Saturday, November 17, 2012

Life or death

The recent arts programme 'Imagine' featuring the Chinese pianist Lang Lang included a moving interview with his father who, when Lang was just 9, became so angry at what he perceived his son's lack of commitment that he suggested he commit suicide.  Lang chose life, but imagine what must have gone through his young mind.  He worked hard and burnished what is now a formidable technique, but after that early experience music could never be life or death for him.  Some artists perform as though their lives depend on it.  Lang can be forgiven for perhaps always holding back.  At the age of 30 he has silenced his earlier critics who complained he was too much the show man.  That act is gradually giving way to a more thoughtful and sensitive pianist.  If Lang can ever find it in him to really let go, he could be one of the greats.  For now we must settle for an exceptionally gifted virtuoso who connects with many but still irritates others.  

So far, I have chosen fabulous performances and recordings of single pieces but this choice is the first collection by an artist: Lang Lang Live in Vienna (Sony 88697719012).  As I listen to Lang play Beethoven's Piano Sonata number 3 I marvel at his music making but also dream of what this amazing talent might one day achieve.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Immensely rewarding

It's tempting to think of much of Bartok's work as derivative country music, but that I guess is what happens if you devote much of your musical life researching Hungarian folk songs.  As a (very bad) clarinetist I got to know him through his folk songs as lots of budding woodwind players do, not realising how much more there was to discover.

It's true there are some gypsy elements to his 'second'* violin concerto and Kyung Wha Chung performing with the London Philharmonic at the Kingsway Hall in 1976 with Bartok's former student Georg Solti (DECCA 473 271-2) is certainly capable of transporting us to a gypsy camp fire, but this is no peasant entertainment.

It takes a bit of getting used to and it seems a bit weird at first, but if like me you would happily sit and listen to the great Korean playing a C major scale, the time invested is a) no hardship and b) immensely rewarding.

* his 'first' was never finished or recognised as such by him after he abandoned it when his muse spurned him

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Musical pedagogics

It would have been the obvious place to start, but better late than never.  Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is a charming collection of variations on a theme by Purcell which at the same time provides a guided tour of the various sections of the orchestra.  It's value is, as the title suggests, more pedagogical than musical, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Simon Rattle (EMI 5 55394 2) brings a sensitivity to the piece that lifts it above the mundane and makes it a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Larking about

Staying with Nigel Kennedy, my next choice is Walton's Violin Concerto (EMI 7243 5 62813 2 5) but whilst it starts with a wonderfully English sounding opening movement, beautifully played by Kennedy, I just can't get my head round the Italian concoction that follows.  Thankfully the disc also includes The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams.  Kennedy has a reputation for occasionally being less than serious, but his playing here is thoughtful, exquisitely phrased and the perfect foil for Rattle and the CBSO.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Firework display

Nigel Kennedy is not everyone's cup of tea but his interpretation of Mendelssohn's violin concerto must answer most critics. He plays the second movement with great sensitivity and never risks being over sentimental. The final movement is an electric firework display of virtuosity, although at times the tempo is perhaps a bit too electric to shape the piece. Overall, though, a superb performance of a magnificent concerto.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reach for the sky

The sense of achievement is palpable as the summit is reached in Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Mood music at its finest, beautifully interpreted by Staatskapelle Weimer under the baton of Antoni Wit (Naxos 8.557811). Scored for a large orchestra it is one of the Simon Boliver Orchestra's standard repertoire pieces.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Heavenly Holst

Thaxted in Essex is a pretty if unremarkable town, once famous for cutlery but now more famous for lending its name to Princess Diana's favourite hymn tune. The composer was a long term resident who in the early years of the Great War turned his attention from the unfolding horror on earth towards the heavens. Gustav Holst was ahead of his time in many ways. A collection of tone poems was a novel form in the early twentieth century. His appreciation of matters asterological nothing short of inspired. He resisted the temptation to add an eighth 'poem' to his Planets suite after the discovery of Pluto, years before astronomers delegated this diminutive rock to the status of dwarf planet. Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra take it at a rollicking pace. There are moments in 'Jupiter' when it feels rushed but it avoids the sentimentality that must tempt many conductors and at 43:06 is closer to Holst's own impressive 42:30 than most modern recordings.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

