Friday, 31 July 2009

South Pacific: A Revised Opinion

Of all the shows currently on Broadway, and for Broadway pickings are surprisingly thin this summer, the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific was the one I was most ambivalent about going to see. I previously saw it in Trevor Nunn's revival at the National and thought it was very second rate (indeed my main recollection is of wanting to scream when we got to the fourth reprise of 'Some Enchanted Evening'). However, ever since I first mentioned this to my wife, she has insisted that I had not seen a really good production, that the show is significant in the history of musicals, and that Sondheim could never have written his shows had this foundation not existed. Last night duly found me at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The verdict: this show deserves five stars for everything, except the book, music and lyrics (particularly the music and lyrics).

The first thing which Bartlett Sher's revival makes blindingly clear, and which it is equally clear that Nunn and his team completely failed to grasp, is that this is a through composed musical, and that you therefore have to treat each musical number as an integral part of the narrative pushing along both story and character development. Far more so than in many musicals, each number requires a very detailed acting performance, and each reprise must be differentiated, often subtly, from the previous one in order to make its point. Sher does what all directors should do, and so often fail to. He has clearly thought all the time about how to position his actors on the stage, how they are relating to each other, so that the show is full of movements of great subtlety. Indeed, one of the most powerful moments in the show comes at the very end when Emile de Becque returns safely to Nellie and she is so overcome that she cannot move, remaining for long moments seated with her back to him.

This kind of directorial detail only works because Sher has assembled an extraordinary cast. According to my wife who saw it when it originally opened, we now have a replacement Nellie Forbush (Laura Osnes) and a replacement Joseph Cable (Andrew Samonsky). Sometimes replacements can sink a production. This is absolutely not the case here, indeed, so superb are their performances it is hard to believe that they could have been bettered by the originals. Laura Osnes, in particular, really convinces (unlike the rather two dimensional performance of the part which is my recollection of the London revival) as the southern girl increasingly out of her depth in this unfamiliar world. Both their reactions to the prospect of racially mixed relationships (the centre of the plot) succeed far more than Nunn's performers did in putting flesh on the bones of what I still think is a somewhat weak plot. Equally fine is Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque, who has acting ability beyond what one normally associates with opera singers and who successfully brings across the hothouse, slightly other-worldly quality of Pacific French plantation life. And of course he can really sing too. These performances by themselves would rate this show very highly, but this is also probably one of the finest ensembles I have seen in the theatre, and one which deserves the more credit because, to my mind, several of these characters naturally fall into caricature because of the nature of the script. This is a particular problem in the case of Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre) who was yet another in the litany of aspects of the piece in the Nunn London production who failed to come over at all. Here her money making bragadoccio has an element of desperation to it, her attempts to cast spells over Cable in 'Bali Ha'i' and 'Happy Talk' are too insistent and consequently hollow, and her broken shuffle off the stage when it becomes apparent that Cable is dead and with it her dream for a better life for her daughter is haunting. Similarly, Danny Burstein skilfully reveals that the scheming Luther Billis has a tender heart, again giving his camp show number with Nellie ('Honey Bun') and the embrace she gives him afterwards a striking poignancy. I was glad to discover that both performers had been nominated for Best Supporting Tony Awards – a fine piece of discernment on the part of the committee. Before leaving the fine cast, I also want to give out a salute to Capt Brackett (Murphy Guyer) and Commander Harbison (Sean Cullen) who again give finally rounded characterisations of what could be two quite thankless roles.

Finally, as far as the production is concerned we have music and staging. Again, the staging decisions showcase how much Sher has got inside the mind of this production, in stark contrast to Nunn. Nunn's production was ridiculously overblown, with jeeps whizzing about and as I recall lots of unnecessary use of the famous drum revolve – all of which it now seems to me was a diversionary tactic on the part of Nunn to disguise the fact that having taken on the direction of the musical he really didn't understand the beast with which he was dealing. Sher has all the necessary set (the Billis laundary, the showers, de Becque's luxurious plantation house) but he never loses sight of the vastness of the Pacific world in which all this is stranded. The trip to Balai Ha'i takes place on an almost completely bare, subtly lit stage, and at the end there is nothing but the bare boards and the empty sky. Most telling, in comparison to Nunn, is Sher's decision on how to deal with the death of Cable. Nunn decided we needed to see Cable and de Becque as they wander around the island, sending their messages back to HQ. In this production the whole sequence takes place in the Captain's office, we hear only de Becque's voice over the radio. The audience is consequently placed in the same ghastly waiting state as the officers and Nellie Forbush. We can only imagine the kind of places the two scouts find themselves in, we can only imagine what Cable has endured in the three days between his wounding and his death. Against all the melodramatic odds, de Becque's crackling voice announcing Cable's death does pull the heart strings. Finally, we have a 30 piece band beneath retractable staging who get their moment in the sun in the overture and entracte and who make the best case that can possibly be made for the score.

And this brings us back to where we came in. Somehow, for me, there is still something about this show that doesn't quite satisfy, and after a great deal of thought I think it does come down to the lyrics and the music. The trouble it seems to me is this. Rodgers and Hammerstein were trying to tell what is actually a rather stark story about racial prejudice, and their style gets in the way. The bite is too much in the book, not enough in the often rather twee lyrics and lush romantic music. I realise this is clearly a minority view, but I can only report that frequently in the second act the dialogue would build up the emotional tension, and the musical number would leach it away. Yet, I think perhaps this really is a case of accepting a show for what it is. Sondheim started out working for Hammerstein, and, having seen this production, I can really see that you needed this kind of show for Sondheim to be able to write his shows. It is a show limited by the style of its authors, and by the time it was written, and it would be a mistake (and was in the London publicity) to try to imply this is a searing indictment of racial prejudice. But it is possible to see from this revival how challenging raising these issues even within the warm musical world of Rodgers and Hammerstein must have been in 1949. As such this is an important milestone in musical theatre which, when presented with production and performances as 5 star as this fully deserves a revival.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Proms 2009 - Elgar, Delius and Holst from Mackerras and the BBC Philharmonic (Prom 12)

Charles Mackerras is always one of those conductors whose concerts are a must for me if I'm within reach (or broadcast if not). So I wasn't about to miss Prom 12, even though the programme of Elgar, Delius and Holst wasn't one that immediately jumped out at me. As always though, Mackerras is so persuasive, I find myself wondering why.

He was paired with the BBC Philharmonic, with whom he's done good work before, most notably a superb recording of Mahler's sixth symphony (a BBC Music Magazine cover disc that bafflingly doesn't seem to have enjoyed commercial release). Throughout, the playing of the orchestra was of an extremely high standard.

