Wrong one

Monday, 11 January 2016 21:11
strange_complex: (Sleeping Hermaphrodite)
At 3:30am last night, I did one of those half-wakes you sometimes do during the night, and the one fragment of the dream from which I had awoken which remained to me was a radio presenter's voice saying "Sir Cliff Richard has died." "Heh!" I thought, "Maybe it's a premonition. Must make a mental note of that and see what happens in the morning."

Apparently I'm pretty good at keeping hold of random thoughts which occur to me in the middle of the night, because when I switched on my radio (permanently tuned to Radio 4) that morning at 7 o'clock, my ears instantly pricked up, eager to discover whether or not I had indeed had a psychic experience. Only then the presenter started talking about David Bowie, and everything was wrong.

I can tell you exactly when I first got into David Bowie. It was when his band, Tin Machine, released the single 'Baby Universal', which Wikipedia tells me was October 1991, i.e. when I was 15. I quickly moved on to exploring his back catalogue, and the following April I was lucky enough to see him live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in Wembley Arena, which I attended along with best chum [livejournal.com profile] hollyione and her Dad. Obviously, David Bowie wasn't the primary reason for going to a gig like that, but for me seeing him was very much a close secondary draw.

His music and films continued to form the centre of my cultural world for the next year or so, and thus it was that, through his back catalogue, David Bowie was the first person to take my hand and lead me gently into that wonderful decade known as the 1970s. In fairness, I think some of the films I'd already seen had made me receptive - especially Dracula AD 1972. [livejournal.com profile] hollyione had also definitely played her role through her enthusiasm for Led Zeppelin - her main reason for wanting to go to the Freddie Mercury tribute gig. But it was David Bowie - his music, his look, his persona - who really carried me over the bridge.

Eventually, of course, I discovered other artists there whose music I liked better, like Marc Bolan, Yes, KISS, and indeed Led Zeppelin (whom [livejournal.com profile] hollyione had been quite right about all along). David Bowie faded a little from my radar. But I have always retained a more-than-passing liking for him, followed the trajectory of his career with interest, and been pleased when I came across him unexpectedly - as for example in a short film a few years ago at the Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend. When my sister told me that she liked to sing 'Starman' to a baby Eloise, I smiled and thought, "Parenting - you're doing it right", and I went around singing 'Space Oddity' to myself for several days recently after seeing the film which inspired it in glorious Cinerama.

But now he is gone, which hardly seems possible. Like everyone else, it seems, I'd just assumed he would go on forever - always anticipating the zeitgeist; constantly driven to experiment; and proving over and over again that music need not be formulaic to be popular. But apparently nobody can - not even someone whose persona was so otherworldly and supernatural. We can only be glad that he did so many things during his brief time on Earth, and thus left us much to keep on enjoying - including not only his own work, but all the many bands, films and fashion movements which he inspired. Thank you for that, David.

In light of how it opened, I feel I should end this post by saying that I don't actually wish death on Cliff Richard. He may have spent most of his career deliberately appealing to the socially and musically conservative, and indeed hold those sorts of values so dearly himself that he's capable of saying something like this about the very subject of this post:
But I do have a persistent soft spot for him all the same. Some of his music is great - most of his songs with The Shadows, and occasional later gems like 'Wired for Sound' - and he manages to project a sense of ease with who he is and what he does in interviews which I find endearing. Besides, this doesn't seem the sort of day to wish death on anyone. I of course reserve the right to retract these sentiments if he turns out to have been a predatory paedophile all along. (Which, of course, is a case you could make about David Bowie too, although I do feel it makes some difference when you have an adult woman looking back and saying that she treasures the whole experience. All your faves are problematic.)

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strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
I re-read the first edition of this book a month ago, and in the course of checking background details about it for my write-up, found out about this new version. Having been very impressed with the original, I of course ordered the new edition straight away.

Retitling )

Presentation )

New material )

Changes to the existing text )

Anyway, in summary this book perhaps isn't as much of an improvement on the previous edition as I'd hoped for, but since the previous edition was already excellent, this remains a great piece of work which I'm glad I bought. It's an extremely pleasing testimony to continuing interest in Moreschi that a revised edition was commissioned, and I'm sure that interest in itself is a clear testimony to Nicholas Clapton's efforts in recording and presenting his story. Three cheers for both of them.

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strange_complex: (Alessandro Moreschi)
Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alessandro Nilo Angelo Moreschi, known in his lifetime as 'The Angel of Rome' and more commonly today as 'The Last Castrato'.

