Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Pianissimo

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I am sure that I am not the only one who finds coughs, watch alarms, sweet papers, even mobile phones (e.g. Rattle's Rite of Spring at last year's Proms) at concerts maddening.

There is an interesting take on the problem on the Ink Pot web site which publishes reviews of classical concerts in the Far East. Each review includes an 'Overall Noise Rating'. Here is an example and explanation............

OVERALL NOISE RATING: 0 (Except for that 10pm beep, all was quiet.)
The Noise Rating Index is a partially-objective measurement of pager and handphone blasts, 9pm and 10pm watch beeps, coughing-during-the-pianissimo-bits, intra-audience conversation and other mind-bogglingly inept noises emitted in the concert hall during actual performance of music. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 5, in increasing annoyance.


Silence is golden - so are noise ratings on concert reviews a good idea?

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Easter at Aldeburgh


Iken Church in the distance from Iken Cliff, all photos taken today under a typical East Anglian sky.

The overgrown path led me to Iken Church this Easter Saturday morning. The church is on a promontory sticking out into the River Ald downstream from Snape. It is a place of inspiring beauty and peace, a wonderful setting for a monastery. St Botolph built his minster at Iken in the 7th century, and became the first person in Britain to follow the Rule of St Benedict. The monastery was destroyed by raiding Danes in the winter of 969/70, and parts of the current church date from the rebuilding which started in the 11th century. The story of destruction by Viking invaders is a reminder of how this part of East Anglia is on the margins of civilisation. During World War 2 the village of Iken was evacuated and the church closed to make way for a practice battleground. And despite the beauty of the area the Sizewell nuclear power station to the north is a constant, and visible, reminder that this area remains on the edge. Further north is even more graphic evidence of the precarious existence here. The medieval town of Dunwich was half the size of London in the 12th century, and contained eight churches and several religous orders. Coastal erosion has claimed the whole town in Gotterdammerung style, and all that remains today is St James' Church, part of a leper hospital built outside the town walls. The themes of the power of nature, tragedy and exclusion are never far away here, and they are the threads that are woven through Britten's opera Peter Grimes which is set on this coast.

When Iken monastery was in its heyday in the seventh and eighth centuries it was a base for monks making missionary journys into East Anglia. Today the Iken Church is a destination for pilgrims, both of the religous kind who visit it as one of the first Christian sites in the country; and also musical, as nearby Iken Hall is the setting for Britten's opera for children, The Little Sweep. The thin line between civisation and the abyss is well illustrated here. This premiere of a morality tale for children by the pacifist Britten, who had spent part of the war in safety of the US, took place the nearby Aldeburgh just two years after Iken Church had re-opened after spending years isolated in a middle of a mock battlefield.


Iken Church

From Snape into Aldeburgh, and a repeat visit to Maggi Hambling's Scallop sculpture on the beach. The artist created the twelve and a half foot high work in stainless steel in 2003 at a cost of £70,000, and the brief called for it to withstand gales of up to 100 mph - shades of the sea interludes! It was raised as as a tribute to Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh resident who put this small Suffolk town on the map. The words cut into the top edge of the shell, and visible in my picture, are from Peter Grimes - "I hear those voices that will not be drowned." But despite its status as a tribute the Scallop has fiercely divided local residents, and has been the subject of petitions, rows in the council chamber, and even paint daubings. We think it is a wonderful work, and we are also delighted that the townspeople can get passionate (both for, and against) a work of art. And the bitter controversy neatly sums up the schizophrenia of Aldeburgh under Britten - creative brilliance coupled with conservatism, small-mindedness and in-fighting. For a wonderfully entertaining portrait of Britten see his eponymous biography by the late lamented Humphrey Carpenter. (What a strange convergnce of overgrown paths, the scallop shell is of course the symbol of the medieval pilgrim, and is still referred to as 'St James shell').


The Scallop sculpture, art or aesthetic vandalism?

