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William Burn "gingerburn" (Nottingham, UK)
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Bach: Cantatas, BWV140 & 147
Bach: Cantatas, BWV140 & 147
Price: £7.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Entirely Successful, 25 Oct. 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Of the two cantatas on offer on this disc the first, "Wachet Auf", has become hugely well known through innumerable alternative versions of its central movement, in which the choral melody is accompanied by an utterly charming string obbligato. As a whole work, however, it is not well represented in recordings, and does not often receive live performances. A brief survey of other discs currently available returned only the old Helmut Rilling recording from the 1960s, a more recent version by Harnoncourt, and some other sessions by ensembles I had never heard of. It has not yet appeared on Gardiner's beautifully packaged new versions, and Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan have also neglected it thus far.

In all honesty, I must admit that their decisions seem justified when one engages with the music itself, as this is not Bach's finest hour. True, there are some moments of sublime inspiration, but much of "Wachet Auf" seems distinctly workmanlike: the opening chorus, for example, wears very thin very quickly, and the two duets between soprano and bass (representing the soul and Christ) seem fidgety and almost slightly rushed. The second cantata ("Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben") is a more ambitious and overall much more successful affair, with much more variety in its writing for chorus, and the solo arias offer the sort of quality one expects of Bach.

Given the lack of other options (at least ones recorded within the last decade), this disc would seem to be the best possible choice. However, there are some caveats. The performance overall is very polished and professional, and the chorus singing is excellent (if a little monochromatic), but it feels a little like a rushed job. The acoustic of St Andrew's Church in Fontmell Magna is dry (it is not a large building) and while this makes for a very "present" sound, in which every detail comes through, at times any unevenness is very difficult to disguise (such as the oboe obbligato in "Wachet Auf"). Moreover, there are points when the echo is nothing if not a little "bathroomy": one need only listen to the soprano aria "Bereite dir, Jesu" to hear a reverberation that would not be out of place in a railway waiting room. The soloists are a good team, but Ruth Holton is too straight for my taste, sounding too much like a treble and not really colouring the music in a way that conveys the text. Similarly, Stephen Varcoe (whom normally I rate very highly indeed) comes across as strangely underpowered and lacking in warmth.

Can I recommend this recording? I would say at the time of writing (October 2007), yes, as it is the best of a pretty average bunch, but I would suggest waiting until Suzuki and Gardiner have released newer versions before going for this one.


Ockeghem: Requiem; Missa Fors Seulement
Ockeghem: Requiem; Missa Fors Seulement
Price: £12.29

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding, 31 Aug. 2007
The Clerks' Group have over the past few years gained a very strong reputation for themselves in the small, but very competitive field of early music, largely through the strength of their personnel and choice of repertoire. For the former they turn to established professionals who will be well known to anyone with even a passing interest in groups such as The Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall's Musick and the Sixteen, but their approach is much more rehearsal-intensive, and consequently the ensemble is more satisfying than groups which meet for only short periods of time and rely on the preternatural sight-reading abilities of their singers. Their repertoire is similarly interesting: they have made the music of the Low Countries in the 15th and early 16th centuries their own, and have dug up some fascinating new works alongside well-established pieces.

This disc presents the earliest complete setting of the Requiem for polyphonic voices, as well as chansons by Pierre de la Rue, Ockeghem and Brumel. The requiem is a stark, spare piece, which seems to turn its back on warmth and happiness. The chansons, in contrast, are a much more passionate group of pieces. The original was written by de la Rue, but Ockeghem and Brumel later developed the work each in their own fashion. By far the most interesting is that by Brumel, in which the bass, Robert MacDonald, produces some fabulous low notes to underpin a rich harmonic texture.

In all, a very fine disc of early music. Buy it.


