Sunday, 28 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: A rather good year

As the train rattles its way towards Edinburgh (and I struggle to comprehend how National Express managed to brew quite such an awful cup of coffee), I'm struck that, overall, it's been a very good year. I've not been to anything I would describe as a turkey (though there have been one or two patchy things, and one or two things not to my taste).

Aimard has done well his first year, and I have high hopes for what he will go on to do in the future. There have been many interesting strands to this year's programme. There has also been some very compelling programming and some very good talks from the artistic director.

If I did have one note it would be this (and it is a general one, not simply for M Aimard, particularly since he did largely avoid it): why do we so often only celebrate composers in their anniversary years? Haydn is one of the great symphonists, his work should be found in programmes more frequently. I'm rather grateful that Aimard avoided the Mendelssohn celebrations, not because I dislike the composer, but because everyone else seems to be celebrating him like there's no tomorrow. Conversely, as a lover of Janacek, it seems a depressingly long time before we're due any sort of celebration. Let's celebrate composers because they're good, because we feel like it, and because it seems like they haven't been celebrated in a while. Programming by anniversary is lazy.

However, I want to highlight just a few things that really stand out for me. Coincidentally (and unusually), the BBC has chosen to broadcast almost all the things I have enjoyed most. Note, this list is mainly of use to people in the UK, since the links to the BBC's iPlayer service will not work for others.

  • The Quator Diotima playing Janacek's second string quartet, Intimate Letters, broadcast here (available until Thursday lunchtime), full review here.

  • Thomas Ades and Steven Isserlis playing his new cello sonata, from the Ades/Isserlis/Marwood recital, broadcast here (available until Tuesday evening), full review here.

  • Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing Beethoven's Emperor concerto
  • , to be broadcast on Monday evening (see here), full review here.
  • Tamara Stefanovich playing Bartok's 14 Bagatelles, op.6 (sadly this was not taped by the BBC), full review here.

Of course, there was much more than this, and much of it was broadcast. (A full list of Aldeburgh broadcasts can be found here, iPlayer listen again streams remain available for seven days afterwards.)

It has been a great privilege to have the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at Aldeburgh for two concerts, marking a rare UK visit. I hope we'll hear them again soon, and since Aimard does work with them elsewhere, doubtless this may be the case. I also tentatively hope we might hear them in Edinburgh. Also in the audience last night, Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills could be spotted. Let us hope he was there to book Aimard, the MCO, or both for next year. Perhaps their performance might also temper his apparent aversion to the orchestra's ancestor, the superb Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. A comment to a post here a while back indicated that the Edinburgh festival has turned them down for the past three years. A request for comment to their press office has gone unanswered (without even the civility of a no comment).

I also find I can't help but end on the slightly smug note that, having written about no fewer than fourteen concerts at this year's festival, where's Runnicles can boast the most comprehensive review coverage of any media outlet. Indeed, for a significan number of concerts we appear to have provided the only reviews. I may take a brief break (though the Edinburgh festival is just round the corner and I have one or two CDs that need reviewing......)

Ten days seems to have gone very quickly. Hopefully the same will be true of the next 350 or so.

Aldeburgh 2009: Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra PLAY (Part II - Haydn, Stockhausen and Beethoven)

It's funny the way things work out. I started this musical holiday with one Emperor concerto and have managed to end it with another, and one that was superb in different ways. Interestingly, and quite correctly, Aimard had chosen, somewhat unconventionally, to end with the concerto and start a symphony.

That symphony was the last bit of the festival's celebration of Haydn. So, naturally, Aimard had chosen the 45th, or the Farewell, if you prefer. A little different from some of his other compositions, perhaps, sadder in tone as opposed to the boundless joy which infects so many of his works. Aimard conducted a tightly controlled, if somewhat solemn reading, marked by superb playing from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Until the end. Of the four Haydn symphonies I've heard here, three have featured prominent musical jokes (90 had a false end and 60 played with tuning), this was perhaps the most dramatically executed. Throughout the finale the instruments drop out one by one until just two violins are left, climbing softly into the upper registers. With theatrical flourish, as each player finished they got up, took their instrument, walked away and leant against the baffle at the back of the stage. With just six strings remaining, Aimard himself ceased conducting and joined them. It was a lovely touch (which sadly won't come across on the broadcast, save perhaps those with the louder shoes). Afterwards they lined up along the front of the stage for well deserved applause.

This was followed by Stockhausen, and once more Aimard gave one of his fine talks, illustrated with examples from the players. At the start I had wondered why, in contrast to Thursday's programme, the Haydn was placed before the modern work rather than after. It turned out that the Stockhausen linked not only to the Haydn, in terms of it too having its players drop out one by one, but also to the Emperor. Kontra-Punkte featured a small force comprised of, from left to right, harp, cello, violin, trombone, trumpet, piano (interestingly not Aimard, who conducted, but Florian Muller), bassoon, bass clarinet, clarinet and flute. Throughout the piece, not only does a melody pass between the instruments, but each has a series of mini cadenzas which, he explained, link it with the Emperor, which itself never has a proper full cadenza but only a series of small ones. Stockhausen uses this to play with polyphony, before whittling his forces down to piano alone. They played the piece superbly, and while one felt one or two minds might have wandered slightly during the talk, people seemed to listen all the more closely as a result. I certainly hope this is something he continues as it has made the modern pieces he has done much more rewarding. True, some can be conveyed in a programme not, but an illustrated talk is clear in a way words alone are often obtuse.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: Not a review of Ian Bostridge

I've only been to one thing at Aldeburgh today, Ian Bostridge's recital, and this isn't going to be a review of it. At least, not a proper review anyway. Why then, you might reasonably ask, write about the concert at all. Well, the short answer is that I've written about everything else I've been to at Aldeburgh this year and my compulsive side just won't let this one slide.

So why isn't this a proper review? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, I am not the world's greatest lieder fan and don't know the area as well as I do other things (though that doesn't normally stop me). More importantly however, Ian Bostridge just doesn't do it for me. I know there are a lot of people who admire him greatly, but he tends at best to leave me cold; at worst I find he overacts and over-emotes horribly and I have to avert my eyes. I also don't think his diction and pronunciation are what they could be. The upshot is that I don't think I can give an objective or, frankly, terribly helpful opinion about his concert. You might well ask why, given that, I was even at the concert. The answer is that I honestly don't know.

In fairness to Bostridge, it has been a good few years since I last heard him live (I think that was also at Aldeburgh but with Ades). His voice is now less boyish and altogether more pleasant for it. Similarly, his mannerisms are slightly less (though I still can't quite be doing with all the swinging about).

The programme consisted of Schumann songs in the first half and Brahms in the second. I will confess that I found the Schumann a little samey and during the Brahms I found myself rather enjoying the piano part (and wanting to hear some solo piano recitals of his work) and largely ignoring the voice. As often in lieder, I also wondered why they didn't choose to set better poetry (or, I suppose I should say, poetry rather more to my taste).

Even if I did feel in a position to write a proper review, I still might not be able to. The accompanist was to have been Graham Johnson (well regarded and the mastermind of the complete Hyperion Schubert lieder survey), but he was replaced at short notice by Roger Vignoles and it did appear that they would have benefited from more rehearsal time together; but it's tough to step in at the last minute, especially with less common repertoire.

Nonetheless, for those who like Bostridge, and there are plenty, it was clearly an enjoyable evening. He was well received and they gave us two encores, one of which someone sitting next to us identified as from Schumann's Dichterliebe (I don't know what the second was).

If you like Bostridge you probably would have liked it, if not, you probably wouldn't. Moral of the story: note to self, don't book him next time and let someone who'll get something from it have the seat.

Aldeburgh 2009: The Mahler Chamber Orchestra PLAY (Part I - Haydn, Ligeti and Birtwistle)

I will never cease to be astonished by what sells and what doesn't. On Wednesday, some rather dull Georgian choral music was sold out; last night there was no shortage of spare seats as one of the world's great chamber orchestras came to town for the first of two concerts. One wonders if the rest of the people of Suffolk had any idea what they were missing. Perhaps the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is not a household name, but it certainly should be.

Its origins lie with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, which itself was founded in 1986 by none other than Claudio Abbado with the aim of brining together young musicians (up to the age of 26) from both eastern and western Europe. Today it holds auditions in twenty-five European cities and the result is an astonishingly fine ensemble (as I expect they'll show in Prom 45 in September). The Chamber Orchestra was formed in 1997, under the guidance of Abbado, by former members who wanted to carry on playing together after having reached the age limit. Abbado still regularly works with them. Indeed, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, augmented by players from the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, forms the backbone of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra which Abbado has led in some acclaimed recordings and a recent Proms performance of Mahler's third symphony. Since 2003 their music director has been Daniel Harding. The last time I encountered them it was at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival with Abbado conducting them as they played Mozart's Magic Flute. Despite having only been going a little over a decade, they have managed to notch up 14 prize winning CDs.

