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?