An extraordinary night in Sarajevo

At the winter olympics in Sarajevo in 1984 Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean scored a perfect 6.0 from all nine judges for their artistic interpretation of Maurice Ravel's Bolero; earning them Olympic gold, lasting fame and Ravel a new and avid fan base. It was an inspired routine, superbly matching the gradually increasing energy of this fine piece with ever more exciting and athletic skating. Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra capture something of that extraordinary St Valentine's night at the Zetra stadium in their recording for Telarc (CD 80601). I'm not sure I need say any more than that - great stuff!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Visceral Argerich

Martha Argerich must get through pianos like some people get through shoes. It is testament to the skill of the piano builder, and Argerich's extraordinary technique, that after the most ferocious pounding in the early parts of Liszt's piano sonata, Argerich is still capable of extracting some delicate, nuanced phrasing in the more expressive sections. Her recording of the B minor sonata for Deutsche Grammophon (437 252-2) is remarkably physical - exhausting just to listen to. Gramophone's 2012 guide (a birthday present - thanks kids!) rates this recording as legendary. Commenting on the sound quality the author says it's excellent 'if you bother to notice it'. With music this visceral, the sound is almost incidental.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Joie de vivre

You may be wondering how I got so far through the year with nothing yet by Wolfgang Amadeus. The truth is I have an excellent boxed set of CDs, including a wide range of his work. But it's time to add to the collection and I've chosen a legendary recording of Mozart's 4 horn concertos and quintet for piano and wind instruments featuring one of the greatest ever French horn players - Dennis Brain (EMI 0946 3 38603 2 2). Dennis Brain loved fast cars and is said to have kept a copy of a car magazine on his music stand whilst playing the Mozart concertos from memory. Tragically his love of driving cost him his life at the age of 36 when he drove his Triumph TR2 off the A1 whilst returning from the Edinburgh Festival to London in September 1957. This is a wonderful collection of some of his finest recordings. The final movement of the fourth concerto showcases a unique talent, demonstrating the joie de vivre he clearly had in spades.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Manhattan Melody

If Copeland's Apalachian Spring represents the open spaces of America, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue represents her big cities, and none more perhaps than Manhattan in the 20s The two together are about all you need for a complete understanding of the USA. Where Copeland captures (even if he didn't mean to) the essence of farm folk of the Mid West, Gershwin in just over 16 minutes of glorious, riotous, heart warming music captures the chutzpah, exuberance, hopes and dreams of a generation of city dwellers.

The Columbia Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein directing from the piano (82876 78768 2) are magnificent from the first extraordinary clarinet solo, through some amazing and vibrant brass sections right through to the end. Bernstein plays with great feeling and passion, but for my money doesn't quite match the orchestra's gutsy playing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back to Beethoven

After 3 months and 13 discs, I'll return to Beethoven and some of his more famous piano sonatas, including the Appassionata which includes the 'fate knocking at the door' motif which opens the fifth symphony. Decca's double CD collection featuring Alfred Brendel (438 730-2) is good value at just over £7 and includes 7 of the 32 compositions.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Firework music

A trip to St Albans was a good opportunity to get to know Saint-Saens' third symphony a little better. The first two movements suffered from the usual problem of playing classical music in the car - quiet sections too quiet for the road noise and when this is right the louder sections are too loud; but the final movement was great. The bass notes of Chartres Cathedral's organ resonated throughout the Land Rover and the brass section sounded magnificent. This would make great firework music.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The ultimate synthesis

For some people only live recordings (as opposed to studio concoctions) do justice to a composer's work. The odd mistake that cannot be re-recorded is a small price to pay for the experience of a whole piece delivered in one musical chunk. Barenboim's recording of Saint-Saens' third (organ) symphony for Deutsche Grammophon (474 612-2) undermines this notion. It is entirely synthetic, with the organ part recorded separately and later mixed with the wonderful Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But the effect achieved in the final movement is quite extraordinary. It is hard not to be swept along with the power of it. Does it matter it's not 'real'? Not when it's this good - and at £3.99 from Amazon, what's not to like.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Making a name for himself

Dmitri Shostokovich took the first letter of his first name and the first three of his second and made something of a name for himself. In German musical notation D, Es, C, H (or DSCH) represent D, Eb, C, B in our anglicised terminology and this four note motif appears throughout Shostokovich's work, including his first cello concerto, considered to be one of
the most difficult cello pieces in the repertoire. It, like the second, was written for Shostokovich's friend the great cellist, Rostropovich who premiered the piece in the Soviet Union in 1959, having committed it to memory in just four days.