First up was Elgar's Cockaigne overture. He brought out the wonderful richness of score, the drama and the grandeur. Also of note, as a sometime trombonist, it's nice to see a piece with five trombones - not every day you get that. It was wonderful to hear the Voice of Jupiter, as the hall's fine organ is known, at the work's close. Since this was restored a couple of years back it hasn't been used as much as might be - how about a Mahler eighth next year from Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (after all, it would be the centenary of the piece's first performance).

Then came Delius and The Song of the High Hills. It's not a piece I know at all (or so I thought, but an examination of iTunes shows I have a recording of Mackerras himself conducting it!), and, indeed, Delius isn't a composer I know too well either. Apparently Mackerras is a specialist, add that to the absurdly long list of such composers. Indeed, having a pretty extensive library of his recordings, it is doubly surprising to discover new specialisms. Actually, I recently bought a disc he did live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra which included The Walk to the Paradise Garden (which I myself have played very badly in an amateur orchestra).

Mackerras coloured the piece beautifully. The entry of the choir was wonderfully tantalising (such that at first you're not quite sure whether they're actually singing or not). At least on the Radio, obviously you don't get this effect on the TV. The BBC Singers, along with soloists Rebecca Evans and Toby Spence, sang very well. That said, for me the work doesn't quite so vividly capture the mountains as does Strauss's Alpensinfonie (there's something I'd love to hear Mackerras do).

After the interval it was Holst's Planets suite. Not a piece I'm hugely fond of, perhaps because it's too often played and too often imitated (for example the passage in Saturn to which John Williams probably owes a debt for the map room scene in Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Mackerras brought an incredible mix both of lightness of touch and raw power. Mars made for a thrilling start, full of drama and energy. In his hands it didn't seem overly familiar or cliched. Indeed, the stamina he has, given his age, is really quite extraordinary.

Venus was sublime and beautifully textured. Mercury was played with delicacy and fleetness of foot (and yet weight to the climaxes was not lacking).

Jupiter, even more so than Mars, had a sense of freshness. As elsewhere, he mixed grandeur and lightness perfectly. In Saturn he brought out the textures beautifully (especially the bells).

Uranus again was full of power and yet none of the intricacy of the score was lost along the way. In Nepture Mackerras vividly brought out the shimmering textures and captured the ethereal feel. This is especially true of the offstage choir, and I wish I'd been in the hall to experience it (I would be curious to hear Runnicles do this one, given his genius for off-stage placement). The subtle fade away at the end was nicely done, though, of course, given it's the choir alone, by this point Mackerras had ceased waving the baton.

The whole performance was justly well received. Mackerras, as an Australian born in American, isn't exactly the first person who springs to mind as a champion of British music, and yet clearly he is an excellent one. He's made this country his home for over six decades, and as the Proms audience showed, we're more than happy to claim him as one of our own.

It was broadcast on both BBC2 and Radio 3 (the sound on the former seeming slightly better). Video direction was not that annoying (often I find it frustrating as the camera doesn't go where my eyes want to). But why at the start of Venus, did they feel we needed that extended shot of the ceiling and the auditorium; I'm not tuning in to see those things, I'm tuning in for the musicians and the music. Still, it wasn't the Bernstein Mahler second, where the director was more interested in Ely cathedral than anything musical. Similarly, which patronising idiot thought it was necessary to flash up pictures of each planet in the gap between the movements. Please! The more so given Holst's inspiration was more astrological than astronomical.

Then there was Clive Anderson, who for some reason was presenting the whole thing. Why, why, why? I suppose it could be worse: in 2005 when they televised Mackerras's HMS Pinafore the coverage was fronted by Alan Titchmarsh. Honestly, how many people are going to tune into this kind of thing because a minor celebrity is fronting this? When you watch the Olympics you don't find Rob Cowan on duty. And, quite rightly, sports fans would be outraged if you did. So why do the BBC think they can screw us classical fans about in this manner? A tiny slice of the licence fee goes to this stuff, is it really too much to ask that they do it properly? Anderson was, in part, made up for by the excellent Philip Sheppard (who I recently encountered as a result of his composing the very fine music for the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, review to follow). His other guest, Catherine Knight, was less good (incorrectly ageing Mackerras at 84 as opposed to 83).

Anderson also informed us we could push the red button for Maestro Cam and get a head on view of Mackerras as he conducted. Using the wonders of my freeview box I taped this too, or thought I had. Actually I got an annoying commentary over all the music. Good God why? From Delius onwards we got picture in picture instead of just a shot of the conductor. These were not in sync with each other (though this was fixed for the Holst). (Apparently you can turn the commentary off, but why it isn't off by default I don't know. This is one thing on a DVD, but on one viewing? Seriously!)

Things were only a little better on Radio 3 where I was reminded why I don't much miss the end of live broadcast - interval programming. True, this wasn't the piece from a few years ago which tried to claim that Dvorak's music all reflected his love of trains (okay, I exaggerate very slightly, but only very slightly). Still, the silly voices used in this documentary about the three composers were pretty needless.

However, such minor, albeit pointless, blemishes should not detract from what was, musically, a stunning concert.

Mackerras will be back on 11th August, this time with the BBC Concert Orchestra, for Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. It should be quite something. Given it's semi-staged you might expect it to get an outing on TV. But no. That would be, what's the word, sensible, and as should be clear, sense has no impact on the decision making for these things.

What's your Beethoven number? (Also - iPhone Beethoven)

Miss Mussel, she of Operaplot fame, recently did it again. Okay, she didn't quite do anything that received quite the same success, but she did waste a lot of my time on Friday. Well, I say waste, but time spent listening to Beethoven is never wasted. What I should say is she ensured that time I should have spent doing other things was instead spent having a great time listening to Beethoven and thinking about Beethoven numbers.

So, what is your Beethoven number? Well, it's the numbers of the symphonies in order of your preference for them, most liked first. Of course, immediately we run into problems - as regular readers will know, I know I don't like picking greatest thises or thats, so I couldn't simply have a number. In the end I came up with 784,5213,9,6. Doubtless it will be different tomorrow.

I used the commas to group ones I can't really choose between. The first thing that might jump out at you is that the six is awfully low. This maybe a genetic thing - nobody in my family really loves it. That's not to say I haven't heard great performances. Mackerras at the Festival here back in 2006 springs most readily to mind, so too Erich Kleiber and the Concertgebouw. But in general I find it, and especially the opening movements, sounds rather too much like wallpaper music in many hands.

Nine is low too, though I often love it: Bernstein's famous Ode to Freedom reading, Furtwangler at Bayreuth, Mackerras and, of course, the great Runnicles reading, seething with tension:

But, for whatever reason, if push came to shove, others would probably come higher. Interestingly, two of my first three are two of the symphonies I came to earliest in life. The story behind the fourth is particularly interesting. I learnt it from my parents' vinyl of Karajan's early Berlin readings. Somehow, I managed to misread the liner notes (I think it's possible the LPs were in the wrong order in the box and I thought I was playing the sixth). However, for whatever reason, I spent many years believing that the opening movement symbolised a thunderstorm. I now know that isn't the case, but I can't shake the image. The turbulence and drama of it is wonderful.

