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Jon Chambers (Birmingham, England)
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David Attenborough's Life Stories (BBC Audio)
David Attenborough's Life Stories (BBC Audio)
by David Attenborough
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £13.53

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Natural storyteller, 19 Oct 2009
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You might think that audio is the wrong medium for Life Stories. We are so used to seeing plants and animals in vivid colour on DVD or in big, illustrated books that the idea of listening to someone talk about them without even the help of sound effects seems misguided. Unless, of course, that someone is David Attenborough.

As well as having avuncular charm and expertise on zoology and botany, Attenborough is also a skilled raconteur with a winning sense of humour and an infallible ear for anecdote. As such, it is only very rarely that the visual sense is missed. (I found it difficult to picture the giant Titum Arum, for example.)

For me, the real attraction of these diverse stories about some very odd and exceptional curiosities, is listening to Attenborough the biologist raising and then tackling some key questions: what are the evolutionary benefits of the sloth's slowness, or of the non-flying dinosaur's (therapod's) feathers? How did the bird of paradise evolve such an extravagant courtship display? And here the absence of visual images, if anything, focuses the mind more sharply on such considerations.

In comparison, wonderful though they are, the TV series and their coffee-table spin-offs, seem more like visual distractions. There is room, of course, for both. But expect the audio-only variety to be the more thought-provoking, forcing you to ponder the mysterious nature of early human communication by gesture or wonder at the ingenuity of native bushmen following animal tracks.


The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre
The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre
by Madeleine Bunting
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Digging up the past, 11 Oct 2009
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A bit daft isn't it, writing the biography of a piece of land? But why not? James Shapiro wrote an immensely absorbing one about a single year (1599), so maybe the same success could attend one about a single acre.

The book is sold by its blurb as one which reveals the 'layered' quality of England, with remnants of one era superimposed on those of previous ones. And so it is, in part. The Bunting family's acre is a microcosm of English history, with Romans, Cistercian monks and The Forestry Commission all making their literal mark on the immediate vicinity. More interesting, however, is the psychological digging. John Bunting, the author's father, is presented as a difficult and private man, with whom daughter Madeleine wasn't entirely comfortable. Visiting his plot of land, upon which he eccentrically built a chapel to commemorate the war dead, she finally begins to understand his motives and obsessions. She sees the North Yorkshire moors as 'a place of refuge, of sanctuary, of escape and of new beginnings for the spiritually or materially dispossessed.' Her father, it emerges, was both of the latter in search of all of the former.

You could argue that the book doesn't quite cohere and that its chapters read like a succession of essays. But the lack of a single, unifying theme isn't necessarily a criticism. After all, Bunting is an excellent journalist whose wide-ranging Guardian columns are well worth their salt. As a somewhat detached biography of her father (in which general truths substitute for the usual minutiae) and as a biography which doubles as a social history of the remoter parts of North Yorkshire, the book succeeds well enough. There are numerous insights and poetic turns of phrase. Ultimately, however, The Plot isn't as startlingly original or as resoundingly successful as 1599 - but then what is?


Haydn, J.: 7 Letzten Worte Unseres Erlosers Am Kreuze (Die) (The 7 Last Words)
Haydn, J.: 7 Letzten Worte Unseres Erlosers Am Kreuze (Die) (The 7 Last Words)
Price: £5.31

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite the last word, 11 Oct 2009
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Someone once said they thought the three most moving choral works were Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Haydn's Seven Last Words. (To avoid confusion, Bruggen's current recording is for orchestra only.) Haydn's is the oddest of the three above-mentioned works, in that it features a string of slow movements - with a lack of variety almost guaranteed, therefore. Haydn understood the problem well enough: 'The task of writing seven Adagios, one after the other, each lasting about ten minutes, without wearying the listeners, was by no means easy ...', he confessed. He felt unable to keep to the specified timings.

