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Bezza "Bezza" (UK)

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Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument
Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument
by Eric Clapton
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.03

2.0 out of 5 stars A missed opportunity, 20 July 2012
I would concur with another reviewer in saying that this book starts full of potential and ends up going nowhere. We learn little of real interest about its subject - either guitar or guitar builder - and rather too much about the author. The book is full to bursting with all St. John's favourite cultural and sporting references, along with plenty of similes and metaphors that require an in-depth understanding of some arcane areas of American culture to give them life. There is also plenty of blatant space-filling, which suggests the pressure of a deadline more than than a deep interest in the subject, as well as a lot of annoying "the greatest this or that"; it seems that everyone who shows up in the narrative is the global touchstone in his or her field of activity, and this just gets tiring after a while. No doubt Wayne Henderson is the real deal and a fabulous luthier, but the best in the world? Where does a comment like that take us? Is St. John implying that he's made an empirical global study, or do we just take his word for it? And against what or whom is he being compared? It's all a bit empty and does no credit to Henderson, whom I could picture gagging over his BBQ sandwich if he ever read this trivial, sycophantic tosh.

The sad thing is, for anyone interested in any or all of guitars, guitar players or luthiery, this is such a missed opportunity. St. John clearly had extensive access to his subject, but didn't bother himself with anything more than cobbling together a few anecdotes and superficial observations (and a few self-aggrandising passages about his own musical dalliances). If only the author had been a little less slick, pat, lazy and impressed with his own easy journalistic eloquence, we might have got something that shed real light on the ostenisble subject matter. Instead, there's a glaring lack of humility and genuine curiosity in the writing that stops St. John from going deep on any of several potentially fascinating subjects. The overall effect is a combination of Sunday supplement slickery, glib and sweeping observations posing as insights and a slung-together collection of the sort of hyperbole that turns up on the back of bestsellers. Shame that such a rich subject was put in the hands of such a lazy or - I suspect - deficient observer.

Schubert: Die Winterreise [DVD] [2000] [2001]
Schubert: Die Winterreise [DVD] [2000] [2001]
Dvd ~ Ian Bostridge

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gilding the lily?, 5 April 2011
It's an interesting exercise but, like the installations that Brian Eno did for Jessye Norman to sing Strauss in front of, does little more than remind me of the difference between talent and greatness. Also, as with attempted stagings of the Bach Passions, for example, this sort of thing tends to end up being more of a distraction than an enhancement. After all, what can you possibly add to a well-sung Winterreise, if Winterreise is the subject you wish to explore? Unfortunately, for me, this is not even well-sung. It's technically very competent - which is what my three stars are for - but I find the performances unmoving and occasionaly actively irritating. My sense it that Bostridge is just out of his depth here; not in terms of technical ability necessarily, but imaginatively. He is an intelligent man, but lacks insight and seems - every time I hear him - to be too in love with his own voice and reputation. Like a thin and ultra-light-voiced Pavarotti; big on personality and style but with little real musicianship. I find his performances in this instance superficial, nuanced and sometimes even trite; a bit like watching Branagh trying to cope with Hamlet and surrendering the attempt to a series of tricks and effects. I tried to imagine the "staging" bit of this DVD attached to a really great performance, and imagining it made me wish even more that the staging would go away. It adds nothing worth spending any time thinking about, and definitely gets in the way of the songs. It's a worthy attempt to "do" something with Winterreise, although there is little more you need to do with it than sing it well.

Dark Places
Dark Places
by Sarah Grenville
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I may have missed the point, 13 Mar 2011
This review is from: Dark Places (Paperback)
Difficult to know what to make of this book. It's a technically accomplished piece of writing but somehow unsatisfying. The protagonist, for all the reviewers' claims of rare insights into the mind of a psychopath, etc, is strangely flat, un-engaging and two-dimensional, in spite of the vast of weight of the text being dedicated to exploring his character. He just felt dull and ordinary. Yet another cardboard cut-out messed up, neurotic son of the bourgeoisie who behaves pretty much true to form, exploring the limits of what his money and social position permit him to get away with. The grand denouement was telegraphed at least a 150 pages in advance and, although tragic for the victim, was utterly predictable and in keeping with the ordinary insanity of the life of the perpetrator. Yes, it is a taboo, but a banal one for all that. Made banal by its terrible ubiquity. This felt more like a moral tale about some profound illness in our society than the forensic exploration of a sick individual; but those potentially interesting threads that the author began picking at were never really pursued. About 50 pages from the end, it started to get interesting, but by then we were on fast-forward, with tantalising events rushing by in a blur.

