Dizwell Music

A voyage through my ears...

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A Ring Virgin Writes…

I have been in thrall to Wagner’s Ring ever since a friend at Cambridge spent the best part of eight hours telling me the story one night! I have never brought to it that almost manic enthusiasm true Wagnerites have for it (and which accounted for my friend’s ability to tell a spell-binding story over so long a period), but once I hear that opening E flat major begin, it’s ears down for the next 16 or so hours -it is impossible not to be swept along by it and to be happy one is in the current, powerless to escape.

But I’ve never been able to see a Ring before. Productions are as scarce as hens’ teeth (at least in this part of the southern hemisphere) and even if they weren’t, the costs are usually prohibitive (understandably so, given the cast of thousands on stage and in orchestra pit that it involves).

This year, however, I got lucky: Opera Australia put on a production of three complete cycles in Melbourne. Tickets (the cheap ones in the back row!) were purchased more than a year early… and this December, the waters of the Rhine began to flow and, as ever, sucked me right in.

The “Melbourne Ring Orchestra” were a mix of performers from multiple ‘real’ orchestras around the world -including some players from Bayreuth itself. They were utterly extraordinary: together with their conductor – Pietari Inkinen – they sounded wonderful: tempi, ‘correct’; sound, blooming and rich; ensemble, perfect. The singers were wonderful, too. I was not enamoured of Wotan, but just about everyone else was hugely impressive. Musically, I think this performance was spot-on and pretty much unbeatable.

Production-wise, however: not such great marks. There were some lovely touches, no doubt: that photo on the left shows one of them. Just exactly how do you portray the gods entering Valhalla over a rainbow bridge? By having the rainbow be a string of Tiller girls waving fabulously-dyed ostrich feathers and beckoning the gods onwards and upwards, naturally. It was very effective. But this Real-Life Wagner newbie was hoping for real waters in the Rhine (I got people in 1930s bathing costumes instead); I wanted real giants (I got two ordinary guys with earth movers); I really wanted a real dragon… and got some inexplicable chap doing a bad theatrical makeup job in front of a mirror… the staging was feeble in far too many respects and did the musicianship on display no favours. I did get real flames at the End, it is true. That’s ‘End’ with a capital E… where Brünhilde rides herself and her horse into the flames that will consume valhalla, the gods and the world. So the flames were good… but no horses and everyone standing around in utter stasis until the final chord sounded meant the occasion lacked the degree of bravura destructiveness I thought pretty essential.

Anyway: you get the idea. Music wonderful, singers very good, staging pretty feeble… but like the Curate’s egg, reasonable in parts.

What I also enjoyed very much was the sense of camaraderie that affected the audience. I said we got tickets to the cheap seats -but we ended up watching the last two operas from very good ones because a kind lady who liked red wine in the interval as much as we did got chatting to us and took us under her wing (and there were a number of free seats in her row, luckily enough -the performances were all generally packed out). That was our second change of seating, since a different lady looked on us equally kindly for the third act of Valküre. Pretty much everyone was being nice to everyone! Including, as it happened, the former Governor of New South Wales (Marie Bashir) who was kind enough to buy a program for us and give it to ToH (we had to front up the $40, of course!).

We spent a week in Melbourne (since the operas were staged on Friday, Monday, Wednesday and the next Friday) and had a generally lovely time during the days: the weather was hot, so St. Kilda beach got a visit, using the ‘Boris Bikes’ the city provides (which was interesting, given I hadn’t ridden a bike since 1985). There were also plenty of walks, visits to art galleries and Parliament House, the university and the sister-in-law… it was pretty busy and the opera evenings made for exhilarating highlights of lovely days. All fears I’d had that after an exhausting day’s walk I’d swiftly fall asleep in a darkened theatre were always swiftly dispelled: the production was that exciting.

I suspect I may not see another Ring cycle in my lifetime. I definitely think I am unlikely to hear as good a cycle again. I am fortunate to have been, and so glad I went.

