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DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England)

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The Keep
The Keep
by F. Paul Wilson
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars ALIASES, 11 Sep 2014
This review is from: The Keep (Hardcover)
Having seen the film of The Keep first, I came to the book with assurances ringing in my ears that it would be better. At a pinch, I'll agree. The film starts brilliantly and deteriorates about half way through; the book starts very well if not quite so brilliantly and stays good for nearly three quarters of its length, but when the rot sets in it's pretty disastrous rot in my own opinion.

Two aspects of the book stay good consistently. One is the quality of the writing, which is literate, fluent, clear and pitched at the right tone for a narrative of this kind. The other is the characterisation, and I would extend that category even to the fiend inhabiting the keep. This being was not handled well in the film, but here in the book I rather took to him, monstrous foe of mankind though he is. He has real individuality and with a couple of exceptions real consistency, and he conducts some rather intelligent dialogues with the professor who had been summoned to identify him to the nazis. Where he is not quite convincing here is in the strange, and so far as I can see completely unnecessary, little fibs that he tells the professor. Wilson does offer an explanation of why the monster pretends to be afraid of the crucifix when he is really not afraid. I find this explanation somewhat unconvincing, but it's still some kind of an explanation. However why he should bother to lie to the professor about his relationship to Vlad the Impaler, or about who built the keep, escapes me. Above all, what does he stand to gain by telling the professor that his name is Molasar when it is actually Rasalom? If the aim was deception it would not take much of a professor to see through it, and he might have tried a bit harder. This, it seems to me, points up one of the aspects in which both book and film are unsatisfactory, although in opposite ways. The film left too many things unexplained, not really creating a suitable air of mystery but just leaving threads dangling. The book is overly concerned with explanations, letting the tension out of the story because they are rather patchy and prosaic.

I mean - if Molasar/Rasalom is unimaginably old how can he have had a grandfather from Hungary? This might be another of his pointless taradiddles, but I can't help feeling that the author and his proofreaders failed to spot this inconsistency. Again, if his adversary (of whom more in a moment) is equally prehistoric how does he manage to retrieve his magic sword-blade and his stash of antique coinage so readily? They seem to be in concealment shallow enough for random picknickers or even a dog burying a bone to have turned them up accidentally. It all focused my attention on the adversary in question, and the story started to disintegrate from there on. First of all he is a being of untold antiquity from some First Age of Man and his name is Glaeken. However for modern purposes he chooses to call himself Glenn, and Wilson ought to know that if you want some such transcendental being with preternatural powers and a mission aeons-old to be taken seriously you should not call him Glenn, Derek, Terry, Darren or Wayne. What was wrong with, say, Nekealg?

It all starts to go to pot from here on. A 'love-interest' is introduced between Glenn and the professor's daughter. The latter had had a convincing role, integrated with the plot generally, up until now, but we are suddenly introduced to her specially alluring physical attributes as being parthenos admes, virgo intacta, at age 31. My own experience of women in this category is small and mainly unfavourable, but even leaving that aside the sense of this depiction is just titillation, if you will forgive the expression. The rest of the plot, which in the earlier chapters had been distinguished by a real atmosphere of morbid tension, descends into reach-me-down situations. Deathless survivors and some supposed First Age are commonplaces, such as McLeod. Goodies and baddies with transcendental Powers battling for the future of humankind were the stuff of my son's reading-matter at age 7 and probably dominate many computer games a quarter of a century on.

The setting in nazi-occupied Romania is brilliantly effective, but I should not bother looking for anything so literary and upmarket as allegories in this story. The nazis and WWII are simply a backdrop, although an inspired one. The setting in the keep has Lovecraftian overtones (e.g. The Shunned House), and there are references to his old favourites the Book of Eibon and De Vermis Mysteriis, but Molasar/Rasalom reminds me mainly of Tolkien's Sauron with his mission to 'in the darkness bind them'. This is where the story has gone wrong. The start was superb - atmospheric, tense, grim and magnetic, and the narration was kept going very skilfully through situations that in the hands of a lesser storyteller might have become repetitious, until Glenn drops in with his tools of different varieties. It then becomes fairly standard beings-with-powers fare with bodice-ripper sequences thrown in to attract a wider readership, all with a second-hand feel to it after that fine and original start, and with a final epilogue that is quite the most horrific thing in the book, albeit not intentionally so.

It's enjoyable, I don't deny. I wonder what the talented Dr Wilson could really produce if he felt like raising his game although doubtless lowering his royalties in the process.

