Sunday, 22 April 2018

Accompanists now!

This feature first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest on all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

In its February 2018 edition (the current issue as I write), Gramophone’s regular ‘Specialist’s Guide’ feature (where a writer recommends recordings sharing a particular theme, genre or style) focuses on ‘Unashamed accompanists’. This is a subject dear to my heart, and I’ve written before about the importance of the pianist in art song.

So I was pleased to see Tully Potter reference a number of contemporary accompanists in his beautifully appreciative introduction. However, all the actual recordings he chooses are, broadly speaking, ‘historical’ – ranging from Michael Raucheisen (born 1889) to spring chicken Graham Johnson, one of our justly-revered elder statemen of song, represented by a 1992 volume in his monumental survey of Schubert lieder for Hyperion Records.

I understand that Potter is a music archivist, which may explain the leaning towards older performances. As this is a knowledge gap for me, I’m looking forward to tracking his selections down. However, I can’t help but feel there’s a place for a companion piece which could point towards some more recent, excellent recordings – highlighting our current generation of accompanists and, hopefully, encouraging readers to go out and hear them live as well as buy the discs. Here’s my attempt at making this selection.

A bit of housekeeping:
  • As I hugely admire everyone I mention, the list is – both democratically and diplomatically – in alphabetical order.
  • I’ve included a Spotify playlist of tracks so that readers can hear the musicians without (at least initially!) breaking the bank. However, where some labels do not feature on Spotify, I’ve tried to ‘recommend around’ the issue, or simply mention some non-playlist recordings along the way. For example, Hyperion’s absence from Spotify had an impact on my choices for Julius Drake and Malcolm Martineau.
I hope you enjoy the recordings.

James Baillieu

‘Chanson Perpetuelle: French Chamber Songs’, with Katherine Broderick.

On this brilliant CD, JB is a superb match for KB’s richness, and in the Debussy I’ve included in the playlist, simply dances around the vocal part – there’s all the push and pull this song about the shore requires. The heft of the ocean and drops of the spray. In the past couple of years, JB has also featured on excellent releases from Benjamin Appl (his debut lieder CD) and Ben Johnson. I’ve also included a glorious track from the latter’s disc of English song, ‘I Heard You Singing’.

Iain Burnside

‘Rachmaninov: Songs’, with various singers – here Ekaterina Siurina.

Surely one of IB’s finest releases, this set of all Rachmaninov’s songs features young Russian singers – who are, understandably, hugely suited to the material, freshness and enthusiasm bursting out of the speakers. I’ve chosen two IB tracks for my playlist – the astonishing ‘Arion’, with the pianist negotiating a heroic series of sudden changes, twists and turns, plus a spectacular Respighi track from Rosa Feola’s debut CD.

Julius Drake

‘Songs by Schubert (Wigmore Hall Live)’, with Ian Bostridge.

One of the most purely exciting accompanists I’ve heard – and seen live. So often, I’ve heard his elemental basslines give the most distinctive, larger-than-life singers the uplift they need to raise the roof. But the necessary restraint is always there, too. The playlist includes this CD’s hell-for-leather version of ‘Auflosung’, as well as the humorous – yet light on its feet – rendition of ‘Fischerweise’ with Matthew Polenzani, also at Wigmore Hall.

Christopher Glynn

‘Percy Grainger: Folk Songs’, with Claire Booth.

Recently, CG has emerged as a strong advocate for the communicative power of English art song, with a recording of Donald Swann’s (non-Flanders) body of work for Hyperion, and this delightful CD with Claire Booth. Clearly a labour of love for both – who have apparently researched and performed Grainger’s music for years – the rapport and affinity for the material are joyously audible.

Gerold Huber

‘Nachtviolen’, with Christian Gerhaher.

It’s a tribute to GH – Gerhaher’s regular accompanist – that when the baritone received the Wigmore Medal, he remarked that if he could he would split the award in two, so he could give half of it to Huber. They have made many recordings together, but this relatively recent album captures their dynamic perfectly. Resisting any urge to over-sentimentalise, GH provides a gently rhythmic counterpart to the bruised beauty of Gerhaher’s voice.

Simon Lepper

‘Nights Not Spent Alone: Complete Works for Mezzo-Soprano by Jonathan Dove’, with Kitty Whately.

This pianist is relatively new to me, but the recordings I know find him surrounding huge voices with supreme agility and dexterity. His Schubert album with tenor Ilker Arcayurek is a superb listen but this set of contemporary compositions with Kitty Whately is a revelation, not least in the bravura performance of ‘The Siren’.

Susan Manoff

‘Neere’, with Veronique Gens.

It still feels all too rare to see women as both singer and accompanist in recital duos. Having heard Gens and Manoff live, it’s easy to project a particularly close dynamic between them, but to me, they do seem to share a special empathy. On this marvellous disc of French song, SM avoids any sense of ‘laissez-faire’, playing with a shining, wilful clarity in support of Gens’s passionate delivery.

Malcolm Martineau

‘Portraits’, with Dorothea Roschmann.

A pianist who seems able to play ‘in character’ as effectively as the singers he accompanies. On this stunning recital album, the version of ‘Gretchen’ – where the piano represents the movement of the spinning wheel – sees his constantly alert approach capture the distracted yet intermittently purposeful work of the lovelorn heroine. To show how astonishingly expressive MM is in French song, I’ve included a live performance of a Debussy melodie with Christiane Karg in the playlist.

Joseph Middleton

‘Fleurs’, with Carolyn Sampson.

Winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2016 Young Artist Award (when he was described as a ‘born collaborator’), JM combines ceaselessly versatile musicianship with a flair for programming. This leads him to create recordings with the wide-ranging appeal of ‘albums’ – and so prolific is he that I’ve included three tracks on the playlist. My top pick represents his ongoing partnership with soprano Carolyn Sampson, their first CD (from 2015) introducing her to art song with some brio, marshalling her reliably gorgeous tone to his dazzling array of accompaniment styles. He is also the backbone of song supergroup, the Myrthen Ensemble, whose double CD ‘Songs to the Moon’ is another piece of brilliant curation. Finally, his night-themed record with Ruby Hughes, ‘Nocturnal Variations’, was one of 2016’s finest discs.

Anna Tilbrook

‘Schubert: Schwanengesang / Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte’, with James Gilchrist.

Another duo who seem to represent a perfect match. I was lucky enough to experience total immersion when first introduced to AT’s playing, as she jointly helmed a full weekend of Schumann and Mendelssohn that also featured Gilchrist, with a guest appearance from Carolyn Sampson. Sadly, the ‘Robert Schumann: Song Cycles’ CD that followed is not on Spotify. Luckily, their Schubert discs are: this lovely song (the final one Schubert wrote) can be over-emotional, even over-prettified – but AT approaches it with poise and precision, every note a distinct chime.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Playing away: ENO outside the Coliseum

Since I last posted, there have been a few sticky moments on 'classical music' social media between critics, composers and performers. I believe there were valid points and genuine misunderstandings on all 'sides' (old hippy that I am) but of course, it all escalated into volleys of tweet-sized trauma. I don't really want to go into further specifics here... it's all out there, I suppose, if you want to find it but, trust me, you don't need to.

Inevitably, though, discussions came up about what a critic actually is (or should be) and does (or should do). I've thought about this a lot, if only because I've felt it important to be clear about what separates what I do - amateur blogging - from actual criticism.

I write with essentially 100% freedom, about what I decide to see and hear - allowing me, as a punter, to focus only on the events and artists I want to. For me personally, that means spending words and energy only on performances and shows I've liked and enjoyed. I feel that if I make a recommendation, there's a chance someone will pick up on it and find something new to investigate or enjoy. If I don't like a recording, performance or exhibition, well (a) who cares, and (b) what good would I achieve by saying so? It doesn't mean I have no critical faculties - I just get far more personal satisfaction out of explaining why I love certain music or art, and communicating that enthusiasm, than I do from slating something.

But critics - in a paid, professional capacity - must venture into darker places. As contributors to journals of record, they must go and see whatever is put on, whether it's something they're drawn to or not, and find a way of placing it in context, judging it fairly, giving praise where they feel it's due, while drawing out any problems or issues. Critics I admire do exactly this. They find a way to present any negative reaction they feel as constructive commentary, and avoid giving offence.

I mention all this because there is one certain area where I feel a little let down by (a few of) the pros: attacks on English National Opera ('ENO'). ENO has been beset by horrendous behind-the-scenes difficulties in recent years, and the management surely deserved all the brickbats it received over (among other things) the shameful treatment of the mighty Chorus, and the dispiritingly swift departure of Mark Wigglesworth, ENO's previous Music Director.

But there is now a new regime in place, and ENO is hopefully starting to pick up the pieces. New chief executive, new artistic director, new music director: all change, in other words. Of course, I can't say if in practical terms, things are getting better or worse for the performers working there - I wouldn't presume. The company is in the middle of a plan to build their productions back up over time, so the 'main season' at their home venue, London's Coliseum, still 'feels' a bit short.

So I was a bit taken aback by a couple of pieces I've seen lately. I won't name names. But one critic recently published a sneery review of 'La traviata', yet still felt the need to devote a large chunk of the piece to an apocalyptic 'WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ENO?' epilogue, plunging the knife back into the wound. Well, what does it mean for ENO? What does the recent, absolutely amazing trio of productions, 'Satyagraha', 'Iolanthe' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' mean for ENO? Wouldn't it have been better if the review had used its whole word count on the production? I also read another piece laying into the recent chief executive appointment, placing it in the context of historically 'ill-judged decisions' by the ENO board. This is about an employee who's been in post for about a fortnight. I don't care how naïve or old-fashioned I sound: I think it's a fairer approach to actually see how someone performs in a role before writing them off.

I'm not trying to say that everyone at ENO is utterly marvellous and incapable of a wrong thought or deed. But in my experience, as an audience member, the people on the stage and in the pit - the people I care about - actually are marvellous. They never give less than their best, even during times when we know they were going through some pretty heavy pressure and uncertainty. And in a brief period when some critics have found that their words have consequences, I wonder how often they consider the effect that this kind of writing might have on the ensemble, and that morale can be chipped away from without as well as within.

So - stepping down from my soapbox - I think it's worth turning our attention to some of the intriguing and appealing productions ENO is presenting over the summer months. Last year, for example, there was the magnificent ENO Studio Live double bill in the company's West Hampstead rehearsal studios: the Chorus taking two short operas by the scruff of the neck and mounting them almost as independent, guerrilla productions. It was glorious.

On offer this year (each one links to the booking page on ENO's website):

'Effigies of Wickedness' at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill - an evening of cabaret consisting of songs banned by the Nazis. (3 May to 2 June.)

ENO Studio Live (BACK! HURRAH!) with:
Handel's 'Acis and Galatea' at Lilian Baylis House, West Hampstead. (9 to 16 June.)
Britten's 'Paul Bunyan' at Wilton's Music Hall. (3 to 8 September.)

More Britten, namely 'The Turn of the Screw' at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. (22 to 30 June.)

And on home turf at the Coliseum, coming up fast, you can still support the company performing in the musical 'Chess', from 26 April to 2 June.

As things stand, I'm going to the ENO Studio Live productions, and we're taking my folks to see 'Chess'. If any of you are seeing these, or the two I can't get to, please report back!

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Dream states: ENO round-up

I confess I'm a little shame-faced while writing this post. Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know that, given the time, I try and give plenty of space to English National Opera productions. Partly, this is because I always feel they're worth writing about, and partly because I'm a passionate (and I know that word is over-used these days, but so be it) supporter of the ENO chorus and orchestra. Whatever the trying circumstances behind the scenes - and there's been no shortage of coverage of that elsewhere - they remain an astonishingly accomplished company of musicians who always give of their best.

At my end, however, a combination of a really heavy time at work, combined with other posts nudging their way in - perhaps they arrived in my head more fully-formed) - has meant that three ENO visits have now gone by before I've managed to write a word about them. Still, I had such a great time at all of them, it would be wrong to simply let them pass by.

The three productions were:
  • 'Satyagraha', the Philip Glass opera surveying key episodes in the life of Gandhi;
  • 'Iolanthe', the manic Gilbert & Sullivan fairytale; and
  • 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Britten's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy.
It was my first time seeing the Glass, which was in fact on its fourth run. I'm not surprised it keeps returning, and I'd be at the front of the queue for a ticket should it come back again. ENO seems to have a special affinity with PG's music, cemented with the breathtaking 'Akhnaten' production from 2016. Both stagings are collaborations with theatre troupe Improbable, who field a 'skills ensemble' covering all the bases between mime, movement, dance and acrobatics. The latest 'Satyagraha' also benefits from Karen Kamensek on the podium - steeped in Glass's music, after making her ENO debut with 'Akhnaten', and then conducting the brilliant realisation of Glass's album with Ravi Shankar, 'Passages' at the 2017 Proms.

I adore Glass, but at the same time, I accept that he is divisive: for everyone like me, who hears and rejoices in intricate cycles and patterns, there is someone else who finds him dull and repetitive. You can't always change the way you listen to something, so I'm not out to make converts. But I do feel that if one were to try and 'turn' a Glassphobic, the music must be brilliantly conducted - and this is what KK does. She keeps the orchestra motoring like absolute clockwork, while bringing alive every dynamic shift and nuance.

(The Chorus in 'Satyagraha', photo by Donald Cooper)

For me, part of the power of Glass's music is that it uses its regularity to, in fact, play with time. Events can speed up, or stand still. As the sequences stretch out, you have time to appreciate the artistry of Improbable and director Phelim McDermott as endlessly inventive visual motifs fill the stage. McDermott explains the use of newspaper and corrugated iron as key materials linked with Gandhi's environment - the oppression of both opinion and poverty - but this is just the start. Giant puppets form an imposing crowd, while the silent 'icons' (the historical figures that provide a linked focal point for each act) are either still or move in slow motion against the 'normal' speed of the protagonists. The skills performers move with such precision that they can hold up scraps of newsprint to receive caption projections. And the meticulous score does not preclude cast and chorus injecting the sacred text of the libretto (adapted from the Bhagavada Gita) with real emotion - especially in the prayers of Toby Spence's superb Gandhi.

Gilbert & Sullivan offer something of a contrast - and if I was only covering these two performances, I'd have been tempted to call the post "Is there anything the ENO Chorus cannot do?" Productions ranging from the aforementioned 'Akhnaten' (where they trained up in some of the acrobatic movement and juggling skills used by Improbable) through the truly memorable ensembles of 'The Winter's Tale', 'Marnie', 'Jenufa', 'Pirates of Penzance' ... not to mention the fantastic ENO Studio Live 2017 double-header of 'The Day After' and 'Trial by Jury'... All of these point time and time again to their collective brilliance not only as singers but also physical actors - each able to present a fully-formed individual character amid the throng: forget any notion of a nebulous mass - these are always real people with real personalities.

Wittily dividing the chorus by gender into frisky fairies and pompous peers - due for a mass romantic collision course by the end of the evening - the action of 'Iolanthe' proved the perfect vehicle for their comic talents.

(Fairies meet peers, photo by Clive Barda)

Again benefiting from genre-specific expertise (as with Improbable for a visual approach to Glass), specialist farceur Cal McCrystal was hired to direct this new production. This resulted in a show that would have been laugh-out loud funny even if silent - highlights included the questionably harsh treatment of an inquisitive flamingo, tenor Ben Johnson's 'Tosca' moment (both balletic and bathetic, as he plummets in tragic mode from the top of a carriage), and the old-school slapstick of a pair of confused stagehands, trying valiantly to move sheep around the scenery but rendered blind by their - literally - all-over bodysuits. I'm actually going to refrain from singling out soloists from a cast who clearly understood that controlled chaos like this stands or falls on timing and teamwork: all involved seemed to radiate joy, singing gloriously with heart and humour, while gamely abandoning dignity in the service of comedy. I'm sure this one will be back as well.

Finally, no ENO Chorus, sadly, for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'... although this time, the small ensemble of fairies was Tiffin Boys Choir, smartly suited and booted as a rather more regimented and efficient team than 'Iolanthe's sprites. Britten's intimate, yet playful adaptation was given hauntingly surreal life by this Robert Carsen production (which dates back to 1991). As a concept, it's almost deceptively on the nose - the opening act is staged on a gigantic bed, immediately referencing the possibility that everything in the play is in fact a dream. But it's the stylised use of colour that clinches it: the blue back wall and green sheets are in fact sky and forest. Subsequent acts give us different perspectives on this essential idea, and I won't spoil the coup de theatre towards the end for anyone who might get the chance to see this in the future.

Colour is also used symbolically in the costumes to round out the characters. Oberon, clothed in green, is able to lay down completely camouflaged to the oblivious lovers around him. The lovers themselves, initially in splendid white, gradually lose layers of this apparel as the night goes on. As the forest strips them of their urbanity, green stains from the foliage appear and expand on the clothing they have left.

(Lovers in the forest - photo by Robert Workman)

Britten also uses the score for characterisation: I'd already read that the overall mood varies depending on who is currently in focus: ethereal for the fairies, more tender for the couples and folkish for the 'mechanicals'. But it was interesting to hear his treatment of individuals, too - Oberon is a countertenor role (played here by the commanding Christopher Ainslie), conveying both his authority and otherworldliness. The bass-baritone of Bottom gives him the 'lowliness' his name requires but with his aspirational-actor's agility to try to take on every other part as well - Joshua Bloom was endearingly bolshy in the role and pricked the character enough to show the vulnerability behind the self-promotion and misplaced confidence. The soprano playing Tytania (here a captivating Soraya Mafi) is enraptured into coloratura while besotted with Bottom. 

I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, but for me, so far, ENO has been on fire. All three of these evenings were set in a kind of paranormal, other universe from our standard reality; and all three did what all great entertainment, opera or otherwise, can achieve - transport me, rapt, into another, more heightened zone for a few precious hours. Bliss.

(All photos taken from the ENO website.)

Sunday, 25 March 2018

L’après-midi...: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Debussy

I'm currently experiencing one of my wakeful, post-gig highs, sitting up typing, some time after getting back from what I think was probably a near-perfect concert.

As I begin this post, it is still - just - the exact 100th anniversary of Debussy's death. This centenary year will no doubt feature a host of recordings, reissues and live events honouring the composer (we're already two 'Complete Works' box-sets into the year, and it's only March!)... but it's already difficult to imagine another experience immersing us so successfully into Debussy's world in quite the way that today's recital did.

(Photograph of JEB by Benjamin Ealovega.)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is regarded as one of Debussy's leading champions and interpreters. He has recorded the complete piano works for Chandos (all the individual CD releases are now available in a handsome box), so he was a natural choice to put this programme together for the Barbican. As you can see from the page image below, it was a proper Claude-a-thon: a really generous selection taking us from early afternoon into mid-evening.

You might also notice that a speaker is credited - Roger Nichols, an expert in the French repertoire. The idea was to supplement the performances with introductions from RN, and conversation between RN and the pianist. Sadly, RN had to pull out of the event at short notice due to illness - but the Barbican's classical music programmer, Paul Greene, did a sterling job of filling in.

Perhaps this goes without saying for those who have heard Bavouzet perform before - but I was absolutely awestruck by his dynamic range, lightness of touch, speed, wit, precision and - even in the most abstract selections - emotional intensity. The intimacy was only heightened by the event taking place in the Barbican's 'chamber' venue, Milton Court. Hearing so much music in one sitting, and being able to see what he was doing so closely, really brought home his virtuosity - the wide array of colours he brings to the work, yet with so consistent an approach.

But it soon became clear that JEB is an eloquent communicator with words as well as music. Greene proved a perceptive and appreciative interviewer (especially considering he only had a couple of hours to prepare), and his well-chosen prompts steered the pianist into one brilliantly unexpected insight or reflection after another. You couldn't ask for a more enthusiastic or evangelical guide through Debussy's music - JEB gave us a mixture of historical anecdote, in-depth analysis of compositional techniques and comparisons to other composers (technical expertise worn very lightly), and - best of all - would talk to us from the piano, willing to play over various excerpts to clarify the points he was making.

I soon realised that even after four or so hours in his company, I could happily have listened to Bavouzet continue playing - and speaking - long into the night. Perhaps BBC Radio 3 could commission him to do a series on Debussy before the year's celebrations are over?

That may be a pipedream, but for now, perhaps I can perform one service for those of you who couldn't make the gig. JEB's Debussy box set is on Spotify - so, drawn from that survey, here is today's set 'reconstructed' into a playlist. Dive in...

Monday, 12 March 2018

Ten for today

In my Facebook feed a couple of weeks back: "The challenge - post the covers of 10 albums (one a day) that are among your favourites. No explanations."

Social media is, of course, full-to-bursting with quiz/game/list memes like this, and I'm sure many of you will have seen or taken part in this one, or at least a variation of it. Whether or not I dive in seems to depend almost solely on my mood at the time, but I do find a musical list very hard to resist.

The trouble for the enthusiast/obsessive/maniac is narrowing the selection down to 10. I don't have 10 'favourite albums', or, if I do, it's a different 10 albums every day. For every one I picked, there was an imaginary pile of records that could easily have taken its place. Torture.

Even looking back over the choices I just made, I've left out entire genres that I love, let alone individual titles. I wonder if this is because there's something subconscious that makes one desperate for people to like their selections. For example, without even realising it along the way, I haven't included any of the scary jazz or extreme metal that I love - this can only be a kind of accidental self-editing, an acknowledgement that you wouldn't necessarily press your more 'out there' favourites into the hands of others. For now, I can only promise myself that another time, I'll go a bit more 'in your face'.

Also, the 'no explanations' bit was hard to stick to. Here, however, it's my party* (*blog) and I'll cry** (**blather on) if I want to - so for posterity, here is my choice of 10 superb albums, with a few words of rationale and a sample track for each in the playlist at the end.. Hope you enjoy them. (Maybe I should do this again in six months' time - I wonder if the list would be entirely transformed...?)


Roxy Music: 'Stranded'

One of my very favourite bands. The aptly-named 'Stranded' seems to occupy a limbo between the 'Eno years' strangeness of the first two albums and the no less brilliant rock sophistication that was to follow. Transitional, and all the better for it: 'Mother of Pearl' alone sounds like it was made by two different groups simultaneously.

Mekons: 'Journey to the End of the Night'

There is no other band like the Mekons. From art-punk beginnings in 1977 Leeds, they relocated to Chicago and expanded their sound into a glorious mesh of rock and roll, folk and especially Americana. Still going strong to this day, they glory in a number of fine vocalists - in particular, the heart-melting tones of Sally Timms. This album from 2000 is gritty, yet somehow delightful - encapsulating the band themselves.

Emmylou Harris: 'Wrecking Ball'

Everything about this record clicked. The singer - already recognised as one of modern music's finest voices - ready to move outside her comfort zone. A producer whose signature sound was the aural equivalent of a wide open landscape. And a set of songs that seemed to find a home together for the first time. One listen and this record seems to take you in its arms.

Talking Heads: 'More Songs about Buildings and Food'

Another group I felt could do no wrong - so hard to pick just one album. But this record - their second - foreshadows the rhythmic triumphs that would come later, without losing that distinctive, wiry nerviness.

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: 'Songs by Schubert (Wigmore Hall Live)'

To me, this is the exact classical equivalent of one of those rare live albums in rock music that succeeds in conveying the excitement of being there. Two absolute specialists, with a brilliant rapport, bringing an incredible level of energy to these lieder - Bostridge always sings like he's living every word, and Drake spurs him on.

Kate Bush: 'The Sensual World'

Perhaps an unusual choice for one's favourite Kate Bush album. Following on from the massive 'Hounds of Love' (plus the compilation released in its wake, 'The Whole Story'), it mght feel a little low-key, self-contained. I love it - the can take their time to seep into your consciousness but once there, they stay put. To this day, the title track makes me a little, er, 'distracted', and elsewhere some luxury piano playing, sinister electronic vocals and the divine participation of the Trio Bulgarka lend the record classic status.

Keith Jarrett: 'Vienna Concert'

I still remember my university room-mate telling me, 'I'm not kidding you. This is what he does - nothing fully prepared. He just sits in front of the piano, and plays.' Then he put on the Vienna concert. Part one is some 40 minutes of unbroken sound, such melody, energy and facility, seemingly out of nowhere. As soon as I could, I went out and bought my own copy.

Billy Bragg: 'Workers Playtime'

Billy Bragg may have sung 'There is Power in a Union', but however well known he is for politics and protest, it's possibly the union - or lack of it - between lovers that brings out his best writing. I have always loved this album so dearly: for its ability to examine relationships with unsentimental tenderness; for its generosity in giving me songs I could pick out, play and sing.

The Handsome Family: 'Through the Trees'

20 years young, this bold, inventive record is still among the band's best - if not THE best - but that's a hard thing to judge with such a fine catalogue. Husband-and-wife team Rennie and Brett Sparks represent a meeting of two very distinct hearts and minds: she is responsible for the lyrics - which are really finely-turned, eerie short stories, as if Shirley Jackson had joined a folk band. He sets them to stately, catchily sinister tunes. From the unforgettable imagery of the opening song - as deranged Indians drag burning wood through a forest - the album's explorations of ordinary and extraordinary madness grip from first minute to last.

Anna Calvi: 'Anna Calvi'

A relatively recent choice, representing the acts that from time to time - after all my immersion in classical music, opera, jazz and so on - bring me crashing back into indie fandom as I fall in love all over again with a Proper Star. How thrilling it is when someone arrives, seemingly fully-formed: an incredible voice, an unusual and alluring sound (a trio of spine-tingling electric guitar, harmonium and drums), an indelible image - and above all, a sense of 'I was born to do this and NOTHING ELSE' drama.


Monday, 26 February 2018

Across the elements: 'The Kick Inside' play the songs of Kate Bush

It's hard to overstate what Kate Bush's music means to me - she is definitely one of my 'touchstone' artists, one of the cherished few who Can Do No Wrong. But as so often with these things, it's about more than the records themselves; it's to do with age, time and memory. Her career is so oddly shaped. The songs poured out of her in her youth, filling three brilliant albums between 1978 and 1980. But the fourth record, 'The Dreaming', a collection of searingly strange masterpieces, like 10 pieces of audio-only performance art, took until 1982 - and seemed to bring on a kind of creative exile.

I started listening as a near-teenager when 'Hounds of Love' came out three years later. These gradually-increasing gaps between albums were not as common then as they are now. For many listeners, KB had essentially disappeared, and this was a triumphant 'comeback'. Archive shows these days give you the impression that she was more or less a regular on programmes like Terry Wogan's chat show, staging each new single like a miniature play. 'The Whole Story' - an odd, all-too-brief hits collection - was released to take advantage of this imperial phase: so this new fan suddenly had a way into all the previous albums, too. Obviously, it was like entering another universe: many people will readily agree that KB's music is original, otherworldly; but for a boy grappling with puberty, it was also a window into the feminine, a kind of delicate power that I could barely make sense of at the time, but addictive, welcoming and beautiful.

And then, the silences. When you're 12, a four-year wait for an album is a lifetime. 'The Sensual World' arrived when I was 16, 'The Red Shoes' when I was 20. For me, the appearance of a Kate Bush album was like the monolith from '2001' turning up in HMV (and invariably, had as profound an effect). Every different record found me as a different person. And these absences made the heart grow oh-so-fonder. When I was a student, I even wrote a song about falling in love with Kate Bush, which - with a student's innate grasp of subtlety and nuance - was called 'Falling in Love with Kate Bush'.

Why go into all this? Because of a wonderful debut concert I had the pleasure of attending yesterday evening, by 'The Kick Inside' - a duo who, in their own words, 'celebrate Kate Bush's early career'. Not everything is quite as it seems, as 'The Kick Inside' is in fact an alter-ego of one of my favourite bands, Raf and O. (I wrote about their most recent, superb album 'Portal' here.) In their normal incarnation, the gossamer mix of Raf's voice and guitar, and 'O's drums, phased, treated and suffused until the songs sound unearthly yet intimate, give the impression that you are listening in on music that might be from another dimension. Utterly human, but thrillingly unfamiliar, off-kilter, evolved. The realisation struck me that Raf and O's music has a similar effect on me now that KB's albums did then: glimpses into the unknown followed by immersion in a unique sound.

So, when I heard that Raf and O were creating a Kate Bush side-project, it already felt like a perfect fit - in particular, who better than Raf to negotiate the swoons and swoops of those highwire melodies? The format for 'The Kick Inside' is, on the surface, more conventional: Raf, seated, sings at the electric piano and 'O' plays the double bass on most, but not all, the numbers. The opening 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes', performed by Raf solo, seems to set out their stall: even the most piano-led KB tracks had embellishments, but this was shorn of any distraction, a pure, commanding rendition. Just as 'Raf-as-Kate' sports a look that suggests KB without any hint of costume or fancy dress, so the vocals never become an imitation or pastiche: it's simply that Raf's voice is so well-suited to the songs.

The project also seems to have sprung to life fully-formed, with arrangements that sound like much more than the sum of their parts. You would think the pair had been doing this for years. Tunes like 'Them Heavy People', 'Hammer Horror' or 'Babooshka' have all the bounce and snap of the originals thanks to 'O's agile, percussive basslines snaking their way around Raf's rhythmic piano. It's a testament to both Raf and 'O's musicianship in finding the exact pieces of the jigsaw to ensure nothing is missing - and to the indestructibility of the songs themselves.

As an overall performance, it was one of the most carefully and effectively put together sets I have seen for a long time. When I read that phrase 'early career', I initially thought we would hear material from the first two or three albums. This seemed sensible given the modest set-up, and also a nice incidental complement to the fact that KB played no material from that far back in her remarkable 2014 run of live shows. For the first half of the evening, this proved to be the case - although the last song of 'part 1' dropped some intriguing hints. 'Breathing', a song imagining a poisonous nuclear winter, originally featured an ambient, eerie middle section, which here, the duo tackle with an abstract instrumental passage that fits the bill perfectly.

And after a breather, they were back, and a short while into the second set, conjured up some next-level magic. 'Sat in Your Lap', from 'The Dreaming'. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The twisted 'Take 5' riff, the noisy, jerky, stop-start rhythm - it was all there. Immediately after this, we were treated to 'Running up That Hill', with 'O' strumming the bass strings to suggest the thunderous drums, Raf somehow providing almost robotic chiming chords to fill in the sound and deliver an astounding vocal as well.

I was in raptures to hear my favourite KB song, 'Suspended in Gaffa' (another 'Dreaming' selection) brought to such lovingly intricate life - and I don't think any of us were expecting a finale of 'Cloudbusting': 'O' switching to a single drum, the electric piano under Raf's hands finding the circular string riff. In all the duo's interpretations of these later, more ambitious and certainly more technology-heavy Kate Bush tracks - nothing was missed. It wasn't even that I spent the gig wondering quite how they were doing it (although I did afterwards!) - I had almost stopped noticing. It seemed that the songs were just as happy existing like this, every idea present and correct, every corner explored and feature deployed, but in this stripped-down, intense form. 

The clues were already there in 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes'. Already so expert in suggesting parallel musical worlds with their own music, Raf and O as 'The Kick Inside' show us another alternative reality: where Kate Bush still wrote all those spectacular songs, but was never seduced by technology, submerged in band arrangements or occasionally dated production, perhaps never even became a perfectionist, or near-recluse. In this other dimension, she never stayed away from the stage for three decades - instead, she's out there, performing for the love of it, seeing the effect the sheer immediacy of her words and music has on the audience. Hearing this spellbinding show, I re-connected with all those memories I mentioned at the start of this post, and this made them into something new: a collision of past and present, thanks to 'The Kick Inside' sounding so like KB on the one hand, yet so like themselves on the other. I can't wait to experience it again.


You can read more about 'The Kick Inside' on their website here - and go here to listen to a session they recorded for Resonance FM.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Be still my beating heart: Barb Jungr and John McDaniel perform Sting

Yet again I have the pleasure of writing about Barb Jungr, after seeing her perform her latest collaboration with John McDaniel, ‘Float Like A Butterfly’, at the Pizza Express jazz venue The Pheasantry last night.

A brief re-cap: ‘jazz singer’ is possibly the closest short description of what Barb J does, but it’s nowhere near comprehensive enough. She's a gifted writer herself, but is perhaps best known as one our finest interpreters of song - especially those written by men, it seems. I think this may be because her ability to be robust and tender all at once is exactly what’s needed to find the chink in the chaps’ suits of armour. On justly-lauded recordings that focus on Dylan and, latterly, Cohen songs in particular, she dissects the bodies of work of these most inscrutable artists, performing a kind of open heart surgery on them, giving them new life. To see her live is to witness a masterclass of songcraft, storytelling - even stand-up. It's always struck me that - God forbid - if she ever fancied a break from singing, she could tour a spoken-word show and still hold the audience in the palm of her hand.

Her latest collaborator is musical director, producer, composer and - crucially for our purposes - frighteningly-accomplished arranger and pianist John McDaniel. They make a brilliant pairing, because what might at first seem like a case of 'opposites attract' - Barb J can be cheeky, outrageous, controversial and even confrontational, while John McD seems the model of unruffled urbanity at the keys - soon coalesces into something more intricate and complex, as their styles mesh into something uniquely affecting and compelling. She draws out his inner 'frontman'; he gives her the foundation to soar. (Onstage, she jokes that after expecting his professionalism to rub off on her, he's ended up adopting her bad habits!)

Previously, the duo created a set and accompanying CD of Beatles interpretations - which I wrote about at the time - but this new project is perhaps more left-field (of gold): the songs of Sting. (Hence the show's title.) In a brilliant introduction, BJ undercuts any potential eyebrow-raising by suggesting upfront people's reasons for not taking Sting seriously: daft name; too successful by half; and inevitably, the tantric sex. Personally, I could add more. My prejudice, I know, but as someone who listens freely across genres and quite likes it when musicians mix it up, I wish his foray into lute music hadn't felt quite so 'hobbyist'. And there's the pretentiousness: the sleeve-notes of '...Nothing Like The Sun' (even those three dots before the title! Aaargh!) are a high watermark of the genre - once read, never forgotten.

But - as BJ goes on to point out - look at his track record. A 40-odd year career, with way more than its fair share of unforgettable songs. And I could identify with this fannish feeling, too: I absolutely adored the Police, and I particularly cherish those first two Sting solo albums. They somehow combined his old band's 70s-into-80s pop nous with the restless feeling of a musician who wanted to stretch out a bit but couldn't quite settle on where, or how. I think this is how you end up with a debut referencing blue turtles in the title, and including bursts of late-night jazz, reggae and Prokofiev - so the world, buying it by the truckload, at the same time mutters, 'Oh come on, mate.'

But I also recalled certain Sting-related things I'd read - for example, the Police were such adept and versatile musicians that there are no guests at all - whatever the instruments used - on any of their albums. Or the fact that they performed on their reunion tour (still one of the most memorable gigs of my life) as a three-piece: stripped of any production mush, the songs were indestructible, in that sparse a format, in stadiums.

(John McDaniel, Barb Jungr: photo from BJ's website by Isaak Berliner)

So it starts to become clear how two consummate reinventors of seemingly familiar music would be drawn to the Sting catalogue, identifying some of its most compelling highlights, drawing them out and nailing them down. As soon as the show started, it was obviously so special that - in the midst of my enjoyment - I almost started to worry that I wouldn't remember all of the great moments, the touches of genius that decorated every number.

I think the show differed slightly in 'character' from the Beatles evening, because those songs are already worshipped - if anything, they were re-examining the sacred. Here, you could detect a sense of missionary zeal as if aware that for some listeners, they would be making a case for the material. As such, they were a Formidable Unit. It's hard to imagine two performers more determinedly in sync. Immaculate two-part harmonies, sometimes sustained for virtually entire songs, inventively exploiting her deeper, fuller timbre against his lighter tones. Moments where BJ would embellish the basic tune - one I keep thinking about is the 'Confront your enemies, avoid them when you can' lyric from 'Englishman in New York', where on 'avoid' she found something else in the melody, and JMcD instantly mirrored it in his accompaniment, the songs seemingly effortlessly wrapping themselves around his fingers.

The arrangements were ceaselessly arresting. 'King of Pain', in its Police format, is a rigid, numbed song, and here both performers sang the tune with less predictable rhythms, pushing against the steady accompaniment and making it feel even more wracked. 'Roxanne' became a demonstration of the possibilities of serious cabaret... the pair first dialling the original's pop sheen down into the lament its subject matter merits, then - just when you think it couldn't travel any further - Barb J tells a story from her youth that makes a perfect, poignant fit. John McD continues playing - surely one of the hardest musical tasks in the word, to accompany someone who is simply speaking, without unbalancing the mood or masking the voice. With split-second timing, they break back into the song as if connected telepathically. 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' was breathtakingly sinister, the verse building and building the tension until the muted, repeated line of the closing chorus (under dim lights) suggests anything from resignation to psychosis.

On a personal note, I have to say that in places it was as if the duo had reached into my head and plucked out my favourite Sting songs. 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' becomes something definitively great, here performed by one of the finest vocalists we have, capturing the undead narrator's internal conflict, resignation, despair and ennui. And - in case you thought it was all doom and gloom - I was overjoyed beyond measure when they launched into 'Fortress Around Your Heart', a joyous, celebratory rendition that lifted the Pheasantry's basement ceiling a good few inches.

It was a magnificent evening. I think it's safe to say that everyone there left on a colossal high. It made me realise that firstly, there isn't anything these two cannot do. Secondly, and fittingly, it reminded me that this is a songwriter that has always aimed - at the risk of seeming too clever by half, on occasion - to reach both the brain and the heart together. In the care of this duo, however, he more than succeeded.

Some excellent news to end with - the CD of this show is on its way, scheduled for a June release, with the promise of more gigs to accompany it. I will shout more loudly about these on here (and on Twitter, too) nearer the time. In the meantime, you can keep track of Barb Jungr's live dates - and explore her many and varied other achievements - on her website, here.