Then there's the seventh, which seemed to top many lists. I first met it properly (I'd heard it on CD many times before) in 2003 at Aldeburgh. Daniel Harding was giving his penultimate concert with the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie as music director. The first half (Rameau and Sibelius's violin concerto) didn't entirely sweep me away. I spent the second half on the edge of my seat, and the next couple of years looking for a performance that had the same excitement (heaven knows how, but the octogenarian Charles Mackerras managed to exceed it).

The eighth is a little different. It comes bafflingly very low down many lists. Indeed, in general the even numbers tend to get shorter shrift. On a music forum some years ago, a poster moaned that the seventh was paired with the eighth on a particular CD and it wasn't in the same league. No, quipped a friend of mine, it certainly wasn't, it was much better (not that I agree with that, mind). What I love most about this work is how different it can feel in different hands. Colin Davis, in Dresden, gives the short piece an epic weight that, in some ways, feels almost Mahlerian in terms of distance travelled. In Mackerras's hands the piece feels almost dangerous.

But what about the fifth, the third, the second; they're all great and I love them all. So the only thing to do was spend much of Friday listening. First up was Haitink's LSO Live recording of four and eight. A disc containing two of my favourites already has a lot going for it, but when played this well, with this much energy, you really cannot go wrong. It is a quite exceptional disc.

Another eight followed, this time coupled with the second and from Colin Davis in Dresden. Here freshness comes not so much from out and out excitement but rather the stunning range of textures (well recorded by Philips) that Davis produces.

Then it was over to Furtwangler for five and seven with the Berlin Philharmonic, from wartime recordings, live and in remarkably good sound quality. Like most Furtwangler, live is preferable to studio, and these should be heard (unless you object to them for political reasons).

Which brings me to another interesting question. Owning a 160GB iPod, there is plenty of choice for each symphony whenever I'm on the move. Normally. Sometimes, I'll only take my 16GB iPhone. Then stark choices have to be made: as ViolaMaths revealed, she has no Beethoven symphony on her phone. I do have a complete cycle on the iPhone, but I limit myself to one recording per work (with the exception of Sondheim's musical Assassins, where I simply cannot choose). So, what is the desert island Beethoven cycle on my iPhone:

  1. Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (EMI - Classics for pleasure)

  2. Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (EMI - Classics for pleasure)

  3. Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic, his 1944 as live recording (there was no audience - available on various labels)

  4. John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (DG)

  5. Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, live from Ramallah (Warner - available as both CD and DVD)

  6. Erich Kleiber and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca, but probably others too given its age)

  7. Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (EMI - Classics for pleasure)

  8. Colin Davis and the Dresden Staatskapelle (Philips)

  9. Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Telarc)

Most heavily represented is Charles Mackerras. Though not, as you might expect, by his SCO cycle which is musically the better, but rather the RLPO on EMI (whose engineers did a much better job).

The Barenboim may not be technically the best, and in some ways Mackerras's 2006 concert was a more compelling performance, yet it is special because shortly before the recording they performed it in Edinburgh, and it remains one of the more powerful concerts I've attended.

Kleiber, as I've noted above, is one of the few who makes the 6th compelling for me.

The Gardiner is special as it was my first complete cycle. The fourth still stands out, but overall I don't find it so persuasive.

Some may be wondering where Carlos Kleiber's legendary recording of the fifth has got to in all this. Well, it is a very good recording and has a lot going for it. (If you think it's the bee's knees, you may not want to read the rest of this paragraph.) At the same time, my enjoyment has been marred ever since someone pointed out to me the obviously botched edit going into the finale. Such things shouldn't matter, but just like the sound quality on the Mackerras Edinburgh performances, it's a needless blemish.

Where, too, is Jochum, in any one of his three fine cycles. Perhaps the iPhone needs a shake up......

Proms 2009 - Mahler 9 from Haitink and the LSO

I have something of a love hate relationship with Bernard Haitink. Actually, that's probably a little unfair, it's never quite as bad as hate, more just leaving me cold. His work with the LSO is typical of this - a superb Brahms second on LSO Live, but the rest of the cycle a little disappointing; a disc of Beethoven's fourth and eighth symphonies that ranks amongst my absolute favourite Beethoven recordings, but the remainder of the cycle never really catches fire for me.

So too his Mahler. Here I tend to find an odd division, so to speak. The odd numbered symphonies normally come out very well indeed: his recordings of the third are especially fine, both his early Concertgebouw reading and also the superb live(ish) Chicago account, even if it does use a trumpet instead of a horn. On the other hand, he often seems underpowered in the even ones, the second and eighth especially and I found his recent Chicago sixth very dull. Too often, in Mahler and elsewhere, I find I just want more raw emotion (but then, as a fan of the likes of Bernstein and Giulini, that perhaps is unsurprising).

So, as a Mahler fanatic, his Prom of the ninth symphony was a must hear. As an odd number, history was on Haitink's side that I would enjoy it. And, for the most part, I very much did.

Many performances of the ninth suffer from what I like to call Mahler Nine Syndrome - wherein the first movement particularly sounds like a series of totally unconnected miniatures (Siblius seven is very susceptible to this too). What's interesting is that in a good performance, I can never understand how a bad performance achieves this effect, so compelling is the flow. Haitink was free from any trace of this problem.

His reading was not too overwrought, no Bernstein/Concertgebouw here. It had the deliberate and somewhat methodical approach that always seems to be a Haitink hallmark (and the main reason I don't always get on with him). And yet, there was plenty of weight to the climaxes. The orchestra's playing was very good too, bringing out some very nice textures.

It was a slowish reading, with the first movement weighing in just shy of thirty minutes, putting it nearly as slow as that late Bernstein (though still some way off Sinopoli's live Dresden account). While it did feel slightly ponderous towards the end of the opening movement, it did so without dragging.

The start of the second movement had less bounce than I would prefer, feeling a little on the soporific side, but it picked up very well as the movement progressed and by the end Haitink's reading was extremely compelling.

The third movement was excellent with no shortage of a sense of the macabre and building to a suitably mad close.

The finale was close to faultless. Again, on the slow side, but beautifully compelling and lacking nothing for emotional impact. All in all, then, Haitink near his best, both with the LSO and Mahler. It makes me a little sad that Mills doesn't programme more Mahler in Edinburgh.