Blues & Roots
Blues & Roots
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £18.87

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent album, and an excellent introduction to Charles Mingus, 28 Aug. 2007
This review is from: Blues & Roots (Audio CD)
Charles Mingus is a somewhat daunting figure in jazz music, and his records are not only musical adventures, but to delve even into the field of anthropology and psychology. Knowing where to start is difficult (Mingus' first major album's title was in Latin!), and the later records are conceptually so broad that they could put the casual listener off. This is not to say that they are not great music - they are stunning - but if you are looking to get into one of jazz music's most exciting and individual band leaders, you could do a lot worse than start with this disc.

This album was recorded at an exciting time in Mingus' life and work. His ensemble had grown to what could be described as a small big-band of around 9 musicians, and he was drawing on a feast of ideas which were coming out of the Jazz Workshops in New York City. He recorded three great albums in this period, of which "Mingus Ah Um" is probably the most famous, and although "Blues and Roots" does not quite match it in the brilliance of its execution, it remains a thrilling, highly musical and enormously enjoyable jazz record.

It was the producer Nesuhi Ertegün who put forward the idea for "Blues and Roots", partly to refute criticism of Mingus which claimed he did not swing hard enough, and also to provide "a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy." If nothing else, this album succeeds on this scale a hundred times over. However, Mingus himself went on to say "blues can do more than just swing", and it is in this dimension that the album provides such lasting musical food for thought.

The swing of the album is set off powerfully in the opening number - "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" with its pulsating bass line. "Moanin" (track 3) swings like nothing on earth: Pepper Adams' baritone sax provides the bass ostinato figure and Dannie Richmond drives the ensemble into a frenzy of blues-soaked figures. However, this track also demonstrates the ability to change texture and mood that makes the album so satisfying: no sooner has the climax of the ensemble playing been reached, than the horn players all drop out and a much lighter solo section is introduced. Mingus uses these shifts and changes to brilliant effect throughout the disc, so that at no point does any one texture become monotonous or dragging.

The other side to the album is to be found in the variety of feelings which Mingus achieves with a relatively small force of instrumentalists. "Tensions", for example, is edgy and the horn players provide a figure that sits uneasily over the rhythm section's work. It should be noted that the bass solo on this track is vintage Mingus.

I mentioned above that this album is not as great as its very near contemporary "Ah Um", but it is still a great album, and one which really should be in your collection. What it does do is provide is fantastic musicians blowing great tracks that pulse and surge with energy.


The Merchant's Prologue and Tale: York Notes Advanced
The Merchant's Prologue and Tale: York Notes Advanced
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Serves its purpose very well indeed, 27 Aug. 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The York Notes series have their admirers and detractors, and it should be admitted that the unfortunate side-effect of the books is whole sets of essays which all toe the same critical line. However, inasmuch as they provide what might be described as a "safety net" to cover all the main points of a text, they do a very good job.

And this book does that job as well as any other. It is easily digestible in size (120 pages in all), and there is a useful glossary to cover the technical terms which are employed. What appeals most to me, however, is the way in which it admits not only a standard "Lit. Crit." reading into its coverage of the Tale, but also a more linguistic focus, which makes the book of use to someone doing a Language & Literature A-level, for example.

In all, a tidy little volume: the only reason it does not receive 5 stars is because it gives a slightly wayward definition of "trope" in its glossary. That aside, I would recommend it most highly to any A-level or university undergraduate student.


Modern Jazz Classics
Modern Jazz Classics

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Get it while you can!, 24 Aug. 2007
This review is from: Modern Jazz Classics (Audio CD)
If ever there were a jazz musician who took the stereotype of the hard-living, rebellious hipster to its ultimate extension, it was Art Pepper. In and out of jail and mental asylums over the course of his career, his brand of fluid, Bird-inspired alto playing remains one of those great what-if's in the history of jazz music. Albums such as "Meets the Rhythm Section" have acquired cult status owing to the myths which have grown up about Pepper coming out of jail and the next day going straight into the recording studio to jam with Miles Davis' own rhythm section. Whatever the truth of these stories, it remains the fact that Pepper possessed a fantastic alto sound, and his gift for deeply musical improvisation remains rarely equalled.