I don't normally begin a review with such gushing praise and the history of an ensemble. I merely do so here to underscore how baffling it is that this was not a sell out. This is their only UK appearance this season (indeed, the only one showing on their website which covers from August 2008 to May 2010) and consequently something of a coup for Aldeburgh. Perhaps, though, more people needed to be told this, and it has to be said that while the festival brochure really sold last night's Georgian's, they didn't really sell the MCO. That's a pity. Still, on with the review.

The first thing to note about the concert is that Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the new artistic director of the festival, really impressed me. That's more of an achievement given he only played in one piece. However, at the start of each half he gave a brief talk (something that often annoys me). What became clear was how carefully he has programmed some things, and it made me feel that the festival is in good hands. He explained that because Haydn's 60th symphony, which was to follow, contains a joke wherein Haydn makes it seem as though the orchestra has got out of tune, Ligeti's Ramifications therefore made a perfect coupling. He used the orchestra to illustrate how the two halves of the twelve piece string ensemble were a quarter tone out of tune with each other. This sort of thing can be annoying when discussing a well known work, however it is fascinating when shedding light on something you've never heard before, and makes it easier to appreciate a new piece. Of course, there are often pre-concert talks, but when you've been to an afternoon performance as well, they often aren't manageable. I hope this is a taste of things to come. The piece itself was fascinating, containing some interesting effects as the two sections rubbed up against one and other. Most of the time the playing was exquisitely light and delicate, and yet there were some impressive climaxes too. On the podium Suzanna Malkki was unassuming yet exerted tight control.

This was followed by Haydn's 60th symphony, slightly unusual with its six movement structure. The first three were played nicely enough, with a controlled bounce and joyfulness. However it was with the fourth movement presto that Malkki brought real drama. Then in the fifth came some stunning playing as brass fanfares rang out over pizzicato strings. After the tuning joke one might think there was nowhere left to go, but they found an extra degree of energy for a thrilling close.

During the interval the stage was rearranged and the piano moved into place. Once again, Aimard turned to the audience to introduce the Birtwistle. He spoke about opening the festival with clocks (how many more times is it going to be rubbed in that I missed Ligeti's metronomes?) and that celebrating Haydn as they have been, how could his clock not feature? Before that, however, Slow Frieze for piano and ensemble. Again, illustrating with examples, he showed how the four sections: piano, strings with brass, percussion and winds were each doing their own thing (so much so that at times percussion had to cue winds rather than the conductor). I found it a fascinating work, not too jarring, as his compositions can sometimes be. It was too easy to focus completely on what one section was doing before realising something else interesting was going on somewhere completely different. The person I went with (not a regular attender of classical concerts) likened it to being in the corridor outside four practice rooms. Actually, this is a pretty apt description (and some probably wouldn't like it as a result). However, it did mean that there never really was any sense of conversation or any unifying theme.

They had, though, saved the best until last with Haydn's 101st symphony, The Clock, long one of my favourite of his works, indeed one of my favourite symphonies. Malkki took the introduction slowly before launching furiously into the main theme. And yet there was no shortage of playfulness or delicacy when called for, the latter especially in the way they brought out the clock theme in the slow movement. Malkki's was an interesting take on Haydn: joyful, but not quite the boundless joy of Bernstein; weighty, yet never being too heavy or rich in the way I find Davis's Concertgebouw readings to be. Nor was this the Haydn of Jochum, with everything turning on the minuet. It was something of her own, and a joy to hear too. She brought the work to a thrilling close.

Throughout the playing of the orchestra was really quite exceptional. The quality of their quiet playing, and their ability to vary volume or tempo on a knife edge, is the stuff great orchestras are made of and always a privilege to witness. For those that were not there, the BBC was on hand with its microphones and the results can be heard on Performance on 3 tonight.

Their next concert on Saturday (which features the Emperor concerto and more Haydn) is sold out. If you haven't got a ticket and are anywhere near the area, for goodness sake do everything legally possible to obtain one, who knows when you'll get the chance to hear this band again.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Why are music download stores so useless? (If you're a Mac/iPod user)

[Update - 2012-03-26: Please note that the landscape has significantly changed since I wrote this piece and it is now outdated. My survey of classical download stores, written in March 2012, can be found here.]

[Update - 2010-02-19: Please note, since this article was written, Chandos have updated their online store addressing the major complaint I had. It is now a good and recommendable service. See here for my revised review of their service.]

The music industry, we are told daily, is dying. High street shops are vanishing and custom is moving online; the future will, apparently, be all downloading. Well, I don't think the future is quite ready yet.

Of course, we all know that there have been problems due to the fact that the music industry took so long to realise that people wanted to download, and then did everything they could to cripple early efforts with DRM (or digital rights management) that made it harder to use certain downloads on certain players, or remix and burn CDs. However, DRM is absent from every site I will consider in this post. None offers an entirely satisfactory user experience. It's worth noting that for those who do not demand CD quality or better, that is not true.

Let us start with the big beast of online downloads, Apple and their iTunes store. This being Apple, everything is easy and works. Search works fairly well and typing, for example "Ravel Abbado" will bring back Abbado's recordings of Ravel (not the case on all sites). Often you are not allowed to download every individual track, but since I'm only interested in complete classical works this restriction doesn't bother me. Buying is simple and the download goes straight into your iTunes library (and then straight onto your iPod when you plug it in). True, it wasn't always DRM free, but it is now. It's simple. It is perfect, it's exactly what music downloading should be. Why would you want to buy anywhere else? The answer, of course, is that there is a but, a very big but: sound quality. 256kbps AAC is not really good enough (especially when using the Amazon marketplace it is often possible to source the CD cheaper). With the exception of a live Mackerras concert from Sydney (where there was no way to get the music losslessly) or for some Radio 4 comedy, I have therefore never used it, and will not until they address this. It is a shame, because with every other download site, once the music is on your computer, you then have the extra step of importing it into iTunes. Verdict: iTunes FAIL (due to sound quality). I would note that this verdict applies to any store I haven't tried but that doesn't offer lossless CD quality downloads.

The lossless factor rules out various other sites too. I have used the Philharmonia Orchestra's online shop, which offers 320kbps MP3, and it's decent enough (but again, only for recordings there's no other way to get). It's worth pointing out that when I bought a Wagner overture, conducted by Mackerras, they were very quick to address the fact that it was at less than the stated bitrate. Good service then. However, Verdict: Philharmonia Fail (decent sound quality but still worse than CD).

I have also used eMusic which for £10 a month gives me 40 downloads at 192kbps MP3. Not good quality, but if you're buying symphonies, especially, say, Mahler, it's very cost effective (so long as you make sure you use all your downloads; it's very easy to forget about them). I do find it good for buying things I'm curious about but am unwilling to pay full price for (Vanska's Beethoven cycle being a good example) but I refuse to use it for anything I really want and am going to listen to a lot. Their search is pretty useless, there's no easy way to see everything involving, say, John Barbirolli, and a compound search such as "Barbirolli Sibelius" is useless. Emusic also will not (unless you use their own software, and why would I want to) allow you to download a whole disc in one click, instead you must laboriously download each track one at a time. In fact, it's worse than that because the way they have it set up, my browser opens the track in a window rather than downloading it. Verdict: eMusic FAIL (sound quality again, poor value if you don't remember to use your downloads, and poor user experience).

But, you may well be crying, there are download sites that offer lossless downloads. Indeed there are, but they have their problems. Take first Chandos, or rather, their classical download store. Obviously it's mainly Chandos discs, but other labels such as Signum can also be found there (see here for a full list). At first this seems perfect, you can download an MP3 (at 192kbps) if you so wish, or you can download losslessly. I first played with them last Christmas to get this disc of rather nice, yet slightly different, carol arrangements. Less than £5, bargain. There's plenty of choice of format (windows WMA, AIFF, FLAC and WAV). There's just one problem: actually getting the music from the store onto your computer once you've paid for it takes ages and is frustratingly akin to banging your head against a brick wall. Yes, there exists an option to tick everything and download it as one handy file but this only applies for WMA or MP3: message, if you're a Mac user and want lossless downloads you can get stuffed, we don't care.

Of course, you can still download AIFFs (which will import fine into iTunes and onto the iPod) but you have to click each track, then a little window pops up with a link for you to right click and save. Then it tells you to wait until this is finished before moving onto the next (actually, you don't need to do this, and can speed things up by telling it you're down and moving onto the next - still, my browser won't allow more than 8 concurrent downloads). Bafflingly, each time you close the small window, the download list page reloads, taking longer still. It is a profoundly unpleasant user experience. It might be okay with a super-fast internet connection, but otherwise you need to be able to click once and leave the computer to download everything while you get on with more interesting things. My father, a Mac user and prolific buyer of CDs, flat out states he will never use the site again. This should worry Chandos. I had a similar reaction at Christmas. I had forgotten, though, by the time I decided to buy a two disc set of Louis Lortie playing Ravel from them this morning (with over 30 tracks to download the experience was excruciatingly and not worth the couple of pounds saved over CDs - my time is worth more to me than that). Verdict: Chandos FAIL for Mac users. (However, they have only to streamline their downloading process, which surely is very simple to do, and it would be a good site and one I'd use and recommend. Chandos, if you're reading this, take note. Note also that if you are happy with MP3 at 192kbps or are a PC user, Chandos is a good site.) [Update 2010-02-19 As noted above, this recommendation is no longer current, see here.]