After lunch I buy the Britten and Richter recording of Schubert piano duets recorded live by the BBC in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, and now released on Decca. (A measure of the cultural capital invested in Aldeburgh is that this town of just 3500 residents can support a first class independent bookshop, and an excellent classical CD outlet). As we return to the car we wander into a craft fair in a small hall. On the stage of the hall we buy some essential oils from a stall. And then realise that the hall is the Jubilee Hall, and we are standing at precisely the spot where Britten and Richter played (and recorded) their Schubert recital forty years ago. Another remarkable direct line to Britten.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Soli Deo Gloria

Photograph by Steve McCurry; he provides the cover images for John Eliot Gardiner's cycle of Bach cantatas described in this post, open this link to see more images by this superb photographer.
Musician owned record labels have already been the subject of postings on On An Overgrown Path, including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' MaxOpus, Michael Nyman with MN Records, The Sixteens' Corro label, the Brodsky Quartet, and even as I type this the London Philharmonic Orchestra announce the launch of their own label. But the acid test for any recording project is whether the artists have anything important to say. With his latest recording venture John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque soloists with distinguished soloists pass that test with flying colours (this choir also brought us the superb Santiago a Cappella disc mentioned in my Pilgrimage post).

The project started with the Bach Pilgrimage. This performed and recorded all Bach's surviving church cantatas on the appropriate feast day in a single year starting in Weimar on Christmas Day in 1999, and travelling to a different venue for each group of performances. The logistics of the project were mind-boggling, with 198 cantatas to perform in various locations throughout the year. Underpinning the project was a contract with Deutsche Grammophon, then owned by Canadian drinks conglomerate Seagrams, to record and issue all the cantatas on CD.
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But with the pilgrimage successfully completed, and with all the cantatas on tape, came the sting. With just a handful of releases on the shelves DG pulled the plug on the project. The main reason given was too many rival versions in an already crowded market (including one from the innovative super-budget label Brilliant Classics). But DG clearly also had their eyes focussed on loftier artistic projects such as their 2000 release of guitarist Goran Sollscher playing arrangements of the Beatles music, plus an inexorable orchestral piece by their producer George Martin (interesting URL in that link - http://www.sirgeorgemartin.com/ - gives a whole new meaning to the word surtitles!)

In a classic knights move John Eliot Gardiner turned obstacle to advantage, and created his own record label to release the cantatas. And in a brilliant piece of nose-thumbing at DG the new label is called Soli Deo Gloria, meaning to the Glory of God alone, which Bach wrote at the bottom of his manuscripts. And of course Soli Deo Gloria abbreviates to SDG. (Universal Music's dubious financial machinations failed to save their bottom line, as profits tumbled they were sold to the now collapsed French conglomerate Vivendi run by the financier Jean Marie Messier who eventually was taken into custody under suspicion of financial misappropriation and insider dealing, presumably he will blame it all on file sharing?) .

But SDG is not just a vehicle to market recordings that were already on the shelf. Even before hearing the music it is clear that Gardiner has created a thing of beauty. Every part of this project has been brilliantly thought through. The two mid-priced CDs that make up each release in the series are beautifully packaged in a wallet which thankfully fits into standard CD storage slots (the complete set will comprise around fifty-one CDs so storage space is a consideration!)

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The covers are graced by contemporary photographs by Steve McCurry, and there are informative notes in the form of a pilgrimage diary by Gardiner (will this journal see the light of day as a book? - I have Tallis Scholar's Director Peter Philip's book on the shelf for summer holiday reading). Even the practicalities have been thought through. It can be difficult to open the shrink-wrap on CD wallet packaging without damaging the card, SDG have thoughtfully split their shrink-wrap into to two easy-to-open sections. Card sleeves for the CDs can result in damage, but here the discs are held in place by embossed retainers.

But what about the music? The performers are, of course, of the highest order. The soloists change with location. Volume 8 which I bought features Katherine Fuge soprano, Robin Tyson alto, Mark Padmore tenor, and Thomas Guthrie bass. All the recordings are made live in concert, but are patched where necessary with takes from a complete rehearsal performance in the same venue. This allows for obvious fluffs and audience intrusions (including applause) to be edited out.