This disc is unique in his output, in that it teams Pepper with a full big band (which itself contains many of the great session men of the day (Mel Lewis appears on drums, Pete Candoli on trumpet and Herb Geller leads the sax section) to perform swinging arrangements of some great bop numbers. In some ways the disc was already anachronistic at the time of its recording in 1959: Bop had moved on and big, closely scored ensembles were no longer breaking new ground in jazz. However, the selection of tracks, teamed to enjoyable arrangements, makes this a disc that bears many listenings.

Perhaps its greatest attraction is that it features Pepper not only playing alto, but also tenor sax and clarinet. His tenor sound is not as smooth as his alto, but it's fascinating to hear a man adapt his playing to the demands of a new instrument.

This disc is difficult to get hold of (I found my copy lurking at the back of a second hand record store), and it's a shame that it should be out of the catalogues, so my recommendation is: get yourself a copy, and enjoy something very different from Art Pepper.


Blues & Roots
Blues & Roots
Price: £5.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent album, and an excellent introduction to Charles Mingus, 24 Aug. 2007
This review is from: Blues & Roots (Audio CD)
Charles Mingus is a somewhat daunting figure in jazz music, and his records are not only musical adventures, but to delve even into the field of anthropology and psychology. Knowing where to start is difficult (Mingus' first major album's title was in Latin!), and the later records are conceptually so broad that they could put the casual listener off. This is not to say that they are not great music - they are stunning - but if you are looking to get into one of jazz music's most exciting and individual band leaders, you could do a lot worse than start with this disc.

This album was recorded at an exciting time in Mingus' life and work. His ensemble had grown to what could be described as a small big-band of around 9 musicians, and he was drawing on a feast of ideas which were coming out of the Jazz Workshops in New York City. He recorded three great albums in this period, of which "Mingus Ah Um" is probably the most famous, and although "Blues and Roots" does not quite match it in the brilliance of its execution, it remains a thrilling, highly musical and enormously enjoyable jazz record.

It was the producer Nesuhi Ertegün who put forward the idea for "Blues and Roots", partly to refute criticism of Mingus which claimed he did not swing hard enough, and also to provide "a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy." If nothing else, this album succeeds on this scale a hundred times over. However, Mingus himself went on to say "blues can do more than just swing", and it is in this dimension that the album provides such lasting musical food for thought.

The swing of the album is set off powerfully in the opening number - "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" with its pulsating bass line. "Moanin" (track 3) swings like nothing on earth: Pepper Adams' baritone sax provides the bass ostinato figure and Dannie Richmond drives the ensemble into a frenzy of blues-soaked figures. However, this track also demonstrates the ability to change texture and mood that makes the album so satisfying: no sooner has the climax of the ensemble playing been reached, than the horn players all drop out and a much lighter solo section is introduced. Mingus uses these shifts and changes to brilliant effect throughout the disc, so that at no point does any one texture become monotonous or dragging.

The other side to the album is to be found in the variety of feelings which Mingus achieves with a relatively small force of instrumentalists. "Tensions", for example, is edgy and the horn players provide a figure that sits uneasily over the rhythm section's work. It should be noted that the bass solo on this track is vintage Mingus.

I mentioned above that this album is not as great as its very near contemporary "Ah Um", but it is still a great album, and one which really should be in your collection. What it does do is provide is fantastic musicians blowing great tracks that pulse and surge with energy.


The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail
The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail
by Michael Baigent
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, but unfortunately complete rubbish, 20 Aug. 2007
Having read this book three times, I feel it might be interesting to offer three short reviews of it, charting my changing opinions as my acquaintance with it grew better.

Reading 1: Truly a thrilling read; inspirational, even. In the single sitting it took to complete the book, I found almost every received idea which I had hitherto accepted as single fact overturned and revealed either as entirely false, or as having a meaning far beyond anything I had ever imagined. History was laid bare, opened up to reveal a great network not only of people but of ideas that had shaped and guided European history for one-and-a-half millennia. The authors had uncovered a remarkable society which had survived in secret since the Dark Ages, and which sought to restore the blood line of Christ to the throne of Europe. My life would never be the same again.

