Sunday, March 31, 2013


Continuing the Easter theme: academicism is not a style I usually appreciate, but I remember clearly seeing this painting myself in 1999 in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, and being struck by the way the crucifixion is depicted only by the shadows cast as Christ's beloved ones leave the scene. The painting from 1868 is by Jean-Leon Gerome; more about him in the wikipedia article linked to below.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

St. Matthew Passion

Even for an agnostic like myself, playing Bach's St. Matthew Passion at Easter is a must. I was delighted to find the complete passion on YouTube in a version I love: by Karl Richter, who takes it slower than more recent conductors. Over three hours, and a real treat.


Friday, March 29, 2013


The first themed post for the Easter weekend: the beautiful minimalist album cover of the soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ. A unique album in the impressive repertoire of Peter Gabriel. The art work is credited to James Bell.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Links [31]

Once more an overview of interesting links on topics related to the blog, that I encountered recently, but that will probably not make the blog as separate entries. The picture above is by my Flickr friend Auribins.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tchaikovsky, the Boris version

No, not family. Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996) is slowly gaining recognition as one of the better Soviet composers of the generation after Shostakovich and Prokofiev. His style is mainly tonal, but never outdated. He is a composer I am still exploring myself, and the Naxos disc I selected is not a bad place to start. The extensive piano concerto from 1971 is unlike any other I heard, including some flirts with minimalism (which was at the time just starting to gain ground in the USA), some highly melodic segments, but most importantly a stripped-down feeling, possibly a reaction to the heroic music in demand by the communist party. The short 1957 clarinet concerto is a real find, after the Nielsen and the Finzi my favourite of the 20th century. Melodic, wistful, with a breathtaking cadenza, and a delightful folksy finale. The CD concludes with the haunting 1974 cantata (actually a song cycle) for soprano and orchestra Signs of the Zodiac, with a surprising and effective role for a harpsichord. Excellent playing by the three soloists (Olga Solovieva, Anton Prischepa, and Yana Ivanilova, respectively) and the Russian Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra under Mynbayev, in an excellent recording. Warmly recommended to start exploring this rewarding composer.

Monday, March 25, 2013


I have been less on Flickr than usual this year so far, and the Flickr Favourites category suffered somewhat as a result. But here we go once more with another abstract by my Flickr friend Lorraine Kerr (caeciliametella). Rust on a pipe transformed into a fascinating image. As always, all rights retained by the creator.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The next day cover story

The recent release of the new David Bowie album The next day was quite an event - and the cover is quite special as well. Not special in a good way though, and I even considered running it under the Mixed Nuts category in my Potpourri blog. But at least, there is some method behind the madness of taking the old iconic Heroes cover and putting the big white square with text over it. The linked article gives designer Jonathan Barnbrook a chance to explain his reasons. I am still not convinced, but I thought it was an interesting read.

web site

Monday, March 18, 2013

In the mood for love

One of the better paintings of my wife of a few years back, which I had not got around to posting yet. Very representative of her Shanghai Expressionism style, with the vivid colour scheme and the faceless faces. The title refers to one of her favourite movies.

The Art of Lu Schaper

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Delight of the blood

The relatively new genre of Blood Metal, which combines death metal sounds with stage acts full of gore and blood, is definitely not everyone's taste. The dubious stage antics aside, one can judge the CD's issued by Blood Metal groups only on their musical merit of course. And it must be said that Temple Beth El from Stockholm have a lot to offer in this respect. Their third album, Delight of the blood, is positively different, showing considerable influences of progressive metal bands like their compatriots Opeth, in particular in the 12 minutes title track. Other outstanding tracks are their covers of songs originally by proto-BM heroes such as Alice Cooper (Raped and freezing)  and Black Sabbath (Solitude). Recommended if you like death metal with a prog influence.

The idea of this little game is to create an album cover for an imaginary artist/group, as well as an imaginary review, following these instructions:

[1] The artist/group: go to the wiki random page generator. The first random Wikipedia article obtained this way is the name of the band or performer. In this case, I ended up with Temple Beth El.
[2] The title: go to the random quotations site. The last four words of the very last quote of the page is the title of the album. The random quote that came up was by George Santayana: To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight of the blood.
[3] The illustration: pick a suitable one from my Flickr collection. My picture, Abstraction in red, can be found here on Flickr. The on-line editing was done with the programme On-line image editor, the font settings selected were Horro Hotel 160 Gold and Harrington Metallic Gold 55, respectively.