I will make one final point: I take a dim view of Chandos's customer service. I e-mailed them over Christmas politely pointing out these flaws and that they might wish to address them. I have never received a reply. [Update 26/6/09: an e-mail response from Chandos is reproduced at the bottom of this post.]

What then, of Passionato. It claims to offer 320kbps MP3 and lossless FLAC, Mac and PC compatibility and a wide range of record labels. It should therefore be ideal. It isn't. Firstly, quite a lot of stuff, especially from Universal, is not lossless. Certainly buying is much less painful than with Chandos (at first). Their search is okay, though it has an annoying bias towards compilations in its results. Purchasing too is straightforward and all three tracks from the Marwood/Ades/COE recording of Ades' violin concerto were on my desktop as one zip file nice and neatly. Then there's compatibility, and everything falls apart. Their site claims:

You can use a PC or Mac with a broadband connection and any of the following browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Opera.

Now, I suppose this is technically true. After all, I was able to download the tracks. The trouble is they use the FLAC format. It's an open source (and by all accounts, very fine) format. There's just one problem: Apple don't like it, and if you try to import them into iTunes, nothing happens. Of course, there are other media players that you can use (such as Videolan) which will play the files without issue. However, I just don't care: I, like a huge number of other people, use iTunes. I have nearly three months worth of music in there, it talks to my iPod and iPhone and I have no desire to use anything else. That means that if the FLAC files won't get into iTunes, I'm going to be very cross and Passionato are going to get a stiffly worded e-mail demanding a refund. Of course, in these days of high technology it should be doable, and with my degree in engineering, I'm a pretty tech savvy guy I should be able to do it.

And, I can indeed report that it is doable. It just isn't easy (or at least, finding a way that's reasonably easy takes some searching). At the very least it is exceptionally misleading of Passionato not to include some kind of disclaimer on their site to this effect. While I was able to solve the problem, I can well imagine most others not doing so and getting justifiably very angry. (Since this won't be of interest to everyone, I will save details of how this can be done until the end.) Furthermore, Passionato's description of getting music onto your iPod, while accurate for MP3s, is just flat wrong for FLACs. This is staggeringly stupid. While Mac users may only represent a small share of the market, iPod users do not; it's the most successful device of its kind on the planet and building a store that isn't iPod friendly is a bit like building a petrol station that only serves three wheeled vehicles.

However, the net result is a big fat FAIL for Passionato too (for compatibility and misleading statements on their website). However, like Chandos, it's a fairly easy fix - just offer a format that works with Macs and iPods and is lossless. They could also try to persuade Apple to just support FLAC, but I suspect the former will be easier. Note, if you are happy with MP3 at 320kbps, Passionato is a good site (similarly, now I have gone through the steps detailed below, it is okay for lossless for me).

The FLAC problem also exists with other stores I haven't tested, such as Linn Records (a shame since they also offer studio master quality). FAIL for them and anyone else not offering high quality Mac/iPod friendly downloads.

There may be an online store out there I haven't mentioned, one that has a good catalogue, CD quality downloads or better, and is fully and easily Mac/iPod compatible. If it exists, I haven't found it; if you have, please let me know.

You may think I've been a little unfair. Certainly, it is true that if you're happy with below CD quality, then Passionato, Chandos and iTunes all offer a decent and easy service (though Chandos's data rates are on the low side for MP3). It should also be noted that while Passionto is 320kbps MP3 and iTunes is 256kbps AAC, AAC is a more efficient codec and so probably sounds as good or arguably better.

However, I feel it's not unreasonable to expect download sites to offer at least the sound quality of the CDs they aim to replace and ease of use at the same time.

Finally, since I now have a fairly simple way of converting FLACs into AIFFs (see below), I may use Passionato again as the experience should now be fairly painless. However, in terms of the average user, the time it took me to get them working and the misleading statements on their website, the verdict for them remains a fail.

The Technical Bit - FLAC into iTunes will go (ish)

PLEASE NOTE: these instructions are for Macs only (I'm running an Intel Mac, OS 10.5.7 with Quicktime 7.6.2 and iTunes 8.2).

So, after much Googling, tearing out of hear, and banging my head against a brick wall, I did in the end manage to get FLACs playing in iTunes and my Passionato downloads onto my iPod. However, someone less tech savvy would long since have given up and gone home (so too someone who didn't have anything better to do with his afternoon).

The first question is do you have to keep the files as FLACs? If you're happy to turn them into something else, this is by far and away the simplest solution (and the only way you will get them onto your iPod*). Simply download xACT, install it by dragging it into your applications folder, then launch it. Select the decode tab (furthest left), choose between AIFF and WAV output, click add (bottom left) to choose the FLAC files, and then click decode. The AIFF files produced can then easily be imported into iTunes (you can then put them into Apple Lossless format to take up less space).

However, what if you want to get the FLACs themselves playing in iTunes? This can be done, but it is far from simple. After much googling I found this explanation from one Napoleon12. I think the below sets out his instructions slightly more clearly:

  • 1. Install the XiphQT plugin. Go here to download it. To install simply follow the instructions contained in the readme file (the folder it asks you to copy the file to may not exist, if so create it).
  • 2. Then go here. Download the first file (flac_import_0.5b1_p0.1.dmg) and install it following the instructions in the readme file. Once you have done this, you will be able to play the FLACs in Quicktime but not yet iTunes.
  • 3. From the same site download the third file (set-OggS-0.1.dmg). This contains two applications Set OggS and Clear OggS. Copy them to your applications folder.
  • 4. Restart both iTunes and Quicktime (in fact, for good measure, you should probably restart the whole computer).
  • 5. Select the FLAC files and drag them onto the Set OggS app. (A window will pop up to tell you it's done this and you can then click quit).
  • 6. You should now be able to add the files to iTunes in the normal way.
  • 7. Should you want, you can then put the FLAC files back to normal by dragging them over the Clear OggS app.

This gets the FLACs into iTunes and they will play. However, funny things do happen when you try to change track names or alter other tags. I am also told they will not send wirelessly to Airport Express or suchlike. They will also not play on your iPod. It is also entirely possible that future releases of iTunes and Quicktime will render all of this useless.

There you go - clear and simple: what more could you ask for! (Note to self, excessive sarcasm is not helpful.)

*This isn't quite true. Apparently some iPods can be rigged with 3rd party firmware and made to play FLACs, but I don't want to go there.

Update 26/6/09 - Response from Chandos

I have had a response from Chandos which I reproduce below:

I thought it would be useful to drop you a line.
It's great that blogs such as yours offer the opportunity for debate and user opinion. It is a shame that you were unhappy with the experience at The Classical Shop. We are constantly working to improve the quality of the site, by widening the labels on offer and also working to improve the usability of the site so we always welcome customer comments. We were aware that we needed to offer mac users the opportunity to download AIFF files and have recently added these to our offer. It is interesting to hear your experience of downloading in this format and I will pass your comments on to my colleagues. If it is possible to make this process smoother then we will certainly aim to do so. I'd also like to apologise that nobody from the company replied to you over the Christmas period. We were closed down over the break and it would have said so on the site, but of course somebody should have replied to you on our return. We regularly receive commendation for our customer service so this is very much out of character.

We have a growing database of users and in the main there is nothing but praise for the site and our content but if you have any further recommendations for improvements you feel should be made to the site then please do not hesitate to contact me.

I should further note that if you are using a PC, iTunes should import the lossless WMA files which you can, according to the Chandos site, download as one zipped file. I haven't tried this, but if this is the case, Chandos would be highly recommended for PC users. Mac users who are also running Windows on their machine therefore have a reasonable, if somewhat cumbersome, workaround.

Lastly, I would like to stress my negative comments about Chandos are purely in relation to the user experience offered to Mac users interested in high quality downloads and not a comment on the label more generally (which I greatly admire and which has produced some exceptional recordings).

Aldeburgh 2009: A tale of two very different choirs

Today at Aldeburgh the theme was very much choral music and, save the odd harpsichord and lute, largely unaccompanied.

At Blythburgh church this afternoon the choir of Caius (pronounces keys) College Cambridge was on hand for a traditional but very pleasant programme. (They earn this review a Shameless Plugs tag since my second cousin May Robertson was singing with them, hence a potential conflict of interest in the writing of a review.)