I was listening on the BBC's iPlayer service (and those in the UK still have until Monday evening to catch it). Sound is fairly decent, and certainly now listenable (unlike in the old Realplayer days). And yet, given you can watch TV programmes in HD and download them to your hard disk for a month, I can't help but feel that we radio listeners get short changed. I know it's all a fear of piracy - and yet I already own seventeen or so recordings of the work, so I don't think the record industry has too much to worry about. Surely CD quality sound wouldn't break the bank...... Why don't the BBC give up on DAB as a bad job and put the money into high quality online radio.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Shrek the Musical, or what were the 2007 Pulitzer Prize jury smoking?

There are many mysteries in the world of the stage. Why does Ian Bostridge always look like he is going to vomit into the piano when giving lieder recitals? Why does everybody think that Rupert Goold is the best thing since sliced bread? Why has John Berry not yet been fired as Artistic Director at ENO? Shrek the Musical adds another to this impressive list – to wit – How did the man responsible for the dreadful book and lyrics, a gentleman who rejoices in the name of David Lindsay-Abaire, ever get awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama?

Now I must admit that it is some time since I saw the film, but I seem to remember it was quite amusing and in places moving. Lindsay-Abaire's achievement in this show is thus the more extraordinary. He has, by some remarkable process known only to Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights, succeded in the surgical removal of both qualities from this show. The result is to leave some exceedingly talented players struggling for two and a half hours beneath a crushingly leaden script.

What is so depressing about this is that there are some excellent performers wasting away in this show. The stand out is Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona who lights up the stage whenever she enters. She twinkles, she belts, she tap dances. The girl can do anything – whenever she is on stage one is temporarily able to ignore the text and enjoy her expressions and her energy. Brian D'Arcy James as Shrek also tries valiantly, but suffers rather more from the lousy script than Fiona (who also benefits from the show's only decent musical number). Among the supporting cast, Christopher Sieber (as Lord Farquand) unquestionably deserves some kind of reward for physical endurance, since he performs almost the entire show on his knees including some of the most complicated dance routines. The ensemble of fairy tale creatures also do not lack for energy, but sadly are, like everybody else, let down by indifferent musical number after indifferent musical number.

That music is a further poser. Just as it is rather difficult to work out why Lindsay-Abaire ever won a Pulitzer, it is also difficult to remember that the composer of this show, Jeanine Tesori, was also responsible for the fascinating Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre. Almost all of the inventiveness of that show seems to have been drained away here, although perhaps it is simply the case that not even the music of a Gershwin or a Rodgers would be sufficient to salvage this text.

In keeping with the general trend of the modern musical (unless being put on in the blessedly intimate surroundings of the Chocolate Factory), the set goes a bit mad – although again this is possibly an attempt to distract one's attention from the script. While there is not quite so much insane whizzing around as in the dire London Oliver there is frankly more of it than seems really necessary, and by the end I wanted to weep (it was either that or chew a limb off in frustration with the script) imagining what the huge amounts of money thrown at the costumes, set and confetti cannons of this no expenses spared production might have been used for (hiring some script doctors springs immediately to mind.)

All of which brings us back to the opening question. I realise that great playwrights may not necessarily be great lyricists (a point which apparently escaped whichever bright spark in the backroom of this show thought that hiring a Pulitzer winning playwright was a good move), but it does seem to me that great playwrights should be able to write dialogue. Our list of mysteries has grown by one more did David Lindsay-Abaire ever win a Pulitzer Prize?

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Sunlight is the best disinfectant

Or so they say, at any rate. At this point I would like to make a joke about how bad a disinfectant sunlight in fact is, however I'd just be ripping off Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, so I'll leave him to it:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Cheney Predacted
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

What does that have to do with the cinema? Well, a couple of Mondays ago found us at the Cameo for Sunshine Cleaning (unsurprisingly from the same people who brought us Little Miss Sunshine, hopefully the two will form a Cameo double bill soon, since I haven't seen the earlier film).

The film tells the story of sisters Rose and Norah (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt). Rose, disappointed with how her life has turned out since high school, is a single mum and involved with a married man. Obviously, then, she decides to set up a company that cleans up at crime scenes, the eponymous Sunshine Cleaning, since this is apparently an absolute racket.

What follows is a nice balance of fine comedy and heartfelt emotion. Performances are outstanding throughout: from Rose's father (played by Alan Arkin), along with his doomed business ventures, and her son Jason (played by Jason Spevack) to the proprietor of a cleaning equipment store (Clifton Collins) and the man who is having an affair with her (Steve Zahn).

One or two elements of the plot are, perhaps, a little obvious, but it also wisely chooses not to tie everything up too prettily in the end. Despite the fact only two of us made it, it none the less provided a rare moment of complete agreement in the verdict - well worth seeing.

Last week's film, Rudo and Cursi, was at the other end of the spectrum, with almost everyone liking it far more than me. It wasn't that it was dreadful per se, more that I didn't care about any of the characters, and I always struggle to like such films.

It tells of two brothers, nicknamed Rudo and Cursi, who live far from anywhere particular in Mexico and work on a banana plantation. Until, that is, Batuta shows up. He's a football talent scout and recognises their potential. Unfortunately, he only has space for one and makes them engage in a penalty shootout to decide. Rudo begs Cursi to shoot one way, it transpires they've got their sides muddled up.

Cursi is whisked off to the big city and fame and fortune follows, soon his brother joins him too. For much of the film, therefore, it seems like a bit of fantasy on the part of the writers who, one imagines, very likely dreamed they themselves would one day be picked out for soccer stardom. Of course, it doesn't all last, not least due to Rudo's gambling problem and Cursi's trouble with his rather fickle girlfriend.

Doubtless it will appeal to some, but I find the whole 'life is football' vibe rather annoying. Perhaps not surprising, given I generally couldn't care less about the sport. However, in stark contrast to The Damned United, the film seems to be much more about football than about interesting people, though maybe it's just that the people aren't that interesting.

It isn't without it's moments - Cursi's hideously bad singing career is especially fine, so too his mental breakdown in the hotel. But there aren't enough of them.

Given it's the first fruit of a production company founded by the likes of Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, much better might have been expected. Indeed, the film is directed by Cuaron's brother Carlos. He doesn't seem to have his sibling's magic touch - instead of the stunning visuals that made Cuaron's Harry Potter a highlight of the series, we get rather unsteady handheld camera work. Doubtless this was intentional, but I find it annoying. So too the sloppiness of the white subtitles being invisible in several brighter scenes.

But, such things would be forgivable if I cared about the characters. However, at the end (spoiler alert), when Rudo is trying to throw a match in order to get out of his gambling debts, he again instructs his brother to shoot one way. You'd think that after their opening debacle they'd have the sense to eliminate the earlier mistake. But oh no. Given how unbelievably stupid Rudo is, it is therefore somewhat baffling when the people to whom he is indebted do not actually kill him but only injure him and end his career.

Still, better is ahead, with a space theme in the coming weeks, including a documentary about Apollo and then Moon.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Imminent Promming: what are you looking forward to at the BBC Proms?