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The music making is quite superb, and the unique aural 'footprint' of each venue, and sense of spontaneity of a live performance, more than compensate for any minor compromise arising from not using a conventional studio location. The venues for Volume 8 which covers the fifteenth and sixteenth Sundays after Trinity are Unser Lieben Frauen in Bremen, and (joy of joys) Santo Domingo de Bonaval in Santaigo de Compostela. The Executive Producer is Isabella de Sabata , who is John Eliot Gardiner's partner, and previously happened to be a senior executive at, you guessed it, DG.

Bach's sacred cantatas are one of the triumphs of western civiliation. John Eliot Gardiner and his collaborators have complimented them with their own masterly presentation, which puts into perspective the shabby policies of DG and their corporate peers. There has been speculation as to whether SDG will be able to complete their journey by releasing every cantata. For me completeness is a highly desirable luxury, meanwhile we should relish every issue in this remarkable series.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Chorus sings Tallis and Tippett

Although The Chorus may not be attracting the audiences in UK cinemas our leading vocal ensembles are packing them into concert venues. Last night The Sixteen with their founder and conductor Harry Christopher were visiting the superb English Perpendiular church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich (see my post Bach at St Peter Mancroft).

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Tallis meets Tippett - medieval meets modern: St Peter Mancroft Norwich seen from the new Forum

Pilgrimages are all the rage among vocal groups as well as on this blog (see Pliable's Travels). I have been listening to the first CD releases from the Monteverdi Choirs Bach Pilgrimage project (which also brought us the sublime Santiago a Cappella disc - see my Pilgrimage post) and will write about that shortly. The Sixteen are on their own Choral Pilgrimage taking an innovative programme of Tallis and Tippett to our great cathedrals, including Canterbury, York, Lincoln, Douai Abbey, and last night St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. (Interestingly St. Peter Mancroft is most definitely not a cathedral. Norwich has a very fine one of those too, about a quarter of a mile away. St. Peter Mancroft is the town church built for a great merchant city. It is where the medieval merchants worshipped in their guilds - for me the lofty interior with its shafted piers conjures up images of Hans Sachs and the Mastersingers).

Tallis and Tippett are this year's birthday boys (500 and 100 respectively, although Tallis is a 'presumed' date, so if the scholars come up with some fresh evidence we may have a re-run in a few year's time). Programming the Five Spirituals from Tippet's Child Of Our Time with Tallis' exquisite Loquebantur Varies Linguis (which also featured in the Keswick Hall Choir's Master Tallis' Testament concert) looks strange on paper. But hearing Tippett's wonderful Plebs Angelica alonside Tallis simply underlined Tippett's profound knowledge, and love, of Tudor polyphony.

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Michael Tippett

In a fascinating pre-concert talk founder memeber of The Sixteen and musicologist Sally Dunkley reminded us of the ground-breaking performance of Tallis' Spem in Alium in Bath Abbey in 1970 in which she sung, with Tippett conducting Schola Cantorum of Oxford (who perform the Palestrina Masses reviewed in my post Brilliant Classics). The previous Sunday Hugh Maquire had provided us with a direct line to Britten at the Kamus Quartet concert, last night Sally Dunkley connected us with Tippett and his pioneering role in the revival of Tudor polyphony. Tippett's pioneering 1948 recording of Spem in Alium has just been re-issued (see details from this link), and there is a fascinating remiscence of Tippett and Tallis by John Amis at this link (titled Spem with Tippett!).

After recording for years on Hyperion The Sixteen have joined the growing band of forward thinking musicians with their own record label Coro. ( For more on classical musician owned record labels see my posts Dog eats dog and MaxOpus). The many US readers of On An Overgrown Path should try to catch The Sixteen on their US tour next month (see dates and venues at the end of this post). In 2006 The Sixteen will continue on the pilgrimage route, this time celebrating the Spanish priest, scholar, and singer Tomas Luis de Victoria. Meanwhile in Norwich more riches await us with a visit from The Tallis Scholars to St Peter Mancroft in May for a Norwich Festival performance of Tallis and Sheppard.