Music criticisms, 1846-99 (Peregrine books)
Music criticisms, 1846-99 (Peregrine books)
by Eduard Hanslick
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars MEDIOCRITY'S OWN MARTYR, 9 Sep 2014
Whatever you think of the musical criticisms of Eduard Hanslick, this is an absolutely superb edition, and the 5 stars are for that and for the editor and translator Henry Pleasants. As music critics go, Hanslick is among the best known, at least by repute. He is the original of Beckmesser in The Mastersingers, and indeed even in advanced drafts of the libretto the character was still called Veit Hanslich. Bruckner appealed to the Emperor Franz Josef to do something about him, and Brahms dedicated his Waltzes op 39 to him. How many modern musicians, or even sociologists, have actually read much by him is problematical, but the reactions that he aroused in his day should be at least as interesting to the latter community as to the former.

Pleasants is motivated by a sense of fairness. He is surely quite correct when he says at the end of his preface that Hanslick is better known by what others have written about him than by what he wrote himself. He concludes by saying that Hanslick `...fared badly, in his own time, at the hands of "the Wagnerites", and worse, in later years, at the hands of those from whom he might have expected more appreciative treatment.' Who `those' might be he doesn't say. However Pleasants was writing in 1950, and Donald Francis Tovey was only 5 or 6 years dead at that date. Tovey was, and I suppose still is, considered eminent among writers on music. He was an inspiration to many a musically minded youngster such as myself. However he was never inhibited from writing grandiosely on certain topics when he knew next to nothing about them. Moreover he had a related and rather despicable tendency to sing along with fashion, Hanslick was unfashionable, and Tovey wrote a quite extraordinary attack on him that I feel sure is what Pleasants had in mind. Tovey claimed to have read the collected writings of Hanslick and not found in them any knowledge of anything whatsoever. Hanslick's career he described as `one of the unlovelier forms of parasitism', citing in support of this opinion his allegation that Hanslick had not attempted any creative work. I have not heard the collected creative work of Tovey, but I do own a couple of discs of it and all I can say is that he would have been better following Hanslick's example.

One thing Hanslick was quite unquestionably was a gentleman. You do not find him writing that sort of thing, he speaks for himself without relying on supporters, he does not whine or use hyperbole, and he does not impute motivations, prejudices or character traits to anyone whose work he feels impelled to criticise. It would not be possible to say all that of Hugo Wolf. Hanslick can also be extremely witty in an elegant and caustic way, and that must have been what most wounded Wagner in Hanslick's critical salvoes. So far so good. Now what about his actual critical writings?

Pleasants has an admirable phrase, which I quote from his introductory essay, to the effect that an early piece by Hanslick `revealed a great critical talent, if hardly a great critic.' That sums Hanslick up, I should say. His mind was analytical in bent, and such an analytical faculty is most evident when he is subjecting something to critical examination. Read him on Wagner's librettos, and it is hard to gainsay many of his arguments that parts of the plots are awkward and confused. My own view is that Wagner's plots have to be taken as a package deal with the music, and that Wagner creates a universe of his own in which such purely rational considerations are an intrusion and an irrelevance. Shaw had a more developed apologia for Wagner's mythos that found it to be not irrational but supra-rational. You may well consider Shaw's sophistries to be too clever by half and my own surrender of the rational faculty to be feeble minded, but in terms of staying out of trouble with Wagner's partisans we both get away with our shortcomings simply by coming down on Wagner's side. I at least, and probably also Shaw to a great extent, are instinctively pro-Wagner because we are powerfully affected by Wagner's music. Hanslick, alas, had a tin ear for that, the Wagnerites rounded on him as Pleasants says, Tovey rounded on him as I suspect Pleasants is hinting, nobody much bothers to read him and he has become an aunt sally in consequence.

Myself, I am not a disciple of positive thinking and I both like Hanslick best and find him most valuable when he goes on the attack. His appreciations of, say, the Brahms symphonies are rather pedantic and schoolmasterish. He is conservative, and so are we all in different ways, but not to the extent Hanslick is in wanting no further advance in musical technique beyond Beethoven's 9th symphony. It's not just that he has a comfort zone - we all do - it's that his comfort zone is so circumscribed and his intellectual curiosity so stunted. On the one hand not only can I endorse what he says about Bruckner: what he says, (and I support), about Liszt's symphonic poems is backed up by Shaw himself, whose hilarious rewriting of the programme for the Dante Symphony is something I commend to everyone. Progress and change are not self-defined good things, I grant Hanslick that, but I simply cannot see how we can expect the human imagination to stop dead in its tracks either with Beethoven's 9th symphony or with anything else.

However for Hanslick even the 5/4 metre in Tchaikovsky's Pathetique was intolerable. That is not something we can write off to the novelty of the work. It is some strange mental or imaginative block, and no wonder Wagner was beyond him. However, many thanks to Pleasants, not least for the genuine and readable English of his translation.

