Wednesday 24 December 2008

The Master of Suspense

£20 for 14 DVDs of Hitchcock, how can you go wrong? Well, if you pop into HMV (and doubtless other places, indeed, Amazon have it even cheaper) right not, it's difficult to see how you can. I would probably have paid £20 just to get hold of Rear Window, for my money one of the finest films ever made. But, as well as that, you also get The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second version with Jimmy Stewart), Rope, The Birds, Psycho, Frenzy, Vertigo, Marnie and much more.

Of course, there are some notable absences, particularly North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder and The Thirty-Nine Steps, but this may very well be because there is a second box for around the same price which includes all but the latter.

First into my DVD player was Rear Window. This will doubtless be known to people reading this post; if it isn't, stop reading now and for goodness sake go out and buy the set and watch it. What is there to say about this work? Jimmy Stewart, the photo journalist who has been confined to a wheelchair in an accident, and Hitchcock's sweeping introduction to his apartment that fills in this back-story visually in about a minute, is well cast. Opposite him is Grace Kelly. Stewart pulls off a remarkable acting achievement, in that most people, when watching the film, don't scream at the implausibility of his reluctance to marry her.

Then there is the MacGuffin: not so much a murder mystery as a 'was there a murder' mystery. Stewart thinks he's seen something, but has he? From there comes the suspense. And if that was all we got from the remarkable set, which is confined to the Stewart's apartment and the windows he can see into from there, that would still be something. But it is not enough for Hitchcock, who taps into the inner voyeur in all of us: we see Miss Lonely Heart's depressing life play out in a series of disappointments, the beautiful ballerina, who provides the fodder for some of the sharpest verbal fencing between the leads and the couple sleeping out on the fire escape to avoid the heat.

Just as we the audience are drawn into watching, so both Kelly and Stewart's nurse become hooked into the mystery. It stands up superbly to repeated viewings. There is also an interesting documentary that shows Hitchcock's genius when directing the couple on the fire escape - he gave them contradictory instructions when the story comes, so they fall over each other trying to get inside, the result is wonderfully natural.

My next foray was slightly less successful: Rope. The concept is superb. Inspired by a play, it tells of two people who decide to commit the perfect murder, to show they can, and then invite various people to dinner, including the victim's parents and their old professor.

Hitchcock wanted to shoot it continuously, unfortunately he was bound by the ten minute limit of the amount of tape that could be got into a camera, the solution of every now and again focusing onto someone's back doesn't mask this entirely satisfactorily.

The second problem is that Jimmy Stewart is miscast as the intellectual: he doesn't seem quite right spouting Nietzsche. It is said that Carry Grant was preferred but turned it down out of concern over the homosexual subtext (it is implied that the murderers are in a relationship and, according the screenwriter, in the play one had had an affair with Stewart's character in the past). He is great playing the cop and figuring things out, but less fine elsewhere.

A third problem wouldn't have occurred to me but for the documentary. The writer suggests we shouldn't have seen the murder at the start, which might have led to rear window style tension of wondering if there really was a body in that chest. All in all, if ever there was a compelling candidate for a remake, this is it (not least because modern digital technology must surely make one continuous take no problem).

That's not to say it is a total write off, there are some very fine and amusing lines, the murderers (John Dall and Fraley Granger) are excellent, so too the victim's father and aunt. Some of the shots are pure genius - the timing of the kitchen door swinging to reveal Brandon dropping the rope into a draw is superb, so too is the tension as Stewart attempts to unmask them while keeping his life.

Last up, for the moment, was The Trouble with Harry, which is that he is dead. As the film opens, one person after another stumbles across the body, some believing they have killed him, and all conspiring, for reasons that aren't always completely convincing, to cover things up. I suppose, to some extent, this is Hitch's attempt to send himself and his genre up, and it does work.

It's a weird and wacky black comedy, with only the small town sherif really behaving as you would expect for a character in a Hitchcock movie, except, of course, that he would normally be expected to get his man.

A week of excellent but heavy films (with a few more recent ones thrown in)

I didn't make it Monday night film club at the start of December, owing to a Festival planning meeting that clashed. Given the somewhat depressing fare of Hunger, I didn't view this as the end of the world. Odd, then, that I was so keen to see the next week's offering, which was hardly a gay romp.

Waltz with Bashir is an interesting and challenging film. Some might, perhaps, be put off by the use of animation to tackle such a serious issue as war crimes and mass murder. They shouldn't be. Director and writer Ari Folman has picked what is probably the perfect medium for his story. And it is very much his story. We open with the recurring dream of a friend, prompted by his time doing military service. Folman confesses that he never has such dreams and can't really recollect any of his service in the Lebanon war of the early 80s. However, that night he has a vivid flashback and this prompts him to embark on a journey of discovery of history and his small part in it.

As he travels he interviews people he served with and people he didn't and amid the dreamlike animation, events slowly come into focus. We see in stark colour the senselessness of war, especially in one sequence where retaliation follows retaliation follows bombing, each missing its target and sparking the next wave. Then there is the harrowing shooting of the no more than a child who has fired a rocket propelled grenade, meanwhile the music of Bach plays in the background.

At last we get to the massacres in the Beirut refugee camps and Folman's role on the edge. We see a situation in which many people knew, or had an inkling of what was going on, but nobody acted. It is horribly familiar from genocides before and since. Yet the soldier's eye view is a refreshing perspective.

As the credits roll it becomes clear that almost every voice is played by himself. It isn't clear if Folman has simply set the recordings of his interviews to images, but there is an implication, and this only heightens the impact. There remains only one question, and the perennial one for any first person narrative: how reliable is the narrator? Did he really remember nothing of all these events until the conversation in the bar? Nonetheless, it is a powerful and thought-provoking film.

