alan little’s weblog – music archive

the boys were back in town

20th May 2009 permanent link

I surprised a colleague a while ago. He mentioned that he was going to hear [Irish blues/rock guitar legend] Gary Moore. Oh, I said, I haven’t seen him for a long time. Second time he was in Thin Lizzy, it was. About ’78 or so. What? he said. You’re older than you look. Me smug.

But what I had completely forgotten was just how good Thin Lizzy were on stage in those days. Some of the music I liked then embarrasses me now, but not this:

I saw this Thin Lizzy incarnation at about the same time in Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, not open air in Sydney Harbour. But hey, same band, same music. Thank you, youtube, for giving me a fond boyhood memory back.

I’m only just starting to appreciate the extent of the music that is on youtube these days. Could be a dangerous time-eater. So let me save you a bit of time: there’s lots and lots of Thin Lizzy live footage on youtube. This, however, is not only a stunning performance but also has by far the best sound quality.

Thin Lizzy had quite a lot of personnel changes. This video isn’t the arguably Classic Lizzy Lynott-Gorham-Robertson-Downey lineup. If you want to hear that version of the band on equally impressive live form, then you need this 1975 live album available on emusic. Forget the studio albums.

I don't expect everybody to appreciate rock music as an art form, but if you do, do yourself a favour. Listen. This is how it’s done.

german sonata

4th August 2008 permanent link

Sarah quotes me on something I don’t remember saying – but can well imagine I might have said – to the effect that:

German-speakers plan their speeches more carefully than we do. Before you launch into one of those long sentences with the verb at the end you have to know where you’re going!

This doesn’t mean you have to have every word planned out in detail before you launch into a German sentence, but you do have to be confident that you can somehow or other make your way back around to that trailing verb. Something like Sonata Form in music, where eventually, whatever you do in between, you have to make your way back to a recapitulation of the original theme. As I was about to comment on Sarah’s blog, when it struck me “Hey! And Sonata Form is a quintessentially German art. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven”.

So: Sonata Form mirrors the grammatical structure of a German sentence? Why not? People talk about Janacek’s music as mirroring the spoken rhythms of the Czech language. Don’t take my views on musical structure & history too seriously though. I’m the guy for whom Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise was too technical.

Somebody who really wanted to push this “argument” to absurd limits could surely also find some analogy to the ideas of (German speaking philosopher) Hegel. Which would be silly.


22nd May 2008 permanent link

musicians, Munich Hofgarten

Genuinely good buskers are rare, and a great pleasure when you do find them. I found these guys today on my way from the U-Bahn to the art gallery. They were playing the Usual Suspects for classical busking - Eine kleine Nachtmusik, bits of the Four Seasons – and playing them well and with enthusiasm. I enjoyed them a lot.

And of course I had my new carry-around camera with me. This isn’t the world’s best or sharpest picture, sure – but I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they say the Olympus DSLRs produce subtly nice colours in their in-camera jpeg processing.

currently listening to ...

1st February 2008 permanent link

My son is taking his own musical education in hand by picking CDs from the shelves at random and insisting that they be played. (Brian Micklethwait approves) He’s old enough now that I can let him do that without having to worry too much about the fate of the CDs, and in any case I have backups. (Although I suppose admitting to those backups in public might not be such a great idea these days. Fair Use, people, Fair Use)

Today’s choice was Public Image Limited’s Greatest Hits, So Far. “Er”, I ventured to suggest, “you might not like this”. Turns out I was wrong. I underestimated the boy.

Perhaps I should try him on some Joy Division next. Or perhaps not – his mother could come home from her yoga class at any moment.

the rest is noise

26th December 2007 permanent link

What was the favorite thing you gave this year? asks Steven Barnes.

That would be Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Tyler Cowen recommends it highly.

Personally I’m struggling with it. I don’t have enough grasp of technical musical terminology to make any sense of Alex Ross’s descriptions of pieces of music I’m not familiar with – and that, sadly, would seem be most of them. But the very dear friend I gave it to as a Christmas present, a jazz player and erstwhile classical composer, says he’s finding it “unputdownable” and “will definitely have to read it more than once to get the most out of it.”


seven people

19th June 2007 permanent link

OK. Another list to add to Cara’s eight. Eight again? Turns out to be seven, corresponding coincidentally [?] to the seven main chakras etc.

Seven people I have encountered in my life who I would regard as authentic masters/geniuses.

Three yoga masters:

  1. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
  2. Dharma Mittra
  3. Bryan Kest

The ayurdevic masseur who healed my knee:

  1. P. Vijayan

Two musicians I have heard play live, one in an arena, one in a bar; one extremely famous, one somewhat less so:

  1. Neil Young
  2. Steve Lafleur

Most Talented Rock Climber Of His Generation, all round mad genius, and the only person on this list I ever knew personally at all well:

  1. Johnny Dawes

anecdotal acoustics

17th June 2007 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait links to Norman Lebrecht on the improved acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall in London. This was going to be a comment on Brian’s blog, until I remembered that writing one’s own blog in the form of excessively long comments on other peoples’ is rude.

The acoustics of concert halls really matter to the people who play in them for a living. Presumably they would to real classical music listeners like Brian too, if Brian didn’t these days prefer listening to recording to going to concerts. Dilettantes like me don’t really have enough experience to know the difference, but we know people who do.

When I told my freelance classical musician brother that I was going to a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London, about ten years ago, he asked me very anxiously to tell him what the acoustic was like. Apparently the building had had something major done to it, and everybody in the trade was worried that they might have completely screwed up London’s famously best-sounding chamber music venue. Something about digging a new cellar underneath it? Which seemed like a utterly strange thing to contemplate doing to any building, let alone a concert hall. I was unable to help him, having never been there before. It didn’t sound obviously terrible.

Then there was the wind playing friend who told me, when the Bridgewater Hall opened in Manchester, that the stage acoustic is so forward-projecting that the wind players at the back of the orchestra could barely hear what the strings were up to at the front. She didn’t appear to regard this as an unmitigated disaster.

Currently listening to: Wilhelm Furtwängler leading the Berlin Philharmonic through Brahms’s Haydn Variations. Beautiful. Recorded in 1950 and presumably not in the current Berlin Philharmonic Hall, which looks like a yellow lego spaceship and therefore can’t possibly have existed in 1950. I have no idea what it sounds like, I’ve just seen the outside of it whilst visiting the art gallery next door.

[Cara: still haven’t forgotten. It was “respond within eight weeks”, wasn’t it?]

what was i thinking?

30th April 2007 permanent link

A random email, from somebody who thought I was somebody else, led me to have a look back through my music blogging archive. There among other things I noticed a top ten list from three years ago of my then-favourite classical recordings.

We all grow up, hopefully, and sometimes our tastes change and mature with time. But I’ve listened to quite a bit more classical music in the last three years than I had before, and quite a few of the things on that list now jump out at me as signs that when you’re just starting to get interested in something, your ideas and opinions might not be quite as well informed as you think they are. (Under-experienced yoga teachers also take note)

Beethoven: Symphony no.3 "Eroica"Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1944 recording I haven’t been listening to Beethoven symphonies much lately. If I did, these would still be the ones I would listen to.
Beethoven: Symphony no.7Carlos Kleiber / Vienna Philharmonic (their recording of no. 5 on the same CD is more famous but I prefer the 7th)
Beethoven: complete string quartetsHungarian Quartet 1950s mono recordings The Hungarian Quartet mono recordings would still be a decent choice for a complete set, supposing they were still available, which I believe they’re not. I’m sure there are also plenty of very good performances by modern ensembles available in state of the art recorded sound, but I havt listene to them (and, to be honest, don’t feel any great need to).
As always with sets of recordings, you can find better version of the individual pieces. That fantastic Smetana Quartet Rasumovsky 3, for example, but it’s only available on a very obscure German label and absurdly difficult to get hold of. As are their 1960s recordings of the late quartets, which overenthusiastic people can get hold of by importing them from Japan. This is just absurd. There are people who want these things, and there’s just no need any more to get into all the costs of burning hundreds of funny little plastic disks and shipping them around the place. Just put the damn things on a server somewhere already, and charge enough to cover the bandwidth costs plus a reasonable profit margin. Free money. what could be simpler?
A slightly unfashionable choice: The Italian Quartet. Lots of people find their style too smooth and pretty for Beethoven, but I personally find their opus 132 Heiliger Dankgesang (Pinnacle Of Western Culture?) astounding. On a par with that Smetana Quartet Rasumovsky 3, even.
Beethoven: String Quartet no.9, Rasumovsky 3Smetana Quartet 1960s recording
Mozart piano concertosAlfred Brendel /  Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the FieldsThese are quite good as a cheap starter set of some of the best known concertos. There are better recordings of individual pieces – Martha Argerich’s wild Number 20, for example
Mozart Requiem Mass. Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields That was a typo in the first place, I meant Hogwood / Academy of Ancient Music
Schubert String QuintetStern / Katim / Schneider / Casals / Tortellier Another one I haven’t listened to for quite a while, but if I did, this is still a very fine performance of a very fine piece of music. Also good: the Hungrarian Quartet
Brahms Violin Concerto Kremer / Bernstein /  Vienna Philharmonic There are other Brahms Violin Concerto recordings I would prefer now, Oistrakh/Klemperer for example. But these days when I want to listen to a Big Romantic Concerto it’s generally the Dvorak Cello Concerto, for which Fournier/Celibidache (1948) is definitive.
Shostakovich String Quartets.Original Borodin Quartet recordings Yep.
There’s a BBC live recording of number eight from an early 1960s Edinburgh Festival that’s even better than the slightly later studio recording. The orginal Borodin Quartet only recorded the first thirteen; number fifteen is also wonderful and the Mark II Borodin Quartet, in which Mikhail Kopelman replaced Rostislav Dubinsky as first violin, did that stunningly too.
Bach Cello Suites Since we might as well have ten, I have the feeling there must be a recording of the Bach cello suites out there somewhere that I would really, really love but I haven’t found it yet. I’ve listened to Casals, Fournier and Tortellier and they haven’t blown me away What was I thinking? Not blown away by Casals?
Clearly I can’t have been listening properly. Pau is Da Man. I also again and again find myself pleasantly surprised by an obscure recording by Yehuda Hanani (pupil of Casals, apparently) for which I have to thank emusic.
Pieter Wispelwey – seemingly regarded by quite a few people as Greatest Cellist Of His Generation, etc. – somehow doesn’t do a whole lot for me in this or in quite a few other things.
Elgar cello concertodu Pré / Barbirolli)
Haydn Seven Last WordsBorodin Quartet
Smetana String Quartet  no. 1. Juilliard Quartet Having so many CDs that if you listened to one a day, you’d listen to each one about once every couple of years, has its disadvantages. On the other hand, you can be pleased when you dig out something that you used to like a lot but haven’t listened to for a while, and find that you still like it a lot.
Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition Fritz Reiner / Chicago Symphony Orchestra Not a profound utterance from the depths of somebody's soul, but who ever said everything has to be? Great Fun. If you’re used to Ravel’s famous orchestral version, [Alan now recommends Toscanini, not that there’s anything noticeably wrong with Reiner] then Mussorgsky’s original for solo piano takes a little bit of getting used to. Richter was the undisputed master of it; Pletnev is good too, especially if you want a modern recording with decent sound instead of Richter’s accompaniment by the collective coughing of Bulgaria’s Stalinist nomenklatura in his most famous live recording.

Speaking of Greatest Cellists Of Their Generation: rest in peace Mstislav Rostropovich.

Recommended recordings too many to even think about listing, so I’ll just pick a personal favourite: the premiere of Britten’s Cello Symphony, recorded live in Moscow in 1960.

brian micklethwait · stephen pollard · alex ross · on an overgrown path

brian on bach

21st April 2007 permanent link

Brian Mickethwait on Johann Sebastian Bach:

Bach was making his music for God, who hears everything and remembers everything and who has no need of his own personal score. And, Bach was composing to bring his contemporaries closer to God. He pretty much assumed that future musicians attempting the same would do it with music that they had themselves composed, rather than with music composed by a dead person.

so, currently listening to …

25th September 2006 permanent link

Shostakovich’s first violin concerto, played by David Oistrakh with Yevgeniy Mravinsky conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

Tyler finds Shostakovich’s concerti unconvincing. I don’t.

Happy birthday Dmitry.

UPDATE: Shostakovich Night continues with one of Rostropovich’s recordings of the first Cello Concerto – admittedly less convincing, though still well worth listening to – and Shostakovich’s own recording of five of his Twenty Four Preludes And Fugues for solo piano. Beautiful in, as Tyler says, a very different way from the more familiar orchestral works.

tyler on shostakovich

24th September 2006 permanent link

Tyler Cowen – and, in his comments section, Alan Little among others – recommend Shostakovich’s music on the occasion of the imminent hundredth anniversary of the great man’s birth.

Tyler likes some of the symphonies, the string quartets and the piano trio. I said:

Wot no Piano Quintet? Various versions of the Borodin Quartet recorded it with various great pianists such as Richter & Leonskaja. For a complete set of the symphonies, Shostakovich's close friend Barshai's set on ultra-cheap label Brilliant is a sound bargain introduction; alternatively, a couple of weeks ago in Moscow I paid not very much for a set of Melodiya reissues of Mravinsky's 5,6,7,8,10,11,12,15, which I haven't had time to listen to yet and am looking forward to.

(Tyler - next time you're on a family trip to Russia, the CD shop in Sheremetyevo airport has lots on interesting Melodiya reissues by greats like Mravinsky, Richter & Oistrakh. Not at the kind of absurdly low prices you see in the pirate CD shops outside airports, but reasonably priced by western standards - I think I paid 30 Euros for that 6-disk Shostakovich box. And the ultra-cheap pirate shops are generally disappointing for classical, in that they have cheap knock-offs of stuff that is readily available in the west, but not any of the kind of obscure Soviet archive stuff that I always go there really hoping to find)

Getting back to the point: my favourite string quartets are #8 & #15. There is an amazing Borodin Quartet live recording of #8 from an early 1960s Edinburgh festival on BBC Legends that is even better than their studio recording from around the same time. And there's a very, very good #15 coupled with their recording of the Piano Quintet with Leonskaja on Teldec, making the disk very, very worth buying. On ultra-bargain labels for those looking for an introduction on the cheap, the Eder Quartet on Naxos and the Rubio Quartet on Brilliant are also perfectly decent.

I wonder if Brian will have anything to add? UPDATE: he does have something to say, albeit a few days after the actual anniversary.

baroque bach?

1st May 2006 permanent link

“How anybody can possibly use the same term to describe this and the lean, elegant, logical beauty of Bach’s music is beyond me” was my reaction when I visited the Baroque church at Andechs a few months ago.

It appears to be beyond Mstislav Rostropovich too, and he knows a great deal more about these things than I ever will. He explains why he chose to record the Bach cello suites in a twelfth century Romanesque church at Vézelay and not in some baroque monstrosity like Andechs:

When I first entered this church I saw the rhythm of the internal architecture shorn of all superfluity, with none of the gilt and ornamental trimmings of the baroque style. I saw the severity of line and the rhythm of this vaulted construction, which reminds me so powerfully of the rhythm of Bach’s music. It seemed to me that I had found the right place.

upgrading your iPod

19th February 2006 permanent link

I got my wife an iPod for her birthday, then spent a little while showing her how to copy Björk and Kate Bush songs onto it. First I explained a bit about compressed music and the difference between low and high bitrates (minimal-to-none, if you’re our age).

My wife isn’t any kind of audiophile or technical enthusiast. She nevertheless asks why I don’t use the standard white earbuds that came with my iPod Mini, and can she have a go with my Sennheisers? Immediately says they make the white earbuds sound “miserabel”, thus proving the point somebody well-informed made (wouldn’t surprise me if it were Steve Crandall, but I can’t track the link down just now), that above a reasonable minimum bitrate – around 160 AAC – upgrading your headphones makes a heck of a lot more difference than higher bitrates.

She can buy her own Sennheisers.

joachim’s violin

5th January 2006 permanent link

I held Joseph Joachim’s violin.

Just home from an entirely Internet-free two weeks visiting family & friends. Lots of good times had, but this was easily the most remarkable happening – my tenuous and indirect music connections are more illustrious than I ever imagined. Joseph Joachim was the top violin soloist of the late nineteenth century. He is the man Brahms wrote his violin concerto for, and the subject of this fascinating article by Peter Gutmann on early recordings.

He is also the x-times-great-grandfather, or -uncle, or something, of a friend of my brother, who still has in her possession the child-sized violin on which Joachim first performed in public circa 1850.

I’m catching up on my online reading, of which while we’re on the subject of classical music I strongly recommend Brian Micklethwait’s latest.

currently listening to …

16th December 2005 permanent link

White face,
black shirt,
white socks,
black shoes,
black hair,
white Strat,
bled white,
dyed black

For no apparent reason, Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent has been stuck in my mind every time I’ve been anywhere near a record shop for a while now, even though I think I probably last heard it circa 1978. Ian Dury’s work, dating as it does from the pre-CD era and he now being no longer alive and not quite as famous as some of his contemporaries who are, seems to be hard to find on CD. (iTunes Music Store? Don’t be silly)

Maria disapproves of me buying CDs, on the [entirely legitimate] grounds that I have hundreds already, most of which I hardly ever listen to. But yesterday Jack and I were in town shopping for her Christmas present and Jack fell asleep in his pushchair (shopping for Girl Stuff is exhausting). Going into the subway would have woken him up, so my clear duty as a responsible father was to keep shopping.

As luck would have it we were near, my current favourite second hand CD shop, and they had a copy of The Best Of Ian Dury And The Blockheads with Sweet Gene Vincent at Track Three. They wanted ten euros for it. I thought about whether it was really worth it for a song I remember fondly from a quarter of a century ago? I might not even like it now. On the other hand, ten euros just to stop the bloody thing jumping into my mind whenever I go anywhere near a shop might be a good investment. If I find I really don’t like it any more I can always sell it on ebay.

So? Worth every f*cking penny! We got both kinds of music, rock and roll!

sandow on cynicism

29th November 2005 permanent link

Greg Sandow has a book in progress about the decline of classical music, especially orchestral classical music, and what if anything can or should be done about it. One of the problems he puts his finger on is a lack of any passion, any unpredictability in yet another run-through of something like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – fine piece of music though it is.

I wrote to him pointing out a couple of counter-examples:

I'm following your online book with great interest, and was struck by your comments about the musicians' (orchestral musicians at any rate) lack of involvement in what they're playing.

My brother is a freelance orchestral string player, and your book isn't going to tell me anything I haven't already heard from him about disillusionment in the orchestral music business. Mostly. But once he got me tickets to hear him playing Mahler in the Liverpool Philharmonic. It turned out to be the day Michael Tippett died; they didn't have anything by him rehearsed, so instead they added Elgar's Nimrod to the program because apparently he loved it. It was an absolutely glorious, performance-of-the-century moment. When my brother met us in the bar afterwards he was glowing, and wanted to know immediately if that had sounded anywhere near as good as it felt. We told him it had.

So here you have a decent but not great orchestra, and a totally overexposed piece of music that any English orchestral musician has performed a thousand times and could play in their sleep. Surely a recipe for tedium. But, given a reason to play it that they care about - plenty of them had probably met Tippett - and an audience to whom it has been explained that this is what we are playing and this is why we are playing it, it turned into a moment of absolutely transcendent wonder. Art, even. I will remember it all my life.

Another example: last year I went to hear a local amateur orchestra perform the Eroica at a charity concert. It was great fun. They had hired a professional conductor, and he and they were clearly determined that they were damn well going to *perform* the thing, not just get through the score without falling apart. They damn near did fall apart, but I admired them and enjoyed the concert far more for that than if they had played it safe. The Eroica is so great it can survive a lot of abuse, and nobody was expecting them to be the Vienna Philharmonic. (On the other hand, what does it do to the Vienna Philharmonic, knowing that everybody *is* expecting them to be the Vienna Philharmonic? Does the pressure of all that expectation to be perfect stop them taking enough risks?)

Of course, for members of that amateur orchestra, this might have been the only chance of their lives to be in a public performance of one of the greatest pieces of orchestral music ever written – and in front of an audience that probably contained large numbers of their friends, relatives and colleagues. Whereas an orchestral professional might acknowledge in an abstract sense how great and wonderful the Eroica is – but how big a deal is any given performance of it?

Another example occurs to me: Arild Remmereit’s amazing Tchaikovsky performance with the Munich Philharmonic that I heard last winter. The band might have thought they were up for just another run through of a too-familiar piece they’ve played a hundred times before – but for the conductor it was his chance to make a splash with a big-name orchestra, and by god he did.

I’m not saying – and nor is Greg, I assume – that it’s all cynicism, all the time with professional orchestras. I used to vaguely know the lead trumpet of the BBC Philharmonic (friend of a friend), and he would get excited and go around drumming up support in the pub whenever they had a big brass showpiece like Mussorgsky’s Pictures or Beethoven’s Fifth coming up. My brother, too, waxes lyrical about the times when he’s been involved in great performances like that Elgar, or when he has heard really great orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic.

While we’re on the subject of music that is heard and played too often, don’t forget to go and read Brian Micklethwait’s magnificent piece on the Eroica:

It is one thing to hear the first two chords of the Eroica for the hundredth time, in an age of stadium rock and hi-fi volume knobs on our CD players; quite another to hear these two explosions when they were the loudest and most bad-mannered musical noises that anyone had, until then, ever heard indoors.

dealing with idiots

25th November 2005 permanent link

The continuing saga of trying to get iTunes to handle classical music in a half-sensible manner. Andy Baker convinced me that there is actually a case for putting the composer instead of the performer in the “Artist” field – at least for people who for whatever reason choose to use benighted software that doesn’t recognise the standard ID3 Composer tag. This one is quick and easy to fix in iTunes anyway. I really can’t begin to imagine what the people who came up with the other common anti-pattern were thinking. (Achtung! wide picture)


Here we have “Song” used for the title of the work and “Artist” (!) holding the names of the movements. Composer might be embedded in the album title if you’re lucky, and you have to guess the performer. <unahimsic>The idiot(s) responsible for this should be shot</unahimsic>. This nonsense is so widespread that I suspect the idiot responsible is the author of some widely used piece of crap software – my naïve faith in the human race is such that I have difficulty bringing myself to believe in a large number of people all choosing to do the same utterly stupid thing in exactly the same way. This one is much more of a pain to fix – iTunes doesn’t let you bulk edit the movement names from “artist” across into “song name”, you have to cut and paste them one by one.

Which is of course a time-wasting pain in the arse, and after you’ve done it too many times (because it’s still marginally better than typing everything from scratch) you realise that it might be worth spending half an hour learning Applescript. A quick search for “itunes classical applescript” reveals nothing that directly does the job, but a huge library of other scripts for doing things with iTunes which we can easily borrow & adapt. Applescript turns out to be quite a cute little scripting language, and a few minutes’ work produces this:

"Artist to Song Name" for iTunes
fixes one of the most common problems with CDDB classical data, 
where movement names are idiotically placed in the "Artist" field
written by Alan Little

based on
"Track Number to Song Name Prefix" for iTunes
by Doug Adams

tell application "iTunes"
	if selection is not {} or view of front window is not library playlist 1 then
		if selection is not {} then -- use selection
			set theseTracks to selection
		else -- use whole playlist (this doesn't work)
			set theseTracks to every file track of view of front window
		end if
		display dialog "Select some tracks or a Playlist..." buttons {"Cancel"} default button 1 with icon 2
	end if
	display dialog "Overwrite Song Name with Artist, or append?" buttons {"Overwrite", "Append"} default button 2
	if the button returned of the result is "Append" then
		set myAppend to true
		set myAppend to false
	end if
	display dialog "Artist" default answer "" buttons {"OK"} default button 1
	set newArtist to text returned of result
	set fixed indexing to true
	with timeout of 30000 seconds
		repeat with aTr in theseTracks
			set newName to artist of aTr
			if myAppend then
				set newName to name of aTr & " " & newName
			end if
			set name of aTr to newName
			set artist of aTr to newArtist
		end repeat
	end timeout
	set fixed indexing to false
end tell

… which works.

better on record?

12th November 2005 permanent link

You just don’t necessarily want to be sitting confined in a chair, surrounded by strangers, as those intermittent waves of sound wash over you.
Kyle Gann

… on hearing the premier of John Luther Adams’ For Lou Harrison, and wondering whether it isn’t music that would be better heard recorded than live.

beethoven plays mozart

11th November 2005 permanent link

Not a “currently listening to …” entry, although wouldn’t it be lovely if it were.