In just two days time, the BBC kicks off its mammoth classical music festival with an epic three half (okay, three part) concert which looks a little bitty for my taste. However, it did get me wondering what people were looking forward to. Back in April I gave an rather overlong view of the things I was going to be listening out for (or trying to listen out for, since it does get a little busy up here during August, what with the little matter of the Edinburgh festival).

However, today I've been having a look at what other people are on the edge of their seats for and very interesting it's been. Jessica Duchen (find her on the web here and on twitter here) tweeted the following:

The Creation, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Martha Argerich. Not necessarily in that order.

I've already heard the Creation this year and this didn't jump out at me when I first glanced through the programme. However, another look finds Prom 2 with quite a lot going for it: Mark Padmore joins the Gabrieli Consort and Players under Paul McCreesh. Argerich playing piano concerti by Ravel and Prokofiev in Prom 60 is another treat I'd missed. I can't say the same of the Budapest Orchestra (Prom 44). They always seem to get rave mentions and yet their CDs, especially an emergent Mahler cycle, have never grabbed me; what I remember most about their three concert visit to the Edinburgh festival in 2006 was their painful failure to tune to the piano for Brahms first concerto.

Back in old media, the Telegraph is apparently employing soothsayers, as Ivan Hewett picks six of the best concerts (something I'm pretty sure we can't judge until we've heard them, not least because the best are often the ones we least suspect). Still, they're the first to pick one of the ones I was really looking forward to.

Elsewhere on the internet musicomh have drawn up a shortlist (and a very interesting one too).

These last two pick up an event that seems common in people's diaries, as exemplified by the BBC Music Magazine on twitter:

Harnoncourt + VPO in the Great C major looks pretty tasty.

I'm always up for the Great C Major, a work that doesn't seem to make it into the concert programmes nearly as often as I'd like, and I'm quite certain the VPO will play it superbly. That said, I don't always get on with Harnoncourt, who can pull things about a little too much for my tastes; in his Haydn particularly, I always find he saps the flow out of it.

So, what am I most looking forward to. Well, that concert the Telegraph also picked up on was the third and final appearance of Daniel Barenboim and his exceptional West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of young arab and Israeli musicians. Depressingly, though, too few share the attitude of tolerance that the ensemble represents and it sounds like protests by various Palestinian groups have put off a forthcoming visit to the West Bank. They're always welcome here in Edinburgh. Their stay in London culminates in a concert performance of Fidelio in Prom 50 and features the likes of Waltraud Meier and John Tomlinson.

The other thing I will not miss on any account is Charles Mackerras doing Gilbert and Sullivan, in this case Patience in Prom 35. Oh yes, and I believe Donald Runnicles will be there at some point (I'll probably listen to that too).

One minor annoyance - I'm very glad the Proms guide this year had a wall planner, which is now usefully pinned to my wall and fast becoming adorned with highlights and pen marks, so must so that I'm not sure how they stand out anymore. Unfortunately, all the people I really want to hear are clearly not telegenic enough as they haven't been used in the pictures for each day (making it much harder to find their Proms at a glance).

Are you looking forward to something different? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Golden Age of Remastering (Thomas Dolby's first two albums reissued)

The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth are iconic albums in 1980s electronic music and well loved by their fans. Indeed, director of Star Trek and creator of Alias JJ Abrams recently picked the former as one of his favourites. As such, they're a little overdue for some remastering. We've already had a taster of this in the form of The Singular Thomas Dolby; however, being a compilation, it wasn't the real gold. I believe in the album as an artistic unit: the best albums (and both of these fall into that category) feel like a set of songs that belong together, in that order, and have a flow between them. Fortunately the gold has now come in two releases, originally slated for a couple of months back. They are well worth the wait. (Before going any further, I must note this review has a shameless plugs tag, meaning there is a conflict of interest, owing to the fact that Mr Dolby is my uncle. Actually, I should probably add one more disclaimer: this review is rather long, and somewhat nerdy in its detail; for those new to Dolby, the abridged version is that these are two classics and if you haven't heard them you should. Thanks to Spotify you can sample both before you buy.)

It's impressive when a remaster can give that buzz of almost hearing something again for the first time. The Golden Age of Wireless does. That moment came for me with the introduction of track six which had me wondering what on earth the song was, I didn't recognise it at all. And then I remembered, this was The Wreck of The Fairchild; I haven't listened to it in years because I only have it on vinyl and I don't have a record player in my hi-fi at the moment. Not only finally restored to the album (it has been notable in its absence from previous CD issues) but in its correct order. This was something I moaned about to Dolby a good couple of years ago. That's right, not only did the previous CD contain two tracks that weren't on the vinyl (She Blinded me with Science and One of Our Submarines) but this was compounded by the tracks being in the wrong order. The old issue ran as follows:

  1. She Blinded me with Science

  2. Radio Silence

  3. Airwaves

  4. Flying North

  5. Weightless

  6. Europa and the Pirate Twins

  7. Windpower

  8. Commercial Breakup

  9. One of Our Submarines

  10. Cloudburst at Shingle Street

The new issue (or, rather, the original album) runs:

  1. Flying North

  2. Commercial Breakup

  3. Weightless

  4. Europa and the Pirate Twins

  5. Windpower

  6. The Wreck of the Fairchild

  7. Airwaves

  8. Radio Silence

  9. Cloudburst at Shingle Street

Now, this may sound silly, but Wireless is probably the least frequently played of the Dolby albums in my flat, and I have them all. Listening to the remaster I am baffled as to why. It's true the sound is better, but it feels like an album now in a way that it didn't before. I now better understand why it is so loved. In case anyone is feeling short changed, though, there is no need to worry: the album is loaded with a further ten tracks, but they're where they should be (at the end) and we'll come to them later.

Otherwise, it's the same songs fans will know and love - from the propulsive Flying North (a reference to the fact planes head north initially after takeoff), through Europa and the Pirate Twins (a love song like no other I know), to the astonishing vividness of Cloudburst at Shingle Street (which captures the bleak Suffolk coast so magically). But even tracks I love less, such as Commercial Breakup or Airwaves, just sound better when they're in the right place.

As with The Singular Thomas Dolby, the sound is significantly better (it is not clear if these are the same masters - the track lengths are quite different in some cases, Airwaves running nearly two minutes longer this time round). I can't really improve much on my comments last time:

Sound quality is definitely improved and if not quite a night and day difference (the previous versions were, after all, pretty decent to begin with), certainly cleaner, crisper and richer; the sound is much more open and less compressed. They have not been comprehensively remixed in the manner of, say, The Sole Inhabitant tour (where may of the textures are often totally new or changed). For those of a hi-fi persuasion this will make it worth acquiring. If you're not bothered by such things, you may not notice.

