Friday, April 22, 2005

Size does matter


Here in the UK we are in the middle of an election campaign. It is marked by an incumbent party (Labour) with absolutely no credibility due to their toadying to the Bush administration, being opposed by two other parties (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) with even less credibility.

The press is taking all sorts of angles to try to make a lacklustre campaign interesting. The Guardian arts section on Friday ran a four page spread detailing the CD collections of twelve prominent politicians (see this link for the full text), inspired no doubt by the recent revelations of George Bush's iPod listening habits. (Why does music no longer have credibility unless it is in the iPod format?). Among the politicians in the Guardian feature was Tessa Jowell who is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the present Labour government. This means she is in charge of funding and policy for the arts and music among other things.

The article says "thankfully, she confesses to not having got through the whole of Wagner's Ring Cycle" although she does admit that the end of Gottedamerung "is one of my favourite pieces of music." Presumably she just skipped all those boring bits in between? All that stuff with the Norns and that rope does drag a bit, doesn't it? She also "talks with eloquence on Benjamin Britten's Third Quartet - and of listening to it in Britten's house." At least we are spared the revelation that this was on her iPod, and it does give me an excuse to link to my posts A direct line to Britten and Easter at Aldburgh.

Tessa Jowell ponders the whereabouts of her Chichester Psalms CD

Last year, Jowell's car was broken into, and according to the article "the bulk of her CD collection was stolen from it, 'I was very sad to lose The Chichester Psalms, and John Taverner's Song for Athene,' she says with a touch of melancholy." Now this has left me wondering how big was Tessa Jowell's car, or alternatively how small was the CD collection of our Secretary of State for Culture? One thing is for sure, to transport my CD collection would require a juggernaut, not a car. And my thoughts that size does matter at least allows me to link to my post on jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani.

All these revelations about the musical tastes (or lack thereof ) of our politicians remonds me of Herman Hesse's words, "If you want to know the condition of a nation, then listen to its music." I would recommend that they all listen to Hans Sach's words in the last scene of The Mastersingers on the importance of culture in times of stress, but there again they would probably think The Mastersingers is a reality TV show. (See also my post More MaxOpus on more thoughts on the future of 'serious' music).

Just to make sure I exclude myself from any political ambitions here are the very politically incorrect CD's that have been on my wonderful Arcam and B & W system in the last few days (sorry no iPod).

My post Lux Aeterna (and not Ligeti) about Morten Lauridsen's choral work Lux Aeterna, and my comment that it reminded me of Elgar (and Rutter), prompted me to listen again to Elgar's The Music Makers in the version with Richard Hickox conducting the LSO orchestra and choir (he is not the greatest Elgar conductor, but the Watford Town Hall sound is gorgeous). I have previously thought the Music Makers a somewhat inferior and derivative work, but this time around I realised that the work is a real masterpeice. Interesting how middle age matures ones taste - Bach Cantatas, medieval polyphony and good brandy are other things that somehow seem a lot more important these days.

Mention of polyphony leads me to Une Messe pour La Saint Michel on the enterprising French Alpha label. This is a recreation of a Gallican Mass of the seventeenth century sung in plainchant and includes elements of improvisation. Not a disc you would play everyday (which means it probably wouldn't be in my car to be stolen), but commendable for 'pushing the envelope' with improvisation, and worth hearing for the use of a serpent instrument to reinforce the vocal lines. The serpent is a coiled wind instrument invented in France in the sixteenth century, and provides an interesting test for loudspeakers.

The serpent - size does matter, and so do your loudspeakers

The transition from plainchant to polyphony fascinates me. I grew to love chant listening to it during the Offices in the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte Madeleine in the Vaucluse, and am drawn to polyphonic works that are proud to show their chant origins. The Signum disc of Tallis' Music For the Divine Offices is pure heaven, and includes Salvator Mundi which featured in my Master Tallis' Testament post. I have also been listening to the new release Morales en Toledo on the innovative Glossa label with Michael Noone directing the Ensemble Plus Ultra. These are first recordings of works by Morales discovered in damaged manuscripts. Forget the history, this is a wonderful disc of music from the peak of Spain's golden age - gorgeous.

I have been reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History which strangely has passed me by to date, I was prompted to order it from the library by a mention on the John Fowles site on my sidebar. The jury is out on the book for me, seems as though the writing could have been a lot tighter. (Since writing this post I've finished the book, or rather speed read the last 150 pages. I waited for the something to happen in the first 350, and then correctly, concluded very little was going to happen. What a lot of words to say very little, and what pretentious attempts to make the text 'significant'. The problem with masterpieces like The Magus is they spawn pale imitations like The Secret History). But it did prompt me to listen to Barenboim's recording of Parsifal last night with Siegfied Jerusalem and Jose van Dam. All the right components are there including the Berlin Philharmonic and there are wonderful moments. But for me the magic is missing in this recording, and magic is central to Parsifal. I will keep returning to my vinyl set with Karajan conducting, or my memories of Anthony Negus conducting the Welsh National Opera production in 2004.

And if all this seems a bit serious I have discovered Leonard Leo. Who may you ask? Leo was an 18th century Italian composer rated in his day up there with Palestrina, Handel and others. If you don't know his joyful and exuberant cello concertos order up the mid-price BIS recording with Makoto Akatsu. On the basis of this disc I've ordered up his Misere wich I understand is also worth exploring. Such are the discoveries on this overgrown path.
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2 comments:

Fairhaven Friend said...

There was an episode with a co-worker who lost most of her CD collection from her car when it was vandalized, however she was a poor, newly-graduated student with massive debt rather than a post as a Minister of Culture. But somehow I suspect the poor student may have lost more CDs than old Tessa.

No CD player in my current automobile but when I did have one, along with a considerable commute, I still had trouble deciding what to take with me as I approached the 1,000th CD mark in my own collection.

In one of my earlier careers I worked with a guy (lives in West Ham, I believe) who also collected massive amounts of CDs (and still purchased vinyl when he could find it). We became good chums and I recall one business visit (he was here in the U.S.) we were comparing our collection size ("CD envy"? What would Freud say?). I can't recall who asked which question but the conversation in his rental car went something like this: "D'You ever find you have so many you can't decide what to listen to?" "Yeah, and you?" "Yeah." "So, what do you do then?" A pause as he and I looked at each other and both chanted in unison "Go out and buy more!"

Thanks to "The Overgrown Path" I have begun to lose some of my 'what-should-I-play' paralysis and I'm diving back into the massive collection that literally has its own little room in my apartment.

David said...

When my car was stolen, I was sorry to lose a few excellent discs, but when they recovered the car (crashed in Harlow...!) I was intrigued to see my discs had been replaced with a Westlife CD, among others. There was a brief moment of sympathy for the thieves :-/