The protagonist I found vapid, unlikeable and unsympathetic - yet not in the hypnotic sense of a Raskolnikov - so it was hard to care much what happened to him or even to those around him; united in a kind of shared stupidity and grand apathy, all gaining something from him and reluctant to give it up, no matter how extreme and deliberately offensive his behaviour. It was not so much his apparent evil, howsoever justified, that intrigued me, but the passive compliance of the supporting cast. That was truly troubling. Was that the author's intention? Exploring the extent to which we are willing to (and routinely do) degrade ourselves in the quest for material and social comforts? From that perspective, the protagonist acquires a kind of uneasy sympathy, like Coriolanus; unpalatable his observations may be, but they are ripped through with a grim, relentless logic, which the actions of the story only serve to validate. The means of social exchange; the commoditisation of children; the contingency of morality.

Would I recommend Dark Places? Probably not. It felt like a lot of reading for not much of either entertainment or insight. But it did win the 2001 Orange Prize, so maybe I missed something.

Sacred Music (The BBCs Groundbreaking TV Series) [DVD] [2010]
Sacred Music (The BBCs Groundbreaking TV Series) [DVD] [2010]
Dvd ~ Andy Robbins
Price: 17.94

39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous and long overdue, 23 Feb 2011
As someone who has sung in this tradition for most of my life, this is a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of my favourite repertoire and to have it set in its historical and social context. Very illuminating. More significantly, perhaps, is the attention this series turns on the art of choral singing and the precious value of sacred music, at a time when is very existence is threatened. Were it not for the endowed choral institutions of the great cathedrals and Oxbridge colleges, this priceless tradition in the UK might already have gone the way it has in the rest of Europe and the wider Western-Christian world: virtual extinction. I now live in Germany, birthplace of Bach, where the paucity of decent choirs - let alone good choirs - is striking. Finding a choir that can technically master Bach is rare now, and the prevailing level is low to poor. In France and Italy, almost non-existent. The few clips this DVD offers of Italian choirs attempting this repertoire are tellingly awful. The choir of the Sistine Chapel would not even make the relegation league reserves' XI of the English choral hierarchy.

While I lose myself in the wonderful music that comprises this series, and the superb singing and musical direction of the Sixteen, I am reminded that, without such choirs and such committed and knowledgeable conductors, the music itself would cease to exist. The Church in England, under the pretext of a drive for "relevance", has done its best over the last few decades to stamp it out; thank God it has somehow survived. Perhaps in another generation, those in a position to influence such things will realise the mistakes of their predecessors and actively work to protect and revitalise this unique tradition. It can only be hoped.

Simon Russell Beale is an excellent narrator, without the self-conscious mannerisms and intellectual vanity of someone like Melvyn Bragg, and charmingly cannot resist allowing his personal love of the music to come through his narration. Close to tears on seeing an autographed manuscript of Palestrina or the signature of Thomas Tallis, which I can well understand. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen are also a splendid choice as performers and musical guides, with Christophers providing some keen insights into more technical aspects of the music. What a fine choir. As to the poor technical quality of the DVDs mentioned by other reviewers, I am fortunate that my copy plays perfectly. For anyone with an existing love of or interst in this extraordinary music, I can only recommend this intelligent and moving production.

Born To Run
Born To Run
by Michael Morpurgo
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.03

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good tale, sad ending, 22 Jun 2010
This review is from: Born To Run (Paperback)
This is a really good yarn and well written, but be careful: there are some seriously dark moments in the narrative and the ending left my young son in floods of tears. My fault. I should have read ahead and invented my own happy ending in advance. The style of the telling is simple and easy for a younger child to follow, but some of the subject matter really makes this more suitable for a child of at least 10+. It would have been helpful to have some intimation of the weight of the areas treated by MM on the back cover. But this takes nothing away from the book itself. It is a very good read and is recommended, with caveats for those easily given to tears. You will shed some if you read this.