The first half featured works by Haydn and Debussy as well as two English psalms. The choir chopped and changed around a bit too, varying from full forces down as low as trios, which provided a nice variety in sound and texture. At full force in the opening Haydn Danklied zu Gott they had a wonderful richness. However, pared down to a quartet for Der Augenblick and Alles hat seine Zeit, they were less successful because the soprano had a significantly more powerful voice than the others, slightly unbalancing the ensemble.

After the interval came a particularly nice setting by Joye, bookended with two harpsichord pieces by Bedyngham. Then the whole ensemble moved to the very back of the church to sing Durufle's Quatre motets sur des themes gregoriens. This provided another interesting shift in dynamics.

They finished up with some Britten settings, showing how much better he was a writing for a whole choir than setting songs for just one person: we got Chorale after an Old French Carol and Five Flower Songs, op.47. These were nicely coloured but it would've been nice to have the texts as the multi-part nature meant it wasn't always possible to hear all the words (though they did try their best by giving us the Ballad of Green Broom again as an encore).

They were ably directed by Geoffrey Webber, with harpsichord accompaniment provided by David Ballantyne and Matthew Fletcher. Some of these singers will be making their way up to Edinburgh this August to do the Magic Flute at the Fringe. (However, having just checked and discovered the venue is located seven miles out of Edinburgh, and remembering I no longer own a car, I'm wondering if my promise to attend was a little rash.)

In the evening it was over to the Maltings for some very different choral work: the Ensemble Basiani of Georgia (playing to a sold out hall). It was certainly very impressive as the twelve men took to the stage in their traditional dress, complete with daggers. It's also true that they're a talented group and produced some very nice and interesting (and sometimes strongly contrasting) sounds in their multipart harmonies. And yet, it was all much of a muchness. Twenty minutes would have been very nice, and a good exposure to something a little different. An hour and a half with, bafflingly, no interval, was just far too much (and given each song lasting a few minutes pretty well stood by itself, there was no logical justification to this). True, every now and again they would sing something a bit different, but there wasn't enough of that to justify the length. As ever, you can have too much of a good thing, and in this case we did by some margin.

Having said that, in the interests of fairness, I should stress that they were cheered loudly and widely and got comfortably the warmest reception of anything I've been at this festival. True, this isn't as puzzling to me as when the crowds cheer the past-it Deborah Voigt, at least I can appreciate this ensemble as singers, I just can't understand why the crowd seemed to still want more.

Tomorrow what promises to be one of the highlights of the festival as the Mahler Chamber Orchestra roll into town.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: Louis Lortie's Night Fantasies (by Schumann, Holliger, Carter and Ravel)

When I'm not doing my day job, or writing reviews, I also find time to help manage Venue 40 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (which is run largely by volunteers and for charity). Throughout the day during the festival, theatre companies will come up to the box office and ask how their show is selling. One of the nicest things is to be able to tell them they have sold out, or are close to doing so; one of the worst is to have to tell them they're still in single figures. Thus I felt for Louis Lortie this evening as he played to a bafflingly undersold Maltings. This was not a difficult programme by Aldeburgh standards (or even more generally) and he's a very fine pianist. It made you wonder if there was some major event going on in Suffolk to which we had not been invited. Still, those that were there more than made up for it with enthusiasm and those that stayed away, well, more fool them, quite frankly.

The programme had been very well chosen too, with four out of the five works having a nocturnal theme. The first half started and closed with two Schumann pieces, his Vier Nachtstucke, op.23 and Drei Fantasiestucke, op.111. From the outset Lortie showed his fine pianism - there was both wonderful delicacy and clarity, but also plenty of power when called for, and achieved without recourse to thumping. His rich sound was especially clear in the Fantasiestucke which he shaped beautifully.

Sandwiched between these was Heinz Holliger's Elis: drei Nachtstucke fur Klavier. These three pieces were subtitled Annunciation of death, Mortal fear and mercy and Journey to heaven. Of these, only the second seemed to completely capture its subject, being nicely atmospheric, possessing a 'things that go bump in the night' quality to it. The third was more successful than the opening movement, and faded away nicely and tantalisingly at the end. In the second and third some nice effects were employed, bringing Lortie to his feet to reach into the piano to strike the hammers directly.

Overall, though, the second half was more compelling (partly because Schumann isn't among my favourite composers of solo piano music). It began with Carter's Night Fantasies, an extended single movement work, episodic in nature. This turned out to be one of Carter's works that has impressed me most this year. There was a good flow between each section and it never felt disjointed. There was too plenty of fine weighty playing from Lortie.

The best, however, was saved to last (or nearly so), with Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. His playing was exceptional as he brought out the shimmering opening and sliding glissandos of the first movement and also the powerful climaxes with equal skill. So too the haunting delicacy of the second movement and the tolling of the distant bells. Unfortunately, and this is Ravel's fault rather than Lortie's, there is nothing in the finale, nicely played though it was, that quite lives up to what has come before. Still, it contained some nice climaxes and the quiet ending was brought off well.

It was just a shame that more people weren't there to appreciate it.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: Britten Song Cycles

Yesterday's young artists theme continued this afternoon at Aldeburgh church with the second in a pair of programmes comprised entirely of song settings by Britten. The four singers, each of whom took a set of songs in turn, were all alumni of the Britten-Pears programme.

Given they were probably giving their first nationally broadcast solo recitals, some nerves were understandably on show. That said, for the most part I think the problems lay more with the works which are not, in my view, among Britten's greatest compositions. Throughout, Malcolm Martineau, veteran of many an Edinburgh festival, provided solid accompaniment at the piano.

First up was baritone Philip Smith singing a collection entitled Tit for Tat (that they date originally 1931, when the composer was just 18, probably explains the lack of an opus number). He had a nice clean voice and good diction, with every word being clear (something all to often not the case).

He was followed by soprano Katherine Broderick, who is a little hard to judge properly for a couple of reasons. First, she has a very powerful voice indeed, one that would have no trouble filling the Coliseum; as such, sitting in the second row, it was overwhelming. This was exacerbated by the chosen settings, The Poets Echo, op.76 (words by Pushkin) which too often required loud piercing notes. That said, she appears to be one to watch, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear her in Wagner in a few years time.

After the interval came tenor Ben Johnson singing Holy Sonnets of John Donne, op.35. Sadly, he seemed to be having trouble with his voice, tiring rather quickly as the cycle went on; it was a shame to have caught him on what appeared to be an off day. Donne's poetry, in my view, is the finest of any of the settings in the programme. Certainly, it can be set to superb effect: witness John Adams in his recent opera Dr Atomic (review of ENO production), who used the 14th, which Britten also set. Gerald Finley's repetition of "Batter my heart, three-person'd God" was devastating. Here's the thing though: Donne's language is quite dense and there's so much in each poem that the way Britten just rushes through so many means they can't be properly appreciated. Contrast with Adams who dwelled on one poem, allowing its full impact to be felt.

Finally came a second tenor, Nicky Spence. He had a good voice, sadly he too was hobbled by the poems he was trying to sing: Who are these children, op.84. This time the problem was that a large proportion of these twelve poems, by William Soutar, feature a lot of Scotch words and phrases. To work they need to done in a good Scottish accent, and while he tried very hard, almost always it just didn't sound quite right. A good dialect coach was clearly needed. Then again, given the songs were written for Pears to perform, I dread to think how silly that performance must have sounded.

In many cases then, it would have been interesting to hear the singers in other repertoire; however, Broderick seems to be the one to watch.

Aldeburgh 2009: Manacorda and the Britten-Pears Orchestra play Bach, Haydn, Bartok and Ravel

It's been something of a day for young musicians today. This morning we had the Minetti Quartet; this evening it was the turn of the youthful Britten-Pears Orchestra, an ensemble that brings together conservatoire students and recent graduates for one of four courses a year. However, very little by way of allowance needs to be made for their youth or the challenges inherent in being effectively a scratch orchestra; indeed, I've heard much less good professional ensembles. Furthermore, as with many such endeavours, you get a sense of fun and sheer joy in the music that isn't always present in more experienced groups. At the podium was the youthful and enthusiastic Antonello Manacorda.

They began with Bach and his fugue BWV1079, albeit arranged by Webern. While they brought out some nice touches in the orchestration, I am not sure how good a choice it was. As can often happen with orchestrated Bach, it felt a little stodgy at times. It is also the case that to really work Bach needs a precision that wasn't always there.

The Haydn that followed, symphony no.90 in C major, was altogether more successful. There was plenty of enthusiasm to their playing, and the work of the woodwinds was particularly fine. However it didn't always have quite the lightness of touch it might have, feeling a little slow and heavy in places, with the faster outer movements being by far the most successful. Then Manacorda provided a somewhat theatrical object lesson in reading your programme notes: having felt I didn't really need to for a Haydn symphony, I had forgotten this was his joke, with four bars of rest following the false end. Of course, Manacorda milked this for all it was worth, giving the impression he really had finished, before turning to the audience with a cheeky grin and playing the final few bars. He then did it again (which I don't think is the score), and while it was fun, a joke repeated is less good the second time around.

