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John Abbott (San Francisco, CA)

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John Ireland: London Pieces, Three Pastels, Preludes
John Ireland: London Pieces, Three Pastels, Preludes
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £19.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chelsea Reach, 13 Jun. 2014
Ireland loved London. “Chelsea Reach” from Three London Pieces (the title refers to the Thames embankment near Battersea Bridge and Cheyne Walk, well known for its colourful houseboats) was written at his studio in 14 Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where he lived from 1915 until the traffic noise finally drove him out in 1953. Ireland himself played the first public performance at the Aeolean Hall in London on 7 June, 1918.

"Chelsea Reach” is a gentle ramble in lilting six eight time that moves mostly in rich block chords. The level of dissonance ebbs and flows in a carefully controlled way: for instance the first three bars have no accidentals, but they are introduced in the next three bars and intensify in the following three. The intensity peaks at bar nine (where the melody also reaches its highest point) and from there it returns to straightforward harmony and a return to the home key of Ab (at bar 10). The rhythm is equally controlled, mostly sticking to regular quavers, but breaking out just occasionally into more dance-like dotted rhythms.

Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 2 [Hybrid SACD]
Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 2 [Hybrid SACD]
Price: £13.48

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What's left of a proposed "folk-song symphony", 13 Jun. 2014
Vaughan Williams had been interested in folk music since he was a boy. In December 1903, he noted down the tune of Bushes and Briars from a 70 year-old labourer who lived in the Essex village of Ingrave. Over the next ten years he collected more than 800 songs, and they had a profound effect on his development as a composer. Particularly significant was a week long visit to King’s Lynn in 1905, during which he collected some 30 songs. One was The Captain’s Apprentice as sung by the fisherman James Carter. This melody was used in the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, the Sea Symphony and the Pastoral Symphony. Another was Ward the Pirate, used as a theme in both the first and second Rhapsodies.

After the visit, Vaughan Williams began to plan a full-scale folk-song symphony. Although such a symphony was never published, he did complete the three Norfolk Rhapsodies in 1905 and 1906, and these were originally planned as the separate movements of the symphony: No. 1 was to have been the first movement, No. 2 the slow movement and scherzo, and No.3 the finale, a march and trio using four folk tunes for its themes. All three of the Rhapsodies were performed during those years and reviewed in the press. But in 1914 the first was heavily revised and the remaining two withdrawn from publication. Two pages of the second Rhapsody and the whole score of the third went missing.

There is evidence of all this in the composer’s scrapbook of folk song material, from contemporary letters, programme notes and concert reviews. But now the Norfolk Rhapsody No 2 has re-surfaced (edited and completed by Stephen Hogger) and expertly recorded here by the late Richard Hickox, we get a clearer picture of how the complete symphony might have sounded. It’s more than possible that the third movement will also be re-discovered one day. Unitl then, other fragments remain of the source material. For instance, Vaughan Williams made arrangements with piano accompaniment of a number of the folk songs, including The Captain’s Apprentice and Ward the Pirate, and seven of the field recordings he made in King’s Lynn have survived.

Brian: Symphony No. 2; Festival Fanfare
Brian: Symphony No. 2; Festival Fanfare
Price: £7.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Battle scherzo with 16 horns, 13 Jun. 2014
I’m aware that Havergal Brian (1876-1972) has many followers who make great claims for his music – but personally, I find his compositional style hard to crack. Continuous development doesn’t give you much to latch onto, and violent juxtapositions of style within a short space of time can get tiresome. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by such a substantial body of work (32 numbered symphonies) - and nowadays we are getting close to having a full set of recordings available.