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by Eagleman, David 1st (first) Edition (2010)
Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by Eagleman, David 1st (first) Edition (2010)
by David Eagleman
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars INTELLECTUAL DOODLING, 7 Sep 2014
Is this `sum', I wonder, an English noun meaning `total', or is it a Latin verb meaning `I am' or `I exist', or are we not supposed to know which it is, if either? This collection of small vignettes is certainly very clever and accomplished as well as being nicely written, but I would have difficulty in characterising it as imaginative. The flip side to the fluent obverse of this coin is that it is all just slightly, or more than slightly, facile. Here are forty little items taking up two or three pages each of nice clear print in this edition (the editors specifically draw attention to it), and I sense that given a little more time this author could have stretched that total (or sum) to four hundred or forty thousand without subjecting himself to any degree of strain. It just seems to come to him naturally, the way fruit comes naturally to the tree that produces it. Musically minded readers may be reminded of that very image as applied to himself by the composer Saint-Saens. He could turn out his polished and agreeable works without effort and seemingly without any detectable limit or restriction; but accomplished, stylish, clever and appealing as they were, what they also were was superficial.

The strap-line `tales from the afterlife' is a reasonably accurate summary of the contents so long as you don't press it too exactly. Afterlives are usually a condition reached by human beings (Mr Eagleman please note - `humans' is a solecism), but animals share it in one of the little stories here, which is certainly fine by me. Most of the narratives relate to humanity as advertised on the cover, but several raise their eyes towards the fate of the various deities themselves. `Graveyards of the Gods' is a kind of miniature Goetterdaemmerung, as an obvious example; `Apostasy' finds space for pity reaching out to the solitary Creator in Her loneliness; and `Blueprints' actually startled me by reverting to the cliché that not all the analysis performed by the Rewarders and Punishers can identify the essential taste of wine or the sense of being in love, these being human experiences that they fail to share.

Otherwise it is mainly clever little propositions of a half-surreal kind. It is many years now since I read any of the more surrealist kinds of science fiction or science fantasy, but although I could not pinpoint any exact resemblances between those and Mr Eagleman's scenarios, I sensed a certain familiarity in the kind of thinking I was encountering. `Scenarios' almost overstates the case, I'm inclined to think. Mr Eagleman has encroached on the space properly occupied by serious evaluation of what might constitute some afterlife and filled it, or at least filled a corner of it, with intellectual doodling. These days we don't seem to hear or read much about, or by, Olaf Stapledon, and that is our great loss. If you don't know him already, let me suggest Odd John or the terrifying Star Maker for suggestions of what certain alternative outlooks might be for us. If Mr Eagleman ever feels up to making a bit more effort I shall certainly read what he offers us with interest. Until then I thank him for an interesting but hardly absorbing couple of hours' reading.

Rachmaninoiv - Vespers / Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom
Rachmaninoiv - Vespers / Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom
Price: £10.94

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars RICHLY RUSSIAN, 6 Sep 2014
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It was Tchaikovsky who described the powerful atmosphere surrounding the Russian Orthodox rite, saying `There is nothing like entering an ancient church on a Saturday, standing in the semi-darkness with the scent of incense wafting through the air, lost in deep contemplation searching for an answer to those perennial questions, wherefore, when, whither and why?' Tchaikovsky said it, but the composer who most recreated the feel of it all in music was Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov lived in voluntary but irreversible exile from his native land and culture, and we can hear deep nostalgia in his Vespers and Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Without in any way detracting from his sincerity we can also hear a conscious effort to sound Russian to the ears of western listeners who doubtless had stereotyped ideas of what that sounded like. Tchaikovsky after all lived (basically) in Russia and composed as a Russian for Russians without any need to force the idiom. His beautiful setting of the St John Chrysostom Liturgy was also intended, I'm in no doubt, for performance in church. I am almost as certain that Rachmaninov would have thought his own masterpieces appropriate for that, but it's fair to say that he was also pushing the boundaries a bit between the altar and the concert-platform.

The Liturgy is the Orthodox counterpart of the Catholic Mass, and the St John Chrysostom version is the `basic' version. Orthodox ritual is entirely sung, but instruments are not allowed, and the same goes for the Vespers. In the Roman rite Vespers have had far less attention from composers than Masses have, and for a good many of us our knowledge of musical settings of the Vespers begins and ends with Monteverdi's masterpiece. What a pleasure it is to have a modern setting that also represents a different religious tradition, one especially pleasing inclusion being a 20th-century Magnificat to place beside not only Monteverdi's but also Bach's. What neither of those masters set (so far as I know) was the Te Deum, but that text found Handel, Berlioz, Verdi and Bruckner at their best and Rachmaninov's Great Doxology (item 12) incorporates its text, although a full-scale setting would have been impossible in a context that is already long.

