Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Every two years since 1978 the BBC has staged a Young Musician of the Year competition. I watched the final in 1982. One of the finalists was an 18 year old pianist. I liked her. Well, of course I liked her, she was a young woman with poise and confidence, and she was about to play my favourite classical concerto. I wanted her to perform well. I wanted her to do justice to the piece. I knew I was biased, but I wanted her to win.
Anna Markland had chosen Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. It was a bold choice. Sergei Rachmaninov was both a respected composer and a virtuoso pianist. He had exceptionally large hands and he had spread them wide for the first slow chords of his second piano concerto. Like many professional concert pianists Anna had to break the chords, but she did so expertly.

Soon the pace picked up and the pianist’s fingers began to skip and dance deftly across the keyboard. This girl could play. Mesmerised, I sat on the edge of my seat, willing her to maintain the high standard of the opening few bars. By the end of the recital I was emotionally exhausted. If there was a wrong note I didn’t hear it. If the phrasing was imperfect I didn’t detect it. If the confidence faltered or the conviction waned I must have missed it. It had been a performance to savour and remember, perhaps even the performance of a lifetime.

Almost trembling with anticipation, as if I had been the one at the piano, I waited for the judges’ decision. “I hope they choose Anna”, I thought to myself as each judge said a few words about the half dozen pieces they had heard that day. Then finally, came the announcement. “The Young Musician of the Year 1982 is … Anna Markland”. I was overjoyed. I was pleased they chose Rachmaninov, pleased they chose a pianist and pleased they chose Anna. And I dared to congratulate myself on having good taste, too.

Rachmaninoff - Anna Markland

Anna Markland-Crookes in 2010

Many years later my other half, Mary, took part in a creative writing course. As an exercise she was asked to write a two-part piece of prose. The two parts should describe the same scene or the same event in two different ways – perhaps from different perspectives or different times. When the course tutor reviewed the students’ work Mary’s was described as a ‘tour de force’. This is what she wrote:

Picture this. A woman sitting at a keyboard. She must concentrate. She must impress. She must excel. Today is the most important day of her life.

Her future lies in her fingers. What else is there, if she cannot play, cannot perform to the highest standard? Failure is unthinkable. She cannot envisage any other life but the one for which she has been working so long.

She gathers her thoughts and begins. Her hands perform a complex duet across the keys, sometimes together, sometimes apart, never touching, like partners in a delicate ritual of mutual awareness, their destinies choreographed.

The notes soar upwards and outwards, twisting through the air, gymnasts on a mat, filling every corner with their lines and twirls, never a movement out of place. They follow each other around the room, out of the doors and windows, into the sunlight to fade away.

It is done. There were no slips, no staggers, no stumbles. The woman rests her hands in her lap. She hears the quiet appreciation of the other candidates, the murmurs of the judges, the beating of her heart.

She bows and waits to hear her fate.


Picture this. A woman sitting at a keyboard. She gently blows off the dust, which lingers for a while like remembered triumphs.

“Can you play it Grandma?”

Slowly at first, then with increasing fluidity, her fingers seek the familiar paths. The music dances through the room.

“I want to do that!”

She nods her assent.

“You will” she says, “You will”.

– Mary Opie, 2011

The link I gave above is to one of several versions of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on Spotify. There’s also a nice YouTube video by another Anna here: Anna Fedorova.

Crazy Man Michael

Melton Mowbray- Ye Olde Porke Pie Shoppe

One sunny Spring morning Mrs Crotchety and I decided to drive over to Melton Mowbray and explore our nearest market town. There’s a very pretty area by the church but it’s not a particularly attractive place on the whole. It’s mainly known for pork pies (Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe is famous) and Stilton cheese. There was also a well-documented episode in 1837 in which members of the local hunt found several tins of paint and, literally, painted the town red.

It was getting towards lunchtime and we were looking for somewhere to eat. There are plenty of cafés in the town centre but they seemed to be mostly basic pie-and-chips establishments with little to appeal to our, shall we say, more refined taste. We did find a deli/café that looked nice but, although the opening times were given as 9 am to 4 pm, it was closed. Retracing our footsteps we finally settled on Miss B’s Tea Rooms for a sandwich and a cuppa.

