Thursday, February 24, 2005

Brain Food 2

Listening................

Bloch Quartets 1 to 4 played by Griller Quartet


In an earlier post I aked why Domenico Gabrielli's cello works aren't better known. Now this re-issue of the Griller Quartet playing Bloch's four string quartets prompts me to ask the same question - why aren't these quartets programmed today?

Ernest Bloch is one of those unfortunate composers branded by a single work, in his case Schelomo (which I have to confess I wouldn't shed a tear if I didn't ever hear again).. His string quartets, which inhabit a sound world somewhere between Shostakovich and Schoenberg, are very different, and something of a challenge, with the first lasting for almost an hour. But they are most certainly great works which reward exploration.

The sound from these mono 1954 Decca studio recordings is staggeringly good. The producer is my old boss from my EMI days, Peter Andry, recorded when he was at Decca. I was talking to a violin playing friend about why early recordings such as this have such a good string tone. (The various Grumiaux recordings on Philips are another outstanding example). His informed view is that it is not the recording technology that has gone backwards (although some would argue that is also the case), but rather that string playing technique has evolved to a leaner, more analytical sound. If that is the case I think it is a shame, and may explain why so-called 'authentic instrument' recordings with their gutsy string tone are so popular (I was listening to the Salomon Quartet recordings of Mozart using original instrunents on Hyperion the other night, thinking what fantastic sound the players were producing) .

A book remains to be written about the Griller Quartet, who based on these recordings deserve their place up their with the Amadeus and Hollywood in the pantheon of all time great quartets (I must explore their Mozart and Haydn on Dutton). Tantalisingly John Amis writes in his autobiographical 'Amiscellany'..."Later the Grillers went to the States, their stay their ending in stark tragedy when an internal homosexual fracas ended in denunciation to the police and sudden death, at which point the always happily married Sidney Griller came back to England."


In his autobiography A Cellists Life Griller member Colin Hampton writes "(Bloch's) string quartet No 1 is to me one of the great works in this world. It was a logical conclusion, as far as I am concerned, to the Beethoven quartets. I would put Bloch in front of Schubert and Brahms anytime." High, and certainly, controversial praise. Buy this superb Decca set while it is still in the catalogue, and judge for yourself.

.....like song, like weather by Norma Winstone and John Taylor


Fred Hersch and Norma Winstone have been grabbing a lot of the jazz press coverage with Songs and Lullabies, driven by a residency at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London's Soho this week.

Norma Winstone is definitely my favourite jazz vocalist, but her earlier release also on Enodoc ....Like song, like weather where she is accompanied on piano by ex-husband John Taylor is my all time favourite. Unlike Songs and Lullabies which is all original compositions ...Like songs, like weather includes a generous helping of standards including I love you Porgy and Alice in Wonderland (how many other jazz standards started life in a Disney film?). Norma Winsone's skill with English (she is so skilled with the language she can play with it in the way I play with a ball, tossing it around before returning to earth) is the real joy for me on all these discs; I don't think it is going over the top to compare her skill to that of a Shakespearian actress.

4 in perspective where she is joined by Fred Hersch, Kenny Wheeler, and Paul Clarvis in a stunning live concert from St Barnabas' Church, Oxford, is also well worth seeking out.

Josquin Desprez, L'Homme Arme performed by Oxford Camerata directed by Jeremy Summerly


Josquin Desprez is deservedly considered to be the pre-eminent late 15th century polyphonist, the leader of an inspired group that includes Obrecht, Brumel, and Isaac. (Josquin also composed a homage to Ockenghem which is in the Flemish polyphonists box I reviewed previously).

This outstanding Naxos recording of Josquin's Missa L'Homme Arme Sexti Toni helps to explain why Josquin is held in such high esteem. Working from the plainchant of L'Homme Arme (which originally was a secular Burgundian love-song) and Lates Dies in Gregorian Mode 6 his mastery and control of the polyphonic layers is extraordinary. If you are new to Renaissance choral music this CD is a wonderful starting point. Josquin will take you down a path from Gregrian Chant to fully blown polyphony, and I wager will leave you wanting more.

This is an outstanding recording at any price. At the Naxos price of £4.99 (or even less in some stores such as Virgin, where I picked up an outstanding Naxos coupling of Vivaldi's Gloria and Bach's Magnificat by the same performaers for the absurd price of £3.99 last week) it is truly exceptional. The Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly hold their own with any of the specialist Renaissance ensembles at budget of full price. Quite justifiably this recording is given a rosette for quality in the influential Penguin CD Guide.

Reading...........

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

This book is a total dog. I pre-ordered it from Amazon on the strength of thoroughly enjoying Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. I have a theory incidentally that the reason why reader reviews on the Amazon web site are so universally positive is that no one likes to admit being an idiot and shelling out £14 on a total dog. Well let's break the mould - I did. But some good did come out of this book. I was so anxious to rid myself of it that I ended up exploring the BookCrossing web site so I could sent my copy 'out into the wild'. And just for fun I've posted this review to Amazon.co.uk so click this link to see if they have uploaded it.

I Am Charlotte Simmons seems to be some sort of post-menopausal aberration by 73 year old Wolfe - long on sex and swearing, and light (devoid?) of any character development or narrative. The characters are cardboard cut-out stereotypes who are not developed from the first page to the last. Wolfe is so pleased that he can make post-menopause man meet testerone overloaded college student that he starts the self-congratulation even before the first page.

I couldn't believe in any of the characters in this shallow book, and I am afraid I ended up despising the author for his self-indulgence (and multi-million dollar advance). We are all allowed one mistake, but at 676 pages (and £20 cover price) I am Charlotte Simmons is a biggie.

Beyond the Notes by Susan Tomes

I am something of a sucker for 'behind the scenes' books by chamber musicians, and this one is a really great example.

Susan Tomes is now best known as pianist for the highly regarded Florestan Trio. Before that she was a founder member of Domus, a group of musicians striaght out of college who took chamber music onto the road performing in a geodesic dome (hence Domus) in an admirable, but idealistic, attempt to reach new audiences. The multi-talented Ms. Tomes is also a fne journalist and regular columnist for The Guardian.


Beyond the Notes is a lot more than a good 'behind the scenes' book. It questions, and debates, many of the fundamental conventions of performing chamber music, including the very relationship between performer and audience. It also chronicles in diary form the author's metamorphosis from musical maverick to mainstream performer.

Like the Florestan's many superb recordings Beyond the Notes is brilliantly researched, skillfully executed, and beautifully presented (by independent East Anglian publisher publisher Boydell and Brewer). Recommended.

Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst


I am currently taking a stroll through the great contemporary novels. A couple of weeks ago it was Ian McEwans Saturday, this week Alan Hollinghurst's A Line of Beauty.

This 2004 Booker Prize winner is a razor-sharp commentary on Thatcher boom years. Set in the summer of 1983, 20 year old Nick Guest moves into the Hampstead household of an ambitious Conservative MP, and as they say, it is mostly downhill from there. Scandal, cocaine (one of the meanings of the line of beauty of the title) and Aids are just part of the landscape of this superb, but bleak, novel.

When it won the Booker there was a considerable amount of 'Gay novel wins Booker' type coverage. Well to be fair, this is an overtly gay novel, rather than a novel by a gay author. But it is certainly none the worse for that. A Line of Beauty is a great novel which just like Ian McEwan (and Charles Dickens and other masters of the genre) uses fiction to mirror contemporary events.


Alan Hollinghurst

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