Listening Technology

gramophoneMy music library consists of about 46,237 “tracks” (which can be anything from a 30 second song to a 45 minute symphony movement), occupying about 1TB in FLAC (lossless, compressed) encoding.

That sort of music library does not fit on any portable music player of my acquaintance!

I probably listen to most of my music on the train of a morning and afternoon, using my Android phone as the player. If you are lucky enough to have a phone that accepts removable micro SD cards, you can do as I recently did and invest in a 128GB card (for around AUD$70); encode a copy of your music library in 160Kbps MP3 format, and you might be lucky to squeeze about a quarter of your music library onto it. On an exceptional day, you might be able to buy and use a 200GB SD card, in which case, you might be able to carry around half your music with you on your travels.

In any event, useful, portable storage for all or a very substantial part of my music library doesn’t physically exist at the moment (half my music isn’t a substantial part of it where I come from!).

This means I’m periodically reduced to selecting a goodly chunk of it, bunging it on an SD card and then living with it for several months on end until I get bored with it, at which point I rinse and repeat, this time selecting a different chunk of the entire library as my new portable music selection. It works, but it’s not ideal for dealing with the ‘listen on a whim to something obscure’ situation that sometimes crops up.

Which is why I’ve recently begun investigating the Google Play Music service.

It’s been around since 2011, though initially only for US residents. It arrived in Australia in 2013. I hadn’t previously bothered with it, simply because my Internet connection has always been a stonkingly-expensive and very much Gigabyte-restricted mobile one: I haven’t actually had wired Internet access since 2003, when I was using a 56K modem to do the connecting! Such are the drawbacks of living out in the remote parts of Australia. Recently, however, we sold up and moved into something more closely resembling civilization and I suddenly have access to a 100GB-a-month fibre-to-the-premises Internet plan -and that makes services like Google’s look a lot more feasible. So, three years late to the party, I started seeing if Google Play Music could scratch my music itches -and the short version of this piece is that, on the whole, I think it can do.

The first thing to say about it is that it comes in two quite distinct parts.

First, there is a ‘music subscription service’, which is much like Spotify or Apple Music: you pay a subscription (not what I’d call cheap at AUD$12 per month) and then can stream as much music on-the-fly from Google’s collection of 35 million music ‘tracks’ as you like. Naturally, like Spotify and any other streaming music service you care to mention, the majority of those 35 million tracks are the latest pop, rock, hip-hop and other genres of music in which I have precisely zero interest. On the Classical music front, too, they tend to specialize in “The Best of Bach” or “The Essential Vaughan Williams” types of collection, which are similarly of little or no interest to me.

But, as a test, I did a search for anything by that relatively obscure Belgian composer, Marcel Poot:

poot

It annoys me to see his symphonies 3, 5 and 7 labelled “songs”, but I’ll let it pass for now: that’s not actually a bad selection of a not-terribly-popular corner of the orchestral repertory. So: it seems to me that you are likely to be able to stream pretty much anything you can conceivably want to hear of classical music, if you hunt around a bit.

I still think AUD$12 per month is a bit much for a classical music buff: I don’t think we tend to overdose on symphonies or choral masses sufficient to warrant that sort of outlay… but I have signed up for the 1 month free trial of the streaming service to see how I get on, and maybe that will change my mind as to its utility! I already quite like their choice of classical ‘radio’ stations, which play pre-curated selections of music in the style of light-classical FM radio stations the world over. It’s easy listening (not usually my thing), but not bad background stuff to work to.

Which brings me to the second main part of the Google Music service: its music locker functionality. This is the ability to upload your own music collection to Google’s servers. You’re allowed to upload 50,000 tracks (which can each be up to 300MB in size) of your own music to Google -so my collection just about fits. Once uploaded, Google will then catalogue it and add it to your own music ‘cloud library’, from which you can then stream anything you like at any time you like, provided only you’ve got a device (phone, laptop, PC, tablet etc) that runs Google’s own Music Player.

