Monday, May 30, 2011

Alert: Weinberg's The Portrait

Having enthused about Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Third Symphony, I'm obliged to remark that his opera The Portrait was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, in a performance by Opera North. You have five days left to listen again. I shall be doing something involving my computer's phones and mic sockets, in order to listen at my leisure.

BRITs out!

We watched this year's Classical BRIT Awards - oops, sorry, the Classic BRIT Awards - last night, which is always good for a bout of head scratching. It is, of course, an industry shindig, so it makes for a fascinating clash of quantity and quality. We turned on during a performance from Les Misérables, and no, I don't mean Arthur Honegger's score for the 1934 film version. How much value you get out of the Classic BRIT Awards really depends on your definition of "classical" (or "classic"). For instance, how many self-respecting readers of Gramophone would be able to identify the four highly patriotic (or is it disrespectful?) women in the picture here? (Answers on a postcard please to "Nereffid's Identify A Photo Of The Group All Angels Competition".) Alternatively, how many self-respecting listeners to Classic FM would have been able to identify Manfred Eicher among the assembled guests? (It was pretty easy actually - the ECM table was placed in the far distance, sillhouetted against a cloudy dusk sky.)
Yes, a splendid event, capped by the Duchess of Cornwall and Virginia McKenna OBE accepting the posthumous award for John Barry OBE, before Dame Shirley Bassey sang one of his songs. We unlettered commoners looked on in awe. What else? Arvo Pärt won Composer of the Year, but he was trumped by Il Divo, who won Artist of the Decade. Katherine Jenkins showed that she's a little too nice to sing the Chanson bohème from Carmen. Ann-Sophie Mutter played the least Baroque-sounding Vivaldi ever. John Suchet called Eric Whitacre a cunt. André Rieu won something. I made up one of those. You know what, the most interesting portion of the night was when I turned the sound off and spent a few minutes telling Mrs Nereffid what happened in last week's The Shadow Line.
"Now. Call him now."
Jesus Christ.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Another bullet dodged

So now eMusic welcomes EMI to its bosom. But only in the USA. Phew! The days of ridiculously cheap music are not yet over. Customer Service is apologetic:
Another thing to point out this addition is for members that reside in the US. I know members in the UK, EU or Canada reading this are not happy to read this part. I understand how frustrating this is that the US is getting all the content you may want. I can confirm eMusic is working hard to bring the majors outside of the US. It’s not an easy task to achieve, but we are making some progress.
Uh, yeah, thanks guys. Knock yourselves out trying to double or triple the price I pay for music.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ewig... Ewig...

I took this photo in late May 2001. Visiting Mahler's grave wasn't a "pilgrimage", more a way of paying my respects to an individual who, more than anyone else I've never met, has had a profound positive impact on my well-being. Around the world today (or at least in those parts of it that care about Western art music) there will be concerts and other events in honour of this man who for many was a genius and for others just the composer of a bunch of overlong and overwrought symphonies. I don't do reverence very well, and I'm uncomfortable about the cult of Mahler. There's a lesson to be learned from his grave: he's not in the Central Cemetry of Vienna with a monument next to Beethoven, Schubert et al. Instead you must go to a quiet suburb and find this unassuming stone - "Any who come to look for me will know who I was, and the rest do not need to know", to quote from Alma Mahler's book. There's no reason to stand in awe; there's not much room for many people to gather there. Perhaps Mahler's symphonies contain the world, but they speak to me on a personal level. So tonight when others are partaking in communal celebrations that for some may very well border on an act of worship, I'll be doing what I did in Grinzing a decade ago: pause for a while, listen privately to Mahler's music, say a quiet thank you, and move on.

He alighted from his horse and offered his friend the drink of farewell.
He asked him where he was going
And why it had to be so.
He spoke, his voice was muffled:
My friend,
Fortune has not been kind to me in this world!
Where do I go? I go to wander in the mountains.
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I wander to my homeland, my resting-place.
I will never again roam in the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!