Reading 2: I was baffled. This was no longer the same book which I had devoured so eagerly two years before. Those passages which had so dazzled me were flat, or I could no longer identify them, and the pace had gone. It took me a period of reflection to work out why, but I realised that the book relies on its breakneck pace to keep its narrative going, and that a reader who already knows what is coming around the corner is at a major disadvantage. The nature of this disadvantage is serious: at a second reading one is automatically more critical and scrutinises the evidence more closely, and it was in doing this that, on the one hand the narrative fell apart, but on the other, the glaring flaws in logic, scholarship and writing became apparent. Ideas which were presented as hypotheses in one chapter suddenly became fact in the next, and became the basis for yet more hypotheses which in turn were morphed into incontrovertible truths. The sheer sloppiness of the historical approach shocked me: lack of evidence was taken to be evidence in itself, and absence of proof served to prove anything which lacked evidence. The approach of the book revealed itself to be nothing more than that of a spy novel: a series of clues lead to the revelation of a great global conspiracy. Sadly, that is not the way that good scholarship works. While the effect may be thrilling, what is all too easy to see is that not one of the pieces of evidence which was used to present the case stands up to even the slightest scrutiny, and it is at that point that the book ceases to be worthwhile.

Reading 3: perhaps more motivated by nostalgia than anything else, I returned again to the book to see if I had judged it unduly harshly on my previous reading. If anything, I realised that I had been too lenient. The whole premise of this book (that Christ's bloodline survived in a dynasty of early medieval French kings, later to be taken up by the Cathars, the Knights Templar and a quasi-Masonic organisation) defies rational inquiry, and ignores not only any sane assessment of how history operates, but also the significance of the claim were it to have any merit whatsoever. On the one hand it is nonsensical to believe that there is a shadowy organisation which has lurked in the background of history for one-and-a-half thousand years, and, especially when its leading lights were as disparate as Isaac Newton and Claude Debussy (of course Newton is famous for his interest in masonic matters, but Debussy was hardly in a position to usher in revolution on a political scale, regardless of his brilliance as a composer.) Moreover, it matters not one jot whether Christ's bloodline survived through Mary Madgalene - his children would simply belong to the House of David just as he had done. They would not be Gods, or even able to do especially clever card tricks: the point, if one subscribes to Christian theology, of Christ, is that he was uniquely human and divine. His significance as a human on earth came to an end when he ascended into heaven.

This is one of those galling books which captures the popular imagination and spreads its memes around in the most insidious way, although it would be deeply unfair to accuse the authors of anything so sinister. What they are guilty of is a credulously sloppy approach to writing history, in which unproven and insubstantial evidence is adduced and shoehorned into an absurd thesis which, as they themselves admit, can never itself be proved. Don't waste your time here.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 5, 2014 7:46 PM GMT


Tender is the Night (Penguin Popular Classics)
Tender is the Night (Penguin Popular Classics)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Edition: Paperback

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Writing, 4 Jun. 2007
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is intentionally very short, as other reviews consider the novel in more detail. It is worth noting that this novel demonstrates Fitzgerald's skill as a writer to the full, and is a pleasure to read.

The purpose of this review is to clarify a point raised in another review, which asks about why this Popular Classics edition appears to present a corrupt, or at least unauthorised text. The reason for this is that it follows the structure of the novel as set out in the 1951 revision, edited by Malcolm Cowley, based on notes and corrections made by Fitzgerald himself. This revision of the original 1934 text rearranges the novel into chronological order, and divides the text into a different number of sections. This is why the Spark Notes referred to by another reviewer are confusing: they describe the 1934 text. It should be noted that, according to the Penguin Modern Classics edition at least, current critical thinking prefers the 1934 edition, as Cowley's interventions in the later edition make it unclear the extent to which Fitzgerald's intentions were followed.