The recordings date from 1994 and 1995, and it is hard to compliment them enthusiastically enough. The stakes were high for the technical personnel, because the performances are likewise beyond praise, so that anything less than excellence in the sound would have seemed like failure. In describing these accounts I prefer to consider performance and recorded sound as one single experience and not two. The music is not all slow by any means, but it is likely to be the slow music that creates the strongest impression. Slow usually means quiet as well, and there are many long-drawn-out cadences, some but not all Amin's, that are downright miraculous for beauty, control and depth of feeling. Where volume and forcefulness are required the artists are effortlessly up to that too, and you will find such a full-blooded effect delivered impressively at, say, item number 7 in the Vespers. However I can think of no respect in which I want to criticise the way things are done. Soprano pitch never goes very high, I suppose, but for what it may be worth I found the tone always agreeable without a hint of edge or steeliness. Balance among the voices always seems perfect, the soloists are agreeable to listen to, but above all I have been given one thing I particularly yearned for, namely a fine black-velvet basso-profundo `Volga-boatman' bass timbre. It all takes place in a superbly calculated acoustic too, resonant in a suitably ecclesiastical way without compromising distinctness in the words or introducing unwanted echoes.

The artists here are Russian (or at least Russian-based) of course, and I can't imagine that did any harm. However I do not propose to stray into ethnic assessments beyond saying that to me they sound born to perform this music, my own ideas of the matter being no doubt the kind of western stereotypes that I referred to above. There is a brief liner note attributed only to Decca, and for once I would have liked rather more of it because it is tantalisingly suggestive of having genuine thought put into it. I have never visited Russia and I have no experience of Orthodox rites, but after all these years I like to think I must be able to recognise good music well performed when I hear it, and that is what I think I am hearing, to a quite exceptional degree, in this set.

Monteverdi: Vespers
Monteverdi: Vespers
Price: £20.70

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars HIS STATE IS KINGLY, 23 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Monteverdi: Vespers (Audio CD)
When I say that I recommend this set cordially, you will of course understand that I am not exhorting anyone to pay any old price for it. Keeping that aspect of the deal within reason, it is still an issue that would grace any musical collection. Robert King’s way of handling ancient music is one that I like greatly. It has some body and warmth to it, he does not try to set speed records, he does not restrict himself to one voice per part, but at the same time he uses proper period instruments and is careful about allowing vibrato into the solo vocal lines.

So far as I know, the performing version that King uses here is faithful to Monteverdi’s own original arrangement from 1610, except that of course the composer would not have given both settings of the Magnificat during one and the same performance of the Vespers. King provides another of his agreeably-written notes on his own idea of such a performing version, and it is almost a pity that he didn’t write the main part of the liner essay, as he often does, (meaning no disrespect to the sound and informative contribution of John Whenham). I know his liner notes mainly from his work on Handel, and I suppose that the subjects treated by that master provide more ‘human interest’, but Robert King’s humane and winning approach extends not only to music more than a century older than Handel but also to academic commentary on it.

Each of the numbers is provided with a synopsis by John Whenham, although as you would expect the text of the Mass calls for less explanation than the various numbers constituting the Vespers do. This Missa in Illo Tempore is in fact a cappella, i.e. in a contrapuntal style like Palestrina’s, the voices unaccompanied although the bass is supported discreetly by the organ. Monteverdi’s idiom is probably rather more grandiose than Palestrina’s, and King and his chorus do a splendid job of maintaining and building a magnificent tone without fatiguing the listener. Elsewhere the idiom is more varied, calling for no fewer than nine vocal soloists together with special choral effects of echo and distance. I am entirely pleased with the way it is all handled, and that is of course a compliment to the technical personnel as well as to the artists. After several listenings I have yet to spot any lapses by either singers or instrumentalists, so I can now take off my fault-finding Beckmesser garb and refocus on not only enjoyment but also study and instruction.

The liner material is given in French and German as well as English in the usual EU manner, the Latin texts being accompanied by English translations only. I compliment the production on the accuracy of the Latin, where there is all of one superfluous comma (after ‘tuos’ in the Dixit Dominus.) In the texts there are a handful of minor quirks, which I shall list here. They have no effect on understanding the relationship of the music to the words, but we might as well get them right:

. Dixit Dominus: ‘ex utero...te’. The meaning is simpler than the translation gives. Take it as ‘I have begotten you out of the womb before the dawn.’
. Dixit Dominus: ‘confregit’. This is past tense ‘smote’. If the translator thought that this verb should be in the future tense like the three verbs following that could well be right, but in that case change the Latin to ‘confringet’.
. Laudate pueri: ‘humilia respicit’ means ‘looks on the things that are lowly’.
. Laetatus sum: The line beginning ‘cuius’ does not make sense. If the text can be trusted as far as ‘eius’ the intended sense seems to be along the lines of ‘whoso has a share in Jerusalem also partakes of <?>’. However the corruption may go deeper, and any translation is guesswork.
. Laetatus sum: The line beginning ‘testimonium’ would be better translated as ‘the testimony of Israel bearing witness to the name of the Lord’.
. Laetatus sum: ‘loquebar pacem de te’ means ‘I spoke peace regarding you’.
. Nisi Dominus: substitute a comma for the colon after ‘filii/sons’. They are the first noun of a little series of three nouns.

