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Master Jacques (London, England, UK)

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Concertos For Piano & Strings [Mark Bebbington] [Somm: SOMMCD 254]
Concertos For Piano & Strings [Mark Bebbington] [Somm: SOMMCD 254]
Price: £15.11

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A winner from Somm, 27 Oct 2014
There is perhaps an "alternative" tradition of British keyboard concertos, through Constant Lambert and Walter Leigh, to Alan Rawsthorne and William Mathias, which presents a spikier, intensely rhythmic, more "edgy" musical world than the mainstream English voices to which we're more accustomed. This excellent Somm collection presents one work - Gordon Jacob's engaging 1st Concerto - from the start of this tradition, in 1927; and another - Malcolm Williamson's jazzy, witty and super-tuneful 2nd - from towards its end, in 1962.

In the middle sits Doreen Carwithen - perhaps better known as Mary Alwyn, wife to composer William - whose 1946 Concerto was a palpable hit at the 1952 Proms. Her voice may not be so personal as the other two: as one BBC executive at the time said, fairly enough, "Rachmaninoff might have written it if he had belonged to the same stable as Vaughan Williams and Moeran". But it is full of vigorous and lyrical writing, with a melting slow movement featuring an imaginative "duet" between solo piano and first violin.

The Jacob is a première recording, which given the Concerto's muscular, lean inventiveness and bright-eyed, bushy-tailed alertness is surprising. Williamson's highly enjoyable esprit is much more familiar - this is its sixth recording, and second to be released this year - but its combination of acerbic, jazzy wit in the outer movements and bitter-sweet lyricism in the rapt, beautiful "plainchant" at its heart never fails to lift and spirits and engage the mind.

Fortunately, this excellently conceived programme is finely performed and recorded. The Innovation Chamber Ensemble are drawn from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and their playing is often breathtakingly virtuosic, as well as musically imaginative. Conductor Richard Jenkinson pays minute attention to dynamics, tempi and balance throughout all three concertos. Mark Bebbington has a fine sense of dramatic contrast, and an impeccably clean technique which gets more depth, fun and sparkle out of the Williamson concerto than I've heard before on disc (even in the composer's own recording on Lyrita). He serves the other two concerti equally well.

In a phrase, everything here seems "just right". Given the natural, full and clear recording (from the CBSO Centre in Birmingham) this CD is a winner, which will bring anyone interested in that "alternative" British concerto tradition very great pleasure.

The Lost Musicians (Dedalus Europe)
The Lost Musicians (Dedalus Europe)
by William Heinesen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.71

5.0 out of 5 stars Lost masterpiece..., 27 May 2014
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.... well, hardly lost to Scandinavians - but certainly unknown to us in English, until this translation made its welcome appearance.

Heinesen's novel is a rich experience, working on many layers, and yet there is nothing solemn about it. He writes lightly, lucidly - almost with the clarity of the light of his home town of Torhavn, the little capital of the Faroe Islands where the book is set.

On the face of it, we have "ordinary", small-town events unfolding without fuss or melodrama. Underneath this, lies a struggle between primal good and evil, the dark wrestling of souls trapped by religious conformity, and - most movingly - the struggle of art and music to remain afloat, despite a fragility as great as the boats on which the Torhavn seamen struggle to scrape a living.

Yet, this summary gives no hint of the books comedic tone, the beauty and simplicity of Heinesen's prose (as rendered in W. Glyn Jones's fluent translation) and the its resonance when you finally, reluctantly, put the novel down.

It made me rush to get everything else by Heinesen that I could find in print. A major novel, and an important voice.

Williamson: Organ Music [Tom Winpenny] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0246]
Williamson: Organ Music [Tom Winpenny] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0246]
Price: £14.40

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Lion of Sydney, 21 May 2014
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We've been a long time waiting for a modern, CD recording of the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson's magnificent Organ Symphony, and now two come along almost at once. Hot on the heels of Tom Bell's performance in his 'Masters of the Monarch's Music' compilation, comes Tom Winpenny, on the organ of St Mary Redcliffe. This organ itself is a beauty, by the way, and it has been spaciously and naturally recorded by the Toccata engineers.

Winpenny's conception of the Symphony comes across to me as tighter than Bell's, more dramatic and magisterial, and he finds more variety of tone and texture in his instrument. Both are good, but I believe this is the one to have. It even challenges memories of Allan Wicks's commanding version on an LP made during the 1970's in Canterbury Cathedral.

