Strike Three

Having written a couple of posts about cricket last week, I thought I’d complete my hat-trick of sports-related posts by going off on a bit of a curveball.

The term curveball is not, as far as I know, used in cricket. It is actually a baseball term, which is quite appropriate as that’s the sport to which I’m mostly going to devote today’s post.

One of my transatlantic friends commented (via Facebook) on the last post that cricket is “kinda like baseball”. She said it rather tongue-in-cheek (having lived over here for long enough to pick up a bit of a British sense of humour, I suspect) but there is a certain grain of truth in the observation, as there are some striking similarities (as well as some obvious differences) between the two games.

Baseball is not a particularly high-profile sport here in the UK and has never particularly grabbed my attention. Before doing a spot of internet research (i.e. reading a handful of Wikipedia articles and watching a couple of video clips) over the weekend, I knew little more than that it was a game a bit like rounders but played with a bigger bat and having a few more rules. I don’t know much more about it even now, but I’ve managed to glean sufficient understanding of the rules and culture of baseball to finally be able to understand the punchline of a musical joke that I first heard about 20 years ago and was able to recognise as a baseball-related thing without having a clue to the meaning.

The context of the joke is an orchestral performance (presumably somewhere in the USA, the home of baseball) of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The bass section, faced with a long gap with nothing to play, take the opportunity of slipping out and nipping across the road for a swift half at the local pub (or a couple of beers at the nearest bar, or whatever) and take the precaution of tying together the last couple of pages of the conductor’s score in order to slow him down before he gets to their entry in case they are delayed in returning. Sure enough, when the basses stagger back in having enjoyed one half too many they find the irate conductor trying desperately to undo the bit of string round his music as the perplexed performers begin to falter. One member of the audience realises that something’s wrong but has no idea what it is until his friend points out that “it’s the bottom of the 9th, the score is tied and the basses are loaded.”

Although somewhat contrived as a situation for a symphonic concert, this same sentence (with one minor change of spelling) would make perfect sense in baseball and would be an exciting situation, as the next two paragraphs will hopefully demonstrate.

Innnings are a feature of both baseball and cricket and refer to a team’s chance to bat. Cricket (and I believe also rounders) uses “innings” as singular and plural; baseball reserves the final ‘s’ for the plural. Also, baseball splits each inning (of which there are nine) between the two teams, with the first team taking the top half and the other team the bottom half, while cricket teams get a whole innings, or two (depending on the format of the match), each. Hence, in baseball, the bottom of the 9th [inning] is the last phase of the game, although if the score is tied (i.e. both teams have the same number of runs) at the end there is a tie-breaker mechanism (the nature of which has temporarily eluded my memory).

In baseball, the batting team score runs by running round a series of bases laid out at the points of a diamond (i.e. a square viewed from the corner) and the fielding team try to stop them by getting the ball to each base before the runners reach there (each batsman becomes a runner as soon as he hits the ball, drops his bat and starts running). Often they don’t get all the way round in one go and if they stop part-way they have to wait at one of the bases; they need to get back home (i.e. to the point from which they batted) in order to score their run. You aren’t allowed to overtake a runner who is ahead of you and it’s not unusual for there to be runners waiting at several bases. If all the bases are occupied they are said to be loaded. Apparently this situation presents a good scoring opportunity for the batting team but also a good “double play” opportunity for the fielding team – i.e. a chance to get two of the batting team out in one go. If your bases are loaded when it’s the bottom of the 9th and the score is tied, the next pitch is crucial and the game could go either way (and the orchestra joke is actually at least moderately funny).

I have never played baseball and I expect I never will. The closest I’ve got was playing rounders at junior school (where I used to attend our after-school rounders club and on just one occasion was selected to play for our school against another school – albeit on the second team; sadly the match was cancelled due to rain) and a few games of softball at secondary school (it wasn’t one of our regular sports in PE lessons but we occasionally played it for a change and I’m fairly sure I enjoyed playing it quite a lot more than cricket).

Incidentally, the term hat-trick itself apparently comes from cricket although these days it’s perhaps most associated with football (the association variety, appropriately enough) and can be used for a threefold achievement in a variety of sporting contexts. Wikipedia tells me that the term originated when a bowler called H[eathfield] H[arman] Stephenson took three wickets with consecutive balls in a cricket match in 1858; the fans were so impressed they had a whip-round and bought a nice hat to present to him. Although the practice of buying hats to mark the occasion seems to have been a one-off the name stuck for similar performances and was soon generalised to other triple successes in sport, such as scoring three goals in football (I’m not sure whether they have to be consecutive to count as a hat-trick, or if other people can score in between them).

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Appassionata!

About 9 months ago, I mentioned that my last.fm library stats had reached 1000 plays for Johann Sebastian Bach (one of my two favourite composers) and suggested that Ludwig van Beethoven (my other favourite composer) would probably be passing the same milestone before too long.

Well, that time came and went (accidentally) unheralded some time last year – I’m currently up to 1,043 plays for Beethoven (probably 1,044 by the time I finish writing this) and 1,105 for Bach), but now seems like as good a time as any future occasion to post the quote with which I had intended to celebrate my first Beethoven millenium.

This is an inspirational quote from the maestro himself, which I discovered (on Facebook, as I recall) sometime last year:

To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.

