the long, loud song of praise.

(The photo shows the rebuilt Lisbon, 254 years later)

Monday, January 18, 2010

A pothole in The Road

This movie The Road: not much Hope, and sod-all Crosby.

Seriously, though, I thought it was superb. The two leads were amazing, the visuals excellent, the horror horrific, Robert Duvall everything you would want from a Robert Duvall cameo... but what in tarnation happened with the score? Soppy and sentimental a lot of the time, and far too present. I kept waiting for Meredith Baxter to show up. And it was by Nick Cave, for pete's sake.
Two examples of how the film undermined itself, only spoiler-y if you really really hate any kind of discussion of what happens. The first is in the scene where Viggo Mortensen uncovers the piano. Did it not occur to anyone that this would have had far more emotional impact if there hadn't just been a tinkly piano on the soundtrack? The second is a more general thing, relating to the numerous scenes of trudging. OK, they have to trudge along; that's the point. But they didn't need this slightly-too-hopeful Music To Trudge By. "Why are we still walking, papa?" "The music... it draws me on..."
As for the end... ah, I don't want to talk about the end. Suffice to say that if Guy Pearce's character had suddenly whipped out a knife and stabbed Nick Cave repeatedly in the stomach, I would have left the cinema floating like a cloud and filled with optimism for the human race.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Popstar to OMG

I was filled with horror at the news that ITV was launching Popstar To Operastar, in which 8, er, "celebrities" would attempt to sing opera. But then I thought a bit about it, and thought, well, BBC's Maestro - in which 8, er, "celebrities" attempted to become conductors - wasn't so bad in the end. And ITV had Rolando Villazón, who is slightly more beloved than, say, Roger Norrington...
In the end I needn't have worried. Popstar To Operastar is a humungous pile of crap. OK, first off it's not helped by the presenters - Myleene Klass and Percy the Park-keeper. Poor Myleene - one of her first jokes was something about people "knowing their arias from their elbows". Not the worst line in the world, but the studio audience were so excited that I don't think any of them heard her speak, so nobody laughed, so Myleene laughed for them. Percy just gurned a bit, probably thinking about acorns or something. You can imagine the thrill for the audience though. I mean, just look at the list of celebrities: an Osmond, a Nolan, somebody called Vanessa, someone from McFly, your one out of Shakespeare's Sister, someone who either is or was in Coronation Street and was also in the exact same pop group as Myleene Klass, the legendary Darius Campbell, and Alex James off of Blur. Plus, Rowan Atkinson had put on a funny wig and eyebrows and was pretending to be a Mexican tenor called Rolando Something that nobody had ever heard of. And there was Katherine Jenkins! And Meat Loaf! And Lawrence Llewellyn-Fucking-Bowen!! So the audience was at fever pitch even before a single note was sung. It's totally understandable that they would cheer insanely as soon as the first warbly noises emerged from each popstar's throat. Actually that cheering was what stopped me from seeing much of the show. I had to turn it off after the second act because of Mrs Nereffid's repeated cries of "OH SHUT UP!!!"
So it was basically Britain's Got Talent. Or rather, Britain's Got Talent But It's Not Performing Here Tonight. Of the 8 contestants, only 1 was eliminated. This seemed both statisically and morally wrong. It was, inevitably, Alex James. Poor Alex! He failed miserably on Maestro too. But at least he seems to do these things out of genuine interest in the subject matter, rather than because his agent suggested it would be a good idea. He was dreadful, though. He had to sing "Largo al factotum", and my impression is that he decided to perform it in the style of Kenneth from 30 Rock. It (and presumably all the other ones) is on YouTube, if you dare.

Oh, to end this discussion of rubbish let's cleanse ourselves by remembering one of the consequences of Maestro - Goldie's Sine Tempore at the Proms:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Fetchez la vache!