One great bonus is the provision of both Monteverdi’s settings of the Magnificat, the second being the simpler 6-part effort, which Whenham suggests (quite plausibly) may have been the basis for the more elaborate 7-parter. Altogether there is little or nothing to find fault with in this production, and I didn’t pay a lot for it.

Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty
Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty
by Daniel Schulman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars STILL FIGHTING GEORGE III, 20 Aug 2014
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You don't have to be American to enjoy this book, and you don't have to have watched Dallas or Dynasty, but it helps to have at least an onlooker's interest in American politics. I'd guess that for most readers the main interest of the story will be in the political side, taking `political' in a wide sense to include not just ideological and party-political issues but also the struggle between big business and the environmental lobby. The book also gives plenty of space to biographical material on the four Koch brothers, three of them taking after their domineering father Fred C Koch in temperament and ideas, but one his mother's son interested mainly in artistic and cultural matters, albeit from a billionaire's perspective. I call it a credit to the author that his well-written and highly readable narrative held my attention throughout these lengthy tracts of material of a kind that usually fails to interest me.

Such comment as I have seen seems all but unanimous in viewing the Koches as epic movers and shakers on the political scene, but to an outsider the appearance is different - they seem to have expended vast amounts of money, effort and personal commitment all to little outcome, although of course the promise of a free-market future is as real as ever to its devotees. Keep doing what you did before and the result will be different the next time - I believe the American riposte to that kind of thinking is `Yeah, right.' My own long and happy association with the USA dates back to 1962, and it is only for that reason that I can summon up enough presumption to offer an outsider's review of a story and a scene that is entirely American. I have been watching it all for all those years, and I know how it looks to me. This is not a matter of my own political ideas, which are a million miles from those of the Koches in most matters. The author keeps his own politics out of the story (although his tongue gets into his cheek here and there), and I should do likewise.

What is striking from such an angle is that this kind of American politics has changed very little in half a century while the world context has changed virtually beyond recognition, and not in America's direction either. In the days of Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society the battle was against international communism, which was apparently some kind of unitary force poised to have us all speaking Russian if we took our eyes off it. The practical test of the `domino theory' in Vietnam failed to endorse such thinking, which has been in decline ever since, its last expression, even after the fall of communism, to have come to my notice being the insight of Mr G W Bush that the confused melee of disparate religious and ethnic sects, suicide bombers and bazaar-style political deals in Iraq involved someone or other `fightin' for freedom'. In 1962, and 1972, oppressed peoples everywhere were thirsting for Freedom as defined by America. So far as I can see nobody is doing that these days, but within America the battle-lines are still what they were.

The last words of the chapter entitled Out of the Shadows hit me right between the eyes, with the perception attributed to David Koch that the Tea Party is some kind of second coming of the American revolution. That's what it all amounts to, I thought - they are still fighting George III. It is an all-American bubble of romantic self-admiring narcissism with doughty American individualists brandishing their muskets to repel such horrors as governments and taxation. One book that sheds an interesting light on the origins of such ideas is The Hornet's Nest by none other than Jimmy Carter. This is a history lesson dressed up as a novel. It restricts its focus to one part of Georgia, but a particular suggestion that comes over strongly (although the President stops just short of saying it openly) is that no less an event than the Boston Tea Party was actually a price-fixing manoeuvre using taxation as a smokescreen. Not only is the present world not doing its bit to support Tea Party thinking, it may be that even the great ur-Tea Party itself was not really what they have been telling us all these years.

Daniel Schulman is commendably non-judgmental in his analysis of the value-set that underlies the environmental priorities of Charles Koch. It is all a matter of the bottom line, apparently. If environments get poisoned and even if people are killed through failure or refusal to carry out maintenance, then just let it be that way and pay the fines if you have to. Where an ethical dimension comes into the matter it is reserved for government regulation, taxation and the rest of it. Deja-vu and déjà-entendu stalk the pages of this book as I read it. The dogged convictions of the free-marketers are unshakable now, just as they were in olden times, and it's almost a pity that they can't have the old whipping horse of widely-defined and much-detected communism to attribute to their ideological adversaries. Maybe I can repeat something that got me at least one severe reprimand for saying it in an earlier review, because I received unexpected backing for it just recently. It is, simply and literally, that if free-market ideas really get loose and carry economic inequality further than is already happening, then the replay we are likely to see is not of 1776 but of 1789. I wish I could remember the name of the big international investor who said the same just a few weeks ago. Another odd omission from the book is any real attempt to assess the likely effect of the greatly-changed racial demographic of America itself. Have the Koches failed to take account of this in their WASP-culture? They can miss the obvious, vide Election 2012.