After the interval came Bartok's Divertimento for string orchestra. As with the Haydn, this too was at its best in the louder and faster moments. Manacorda did draw some good quiet playing from the orchestra (always a good test of skill), but he did take them down lower than they could fully sustain. For me, he didn't quite shape the work as a whole, leaving it feeling slightly disjointed.

They had saved the best until last though, with some Ravel. I've recently come to the conclusion that I have to do some serious exploration of his work. I used to think I didn't like him at all, but after going to a number of concerts and writing reviews which began "I don't normally like Ravel but...", I'm not so sure. Added to that, a little while back I heard a performance of Bolero (conducted by Abbado, if memory serves) which didn't make me want to kill myself. Furthermore, two musicians I admire (Donald Runnicles and a composer friend of mine) think highly of him. True to form, the Ravel I've heard at this year's festival has been excellent. Tonight it was the turn of his Suite from Ma mere l'oye (or mother goose, to those whose French is as bad as mine and me). It was wonderfully rich and colourful, with so many beautiful aspects of the orchestration being brought out well. The orchestra's playing too was probably their finest of the evening, with exceptional wind solos from the clarinetist and bassoonist/contrabassonist (sadly I am unable to credit them as the musicians are not named in the programme, but if anyone can provide the names I will happily rectify this. Updated 24/6/09 - thanks to Felix in the comments below they are James Meldrum and Rhonwen Jones respectively). Manacorda shaped the movements beautifully.

All in all, it was a good example of why such programmes are a good thing and why they are well worth supporting. As I post this, I realise it's our 200th post since this blog started a little over two years ago. Rather than any ceremony, this review seems a fitting way to mark it.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: The Minetti Quartet play Haydn, Webern and Beethoven

Another day at Aldeburgh and another new venue, this time the Jubilee Hall. I have fond memories of the hall - there was a superb concert here a few years back titled Tchaikovsky Cabaret, which featured Grainger's superb reduction for solo piano of the first concerto as well as a piece that was so vicious that it required Ades to wear gloves while he played it. During the following piece it quickly became apparent that the piano had been broken and the spare had to be wheeled out. Fortunately no such instrumental damage occurred this morning.

The concert marked one of the nice things about the festival, that a lot of work from young and upcoming musicians features prominently. The appearance of the Minetti Quartet is part of Aldeburgh's annual exchange with L'Academie du Festival d'Aix-en-Provence.

Their comparatively short programme began, as so many this festival have, with some Haydn in the form of his quartet in G major, op.64/4. This was very nicely played indeed. It was light, joyful and playful, in short what a Haydn quartet ought to be. Interestingly, for this they arranged themselves slightly differently from the standard quartet with, from left to right, first violin, cello, viola and second violin. Unfortunately the programme only lists five of them.

This was followed by Webern's Six Bagatelles, op.9, and with this they switched back to the more standard violin, violin, viola, cello layout. While they seemed well played, they didn't grab me as a work, seeming rather too miniature. Each only lasted around a minute or so (or less) and seemed to be over before it had said anything much (for similar reasons so much of last year's Kurtag passed me by). It was a stark contrast with Bartok's Bagatelles a few days ago.

After the brief interval they finished with a fine reading of Beethoven's quartet in E minor, op.59/2. This too was good, but like the Haydn, never seemed in any danger of greatness. I also felt that the quartet wasn't quite as well balanced as it might have been, with the playing of first violin Maria Ehmer consistently standing out over the others.

Still, it was an enjoyable way to start the day.

Ades, Isserlis and Marwood play Faure, Liszt, Ades, Janacek and Ravel (and the mystery of the birthday present)

One of the highlights of last year's Aldeburgh festival was a recital given by Thomas Ades and Steven Isserlis. That, of course, was Ades' final year as festival artistic director. However, his failure to finish his new sonata in time for that concert meant that both he and Isserlis had to come back and play it this year, and from the moment the programme was published, I knew it was a must hear event. I was not disappointed.

The programme began with Faure's cello sonata no.2 in G minor, op.117. A nicely lyrical piece (though the piano seemed a little too prominent in the first movement, but not knowing the piece, this may be intended). The slow movement was especially sublime.

This was followed by two pieces for cello and piano by Liszt. Romance Oubliee was marked by some exquisitely delicate playing from both Ades and Isserlis. La lugubre gondola was heavier and slightly more melodramatic, yet contained some fascinating contrasts between the two instruments.

Then, before the interval, came Ades' new composition, Lieux retrouves (rediscovered places). It divides into four movements: Les eaux (waters), La montagne (the mountain), Les Champs (fields) and La ville (the city). I'm not always a fan of programatic works, but this was an example of how good they can be. The opening movement, with its flowing and tuneful nature, perhaps captured its subject best. The second movement, somewhat halting at times, was meant to convey climbing. However, to me it had a wonderfully, almost jazzy feel to it. The fields were beautiful, especially the tantalising climb Isserlis made to the highest registers of his instrument at the very end. After a slightly stop start opening, the city, capturing fully the hubbub and bustle, danced, tangoed almost, away towards an astonishing, and at times witty, virtuosic frenzy. Isserlis, his wild locks shaking about dramatically, outdid even David Watkin (the SCO's ever enthusiastic principal cellist) in energy. My only regret: Isserlis had spread his music across two stands so there was no need for a repeat of the impressive page turning display from last year's unknown Hess student who turned Ades' pages, got up, turned for Isserlis and returned and picked up where he left off without missing a beat (I still think he deserved a credit, so if you know who he was, get in touch).

Following the interval Isserlis was replaced Anthony Marwood. Marwood and Ades have worked together before of course, on the violin concerto he composed for him, and which I so enjoyed at the Edinburgh festival two years ago. Together they played Janacek's violin sonata. This was a lovely and lyrical piece, if not having quite the same colour as his cello sonata last year or his string quartet earlier in the week. At times, however, it carried more than a hint of his operatic writing. Marwood's playing was exceptional, especially in some of his delicate bowing in the third movement.

All three took to the stage for Ravel's piano trio with which the evening closed. This was a rich and colourful work, showcasing the composer's talent for interesting orchestration, even in an ensemble so small. There was, too, a great range of emotion to the piece. Their playing was of the highest standards, both in the quieter moments and also in the incredible drama that closed the second and fourth movements. They came together well as a scratch trio, something that isn't always the case.

It was one of the finest performances of this year's festival so far and it must be hoped that Ades returns with further commissions in future years, even though his tenure is now ended. For those who were not there, and even those who were, the concert is broadcast on Radio 3 on 24th June. Hopefully someone will have the sense to get Ades and Isserlis into the studio to make a recording. Failing that, it is a co-commission the Wigmore and Carnegie Halls, so it will doubtless be heard there in due course.

Which leaves only to the mystery of the birthday present. To quote from my review of last year's concert:

Unfortunately, so busy is Ades, that this was not yet finished for Tuesday's concert. Doubly unfortunate since the programme informs us that it "was commissioned by John Makinson for Ginny Macbeth's birthday"; she, like the rest of us, will have to wait until next year. Still, Ades and Isserlis played a concert that was a fine gift even so.

Perhaps she didn't want to wait, as this year it is simply an Aldeburgh commission, with the Halls mentioned above and support from Alan Swerdlow and Jeremy Greenwood. Possibly there is an interesting story behind this change, possibly not, but I'd love to know.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Knussen and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group play Grime, Carter and Stockhausen (and lose Leo and Cancer)

Two of the highlights of last year's Aldeburgh festival were Thomas Ades's concert with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (see review) and Oliver Knussen's concert with the Philharmonia (unfortunately the notes I took for that concert have steadfastly refused to write themselves up into a review, maybe one day...). So, to put half of each together could surely only be a good thing; and, for the most part, it was.

The concert began with a piece by Knussen from 1981 entitled Coursing. It's funny (not the piece, I mean life), only yesterday I mentioned that sometimes I find a programme note unhelpful. Today, quite the reverse. I didn't read the note and the piece didn't entirely grab me. It had an interesting orchestration but seemed somewhat chaotic, then midway through some clarity and relative stillness. The programme note explained he was depicting water surging up to and over the Niagara Falls. I read this right after (as normally I enjoy Knussen's work more) and it was like a light being switched on. I only wish I'd had the sense to read it before hand.

This was followed by two world premieres (so not quite up to my record six for one concert). Helen Grime's A Cold Spring was a beautiful three movement work, especially the central mini-concerto for horn, well played by Mark Phillips.