My recording choice is Shostokovich's son, Maxim, conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with soloist, Heinrich Schiff (421 526-2PH). Another Decca legendary recording - Just under ten quid from Amazon.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The sound of the sea

Felix Mendelssohn was very much influenced by his environment or so it seems from the names he gave to some of his compositions: Hebridean Overture, Italian symphony, Scottish symphony. The Italian symphony is perhaps his best known symphony. It reminds me of Beethoven's pastoral symphony and is a bit too 'classical' for my taste and for me not particularly evocative of Italy but very good for all that.

The Hebridean overture or Fingal's cave to give it it's other name is a very different kettle of fish. There can be no mistaking the sound of the sea lapping against the walls of the basalt cave off Staffa. Altogether more romantic it counted Wagner among it's admirers.

For just short of £26 the 4 CD boxed set of 5 symphonies and 7 overtures recorded by the LSO with Claudio Abbado for Deutsche Grammophon provides a great introduction to Mendelssohn.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I'm in love with a dead Finn and a 64 year old Korean violinist. It wasn't love at first sight but boy am I smitten! Without doubt I have played Sibelius's violin concerto more than any other disc so far. It took a while to appreciate it but after a few attempts it all begins to make sense. At first it is confusing - lots of individual bits that don't quite seem to add up to a coherent whole. But relax, sit back and take it in as one piece and, like an impressionist painting that on close inspection is just dots but from a distance represents something of beauty, prepare to be astonished. The effort required is modest for what I know will be a lifetime fascination with this piece.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Repaying Mum

In 1970 the Korean violinist Kyung-Wha Chung was just 22. Her recording of the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos with the LSO and Andre Previn is, and rightly so, a Decca legendary recording (475 7734). This debut album brought her international fame, and no doubt went some way to helping repay her mother who three years earlier had sold the family home to buy the budding star her first Stradivarius. Chung's playing is reminiscent of the verve and passion du Pre brought to the Elgar cello concerto. Chung manages to extract the same tonal quality from her Strad and matches du Pre in edginess.

I started to write that the Sibelius concerto, after an exquisite start, seemed to lose its way (the piece not the playing), with far too many themes and half themes; but listening now for the third time to the first movement, it is all beginning to make sense! It is definitely growing on me.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

This is it!

When Pete Postlethwaite invites the female accountant to join band practice with her father's cornet in 'Brassed Off' the miners don't expect much. The look on Pete's face as she launches into the most wonderful solo of the second movement of Rodrigo's 'Orange Juice' is priceless. The film is about the passion miners had for their pits, their jobs and their communities; but the band leader's passion is music.

John Elliot Gardner, The Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Julian Bream have that passion in spades - and some. RCA's Red Seal recording of the Concierto de Aranjuez (82876 60870 2), to give it it's proper title, is the stuff desert island discs are made of. Try it with a glass of Galician white!

You can expect the legendary Bream to give it his all, but the orchestra is a revelation. At almost every stage they match Bream's peerless musicality. In 1983 it was a young group and it shows - full of life and brio. Aged 50, Bream was in his prime and recording his third 'Orange Juice' but his first digitally.

If I had to choose just one of the discs so far this would be it!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Used but fine

After cancelling and receiving a refund on my original Schubert order, I ordered 'used' from the Amazon Marketplace - I know I said I wouldn't but it was worth taking a chance for a saving of nine quid. Arrived today. First impression was not great. The case was grimy and the disc looked slightly marked but now listening to it for the second time, I really can't tell it is a used disc. And the music and recording....Great!

The Alban Berg Quartett really let rip, particularly in the final movement which at times seems rushed but is always exciting. This cast off Death and the Maiden is certainly well worth having.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


The Grieg arrived today - Magnificent! The playing by Perahia is to die for: definite shades of Argerich playing Rach 3. Muscular when called for, delicate to the point of being almost unbearably moving at times and an extraordinary virtuosity. Tragic Sony decided to edit out what can only have been a huge ovation at the end. I liked it!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

All the right notes...