Bela Bartok: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 - Isabelle Faust
Bela Bartok: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 - Isabelle Faust
Price: £7.79

5.0 out of 5 stars ANOTHER NOVA, 17 Aug 2014
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How many brilliant young women violinists can there be currently? I can't keep pace, at least not without neglecting other kinds of music. I had thought myself reasonably au courant with my 1977 Decca LP recording of `the` Bartok violin concerto (now of course known to everyone as the second such) played by Kung-wha Chung with Solti and the LPO. This is still available on cd, now in partnership with the first violin concerto. I can still recommend it, today in 2014, but here is a serious rival from a soloist new to me and a conductor who is not new to me, mainly through luck as I heard him and was mightily impressed in Berlin about ten years ago. That was not from planning but because I was at a loose end one evening. They make a fine partnership, they are a safe choice for any collector, but they are not any kind of runaway winners in this particular field because of the competition they face.

Isabelle Faust supplies her own liner essay, a heartfelt and thoughtful introduction to two works that obviously engage her deeply. In 1977 the first violin concerto seemed something of a historical and scholarly find rather than anything a music-lover might want to hear for pleasure. The sleeve-note to my LP is distinctly offhand and dismissive in the few words it deigns to allow it, and I guess that is why until now I have not bothered to make its acquaintance. May I suggest that younger music-followers don't make the same mistake, because it is a lovely and affecting work. The first movement is a more or less continuous lyric, reflecting the love that the composer experienced for a young woman violinist (they were around then too, it seems). His feelings were not requited, and the long second and final movement may be taken as representing some sort of reaction. This is the only performance of it that I own or am ever likely to own. The focus of my own interest is on the great second concerto, and I'd hazard a guess that the same goes for most followers of Bartok from a musical rather than an academic angle.

How Kung-wha Chung and Solti handle the first concerto I therefore don't know, but if it is anything other than excellent something strange must have happened. Where they interest me is as a benchmark for comparing the superb new version of the second that I am reviewing here. Faust, Harding and the Swedish orchestra excel in every department, and the recorded sound is such as you would expect and demand for April 2012. I noticed immediately that they were more relaxed over the harp chords at the start, but, to my slight surprise, they took rather less time over the first movement overall. By way of consistency, they were brisker by a similarly small margin in the other two movements. There was little to choose in these other two movements, unless you think the issue of the alternative endings more important than I think it. The style, quality and general approach differ only in fine details that would overload a short review and prove nothing. In terms of the recorded sound 2012 unsurprisingly has a slight advantage over 1976, but if you are looking to buy only one version I suggest that this difference is not enough to sway a choice.

For me, the clincher is in the sense of continuity and linear strength that I want in the first movement, and here my vote definitely goes to Kung-wha Chung and Solti. What a choice to be offered! They are both superb. I would also add that Isabelle Faust's sensitive and illuminating comments are a world apart from the kind of thing that we are often served up by way of liner notes, and I think they reward careful reading. Like others, she comments on the way that the third and last movement reworks the thematic material of the first. I wonder why she does not mention the Elgar concerto in this respect: half the last movement of that (the so-called `cadenza') is a far more obvious reverie on the themes of its first movement, and I wonder whether it was Bartok's much-proclaimed liking for variations that guided him in this direction or whether he took some notice of old Elgar. More particularly, this performance gives us something I can't recall having heard before - the original ending that Bartok wrote before his soloist rhubarbed at it for leaving the solo instrument out. In fact that was nothing unusual. Offhand, I can think of both the `Emperor' concerto and the Brahms D minor, where the same thing happens without apparently upsetting anyone. However there is no way of getting both versions on to one cd simultaneously, so the only way to have both is to own both versions. If you think that the criterion of choice between them that I have offered is unsatisfactory and inconclusive, I think so too. I own both versions, and rather than make a single choice that is what I suggest you do as well.

Rachmaninov: Preludes & Etudes-Tableaux
Rachmaninov: Preludes & Etudes-Tableaux
Price: £8.94

5.0 out of 5 stars TO REMEMBER RICHTER BY, 10 Aug 2014
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This disc gives us Richter's accounts of 9 out of the 17 etudes-tableaux and his selection of 13 of the 24 preludes. The preludes date from 1971, the etudes-tableaux from 1983 not 1988, as one reviewer has kindly pointed out. The difference in date is important, because it was sometime around those years that Richter's style underwent a deep change. His widow described it thus `Slava used to play more forte.' 1971 is comfortably within the `forte-period', but 1983 seems to have made the cut also, to my own great relief. Recording techniques were changing then as well. The 1983 recordings are digital DDD, but there is no mention of digital in connexion with the preludes, so I suppose they must be analogue. If so it proves that progress and improvement are not always synonymous, because while both examples of their respective sounds are good, the pre-digital is, to my ears, definitely better in the sense of more direct and vivid.