The final work before the interval was yet more in the celebration of Elliott Carter: On Conversing with Paradise, a setting of two cantos by Ezra Pound. It had a lot going for it, not least the drama and some fine orchestration (including contrabassoon, played by Mark O'Brien). The trouble was the poetry of Pound which, personally, I (and, indeed, everyone else I was with) found impenetrable. Still, having made the decision not to listen to the words (just as well, since only about half of them were distinguishable) or follow along with the text, I was able to enjoy it as purely musical piece. Still, it's a shame he didn't choose something else to set. Baritone Leigh Melrose sang well enough. It was well received and most of the audience gave Carter a standing ovation, though more it seems owing to the fact it's remarkable to still be writing such music at one hundred than the out and out quality of it.

Following the interval, we got a single work by Stockhausen: Tierkreis (Zodiac). Here slightly more from the programme notes might have been helpful. The printed programme book listed just seven of the twelve signs and as we entered the hall a handout named ten (omitting two that were in the printed book, Cancer and Leo falling by the wayside somewhere). During the interval, front of house staff were overheard noting it was a long scene change. Sure enough, on return to the hall, raised platforms had been put in, it turned out that this was to service an unusual layout, with strings raised up behind wind, percussion and brass. The work itself was most enjoyable, and colourfully orchestrated. Unfortunately, I managed to lose count of the movements (or rather, I got to ten before the concert ended); this means they either did play all twelve after all, or what sounded like a break between movements was just a pause. Perhaps it was this, but for the most part, with the exception of Scorpio early on, none of them really seemed to evoke their namesake. Until, that is, the penultimate movement when the tuba player strode loudly and (clearly deliberately) rather comically onto the stage, played a few notes, moved round further, played some more, and so on, before taking two intentionally over the top bows and departing again to a smattering of applause. It's nice to see a tuba (superbly played by Graham Sibley) feature so prominently (I think this was Taurus, which would rather fit). It was an enjoyable piece but, weighing in at about half an hour, begged the obvious question of what on earth had happened to the other two signs (shades of last year's Bartok Bagatelles). According to the programme note, said Stockhausen himself:

May each listener find a representation of himself in his own musical sign.

Would that I could have, unfortunately as a Cancer I was left high and dry.

However, I wouldn't want to let that detract from an otherwise most enjoyable evening. It should be noted, since I don't seem to have done so already, that the playing of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was, throughout, of the highest order.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: Stefanovich plays Haydn, Bartok, Carter and Schumann

My third concert at this year's festival took place in a third venue (indeed in a third village/town), which is all part of the fun: this afternoon it was the turn of Blythburgh church to host the festivities. Pianist Tamara Stefanovich, a former pupil of the festival's artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard, had selected an interesting programme.

Up first was Haydn and the A flat major sonata Hob.XVI:43. This was very nicely played indeed. She showed a lightness of touch and a clarity, not to mention a nice wit, which is always a good thing in Haydn. From our seats in row B we were afforded a perfect view of her finger-work: she might very well have been playing in our living room. She had a nicely unassuming manner on the stage as well.

Haydn was followed by Bartok and his 14 Bagatelles, op.6. These were stunning. A great work with a wonderful variety, and such concentration to each miniature, whether it was the wonderful shimmering effect in the third, the powerful romanticism, nicely subverted as it went on, in the fourth, the frantic seventh, the weighty virtuosity of the tenth, its opening notes almost like the peeling of bells, or the sombre thirteenth. Stefanovich's playing was a tour de force. Clearly a work to investigate more fully (suggestions for recordings are most welcome in the comments).

After the interval came more from Elliott Carter (whose work has been receiving a celebration at this year's festival). First up was Matribute, a very brief work that didn't seem to say terribly much. This was followed by the two movement Thoughts About the Piano. It was a more interesting and compelling work, especially the breakneck second movement Catenaires (so much so that it was no mean feat for Stefanovich to turn the pages herself). However, despite the virtuosic display it felt unsatisfying, perhaps because there didn't seem to be much more to it than that.

The final work of the afternoon was Schumann's Kreisleriana. Her playing was nicely poetic and beautifully delicate in the quieter passages, yet with plenty of fireworks when called for. It made a fine close to an enjoyable recital.

Stefanovich herself is an engaging soloist and certainly one to watch for in the future.

Updated 21/6/09

In the process of writing my review of Knussen's concert later the same evening, I had occasion to glance back at this review of a concert last year featuring Imogen Cooper. It had slipped my mind, but she played the Bartok Bagatelles then. It is possible they were slightly different versions as last year's programme indicates a revision a year later than this year's (and numbers them sz.50 as opposed op.6). Owing to time constraints in last year's programme, numbers seven to nine were omitted. This concert only goes to underscore how mistaken that decision was.

Aldeburgh 2009: Aimard, Benjamin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

It's nice to be back in the Maltings concert hall, one of my favourite in the country (the seats may not be the most comfortable, in fact, they definitely aren't, but the sight lines are good everywhere, the sound is fantastic and the situation is unique). Friday's concert marked my first visit since last year's festival and things have changed a little. To the right as you enter, various walls have been knocked through to create a little shop (which had Jochum's Meistersinger on sale very cheaply second hand - just as well, as I've wanted that for a while). As always with Aldeburgh, a high proportion of the programme was new to me, though unlike yesterday, there was at least one work I've heard before.

The concert was also my first chance to see Pierre-Laurent Aimard in action since he became artistic director, but that would have to wait for the second half. The concert began with Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. I'm not always a huge admirer of the composer, but the piece was nice enough and the BBC Symphony Orchestra played very well (in their white tuxedos - I'm quite surprised there are still orchestras that do this). Benjamin perhaps took it a little slowly, but not knowing the piece this is hard to judge.

This was followed by a work from Julian Anderson, it was to have been Fantasias but the programme notes that because the premiere was delayed, Aldeburgh are unable to present the UK premiere. Instead we got his Shir Hashirim for soprano and orchestra. In his note on the programme insert Anderson talks about his desire to set the Song of Songs as it is:

..the most beautiful love poem of which I am aware..

Now, I think this is one of those cases where the programme notes and text are actually not an enhancement. Purely musically speaking it's a fine piece. The soprano (Susanna Andersson, singing beautifully, with a clean and powerful voice) soars over the turbulent orchestra at times and is at others overwhelmed. The orchestration is interesting too. Anderson has chosen to set the text in Hebrew, and certain his scoring does seem to have the right feel, or, it would do for me if the subject was different. To me it doesn't feel like a love poem so much as someone who's very upset. None the less, it is a wonderful piece to listen to.

The first half drew to a close with more Elliot Carter, this time in the form of his Three Occasions. After the brief and lively A Celebration of Some 100 x 150 notes come two longer pieces. The first wins the composer points in my book: as a sometime (very bad) trombonist, it's nice to see a big solo trombone part. Called Remembrance, it is dedicated to Paul Fromm and has the trombone (well played, presumably by Roger Harvey) above sullen orchestra accompaniment. The finale movement Anniversary, is a shade disappointing. Not bad per se, just a little dull. It was written to mark the composer's 50th anniversary with his wife, but didn't seem terribly joyful to me. No Siegfried Idyll here.

During the interval, the stage had been rearranged and the piano moved into place. First up was a work composed by Benjamin himself, the UK premiere of his Duet for piano and orchestra. The first odd thing to notice was the absence of any violins, an interesting choice of orchestration, meaning that there were no instruments stage right of the piano. This made for a slightly odd balance in the hall. It was, however, an engaging piece with a strong rhythmic drive and plenty of drama. Aimard himself played very well.

The evening closed with Ravel's concerto for left hand. Now, immediately Aimard and company were putting themselves into dangerous territory: I last heard this back in February and it was under the baton of Donald Runnicles, always a tough act to follow (the pianist on that occasion was Adam Golka). Since I wrote it all then, I won't retread my extremely potted background of why Ravel (and others) wrote left hand concerti to being with, you can read it here (scroll down to the fourth paragraph).

It was given an okay performance, but one that didn't sweep me away (in stark contrast to almost everyone else in the audience), lacking the compelling drama I found in February. First of all, it was too often too loud, something that can be a bit of the problem in the Maltings when you have a very big orchestra. Still, I don't think they needed to take it as loudly as Benjamin and Aimard did, the latter tending a bit too much toward thumping for my taste. Benjamin himself is not nearly such a fine and sensitive accompanist as is Runnicles, and cannot draw such a fine sound from the orchestra as Runnicles can from their Scottish colleagues. That said, it was not without some very fine moments: Aimard's playing of the cadenza was especially beautiful. He struggled, even more than Golka had, to keep his right hand still: now resting it on his leg, now gripping the side of the piano or the stool, now in his lap; at one point he even raised it as though he were about to strike the ivories. It must be phenomenally difficult to exercise this control as it surely goes against all a pianist's training.