Note: this is a variation on the "Debut album game" that has been making its rounds around bulletin boards and blogs for some time now - the original version called for a random Flickr Explore photograph to be used as the cover. I have been trying to find out who had the original idea, but so far no success.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Vogue November 1920

With the winter out-staying its welcome here already by several weeks, bringing us freezing nights and snow showers, a suitable vintage Vogue cover. This one is by Helen Dryden, one of the greatest illustrators of the era.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bleed between the lies

A band I had never heard of, but when I encountered this disturbing but fascinating cover on a blog, I was hooked. Never a hero is an alternative metal band from the UK, and this is their first album, released late last year. Unfortunately, I could find no further information about the cover design.

Monday, March 11, 2013


The past few weeks I have been suffering from lack of inspiration on the photography front - the only shots I was reasonably satisfied with being a series of three pictures taken at the local market. This is my favourite, and the most popular of that small set. What makes it work in terms of composition is the diagonal divide.

Camera: Canon IXUS 115 HS, 12 Megapixels, handheld
Exposure: 0.025 sec (1/40)
Aperture: f/2.8
Focal Length: 5 mm
ISO Speed: 100
Post-processing: Picasa 3.0


Saturday, March 09, 2013

Rolling in the deep

In recent years, UK singer Adele has grown to become one of the best selling artists in the world, fortunately proving that there is still room for acts with real musical substance nowadays. I think this cover of her major hit single Rolling in the deep is excellent in its simplicity - and it is a pity that I could not find more information about the designer/photographer. More about Adele on the linked wikipedia page.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Ravel's orchestral works

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the twentieth installment, I re-examine the orchestral works by Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937), one of the most famous French composers, taking my original CD's and a few I collected in more recent years.

Ouverture de feerie Sheherazade (1898)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 15 min)
Not to be confused with the later gorgeous song cycle (his masterpiece imo), this is an early and rather obscure work - in fact it had been lost for many decades before resurfacing in the seventies. It is immediately identifiable as Ravel in spite of its unfamiliarity. It is also not a lost masterpiece, to be honest, and too long for its content. It warrants an occasional spin, but not more than that.

Pavane pour une infante defunte (1899/1910)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 6 min)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 6 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1986, 7 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 7 min)
The Pavane for a dead (Spanish) princess is one of Ravel's most compelling works. It started as a piano work while he was still studying composition at the Conservatoire de Paris under Gabriel Faure, and was orchestrated eleven years later. The gorgeous lead melody, one of the most beautiful I have ever heard, is initially played by the horn in the orchestral version, an original and very effective choice. It is a work that in its honest simplicity can still choke me up after all these years.

Une barque sur l'ocean (1905/1906)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1974, 8 min)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 8 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 8 min)
A boat on the ocean was originally one of the five piano pieces in the Miroirs suite, which was later orchestrated by Ravel. It is a beautiful maritime tone poem, painting a summer scene at the Mediterranean Sea in an almost Liszt-like style, and rivaling Debussy's La Mer in orchestral colours, if not in length.

Rapsodie Espagnole (1907/1908)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 15 min)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Guilini (DG, 1980, 16 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 17 min)
Spain has influenced a number of Ravel's works, and the Spanish rhapsody perhaps most of all. Conceived as a piano suite, and orchestrated a year later. The slowish opening Prelude a la nuit with its haunting recurring four note theme and stunning orchestration is simply brilliant, the following short malaguena though feels a bit pedestrian in comparison. The Spanish theme continues with a slow habanera inspired by the sun caressing the landscape - a beautiful melodic movement. Ravel closes the composition festively with an upbeat Feria, which has great moments as well as more down-to-earth ones. All in all, a fascinating tone painting of Spain, rivaling the best of Spanish composers in this respect.

Daphnis et Chloe (1909)
Complete ballet:
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 55 min)
Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Dutoit (Decca, 1981, 56 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1994, 57 min)
Suite 1:
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 13 min)
Suite 2:
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 18 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1986, 15 min)
Perhaps his most ambitious work, and generally considered one of his best: this extensive ballet for choir and symphony orchestra in three scenes. It is a perfect study of impressionism in music, as much as Ravel hated that term. Apart from the full ballet score, Ravel also extracted two suites (sometimes called symphonic fragments). The first, containing Nocturne, Interlude and Danse guerriere, is performed rarely. The second, containing Lever du JourPantomime, and Danse generale, taken from the third scene, has become popular. Although I prefer to hear the whole work, these extended excerpts have considerable merit (especially the second one, which is the more coherent one, and has the most beautiful music of the ballet).