Apparently Beethoven once performed Mozart’s D minor piano concerto (K466) at a benefit concert for Mozart’s widow and children. That must have been something to hear. This information from an interesting biographical sketch of Constanze Mozart by Jane Glover, which I just pulled out of my to_read pile where it had been sitting for a few weeks.

(If you want a recording of the piece that you can actually listen to now, Martha Argerich’s is pretty damn fine)

Ms Glover, like many other serious Mozart fans, dislikes Elizabeth Berridge’s breathtakingly sexy performance as Constanze in Amadeus. I don’t.

currently listening to …

18th October 2005 permanent link

Amazon took nearly three weeks to find me a copy of the Smetana Quartet recording of Schubert’s String Quintet, and when they finally do it turns out to be certainly good, and well worth listening to, but not obviously a must-have compared to a couple of the very good recordings of the piece I already have. It comes on the same disk, however, as a Brahms string quartet (opus 67) which I wasn’t really interested in, but which turns out to be stunning and the first time I have ever really enjoyed a piece of Brahms chamber music.

I also decided to order myself the Smetana Quartet’s late Beethoven recordings from HMV in Japan (early Christmas present). Shipping was expensive but the CDs themselves were cheap, so I ended up paying about the same for them as if I had bought them full price in Europe or the States. HMV, unlike Amazon, shipped within two days – but then they spent two days in Customs at Frankfurt airport last week, and when I checked the Fedex website again this evening I discovered that they tried to deliver them yesterday and again today but nobody was in. I hope they don’t send them back to Japan before I phone tomorrow.

record collections

18th October 2005 permanent link

Eric Grunin says he only has 334 recordings of the Eroica, not the “nearly four hundred” I attributed to him. This is barely a tenth of his total collection of CDs and vinyl though. Kyle Gann’s seven thousandish mp3 files are just a tenth of his music collection too, whereas my seven thousand “songs” in iTunes are nearly the whole of mine.

It seems my record collection isn’t going to be getting much bigger. My wife, impeccably yogically, has decreed that we have More Than Enough Stuff in general, and in particular that for every classical CD I buy I have to sell one. Ebay here I come.

baby’s first gig

12th October 2005 permanent link

A Wednesday Family Life Vignette.

Jack and I went into town to buy Jack shoes. (At least this time he actually managed to wear the old ones out in the three months it took him to also grow out of them)

Outside the shoe shop was a quartet (double bass, violin, flute, oboe) playing light classics – William Tell Overture, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the usual suspects. They were no great shakes, but not terrible either, and Jack was interested so I thought we’d stop for a few minutes. It’s very important for him to understand that music is something people do, not something that comes out of a box; but I would never dream of taking a two year old to a concert, even a kids’ one, for fear of him getting bored. Listening to buskers, you can just move on when he loses interest. Except he didn’t – he was absolutely riveted, grinning from ear to ear and conducting with the two balloons he acquired in the shoe shop, for half an hour until the musicians took a break.

We didn’t have any change, and we got a good deal on the shoes, so the guys got five bucks out of us.

insider perspective

11th October 2005 permanent link

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra is coming to Munich, so I called my brother to ask his professional opinion on whether they’re likely to be worth the price of tickets and a babysitter – and got interesting insights into the perspectives and priorities of the working musician. Oh absolutely, he says, there’s only a handful of really top flight orchestras in the world and the New York Phil is one of them. (The others, folks, are Berlin, Vienna, Chicago and maybe, marginally, the London Symphony Orchestra). Who’s conducting and what are they playing? Maazel, Mahler 5. Oh, then definitely go – he pulls great faces when he’s conducting Mahler, he should get an Oscar.

Lest you think it’s all professional cynicism, though, he then goes into raptures about the time he heard the Vienna Philharmonic. Especially their brass section: “they’ve got so much power they bounce the sound off the back wall of the hall and it hits you on the back of the head and you think wow, where did that come from?”

a step in the right direction

8th October 2005 permanent link

“I want to be able to get anything that is currently or has ever been released. I don’t care whether I get things from individual record labels or some kind of distributor …” I said last week. Today, via I discover that British classical label Chandos has all its no longer available CDs available for download as MP3s.

“Now everything Chandos has ever recorded is available either as a CD or Mp3” appears to mean things that are currently available on CD aren’t there for download. It also doesn’t appear to include things Chandos have reissued but didn’t originally record, such as the Borodin Quartet’s amazing 1960s Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. But there’s a lot of good stuff there. Seems to be a better deal than Apple. Pricing is somewhat cheaper: £0.40 (about US$0.70 ) per five minutes or part thereof. Format is 192kbps mp3 – roughly comparable to 128 AAC. No DRM.

Every record label should do this. Supraphon and whoever owns RCA these days, please start with your early 1960s Smetana and Juilliard Quartet Beethoven recordings. Thank you.

mo’ shopping blues

1st October 2005 permanent link

I buy quite a lot of CDs – probably about a hundred a year, although I haven’t been doing it for very long so I “only” have a total collection of about six or seven hundred CDs. That’s not a big collection by some people’s standards. Music critic and blogger Alex Ross thinks he has about ten thousand CDs. My friend Charlie told me he has about two thousand CDs and considerably more vinyl LPs. Eric Grunin has nearly four hundred recordings just of the Eroica. Brian Micklethwait doesn’t give an exact number for his “pathologically gigantic CD collection”, but I recall he once posted a picture of some of it. I can’t find the picture just now but it, too, definitely looked much bigger than mine. Nevertheless I suspect I’m probably still in the top few percent of spenders of money on recorded music. The lady on the cash desk at Ludwig Beck knows me.

Here we finally get to the point of my ramblings about R.L. Burnside and the Smetana Quartet: the number of people in the world who are shopping for music by R.L. Burnside and the Smetana Quartet at any given time probably fluctuates between zero and one. But there are lots and lots of people looking for other things of that sort, and these are precisely the people who buy a lot of recorded music. Or would if they could actually find it, except that actually finding any given piece of even-slightly-outside-the-mainstream music, especially classical, is hopeless and getting worse.

It must be hard-verging-on-impossible for a specialist record shop to be a viable business these days. My guess is that the Ludwig Beck record department is Herr Beck’s personal hobby and subsidised by the clothing store. Zweitausendeins seems to have found a viable bottom-feeder niche. I have no idea what could possibly be going on bei Müller. The cost of carrying huge amounts of slow moving and rapidly depreciating stock must be immense. Even if you do bear that cost, you still can’t possibly have every obscure item that everybody looking for R.L. Burnside and the Smetana Quartet wants; but if you don’t have it right there they’re not going to order it from you any more, they’re going to go to Amazon. Where there’s a pretty good chance of it being available, but good luck finding it with Amazon’s crap search facilities.

Is what I want so very far-fetched? I want to be able to get anything that is currently or has ever been released. I don’t care whether I get things from individual record labels or some kind of distributor, as long as I have a search engine that can easily and reliably find them. I don’t mind compressed digital files as long as they have at least CD-quality sound, minimal DRM, and are substantially cheaper than CDs to fairly reflect their far lower distribution costs (I know bandwidth isn’t free). I don’t mind CDs either, as long as I don’t have to wait weeks to get them shipped from some other country. They take up too much space but in some ways they’re still more convenient: it’s a lot easier to carry a CD into the kitchen than it is to open up my laptop and fire up iTunes. We’re not far off: Amazon has a huge selection of music but weak search; Apple’s online music store has decent search but a pitiful selection.

Meanwhile (says the CD junkie) can anybody point me to where I can find a copy of Yevgeny Mravinsky’s recording of Sibelius’ seventh symphony?

steve on compression

30th September 2005 permanent link

Steve Crandall, who knows a great deal more about these things than I do, has some interesting thoughts on acceptable bitrates for digital music:

If you have space lossless is good, but not always detectable. Some very serious double blind tests suggest 128kbps AAC is probably good enough for any ears over 40 years old and many younger ears. 160kbps AAC fools serious ears very well.

Being of a nervous disposition, I back my CDs up using Apple Lossless. But the 250 GB hard disk I put them on is rapidly filling up, and maintaining two copies of things – a slightly compressed archive copy, and a much smaller copy to go on my iPod – is a pain in the ass.

It is a different matter if you are using something recorded at better than CD rate. We did some work with AAC compression on very high bit rate input audio and had much better than CD sound with files much smaller than CD files. A problem is very little is prepared for sale at high quality. A larger problem is most people just don't care. Regular mp3s seem good enough for most people and few people have the $300 headphones or $3000 speakers you really need if you want to focus on the differences.

It’s laughable that people sill regard the quarter of a century old CD standard, or compressed formats that are indistinguishable from it, as some kind of benchmark of sonic excellence. But it’s Good Enough for most people for most purposes, and for the foreseeable future anything better is likely to be so heavily DRM’d it will be useless.

I have a pair of $200 headphones. I bought them used on ebay for nowhere near $200.

(I'd rather put that sort of money into live music...)

Of course Steve’s right in principle. But I have a small child and don’t get out much, and in the evening after I’ve put my small child to bed I like to sit down in the living room and listen to some recorded music (on my $200 headphones). There’s also the They Don’t Make Musicians Like That Any More problem: if giants like the Smetana Quartet still walk the earth, I don’t know who or where they are.

currently listening to …

28th September 2005 permanent link

Schubert’s magnificent String Quintet in C Major, of which I have four recordings: Hollywood Quartet, Hungarian Quartet, Borodin Quartet and Casals, Stern & friends. They’re all good: the Hollywood Quartet and Casals, Stern & co. are almost always near the top of “best recordings” lists for this piece, and I personally think the Hungarian Quartet are even better. All of them (Note To Music Industry) are on CDs I bought legally – three new (two even at full price in England: and if you come from somewhere else and think CDs are expensive, just try buying them in England) and one used on ebay.

Anyway, despite already having four perfectly good recordings of the piece, two of which are wonderful, I decided I felt like getting another one[*]. Browsing I discover that there’s a controversial 1960s version by the Smetana Quartet, with a wierd not-very-slow slow movement that people seem to either love or hate. That sounds promising – more so, anyway, than the kind of bland technical perfection I’d be likely to get from modern ensembles.

It’s on Testament, a British record label that specialises in re-releasing legendary performances from the classical recording golden age in the 1950s and 60s. There’s at least a fifty-fifty chance Ludwig Beck would have it, but I don’t feel like going shopping again at the moment; it’s Oktoberfest time and town is full of drunk tourists.

So, Amazon. Amazon has a vast classical music catalogue, but its search is useless. The Smetana Quartet – one of the top ten chamber music ensembles of the last half century – isn’t listed under “browse performers”. Searching for "Smetana Quartet” brings up all five hundred recordings of the string quartets the composer Bedrich Smetana wrote, with no option to sort them by anything useful like performer or recording date. I trawl down the list until I eventually find one performed by the Smetana Quartet, open it and click on Performer. Back to the same list of five hundred recordings by other people.

I spend at least as much time on and as I would otherwise have spent making a side trip to Ludwig Beck on my way home from work, without success. Eventually I find the CD on, but getting Amazon orders shipped from the States is too slow and expensive. It occurs to me to try cutting and pasting the ASIN from the url to and voila! My CD is there, it’s just that you can only find it if you already know its Amazon item number. Ordered.

The Smetana Quartet also recorded most of Beethoven’s string quartets in the 1960s. These recordings are legendary. I have heard one of them, and it is one of the most inspiring performances I have ever heard of any piece of music by anybody. I’d love to hear the rest, but they’re absurdly difficult to get hold of.

They were recorded by Czech record label Supraphon – who, however, haven’t seen fit to re-release them on CD. Supraphon had/have some kind of joint recording and marketing deal with Denon, the Japanese hi-fi equipment maker who also have their own record label. And as far as I have been able to find out, the complete Smetana Quartet 60s Beethoven is currently available on CD, with “Supraphon” even written on the labels, but actually only on Denon and only in Japan. Japanese online music stores charge reasonable prices for CDs, but their shipping rates outside Japan are expensive. Denon CDs occasionally show up in Europe on ebay or in second hand shops, where they fetch high prices as cult rarities. Note To Denon: just how incompetent are your marketing people? Get a frigging distributor for christ’s sake! The very concept of “cult rarities” in a digital medium is absurd.

So Amazon’s classical music search is useless, and some record companies don’t choose to sell their stuff where Alan lives. Another big so what? Is there in fact going to be a point to all this? I’m getting there.

[*] “It’s not necessary to own 50 Beethoven cycles, 46 of which you never play, when you can be just as happy with 20 of them, 16 of which you never play” – David Hurwitz

record shoppin’ blues

27th September 2005 permanent link

Go and listen to (recently deceased Mississippi bluesman) R.L. Burnside, said Michael Blowhard. So, he [*] having bought me lunch a couple of weeks ago ’n’ all, I did. I found some samples among amazon's free music downloads, and some bits and pieces on allofmp3, listened to them, and was much impressed. So I thought I would go out and buy a CD or two. Note To Music Industry: people who download music and find they like it often then go out and buy CDs.

Or try to.

There are three record shops I go in in Munich. Ludwig Beck is an upmarket clothing store – everything from dirndls and lederhosen to designer jeans – right on Marienplatz in the middle of town. Except that, lurking on the top floor where you would never suspect it, is the biggest specialist classical and jazz record shop I have ever seen. Beck is a pretty good place for a comprehensive selection of obscure stuff, although the prices are high.

Just down the road from Beck is a branch of the German drugstore chain Müller – but this particular branch, for no obvious reason, just happens to have Munich’s second best toyshop downstairs and a big record shop upstairs. Müller’s classical selection is nowhere near as comprehensive as Beck’s, but it’s decent and angled more towards budget labels, so it’s often worth a look too.

Then there is zweitausendeins, a strange little place that specialises in the ultra-budget Brilliant Classics label, and also has odds end ends of remaindered stuff from other labels at very cheap prices. Not the place to go to look for something specific, but good for serendipitous browsing from time to time. Last time I was there I scored a ten-cd box of 1950s and 60s soviet recordings by legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich for 17 euros, some of which turned out to be wonderful.

Ludwig Beck’s jazz section seemed like the obvious place to start looking for R.L. Burnside, but no. Disappointing. There were only a couple of sheves of blues, and no R.L. Müller is just down the road so I checked there too. I had never looked at jazz or blues in Müller before, but it turns out they have quite a big blues section, in which R.L. and his Fat Possum label mates are present in large numbers. Hurrah.

Big wow. Alan had to look in two shops before he found the CD he wanted. Is there actually some kind of point he’s meandering towards making here? Bear with me.

[*] Michael, not R.L.

commercial policy

20th July 2005 permanent link

It seems to be quite the thing lately for bloggers to complain about being “spammed” by marketing and PR people. I have mixed views on this.

I get a lot of requests for links from commercial yoga sites. These I generally ignore or politely decline – the latter if the people concerned have made the effort to write personally rather than just indiscriminately spamming me. I make exceptions for sites like Purple Valley Yoga, where they have yoga interests very close to my own and I know from other sources that they have a good reputation.

I would gladly prostitute myself for photographic toys, but sadly nobody has ever taken me up on my offer to do so.

And the other day I got a mail from Ross Stensrud of Fortuna Classical, whose company apparently makes an audiophile-grade hard disk jukebox that comes preloaded with classical music metadata. As Ross says, this is exactly what I described last year:

Somebody who is willing to spend … thousands of dollars for a … digital jukebox might well also want it to come with some decent metadata  (i.e. not the crap that is in CDDB) pre-loaded rather than having to key everything in themselves from scratch.

I’ve never used Fortuna’s products, and the only piece of audio gear I might personally be in the market for right now is an Airport Express. But since Ross has made the effort to search for websites that might be relevant to his products, actually read them (this is the crucial step, folks) and send individual emails, I wish him every success.


21st June 2005 permanent link

So I go into town to see if any of the local record shops have Han-na Chang’s recording of the Haydn cello concertos. They don’t; I pick up one by Anner Bylsma instead. The folks on don’t think much of it, but I like nearly all the things I’ve heard by him very much, including ones other people don’t. I decide to trust my own opinion for a change and risk the eight euros.

UPDATE: Public opinion was right and this time I would have done well to listen to it. For once I’m not at all impressed by a record by Anner Bylsma.

While I’m there I notice that Munich’s classical record departments are suddenly flooded with CDs from Melodiya, the old soviet state record company. They’re mostly labelled in Russian. Aha – this gives me a competitive advantage over the other shoppers(*). I can read cyrillic script fairly fluently. I rarely understand much of what I’m reading, even in Jack’s picturebooks, but I can do names of composers and musicians (ya bolshoi kulturniy) and this is wall-to-wall Greatest Musicians Of The Twentieth Century – Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels … – in probably amazing 1950s and 60s live recordings. Thankfully no early Borodin Quartet, because it already looks like my wallet could be in for a severe beating here. In the end I manage to get away with only one CD: Oistrakh and Richter playing violin sonatas by Bartok and Shostakovich.

(*) except the ones who went to school in East Germany

currently listening to …

21st June 2005 permanent link

(actually, was on Sunday evening listening to) … local cellist Johannes Moser, with Ricardo Muti conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, proving that Haydn was capable of writing music just as wonderful as anything by young upstarts Mozart and Beethoven.

Proving it in this case with his first Cello Concerto in C Major, which apparently was lost for years until somebody found a manuscript in an archive in the 1960s. I’d heard recordings of the piece before, and liked it, but hearing it live was stunning. Haydn gets overlooked, or underrated, these days in comparison to his two younger Vienna contemporaries because they, in their later years, largely invented the concept of music as the expression of the divinely gifted artist’s inner struggles and torments; and we these days, still living in the long shadow of romanticism, tend to think that’s what real Art-with-a-capital-A is all about. Haydn just wrote music, and had a great time.(*)

As somebody on wrote:

we have come to value tragedy and irony over comedy and romance; that’s just our historical moment. We’ll get over it in time. In the meanwhile … Haydn sits there and smiles, patiently waiting for us.

What recordings would I recommend? I wouldn’t, because I’ve only heard two, by Jacqueline du Pré and Mstislav Rostropovich, and I don’t find either of them completely convincing. They’re ok, but both really too romantic for this music. The folks at, on the other hand, have heard lots and have strong opinions on them. Han-na Chang has recorded it. I was very impressed when I heard her playing Prokofiev a few months ago, so that’s clearly one for the shortlist. There are samples of it here, but they don’t work with my version of the RealAudio Player.

Maria is generally unimpressed by all this effete Austrian chamber orchestra stuff, and doesn’t feel she’s had her money’s worth until she’s heard a big romantic orchestra belting something out. Preferably something Russian. But that’s ok because after the interval the Bavarian Radio suddenly swelled to 90-plus musicians (having presumably rounded up half the freelancers in Bavaria) for Scriabin’s Third Symphony. That’s a kind of music I personally find it hard to see the point of, although the big waves of sound were undeniably impressive.

(*) I also read on that Haydn – whose music could easily be mistaken for the epitome of genteel respectability (or “aural wallpaper for aristocrats (albeit often superbly well done)”) – was in the habit of going out with his violin to folk music sessions in villages on his patron Count Esterhazy’s estate, “just for a few hours dear”, getting blind drunk and coming back days later claiming little or no recollection of what happened.

currently listening to …

8th June 2005 permanent link

… the always-magnificent L'Archibudelli playing Beethoven’s String Trio opus 9 no.1, in BBC Radio Three’s Beethoven Week.

I had to suffer through an hour of assorted horrible songs and silly wind trios to get to this marvellous piece of music, thus proving that even Beethoven had off days and sometimes scribbled things down because he needed the money – the BBC did say they were going to play all of it, and they clearly meant it.

Radio Three’s internet feed (RealAudio, and sound quality pumping my Powerbook’s headphone output through a proper amp and speakers is just fine) is here. Highly recommended.

bbc beethoven week

7th June 2005 permanent link

Since I’ve been using for links-with-short-comments, I haven’t generally felt the need to link to things here when all I have to say about them is “go and read this”. Go, however, and read Brian Micklethwait’s magnificent piece on Beethoven’s Eroica on samizdata:

It is one thing to hear the first two chords of the Eroica for the hundredth time, in an age of stadium rock and hi-fi volume knobs on our CD players; quite another to hear these two explosions when they were the loudest and most bad-mannered musical noises that anyone had, until then, ever heard indoors.

Beethoven turned music from being the mere supply of aural wallpaper for aristocrats (albeit often superbly well done) into the supreme vehicle of personal artistic expression. Not even Mozart ever went as far as Beethoven did with the Eroica.

… and when you’re done (or, indeed, first) listen to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s utterly amazing December 1944 recording of it with the Vienna Philharmonic. I have nothing to add. Except – Brian, please do something about at least getting the archives on your own website back into working order, even if you don’t want to carry on putting new stuff there.

perfect songs

11th May 2005 permanent link

Michael Blowhard links to Will Duquette’s list of six “perfect songs”. I’m always a sucker for the music list game – especially when nobody in our house has slept for days, thanks to my son’s ear infection; this pretty much rules out any blogging that might involve actual thinking.

So instead, playing by Will’s rules:

What I mean by a Perfect Song is a recording which is so perfectly itself that it couldn't possibly be altered without breaking it. The music and the singing mesh perfectly together, and the whole thing usually has a unique feel to it. Any other recording of the same song is going to have take an entirely different approach, because these recordings can't be beaten at their own game.

These aren't necessarily my favorite songs, mind you

I would nominate:

currently listening to …

3rd May 2005 permanent link

… twelve tone music, apparently, although I wasn’t aware that was what it was until a music-knowledgeable friend told me so on the phone this morning.

Kyle Gann regards Schönberg, the originator of the twelve tone concept, as a vastly overrated composer and his and his friends’ and disciples’ work as at best a moderately interesting academic curiosity. Eric Raymond and the Pope blame him for classical music’s slide into elitist obscurity. I have heard hardly anything by him.

There are a couple of pieces by Alban Berg – the Lyric Suite and the violin concerto – that I liked rather a lot when I first heard them, although I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to them all that often.

And recently, whilst trawling through things I had in iTunes but had never listened to – forgotten downloads and odd bits from compilation CDs – I found a couple of things by Anton von Webern that were fun. So I asked around in various places, including on, what else of his I should listen to, and as a result I just went out and bought this Naxos CD. Haven’t listened to it yet.

I suppose I was vaguely aware that Berg and Webern were friends/disciples/co-conspirators of Schönberg but I hadn’t thought much about it. Nor, as long as I just want to enjoy listening to their music, do I see why I should care particularly.

music, meditation and catholicism

21st April 2005 permanent link

Alex Ross, on probably the last occasion I will ever quote somebody quoting the Pope, says Herr Ratzinger (the first Bavarian pope for 950 years, and guess how long I have known that factlet?):

has said that rock music styles are incompatible with church liturgy. In 1986 he described rock music as 'the secularized variation' of an age-old type of religion in which man uses music — and drugs and alcohol — to lower 'the barriers of individuality and personality,' to liberate 'himself from the burden of consciousness. Music becomes ecstasy ... amalgamation with the universe.' This 'is the complete antithesis of the Christian faith in the redemption.'

The description seems fair enough, although the idea that rock music is somehow fundamentally different from where classical music came from seems odd; and since I am not a Christian I have no reason to care about or be bothered by the disapproving tone or the bit about the “antithesis of the Christian faith in the redemption”.

currently listening to …

14th April 2005 permanent link

Kyle Gann’s Private Dances for piano. I find Gann’s weblog sometimes highly informative, sometimes irritating (and what more could one ask of a weblog?) but I hadn’t listened to any of his music before. I’m enjoying it.

arild in pittsburgh

14th April 2005 permanent link

In an email conversation yesterday with Greg Sandow I learned that Arild Remmereit, the Norwegian conductor who hugely impressed me when I heard him with the Munich Philharmonic in January, is playing in Pittsburgh at the weekend. Apparently Remmereit is deputising at short notice for Christoph von Dohnanyi; folks in Pittsburgh have heard he has a rising reputation in Europe, are hugely excited that he’s coming and think this could be his big break in the States. May they be right.

If you’re in Pittsburgh and don’t have plans for the weekend – or even if you do – a concert ticket or two could be a good buy.

UPDATE: the New York Times was impressed.

UPDATED UPDATE: since there’s an email address on Mr Remmereit’s website, I though I’d send him a quick note to say I’m not in the habit of sending fan mail, but I loved the gig in Munich and congratulations on Pittsburgh. He took time out of a Seoul - New York - Seoul week to reply, thus proving that (soon to be known as) great conductors don’t have to be obnoxious prima donna maestros, but can be nice guys too.

long tail

13th April 2005 permanent link

I have been tidying up my classical music collection in iTunes, as a result of which I now know that I have a total of 980 recordings of pieces of classical music by 76 different composers.