The famously huge No 1 “Gothic” is the most famous of Brian's symphonies, and the next three are also expansive, large works. A good starting point for listening to this CD is the short third movement “ostinato scherzo” of Symphony No 2 (1930-31), with its massed (16!) horns, piano and xylophones driving forward an increasingly menacing march. There’s some impressive snarling brass in the second half, and it’s all undeniably exciting. Though as layer upon layer is pasted on for the climax, including a passage where everyone joins in with unison downward scales, I admit to finding it all a bit clunky.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2015 7:54 PM GMT

Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman
Offered by Direct Entertainment Supplies
Price: £5.05

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Baby Can I Hold You, 13 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Tracy Chapman (Audio CD)
Tracy Chapman’s self-titled first album, released in the spring of 1988, helped revive interest in folk-influenced singer-songwriters, a genre that fell out of favour after the first half of the 1970s. The best examples are concentrated and detailed, but also very melodic and accessible. Take “Baby Can I Hold You” which, appropriately for a song about the failure of words, uses its own very economically. The three verses are tightly structured around three phrases that the unnamed subject of the song “can’t say”. They are “sorry”, “forgive me” and “I love you”. The six words that can be said – “Baby can I hold you tonight” – are placed in the chorus and suggest that there are ways of expressing emotion that go beyond the verbal. However, they may not be enough, or may even be the wrong words. The song slips into the past tense to reveal that this relationship failed. “Maybe if I’d told you the right words/At the right time/You’d be mine”. And we hear that the problem is an ongoing one, on both sides: “Years gone by and still/Words don’t come easily”. That’s about it – the sum total of all the words used.

Musically, the song is just as tight, relying mostly on the three most common chords – D major (the tonic) G major (the subdominant) and A major (the dominant). But simple means can be used to great effect. Chapman always uses the song’s main “wild card” chord – the supertonic (E minor with the hint of a ninth) – on the recurring two lines that express the most uncertainty (“can’t say” and “don’t come easily”), where it has the effect of delaying the inevitable resolution to the strong dominant and tonic chords. The first time the supertonic is used as a weaker alternative to the subdominant and leads straight to the dominant (albeit one with a suspended fourth, a further delaying tactic). The second time it’s used, the supertonic is diverted to the subdominant before it gets to the dominant (as the “unsayable” phrases of each verse are repeated twice), only then resolving onto the tonic. In a way this is all too obvious to need explanation, and takes longer to read than to listen to. But I think it is worth spelling out, as in the end it has a lot to do with why the song feels so satisfactory.

Room To Roam
Room To Roam
Offered by MediaMerchants
Price: £11.98

5.0 out of 5 stars A Man is in Love - Kaliope House, 13 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Room To Roam (Audio CD)
On Room to Roam the Waterboys emphasized the folk element of their folk-rock fusion sound. The song “A Man is In Love”, however, begins as a straight pop love song by Mike Scott, based around strummed piano and guitar chords with just hints of folk through the violin and flute solo lines within the arrangement. The conceit of writing the lyrics in the third person until the end is a simple, but effective way of providing a punch line with impact: “A man is in love – and he’s me”. That’s reinforced by the gradual build up in instrumentation as the song progresses – two verses, the flute solo and then the final verse, with no chorus.

And that leads up to the coda, which suddenly takes off into a lively instrumental jig in 6/8 time, listed as a separate track called “Kaliope House” on the original CD booklet. Although essentially unrelated, this fits perfectly with the song, turning it into a joyous dance. It sounds traditional but was in fact composed by Dave Richardson of the Scottish band The Boys of the Lough, and it has since been adopted (more often named “Calliope House”) as if it were traditional by many others, including Riverdance. Mike Scott and the Waterboys are still recording: 2011’s An Appointment With Mr Yeats earned highly appreciative reviews.

School's In!
School's In!
Price: £9.45

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To be or not to be - funky, 13 Jun. 2014
This review is from: School's In! (Audio CD)
"To be or not to be", the opening track on this CD, is one of those pieces that, once you’ve seen it performed live, a recording just won’t do. I saw Maceo Parker at the Monterey Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 20 2008, and it was the first time I really understood what funk was about. Parker, a saxophonist, was a sideman for James Brown before he went solo. His music sets up a groove and then explores it, usually over a period of eight to ten minutes. At Monterey I particularly remember the performance of “To be or not to be”, something of a set piece for him. Parker occasionally says the words “To be or not to be – what?”, and towards the end (in many performances, including at Monterey in 2008) he brings out his manager, Natasha Maddison, to recite the whole soliloquy while the groove continues underneath. At the end a (somewhat redundant) chant of “we’re gonna make it funky, now”, is introduced.