A very small expenditure of time with your favourite search engine should show you, if you care to look, that this quote shows up on many websites – some of them with fancy typography or nice graphics (NB that’s a mathematician’s, inclusive, or!), although I don’t recall having come across it before last year.  I have, however, even without searching for it, come across it several times since my first encounter.

Anyone who has ever heard me play an instrument will know that I frequently play wrong notes.  I do try, though I’m not sure how succesfully, to play at all times with passion.

Multiple Choice

Most classical music that is available in recorded form, unless it is very new or very obscure, is available in several (or sometimes very many) different recordings by different artists (or perhaps by the same artists at different times, which Heraclitus would tell us amounts to much the same thing).  This means that you are usually confronted with a, sometimes bewilderingly wide, choice when shopping for classical music.

My usual approach, unless I’ve heard (or heard about) a particular performance that I want to get, is similar to the way I go about  buying wine – look for something cheap with a nice label.  In the case of music, this translates to nice cover art on the album, although there are some record labels such as Naxos that I’m generally confident will give me  a decent recording towards the lower end of the budget spectrum. If I’m buying online (which is where I do pretty much all my music shopping these days), I’ll also look for reviews and let them help inform my choice.

Fitting in with this relative lack of concern for who is actually performing the music, I find my preference is to fill my classical music library mostly with a wide variety of different pieces rather than getting multiple copies of the same works performed by different artists.  On the other hand, sometimes – more often by accident than design – I do end up with several copies of the same work.

Usually this comes about because I’ve already got a copy of something but the best way I can find to get a copy of something else I want is to get it bundled with the thing I’ve already got.  For instance, I already had a recording of Bach’s Magnificat in D (BWV 243; performed by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford and the  Northern Chamber Orchestra, on the Naxos label; coupled with Vivaldi’s Gloria RV589) but, when I came to look for a recording of his Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), the most attractive option I could find (which probably means the cheapest available that had reasonable reviews) came bundled with another Magnificat performance, this time by the Gabrieli Consort & Players (released on DG Archiv).   The Magnificat happens to be one of my favourite Bach works, and he’s my all-time favourite composer, so it was no great hardship to have two versions of it in my library.

I can only think of two occasions so far when I’ve deliberately acquired a second version of music I’ve already got (excluding things I had on tape, as I’ve tried to replace most of those with CD or MP3 copies for greater convenience).  Both were with the works of Beethoven.

The first was his symphony cycle.  I got a boxed set, mostly performed by the Ljubljana Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Anton Nanut (although two of them are by the Slovak Philharmonic with a couple of different conductors), back in about 1992.  Apart from the opening two chords of the Eroica symphony, which I always felt to be slightly weedy in this version (certainly compared with the lush recording on the old tape I had of it performed, IIRC, by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan), I am perfectly happy with this set.  I’m sure it’s not the definitive Beethoven symphony cycle recording, if such a thing exists, but it’s good enough for me.

However, when I found a copy of Beethven’s symphonies performed by Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (which I remember watching on TV back in the 1980s, shortly after they were recorded) going for a very reasonable price a few years ago, I snapped them up.  Not only had I (correctly) remembered the Norrington performances as having been excellent but these were pioneers of what, as I recall, was at the time called authentic performance and is now generally referred to as historically informed performance (or HIP) — i.e. they used instruments such as natural trumpets and gut-strung fiddles and aimed to recreate performance practices as they would have been in Beethoven’s own day (such as smaller ensembles and generally faster tempos).  As such, the Norrington recording represented quite a different approach to the works to that taken by the Ljubljana Symphony / Slovak Philharmonic, which stuck to more traditional modern performance practices and instruments (if you’ll forgive the, hopefully intelligible, oxymoron). As a fringe benefit, I also got duplicate copies of 3 of Beethoven’s overtures (Egmont, Coriolan and Prometheus), since these were included in the Norrington set and I already had them on an album of Beethoven overtures performed by Kurt Masur and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

The other work which I purposely bought in two separate versions was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Op. 123).  Again I have a “modern-style” recording by Otto Klemperer with the New Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra and a more HIP style one by John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.  In this case, I can’t remember which one I got first, but I do recall getting the second one as a deliberate contrast to the first.  I enjoy both versions very much, although I’ve not sat down and carefully compared them head to head.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much more of their work I have than any other composers, most of the duplicates in my classical music collection come in the works of Bach and Beethoven (my third favourite, and probably third best represented, is Brahms but I don’t think I yet have more than one copy of anything by him).  However, the single most duplicated piece I have is the Mandolin concerto in C, RV425, by Antonio Vivaldi, of which I have three copies (as well as the sheet music – the solo part is actually quite playable).  One is by Musici di San Marco (dir.  Alberto Lizzio), on a budget label CD of Vivaldi concertos on authentic instruments that I picked up years ago.  Another is by Il Giardino Armonico on a collection of Vivaldi’s mandolin and lute concertos (or rather, concertos featuring those instruments), which I got last year mainly for the Concerto in G for 2 mandolins, RV 532 (when I was getting more seriously into mandolin playing) and the final version came on the CD accompanying the book The Complete Mandolinist by Marilynn Mair (an excellent tutor book, somewhat biased towards classical mandolin playing, and also the source of my sheet music for the Vivaldi concerto).

It is certainly good to listen to different versions of the same piece from time to time, in order to hear different nuances of the music brought out by the different interpretations.  As they say in France, vive la difference!