I shall be celebrating this evening by listening to all of the recordings which he made (in 1902 and 1904) with the attention they deserve and a glass of wine in my hand. But I am also marking the event here by posting the lyrics for those recordings, in the original languages as he sang them and with parallel English translations. The items are presented in the same order as that found on the OPAL CD, Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato, since I know that that is the recording most people have of his repertoire. However, if you enjoy Moreschi's voice, I would really recommend that you purchase a copy of the Truesound version of his recordings, which has been cleaned up much more effectively than the OPAL one, and also includes a number of extra recordings made by other members of the Sistine Chapel Choir at the same time.

All translations are my own, although help which I received with the Palestrina madrigal, La Cruda Mia Nemica, is credited below. I have aimed for literal, rather than poetic, translations, with the intention being simply to help listeners understand the meaning of the songs Moreschi recorded.

Happy birthday, il mio angelo, and long may you be continue to be remembered.


Aldega – Domine salvum fac )

Pratesi – Et Incarnatus Est / Crucifixus )

Tosti – Ideale )

Meluzzi – Ave Verum Corpus )

Stehle – Tui Sunt Coeli )

Mozart – Ave Verum Corpus )

Rossini – Crucifixus )

Leibach – Pie Jesu )

Terziani – Hostias et Preces )

Tosti – Preghiera )

Bach-Gounod – Ave Maria )

Gregorian chant – Incipit Lamentatio )

Capocci – Gloria, Laudamus te and Gratias agimus )

Vittoria – Improperia )

Palestrina – La Cruda Mia Nemica )

Calzanera – Oremus Pro Pontifice )

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strange_complex: (Alessandro Moreschi)
An indulgence re-read, undertaken partly just because I love it so much, and partly with an eye to the fact that it will be the 150th anniversary of Moreschi's birth on November 11th this year. Besides, re-reading it gives me a reason to actually review it here - something I've kind of meant to do ever since the first time around. That, however, was back in the autumn of 2005, shortly after I'd got hold of Moreschi's recordings on CD at last, and was going through a massive process of joyous discovery. At the time, I wasn't yet in the habit of reviewing everything I read on my LJ, and somehow, I just never got round to it.

Of course, I'm reading it in a rather different way now from the way I did three years ago. Then, I was discovering Moreschi for the first time, and Clapton was my guide. In the intervening time, I've systematically hunted down and read almost all of both the primary and the secondary sources which Clapton used to write the book. I've made myself into an amateur Moreschi expert - and it's been a wonderful journey.

From that perspective, though, I am actually all the more impressed with this biography now that I return to it. Considering that its author trained as a musician and musicologist, not as a historian, it is really very well researched and presented. He's made good use of existing works, like Buning's thesis, but he's also made really valuable contributions of his own that have allowed him to add a lot to Moreschi's story. Above all, this has clearly included extensive research among the Vatican archives, which contain all sorts of primary documents about the activities of the Sistine Chapel Choir, including many in Moreschi's own hand.

There are perhaps a few refinements which could be made. There are stories and sources which haven't quite made it into the book: for instance, the delightful anecdote from the time of 1902 recording session when some of the cotton wool used to pack the wax master discs caught fire, and the 'male sopranos' present (which must have included Moreschi) ran for the door, where they got jammed together, and which appears in Fred Gaisberg's memoirs. Clapton also follows Buning on the subject of Moreschi's death certificate, which I've griped about before: though he does include slight reservations on the topic which Buning did not.

But you can't include everything, and what is here is wonderfully rich, involving and detailed, especially considering how little relevant primary documentation is now (or ever was, in fact) available for reconstructing Moreschi's story. Every page overflows with a deep fascination and respect for its subject: and as someone who feels much the same way about Alessandro Moreschi, I can't help but approve. In any case, it appears that Clapton has taken the opportunity to improve upon his original publication. In the course of visiting his website to check details for this post, I found out that he's just released a revised and expanded edition of it, now titled Moreschi: The Angel of Rome. I've just ordered it.

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strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
And so begins another year of book-blogging. With, as it happens, a monster! :-)

I'm not normally in the habit of sitting around reading other people's PhD theses even in my own subject, let alone outside it. But regular readers of this journal will understand why this particular one demanded my attention so insistently. I've known about it since I read Nicholas Clapton's biography of Moreschi, The Last Castrato, back in about December 2005 (alas, before I started book-blogging), and have always wanted to follow up what was obviously such a rich and interesting reference. So in November I finally gave in to the temptation to have the thing sent over to me from Boston (where it was originally submitted) on inter-library loan.

Big green book )

And now that I've been able to read it? Well - wow! I have a couple of gripes, but on the whole this is a thorough, lucid, scholarly and fascinating exploration of my favourite singer and his voice. I count myself fantastically lucky that it was written, and that I've had the chance to read it. The aim of the thesis is to set Alessandro Moreschi's surviving recordings in the context of our wider knowledge of historical castrati and of the medical effects of pre-pubertal castration, in order to arrive at as rigorous an understanding as possible of the mechanics of vocal production in a castrato singer, and thus of the capacities and limitations of this lost voice type which has left such a legacy in Western music. In other words, it's all about understanding Moreschi better as a musician, and about understanding the music written for his predecessors by composers such as Handel and his contemporaries better as a result. As far as I'm concerned - brilliant!