The song – if that’s what it is – has one chord throughout, but it never needs to modulate. The tension ebbs and flows through a variety of means – dynamics, instrumentation and utter preciseness from the brass section contrasted with free jazz improvisation from the sax and guitar, for instance. So many elements, including the sparse vocals, contribute to the complexity of the rhythm. At the performance I remember thinking that the 65 year-old Parker was controlling everything as strictly as any conductor. The energy was astonishing and the audience completely captured. A recording can’t duplicate that. Luckily there are some videos of live performances on YouTube, at least some idea of what it was like to be there – although unfortunately the one I've found doesn’t include the soliloquy.

The Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes
The Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes
by Denys Parsons
Edition: Paperback
Price: £32.44

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Identifying musical themes by their contours, 13 Jun. 2014
In the past it wasn’t easy to identify an unknown piece of music heard by chance, with no other evidence to hand than the melody itself. This book, first published in 1975, was an attempt to address this. It wasn't the first - that honour goes to A Dictionary of Musical Themes by Sam Morgenstern and Harold Barlow, first published in 1950 with around 10,000 musical themes. But this version uses the contours of a melody to index and identify each theme, avoiding the need to transpose the notes into C used by Morgenstern and Barlow, which involves some musical knowledge. Using the letters U,D and R to denote up, down and repeat, and an asterisk for the first note, “God Save the Queen” comes out as *RUDUU URUDDD UDDU. Parsons (1914, died circa 2000) was the grandson of the famous actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, initially a scientist, then a film maker, and from 1933-80 the press officer for the British Library – as well as a talented pianist and flautist. He was also the father of Alan Parsons, the producer of Dark Side of the Moon and leader of the Alan Parsons Project. Denys Parsons covered around 15,000 classical, popular and folk pieces in his dictionary. And in the process he found out that *UU is the most popular opening contour, used in 23% of all the themes, something that applies to all the genres.

Today all this can be done on the Internet – either by plugging an audio file into Gracenote or iTunes, or by going to sites such as The Multimedia Library (the Barlow method) or Musipedia (the Parsons method). They are still very handy resources when trying to identify an elusive melody.

A Dictionary of Musical Themes
A Dictionary of Musical Themes
by Harold Barlow
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars pioneering reference work, nowadays available as an Internet app, 13 Jun. 2014
In the past it wasn’t easy to identify an unknown piece of music heard by chance, with no other evidence to hand than the melody itself. In fact just about the only hope was to go to a specialist library and consult A Dictionary of Musical Themes by Sam Morgenstern and Harold Barlow. This reference book, first published in 1950, collects together 10,000 musical themes (mostly classical works) and indexes them using a notation index based on transposing the pitches to C major or C minor (so that “God Save the Queen”, for instance, would come out as CCDBCDEEFE). To compile this dictionary was clearly a labour of love for the authors, both composers themselves. It reminds me of the efforts Victorian scholars put in to compile massive concordances of classic literature, including the Bible and Shakespeare. And similarly, all that effort would no longer be required today.

So who were the authors? Sam Morgenstern (1906-1989) was a teacher at Mannes College of Music in Greenwich Village, New York, and the conductor of Lower Manhattan’s Lemonade Opera Company, which gave the US premiere of Prokofiev’s Duenna in 1948. He composed two short operas himself, along with the Warsaw Ghetto (setting a spoken word poem by Harry Granick to background music), which was premiered at Carnegie Hall on February 10, 1946. He also composed a choral cantata The Common Man, and the latin-tinged piano piece Toccata Guatemala. Although there are no recordings of his work, a crackly radio disk transcription of the second performance of Warsaw Ghetto, made in the studio a week after the premiere, can be heard here (36 minutes in). Morgenstern’s other books included the classic anthology Composers on Music (1956).

Co-author Harold Barlow (1915-93), who devised the notation scheme, was a popular song composer who studied violin at the University of Boston and went on to become a bandleader during World War II. He wrote the comedy song “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears” in 1949 (recorded by Homer and Jethro), and the lyrics to the 1960 Connie Francis hit “Mama”. But Barlow became better known later in his career when he became a consultant on plagiarism, most famously defending George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” against the accusations that it was copied from the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine”. (Harrison still lost the case). Barlow also worked on cases involving Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Dolly Parton and Billy Joel.