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Detail of stained galss from Canterbury Cathedral,
which is being visited by The Sixteens Choral Pilgrimage

The Sixteen 2005 overseas tour dates:

6th April New York, USA - Lincoln Centre TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
7th April Jackson, Mississippi, USA TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
8th April Chicago, USA - Fourth Presbyterian Church TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
9th April Cincinnati, USA - St. Peter in Chains Church TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
10th April Minneapolis, USA - Ted Mann Concert Hall TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
13th April Kansas City, USA - Visitation Church TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
15th April Denver, USA - Augustana Lutheran Church TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
17th April Los Angeles, USA - First Congregational Church TALLIS, TIPPETT, TAVENER
4th May Bologna, Italy HANDEL's Messiah
27th May Lisbon, Portugal MELGAS, REBELO, LOTTI, SCARLATTI
28th May Lisbon, Portugal MELGAS, REBELO, LOTTI, SCARLATTI
3rd June Halle, Germany HANDEL's Messiah
2nd July Granada Festival, Spain GUERRERO, TALLIS, LOBO, VICTORIA, BYRD
28th August Utrecht, Holland Festival MELGAS, REBELO, LOTTI, SCARLATTI
29th August Utrecht, Holland Festival TALLIS, SHEPPARD
30th August Utrecht, Holland Festival DEBUSSY, STRAVINSKY, JOSQUIN
15th-19th September Spain - Cathedrals Tour VICTORIA Requiem
7th October Oporto, Portugal IBERIAN MYSTICS, Victoria, Guerrero, Lobo
18th-25th October Frankfurt, Germany BACH, MELGAS, SCARLATTI
29th October Arnhem, Holland TALLIS, TAVENER
30th October Groningen, Holland TALLIS, TAVENER
12th November Budapest, Hungary TALLIS, TIPPETT
12th December Innsbruck BACH Christmas Oratorio
14th December Vienna BACH Christmas Oratorio

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Chorus

We went to see The Chorus last night with some trepidation. The UK critics had given it a luke warm reception, with mutterings about 'feel good movies'. In case you've missed the story Christophe Barratier's film (which was nominated for an Oscar) is a remake of an obscure 1945 film about an unemployed music teacher who becomes a supervisor in a boarding school for boys from troubled backgrounds. The music teacher, brilliantly played by Gerard Jugnot, changes the lives of the boys, and the school, by introducing them to choral singing.

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Jean-Baptiste Maunier is now a huge star in France,
but what will his audience be in the UK and US?

This was the first week for the film in the UK. It was preceeded by trailers for mass market Hollywood trash - yet another Woody Allen movie of middle aged Americans acting out their mid-life crises with their heads up their rear ends, and a Kate Winslet epic of how the US will save the world from the terrors of the axis of evil. There were eight people in the cinema. The fact that, thankfully, The Chorus is being shown in French with sub-titles, will inevitably mean box office death in the UK and particularly the US.

All those who are put off by the 'feel good' reviews and French dialogue are missing a masterpiece of the cinema. Forget about it's post-war period setting and sub-titles, The Chorus is about contemporary and vitally important, but deeply unfashionable, subjects such as educational exclusion, and the power of art to change the lives of everyday people. It celebrates achievement and inspiration, unlike mainstream media which now treats ignorance as a virtue. The central thread of choral music is about as far from today's Michael Jackson obsessed society in the UK and US as it is possible to get.

The Chorus treats music as a therapeutic tool, an important but little understood subject which this blog has touched on in Serendipidity 2, and also links to the work done by Professor Paul Robertson using the music of Bach with Alzheimer's sufferers, (which sadly claimed Bernard Levin last year) - see his web site Music, Mind and Spirit. There are also some interesting digs at the disciplinary policy used by the school's principal of action - reaction. I couldn't help wondering whether this wasn't a metaphor for US foreign policy?