Gripes )

Biography )

More important, though, were the musicological insights I gained into Moreschi's singing. Buning examines the contemporary written evidence for his professional career, and of course also his surviving recordings, incredibly thoroughly and competently - including presenting things like spectral analyses of his voice as preserved on the recordings, and detailed examples of places on them where particular aspects of his technique and capabilities can be clearly heard. I've listened to those recordings more than any other music I have over the last two-and-a-bit years (since I first got hold of them in November '05). So much, in fact, that I hardly even need to listen to them directly any more, because every note, every swell, every ornament, every click and swish of the records themselves is hard-wired into my brain. But, thanks to Buning, I can hear new things in them again, and listen to them in a different way. Always good.

Pitch decline )

Register practice )

Michael Maniaci )

Moreschi's head voice and contemporary recording technique )

Finally, beyond the content in this thesis that was specific to Moreschi himself, it was just great to read someone really writing about the castrati rigorously and thoughtfully, and actively seeking to question some of the existing orthodoxies about them. As I've indicated before, most of the available books on the castrati are pretty second-rate, really, and it would be nice to see someone publishing a worthwhile, scholarly full-length study which didn't just peddle the same old over-romanticised lines. Ultimately, I didn't really agree with Buning's final conclusion regarding the relevance of his findings for performance practice, which was that since countertenors cannot possibly sound anything like castrati, we should be using women to sing the roles written for castrato singers on stage instead. As Buning showed, women don't sound anything like castrati either, and besides I happen to rather like the sound which countertenors produce in its own right. But I did very much agree with his reasoning about why the issue matters: Western music is full of pieces which were written specifically for castrato singers, taking special account of the unique qualities of their voices, and seeking to show it off to best effect. If we are to understand, and make best use of, that music, then we must understand properly how the original voice functioned. Alessandro Moreschi is the man who can show us.

strange_complex: (Alessandro Moreschi)
Continuing on last night's theme of the adulation of male sopranos, let it be recorded that today is (amongst other things, of course) the birthday of Alessandro Moreschi. Were he still alive, he would be 149 today (so a big anniversary next year - whoop!).

Last year, I marked the day by posting about the pilgrimage to the Sistine Chapel which I had undertaken in his honour in June of 2006. This year, I'm celebrating by posting up a series of pictures of him - in fact, all the ones that are in existence as far as I know. Most lead to larger versions if you click on them - sometimes much larger.

Moreschi - a life in pictures )


Image hosted by Photobucket.com

And between all of those, I was able to make this colour bar early in 2006 - which still graces my userinfo page to this day, and is not going anywhere any time soon. The Sistine Chapel photograph isn't really worth including, as you can't really tell it's him anyway, and I'd be the first to admit that some of the others are moot points. But eight photographs of any person who lived when he did is pretty good going. And I'd like to think that somewhere, in archives or in private collections, there are more waiting.

strange_complex: (Apollo Belvedere)
I've just come back from hearing Michael Maniaci sing in Keiser's The Fortunes of King Croesus for a second time. And by the gods, am I glad I went.

I knew he was good last time, I did. But with the excitement of the weekend generally, the novelty of Keiser's music to my ears, and the fast-moving spectacle of the production, it was hard to concentrate on just one singer's voice. This time, I had the plot clear in my mind, didn't need to get confused about who was in love with whom, and knew when to expect Maniaci's big moments. It helped, too, that while last time we were in the Upper Circle (the middle of three balconies), this time I was in the second row of the stalls, slap bang in the middle and mere feet from the orchestra pit. The difference in position alone made the whole thing so much more intense - like seeing something in colour or hearing something in stereo for the first time, when you've only experienced it before in black and white or mono.

Maniaci's voice )

All night I was entranced - by Maniaci, but also by both Gillian Keith (Elmira) and Fflur Wyn (Clerida), who would both have been worth going back for even if it weren't for Maniaci. Gillian Keith especially flew and soared with searing agility through the part of Elmira, and rightly dominated the opera with an astonishing range of beautiful arias. But then there was the moment when Maniaci began to sing 'Elmira, where are you gone?' (Elmir! wo bleibest du?), and entrancement turned into complete absorption. His messa di voce on the long, plaintive 'Elmira!'s was devastating. My heart was in my mouth. I shut my eyes so that nothing could distract from the pure experience of the sound. I'd known the aria was good last time, but this time, pre-warned, I was overwhelmed. Could I really be hearing anything so powerful, and yet so human? The lingering grief, and yet the perfect control and rich shape which he gave to the sound. I was completely wrapped in the moment - nothing but a pair of ears sucking in the melody he was unveiling.

