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B. Garvey "bgarvey13" (Lancaster, UK)
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David Bowie
David Bowie
Price: 13.96

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars He's a laughing gnome ..., 9 May 2010
This review is from: David Bowie (Audio CD)
For most people, the David Bowie story starts with 1969's "Space Oddity". But he'd been releasing records since 1964, and had a long series of flops before his first hit. Early on he made R'n'B singles that were just that bit less memorable than the Yardbirds, the Who, etc. By 1967 he was a bizarre mix of cheeky music-hall entertainer, hippy visionary, and doomy cabaret singer à la Jacques Brel or Scott Walker. We find this mix on his first album, now re-released by Universal in a 2-CD set featuring mono and stereo mixes and a generous helping of other tracks from around the same time. A fair few of these (including the stereo mix of the album) have already appeared on The Deram Anthology 1966-68, and some on Bowie at the Beeb.

If you're expecting another Diamond Dogs or Scary Monsters, forget it. Orchestral arrangements that many would call 'twee' abound. "Rubber Band" and "Little Bombardier" are oompah-pah tunes that sound like they belong in a Bavarian biergarten. There are dewy-eyed ballads such as "When I Live My Dream" and "Sell Me A Coat" on which Bowie's vocals are beautiful, though the songs may be too pretty for some tastes. Some songs hover between jokes and morbid bad taste. "We Are Hungry Men" is a about a future world where overpopulation leads people to resort to cannibalism. Again, don't expect Diamond Dogs. Instead, expect 'comedy' German accents. Strangest of all is "Please, Mr Gravedigger", a piece about a child-killer sung in monotone, with grave-digging sound effects.

Among the bonus tracks are some purely 'comedy' songs. "The Laughing Gnome" actually became a hit single in 1973, because or in spite of its helium-voiced gnome and bad puns: "'Ere, what's that ticking noise? That's Fred - he's a metrognome." Either you'll love it or you'll cry out "Stop! Gnome more!" There's also the previously ultra-rare "When I'm Five", from the film Love Me Till Tuesday. Look it up on YouTube: it's both hilarious and a bit disturbing to see Bowie miming the awkward movements of a small child and fantasising about what things will be like when he's older. Sample lyric: "When I'm five, I will jump in puddles, laugh in church and marry my mum". How his mum reacted to this proposal is not known.

One wonders how anybody thought that any of this had commercial potential. But in what may have been some massively audacious David vs. Goliath gesture, Bowie's first album was released on the same day as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. To compare them would be cruel to Bowie. What's more, I can't say that the mono mix is as revelatory as the recently re-released Beatles mono mixes. Ultra-obsessive Bowie fans will want this set, as it fills some gaps. For many others, it will show a side of the man that they never suspected existed. It's not an undiscovered masterpiece, but it is enjoyable in a weird way. One can't in all seriousness give this more than three stars, if his best albums such as Low and "Heroes" get five. Speaking of which, this is all very well, but when are we going to get expanded editions of Low and "Heroes"?


The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.19

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very ecumenical approach to 20th c. 'classical' music, 7 July 2009
This book surveys 'classical' (a term I will not attempt to define!) composers from Mahler and R. Strauss up to the present. One of the things I really liked about it was the way he pretty much doesn't care about the distinction between who's 'progressive' and who's 'conservative' - Shostakovich and Copland get as much coverage as Messiaen and Boulez. (You can contrast it with Paul Griffiths' Modern Music, which very much takes the orthodox modernist line, devoting tons of space to Stockhausen, Maderna, Nono etc. and being utterly patronising about Shost and Britten.)
Also, he does a very good job of placing the music in its broader cultural and political contexts without that ever being overbearing. Another plus is that he has the extremely rare gift of being able to describe pieces of music in a way that gives an idea of what it sounds like, and without bewildering the reader with technicalities.