Unlike Bell, Winpenny has chosen to devote his whole disc to Williamson, a decision which certainly swings the balance in his favour. 'The Vision of Christ Phoenix' was inspired in 1961 by seeing the new cathedral at Coventry rising Phoenix-like from the ruins of the old. Williamson insinuates the Coventry Carol into his flowing, fiery textures throughout, and the result is a work as moving as it is virtuosic. The substantial 'Fons Amoris' (1955-56) was Williamson's first major organ work, and though the influence of Messiaen is patent, already it has been absorbed into the recognisable Williamson "style" - lyrical, tough and introspective by turns.

The three, shorter works which make up the programme are equally compelling, with 'The Lion of Suffok' (1977) the foremost of them. This is a touching, lyrical tribute to the memory of Benjamin Britten, and gives us Williamson at his most warm, quirky and approachable.

Rich music, beautifully played and excellently recorded, Tom Winpenny's disc makes a highly desirable addition to Toccata's adventurous catalogue.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 4, 2014 5:07 PM BST

Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James
Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James
by M.R. James
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £24.00

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Warning to the Curious Reader - Caveat Emptor!, 20 Mar 2014
What a pity, when the Afterword is valuable and the fragmentary stories so rarely found, that the editor Stephen Jones has taken it upon himself to muck around with James's punctuation to make him more "accessible" - on the grounds that the original author was "not much of a stylist". Hmm.

Perhaps it had not occurred to him that many of us read these stories for the style as much as the substance. Mr Jones claims that he has not cut a word or altered the meaning. In the event, he often obscures James's meaning without clarifying it in the slightest. Sometimes he does worse. Here is just one, rather shocking example.

The original first paragraph of "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" reads:
'I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,' said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St James's College.'

Here is the "accessible" Jones version, which adds a full stop after 'now':
'I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now. Full term is over, Professor," said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St. James's College.'

This introduces the baffling impression that the Professor needs to be told, rhetorically, that "Full term is over," rather in the manner of a bad Hollywood script. The extra punctuation turns James's elegant first sentence into bad writing. It destroys the rhythm and ruins the sense.

Such examples abound on nearly every page. Goodness knows what Mr Jones thought he was doing, but unfortunately his condescending and tin-eared interference has rendered one of the greatest ghost writers in the language down to the level of a penny-dreadful hack.

Add the fact that unattractive, modish and (in some cases) nearly unreadable italic and typewriter fonts have been used to let us stupid readers know when the stories quote "manuscripts" or "inscriptions", and we have a car-crash of the worst order.

The depressing series of own goals reduces the value of this collection to zero. What arrogance. How frustrating!

Williamson: Complete Piano Concertos [Piers Lane, Howard Shelley] [Hyperion: CDA68011/2]
Williamson: Complete Piano Concertos [Piers Lane, Howard Shelley] [Hyperion: CDA68011/2]
Price: £24.38

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A major rediscovery, 3 Mar 2014
First off, I must congratulate Hyperion. Yes, they have done it again! Their ability to rescue obscure but worthwhile piano concertos from the vault of time is legendary, but in choosing to record these four by the Anglo-Australian Master of the Queen's Music, Malcolm Williamson - together with his other two, concertante keyboard works - they have excelled themselves. For imaginative choice of worthwhile repertoire, this set will take some beating.

This is also the most important Williamson CD issue since he died, forgotten by nearly everyone, over ten years ago. Most composers go into eclipse after their death, but in his case the eclipse started a generation ago. Well, it is high time the sun came out again. Because this music is simply too good, too individual and life-enhancing, to lie down. And Hyperion's splendid 2-CD set has the sun clearing the shadows at last.

For anyone who hasn't heard any Williamson, these Piano Concertos are a very good way to test the water. Here you'll find his quintessential, highly personal "sweet and sour" mixture of acerbic, driven energy (reminiscent of Prokofiev, Bartok or even Messiaen) with big-hearted, popular Tunes (yes, TUNES!!) He reminds me sometimes of that equally naughty Frenchman, Poulenc. Sometimes of the not-quite so naughty Vaughan Williams. But goodness, he's his own man.

The 1st and 2nd concertos hide real substance under a mask of ebullient, edgy, tongue-in-cheek lightness. Both have marvellously exhilarating toccata-like outer movements, sandwiching romantic slow movements of a distinctive, delicate beauty. The 4th dates from late in his life - amazingly, this is its world premiere! The exuberance of the two early concertos is still there, but the colours are darker, casting a melancholy patina over the high spirits. A ghost has got into the machine. The slow movement is an extraordinary, heartfelt piece of romantic nostalgia like some lost song from a Victorian hymn book. I love this strange, haunting concerto.