What prompted me to send for Richter's accounts of these pieces was a slight dissatisfaction with two generally fine later sets I own, Steven Osborne in the preludes and Vladimir Ovchinnikov in the etudes-tableaux. It was a matter of the recording so far as Osborne was concerned. One number in particular, the mighty prelude in B flat, was obviously so good that I wondered whether Osborne might actually be a rival to Richter if the recording had allowed. I still don't know, but I doubt it. Richter's performance is the stuff of legend. The recording gives him an additional advantage, but I doubt I shall ever hear the thing done like this, with a great imperious right hand, steady as a rock, effortlessly dominating the mighty rumble and roar in the bass. The difference between the maestri is not so marked elsewhere, but detailed comparison became rather niggling and inconclusive because of the systemic benefit of a clearer recording enjoyed by Richter.

That's comparing Richter with a rival. Playing the two different recordings on this disc back-to-back, it is hard not to be struck by the greater `presence' of the sound in the preludes, although it will help to some extent if you boost the volume a little for the etudes-tableaux. I found that the recorded quality as between Richter and Ovchinnikov was much of a muchness, which made my efforts at comparative assessment a bit easier. They didn't stay easier for long. Playing Ovchinnikov's accounts on their own I thought they were good but sometimes lacking in authority and individuality. Get Richter in the right mood and he certainly is not lacking in authority, so first let me make a minor contribution of my own towards accuracy and intelligibility. The opus 33 set of etudes-tableaux consists of eight pieces, so you may be puzzled how it can possibly have a number 9 in C# minor. It can't and doesn't: all three representatives here have had their series-numbers incremented by 1, and so are nos 8, 4 and 5 played in that order. The first piece here, the misnumbered `9', has the kind of presence I had hoped to find. So does the first work from the opus 39 set, and so, I suspect, do a number of others. I am hesitant because the overall difference between the two performers was not as great as I had been expecting, which makes me wonder whether I have been rather unfair to Ovchinnikov: however I shall stick with my opinions for now. One thing I hope I am innocent of is finding Richter better just by virtue of his name: there are enough people who do that because they have heard that it is what to do.

I am not one for complete sets, and I am inclined to support Richter vigorously in his refusal to play pieces he did not like, in Rachmaninov here as in Schumann elsewhere. For me, complete sets are for clerks, to assist in filing and cataloguing. The afflatus of inspiration bloweth where it listeth, and I want to hear the great Richter in the performances he wanted us to hear.

Is the EU Doomed?
Is the EU Doomed?
by Jan Zielonka
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.62

4.0 out of 5 stars POOLING TOGETHER AND PULLING APART, 3 Aug 2014
This review is from: Is the EU Doomed? (Paperback)
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`The crisis of the EU has generated a plethora of articles, but few books so far' says Professor Zielonka, so he tries to compensate this lack with what he calls modestly `an essay', 114 small pages of it. As an essay it is rather brilliant. As analysis and prediction I'm not so sure. For striking imagery I recall `institutions have a very long half-life, even when they are not working'; and as incisive perception I am not going to forget `The EU's legitimacy rests primarily on efficiency, not democracy or national identity.' To use a duller image of my own, that hits the proverbial nail. More or less everyone was in favour of the EC or whatever it used to be called simply because nobody was interested, something that Zielonka fully acknowledges. So long as it kept delivering goodies that was all that people wanted to know: they couldn't even be bothered voting in Euro-elections. Come an economic crisis and the shortcomings of the EU impinged on people's consciousness. In hard economic times nationalism can be relied on to flare up. That happened, the EU has become a convenient scapegoat for the so-called sceptics, sc outright opponents, and the rise in what calls itself nationalism is really a surge in xenophobia.

We should all know by now, and someone from Zielonka's background should be more aware than most, just what xenophobia in Europe can lead to. Zielonka is far too short-term in his thinking here, and I would call this the major failing in the book. It is all very well putting together a complacent little analysis of current German intentions and concluding (rightly, I dare say) that there is no obvious threat from that quarter. That is not the only quarter it could come from, and if one thing more than all the rest put together justifies the original European vision it is the simple but profound conviction that what we need is a unifying force to keep Europe united in the face of crises that may blow up. It's Mr Rumsfeld's Unknown Unknowns. I like Mr Rumsfeld no better than Professor Zielonka does, but whatever he was, he wasn't stupid.

In case I am giving any impression that Zielonka himself is some variety of nationalist, let me make clear that he is anything but. He sees quite clearly that national identity is not what it was, and as another example of a good thing well said let me quote `Sovereignty is a meaningful concept only when a state's legal-political borders overlap with its market transaction fringes, military frontiers and migration traits. This has not been the case for quite a while.' Indeed not, and it ain't going to be either, whatever waffle we get from UKIP, Mme Le Pen and the rest of them. As I write this review we are just over a month away from a referendum in Scotland on proposed independence from the `United' Kingdom. Polls indicate that the Nationalists will lose, although I don't need telling that polls can be wrong. They can be right too, and usually are, and if they are my own conclusion is that although the Nats have the all the poets and folk-singers, in the last resort it's the economy stoopit, as another insightful American politician remarked (in his own accent of course).