For this store-and-stream service, Google charges… absolutely nothing at all. The storage itself is free. The streaming is equally free and limitless (subject to the constraints of your mobile Internet plan’s data caps, of course). Specifically, you don’t have to subscribe to the music subscription service to get a music locker and stream from it, either.

So now there’s a real, practical prospect of having my phone loaded with 1/3rd of my collection on its own, local SD card, whilst being able to access the other 2/3rds any time I am in range of a mobile phone tower. I can listen to any part of my music collection on the train. Fair enough: on the plane, I’m only going to have the locally-stored collection to run from, but short of that sort of major connection-deprivation, I can listen to anything I own on the move, for pretty much the first time in my life… and that sort of capability impresses and excites me a lot. The fact that it’s all free of charge is then just icing on the cake!

Incidentally, my first expectation of streaming music was, “drop-outs galore” -our mobile networks sometimes get congested, or are simply poor, and I fully expected music playback to halt frequently at just the most important parts of a piece… but it hasn’t happened yet. The Google Music player cunning caches significant chunks of a track or album ahead of time. It means there’s a slight delay in starting to play something, but provided the interruptions to your Internet connection are of relatively short duration, the playback once it begins is usually, in my experience, flawless. Colour me impressed (and a bit surprised), then!

Are there catches? Sure, quite a few.

For a start, my music library is all FLACs. Google’s music manager allows you to upload those to the music locker, but then transparently converts them to 320Kbps MP3s. So this isn’t a way to back up your FLACs in the cloud: your Google files will not be identical copies of the originals and some sound data will have been lost in the conversion. That said, 320Kbps is a pretty high-quality MP3 bitrate (I have been known to convert to 220Kbps at times, but generally live with 160Kbps, so for Google to use 320Kbps shows a commendable commitment to music quality). My own, now-quite-elderly, ears are unlikely to be able to tell the difference between a 320Kbps MP3 and a lossless FLAC, anyway. I certainly wouldn’t convert my local music collection to this quality/format combo, therefore; but I don’t mind Google doing it. I just wish they were slightly more upfront about what it is they are doing: if you weren’t paying attention, you’d think you were making an offline copy of your music, instead of creating a transcoded simulacrum of it.

Out of interest, listening to 1 hour of 320Kbps MP3 uses up about 150MB of my mobile phone’s Internet data allowance. If I listen to about 10 hours of music a week on the train, that’s a very manageable 1.5GB per week. For the month, it’s about 6GB. Quite a chunk out of my 20GB plan, but not unmanageable at all.

Second issue: what you upload is then ‘processed’ by Google and, possibly, replaced by them. That is, if you upload an album that they already have on their system, they may well replace your version of it with theirs, in a de-duplication effort that makes sense from a logistical point of view, but could prove annoying if (as has been known to happen, apparently) they mis-identify your music and replace it their own copy of something quite different. I haven’t personally experienced this happening yet, but I am not looking forward to it when it does.

The third problem is perhaps best explained by this screenshot:

badartists

Your music library can be organized by ‘artist’ (i.e., in my case, by composer). But Google automatically assigns an artist image to this view -or doesn’t bother doing anything at all, thus leaving you only with the initial letter of the artist’s name displayed in a circle. When it does auto-assign an artist, it usually gets it wrong: that’s not a picture of Adrian Willaert, for example, as you can tell from the fact that it is repeated later on for another ‘artist’ altogether.

Here’s how I get Windows to display my artists in its own Explorer tool:

goodartists

I think my way of doing it beats Google’s way of doing it hands down! Hopefully, at some point, Google will offer the ability to change the artist imagery… but there’s no way of doing it at the moment and it’s been that way for years, so any change to this is likely to be a long way off.