Of course, no exam board would ever bother to be clear as to which text is to be studied: that would be far too easy for us all, wouldn't it?


Quartet
Quartet
Price: £15.13

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very good disc, 19 April 2007
This review is from: Quartet (Audio CD)
I have for a long time rated Brad Mehldau as one of the most talented pianists playing jazz today, an opinion formed from many listenings to the "Art of the Trio" series of records. Those discs, comprising a mix of live and studio sets, approach the standards repertoire in a loose, richly swinging way that is a source of great refreshment to those who may perhaps have tired of Keith Jarrett's sound.

This record follows on from the very well received release from last year and the two lead men clearly enjoy each other's musical company. Mehldau is as sensitve an accompanist as he is a leader, and Metheny remains a hugely talented guitarist with a very distinctive sound (although it must be noted that one or two of his synth effects appear not to have changed since his days playing in Michael Brecker's groups of the late '80s and early '90s).

The material on show here is all original, and mixes a broad range of styles very effectively: some is reminiscent of Joanna Macgregor's disc of spirituals with Andy Sheppard in the lilting piano grooves that underpin gently undulating solo lines, whereas others is more vigorously driven by Larry Grenadier on Bass and Jeff Ballard on Drums. Stylistically one might describe the music as lying midway between country and jazz, but that has long been Metheny's preferred hunting-ground, and it is very effective in this group context. In fact, Mehldau's straightforward piano, rather than banks of synthesizers, means Metheny's sometime more synth-led sound enjoys more freedom than if it were enveloped in great clouds of sound. One or two tracks do cut loose a little more (En La Tierra Que No Olvida is a good example), but the music stays well within distinct stylistic bounds.

There can be no criticism of the musicality of all the players on this album, which really is first-rate in every case, but I must admit that, while everything that they do play is brilliantly conceived and executed, I was a little disappointed by what they did not play. At no stage do we really hear Mehldau fire up his engines as he does on his trio discs, nor does the group ever really take great risks with the repertoire. Despite the title, the abiding impression this disc makes is that Mehldau is accompanying Metheny: there is none of the beautifully balanced interplay such as is to be found, for example, on Bill Evans and Jim Hall's "Undercurrent". (However, it should not be forgotten that Brad Mehldau has famously disavowed any influence from Evans!)

Despite these caveats I can thoroughly recommend this CD: the music on it is very good, and it does make for consistently enjoyable listening.


Akenfield
Akenfield
by Ronald Blythe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional and memorable, 24 Feb. 2007
This review is from: Akenfield (Paperback)
Akenfield is a book which makes a concerted effort to fall between boundaries of fiction, biography and reportage, and as a result, is all the richer for the elements which it draws from each and blends into a most satisfying and enjoyable whole.

To deal with each element in reverse order, the book's reportage is that of a documentary of a Sussex village in 1974, although its field of vision extends as far back as the years before the Great War. The feeling is one of decline and fall, of a community which no longer is bound together by its old practices and habits, but which in many ways has benefited enormously from the changes brought about in society after the Second World War. At no stage is does this become a nostalgic lament for a lost England, but rather does Blythe reveal to us quite how hard life was for the poor in England's villages well into the Twentieth Century.

The biographical aspect of the book is to be found in the way Blythe presents a succession of different characters from the village and its surrounding area, from the farmhand to the housewife, and the magistrate in the Town. Each has his or her own story and fascinating, and often very funny, account of their lives, and one is left with a rich picture of a village society, where no one perspective is privileged over another.

And fiction? Well, Blythe makes plain in his introduction that Akenfield is a palimpsest of many villages, and its people are not single individuals but prisms through which the lives of many are reflected for us. Blythe's style of writing is brilliantly neutral and understated, even when dealing with harrowing or very funny topics (frequently the two go hand-in-hand).

Few books have made such a great impression on me.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 3, 2010 4:29 PM GMT


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