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Gerard Jugnot as the inspirational
music teacher, but will his inspiration
reach beyond France?

Yes, The Chorus is simplistic and stylised. But so are folk stories, parables and much great literature. Billy Elliott treats the same themes with equal flair, but was embraced by the UK media presumably because it was home grown. The tragedy of The Chorus is that it is unlikely to succeed outside France simply because it is a deeply unfashionable film. Yes Pliable is a Francophile - and vive la difference!
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Online aarti

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Fish Frenzy 2 by Neill Murphy - £350

Virtual art galleries which display and sell paintings online fascinate me. I have already posted in Serendipity 2 about Julian Merrow-Smith who paints in the Vaucluse and has an online gallery at Still Life, and a blog with daily paintings instead of words at Shifting Light.

Now On An Overgrown Path has put me back in touch with an old colleague from my IT days. Margaret Horrocks swapped AS400 programming for creating a superb online gallery of contemporary art called aarti.co.uk which she runs from her home on the Norfolk/Suffolk borders. Margaret tells me the name aarti was intended to be an acronym for Advertising Art on the Internet, but has the alternative meaning of "a little prayer" which most artists probably do when they exhibit their work. On her site Margaret sets out her 'manifesto' which should be shouted from the rooftops far beyond the art world.....

AARTI thinks that creative people are special. How much do we value articles that are unique - more than items which are manufactured or mass produced - no matter how much they cost? Yet many people who can create beautiful items often go unrewarded.

Many take up careers which are unrelated to their talent. Their artistic ability can only be expressed as a part time hobby. And we all loose out.

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Nude drawing 8 by Sarah Thomas - £120

The images in this post (all of which are linked from Margaret's site) are just a selection of the works currently featured on aarti. Click on the name to be taken to a very interesting site, and perhaps you will be tempted to use that credit card. At On An Overgrown Path we always try before we recommend. Distant View of les Alpilles from Julian Merrow-Smith's online gallery is now in our living room; the online payment process and shippinng from France worked flawlessly.

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Sculpture 10 by Michael Rawlinson - £5000

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A direct line to Britten

Saw the superb young Kamus Quartet playing at the Chapel invitation concert in Norwich on Sunday. The Kamus are four students from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki who are making quite a name for themselves on the chamber music scene.

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The Kamus Quartet show that chamber music
doesn't need to be stuffy and boring....

Why do so many brilliant musicians come out of Finland, a country of just five million inhabitants. Coming to that why do so many other important developments like the Linux operating system (first developed by Linus Torvalds) and Nokia mobile phone technology come from the same small country? Presumably it is connected with the fact that the Finnish education system is consistently rated as one of the best in the world? ( In the OECD's international assessment of student performance, PISA, Finland has consistently been among the highest scorers worldwide; in 2003 Finnish 15-year-olds came first in reading literacy and science, and second in mathematics, worldwide).

The commitment and energy of these young musicians was awesome, and it was supported by an equally outstanding technique. The sheer vitality of these players (and that of the Sacconi String Quartet (see my post Laminar Flow region) made me wonder whether some of our main stream quartets aren't becomong a little 'routine' in their performances(thiis a subject tackled by Susan Tomes in her excellent new book - see my post Brain Food 2), or is that inevitable when you are on the road week after week? (Sorry to name names, but a concert by the Allegri last autumn was one of the most routine I have ever attended).

The high spot of the Kamus' outstanding concert was their playing of Britten's First Quartet. The Kamus have had a four week residency at Snape for the second year in succession, and their teacher during the residency, Hugh Maguire, gave an brief introductory talk before the Britten. As leader of the Allegri Quartet (which was then at the peak of its powers) Maguire made the first recording of the Britten, in the Maltings with Britten himself at his elbow throughout the sessions.