Still no Schubert, so let's move onto the next choice.

On Christmas day 1971 at the age of 10 I laughed along with literally half the nation at Eric Morecombe's rendition of Grieg's piano concerto with a game Mr Andrew Preview (Andre Previn) and the LSO. The concerto was the first piano concerto ever recorded and is probably the most famous.

Unlike Eric, Murray Perhaia managed all the right notes in the right order in his live recording in 1987 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Colin Davies (Sony Classical SK44899) - £4.07 from Amazon.

Ballet for Martha

Copland may not have had the Appalachian mountains in mind when he wrote 'Martha's ballet' for Martha Graham (the name 'Appalachian Spring' was chosen after the piece had been written) but it is music very much rooted in the open spaces of America. At first seemingly melancholic, it is also uplifting and immensely moving. Yet the abiding impression is music which distills the essence of America. Whether it's the use of the Shaker melody, 'Simple Gifts', the hints of Copland's earlier piece, 'Fanfare for the Common Man', or the echoing sound of kettle drums used to mimic gun shots, I don't know but it's almost impossible to listen to it without imagining cow folk and the great plains of the Midwest.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What a corker!

Getting the Cyrus box out of the attic for its return to the shop was enough to shame it back into life. Switching it on again this morning triggered the usual, reassuring sequence of lights and bingo all working perfectly! Never done that before but delighted it did - saved me two hundred quid.

Pity I haven't been so lucky with the next CD. No sign of it yet. I shan't buy any more CDs from Amazon's partners - just not reliable enough. I'm now having to make my next choice without yet having received the last.

Aaron Copland was a very modern American composer: born in Brooklyn, openly gay and with the extraordinary ability of capturing the essence of the new world in his music.

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas in 1999 recorded two of Copland's ballets: Appalachian Spring and Billy The Kid, for RCA (RCA Red Seal 09026-63511-2). Described by the Gramophone guide as boasting opulent, exhilarating and expansive sonics and as a corker of a release, this is a must have - amazingly just £3.49 from Amazon.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Disaster! A power cut, which lasted most of the day, tripped my amp, which will have to be returned to the factory to be re-set. The problem is the Rega pre-amp which despite supposedly being compatible with the Cyrus amplifier, nevertheless occasionally trips it if switched on whilst the amp is on. I assume it causes a power surge which the highly sensitive safety mechanism of the amp reacts to by shutting down. It is therefore necessary to switch the two units on in the correct order: pre-amp then amp; or, as I usually do, leave the pre-amp on at all times. When the power was switched back on the pre-amp beat the amp to it! You'd think there'd be a reset button, but no, the careful folk at Cyrus don't trust owners to manage such complex electronics. The result, unfortunately, will be a hefty bill and a couple or more weeks without a CD player.

In the meantime, I will manage (perfectly well) with the Bose CD/radio and must make my next choice. I'll try some chamber music this time and Schubert's Death and the Maiden. Written in 1824 as the composer struggled with tertiary syphilis, this D minor string quartet, with death as its theme seems very appropriate! A live recording by the Alban Berg quartet looks like the one to go for, but not so easy to find - ended up buying from one of Amazon's suppliers rather than direct at £12.99 plus £1.26 p&p with a vague promise of delivery between 9 and 21 Feb - fingers crossed.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The fearless Mr Rubinstein

I've discovered the perfect way to appreciate the 1930s Rubinstein recordings - on the Land Rover CD player. The road noise masks the background hiss, leaving only the sublime Mr Rubinstein.

Meanwhile the Pires recording arrived on Thursday. A beautifully produced recording which echoes through the house on the Cyrus. Is it fair to compare the two given the markedly different sound quality? The stronger bass sound on the modern recording produces an entirely different effect: less delicate, less fragile, particularly at the higher end of the range. What is remarkable for me in the Rubinstein recordings is the extraordinary sensitivity of the phrasing. This seems to work better with the rather thin sound of the early recording.