It should be noted that the film is in Hebrew with English subtitles, but like all good subtitled films, you quickly forget.

The following night came an even more anticipated event for me (though not for the rest of the world, who have already seen it) in the DVD and Blu-Ray release of The Dark Knight. I like a good comic book film, as I'm sure I've mentioned before and they don't come much better than this film's predecessor, Batman Begins. One reviewer of the new film on Amazon commented that this wasn't the Batman of the comics. I can only respond that I don't know what comics he's been reading. It captures his trick of vanishing mid conversation as perfectly as the first first film, as well as playing on the playboy aspect of his lifestyle.

However, the outstanding quality of Nolan's Batman was not, for me, Bale's performance, it was that he got so many of the characters and relationships right. The Gordon/Batman dynamic (are they friends, allies, something else altogether?) or the complex bond between Bruce Wayne and Alfred, not quite father and son or master and servant but some strange combination of those, and of other things. Then there is Lucius Fox's unease as Batman goes too far. Batman's desire to save the city by being whatever kind of hero or villain the city requires. This was typified in the first film by the moment when Gordon mentions that he never said thank you, Batman's response: "And you'll never have to."

Into this mix was to be added the clown prince of crime, The Joker. He has had a chequered history in film. For all Ceaser Ramero's strengths in the 60s TV series, he played the clown prince of crime with the emphasis very firmly on the clown. Jack Nicholson wasn't bad for Tim Burton, per se, but he didn't really play the joker, instead we were treated to Jack Nicholson if he fell into a vat of chemicals. Heath Ledger is in another league. His joker is enigmatic and we never learn his name or the origins of his Glasgow smile (there is a moment early on he relates a story and it is disappointing until he tells an utterly different one a few scenes later). This joker is not driven by money, or a desire to steal Batman's girl (as Nicholson's was), he is instead driven by a love of chaos, portrayed as an elemental force of anarchy, and the more terrifying for it. Much of the time he seems to be placing Batman in dilemmas purely to toy with him. The only thing missing is his notorious laughing gas.

The action is good, though one feels that for the full effect the IMAX is needed. Chases involving the Bat-pod, Batmobile and a stunning shot of a truck being flipped over are all impressive, though they are not the greatest action sequences ever made. And, truth be told, that is not where the film scores its points. Its greatness is derived from character and drama. The extras proudly relate how they actually blew up a building at one point; the efforts of the filmmakers and their results are such that it seems churlish to point out that this is not new ground: James Cameron did this in Terminator 2 the better part of two decades ago.

The film's other high point is Harvey Dent (or Two Face, as he will become), whose transformation is meticulously crafted. Nolan convinces us that this paragon really could fall and that he really would decide life or death on the flip of a coin.

In sum, the film is nothing short of a stunning tour de force with no weak links to be seen. Watching it leaves you reeling and with two thoughts: how long will we have to wait for another and how can this be topped (and would it be a mistake for the team to try and follow it). This isn't simply one of the best superhero films of all time, it is among the finest films of all time.

Thursday of that same week saw us back to the cinema for A Street Car Named Desire, this time in the rival Filmhouse as opposed to our usual haunt, The Cameo. I've not seen it before (in any form), so was curious. I also didn't really know what to expect in terms of the plot.

The first marvel is Williams' writing, which flows off the page like music, though how well it might work if the actors' accents were not so flawlessly southern is an interesting question. The eponymous street car is absent save a brief cameo at the start, except, of course, in so much as it is a pervasive metaphor.

The performances are first rate with Marlon Brando (who I will confess is principally known to me for playing Jor-El, super-man's father) standing out particularly as Stanley Kowalski, who at turns shows you exactly why Stella has fallen for him and then a darker side. Kim Hunter's Stella and Vivien Leigh's Blanche (Stella's sister) are also very fine.

The film opens with Blanche turning up at her sister's for some respite and overstaying the welcome. The exact reasons for her presence are teased out slowly, along with the nature of who she really is. Around this Williams paints a picture of a horribly judgemental society and fascinating treatments of issues such as domestic violence and metal illness.

If you've managed, like me, to go without experiencing this masterpiece, be it on the screen, stage or page, you should correct the anomaly as soon as possible.

Things took a turn for the worse a week later in the form of Dean Spannley, a film in which I saw little redeeming merit, save that I rather enjoyed the title sequence, after which it went sharply down hill. That said, of the four of us who saw it, two liked it very much and the third was somewhere between us.

The plot is tough to pin down without giving it away, so you might wish to skip on a paragraph. Sam Neill stars as the eponymous Dean who appears to have been a dog in a previous life. For reasons that aren't entirely compelling to me, Jeremy Northam plies him with expensive wine in order to elicit reminiscences, which seem neither terribly interesting or profound. A friend suggests that it is the character's desire to avoid a closed mind that drives him, and I can sort of see this, if only I'd got something interesting out of it.

I would probably be more forgiving if I hadn't found the writing so clunky and inelegant, especially so in the Northam's narrator and his father, a horribly cliched performance from Peter O'Toole. Of course, this is an area where I am pickier than most. Then again, I fail to see why learning how his childhood dog died suddenly turns O'Toole into a nice person and instantly fixes their dysfunctional father/son relationship. It isn't exactly plausible.

There were some funny moments, but I'm afraid that for my part I was generally laughing at the film rather than with it.

Film club's final outing for the year came on Monday, and in the form of a fitting film, and another I have unaccountably managed to go without seeing: It's a Wonderful Life. For those who don't know the story it tells of Jimmy Stewart, who plays George Bailey, a man who has gone through life always putting others ahead of himself and now, on Christmas Eve is at his lowest ebb and contemplating suicide. Henry Travers is the angel sent to help him.