He also has many 'ah yes!' insights along the way. I'll just give a couple of my favourites.
He argues, based on features of the physical way people perceive music, that twelve-tone music will always be unsettling in a way that can't be wholly accounted for by the fact that it's an unfamiliar idiom. (He's not *anti*-twelve-tone music, far from it, but just thinks that we should acknowledge that it really is difficult to listen to, and that that's not just down to closed-minded listeners.)

Another bit I liked was the way he tells the history of post-WWII American music, where Cage comes out as a major liberating influence, not just from tradition, but from the European avant-garde as well. So he traces a lineage from Cage to Feldman to Lamonte Young to Riley and Reich. (Sadly, Alan Hovhaness gets left out of Ross's story here, whereas I think he should have been mentioned as a key figure. He and Cage were good friends, and admired each others' music despite the obvious differences.)

Another point I liked was where he quoted Duke Ellington objecting to people saying that jazz is 'modern classical music' or 'black classical music.' Ellington thought that to call jazz any type of classical music was to deny jazz its own `original genius'. I've always thought something like this, but it's good to know that I have the authority of Ellington on my side!
Incidentally, some of the reviewers made a big point of the supposed fact that Ross tells the whole story of 20th century music from Mahler to the Velvet Underground. The truth is that it is a history of classical music compositon in the 20th century, with jazz and rock being discussed a bit, but only as part of that broader cultural context I mentioned earlier.

Of course I have some reservations. One minor one is the journalistic tone of some of the writing - e.g. on the first page Gershwin is introduced as 'George Gershwin, creator of Rhapsody in Blue''. I can't fully articulate why this phrase annoys me so. I think it's got something to do with the facts that (1) Gershwin didn't 'create' Rhapsody in Blue, he composed it; (2) one would think that anyone wanting to read a book on the history of 20th century music would know who George Gershwin was. Also, people who use "[sic]" when quoting people as often as he does really should look to the beam in their own eye. (You'll see what I mean if you read it.)

That might just be me, but a more serious complaint I have is that British composers are almost totally neglected. He talks about the influence of folk music traditions on composers, and he discusses the usual suspects - Bartok, Janacek, etc. - but *where is Vaughan Williams??* Likewise, Tippett barely gets a mention. The only British composer to get extended treatment is Britten. He gets a whole chapter to himself, including a ten-page summary of Peter Grimes. Now, I like Britten but this seems excessive, and only makes the neglect of other British composers all the more galling.
He does *almost* compensate for this at the very end with one nice remark, on how British music went through many of the same phases as music elsewhere, but 'without the constant background noise of ideological disputation.' A nice little insight I think, especially as he has told a plausible story about how it wasn't just in the Soviet Union, but in Western Europe and the U.S. as well, that composers were subjected to political pressures.

On the whole the book has a bit of an Americo-centric bias - for example, you would get the impression that the most important thing Messaien ever did was to visit Utah.

But please don't be put off by my complaints! Any book that aims at this kind of comprehensiveness on *any* subject is bound to strike any reader as biased or lacking in some ways. On the whole it's a great read, from which you can get plenty of both new information and new insights. As you'd expect, the comments about the immediate present and the speculations about the future are a bit vague. But they are optimistic, and he makes optimism about music's future seem plausible.

A final word of warning: if you do read this book, you'd better either have a very large collection of 20th century music, or a lot of money to spend on building one! Time and time again you will find yourself reading Ross's description of a piece and saying to yourself "I want to hear that *now*."


Shostakovich: Violin Concerto, No. 1 / Glazunov: Violin Concerto, Perman
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto, No. 1 / Glazunov: Violin Concerto, Perman

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perlman finds the soul of Shostakovich, 2 May 2008
I approached this CD with a certain amount of scepticism. Perlman is one of the world's greatest violinists but - I thought - his playing would be too romantic, too damn *beautiful* for Shostakovich, whose music often demands a harsh, even ugly sound.