The 3rd is on a bigger scale than its siblings, in four not three movements. In depth, colour and scale it reminds me of the Britten Piano Concerto, but Williamson is always a distinctive personality and this is one of his masterpieces. The slow movement, typically, starts from a tiny germ of a thematic scrap which builds little by little to a towering climax of superb power. The 3rd has been recorded before (notably by the composer on Lyrita, also available on CD) but this version will win it many new friends. The 1st and 2nd have also been recorded before, but these Hyperion versions kick the alternatives into touch.

As for the performances: suffice it to say that Piers Lane is on ebullient, virtuoso top form throughout. Occasionally he drives the music a little hard, but the vitality is immense. His fellow pianist Howard Shelley conducts the excellent Tasmanian players with precision and clarity, and the recording (although quite close) is outstandingly clear, even in the dark, orchestral miasmas of the 4th Concerto.

Shelley joins Lane in the more unsmiling, abstract Concerto for Two Pianos, and the set is completed by an excellent reading of the early Sinfonia Concertante, a richly coloured orchestral tapestry where the piano weaves its magic continually, without ever quite 'taking charge' in the manner of the concertos.

Enough said. For me, this is a wondrous, life-enhancing discovery. This music has immense 'chutzpah', and is outrageously full of melodies that you won't be able to get out of your head, whether you want to or not. Excellent performances and recording only enhance the value of an outstanding set. Bravo Hyperion – and bravo Malcolm Williamson!
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 10, 2014 4:54 PM GMT

British Light Music: Percy Whitlock
British Light Music: Percy Whitlock
Price: £16.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent music, but please beware Amazon's CD-R copies, 22 Nov 2013
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The music of Percy Whitlock is bold, sunny, vigorous and charming by turns and the RTE Concert Orchestra put it across very well. As far as that goes, I have little to add to the other, positive reviews of this disc.

What I do have to add is a warning: beware ordering this CD direct from Amazon, as you may not get what you think you are paying for. What I received, after a couple of days delay, was a CD-R copy of the original Marco Polo disc. This copy had been run off in Germany by an affiliate company called CreateSpace, and the quality was poor.

There were no liner notes at all. Those had been replaced by adverts for other, popular Naxos issues - and when a composer is as little-known as Whitlock, you need the notes to give the music a context.

There were no track timings either, and the bare-bones track listings contained spelling typos.

I have heard about these shoddy Amazon/Naxos CD-R products, but never previously experienced one in all its horror. I sent it back immediately, and ordered a "pukka" Marco Polo release from a reputable Marketplace seller. Amazon really should stop doing this sort of thing, as it does their reputation (and that of the admirable Naxos company) nothing but harm. I am still angry about the time I wasted on sending the thing back.

The Banishment [DVD]
The Banishment [DVD]
Dvd ~ Konstantin Lavronenko
Offered by The World Cinema Store
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Silence is not Golden, 16 Sep 2013
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This review is from: The Banishment [DVD] (DVD)
I suppose the failure of the professional critics (those few benighted souls still left in the pay of the equally benighted National Press) to appreciate the "silences" of this beautiful, wise and moving film shows us exactly why they are a doomed breed.

Zvyagintsev's second feature film shows a significant advance on The Return [2003] [DVD] [2004] both in its cinematography - which is pretty consistently at the Tarkovsky level of imaginative achievement - and in its scope. His ability to coax extraordinary depth from his actors is just as strongly in evidence as it was in that début feature.

But above all, it is his central theme: the corrosive nature of silence, leading to the breakdown of relationships (whether between husband and wife, parents and children, friends and colleagues) which is worked through with powerful effect. The only relationship which works comfortably in the film - that between the two brothers Mark and Alexander - relies on a near-psychic link between the pair which renders their silence irrelevant, and ironically it is the certitude of this sibling relationship which triggers the tragic time-bomb which the second half of the film explains.

The silences *are* the film, gentlemen of the press!

This is not a perfect work of art. The symbolism can be heavy-handed in a way that Tarkovsky, for one, would never have settled for. The outward narrative is perhaps too reliant on implausible coincidences and melodramatic gambits. But none of this really detracts from the mesmerising inward force and beauty of a highly mature and intelligent film.