Ma mere l'oye (1908-1911)
Complete ballet:
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 27 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 30 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 28 min)
Orchestral version:
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Guilini (DG, 1980, 18 min)
There are three versions of the Mother Goose fairy tales music: it started life as five pieces for piano (four hands), which Ravel orchestrated later in the form of a ballet, adding a new prelude and a dance on the theme of a spinning wheel, and changing the sequence of the movements. In the most familiar (and probably best) version, a suite for orchestra, these two additions have been eliminated, and the original sequence has been re-established. This is undoubtedly beautiful music, elegantly orchestrated - yet, in the end I find it less compelling than most of his output.

Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911/1912)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1974, 15 min)
Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski (Vox, 1975, 18 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1994, 24 min)
This set of eight noble and sentimental waltzes were composed for piano, and orchestrated one year later. We are far from the Strauss family in mood, and in many ways they look forward to his later tone poem La valse. The highlight for me is the second waltz (assez lent), but the whole set definitely deserves the mark 'important'. It is remarkable how much variation Ravel creates in this set given the constraint of the waltz tempo.

Alborada del gracioso (1905/1918)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1972, 8 min)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 8 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 8 min)
This Aubade of the fool was originally one of the five piano pieces in the Miroirs suite, which was later orchestrated by Ravel. After a boisterous opening, evoking Spanish fiesta atmosphere effectively, there is a tender farewell sequence, followed by more excitement. For some reason though it does not really appeal to me as much as most of his work.

Le tombeau de Couperin (1914/1919)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 17 min)
City of London Sinfonia/Hickox (Virgin, 1989, 17 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 18 min)
The piano version of the grave of Couperin dates back to 1914, and the orchestration of four of its six movements followed five years later. In this work, Ravel looks back in some ways to 18th century French music, symbolized in the figure of Francois Couperin, without ever getting close to pastiche. The opening prelude is a vivid shimmering impressionist  masterpiece, followed by a chromatic forlane dance that is as lively, but just a tad more down to earth. The pastoral menuet lets the oboe shine in a movement that sound the least modern of the four. The closing rigaudon begins and ends with an animated dance, enclosing a beautiful oboe melody. A beautiful set, wonderfully orchestrated.

La valse (1920)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1974, 12 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 13 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1994, 14 min)
This symphonic poem, originally conceived as a ballet, has been called the most unexpected of Ravel's works. Even though Ravel explicitly stated that it was not meant as a reflection of post-war central Europe, it is easy to make that link. It gives a vision of the glorious Austrian past, with fragments of waltzes by Strauss and Schubert, distorted as if we are looking to the past through the mists of time. We are constantly reminded by Ravel that the waltz originally is a dance associated with death as well, and not just courtisanes whirling away and having fun. A stunning composition.

Tzigane (1924)
Itzhak Perlman and New York Philharmonic/Mehta (DG, 1987, 10 min)
Originally composed for violin and piano, Ravel quickly created a version for violin and orchestra as well. The title, the French word for gypsy, refers to the general sound world, rather than specific gypsy melodies - Ravel used his own ideas throughout. It is a brilliant showpiece, in the fashion if not the style of the likes of Paganini and Sarasate - and echt Ravel. Not among the very best in his oeuvre, but definitely strong.

Fanfare Eventail de Jeanne (1927)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 2 min)
An oddity: the music for the children ballet L'eventail de Jeanne (Jeanne's fan) was a co-production between ten of the most famous French composers of the day, each scoring one dance in classic form. Ravel's contribution is the opening Fanfare, which is fun, and fits the occasion - but is really too lightweight to be of any significance.

Bolero (1928)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1974, 15 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1979, 15 min)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Boulez (DG, 1993, 15 min)
The general crowd's favourite, even though it is disliked by many classical music lovers. Granted, it has been overexposed in popular culture, but taken by itself, I think it is an excellent and highly original piece of music. There is no development: the haunting theme gets repeated obstinately whilst the orchestra gets more and more colour, until the coda closes it off relentlessly.

