Now I’ve been up and running for a few months, here’s a word cloud of the blog so far.
You can make your own at Wordle.net. Have fun!
Now I’ve been up and running for a few months, here’s a word cloud of the blog so far.
You can make your own at Wordle.net. Have fun!
Yesterday I went to Heffers Sound and bought a couple of CDs, Marin Alsop’s recent acclaimed recording of Bernstein’s Mass and Ivo Pogorelich’s 1982 recording of Beethoven and Schumann, now rereleased with supplementary Chopin tracks harvested from his brilliant 1981 debut recital. I’m looking forward to comparing the Alsop with Bernstein’s own recording of the Mass, probably his most fascinating score. As for the Pogorelich, I’m not sure what to expect. I have long had a dubious habit of buying CDs largely if not wholly on the basis of cool or sexy cover photos. Pogorelich’s early albums are a case in point, as are the ones Lise de la Salle keeps bringing out. Fortunately, they both happen to be superb pianists. Pogorelich, like Olli Mustonen, another of my favourites, has his idiosyncrasies, but I have grown to love them, and his Chopin feels wonderfully organic to me, however unorthodox it does to others.
It’s a source of pleasure and some surprise to me that Heffers Sound is still in existence. The bookshop next door aside, all of the other branches of Heffers throughout Cambridge, which were numerous ten years ago, are no more. I hope that it may continue for years to come, but fear it may succumb to the recession as so many other shops of its kind have done. The rise of Amazon, now my first port of call for buying music, is partly responsible for this state of affairs. My passé yellow Heffers Sound reward card, which I finally cashed in yesterday, had been on the go since 2005. That equates to two visits per year. In fact I’ve visited more often than that, but not much more.
How times have changed, I meditated, as I wandered through my personal history of buying music. So many of the recordings I have bought are linked in my mind to the shops they came from. I bought my first pop album on cassette at the age of six from Martin’s newsagent in Frome. Society dictates I should be ashamed it was Ten Good Reasons by Jason Donovan, but I’m not. Sanitised, sterilised, homogenised and entirely shorn of the slightest scintilla of emotion or genuine feeling it may be, but it’s still one of my favourites. I spent ages sitting on my bedroom floor looking at the photos on the inlay card. There was one picture of Jason and Kylie Minogue looking very happy together, clearly drawing on their Scott and Charlene personas, which mesmerised me. I am positive, thinking back, that I was envious of one of them, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one. So many of my latent and presumably numerous psychological problems surely stem from this.
I started accumulating CDs from about the age of 10. Woolworths had their own ranges of reasonably priced CDs, decent repackaged recordings from Conifer, I think. Most exciting, though, was going to the Classical Record Shop in Leeds while on holiday, where a more extensive range of music was available. It was there that I bought my first recording of the Fauré Requiem (on which choice I remember being complimented by the shop assistant, despite the fact that it turned out to be a horribly muddy recording, though if I recall I bought it mainly for the incidental music to Masques et Bergamasques offered as a coupling), Bernstein’s On the Town and Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.
When I hit the age of about 12 I started going to Woolworths on my way home from school to buy singles and albums. I remember going home one afternoon, being overcome by a tremendous urge to buy Cake’s album Fashion Nugget, managing somehow to get enough money together, and racing back into town to make it to the shop before closing time. I think the cashier serving me raised an eyebrow at the parental advisory sticker, but let it pass. On the Monday morning in April 1996 when Northern Uproar’s debut album was released, a school-free day, I was there waiting outside to buy it when Woolworths opened.
In 1997, a new shop opened on Catherine Hill, Raves from the Grave, which still exists albeit on different premises. It specialised in vinyl, and I would spend hours in there on my way home from school browsing and sometimes buying old LPs and 7″ singles which never got played. It remains the only shop where I have liked a record that was playing so much that I asked what it was and bought it, a gatefold-sleeve double album of the Four Tops and three other Motown groups I’ve now forgotten. The only other good place in town to buy quality music was Hunting Raven, which had (and, I believe, still has) fine selections of Naxos and Hyperion in particular. It was there I bought Håkon Austbø’s Messiaen piano music and Domus and Anthony Marwood’s shimmering Fauré piano quintets.