Yet, if anything, the work gains solemnity and grandeur from its unremitting lack of pace. And it manages to retain audience interest by varying style if not tempo. One minute, we're in Vienna and in the next we're spirited away to the very different sound world of Eastern Europe. (Note the 'Orthodox' harmonies in Sonata IV, 'Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?')

With so many different versions of the work written by Haydn, the listener has to be careful in their choice. As well as this orchestral version, there are alternatives for Orchestra and Choir, String Quartet and Piano. For me, the absence of a choir robs the piece of an essential dimension, but if it's the work in its purely orchestral guise you're after, I'd unhesitatingly recommend this one. (And even if you're not so keen on the orchestra only option, this CD is worth listening to regardless.) Bruggen is all but infallible with Haydn - especially, perhaps, when taking risks. Even big risks, as here. For this recording features some startling and unearthly harmonies in the linking Intermezzi (by Ron Ford, 2004) which neatly recreate what must have been a pretty mystical atmosphere when The Seven Last Words was first performed in the blackened out, subterranean church in Santa Cueva, Spain, with a solitary lamp illuminating the darkness.

To complement the bold and creative step of including the new Intermezzi, this CD offers a rich and resonant bass together with a clean, crisp recording. Despite its qualities, it's four stars, however. The five star rating, hopefully, awaits Bruggen's version with full choir.


Beethoven / Hummel - Piano Trios
Beethoven / Hummel - Piano Trios
Price: £16.87

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Authentic voices, 28 Sep 2009
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This CD presents three very different pieces, all wonderfully realised: two by Beethoven (one early, one middle) and one by the almost forgotten Hummel.

We get a real sense of how these works must have sounded to their original audience, with period instruments (including fortepiano) and, more importantly, an authentic playing style. The constant vibrato of other recordings, so alien to the aesthetic of these composers, is notably absent here, and this absence is a very welcome feature. But the muted colours of the instruments and the no-nonsense approach of the performers result in a recording that is not academic or lifeless but an impassioned one that is a real pleasure to listen to.

Musically, of course, the Beethoven trios are inimitable. As with the piano sonatas, even very early Beethoven sounds remarkably 'mature'. Opus 1 No 3 is distinguished from the much later Opus 70 No1 not by any lack of confidence or quality, but essentially in terms of its thinner chords and simpler lines - features which it shares with Hummel.

Hummel's Trio in G Opus 65, although slighter (and more Mozartian?) than the other two works offered here, is certainly no make-weight. As well as being an attractive and accomplished piece in its own right, it offers a valuable opportunity to make up our own minds about musical greatness. (In what sense exactly is Hummel's trio inferior to Beethoven's? I, for one, would find it very difficult to say.) The intelligent programming also reminds us just how interconnected, intimate and vibrant was the musical world of Vienna in 1800. Both of these featured composers had taken lessons from Mozart. Both knew Haydn. Hummel improvised at Beethoven's memorial concert where he befriended Schubert - and so on. Both men were also close friends, as well as rivals.

So this Harmonia Mundi release excels in just about every way you examine it: performance quality, performance values, sound recording and - perhaps its greatest strength - programming mix. We don't hear much of Hummel nowadays. After hearing this CD alone, I'm off to find out more.


Vivaldi: Concerti per Violino 3 - 'Il Ballo'
Vivaldi: Concerti per Violino 3 - 'Il Ballo'
Price: £12.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Infectious, 3 Sep 2009
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Vivaldi devotees, especially those seeking novelty, have been supremely well served lately. First, Gli Incognito's 'Les quatre saisons', which featured two exceptional (?)late violin concerti as 'bonus tracks'. Then two CDs from Naļve: New Discoveries, including a beautiful concerto for oboe and cello; and now this one, Il Ballo (The Dance), offering no less than seven violin concerti, most of them unheard since the C18! Not since the advent of Carmignola and his 'Late Violin Concertos' (Sony) has the world of Vivaldi seemed so vibrant.