What is nice is the mix of sadness, which pervades the film, particularly at those moments where Bailey has once again to give up his dreams, and happiness, such as his romance with the lovely Donna Reed's Mary. Yes, it is a somewhat cheesy romanticisation of small town Americana, but it caries it off beautifully. This is due in no small part to Stewart, who plays the every-man role so beautifully, not to mention the fact that I could listen to his southern drawl all day.

Another fascinating point is how many things seem to have been influenced by this: the way the God and the angels are portrayed as flashing stars is exactly how God is portrayed in an episode of Futurama; when Mr Potter interview's Bailey and forces him into a low chair, it instantly invokes Jack Donaghy's use of the same tactic in a first season episode of Tina Fey comedy 30 Rock.

It also contains what must rank as some of the most beautiful love scenes on film. When Mary throws a rock through the window of the old house and refuses to reveal what she's wised for, it doesn't matter, we know. Even more so, there is the scene where George and Mary are both listening to a mutual friend on the same telephone, their heads pressed close together, their minds anywhere but on the conversation with the friend who is persuading them to invest in plastics; it has a little something of the chalk on the card table scene between Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina.

It's rare for a film to draw a round of applause, this did in an unusually full Cameo 1 (for a Monday evening, anyway). Anyone who hasn't seen this should do so post haste.

There is much to look forward to in the new year, especially Milk (of which we have already reviewed the opera), Frost/Nixon and, with some trepidation, the adaption of Watchmen, an Alan Moore masterpiece and one of the great achievements in comic book writing, which I will doubtless have to see, if only to blog loudly about what a travesty it is. To paraphrase Cubby Broccoli, Monday night film club will return.

Saturday 20 December 2008

Old and new Dolby

Thomas Dolby, who happens to be our uncle, has some great news on his blog. Not only are we due to get remasterings of both The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth (still one of my favourite albums of all time), but also a disc of singles and, best of all:

Unconfirmed rumours will have us believe that Dolby’s first brand-new studio album in nearly 18 years will follow shortly thereafter! (Wind and tides permitting.)

Something we've been waiting, and doing not a little pestering about, for nearly 18 years. In another tantalising post, Dolby provides the notes sent to some artists who will be providing overdubbing which includes such snippets as:

It’s ok for the sections to be quite different. If you think in movie terms, it’s like a movie that cuts around, has flashbacks etc. a bit like Shawshank Redemption. In fact, the image of Tim Robbins emerging from the storm drain into a stream and shaking the rain off as he realises he’s finally free, is a good image for the song.

Any chance of an advanced review copy of anything?

But what about the remastering? After all, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue has now been remastered so many times it sometimes seems worth querying whether there is any need to replace it or whether it is a grab for money on Sony's part. Well, this doesn't look like the case here. Dolby appears to have been closely involved and it sounds from this post as though the results will be worth hearing:

From EMI’s offices I went on to Abbey Road to master the singles CD with Peter Mew. When a producer attends a mastering session, the engineer has often pre-prepared EQ and volume levels on the songs, cut the gaps to length etc. Hopefully there’s not a lot of tweaking to do. Yet this was quite a tricky one, because of the enormous difference in sonic style between ‘Urges’ circa 1980 and ‘I Love You Goodbye’ a dozen or so years later, and all the singles in between. There were necessary compromises made when we originally cut the vinyl versions, because vinyl is sensitive to some artefacts (eg sibillance on vocals) and if there’s too much bass, the grooves gut cut too deep for safe manufacturing. Yet I’ve become accustomed to those modified sonics over the years, so it’s a bit of a shock to hear the songs back to the way they were when they first came out of the studio. It took us a good few hours to level everything up, but I think the end result is very good; and there’s a logical progression to it, given that the songs are all chronological.

One other question that arises is that of track order. For example, does this mean that we are going to finally get a CD release of The Golden Age of Wireless which replicates the original LP in not having She Blinded Me with Science as the first track and which restores The Wreck of the Fairchild to its rightful place?

Still, after years of not terribly much, all of a sudden a deluge. It's like busses really, only much better sounding.

Friday 19 December 2008

Struggling to sit still - James Lowe and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play Beethoven

When it's difficult to sit still at a concert it means one of two things: that the performance is either very bad or very good. Fortunately this fell into the latter category.

The initial auguries were not promising. I had been looking forward to tonight's concert as it marks the return of conductor Frans Bruggen, who was one of the finest guest conductors to join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra last year for an all Mendelssohn programme. For his return he was opting for Beethoven with the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and the second symphony.

I was, therefore, initially somewhat disappointed to see the poster on my way in that stated Bruggen had withdrawn from the concert. We hope all is well with the 74 year old conductor and wish him a speedy return to the podium, hopefully here in Edinburgh.

His replacement was James Lowe, a young and up and coming Scottish conductor. I heard him during the summer when he conducted the amateur Rose Street Ensemble in a rather interesting programme (and a friend of ours who plays in that ensemble gives he rave reviews, indeed, by coincidence, and by way of declaring an interest, I met him in passing in the pub last week after film club).

Beethoven is tricky ground for anyone conducting the SCO. After all, Mackerras's stunning series of the symphonies at the 2006 festival still rings in the minds as all, such as myself, who had the privilege to hear them. Many conductors who've tackled the works with them since have fallen short in comparison.

Interestingly, the programme placed the The Creatures of Prometheus first. Lowe has a dynamic style and the orchestra were at their most responsive for him. Well, nearly; perhaps not quite so much as with Mackerras, but that may be that the latter has a better understanding of their capabilities, or a better knowledge of how to get them, as once or twice it felt Lowe pushed them further than they could go. That said, Beethoven should always sound a little raw.