Occasionally I would notice details that haven't really jumped out at me before. However, it is the cleanness and openness of the sound that stands out. We have got much better at making CDs sound good over the last decade or so. Credit then to Peter Mew for his very fine work on these (supervised by Dolby himself). Remastering isn't simply pushing a button, it's an art and it can be done very badly and very well, fortunately this is a example of the latter.

So, what of the extras? Well, some are superb, requiring little by way of elaboration (the two 'extra' songs from the previous issue, She Blinded me with Science and One of our Submarines, are both there, and complimented by Leipzig and Urges). Others fall much more firmly into the curiosities category and are probably of interest mainly to hardcore fans - the rather different sounding Radio Silence (Guitar Version) and Airwaves (demo) are prime examples. To be honest, a little like the alternate takes that jazz albums overflow with these days, one does slightly wonder what the point was (there's usually a pretty good reason the released version was the released version; Airwaves, I'm looking at you).

The remaining four are much more interesting. They're early demo songs which have rarely before seen the light of day, and never on CD. Of course, as before, there is often some reason for this. Urban Trial is perhaps the finest. It has its origins in some studio time which yielded Magic's Wand (part of Dolby's early career in keep fit videos I was hitherto not aware of). The song was, however, written with the intent of being rejected so he got to keep the master. Certainly, it has an emotive pull to it and the strongest lyrics of any of these 'new' songs (listen out for Dolby's eldest daughter Harper providing a vocal harmony in the second verse, an addition for the release). Therapy/Growth (demo) is another briskly written and recorded effort for a studio demo. It is dreamy, but I don't think the orientally styled melody quite works. Perhaps the most interesting is Sale of the Century (demo). If its tune is familiar, this is because it would eventually become The Wreck of the Fairchild. As Dolby himself says in the sleeve notes, he wasn't happy with the lyrics, and ditching them was certainly a good call (though they are oddly topical a few decades later in light of the financial crisis). It should also be noted that the sound quality of this one is pretty poor, especially in comparison to the rest (a very compressed sound). Lastly, there's the brief Pedestrian Walkway (demo). Originally written for Trevor Herion (whose name is new to me) of The Fallout Club, in a single verse it has a few people walking along the pavement. I'm afraid it's a little lost on me. It's rather too off the wall and I think I'll refrain from speculating on what might have been consumed prior to its composition. Not essential for everyone then; still, for a completist like me, they're gold.

The booklet doesn't recreate the LP entirely, mostly in its removal of the lyrics. However, these can be found on Dolby's website. The website also provides a further four audio tracks that wouldn't fit onto the CD (you have to register for the forum, but that's fairly painless and doesn't result in you getting peppered with spam or anything). Live versions of Commercial Breakup and Urges (the latter being a little raunchier than we're used to) are good to have, though the sound is a little poor. Then there's a demo of Flying North, which is actually the most interesting of the demos as it provides an excellent illustration of just what a difference getting the right sounds makes and how key those textures are to the genius of Dolby's music. Lastly, we get The Fallout Club's version of Pedestrian Walkway, which is much longer and works better, though the song still doesn't entirely grab me. The MP3s are at a fairly low bit rate (just 192 kbps), but given the quality of the source material, this probably doesn't matter too much.

But wait, there's more, yes, even more. In fact, a whole disc more. Indeed, a whole DVD more, which contains Live Wireless. This video was made in 1983 and was filmed before a live audience (though it probably counts as live-ish rather than being a properly live gig), the songs being linked together by another, rather apathetic, Dolby in the projection room. In addition to many of the songs from the studio album, we also get a number other songs, including Urban Tribal, mentioned above. We also get New Toy, written for Lene Lovich (who appears for it, and with whom he also performed it on tour a couple of years back). Perhaps the most interesting of these curiosities is Jungle Line, a cover of a Joni Mitchell song, and complete with throbbing tribal drums (Dolby would later co-produce her album Dog Eat Dog). I have a horrible feeling that Puppet Theatre may be the kind of song, especially thanks to it's repeated refrain of "one more night in the puppet theatre", likely to get stuck in my head. Lastly there's a quite good duet with Kevin Armstrong in Samson and Delilah. All in all, it's a most enjoyable hour (and the only available recording of Dolby doing some of these songs). To be honest, they could have got away with selling this on its own, so to bundle it in with the CD at regular price represents fantastic value.

There is one small blemish, some utter fool somewhere at EMI (who should be given a severe talking to by his manager at the earliest convenience), has, as the more eagle-eyed reader will have noticed, blemished the otherwise pristinely restored cover art with a great white square (which appears to be a German notice that this DVD is suitable for all ages). Thanks. Still, based on the paragraphs above (and given this disc will spend most of its time on the shelf, and thus with that part invisible), it could be worse: the music is what matters. The only people stupider than the guy at EMI are the people over at Amazon who are marking the set down to one or two stars based on this alone! Apparently it makes it less of a "collector's edition". (Of course, I dislike phrases like that anyway, which is why I've avoided it. Actually, since they'll likely fix this on future pressings, it probably makes it more collectable.) They're one of the many kinds of people Rob would justifiably sling out of his record store in High Fidelity. Anyway, the cover should have looked like this:

In general, though, it's beautiful. For example, the rear cover of the booklet gives one of my favourite pieces album art (as Dolby noted on twitter, fans who are really upset about the white box can always reverse the booklet):

For me, however, the real treat is The Flat Earth, for years one of my favourite albums. It's never sounded quite so good and, even better, this isn't scarred by age certification logos:

Less needed to be done here, in that the CD has always had the right tracks, in the right order. What makes it so special though? Obviously, in these days of CDs and MP3s, the distinction is slightly meaningless, but for starters it has one of the most fantastic A sides of any album: Dissidents, The Flat Earth and Screen Kiss. These three songs compliment and flow into one and other just perfectly. They all have great tunes, beautiful textures and wonderful lyrics. What's all the more interesting is that Dolby reveals in his liner notes that these were originally planned to be separate singles - it doesn't sound that way. I love "I can't read my writing, my own writing!" in Dissidents, very likely because I often can't. The Flat Earth is beautiful, or at least, so one thinks until Screen Kiss, a heartfelt love song that never fails to grab me.

Then the album flips and the B side contains my only reservation: Hyperactive, which didn't always feel to me quite like it fit on the album. Except that none of the B side tracks quite fit, and yet, by that very quality, they do. There is the frantic White City, followed by Mulu the Rain Forrest, which has possibly benefited most from the facelift (the pipes and other textures just sound incredible). Then there's the quirky I Scare Myself (originally by Dan Hicks and featuring Pete Thoms' trombone - not often you get that on a pop record) before closing with Hyperactive, his biggest UK hit, and originally intended for Michael Jackson.