Miss B’s is doing its best to be a traditional English tea shop. The building is old with exposed oak beams and the decor is distinctly old-fashioned. But the furniture is modern and my view was dominated by an unattractive 50’s-style chiller cabinet stocked with bottled beer. It’s a big step up from the mythical Greasy Spoon but nothing like as sumptuous as Little Betty’s in York. Still, the service was friendly, the food was good and we’d have thoroughly enjoyed our light lunch … if it wasn’t for the background music.

For some inexplicable reason the proprietor (Miss B herself, perhaps?) had chosen to pipe a never-ending stream of tacky Max Bygraves songs through a small speaker attached to a plywood board and hung from the ceiling. Fortunately, the volume was low and, most of the time, we could shut it out of our conscious thoughts. But at every pause in the conversation we were rudely assailed by muzak of such mediocrity and blandness that it almost made me choke.

My mind wandered, Max Bygraves intruded briefly once again, and then I remembered the Fairport Convention song Crazy Man Michael. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the mad and maddening choice of sounds to accompany our lunchtime fare. Or perhaps it was just my subconscious finding an escape from the subtle torture being inflicted upon us. Whatever the reason it was good to apply the soothing balm of crazy Michael to the stinging wounds inflicted by maddening Max.

Crazy Man Michael - Richard ThompsonCrazy Man Michael sounds for all the world like a traditional English folk song from centuries ago but, in fact, it was written by Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick in the early days of Fairport Convention, appearing on their Liege and Lief album released in 1969. It’s a song about those moments of madness we all have from time to time. The times when we think, “Oh, no! What have I done?”. When we, unthinkingly, destroy what is most precious to us. And know we must live with the consequences for the rest of our lives.

Yes, it’s a sad song, but beautifully performed. The acoustic and electric guitars of Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol provide a traditional folk framework, Ashley Hutchings’ bass dances below, Dave Swarbrick’s violin adds pathos, Dave Mattack’s drums push it all along and Sandy Denny’s mellow voice is gentle and soothing. As you listen the bitter ache of irretrievable loss and the joy of sweet music will mingle and seep into your soul. Hops and honey. A cure for all the world’s ills. At least for 4 minutes and 40 seconds or so.

Satanic Majesties

For some of you what I’m about to say will be heresy, so sit down and take a deep breath before reading on.

Rolling Stones - Their Satanic Majesties Request

The Rolling Stones only made one album worth listening to: Their Satanic Majesties Request. Well, that and their very first compilation album, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), which only a few of the more ardent Stones fans will be familiar with. Big Hits was the very first album I bought with my pocket money as a young teenager back in 1966 or 1967. For the price of four or five singles you got 14 tracks and even if a few turned out to be disappointing (they didn’t) it was good value. But I digress…

Between May 1965 and September 1966 the Stones had a flood of hits: Satisfaction, Get Off of My Cloud, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Paint It Black and Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow? These were up-tempo pop/rock songs with a rhythm & blues heritage, and pretty good examples of the genre. In those days, singles were much more important than albums and, surprisingly, none of those early hits featured on either of the two albums released in the UK during that period.

Then came a year of transition. There was a double A-sided single in January 1967: Let’s Spend The Night Together and Ruby Tuesday. The first continued the up-tempo R&B-influenced theme but Ruby Tuesday was very different – quite slow, melodic and with a sad and wistful lyric. This wasn’t the loud, subversive Stones that we knew and loved; something had changed.

Shortly after Ruby Tuesday three members of the band were charged with drugs offences and became embroiled in court cases that dragged on for the rest of that year. The litigation became the focus for the perennial tussle between a disdainful, sometimes rebellious youth and a stuffy, conservative establishment. Personal differences within the band surfaced at this time, too. While all this was going on the Stones parted with their producer (Andrew Loog Oldham) and recorded Their Satanic Majesties Request.

The Rolling Stones

With Satanic Majesties, like many of the underground bands at that time, the Stones experimented with sound in all sorts of ways: using unusual instruments and electronic effects, borrowing ideas from oriental and African music, deliberately juxtaposing contrasting styles and textures. They were the Andy Warhol of music: bold, innovative, challenging.

The critics, however, were split. Some thought Satanic Majesties was simply the unfocused ramblings of drugged-up musicians let loose in a studio with few ideas and no-one to provide sanity and direction. Others found the variety stimulating, the tunes memorable and the musical patchwork pleasing.