What diverse and broadly informed musical tastes I have. Ha! Beethoven single-handedly accounts for almost a quarter of my collection, 224 pieces. The top 5 – Beethoven, Mozart, Shostakovich, Haydn, Schubert – account for more than half. At the bottom of the list are twenty composers by whom I have one piece each (hello Bruch, Cherubini, Corelli, Faure, Granados …)

There’s nothing very surprising about any of this. Well, Shostakovich and Dvořák. I like some things by Shostakovich and Dvořák very much, but their presence in places three and six on my list says more about the availability of their works in large cheap boxed sets, and in Dvořák’s case their ubiquity in compilations, than about how often I actually listen to them. (Haydn will leap over Shostakovich and Mozart to second place in a single bound if I ever buy Adam Fischer’s rather good boxed set of all his 106 [?] symphonies. 33 CDs for 50 euros at my local discount CD shop)

I started listening to classical music on a regular basis a few years ago, from the basis of knowing I liked some things by Beethoven and not knowing very much about very much else. I’m working slowly outwards from there; but I’m more interested in finding things I like than in covering anybody’s idea of a balanced musical curriculum. Having said that, I do have a tendency, once I’ve heard something new and interesting, to obsess about finding the best possible recording of it – prefereably dirt cheap on ebay – rather than moving on and finding something else that I might also like. (Current obsession: Mozart’s late symphonies). Perhaps this isn’t good.

Gratuitous graphic: here’s my music collection plotted as one of those oh-so-ubiquitous Zipf distribution curves:

distribution chart

beethoven week

12th April 2005 permanent link

BBC Radio 3 has a Beethoven Week in June, in which they will be playing all hundred-plus hours worth of Beethoven’s published works. I shall be making sure I have plenty of disk space free and giving Audio Hijack a thorough workout.

Only a hundred-and-something hours? The entire published output of a man who probably heard music in his head almost every waking moment? A hundred-and-something hours distilled from how many tens of thousands of hours of drafting, improvisation, rehearsals and concerts?

iTunes informs me that my music collection features over two hundred recordings of pieces of music by Beethoven. That doesn’t mean I’ve heard all hundred-plus hours of Beethoven’s published works, by any means. I have several recordings of all the string quartets and most of the piano sonatas and symphonies (including sixteen of the Eroica), and these are all worth hearing played many different ways. Whereas one recording of the Choral Fantasy is arguably one too many – except perhaps as a reminder that Beethoven, despite all the string quartets and most of the piano sonatas and symphonies, was not some kind of god-like infallible genius.

currently listening to ...

1st March 2005 permanent link

Till Fellner’s recording of the piano sonata in B flat minor by Julius Reubke. Julius who? Pupil of Liszt, apparently, and this not half bad piece of music is quite reminiscent of, though not quite as stunning as, Liszt’s own sonata. It seems Reubke wrote his at about the same time, although it wasn’t published until much later. (Thank you, decent liner notes on the Apex label).

I was curious about Till Fellner because music critic and blogger Alex Ross loves his recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. And I was curious about Schumann because I’ve heard very little of him and not been impressed by what I have heard (couple of the symphonies), but people say “ah, but you should hear his piano music”.

So when I saw this disc by Fellner, with Schumann’s Kreisleriana together with a sonata by some guy I had never heard of, it seemed worth gambling 4 euros on it. Good bet.

Update: I notice Brian Micklethwait was ahead of me on this one.

finally made it

22nd February 2005 permanent link

Dear Diary: a couple of weeks ago I walked through a beautiful snow-covered city on my way to a hot date with a beautiful exotic foreign woman, and the hot date consisted of hearing a major league German Symphony Orchestra on top form. This is what I came to Munich for.

Somehow the hot dates have never quite managed to coincide with the picturesque snowfall before. This could be related to the fact that I actually spent two of my German winters in India. The winters when I was in Germany and single, picturesque snowfall meant grab my snowboard and head for the hills. And for the last year and a half dates of any kind have been few and far between for Maria and me.

So I bought Maria concert tickets for Christmas in order to make sure at least one date would happen this winter. An all-Russian programme seemed like a good idea, so I opted for The Munich Philharmonic playing Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra with Han-na Chang, cello, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by Arild Remmereit. Who? Exactly – but read on.

It was great. I was worried when we arrived at the concert hall and Maria saw a notice on the door saying the planned conductor for the evening, Antonio Pappano, was sick and had been replaced by Mr Remmereit. I had never heard of Signor Pappano before either, but he made a very highly acclaimed recording of the Prokofiev with Ms Chang so I was looking forward to hearing them.

But if the guy’s sick, he’s sick. The first few minutes of the Prokofiev were a little uneasy – Ms Chang glancing over her shoulder a lot as if she wasn’t quite sure if she could trust the orchestra under an unknown deputy conductor and wanted to keep an eye on what they were up to. But it came together quickly, and we loved it.

Ms Chang and Signor Pappano’s CD of the Prokofiev was on sale in the interval; Ms Chang was even signing them in a very cheerful and friendly manner – rather than collapsing exhausted backstage, as I’m sure I would if I had just played something like that. Maria didn’t want to buy one, though, and she convinced me that she was right: music like that is best heard live. It’s a long, complicated and strange piece of music and neither of us could imagine how we would ever find the time, energy and inclination to sit down and listen to it properly without being in a concert hall.

So the concerto went well, given the very good soloist, after she had settled down and decided to trust the orchestra. What about the Tchaikovsky? Orchestra now with unknown deputy conductor and without very good soloist, playing a romantic piece I barely knew? It was stunning. It’s a big, obvious, unsubtle piece of music, but really rather fine if it’s played with enough enthusiasm. Remmereit and the Müncheners did it with real fire and drive – definitely up there with the Suisse Romande’s Mussorgsky last year as one of the most exciting orchestral performances I’ve ever heard. I see the Süddeutsche Zeitung was impressed too.

On a cursory glance through Arild Remmereit’s CV, he’s done a lot of work with relatively unknown orchestras but the Munich appears to be the biggest name band he has worked with. I hope there will be lots more – I would jump at a chance to hear him again.


15th February 2005 permanent link

We make audio software, and it rocks. Because we rock.

… is the entire content of the home page of omg audio, which is therefore the world’s coolest marketing website.

Link courtesy of Wes Felter’s Hack The Planet.

I have no idea what omg audio’s products do, probably things I don’t understand. But because their website is so cool I’m going to download one of them and find out.

currently listening to …

5th February 2005 permanent link

Caught the end of a Seventies music show on TV this afternoon.

We had Marc Bolan in his pre glam-rock days; some guy called Tom Paxton with a comic talking blues about getting stoned in Vietnam that presumably some people found funny at the time, and Curved Air. I had heard of Curved Air but never actually heard them before, and they weren’t at all bad. They had an electric violin solo (just in case anybody was harbouring any illusions about all hippy era music being great), but the bit before the electric violin solo had a nice bass groove. And finally, Ike and Tina Turner performing River Deep, Mountain High and Proud Mary. Ike and Tina may not have been the world’s happiest couple, but did they rock? Yes.

I’m trying hard not to think They Don’t Make Musicians Like That Any More. They probably do, but they’re certainly not appearing on TV in Germany. I hardly ever, if I happen to stumble across MTV whilst flicking channels, think “ooh, this is good, I’m going to sit and listen to it for a while”. More often “how on earth can anybody possibly listen to this shite?”

currently listening to …

25th December 2004 permanent link

Christmas Day morning: Ronan Keating’s version of Fairytale of New York, on Maria’s Rock Christmas CD. (Rock?). I had to listen to it out of a kind of morbid fascination, and it’s actually not as awful as I expected. Although I still can’t think of any reason at all why anybody would want to listen to it. Especially not when the real thing by the Pogues is sitting on a shelf three feet away – now that’s proper Christmas music.

I imagine Brian Micklethwait would have much the same opinion, with Fritz Werner playing the role of the Pogues, of our other Christmas CD which is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1973 recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I’m enjoying it though.

Christmas Day evening: not listening to any CDs because we have, coincidentally, Harnoncourt conducting in a performance of Figaro on TV. Once or twice a year cable TV turns out to be worth having.

currently listening to …

14th December 2004 permanent link

Bruckner’s String Quintet played by l’Archibudelli. A little known gem.

I bought the CD full price (€17), which is something I rarely do. I first heard L’Archibudelli playing Mendelssohn’s Octet on the radio about a year ago. I was hugely impressed. I also already had a disk of the Bach Cello Suites that I really like by Anner Bylsma, who when he isn’t being a member of l’Archibudelli is a well known and highly rated soloist. But their CDs are all full price and never seem to appear in my local discount shops. I have bid unsuccessfully for used copies of this particular one a couple of times on ebay, where in any case it always seems to go for well over 10 euros. Plus postage. Sooner or later you realise that for the amount of time you’re wasting trying to save three or four bucks you might as well just buy the bloody thing and be done with it. I don’t regret a penny of it.

It’s interesting that Bruckner had never heard Beethoven’s late string quartets when he composed this, his only major piece of chamber music(*). These days anybody at all who’s seriously interested in European classical music – let alone anybody actually working as a composer – has probably heard these and every other major piece of the Canon, live and recorded, dozens of times. It’s hard for us to realise how different it was in the nineteenth century, when there were professional live performances only in a handful of major cities, chamber music in particular was mainly intended for private rather than public performance, and late Beethoven was incomprehensible avant-garde weirdness. [Note re: Eric Raymond. Was Beethoven, rather than Schönberg, the “deady genius” who killed classical music?] Was Bruckner any the worse for having what many people now would regard as such a huge hole in his musical education?

Compare Brahms, who famously felt himself in Beethoven’s shadow and probably pored for hours over every note Beethoven ever wrote. “Du hast keinen Begriff davon, wie unsereinem zumute ist, wenn er immer so einen Riesen hinter sich marschieren hört” (“You simply do not understand what it’s like to always hear that giant marching behind you”). Did worrying about Beethoven enable Brahms to write better music than Bruckner? Not in my opinion.

(*) This piece of information comes from the liner notes. This CD has very good liner notes – another reason, along with better sound quality and no DRM, why it’s a better deal to pay €17 for a CD, than €10 for the same thing from somewhere like iTunes. This, being a Sony CD, is one of the rare cases where iTunes might actually have music that I want to listen to. (UPDATE: no) Although I haven’t checked, and wouldn’t be in the least surprised to be wrong)

learning tabla

2nd December 2004 permanent link

Tyler Cowen still harbours hopes of learning Indian classical music in this lifetime. I already have more than enough to do this time round, but learning tabla is definitely on my “if there is reincarnation” to-do list.

I mentioned this to an Indian colleague who said “my roommate in Bangalore plays tabla. All the time”. It didn’t sound like he thought this was an entirely positive thing.

gamma synchrony

18th November 2004 permanent link

Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony

Experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditators practicing “unconditional loving-kindness meditation” generate the highest levels of gamma synchrony that have ever been measured in trials of normally-functioning brains, and still have significantly higher base levels before and after meditation than a control group of students with rudimentary meditation training. General discussion; pdf of the technical paper.

So what is “gamma band synchrony” anyway? Google tells us that it is strongly present in musicians listening to music (really listening to music … is actually quite an advanced form of meditation)

It “may reflect one way in which the brain ‘integrates’ activity from the plethora of its ongoing parallel processes”. It “has been related both to gestalt perception and to cognitive functions such as attention, learning, and memory”.

Patients with schizophrenia had significantly reduced gamma phase synchrony.

There is one clear problem with the study, that the authors do partly address: the meditators are mostly middle-aged Tibetan monks; the control group are American college students. So, are the differences they are measuring actually brought about by meditation practice and not by age, by cultural differences between America and Tibet, or by people who already have these characteristics pre-selecting themselves for monastic life? The authors do address these questions, and say no: the difference they measured correlates more strongly with length of meditation training than with age. Clearly more research needed in this area though: it would be reassuring to see a study that compared middle-aged Tibetan monks to a control group of middle-aged Tibetan non-monks, and/or one that followed novice monks at various stages in their training.

I find studies like these fascinating. From a yoga student point of view, it’s clear that yogis and buddhist meditators for thousands of years have been on to something real that western science is just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding. And from a software point of view(*), we [“we” = neuroscientists] are trying to reverse engineer a system where the software is rewiring the hardware it runs on at runtime, with only the crudest ways of measuring the outward state of the system. This is something like, I don’t know … trying to understand how Photoshop works by measuring the temperature of the cpu and the amount of hard disk activity, guided by a vague second hand description of the picture on the screen. (Or something. Clearly this analogy needs more work). Only the system you’re trying to study is orders of magnitude more complex than (even) Photoshop. It’s amazing that neuroscientists manage to get anywhere at all.

Is a study of Buddhist meditators necessarily relevant to yoga? I think so. I don’t claim to know much about the similarities and differences between Hindu and Buddhist theology & philosophy, but what I’ve read here and elsewhere about Tibetan meditation seems similar enough to what I read in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that I’m fairly confident that the mental states aimed at are similar, even if the techniques used look outwardly very different.

Link from the psychology and neuroscience of religion thread in the ezboard ashtanga yoga discussion group.

(*) My working assumption is that the mind is, at least in principle, explainable in purely material terms as software processes running on hardware – no spirit required. It may be that the complexity of the human mind is beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp; it may be that quantum uncertainty makes it impossible in principle to fully understand it. But ultimately it’s still all just quanta and the laws of physics.

damning with damning

2nd November 2004 permanent link

Greg Sandow sometimes complains that the world of classical music performance and criticism is too closed and cosy; critics don’t criticise. You can never believe you’re hearing somebody’s honest opinion of something; you don’t get to enjoy panning performances as a bloodsport.

Honest opinions and criticism-as-bloodsport abound on the internet, of course.

They haven’t completely died out on Bavarian State Radio either. I was listening to Bayern 4 Klassik’s views on the Bavarian State Opera’s current production of The Magic Flute on my way to work this morning. “It’s a revival of a 25 year old production, but it feels a hundred years old … this is opera for schoolchildren: it may be ok if you’re seeing it for the first time, but it has nothing to offer the serious opera fan”.

So that’s one thing I won’t be needing a babysitter for.

classical music

31st October 2004 permanent link

Further thoughts on Indian classical music, inspired by going to hear Pandit Shiva Kmar Sharma this evening.

The boundaries of what Indians call “classical music” seem to be much more fluid than in the west. This seems healthy to me. The first piece is a formal raga. The second piece Sharma describes as “semi-classical”. Apparently it’s a Himalayan folk tune, played in something like raga style, but it’s more melodic and the improvisation is much freer. It ends in a whirlwind of call and response riffs between Sharma’s accompanists, his son Rahul Sharma also on santoor and Vishnu Sanju Sahai on tabla. Shiva Kumar Sharma sits in the middle, holding it all together, throwing in ideas, looking with his shoulder length mop of grey curly hair for all the world like Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve also heard Hariprasad Chaurasia, the most famous classical flute player, start a concert with a formal raga and finish with folk songs and film tunes as encores.

Sharma’s instrument the santoor, say the programme notes, was an obscure Kashmiri folk instrument until Sharma started playing classical music on it in the 1950s. Just imagine – this is as if one of the most famous and respected western classical musicians in the world today played something like banjo or slide guitar. (Of course, Ry Cooder is one of the most respected serious western musicians, but because of arbitrary genre boundaries we don’t regard what he does as “classical”)

When western classical music was healthy, people played with folk tunes, improvised lots, and experimented frantically with new instruments too.

If I had a lifetime or two available to learn a musical instrument (and who knows, perhaps I might) I would learn tabla. Or electric bass.

The concert was organised by Asha for Education, a group of Indians working abroad who organise fundraising events for schools for deprived kids back home. Seems like a thoroughly worthy cause. I didn’t see any of the guys from my office. Will have to give them a hard time about that – they were out in force for Hariprasad Chaurasia last year.

currently listening to …

31st October 2004 permanent link

Tim Bray has been listening to Sly’n’Robbie. Lucky him. And he’s impressed:

There’s this rhythm that’s already out there, everywhere. It’s your mother’s heartbeat that backgrounded the birth of your mind in the womb, though you don’t remember. It’s the creaking in the roots of the world tree, and the secret resonance of the inner heart of the Sun.

All the best music is about getting closer to that rhythm, and anytime you’re in a room with Sly & Robbie, you’re inside it looking out.

I, meanwhile, am going this evening to listen to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Rahul Sharma, father-and-son Indian classical musicians. I have a couple of albums by Rahul Sharma and they’re very fine. Rumour has it dad may be even better. Getting closer to that rhythm.

Lucky me.

gentlemen: start your arguments

16th October 2004 permanent link

Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, my favourite English novel of the 90s, can be read as an extended warning against taking music lists seriously. Despite which …

Jim Henley’s local radio station is on 88.5 (that will seem like such a quaint thing to say in a few years’ time). They must be having an anniversary or something, because they’re listing the alleged “All Time 885 Greatest Songs”. So far I’ve only looked at the Top 50.

It’s not a bad list. There’s a lot on there that I really like, and not much I would object to strenuously. Lennon & McCartney are overrepresented for my tastes (I can’t imagine Imagine placing anywhere in my personal top 885, let alone at number 2). I understand why. A lot of their stuff is really good – it’s just that I heard enough of it when I was younger to last a lifetime, and can’t imagine going out of my way to hear it ever again.

Jim finds the Top 50 “just a smidge boomer-heavy”. I don’t have a problem with that as such. I was four when Like A Rolling Stone came out, but would still automatically start any such list with it at the top. But then, I’m also an existence proof for not everybody thinking the music from their college years is the best ever – I was at college in the early 80s, and think the 80s were easily the worst decade in the history of popular music.

If asked to name some more recent songs for a Top 50 list, though, I could come up with a few things from the 90s that I would rate just as highly as any of the Music For Aging Hippies on this list. Björk’s Hyperballad. Pulp’s Common People. Radiohead’s Creep. REM’s Nightswimming. Eminem’s Stan. And – this next one depends on what they mean by “song”. If they mean something where the words in some sense stand apart from the music and are as important/memorable as what it sounds like, then you can forget the entire electronic/techno/dance music scene. If, however, it also includes something with vocals, but where the vocals are just one part of the overall cascade of sound – then I would nominate Underworld’s Born Slippy as my absolute favourite thing of that sort.

(Just to prove I’m not a real Classical Music Blogger, and to enrage those who are: I would take anything in the previous paragraph over any ten baroque flute concertos)

There’s nowhere near enough soul or Motown. One each by Aretha and Marvin. No Otis, no Smokey?

And I’m sure Jim will agree with me that the absence of Oliver’s Army is just bizarre.

UPDATE: I read the whole list. Oliver’s Army and Nightswimming are in there, so is plenty of Motown and classic soul, just not near enough to the top. In all I’ve heard just under half the 885, and I must say almost all of that almost half is really good. There really isn’t much in there that I don’t like.

UPDATE: Oh dear, it’s spreading and I’m a sucker for these things. Patrick Crozier questions the choices made for a “UK Rock Hall of Fame”

recorded music bad?

13th October 2004 permanent link

Maria & I went last night to hear the Orchestre de le Suisse Romande playing the Elgar Violin Concerto and (Ravel’s arrangement of) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The Elgar was so-so. The soloist was a young Munich violinist called Julia Fischer. She played well, and so did the orchestra, but the rapport between them was somehow lacking. Big Name touring orchestra comes into town to play concert with up-and-coming young local soloist, not enough rehearsal? I don’t know. The Elgar as a piece has never really grabbed me anyway. Julia Fischer’s encore – a couple of snippets from the Bach partitas for solo violin – was great, so no problem with her ability to play.

Pictures was superb. The Suisse Romande is probably the best orchestra I’ve ever heard live. (The Munich Philharmonic is probably more famous, but I wasn’t that impressed the one or two times I’ve been to see them). Pictures isn’t a profound meditation on the human condition, but who ever said everything has to be? It’s a fantastic orchestral firework display.

Still, I found myself thinking I know the piece too well, and wouldn’t it be amazing to hear it for the first time properly – live, being blasted out by a good orchestra that’s clearly enjoying itself? Unfortunately I have about half a dozen recordings of it, two of which – Sviatoslav Richter’s performance of the original solo piano version, and Toscanini’s recording of the Ravel orchestral arrangement – are stunning. But even a stunning recording isn’t remotely like a good live performance, and over-familiarity takes away from the live experience.


11th October 2004 permanent link

A couple of alternatives to Alan’s Götterdämmerung Theory of why the 1950s was the Golden Decade for recordings of the Eroica.

One is that Furtwängler, Klemperer and Toscanini between them pretty much mapped the outer limits of plausible interpretations of Beethoven, seen through the lens of their High Romantic musical upbringing. Anybody coming after them and playing in big orchestra, modern instruments style was pretty much doomed to be somewhere within the bounds they set – and so seem tame and middle of the road – or so far out as to seem absurd – Celibidache’s parody-of-Klemperer slow motion version, for example. It wasn’t until the period performance movement that people once again had something new to say about it in the 90s.

Simpler theory: classical music fans are ageing fuddy duddies, fixated on the recordings they knew and loved in their youth. This one isn’t true, though – a lot of the regulars on get just as excited about genuinely good new recordings as they do about discovering pirate CDs of obscure 1950s live recordings.


10th October 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait thinks obsessive classical record collectors are “mad, sad bastards” and life is too short to spend his online time hanging out with them. He may be right. But some of them are mad, sad bastards with encyclopaedic knowledge, and I know a lot less than Brian does about classical music, so I sometimes do find spending time in the newsgroup worthwhile when I’m wondering what direction my musical self-education should take next.

One such time was after I have accidentally discovered Wilhelm Furtwängler’s amazing 1944 recording of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, on emusic. This was about the most intense, passionate performance I had ever heard of any piece of music but the sound quality of the recording was pretty bad. I wondered if there might be a recording with equally wonderful playing and decent sound [there isn’t]. So I searched for Eroica recommendations and discovered that if there is one piece of classical music the world doesn’t need another recording of, it’s the Eroica.

There’s a guy called Eric Grunin who has catalogued all the recordings of it. There are 368 of them. I’ve heard fourteen (now, a lot less then). It became apparent that the mad, sad bastards on r.m.c.r., most of whom have probably heard a lot more than fourteen, did have clear favourites. In all, about seventy – so almost a fifth of the entire number of extant recordings – were mentioned as a favourite by somebody at some point. The top 20 were:

Conductor/Orchestra Year Votes My comments
Scherchen/Vienna State Opera Orchestra 1958 17 A strong favourite among r.m.c.r regulars. (Kleiber, Klemperer and Furtwängler get more votes, but spread over different recordings). I have listened to it several times but I just don’t get it.

I’ve read that the “Vienna State Opera Orchestra” was the members of the Vienna Philharmonic moonlighting outside their official recording contract. I don’t know if this is true.
Klemperer/Philharmonia 1955 12 This is great in Klemperer’s very distinctive way – slow and majestic. But not ponderous. Absolutely not ponderous. A Klemperer fan (mad, sad bastard) jumped down my throat once for even saying the word “ponderous” in same sentence as Klemperer’s name, even though I wasn’t actually saying Klemperer was ponderous at all.
Erich Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic 1955 12
Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1944 11 Easily my favourite. Despite its unsavoury provenance this is the version that anybody who loves the Eroica has to have heard. Unbelievable passion and intensity – although because of that, and the fact that the recorded sound is very poor, it’s not one to listen to every day.

How far was the Red Army from Vienna in December 1944? Probably not far. I can see how having Marshal Zhukov at the gates could cause people to play like the world was about to end
Monteux/Concertgebouw 1962 11
Bernstein/New York Philharmonic 1966 9 People talk about this having one of the most powerful Funeral Marches of any recording. The Funeral March is good, but the rest of it doesn’t do much for me.
von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic 1962 9 Von Karajan was a vastly overrated conductor and a member of the Nazi party.
Szell/Cleveland 1957 9
Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra 1953 9
Erich Kleiber/Concertgebouw 1950 7 Probably my favourite version with a decent-sounding recording.
Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1952 7 Furtwängler is responsible for far more than his fair share of the 368 recorded Eroicas. This one is his second most highly rated. I’ve listened to it a few times and didn’t find it remotely as impressive as the 1944 one.
Giulini/Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra 1982 People on were surprised that this was so popular. I haven’t heard it. My local discount CD shop regularly has cheap copies of it, but I have a moratorium on buying any more Eroicas on the grounds that I should broaden my horizons and listen to other things. (But see Toscanini)
Mengelberg/Concertgebouw 1940 7
Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra 1939 7 Apparently, back in the days when these two giants still walked the earth, one either liked Furtwängler or Toscanini. (In order to confuse people who believe in national stereotypes …) Toscanini the Italian was Mr. Precision, this is what is written down so this is what must be played. Furtwängler the German was notorious for taking liberties with the written score for the sake of passionate, lyrical expression. I think they’re both great. I picked up Toscanini’s 1939 Eroica in a second hand shop recently – long after I decided to have a moratorium on buying any more Eroicas, but it was cheap and I have other things by him that I like a lot – and it’s great. Much better sound than the ’44 Furtwängler too.
Klemperer/Philharmonia 1960 6 Klemperer’s stereo recording is good, but not as good as his earlier attempt.
von Matacic/Czech Philharmonic 1959 6
Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique 1993 5
Jochum/Berlin Philharmonic 1954 5 Jochum was a great Bruckner conductor. I haven’t heard his Beethoven.
Savall/Le Concert des Nations 1994 5
Barbirolli/BBC Symphony Orchestra 1967 4

r.m.c.r discussion here.

