Pretty Polly

Some time in the Pre-Cambrian era I was sent to Vines Road.
At that time, Deakin University was only in Geelong, and had taken over a institute of technology (or CAE or whatever) and a former teachers college, to become a ‘university’. And the teachers college was in Vines Road.

This was in the 1980s, so I can remember very little about the campus.
But it had a music department, and so it had a record collection – meaning ‘long-playing record’ (LP) – disks that you stuck a stylus onto to access the analog recording – what a weird old idea! Lucky we’ve left that behind 🙂

And in this record collection was a boxset – it probably had two disks in it – called the Folk Box. This might not have been the first, and certainly wasn’t the last collection with this name, but I haven’t ever been able to recover just which ‘folk box’ this was.

What I *do* remember is the first song on the first side. A performance like hardly anything else I’ve ever heard. The song was called ‘Pretty Polly’ – and there’s no mystery about that: it’s been recorded scores of time. But it took me three decades to finally recover the performance that I found so astonishing.

The banjo-player and singer attacks the song like his life depended on it. It’s not easy to understand the words – and it doesn’t matter: it’s the ‘life force’ in the wild, energetic performance with which one is forced to engage.

There are more than one ‘old-timey’ singers who recorded this murder ballad, including John Hammond and Dock Boggs, but the guy who gets my attention is … Lee Sexton, b. 1928.

Tinnitus … sux

Tinnitus. Last time I was free from this was something like a year or two ago. I am currently again in this blissful (and very rare) state.

I have taken the opportunity to listen to my favourite singer in his best recording. Carpe diem.

It’s Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012), and  the second of his three recordings of the Bach cantatas BWV 82 and 56.

The first was 1951 with Ristenpart, then 1968, with Richter, and finally 1983 with Rilling (aged 68).

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded BWV 82 and 56 three times. I can now announce – having just bought it at last – that the second of the three is the best recording put down by any singer … ever.
Unfortunately, I can’t listen to it as one would wish, as I have tinnitus. With this condition, at least in my case, as you turn up the volume of sound, so does the presence of the tinnitus increase. However, at a low level, I can still be aware that DFD sings like the finest artist I can imagine.

Ich Habe Genug

Bach’s cantata BWV 82 can be translated as ‘It is enough’. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, in a music store in Perth in about 1959. I bought the DGG LP you see in the previous post at about that time, and sold it at the end of 1967 when I left the country. I thought I would never hear it again, because Fischer-Dieskau recorded the cantata twice more, and I didn’t think anyone would think it was worth their while to keep it available. But I reckoned without the deep pockets of Apple, and perhaps the enthusiasm of people like myself. I found it available in the iTunes store – so 51 years later, I am able to listen to it again. It is enough.

It would have cost about ÂŁ5 ($10) back then, and today was just a bit more (i.e. a lot less!) at $16.99.

Favourite recordings

People are doing a ten top recordings thing in Facebook. Not sure I’ll be able to manage as many as ten – or fewer than 100. The trouble with ‘classical’ music is that you have to specify the performance. Anyway, you can see why I like this one: great cover art!

It’s Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s first recording (of three) of Bach, Cantatas 56 and 82, conducted Karl Ristenpart, oboe Hermann Töttcher, DGG 14 004 APM, 1951. That’s the original cover.

More:

Bach, Sacred Cantatas, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt

Bach, Mass in Bmin, BWV 232, Collegium Vocale, Ghent, Philippe Herreweghe, 1989/2009 (that’s two recordings)

Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, James King, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic, Decca, 1966

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Peter Phillips, Tallis Scholars, 1980

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet op. 130 in Bb, La Salle Quartet, DGG 2530 351, 1973

Joni Mitchell, Hejira, 1976

James McMurtry, Walk between the Raindrops, 1998

Ry Cooder, 1970

Alto: male or female?

I have spent much of the afternoon typing in the performers into the indexes of the Gardiner Bach cantatas in my iTunes library. It’s as much as anything because I wanted to know in any given work whether the alto part is being sung by a man or a woman. It seems to me to make a significant difference – and I am bemused by Gardiner’s choices, which I’m guessing were determined by whoever seemed to him to be the best singer at that place and time. I’d really like to read anything he might have said about his choices, if they have been published anywhere.

Xmas Day

Alone as usual. I spent the morning with John Eliot Gardiner and his reading of the Xmas Oratorio. It’s from 1987 – and I’m hoping that the 2000 revision will be on the complete cantatas set I’ve ordered from Amazon. He’s brilliant. I may never again listen to the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt performances (with boy sopranos) or the Suzuki. I felt very comfortable with the latter, and could have it on for hours. But Gardiner gets your attention – which is a good thing.

But now I’m (easy-) listening to James Taylor. It took me two years to discover that he put out a new album of original songs thirteen years after the previous one. It don’t think it’s quite as good as October Road (2002). In my opinion, that’s his best.

On a couple of tracks, James uses a backup female singer or two. The accuracy of their work makes me think of comparisons. Chris Smither and Rusty Belle, who subtly ruins his last album (Still on the Levee, 2014). And, more importantly, RT – Richard Thompson, who sinned unforgivably by banging the band, and married his backup singer (Norma Waterson told her daughter Liza not to – but she got up the duff with a roadie instead)  – which meant that she became the lead singer on a number of songs. Which – if you worship RT, as so many people do – means committing sacrilege. For some ten years now, I’ve been meaning to establish which are the best performances of the best RT songs, and as a result to be able to commit Linda’s lead singing to the trash, where it belongs.

Background Music 2

If I find that I’ve a song in my head that I’d rather not be there, I replace it with one of two standby tunes, chosen because they are long and complicated and I still like them many years after making this decision. The first fallback is by Brahms:  it’s the big theme from the fourth movement of the first symphony. The other is the main subject of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, the one wrongly called ‘Pathetique’. That tune is in 5/4, so it demands a little attention to get it going, which is one of the points in its favour.

Background Music

I’ve been fascinated for some time now to have learnt that I can discover my current mood from the song going around in my head. It’s rather like interpreting a dream to see what it reveals about your take on your daily life. If I find I’m thinking Ticket to Ride, it means that I feel that I’m in control of the current situation. If it’s Rock of Ages, I’m feeling ‘God help me!’ (Not literally.) If Lullaby of Birdland, that’s my theme song for ‘Everything is normal’. If I’m lonely, it’s You’ve Got a Friend. There’s another Beatles song that I’ve forgotten atm. I’ll come back to this when I’m in that mood …