I don't know Purcell's King Arthur, but I was inspired to investigate because of Piers Burton-Page's scathing review in IRR of a new DVD of an "adaptation" of the work by Hervé Niquet and French comedians Corinne and Gilles Benizio.
King Arthur is a "semi-opera" with a libretto by John Dryden; J. A. Westrup describes the story as "a quaint mixture of historical legend and pure fantasy". The main roles are spoken, and the singing is done by secondary characters. The action has nothing to do with the round table but is based on the conflict between the Britons and the Saxons. According to Wikipedia, it may be an allegory for the "Exclusion crisis" over who would succeed Charles II.
I notice you're not chuckling over the comic possibilities for such a work. Add in an apparent musical high point, described by Westrup as "the scene of the frozen wastes, from which the Cold Genius rises grimly like Erda in the Ring", distinguished by "the extraordinary suggestiveness of the harmonic progressions, from the strange sliding semitones of the instrumental introduction to the discordant melancholy of the Cold Genius's concluding words" [Let me, let me, let me freeze again/Let me, let me freeze again to death/Let me, let me, let me freeze again to death] and, let's face it, the words "French comedians" up above start to stick out like a sore thumb.

This self-produced recording by Belgian basso profundo Paul Gerimon does seem to match that description of the Cold Scene:

Spooky, huh? Well, you probably have some idea of what's coming. Here's Joao Fernandes (baritone) in the new French version. He plays King Arthur (yes, they've rewritten the plot that much)...

While we're at it, here's a version for penguin, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Salzburg...

I haven't seen either a "proper" King Arthur or any of the French version that isn't on YouTube, so it's not for me to say whether Piers Burton-Page is right to use phrases like "undisciplined anarchy-cum-smugness", "this French travesty", or "hideous embarrassment". Sure, the scene with the two skiiers (that's the directors, of course) is excruciating, and the rest of the clips look like there must be an electric donkey-bottom biter in there somewhere, but as a whole maybe it was a fun night out.
What intrigues me is how much you can rewrite the plot of an opera (or semi-opera) and still be allowed to claim it's the same work. Those YouTube clips, which come from Le Concert Spirituel, say they're excerpts from Henry Purcell's King Arthur. But are they, really? Would I have been happy to go in expecting a Restoration spectacular, or a modern simulacrum thereof, and get this instead?
The other issue this raises is, to what extent should comedians be allowed to take over operas? I suggest the best way to find out would be to put Jimmy Carr in Il trovatore and see what happens.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

eMusic, six (well, more like seven) months later

Time, I think, for some reflection about eMusic. I wouldn't be Nereffid without it - Nereffid would just be the drunken taxidermist in my brain - and I haven't yet forged a Nereffid identity (if I ever will) that's not associated with eMusic, as in, "Nereffid? Oh, wasn't he on the eMusic boards?"
I indeed had a regular presence on the eMu boards for a few years, to the extent that at one point when I hadn't posted for a couple of weeks people were wondering what had happened. That was nice. Because of the Sony shenanigans and the ensuing fallout I quit the community in June of last year. But I never really left; Nereffid left the community, but I've been contributing occasionally to the boards, incognito. And of course I still use the service.
I'm fascinated by how difficult it's been to quit completely. No, "difficult" isn't really the word, because I haven't been putting any effort into quitting. That's the weird thing about the Internet - you can lurk, never contribute, and still feel like you're part of something. But I don't much miss offering advice on recordings, or indeed running Nereffid's Guide. Part of that's down to the small size of the eMu classical community - not much goes on there that one would feel compelled to contribute. You can say that about the community overall, I think. Too many of the long-time regulars are gone now, and it really isn't the same anymore.
Then there's Sony, and of course now Warner. The fact that so much of the eMusic catalogue is inaccessible serves to push me that bit further away. I can't share in the community's excitement over music I can't get. And, although I was never one for eMusic's editorial content, it seems to have dropped off a lot in the past six months, perhaps shifting focus to places I can't see, and there's hardly any material on classical music that I can pshaw about. So basically by making the site better for its US customers (inasmuch as more music = better), eMusic has, de facto, made it worse for everyone else.
In my goodbye post, I remarked that eMusic had, with its Sony/increased pricing/screw-the-community triple-whammy, demoted itself into just a shop. Six (well, more like seven) months later, I see nothing to change my mind, unfortunately.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cold-snap complaint #2

