Reading - November 2020

Country Of The Blind by Christopher Brookmyre (1997)
My favourite Brookmyre book changes every now and then but this is up there. A straightforward thriller with lots of black humour and nicely implausible victories for the underdogs. I've lost count of how many times I've read it (this is the fourth since I started actually counting, about ten years ago) but it's still hugely enjoyable.
One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre (1999)
I should probably give Brookmyre a rest for a few years, but they're such fun and very old friends by now. I wonder if I can make it through 2021 without reading one?
Guitar Magazine (Dec 2020 / Issue 387)
The Eddie Van Halen obituary edition. Obviously a titan of rock guitar, but someone whose music never really did that much for me. Still worth working through the best twenty EVH moments, out of interest, but for all his undoubted innovation and ability, it all ends up sounding a bit the same. That said, to repeat the magazine's own (admitted) cliché, it's EVH's rhythm playing that ends up impressing the most.
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch (2019)
I didn't finish this, despite the interesting subject - how language is changing due to use of the internet - because it's much too long and tedious. For some reason, McCulloch insists on talking about herself all the time, and some of the conclusions she reaches are clearly just subjective opinion wrapped up in scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo. Disappointing.
The Nation's Favourite by Simon Garfield (1998)
A fascinating snapshot of a time in Radio 1's history that I remember very well - but now a historical document only, I fear. Radio 1 was, at the time, just under thirty years old, but the events recounted here were about twenty-five years ago; basically, as much time has passed again since then. Interesting to hear about the same characters (Chris Evans, Zoe Ball, Jo Whiley), who have (or had) all migrated to Radio 2. Evans comes across as very full of himself, which in fairness he acknowledges in his autobiographies.
Feet Of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1996)
Broadly, the theme of this is probably the nature of consciousness, featuring golems that are, for all intents and purposes, surely the equivalent of robots in our world. It is also, broadly, a whodunnit. For me, the plot doesn't hang together quite as well as usual, despite the expected helping of laugh-at-loud moments and beautiful details (as evidenced by the Annotated Pratchettt, link above). Still a great read though.

Watching - November 2020

Summer Holiday (1963)
Watched in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep and needed something undemanding and familiar, yet not so familiar I'd not be interested. I hadn't seen it for decades but I could remember most of it. Very dated of course (as soon as the girls are on board, they are put in charge of cooking), but sweet enough.
Grease (1978)
Z wanted to watch this for some reason (I think we'd heard Greased Lightning on Strictly Come Dancing) and I was quite happy to revisit it - always good fun. My favourite song, you ask? Well, much as I like "Beauty School Dropout", with the boys as angels at the end, the bit that always cracks me up is the hot dog jumping into the bun at the end of "Sandy" - so silly!
A Puppy For Christmas (2016)
We discovered what can only be called a, er, "treasure trove" of schmaltzy, Mills & Boon style, seasonal romance films on My5. Just the thing for a wet November weekend afternoon, then. This is a wafer-thin plot about a woman who discovers the true meaning of Christmas via a puppy. It passed the time but wasn't actually very good.
Love Always, Santa (2016)
On the other hand, this was much better. Absolutely the equivalent of a good Silhouette romance: simple, predictable, but heartfelt and heart-warming. I know I'm an old softie but this is a sweet story, set in a world where no-one is mean and everything ends well, with characters who seem real and who you want to end up happy.
Holiday Date (2019)
I think I might need to go cold turkey (geddit???) on the crappy Christmas movies. But they're on Channel 5 in the afternoon when the best thing to do is just veg on the sofa. And I'm such a sucker for a romance. This was very silly in places but it made me laugh and it was sweet.


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).


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.


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.