Menuet antique (1895/1929)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Ozawa (DG, 1975, 6 min)
New York Philharmonic/Boulez (CBS, 1975, 7 min)
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1999, 7 min)
The piano version and the orchestration are 34 years apart, spanning the complete career of Ravel. Conceived as a tribute to Chabrier, the piece sounds as archaic as the title indicates, and it lacks the usual brilliancy in its orchestration. That said, it may be far from his best, but it is still worth having.

Piano concerto in D major [left hand] (1929)
Philippe Entremont with Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (CBS, 1973, 19 min)
Alicia de Larrocha and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Foster (Decca, 1974, 19 min)
Krystian Zimmerman and London Symphony Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1996, 18 min)
Like Prokofievs fourth, which was discussed in the previous installment, this one movement concerto for the left hand only was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Undoubtedly  it is one of the important piano concertos of all time - regardless of how many hands. It is an energetic piece, reflecting the time it was conceived in many ways, with fantastic orchestral parts as well as superb piano lines, from melodious to percussive, and typical Ravel throughout. A fascinating concerto, absolutely essential.

Piano concerto in G major (1929)
Alicia de Larrocha and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Fruhbeck de Burgos (Decca, 1974, 24 min)
Krystian Zimmerman and Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1994, 22 min)
One of the last great piano concertos, for sure. Starting stunningly with a whiplash sound, the first movement is energetic, jazzy (in Ravel style), and beautiful. The introspective, gorgeous second movement, one of the most beautiful in the history of all concertos, is like a glimpse of heaven, and then the third brings us back on earth, with more jazz-influenced writing to enjoy, in what has been likened to a wall of sound. It is a roller coaster ride, exhilarating and all-consuming - and it makes you want to hit the repeat from start button for the whole concerto. The two piano concertos are completely different - and both indispensable. If I had to make a choice, I'd pick the one in G major, but is awfully close, and both are very, very close to hors concours.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: None.
Essential: Pavane pour une infante defunte, Daphnis et Chloe, La valse, Piano concerto in D major [left hand], Piano concerto in G major.
Important: Valses nobles et sentimentales, Le tombeau de Couperin, Une barque sur l'ocean, Rapsodie Espagnole, Tzigane, Bolero.
Good to have: Ma mere l'oye, Alborada del gracioso, Menuet antique.
Not required: Ouverture de feerie Sheherazade, Fanfare Eventail de Jeanne.
Avoid: None.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The masked woman

The famous German expressionist Max Pechstein (1881-1955) makes only a second appearance so far in this blog. This less well-known portrait dates back to 1910 and is a good example of his style. More on Pechstein in the wikipedia article linked to below.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Countdown to ecstasy 100-81

A shameless promotion of my parallel blog Countdown to Ecstasy: my choice of 100 best songs (pop, rock, and ballads) from five decades - with the constriction of maximum one song per act. The countdown has now reached #81 and here are the 20 posted so far (for descriptions and YouTube links see the blog itself):

81. Kites (Simon Dupree and the Big Sound)
82. Nothing compares 2 U (Sinead O'Connor)
83. Don't look back in anger (Oasis)
84. Belfast child (Simple Minds)
85. Angie (Rolling Stones)
86. That ole devil called love (Alison Moyet)
87. Do it again (Steely Dan)
88. You needed me (Anne Murray)
89. Tears in heaven (Eric Clapton)
90. Broken bicycles/Junk (Anne-Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello)
91. One day in Paris (Martha and the Muffins)
92. The closest thing to crazy (Katie Melua)
93. Zhi shao hai you ni (Sandy Lam)
94. Tell me (Camel)
95. Wind of change (Scorpions/BPO)
96. Hey little girl (Icehouse)
97. Northern lights (Renaissance)
98. Red skies over paradise (Fischer Z)
99. Une fille aux yeux claires (Michel Sardou)
100. Renee (Talk Talk)

So far a little heavy on the soft pop and ballad side, but that will change.... I will continue to give a regular update in this blog - and you can follow the progress in the right hand column as well.

web site

Friday, March 01, 2013

Deuxieme Fantaisie (RIP Marie-Claire Alain)

Yet another great performer of classical music has been taken away from us, in the same week as conductor/pianist Wolfgang Sawallisch: Marie-Claire Alain, one of the best organ players of all time, passed away at the age of 86. I treasure her recordings of the organ works of her late brother Jehan Alain, who fell in WW2, in particular. Here she is with one of those, the second fantasy for organ. RIP Madame Alain.