And then, once again, it was all over - too quickly - and it was out into the confused strangeness of the street. How could ordinary life be going on after that music had finished? How could buses run and drunks shout? How could people not know? The journey home sped by in shell-shocked bewilderment. Betrayal - that what had been so beautiful could be so definitively over. Already, the memory of the sound is slipping away, and there's nothing I can do to refresh it. I feel as though I don't want to hear anything ever again, if it can't be Michael Maniaci singing 'Elmira, where are you gone?'.

All is not lost, though. Radio 3 were there, recording the evening for broadcast later in the month. Believe me when I say that I shall be there, hovering by my set with a supply of fresh tapes in hand.

strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
Crumbs, but today was busy. Two lectures, two seminars, barely time to sit down and remind myself what I was actually supposed to be teaching in the next session before it hit me, and I spent the last seminar being systematically and relentlessly coughed all over by a student no more than a metre away from me. After the fun and games last week, I do not want another cold, thank you!

Anyway, thankfully now it is all over, and I only have a Latin class to teach tomorrow. So I can get on with blogging my extremely exciting and splendiferous weekend...

The pivotal hinge of the whole 48-hour period was Opera North's production of Reinhard Keiser's The Fortunes of Kings Croesus, which I'd been busy organising an outing to since May. It was lucky I'd successfully bought a three-bedroomed house in the intervening period, as I had four house-guests for the weekend (a fifth, [livejournal.com profile] redkitty23, sadly couldn't make it in the end due to illness) - my Mum, [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula, the artist formerly known as [livejournal.com profile] kharin and [livejournal.com profile] megamole. And it was just so fabulous to see everyone anyway! To think that the added bonus was not only baroque opera, but a composer I'd never heard performed before and a chance to hear Michael Maniaci sing live at last was more than enough to have me in a state of fizzing excitement by early Saturday evening.

You can see as much from the grin on my face )

And so off we set in our finery through a crisp, autumnal-smelling evening, to rendezvous with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and take our seats in the auditorium. I have a recording of the opera directed by René Jacobs in 2000, but had only listened to it in a fairly haphazard and perfunctory manner, so I knew some of the tunes beforehand, but had absolutely no clue as to the plot )

Keiser )

The production )

Maniaci )

And friends )

Fangirling )

We did do the Wrens, too, and then home again under a bloated half-moon. And the next day was all communal breakfasts, and chatting, and guests slipping away one by one, until I was left alone once again. Except that I didn't have time to get sad or mopey about it, because it was off for my own humble brand of singing at choir practice, followed by chat and dinner with [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau to round off the weekend.

There are two more performances of Croesus in Leeds, on the 7th and 10th of November, and you know what? I think I might go again. Because I can, and because I still bitterly regret not going to see David Cordier sing Bertarido in Rodelinda for a second time in Oxford when I felt much the same about his performance and I could have done. It doesn't even have to be that expensive, either - judging from the Grand Opera House website, there are some quite cheap last-minute tickets available, and neither performance is likely to sell out completely. June, after all, is an awfully long time to wait for that CD...

My first Prom

Wednesday, 8 August 2007 17:27
strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
Yesterday evening, I attended my first ever Promenade concert, in company with Cie. It occurred to me, sitting in the Albert Hall as we waited for the performance to begin, that this was a slightly odd thing to be doing for the first time now that I've moved to Leeds, given that I'd never managed it the whole time I lived in Oxford. But honestly, the trains from Leeds to London are so good, that it's practically just as easy from here.

I met Cie after work, and we caught up over dinner at Wagamama's - another first for me, and a good one, although I made the mistake of assuming that when a Japanese menu described soup as 'spicy', they wouldn't really mean it, only to find that actually they did. We then proceeded to Hyde Park, where we circumambulated the Albert Memorial for a while, gaping in mingled awe and horror at its sheer rococosity, before deciding that it was a bit nippy out and repairing to a basement bar within the Albert Hall. There, we drank coffee and ate cookies, until we were joined by [livejournal.com profile] qatsi, who had just been enjoying a programme of Britten and Mahler in the evening's early Prom. Sadly, [livejournal.com profile] qatsi couldn't stay for the late performance, as he needed to get home to Reading at a Reasonable Hour, but we got a good half-hour's chatting in nonetheless, so that was nice.

Concert review )

After the concert, we went back to Cie's flat in leafy Ealing Broadway, where we hooked up with her partner, Mark, for a bit before collapsing into bed. And then today dawned, all bright, breezy sunshine and views across people's gardens from Cie and Mark's lounge windows, coffee in hand. By lunch-time, I was safely back in Leeds - just in time to greet my Dad, who is installing curtain-rails for me downstairs as I type. Speaking of which, it's probably time I went and fixed us both some dinner.

