Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Everything in its right place

Who on earth buys CD shelves these days? Me. At last I've reached the shelves-covering-one-whole-wall-of-the-room phase. Well, OK, not the whole wall because the door opens against it. But still. And removing all the CDs from where they were stacked on bookshelves means I can now put actual books on the bookshelves. It's quite clever really.

Concert held; no one dies

A performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at "London's Wigmore Hall" on Monday was repeatedly interrupted by pro-Palestine/anti-Israel demonstrators. News reports here and here; the view from one of the protesters here; and an eye-witness account/concert review here.
One thing puzzles me. On the one side, there's a claim that one or more members of the Jerusalem Quartet are part of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. On the other, there's a claim that the quartet are Distinguished IDF Musicians. Surely both can't be true. Wouldn't that require some serious cognitive dissonance? Or is the Israel-Palestine situation even more fucked up than I thought?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wikipedia at its best

For reasons that we don't need to go into, I've just been consulting Wikipedia about the flag of Nicaragua. The text of the "stub" article concludes with:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Penderecki for the criminally insane

It's an intriguing thought, that millions of cinema-goers are currently getting their first taste of the music of composers such as Schnittke, Cage, Scelsi, and Feldman. This is thanks to the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's latest, Shutter Island, which features a variety of modern classical pieces rather than a specially composed score. The movie's a conscious effort to pay homage to forties B-movies, which of course means it's smarter, better put together, more emotionally engaging, and possessing of a deeper insight into the human condition than most big movies. OK, I admit I'm not neutral when it comes to Scorsese. With Shutter Island, we've got a film that a lot of directors could have pulled off pretty easily, but Scorsese brings that much more to the table, and manages to make it something other than just a couple of hours' cheap thrills. The music is certainly a major part of his success; hats off to Robbie Robertson, who chose the music and in a press release said "This may be the most outrageous and beautiful soundtrack I’ve ever heard". Not being a soundtrack afficonado, I can't instantly agree with him. But I think he's right. Saw the film Saturday evening, bought the soundtrack Sunday morning.
The first stroke of genius is the choice of Penderecki's Symphony no.3 - the repeated low notes that begin the 4th movement set the ominous tone as the two federal marshalls approach the island. Very Bernard Herrmann, really. This music returns repeatedly throughout the film - you might call it the main theme, or one of them at any rate. Much of the subsequent action is underscored by music that's variously sinister (Cage's Music for Marcel Duchamp), spooky (Feldman's Rothko Chapel), and disturbing (Scelsi's Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Mayan City Which They Themselves Destroyed for Religious Reasons). The second stroke of genius is what's playing on Max von Sydow's turntable. "What is that? Brahms?" asks Mark Ruffalo. "No. It's... Mahler", Leo diCaprio replies, heralding a flashback to... well. Yes indeed it is Mahler, specifically the piano quartet movement he wrote as a teenager. OK, slight mistake on the part of the film makers here - the work had its first known performance several years after the events of the film - but the music is so good that you forgive this (in fact, I'd only heard the piece for the first time about a month ago, so I too had a "What is that?" reaction).
The third stroke of genius is one that most of the audience on Saturday chose to completely avoid, because they left the cinema as soon as they possibly could when the credits began to roll. I don't understand this sort of behaviour. I see it all the time, regardless of the film. OK, maybe a few of them had a bus to catch, but can they not have even a moment's pause before charging off? Maybe the film meant nothing to them - literally meant nothing, because it takes more than a second to digest the film's final line. Anyway, the credits rolled, Mahler played again, and then what these fools missed was an extraordinary "remixed" version of Dinah Washington singing "This Bitter Earth", her vocals (slowed down from the original?) laid over a haunting string work by Max Richter called "On the Nature of Daylight". I'm inclined to believe that the people who left the cinema quickly didn't actually attend the whole film.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why was I not told about Uuno Klami?

I've been listening to the music of Finland's Uuno Klami (1900-1961) for the first time, specifically a selection of 5 pieces recorded for Ondine by Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, downloaded as part of my recent "get a whole bunch of cheap stuff I don't know" campaign. I suppose I could blame myself for the fact that I'd never heard Klami's music before, but it's more fun to blame society instead. After all, it's not as if there are new Klami albums coming out every month... he only gets half a page in my 1980 Grove... what the hell is wrong with you people?
Actually there is a new Ondine recording out, which I shall have to get. David Hurwitz reviewed it on Classics Today, saying Klami's music is "characterized by superb craftsmanship, glittering orchestration, and melodies that sound like you might have heard them before but can't remember where", which I agree with on my limited listening experience. Yes, you can hear Sibelius in there somewhere (would it be any other way for a Finnish composer inspired by the Kalevala?) but I also detected some early Stravinsky in there and, somewhat puzzlingly, Ravel. Grove reveals that Klami studied with Ravel, and indeed a quick skim through various online reviews shows that it's standard operating procedure to call Klami "the Finnish Ravel", as Hurwitz does.
Of the 5 things I listened to, the Karelian Rhapsody of 1927 is the stand-out. It's got a sort of bipolar nature to it, spending a lot of its time in northern gloom but every so often bursting out in rustic giddiness. As for melodies I might have heard before, I got "The loveliest night of the year" and "From the halls of Montezuma". Go figure. Another work on this album is In the Belly of Vipunen, with baritone and chorus, which (I presume) recounts an episode from the Kalevala in which Väinämöinen is swallowed by the giant Vipunen, builds a forge in his stomach, and generally makes a nuisance of himself until Vipunen reveals a secret incantation.
I admit I'm kinda proud of myself for spotting Klami's influences all by myself on first listen. Look at this: Gramophone - "He preferred Ravel and Stravinsky as stylistic godfathers"; MusicWeb - "Klami drank deep draughts of the Finnish nationalist essence but later mixed it with the voices of Gallic impressionism and Stravinskian energy from his studies in Paris"; Gramophone again - Klami "escaped the overbearing dominance of Sibelius's style only to "fall for the intoxicating draughts of Ravel, early Stravinsky and Florent Schmitt"". Draughts galore!