Olivier Fourés, writing the liner notes, highlights three concerti as being of particular interest - RV210, RV333 and RV310 - while the rest, he thinks, are of 'less stature'. But one of the triumphs of this set is that there is something highly engaging about all of them. Even the supposedly lesser works delight the listener with their quirky charms and their (often dance-like) exuberance. Take, for instance, the Concerto in E, RV268. While possessing, arguably, no great melody or striking rhythmic features, it effortlessly expresses joie de vivre - assisted by charismatic and perceptive playing by soloist Duilio Galfetti, for whom music is clearly more than dots on the page. His willingness to show his own musical personality and wit (in much the same manner as Biondi) certainly adds variety and interest to works which could sound routine in other hands. Likewise the playing of I Barocchisti - equally willing to show creative engagement (the unexpected tremolo effect they conjure up in the closing cadence of RV352's Largo matches the soloist's skittishness in the closing cadence of RV350's final Allegro). The recording, meanwhile, is unimpeachable.

And the 'dance' theme? Does the term really lend coherence to these concerti? In some ways, yes. As Fourés points out in his interesting essay, 'Eighteenth-century Swing', Vivaldi's humble background gave him an intimate knowledge of the more popular music of the time, with its abundant dance rhythms. The whirling final Allegro of RV333 in g has something of the possessed tarantella about it. He could also have said that Vivaldi's first published works were two volumes of violin sonatas, and these sonatas invariably included dance types - usually in two of their four movements (Giga, Sarabande, Allemande, Corrente and Gavotta being the most common, in their Italian forms). So, here and elsewhere, Vivaldi had a dance-beating pulse very much in his blood. It is an inescapable feature of his music generally, not just on this CD, that helps to account for his ever-growing popularity.

All in all, this new recording somehow manages to surpass New Discoveries and, for me, is easily the best volume of Violin Concerti from Naļve to date. Featuring so much first-rate - albeit unknown - music, it is one I would not want to be without for long.


The Sixteen Satires (Penguin Classics)
The Sixteen Satires (Penguin Classics)
by Juvenal
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.40

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beware the wasp - and the mullet!, 31 Aug 2009
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Yes, Dr Jones may well be right in suggesting that there are better editions than this (although it would have been useful if he'd told us exactly which ones and why!). However, Peter Green arguably offers the best introduction to Juvenal's Satires. After all, Green is not writing for the specialist but for the average, intelligent reader - the kind of reader that Penguin Classics habitually caters for. Jones probably has scholars like Susanna Braund in mind and I'd imagine that her editions are those that professional classicists like him find most valuable. She offers an extremely perceptive commentary, full Latin text and a translation that is, I suspect, closer to the letter than Green's. But Braund comes at a hefty price - £18 for Volume I alone.

In any case, this Penguin edition has lots to offer besides value. Green captures the spirit and vitality, as well as the sharply ironic humour, of the original at least as well as Braund or Rudd, the two main competitors. His Juvenal sounds fresh, witty and modern (as well as occasionally loathsome, misogynistic and xenophobic). His Introduction, moreover, is extensive and engaging. It may well be 'old-fashioned' in its lack of enthusiasm for the 'persona theory' (ie the view that the poet is donning a mask and not voicing his own opinions, thereby preventing us from reading the satires as self-revelation). But Green does at least address 'the much-vexed question of Juvenal's satirical persona', and gives us an alternative approach. He inclines to the view that Juvenal's savage indignation resulted from humbling personal experience. According to long-held tradition, he was exiled - probably to Egypt. Green surmises that this story of exile is true, and that it might well have taken the harshest form - 'deportatio' - involving the confiscation of everything dear to a Roman citizen: land, money, status. In the early satires, Green sees Juvenal as 'a waspish gadfly from Aquinum' and a 'snarling chip-on-the-shoulder flay-all'. The gradual softening of tone (anger - cynicism - irony) can be accounted for, Green thinks, by a gradual improvement in Juvenal's material circumstances. In this reading, therefore, the Satires are at least partly autobiographical.