OK, I understand you were fearful that your pipes were going to freeze and/or burst during the cold weather, and that you figured the only way of preventing this was to keep your taps running continuously for two weeks. So the fact that the reservoirs are now dangerously low and our water pressure was reduced to a trickle this morning, well, fair enough, these things happen. But do me a favour, will you? When the county council brings in water metering, and we have to pay for what we use: don't complain.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Please don't buy my product!

How hard is it to buy a classical album, either on CD or as a download? Quite difficult, as it turns out.
Over the last couple of weeks I've been examining how to fill my collection with the works of composers whose anniversaries fall this year (see earlier post for some names). eMusic remains a good source, of course. But I also came up with a list of 81 albums (found via Classical Digest) not available through eMusic. I don't intend to buy all of them, or even a substantial portion, but I was curious as to how easily available they were. I had a look at mail order site MDT and download sites iTunes, Qobuz, and Amazon is of course a great source but for the purposes of this experiment I decided to mostly ignore it, mainly because I couldn't be arsed keeping track of what was available from Amazon itself and what was new versus used from other sellers.
The 81 albums covered a range of composers and labels, major and independent, and of varying ages (very few of them more than 20 years old, I'd say).
Only 36 were available from MDT. iTunes had 26, Qobuz 21, and 7digital 17, and altogether 43 albums were available as downloads.
Of the 45 albums not available on disc from MDT, 20 could be obtained as a download, leaving 25 unavailable from all 4 sources. (Which is where Amazon scores; also, 4 of the 25 were available from classicsonline, and 1 from Hyperion).
Only 1 - one! - of the 81 albums was available from all 4 sources: a 2-CD set of baroque and classical horn concertos performed by Barry Tuckwell on EMI. It's on special offer from MDT at the moment, for the equivalent of €7.50 (not including postage, which is under €2). Or you can download it from iTunes or Qobuz for €19.99, or from 7digital for €21.99.

So, what have we learned?
That the labels delete an awful lot of material. But sometimes it comes back, very cheap, on CD.
That there's little relationship between the price of a CD and the price of a download of the same thing. Sometimes downloads are significantly cheaper, sometimes they're laughably dearer.
That downloads are filling some of the gaps in the catalogue caused by deletions, but there are still plenty of gaps left.
Actually, come to think of it, we knew all that already. But we're scientists here; we like to have the data.

The Knave abideth

Awesome: The most excellent comedie and tragical romance of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski.

That rug, in faith, tied the room together, did it not?

By my heart, a goodly rug.

And in most miserable tide did this rogue besmirch it.

Prithee, Donald! Thou too eagerly hold’st the mirror up to nature.

My mind races; I might endeavour to seek this gentleman Lebowski.

His name is Lebowski? Verily, ope thine ear; that is thy name, Knave!

On good authority; and his nobleness must oblige. His wife taketh up quarrel and borrows, and they bespoil my rug.

Marry, sir, my heartstrings do you tug;
They urinate upon thy damnèd rug.

Snow crisis!

This photo was taken on New Year's Day.
They're not in school today, because Minister Batt O'Keeffe decided to Take Some Action on Friday and ordered all the schools to be closed until Thursday. If the heavy snow that had been predicted actually had shown up on Sunday, then perhaps he would have been applauded for his foresight and even hailed as a great leader, or at least as someone with the minimum competence for the job. But as I look out the window at a slightly damp January day without any snow or ice whatsoever, the minister instead seems rather a twat.
I didn't vote for them, you know. No matter how bad or stupid things get, there's always that consolation: it wasn't my fault!