I find the periods when these things were recorded interesting. All of the top three, and nine out of twenty in total, are from the 1950s. What was going on in the 1950s? Here’s what I think was going on: the last gasp of European High Romantic culture. These orchestras, and these conductors, were only one or two generations removed from the great flowering of European music at the end of the nineteenth century – Klemperer had been Mahler’s assistant; Furtwängler studied with a close friend of Wagner. European high culture committed suicide in the first half of the twentieth century; modernism was part of its suicide note. In the 1950s it was mortally wounded but not quite dead yet, and meanwhile recording technology had progressed to the point where it was possible to capture its last practitioners still in something like their prime, in sound quality that is still perfectly listenable-to by contemporary standards. The earlier top recordings, of which I’ve heard Toscanini and Furtwängler but not Mengelberg, are listenable to because of their astonishing qualities as performances, but you really do have to make allowances for the sound quality.

(Eric Raymond thinks classical music, the literary novel and painting were killed off as vital, relevant art forms by “deadly geniuses” – Schönberg, Joyce and Picasso – who deliberately took them away from conventional forms that were accessible to audiences and less talented practitioners, into rarefied places where hardly anybody could follow. It’s an interesting idea and I have more that I want to say about it; at this point I will just note that the moribund art forms he’s talking about are quintessentially European, and European culture as a whole was underoing some pretty serious upheavals round about the time when modernism came along. This does not, of course, apply to jazz; although American culture was also going through an unsettled spell round about the time Coltrane killed jazz.)

General consensus seems to be that the 60s, 70s and 80s really didn’t have much to add to what had already been done in the previous generation.

Things start to get interesting again in the 90s with the rise of period style performances trying to use using authentic circa-1805 instruments, performance practices and timings. Of these, Gardiner and Savall appear in the Top Twenty; Norrington’s performance with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is too new to have much of a following yet (2002), but also seems to be highly rated.

I have heard the Eroica properly, performed live, twice in my life. Once by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, and once a couple of weeks ago at a charity gig by a local amateur orchestra. I really enjoyed that one – they were playing their hearts out, and their conductor was pushing them right to, at times beyond, their technical limits in an attempt to produce a real performance and not just get them through the score without falling over. I admired him and them for that even if it did seem at times – the beginning of the finale – like it was all on the verge of going horribly wrong(*). Real people, really in a room in front of you struggling with the music, are almost always better than noise coming out of a box; and the Eroica is such great music it would be hard to ruin it completely (although I have heard a recording by Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields that makes it sound dull, a quite astonishing achievement)

(*) I mentioned this to my sister, who is principal cello in an amateur orchestra. She says she prefers playing Malcolm Arnold to Beethoven for that very reason – the music’s good, but people don’t know how they expect it to sound so they can’t so easily spot where it all nearly goes off the rails.

music dvds

4th October 2004 permanent link

I was going to post an email about music that I sent to Brian Micklethwait today, pointing him to something Tyler Cowen quoted from the estimable Klaus Heymann of Naxos; but then I noticed I didn’t need to because he did, and said more about it than I was going to say anyway.

Currently listening to …

25th September 2004 permanent link

Holst’s Planets – and remembering that the headmaster at my primary school used to play Jupiter in school assembly, and I loved it. The religious studies teacher at my grammar school favoured Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi – another marvellous piece of music. Thank you, Mr. Oram and Mr. Wallace, for enriching my life in a way I didn’t appreciate at the time.

Teachers these days probably can’t do that sort of thing without being descended upon by record company vultures. Who then wonder why kids grow up less interested in buying recorded music.

emusic classical update

24th September 2004 permanent link

Currently listening to … another emusic classical gem …

emusic classical gems

20th September 2004 permanent link

Tim Bray has been looking at emusic. Kimbro Staken is still bitter about them taking his unlimited downloads away. I haven't changed my original opinion that it’s more an interesting bargain bin than a potential primary source of music; but the classical section, which is the part I've investigated most thoroughly, is a bargain bin with some real gems in it. Here are some recommended picks for anybody who might be interested:

A word about sound quality: emusic’s files are mp3s at about 192 kbps. I find them generally pretty good. I think I can tell that they’re not as good as CDs, I’m pretty sure they sound significantly better than 128 kbps AAC. But I haven’t done any proper abx testing to prove either of these assertions.

currently listening to …

14th September 2004 permanent link

… something that shows the real extent of my classical music ignorance. I have no formal musical education. I was going to Motörhead gigs and Rock Night at the Students’ Union while my brother and sister were playing in high class youth orchestras (*). I’ve only been interested in listening to classical music for a few years – in which time I have learned a fair amount about some performers and composers that I’ve discovered I like, but the gaps in my knowledge are huge.

Just how huge is revealed by this: Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto played by Sviatoslav Richter, with Karel Ancerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. This must be a contender for one of the Top Ten Most Famous Openings in all classical music, but I downloaded it from emusic having no clue that it was that extremely famous thing that I must have heard the start of many times, just because it was Richter playing. It’s a fantastic performance.

Even stronger contenders for Top Ten Most Famous Openings in all classical music: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I first knew what this was last year when I bought a cheap CD of Wilhelm Kempff playing it, which I thought was pretty damn good until I heard even better versions by Artur Schnabel and Emil Gilels. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the organ music cliché, but I didn’t know what it was called or who it was by until I heard a (dreadful) orchestral arrangement that I also downloaded from emusic (recomendations for good performances of the organ version welcomed).

(The dreadful Bach arrangement, however, does come with a pretty good orchestral version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition)

I do know Beethoven’s fifth symphony, thanks.

This was going to be part of a big list of emusic classical recommendations, but now falls under the “pull out the nearly-finished bits and post them anyway” rule.

(*) although this dichotomy was not as sharp as I make it sound. Several members of the same orchestras, including the leader (= concertmaster, for American readers) of the one my brother was in, were more diligent Rock Night attenders than I ever was.

music, meditation and heaven

14th September 2004 permanent link

Yesterday I was re-reading my essay from a few months ago about listening to music as a form of meditation, because I noticed that aworks had linked to it.

Then today I read this:

'The ultimate power of music,' continues Bittleston, 'is that it temporarily demands you to exist in the present. There are no problems in the present! The performing arts are unlike other art forms, which are tied up with anything but the present. In music you can literally leave your problems behind, because they're not there. That would be a very Zen Buddhist way of looking at what music is. In Christianity it was once argued that music transports one through the gates of heaven. But what they were really saying is the same thing - it transports one not through the gates of heaven, but slap-bang into the place where you actually are, which is the now. That process dissolves all problems, at least for a time. I think this might be defined as heaven in some circles.'

Richard Bittleston, quoted by Jessica Duchen in BBC Music Magazine, quoted by Brian Micklethwait.

all of mp3

13th September 2004 permanent link

Thanks to Ian Bicking, I have been looking at, a Russian music download service. Pricing is very cheap: a (US) cent a megabyte, so what you actually pay depends on what level of compression you're willing to live with (more on this later). There are even supposed to be some things available in uncompressed form at two cents a megabyte, although I haven’t found any yet. Selection seems a lot better for my purposes than at Apple’s store – I actually find a lot of the things I’m looking for, including nearly all the things Apple’s UK store didn’t have when it opened.

User interface: the website is ok. Search works reasonably; browsing is better than emusic because it's just alphabetical by performer, not arbitrarily chopped up into somebody’s silly definition of “genres”. The registration and buying process is painless. The online help is good, and in good English. Only downloading is a pain in the arse for Mac users: they have a batch downloader but, unlike emusic’s, it’s Windows-only. Mac users (probably few and far between in Russia) have to click on their files one by one to download them.

Unlike on emusic, there’s no facility to mark interesting items to maybe download later. The prices are so cheap, there’s hardly any reason not to download anything that looks even vaguely interesting (this may not be true for Russian customers) – except that for me as a Mac user, downloading masses of stuff would be a pain.

The non-classical selection is the best I’ve yet seen on any online music store in terms of what I’ve looked for actually being there. The classical selection is pathetic, although there are a few gems to be found: Mozart violin sonatas by Oleg Kagan and Sviatoslav Richter, Brahms clarinet quintet by Karl Leister, Prokofiev piano concerto no.5 and sonata no.8 by Sviatoslav Richter. All from western labels. I was hoping for mysterious but brilliant unreleased-in-the-west soviet archive recordings, but no.

Here’s where it gets fun. Most commercial music download sites offer only one fixed encoding and (low) bitrate. On AllofMP3 you can choose what format and bitrate you want depending on how much bandwidth and space you have, and how much you want to pay. They have more encodings available than I’ve ever heard of. Their “masters” are mostly 384 kbps mp3s, so anything else you order is re-encoded from these. In theory this is not good as involves two lots of lossy compression. I’ve tried 320 kbps AAC and “extreme” (about 290 kbps variable bit rate) mp3, and both sound fine to me. They are also supposed to have some things available uncompressed and downloadable in lossless format but I haven’t found any yet. There’s no DRM so once you’ve got your files you can do what you want with them.

I think this is great. You can get much better sound quality than is available from western download sites. Marketing types would probably think it’s way too complicated, scary and unpredictable for the average bod, and they’re probably right. See Andrew Odlyzko’s famous paper on telecommunications pricing and how people prefer fixed and predictable pricing to variable pricing, even if the variable offering is cheaper and/or technically superior. This may be less true in Russia, where computer use and internet access are less pervasive and the average user is probably more technically savvy.

What’s not to like? They have music I actually want. I can get it in decent sound quality with no DRM, instead of paying near-CD prices for DRM’d 128 kbps. It’s cheap. And it’s, er, completely legal in Russia. Which is fine – I can just, er, stock up the next time I go to visit the in-laws.

If something like this were available in the west – good sound quality, no use restrictions, music I actually want – I would use it if the prices were anything like reasonable. “Reasonable” meaning: well below what Apple charge, but it wouldn’t have to be as low as a cent a megabyte.

Other write-ups at museekster (ridiculously tiny illegible font, they should sack their designer) and gizmodo.

UPDATE AND APOLOGY: museekster is only in a ridiculously tiny illegible font in Safari, it is just fine in all other major browsers. I apologise unreservedly to Hans Handgraaf, museekster’s designer, who sent me a very polite and friendly email and is clearly a nicer guy than I was being when I wrote that.

currently listening to ...

11th September 2004 permanent link

Sometimes I worry about the way this blog has no apparent focus and jumps about randomly from subject to subject. But apparently it’s ok, because:

those who devote all their time to a single pursuit achieve less than those who are interested in contiguous matters, for the aesthetic insight of the latter acquires an extra dimension enabling them to see more, in greater volume and with greater truth.

Composer Alfred Schnittke writing about the legendary pianist, and apparently also not-half-bad painter, Sviatoslav Richter.

… whose astounding 1958 live performance of the original piano version of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition I’ve been listening to lately. I was in a bidding war for it on ebay until the price went over €12, at which point I thought wait, better check amazon. Where it was €10. Then I went to my local discount CD shop and bought it for €5.

The performance is unbelievable. It’s a poor recording though – lots of tape hiss and audience noise in the quiet bits. And they appear to have left off the bit at the end where the piano falls apart or explodes, which is clearly inevitably going to happen after the hammering Richter gives it in the finale. Beethoven, whose pianos led hard lives, would have been impressed.

Quote courtesy of

UPDATE: Tim Bray has realised that

while I was originally impressed by Apple’s iTunes Music Store, it’s become obvious that buying old-fashioned CDs from old-fashioned music stores is a better deal. The sound quality is higher, and what I get is just a bunch of digital files that are mine and I can store on any computer I want to and play on any device I want to and nobody’s getting in the way.

I was never impressed by Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Apple would have wanted to charge me a lot more than €5 for an inferior version of this recording. In the highly unlikely event that they had it for sale at all.

composers and performers

8th September 2004 permanent link

Trawling through my drafts folder for nearly-finished pieces I can tidy up and post, I find this off-the-top-of-my-head list of musicians who are now mainly known as performers, but were also composers:

Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor)
Zoltán Székely (violinist, leader of the Hungarian String Quartet)
Robert Mann (violinist, leader of the Juilliard String Quartet)
(Famous Czech violinist Josef Suk not, however, the same person as his grandfather, semi-famous Czech composer Josef Suk as I originally thought)

Composers who were famous piano virtuosi in their day: Bartok, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Beethoven, Mozart. Plus Haydn & Bach? Were any of these noted peformers of anybody’s work other than their own? Bartok was, don’t know about the others. Shostakovich played piano too, including some recordings of his own works, none of which I have heard. I don’t know if he was regarded particularly good – but people like Rostropovich and the Borodin Quartet were willing to record with him, so he must have been at least minimally competent.

Other composers who were also noted performers in their day:

Benjamin Britten (piano, conductor)
Berlioz (conductor)

People who are about equally famous as performers and composers:

Leonard Bernstein
Pierre Boulez

People noted as both performers and composers in the current generation:


The idea that composing and performing music should be separate activities done by different people (with the corollary that most of the people doing the composing should be dead, preferably having died a century or more ago) a recent and unhealthy development? See also my previous comments on how Zoltán Székely and others of his generation were at the forefront of both cutting edge contemporary music and older music – another healthy thing that seems to have died out in the last generation or so.

schubert, iggy

27th July 2004 permanent link

A colleague has been listening to and enjoying my CD of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s (fantastic) 1951 recording of Schubert’s 9th Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. This colleague has a strong interest in music but doesn’t know much about classical music – and therefore shares the common misconception that “classical” music has always been classical, staid and respectable.

So he was surprised when he asked me when Schubert lived, and I said he died in 1828 at an early age, probably from syphilis that he picked up whilst playing piano in brothels (well, not actually whilst playing piano) and was, as I put it, “the Iggy Pop of 1820s Vienna”. Which, on reflection, is not such a good analogy given that Iggy survived his wild years. More like the Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix of 1820s Vienna.

currently listening to ...

16th July 2004 permanent link

Friday night, and Alan’s Friday night excitement consists of babysitting while Maria goes on a Girls’ Night Out. I get the baby to bed early and celebrate by listening to Yehuda Hanani’s marvellous recording of the Bach Cello Suites while I’m doing the dishes. And I find myself thinking “this sounds bloody good”: meaning, not the playing which already know is good, but the sound quality of the CD-burned-from-mp3. I had only listened on cheap headphones on the computer before having just downloaded the thing from emusic [1] – now I’m listening to it on my cheap'n'cheerful but decent kitchen stereo [2] and thinking I really wouldn’t notice it wasn’t an original CD if I didn’t already know.

Wouldn’t I? Time for a test.

Methodology: very scientific:

  1. Pick something I would normally want to listen anyway, and that I already have on mp3 from emusic and also on CD. I liked the mp3 a lot but thought a CD must sound even better, and it was cheap, so I bought it. The Hungarian Quartet performing Haydn’s String Quartet opus 64 no. 5, “The Lark”.
  2. Take an uncompressed version copied from the CD, make two compressed copies of it using AAC at 128 kbps and 320 kbps.
  3. Take the mp3 copy from emusic. Emusic say they use Lame 3.92 to produce their variable bit rate files. From what little I know of these things, this is an up to date version of reputedly the best encoder. Average bit rate for the movements of the quartet is around the high 180s.
  4. Put the four versions of the first movement into a playlist, hide the bitrate column and shuffle.
  5. Burn to a CD and listen using the best available equipment [3].
  6. Come to the following conclusions:

This is not a masterpiece of the recording engineer’s art. The CD original doesn’t sound that great when listened to closely. Nevertheless it’s clearly better than the compressed versions.

The 128 kbps AAC is a clear loser. Generally flat-sounding. Treble is thin & shrill, everything else muted. AAC “as good as mp3 at the next bitrate up”, as it is generally reputed to be, seems not to be the case here. [4]

The 320 kbps AAC and the mp3 (variable bit rate, average 185 kbps) are hard to rank relative to one another. Both have a rounder, fuller sound than the 128 AAC, but both sound somewhat flat and dull compared to the CD original. If pushed I think I would pick the mp3.

What I should do in the interests of more scientificness is repeat with the CD player on random and see if I get the same results again. Which I might one day if I ever have the time & inclination. Also repeat with something that’s actually a good recording in the first place.

[1] One of quite a number of very good pieces of classical music I’ve picked up on emusic. Coming Soon: Alan’s emusic classical gems.

[2] A portable CD player from iRiver, feeding a NAD 310 amp and Mission 731 Pro speakers. The CD player about €100 from amazon, the speakers the same from ebay, the amp years old and I can’t remember what I paid for it, but now also available for about €100 or less on ebay. And voilà – a very decent sounding stereo system (as long as you don’t want loud) for about 300 bucks plus a few bits of cable.

[3] Bottom of the range Cambridge Audio CD player, Marantz PM-80 amp & Sennheiser 580 headphones.

[4] I’m well aware that 128 kbps from iTunes might not be the best AAC can do, even at that bitrate. I read somewhere that iTunes doesn’t use the best possible encoder settings, and that the 18 kbps files from Apple’s music store are sourced from higher quality originals than CDs. If at some point I actually manage to find something interesting in Apple’s music store that I also have on CD, in the interests of science I shall buy a track or two and do another comparison.

currently listening to ...

11th July 2004 permanent link

Regular readers (?) will know that I’m a huge fan of the Borodin Quartet, both in its pre-1975 incarnation led by Rostislav Dubinsky, and the later version led by Mikhail Kopelman that people generally seem to think is markedly inferior. I disagree, I’ve heard some marvellous recordings by Borodin II.

They don’t include the one I’m listening to at the moment, though. Yesterday I bought a cheap boxed set of their late ’80s recordings of half the Beethoven string quartets. I knew these didn’t have a great reputation, but at €16 for 4 CDs I thought I might be pleasantly surprised. Not particularly. I found myself completely agreeing with the general consensus on “These performances are not actively bad, but neither do they show the Borodin at its peak”. Quite. It’s perfectly listenable-to, but it doesn’t have the level of inspiration you know these people are capable of.

I’m not impressed by the sound quality either. Too boomy and resonant for my taste. I don’t think this is to do with any techical limitations of 1980s digital recording; more likely Virgin’s engineers just have different views from me on what chamber music should sound like.

No great loss, though. In the Bad Old Days when these cost the equivalent of over €20 per CD in Britain I would never have considered buying them. At the current price I can afford to take a punt on them being better than their reputation. I’ll probably listen to them a couple of times, and then recoup most of my €16 on ebay if I find they don’t grow on me.

was listening to …

28th June 2004 permanent link

At the weekend, on the other hand, I was listening to music of an entirely different kind. On Saturday after the kitchen-bashing I went to a party where a friend’s band was playing country & western. This is not what they normally play but he’s fully qualified, he comes from Dallas, and they’re good.

On Sunday, the friend who is now without the kitchen was working. He runs a restaurant and he was doing the catering for an open air blues festival in my old neighbourhood. His wife, meanwhile, needed to clean the apartment where the kitchen used to be, so we said we’d take their baby (and ours) to hear the blues for a couple of hours. The band that was playing most of the time we were there interpreted “blues” to mean “the complete works of AC/DC”, which I suppose might even be technically defensible and is fine by me in any case. Listening to string quartets is good. Listening to rock, where the bass comes up through the ground and the whole thing bypasses the forebrain entirely, is good too.

My son loves listening to music, which is something I feel I should try to encourage at every opportunity, and open air gigs aren’t too loud, late at night and smoky. A chance to hang out with friends in the sun, have a beer, listen to some live music and feel like you actually have a life is a rare and precious thing for parents of small child.

currently listening to …

28th June 2004 permanent link

Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar , as indirectly recommended by Michael Brooke who says it is even better than a Shostakovich film score he has been listening to and enjoying.

Listening to it quietly, though, because the baby is in bed and I’m too busy to sit down with headphones. Listening to orchestral music quietly is always kind of absurd, and especially orchestral music like this that is very much Big Orchestra on Full Steam Ahead, plus in this case Big Choir too. But such is life. Definitely a very impressive piece, though, and I must listen to it properly (i.e. loud) one day.

The recording is a recent one by Rudolf Barshai, who was a close friend and co-worker of Shostakovich, and it’s excellent. €22 for the complete set of 15 symphonies on 11 CDs, which is about what one “full price” CD used to cost in England five or six years ago.

Babi Yar is “a kind of landscape”, says my Russian language consultant, cryptically. Update: even at this price you get liner notes, which inform you that Babi Yar is the name of a place where a Nazi massacre of Russian Jews (as opposed to a Soviet massacre of Russian Jews: also not an unheard-of event) took place. The words are a poem by Yevtushenko.

This qualifies, just, as great classical music written in my lifetime.

currently listening to ...

18th June 2004 permanent link

Something I only recently realised I had.

A while ago I emailed Brian Micklethwait to ask if he could recommend a recording of Shostakovich’s 15th string quartet, since he had mentioned that he thinks it’s very good. The “complete” Borodin Quartet set that I have was complete when it was made in the 1960s, but then he wrote two more. In the end I bought a couple of versions of the 15th on discount labels - the Eder Quartet on Naxos and the Rubio Quartet on Brilliant Classics - and found the piece is wonderful and I liked both performances. Then I looked at a double CD that I bought for the piece that is on the first CD, and realised I hadn’t reallly looked at the second disk. On which it turns out there are performances of Shostakovich’s first and fifteenth quartets by the Borodin Quartet from 1996.

Now the Borodin Quartet in the 1960s was undoubtedly one of the greatest chamber ensembles of the recorded music era. In 1975 the original first violin, Rostislav Dubinsky, defected to the west and was replaced by Mikhail Kopelman. There are those who say the Kopelman-led Borodin Quartet is not the same and greatly inferior to the previous lineup. I have a couple of recordings of them and would say they are not the same but bloody good. This performance is marvellous. The recorded sound by Teldec is very good too.

This posting does not come under my self-imposed ban on writing about Shostakovich because it does not contain any speculation about his life or opinions.

My other self-imposed policy of not slagging off Apple’s online music store because it’s too easy & boring is, however, not strong enough to resist the temptation to point out that this double CD cost me €12, or roughly half what Apple would like to charge me for an inferior compressed, limited-rights version of the same thing. In the unlikely event that they sold it at all.

another cheap shot

16th June 2004 permanent link

Not finding music in Apple’s music store is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s also cheap & easy weblog footage, so … I’ll try to make this the last time.

The search facility, and the metadata for the classical music they do have, is quite reasonable. Although they’re still using “album” (= CD) – a basically irrelevant concept for classical music – instead of “work” as the main unit.

There appears to be no facility for marking interesting things that you don’t want to buy right now. Other obvious ideas not present: ratings, recommendations, reviews, liner notes, lyrics.

I started off looking at the German version of the site but then had an altercation with the registration system when I thought about buying something. I naïvely took the phrase “a credit card with a billing address in Germany” to mean “a credit card with a billing address in Germany”. What Apple actually appear to mean is “a credit card with a billing address in Germany and not issued by a British bank”. So now I'm on the UK store instead and faced with the unpleasant prospect of paying the 20% Brit Tax. In the increasingly unlikely-looking event that I can actually find anything I want to listen to.

I start off looking in classical. The UK site has hardly any Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge or William Walton. (The German version admittedly has plenty of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; and presumably when it happens will not be deficient in Mozart or Haydn. Although on what I’ve seen so far I wouldn’t be counting on a great selection of Bruckner.)