Fourth issue: if your FLAC music collection is about 1TB, then uploading all that to Google (and having it converted on-the-fly to MP3) is going to take a very long time. Weeks, probably: my upload has been running for 3 days now and I’ve just almost finished the Bs. So most of Benjamin Britten is now stream-able, but anything from Camille Saint-Saëns to Zoltan Kodaly is not! Some patience is therefore required 🙂  That said, the upload tool is pretty unobtrusive and will pick up from where it left off, so it’s fine to have running in the background on a PC or laptop you routinely shutdown and restart (overnight, for example). All that format re-encoding, though, can take a toll on the CPU: my laptop’s fan has kicked in a lot as a result, and working on it has been a fairly noisy experience for the past few days!

Fifth: scrobbling is iffy. On my desktop, I have download the Google Play Last.fm Scrobbler extension for Chrome and scrobbles to Last.fm therefore at least work. The trouble starts when you listen to Google’s own streams as part of the subscription side of the deal, however: their classical music tagging is awful. Look at the mess I ended up with just today:

badtracks

It manages to get the Antonio Vivaldi stuff correctly labelled, but pretty much everything else is gibberish. Apparently I now listen to Simon Standage, when I thought I was listening to some George Frideric Handel… who knew?! Someone obviously hasn’t been paying attention to my axioms of classical tagging!

It’s the usual problem of music streaming services being tailored for the non-classical market, of course (and of a lot of music-listening people being classical-music-illiterate, I guess). But whatever the reason, it’s mucking up my listening stats, and I hate it!

Meanwhile, on my phone, I use the official Last.fm scrobbler application… and that very clearly says it will scrobble anything played in the Google Music application… but hasn’t so far. Scrobbling nothing at all is only marginally better than scrobbling attrocious tagging results, so I’m not exactly happy about it! I guess it’s not a complete show-stopper: if I never scrobbled anything to Last.fm again, I would nevertheless cope. But I’ve been routinely scrobbling most of my music listening since 2008, and I kind of resent not being able to do so as the listening technology changes.

Sixth, and significant. Have a look at this:

badordering

Can you discern the ordering of these pieces by Benjamin Britten? It certainly can’t be the ‘album’ name: Making… Roman… Tema… God… Jubilate… that’s not an alphabetical ordering I’m familiar with, anyway!

No: I think Google have succumbed to the far-too-common disease of ordering things by their recording date: 2013… 2013… 2012… 2011… 2010… 2010. Brilliant. It means finding “Cantata BWV 76” in the middle of the 200 or so Bach cantatas will be practically impossible, given that conductors (and recording companies) are notoriously inconsiderate and incapable of recording a composer’s works in alphabetical order. This is again a symptom of not aiming your product at classical music consumers. It oughtn’t to be fatal, given that giving a user the ability to order his albums as he likes should be a mere matter of programming detail… but I fear that it’s not going to be fixed any time soon, either.

In the meantime, I could work around the issue by editing each track in turn and removing the recording date from it. Might take a while with 46,000+ edits to perform, though!

I’m sure there are other drawbacks that will catch me out as time passes and my familiarity with the service improves. But for now, I have all my music at my fingertips whenever I need it, plus a one-month trial of having as much other music as I can cope with, and I like it -even if the ordering of ‘works’ within each ‘composer’ page is deplorable.

Creating Music Previews

This site hosts short preview tracks of MP3 files: producing them manually can be time-consuming -and there’s always the temptation to make the preview just a bit longer to capture this or that lovely bit! Which will not do, copyright law being what it is: fair use really requires you to algorithmically stick to short previews of modest quality, no exceptions.

So: time for some automation. The Swiss Army Knife of all things Audio is ffmpeg, which can be installed in OpenSuse 42 as follows. First, enable the packman repository if you haven’t already done so:

sudo zypper ar -f -n packman http://ftp.gwdg.de/pub/linux/misc/packman/suse/openSUSE_Leap_42.1/ packman

Then:

sudo zypper in ffmpeg lame flac

Once you have those three packages installed, you can start. First, let’s assume you have a single FLAC file of music. Say, this one, from Arnold Bax’s Symphony No. 7. It’s over 13 minutes long and is a fairly large 43MB in size (because, of course, it’s encoded losslessly). The requirement is to convert it to MP3; trim it down so it’s only 40 seconds long; and make sure it fades out nicely at the end, instead of just stopping abruptly.