In a way, both camps were right. The fifth track on the album, Sing This All Together (See What Happens), is mostly a mishmash of uncoordinated sounds – a failed attempt at creative improvisation. The other nine tracks, though, are intricate musical mosaics of genuine originality and beauty. Each element is carefully considered and precisely positioned to complement the others. The album as a whole is, in my opinion, a triumph of production.

After Satanic Majesties the Stones returned to their R&B/rock roots. They continued to have enormous commercial success but, for me, that fresh spark of creativity had gone. I’m still waiting for a new Stones track that makes me stop and listen, one that will make me want to hear their next album. Perhaps I missed it. Perhaps there are gems in their later albums – precious rocks among the rock music – I confess I haven’t bothered to find out. Until that shake-me-up track comes along I shall remain convinced that Satanic Majesties is the only Stones album worth listening to. Except, of course, for Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass).

Rolling Stones - Big Hits

The Queen of Elfland

Somewhere in the backwoods of Alaska there’s a singer/songwriter/guitarist who makes beautiful music and gives it away. Why? Because we already have enough ‘stuff’; what we lack is ‘human connection’. So, rather than burn CDs and ship them thousands of kilometres across the globe, he makes his songs available (for free) on his website.

His name is Kray Van Kirk and he’s running a Kickstarter project to fund a music video of one of his songs. The Queen of Elfland tells the story of Thomas the Rhymer who is taken down to Elfland to sing for its Queen. It has all the allure of an ancient myth but, in the video, Thomas and the Queen make the journey by train. Not the Hogwart’s Express, a very real, very solid Amtrak train, connecting the everyday world with a land of fantasy and legend.

Kray Van Kirk - The Queen of Elfland

The Kickstarter project has less than 72 hours to run. As I write this it has raised just under the $4000 it needs to make the basic video. It will reach that first target soon but, with a little more support, Kray and the team will be able to add special effects and do some detailed post-production. If you like his music please support this project. The world needs more musicians like Kray Van Kirk.

End To End

Some bands I like, some bands I love. If I love them I’ll buy several of their albums; if I only like them I try to find a Best Of… CD and maybe one or two download tracks. Blondie I like. At least, I like most of what they were doing in the eighties. I did buy two or three Blondie albums before I switched from vinyl to digital media but now I content myself with just one compilation CD: Greatest Hits.
Blondie - Greatest Hits - Sight + Sound
Confusingly, there were two Blondie albums called Greatest Hits, one released as a CD in 2002 and a CD + DVD set released in 2006. The 2002 album is well known; the 2006 release is much rarer and it’s this one that features in my collection. Hidden away, just before the bonus track at the end of the CD, there’s a little gem called End To End and this is my latest track of the week.

End To End is a pop/rock song with a beat that pounds like a thumping heart after a strenuous run. It seems to be about a young couple who haven’t got much longer to live. Making the most of the time they have left they do “all those romantic things”, but it’s hard to accept that their lives and their love will end.

So if, by chance,
You should agree

We’ll put an end to the end
And just go on and on.

We all yearn to defy the grim reaper, don’t we? To hold on to the things and the people we love, to live forever. And sometimes we feel, if we want it enough, it must be possible.Blondie - The Curse Of Blondie

End To End was on the Curse of Blondie album of 2003 which, like the Greatest Hits CD/DVD, doesn’t seem to be available any more. I can’t find any purely audio stream for you to listen to but here are a couple of links to videos:

I suspect the YouTube clip violates copyright and might be withdrawn at any time but it does seem to be the version on my CD. The MTV clip is a nice live version and seems to be officially sanctioned; you do have to suffer adverts, though.

Image credits:

Gentle Giant

Gentle Giant - band 2

Gentle Giant was a big band.

When I say ‘big band’ I don’t mean they sound like the popular 50’s dance bands led by the likes of Ted Heath, Billy Cotton or Glen Miller. Gentle Giant‘s music is very different. It sits under the umbrella of progressive rock, but it incorporates elements from a wide range of other genres, too: mediaeval, classical, folk, hard rock and jazz all feature in their compositions.

The Giant was big even before he was born. The Shulman brothers, Phil, Derek and Ray, had formed the soul/pop group Simon Dupree and the Big Sound in 1966. This band had a hit with the faintly psychedelic pop song Kites in 1967, but the Shulmans wanted to go in another direction. Ignoring their record company’s wishes for more pop songs, in 1969 they disbanded Simon Dupree.