Everywhere the dear earth
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright blue!
Forever... forever...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Azerbaijan's Eurovision

I'm not saying Jedward should have won the competition, in fact I'm not saying anyone should have won it. Well, okay, maybe the Moldovan ska-rap coneheads. But I've heard Azerbaijan's winning entry three times now, and I still can't remember a single note. That's not a good sign.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alina and Cédric

Alina Ibragimova just seems to be saying to us, "I know! He does, doesn't he?"

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Some rules for buying CDs

So I have this list, several hundred items long, of significant or noticeable gaps in my music collection. Things I somehow never got round to; lots of full operas, for example, and Mozart piano concertos, and Dvorak symphonies, and many many bits and pieces such as - picking the first one I set my eyes on - Holst's St Paul's Suite. The list is of CDs, not compositions, though, as I've painstakingly picked out just a single recording in each case. This means that when I go on a buying trip I'll be eliminating the fretting about "is this version a good one?" and also I'll be focusing on the list and that should eliminate excessive spending. In theory.
The easiest way to get everything on the list is to download it all illegally, but obviously that's a non-starter for ethical reasons. Other strategies that involve money changing hands also have some personal ethical aspects to consider. For instance, I still prefer CDs to downloads, blinkered conservative that I am, so if I can buy a CD instead of a download I'll do that. Moreover, I still like to browse CD shelves, so if I can buy from an actual high-street shop, all the better. And I prefer to buy from people who care about what they're selling. I'm not vastly rich, though, so the relative costs come into play. So there are some ground rules.
- Give the high-street retailer a chance first. If you live on the island of Ireland this means Tower Records in Dublin. As far as I'm aware there isn't any other shop that makes a genuine effort to stock classical CDs. Unfortunately Tower's prices are kinda high.
- Then there's the second-hand places, of which there's a small number in Dublin. Well, OK, only Chapters, which doesn't have very much; the other places might occasionally get a good classical disc in. I regard buying CDs in these shops as an act of liberation, saving the album from years of gathering dust. Of course the artists and labels don't get any money if you buy a second-hand CD, but on the plus side you're not supporting terrorists, either. Or have I misunderstood the thrust of anti-piracy adverts?
- Now let's go with the mail-order sites, like MDT, Presto, Crotchet, and Europadisc. Go with these specialist stores over Amazon if you can, though Amazon is tempting. Amazon Marketplace can be very tempting, especially with second-hand discs, although the price wars make you stop and think. A firm called Zoverstock undercuts the cheapest by one penny, no matter what the cheapest is. Good business practice for Zoverstock, but it's like buying from Tesco then. Give some others a chance.
- Download sites. iTunes doesn't need my money. Amazon doesn't want my money (well, it probably does, but it's not allowed take it). Qobuz takes my money but probably shouldn't. 7digital wants my money but it's usually more expensive than Qobuz and doesn't even list "classical" as one of its genre tags, the bollixes. Passionato wants way more of my money than I'm prepared to part with. If the record label offers competitive prices (Hyperion, for instance) then go with the label's site.
- Oh yes, I forgot eMusic. Tracks still cost me less than 20 cents each, which means it's extremely rare for me to find anything on eMusic that could be obtained cheaper elsewhere.

When I have bought everything on the list, what will happen then? I will make another list.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Weinberg's Third Symphony

Weinberg: Symphony no.3; The Golden Key suite no.4
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Thord Svedlund