The performance is being broadcast on Radio 3 in full on 25 June, see here for details.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Chick Flicks and Football Films

Our last two ventures to the cinema have been about as different as can be. First up is something we missed the first time round: The Damned United. Now, on paper this isn't my kind of film: it's about football and football holds about as much interest to me as does the current state of Peter Andre and Katie Price's relationship (that is to say none whatsoever).

However, this film is different. Firstly, my brother, who has even less interest in football than I do, recommended it. Secondly, the screenplay is by Peter Morgan, the pen behind Frost/Nixon and stars Michael Sheen, who played Frost. That made it an attractive prospect.

It helps that, for the most part, it's principally not actually about football, it could be said that the football is largely incidental. It tells the story of Brain Clough (Sheen)'s turbulent forty-four days as manager of Leeds United in the mid seventies, the events that led there and the aftermath, and that makes for fascinating and compelling viewing.

We see his earlier career at Derby County, brining the team from obscurity to the top of the first division. We also see an unhealthy rivalry develop between him and Don Revie, the successful Leeds manager (played by Colm Meaney, playing the role he always plays, but he does it well). Clough is aided by right hand man Peter Taylor (superbly played by Timothy Spall). Things go awry when Clough's ego leads to the end of their Derby career, and thence to the destruction of their friendship, he is thus alone when he goes to Leeds. His determination to get them playing cleaner football gives him a start that you can see ending badly from the off, and yet at the same time you still feel sympathy for him and where's coming from: I genuinely cared about his desire to see Leeds play cleaner football.

Initially I was struck by how different these two performances by Sheen were. However, there is a lot in common: Clough and Frost had huge egos and were largely driven by them (at least so far as the films are concerned).

There are other things I like about it to - I like the way it jumps back and forth in time, gradually building the picture up for us. This sort of structure will not appeal to everyone, but I love it. Then there's Jim Broadbent's fine turn as Derby owner Sam Longson

As with Frost/Nixon, there is a question mark as to the accuracy of events depicted (and Clough's family are reportedly unhappy, though I would argue the film portrays him pretty positively).

So Morgan has done the near impossible and made me love a film about football. Actually, it isn't entirely without precedent: the great Aaron Sorkin beat him to it with his superb TV dramedy Sports Night, which I love despite it being about television sports anchors. We must therefore give Morgan an award, as we sometimes do: the Aaron Sorkin Award for Writing a Script That Makes Sport Compelling to People Who Couldn't Usually Care Less About It.

Things were very different in Last Chance Harvey. Now, I hadn't really been mad keen to see it to start with, but then part of the appeal of Monday Night Film Club is that we go and see whatever is on at the Cameo and that often means things I wouldn't otherwise bother with. In this case, though, I rather wish I hadn't. The trailer was one of those where you felt you'd already watched the whole film by the time it was over; sure enough, the ninety minute version of this predictable romantic comedy added little. The film tells of Harvey Shine (an uninspiring Dustin Hoffman). He portrays a washed up composer of advertising jingles who's is headed to for London for his daughter's wedding and is also losing his job. His job, incidentally, contains the one gem of the film: his boss has as bad a script as everyone else, but Richard Schiff (Toby in The West Wing) is a member of that class of actors who could read the phone book and still be absolutely compelling.

Once in London he eventually hooks up with Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), though that takes its time to happen, and given they've told us that's what the plot is in the trailer, the delay is frustrating. Prior to this, Harvey attends the wedding and rehearsal dinner with a mildly comic moment of having the security tag still attached to his new jacket. It's not a bad joke, but compare it to the opening scene of Four Weddings and Funeral as they race to get to the ceremony in time, accompanied by some brilliantly judged use of the f-word. Writter/director Joel Hopkins just isn't in the same league.

Having been rejected by his daughter in favour of her step-father to give her away, he skips the reception and leaps in a cab to Heathrow (the small fortune he must have spent on taxis is a little implausible given what he does for a living). Despite her initial rejection, he persuades her to spend the afternoon and evening with him.

In an ever more saccharine tale, he mends his dysfunctional relationships, culminating with his boss inexplicably begging him to return. However, there came a point midway through when I really started to hate this film, not merely be bored by it: following the reception Harvey and Kate wind up by a picturesque fountain and he makes her agree to meet there tomorrow. To recap, two people have a chance meeting, spend a day together, become romantically involved and then agree to meet up again. If this sounds familiar it's because it's the plot of the incomparable Before Sunrise, except that's good, nay a work of genius. To rip off such a masterpiece so blatantly is bad enough, to do it so badly is in excusable. It's frankly enough to blacklist Hopkins.

The gags never rise above mildly amusing. The plot concerning Kate's mother's obsession with the neighbour she suspects of murder (where, oh where, can he have got that idea from) is as unfunny as it is predictable.

Then there are all the little annoyance I could mention if I put my pedant's hat on: he flies to Heathrow, but several scenes are clearly shot at Stansted, why does Walker's creative writing class take place in the National Theatre foyer (and how is he able to be waiting for her when she comes out a floor up and round the corner from where she went in).

It short, it's one to avoid. Unless you're female. As I said above, I'm not inherently opposed to romantic comedies and there are a number I like very much. However, while I loathed this, it has to be said that rest of the part liked it, and it so happens they were all women. (Note, to avoid the risk of appearing sexist, I should point out it's entirely possible there are men who like it too.)

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Diotima Quartet & Nicholas Daniel - Haydn, Carter, Janacek and my missing socks

It's nice to back in Aldeburgh for another festival, and even if I did have to miss Ligeti's hundred metronomes. Still, Aldeburgh Music had laid on something very fine for my first concert in the form of the Diotima Quartet. Their programme presents a slight challenge in the writing of a review, since I don't think I've heard any of the four pieces before.

First up was Haydn and the op.20/1 quartet in E flat. They played it very nicely, though it is not one of his greater works. They had a nice unity to their playing, coming close to having a single voice, in the manner of the Budapest Quartet (something or a benchmark for me in this regard). They communicated well with each other, though perhaps more subtly than some.

This was followed by two works from Elliott Carter, who, despite being over one hundred, had travelled to attend the concert (and looked remarkably spry for his age). Interestingly, Naaman Sluchin and Yun-Peng Zhao alternated as first and second violins. In the opening bars I was concerned that this might be of what I call the whirr-plonk school of modern music. I needn't have been concerned: from there on in the piece flowed very nicely. It was a compelling performance of a compelling work and I was left wanting to hear it again so I could get a better feel for it. Fortunately Radio 3 will oblige by broadcasting the concert on 26th June. Or, at least, I thought they were, but having checked their website, I now find whoever is in charge of these things has foolishly chosen only three works and has dropped this in favour of the Haydn. I'll just have to track down a recording instead. Bother. (On the off chance anyone from Radio 3 is reading this, I'll take the opportunity to point out how poorly laid out your website is compared with previous years - it used to be that you could click a link and see all the broadcasts from a certain festival. Only logical, you and I might well think, but no longer. Please sort this out, it isn't rocket science.)

But, as usual, I digress. Following the interval came more Carter, this time with Nicholas Daniel replacing Scluhin to form an oboe quartet. This too was good, with Daniel playing to a similarly high standard as the quartet. However, the work did not flow quite so well and it didn't seem as satisfying a piece. The oboe part seemed quite physically demanding, with a series of extended notes leaving Daniel looking worryingly short of breath (as a brass player I can empathise). The presence of an oboist did make me slightly regret the choice of the Haydn: how much better it would have been to have had Britten's superb Phantasy Quartet instead.

What, you might be wondering (unless you follow me on twitter), does any of this have to do with my socks? Well, the finale was provided by Leos Janacek. I'm very familiar with his orchestral and operatic works, being a fan of Charles Mackerras, how could I not be? However, his chamber music is virtually unknown to me. I first met some of it in last year's Ades/Isserlis concert and have been meaning to explore further ever since; but, like some many things, never quite got round to it. However, the Diotima were on hand with his second quartet Intimate Letters. It was superb; indeed, it knocked my socks off. Janacek has a distinctive sound and style, in particular there is nothing quite like his orchestration: the richness and brassiness, the textures and colours of it. What is remarkable is just how much of that he is able to recreate with a string quartet. So too the sense of yearning that permeates so much of his operatic writing. Indeed, emotionally the quartet makes you feel as though you were in the opera house. They played it superbly, and with great passion (so much so that first violin was losing bow stings so fast it is as well the piece wasn't too much longer).

They have recently recorded both quartets, along with an alternate version of Intimate Letters which features Garth Knox on viola d'amore (I reviewed him a few months back in a superb solo viola recital). It's always a measure of a good performance when you feel you have to buy the CD afterwards. The concert can be thoroughly recommended when it is broadcast next Friday.