Let me leave you with some pictures from my adventure )

strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
Wow. I've just come back from what I think is one of the best performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion that I've ever seen. And I have seen a fair few, because the Birmingham Bach Choir perform it on Good Friday every year, and while a quick glance back through my archives tells me I haven't been to one since starting this LJ, that's not representative of my overall life-time trend.

Everything about it was good really - I was completely gripped and entranced from start to finish. The only possible gripe was that the text was sung in English - accessible, yes, and the translation used was good, but it does inevitably mess up the rhythms from time to time. I'll note down my thoughts on the soloists particularly, though, so that I know what names to look out for in future:

Christopher Gillett - Evangelist (tenor). He usually sings this role for the Bach Choir, and I'm pretty sure I've seen him do it before. And so he should, because he is just perfect. Clear, unmannered and with a brilliant range of tone and colour considering that all he has to work with is recitative. When he sang that Jesus cried aloud and died, it actually happened. And the entire auditorium rang out with stunned silence afterwards.

Paul Whelan - Christ (bass). Much the same to say about him, actually - including the fact that I'm pretty sure I've seen him as Jesus before. I don't tend to like basses, but he had little of the toneless croak which normally puts me off. Instead, he was powerful, commanding, and - when the text required it - very, very human. Plus he was extraordinarily tall, and chose to emphasise this by wearing white tie and tails. So, points for presentation.

Christopher Purves (bass). My usual rule about basses was broken even harder by this guy. I actively loved his voice. It was rich, full of tone and expression, and perfectly controlled. He just sounded to me like a good tenor with a lower-than-normal range. Hooray.

Brad Cooper (tenor). This was a substitution - we were meant to have Paul Nilon, but after hearing him recently in Orfeo, I'm not sorry we didn't. Instead, we got a young Australian guy called Brad Cooper, who was (understandably) a little nervous, but fundamentally had a nice voice. A little more work on polishing it up, and he should be one to watch.

William Towers (alto). Like I say, they were all good, but he was the star of the show for me. Absolutely took my breath away. He has incredible power, and his upper range is so sweet, pure and beautifully controlled, I sometimes I had trouble believing that it was actually a human being who was singing, and not some perfect Platonic form of a voice. His lower range isn't quite so wonderful, being a little thin (though still powerful). But for some arias, that sound really works. It was when he sang 'Have mercy, Lord'1, for which this was very much true, that I was really won over. Mum and I were giving him secret silent hand-claps behind the backs of the seats in front of us for that one, and you can rest assured that I'll be buying CDs in the very near future.

Elizabeth Watts (soprano). Not so much praise for her, in that she wasn't in any way bad, but also wasn't as outstanding as most of the others. Could perhaps have been richer in tone and greater in power, I guess. But then again, she didn't warble or shriek. Just did the job very nicely.

We also had yummy toasted hot cross buns before we came out, and also Mini Eggs in the interval (which is probably an act of High Blasphemy, or something). So, all in all, I am glad that Jesus died. Much appreciated, dude.


1. I can't be bothered to look up the usual German names for the arias, but it's a little over half-way through.

Weekending

Sunday, 18 March 2007 18:54
strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
Well, I had a very lovely weekend with my Mum.

The focus of her visit was really Opera North's performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo: one of the first true examples of the opera genre, which enjoys its fourth centenary this year. It was on at Leeds' Grand Theatre - a triumph of Victorian opulence which makes you crane and peer around the auditorium in a mixture of horror and wonder while you are waiting for the show. Nonetheless, it still didn't quite make it into the same league as Belfast's Grand Opera House, by the simple dint of failing to have ornamental elephants.

The production was - interesting... The story, of course, is the straightforward tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, covering in this version their wedding, his journey into hell, his fatal look back, his despair at losing her a second time, and finally his transportation into the heavens by his father, Apollo. So a simple production could have cast the singers as alternately Arcadian nymphs and shepherds and demonic residents of the underworld, or perhaps gone for a 17th century courtly Italian look, in keeping with the anniversary and the work's original context. No-one can do a simple production of an opera in this post-modern age, though, can they? Instead, the cast were mainly dandies and bohemians, from a mix of different ages and cultures, looking on and laughing with ironic detachment at the somewhat crazed antics of Orpheus and his (decidedly unwilling) bride. A personification of La Musica, who introduced the performance, was a deliberately ungainly cabaret dancer with smudged make-up, while Apollo at the end was revealed to have been a stooped, greasy-haired, balding old man, who'd been sitting on the side of the stage all evening, ostentatiously recording Orpheus' every aria with a portable tape machine.