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Hugh Maguire

Judging by the playing of the Kamus Hugh Maguire has clearly been able to pass the inspiration down from Britten himself to a new generation of string players. The performance was quite remarkable as this young quartet had learnt the quartet during this residency, and the concert we attended was only their second public performance of the work. How pleasing it is that Maquire is continuing to inspire young players in his role as Director of String Studies at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies at Snape. His pre-performance comments were also perceptive. the first half of the concert was Sibelius' Intimate Voices, Maguire commented that although it was a fine quartet Sibelius did nothing in it that hadn't been done before, unlike the Britten.

And in one of those odd occurences of serendipity we hear the Britten First Quartet again this Saturday in Norwich, this time played by the Carducci Quartet. But before that we have The Sixteen performing Tallis and Tippett in St Peter Mancroft on Friday as part of their Choral Pilgrimage - will the riches never cease?

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Benjamin Britten outside Snape Maltings
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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Lost in translation

On An Overgrown Path is hosted on splendid free software supplied by Blogger. But the Spellcheck in the blogger software does throw up some amusing sillies. While I was writing my post Master Tallis' Testament the following were just some of the suggested corrections....

Tallis = talkie
frisson = frisian
groundplan = grandpa's
L'Abbaye = labia
ecclesiastical = eclectic
Elgar's = eelgrass
Howells = howls
motets = mutates
plainchant = planking
Walton's = wilting
cantata = candied


Pliable at work on On An Overgrown Path

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Wot no computers?

Today the London International Book Fair opens, and for the first time than for more years than I can remember I am not there. I spent the last few years of my time in the corporate world being paid to persuade booksellers and publishers to see the benefits of using computer systems, and to trade electronically using common standards (EDI, XML, metadata and all that kind of stuff - here is a link if you are really interested). This usually meant persuading the small bookseller or publisher to shell out money, and change their established (and effective) business processes.



A couple of days ago I was in Malvern for a conference, and followed it with another fascinating monastery hunting trip which took in Belmont Abbey, Dore Abbey (picture above - the Dore Abbey link is worth following, nice web site) and finally a trip up the Honddu Valley in Wales to visit the magnificent Llanthony Priory. When I get time I'll write a post about these visits; but what extraordinary, beautiful, wild and remote locations were chosen for these monastic communities - I had a job reaching Llanthony with all the benefits of 21st century technology, what must the journey have been like in the 12th century?.

After a fairly hairy drive over a single track pass on the flank of the Black Mountains, (and, because I'm a keen cyclist, a decent ride at the summit between banks of snow, on my Moulton APB bike which lives in the boot of my Skoda ), I descended into Hay-on-Wye. For those of you that don't know it Hay is the bookshop town. It has 1,400 population, and 40 bookshops!

The bookshops in Hay mean serious business. Just one, the Cinema Bookshop fills the entire disused cinema with more than 200,000 books. For a book addict like me Hay is bliss, and I've tacked a list of books that I bought onto the end of the post. Hay also has a great annual book festival which is well worth investigating.

But one thing struck me in Hay. I visited around ten bookshops. And not one single one used any sort of computerised stock control system. So what is probably the best single location for book buying (and knowledge acquisition) in the country functions quite happily with little support rom computers, thanks very much. Makes me realise that none of us, other than Adam and Eve, are indispensable, or as Kipling wrote, with apologies for my parenthesis ............"Words (not computer code) are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."

Books bought in Hay......
Shadow Warrior by David McTaggart - £1 (the autobiography of the founder of Greenpeace International. A new copy from a remainder shop)

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway - £2 (I want this to reread on holiday over the summer. It's a rather tatty Penguin Modern Classic edition, inscribed in the front cover to B.Dwyer, 98, Edinburgh Road, Widnes, Lancs - would be serendipity if he read this wouldn't it?)
Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle both by Haruki Murakami - £2.50 each (I've just finished Kafka on the Shore and thought it was fantastic, I'm posting a piece about it later, also see my review of Norwegian Wood)
Full Circle by Janet Baker - £2 (I'm a sucker for musicians diaries, see my notes on Susan Tomes book, is this record ? - this is the first mention of music in this post!)
Death in Holy Orders by P.D.James - £3.50 (I wanted a copy to re-read on holiday because of its monastic background, a bit pricey but an almost new copy although the back is badly 'cracked').