No thumbs up

Ack! MusicWeb has removed the little thumbs-up icon from the review listings. Now I'm going to have to read the damn things...

Galactica: Sabotage

We don't normally cover either TV science fiction or the Beastie Boys here, but...

And there's a shot-by-shot comparison with the original, too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Choose your Figaro

Over on the eMusic boards, a question has been raised by the redoubtable snakespeare about which Nozze di Figaro to download. I know which one I automatically gravitate to, but we all have our particular prejudices (good and bad). So here's some links to samples that will allow us to compare and contrast without knowing who we're listening to. For each of 4 bits from the opera, there's 15 randomly arranged .mp3 samples from 15 Figaro recordings available on eMusic Europe (in a different order for each bit). Answers will appear in the Comments. When I get my PhD in Hard Sums I'll devise a scoring system that will reveal (a) how perceptive a listener you are, (b) how consistent your tastes are, (c) secrets for a perfect love life, and (d) were our ancestors aliens?


Non piu andrai:

Voi, che sapete:

Giunse alfin il momento:
(A) B C D E F G (H) I J K L M N O
(the 2 samples in parentheses are for 2 albums that don't start a track with "Giunse alfin..." so in these cases I've used the preceding "Signora, ella mi disse", just for the sake of having something there)

In alphabetical conductor order, these are the albums and their eMusic links:
Bohm; Busch (1934); Busch (1949); Halasz; Jacobs; Karajan (1954); Karajan (1974); Kuijken; Maag; Maazel (discs 2 and 3); Mackerras; Mehta; Parry (in English); Reiner; Rosbaud.

So what I did was listen to each sample in turn and rate each one as "I like it/It's OK/I don't like it", with sound rated as "Good/OK/Poor". Seven recordings proved consistenly likeable, and the others were variable. Call it a bias, but the ones in good sound (generally, modern recordings) usually proved a bigger hit performance-wise than the older (sometimes very obviously live) ones. Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi proved to be my favourite, thus confirming a prejudice! The runner-up was the Naxos recording by Michael Halasz, closely followed by Mackerras on Telarc, (the singers let down a bit by the sound, I thought) then Kujken on Accent, Karajan's 1974 account on Opera d'Oro (though I found the sound quality a drawback), and Maag's on Arts (also not helped by the sound). I liked Parry's Chandos version too, though I'm a little ambivalent about Opera in English in terms of "if you own only one version..."; where would it fit on the list? Possibly between Karajan and Maag. Or possibly not.
These 7 recordings alone can be ranked 5,040 different ways, you know, so I don't expect you to agree with me. Can we make these sorts of decisions based on 30-second samples, anyway? Probably not. Oh well.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Philip Langridge

And while we're on the subject of the deaths of musical men, time too to remember the late Philip Langridge.

Thinking about Harmonia Mundi

With the recent death of Bernard Coutaz, thoughts turn to the label he established more than 50 years ago, Harmonia Mundi. I'm trying to remember what was the first Harmonia Mundi album I owned - a difficult task, because I didn't pay much attention to labels back then. It might have been "Musique de la Grèce antique" (links are to Or maybe not. So I'm not doing this in chronological order. What are some other releases that impressed me before I started to become the collector I am now? Nicholas McGegan's recording of Susanna was a key step in my long-delayed appreciation of Handel - plenty of charm there. My attempts to get into medieval music were greatly aided by the Paul Hillier/Andrew Lawrence-King album of French Troubadour Songs. The key here was the realisation that a recording of medieval music didn't have to be merely a historical document, but could be in its own way as modern as anything else. As if to somehow prove that point, Paul Hillier also was responsible for my first foray into the world of John Cage. What else? Haydn from René Jacobs, Poulenc from Daniel Reuss, Pandolfi from Andrew Manze, "Hamburg 1734" from Andreas Staier, Wolf from Kent Nagano. I suppose by this stage I'd realised that Harmonia Mundi was associated with a certain kind of music ("good" music, perhaps?!), but I still didn't have much of the label in my collection. Blame cost and availability - I wasn't spending much on music at the time, and any given attempt to buy a classical CD in Ireland will be fraught with complications. So I can thank eMusic for broadening my horizons, first with the US arm of Harmonia Mundi, and eventually with the French side too. Some early ear-openers included another from Paul Hillier, Pärt's "Da Pacem"; Richard Egarr playing Mozart on a fortepiano; Joel Frederiksen's "The Elfin Knight" (oh how I love that album); Paul O'Dette playing Dowland; Mendelssohn from the Eroica Quartet; Mark Padmore singing Handel arias. And more. Much more.
So, thank you, Bernard Coutaz and those who have worked with you, for all the beauty and joy you've created.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hey Steve Reich...

... my 4-year-old daughter's up on the coffee table, dancing to part 2 of Tehillim. Just thought you should know.