Still supposing that the Scottish referendum dismisses separation, it will be treated (quite fairly in my own view) as a strong indication that there is no necessary salvation to be found in decentralisation. Put simply, some things are always better centralised, and any diluted form of national definition still needs laws and someone with the authority to pass them. Another thing to note about the Scottish independence proposals is that they are rather 'independence-light'. It is intended to keep the monarchy, keep sterling, stay in the Commonwealth, stay in the EU even! So whichever way the vote goes the difference may turn out to be less than we are being led to think, and that perception is echoed in Zielonka's well-posed question (regarding some hypothetical `in-out' referendum in Britain on EU membership) regarding what `out' will mean exactly. Maybe not all that much in the event.

Somewhere around this stage in the argument Professor Zielonka begins to suffer a touch of wheel-slip. He is perfectly right to note that there is strong and growing influence from non-government actors, but he gets a bit carried away with this exciting discovery, which is not all that new or radical, it seems to me. It comes with globalisation to a great extent, but the very mention of that word also shows that there is a strong and necessary tendency to harmonisation of standards and pooling of resources. It's a two-way street, and at least one of the good Professor's examples is achingly ill-chosen. He seems impressed by public/private commercial initiatives, and, again he is entitled to be impressed up to a point. However it would be wiser not to generalise, and I recommend the Professor a close study of the exposes of the London Underground venture and several hospital trusts provided over years by that admirable publication Private Eye.

Considering how many good and memorable expressions there are in this short book it is a crying shame that he has chosen for his motto a concept that he calls `neo-mediaevalism'. This, I suspect, is going to get hung around his neck. Regionalism, devolution, franchising and common-interest groups are hardly anything novel, after all. They were here to stay before Zielonka wrote a word, and their advance will come through their own inherent momentum, unaided by the banner with the strange device `Neo-mediaevalism'. Another perception that is not new, but which is uncomfortably hard for the sceptics to wish away, is simply that the EU is too big to fail. It needs a good boot up the backside to reform its pompous rigidity and get in touch with its public. Change the name by all means, if that helps.

Rachmaninov: Piano Sonatas (Nikolai Lugansky)
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonatas (Nikolai Lugansky)
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A KNOCKOUT, 1 Aug 2014
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This is superlative. It is a winner all the way, and if I were to ransack the dictionary for hyperbolic expressions of commendation I doubt I could add anything significant to this simple statement. First I should probably note that the recording dates from 2012, when Lugansky would have been 40. That offers us a pianist in his prime and the chance of first-class up-to-date recorded sound. The sound is as good as I think I have yet heard, at least for piano sound. The instrument must be an 8-foot or 9-foot grand, and nothing less will do for Rachmaninov. So much for the instrument: what is then required is a player equal to the potential it offers.

Is this player, at long last, the giant we have been waiting for? Two sonatas by Rachmaninov, however magnificent the rendition, are not enough to confirm such a view, but good heavens they are sufficiently testing to offer us encouragement. Lugansky's technique is monumental, but these days the kind of finger-athleticism that in a previous generation was possessed only by Horowitz, Cziffra and Michelangeli seems to be the common property of dozens, scores and hundreds. An impression of sheer size is needed too, very much so if we are to talk about a 'giant'. And as well as size, the musical personality needs above all distinctiveness. That was Serkin's criterion: he possessed it in a big way, so did Horowitz and Richter and Michelangeli and Gould, and of course so did Rachmaninov himself as a player.

On any box-ticking basis Lugansky ticks them all with seeming ease. His tone is magnificent, and he never 'goes through' it or produces anything approaching an ugly sound. He shows terrific control in building a crescendo, and what impressed me in particular was just how high he can go on building it. Nor is his touch monotonous in the slightest. Quiet passages are played with sensitivity or sparkle, depending on the kind of quiet passage. Even in the most powerful sequences the clarity of the inner parts recalls Horowitz himself to me. Tempi seem fair and appropriate all the way through. Above all there is a sense of occasion about each sonata, something that the stature of the works themselves calls for. So would I recognise Lugansky if I heard him again? I need to hear more from him, but I am already hopeful.

The two sonatas don't amount to a disc bursting at the seams, but what would be a 'filler'? The Prelude in C# minor? Something by Liszt? Fur Elise? The whole notion of a filler just detracts from what this recital is, namely a major occasion. There is a liner note providing some useful information about the music and the background to its composition, as well as some standard puffery about Lugansky himself. It is also something of a rare treat to be given the first sonata. Rachmaninov (like Schumann) is largely treated by concert and recital schedulers as if he had only composed one sonata. Anyone completely new to the first sonata has rather a special introduction to it here. The liner note is brief about the alternative versions of the second sonata, mercifully so as the issue is my idea of a complete yawn. It is a magnificent work in any of the (slightly) differing versions. There is also a 'programme' to the first sonata, which leaves me equally apathetic. Playing like this reveals the stature of the music without any of that. It also excites me regarding what may turn out to be the stature of the player.

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