Taking those in order, then. Ffmpeg converts between FLAC and MP3 quite simply. The command syntax is straightforward:

ffmpeg -i "name of input file.flac" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "name of outputfile.mp3"

That’s all one line, though it’s long and will probably wrap when you view it on this website. So, plugging in some values for those input and output file names to use in conjunction with that Arnold Bax file I mentioned earlier, here’s what you might do:

hjr@britten:~/Music/Arnold Bax> ffmpeg -i "02 - Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I.flac" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "02-Lento.mp3"
ffmpeg version 3.0.2 Copyright (c) 2000-2016 the FFmpeg developers
  built with gcc 4.8 (SUSE Linux)
[...]
Output #0, mp3, to '02-Lento.mp3':
[...]
    Stream #0:0: Video: png, rgb24, 1400x1400 [SAR 1:1 DAR 1:1], q=2-31, 200 kb/s, 90k fps, 90k tbn, 90k tbc
    Metadata:
      comment         : Cover (front)
      encoder         : Lavc57.24.102 png
    Stream #0:1: Audio: mp3 (libmp3lame), 44100 Hz, stereo, s16p, 128 kb/s
    Metadata:
      encoder         : Lavc57.24.102 libmp3lame
Stream mapping:
  Stream #0:1 -> #0:0 (mjpeg (native) -> png (native))
  Stream #0:0 -> #0:1 (flac (native) -> mp3 (libmp3lame))
Press [q] to stop, [?] for help
frame=    1 fps=0.1 q=-0.0 Lsize=   17164kB time=00:13:37.00 bitrate= 172.1kbits/s speed=47.1x    
video:4396kB audio:12766kB subtitle:0kB other streams:0kB global headers:0kB muxing overhead: 0.006515%

It’s a lot of information and quite a bit of it won’t make a lot of sense, I suspect! But the key thing is that it works:

hjr@britten:~/Music/Arnold Bax> ls -ltrh
total 65M
-rwxrwxrwx 1 hjr users 49M Aug 14  2015 02 - Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I.flac
-rw-r--r-- 1 hjr users 17M May  1 12:48 02-Lento.mp3

The much smaller file size for the output file tells you that lossy compression has kicked in as intended. So that’s one of the requirements out of the way: conversion from flac to mp3, sorted.

However, that’s an example of whole file conversion -and the requirement was actually to only output the first 40 seconds of the track, and that requires an extra “-t” parameter to be supplied to ffmpeg, like so:

ffmpeg -t 40 -i "name of input file.flac" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "name of outputfile.mp3"

That means the output file will be just 40 seconds long. Here’s me doing that for my Arnold Bax file:

ffmpeg -t 40 -i "02 - Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I.flac" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "02-Lento-Forty Seconds.mp3"

And the directory listing obtained after running that certainly indicates that we have cut down on the amount of music included in the output:

hjr@britten:~/Music/Arnold Bax> ls -ltrh
total 73M
-rwxrwxrwx 1 hjr users  49M Aug 14  2015 02 - Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I.flac
-rw-r--r-- 1 hjr users  17M May  1 12:48 02-Lento.mp3
-rw-r--r-- 1 hjr users 5.0M May  1 13:38 02-Lento-Forty Seconds.mp3

At only 5MB instead of 49 or 17, that’s definitely been abbreviated! However, if you play that file, you’ll discover that it abruptly truncates at the 40th second. You can even see it happening if you view the audio file in a tool like Audacity:

musicpreview01
The way the band of blue gets chopped off at the 40 seconds mark tells you all you need to know, really: this is not going to end nicely!