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Schubert's last piano sonata

Heard acclaimed young British pianist Paul Lewis playing Beethoven and Schubert at the John Innes Centre in Norwich last Sunday in one of splendid concerts organised by Norwich and Norfolk Chamber Music.

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Wonderful technically dazzling playing, but a strangely empty performance of the Schubert Sonata No 21. (My favourite performance is Wilhelm Kempff's which is available in a 7CD bargain box from DGG which is full of riches. This set is available from Caiman USA via amazon.co.uk through the New and Used link for the bargain price of £21.56 plus £1.24 postage, see my posting Brilliant CD Bargains).

I am also attached to Paul Lewis' teacher Alfred Brendel's interpretations , his 'live remake' comes as part of a two for the price of one Philips set. It is worth visiting his official web site via this link, as you would expect it one of the more imaginative artist web sites).

Why do so many young musicians feel they have to tackle the peaks of the repertoire relatively early in their careers? There is so much other great music to explore; why aren't works such as this and the late Beethoven Quartets left to mature more before public performance?

I guess that they tackle these peaks because like Everest they are there. But aren't the base camps and approaches to Everest getting a little cluttered and degraded?

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Friday, March 11, 2005

Master Tallis' Testament


Authentic performance is conventionally defined as played on original instruments and in an original style (without vibrato etc), but performances in 'authentic' surroundings can add an equally valid frisson.

Norwich Priory became a Benedictine Monastic Priory five years after its foundation in 1096, and the Norman groundplan is the most authentic of any English cathedral. Among many glories the cloisters, which unusually for a dissolved house remain intact, are outstanding. They were burnt down in 1272, and subsequently rebuilt with an unusual covered upper story for the monks to use for work and contemplation in winter. (It is a common mistake to think cloisters were simply used by monks walking in silent, contemplative circles. Together with the Chapter House and church they were a central point for the monks, used for working, reading and writing. When I arrived to stay in the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux I didn't know the etiquette of monastic life, and had to ask what could be done, and what was forbidden in the cloisters. I was surprised to find that the cloister was a working, as well as contemplative area).


The Cloisters, Norwich Cathedral Priory

Norwich Cathedral Priory is almost within a stone's throw of a Dominican Friary which is acknowledged as the finest remains of any medieval friary church in England. The Dominican Friary was retained after the suppression as St. Andrew's Hall, a venue for public events, and is now the principal concert venue in Norwich. Alas, and quite inexplicably for a large ecclesiastical building, the acoustics of the architecturally magnificent St. Andrew's Hall are abysmal. The Cathedral Priory, which is now the Episcopal Cathedral, is also a concert venue with along and chequered history including the first performance of Elgar's Sea Pictures conducted by the composer in 1899. Thankfully, it is in the flattering acoustic and magnificent setting of the Cathedral that the Keswick Hall Choir have chosen to present an innovative programme entitled Mater Tallis' Testament (taking its name from Herbert Howells' organ work of the same name which was included in the concert).

Master Thomas Tallis was represented by his Lamentations of Jeremiah and two motets, Suscipe quaeso and Loquebantur varris linguis. (The latter using a Saron plainchant as a Cantus Firmus , with a wonderful unadorned presentation of the chant at the end). Framing Tallis's masterpieces were works by Britten, Howells, Vaughan Williams (his Mass in G Minor, itse;f a homage to Tudor polyphony), Walton's The Twelve (which is closer to Belshazzar's Feast than polyphony), and a very effective contemporary cantata Haes Dies by Peter Ashton who was in the audience.

Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Britten et al soared to the wonderfully embellished Norman roof. The Keswick Hall Choir conducted by John Aplin were in their usual impeccable form (although at forty-four strong, some would argue, a little full bodied for the Tallis), and in the 20th century works the contribution from the from David Dunnett at the console of the modern organ (which is the second largest cathedral organ in Britain) perched on the pulpitum screen was magnificent.


Keswick Hall Choir in rehearsal in Norwich Cathedral

And the silent contribution of the Benedictine Priory was wonderful. We walked in the darkened cloisters during the interval as snow flurries swirled outside, and I was reminded of my stay at the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux , and the monks in their black habits walking into the darkened abbey church at three o'clock in the morning for matins. As Peter Levi wrote in the Frontiers of Paradise - "English monastic ruins are almost more impressive than a living monastery; they are doubly dramatic. They pose formidable questions about God and the soul, to which the light and shadows of their ruined architecture offer the merest hint of answers."


Programme for Master Tallis' Testament, Norwich Cathedral Priory, 26th February 2005

Benjamin Britten (1913-76) - A Hymn to the Virgin

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) - The Lamentations of Jeremiah

Benjamin Britten - Voluntary on Tallis' Lamentation

Peter Aston (b.1938) - Haes Dies

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Mass in G Minor

Herbert Howells (1892-1993) - Master Tallis' Testament

Thomas Tallis - Suscipe quaeso and Loquebantur variis linguis

William Walton (1902-83) - The Twelve


Saturday, March 05, 2005

Dog eats dog....

In the classical music world musician owned record labels are all the rage, and my post MaxOpus was about Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' innovative web site, which is complete with music downloads.

Michael Nyman of 'The Piano' fame is the latest to join the bandwagon (pun intended). Neglect by his corporate label Warner Classics is the accusation, and MN Records is Nyman's own label.

But Warner Classics are not taking the accusation lying down, here is their letter from today's Guardian.

There is one very simple reason that Michael Nyman is starting his own label: no one else will release his records any more. He blames the low profile of Facing Goya and Sangam on "inadequate marketing by Warner's". Sadly for him, the real reason was inadequate music which is, I imagine, a harder pill to swallow.

Matthew Cosgrove, Director, Warner Classics

Shifting Light

I always looking out for blogs that push the envelope, and here is a nice one. Shifting Light is a gallery of small oil paintings created mostly daily, by Julian Merrow-Smith, an English painter based in Crillon-le-Brave, in the South of France (Julian is the other half of cellist Ruth Phillips, whose blog Meanwhile in France was featured in my posting Serendipidity 2). This is a sort of daily diary in paintings. The paintings are small, the size of an envelope, and are available for purchase. Prices start at $100/€78/ £50.

A picture is worth a thousand words (or a million on some blogs), so enough said.

Example
From Shifting Light - Green Olives: 15 x 10 cms, oil on gessoed card
PRICE: £50.00 [$100.00/€75,00]
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Brilliant CD bargains

Example

I buy a lot of CD's, and am always looking for value for money as well as great service. The four Brahms Symphonies with Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in his highly acclaimed 'deconstructed' performances on 3 CD's from Telarc are £41.99 from Amazon UK. I followed the 'Used and New' link to Caiman USA and paid £17.47 plus £1.24 shipping for the same set listed as 'new' - less than half price, and a saving of more than twenty pounds.

Caiman offer online order tracking. They responded to the order with an email and said they are shipping in three days. They must be selling at less than US cost, but they have 119067 ratings from buyers in last twelve months with average 4.6 out of 5. The set arrived seven days after ordering. Beautifully packaged, factory shrunk-wrap, and half the price of Amazon - saving more than £20. Caiman ship via Frankfrt in the same way as amazon.com.

I would highly recommend Caiman on this experience. Fantastically low price, mint product, and shipping not much slower than amazon.co.uk. But follow this link for an update on Caiman, Brilliant Classics and other suppliers - December 2005.

So what's the catch? Or is this just a great way to beat the rip-off pricing policies of the record companies?

Example
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