Saturday trips to Bath gave a new dimension to my record collecting. At some point in my early teens I persuaded my parents that since child benefit, by token of its name, was presumably intended to benefit the child, I should receive it direct as pocket money. At that time the amount was about £40 per child per month (or so I was told – I now wonder if they may have been holding out on me given that it’s currently around double that). Not a sum to be taken lightly, at any rate. I don’t think they particularly begrudged me it, what with me not being a particular drain on their resources except for in the usual areas of food, occasional clothes, haircuts only when absolutely necessary and so on. The upshot of all this was that by judicious saving I could end up spending about £60 in Bath Compact Discs in a single visit, ending up with 5 or 6 new CDs, usually including some impulsive and not always wise purchase. Yuji Takahashi’s Cage, Donald Berman’s Ives, Rogé and Collard’s Satie, Ashkenazy’s Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, Blandine Verlet’s Couperin. The list is extensive.
I should think Bath Compact Discs is still just about the best independent classical record shop in the country, even if their website still says “We would like to thank all our customers for voting us once again ‘Gramophone’ Magazine Classical Retailer of the Year 2001/02″. In Bath there were also Milsom’s (Duck, Son and Pinker), where I happened by serendipity on a recording of Haydn’s lira concerti that I had known and loved from an LP we had at home but hadn’t ever expected to make it to CD, and HMV, where I started buying jazz – Charlie Parker above all, but also Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Oscar Peterson and so on, undoubtedly inspired by Louis Malle’s Le Souffle au Coeur, still a film that means a great deal to me. The opening, which shows the 14-year-old Laurent and his friend walking through the streets of Dijon and then going into Dijon-Musique to steal Parker’s latest LP, was magical to me then.
When I got to university new avenues opened up, several of them sadly gone already. There was not only Heffers Sound but also MDC Classic Music in Rose Crescent (which I was saddened to find at the start of one term had suddenly disappeared during my absence over the vacation), Borders (requiescat), Fopp (which happily came back shortly after closing down) and a decent selection of CDs at Miller’s/Ken Stevens. I remember hotfooting it there one morning in May 2004 to buy what I surmised was probably the only CD in town of Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, which was that year’s set work for the analysis exam. Just as I was paying another student came in looking for the same thing and was told I’d just snaffled it, on which I felt sheepish and made myself scarce.
The rot had already started to set in by then, and I was buying most of my CDs online. I can’t deny that part of the appeal of record shops is that you choose a particular copy of a CD rather than having one you’ve never seen before sent by someone without a face running a small business in Egham, but there’s an excitement too about getting lovely things in the post. One of the nicest things about coming back to college for Easter Term 2003, I remember, was finding a package of CDs I’d ordered waiting for me, which included among other things several piano concertos (Arrau’s Brahms, Kovacevich’s Grieg and Schumann, Moiseiwitsch’s Delius), Czech choral music sung by the Prague Chamber Choir, and Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack.
I worry I’ve forgotten how to use record shops. When I used to go to Bath, I’d make a short list of composers to look out for on the back of an envelope or some such thing. Nowadays I find myself printing out a list of CDs I’ve had my eye on, with the prices from Amazon so I can make sure I’m getting a good deal. How cold that is. I applied for a couple of jobs in Heffers Sound shortly after graduating in 2005. I’m still waiting to hear back about one of them, and in the years since have contemplated in my more perverse moments writing a letter instructing them to disregard my application due to my having another job. I’d have loved working there, but sadly it doesn’t look like a steady career at the moment. I think I may make a resolution to buy something there at least once a month. It would be a crying shame to lose the shop.
I have grand plans for this blog. Well, not really. I have slight to moderate plans, but the point is they’re on hold because I have to spend the next three months writing about Roald Dahl. If you’re going to write a dissertation it might as well be on a subject you know a bit about. For my undergraduate degree it was Britten’s Peter Grimes, and the resulting piece of work, while pedestrian in the extreme, did at least display not so great a degree of incompetence for me to be openly derided during the graduation ceremony.
