22/11/2020

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 In C Minor (Op. 37)

 Scottish National Orchestra and John Lill (piano)

Conducted by Alexander Gibson

Classics For Pleasure - CFP 40259 (1977)

I was initially at a bit of a loss for what say about this. It sounds like quintessential "classical music" to my uneducated ear: lots of orchestral play, pianist whizzing up and down the keyboard. I think partly this is because I don't really understand the concerto form, but partly because there is just a lot of music here, a lot of thematic development, which if I am not listening carefully tends to all sort of merge together, leaving a generic "sound of orchestra playing some classical music" impression on me.

Obviously this is just my ignorance, since firstly, this is Beethoven and therefore clearly not just "generic"; and secondly, if I do listen carefully, I do actually hear repeated ideas. It's just that I'm not used to listening for them in this way - and maybe a little that I don't find them distinctive enough to notice them the second or third time round.

Anyway, the opening theme (or "riff" as I kind of think of it) is stated quite clearly by the orchestra right at the beginning, and we keep hearing it throughout the long first movement. In fact the first movement has several sections by itself (mini-movements?), and the piano and orchestra keep coming back to that opening riff theme, apart from during a fairly long cadenza (which is basically classical music speak for "solo", it turns out), which I personally could do without, since the sound of the piano by itself is a bit underwhelming.

And that's true in general: the best parts are where the orchestra and the piano are playing off each other, echoing what is played or supporting. I prefer the first and third movements (cadenzas notwithstanding), because they have the biggest and most dramatic passages. The second movement is a lot slower and quieter and less interesting.

As an aside, this is probably the dustiest record I've listened to so far, which means it was probably played quite a bit - which is nice to know. (And when I say dusty, I don't mean it was covered, or indeed obviously dirty at all, but the needle picked up quite a bit every time I played this, which needed cleaning off otherwise the sound started getting all distorted).

15/11/2020

Stravinksy: Petrouchka / The Firebird

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini

His Master's Voice - ASD 2614 (1970)

Stravinsky's The Rites Of Spring is one of the few classical pieces I've known and been a fan of since my teens, but I'd never listened at any length to any other of his works.

These two pieces were originally conceived as ballet scores. While I can tell that they would provide suitably dramatic counterpoint to a story being told in a ballet, without the dancing in front of me, the music itself feels like it jumps from mood to mood with no reason. I've never seen the ballets (it's a form of artistic expression that leaves me bewildered and nonplussed) but I can kind of imagine a narrative that goes with each piece. The notes on the back of the sleeve give a quick summary of the stories, which helps a bit.

The music itself is fantastically scored and very effective at invoking moods, but so far I have failed to detect any recurring themes to hang on to. And without these, or the dancing, the music runs the risk of sounding like an empty exercise in instrumentation. Just like ballet seems to me to be an empty exercise in making dance shapes, I'm afraid.

This record took me two weeks, partly because I struggled to get into the music and partly because my record player was out of action for four days while I redecorated my study.


01/11/2020

Cherubini: Requiem in D Minor

New Philharmonia Orchestra with The Ambrosian Singers (directed by John McCarthy)

Conducted by Riccardo Muti

His Master's Voice - ASD 3073, 1975

I'm really enjoying how varied this collection of music I've inherited is. Luigi Cherubini (great name) was Italian and much admired by Beethoven, among others, but isn't a composer I have ever heard of - although in fairness, perhaps this isn't saying much; I hadn't heard of three of the four composers on last week's record either. This piece is a requiem and according to the blurb on the back cover, written to be performed at the composer's own funeral and in response to an earlier composition of his being banned in church on account of featuring (gasp!) female voices; as a result, this has only male voices.

The sound of a chorus of people singing is a uniquely affecting sound, whether they are singing softly or loudly. The fact of the religious setting is largely immaterial, since I have no idea what they're singing, and all I know is it makes for some very dramatic music. I suppose that this is a piece of music for a funeral makes sense; it does, by and large, sound very sombre, particularly at the beginning and end, which makes for a nice sense of closure.

What it doesn't make for is a particularly relaxing listen though - some of the sudden bursts of sound from the orchestra and chorus combined have made me jump. I can't help but feel that this would have made for a very long funeral service - but as a piece of (effectively secular) music, it's very impressive. In some ways, a week isn't enough to get to grips with all of it, sadly.

31/10/2020

Watching - October 2020

The World's End (2013)
Well this didn't turn out like I expected. Maybe having watched Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz would have helped but I haven't. Anyway, the sudden twist in the middle of what seemed like an amusing, but fairly standard, middle-age reunion was funny and then well done. Not my usual kind of thing but very enjoyable.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
C & I saw this in the cinema and I was blown away by the musical set pieces, not just the incredible re-creation of Live Aid, but by the studio scenes too. The dramatic stuff is a little bit compressed and fudged, but it's a film, not a documentary. Watching it again just reminds me (not that it was necessary) how much I love Queen's music; A Night At The Opera is one of my favourite albums and has been since I was about six. The actors here are amazingly close to their real-life counterparts, although if I were quibbling, it would be that they don't age enough.