So, the final requirement is to fade out. Given it’s a 40-second long track, how about we start to fade out at the 30th second and let the fade gradually happen over the remaining 10 seconds? That’s achieved with some more parameters passed to ffmpeg, like so:

ffmpeg -t 40 -i "02 - Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I.flac" -af "afade=t=out:st=30:d=10" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "02-Lento-Forty Seconds and Fade.mp3"

The -af switch means ‘apply an effect’, and the effect requested is a fade, of type “out” (you can do t=in to get fade-in effects, too, if you like). We start out at time 30 seconds, and its duration is specified to be 10 seconds.

hjr@britten:~/Music/Arnold Bax> ls -ltrh
total 78M
-rwxrwxrwx 1 hjr users  49M Aug 14  2015 02 - Lento - Più mosso. In Legendary Mood - Tempo I.flac
-rw-r--r-- 1 hjr users  17M May  1 12:48 02-Lento.mp3
-rw-r--r-- 1 hjr users 5.0M May  1 13:38 02-Lento-Forty Seconds.mp3
-rw-r--r-- 1 hjr users 5.0M May  1 13:46 02-Lento-Forty Seconds and Fade.mp3

There’s no real difference in file size now (because both our 40-second long tracks are encoded at the same MP3 bitrates), but the view from Audacity is rather different this time round:

musicpreview02

You can see the file tails off to a thin blue line of nothing-ness around the 38 second mark -but were you to listen to the file, you’d actually hear it start to diminish in volume several seconds before that. The effect would be more obvious on a track containing louder music, I think!

Anyway: we have now achieved our three goals: convert to MP3, trim to 40 seconds, apply a nice fade-out effect. All that’s required now is to wrap this up into a shell script that you can apply to a directory full of multiple FLAC files, in bulk. For this, the basename utility (which strips extensions from file listings) is handy:

#!/bin/bash
for file in *.flac; do
  ffmpeg -t 40 -i "$file" -af "afade=t=out:st=35:d=5" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "$(basename "${file/.flac}")-preview.mp3"
done

Run that in a directory full of different FLAC files, and you’ll eventually end up with an equivalent number of MP3 samples created.

Which is close to what I want -except that I tend to store my music in lots of subdirectories and I’d like the script to be able to recursively work its way through those subdirectories, converting anything it finds on the way.

That can be achieved too, like so:

#!/bin/bash
find . -name "*.flac" -print0 | while read -d $'\0' file; do 
  filename=$(basename "${file/.flac}")
  directory=$(dirname "$file")
  ffmpeg -t 40 -i "$file" -af "afade=t=out:st=35:d=5" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "$directory/$filename-preview.mp3" < /dev/null 
  rm -f "$file"
don

The important twist here is to use the “</dev/null” re-direct, otherwise ffmpeg tries, when run in a loop, to re-read the stdin, causing it to prompt once the first file is converted and thus to fail. Apparently, it’s a known issue!

So, now if I arrange my Arnold Bax folder to contain everything I have of his, like so:

musicpreview03

…I can run that revised script in the parent directory and have the entire set of preview files output in their correct sub-directories automatically.

musicpreview04

Note that my script deletes the source file upon conversion, so only the previews remain.

It is a relatively minor thing then to modify the script to accept a command line parameter on invocation, so that it will run off to any directory you specify and do the recursive conversions there -thus allowing me to save my script in a master “scripts” directory and avoid needing to scatter shell scripts all over my file system. The final script ends up like so:

#!/bin/bash

# Script to convert a directory and all its subdirectories containing FLAC files
# into 40-second long previews in MP3 format. 
# Run the script with a parent directory argument on the command line.
# e.g. createpreview.sh "/home/hjr/Music/Benjamin Britten"
# If no directory supplied, the command tries to work in the current directory

if [ -z "$1" ]; then
  startdir='.'
else
  startdir="$1"
fi

find "$startdir" -name "*.flac" -print0 | while read -d $'\0' file; do
  filename=$(basename "${file/.flac}")
  directory=$(dirname "$file")
  ffmpeg -t 40 -i "$file" -af "afade=t=out:st=35:d=5" -codec:a libmp3lame -b:a 128k "$directory/$filename-preview.mp3" < /dev/null 
  rm -f "$file"
done
exit 0

So I save that as a file called createpreview.sh in my scripts directory and I can then invoke it like so:

/home/hjr/scripts/createpreview.sh "/home/hjr/Music/Arnold Bax"

…and all is as I need it to be!