So, maybe not definitive and certainly not radical, but an edition that's good enough for the vast majority of interested readers. Good enough even for Dr Jones himself, otherwise he wouldn't have used Green's translation in his (excellent) article 'The persona and the addressee in Juvenal's Satire 11' in Ramus, vol.19, no2, pp160-68, 1990, when Braund's and Rudd's alternatives were also available.

Oh, that mullet. You'll have to read Green's illuminating note to line 317 of Satire X.


King Lear (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series)
King Lear (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series)
by William Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.09

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Conflation' fights back, 31 Aug 2009
Although RA Foakes' Arden³ edition appeared some years after those of Wells & Taylor (Complete Oxford) and Jay L Halio (Cambridge) it did not follow their precedent of issuing separate texts based on Quarto and Folio originals. These early texts (Q 1608 and F 1623 respectively) occasionally offer quite different versions of the play and reconciling them to form a single, coherent whole is a task that is, arguably, less elegant than the dual edition solution. By comparison, Arden's text looks cumbersome, with numerous Q and F superscripts surrounding passages found exclusively in one or other source.

Foakes is well aware that his single, 'conflated' text isn't as fashionable as those of the 'revisionists' mentioned above, who believe that the Folio text of Lear represents Shakespeare's revised and final draft, and that modern editors should not pick and mix between Q and F but respect the integrity of the two early sources. While seemingly reactionary, Foakes is in fact countering the new orthodoxy of Halio et al. In his view, their 'dogmatic and purist stance ... abandons the idea of King Lear as a single work of which we have two versions.' He is cautious and level-headed in his approach, acknowledging the limitations of scholarly speculation. And in presenting both Q and F variants he allows the reader to make up his/her own mind.

Aside from this central controversy, the Arden³ Lear has much to offer. Foakes reminds us of some key differences between the Jacobean world and our own: the original audience, he says, would have tuned in much more readily than us to puns and linguistic innovation; grasped the symbolic difference between crown and coronet; fully understood the distinctions of 'thou' and 'thee'; and recognised the constitutional impossibility of a monarch giving away his kingdom as though it were in his personal gift. The Introduction also presents illuminating discussions on loyalty and disobedience (in which Oswald could conceivably be seen as an ideal servant and Kent a bad one), on the problem of illusion in Gloucester's attempted suicide (IV.6) and on the influence of writers such as Harsnett, Erasmus and Montaine. Plentiful examples of dramatic practice from the play's long stage history are skilfully integrated into these discussions, while its equally rich critical history - especially that of the C20 - is helpfully evaluated. The conclusion is that there can be no return to Christian redemptionist optimism on the one hand or to totally nihilistic interpretations on the other. A recognition of the play's complexity, paradoxes and contradictions have led many to feel, in the words of Richard Fly, 'a deep distrust of all attempts at closure' in King Lear.

Ultimately, therefore, this Arden³ is not as radical as rival editions. But it presents an honest, balanced and democratic version of the play in which judgements are occasionally forcefully expressed and occasionally left unresolved. It is comprehensive, authoritative and thought-provoking and should be of value to any serious student.


Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town
Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town
by Mary Beard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time-travellers beware, 30 Aug 2009
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Robert Harris' best-selling novel 'Pompeii' convincingly put flesh on the bones of the town's inhabitants. Mary Beard's historical survey does the same for the town itself.

Beard is careful to avoid distortion through over-simplification. She takes pains to stress, for example, that the reality of Pompeii's story is not the clichéd one of a town 'frozen in time' but a more complex and fascinating one altogether. First, she explains that many inhabitants upped sticks well before the fateful day in August 79, taking their treasures with them. Secondly, townspeople and looters alike had plenty of opportunity to salvage/steal valuables after the eruption. And thirdly, much of what we see today is, in fact, reconstruction - almost all of the upper levels of Pompeian buildings for a start. All of these things, together with 'aggressive restoration', Allied bombing and erosion mean that what we see today is far from the sealed capsule that time-travellers hope for.