Hidden Fortress [1958] [DVD]
Hidden Fortress [1958] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Toshirô Mifune
Price: £7.34

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Once seen, never forgotten, 5 Jun 2013
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This review is from: Hidden Fortress [1958] [DVD] (DVD)
Some films offer the Wow Factor first time round. Some get into your bloodstream only on repeated viewing. Only the very best films manage to do both, and this is one.

I have loved this film at the first, second, third and fourth times of watching. The story is 'basic' as George Lucas rightly observes - in his short but illuminating interview which is the BFI DVD's sole Extra he makes the clear point that there are only a mere handful of stories to tell - but that's not what's important.

So what makes it great? First and foremost Kurosawa's wide-angle visual imagination is as stunning as Toshiro Mifune's acting. What could be more memorable, for example, as the panoramic shot early on where a huge band of naked, shave-headed slaves being whipped one way, runs into a similar band being whipped the other? The aftermath of war has rarely been portrayed with such astute, black humour. Indeed a kind of grim, death's-head comedy underlies the whole film, allied of course to the fairy-tale delicacy of the story-telling.

And how wonderful to have a historical epic like this - with its samurai duels, adventures and folk festivals - told from the perspective of the little people at the bottom (the two peasants) rather than the princesses and generals. The magic is, that it simultaneously shows how the ivory-tower Princess herself learns about ordinary life, and learns to love it: the whirling dance of the fire-festival, where she dances incognito amongst her people, is perhaps the most moving event of the whole film, as well as its plot pivot.

This is a marvel, beautifully paced with fast action sequences (in John Ford style) alternating with short, beautiful lyrical interludes. It's part Shakespearean romance, part Samurai epic, and part Japanese Ealing Comedy! At all events, once seen it will never be forgotten.

Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist
Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist
by Leo Black
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £50.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Passionate Advocacy, 12 April 2013
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Writing in depth on the life and work of such a major composer as Rubbra requires a daunting skill set. First, a deep knowledge of all the music, and the ability to discuss it at a variety of levels, from the points of view of technique, structure, instrumentation and overall impact. Second, a firm and non-judgemental hand when it comes to biographical facts. Third, the verbal skill to convey the writer's own stance and position in time, the better to allow the reader to 'place' the book.

No such study should be expected to be a sort of 'bible' guide to a composer as richly diverse and even ambiguous as Rubbra, but Black passes each of these tests with flying colours. As Rubbra's pupil at Oxford, he can call upon both technical and personal knowledge of his subject. The 'life' is dealt with, warts and all, with empathy and intelligence, without moral judgement. Then, as a BBC Radio 3 producer of many years standing, Black understands the need to communicate - and my goodness, he can certainly write with brilliant individuality!

He also makes clear (for instance, through regular quotation from the works of contemporary Roman Catholic mystics such as 'Cardinal Ratzinger') his own religious affiliations, allowing us a perspective on the nature of his insights into his subject.

Of course there are some small slips, which we might hope would be corrected in a second edition. But - especially when compared against the worthy but dull, exhaustive and exhausting, thesis-traversal of the ground by Ralph Scott Grover - Black's book shines by its critical acumen, pungency of observation and valuable weight of factual accuracy and musical insight.

The appeal of Rubbra's music, organically non-structural and highly personal in idiom, is extremely hard to verbalise. Black has done a sterling job to produce a book which is authoritative yet full of its own personality - and above all readable for non-specialist music-lovers. It deserves to win many new friends for this unique voice amongst the great 20th century symphonists.

Serenade for Strings,Capriccio.. /Kitesh Suite
Serenade for Strings,Capriccio.. /Kitesh Suite
Price: £6.80

4.0 out of 5 stars Classic Mravinsky - never mind the sound!, 31 Dec 2012
The first thing to say is that these are absolute classics of the Russian recorded repertoire. The Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky was of legendary quality, and these performances of a power and beauty we'd be lucky to hear today - in such matters as phrasing, "singing" strings and scrupulously observed dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo Mravinsky conjures utterly remarkable playing to delight and astonish anyone who loves this repertoire.

The second thing to say is that the recorded quality is about what you'd expect for recordings dating from 1949 and 1950. Rimsky's breathtaking suite comes off best - in the Tchaikovsky works there is an unfortunate degree of peak distortion which Archipel's somewhat bald transfer does little to disguise, and the sound is decidedly rough, especially when they throw in a few aural "artefacts" of their own. They've clearly not used original Russian source materials, that's for sure.

Still, warts and all, this is music making which comes down the years to us scarcely dimmed by time. Recommended despite Archipel's less than ideal transfers.

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