The Ton

A week and a half later than promised, but my music odometer finally clicked over the hundred thousand mark:

the_tonne

I will confess to having deliberately chosen the 100,000th ‘song’ to be specifically a piece of Britten and Britain 🙂

At the Barber’s

04-the-barber-of-seville-ss16-general-keith-saundersI had a completely wonderful night at the opera last night: Rossini’s Barber of Seville done with such a great mix of orchestra, soloists, chorus, staging and stagecraft that I laughed myself silly and consider it to have been possibly the best night at the opera I’ve ever had. Possibly… my memory’s fallible on the subject!

Seeing Count Almaviva as a sort-of Harold Lloyd figure worked wonderfully well. Indeed, staging the whole thing in the 1920s worked very well …and the antics in the different rooms of Dr. Bartolo’s house… hilarious, and utterly bewitching, visually. The second act thunderstorm interlude was done imaginatively, too, complete with convincing wind-popped umbrellas and a very funny cyclist struggling to make progress against a rotating backdrop of the countryside… it raised a chuckle in the audience and got a special round of applause all of its own.

Loved it, in short. Unfortunately, the last possible performance is Tuesday March 22nd… and given it was a near-full house last night, I don’t suppose there will be many tickets going spare for then, either. But if you could get a ticket, I would 🙂

 

Vespers

vespersJust a quick shout-out for a wonderful recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers by the King’s Consort, conducted by Robert King, and released by Hyperion.

The recording dates from February 2006, so this is not exactly a timely review! Given they’ve been waiting since 1610, however, I guess they won’t have minded an extra 10 years 🙂

This is my second Vespers (my previous recording being that conducted by Hanns-Martin Schneidt, from 1975, which appears to be out of print now). The Schneidt version sounds lovely, but is slightly slower, less ‘historically-informed performance’ than King’s …and has a slightly iffy choir whose sopranos have a tendency to a bit of vibrato now and then and whose tenors go a bit flat from time to time (as you can hear in the audio sample below).

The King version is brighter, faster and benefits from near-flawless choir. It’s also more authentically ‘historically-informed’ (which some people hate, but I love).

Just a small sample from King’s superlative Nisi Dominus, anyway.

And here’s the Schneidt equivalent… and although I am still fond of the Schneidt version, I think King’s is just a lot more exciting and shows off the musical textures more clearly.

Thoroughly recommended, in short.

 

 

 

Six Figures

It would appear that I listen to quite a lot of music:

Screenshot_2016-03-09-07-32-40

That is around 12,500 ‘tracks’ a year (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, what a ‘track’ or ‘album’ actually is in the world of classical music can be a bit of a moving feast!).

I have to say that’s a bit of an under-count, too, because all the stuff I listen to in the car has never been counted.

I think I’m more surprised, to be frank, that I’ve kept up the audioscrobbling lark for 8 years! Such persistence with a single technology is not exactly my forté (pun intended).

Anyway, the big six figure approaches at a rate of knots. If averages are anything to go by, I should trip the odometer over the 100,000 mark on about Monday 28th March. Unless I take to listening to more Wagner in the meantime, that is: his ‘tracks’ tend to last days at a time. 🙂

 

The Bach Project

I am not posting daily blogs here as yet -and probably won’t for some considerable time. Most of my writing energies these days are being spent on my Bach project, which has to catalogue, translate, sample and present 197-or-so cantata’s-worth of content. And that’s before I even think about starting to write 197-or-so cantata’s worth of critical essays about each one.

There are other translations available on the Internet, of course; Alfred Dürr’s magisterial The Cantatas of J.S. Bach contains a complete set of translations done by Richard Jones, and there are plenty of other extant examples. So why bother with one’s own?