Listened to: Variaciones del fandango espanol

"Variaciones del fandango espanol"
Andreas Staier (harpsichord)

Antonio Soler's Fandango became an instant favourite when I first heard it about 8 months ago. This 10-minute piece is underpinned by a vibrant rhythm and filled with constantly changing ideas that wander off into fascinating regions... who'd have guessed that an 18th-century Spanish priest invented prog rock? That piece is at the start of the album, and the end comes in the form of a lots-of-fun version of the "other" slightly famous fandango, the one in Boccherini's Guitar quintet G448, this being a version for 2 harpsichords plus castanets. In between there's lots to enjoy too, notably a couple of slightly nutty pieces by Sebastian de Albero in a genre unique to that composer, the Recercata, Fuga y Sonata.

This post represents the successor to "To this week I listened to". New posts will occur Whenever I Like.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Composer anniversaries, 2010

Sure, 2010 is the year for Schumann, Chopin, and Mahler. But how many other composers whose anniversaries fall this year will we see in cheap complete-works box sets from the major labels this year?

Died 800 years ago:
Jehan Bodel (c1165-1210) Your fascinating fact about this French trouvere is that he would have gone on the Fourth Crusade in 1202 but he contracted leprosy.
Died 550 years ago:
Gilles Binchois (c1400-1460) One of the "big three" of the early 15th century (along with Dufay and Dunstable).
Born 500 years ago:
Antonio de Cabezon (1510-1566) Music teacher to the future Philip II of Spain, who, according to Grove, "favoured him perhaps over any other artist except Titian".
Born 450 years ago:
Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) Not Michael Praetorius.
Born 350 years ago:
André Campra (1660-1744) He's between Lully and Rameau.
Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) The celebrated author of Gradus ad Parnassum, beloved by generations of Greek mountaineers.
Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) Bach's predecessor at Leipzig, and author of a satirical novel.
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) Not known as "the cantata king", but he did write over 600 of them so I say we adopt this epithet immediately.
Born 300 years ago:
Domenico Alberti (1710-1740) Of Alberti bass fame.
Thomas Arne (1710-1778) The leading British composer of the 18th century. OK, name another one...
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784) Not to be confused with his nephew WFE Bach, or his confused nephew WTF Bach.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) Stravinsky's Pulcinella was based on music not by Pergolesi.
Died 250 years ago:
Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) You probably remember him from such albums as "Graupner: Partitas for harpsichord, volume 6" and "Graupner: Partitas for harpsichord, volume 7".
Born 250 years ago:
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) This portrait looks like he's three seconds away from saying "Get OFF! Stop doing that!"
Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) Haydn once described him as "one of the most upright, moral, and, in music, most eminent of men". Now you feel obliged to pay attention to him, don't you?
Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836) He wrote The Marseillaise.
Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg (1760-1802) Long ago lodged in my brain as the end of my alphabetised composer list (since superceded, though).
Born 200 years ago:
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) Did you know he was once played in a film by Hugh Grant?
Felicien David (1810-1876) Not to be confused with his German contemporary Ferdinand.
Ferdinand David (1810-1873) To be confused with his French contemporary Felicien.
Hans Christian Lumbye (1810-1874) The waltz king of Denmark. So famous that Johann Strauss was known as "the Lumbye of the south".
Otto Nicolai (1810-1849) Composer of the operas Enrico II, Il templario, Gildippe ed Odoardo, and Il proscritto.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Played by Paul Henreid; with Katharine Hepburn as Clara!
Born 150 years ago:
Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) He didn't write guitar music. Really.
Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956) One word: Louise.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) Probably best known as the first husband of Alma Schindler.
Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) The only composer on this list to have signed the Treaty of Versailles.
Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945) Four words: Overture to Donna Diana.
William Wallace (1860-1940) Played by Mel Gibson (You're fired! - Ed).
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) He once believed he was Jupiter (the god, not the planet).
Died 100 years ago:
Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) The evil mastermind behind sinister Russian organization The Five, whose dangerous schemes were constantly being foiled by our hero Tchaikovsky, P.I.
Mikolajus Ciurlionis (1875-1910) He also painted.
Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) Owner of some of the most impressive facial hair in classical music (scroll down the page).
Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910) The token woman, I'm afraid.
Born 100 years ago:
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) I can't think of anything clever to say about him that doesn't involve the word "adagio". Sorry.
William Schuman (1910-1992) Named William Howard after US president Taft.
Died 50 years ago:
Erno Dohnányi (1877-1960) Not to be confused with Ernst von Dohnányi. Oh - wait...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Have I listened to anything recently?