Beard's Pompeii is an up to the minute account drawing upon much fascinating research - on studies of wheel ruts gouged into the town's shiny black-bouldered streets, for example, which indicate complex one-way traffic systems. Or of plaster casts of plant roots which help to identify crops.

Perhaps Beard's greatest gift is a no-nonsense directness that often cuts through academic over-speculation. For instance, following a discussion of what anthropologists call 'zoning' (in which sectors of a town are associated with particular functions or degrees of affluence), she concludes: 'the simple truth is that Pompeii was without the zoning we have come to expect.'

As ever, Beard's style is highly readable and her book is therefore as valuable to the general reader as to the student. Pompeii is exhilarating and unique. It has found the book it deserves.


Vivaldi - New Discoveries
Vivaldi - New Discoveries
Price: £12.93

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New work from Vivaldi!, 30 July 2009
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In his definitive study of the composer's life and work, Michael Talbot spoke of the prospect of 'perpetual discovery' in respect of Vivaldi, resulting from a neglect spanning centuries. 'Scarcely a year passes,' he wrote in 1978, 'without the announcement of some fresh discovery'. This CD gives an excellent example of what we might expect even now, 30 years after Talbot's study, with a collection of new finds from just the last year and a half!

Talbot himself is something of a sleuth when it comes to discovering Vivaldi. He identified some very important violin sonatas (in Manchester's Central Library) in the 1970s, and one of this CD's many strengths is his authorship of the liner notes with an endorsement of the music's authenticity - a major reason why the CD scores over the MP3 version, despite its higher price. If you are interested in the nature of the 'finds', it's the CD option you will probably want.

Although Talbot might (just) be right in suggesting that none of the works in the current collection is from the very top drawer, they are all nonetheless engaging and deeply satisfying. A special feature is the quality of the cantabile slow movements - that of the Concerto for oboe and bassoon in g especially. This concerto, currently the very last numbered in the Ryom catalogue (RV812), is captivating from start to finish. Whether or not 'top drawer' is a matter of opinion (and a question of how big the drawer is!). Equally important, the performances are uniformly excellent. Paolo Pollastri's recorder playing, to take just one example, is highly bravura.

Despite Talbot's validation, and despite the very Vivaldian feel of these works, there can be no absolute guarantee of their authenticity. Several pieces have been (?erroneously) attributed to other composers in the past. But regardless of authorship, this assortment of sonatas, arias and concerto inspire and entertain. And, at the very least, they are supremely suggestive: firstly, of Vivaldi's prodigious output and, secondly, of the fact that he was a master of all genres, not just the concerto.


August Heat (Montalbano 10)
August Heat (Montalbano 10)
by Andrea Camilleri
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One for the deck chair, 23 July 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
At one point in August Heat Camilleri, through his alter ego Montalbano, has a dig at those highbrow readers who dismiss mystery novels as 'entertaining puzzles'. While the Montalbano novels are themselves denied high literary status (the characters are too formulaic to pass EM Forster's test of three-dimensional roundedness) they nonetheless succeed in doing what they are supposed to: entertain. This, the latest in the series, shows its author on top form.

There is a single plot-line, concerning the discovery of a body in a hidden underground apartment. The body, that of a beautiful young woman, has a live twin, a medical student whose existence Montalbano thought he'd merely invented by way of playing a practical joke on the perverted public prosecutor, Tommaseo. It is an irony of the kind that we have come to expect in this wonderful series. Even the obtuse Catarella seems inspired. Following the body's discovery, he uses the word 'corporeal' instead of corporal.

For crime cognoscenti this novel could disappoint. It wouldn't take a genius to 'solve' the mystery. The ending is indeed rushed and contrived - but why not? This is art, for art's sake! Above all, the Montalbano series is about much more than mere mystery and crime. It encompasses food, passion, poetry and humour - one delicious example of which occurs when Camilleri describes a suspect as being so hirsute and simian that Charles Darwin would have hugged him for joy had he seen him! So although you might not want to write an essay on it or even re-read it (hence the four stars) this is definitely one for the holiday suitcase.


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