Look for English music in other directions. No AC/DC, Motorhead, Radiohead, Pretenders, Fall. (Pretenders & (?) AC/DC admittedly not actually English. While we’re doing not actually English: we have a grand total of one Runrig album which is more than we have of Capercaillie). From a somewhat different perspective, no Autechre, Aphex Twin or Underworld either. Still no Led Zeppelin. One Rolling Stones track. There’ll be Beatles on this particular Apple’s music store when Hell freezes over, presumably (i.e. in about three weeks, according to that stupid film). Very little Sisters of Mercy. Plenty of Clash, Buzzcocks, Joy Division. Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays: absent. Some Big Audio Dynamite. One album by Pulp that I already have. I didn’t pay £7.99 for it either. They’ve got a Kirsty MacColl album but it doesn’t have her cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England on it, bugger. They don’t have Billy’s version either, although they do have two of his considerably more than two albums.

I am not being deliberately perverse or difficult here. None of the names in the last paragraph are obscure; some of them are even quite famous. I’m looking for things I might actually seriously consider downloading, somewhat at random as they happen to cross my mind. I’m finding something like one in three of them. Which is really not very impressive considering that the whole point of something like this is supposed to be selection and convenience.

Just as a control, let’s check up on some people I wouldn’t listen to if Apple paid me. Nope, Coldplay and Peter Gabriel aren’t there either, although Phil Collins and Sting are out in force as is only to be expected.

I’m not the only person noticing this striking absence of music either. Such august Mac commentators as As the Apple Turns and Macworld UK are saying the same things. On MacSlash: “great swathes of music are missing. Of more concern, it seems to be having difficulty validating my plastic”, says one commenter; others wonder if it’s actually legal in the EU to refuse cross-border sales to residents of other EU countries (I can’t imagine Apple’s legal department would have overlooked something like that though). The most enthusiastic responses seem to be along the lines of “oh well, it’s probably no worse than the US store was when it launched, let’s hope it gets better quickly”. Mine is more like “I’m not wasting any more time with this. I’ll drop by again in a few months to see if it’s improved”.

They do, however, have seventeen versions of La Bamba. Now we’re getting somewhere, although not anywhere near the episode of Andy Kershaw’s world music show on BBC Radio 1 that consisted of nothing but versions of La Bamba for two hours, not least among them John Peel’s unaccompanied spoken version in English. This being the most glorious moment of Andy Kershaw’s career that I actually personally heard, although presumably not as glorious as the time he played The Ramones on Radio Three. (If somebody wishes to write in and confirm that the whole thing, some time around the late 1980s possibly, wasn’t a hallucination I would be profoundly grateful)

itunes (immer noch keine) musik store

15th June 2004 permanent link

Apple’s iTunes Music Store opened today in Britain, France and Germany.

I’ve mentioned before that when I looked at what was available in the US version last year, I was underwhelmed by the selection of music available and sceptical about whether it could possibly be worth paying not much below CD prices for possibly very much below CD sound quality. Now I get to find out.

Pricing: not as bad as expected. £0.79 is $1.43, and in fairness to Apple the UK price includes sales tax whereas the US $0.99 doesn’t. Without sales tax it’s $1.20, so not as outrageously far above US prices as rumours suggested. European price is cheaper, though - €0.99 including sales tax is $1.19 or £0.66. Basically the US price plus sales tax, which seems fair enough. UK music buyers get overcharged as always; but not as badly as I expected and I suspect it’s more the record companies’ fault than Apple’s.

By the standard of UK CD prices, £7.99 for an album is quite reasonable for current full price releases. But there are plenty of places where you can get back catalogue CDs at or below that price.

The question remains: is AAC at 128 kbits/sec anywhere even remotely near CD sound quality? I very much doubt it, but I plan to buy a couple and see (or rather, hear). Watch this space.

I log on. For some reason it thinks I’m in the States. I decide to search for something I already have on CD (and, as it happens in this particular case, on vinyl too): Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. They have the album version and two live versions. In order to buy the album version, I have to tell it I’m in Germany. At which point they don’t have Thunder Road any more, or any thing else by Mr. Springsteen either. Once again, Apple’s alleged collection of 700,000 songs fails to include exactly what I happen to be looking for. And again: I decide to give the classical music a look, and they have nothing by the Borodin, Smetana, Hungarian or Juilliard Quartets. I could carry on and eliminate all the greatest chamber ensembles of the last half century, but since that’s already four of any conceivable top ten accounted for, searching any further would just be too depressing. But wait, heavens above: they have two CDs’ worth of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s entire recorded output (of, probably, several hundred items). Credibility restored. Er …

liner notes

14th June 2004 permanent link

Lynn Sislo of Reflections in D Minor says “I don’t normally send email begging for links but this is sort of a crusade of mine and I'm hoping it will get a lot of attention.” Happy to oblige in a good cause, Lynn.

Lynn is pointing out that a lot of people start listening to classical music from “Greatest Hits” selection CDs, and that those CDs (like many others) often have very poor liner notes that don’t even indicate that they only contain parts (single movements) of pieces of music, or where somebody who likes something on the CD might go about finding more of it. “Not everyone will choose to seek out the complete works but doesn't it make sense to at least let them know that there is more?”

(See, for example, the shockingly amateurish liner notes by Sony France that I noticed a while ago. It doesn’t have to be this way: as Lynn says, “Naxos manages to have impressive liner notes and still keep their price under $10 per CD”. The blogosphere loves Naxos)

I agree with Lynn about what the problem is – if classical music is going to attract and keep a bigger audience, it needs to be welcoming and easy for people who have already dipped a toe in the water to wade further in if they want to. I know from my own experience that it’s daunting to be faced with all these names that you’ve perhaps heard of but basically know nothing about, and not have a clue how to find out what you might like. And I had several extremely well informed classical musicians in the family who were all too willing to give me advice and recommendations, plus BBC Radio 3 where I could find out about other things for myself without having to risk a fortune on CDs. Most people have neither of these things.

However, I’m not sure if I agree with Lynn that liner notes, or anything else done by record companies – especially the major labels who don’t care about what the product is anyway, are part of the solution. CDs – and any other means of physical distribution on plastic disks – will be a small and obsolescent market niche in a few years anyway, although like vinyl they’ll probably never completely go away. Record shops generally carry a pathetic selection and are dying even faster than the major labels’ classical departments. I happen to live in a city where there is huge specialist classical record shop with a vast selection of full price titles, and two other places that have interesting ranges of discount stuff. I’m well aware that this is highly unusual; and in any case, I still get a lot of stuff from amazon or ebay.

What’s going to be important is search facilities and ratings and recommendations services; but what’s available at the moment is generally either very poor or difficult to find. Some examples: Amazon has quite a lot of classical music available, but their search facilities are abysmal. No matter what you’re actually looking for, the list almost always come back with a pile of those “Best Romantic Candlelight Music Ever” CDs that Lynn is talking about. The record labels are no better. I wanted to link to particular EMI CD for this entry; I couldn’t find it on Amazon, and EMI’s own website was so badly organised and designed I gave up after five minutes.

Apple’s iTunes Music Store opens in Europe tomorrow, supposedly. I’ll be interested to see if its search is any good for classical music. (Among other things, like whether the sound quality of their compressed files is actually any good, and if the prices in the UK are really almost double what they are in the US as rumoured)

The musicbrainz project has some interesting ideas in this direction that I really do intend to talk about in detail one day (Drafts folder).

Ratings and recommendations: there is good advice out there even if your brother isn’t a professional musician. The problem is, it takes a lot of finding. I don’t set much store by Amazon’s average ratings or their “people who bought this also bought that”. There are just too many variables in classical music. I might love a piece but dislike many of the recorded performances of it, and I can’t see Amazon or anybody else ever having a large enough sample of customers sufficiently like me to be able to make any useful predictions at that level. I have, however, found some individual reviewers whose opinions I find very interesting and worthwhile.

And down in the dark, dank vaults of the Internet there’s still Usenet. (old-time internet pedants please do not write and inform me that Usenet is really a separate thing from the Internet, because I already know. Thank you.). Usenet has newsgroups for the discussion of everything anybody can possibly imagine and many things most people probably can’t; included among them is If you read this on a daily basis the signal to noise ratio isn’t that high, but if you search the archives you can find well informed discussions of pretty much anything.

None of this is easy to find for somebody who isn’t already committed and determined. Tim Oren thinks there’s a major role in the future shape of the music industry for what he calls a ”genre manager”:

You could also call this component a market maker, and it follows the sysop role described above. The genre manager should know everything about the area, assemble an audience, keep them informed and entertained, help publicize new acts. The genre manager is the promotional specialist.

This is a large part of what record labels originally did, and what good small labels still do. DJs also largely fit into this niche in dance music and several other fields – John Peel and Andy Kershaw (whom a good friend of mine, also called Andy, knew at university) being very famous British examples – but not in classical. Apart from the small labels, it really isn’t clear to me where these people are going to come from or how they are going to make a living in the classical field; although I strongly suspect it isn’t going to be from writing random thoughts about what one’s listening to in one’s weblog at random intervals. Even if what one is listening really is exceptionally good and interesting.

Some other things I think might help:

Not intimidating people with the idea that it all has to be terribly, terribly serious po-faced High Art. I had a great time at a concert a couple of weeks ago listening to Tchaikovsky’s hilarious pisstake Mozartiana.

Not insisting that it’s all wonderful and everybody has to like everything that’s commonly regarded as a “masterpiece”. I don’t have a car at the moment; when I need one for something I hire one, and the first thing I do is tune the radio to Bayern 4 Klassik (nearly as good as Radio 3). Where I generally find that a lot of what I hear sounds to me like complete nonsense (romantic orchestral music, majority of) or pleasant enough but not really especially interesting (baroque music, most). But I listen anyway, mostly because I know that every now and again I’ll discover some absolute gem that I didn’t previously know about.

Or that you always have to like the whole thing. I’m sure if they’re honest, lots of people could name plenty of pieces of music – including famous masterpieces by big name composers – that they really only find interesting in parts. The finale of Brahms’ first symphony, to name one piece I’ve been listening to lately. Some people find that heretical; I don’t have a problem with it.

But on the other hand, not being afraid to show people serious High Art either. Lots of people don’t know much about classical music but listen to lots of other serious, sophisticated, demanding music. Brian Micklethwait’s friend, for example:

I remember once trying to interest a friend at university in classical music. He was a true friend and he was truly showing interest. So I played a succession of pieces that I thought might be accessible, easily "understood", tuneful, approachable, and … nothing. It might as well have been dishwater for all the tastiness he could find in it. Finally I said to hell with it and resumed my listening to Bartok's Fourth String Quartet, which I happened to be playing through at that moment. This is considered fearsomely "difficult" by those who know about these things. And my friend also heard that and loved it, because it was the nearest thing that classical music offers to the kind of drug driven rock and roll he favoured – being violent, rather discordant, full of heavy gypsy rhythms and cross rhythms, especially in the rather dry and edgy sixties CBS recording I had of it by the Juilliards. Indeed he got it a lot better than many people coming to the piece with a background of Beethoven and Mozart listening tend to get it.

Not a lot of point presenting somebody like Brian’s friend with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, fine piece of music though that is.

currently listening to …

2nd June 2004 permanent link

Zoltán Székely performing the 1939 premier of Bartok’s violin concerto. Sound quality is dreadful – lots of surface noise from the original 78 recording and the orchestra mostly pretty muffled, which is a pity, because it’s the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and they’re normally very good. But it sounds like a fun piece of music and the violin playing – not surprisingly since it’s Székely – is great. Székely was less well known as a soloist than as leader of the Hungarian Quartet, one of the great chamber music ensembles of the mid 20th century.

Thinking about Székely’s recorded legacy (and others of his generation, see below), I wonder if there will ever be anyone like him (them) again. The Hungarian Quartet are best known now for their 1950s recording of Beethoven’s string quartets – still one of the best recommendations for a good complete Beethoven set. Haydn and Schubert performances that I’ve heard by them are stunning too. But Székely also liked, and was noted for playing, ferociously avant garde new music by his friend Bartok: this violin concerto was written for him, and the Hungarian Quartet also recorded Bartok’s complete string quartets (recently re-released cheaply on CD, and sitting in my bought-but-not-yet-listened-to pile)

Now, far be it from me to suggest that nobody writing “classical” music today is in the same league as Bartok (look at the trouble I got into the last time I implied anything like that); but I do think it’s fair to say there aren’t that many current top flight performers who are at the forefront of avant garde/experimental contemporary music and making excellent recordings of older music. People seem to specialise in one or the other, quite possibly to the detriment of both. Cue deluge of emails/weblog postings proving me wrong.

An example, possibly, of contemporary music and older music cross-fertilising one another when played by people who are at the forefront of both: last week I was listening with a friend, who knows a great deal more than I do about these things, to 1960s recordings of the Borodin Quartet playing Tchaikovsky and a soviet composer I don’t write about any more. Both wonderful; the Tchaikovsky wonderful in a modern-sounding way that I really have a hard time imagining anybody actually having thought of in the middle of the nineteenth century. It sounded to me very obviously like Tchaikovsky played by people who spent a lot of time playing contemporary soviet music, and much the better for it. Or perhaps not. I am not a musician, I just try to describe what I think I’m hearing. My friend didn’t disagree.

Update: A casualty of war? I have listened to quite a lot of 1930s recordings. Most of them sound obviously “historical”, but I’ve never heard one quite as bad as this. When I asked about it on, somebody said the reason is that the original Dutch radio master tape is lost. The CD releases were done from Székely’s personal copy of the record, which presumably had been played rather heavily. Hmm, 1939 recording, master tape lost or destroyed? What happened to Holland shortly after 1939?

currently listening to …

30th May 2004 permanent link

… Haydn’s string quartet opus 64 number 5, “The Lark”, played by the Hungarian string quartet on a CD released by Tuxedo Music whose title is wrong.


Tuxedo Music is a Swiss label that specialises in reissuing historical recordings. Their website is remarkably hard to find, but a lot of their releases are available on emusic. I originally downloaded this Hungarian Quartet performance from there and (Music Industry take note) it was so good I listened to the mp3 a couple of times then went out and bought it on CD. The title of the CD is wrong, though - it’s entitled String Quartet no.82 and no.5, and it isn’t. The Lark isn’t Haydn’s fifth string quartet, and he didn’t write 82 of them either.

Haydn nomenclature is tricky. Haydn was amazingly prolific – he wrote over a hundred symphonies and sixty-odd string quartets, among other things. The symphonies are usually referred to by their symphony number, “Symphony Number 88” for example being one of the more popular ones. The string quartets are also sometimes referred to by their quartet numbers but not usually; it seems to be far more common to refer to them by the set they were published in, “Opus 64”, and then the number within the set, “Opus 64 number 5”. “Quartet number 5” means something else altogether (Opus 1 Number 5, in fact, and I think I read somewhere there is some doubt whether these early quartets are actually by Haydn at all). There’s also something called “Hoboken numbers” that seem to get quoted for Haydn quartets now and again. I’m not sure what these are – they look like they might have been an unsuccessful attempt to produce unique ids for Haydn’s works, similar to the "Kochel numbers” and “Deutsch numbers” that are used for works by Mozart and Schubert. The 82 in this CD title is a Hoboken number, not a quartet number. This is somewhat confusing to me, fair enough. I would hope it wouldn’t be to people who run classical record labels for a living, but clearly it is sometimes.

But what is actually supposed to be the point of writing a pedantic weblog posting about how the title of an obscure classical CD is wrong (inasmuch as there’s actually any point in writing anything in weblogs at all)? I’m glad you asked. This was actually intended as a follow up to a long response to Andy Baker about, among other things, why CD title isn’t a particularly useful or relevant thing to use in cataloging classical music. But the main piece isn’t ready, so now this is a prequel instead.

Metadata philosophy aside, the Hungarian Quartet were a damn fine string quartet. They're best known for their first complete recording of the Beethoven string quartets, which was made half a century ago and is still easily one of the best recommendations for a consistently good complete set. (Except that, almost unbelievably, it appears to be out of print. I certainly won’t be selling my copy). On this particular Haydn CD, “number 82” (Hob. 82, Opus 77 Number 2, String Quartet #67) isn’t, in my opinion, one of the most interesting pieces of music ever written; but The Lark is good, and the Hungarians’ performance of it is stunning. Recommended. Available on CD for 10 euros from my local record shop, or on mp3 from emusic for about 2 bucks.

indian classical music

27th May 2004 permanent link

Indian Traditional Arts Part Three – in which Alan draws grandiose conclusions from his minuscule knowledge of Indian classical music, and contrasts them with his slightly less minuscule knowledge of western classical music.

So far I’ve talked about stone carving, where people seem to be quite happy to follow traditional styles and see no need for innovation; and yoga teaching, where I strongly suspect there was quite a lot of innovation and pioneering going on quite recently but people seem to like to pretend there wasn’t. But now we come to Indian classical music, which seems to be very much alive and thriving (in contrast to the current state of western classical music) – and also (possible causal connection here) absolutely buzzing with change and innovation that everybody seems to be quite open about.

I first started listening to Indian music through young classically trained Indian musicians playing stuff that combines traditional music with modern western dance music: Talvin Singh, Badmarsh & Shri, Blue Planet. This stuff is quite big in Britain these days and London seems to be the epicentre of it (although Blue Planet record on a German label). [I wonder what Indians in the States are up to musically, if anything? Surely not all too busy being doctors and software engineers?]

Blue PlanetBadmarsh n Shri

The fusion stuff is fun. But then when I actually went to India for the second time I started listening to the real thing, and that’s even better.

Hariprasad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan and Rahul Sharma are the guys who have most consistently impressed me from what I’ve heard so far. I’ve seen Chaurasia live, the others I’ve unfortunately only heard on record. I start listening to this stuff and I thought: wonderful, ancient musical traditions. Then I started reading the sleeve notes of my embryonic new CD collection and looking at a few reviews (I’m finding musical nirvana pretty informative), and you discover that they all have reputations as innovators. They’re all playing modified forms of instruments that they’ve designed themselves, or using instruments or instrument combinations that haven’t traditionally been used in classical music.

Chaurasia, a bamboo flute player, is one of the most famous classical musicians in India – but apparently before he came along the flute wasn’t a particularly prominent classical instrument, and the flutes he plays are non-standard ones of his own design.

Hariprasad Chaurasia
Hariprasad Chaurasia

Rahul Sharma plays an instrument called the Santoor that was apparently unheard of as a classical instrument until his father made it famous. He himself is noted for some novel hybrid North-South instrumental combinations. (I find this is all quite reminiscent of Beethoven and his unsuccessful struggles to find or design a piano that actually worked to his satisfaction – more on this later). I have a straight classical CD by him that I really like; he has also made a mixed acoustic/electronic trance album, Zen, that I haven’t heard (I bid on it on ebay, unsuccessfully). And – now we get to the really strange-but-fun – an album of Sex Pistols covers called Never Mind the Bhangra with a group called Opium Addiction (I’m assuming this last one is the same Rahul Sharma, the name isn’t terribly unusual).

Ravi Shankar, probably the most famous living Indian classical musician, had one of his early big successes in film music for Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy. And, of course, is more famous in the west for his collaborations with the Beatles and with western classical big names like Yehudi Menuhin and Philip Glass, than for his “straight” Indian classical playing.

A couple of western instruments have been enthusiastically adopted. The violin, borrowed from the British but played very differently from the European way, is now a standard rhythm/accompaniment instrument in south Indian music. The Indian-sounding “mohan veena” is a slide guitar, borrowed from American folk music and made famous by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Whereas I don’t recall seeing too many veenas being used in western string quartets, or sarods in blues bands. People play North Indian music in South Indian styles and arrangements, and vice versa. Classical arrangements of film tunes and folk songs seem to be hugely popular.

All this inventing, developing and adapting instruments was in full swing in the golden age of western classical music too. In Bach’s day the violin and cello were just replacing the viola da gamba as the most prominent string instruments. A friend tells me Mozart, whose clarinet quintet is one of his best known and most popular works, was one of the first people to write anything serious for the clarinet. And Beethoven famously complained vehemently about the early pianos that were available in his day, beat the crap out of the ones he played and wrote music that pushed right to the limit of their capabilities.

Glancing through an old yoga book, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by Norman Sjoman, in connection with my previous piece on yoga teaching, I find this:

In order to understand the development of the yoga tradition, the nature of tradition itself within the context of Indian arts and scholarship must be examined. The term “tradition” evokes meanings or presuppositions that are often not quite applicable to the Indian context. For example, South Indian Music in its present form is more or less assumed to be a standard form that has origins in the distant past. But forms that were distinctly different, the thaaye, which were performed less than fifty years ago have totally disappeared such that the nature of their performance is completely unknown today. However a manuscript exists in the Madras Music Academy of ninety-eight thaaye-s in full notation. The thaaye again is the source of the modern taanam. Therefore a statement that South Indian Music is fifteen hundred years old could be made and the contrary statement the South Indian Music is less than fifty years old could be made with equal justice

I haven’t finished, but I’ve written more than enough for one weblog posting (and it’s bedtime). So rather than wait until I’ve written some gargantuan Ultimate Everything Compendium, I’m going to post this now with a note that there’s more to come: some CD recommendations, and thoughts on What It All Means.


27th May 2004 permanent link

Andy Baker writes nicely to me even though I called him a cretin. Nothing personal, Andy. The “cretin” reference was to people who put composer in the “Artist” field in classical music metadata – Andy points out some semi-convincing reasons why this might actually not be a bad idea given the lamentable state of most current music software.

The pointer is to an interesting-looking music metadata project called musicbrainz (more information here), which appears to have a lot of good ideas about how to do the job properly, but one conceptual flaw that I see as quite fundamental. (A lot) more on this subject when I have time.

Дмитрий Шостакович

14th May 2004 permanent link

As Brian Micklethwait has astutely spotted, I don’t actually know very much at all about Shostakovich. I’ve listened to some of his music, and very much like some of what I’ve listened to (such as the 8th & 15th string quartets). And that’s about it. I mentioned him in my weblog a couple of times, and started getting mail from people who actually do know a lot about him. Which is great. But I’m happy now to hand over the role of the blogosphere’s Accidental Shostakovich Expert to Brian, with his latest article and follow up discussion.

Incidentally, Brian, music experts do in fact seem to understand what we mean when we try to describe our reactions to music without knowing the technical terms. On I once described a performance of a Mozart quintet as “heavy-footed”. One of the resident experts kindly translated this into Italian for the benefit of the other resident experts:

Heavyfootedness = legato, refusal to use the diminuendos within notes and towards phrase endings typical in Mozart playing, and phrases which are not clearly "detached" and set against each other. The only aspect of their full, heavier style that bothers me a bit here might be this last; the overall line is too linear... Meaning, not articulated enough (IMO).


My evaluation criteria for pieces of music, and performances thereof, are not this sophisticated. They are “does it for me” / “does not do it for me” – I’m rarely interested in getting analytical about why.

taping things from the radio

13th May 2004 permanent link

Having discovered the joys of Internet Radio Three yesterday, I had a look at their programme listings and found that they have lots of interesting stuff. They’re in the middle of a series of live lunchtime broadcasts of the complete Beethoven string quartets, with one or two of them played by a different group each day. (The live performances are happening in Nottingham, and if I were anywhere near that part of England I would be trying very hard to find an excuse to go. Wait. My parents live near Nottingham. Sudden urge to visit parents). Today’s is the Skampa Quartet playing opus 132. I’ve never heard the Skampa Quartet but I know they are students of the Smetana Quartet, and the Smetana Quartet were one of the undisputed greatest string quartets of the last half century – I’ve mentioned here before that their recording of Beethoven’s 9th string quartet is one of the most inspired performances I’ve ever heard of of any piece of music. And Beethoven opus 132 – well, as Brian says: peak of Western Civ. Note To Self: if caught up in Apocalypse & required to justify entire existence of mankind, mention late Beethoven string quartets.

But I won’t be at home at lunchtime today, and I’ve already established that Radio Three’s audio stream doesn’t work through the firewall in the office. Internet radio streams are intentionally difficult to record. What to do?

A quick google search on “capture RealAudio Mac” reveals that the answer is Audio Hijack. This is a piece of software that defeats attempts to prevent people from recording internet audio streams by, basically, pretending to be the part of the operating system that normally controls the Mac’s soundcard, grabbing whatever gets sent to the sound card and, er, recording it. And it’s perfectly legal because time-shifting, fair use, just like a VCR, mutter, mumble. Whatever.

A quick test shows that it works and that setting it up to record a particular audio stream on a timer is indeed, as advertised in the help file, “just like a VCR, but you’ll actually understand how to program it”. So I fondly hope to get home from work today and find Radio Three’s lunchtime concert sitting on my hard disk.

