Archive for January, 2011

Brown Bread: John Barry

Posted in Music, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Film composer John Barry has died, aged 77, following a heart attack.

John Barry was one of the most successful of all film composers; he won five Oscars for scores that included Born Free, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves, but wrote his best-known and most enduring music for the James Bond films.

Sad news. I always had a lot of time for his film and TV music, and not just the James Bond stuff. He was a really good tunesmith (and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly). A couple of the Bond songs (From Russia with Love and Diamonds are Forever … ooh and Goldfinger) are brilliantly written and unforgettable, but all his music had character, exactly the right flavour for their context and musical imagination.

R.I.P. John Barry 1933-2011

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Tennstedt conducts Wagner

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Old school conducting. Great. The LPO never sounded better. A member of the audience even shoots himself @ 5:50.

Chicken and plantain moqueca

Posted in Food with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

1 whole chicken, about 1.6kg, cut into 8 pieces with the skin on
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons dende (palm oil)
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 spring onions, sliced on the diagonal
half a green pepper, thinly sliced
125ml white wine
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and finely grated
700ml chicken stock
350ml coconut milk
3 tablespoons tomato purée
2 bay leaves
450g ripe plantains (look for yellow and black-speckled skin)
3 plum tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and sliced
4 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

This is a version of the traditional seafood moqueca. The plantain, which Brazilians prefer ripe or semi-ripe, brings a soft sweetness and plenty of starch to the stew.

Place the chicken pieces in a medium bowl. Season with salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the dende oil. Rub the chicken all over with the oil. Cover the bowl with cling-film and marinate at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes.

Pour the remaining dende oil into a large flameproof casserole and swirl around so the entire base is covered. Add the chicken pieces, skin side down, and brown them lightly over a medium heat, for 3 minutes per side. Transfer them to a bowl and cover with foil, making sure no steam can escape.

Add the onion, spring onions, and pepper to the pan and cook them in the left-over dende oil, stirring often, until they become soft, about 4 minutes. Add the white wine and reduce by half, while using a wooden spoon to scrape the brown bits that remain in the pan. Add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, for another minute. Add the chicken stock, coconut milk, tomato puree, and bay leaves and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Add the chicken and any remaining juices that accumulated in the bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, until the chicken starts to get tender, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, trim the ends off the plantains and cut 3-4 vertical slits in the skin, making sure not to cut deep into the fruit. Peel and cut the plantains into 2.5cm chunks.

Add the plantains to the moqueca after it has been simmering for an hour. Cover and continue to simmer until the plantains become soft but not mushy, about 10 to 15 minutes. If the liquid seems too runny, uncover the pan and continue to simmer, allowing the steam to evaporate and thicken the stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Just a few minutes before serving, add the tomatoes. Garnish with the fresh coriander and serve over white rice or farofa.

From Cook Brazilian by Leticia Moreinos Schwartz

Giacomo Meyerbeer: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Meyerbeer – like Halévy, Auber, and several other contemporaries – has mostly disappeared into a black hole. Even in France he is mostly ignored (although he worked primarily in France, he was German by birth).

Richard Wagner had personal differences with Meyerbeer (mainly rooted in private jealousies that Meyerbeer’s music was so successful by comparison to his own works at the time – and his perilous financial position for much of his life). However, this does not completely explain the disappearance of Meyerbeer’s works from the repertoire in the 20th century, which seems to be also related to fad and fashion. It’s the entire genre of French grand opera which has fizzled out.

It can be claimed – but without any real justification – that Meyerbeer and Halévy were discriminated against as Jews, but this doesn’t explain why Auber (who had been enormously popular) has dropped off the radar entirely … why Gounod’s works are rarely performed (except for Faust) … why Bizet’s other operas (except Carmen – does anyone even remember them, except for their overtures?) are never staged … why Delibes is utterly ignored … why even Massenet is relegated to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy League.

For me, I’m afraid, the axe-grinding excuse of anti-semitism doesn’t explain any of this … there are too many non-Jewish composers in the same genre who are ignored too. Nor does the word of Wagner, which is a red herring – what opera manager takes Wagner’s views into account when programming a season nowadays?