He got some wonderfully sharp contrasting dynamics and was at his most persuasive in the quicker moments. It is true that at times a little more subtlety would have been nice, but this was Beethoven at his most youthful. Superb solo performances were given by Clarinetist Maximiliano Martin, David Watkin (as ever) and also bassoonist Peter Whelan (at least, I assume so, the second bassoon is credited in the programme as Alison Green, but it certainly wasn't her).

Then came the second half and the second symphony. I always find it an interesting work: unlike many of the other symphonies, I would be hard pushed to hum any of the tunes, yet from the moment I hear the opening bars I feel as though I'm back with a dear old friend. A dear, old, fresh and rejuvenated friend in Lowe's hands. The slow opening was nicely taken before they launched thrillingly into the main theme, and I started to struggle to sit still. My head wanted to move, my feet to tap and I even fancied a little armchair conducting as I might in the privacy of my own living room. I wasn't the only one: leader Christopher George played with a wonderful energy, swaying on his seat as he did so.

Like the best of Beethoven it was full of surprises, the orchestra playing superbly. Though, if there was a reservation, it would be that the volume was a bit too high for the Queen's Hall much of the time, yet they seemed to display a wider dynamic range than in the first half. Also, while the pauses were full of tension, they could have been held that bit longer, for that bit more drama.

But it wasn't just the faster moments such as the first and last movements that were electric: the slow movement and the scherzo were both filled with drama too.

This was one of the finest and most enjoyable performances of the second that it has been my pleasure to hear, and I've heard Mackerras conduct with the same band so my praise doesn't get too much higher than that.

Only one question remains: when can we next expect to hear Lowe on the podium at the Queen's Hall? I don't know if the orchestra's management reads this blog, I expect not, but they could do an awful lot worse than engage his services more frequently (certainly they have done much worse in the past). Perhaps we might have him as principal guest conductor when Elts' contract is up.

Thursday 18 December 2008

There was going to be Runnicles

As I mentioned at the end of my last review, one of the highlights of my concert going season, and certainly the London Symphony Orchestra's, looked set to be Donald Runnicles' appearance on 25th January for Strauss's Four Last Songs with Christine Brewer, his Tod Und Verklärung and the unfinished adagio of Mahler's 10th symphony.

Sadly it is not to be, I received the following e-mail on Tuesday:

I am writing to let you know that this performance will now be conducted by Leif Segerstam, as Donald Runnicles has decided to withdraw from the concert due to family reasons. The programme will remain unchanged.

We sincerely hope that the family reasons are not too serious, and that everyone is well in the Runnicles household.

Bad enough, however, that we won't be getting Runnicles, but I could bear it if his replacement wasn't so dire. I have asked for a refund and will be investigating other options for my trip south (the Philharmonia has Benjamin Grosvenor playing the Grieg piano concerto).

Why the ire against Segerstam? He's on my blacklist after his performance of Sibelius's 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies with the BBC Scottish Symphony a couple of years ago. It thus seems as good a time as any to reprint my review which predated this blog (originally published on the Naim forum on 1st December 2006).

Well, last night saw the finale of the series that sparked this thread. What a shame it was not the valedictory that might have been hoped for.

Conductor Leif Segerstam was on duty for symphonies 5, 6 and 7. Things did not start especially well: there was something about the opening of the 5th that wasn't right, but on which I struggled to put my finger. Certainly it was painfully slow, running around forty minutes. This is fine enough if you are Leonard Bernstein and can conjour the unique sonic pictures he manages with the VPO. Segerstam couldn't. It also seems he is certainly his pupil (Solyom)'s teacher, in that his sense of orchestral balance is very poor. This was particularly true of the wonderful theme on the strings in the closing bars which was completely washed out. Similarly to his pupil, he also seems to equate volume with drama (indeed, at places in the 7th it was painfully loud). The second movement suffered from similar problems and more - the big themes didn't really ever seem to emerge at all; there was no sweep or flow at all. Indeed, he seemed not to quite be in control of things, not least in the way he jerked through the transition into the finale, which suffered horribly from 'Mahler 9 syndrome' (namely the way in which that work can, in the wrong hands, seem horribly like a series of disjointed minatures - I would never imagined it possible to do this to Sibelius). He built no tension, no themes. The final chords utterly underwhelmed. Still, the audience by and large seem to disagree (and I once again wonder if having heard so many fine readings on disc makes it impossible to enjoy lukewarm performances).

However, the 6th was some way below lukewarm. Balance was, if anything, more of an issue (the more subtle moments were not allowed through). This was compounded by extraordinary sloth, again running in at close to forty minutes. Both the first and second movements ended in an almost comical manner, in a kind of 'you're kidding, that surely wasn't the last chord' way. In some bad readings, at least one now and again gets the wonderful Sibelian themes and thinks, this is more like it. But Segerstam never allowed them to emerge. The big themes were fumbled terribly. There was no bite or tension to what should be the exciting vivace of the third movement, which ended with the most bizzare climax coming deafeningly out of nowhere. In the 4th movement it became clear to me that his problem was rather more profound than a poor sense of orchestral balance: he had a total lack or orchestral control. The big climaxes in this movement should not sound like a cacophony in this sort of a way. The beauty of the movement's opening was utterly lost.

However, it was the 7th that was possibly the most disappointing of all, perhaps because I have fond memories of a wonderful concert from Oramo and the CBSO. The opening bars displayed some of the poorest orchestral playing I have heard in some years. The various instruments were all over the place. In fairness to them, they recovered slightly in the next few minutes and, for a moment, I wondered if this would turn out to be the evening's highlight. It did not. When the trombones first entered there was something awfully funny in the balance within the section. The faster moments (though this is a rather relative term as there was not nearly enough contrast in tempi) did not work at all. Again it suffered horribly from Mahler 9 issues and the cacophony of the 6th. The sense of journey's end towards the close was utterly absent. The lack of balance was debilitating - towards the end the strings drowned the trombones utterly (and the music was painfully loud). There textures were awful too - there is a string theme that has a wonderful 'icy wind' feel in the best readings, in Segerstam's hands it sounded like rather dull scales played badly. When he paused it was worse - comically bad even, there seemed no reason to it (other, perhaps, than to further butcher the music). The final chords had little impact (though the audience seemed rather to have enjoyed this one too).