This is all quite nostalgic for me – I haven’t “taped” music from the “radio” since my student days. The results from the tests I did sounded a lot better than I ever remember getting by really taping things from the real radio. (The baseline for comparison here isn’t what somebody could theoretically have achieved in the Old Days using an audiophile-grade tuner, writing to an audiophile-grade tape deck, on expensive metal tapes, in a location carefully selected for good FM reception. It’s Alan in a student dwelling, using the cheapest available tapes on a cheap portable). On my Mac’s soundcard and a small pair of earbuds, both the BBC’s audio stream and the Audio Hijack recording of it sound perfectly acceptable. I strongly suspect they would sound less impressive burned to a CD and played on a real stereo – so, Note To Music Industry: if this performance turns out to be as good as I hope, and the Skampa Quartet ever record Beethoven, already having a recording of a live performance might well make me more likely to buy the CD not less.

Audio Hijack is made by Rogue Amoeba (“good software with a bad attitude”), who seem to be a prime example of a good small software company. They have a niche product that fills an obvious need and appears to be the clear leader in its niche. Their software, as far as I can tell from a couple of small tests, works as advertised and is easy to use. The support forums on their website are informative, the website is reasonably well designed and – just think for a moment how unusual this is – their help files actually contain useful information that helps you to use the product. Recommended.

Mac Software Tip Of The Day Number Two: assuming I have programmed Audio Hijack correctly, I will get a single one hour file containing two pieces of music plus some things like Radio Three presenters and audience noise that that I don’t want. Assuming I wanted to listen to the Beethoven more than once (even though that might be Wrong because then it isn’t just time-shifting) I will probably want to cut the big one hour file up into manageable chunks. But I don’t seem to have any software that can do that. Apple’s QuickTime Pro does it, but also does many other ”professional media authoring” things that I don’t understand and am not interested in, and $30 seems like a lot of money just for a pair of digital scissors. My also-Mac-using colleague Andreas informs me that what I need is a piece of freeware called Audacity. This also has all the editing bells & whistles that I wouldn’t know what to do with even if I wanted them, but should work perfectly well as a free pair of scissors.

Update: bollocks. Audio Hijack worked perfectly and recorded an hour of Radio 3 that, burned to a CD and played on a proper stereo, sounds much better than I expected. The only problem is: it’s the wrong hour. I forgot to allow for the time difference between Germany and the UK, so no Skampa Quartet for me. Oh well. There will be other interesting things on Radio 3 in future, and I know how to get them now.

currently listening to …

12th May 2004 permanent link

… and very much enjoying, Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony being played live on BBC Radio 3 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

I know people who can hear it every day say Radio Three ain’t what it used to be, but I still enjoy it on my visits to England. Which aren’t that frequent these days. Right now I’m in the comfort of my living room in Germany listening to it on the Internet – my first venture into live internet radio. What a great invention.

currently listening to …

10th May 2004 permanent link

… or rather, wondering when I will find time to listen to, seventeen CDs that I just bought in my local discount CD shop for a total of 35 euros.

So, continuing my theme from last week of how there is no correlation between the price and the quality of classical CDs, and Brian’s theme of being able to enjoy “peaks of Western Civilization” for almost nothing: ten of my seventeen new CDs are Artur Schnabel’s complete set of Beethoven piano sonata recordings from the 1930s. These are not only a peak of Western Civilization but also a landmark in the history of recorded music. Schnabel’s was the first ever complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas and is still regarded by many people as the definitive one. Schnabel himself was not only a direct link back to the nineteenth century romantic tradition – he studied with Brahms – and one of the great pianists of the last century, but also a (now obscure) avant garde composer.

I’ve only listened to two of the ten disks so far (the Moonlight and the Hammerklavier, not surprisingly), but I’m impressed. The playing is lovely and the sound, for a 1930s mono recording, is amazing. If I didn’t know it was so old I would never have guessed – unlike all the orchestral and string recordings of that era that I’ve heard, where you always have to make big allowances for the “historical” sound quality. Maybe pianos are inherently easier to record than full orchestras? Maybe Schnabel’s engineer was the greatest sound recording genius who ever lived. I don’t know. I just know this is the only pre-1950s recording I’ve ever heard where I haven’t had to switch my ears into Making Allowances mode.

The other seven CDs are:

A four-CD set of Indian classical ragas. I’m familiar with two of the players on this set. Hariprasad Chaurasia is the most famous living Indian classical flute player – I already have a couple of his CDs and I’ve heard him live once, so I know he’s brilliant. Shiv Kumar Sharma is a famous santoor player (a santoor is a string instrument) – I haven’t heard him but I know he has an excellent reputation and I have a CD by his son, Rahul Sharma, that is very good indeed. So this set should be good – I grabbed it as soon as I saw it because I know two of the players are good and because Indian classical CDs, unlike western ones, are still usually very expensive in the west. (This presumably means it must be about time to finish that draft posting on Indian classical music that has been sitting around on my hard disk since February).

And three additional disks of Beethoven Sonatas by Rudolf Serkin and Emil Gilels, both also reputedly very good piano players whose takes on Beethoven I hope might be interestingly different from Schnabel’s. If they turn out not to be, at ten euros for three CDs I haven’t lost much.

I while ago I actually set out to test my “no correlation between price and quality of classical CDs” hypothesis by jotting down a spreadsheet of CDs I had bought recently, plotting price against a one-to-five star quality rating. Unfortunately I had to suppress the results of this study because they didn’t fit my preconceived belief. There was a clear upward trend of quality against price. But, when I think about it, this is clearly a product of selection bias in the survey. Up to about 5 euros per CD I’ll buy pretty much anything that I think might conceivably be worth listening to (or, to look at it another way, at least as much fun as two beers). Around the eight to twelve euro range I’m more careful. I will generally only buy stuff where I’m familiar with the music and/or the performers, or that has been recommended by people whose opinions I trust. Above twelve euros is Full Price territory that I seldom venture into unless I already have a pretty good idea that what I’m buying is going to be brilliant.

If somebody wanted to fund me to go out and buy a couple of hundred classical CDs at random, listen to them and rate them for quality against price, I would be very glad to oblige. In the interests of science.

is jetlag infectious?

9th May 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait has already read the article on Shostakovich that I mentioned somebody had pointed out to me on Friday, and also talks about some other very interesting writing on classical music.

I haven’t read the Shostakovich piece yet, and am just now wondering if jetlag is infectious. I got up fairly early this morning, although not that much earlier than my son normally wakes me up anyway, to go to the airport and pick up some friends who just got back from a holiday in Australia. Got home, had lunch, then felt extremely tired and went to bed for a couple of hours. Still feeling decidedly un-great now.

yet more shostakovich

7th May 2004 permanent link

Sarah Ivry sends me, in my capacity as Accidental Shostakovich Expert, notice of an article on Dmitry Shostakovich on, reviewing the controversial new book about him that I mentioned here. Thank you Sarah.

Added to my Things To Read list, alongside the new boxed set of Shostakovich symphonies conducted by Rudolf Barshai on my Things To Listen To pile.

music, meditation and 4'33"

5th May 2004 permanent link

I remember when I was growing up people I knew who were serious about music regarded John Cage’s 4’33” – four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence – as the ultimate expression of absurd modern music, on a par with the Tate Gallery’s pile of bricks as the definitive silly work of non-art. I hadn’t really thought about it for years, until recently I was surprised to find Peter Gutmann saying I’m occasionally asked, “So, what’s your favorite piece of music?” I instinctively cringe at such an impossible question, yet if really pressed for an answer my choice would be John Cage’s 4’33”.

I generally respect Peter Gutmann’s musical opinions – his excellent biographical article on Wilhelm Furtwängler, for example, introduced my to Furtwängler’s marvellous 1944 recording of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony. His essay on historical recordings, and what they tell us about what’s wrong with late twentieth century classical music, is fascinating too. So if I know he’s no fool, and he takes 4’33” seriously, perhaps there’s more to it than meets the, er, ear:

Although often described as a silent piece, 4’33” isn’t soundless at all. While the performer is quiet, you soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic – nervous giggling, shifting in seats, breathing, air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4’33” the same way. This is deeply personal art, which each witness shapes to his or her own reactions to life

This reminds me of a thought, and a conversation I had with my brother, a few years ago when at around the same time I was just starting to practice yoga and to really listen to classical music, to the effect that really listening to music – especially intense, introspective chamber music – is actually quite an advanced form of meditation.

One of the clever things about yoga is that, by apparently giving you a lot of things you’re supposed to think about – where am I trying to put my arm? My leg hurts. Look up, not at her. Don’t forget to breathe. Heels down. If I could just get my knee a bit more to the side. Breathe … it actually ensures that you think about nothing else. It’s difficult to worry about office politics and at the same time be aware of what your diaphragm and your pelvic floor are doing.

Or, as one of my first yoga teachers put it much more simply: “there’s nothing like a bit of discomfort for bringing the mind into the present moment”.

All this, if you can really focus your mind on what you’re doing in your practice to the exclusion of everything else, starts to take you towards the fifth and sixth of the eight stages of meditation in classical yoga as described in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras: pratyahara, withdrawal of the mind/senses/attention from extraneous sensations and dharana, the ability to focus concentration on one thing. It’s all about learning voluntary control of the focus of the mind, as opposed to the normal state of being constantly distracted by thoughts, images, fears, worries, desires – the thin stream of semi-random noise that we call the consciousness and commonly regard as “ourself”. Patanjali’s classical sanskrit definition of yoga – yogas citta vrtti nirodaha – is commonly translated into English as yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Which is clumsy and ugly but sort of conveys the idea. If you are struggling to reach your toes and your mind is truly focused on what you are doing, you are doing yoga. If you have been sitting absolutely motionless in lotus for two hours thinking about how angry you are with your boyfriend, what you intend to cook for dinner, how cool you look sitting in lotus for two hours, or what you could write in your weblog about what an advanced understanding of yoga and meditation you have, you are not doing yoga.

Back to music: clearly getting one’s body into difficult and strenuous positions is not the only way to learn to focus the mind – it’s just one way that yogis have discovered over the centuries is accessible and effective for some people. Another one, that I personally find harder and rarely have time for, is to really, intently listen to music and lose yourself in it 100%. Most cultures throughout history have found that the most effective way to do that is by combining music with dance – as dance therapist Gabrielle Roth says, “the best way to still the mind is to move the body”. Doing it with music alone, without dancing, is much harder. Take away the music too and you might as well just go to a Zen class and be done with it.

So I still think 4’33” is pretty silly. Or, to put it another way, I sit in silence for at least five minutes at the end of my yoga practice most days anyway, so I don’t see it as anything special. I think it’s a good thing to do but I wouldn’t choose to go to a concert hall to do it. I suppose there is some possibility that a “performance” of 4’33” might introduce some people to just sitting, listening to what is happening around them and in their head, who might otherwise never consider trying anything described as “yoga” or “meditation”.

about to listen to …

5th May 2004 permanent link

… Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers, conducted by Gabriel Garrido. And thinking about one very noticeable thing about the market for classical music recordings these days, namely that there is no correlation whatsoever between price and quality.

This Monteverdi CD might turn out to be an example. I know nothing about Monteverdi except that I heard something by him on BBC Radio Three when I was in England a couple of weeks ago and liked it, and that composer and contemporary music critic Kyle Gann thinks he is “as great as Beethoven”. I did a bit of reading around and discovered that the 1610 Vespers seems to be one of his most famous and most recorded pieces, and then I went looking. I quickly discovered that it’s a long piece – at least two CDs – and most of the recordings in my biggest local classical record shop were firmly in the Too Expensive range – over 30 euros, for example, for John Eliot Gardiner’s recording that seems to be highly rated. So I went to the discount shop down the street where they had one conducted by Jordi Savall – another famous and highly respected early music type – for 25 euros, or one by some guy I had never heard of called Garrido for 10. I bought the Garrido, based on my general rule of thumb of never paying over 10 euros for a classical CD unless I’m sure it’s going to be absolutely wonderful. Haven’t listened to it yet, but a quick “have I done the right thing?” check on reveals that a lot of people seem to like it. This apparently knowledgeable reviewer, for example, much prefers Garrido to Savall at over twice the price.

There are lots of discount labels these days putting out new recordings, some of them excellent, at very low prices. Naxos was the first and is the biggest but there are lots of others now. Garrido is on a French label I’ve never heard of before called K617, possibly named (thanks to Google’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Mozart’s published works) after Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo in C Minor, K.617 for Glass Harmonica (or Piano), Flute, Oboe, Viola And Cello. All the major record companies are also reissuing vast amounts of excellent back catalogue – legendary performances by the greats of the 1950s and 60s. Then there is another whole sub-industry of tiny labels who specialise in remastering and reissuing even older out of copyright recordings. Dutton Labs is one such – I recently bought a CD of theirs featuring an astounding 1940s performance of Mozart’s String Quintet K.516 in G Minor by the Griller Quartet (5 euros in Germany, 5 pounds in Britain – even at these prices British CD buyers get ripped off as always)

There are also still a lot of musicians issuing new recordings at full price (the going rate in Germany is about 17 euros for a not discounted new CD). Some of them are probably very good. In fact, some of them I know are very good – I heard a superb performance on the radio the other day of Mendelssohn’s String Octet by L’Archibudelli and the Smithsonian Chamber Players. Saw it in the shop and it was 17 euros. Didn’t buy it. And I can’t see, in general, why any significant number of people ever would ever see a reason to buy these things. There can’t be very many pieces of classical music that you can’t get a really good recording of for under ten euros, or very many where a randomly-selected full price CD is likely to be much better than a randomly-selected 5 to 10 euro CD.

Bonus Link: Real Economist Tyler Cowen on The economics of classical music. Tyler’s Marginal Revolution weblog is generally an excellent read.

Update: I listened to it and wow. Ten euros well spent. They could really write music back in the early seventeenth century. I had no idea. The performance sounds wonderful too, although of course I don't have anything I can directly compare it with. I’m not about to go out and spend 25 euros on the Savall version just to make sure it isn’t as good, or 38 on Gardner just in case he might be even better.

might listen to ...

29th April 2004 permanent link

Richard Tanyon sends me a link he thinks may be of interest to me and readers of my weblog about Rene Gruss, “a composer on a mission to connect new audiences with dynamic new sounds.”

The quote is from Muso magazine – a UK classical musicians’ trade mag that I had never heard of up until last Sunday, but that I now know is read by working classical musicians because I saw a copy last Sunday in my brother’s office.

I also checked out the domain Richard’s mail came from, It describes itself as a “web-zine of new realism in the arts” and there’s some interesting stuff there. I found this portait by Manfred Jürgens stunning – it’s modern, but the Dürer influence the artist mentions is obvious too. On the other hand, I find Rene Gruss’s hairdo offputting. I suppose I shouldn’t let such superficial considerations prevent me from at least having a listen to the free samples on his website.

currently listening to ...

29th April 2004 permanent link

Here’s a small dialogue I have had with my musician brother over a period of several years:

Once upon a time, years ago, I was gently waking myself up in the morning with BBC Radio Three, and they played something that was so good that I just had to stay in bed to the end so I could hear what it was. It was the Borodin Quartet playing one of Tchaikovsky’s string quartets. I was sharing a house with my brother at the time. Over breakfast I mentioned that I’d heard this and thought it was great. “Oh”, he said dismissively, “they’re generally regarded as quite minor works”. Which I found a bit of an odd answer – I’m more interested in whether I enjoy pieces of music I hear than whether they’re regarded as “major works". Over the years I’ve generally had a lot more success with going out and buying things I’ve liked bits of on the radio, than with things I think I “ought” to listen to as part of some kind of “great works” curriculum.

This is no exception. Chandos have reissued the original Borodin Quartet Tchaikovsky recordings, I just bought them, and they’re stunning.

Here’s the good bit though - Chandos is a British label, so since I was planning to go and see my brother in Manchester last weekend, I got the CD shipped to his address. I arrived, and my brother said “a CD came for you, what is it?”, and I showed him, he came out with assorted “oh my gods” and “wows” and general expressions of awestruckness. I said “but you said to me, years ago, that these are minor works”. “Yes they are", he said “but ... Borodin Quartet. Oh my god. Wow”. Quite.

film music

22nd April 2004 permanent link

Interesting discussion at the moment on

I’m putting together a little video that has a lot of sped up motion of cars, buses, trains, etc. Kinda like KOYAANISQATSI.

I’m looking for some classical music to go with it. Flight of the Bumble Bee came to mind, but is a little predictable. Could be Mozart, Bach, or just about anything that feels like a lot of movement going on. Any ideas?

I half-expected some of the regulars there who are *very* serious about their music to react, er, adversely to the idea that anybdy might want to interact with classical music in ways that don’t involve sitting motionless and silent either in concert halls or “listening rooms” with headphones. But no. The guy got lots of helpful, interesting suggestions covering pretty much the whole of the last 300 years, from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (1721) to John Adams and several other contemporary composers.

why classical cds are cheap

13th April 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait has been listening to and enjoying Malcolm Arnold’s Ninth Symphony (1986, so definitely comes under the “good classical music written in my lifetime” heading) and so have I. We were both pointed at it by Lynn Sislo. In Brian’s comments I mentioned that I’ve been buying a lot of good classical CDs at spectacularly cheap prices lately.

On closer inspection, I discover that one way to produce CDs cheaply is not to spend money having the liner notes proof-read by somebody who understands English – or even knows how to press the button on a spell checker. In the Juilliard Quartet's legendary 1963 recording of the Bartok string quartets (Brian likes these too), Sony France inform us that Bartok wrote the fifth quartet in “Whashignton” in 1935. Really. I don’t think that’s correct even in French. They go on to tell us about the Juilliard Quartet in this remarkable paragraph:

“Whereas some artists are instinctive and intuitive and other cerebral, our goal – even at our most frenetic – is to combine heart and head”, said Robert Mann, discussing the Juilliard String Quartet. “We have always been that way”. And Mann should know, since he was the quartet founder in 1946, and has remained its first violinist during 51 years. Like Bernstein, Gould and Casals, members of the Juilliard bring a composer’s imagination and sense of adventure to the art of performance. There was two composers in the quartet in 1963 : Robert Mann and Claus Adam. With composers playing, an unconventional approach to performance is only natural ; the Juilliard Quartet examines every pieces as if the ink were wet. Whether music of Beethoven or of Shapey(*) is on the music stands, the issue is the same : what is the emotionnal truth of the music for us now, today?

I’m not suggesting I could translate a paragraph of English into completely grammatical, idiomatic, or even correctly spelt French(**). But if I were a CD producer, editor, or whatever they call themselves, I would at least want to employ a translator who could, and not just shove the original through babelfish and bung it on the CD. But considering probably a couple of hundred people worldwide are going to buy this double CD at ten bucks a go, I can understand how the liner notes translation budget might be a bit tight. On the other hand I notice that Naxos, in their Malcolm Arnold symphony series, can afford to have completely different liner notes, written by different people, in English, French and German. And Naxos are actually paying musicians (a bit) and recording engineers to make new stuff that they are selling at the same price as Sony, not just wandering around in the basement looking for old master tapes. Could do better, Sony.

(*) I’m also intrigued by the assumption that I’ve heard of Ralph Shapey (1921-2002), the Chicago-based “radical traditionalist” composer (thank you google).

(**) Years ago when I was at school I could probably have managed grammatical and correctly spelt. I don’t recall idiomatic being a prominent feature of the curriculum.

a real classical music blogger

8th April 2004 permanent link

Back in January, thinking about Brian Micklethwait’s thoughts about film music, I said:

Here’s a half-formed Big Thought: film music is a return to musical normality. Throughout most of human history in most societies (including our own), music has mainly been a mood-altering adjunct to other activities, generally religious ceremonies and/or dancing. (Religious ceremonies and dancing having also been much the same thing throughout most of human history). What western classical music has tried to do in the last two hundred years is take music out of the temple, off of the dancefloor and make listening an end in itself, a quasi-religious act in its own right. An interesting experiment that, in the long run, didn’t work.

Which at the time I thought was broadly true as far as my limited knowledge goes, but quite likely to be ripped to pieces by people who really know about such things. Apparently not. Greg Sandow knows a lot about musical history – among other things he teaches at Juilliard, America’s top music college. He also writes an excellent weblog for, billed as “Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music”. Here he is on the kind of atmosphere Mozart would have been used to performing in:

Canaletto Rotunda

As a footnote to my little piece of Mozart history, in my last post, here’s a Canaletto painting, done in 1754, called "London: Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh." It shows a concert. Notice how informal it is, and in some ways how much like a modern rock club. A few people are gathered by the stage, listening (I’d think) intently. Others are scattered through the space, talking and hanging out. It’s easy to see how in an atmosphere like this, people would feel free to clap right in the middle of the music, if they heard something that they liked. Our concept of "classical music" simply didn’t exist yet, and people listened quite informally.

See the rest of Greg’s October archive for a lot more on the same subject. Ah, I feel so … vindicated.

This entry brought to you by the “linking is easier than thinking” school of weblogging. Or, to take a less cynical view, conversation is better than pontification.

currently listening to …

7th April 2004 permanent link

Frank Bridge … Frank Bridge’s third string quartet.

This isn’t exactly contemporary music, but it’s modern in the sense of modernist in style(*). Brief googling reveals that Bridge wrote it in 1926, and people seem to like comparing it to the better known works of Alban Berg (also that it’s missing from this otherwise useful Chronology of Major String Quartet Works. It sounds pretty major to me).

Anyway, I’m really enjoying it. It’s a tremendous piece of music, the performance by the Brindisi Quartet is excellent and the sound quality (on an mp3 downloaded from emusic), is perfectly acceptable.

Asking for modern music recommendations seems to have worked pretty well for me so far, so here goes again: I know nothing about any other music by Frank Bridge or any other recordings by the Brindisi Quartet. Recommendations welcome. (Perhaps the best thing to do would be to imply that I think all other works by Frank Bridge must be trivial crap because I haven’t heard of them. On recent experience, that ought to bring about a deluge of emails and weblog responses from enraged Frank Bridge fans.)

(*) *I* know what I meant by that. There’s an unfortunate disconnect in talking anything arts-related, between modern-with-a-small-m in its normal English language meaning of current, contemporary, up to date etc; and Modern[ism]-with-a-capital-M, a confusingly-named early to mid 20th century European artistic style. Modern[ism]-with-a-capital-M is now anything but modern-with-a-small-m.

the insignificant music industry

5th April 2004 permanent link

Last one today from Alan’s all-music-some-of-the-time weblog. The recorded music industry in the US has a total turnover of $12 billion (and falling, probably). Total expenditure on amateur music-making – money spent on things like instruments and music lessons by people who don’t make their living playing music – is estimated at $10 billion and rising. I don’t play an instrument myself and don’t want to, but that still  strikes me as a healthy trend.

I wonder what the figure would be for attending performances of live music.

Figures from Steve Crandall via Martin Geddes.

Another statistic to put in perspective just how trivial the recorded music industry actually is:  US GDP in 2003 was 11 trillion dollars. The so-politically-influential recorded music industry is, then, just over a thousandth of the economy. (I have been spending a lot more than a thousandth of my gross income on recorded music lately. I’m obviously unusual, and in any case I don’t live in the US. A fair chunk of my CD buying is used on ebay, so presumably wouldn’t count even if I did.)

more contemporary music

5th April 2004 permanent link

Tim Johnson, who describes me as “Classical music blogger Alan Little” (no guarantees regarding future subject matter, although I admit it has been looking that way lately) and R (first name not obvious from his or her website) Gable both provide more recommendations of contemporary music worth listening to. Thanks, Tim and R.

Both of these discovered via Technorati.

Steve Hicken, one of Tim Johnson’s commenters, accuses me of “mak[ing] the leap from ‘the last piece I like was written in 1960’ to ‘therefore nothing written since 1960 is good’”. Which isn’t exactly what I said, although I certainly could be read as having implied it. I do think that if the last forty years or so is remembered by posterity for a great flowering of musical creativity, then it’s unlikely to be for what’s been going on in western “classical” or “serious” contemporary music. (Any art form whose practitioners start describing it as “serious” is probably in deep trouble). But I’d be quite happy to be wrong, and in any case that isn’t the same as “no good music”.

Another of Tim’s commenters says “My problem with contemporary music … has always been knowing where to start!”. I certainly can’t claim to have that problem any more.

Update: Lynn S of Reflections in D Minor responds too, with some recommendations and this:

In my several years of experience hanging out on classical music discussion forums I noticed an amusing senario that was repeated over and over again. Someone will ask if there is anything worth listening to in the last forty or fifty years (or, more often, declare that there is nothing worth listening to in the last forty of fifty years) and fans of contemporary art music respond with lists of exactly the kind of music that turns many people off contemporary art music …

shostakovich again

5th April 2004 permanent link

Interesting mail from Chris Martin, drawing my attention to his comment on Brian Micklethwait's samizdata article on Dimitri Shostakovich (scroll down for Chris's comment). Chris drew my attention to this in response to my follow-ups to Brian's article (here and here), and says that Norman Lebrecht’s view of saintly Shostakovich and self-seeking driven-by-spite critics Richard Taruskin et al is, er, perhaps a little too one-sided.