In short, Meyerbeer’s French grand opera is clearly out of fashion these days. Vast amounts of utterly bloated bombast, a dearth of melodic imagination, and the most ludicrously melodramatic plots, reedemed by the odd inspired moment and a certain dramatic sense. L’Africaine is probably the best (or least bad) and has a few genuinely striking sections. Robert le Diable, the opera that truly established his reputation, was a massive success in the Paris of the July Monarchy; nowadays it works as an unintentional comedy (try the scene in Act 3 with a chorus of dead nuns rising out of their coffins). There’s a pretty good section on Meyerbeer in Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation; also worth reading for those interested to know more about the composer are Jane Fulcher’s The Nation’s Image: French Grand Opera as Politics and Politicized Art, Heinz and Gudrun Becker’s Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Life in Letters, and Mark Everist’s collection of essays Giacomo Meyerbeer and Music Drama in Nineteenth Century Paris.

The whole genre of French grand opera (encompassing the works of Meyerbeer, Halévy, Auber and some of the later works of Rossini, and becoming influential on the work of Donizetti, Verdi and even Wagner) is certainly of great interest to those wanting to understand better the cultural history of the period; the works are worth hearing a few times, but I’d be very surprised if they would stand up to the numbers of repeated performances and productions that would lead to their being incorporated into modern standard repertory.

Urlicht by Gustav Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

When should a conductor climax?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Toscanini was famous for claiming to adhere strictly to the score, avoiding any modification of what the composer had written, but a friend once proved to him that he was in fact making slight nuances. Toscanini admitted this saying “one cannot be a machine”.

If you play music exactly as written it sounds dull and dead. In particular a slight rubato, an almost imperceptible constant varying of the timing from beat to beat, is necessary.

The greatest interpreters are those who seem to do this so naturally that an innocent listener often doesn’t seem to notice it outwardly, though they feel inwardly that the performance is somehow more alive. Elgar in particular was famous for doing this, and in his recordings, very often he doesn’t follow the score exactly.

I read an interview with Sir Andrew Davies around the time he was embarking on recording his Vaughan Williams symphony cycle in which, inter alia, he criticized Sir John Barbirolli for “stopping to smell the flowers along the way”. That immediately rang alarm bells, since I’d always considered Barbirolli to be a glorious interpreter of RVW’s music (as indeed did the composer himself). More than once I’ve pointed out that I find listening to Sir Andrew Davies’s performances rather like driving on a motorway from London to Edinburgh: we get on at the beginning and arrive at the destination at the allotted time, but with very little sense of any landmarks along the way.

If you listen very carefully to a really convincing performance of, say, Beethoven or Stravinsky, even one which respects the score in detail, you’ll find minute variations in speed, rhythm and dynamics not marked in the score, and it’s those that give the music life and make a performance one to listen to again and again with pleasure.

What marks out those conductors who successfully build climaxes is surely their ongoing attention to detail, and the realization that these things don’t just happen, but need something to grow from. If the way isn’t properly prepared, then the likelihood is that the moment will seem imposed, or worse still, underwhelming.

Knowing exactly where the climax comes is in itself certainly not a universal talent: even more interestingly, though, different conductors may find unorthodox places for the peak, and still be persuasive (Sir Charles Mackerras in the first movement of Walton’s Symphony No. 1 is an example which springs immediately to mind).

Burns Night: Haggis Baked Potatoes

Posted in Food with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

This dish came about when I was wondering what I could put into a jacket potato to make it more interesting and I opened the freezer and spotted a haggis. Haggis may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but really, it’s no worse than eating a sausage – and what’s more, it’s delicious!

2 large baking potatoes
400-500g best quality haggis, chopped up a little
100g butter
2-3tbsp of fresh white breadcrumbs
a couple of good knobs of butter, melted
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Bake the potatoes for about an hour or until tender, then remove from the oven and leave to cool a little. Cut the top off the potatoes and scoop out the potato and mix in a bowl with the haggis and butter. Refill the skins, discarding the top bit that you have already cut off. Mix the breadcrumbs and butter together and scatter over the potatoes. Return to the oven and bake for about 10-15 minutes before serving.

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