Saturday, 6 August 2011


Great to hear Ravel's Boléro (possibly the most famous classical music crescendo) live at the Proms the other night. This is one of those pieces that needs to be played correctly. I'd be the first to admit that it can be quite boring if not performed well. First of all, it has to be done reasonably quickly: most versions are under 15 minutes - Riccardo Muti's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra runs for 17 minutes 9 seconds, which is much too slow. Ideally, it's around 14 minutes. Ravel himself said the tempo mustn't vary at all but, in my opinion, maintaining a steady tempo throughout means the piece just doesn't work. As someone once pointed out, if the conductor does this, the performance actually seem to get slower. For the maximum excitement, the tempo needs to be edged up a little towards the end. The orchestra needs to put energy into the piece and (although it must tax the brass players in particular) sustain all the notes throughout, not allowing them to die away.

Although I haven't bought any CDs for a while, I've collected versions of Boléro since the pre-CD years and currently (at a rough count) have 20 different recordings, including a handful on cassette. Donald Runnicles gave a great performance conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra - nice and fast at around 15 minutes, and edging the tempo appropriately. Unfortunately I can only rate it third amongst the recordings I've heard: I'd put Riccardo Chailly's recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw at the very top, mainly for the sheer energy and the way the sound seems to broaden out to a vast climax; and Jean Martinon's with the Orchestre de Paris second, for a wonderfully chaotic, slightly out-of-control rendition: this is one piece that shouldn't sound too controlled.

Science Museum needs to get its act together

I mentioned some time ago paying a visit to London and being amazed at the V & A Museum. A flying visit on our recent trip confirms that it's not resting on its laurels and has an excellent new restaurant along with an air of efficiency and a feeling of abundance.

In comparison, what a disappointment the Science Museum is! Apart from the general lack of thematic cohesion (very few of its exhibits seem to have clearly marked beginnings or endings, any clear chronological sequence or a definite theme other than that they're about (say) aviation), several exhibits are woefully out of date. The "flight" display, for example, referred to Concorde as if it were still a commercial airliner when, in fact, it made its last flight in 2003. As if this weren't bad enough, we could find nothing in the display on computing later than the 1970s! For a major national museum to ignore a whole chunk of history in this way is a huge let-down. Even if there are problems with funding, surely someone could put together some text descriptions and create a display from donations on the vast changes in this area over the past thirty years?

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Bryant and May

No, not a box of matches but (now) the names of a pair of elderly detectives in a series of excellent and eccentric murder mysteries by Christopher Fowler. While there's an undercurrent of gruesomeness in all the novels (Mr Fowler has also written horror stories), there's definitely a great affection for, and observation of, his characters. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the stories is the way they evoke the atmosphere of a mysterious and hidden London - uncovering things we didn't know about the capital and its often murky history: underground passages, buried rooms and convoluted crimes.

I'm re-reading The Victoria vanishes at the moment and it's struck me again that these stories are so tailor-made for TV that it's amazing that they haven't already been done. The only potential issue I can see with a series is that elderly actors are apt to die, giving the makers recasting problems. Can I make one request to any TV producer that might happen to read this - please remember there are other elderly actors than David Jason! I can see that he might seem ideal casting to some as the cantankerous Arthur Bryant, but we see quite enough of him on TV already. A better candidate (depending on budget) might be Albert Finney or Bernard Cribbins, and perhaps Tom Courtenay or John Challis as Bryant's colleague, John May.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Desert Island Discs

Just heard this on the radio. Looks like a great site to visit for anyone interested in both people and music. Maybe this is more of a Twitter-type post - will see if I can squeeze it on there as well...

Found the money down the back of the sofa

This week we had the sad event of around thirty people from our (local government) service leaving simultaneously on voluntary redundancy, with more to go by June. It seemed odd without some of them, but their loss will only be felt properly in the long term. We're told that similar cuts will have to be made next year and the year after - which will undoubtedly mean compulsory (rather than voluntary) redundancies.

Those of us who work in local government know that the impact on services of the cuts is already being felt. We're told that, with good management, the impact of these on frontline services should be minimal; we're not told how we can provide services of a similar standard with (in the long term) a possible 30% reduction in our budgets.

Anyone with half an eye or half a brain can see that Britain's adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are controversial. Are either of those countries really better off now than they were before our armed forces went in? Are we succeeding in our long-term aim to foster democracy in those countries and - more to the point - is it our job to do that? As if completely blind to the lessons of the past, it now seems that our "prudent", financially careful government has decided that a "quick" and "limited" intervention in Libya could get rid of the Big Bad Gaddafi and allow democracy to take over there. Although it's vital to pay off our deficit, we could miraculously afford a new military venture that, we're told, is costing "hundreds of millions of dollars". That was a couple of weeks ago but (surprise surprise) it hasn't worked! As I write, Gaddafi is still in power and the situation is looking murky...

Good intentions are all very well, but isn't it time to recognise that the days of the British Empire are long past? If Britain is really broke to the extent that it can't afford to maintain public services, how can it possibly afford to get involved in yet another open-ended foreign war with no plans for the aftermath?

Monday, 21 February 2011

Clock change: flogging a dead horse

It seems only a few weeks ago that a slightly different flavour of this idea was mooted on "safety grounds", forgetting that the United Kingdom consists of more than London and the south east. Now it's dragged up again on the grounds that it would favour tourism. Do people avoid going to Greece and Turkey because their clocks are an hour different from France and Spain? Of course not. I seem to recall that the original idea was to stay on summer time throughout the year. As with the move to European time, this would make it darker in the morning and lighter in the evening. In London, sunrise in the dark days around Christmas would be postponed until 9.06am. In northern England, it wouldn't be until 9.30am and, in Aberdeen, not until 9.48! Understandably, people in the north don't want even darker mornings and wish the nation could be a little less London-centric...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Hattie still an enigma

Stephen Russell's TV play about the love life of Carry On and Sykes star Hattie Jacques was beautifully acted but, as Caitlin Moran cogently pointed out in her column in yesterday's Times, the relationships didn't really make sense.

The same issue was there in the source material, Andy Merriman's biography, also called Hattie. We hear all about what happened, and that Hattie was a warm and loving woman, but this only makes the way she treated John Le Mesurier (and, by extension, her own children) all the more baffling. Maybe in future years someone else will come along and write another biography of Ms Jacques that throws more light on what, after 45 years, is still a mystery.