Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From dusk till... Don?

From Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat:
To me, a native New Yorker, "dawn" rhymes with "lawn" and "gone" with "on." When I worked with Leonard Bernstein, who was born near Boston, he insisted, to my horror, that all four words rhymed with each other. For a musical version of "The Boston Strangler," that might have been acceptable. For a show about New York street gangs, it was not.

Monday, July 25, 2011


If I were somewhat more sensitive I would say that my faith in humanity has been shattered - shattered! Last night was one of those nothing-on-the-telly-and-I-don't-feel-like-putting-on-a-CD sort of times, so the inevitable response was to put on Classic FM. We heard something that turned out to be Delius's piano concerto, and as the presenter (David Mellor, as it happens) was telling us about it... his voice skipped. Like a scratched CD. And then suddenly music started playing, and it skipped like a scratched CD for a moment, and then everything went back to normal. And after that piece of music had ended, David Mellor didn't say oops, sorry about that track skipping because he wasn't bloody there, was he? The program was recorded earlier.
I don't know why I should have been naively thinking that radio shows such as this one should be live. After all, surely David Mellor has better things to be doing on a Sunday evening than sitting in a radio studio for a couple of hours. I think the thing is that the show is presented in a manner that attempts the appearance of being live. This is the sort of illusion that doesn't work quite so well on television, but when it's just one voice speaking between pieces of music it's rather easier to fake.
Christ, I've now just realised that I'm naively thinking that there is some two-hour period in which David Mellor records an entire radio show. He presumably just comes in at his convenience, records whatever script he needs to read from, and some producer puts it together with the music for later broadcast.
What a lazy fucker. I hate him.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rescuing von Otter

Who knows what exciting journeys my copy of Anne Sofie von Otter's "Watercolours" album has been on? "Watercolors", I should say, for it is the US edition of the 2003 release. We shall never know the circumstances under which it travelled from the USA to end up in a County Waterford branch of Game Stop, nestled among the unloved McFly and Alannah Myles CDs (poetic licence - I can't remember what the hell else was in the racks), with not just an eye-catching "€3.99" sticker but also a somewhat demeaning "Buy one get one free".
So buying it was an act of liberation, really. Sort of like going to the animal shelter and saving a dog, or in this case an otter.
As for the "Buy one get one free", that involved a bat, a cat, and a penguin, as it happens.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Word Police Squad!

I love the little "Word Police" boxes that crop up around American Record Guide. I suppose the title "Misguided Word Fascist" was already taken. The latest issue, for example, tells us this:
Target is not a verb, but a noun. You aim at a target or goal; you don't "target" it.
Hmm. Let me check Merriam-Webster's.
target vt (1837) 1 : to make a target of; esp : to set as a goal
Fancy that! First documented use in 1837, you say?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The performer as portrait painter

Which of these images depicts Pope Innocent X? They both do. The painting is of course Diego Velazquez's portrait. The sculpture is by Alessandro Algardi. If you think "Innocent X", the Velazquez is probably the image you have in your head. Would you have known who the one on the left was if I hadn't told you? Which one is the more accurate? Does that question even make sense?
Yes, I'm still puzzling over why Calum MacDonald chided pianist Khatia Buniatishvili for what she wrote in her notes for her Liszt recital album:
'I was always aware that my first recording had to be a portrait of Liszt,' says Khatia Buniatishvili in her stupefying booklet note. 'Only he would enable me to present as a unity the many aspects of my soul.' Well, pardon my ignorance: I always thought a performer's prime duty was to convey the essence of the composer, not of themselves.
In my last post I pointed out that he was criticising her for saying something she didn't say, so the whole discussion is moot anyway. But it did get me thinking about what this means, "to convey the essence of the composer, not of themselves". What is this "essence of composer", and how can it be distilled out from "essence of performer"? Of course, if you are performing Liszt's music then it should sound like his music. But why can't it also sound like yours? Are all the great pianists great because they are ego-free and give us just the composer's intentions? If so, why don't they all sound the same? Obviously they bring themselves into the equation. Calum MacDonald complains about "the self-regarding aspects" of Buniatishvili's disc, but is it possible to be any more than vague about where the dividing line between objectivity and subjectivity should be? On the same page of the magazine, Malcolm Hayes praises Garrick Ohlsson's "objective immensity" in Busoni's version of Liszt's "Ad nos" fantasia, and again this notion of "objective" makes me uneasy.
I found this apparently anonymous sculpture online and it too depicts Pope Innocent X. The eyebrows are more obvious, the face gaunter, and I even suspect this man might have a higher-pitched voice than the two above. He's quite different from Velazquez's pope. Is this because the sculptor was more objective or less objective? It seems a pointless question, doesn't it? Are Algardi's sculpture and/or Velazquez's portrait objective? Doesn't the portrait look a bit too Velazquez-y? Surely the answer is that Velazquez's painting isn't just "a portrait of Pope Innocent X", and it isn't just "a painting by Velazquez" - it's both, and we're fine with that.
And I think a lot of the time, critics are fine with that concept too. When it suits them, that is. For instance, a quick Google search gives us a quote from an Amazon review: "Once you hear Argerich's Liszt, nothing else will sound adequate". You may nod at such a sage assessment. Or you may grumble, paraphrasing Rosalyn Tureck, "Argerich can play Liszt her way; I play it Liszt's way". Alas, I fear the notion of "objective" performances is just one of those clichéd critical rules that get dragged into play after the critic has already made up his mind about what he's heard. Until I see evidence otherwise, I shall assume "objective" is shorthand for "the way I think it should go".