The following year the Shulmans recruited three more musicians, Gary Green, Kerry Minnear and Martin Smith, to form Gentle Giant. Smith was the drummer; the other five members of the band were all multi-instrumentalists. Between the five of them they played guitar, mandolin, ukulele, organ, piano, violin, viola, cello, bass, recorder, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, vibraphone, xylophone and percussion. All five also sang. That’s huge talent!
Gentle Giant large

Gentle Giant‘s first album, Gentle Giant, was released on vinyl in 1970. It was packaged in a striking gatefold sleeve. The artwork on the front cover depicted an enormous head with a high brow, big friendly eyes and a wide grin – the head of the Gentle Giant himself. Opening the gatefold revealed the giant’s body below, shrunk by perspective, his feet just fitting onto the back of the sleeve. Of all the LP covers I’ve seen this, perhaps, was the one with the biggest impact.

The music on that first Gentle Giant album made a big impact on me, too. The first four tracks are terrific – easily good enough to justify buying the album. All the trademark features of Gentle Giant are there: memorable tunes with multi-part harmonies, intricate rhythms, varied textures from the multiple instruments, sometimes soft, sometimes loud, always interesting.

As if to illustrate their versatility, in the next, nine-minute track, Nothing At All, there’s a gentle folksy song, classical and jazz piano, raw rock guitar and a drum solo worthy of Ginger Baker. All very clever but, in the end, not particularly memorable. The album goes downhill after that with a rather ordinary rock & roll piece and a self-indulgent rendition of God Save the Queen. But it’s all forgivable for those first four unforgettable tracks.

Ignoring retrospectives and compilations Gentle Giant released another 10 studio albums and one live album. Of those, Octopus, released in 1972, is generally regarded as marking the peak of the band’s creativity.

Somehow I managed to skip this golden period entirely. Perhaps it was because I had become thoroughly disillusioned with the contemporary music industry in the early seventies and had withdrawn to the safe ground of bands I’d already fallen in love with. Perhaps the disappointing tail of the first album put me off. Or perhaps it was because, when I saw them live some time around 1973, they seemed to be showing off too much. (Too many big-heads.)
Gentle Giant - Free Hand
Whatever the reason, nothing by Gentle Giant was added to my record collection until Free Hand, their seventh album, was released in 1975. By this time there was a confidence and maturity about their studio performances that captivated me once again. In contrast to the Gentle Giant album, which felt like a patchwork of unrelated ideas, Free Hand comes across as a fully coherent work. Here was a single piece in seven parts, each part blending different musical styles to great effect.

Skipping the next two albums (Interview and Playing the Fool: The Official Live) my next Gentle Giant acquisition was The Missing Piece. I was never quite sure about this one. It was a bit less complex and less original than the earlier material but it did get the occasional spin. It isn’t available on Spotify and I sold all my vinyl last year, so I haven’t been able to refresh my memory for this blog entry.
Gentle Giant - Octopus

I have listened to Octopus for the first time recently, though, and I can see why it is regarded as one of Gentle Giant‘s best. It contains the brilliant Knots, a modern madrigal in which the vocal parts weave and wriggle around each other like snakes in a wicker basket. Absolutely mesmerising! So much so that I spent my last few UK pounds of iTunes credit on it.

You are feeling very sleepy…
You want to buy Octopus…
You have credit…
Buy it… Buy it now… Buy…

Here’s to Gentle Giant, a band with a big friendly face and a big creative heart.

Lay Lady Lay

A lot of complex, challenging music has featured on this blog recently so I’m going to choose a nice simple song as my track of the week: Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay. (There should be commas in there really but it’s usually written without the punctuation and I’ll stick with that convention.)

lay-lady-lay-paul-loveringThe first time I heard Lay Lady Lay on the radio the astonished D.J. exclaimed, “What has happened to his voice?”. The usual high, nasal tones had been replaced by the deep resonance you get sometimes with a throat infection. It didn’t sound like Dylan at all. The instrumental accompaniment was very different, too. This was no off-beat folk singer with a guitar and a harmonica. There was a country feel from a pedal guitar, a background wash of keyboards and an infectious beat supplied by bongos and cowbell.

For a while I doubted that this was Bob Dylan at all. Then, putting the doubts aside, I began to enjoy the song. Many others have enjoyed it, too. It has been covered by lots of different artists – even Kevin Ayers did a cover! There’s nothing better for a laid-back Sunday afternoon.