Reading - October 2020

The Guitar Magazine (Nov 2020 / Issue 386)
There's a whole country guitar lesson in this month's issue, which I might try my hand at.
Grumpy Old Rock Star by Rick Wakeman (2014)
Rick Wakeman has - by his own account (and even allowing for some exaggeration) - been surprisingly successful. Yet, to judge by the title, it's his participation in the TV series Grumpy Old Men (which I am pleased to say I never watched) that has brought him sufficient fame to tell his story in a book. I say "story"; it's not an autobiography, just a set of anecdotes, and reads as if the publishers just sat him down with a pint in his hand (of tomato juice, presumably, since he is now teetotal) and just recorded him talking. He jumps around all over the place, in time and space, but there are plenty of entertaining tales and he's obviously lived an interesting life. More a book to dip into than read in one sitting.
Humble Pi by Matt Parker (2019)
I've not seen any of Matt Parker's standup but B is a bit of a fan, and so he bought this book (and I borrowed it). It's mildly interesting and somewhat amusing, but somehow never really engaged me fully. I'm not sure why: it's the kind of thing I've read before (which may be why some of the things discussed are not new to me) and I like popular science books in general. However, the maths is all pretty simple (so I'm surprised B, who is now much more advanced in maths than me, didn't find it simplistic too) and it takes a while to get to the point. Perhaps it's more interesting if you can imagine Parker speaking it on stage.
Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre (2013)
Reading this is (inadvertently) an annual activity for me, but still very enjoyable. Pure escapism, of course, and I am still failing to understand why none of Brookmyre's books have been made into blockbuster films. This would be particularly good - although perhaps negotiating all the rights to all the games would be tricky.
Wife By Design by Tara Taylor Quinn (2013)
Tara Taylor Quinn is the author of one of my favourite M&B novels, so I thought I'd try another. This is a bit over-dramatic really, and the setting (a shelter for abused women) is an odd one, although I can see and appreciate the point that's being made - but these books are about escapism, surely? Anyway, I can't fault the story-telling, which kept me interested, but I felt the development of the central relationship was a bit of afterthought and happened in a bit of a rush.
The Baby Gamble by Tara Taylor Quinn (2007)
This started out a bit tediously, because the cast is actually being introduced for a set of five inter-related books. So the first few chapters is full of sentences like "Pete, Sam's old school friend whose ex-wife Katie was Linda's neighbor, had known Betty, his cousin Mick's high school sweetheart, ever since Jess Smith, the town mayor ..." - over-the-top exposition that just stalls the story. But it soon settles down to the main four or five characters we need to know and once again we're willing the main woman and man to sort out their issues and get together. Which they do, of course. Sweet and sentimental.

25/10/2020

Russian Rarities: Glière, Stravinsky, Cui, Gretchaninov

The London Symphony Orchestra and Osian Ellis (harp), Joan Sutherland (soprano)

Conducted by Richard Bonynge

Decca - SXL 6406, year unknown, probably late 1960s

The first side of this record is Reinhold Glière's Concerto For Harp And Orchestra (Op.74). The combination of harp and orchestra is an unusual one (in my huge experience) and it only partially works. The harp is a beautiful-sounding instrument but it has a limited range of expression: it can't sound urgent, powerful or in fact much else other calm and tranquil, even when it's being played urgently (or indeed powerfully). That means the slower, second movement here (Tema Con Variazioni (Andante)) is more successful than the first and third, in which the harp is sometimes in danger of being over-powered by the orchestra. The music is pleasant enough but hasn't lodged in my memory.

The second side is more memorable, but generally not for the right reasons. The four pieces all include Joan Sutherland singing, in the first two without words. This has given me the opportunity to learn that coloratura is not my cup of tea.

In particular, Glière's Concerto For Coloratura And Orchestra (Op.82) is hard work, despite including some pretty melodies and some very clever interplay between the voice and orchestra in the second movement, because the style of voice is one I find so off-putting. I wasn't sure if this was just Joan Sutherland's particular style (I'm told that singing styles have changed between the then and now) so I listened to some more recent recordings of the piece and while they are not quite as frilly, it's still not something I'd choose to listen to. This isn't to take anything away from Sutherland, who sounds amazing.

Stravinsky's Pastorale (Song Without Words For Voice And Four Wind Instruments) is more interesting (and shorter), and the final two pieces (César Cui's Ici Bas and Alexander Gretchaninov Lullaby) are the classical album equivalent of album filler.

18/10/2020

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (Op. 64)
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 26)

The London Symphony Orchestra and Ruggiero Ricci (violin)

Conducted by Pierino Gamba

Decca ‎– LXT 5334, 1958

Despite playing the guitar I have little interest in very "technical" guitar music that feels like a demonstration of technique over taste, and initally these two violin concertos seemed it belong in a similar category. Every possible way of playing the violin seems to be used, possibly just because it can be.

But they've grown on me, not least because they both have actual tunes. I'm probably being very gauche by calling them tunes when they're more properly called "themes" or something, but if you can sing along with it, it's a tune as far as I'm concerned!

Wikipedia says that Mendelssohn's violin concerto is one of the most popular violin pieces in history, as well as one of the most technically demanding. I can see why it's so popular, as it's very dramatic and I'm sure that in performance, the soloist can make the most of all the opportunities to show off. Sometimes it seems like it's a little unnecessary, but there's a lot in there and I think I'd need more listens.

The same can all be said of Bruch's violin concerto also, which feels like, at heart, a very similar piece of music, certainly structurally. Maybe all violin concertos are similar in that sense though, although reading up about it, apparently Bruch was heavily influenced by the earlier work.

I've enjoyed both pieces and - thanks to those tunes - I might even recognise them out of context if I was to hear them again. However, these particular recordings do illustrate the downside of having old vinyl; despite being in amazing condition for a record that is over sixty years old, the recording and transcribing technology of the time (particularly in mono) leave this sounding a bit like film music from old black and white films. This is probably not helped by the (melo)dramatic nature of the first movement of the Mendelssohn concerto in particular. So even though this is on Wikipedia's list as a notable/award-winning recording, I'd want to hear a more recent version.

EDIT: having now heard a couple of more newer recordings, this stands up surprisingly well. Ricci's playing is, I think, more vibrato-laden than modern technique would call for, but actually I quite like this and it suits the music.