That's not to say Pires is any less sensitive in her playing. She is an extremely gifted pianist, perhaps a bit too polished for my taste. I can't imagine her hitting too many duff notes in more technically demanding pieces - something Rubinstein wasn't afraid to do. I say wasn't afraid to because at this level of playing mistakes arise not so much because of poor technique but because the performer is pushing the limits of his ability. Martha Argerich is equally fearless. Notwithstanding the brilliance of Pires and Rubinstein, my favourite recording of piano music is still Argerich's live recording of Rachmaninov's third piano concerto, recorded in Berlin with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra for Philips in 1982 (464 732-2).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Loud hissing noise

My first disappointment. Nothing wrong with Chopin or Artur Rubinstein, but the re-mastering has left a loud hissing noise from the original recording. I guess it's been cleaned up as much as it can be without losing much of the recording, but for me it is too distracting. Such a shame because Rubinstein's phrasing and feel for the pieces is superb.

Having thought I'd got a bargain I've now blown another £15.99 on Maria Pires' 1996 recording of the Nocturnes for Deutsche Grammaphon (DG 447 096-2GH2).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Music with no name

We all impose our own associations, thoughts and mood on music. Critics and writers can often be so sure in their view of what a piece represents that it is given as fact. The four note motif which begins Beethoven's fifth symphony, for example, is supposed to represent fate knocking at the door; a description which both helps and hinders our appreciation of the work.

Titles given to pieces, often by publishers, assume and insist on a particular interpretation. So it used to be almost impossible for me to listen to Beethoven's sixth symphony without thinking of the painting on the front cover of the Penguin edition of Far from the Madding Crowd. Not because the music itself makes me think of sheep in winter, but because for me, pastoral means Hardy and Dorset. It was only when I discovered that the painting, by Joseph Farquharson, is called 'The sun had closed the winter day' and hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery that the connection was broken.

Chopin did not give his compositions descriptive titles and insisted his publishers didn't either. He leaves the listener to make his own connections and perhaps different connections each time he listens. Whilst romantic, Chopin doesn't insist on any particular interpretation.

What better way then to explore romanticism without preconceptions than with Chopin and who better to explore with than a pianist widely regarded as the greatest Chopin specialist. Artur Rubinstein was born just 38 years after Chopin died and like Chopin was Polish. His 1930s recordings of Chopin's Nocturnes are regarded as definitive.

Once again proving that these old recordings are great value, Amazon are offering the Naxos edition for just £4.99.

Gathering Dust

In his lifetime, J S Bach was better known as an organist than a composer. So in 1721 when he presented his six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg his purpose was not to promote their performance but, by creating a favourable impression, to gain employment. In fact neither performance nor employment followed and the manuscript was to gather dust for 13 years in the Margrave's library until his death in 1734. Even then the quality of the compositions was not recognised. The music was included for valuation in a job lot with other manuscripts not worthy of being listed by composer and remained undiscovered in the Brandenburg archive until 1849. The concertos were finally published in 1850, 100 years after Bach's death.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Scratch Ensemble

Bit of a delay as disc one of the first set from Amazon had a scratch which ruined the third movement of the third concerto. Thankfully, the returns and replacement process is very efficient and a pristine set arrived this morning.

If this is an authentic sound then listeners of the eighteenth century were spoilt rotten. I suspect the musicians brought together by Mr Pinnock could knock spots off most players from Bach's era.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What next?

What next? Let's go back in time to the Baroque era (1600 to 1750) and Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Choosing music from this era is complicated by two different approaches. Purists insist that the music is authentic which means being played on traditional instruments. Others, less hidebound, have a more open mind. In the early days of authentic recordings the results could be truly awful as few musicians had the technical skills to master early instruments. But increasingly these instruments are now played with panache by a growing number of specialist performers.

Getting the sound right (in so far as that is ever possible when reproducing music from an era without recorded music) for some is just the beginning. Baroque music can seem cold and clinical - more like an exercise in advanced mathematics than audio art, but this is how a number of experts think it should be. Whilst some interpretation and colour is inevitable, there are those who will go to great lengths to avoid the 'cankerous growth of romanticism' as Gustav Leonhardt put it.

After a bit of research, I'm going for a middle way. I want to experience something of the 'original sound' but I don't want a dull, flat recording.