Schubert - Winterreise
Schubert - Winterreise
Price: 21.52

2 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Why?, 13 April 2010
This review is from: Schubert - Winterreise (Audio CD)
A lot of work for very little result. Winterreise is not a song cycle for women. Not the woman's voice, as I once heard an excellent counter-tenor rendition of this work. But, all technical considerations aside, it's just not female. Not even über-butch lesbian. I heard Schäfer sing this in concert too and, if anything, she was even less convincing live. With the best will in the world - and I wanted to like it - I simply couldn't match the narrative, the tone of voice or the observations made, with any woman I had ever met or even imagined. That aside, the soprano female voice is too shrill for this repertoire, losing the words the minute it moves into the head. So you can't even hear what she is singing about, even if it did make sense coming from a woman's mouth. It doesn't. It really doesn't.

If I could, I would award Schäfer zero stars for her crassness and lack of musical intelligence. My two stars are for the outstanding playing of her accompanist who, incidentally, carried her like a baby when I saw them live together. Perhaps I caught her on a off-night. Perhaps she just doesn't know the work that well. After all, you'd have to have extremely scant knowledge of it to attempt to sing it like this. In the interests of balance, her recording company should ask Goerne to record and tour Frauenliebe und Leben.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 29, 2013 5:28 PM BST

Schubert: Winterreise
Schubert: Winterreise
Price: 8.37

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoy some rare insights, 13 April 2010
This review is from: Schubert: Winterreise (Audio CD)
Dark, yes; morose, no. Hotter possessed a very rare voice; a genuine bass-baritone. Darker than a lyric baritone, not as heavy as a true bass and with remarkable flexibility and control, especially in fast or intricate passages and in the higher register. Compare as well his performance of Bach's "Ich habe genug" (currently available as an MP3 dowload for pennies). Moore, of course, was the preeminent accompanist of his generation, as he yet again demonstrates in this performance.

The dark timbre of Hotter's voice, where he often gives the impression of singing far lower than he actually is, almost succeeds in disguising some intensely subtle singing. For example, his is the only reading of this work that I know (among a dozen or more) that does not take the high notes in "Irrlicht" forte. The melodic line invites this, and no other singer, not even Fischer-Dieskau, seems able to resist the temptation to indulge his top notes here. Yet the harmonic argument clearly calls for a much lighter treatment of these high notes. They are grace notes, and need to be touched rather than hammered. Hotter and Moore also take "Letzte Hoffnung" extremely slowly; slower even than the Fischer-Dieskau/Jörg Demus version. This too has much musical logic, and allows both performers to explore the far corners of this eccentric and intricate song. Again, Hotter resists the temptation to bellow the final "cry! cry!", opting instead for the finest of decrescendi into a beautiful pianissimo. When he does choose to unleash the full power of his voice, as for example in "Auf dem Flusse" or "Die Krähe", it is easy to understand why he was one of the all-time great Wagnerians.

The other striking characteristic of this recording is the way the performers achieve a rare (unique?) balancing act between intense subjectivity and cool objectivity: sometimes moving seamlessly between the two; sometimes somewhere else altogether. Fischer-Dieskau, for example, was always deeply and irrevocably rooted in the Romantic vision, and seemed neither able nor willing to separate himself from the personal trials of the narrator. While he is the uncontested master in this genre and is unfailingly insightful, inspiring and exciting, I have never sensed the least detachment or irony in any of his recordings of this work with which I am familiar. Singers like Pears or Schreier, on the other hand, seemed much more comfortable keeping the mystery narrator at arm's length, strenuously avoiding getting sucked into the Romantic vortex. Still others, like Prégardien and Bostridge, apparently prefer using the work as a stage on which to express themselves first and the music second. Whatever the permutations and combinations, this recording is a work of supreme musicianship, subtlety and intelligence.