Yes, quite a lot actually, thank you, but I haven't been blogging about it. December was a busy month, and opportunities for posting were fewer. More importantly, my attempt to keep a continuous weekly log of my listening experiences has started to feel like an obligation rather than a fun thing to do. So I doubt if I'll go back to a "This week I listened to" routine. But I promise to try to highlight any really good albums. And I do want to do occasional (if not regular) 8tracks mixes. In compensation, later this month you'll get the Third Annual Nereffid's Guide Awards.
Who reads this stuff, anyway?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mecum omnes plangite!

End of the decade? Pah! scoffed the BBC. And so they commissioned PPL to compile a list of the most-played classical recordings of the last 75 years. I really don't know what to make of it. Here's the top 10:
Orff - O Fortuna (Kurt Eichhorn)
Vaughan Williams
- Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis (Bernard Haitink)
- Scheherazade (Charles Mackerras)
- The Sleeping Beauty (Mikhail Pletnev)
Schumann - Romance In F Sharp Major Op 28/2 (Joseph Cooper)
- Sylvia (Richard Bonynge)
- Symphony No 2 (Vladimir Ashkenazy)
- The Planets (James Loughran)
- The Sleeping Beauty (Valery Gergiev)
Schubert - Symphony No 5 (Neville Marriner)
Now, this is a list of specific recordings rather than specific pieces; as the BBC press release says, there were several pieces that showed up more than once but in different recordings - for example, there were 4 recordings of The Planets in the list of 30. And seeing as the list covers music played in "all public places" then presumably the most-performed recordings reflect to some extent certain licensing deals. So I don't know what, if any, conclusions can really be drawn from the list.
One odd thing that strikes me is Schumann's Romance op.28/2. I admit I had no clue what the piece was when I saw it on the list. Surely if there's going to be a Schumann piano piece in the top 10 it would be "Traumerei"? Well, certainly "Traumerei" has more recordings: 226 on ArkivMusic, plus another 97 of the full Kinderszenen. But then that would also mean that the Romance, with only 33 recordings, plus another 10 of the full set of three, stands a better chance of having a higher representation by one particular recording. I guess. See what I mean about not being able to draw conclusions? Also, the Symphony no.5 isn't necessarily the Schubert piece you might expect.
A related question about this piece is, who the hell is Joseph Cooper? None of the recordings of that piece listed on ArkivMusic is his. His Wikipedia entry reveals that he "made a number of successful recordings" and was host of the BBC TV show Face the Music. Before my time, I'm afraid - but we can watch it on YouTube - with William Walton as the guest, with a jolly anecdote about Boult and Diaghilev. Jesus! Can you imagine such a program being commissioned these days? Well, there was a revival in 2007, on BBC Four. I think I saw the single episode; it was hosted by John Sergeant, who's not particularly famous for his musical (or, indeed, dancing) skills. Who'd be Walton's equivalent these days, though? Harrison Birtwistle? Peter Maxwell Davies?
From Wikipedia also I learn that Robin Ray, a regular on Face the Music and also host of Call My Bluff, was responsible for devising Classic FM's original playlist. This prompts sad thoughts about computer-generated scheduling, and now I seem to find myself in an o tempora, o mores sort of mood, which inevitably leads me back to Orff's "O Fortuna":
Hac in hora
sine mora
cordum pulsum tangite;
quod per soterm
sternit fortem
mecum omnes plangite!

Look it up.