Trevor Pinnock, a highly respected harpsichordist, in 2008 put together a group of renowned Baroque performers and then had a rollickingly good time in the studio producing an outstanding CD (AV2119 - £13.99 from Amazon).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


I have another excellent recording of Elgar's cello concerto with Julian Lloyd Webber and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Yehudi Menuhin (PH 416 354-2). Menuhin famously interpreted Elgar's violin concerto in a way which had Elgarians complaining it lacked the austerity required of the work. He is not afraid to push the envelope and his interpretation of the cello concerto is perfectly fine. Julian Lloyd Webber gives a polished and impressive performance. But the measure of du Pre's version is that it makes this, and I suspect most other recordings, seem pedestrian and tame.

Listening to du Pre is like hearing the piece for the first time. It is utterly compelling and irresistible. The run in the first movement at 2:25 (and again at 6:55) feels positively indecent as she reaches the climax of the phrase before a lingering pause as we wait for the orchestra to complete the sentence in reply.

There is something in the tone du Pre manages to extract from the Stradivarius which seems to anticipate her personal tragedy. Eight years later she would be forced to give up performing as multiple sclerosis robbed her of sensation in her fingers and the world of a rare talent.

Listening to the recording for the first time she was unhappy with the result - not how she wanted it to sound - but she leaves behind a truly legendary recording, which has been superbly remastered by EMI.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

CD 3

The second decade of the twentieth century did not give way to modernism entirely. There was still plenty of romantic music to come. For my next CD I'll choose a romantic classic by an English composer.

In the summer of 1919, at the age of 62, Elgar was in the autumn of his life. He was not in the best of health and writing what would would be his final flourish of great music. The initial theme of his cello concerto came to him as he regained consciousness after an operation to remove an infected tonsil. It is a piece noted for its melancholic and anguished character. Elgar was an old man looking back on his life, deeply affected by the slaughter in the Great War.

In 1965, at the age of 20, with everything to live for, Jacqueline du Pre had already made the work her own. A child prodigy, she had learnt the concerto in 4 days at the age of 13. By the time of her recordng for EMI with Sir John Barbirolli and the LSO (EMI 556 219-2) she had done more to make it a staple of the cello repertoire than perhaps any other soloist, before or since.

More than most leading recordings, this one defines the music it reproduces. du Pre's inclination was towards a very free and personal interpretation. Barbirolli encouraged her to hold back a little, but the result is still a highly individual performance, charged with emotion.

Once again Amazon offered great value at £5.47 - perhaps people don't want to buy older recordings.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Strange animal noises?

The dogs usually ignore music, unless it's played very loudly when they leave the room. There must be something slightly disturbing in the Stravinsky though. My Cyrus 6 CD player and amplifier teamed with Dynaudio 52 speakers pick out exceptional detail but no enough to explain the behaviour of the Cavalier. He must have thought there were strange animal noises in the background. He started barking, then jumped on my lap and finally dashed off to find his basket.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Try it in the dark

The Stravinsky arrived as promised on Monday. Slightly thrown by the Decca branding until I worked out Phillips had been absorbed into Decca in 1999.

Fantastic recording of an extraordinary piece of music. Definitely early modern rather than late romantic in style. The atonal composition is quite a shock after Beethoven's 5th. Incredibly atmospheric. Try it on a windy night with the lights off in front of a log fire - magical...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Useful websites Useful collection of lists by era, composer and so on. Excellent source for masses of information about composers, music and recordings. Fun site to help identify some of the most popular pieces, including samples and links to iTunes and Amazon.

www.classical Useful background information on composers, music and recordings.

What next

It's time to order the next CD. But what next? Do I stick with Beethoven (there will be more of him in this collection), stick with the symphonic form, stick with the same musical era (classical: 1750 to 1830) or go for something completely different.

I want to be able to compare different styles, eras, forms and composers as I go along, so something different is needed.

The premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was literally a riot. Written between 1912 and 1913, so firmly rooted in the late romantic or early modern era, the piece was a radical departure from the usual Russian ballet music. When Stravinsky played through the score at the piano for the musical director of the Ballet Russes, Monteux thought him 'raving mad'. At the first night on 29 May 1913, early catcalls and booing quickly turned to fighting in the audience. Diaghilev tried to calm things down by switching the house lights on and off while the choreographer, Nijinski, shouted cues for the dancers, who could barely hear the orchestra over the din. Stravinsky walked out and eventually the police had to be called to close down the performance.