Segerstam conducts in an oddly lacklustre way. Indeed, one wonders if he is past it, but a quick google shows him barely over 60. Perhaps it's his weight, but the energy with which Mackerras (some 20 years his elder) strides to the podium and then conducts rather puts him to shame. Segerstam merely waddles there and one almost wonders if he will be able to climb onto the podium. His gestures hardly change at all with the music and he never seems to direct the players. Not a huge matter mind, since they never seem to be paying him the slightest bit of attention. In a way it makes me appreciate Solyom more, he may have lacked the nuance of balance, but he did not lack for enthusiasm and his BBC Scottish was not all over the place in the same way.

I am in awe at Segerstam's ability to make this music so un-visual and so un-evocative. It amazes me that he has recorded them all twice (at least now I know that I need not bother checking them out).

All in all a rather disappointing series: why could they not have engaged some of the fine Sibelians based in this country - Oramo or Davis! When the broadcasts make it to R3 (late January) the 3rd and Kullervo with Vanska are an absolute must. Volkov's 4th is well worth hearing. But less so the rest.

Monday 15 December 2008

The 4th Best Orchestra in the World (allegedly)

There is a craze at present for lists of the top ten this and the twenty greatest thats. It is an appeal to the lowest common denominator and a rather nasty dumbing down. The current edition of a well known classical music magazine, we shall preserve its identity, and avoid giving it free publicity, by calling it Record Playing Machine, continues this trend by naming the world's twenty greatest orchestras. Of course, such nonsense is not new to the folk at Record Playing Machine. They have a regular column on the top ten inanely stupid things (opening movements say, or a what could have been a vaguely interesting one on recording venues which suggested the Usher Hall is good for that but not concerts, which can only suggest the author hasn't attended too many there).

But this was egregious hype and nonsense of the worst form. Had they said, here's a look at twenty great orchestras, by no means an exclusive or exhaustive list, just twenty bands we think are extremely special and here's why, I would have no problem. But no, it is saying these are the twenty, they are better than each other in this order, and the ones we've excluded are worse. Now, everyone has favourites. I have favourite conductors (Charles Mackerras and, of course, Donald Runnicles, and others such as Carlo Maria Giulini and Wilhelm Furtwangler if one widens the parameters to include the deceased), but I wouldn't try to claim either as the greatest, there are other great conductors, and it would be meaningless to elevate these two, other than to say that for whatever reason I find myself in sympathy with them more often. When you get to a certainly level, the distinctions become increasingly meaningless. Take some of the great orchestras I have been lucky to hear in the flesh: The Berlin Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra (possibly my favourite for the sheer visual spectacle they bring to their stunning sound), The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, The Philharmonia, The Dresden Orchestra, all, and more besides, are exceptionally talented bands. The quality of a performance they may give on any one night is variable and dependent on many factors such as works, conductor, how the musicians happened to be feeling that day, whether it was unseasonably hot in the hall, whether Cancer was in the ascendent with Mars (okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the point). However, each has none the less been impressive on every occasion, but I cannot differentiate their greatness, and I do not believe that anyone else can either, or at least, not in any manner that is in any way meaningful.

So, what of Record Playing Machine and their list. In many ways there aren't too many outrages. The top three, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the Concertgebouw, are all unquestionably great orchestras, so too the Chicago, Bavarian and Cleveland a little further down the list. The main quibble would be with Britian's entries. Or, rather, entry: The London Symphony Orchestra. Not only does it come fourth but it is the sole entry from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. To say I was surprised at this would be something of an understatement. That's not to say the LSO isn't an excellent ensemble it its day. I have CDs to prove this, such as Colin Davis's live recordings of Sibelius's third and seventh symphonies, Barbirolli's Heldenleben or Bernstein's Mahler two. More to say that that day isn't today. To put it another way, when I am in the presence of greatness, it should generate a wow response, even if the individual reading isn't to my taste, I should still be in awe of the quality of playing, as was the case for the Bavarians in November or as has been the case with the Clevelanders and the Berliners. In recent concert going I have not experienced this reaction with the LSO, indeed, I have been somewhat disappointed by their quality. The only exception was performance of Bernstein's Mass under the baton or Marin Alsop some three years ago, but that was awesome more for the inherent spectacle of the work.

Fair enough, you might say, except that there are British orchestras that have wowed me regularly and recently. To start in London, there is the Philharmonia. Nowhere could the contrast be more clear than in an electrifying performance they gave under Knussen at Aldeburgh this year, which included Schumann's Konzertstuck for four horns, which provided a showcase for the orchestra's impressive horn section. The Birtwistle that followed allowed the whole ensemble to shine. Now, it's true that they had the advantage of the Maltings and one of the finest acoustics in existence, whereas the LSO is hobbled by the Barbican, but if anyone is going to argue that the LSO's greatness is simply masked by a poor hall, I think it would behove them to check the thickness of the ice on which they are standing. Similarly, the brilliant power I have heard them bring to Janacek at the Festival Hall outclasses the fourth place band (albeit those performances where under Janacek supremo Charles Mackerras, but a great orchestra should shine as great whomever stands atop the podium, certainly the fourth greatest should).