I think this dissertation should be more successful than the last. I’ve got the hang of Harvard referencing now, for one thing, and I think I’m probably better at putting coherent arguments together, though the problem of my brain overflowing still crops up. So it’s an agreeable prospect, though it will probably mean less posting here until September.
Dahl was an odd chap. Smart and gifted writer with a brilliant understanding of the child mind though he was, he could be egotistical and cruel, and the old allegations of racism and anti-Semitism still cling to him. A flick through Jeremy Treglown’s unauthorised biography provides this fascinating snapshot of the man, one of many:
In the case of The BFG, Dahl was also rewarded by one of those coincidences in which life imitates fiction. The story takes the giant to Buckingham Palace, where he blows a dream through the Queen’s bedroom window warning her of the bad giants’ attacks on children. When she wakes, Sophie is sitting on the window-sill while the BFG prowls in the garden outside. One night in July 1982, between the book’s completion and its publication, the real Queen Elizabeth II woke up in Buckingham Palace to find a man called Michael Fagan in her bedroom. Dahl delighted in the story and, long after it had died down in the newspapers, he would fantasize ribaldly that Fagan had ‘actually done it’ with the Queen, and had been got rid of by the security services.
This could be fun…
Last night I was one of presumably millions who watched 16-year-old pianist Lara Ömeroğlu win the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010, on BBC2. I’d seen her in the keyboard final but failed to pick her as the eventual winner. Among other things she played Chopin’s beautiful Etude, op. 25 no. 7 (which if I recall correctly I can cope with for about a page before falling apart) in a performance I thought too forceful. Now I wonder if there was a problem with my television speakers, such was the grace of her Saint-Saëns in the concerto final.
It’s been a competition full of highlights. I didn’t see all of the heats, but from what I can discern the television coverage has been a great improvement on that of the 2008 competition. The keyboard final was a joy to watch. One pianist played Messiaen’s prelude La Colombe with such tenderness he won me over entirely (and the director managed to resist the temptation to cut away before the end of the piece, thank goodness – it may be only a couple of minutes long, but I didn’t feel safe until it was over); another, the mercurial Yuanfan Yang from Manchester, whom I was delighted to see presented with a special prize last night, played his own off-the-wall vision of Scarborough Fair with tremendous style. Another positive innovation is that the presenters, Clemency Burton-Hill and, for the final, Howard Goodall, are fine musicians in their own right.
And yet, anxious though I am not to grumble unduly and conscious though I am of the need to be thankful that such a competition exists at all, I am a little uneasy about the BBC’s attitude to it. This year’s concerto final featured only three performers rather than the customary five, the category winners having slugged it out before the final to narrow down the field. I suppose the motivation for this may have been monetary, but I can’t help feeling it a harsh judgement on the brass and percussion winners who didn’t make it. I hope the 2012 competition will see the reinstatement of the previous format.
I gather Miss Ömeroğlu appeared on BBC Breakfast this morning, but at the time of writing there has been no mention on the BBC News website or even on the devoted website of the competition of her victory in the (BBC-run) contest. Last night immediately after the final, the leading item on the BBC homepage asked whether we had been inspired to make music by Over the Rainbow, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s TV talent show. The main items of “entertainment” news were that Keane had topped the album chart and that “The winners of a TV talent show have beaten the Pope to the album of the year at the Classical Brit Awards”.
The only prominent news item I can find related to the competition anywhere is a flippant Guardian review of the string final, calling for Young Musician of the Year to recruit a Simon Cowell figure to get the rubbish kids off stage. Clearly tongue-in-cheek, but a bit too close to home for me. One of the great virtues of this competition (and to a degree of the Lloyd-Webber shows – credit where credit’s due) is that criticism is always constructive and never cruel. When competitors are eliminated, far from breaking down in melodramatic floods of tears, they seem sanguine, determined to persevere, and grateful for the opportunity they have been afforded by the competition. I have seen exactly the same attitude from the children taking part in the BBC’s wonderful Junior Masterchef over the past week. The Cowell-led culture of dismissing performers – or people – as without value is a cancer that the BBC shows worrying signs of endorsing. The outlook for arts broadcasting appears bleak at the moment and likely to get bleaker, but there are jewels among the dross, and the need to hold on to things like Young Musician of the Year is more vital now than ever.