I'm sure it said a lot of profound things about the artificiality of spectacle, the cruelty of the human condition and the haziness of the lines between life and death, sanity and madness, spectacle and spectators, etc. etc. But, basically, it was overly-contrived showiness for the sake of it, and I wish they'd just let the music speak instead. Especially because it was so good - as a score and as a performance! It was rich, lively, varied, engaging, and really brought the story and the characters to life. In this case, of course, the effect was that two narratives were going on in parallel - aurally, Monteverdi's sincere love story, but visually, the director's crazy weirdness. Musically, my only quibble was that I wasn't very fond of the voice of the singer who played Orpheus, Paul Nilon. The rest of the audience obviously disagreed with me, as he got thunderous applause at the end, but I just found his voice too strident, and lacking in warmth or sweetness of tone. I guess Orpheus is always going to be a hard role to cast, though, if he's to be a convincing musical genius for everyone.

The rest of the weekend we spent mainly taking advantage of the fact that Mum had come up in the car, so we could get around and about the place more easily than I usually can on my own. We did a good batch of house-hunting on Saturday, seeing four properties around the Headingley area. In the end, I didn't fall for any of them, but we nipped round to a couple of others today to have a look at them from the outside, and they did look promising. So I've got a couple of leads, and will phone tomorrow to get appointments to see them properly.

Another little car job that needed doing was taking my old stereo to the tip - it's been sitting in my hallway ever since my new one arrived back in November! Unfortunately, I didn't bank on Mum deciding to make her trip up to Leeds into a jaunt for the parental second car (which doesn't get out very often), so we must have looked a right pair of prats turning up at the tip in a red Mazda MX-5 to throw away a stereo!

Anyway, from there, we progressed out from Leeds in a north-westerly direction in search of pub lunchy goodness, and ended up at the Red Lion in Burley on Wharfedale, whose Sunday carvery I can thoroughly recommend! Succulent honey-roast ham, soft, plump Yorkshire puddings, delicious gravy and very generous portions - we ate around 12:30, and even now at ten to eight I'm only just starting to think I ought to make myself some dinner.

Yes, definitely nice to have a weekend together - especially since it was (coincidentally) Mothering Sunday today. And I'm looking forward to early April, when I'll be spending about ten days with both parents in Brum - besides also attending the St. Matthew Passion and a conference.

Between now and then, I have the luxury of term having finished on Friday to enjoy - but a helluvalot of other things to catch up on!

strange_complex: (Handel)
Hee-hee-hee! I have been having a pretty crappy weekend, feeling very below par and not up to anything much of any description. I even had to bail out on [livejournal.com profile] smileygoth's leaving drinks last night, much to my sorrow. :-( But watching Handel's Last Chance this evening has cheered me up no end.

It's a hokey, schmaltzy, historically-dubious and unrealistically-plotted attempt at educational children's television, that I'm sure would cause any self-respecting pre-teen to cringe painfully. The setting is the first performance of Handel's Messiah in Dublin, for which the names of all the actual soloists - several of them imported over from England for the purpose - are perfectly well-documented. But never mind them! Instead, the plot revolves around a spirited ten-year-old rapscallion by the name of Jamie O'Flaherty, whose life intersects with Handel's in a series of unlikely episodes, while all the time Handel fumes and curses at the deplorable quality of the local choirs he's been asked to work with. Then, one fateful day, Handel chances to hear young Jamie singing to himself as he scrubs a step.1 Guess what happens next - go on, guess!

The whole story might have been more plausible if the boy they'd got to provide young Jamie's voice had genuinely been a good singer, instead of merely a competent one. But then again, when you put that beside the random mix of English, Irish and North American accents (apparently determined by who could be bothered to attempt plausibility and who couldn't), the modern French horns which appear in Handel's orchestra, the fact that the climactic opening performance of the Messiah seemed to end with the Hallelujah chorus, the complete inability of the actor playing Handel to even fake playing the harpsichord, the failure of the director to hide this, and the terrible scripting,2 such details quickly ceased to matter.

Could I not have guessed from the title alone how second-rate this was going to be, you ask? Why did I watch it, or even acquire it in the first place, knowing that this was what I would be getting?

Well, the answer of course, is that I love low-budget TV. Chuckling over all of the above has been one of the high points of my weekend. And it was so charmingly well-meaning, I couldn't help but love it. Besides, it had its moments - chiefly nice locations (mainly in Bratislava) and a delightfully curmudgeonly old Handel, who at one point announced, "I'm a mean old ogre, and what is more, I enjoy being a mean old ogre!" And - albeit with a slight change of setting - they got in the anecdote about the singer who incurred Handel's wrath for his poor sight-reading. When Handel exploded with rage and demanded, "You shcauntrel, tit you not dell me dat you could sing at soite?", he replied, "Yes, sir, and so I can: but not at first sight." Can't beat that.