Valery Gergiev's recording with the Kirov Orchestra for Phillips (468 035-2PH) promises to be a fresh and lively approach to this remarkable piece. Amazon again offer excellent value at £7.49.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Two recordings

The CD arrived today - slightly delayed owing to the New Year holiday. Whilst waiting I listened to my Karajan recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 415 066-2), including on the car CD player on a journey to Bristol and back. This didn't work. The dynamic range of the recording was far too much for the car system. If I could hear the quiet sections over the road noise, the loud sections were deafening and I was constantly adjusting the volume.

The contrast with the Kleiber recording is extraordinary. Just in terms of recording and reproduction quality the Kleiber recording is head and shoulders above the Karajan. The engineers and Tonmeister at Deutsche Grammaphon have really done an excellent job bringing the original 1974 recording to life - so much more detail and interest; making the Karajan recording seem flat and dull.

Kleiber adds a lot more character to the piece particularly in the second and third movements. Overall it feels more real - a bit more like the original performance in Vienna, but without the repeats! Karajan is a bit too polished for me.

Not my favourite piece of music in truth; but a must have and a glorious recording.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A cold night in Vienna

The 5th symphony was first performed in Vienna on 22 December 1808. Beethoven conducted a charity concert of his music lasting 4 hours which also premiered the 6th symphony, the 4th piano concerto (played by Beethoven), 2 movements of the mass in C major and his choral fantasy, which was written for the occasion after he concluded the 5th symphony wasn't strong enough to end the programme!

The orchestra, which would have included a large number of amateur musicians, had not been well rehearsed. Playing from badly lit, hand written scores, there were plenty of mistakes. Sections had to be repeated, to the amusement of the audience and anger of the musicians. The event has been described as not so much a concert as an exercise in sight reading. By the beginning of the second half, the audience and orchestra were almost certainly frozen. December in Vienna in the early 19th century was bitterly cold and the theatre poorly heated. It is not difficult to imagine the tired musicians indulging in a glass or two of Christmas cheer during the break and perhaps being less attentive than normal when Beethoven, by then suffering badly from deafness and tinnitus, lifted his baton to signal the start of the most famous bar of music ever written.

We can only guess what the audience made of it. They would certainly have been confused, as the 5th had been wrongly described in the programme as the 6th symphony; but they must have been impressed by an extraordinary night of music.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Buying the first CD

Before buying I did a bit more research on my chosen recording. It was selected as the best recording of Beethoven 5 by Radio 3's CD Review in October 2007 and also by the website,

At £6.02, Amazon offered a real bargain. It's important to get the right edition (catalogue number: DG 447 400 2). Slightly confused at first by there being two versions: one dated 1995 in standard CD format and another dated 2011 in SACD format. Super Audio CD sounds good but a quick google search suggested it wouldn't be possible to tell the difference, so at over £17 the SACD version didn't offer good value.

Getting started

It's a wet New Year's day in Winchester. A good day to start a blog about classical music. Over the years I've bought an eclectic mix of CDs but never in a systematic way. Here's the chance to put that right. It's also a chance to improve on my sketchy knowledge and appreciation of music. Over the next 52 weeks I'll buy a CD a week to build a basic collection of the best classical music available.

There are lots of lists of what to buy. The Internet is full of them. Gramophone and Penguin publish each year a thick catalogue of the best recordings available. I'll dip into as many sources as I can and cover as many different types of 'classical' music as is manageable. I'll aim to pick what are generally regarded as among the best recordings of each piece, avoiding recordings I already have.

I'll also learn as I go about blogging, which I haven't tried before.

Where to start? No point agonising about it. I'll pick something obvious: Beethoven's 5th symphony. My 2004 edition of Gramophone's Good CD Guide lists two recordings as 'legendary': a live recording from 1933 of Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; and a 1974 recording by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Carlos Kleiber. Both CDs include the 7th symphony as a bonus and both are analogue recordings which have been digitally remastered and digitally transcribed. I assume the 1974 analogue recording will be technically better, so I'll go for that one.