What does Calum MacDonald mean?

BBC Music's Calum MacDonald gets snotty while reviewing Khatia Buniatishvili's new Liszt disc:
'I was always aware that my first recording had to be a portrait of Liszt,' says Khatia Buniatishvili in her stupefying booklet note. 'Only he would enable me to present as a unity the many aspects of my soul.' Well, pardon my ignorance: I always thought a performer's prime duty was to convey the essence of the composer, not of themselves.
Unless he's omitted some context from the Buniatishvili quote, MacDonald's arguing against a straw man here: she never said it was the performer's prime duty to convey the essence of themselves. I read this quote as "My first recording had to be a portrait of Liszt because he's the composer that speaks so closely to me personally". If there's a "me" in there, it's because, well, it's her recital, and pianos don't play themselves. So why did MacDonald bring the point up, especially since he goes on to give the performance 4 stars out of 5, thereby endorsing her approach?
Welcome to a special edition of "Did you even listen to the same CD?" with only one reviewer.
You see, we have "focused intensity" for the Liebestraum no.3, and we have a "mesmeric sense of inwardness" in the transcription of Bach's Prelude and fugue in A minor, and we have an "eloquently desolate account" of Lugubre gondola no.2.
But! "There's not a trace in this recital of Liszt's philosophical depth".
He can't seem to get past what he calls "the self-regarding aspects of the exercise". While conceding that "there's some dumbfounding playing", he contrasts this recital's "deranged conviction" with the "magisterial perfection" of Nelson Freire's new Liszt disc. But he does admit that "this is probably how they played in the 19th century".
Wait a second, didn't Liszt live in the 19th century?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

More not enough information

How nice! An email from Amazon.co.uk especially for me!
Since you like classical music, we thought you might be interested in the free EMI Classics MP3 sampler we have available until the end of July.
Hey wow, I do like classical music! But of course I live in Ireland so I can't follow through on this like by actually paying to download some of it from Amazon. This post isn't about geographical restrictions, though. This is about:
Oh noes! The track listing does not provide the names of the composers!
This is indeed very shoddy, but unfortunately par for the course for sites that don't specialise in classical. Three outraged Amazon customers have dragged the sampler's average rating down to 2 stars, which is quite impressive for a freebie featuring good musicians in critically well-received performances.
This is absolutely unprofessional and absolutely useless. Who is the target audience? Those who know nothing about music? This will not help them.
says reviewer Tatiana Rybina.
So our reviewers helpfully provide full composer details. Oh, no, wait, they don't. "This will not help them" cuts both ways, I suppose.
Beethoven. Handel. JS Bach. Beethoven. Schumann. Brahms. Chopin. Grieg.
How hard was that?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Not enough information

Why do record companies do this? I was in Tower Records yesterday, browsing the new releases, and came across a 10-disc box set of French baroque from Warner called "Court of the Sun King". Looks interesting, but who's performing on it? They do not say. At all. Is this not useful, or even essential, information? Or are we, because it's a cheap box set, not expected to care? The blurb accompanying the disc (on Presto's site) is rather more helpful: "classic [Erato] recordings from the 1960s and 70s, featuring French musicians and ensembles such as Jean-François Paillard, Louis Martini and Marie-Claire Alain". How hard would it have been to stick this information somewhere on the box?
Meanwhile, countertenor Daniel Taylor has a new album out called "Shakespeare: Come again sweet love", which as you might expect gives us English songs and madrigals. The track listing does not provide the names of the composers. We are told this is music by "some of the great masters of the Renaissance period, including Purcell, Dowland and Gibbons". The knowledgeable buyer will probably have a reasonable idea of what's what, but wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what you're buying before you buy it?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Won't someone not think of the children?

Allow me to weigh in on the ongoing furore over the cancellation of the community opera Beached, which, according to a BBC News report, "featured a gay character and 400 school children". That is not a full description of the opera, but in news terms it is all that counts. In fact Beached is described by its librettist Lee Hall as "a comedy about tolerance and inclusiveness". Bay Primary School, Bridlington, head teacher Emma Hobbs is showing her tolerance and inclusivity by withdrawing 300 performers at the last minute because of "the language and the tone of the scene in question", and most certainly not because the main character is gay. What is Hobbs' only concern in this matter? Why, "The emotional wellbeing of our children", of course. Phew, thank goodness for that.
She clarifies: "I have made the decision that our 4 to 11-year-old children have the right to be protected from offensive language and to be able to learn about the impact of upsetting insults in the appropriate manner". I'm not sure what sort of 4- to 11-year-old children they've got in Bridlington, but if they're like ordinary children then probably the best way to protect them from offensive language is to gag them. The offensive language in question is, apparently, "queer". You will be relieved (if that's the word) to hear that Lee Hall was already persuaded to remove the word "pee-pee" from the libretto. What the hell sort of head teacher is concerned about the emotional wellbeing of children but won't let them hear the word "pee-pee"? That would make a four-year-old's night, for goodness' sake!
But what about learning "about the impact of upsetting insults in the appropriate manner"? I believe Head Teacher Hobbs is saying that it is inappropriate for children to see a sympathetic character deal maturely with verbal abuse. Maybe that's not what she's saying. What is she saying? I notice that there is a scene in the opera where the protagonist's son is swept out to sea. Is an opera the appropriate manner in which to learn about safe swimming? Let me stress that I am not hydrophobic, and my comments should not be interpreted as such.