Friday, April 30, 2010

I was young and foolish then

... I feel old and foolish now
(They Might Be Giants, "Lucky Ball and Chain". Hey, wow, that's two TMBG references in post titles this month!)

Recently I came across what you might call a log book of music I'd heard on the radio. This would have been early 1993, I think, and the radio station in question was FM3, the precursor of Lyric. The information in the copy book consists of the title of the work and an indication of whether I liked it or not; no performer details included. There's 120 entries - I'm not sure how long the process lasted - and most of them are single movements or relatively short full works. Why did I keep this log? I can't remember! I suppose the main impulse was to find great music I hadn't heard before. I hadn't been listening to classical music for very long at that point, so my horizons certainly needed broadening. The plan wasn't to have the book get put away and be rediscovered 17 years later.

It makes for intriguing and, yes, at times embarrassing reading. There was a lot of music I didn't like, as my tastes still reflected what it was that had first drawn me to classical music: tuneful orchestral music, exciting climaxes - your Grieg piano concertos and your Beethoven's Fifths and your valkyrie-related rides. What new works impressed me then? Roussel's Bacchus and Ariadne, Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, Shostakovich's 1st violin concerto, Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, Dukas's La peri... well, you can see a trend there. So it isn't surprising that boring old Mozart and Haydn didn't have much chance. I didn't like Haydn's Creation, for goodness' sake! Though in fairness I did enjoy his trumpet concerto, and the first movement of Mozart's Piano concerto no.20 instantly became one of my favourite pieces of music. Other works that failed to impress me included Debussy's La mer (though I liked his string quartet) and Elgar's Serenade for strings, which I remarked was "unpleasant".
I wasn't much of a listener of chamber music then, though I enjoyed quite a bit of what I heard. Baroque music proved very hit-and-miss. I loved the last part of Bach's Christmas Oratorio and the violin/harpsichord sonata BWV1016, but I really didn't like the Orchestral suite in B minor or the first Brandenburg concerto. Interestingly, I didn't hear many Baroque composers - no Handel or Vivaldi at all. Whether what I heard was typical of FM3's output at the time, I don't know.

This all seems to bear out what I believe about how difficult it can be to get a novice interested in classical music. At the time, I had rather narrow tastes, and I wasn't entirely happy going outside my comfort zone. Listening to Mozart didn't make me love Mozart; almost the opposite, and works like the Piano concerto no.20 seemed to be just the exceptions proving the rule. It was perservance, curiosity, access to a good music library, and some recordings that seemed just right that made me appreciate Mozart. Would those recordings on their own have done it? Probably not; it wasn't Mozart Time then. So it's hard to offer generic advice about what a novice should listen to - so much of it will fall on deaf ears. But I do remember around that time feeling occasionally a little dispirited that my comfort zone was (relative to the range of available music) quite small, while not knowing how to extend it. Fortunately I was able to keep gently pushing at the boundaries and feel my way into genres and eras that I'd previously dismissed. But it was a long process. And one that's still going on... 17 years ago I liked some music by Howard Ferguson... better check him out...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Outstanding. Or not.

This cheerful red-and-white specimen is the bane of my bleedin' existence, is what it is. Yes yes, I know it's really not kosher amongst us serious classical music people to approve of review magazines sticking labels on albums or - must... clutch... pearls... - giving them star ratings or marks out of 10, but when one of the things that keeps you amused is maintaining a spreadsheet that collates reviews from different sources it's useful to have a quick and easy way of knowing what the reviewer thought. So I'm all for them. But this blasted IRR Outstanding is a whole other business. If they were going for an Editor's Choice kind of thing I wouldn't mind so much, but apparently it's the reviewers themselves who slap an IRR Outstanding on their reviews.
But what exactly is the problem, Nereffid? I hear you gibber. I will tell you what the problem is. It's when Peter J. Rabinowitz reviews Stephen Hough's new Tchaikovsky concerto double album and concludes his review with the words "Highest recommendation" and doesn't give a blazing IRR Outstanding even though that by fracking definition is the highest recommendation. And when Robert Matthew-Walker calls the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra's debut release on Onyx "an absolutely outstanding disc from every point of view" and doesn't give it a fucking IRR Outstanding.
That's what the problem is, right there.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Sunday, April 18, 2010