A new attempt at classifying tunes was published in 1975 by Denys Parsons, using the letters U,D and R to denote up, down and repeat, and an asterisk for the first note, “God Save the Queen” comes out as *RUDUU URUDDD UDDU. Today all this can be done on the Internet – either by plugging an audio file into Gracenote or iTunes, or by going to sites such as The Multimedia Library (the Barlow method) or Musipedia (the Parsons method). They are still very handy resources when trying to identify an elusive melody.

Rather Be (feat. Jess Glynne)
Rather Be (feat. Jess Glynne)
Price: £0.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dance song with textures from classical music, 9 Jun. 2014
When I first heard this song, in passing on the radio, I immediately honed in on the bubbly synth accompaniment as its most interesting element. It was a while before I heard enough of the complete song to notice that this material is also used as the introduction, played on a string quartet – and played convincingly. This isn’t a typical pop string arrangement. It makes full use of the independent voices and is also written idiomatically for the instruments, clearly by someone who knows what a string quartet can do. And it converts surprisingly well to the video game sounding electronic bleeps that alternate with strings throughout the song to play this music. (Note: the sheet music suggests it’s a string trio rather than a quartet – it sounds fuller to me on the recording).

Researching into the song, I found that the band Clean Bandit was formed out of a real classical string quartet from Cambridge, the Chatto Quartet (named after cellist and band member Grace Chatto). This sounds exciting. I can only think of a handful of pop songs that make the most of a string quartet – “Yesterday”, of course springs to mind, but also “For You” by Judie Tzuke, on which the quartet arrangement was made by Paul Hart.

I’m still listening to Clean Bandit’s just-released album New Eyes to hear what else they can do with this combination. I have to say that, so far, I’m not entirely convinced. For instance, while “Mozart’s House” uses a chunk of Mozart’s String Quartet No 21 (a less obvious choice than most Mozart “samples”), it’s not really integrated into the rest of the song, and at one stage it sounds disconcertingly close to the Hooked on Classics approach – an unforgiving regular beat dominating the music and draining out all of its life. I do like the use of strings in an earlier Clean Bandit track called “UK Shanty” – not included on the new album – where folk music elements are more in evidence. And the videos I’ve seen are very inventive.

However, the album, and the song “Rather Be”, both indicate that the songs themselves are more generic, and that it’s the textures where the main interest lies. At its core, “Rather Be” is very simple as a straight song. It seems as if the songs are mostly written by outside writers and the band then adds the quartet textures – so we don’t get a lot of classical influence in the basic material itself, which is a shame. The band’s personality is also perhaps weakened by their use of different guest vocalists for every song. And on the two dance remixes of “Rather Be” the strings seemed to be excluded altogether, indicating that for the hardcore clubbers strings perhaps aren’t what they want to hear. Despite all that, it’s catchy enough to have made the charts, and I think its appeal comes from a combination of both the song itself and the unusual instrumental textures.

Proverb / Nagoya Marimba / City Life
Proverb / Nagoya Marimba / City Life
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Nagoya Marimba, 4 Jun. 2014
This short work for two marimbas, composed in 1994 for the opening of a new hall at the Nagoya music conservatory in Japan, is for Steve Reich fans in a hurry. Reich himself has said it’s comparable to some of his most famous works of the 1960s and 1970s built out of repeating interlocking patterns that very gradually move in and out of phase with each other. The two that immediately spring to my mind are Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (especially memorable for its beautiful sound texture) and above all Music for 18 Musicians for a chamber ensemble heavy with marimbas and xylophones, not a moment too long at 55 minutes, and richly harmonic as well as characteristically rhythmical. But the changes happen much more rapidly in the four-and-a-half minute Nagoya Marimbas, and there’s more melody. The two marimbas play against each other one or more beats out of phase and create, says Reich, a series of two part unison canons. Although the two players have to be virtuosic, the musical processes at work here are unusually transparent.

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