It's brilliant. If you love this album half as much as I do, you should get this reissue; if you've never heard it before (and I suspect that's unlikely if you've read this far), then what on earth are you waiting for? This probably sounds overly sycophantic, but it's just how I feel at having one of the treasures of my CD collection so loving restored.

Of course, as with Wireless, we get more than the original album. First up is Get Out of My Mix which, as the name implies, is a mix that samples heavily from his work (it's a cut down version of one of the tracks on the 12x12 CD of Dolby remixes). Then there's Puppet Theater, which appeared on the Live Wireless DVD, though sounding better in the studio version. Dissidents (The Search for Truth Part I), to some extent an extended remix, though there's rather more to it than that, especially the lovely moment reminiscent of Gregorian chanting, is a welcome bonus (it too is known from the 12x12 album). We also get Field Work, Dolby's collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, which I was first introduced to via The Singular Thomas Dolby. Like so many of his songs, it has a strong narrative and has grown on me more and more as I've listened. The sonic contrast in those transitions where everything drops out save the drums is superb.

These are followed by a couple of nuggets from his work on film scores. Don't Turn Away hails from Howard the Duck, which I dimly recall watching along with a number of my cousins many years ago. It wasn't a memorable film but the song isn't bad, though it's rather more mainstream than typical for Dolby, and rather too cheesy film score in nature. This is followed by The Devil is an Englishman from the film Gothic (which I don't think I've ever seen). It's a wonderfully quirky song, and one that would have fitted in perfectly on Aliens Ate My Buick. It sounds like this film was a much better fit for Dolby (I may have to see it). Lastly we get live versions of I Scare Myself and Marseille. The latter is another song I've never come across before and it's probably my favourite amongst the 'new' material. Great textures, a catchy tune and decent lyrics.

The sound of all the bonuses is, unlike for Wireless, uniformly excellent. This is probably as a result of having had better source material to work with.

But wait, there's still more. As with Wireless, Dolby's website contains both the lyrics and some bonus tracks for download. We get an alternate version of Puppet Theatre (a little more laid back and with softer textures), followed by live versions of I Scare Myself (apparently a different one to that included on the CD), Dissidents and New Toy (the latter also featuring on Live Wireless). And, to round it all off, is the lecture. A fun track from a live show, essentially White City, preceded by a brief lecture 'explaining' why the world is flat.

In short, this is remastering the way it should be done: these discs have never sounded so good. They have provided a lot of great listening and will now provide many hours more - I don't think I'll be filing them away on my shelves just yet. So good is the technical job done that Peter Mew deserves one of our irregular awards. He is the first recipient, but in giving it I realise that, had we been around then, Mark Wilder would have got one for his work on Sony's Miles Davis reissues. Therefore, both get our first jointly named award: The Peter Mew and Mark Wilder Award for Audio Remastering that Genuinely and Significantly Adds to and Improves upon Previous Releases. Now, perhaps Mr Mew would like to turn his attention to the other two albums.....

Update - 16/7/09

Post from Dolby on his website clarifying the 'white box' issue. Appears it wasn't as simple as an idiot at EMI doing something idiotic, but rather a whole silly system.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Taking Sides - Art, Nazism and Wilhelm Furtwangler

The very title is an invitation to do it, to form a judgement on the protagonists and the rightness or wrongness of their actions. Certainly, there is no shortage of people willing to do so. One in particular sticks in my mind. It comes from a Gramophone discussion a few years back about art and politics between Rob Cowan, Tully Potter and violinist Tasmin Little*. Of course, the subject of Berlin Philharmonic music director Wilhelm Furtwangler's decision to remain in Germany until 1944 came up, and Little made what I regarded then, and still regard now, as a profoundly stupid comment:

If it got to the stage where things were changing so much for the worse in my country, as in Nazi Germany, I would go. For sure.

For sure? You know, know for certain that faced with an unpleasant government, you'd up and leave your life, your job, your friends and doubtless some of your family. Bearing in mind too that what we know now wasn't what was known then (how much exactly Furtwangler and others knew about what was taking place is one of many unanswered questions). Maybe you would. I don't know. I have no idea what I'd do. Certainly I'd like to think I'd do the right thing, but plenty didn't. As they play notes, Klemperer and Walter may have left, but as they were Jewish they had little choice: it was the only way they could continue to work. True Kleiber did take an admirable stand. Others, such as Jochum, remained and became somewhat sidelined through playing music that was disapproved of, others still such as Karajan and Schwarzkopf reamined and joined the party (twice in the case of the former).

I hope it's a choice I never need to make. I hope Little never needs to make it either (though I'll be interested to see if her money resides in the same place as her mouth should that day ever arise). As I said, I have no idea what I'd do and I don't honestly believe anyone really can until they're faced with the choice (except if they have so few ties to their home that they're contemplating leaving anyway).

Many then, of a musical disposition, will go into Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, which tells of Furtwangler's attempts to pass through the deNazification process and regain his position at the Berlin Philharmonic, with their minds made up. To an extent, I fall into this category too. I'm a big fan of Furtwangler's recordings (many of my favourites were made live in Berlin during the war, some were gifts from a friend who couldn't bear to keep them after visiting a concentration camp). You may think, from the way I castigate Little, that I think Furtwangler did the right thing. I don't. I don't think he did the wrong thing either. I think he made very difficult choices in very difficult circumstances. Decisions which, since I don't feel he committed any crimes, it is easy to second guess with hindsight but harder to criticise. I think he didn't deserve the treatment he got.

That's a lot to say before getting on to the actual business of reviewing the play, but it needs to be said because I don't come into the theatre free from bias at these questions. I have already taken sides.

Set principally on two days in February and July in the office of Major Steve Arnold (the American charged with preparing the case against Furtwangler - it is not clear whether the character is real or fictitious). He is aided by secretary Emmi Straub and young Lieutenant David Wills. Arnold is determined to get Furtwangler, whereas Wills and Straub take the other view. As Arnold tries to build the case, it becomes steadily more apparent that there is no real evidence of wrongdoing.

Yet there are questions. Furtwangler has saved many Jewish musicians, helping them get travel papers to leave, even his own secretary. But as Arnold puts it to him, you only helped the artists, what about the others; all he cares about is art, not the race laws. This is underscored by the story of the widow of someone he helped - after hearing him play Beethoven's Waldstein sonato on an out of tune piano, only then did he choose to help.

Did he stay because he didn't want to give up the instrument that is the Berlin Philharmonic (as conductor Solti suggested), was he worried about being supplanted by Karajan (who was whisked through deNazification with disgraceful speed, who was allowed to conduct Wagner at Bayreuth afterwards and who went on to dominate the 20th century classical recording industry, despite, in my view, being not nearly the artist)? Arnold is, he claims, only interested in the truth. Yet, as another character points out, there is no such thing.