Chris says Shostakovich’s memoir, Testimony, “has been completely exposed as a fraud” (doesn’t say how or by whom, but then I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to in a weblog comment or a short email). Then says “Most damning is the fact that is that Shostakovich himself knew how to exploit the communist system very well”. I don’t necessarily see it as “damning” that somebody is smart enough to learn to play the game they find themselves in, whether they like it or not. Would be interested to hear more about Chris’s views on the matter though, and will definitely add the two articles he links to to my reading list.

I love that I get this sort of feedback by mail even though I haven’t added comments (yet?) to my homegrown weblog software (due to being busy with other things, see below). It’s an excellent way of getting an education – publish your half-informed opinions about things, get feedback from people who know more. Having only an email link instead of comments might actually be better, because it means only the truly motivated bother to get in touch.

good contemporary music

31st March 2004 permanent link

… does exist. According, at any rate, to Brian Micklethwait and Michael Brooke, both of whom replied to my question about great classical music, “but is there really nothing in the last forty years?”. Both, very kindly, took time to point out lots of things they think I might find interesting – Brian in a weblog posting, Michael in an email which he says he doesn’t want me to quote because he’s going to polish it a bit and then post it himself. I hope he does. It was very interesting and I’m most impressed with the time and effort he put into two thoughtful and friendly replies to some nekulturniy fool who comes along and disses first one of his favourite composers, and then an entire period of music that he’s obviously very fond of, all from a position of near-total ignorance and prejudice.

I notice both Brian and Michael speak very highly of a pianist called Pierre Laurent Aimard. I checked my local record shop and they have his Ligeti recordings, but on a full price CD and I don’t do full price CDs. I’ll give him a go if I ever see anything by him discounted or used though. And there are plenty more things for me to look out for on both Brian’s and Michael’s lists.

more music musings

29th March 2004 permanent link

Hmm. Somewhat lacking in writing motivation at the moment. Or rather, motivation for writing anything short and slight enough to make for regular weblog entries. So I’ll just round off what has turned out to be a music-themed month with a couple more music links.

Following on from Brian Micklethwait’s piece on Shostakovich: I noticed last week classical music critic Normal Lebrecht has an interesting piece on The Fight for Shostakovich. Apparently some ex-Soviet musicologists now working in the States are out to besmirch Shostakovich’s reputation by claiming he was actually a loyalist Stalinist soviet citizen all along, and deny that his music was full of echoes of dissidence and protest. Lebrecht finds their postion, er, unconvincing:

Evidence of his moral courage and political disgust is so overwhelming that it is hard to imagine how even an ivory-towered musicologist could pretend otherwise. … What motivates these flat-earthers? It’s hard to say without putting them on the couch

Further discussion of Lebrecht’s piece here.

Also on the subject of Shostakovich: I was looking up the dates of some of my favourite pieces of classical music the other day, to put them in some kind of historical perspective. I noticed that the latest of them was Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet, written in 1960 – the year before I was born. (The recording to get is the Borodin Quartet live at the Edinburgh Festival 1962, on BBC Legends).

Compare and contrast another period (not chosen completely at random) of just over forty years in musical history. A very high proportion of what I would call truly great music – and I think a lot of people would agree – was written between the late 1780s and the late 1820s. This covers Mozart’s later work, the entire second half of Haydn’s published output, most of Beethoven and all of Schubert. It has to be 41 years, in order to start with Mozart’s great string quintet in C Major (1787) and finish with Schubert’s (1828).

Expecting any other period to come close to that probably never-to-be-repeated Golden Age would be a lot to ask – but is there really nothing in the last forty years? (I suppose later Shostakovich might be a good place for me to start listening)

Update: just as I had finished writing this, but before I had posted it, a perfectly timed email from Ligeti fan Michael Brooke arrived, responding to my not-wholly-positive reaction to Ligeti’s string quartets and recommending some other pieces I might like. Thanks very much Michael.

don’t bugger naxos

24th March 2004 permanent link

Now here’s the right way to do business. I was looking through the usenet group (again), and people were discussing a new set of Shostakovich symphonies released by Naxos. The previous Naxos Shostakovich set was coming in for some heavy criticism. One guy said the conductor of the previous set was actually great, but they used a mediocre orchestra and the recording wasn’t too good either. Then up pops none other than Klaus Heymann, founder and chairman of Naxos, who says:

Dear Interested Parties,

I agree with Alan Watkins about Mr. Slovak being a great Shostakovich conductor. That’s why we released his cycle and it will remain available as a boxed set.

However, the orchestra at the time was not first-class, nor was the sound. The new cycle, to be shared between Mssrs. Yablousky and Kuchar will have better orchestras and surround sound! No need to bugger NAXOS!

Klaus Heymann

Link here. Interview with Klaus Heymann here, with a lot of insider information on the economics of recording classical music.

For those who don’t know: Naxos was one of the first ultra-budget classical music record labels. They started off recording famous works that were then only available in expensive CD versions, with lesser-known performers, many of them East European. In their early days they had a reputation for rather mixed quality performances and sometimes dodgy sound, although some of their stuff was good. These days there is a lot more competition, particularly with big labels releasing legendary back catalogue recordings from the 1940s and 50s at amazingly low prices. But Naxos have got better too, both in terms of better recording quality and branching out into obscure never-previously-recorded music – as well as also becoming a major player in the legendary historical recordings niche. These are marvellous times for people who want to buy recorded classical music – and brutally hard times for people who want to make it, who are competing not only with their contemporaries but also with the greats of half a century ago. But some of them are succeeding: see my previous postings on Beethoven symphonies and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

currently listening to …

23rd March 2004 permanent link

I’m fond of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but I didn’t have a recording of it that I really liked. I decided to fix this, and once again a few minutes searching on knocked a hole in my now-rapidly-crumbling theory that all worthwhile classical music recordings were made years ago. This time, the Four Seasons recordings most often mentioned with approval are two recent Italian performances by Fabio Biondi / Europa Galante (2003) and Enrico Onofri / Il Giardino Armonico (1994).

Amazon has them both, but I decide to save on delivery charges and waiting time by having a look in a shop on the way home from work. My local classical record shop has them both too, and they’re both reasonably priced. I haven’t heard either of them, I’ve just read the opinions of a bunch of strangers on usenet. I want to get home to my family and not spend my evening messing about with headphones in the shop. Fortunately, Biondi’s record company have made what might otherwise be a tough decision very easy.

Their CD is copy-protected. So I’m looking at two versions of the same piece of music, both reputedly very good. But one of them I can’t back up in case anything happens to the disk. I can’t make a copy for the car (if I had one) or the office. It quite possibly won’t play on computer CD drives or on Maria’s mp3-capable portable disk player. I definitely won’t be able to put it on an iPod or similar, if I ever get one.

Or I can buy Il Giardino Armonico on a normal CD that will reliably let me do all those perfectly reasonable fair-use things.

Areviderci Signor Biondi.

I’m listening to Il Giardino Armonico now. It’s very good.

currently listening to …

19th March 2004 permanent link

… a 1996 recording of Beethoven’s 4th and 6th (“Pastoral”) symphonies by my Bro (er, and some other people such as Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra). My brother (did I mention he’s in it?) gave me this CD as a present a few years ago; I listened to it a couple of times but it didn’t really sink in just how good it is until I came back to it recently.

Everybody should rush out and buy it, and not (unfortunately) as a way of giving money to my brother - as far as I know as a freelancer he only gets his session fee and no royalties. Not that most musicians make any money from royalties on recordings anyway. No, everybody should buy it anyway, because it’s (a) really good and (b) now available as part of an absurdly cheap complete set. I’ve written before about how good the Liverpool Phil. was in the mid-90s. It might still be, for all I know.

Don’t just take my word for how good this recording is - see what the reviewers on amazon think, or ask the guys on

According to this website (look under “discography”) there are 368 recorded versions of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. That’s different recordings, not counting reissues of the same recording. Why bother recording any more, one might – and I sometimes do – ask? Particularly when most of the recordings that are commonly cited as *the* truly great ones are forty, fifty or more years old. Well, in the case of the Eroica there are a couple of quite recent recordings that are often mentioned as being up there with the historical greats – Norrington / South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra(*) 2002 and Savall / Le Concert des Nations 1994.

There probably aren’t quite as many recordings of the Pastoral as there are of the Eroica, but the number must still be well into three figures. And yet if you look at the usenet thread I linked to above, you will see people with very large record collections saying that this 1996 version by my bro (and others) is right up there. Wheher those judgements will last only time will tell, but this does show that the existence of large numbers of great recordings already doesn’t make it impossible to produce another one – it just raises the bar for how good you have to be for anybody to sit up and take notice. Which is not a bad thing. (Whether having a small and aging group of hard core enthusiasts sit up and take notice actually equates to having a significant number of people buy your CD is another question)

(*) Hmm. An old acquaintance of mine from Manchester just started a one year contract with the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra. Looks like a trip to Stuttgart might be in order some time in the next year.

more classical metadata

17th March 2004 permanent link

Brian Tiemann replies to my excessively long & detailed post on classical music metadata, and hopes that Apple may have something in the works along the lines we’ve both been thinking about. Personally I’m not at all sure if Apple, or anybody else, is likely to think there’s enough of a market to put effort into an iTunes Classical Edition, much as I personally would find it convenient.

Where there might be a market is in high end audio. I read somewhere that some audiophile gear company, I think it was Linn, is supposed to be producting an audiophile-grade digital jukebox system, using a piece of very expensive custom hardware to hold the hard disk jukebox and feed the music into a good amp and speakers. <digression>But can’t you just use a PC? No. Not just (cynical view) because Linn and others like them are in the business of selling ridiculuously expensive custom hardware to people whose perception of sound quality might just conceivably be affected by the knowledge of how much money they’ve spent. There are also actual good reasons why a PC is not good as a component of a serious music system. I don’t want my stereo to take five minutes to boot. I don’t want whining disk drives and CPU fans drowning out the music I’m trying to listen to (a problem Brian is also aware of). Apparently computers are also appallingly noisy in an electrical sense if you’re trying to get a clean high-grade audio sgnal to come out of your sound card – Apple is said to have particularly serious problems in this area at the moment. </digression>Somebody who is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a Linn digital jukebox might well also want it to come with some decent metadata  (i.e. not the crap that is in CDDB) pre-loaded rather than having to key everything in themselves from scratch.

But that takes us back to the other main issue here: CDDB is full of garbage. Having the slickest, fanciest application in the world doesn’t help you all that much if you can’t get any decent data to display in it.

for ken

15th March 2004 permanent link

Ken of Alien Landscape, who I linked to last week, says in an email “I’ll be checking your site for more classical music pointers”. I have no idea what Ken already likes or listens to, but if he wants recommendations I shall now reveal my utterly boring and predictable immaculate taste in Classical Music Recordings I Would Not Want To Be Without.  Expect no surprises.

  1. Beethoven: Symphony no.3 "Eroica". Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1944 recording
  2. Beethoven: Symphony no.7. Carlos Kleiber / Vienna Philharmonic (their recording of no. 5 on the same CD is more famous but I prefer the 7th)
  3. Beethoven: complete string quartets. Hungarian Quartet 1950s mono recordings
  4. Beethoven: String Quartet no.9, Rasumovsky 3. Smetana Quartet 1960s recording
  5. Mozart piano concertos. Alfred Brendel /  Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields
  6. Mozart Requiem Mass. Neville Marriner / Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields
  7. Schubert String Quintet. Stern / Katim / Schneider / Casals / Tortellier
  8. Brahms Violin Concerto. Kremer / Bernstein /  Vienna Philharmonic
  9. Shostakovich String Quartets. Original Borodin Quartet recordings
  10. and, since we might as well have ten, I have the feeling there must be a recording of the Bach cello suites out there somewhere that I would really, really love but I haven’t found it yet. (*)

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forget to mention the Elgar cello concerto (du Pré / Barbirolli).

The astute reader will have noticed that I know nothing about opera and very little about Romantic music. I don’t care. Here’s an attempt at a couple of fractionally less obvious picks:

  1. Haydn Seven Last Words. Borodin Quartet
  2. Smetana String Quartet  no. 1. Juilliard Quartet
  3. Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures At An Exhibition. Fritz Reiner / Chicago Symphony Orchestra

(*) of course, a half decent classical search engine, given the first 9 on the list and the fact that I’ve listened to Casals, Fournier and Tortellier and they haven’t blown me away, would be able tell me which recording of the Bach cello suites I actually would like.

itunes and classical music

14th March 2004 permanent link

I was tidying up my iTunes music collection yesterday evening, and thinking about what an appalling useless mess the id3 tag system and the Gracenote CDDB database are for classical music. I’m not the first to think this – see this piece by Brian Tiemann, and this one by Kimbro Staken.

(Yes, tidying up my music collection in iTunes is my idea of a good time on a Saturday night. I have a ten month old baby, what else do you expect? Maria wanted to watch one of those appalling “Pop Idol” style karaoke shows; I couldn’t bear it, but didn’t have the energy to write anything.)

Brian thinks:

it'd be a matter of adding an extra field or two to hold "Work Title" (e.g. Konzert für Klarinette u. Orchester A-dur ) and maybe a movement number, and then it'd involve simply telling the software to handle organizing songs differently that have these fields set. If the "Classical" genre is selected, organize first by Composer; and then, instead of the "Album" field, show the "Work Title" field in the browser. Albums and artists (performing groups) can then become secondary meta-data, not used for organizing the tracks once they're in the database.

If only it were that simple. I’ll talk about what would be needed to really do the job properly, and how to use the fields in iTunes to approximate doing the job properly. The fields available in iTunes, and the ones Brian proposes, are:


Not straightforward. For classical orchestral music I always want the conductor and the orchestra, plus for concertos the soloist. (I never want the composer, which some idiots put in the “artist” field, unless the recording actually is the composer playing or conducting their own work). For chamber groups the name of the group is normally good enough, but not always. Take the Borodin and Juilliard string quartets – two very famous ensembles that have existed for decades (longer even than the Rolling stones) but with major changes of personnel. I believe the Juilliard Quartet now has none of its original members and the Borodin Quartet has one. In the case of the Borodin, the crucial watershed is before and after the original leader, Rostislav Dubinsky, defected to the west in 1975. The post-Dubinsky quartet is also good but it’s different; and if I’m looking for recordings by Dubinsky then I would want to see pre-1975 but not post-1975 Borodin Quartet, plus the Borodin Trio that he formed in America, plus anything he did with other chamber groups or as a soloist.

Artist name search needs to be multilingual. A search for “Vienna Philharmonic” that doesn’t return “Wiener Philharmoniker” is useless; “Furtwängler” should also match “Furtwangler” and “Furtwaengler”.

For orchestras I’m personally only interested in the name of the orchestra, not individual musicians. (My principal classical music adviser points out an important exception to this in the case of anything featuring one O. Little anywhere in the violas – the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony recordings with Charles Mackerras, for example.)


iTunes’ search is clever enough to do partial matches, so if we have anything at all in the composer field, then “Beethoven, Ludwig van” and “L v Beethoven” both match “Beethoven” without any problem. A bigger problem is the classical CDs in the gracenote database that either don’t have composer at all, or where some cretin has put composer in the “artist” field and (if you’re lucky) stuffed the artist into the “album” title.

But once again we have the not-small question of different spellings of composers’ names in different languages. A simple example: Händel (correct German spelling) = “Haendel” (alternative German spelling, acceptable for example in primitive ASCII-only computer systems) = “Handel” (normal English spelling). I would expect a search for any of these to match all of them. Another example: Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович (correct Russian spelling) = Dmitriy Shostakovich (English transliteration) = Dmitrij Schostakowitsch (German transliteration) = Dimitri Shostakovich (alternative English spelling of the first name, as used last week by Brian Micklethwait). In cases like this, where there are several possible acceptable English spellings of “Dmitriy”, I would expect a decent search system to be able to cope with near-misses rather than having to specify all the possibilities in advance.

In all these cases, there is arguably a canonically correct name – the full version most commonly used in the composer’s native language – and there is a version I personally would be mostly likely to use to search, which would normally be the most common English-language spelling of the composer’s surname. But it wouldn’t be necessary for any version of the name to have any special status in the system in order for search to work correctly, a big pile of equal-status synonyms would do just fine. (What about composers with the same surname? I would expect a search for “Bach” to turn up works by Johann Sebastian Bach. I would not want to have to specify “JS Bach” to avoid seeing things by his lesser relatives. This would be less clear-cut for “Strauss” though. But in any case, it could be easily dealt with by using some combination of rating / most recently played / most frequently played to weight search results.)

album / work title

What does the “work title” of a piece of classical music actually consist of? I’ll take as an example Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 9 in C op.59 “Rasumovsky” no.3. Let’s parse that. It contains at least six pieces of information:

People who really know about this stuff could doubtless point out lots of errors and omissions in the above. But it’s broadly correct, and hopefully enough to get the message across that an apparently simple matter of an extra field called “work title” barely begins to scratch the surface of what’s actually there.

I picked Rasumovsky Quartet no.3 as an example because it is the subject of one of my all-time favourite recordings of anything by anybody, in the form of a stunning 1960s performance by the Smetana Quartet that was originally recorded by the excellent Czech label Supraphon, and is now available as a cheap reissue on Cantus, catalogue number 500152. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Brian wants to stuff all this into one field and call it “Work Title”, rather than using “Album”. Personally I was inclined to use “Album” – it’s a matter of complete indifference to me which CD something originally happened to be on. So I tried putting standardised work titles in the Album field. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 In E-Flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”, to take one example of a work I have about half a dozen different recordings of (out of the 200 or so recordings of it that exist). Ah. Problem. iTunes now sorts all the first movements together, then all the second movements etc. Not useful. What I want, of course, is all four movements of one recording, then all four movements of the next. In order to achieve which I have to take my nice standardised work titles and append some kind of “recording id” to them, duplicating information I already have in Artist and Date. Blah.

Oh, and “Date” in the rare cases when it’s set in the gracenote database is normally the year the CD was released, about which I don’t care a fart. I want the year the recording was made, please.

I don’t usually care if I have two different versions of the same recording. The exception to this is if one of them is remastered or otherwise of noticeably better quality. Take Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1944 recording of the Eroica with the Wiener Philharmoniker, a.k.a. Furtwangler/VPO Beethoven op. 55, or any of a thousand other possible descriptions of the same thing. I originally downloaded this as an mp3 from emusic, and was so impressed I decided to buy a “proper” CD version to see if I could hear a difference. I could. (Also HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

song title

I would prefer to just have the names of movements in here. It isn’t very important for classical music anyway – I rarely want to listen to single movements of things and would almost just as soon have an entire work as one track, but I can’t be bothered to do all the clicking about to glue them together in iTunes.

track number

The track number that something was on the original CD is completely irrelevant. As Brian says, you either think “So Track 14 is really the fourth movement of the third work on the disc …”, or you go through and edit everything laboriously by hand to say this is movement 2 of 3 in so-and-so concerto, rather than track 7 of 13 on some irrelevant CD. It would be nice if iTunes provided a quick and easy way to do this, but it doesn’t.

so what do i propose to do about all this?

The information in gracenote is such complete garbage it’s almost a write-off. I just looked up a CD of Janacek’s string quartets by the Talich quartet. What I find is typical:

What I intended to write about is:

  1. Given that the gracenote data is a write-off and I’m resigned to having to input all the metadata myself if I want anything half usable, how am I actually going to use the fields available in iTunes?
  2. How would I actually do it myself in an ideal world, given that what I’m trying to achieve is some kind of super-iTunes cataloguing / sorting / jukebox system, not a research database for musicologists? This, if I ever have time to write it, will get into all sorts of interesting stuff about how to keep an ultra-simple user interface to a search system that, behind the scenes, does all kinds of smart language-independent, user-adaptive stuff.

But this is already too long and it’s getting late. Another day.

dimitri shostakovich

12th March 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait talks about the life and music of Dimitri Shostakovich on samizdata, revisiting some of the themes we talked about a while back in connection with Wilhelm Furtwängler and music under the Nazis.

Which reminded me of something very interesting I read a while ago - some quotations from the autobiography of Rostislav Dubinsky, the original leader of the legendary Borodin Quartet. Some fascinating stories about playing things with and for Shostakovich, and the poisonous atmosphere of suspicion and fear they were all used to surviving in. Unfortunately the book, Stormy Applause, seems to be out of print and expensive to buy second hand. Fortunately (for me though not for people who want to make or sell classical music recordings) the glutted state of the market for recorded classical music means I could buy the Borodin Quartet's stupendous original recordings of Shostakovich's quartets last year for 30 euros for the 4-CD set. I can remember less than ten years ago when they were 16 pounds (about 24 euros) each in England.

ligeti reviewed

1st March 2004 permanent link

After I wrote the previous piece I thought I’d have a quick google to see if anybody had expressed any interesting opinions online about Ligeti’s string quartets. Found lots of sites selling the CD but nothing that looked like any kind of serious review. (This is a big and increasing problem with the useulness of google’s search results. More on that in another posting one day). Then remembered that obscure classical music is one area where the customer reviews on amazon are often well-informed and interesting. Amazon didn’t let me down.

The first reviewer, who appears to know what he’s talking about, likes both the quartets but also says they are very different. Says the first one is a very early work heavily influenced by Bartok. (Ligeti is Hungarian, apparently. I thought he was Polish.) Which I actually noticed as I was listening to it thinking “this sounds like inferior Bartok”. Apparently it’s in a sense a protest, because Bartok’s music was banned by the communist regime in Hungary in the 1950s. Fair enough – that doesn’t necessarily make it good music.

I have this strange suggestibility about music reviews that I don’t generally about other things. I’ll read something like this and think “I thought I didn’t like this, but wait. This guy (about whose musical tastes I know absolutely nothing) does and he sounds pretty convincing. Maybe I should?”. Instead of correctly thinking “ok, this guy likes it and I don’t. Fair enough”. I think this time I’ll stick to not liking Number 1, but I might give Number 2 a chance before I condemn the CD to ebay oblivion.


1st March 2004 permanent link

Whilst commenting on Brian Micklethwait’s comments about film music I while ago, I mentioned that

Michael Brooke … points out the huge effect Stanley Kubrick had on the fame of Gyorgy Ligeti by liking his music and using it extensively in 2001 and The Shining. (My knowledge of Ligeti is restricted to having bought a CD of his string quartets in a second hand shop a few years ago and, as far as I recall, never actually listening to it. Perhaps I should)

Well I did, and Christ it was horrible. I made it through less than ten minutes before I decided I couldn’t see any reason to subject myself to any more. Which also made me think about Brian’s subsequent idea, that much of twentieth century music and art can be interpreted as a deliberate rebellion against the concept of beauty in a situation in which a lot of unbeautiful things were happening. So I’m inclined to give Mr Ligeti’s technical competence the benefit of the doubt and assume that his music is ugly and unpleasant to listen to because he wanted it to be. I can also see how this sort of stuff could be a lot of fun to play. But I can’t see any conceivable reason why I would want to listen to it.

Coming soon to – Gyorgy Ligeti’s magnificent string quartets, a modern classic performed by the excellent Arditti Quartet. Five stars.

Lest people think I am incorrigibly bourgeois and only want to listen to easy, feel-good music: other music selected for Alan and Jack’s Sunday afternoon walk in the park included Janacek’s string quartets, which I don’t seem to like as much as I used to although listening to them still isn’t actively unpleasant, unlike the Ligeti. And Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks – a death-of-a-marriage album full of aching sadness, loss and anger. People interested in how to write a scream of rage that is still music other people might want to listen to, could do a lot worse than study Idiot Wind.

Now, the sort of people Brian was writing about might well take the view that their Existential Angst was far more Significant and Profound than the emotional tragedies of one person’s life, even if that one person happens to be the best songwriter of his generation. In which case they might like to reflect on the possibility that regarding individual human tragedies as insignificant could be a major cause of the kind of large-scale horror about which they were feeling their Existential Angst.

brian micklethwait

22nd February 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait is on a roll with his two latest pieces. The first one is on twentieth century art as a conscious rebellion by artists against concepts like meaning and beauty . I’m not sure I wholly agree with this – I think there are other important reasons why western Art-With-A-Capital-A vanished up its own backside to the extent that it did – but it’s certainly an interesting and well written piece. And then there’s this excellent take-down of some stupid and pointless new opera, which ends with this gem:

If the people who say they like this nonsense had to pay for all of it, it would surely cease at once.