Other things I have watched while feeling pants include an episode of Angel (early season four, which I now see honks just as bad as the stuff later in that series with Jasmine), half of Three Coins in the Fountain on Film 4, (but not really enough to justify claiming I've 'seen' it properly and add it to the list for this year), and an excellent production of Handel's Giustino on DVD. (I actually acquired Handel's Last Chance as a cheap'n'cheerful last-minute addition to an online order which was really about buying this and two other Handel opera DVDs).

I've also slept a lot, listened to Handel's Rinaldo on CD, and got in some good reading - a bit more of my current book, Angus Heriot's The Castrati in Opera (which I'll post about in its own right when I've finished), and this extremely interesting article on the marriage of a castrato named Bartolomeo de Sorlisi to a Protestant girl named Dorothea Lichtwer in 17th-century Germany. I'm quite surprised Sorlisi's story isn't better-known, as the article shows very well how unusually well-documented it is, and how much light it casts on the status and condition of the castrati. But in fact, he doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page. Let's hope that now a detailed English-language article has been published about him, someone will soon put that right - he certainly deserves it.

So, it's been a quiet one, but full of nice things nonetheless. Now, I am going to bed - and let's hope I've recovered my energies enough to face what's bound to be a pretty busy week.


1. You would have thought Handel might have been particularly astonished in this scene not so much by the boy's voice, but by the fact that he was actually singing an aria from the Messiah, despite the fact that it hasn't had a single public performance yet. But apparently not.

2. At one point, Handel advised Jamie, "That is the voice to which you must listen to most closely". I could have forgiven it if he'd been played with a heavy German accent and a tenuous grasp on the English language. But he wasn't at all. Except when the actor let his accent slip, he spoke in perfect Queen's English.

Five Messiahs

Saturday, 6 January 2007 14:34
strange_complex: (Handel)
I do have the grace to feel rather embarrassed about this. But, nonetheless, I have willingly - even eagerly - allowed it to happen. See, the fact is that I now own five recordings of Handel's Messiah.

Excessive, you say? Obsessive, even? But they are all different, I swear! After all, practically every performance of the piece given in Handel's lifetime was different from the others, as he re-wrote arias on the hoof to suit the singers he had available at the time. And that's before you even get into matters of interpretation and choice of performers.

So here is a list of my five recordings (in order of acquisition) and the reasons why I need to own them all:

1. Charles MacKerras 1967 )

2. Sir David Willcocks 1973 )

3. Taped copy from Grace )

4. Harry Christophers 1986 )

5. Nicholas McGegan 1991 )

So it seems that my search for the perfect Fantasy Messiah continues. I can't see that it'll ever be quite entirely satisfied - unless perhaps I create my own amalgam by burning tracks from different performances onto a CD of my own. Which would be weird, and I'm pretty sure I still don't have all the perfect raw materials anyway. So here's to further additions to my collection in the future!

strange_complex: (Apollo Belvedere)
I've just got back from a very enjoyable performance of Bach's B Minor Mass at Leeds University's Great Hall, which I attended in the company of [livejournal.com profile] big_daz. Damn, but it's powerful stuff. We were sitting no more than 15 metres from a choir some 60 strong, and they certainly packed a punch.

The singers were mainly students of the School of Music, backed up by the Leeds Baroque Choir (whose numbers include my head of department!) and Orchestra. As such, some aspects of the performance were a little ropey, but then again it was a great opportunity to hear rising young stars. I especially liked the alto soloist, Beth Mackay, who did great credit to my favourite movement from the B Minor Mass - the 'Agnus Dei'.

And there were some interesting aspects to the performance, too. Firstly, two of the choruses ('Cum Sancto Spiritu' and the 'Sanctus') were taken at almost double their usual speed - apparently, according to the pre-concert talk, to bring out their use of forms usually associated with dance music; especially triplets. I wasn't convinced, because it made it difficult for the choir to articulate all the individual notes properly, and consequently it sounded as though some of them were falling over one another. But an interesting experiment, nonetheless. Secondly, although most choruses were taken by the full choir, some parts of some of them were stripped down to only one voice per line - this time apparently to bring out the fine details of their more complicated contrapuntal texture. Again, it didn't quite work, this time because the students chosen for these sections weren't quite up to the job, especially when standing on the other side of the orchestra from the audience. But it was an interesting compromise between the 'large' sound of the full choir and the precision of one-voice-to-a-part, which I think could work very effectively with better singers.

Anyway, a bit of Bach of a weekend is always a bonus, especially since I don't think I've seen the B Minor Mass in performance for about 6 or 7 years now. Definitely an afternoon well spent.