Then there is the LSO's current choice of music director. Gergiev certainly has a flair for certain more flamboyant parts of the Russian repertoire, as he demonstrated in Edinburgh this summer. However, his cumulative programmes with the orchestra show a worryingly narrow repertoire, something that is not, in my view, conducive to greatness. Then there is his recent Mahler. Now, these recordings do have their adherents, but for me they are something a train wreck and Gergiev seems both to often lack any concept of piano (something a friend who saw his Edinburgh Prokofiev performances also found) and, more critically, to conduct the music like a man late for an appointment. So much so that the fourth best orchestra in the world does not always keep up.

Of course, the inclusion of one such orchestra over another is a matter of taste. The problem is the article implies that the UK has just one great orchestra this is it. I'm sure there are people who genuinely prefer the LSO, though on current form I am interested to hear a justification. The problem is that it isn't just one orchestra. I hear greatness in the Royal Opera House Orchestra, The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and not simply when conducted by Donald Runnicles and the City of Birminigham Symphony Orchestra (the LPO is only excluded from this list as I have not heard it in concert for some years so cannot judge it one way or the other, similarly Mark Elder's Halle). All have impressed and wowed me in ways the LSO never has in the concert hall. And, while I don't personally include the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, I have heard brilliance from them in recent performances that outclasses the LSO, a marked contrast would be the horn section, who last night were brought to their feet for what was, in comparison to what the Scots are capable of, fairly mundane. Fourth best orchestra in the world? I think anyone would struggle to convince me that the LSO was currently one of the best orchestras in the country right now let alone the world.

The list gets more and more bizarre as it works down. At eighth and ninth are the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I have only heard the LA Phil once, in a disappointing concert of Sibelius. My brother assures me that their presence at a past Edinburgh festival was much more impressive; perhaps so, and the concert I saw was at the end of a long tour. But if you're one of the best orchestras in the world, such things shouldn't hobble you. In their 2006 stay in Edinburgh the Budapest produced little to impress and a lot that didn't. How are these bands on a list that omits Abbado's Lucerne orchestra? Or, for that matter, his Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, which regularly wows me with stunning playing in a way many of the professional selections do not. Then, at thirteen, the San Francisco Orchestra of Michael Tilson Thomas (or Michael Tilson [four letter word beginning with t] as one friend of mine calls him after a particularly unimpressive Edinburgh performance). Come again? In two concerts, and one CD, they failed to produce a single note of jaw dropping quality.

So, why this rant against a magazine article that prompted me to, at long last, drop the subscription that I've been threatening to drop ever since they bumped Mackerras's 80th birthday from the cover with barely a mention to instead wallow in self-congratulatory glory at their 1000th issue (and thence celebrate their ability publish some pieces in columns just three words wide, an unfathomable decision that has still to be justified or reversed and which, if the letters page is anything reliable to go by, has had no criticism, which suggests it isn't terribly representative). Well, last night I went to the second of the eight concerts with the fourth greatest orchestra in the world, which I have lined up for this season. Once again, Daniel Harding was conducting, and once again there seemed to be a serious lack of chemistry between conductor and orchestra (but, as I have mentioned, greatness should shine through something like this; it didn't). One good measure of this, so says a former professional player I know, is how quickly the orchestra get to their feet for applause after the conductor motions for them. Those who remain resolutely seated only do so for conductors they like (the LSO were quick last night). That said, many orchestras hated Solti, yet he frequently got stunning results; but then there was no lack of chemistry there, just a more violent and less convivial kind.

First up was Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, which was given a performance that was bland and dull, two words which it is rarely possible to apply to the composer's music. Things only really caught fire in the finale, but by then it was rather too late. Bartok might have added Coughing to the list of instrumentation, so loud and repeated was some of the audience participation. Now, I don't like to get too bogged down on such things (and they are beyond the artists control), but if people do have to attend with such a cough, they might have the consideration to bring a handkerchief to mute the sound. Similarly, the couple at the end of my row who arrived late, as the doors were just closing, made a loud fuss and were, wrongly, admitted by the staff to clatter loudly to their seats during the opening bars. As the chairs were rearranged afterwards they had the temerity to moan about how poorly they'd been treated: if you can't arrive in good time I have no sympathy. I go to a lot of concerts and have been late only once - when we had failed to note that this one concert had an earlier start than the others.

This was followed by the world premier of Helios Choros II by Augusta Read Thomas. We were told in the programme that she was concerned it might not stand apart from I and III (the triptych making one large ballet score). Such worries seemed fairly groundless. Then again, perhaps the rather uninvolving piece becomes more so in context. It didn't seem to display the brilliance of, say, Ades. At the least it did seem to provide something of an orchestral showcase, that is to say, have the potential so to do, but for reasons given above it didn't. Similarly, when I hear the Bavarians, or even a smaller orchestra such as the SCO, the section leaders really shine as soloists. Not so today's LSO.

The applause from a Barbican hall that was at best around half full was muted and the second curtain was, despite the presence of the composer, something of a stretch.

After the interval it was the turn of Brahms: Lars Vogt joined the orchestra for the first piano concerto, long a favourite of mine. I've only heard it live once before, and that was not without problems. In the first place the ham-fisted Richard Goode was at the keyboard with his mumbling style of pianism and fistfuls of wrong notes. He was not ably supported by Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra who showed why they deserve their place as the ninth best orchestra in the world when they tuned the to oboe and not the piano, and thus orchestra and piano were out of tune with each other. Nothing like real professionalism. And it wasn't as though the piano wasn't sitting right there on the stage as a clue either.