The Shostakovich Violin Concerto no. 1 is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. If you don't know it I strongly urge you to try it. It is Shostakovich in his most emotionally naked mode. There is no Soviet-style (or satirical, depending on your point of view on Shostakovich) 'epic' bombast here. Instead, there are two heartbreaking slow movements that move from being relatively conventionally beautiful to a sourer sound in a familar Shostakovichian (?) way (mvts 1 and 3) And there are two fast, exciting movements of teeth-gritting angst (mvts 2 and 5). Plus a long cadenza featuring the DSCH motif, which is like an increasingly frenzied confessional soliloquy.

As for the performance, it is indeed more beautiful and less 'hard' than the ones by Oistrakh and Mordkovitch that I already knew. Perlman brings out the affinity with Jewish music that was an essential component of Shostakovich's work at this time. This music alternates between weeping and dancing on in the shadow of death, and Perlman weeps and dances with it. It is the most soulful performance I have heard. (And 'soulful' does not mean 'indulgent'.)

I don't mean to ignore the other works on this CD - they are fine works and the whole adds up to an excellent programme. But it is the Shostakovich concerto that lifts this CD out of the ordinary, and this performance has given me new insights into a work I thought I knew well.


Arnold - The Malcolm Arnold Edition - The Eleven Symphonies
Arnold - The Malcolm Arnold Edition - The Eleven Symphonies

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A well-kept secret, 12 Sep 2007
Malcom Arnold's name may be familiar to you because he wrote the scores for numerous films including 'Bridge on the River Kwai' and 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness'. It would be tempting to dismiss him as a conservative English composer, but that would be a big mistake. After all, he did conduct Deep Purple's Concerto for Rock Band and Orchestra, so can hardly be accused of being unadventurous.

For my money, this is one of the finest twentieth century symphony cycles by an English composer, or indeed a composer of any nationality. They are far more concise as symphonic structures than those of Arnold Bax, who - at least in my opinion - is too prone to long-winded wallowing in loveliness. There are definite affinities with Vaughan Williams - and not just the 'pastoral' VW but the more restless, volatile, even violent VW of the sixth and ninth symphonies. But there is wit and grace in here too. In some ways a good comparison is to Shostakovich when the latter's being the deceptive comic, as in the ninth and fifteenth symphonies - there's an apparent sunny cheerfulness that is subverted by dark undercurrents and is prone to giving way to pure tragedy. Perhaps that affinity is partly explained by the fact that both were prolific film composers, for they both have the ability to evoke complex moods, suggest character and drama, and change mood with extreme rapidity. (They were writing music in the days when film scores did these things, which doesn't seem to be the case any more!)

These symphonies are tightly constructed - no wallowing here - full of appealing tunes, and take you on real emotional journeys. In some ways they are like concertos for orchestra (and yes, *that* comparison is not compeletely far-fetched either!) Arnold frequently lets individual instruments or sections carry the argument. He has an excellent sense of the character of each instrument, though it has to be said that he is particularly fond of the trumpet - the instrument that he himself played in the LPO. The only symphony that I find problematic is the ninth. Its last movement - lasting over 20 minutes - seems to me to be an overly repetitive, dragging dirge. This is probably a true reflection of Arnold's state of mind at the time, for in his latter years he frequently suffered from depression. I sense that this is music of great emotional honesty, even nakedness. It does at the very least command respect for that (my respect anyway) and will perhaps reward further listens.

Anyone who knows Vernon Handley's recordings of Vaughan Williams, Simpson [OK, and Bax!] will know that VH is naturally born to conduct music of this kind. The sound on this set is, I think, preferable to that on the Naxos set - it has greater physical presence and allows more detail to be heard.

So: rid yourself of any prejudices you might have against 'conservative' composers, or against English composers or whatnot. Should we care, in this day and age, that Bartok was a 'progressive' and Vaughan Williams - or Arnold - a 'conservative'? I think not.


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