On the one hand, because I can. On the other, because if I don’t, I don’t make myself really read, understand and get inside the mood of these pieces of Baroque German poetry and drama… and that, I think, is a loss. Additionally, there’s the fact that simply by making oneself slog through each cantata’s text in turn, you end up grasping the totality of the cantata ouvre in a very concrete way.

Also, I suppose, because I think I can do a better job of things than some of the examples I’ve seen about the place, with their assorted attachment to German word-order; thee, thy, thou and other remnants of unctuous piety; and some frankly surprising word choices at times.

So anyway: that’s what I spend a lot of my spare time on these days. I am currently projecting complete translation, audio sampling and other bits of basic preparation to be complete by the end of 2016. We shall see 🙂 I don’t expect to complete the detailed commentary on each one until several years after that, of course!

RVW

rvw01Funny thing about Ralph Vaughan Williams: eminently dismissable. Fine, he wrote that nice Ice Cream Van tune called “Greensleeves”. And he did that Thomas Tallis thing that is quintessentially English. And that was about it, really, wasn’t it? Bit of an old duffer, Larks Ascending and tiffin for tea, etcetera.

Well, there’s that. And then there’s the fact that he’s one of the finest writers of symphonies in any country in any century. (And he liked cats, which makes him top stuff around these parts.)

I dismissed RVW for many years. I once sight read his Symphony No. 1 (the “sea symphony”) at a Cambridge Music Society concert and thought it bloody appalling. (Sight-reading anything will probably do that to a man!) Where Britten was fearlessly European and Modern, RVW was archaically English and Ancient. Not worth worrying about, really. Fuddy-duddy indeed.

I have recently discovered just how wrong I was. His Symphony No. 4 is about as modernist and astringent a piece of dynamic, vigorous music as I’ve heard. His Symphony No. 8 is as jazzy as anything Britten could cook up in the ’30s. Not being a great fan of ballet, I appreciated his calling his Job a “masque for dancing” -but if there’s a nobler piece of music than its Sarabande for the Sons of God, I’m not quite sure what it would be. And yes, if you stop to actually listen to it, instead of hearing it with ears tired of cliché, the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis is poignant and provoking in equal measure.

I can occasionally hear (and see in part, when you read the scores) why Britten (for example) would have thought him a rank amateur. I know from the sight-reading of Symphony No. 1 why I thought he was incapable of writing for the tenor voice. But when you weigh things up with a measured sense of perspective, RVW turns out to have been a truly wonderful composer and discovering him of late has been a fantastic experience. Where the vivid memories of  the excitement of listening for the first time to each new Britten piece I was able to borrow from the municipal library in Maidstone in my late teens are now starting to fade into something approaching ancient history, the thrill of trawling through the RVW corpus for the first time in the past three months has been incredibly invigorating.

RVW has always been “thereabouts” for me: when I was just ten years old, my father expressed his utter incomprehension and exasperation after the final Westminster Chimes had rung out from the Symphony No. 2 – A London Symphony at the living room table’s gramophone, “That’s the only thing ‘London’ about that bloody racket”. (Mind you, he was always a bit of a music buff, my father. After I’d sung the tenor solo in Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb (brilliantly, I might add), his one-line put-down was simply “What do you want to sing that crap for? It doesn’t even have a tune.”) So his music (and not just the folksong bits of it) was something I was aware of from quite an early age… but in an uncomprehending, distanced sort of way.

Now however he’s not ‘thereabouts’, but something precious and very close. The title of Britain’s best 20th Century Composer is not as done-and-dusted as I’d thought. Vaughan Williams warrants much closer attention be paid to his work than I ever suspected.

 

We Begin

Welcome to the Dizwell Music website: a place where I hope to explore the world of ‘serious’ music. It’s really intended as a place where I can record my thoughts about a composer or a work, and maybe document some of the not-so-obvious aspects of a composition. If others happen to find it useful or helpful, that’ll be a bonus, but it’s not my primary goal.

I don’t have any formal musical qualifications, so my approach won’t be profoundly technical and musicological: it’s just what a (hopefully) intelligent listener can work out for himself by listening carefully, reading the score, and doing some research.