Things were better last night. For starters, Vogt is a far superior pianist and orchestra and piano were at least in tune. But thereafter the improvements stalled. A complaint I levelled against the LSO last time was particularly apparent in the wonderful orchestral opening: they were not as tight as could be the case. But Vogt's pianism was beautiful, perhaps not with quite the clarity of Paul Lewis, but certainly lovely to listen to. When, that is, you could hear him, for too frequently Harding proved an insufficiently sensitive accompanist. Now, it's true that there is inherently some of this in the work, a Furtwangler first concerto would have been fascinating for this reason, as you suspect any soloist would have been utterly drowned (sadly no such exists on disc that I am aware of, and he may not even have performed it). But, with Furtwangler's majestic Brahms one wouldn't have minded too much.

And when the orchestra did come in heavily, particularly in the first movement's great climax, while there was volume, there was somehow a lack of occasion. It also was another of those too frequent concerto performances where conductor and soloist did not seem quite on the same page. A far cry, then, from the near telepathic link that Fleisher and Szell seem to share on their famous recording. Vogt's beautiful playing rescued the middle movement but otherwise things were largely disappointing.

It will be interesting to see how the orchestra make out under the next two batons. They have no lack of chemistry with their former music director Sir Colin Davis, and the presence of Christine Brewer for the Verdi Requiem should be worth hearing regardless. Perhaps LSO regulars know something I don't, in that that is sold out for two performances whereas Harding hasn't been. Brewer returns a few weeks later and is joined by one Donald Runnicles for a programme of Strauss, Mahler and Wagner. Watch this space to see what, if any, brilliance is displayed then. It seems that Harding's concerts are to be avoided in next year's booking, and possibly replaced by more from the less conveniently located Philharmonia.

Friday 12 December 2008

Spam (no, sadly not a reference to Monty Python)

Have you had spam (junk mail) purporting to be from Where's Runnicles? If so, we apologise, but we didn't send it. Some horrible individual, not content to waste everyone's time by flooding them with junk, decided that rather than send such rubbish from their own address, they would pretend it was from us (presumably so that they wouldn't have to wade through the 3,000 or so and still counting e-mails that were returned undeliverable).

Anyway, as you might perhaps expect, we feel rather violated by this. Unfortunately, it seems there's little or nothing to be done about this deliberate and malicious assault upon our reputation and our honour. However, should you receive any such spam, you can always report it via services such as Spamcop which will notify the administrator of the network responsible for the original e-mails that they have a spammer (but please make sure you don't report us accidentally because we didn't send it; we have never sent spam and we never will).

On the off chance the worthless individual responsible is reading this: sir, or ma'am, you owe us an apology. After which, kindly do us and the rest of the world a favour by first locating some integrity and secondly getting a real job. If you must continue to spam, you should remember the words of Aaron Sorkin (well, assuming you've ever heard them to begin with, which somehow I suspect you haven't):

When I write something, I sign my name to it.

Those, such as yourself, who do otherwise are beneath contempt.

Monday 1 December 2008

The Starlets - Big in Japan

As readers of my film reviews may be aware, a key member of our film club was absent for several weeks at the end of October and the start of November. Her excuse was a pretty good one: she was touring Japan with her Band The Starlets. We reviewed them during their UK tour this summer. Sadly, funds did not permit a jaunt to Japan.

Others in the same position will have to be content with what has been captured on YouTube. Here, then, is Nowhere Boy:

Unfortunately YouTube is a pretty poor substitute, but it provides a reasonable flavour of the sonorities that endear the band to me. Should you want to explore further, the following videos seem to be a pretty comprehensive compilation of what is available on YouTube from the tour (but please let me know if I've missed anything). For those wanting rather better sound the band's two existing CDs are still available via their website, the really keen may be able to track down a third disc that was never released here, but only in Japan (similarly, those who can't wait for the UK release of the new album).

Surely Tomorrow You'll Feel Blue

The Devil's Eye (The Go-Betweens)

Pink Love

Give My Regards to Betty Ford, from the Takamatsu gig on 4th November (the sound on this one is pretty dire).

And a snippet of Radio Friendly from the same gig.

The last seven videos all come from the same gig at Flake Records in Osaka, which I'm told was played just hours after coming off the plane on 31st October.

(Note frontman Biff's impresive Japanese. Well, I assume it's impressive, he could be saying anything for all I know.)

Surely Tomorrow You'll Feel Blue

Rocking In A Shy Way

(Is Biff jumping up and down to make up for the apparent lack of a drummer at this particular gig?)

We'll Go Driving

I am told that there were sell-out concerts and even a gig in HMV Tokyo to celebrate the Japanese launch of the new album (those of us in the UK will have to wait for a release date that has yet to be set). All of which begs the question of why they are so big there and not here. In a world where James Blunt can achieve such fame and fortune this seems simply perverse.... wait a minute, I think I may have answered my own question.

Still, from this corner of Edinburgh (or rather the National Express train to Edinburgh from which I write this), there is a strong desire to seem more of them. Sadly, at the time of writing there are no future UK dates fixed.

Monday Night Film Club - A pleasant surprise

It should have been terrible. It was, after all, a film from the Coen brothers. They may have won a bevy of Oscars for No Country for Old Men, but so too did Titanic and the final instalment of Lord of the Rings. The former was somewhere beyond terrible and remains three hours of my life that I'll never get back, and about which I am still bitter, the latter was at best extremely disappointing. The Coen brothers' story of murder and drug money in the west is not only horribly violent but, in common with many of their films has no point. The motivation of many characters is at best unclear - in particular why the police show so little desire to locate a man who kills one of their own in the opening moments. The ending leaves you wondering to what end you have just been watching it all. A reaction common to their work. It ranks as one of the worst and most objectionable films I have ever seen. And don't think such objections are down to violence in and of itself: there are plenty of violent films I enjoy, much of Tarentino's work, for example. This was not only violent, but utterly pointless. The only thing that prevented me from walking out was that to do so would have been rude to the people whose guest I was.

