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.


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.


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.


Mozart: Trio In E Flat Major (K.498); Quintet In A Major (K.581)

Gervase de Peyer with members of the Melos Ensemble

His Master's Voice ‎– ASD 605, 1964

At first I found both of these pieces rather light and possibly even a bit twee, by comparison with the full orchestra compositions I'd been listening to so far for VAW. But they've grown on me - I've even come to prefer the trio (side A) over the quintet (side B).

The trio is known as the Kegelstatt Trio and my guess (even before I read the Wikipedia article) was that the unusual combination of instruments - clarinet, viola and piano - might indicate that it was composed for a specific combination of people, or maybe even as an exercise for a student. Apparently both of these guesses are true, probably (good for me!). It's a pretty, light piece, with enough melody and movement to entertain and keep interest up. After a few listens, I found myself humming along, so even though I don't think I could recognise it out of context, it's enjoyable.

The second side has the Stadler Quintet, composed for and first performed by clarinettist Anton Sadler, who was also part of the first performance of the Kegelstatt Trio - hence the combination of pieces on this record, I suppose. The orchestration is slightly fuller and so there's more going on, which is maybe why I remember it slightly less. But again, it's an attractive, undemanding piece.

I haven't been commenting on the quality of the performances in these blogs - I don't have the knowledge or experience to do so, and in any case, to be worth committing to vinyl requires a minimum standard. It sounds good to me, and a good recording too.


Franz Schubert: Rosamunde

Netherlands Radio Chorus & Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Conducted by Bernard Haitink

Philips ‎– 6570 053, 1965

Apparently this was composed as accompaniment for a now largely forgotten play concerning an heiress to the throne of Cyprus who is raised incognito as a shepherdess. It's impossible to assess whether the score matches the play, but there's plenty of drama in the music here - even just in the Overture, which ranges across grand orchestral stabs to bouncy tunes, all in about five minutes. The sleeve notes say that the most well-known pieces are both on the second side, those being "Entr'acte 3" and "Ballet Music No. 2" but neither of them ring any bells, so I don't think I've heard them before.

There's a bit of singing: the individual contralto (Aafje Heynis) is a bit too frilly for my taste, but the chorus sounds great - so far, both of the albums I've listened to have choruses on them and I like it; they sound so big and powerful. Overall, it feels like it wanders around a lot, thematically, without ever settling down to a direction. But it's nicely scored and played and is excellent Sunday morning music.

As an aside, I rather like the picture on the cover (Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd), in which a wonderfully skeptical-looking young woman is being courted by (presumably) a shepherd. Given that the play is about a cypriot princess, the only relevance it has is that it involves sheep, but never mind!