Out of nowhere appears a symphony that I am happy to describe immediately as one of my all-time favourites. I've heard and liked a few Weinberg releases, not least of which was the recent CPO album of piano music performed by Elisaveta Blumina - the 3 Children's Notebooks and first piano sonata. Svedlund and Gothenburg have previously recorded 2 other Weinberg discs for Chandos; I've heard the one with several concertos on it, and really liked that too. The official shorthand description of Weinberg is "he's kind-of a Polish Shostakovich, but it's not that straightforward because they influenced each other". So I am predisposed to think that any given Weinberg album could be a good 'un, but I wasn't prepared for how much I'd like his Symphony no.3. It didn't take long: the opening bars are reminiscent of Schubert's 8th with their scurrying strings, overlaid by a sinuous, yes, kind-of-Shostakovich-like, melody in the winds. It's an instant hook, I think, actually rather like you might get in the theme music for some superior thriller: it promises a lot. Then, when you think the music might turn into a, yes, kind-of-Shostakovich-like, extended slow introduction, it quickly becomes something else entirely, and we're given a rather balmy tune of the sort you might expect from Malcolm Arnold, then after a few minutes there's some rather martial music; and so on. This is the sort of symphony I love - full of incident, little hooks and quirks, clever and just-right bits of odd or unexpected orchestration, some sort of narrative. I should point out here that the symphony was originally composed in 1949-50, at a time when Weinberg and all other Soviet composers were under strict orders to Not Be Formalist; Weinberg took this imposition as an opportunity to explore the use of folk music in a symphony. The work nevertheless didn't get performed, possibly because of official pressure, and Weinberg revised it a decade later so that it received its premiere in 1960. (So Weinberg's 3rd was composed between Shostakovich's 9th and 10th symphonies, and revised between his 11th and 12th.)
The second movement is marked Allegro giocoso and that's a good description of it, a jolly affair with lots of dancing. If we're playing spot-the-things-it-reminds-me-of (very different from spot-the-influences, you understand) then I'd put this closer to Mahler's bumptious scherzos than to Shostakovich's more blackly humourous ones. The third movement is an Adagio, and were it somehow to become known to the world as "Weinberg's Adagio" this would be no bad thing; it's another folk-inflected movement, sedate and beautiful but building to a dark climax. Will I hear anything lovelier this year? And finally the finale, which kicks off with swaggering, martial music that's, oh all right, kind-of-Shostakovich-like but again wanders off into Mahler territory, such as the shaky and possibly drunken dance episode about two minutes in. Things build to a near-cataclysm but then there's an amazing interruption when the winds take over and we drift off into reverie - before the martial swagger returns and the symphony comes to a slightly unexpectedly quick end that somehow manages to suggest "To be continued".
The album also comes with the last of the 4 suites of music Weinberg produced from his 1954-55 ballet The Golden Key. This is light stuff, what you might expect from a mid-century Russian fairy-tale ballet, I suppose. Nicely done, but very much eclipsed by the symphony. If you pay an album price, as opposed to per-track like I did via eMusic, then you might be annoyed to discover you've got less than 50 minutes of music on the disc. But I would say the symphony's worth it. "Want List material", as they say in Fanfare.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Nereffid vs Mahler 8: More Wayfaring