I didn't patronise a record shop yesterday

So yesterday was Record Store Day, or Record Shop Day as I would have called it if they'd put me in charge. And I did not go to a record shop. Oh well. I don't feel too bad because I do go to record shops when I can, and I do try not to leave without buying anything if the shop has put some effort into choosing its stock (Hint to small record shops with tiny classical selections: having ten Naxos albums and plenty of Andrea Bocelli doesn't count).
Aside from bargain boxes, any purchase I make in a record shop represents a several-euro loss for me compared with purchasing the equivalent album online. But I do it because good record shops make the universe a better place and I'd hate to seem them disappear (which isn't to say I necessarily believe "oh, browsing online just doesn't compare with poking through a record shop". Well, I do believe that, in the same way as I believe that drinking wine doesn't compare with eating steak: they're just inherently not the same). Unfortunately I don't think an industry can survive only on its customers' goodwill and guilt, and record shops will inevitably go the way of the blacksmith.
I'm reminded of when I started properly getting into classical music in the early 1990s. Twenty, fifteen years ago, Dublin had HMV Grafton Street, Virgin, and Tower, all with their own dedicated classical rooms - this was a consequence of the CD boom and Three Tenors mania. Those days will never return, but my point is that the classical section of the record shop has had further to fall. It was sad, going in to the Virgin Megastore every so often and watching the classical section get smaller and smaller, and HMV's room losing its dividing wall and then the section migrating elsewhere, getting smaller and smaller, and Tower's section is now doing the same, as more and more musical genres are being squeezed into the same space.
So, yes, I want to support the record shops. But they're making it harder. Still, Flogging A Dead Horse Day doesn't have the same ring to it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Minimum wage

From Information is Beautiful, a graphic of "How much do music artists earn online?":

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Straight in at number 98

So, BBC Radio 3 is to broadcast the official classical album chart now. It will challenge "crusty old preconceptions", according to Rob Cowan, who by the sounds of it is gradually turning into dodgy classical huckster Les Introuvables. "Never mind the quality, feel the length!" Or, as Homer Simpson might say, "mmm... crusty old preconceptions...". Meanwhile, Sara Mohr-Pietsch says "I'm looking forward to exploring the chart, and sharing my personal reflections on new arrivals and enduring bestsellers with Breakfast listeners". I wonder will those "personal reflections" include "Oh for fuck's sake, not fucking André fucking Rieu again"? In fairness though, the Specialist Classical Chart is a respectable-looking thing, and Rieu's the only one on the current chart who's unlikely to grace the pages of your favourite CD review magazines. But that's not the point, is it? This is Radio 3.

Which segues us neatly to Classic FM, and the latest Hall of Fame. Yes, another list. This one at least has the merit of comprehensiveness, with 300 entries. I have a fondness for the Hall of Fame, I admit, which stems mostly from the fact that it's been going since 1996 and I can have fun comparing years. (Yes, every year I put the new data into a spreadsheet... this nerdlike behaviour stemmed from years ago when I wanted to use the chart for guidance in making some "popular classics" compilations). Mrs Nereffid suggests you could - given enough years of it - use it to construct some sort of "social history of classical music". I'm not sure you could go that far; "idle speculation" is probably more like it. For instance, why is Bruch's violin concerto no.1 not as popular as it used to be? (It was #1 for the first 5 years, now it's down to #10) And, why is Debussy's Clair de lune more popular than before? Why is that staple of long ago, Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, never in the list? Also, how did Berg's violin concerto sneak in at #210 two years ago, only to disappear immediately? And why did Vaughan Williams suddenly become more popular in 2008? That's an easy one, of course - his anniversary in 2007. But why (on Earth) did Malcolm Arnold's The Padstow Lifeboat appear out of nowhere this year, straight in at number 98?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Heads... tails...

Let's say you wanted to know whether this recording of Brahms' Piano sonata no.3 and Waltzes op.39, by Antti Siirala on Ondine, is worth getting. Well, you could consult Jed Distler on Classics Today, who says of the sonata "Antti Siirala doesn't interpret Brahms' F minor sonata so much as he defoliates it. Scrupulous to a fault, Siirala irons out the music's craggy contours, takes great pains to extract hidden counterpoints, and tapers phrases to microscopic levels of calibration. The results soften the rhythmic impetus of bass lines and pedal points (especially in the first two movements) and miss Emanuel Ax's sonorous warmth and textural variety, to say nothing of Arthur Rubinstein's impetuous ardor. Both Murray Perahia and Clifford Curzon replicate Siirala's sharply articulated dotted rhythms in a more congenial, vocally oriented context, with infinitely more color." So, no, then. Well, let's see what Jerry Dubins said in Fanfare: "Training the fingers to play the notes is only half the battle. The other half is making sense of them. Here is where Siirala really impresses me... Siirala is a powerhouse of technical reserve; the richness, fullness, and solidity of his tone are visceral, helped by a superbly detailed recording. But as important, perhaps more important, is that in his hands what Brahms wrote suddenly sounds right. All of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. This is no small accomplishment". Huh. OK, then, the answer's yes.
But wait... what about the Waltzes? Well, Distler says "Fortunately, Siirala kicks up his dancing boots for the Waltzes, allowing their charm, swagger, and ingenuous cross-rhythms full due". Cool! Sounds like fun. Wait... what's that, Jerry? "Barely disguised in these lilting melodies is all of the angst, the loneliness, and the sense of isolation Brahms felt throughout his life and communicated with such vulnerable intimacy... Young as he is, Siirala understands this vulnerability; you can hear it in his playing."
Oh for goodness' sake! Did you two even listen to the same CD?


Last Tuesday was the 350th birthday of Johann Kuhnau, and by a sort-of coincidence I happened to be listening to this album of his music on that day. Sort-of coincidence because I didn't know it was his birthday, but I did know it was his anniversary year. Last week, I happened to come across his name in a notebook I kept many years ago (post on that to follow. It won't be worth the wait). That reminds me, I thought, I must get that Kuhnau album. So I did. Then it turned out it was his 350th birthday on Tuesday.
The CD is currently out of print, but you can download the album from Hyperion for £7.99. Worth every penny and then some, I'd say. This is thoroughly enjoyable stuff, chock full of tuneful chorales, lyrical arias, lively trumpets and drums... the sort of music that makes you very glad. Grove says "Critical opinion... has generally dismissed the cantatas as routine and uninspired, though competently composed. Such judgments are not borne out by the music itself". (Or, as Edmund Blackadder might say, there was only one flaw in that critical analysis: it was bollocks.)
Kuhnau died in 1722, and his post as Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig was taken by some guy called Sebastian something.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Another stupid list from RTÉ

I pay my TV licence fee every year, you know. Anyway...

Ireland's Greatest Top 10 is revealed. Who do "we" think are "Ireland's greatest figures"? Oh who cares. I can't go on.
I'll go on. The original list of 40 has, by public vote, been whittled down to 10. And in alphabetical order they are:
Noel Browne
Michael Collins
James Connolly
Stephen Gately
John Hume
Phil Lynott
Padraig Pearse
Mary Robinson
Adi Roche
The ten now have the honour of having an RTÉ documentary made about them in which they will each be championed by a "well-known personality".

Monday, April 5, 2010

How much do you love Holmboe?

Intriguing little news item on Danish label Dacapo's web site: Volumes 1 and 6 of the label's set of Holmboe string quartets had been out of print for a while. You can download both from the site for €11 each, or get the CDs now for €13.50, but there's a new copy of Volume 1 available through Amazon for $195!
Who are these people to whom a CD could be worth that much?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Review of the month

American Record Guide really doesn't hold back sometimes. This is from Allen Gimbel's review of James Tenney's Spectrum Pieces, performed by The Barton Workshop on New World Records:
"Tenney found his earlier spectral pieces "too sweet" since they acknowledged the lower reaches of the harmonic series and thus had an aura of "tonality" about them. These pieces are more macho and don't bother with such old-fashioned gentility. Any notion of recognizable musical patterning is also thrown out the door, as is any semblance of musicality.
... 1 is for a septet... Random unkempt (oh, excuse me, "properly tuned") pitches meander tediously from one to the other... 2 is for a quintet... Listen at your own risk... 5, an octet... is filled with some of the most unrelievedly foul sounds I've ever heard on records... Finally, 8... Like everything else on this program it is thoroughly unlistenable.
Tenny had built a reputation as one of the avant-garde's most underrated and important figures, and for such an audience this release would be considered important as "Late Tenney"; but for the rest of us (that is, not his friends) this music is of negligible value and is in fact considerably worse than that."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Inside the mind of Lyric FM

Lyric FM - sorry, RTÉ lyric fm - is seeking our votes for its "Top 100": "Who is your favourite tenor or soprano? Which composer do you enjoy the most? What is your most loved movie soundtrack?" My first reaction to this survey is to think of Dr Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs. Actually I'm not surprised that it's done at all - it's an entertaining way for station bosses to get an idea of who their audience is. I wonder how long it took them to come up with the 10 choices for each of the categories. I hope it was a long, difficult process filled with passionate argument that eventually produced a list that all parties were satisfied with. It can't be easy to pick just 10 sopranos or whatever, especially when you also have to make a token or otherwise nod to Irish performers. Then again, the list of symphonies looks like it chose itself - Saint-Saens 3, Mozart 41, Beethoven 9, Mendelssohn 4, Dvorak 9, Schubert 8, Haydn 101, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky 5, Mahler 5 - pretty much a "usual suspects", but how did they settle on Haydn's "Clock" over any others?
And yes, Karl Jenkins made it to the list of favourite choral works. And yes, there is a "favourite soundtrack" list but not a "favourite chamber work" list, which I think says a lot about where Lyric - sorry, lyric - is coming from. This is, after all, the station that gave George Hamilton a job. I'm not sure what to think about the "favourite orchestra" list; on the one hand, those who have an opinion on, say, Berlin versus New York have a certain kind of specialised knowledge, but on the other hand would those same people regard the Boston Pops or RTECO as being eligible for the same list? (I don't know; I'm not a "favourite orchestra" kind of listener so the whole thing is moot to me)
In the end, the Top 100 will probably just be an excuse to play some popular music on May 3rd, and it won't have any other meaning or implications. But until then, we can dream of Andrea Bocelli getting zero votes, and Anton Webern emerging as Ireland's favourite composer. Vote early and often!