In the end, though, it strikes me that the play is a tragedy for its two central figures. On the one hand you have this great artist, who made some questionable decisions in difficult circumstances. On the other you have a man, profoundly damaged by what he's seen in the concentration camps, unable to countenance the notion that such a prominent figure could be blameless. Indeed, despite disliking Arnold for much of the play, especially as he lays into Furtwangler's personal life, one comes to sympathise with him.

This is aided by stellar performances from Michael Pennington as Furtwangler (not quite resembling but certainly inhabiting him) and David Horovitch as Arnold. The rest of the cast, which includes Martin Hutson as Wills, is fine too (though Sophie Roberts, who plays Straube, did seem to lose her accent a little at the start of the second act). However, the main focus is the confrontations between the leads, played out in the bombed wreckage of Berlin that constitutes Arnold's office.

It is, in summary, a powerful and profoundly moving piece. A must for anyone interested in Furtwangler, but also more generally. In the climactic moments, aided by a performance of Bruckner's seventh that I must track down, I was moved to tears. That doesn't happen all that often in the theatre, nor too do you find that, so fine is the work, you have to pay (the rather steep price) for the text.

Furtwangler's own recordings provide many of the musical cues - we open to the close of one of his Beethoven fifths, act one plays out to the opening bars of the eighth. The adagio from Bruckner seven features prominently in the second half, and Beethoven's ninth plays us out (I am a little curious which recordings were used - all the ninths I have date from the 50s and I find I don't have a Bruckner seven by him; I do have a wartime fifth, but this wasn't made available until comparatively recently).

Harwood himself is scrupulously fair about not taking a judgement one way or the other, leaving that to the reader or viewer. He says in the programme note that he does indeed have a view but, rightly, he'll never say. I have a hunch it may not be a million miles from my own, but only because I wonder if he did really fall at one extreme of the other, I think he would have written a different play. We'll probably never know though.

People have been taking sides on Furtwangler for generations, and will continue to do so. Menuhin chose to work with him again after the war; there was a vicious campaign against him when he was offered the Chicago Symphony. While writing the play, Harwood dispatched his daughter to Tower Records to buy some Furtwangler discs: "We don't keep Nazi recordings in this shop.". An impressive piece of ignorance, given he never joined the party, and, more to the point, their loss. But then, I would say that wouldn't I, I've taken sides.

One final note, I don't find the Duchesss theatre to be a particularly brilliant space. To be sure, on a very hot day it was nicely air conditioned. But the seats were uncomfortable (I'm slim and I found them narrow with arms up so high I cannot readily imagine the physique they were designed for). Front of house management is also lacking, as a steady stream of latecomers, admitted up to thirty minutes into the first half, despite the lack of any suitable break, attested. Anyone looking for how to do this properly should visit the Royal Opera House where it's just tough luck if you can't turn up on time.

*On the off chance anyone from the Gramophone is reading this, I'd just like to thank you for how awful your website is. It took me about an hour and a half to find the article. Searching for articles mentioning Furtwangler in the last ten years did no good. In the end it was only by setting Google to your site and then searching for Nazi Germany that I finally tracked it down. I am especially annoyed that, when working through the issued chronologically and looking at the contents, I missed it because the awards issues are not included canonically.

Zimmerman and Harding close the LSO season with Sibelius and Brahms

The last time I heard Daniel Harding conduct any Sibelius was at the start of this season, when he did the seventh, which didn't impress me. However, he was joined for the violin concerto by Frank Peter Zimmermann (whose name I realise I've been spelling with only one N on my tweets all evening - apologies). Last time I heard him was at the 2006 Edinburgh festival, appearing with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic to playing Szymanowski's concerto, which was really quite exceptional (I can't link to a review because it predates the site and I haven't got round to uploading that part of my archive).

Together they made an excellent team. Harding was a superb accompanist, always bringing the orchestra low enough under Zimmermann so he was clear. Which, was a good thing, as it allowed us to appreciate his astonishingly virtuosic playing. However, Harding found plenty of force when Zimmermann wasn't playing; he also found the richness and drama of Sibelius's writing that was absent missing from his seventh and the tempi seemed much better chosen.

It was very well received, so much so that we got an encore. The eagle-eyed could have seen this coming because when Harding and Zimmermann came back out for the second time, the conductor didn't climb back onto the stage, instead nipping into the empty seat at the end of the second row. Zimmermann introduced it as some Paganini variations, written for a visit to England, on a theme we might recognise. Sure enough, the melody of the national anthem was easily detectable. Like many of the composer's works for solo violin, it did feel a little like they might have been written just to show off, especially with the fiendish mix of bowing and plucking. Still, Zimmermann was more than a match for it, and must surely win one of our irregular awards (so named for its first recipient: the Rachel Barton Pine Award for Encores that Alone Justify the Ticket Price*. Don't believe me, judge for yourself thanks to YouTube:

It should be noted that the Sibelius wasn't actually the first item on the programme. The concert began with Schumann's Manfred overture. In another interesting contrast with that earlier concert, where Harding gave a fine reading of a Schumann symphony, here it was a little different. They LSO played well enough, but the piece never really caught fire. However, I think this is more down to the composer, rather than any flaw in Harding's interpretation.

After the interval they finished with Brahms' second symphony. The second is in my view, and by some distance, the highlight of Haitink's recent LSO Live survey of the symphonies. Harding has, of course, studied extensively with Abbado (even now he's the principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which Abbado founded). This was apparent in his reading. I don't really care too much for most of the Abbado Berlin cycle (it's too pretty and laid back for my tastes, though I know plenty of others adore it, doubtless for this reason). You could hear a lot of the same traits from the London Symphony Orchestra last night in the slow and tranquil moments. However, Harding is his own man and there was also plenty of the yearning and turmoil that I so like Brahms. The final few bars were nothing short of electric. The orchestra got some of the best sounds I've heard from this year, which some especially fine wind playing (especially principal flautist Gareth Davies). In short, while it isn't my favourite Brahms (for that look to the first and fourth), nor quite my ideal interpretation (for that look to Mackerras or Jochum or Furtwangler), it was nonetheless a fine end to the season.

I look forward to hearing the LSO again, though I'm not sure when that will be. I'm trying to limit myself to one trip a month next season and all the Royal Opera stuff appears to be on Sundays not Saturdays (and I can't pass up Don Carlos and Tristan, even Runnicles himself would have trouble competing). My December trip is built around a visit by the Concertgebouw and I'm not sure I want to hear Gergiev after I've had a Mahler's second at three pm. That leaves only November, but perhaps that's a cue for me to give Michael Tilson Thomas another chance.

*Caveat: in case Mr Zimmermann, or anyone else interested, is reading this, where's Runnicles' awards carry no actual prize, physical or financial, save the glory or infamy (since they can be both positive and negative). They are awarded and created sporadically, whenever it seems appropriately, and are always named for their inaugural recipient.