On, at last, to the orchestral recordings of Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. The first one I listened to was Brigitte Fassbaender, Deutsches SO Berlin/Riccardo Chailly (Decca), and hearing it right after several piano versions required quite an adjustment. In fact I had a few doubts about whether the orchestral version was a good idea. Those stemmed, essentially, from the fact that your orchestra obviously has a much broader sound palette than your piano and I initially felt there was a little too much contrast between songs to produce a fully coherent cycle. Nonsense, of course, and nothing more than a reminder to have one's correct listening ears on. That said, this particular performance is high on contrast anyway, thanks to the high drama of Fassbaender's reading; even in the first song, the cheerful second verse is a world away from the sorrowful first - and then the third comes back to the start. I noted at the time "You wonder how she could go on, frankly", but on she goes to a joyful "Ging heut' morgen" that eventually sinks into sadness, and then a variously harsh, mysterious, and sinister "Ich hab' ein gluhend Messer". As for the final song, Fassbaender doesn't seem as accepting of her fate as the singers I've listened to earlier. In the end she goes peacefully, but with a sense of resignation - a much darker ending than I've heard before. Overall, Fassbaender and Chailly's approach to the cycle doesn't quite match what I like to get out of it, but it still impresses.
Second is Thomas Allen, English Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate (EMI). My first impression here was that there was a rather Wotanish sound to Allen's performance (though he hasn't done much Wagner, as far as I know) - which is to say, quite a bit of dramatic heft, and I felt there was a certain sense of detachment in the third verse (somewhat like Christoph Pregardien's performance) that in this case came across as a sort of godlike commentator on the situation rather than one personally involved. The music flows well here, but the sound of the recording isn't great, and in the second verse Allen's voice rather disappears, like he's up a tree! Again in the pastoral second song I hear a patriarchal quality to the voice, making the song sound like something from Haydn's Creation. But I noted "He does a lovely 'nimmer'" towards the end. There's a big dramatic contrast as we go to the third song, but the transition works well. Mrs Nereffid described the overall feeling of this one as "futile anger", while I heard Wotan returning for the last line. "Die zwei blauen Augen" has a valedictory start, and the second verse has a touch of hope as he sets off on his journey. Later he's quite sad but not despairing, and he drifts off at the end, like he has no more say in the matter. The orchestral coda is wistful. It's a shame about the recorded sound in this performance (I have it on a HMV Classics release; maybe there's another issue that sounds better), because Allen seems in fine voice; in fairness, though, interpretively I would wish for more.
Unfortunately Bernadette Greevy, NSO Ireland/János Fürst don't provide a huge amount of interpretation either. Not that I don't like the performance - I like her voice - but I could do with more characterization. The second song feels too slow, the third seems a little tepid, and I'm not convinced by the ending of the fourth, which seems more like enunciation of the words rather than anything deeper. In the olden days before cheap downloads, you could say that this was good value at the Naxos price without committing yourself to an actual recommendation. But Fassbaender wins easily in a direct comparison.
To be continued...

It was 102 years ago, for heaven's sake!

I do try to broaden my musical horizons when I can, but I must admit that in the absence of tonality this can often end in disappointment. Perhaps I should some day sit down and work out what exactly it is that I respond to, but I suppose ultimately it's just basic ideas like pattern, progression, sound-world, emotion. Tonality provides an anchor that makes it easier to appreciate the first two of those. This week I've set myself the task of listening to, and hopefully getting some sort of handle on, Arnold Schoenberg's piano music, as performed on a DG disc by Maurizio Pollini. If I fail to get anything out of it, well, perhaps I'm in good company, following Gregor Willmes' sleeve note:
It is a conspicuous fact that the majority of 20th-century pianists rarely if ever played the music of their time. Most members of their guild could not come to grips with Arnold Schoenberg's break with tonality - the culminating point heralded by his Three Piano Pieces op.11. Of the two handfuls of pianists who achieved world fame in the last century, hardly a single one ventured an approach to Schoenberg's music. Who would ever think to associate the names of Horowitz, Rubinstein or Argerich with the Second Viennese School?... Only two major pianists committed to disc Schoenberg's entire output for solo piano: Glenn Gould and Maurizio Pollini.
Schoenberg's op.11 was written in 1909 and yet we still use the phrase "modern music" to describe, or indeed dismiss, such compositions. That was also the year of Mahler's 9th symphony, Rachmaninov's 3rd piano concerto, and Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony. Yes, I will take RVW over Schoenberg, thank you. But I have made some progress: here's Pollini playing the second of Schoenberg's op.11 pieces, as the composer waves bye-bye to tonality but throws us a lifeline in the form of a bass ostinato.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

O fearful crags...

Getting a lot of play this week: Boris Christoff sings the Song of the Viking Guest (or the Varangian Guest, if you like) from Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Our cultural frames of reference are different

One man's à propos comparison is another man's pretentious twaddle, I suppose.
From Stephen Pruslin's review in International Record Review of the new Claudio Abbado/Orchestra Mozart recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos:
For me, Abbado's treatment of all six concertos evokes the three Eumenides who give the final tragedy of Aeschylus's Oresteia its name, and whose fearsome, destructive presence is transformed, reconciled with, and absorbed into the overall body politic at the very end of the trilogy. In those terms, Abbado's art here is one of inclusiveness and the synthesis of opposites.
To which my only response is: