Saturday, 22 January 2011

Simple pleasures nr 10: HD television

If you are about my age - which means not extremely young anymore - you will remember the first television broadcasts; the entire family gathered every evening in front of the miniscule telly in order to watch the favourite black and white programmes. Now - in  my case - over half a century later, we have enormous flat screens with High Definition quality picture and sound. A change to the better, which we, at least in my opinion, have to be grateful for.

Nowadays I watch mostly German language HD channels. The two main channels Erste and ZDF are technically of a very high quality, but they seldom show anything of great interest to myself - although they sometimes (particularly at Christmas time) surprise by broadcasting great concerts of classical music, opera and documentaries. My favourite HD channel is the German-French ARTE, which offers a great selection of high quality arts programmes and documentaries. Thanks to the HD technique, the picture quality is amazing. It is particularly fascinating to watch concert broadcasts and nature programmes.

Another German language HD channel is Austrian Servus TV, which in my opinion has the best HD picture quality of them all, although not all of their programmes are interesting from my point of view.

Then there is the additional bonus, that even the old dvd:s look great on HD equipment. The old classic "An American in Paris" looked like a new film, when I watched it on my HD blueray player the other day.

So, I say thank you to all of you out there somewhere, who have worked hard in order to give us the possibility to enjoy high quality HD television!

Friday, 21 January 2011

Two great duets

Sometimes two voices - even if the singers are great individually - just don´t sound good together. And vice versa, when the voices blend well together, the result is heavenly music, like these two favourites of mine:

The great Tony Bennett and K.D. Lang sing "Le Vie en Rose"

Eugenia León and the outstanding Mexican operatic tenor Ramón Vargas in  "Bésame Mucho"

PS (23.1.2011)
I thought a third famous duet should be added. Listen to this legendary recording of the Pearl Fishers duet with Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Antique maps

Nova Delineatto Totius Orbis Terrarum Per Petrum Vander Aa. (18th century)

'Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of traveling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.'
Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote (1605-15).

I have always been fascinated by old maps. Their beautifully drawn, hand coloroured details are pleasing to the eye. At the same time antique maps illustrate bygone times in a stimulating way. One also must admire the skill of the famous mapmakers who were able to produce quite accurate maps at a time when there were no GPS or other advanced technical instruments at their disposal. Of course, even the best mapmakers - like Gerard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius - tooks certain liberties, as Mathew Lyons points out in his very readable little book "Impossible Journeys":

"Not content to rely on gossip they picked upon quaysides, or scraps of third-hand information allegedly culled from antique texts, the mapmakers had no ethical problems when it came to inking in areas on their maps that they thought ought to exist. While our understanding of mapmaking would usually be confined to the careful marking of the known, medieval and Renaissance cartographers had a rather more generous conception of their role.They were philosophical geographers. Worse, perhaps, they were theoretical philosophical geographers. They liked to extrapolate, on the basis of fashionable theory, what might be out there, still undiscovered. While some were happy to let unknown coasts stay unmarked - the unbroken lines of peninsulas, points and coves tailing off, like loose threads or trains of thought, in open space - others had no apparent qualms about setting down their ideas and sending them out into the world, as if to say `This is so.´

Lyons goes on to name some interesting examples of early  "creative" mapmaking,  like e.g. Terra Australis Incognita (corresponding to Antarctica), which figured in different forms in many famous maps, although no human being is known to have seen Antarctica before 1820.

Detail from map of the Turkish Empire, 1606

Map of Moscow, 16th century

If you are interested in learning more about old maps, the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin is a good place to start.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Czech beer - still going strong

“A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it's better to be thoroughly sure.”

Czech saying

Having lived in Prague for four years, I learned to appreciate Czech beer. Although the new international owners of some wellknown Czech breweries have done their best in order to give also Czech beers the international taste of euro-beers, they have fortunately not been 100% succesful. Pilsner Urquell still has got its own taste, and the same can be said about the Czech owned Bernard beer, which is one of my personal favourites. Also the Moravian Starobrno brewery makes excellent beers.

But the most interesting Czech beers are the ones brewed by the minibreweries, which have become quite popular in recent years:

 There is another positive outlook – the rising number of minibreweries where one can find not only the “Czech” lagers but many other honestly produced and professionally treated beers, such as ale, weissbier, bock, porter, stout and most amazing other experimental brands. Such a boom in the beer culture is bound to last.
Just a remark: there was only one single minibrewery that survived the era of communist mass production – that of the tourist-besieged U Fleku – which is also the oldest Czech brewery with a continuous commercial history since 1499. At present there are approximately 80 small breweries and family-operated microbreweries (if we deduct for subcontractors and educational beer facilities), which surpass in number the 48 industrially operated big breweries that have been on a downslide due to competition. Is it a comeback to the previous style of beer brewing when at the beginning of the 20th century there were in Bohemia and Moravia nearly 400 breweries?

Read the entire article on the Czech Beer Tours page.

(U medvídků)

My favourite minibrewery in Prague is U medvídků, where they brew Oldgott, an excellent bottomfermented half-dark lager. If you visit Prague, don´t miss to try out Oldgott!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Traveling by freighter

Usually I write about things that I enjoy - or have enjoyed. Today I want to draw your attention to something I would like to do (hopefully in the near future): To travel by a freighter that accepts passengers. As I am not the kind of person who enjoys hundreds - or even thousands - of fellow passengers, I think that traveling by freighter probably would be ideal for myself. Lots of time to enjoy the sceneries, read, listen to music, eat and drink without having to participate in all kinds of organised events ....

An excellent introduction to life aboard a freighter taking passengers:

There is much to choose from when it comes to routes and destinations starting from coastal lines in the Mediterranean to around the world trips lasting up to three months. Here are some of the sites that specialise in freighter trips for passengers:

For my planning I have also ordered this book, which should be good reading.

If and when my plans will actually materialise, I will certainly let you know ....

Monday, 17 January 2011

Aksel Schiøtz - a great Danish tenor

Aksel Schiøtz (1906-1975) is probably not as wellknown as many other famous post World War II tenors - but he would deserve to be. Particularly Schiøtz is remembered as a great lieder singer. His recordings of Schubert´s and Schumann´s lieder are real treasures. However, when the Nazis invaded Denmark he refused requests to sing German lieder realising that his performances would be used as propaganda. Instead he began performing and recording Danish songs - both folk and art songs. These recordings soon became very popular in Denmark and are still loved by friends of Danish music.

Schiøtz´s career as singer had several tragic moments. In 1946 he had an operation of the acoustic nerve, which left one side of his face partly paralysed. In most cases this would have ended a singer´s career, but through a strong will-power Schiøtz was able to make a comeback in 1948. Only two years later he was again operated, this time for a brain tumour. The operation was succesful, and the singer could return to singing - now as a baritone - but he soon found out that his voice had suffered. Later Schiøtz established himself as a highly regarded teacher of singing in he US, Canada and Denmark.

Here you can listen to Schiøtz sing three songs from Schumann´s Dichterliebe.

Schiøtz´s version of Carl Nielsen´s song "Den milde dag" (The gentle day) is a wonderful example of his recordings of Danish songs.

Fortunately, many of Aksel Schiøtz´s recordings are still available.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Rififi - a film noir masterpiece

The other day I rewatched Jules Dassin´s Film Noir masterpiece "Rififi" (1955), which now is available on dvd with fully restored picture and sound. And what a great movie it is! No wonder François Truffaut called it "The best Film Noir I´ve ever seen".

Here is a brief summary of Rififi (by one of IMD:s contributors), in case you have not seen the film:

After five years in prison, Tony le Stéphanois meets his dearest friends Jo and the Italian Mario Ferrati and they invite Tony to steal a couple of jewels from the show-window of the famous jewelry Mappin & Webb Ltd, but he declines. Tony finds his former girlfriend Mado, who became the lover of the gangster owner of the night-club L' Âge d' Or Louis Grutter, and he humiliates her, beating on her back and taking her jewels. Then he calls Jo and Mario and proposes a burglary of the safe of the jewelry. They invite the Italian specialist in safes and elegant wolf Cesar to join their team and they plot a perfect heist. They are successful in their plan, but the D. Juan Cesar makes things go wrong when he gives a valuable ring to his mistress.

The famous safe-cracking sequence, without spoken words or music, that occupies a fourth of the film´s running time shows Dassin´s greatness as a film director. It has been said that the Paris police briefly banned the movie, because they feared that it could be used as an instruction manual by real criminals. But Dassin does not in any way glamorize robbery or the criminals - on the contrary.

The great Jean Servais is outstanding as Tony le Stéphanois, and the other actors also are top class. Buy the dvd if you want an unforgettable film evening!

Here you can watch the wellknown song sequence in "Rififi":