I was not, therefore, keen to see their latest outing, superficially amusing though it might have appeared from the trailer. I thought I had dodged the bullet when several members of film club went to see it shortly after its release. Not so. Last Monday saw us attending a later showing than normal at the Cameo to see Burn after reading.

In the first place, the film is a screwball comedy, and I like a good screwball comedy. Secondly, all the characters, while many of them are impressively stupid or inept, or more usually both, have crystal clear and believable motivations. We start with alcoholic CIA analyst John Malkovich's Osbourne Cox being fired, or rather demoted and resigning in a huff. He goes home to start work on his memoir. His wife, beautifully played by Tilda Swinton, cares more what this may mean for her financial position and decides to go for divorce so that she can get together with George Clooney, with whom she is engaged in an affair. Clooney's motivation is really very clear indeed: he wants to sleep with as many different people as possible with as few strings as possible (that and engage in the construction of DIY sex toys in his basement).

Things start to fall apart when Swinton, thinking she has stolen her husband's financial files also takes the manuscript of his book, which she then leaves in the gym where Brad Pitt, a fitness obsessed moron, and Frances McDormand, who is obsessed with finding money for her plastic surgery, come into possession of it and decide they are owed a reward of some kind. When they are told to think again (that, at least, is the gist of what Malkovich says), they embark on a series of ever more desperate and comical attempts to make something of the disc.

Things spiral downwards pretty rapidly from there, but extremely funnily so. J K Simmons, who has previous worked wonders as J Jonah Jameson in Spider-man puts in an inspired turn as the CIA superior at a loss to comprehend the madness unfolding before him and hoping it can all be cleaned away with as little mess as possible. Indeed, nobody has a clear idea of exactly what is going on, save for the audience, which only makes the bumbling actions of many of the protagonists the more amusing.

I won't spoil the ending, but it is by far and away the most satisfying work I have seen from this team.

All of which was a marked improvement on our previous outing to see Oliver Stone's W. A film that should, and could, have been every bit as funny. And, in places, it was: President Bush picking the salad from his lunch in response to Cheney's analogy that action must be taken against terrorism in much the same was as it would have to be if there was even the small chance of contaminated lettuce, or when he lands on an aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare "mission accomplished", the film cuts to a news channel pundit saying:

He's just landed on an boat at 150 miles an hour. You wouldn't see a Democrat doing that.

Unfortunately, given the wealth of material available, such laughs are too few and far between. Perhaps stone was keen to paint an even and fair portrait of Bush. This is a reasonable goal, but if he wanted to do that, he should have provided some insight into the man and for the most part he doesn't. His one point seems to be that George H W Bush prefered his other son Jeb. There may or may not be any truth in this, but it isn't enough to hang a whole film on. Worse, there are too many points the film makes no attempt to answer: what is it that Laura Bush sees in the man, how did he get to be in charge of the Texas baseball team, why was he pretty coherent and lucid it the Texas gubernatorial debates but not in the presidential ones?

Then there is Stone's propensity to play fast and loose with history. This is highly evident JFK, where Kevin Costner makes a final and fictional statement to the Warren commission. Here we see Colin Powell constantly cautioning against war in Iraq. Fair enough, but he then goes on to bat strongly for war at the UN, with no explanation as to why he made that choice. Perhaps it simply isn't known, but that makes things the more frustrating: what is the point as such films as this if not to attempt to understand such mysteries. Then Tony Blair crops up, in a fairly standard caricature by Ioan Gruffudd. The scene is the infamous Camp David meeting where Blair wore supposedly 'ball crunching' jeans, and wherein the too youthful looking Prime Minster cautions against war. I think I speak for all in Britian when I say WHAT THE [expletive deleted]. Now, whatever side of the war debate you may have been on here, one thing is certain: there was never the slightest doubt which side Blair was on. Lastly, there is the question of Bush and drink. He gives it up, but later in the film he can seen swigging a can of beer, which passes without comment. Is Stone suggesting he didn't give up booze completely or is this just a continuity error? I say lastly, but this list is by no means exhaustive.

Another problem is that he makes no effort to guide the viewer through the cast of thousands. While I had little trouble identifying the likes of Rove (an excellent Toby Jones) or Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), I did spend about half an hour wracking my brains as to who the other George n the Bush administration was before realising that it must be then CIA Director George Tenet (wonderfully played by Bruce McGill) and I'm a pretty close observer of American politics. Indeed, the cast is generally excellent, doing great impressions, from Brolin's Bush, through Dreyfuss's Cheyney, to Scott Glenn's Donald Rumsfeld. The only real weak link is the Condelezza Rice of Thandie Newton who spends the whole film in an annoying high-pitched scream of a voice.

None of which is to suggest this is a terrible film, it's perfectly watchable, rather that I can't really see the point of it. More so, why make such a film just months before the presidency and the story end? Stone himself doesn't have a clear idea where to end. A powerful and famous moment where Bush is asked at a press conference to list his mistakes and is unable to think of a single one seemed perfect, but the film rolled on. Instead Stone takes us to a dream sequence that recurs throughout the film with Bush in a baseball stadium. A ball is hit but vanishes, preventing him from catching it. I get the general metaphor, but it says nothing the earlier scene didn't say better, save, of course that the president quite likes baseball. Thanks for the insight!

The film does offer one insight though, but it isn't one that too many people are likely share. George Bush is shown ending all meetings with silence, which he, and perhaps some others, use to pray. This is interesting because I am a Quaker. Quakers worship mainly though sitting together in silence. When they hold business meetings, they start and end with silence, in part because it's a good way of bookending the meeting so that it doesn't continue after it has officially ended. Either way it was both fascinating and troubling to learn that I had something in common with this man for whom I have nothing but contempt.