The Diotima also featured in the first concert given by the festival's new artistic director (Pierre-Laurent Aimard) last Saturday. I'm sorry to have missed it, those I know who went say it was a fascinating programme. Fortunately, the festival are making it available on their website (both audio and video) next week.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Paul Lewis, Colin Davis and the LSO in A Game of Two Halves (with Beethoven and Brahms)

When I was booking my 2008/9 season, Paul Lewis playing Beethoven's Emperor concerto always looked set to be a highlight. I first heard him back in 2006 playing Beethoven sonatas at the Queen's Hall; the mix of delicacy and weight, yet without recourse to aggressive thumping, endeared him to me. The rest of his sonata cycle was similarly impressive (as this review of the final concert indicates). He has since impressed in Beethoven and Mozart concerti this season.

What impressed me that first time was how compelling and engaging he made the Hammerklavier, not a work I had cared much for previously. Ever since he finished the cycle it has occurred to me that he might do a very good Emperor: he might have the grandeur to rival Solomon's superb account (available on Testament). Colin Davis seemed an idea partner too. I am a big fan of his symphony cycle with the Dresden Staatskapelle, slow but full of beautiful textures and wonderfully fresh as a result. Full too of grandeur.

This sort of situation can make for a problem, since the higher the expectations the greater the chance of disappointment. Fortunately, Lewis did not disappoint. His ability to contrast the most exquisite delicacy in the best traditions of Wilhelm Kempff with raw Beethovian power and weight was on display to great effect in the outer movements, so too was the clarity of his playing. The slow movement was sublimely beautiful. In general, everything one has come to expect from his work with Beethoven. However, there was more than that. With a work like the fifth concerto, which is played so much (overplayed, some might argue, this is the third I've attended so far this season!), it might easily become routine. Not in Lewis's hands, time and again he made the work feel fresh and new, especially in some of the quieter passages, bringing out things I could swear I hadn't noticed before.

The orchestra provided excellent accompaniment. As ever, the Barbican acoustic robbing them of some of the richness of texture that make Davis's Dresden recordings so special. Davis himself seemed a touch lacking in fire at one or two moments, but he was none the less a sensitive accompanist. Oh, and they held the tension nicely in the lead into the finale (always something of a key moment for me). It was justly very well received. Of the three I've heard this season it was comfortably the finest, not even the digital watch alarm in slow movement could spoil it.

Things were a little different after the interval as Davis and the LSO returned for Brahms third symphony. Now, I must confess to having had some doubts about this. I recently picked up his cycle of the symphonies (made with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) at budget price. Unfortunately I found them rather dull and they will soon be finding their way to an Edinburgh charity shop. The London Symphony Orchestra hasn't had the best luck with Brahms in recent years either - their recorded cycle with Haitink is also a little dull (save for a fine second and double concerto) and not one of the highlights of the generally excellent LSO Live discography.

However, as they played the opening bars, I thought we were in for treat: full of energy and drama. Then some odd things happened. There seemed to be some quite extreme variations in tempo, too much rubato perhaps, which seemed to suck out the energy and drama he'd built up, rather like the air escaping from a balloon. The pattern recurred throughout the movement. During two slow middle movements, the air never seemed to get into the balloon in the first place and it was just a little dull. The finale got off to a good start, but again suffered from the same problems as the first movement. The quiet closing chords underwhelmed as a result.

The playing of the orchestra was exemplary throughout. None the less, I don't think I was alone in my disappointment at the second half, and the applause was decidedly more polite than it had been for the Beethoven. That said, there were some in the audience who'd clearly enjoyed it greatly, so Davis's Brahms is obviously for some.

Nonetheless, the Beethoven alone justified the price of admission. Lewis has been recording the concertos with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Belohavek. They should be something pretty special. So too his future plans to tape the Diabelli Variations (dare I hope he tours that first, with luck even to the Queen's Hall again).

Tomorrow I'm off to Suffolk for a week and a half at the Aldeburgh festival, so stay tuned for reports of the musical goings on there. (Carelessly, I believe I've managed to book my fourth Emperor of the season! Still, as a composer friend of mine would argue, you can never have too much of that.)

Oh, one final thing, what on earth is this thing, sitting on the terrace outside the Barbican (answers on a postcard):

The Queen's Hall - Keep It Live Appeal (and some friendly advice)

I love the Queen's Hall. There are any number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that it only takes a couple of minutes for me to walk there, door to door. I've had some truly magical experiences there too: it is where I first encountered Christian Zacharias (in a magical festival concert with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra) and Paul Lewis as he gave accounts of Beethoven's op.79 and Hammerklavier sonatas that I've never heard the equal of. Indeed, the fact that for Paul Lewis's cycle between 2005 and 2007 I sat in the front row, for under £12 a concert, and had an experience about as good as if he'd been playing in my living room (probably much better since my living room might have been a little overwhelmed) is a good demonstration of the hall's intimacy, part of what makes it so special. It is also the home of my local band, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It's not just classical, of course: I've heard some cracking jazz there too. I remember Jacques Loussier's trio sweeping me away with their rendition of the 5th Brandenburg concerto and standing in the gallery, for three hours and not being bothered by the lack of a seat, listening to the incomparable Chic Corea (the tickets purchased in a last minute whim as I passed the box office on the way home). They do all kinds of other music, and I've even been to a stand-up gig there once. It's a very special place.

It isn't perfect though, the seats are pretty uncomfortable, save in the centre stalls (where if you're not in the front row the sight isn't ideal). The FOH facilities are, shall we say, less that ideal, though work on the bar areas in recent years have made them better than they once were. Still, there is room for improvement, not to mention the fact it all costs money to run. Fortunately, the Council's threatened closure of a few years back seems to have receded.

So, why am I mentioning all this? Well, the other month I got a flier through the post for their Keep It Live Appeal, which makes many of these points and more. Being a conscientious soul, I have just got round to sending them some money (and you can too here). Partly, as with all charity, this was altruistic, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't also very selfish: I like having a good concert hall round the corner from my flat and I want to keep one there. The problem is this: enlightened self-interest only gets you so far when raising money.

So it was something of a surprise when I got the leaflet from the Queen's Hall. It made all the arguments that it is a great venue and needs to be preserved and developed, but it didn't actually offer anything save the warm fuzzy glow of having done the right thing in exchange for giving. I hope, therefore, that the Queen's Hall won't object to some friendly advice comparing their efforts with other arts organisations.

I have given more to the Royal Opera House over the last two years, despite the fact I go there much less. This isn't because I necessarily like it more, or because I think it needs my money more, or I feel it's generally more deserving (I don't, and I think it would not really notice if my Direct Debit was stopped). My giving to Covent Garden is extremely selfish - it gets me onto the bottom rung of their Friends scheme and means I have access to the second tier of priority booking. This is important since there are usually only a few performances I can attend of each production. I do live several hundred miles away after all, and it means I have easily been able to get tickets to Don Carlos, Tristan and other sell-out shows.

The point is this: as much as anything, I view my Royal Opera donation as part of the ticket price. Many other arts organisations do something similar, and my impression is that it works, why wouldn't it. Give people something they want - a greater chance at the tickets they want - and they'll pay for it. There are other perks too - orchestras tend to offer special concerts for subscribers and donors, my Royal Opera money also gets me the chance to go along to rehearsals and it used to be (though I can't find any mention on their website now) that if you gave the Philharmonia enough money you got an annual dinner attended by Charles Mackerras.

If all that fails, you can always appeal to vanity. I was struck when visiting the Metropolitan Opera a few years back that the money required for what was then maximum priority Edinburgh International Festival wouldn't even have got you a mention in the programme. Many people like to get their name in the programme by supporting the arts and this can be a good source of cash. Even I'm not immune (those who look carefully at the Aldeburgh festival programme will see me there - though I also view them as a local venue in a similar light to the Queen's Hall so I give largely for those reasons too), had I had enough money I would have been sorely tempted to get my name on the boardwalks that surround the Maltings, but £1,000 was too rich for me.

Lastly, it's always good to make use of inertia. I have some arts related donations that get made less regularly than others. Why? Well, they don't offer DD (which I set up and then forget about, and thus keep giving virtually in perpetuity), so I sometimes forget to renew the donation or just don't get round to filling in the form, visiting the website or, in the case of the slightly archaic Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, remembering where on earth my cheque book is since it must be about a year since I last had occasion to write one.

There'll always be people who give to the Queen's Hall because they love it and it's the right thing to do, but I fear there is a market that they aren't tapping into. And, for entirely selfish reasons, I think they should give it a try.

If they want motivation, I think they have only to look at the success of the Aldeburgh Music appeal for the development of several new performing, rehearsal and artists' spaces. In the space of a few years they raised £15m, it was so successful that the scheme grew more ambitious during the course of fund-raising, this despite being in the idyllic middle of nowhere in rural Suffolk. Surely in the capital of Scotland, the few hundred thousand pounds the Queen's Hall is chasing should prove no problem at all, perhaps sights can be set higher. To my mind, their various levels of support provide a superb template of how it can be done.

Hopefully that way I'll continue to enjoy great live music two minutes from my front door for many years to come.