… which is basically the same point Stephen Bayley was making in the piece I quoted a few days ago.

Linking to other people’s entries, however good, is really just a way of procrastinating until I finally manage to finish something substantial of my own, such as the piece on yoga teaching that I’m struggling with. I always struggle with writing about things that really matter to me, and particularly with weblogging about yoga, because I think in some ways weblogging and practicing yoga are fundamentally incompatible actiivites. On which subject I have a very unfinished draft posting that I stuggle with from time to time. Maybe one day.

brian on film music

30th January 2004 permanent link

On film music: a semi-connected string of thoughts and anecdotes triggered by Brian Micklethwait’s thoughts on “how Classical Music lives on in the cinema”.

Brian talks about the use of classical music in film soundtracks. I see clear influences the other way round too. I find a lot of "serious" twentieth century orchestral music by people like Shostakovich and Bartok sounds like film music and basically silly. But then, I'm very rationalist-classical in my musical inclinations and generally have a hard time taking most Romantic music seriously. I freely admit that their chamber music is anything but silly. (As Brian already knows, I am very well aware of the circumstances that forced Shostakovich to operate in this way)

Here's a half-formed Big Thought: film music is a return to musical normality. Throughout most of human history in most societies (including our own), music has mainly been a mood-altering adjunct to other activities, generally religious ceremonies and/or dancing. (Religious ceremonies and dancing having also been much the same thing throughout most of human history). What western classical music has tried to do in the last two hundred years is take music out of the temple, off of the dancefloor and make listening an end in itself, a quasi-religious act in its own right. An interesting experiment that, in the long run, didn't work.

Like Brian, I have classical music playing a lot of the time at home and at work, but I don't often just sit and listen to it and do nothing else. And, as Brian has also pointed out, this is a situation and an audience attitude that all musicians up to and including Haydn and Mozart would have found completely normal. Did Beethoven invent the idea that people should just sit still, shut up and *really* listen? If you're going to ask the audience to behave in such a strange way you should at least write music that's compelling enough to make it worth their while - which is ok if you're Beethoven, a lot less ok when hundreds of lesser composers start thinking they can take the audience's attention for granted.

(For Brian's listening habits see this piece – and while you're about it you should read his entire classical music archive)

The Hollywood studio orchestras of the Golden Age – 1930s to 1950s – were quite possibly the most technically proficient symphony orchestras ever to walk the earth. They had their pick of the world’s best orchestral musicians, America at the time being full of Jewish refugees from the previously-best symphony orchestras in Germany and Austria. I once heard a fascinating documentary on BBC Radio 3 about the Warner Brothers house orchestra playing music for cartoons. The music, they said, had to be exactly, to the frame, in synch with the film – i.e. accurate to a 24th of a second. At this point I assumed that they were going to say they would record the soundtrack first then synch the visuals to it. No. They recorded the soundtrack, basically live, in front of a screen with unfinished bits of the film running as the film was being made. Apparently they usually got it exactly right on the first take.

These guys could play “real” music too. The Hollywood String Quartet, whose chamber music recordings are legendary, was a part time ensemble whose members all had day jobs in Hollywood studio orchestras.

A lot of the movie movie soundtracks I’ve been most impressed aren’t derived from classical music but from American folk music of various kinds – by blues, country etc. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar soundtrack to Paris, Texas is the most obvious example that springs to mind – along with, sort of, The Blues Brothers, which doesn’t really count because there the music is the whole point of the film, not just a soundtrack. But I think those two would have to be on any list of “all-time great movie soundtracks”.

Story told to me by my brother, who is both a professional musician and a war movie buff: in the climactic air battle over London at the end of The Battle of Britain, the music changes from stirring patriotic marches to a sudden piece of quite striking modernism. Apparently this bit, Walton’s Spitfire Fugue, is the surviving remnant of an original score by Walton that was commissioned for the entire film and could have been a Shostakovichesque modern masterpiece. But the producers lost their nerve and commissioned something less challenging at the last minute, thus resulting in the actual Battle of Britain score which is also perfectly decent music, but not by any stretch of the imagination a masterpiece.

Update: (google is your friend) the Spitfire Fugue is a different Walton piece. A CD was released in 1999 with both the original Walton Battle of Britain score and the replacement which was by a guy called Ron Goodwin, who seems to have written the scores for most of the classic British World War II flying films. This reviewer likes the Goodwin better than most of the Walton except the bit they actually used; reviewers on amazon were impressed by both. The CD is discontinued. Pity.

Another update: Michael Brooke, in Brian’s comments, points out the huge effect Stanley Kubrick had on the fame of Gyorgy Ligeti by liking his music and using it extensively in 2001 and The Shining. (My knowledge of Ligeti is restricted to having bought a CD of his string quartets in a second hand shop a few years ago and, as far as I recall, never actually listening to it. Perhaps I should)

music quotes

21st January 2004 permanent link

Reason dictates that the Buzzcocks can't be nearly as highly influential as they're almost universally touted to be, otherwise today's popular music would be a hell of a lot better than it is.
Richard J. Rosen in Sterophile

Good point.

currently listening to …

8th January 2004 permanent link

(This is not a joke): Johnny Cash’s cover of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. It really exists, and is brilliant.

Lovely piano from, apparently, the piano player from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (such are the wonders of google for making the ignorant – i.e. me – appear knowledgeable).

currently listening to …

6th January 2004 permanent link

Mamou Comes To Town by Mamou. Mamou are one of the best live bands I’ve ever heard, and I heard them completely fortuitously. I was working in Houston on a contract for Compaq, and the other English guys I was over there with – having experienced weekends in Houston before – decided we were going to drive to New Orleans for the weekend instead.

On Saturday night, being tourists in New Orleans, we went bar-hopping on Bourbon Street. And in one bar there was this great cajun band. The others wanted to carry on and check out other bars – I just kept saying “can we go back to that bar with the cajun band now?”. Which we eventually did, and they played until half past two in the morning and were stunning.

One of the guys I was with was in a band himself, and was awestruck by the guitar player. “Look, he’s playing superbly and he’s not even trying, he’s just laughing and joking with the others”. My commment on this was “look at that guitar – he’s been trying for twenty or thirty years”. The guy had a Fender that had been played so much it almost had holes worn through it. A bit of googling (*) reveals that this was Steve LaFleur, who seems to be something of a modern cajun legend – justifiably, I would say. This review of Mamou Comes To Town has some history of the band.

I picked up one of their CDs at the time but didn’t like it nearly as much as the live show. Noticed this album recently on emusic, though, and am enjoying it.

I notice several of the people who reviewed Mamou Comes To Town on amazon had the same experience I did:

I saw this band at Patouts on Bourbon Street. … We saw the band setting up ..and not knowing what to expect from these guys. When they kicked in..I was totally in awe

For anyone going to New Orleans, catch Mamou at Patout's on Bourbon Street - they are exciting to watch and incredibly talented. Unfortunately, their album comes up short on both counts. I'm not sure how they could capture their energy on an album, though.

I also took one of my favourite photos on the way back to Houston. A damn fine weekend.

(*) If you name your band after a town, however, it makes it awfully hard to find you on google.

more furtwängler

18th December 2003 permanent link

As a break from walking into a political firefight on samizdata, I did a bit of comparative listening to the 1944 Fürtwangler Eroica against a couple of other recordings I have. It’s head and shoulders the best.

I also did a bit of googling on Furtwängler’s career. Found that I’m not alone (at at any rate) in regarding the 1944 performance as the truly great Eroica recording, and nobody except me seems to have any qualms about the political correctness of listening to it. And I found a website with an excellent biographical article which I recommend reading. It makes it abundantly clear that Furtwängler wasn’t a Nazi – unlike von Karajan, who in addition to being an inferior and overrated conductor, was a party member. (Does this mean I now have to get rid of my von Karajan CDs? No great loss). The website unfortunately only works properly in Internet Explorer.

Also as a benefit of the samizdata discussion, I now know how to spell “Furtwängler” correctly – although nobody seems to have noticed that I didn’t before.

Update: I found an even better Furtwängler biography on Peter Gutmann's excellent website classical notes

about to listen to …

16th December 2003 permanent link

A performance of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica”, by Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1944. There are hundreds of recordings of the Eroica, dozens of which are probably excellent; but this is supposed to be one of the handful of truly great ones according to well-informed opinion on I’m feeling distinctly queasy, though, about listening to and possibly enjoying a work of art produced under the Third Reich.

Why? I have no qualms about listening to Soviet music, Shostakovich for example. Yet Stalin was just as much of a monster as Hitler and the Soviet Union in the 1930s was at least as much of a horror as the Third Reich. So why does art produced under Stalin not make me queasy whereas art produced under Hitler does? Do I think the Soviet Union was in some ways a lesser evil than Nazi Germany? There’s not much to choose in terms of crude bodycount. But I still think it’s a good thing that the most important war memorial I’ve ever seen is two Soviet tanks in front of the Brandenburg Gate and not two panzers in Red Square; the people of Russia and Eastern Europe would have had an even worse time in the last fifty years if it had been the other way round. I think there also is a sense in which Hitler was something the German people did – they elected him and were enthusiastic about him for quite a while – whereas Stalin was something that happened to the Russians – the Bolsheviks came to power in a wartime military coup that their brilliant propaganda machine subsequently dressed up as a popular revolution.

And Shostakovich was always in and out of trouble with Stalin, whereas Furtwängler – although probablydefinitely not a Nazi himself – was idolized and treated as a cultural treasure by them.

In the Beethoven-loving and left wing household I grew up, Otto Klemperer – a German Jewish refugee from the Nazis - was held up as the ultimate Beethoven conductor. Furtwängler – widely regarded outside our house, I know now, as possibly the greatest Beethoven conductor of the recorded era – was never mentioned. I’m getting over this slowly: I’ve had a 1950s recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by him for a couple of years, although I don’t much like the 9th and don’t listen to it very often. This will be the first time I’ve ever listened to any of his wartime recordings. Can there possibly be any ethical difference, I wonder, between listening to the same piece of music, conducted by the same conductor with an orchestra with probably 90% of the same musicians, because one was recorded ten years later under a different government?

Something else odd that occurs to me is that Nazi Germany may have been capable of producing excellent performances of old German art, but it’s impossible to imagine it ever producing anything new and worthwhile. Whereas quite a bit of worthwhile art was produced in Soviet Russia. Why?

For more thoughts around this subject, see Brian Micklethwait’s musings on the death of Leni Riefenstahl, and his excellent post on “what Hitler did to classical music by loving it”.

At the risk of sounding trivial after talking about great and portentous things: I got this version of the Eroica from emusic, so I will also be interested to see whether it’s actually worth listening to this kind of music on mp3, or if it’s just a way to find out if the cd is worth buying.

From worrying about writing trivia, to why is creativity possible under some forms of tyranny but not others, in barely over a week. Could this be a world record?

UPDATE. I listened to it, and oh my god it’s superb. The best performance I’ve ever heard, I think. I certainly prefer it to Klemperer, my previous favourite. Sound quality isn’t bad either, for an mp3 of a 1940s mono recording (nobody ever said the Third Reich didn’t have good engineers). The highlights of the horns are blown out, but I don’t know enough about these things to know whether the original recording is to blame for that or the mp3 compression. Maybe I’ll buy the cd to find out.

currently listening to …

13th December 2003 permanent link

An interesting arrangement of Mozart’s string quintet in B Flat Major k.174 featuring the Tátrai String Quartet, Anna Mauthner (viola), baby Jack (soprano) and our landlord Herr Buchbauer downstairs (hammerdrill)


1st November 2003 permanent link

If somebody had told me a quarter of a century ago, while I was lying on my back stoned at a party at four o’clock in the morning listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, “in a quarter of a century you will be standing on a railway station in rural Bavaria with your three month old son and his Russian mother, waiting for the train home from an evening in a country biergarten, and the dodgy German pub band at the biergarten will be playing this song” I would most definitely not have believed them. However …

meanwhile, over on emusic

24th October 2003 permanent link

So I’m unimpressed with what I can glean about Apple’s music download service. Meanwhile over on eMusic, it’s download frenzy time for Alan. This triggered by the following observations:

(Fortunately my ISP just increased the monthly limit on my DSL account. Must write nice things about them some time soon)

So, what can you get from eMusic? Loads of interesting stuff. Vast archives of early blues (though not, sadly, the Robert Johnson recordings that I think I still have on vinyl in an attic somewhere in England. Pity I don't have a turntable any more). Huge amounts of jazz. I’m not a big jazz fan, but it can’t do any harm to have a few Charlie Parker tunes lying around in case I ever do get the urge. Quite a bit of ’60s soul and gospel. A smallish selection of western classical music - mostly obscure stuff but some potential gems. (Currently downloading an Alfred Brendel recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata). An even smaller selection of Indian classical music, but some of it must be worth listening to. And vast amounts of modern American and British indie stuff, most of which isn’t of much interest to me but presumably is to some people.

Kimbro is massively pissed off that eMusic have decided to limit subscribers to 40 downloads a month for $10, or 60 for $15. I can understand why, if he's been used to downloading unlimited amounts for the same price. But I can also see how eMusic would need something approaching a viable business model, and their old terms & conditions can hardly have been one of those. It costs money to have people like Kimbro slurping away at your server at a rate of gigabytes a month. 25 cents a track is a reasonable price for an mp3 file. A dollar a track as charged by Apple and others is overpriced - near-CD price for not (even) near CD quality.

Inferior sound quality is an assumption based on what what stereophile magazine and this guy have to say about the audio quality of the iPod and various levels of mp3 and AAC encoding. If and when I ever get the chance to actually download an AAC file from iTMS and listen to it for myself, I will. Meanwhile I definitely intend to sit down some time soon and have a comparative listen to some variable bit rate mp3s from eMusic against CDs of the same things and draw my own conclusions. Problem being that I have no means of injecting mp3s into my real stereo at the moment, and everything sounds crap anyway on my iBook’s headphone socket.

UPDATE: I tried a comparative listen to a few things on my iBook anyway, since it's the only device I have at the moment that can play mp3s and CDs. Result: everything on the iBook sounds flat and lifeless. MP3s from eMusic possibly sound even more flat and lifeless than CDs - this was my opinion, also the opinion of a colleague who I subjected to a blind listening test. Not exactly conclusive, but not promising for online music actually being worth the money either.

itunes (still) not much music store?

22nd October 2003 permanent link

There’s a discussion going on at arstechnica regarding some people’s opinion that, unless you have very mainstream and boring musical tastes, you ain’t going to find much to your liking at the Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Which was also my impression when I had a look a while ago.

(I also particularly liked the guy who said that if Apple had his favourite music available, they would be deluged with emails from people complaining about corrupted files)

People say it’s getting better. I can’t check on this because, after letting me in once for a look round, it now says I’m not in the USA and refuses to even let me press my nose against the window. (Maybe I’ve been specifically , personally IP-banned for writing unimpressed things about it)

So let’s see: severe lack of interesting music. Near-CD prices for probably inferior to CD sound quality. CD prices for stuff I’m interested in, especially classical, are in free-fall. So I really can’t see what good iTMS going to be to me except for the odd one-hit wonder where I’m not interested in shelling out for a whole CD. And then, only if they actually have the one-hit wonders I want. And if they start selling them in Europe some time this decade. But then I’m not the target demographic anyway.

the day i sold guitar strings to the clash

16th October 2003 permanent link

I was thinking the other day about job insecurity in the software industry (and every other industry), and drifted from there onto reminiscing about other jobs I did before I was in software - mostly part time things when I was a student.

I was a Christmas postman several times, and in the summers I mostly did warehouse jobs. Warehouse work was good because it was physically hard and generally only came a few days at a time. I was big into rock climbing in those days, so having plenty of time to go climbing between spells of getting paid to do weight training was great.

The best warehouse job was the summer I worked for a guy from my local climbing club, who was a publisher of climbing books. Whenever he had a big order or a stock-take, Ken would round up a couple of the lads from the climbing club and pay us to lug boxes of books around for a few days. The working hours - the working days, in fact - were flexible. Ken was amenable to labour negotiation tactics like “er, Ken, the sun’s shining …”, to which if he was in a good mood and the job in hand wasn’t too desperately urgent, he would reply “ok, but I need you back by Thursday”, and off we would hitch to North Wales or the Peak District to go climbing for a day or two. Ken didn’t need ladders or fork-lift trucks (or health & safety regulations) in his warehouse - we positively enjoyed clambering up wobbly piles of boxes, and the more weight training we got paid to do, the happier we were.

Then there was the Saturday job I had in a music shop, for which I was spectacularly unqualified as the only member of my family who can’t read music - my brother and sister were in one of the country’s top youth orchestras at the time. The only real highlight of the job was The Day I Sold Guitar Strings To The Clash. Imagine: (a) this would have been circa 1978, when The Clash were one of the two or three top live bands in Britain (there are those who believe The Clash were one of the two or three top live rock bands of all time, anywhere), and their idea of a fun Saturday afternoon before a gig was to go out together into whatever boring little provincial town they happened to be playing that evening (Leicester) and look for a music shop where they could buy guitar strings; and (b) this was the only thing I ever did that even faintly impressed the punk chick in the record section upstairs, on whom I had a major crush, and whose name I can’t even remember a quarter of a century later. Possibly Claire.

3rd October 2003 permanent link

I was a music download virgin until today. I installed a beta version of napster once but it didn't work; a little while ago I had a look at what was available from Apple, but I was unimpressed with the selection, and in any case I can't buy anything from them because I'm not in the USA. But then I noticed somebody on arstechnica recommending eMusic, and thought I'd have a look.

Not bad. Free trial downloads. No DRM. No big-name, big-label artists, but several indie-label artists that I'm interested in and didn't find on iTMS: Badmarsh, Blue Planet, Asian Dub Foundation …

And their classical offerings? Not all that impressive at first sight. Fairly small selection. But wait. They have the Janacek and Bartok string quartets, recorded by unknown East European quartets. Weren't the Kodaly Quartet an unknown East European quartet until they produced their superb Haydn recordings for Naxos? Maybe these guys are brilliant too. Certainly worth downloading them to find out. And they have four recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas by Alfred Brendel - those have to be worth a listen.

I think the selection is too limited for eMusic be a real competitor to iTMS if the latter ever actually appears outside the USA, assuming Apple get their indie label deals sorted out and actually have some of the stuff I want to hear. eMusic is cheaper if you can find more than ten interesting tracks a month in their catalog - which I suspect would be easy for the first few months but might get harder thereafter - but it feels more like an interesting bargain bin than a potential prime source of music.

Apple may have also much better sound quality than eMusic, if their codec is as much better than mp3 as some people seem to think.

The big unanswered question for me with eMusic is whether mp3s are actually good enough to have as your only copy of something worth listening to, or just a way of auditioning things that you're going to want to buy on CD (or iTMS) anyway if you find you like them. Which I'm not going to find out for a few days, because it's a holiday weekend in Germany and I seem to have left my headphones in the office. Oops. At some point I'll also download something from eMusic that I already have on CD so that i can do a direct sound quality comparison on my proper stereo (which, for those who care about such things, is a cheap-but-decent rig consisting of bottom of the range NAD amplifier and Kef speakers). I'll also be interested to see what stereophile magazine has to say about the iPod when their October issue comes online, particularly if they listened to AAC and mp3.

I thought I'd try a tabular comparison, but it probably overstates the advantages of eMusic:




availability worldwide US only eMusic
price $9.99 / month $0.99 / track eMusic if used heavily
selection very few big names, but some interesting indie stuff had hardly any of the things I looked for, but probably getting better fast eMusic, but probably not for long
Mac user interface ok very good iTMS
non-Mac availability Windows, Linux Windows coming some time, maybe eMusic, but not relevant to me
DRM none limited, reasonable eMusic
sound quality mp3 reputedly better than mp3 iTMS by reputation, but will reserve judgement until I've heard both
supported sound format widely used but inferior de facto standard superior but only supported by apple products depends how listenable I find mp3s
free trial 45 tracks no eMusic
minimum purchase 3 months @ 14.99/month 1 track @ $0.99 iTMS

the golden age of classical music

3rd October 2003 permanent link

The Golden Age of classical music was, for me, the late 1990s in Manchester. This might seem like a surprising statement, but read on.

There were three orchestras based in Manchester at that time. There was the Hallé - not what it once was, but still capable of producing the goods on occasion. There was the Manchester Camerata, an unknown but good chamber orchestra. And there was the BBC Philharmonic, the northern version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra - also not well known but not at all bad. Just down the road there was also the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which was having something of a mini golden age of its own at the time. My brother had regular freelance gigs with the Camerata and the Liverpool Phil. My brother’s ex was in the Hallé and had been in the Liverpool Phil before that. My friend Rob’s friend Paddy was lead trumpet in the BBC Phil.

Manchester was also the base of the Lindsay Quartet, who spent the winter as musicians-in-residence at the university music department. They gave free concerts on Thursday afternoons in the university art gallery, which were basically rehearsals for their summer touring and recording season. As famous top-flight string quartets go the Lindsays are by no means my favourite, but it was certainly well worth taking the odd Thursday afternoon off work to see them for free.

I had never really taken a serious interest in classical music before, despite growing up in a household where non-musicians (me) were a minority. So it was all new and exciting. There was plenty of good music available. The contacts I had meant that I always knew what was likely to be worth hearing, and paying for concert tickets was mostly something that happened to other people.

Some high points of that era: going to hear the Hallé play Beethoven’s 7th symphony. Also on the programme was some guy I had never heard of called Kremer, playing a violin concerto by some guy I had vaguely heard of called Berg. It was stunning. (The Beethoven was fun too.) I went home and told my brother I’d just heard this guy called Kremer who was pretty good - my brother said “oh yeah, he’s probably the best fiddle player in the world at the moment”. Then there was the day I went to hear my brother in the Liverpool Phil playing Mahler. The composer Michael Tippett had died the day before. They wanted to play something to commemorate him but they didn’t have anything by him rehearsed, so they played Elgar’s Nimrod, which had apparently been one of his favourite pieces. It was stunning - a really good orchestra on a moving occasion producing the perfect performance. I never expect to hear anything like it again; if it had been recorded it would be on “recordings of the century” lists. I was wondering, afterwards, if the band actually knew what they had done - then my brother came into the bar and asked “did that sound as good as it felt?”. Oh yes it did.

Then I moved to Munich, which has a famous German Symphony Orchestra and a lot more performances by visiting Big Names. But I don’t know anybody in the music scene here, which means not only do I have to pay money to go to concerts, but when I do it’s more anonymous and less fun. So I don’t go half as much as I used to.

(This seemingly random reminiscence was prompted by a conversation with Brian Micklethwait about his current favourite violinist, Hilary Hahn, and the market for recorded classical music - irredeemably dire prospects thereof. Possibly more on that subject another time)

itunes (not much) music store

4th August 2003 permanent link

Out of curiosity I thought I would fire up iTunes and have a look at what I would be able to buy at the iTunes Music Store if there was actually any chance of it working in Europe in the foreseeable future. Doesn’t look like I’m missing much though.

I look for London tabla’n’bass geniuses Badmarsh & Shri. Nada.

OK, maybe the London Asian not-so-underground-any-more is still a bit too much to ask of an American website. How about one of the most famous Indian classical musicians, Hariprasad Chaurasia. Not nothing, but very little.

Perhaps I’m being just a bit wilfully obscure. OK, surely we can’t get much more mainstream than ... Artist: Led Zeppelin. "Your search did not match any results". This cannot be real. Song: Stairway to Heaven (note: not my favourite Zeppelin song, just a test case). Oh yes, no problem, we can offer you Stairway to Heaven performed by Neil Sedaka or the O’Jays. Thanks very much.

Last try. Something modern and mainstream and American - Artist: Liz Phair, Song : Go West. it’s my favourite Liz Phair song and Liz is even featured on the front page, surely we can’t go wrong here. Yes we can. We have every Liz Phair album except the one that that song is on. Which I bought on CD because of that one song and then found I wasn’t wild about the rest of the album - exactly the sort of thing I thought iTMS was going to save me from, but it looks like I’d better not hold my breath.

Really last try: I’ve been wondering about the Blondie album before Parallel Lines, because I’ve heard one song from it that I think is great. After all (quite apart from the fact that I’m showing my age here, and regular TV appearances by Debbie Harry were a highlight of my adolescence), Blondie were surely by any standard a famous American band, right? Even the current generation of American music buyers must have heard of Blondie? Maybe I can see what else is on that album without having to make a trip to the used CD shop. No I can’t. We have one song by Blondie.

And people say this thing is supposed to be good?

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