And before I go: what tarot card am I? )

That all sounds slightly worrying, actually...! Oh well, it's only a meme - right?

strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
I won't be able to post about this tomorrow (Saturday), since I have no internet access at home at the moment. So today (Friday) with a fore-dating will have to do:

November 11th is (amongst other things), the birthday of my favourite singer of all time, ever, no exceptions - Alessandro Moreschi. (Who? What? Eh?) Were he still alive, this would be his 148th. And to celebrate this occasion, I've decided it is about jolly time I got round to posting about a little pilgrimage which I undertook this June, while I was in Rome.

Take a look at this picture )

Try to ignore the fact that it is the worst scan you have ever seen in your life of a picture which was never terribly good quality in the first place (yanno, having been taken in 1902 an' all). I didn't scan it - I stole it from the archives of the Castrati_History Yahoo! group.

Concentrate instead on the fact that this is a picture of Moreschi (he's the one in the middle) sitting on the stone bench which runs around the perimeter of the Sistine Chapel, just in front of its choir loft (or cantoria).

'Well?' I hear you cry. The significance is that this picture shows Moreschi in a specific and easily-identifiable place which still exists today. A place which could be tracked down to the very centimetre, and sat in by any member of the Vatican-visiting public who cared so to do.

And so, knowing that I would be in Rome for a few days in mid-June this year, I decided to do just that. To sit in the very same place where he sat in the photograph, and see if it was still warm from his bottom. After a lot of queuing and hurrying through galleries, I tracked down the very spot, and, with a well-timed stroke of luck, I actually managed to sit there - not by any means a given, actually, as the Sistine Chapel was absolutely packed that day, and naturally empty spots on the stone bench were getting snapped up very quickly.

The result, kindly photographed at my request by [livejournal.com profile] libellum (in a blatant disregard for Vatican regulations, which will clearly result in us both going straight to hell), is here )

I'm pleased to report that the stone was still warm - and I don't care to hear your so-called 'scientific' explanations of how that was more likely to be connected with the boy who was sitting there just before me than with Alessandro Moreschi. ;-) I know it was from him. And so I sat there, in the place where his voice had rung out like struck silver for thirty years, awed by the sense of his presence and hearing his pure, high notes still echoing off the walls in my mind's ear. Until, that is, the Vatican closed up for the day and we were all herded out again into the hot sunshine.

Short of going and lying on his grave (which seems to me excessively morbid), that's the closest I'll ever be able to get to him. And that makes me very, very sad. But I can still celebrate his life and his music across the gulf of a century, and get great enjoyment out of doing so. And that is why I post today to say: felice anniversario al mio carissimo cantore!

strange_complex: (Handel)
The actual reason I went up to Birmingham at the weekend was to attend a performance of Handel's oratorio, Samson at the Symphony Hall. In fact, it was a very Handel-intensive weekend. The time that wasn't spent at the concert was mainly spent copying endless CDs of Handel operas, borrowed from my Mum's friend Jean, in preparation for a course on them which I shall be attending next term in Oxford with [livejournal.com profile] redkitty23. And, since this very same Jean was actually in the concert, singing as she does in the soprano section of the City of Birmingham Bach choir, she was also able to sneak us in to spend Saturday afternoon watching the final rehearsal: orchestra, soloists and all.

The work itself )

The performance overall )

The soloists )

On the whole, then, I'd say three-and-a-half tumbling temples out of five tumbling temples. Not the perfect performance, but I'm glad I went, and I'd certainly make the effort to catch it again.

strange_complex: (Sleeping Hermaphrodite)
Or, Why I Cannot Stop Listening To This CD.

For one thing, I have waited a long time to hear the voice I am listening to now1. Without even knowing I was waiting, for much of that time.

My long journey to the Vatican )

Moreschi - a critical appreciation )

A scraggy brown tail-feather, in which Penny demonstrates her remarkable aptitude for excessive over-romanticisation - with pictures! )

Well, if you’ve read all of the above, you deserve a medal. I don’t mind if you didn’t. I wrote it for me, primarily, because I wanted a reason to think closely about this music and why I like it, and I want to remember my reasons and initial reactions in years to come. But the least I can do either way is to let you judge Moreschi for yourself by leaving you with the link for an mp3 I found while Googling for pictures of him and details about his life. It only takes about 20 seconds to download over broadband, which, for a three-minute track, tells you volumes about the quality of the original recording before you even listen to it. And I must say that then going on to listen to it over tiny, tinny computer speakers doesn’t do Moreschi any favours. Still, for whatever you may make of it, I give you Gounod’s Ave Maria, after a theme by Bach, performed by Alessandro Moreschi.

(And an alternative source if that one isn't working – just click on 'escuchar').

Goodnight.

-----------
1. As its length makes obvious, this entry ended up being written in several sections over a series of evenings. I did listen to Moreschi's CD for most of the time I was writing. But any use of words such as 'now' should be taken as applicable to the specific sentence concerned, not necessarily the whole piece.

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