So do not be misled by Hotter's dark, brooding tone. That is in the nature of the bass-baritone voice. At least, his bass-baritone voice. Enjoy instead the challenging, possibly unique and endlessly satisfying musical insights that he and Moore uncovered in the course of preparing this performance. 50-odd years old it may be, but we may have to wait another 50 years before anything of this perception and quality comes along again.

Schubert: Winterreise
Schubert: Winterreise
Price: 10.10

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A classic modern reading, 13 April 2010
This review is from: Schubert: Winterreise (Audio CD)
I won't dwell on the performances here, as they have been well covered by other reviewers. Suffice to say that they are both excellent, as one might expect, and refreshingly devoid of the mannerism and show-boating of some other well-known contemporary readings. Goerne sings in the Fischer-Dieskau tradition, without aping him; something that clearly attracted Brendel to him, sensing a fellow Romantic who, like Brendel, feels (and conveys) real pain and a rich palette of emotion in this repertoire.

What I do feel the need to comment on, however, is the poems. In the Amazon review, they are described as "literary dross". While Schubert did set his fair share of dross, these poems are not among them, and to underestimate or even to dismiss them would be a mistake. Study them closely, and you will see what attracted Schubert so powerfully. They are full of subtleties and insights; they are also far from the passive, comfortable Romantic essay that others seem to see. Schubert would never have set them with such intense care had he not seem something of intrinsic value in them, and he was right. "Der Leiermann" alone is a poem of great sparseness with an almost modernist sense of dislocation. The more closely you study the score, the clearer it becomes that Schubert saw something in these poems that gave him the opportunity and the artistic space to produce his greatest work in this genre, which is really saying something. So give Müller the credit that is his due, and look a few notches below the surface, as Schubert himself did. There is much there to reward you. And enjoy a splendid reading by two masters of the art.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 29, 2013 5:31 PM BST

Schubert: Winterreise
Schubert: Winterreise
Price: 7.15

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A seminal recording, 5 April 2010
This review is from: Schubert: Winterreise (Audio CD)
I have nine versions of this work in my library - all variables taken into account, this is the finest. The mature Fischer-Dieskau at the height of his powers, accompanied by the excellent Joerg Demus, who does not defer to but unfailingly supports his singer. If you listen to a cross-section of other recordings of this pinnacle of the Lied repertoire, you will hear many intersting moments and interesting takes on tempo and expression, from one song to another. If you are interested, have a listen to the Britten/Pears version and those of Martti Talvela/Ralf Gothoni and Hotter/Moore. Many fine, incisive moments. But if I were forced to choose one version of this masterpiece, this would be it. Worthily a DG classic recording. Heartily recommended.

Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy
Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy
by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Edition: Hardcover

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time for a change. A big one., 1 Mar 2010
This is a clear and devasting critique of the attitudes and actions that led to the latest, albeit largest, in a long line of financial foul-ups. It is always hard, with a book like this, to be sure of how seriously one can take the opinions of the writer. To what extent is this wisdom after the event, another slice of punditry and speculation, or the grinding of a particular axe? However, given the author's undoubted credentials and long and consistent record on the subject, one cannot but take this seriously. The analysis is clear and the opinions cogent. Prof. Stiglitz knows his way around the complexities of the finance industry, and lays out the details of the mess in clear and lucid language.

What is deeply troubling to discover, as an outsider, is the staggering depths to which the banking industry has sunk, and the seeming impossibility of dragging it back to some semblance of reason. The vested interests are now so huge and the stakes so high. If, as Prof. Stiglitz fears, there is just enough of an apparent recovery in the coming months and years to stave off any more searching questioning by those in power, the current situation may drivel on indefinitely. If his anaylsis is even half correct, this would be catastrophic.

The author's line is clear. The banks need to be brought to heel and forced, through strict regulation, to confine their attention to what they were designed to do in the first place: act as a safe haven for people's money and as a source of (properly assessed) loans for homes and businesses. Nothing more. Banking should be "simple and dull". Money should be a means of exchange and not a commodity in its own right. Simple principles; massive changes. Among the largest is that we, in the developed West, need to admit that our way is neither the only way nor remotely the best way.

For anyone even distantly interested in the hows and whys of the current crisis, this is unmissable reading.

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