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.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Dark star

As regular visitors here will know, I also use this blog as an archive for my 'other' hobby - photography, especially portraiture. I'm fortunate to have a group of friends who are willing 'victims' (or, as I prefer to call them, 'subjects'), and I find collaborating with them a constant source of inspiration. My friend Al is also a keen camera-wielder (her street photography is, in my view, breathtakingly sharp) and always brings ideas and art-direction nous to the enterprise.

After taking some eerie, slightly surreal outdoor shots in the past, we wanted to see if we could push the atmosphere further with the barest minimum of visual clutter. So here, we used an expanse of off-white wall, a largely black wardrobe, a few props, a lot of hair and a veritable frenzy of filters to see what we could come up with. I hope you enjoy the portraits.


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

"A singing nation": Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Writing a brief post in the middle of the night, as I'm still on something of a high from hearing the wonderful Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir perform at Milton Court - the Barbican's young and sprightly smaller-scale venue - this evening. (I owe the title of this post to Estonia's Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, no less, who was a guest of honour at tonight's concert.)

Ever since taking a trip to Tallinn some years ago, I've had a bit of a long distance love affair with Estonia. Mrs Specs and I still haven't managed to realise our plan to go back and see more of the country - but in the meantime I've been keeping the flame alive largely through enjoying a handsome amount of Estonian music. (Particularly helpful here was the superb Eesti Fest at King's Place in London, curated by Fiona Talkington of BBC Radio 3's 'Late Junction'.)

This hasn't been strictly limited to classical works. For example, Estonia is home to some brilliantly individual folk/black metal bands, among them Loits, Human Ground, Taak and Metsatöll. I managed to see Metsatöll live when they came over to the UK, and they were astonishing. Most of the members looked as you might expect metallers to look: all hair and guitar. Yet one of them took the stage seemingly wearing every type imaginable of Estonian traditional instrument, overlaying the riffs with all manner of exotic (to me) sounds and textures.

But we're concerned with classical here. The most widely-known (and perhaps as a result, most widely-loved) Estonian composer is almost certainly Arvo Pärt. But joining him on the must-listen roll-call are Tõnu Kõrvits, Cyrillus Kreek, Veljo Tormis and Errki-Sven Tüür.

(Photo of the EPCC by Kaupo Kikkas, from the Choir's website.)

Tonght's concert was one of the year's first to commemorated Estonia's 100th birthday - and the EPCC had chosen to perform a more or less all-Estonian programme. (The exceptions were two pieces by Jonathan Harvey - both quite lovely but, in my opinion, slightly out of place.)

The first half was given over to the hypnotic serenity of Pärt's music, highlights for me being the 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc dimittis' that appear on the Choir's latest recording, along with the powerfully direct 'The Woman with the Alabaster Box'. These glorious rendition inspired a somewhat devout response from the audience, held rapt, with no applause given (or invited) until the interval. The second half was a bit more chilled out - and gave full rein to the Choir's versatility. Alongside the Harvey, we heard a pair of gorgeous Psalm settings by Kreek, and finally two pieces by Tormis. The closing song was a tour de force: the mythological, almost surreal 'Raua needmine', or 'Curse upon Iron', which gave us a pounding, ritualistic drum (one of the tenors having the time of his life), underpinning evocative and at times terrifying vocal effects. A stunning climax to an evening characterised by conductor Kaspars Putniņš's ability to draw a wide range of dynamics from his singers, allowing many of them the chance to shine as individuals amid the collective sound.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC iPlayer Radio this evening, and will stay on line for a month: so broadly speaking, if you're reading this before the end of February 2018, you can find the concert here. Please take the time to give it a listen.

Since this post will be around for much longer than a month, I tried to find versions of the pieces in tonight's set already recorded by the EPCC, to put together as a Spotify playlist. I was partially successful - here are eight selections, giving you a handy 50-minute digest. Hope you end up loving this choir as much as I do...

Friday, 19 January 2018

Head girl: 'Salome' at the Royal Opera House

It's been a week since I went to see the current revival of David McVicar's production of the Richard Strauss opera 'Salome' at the ROH - and I'm possibly still recovering.

I wasn't completely new to the piece - I'd seen a powerful concert performance at the Proms with a terrifying Nina Stemme in the title role. But I was looking forward to seeing how a fully-staged version would deal with the still-shocking ferocity of the plot's action: this time, there would be blood.

The opera takes place more or less in real time, and runs uninterrupted for a single act. Herod, ruler of Judaea, keeps the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist) a prisoner in the bowels of his palace. The princess Salome - daughter of Herodias, Herod's wife and sister-in-law - slips away mid-banquet and heads downstairs. Hearing Jokanaan bellowing his sermons and curses from his cell, Salome charms the soldier Narraboth (who loves her) into letting her see the seer. Consumed with passion for Jokanaan, Salome attempts to seduce him but is harshly rebuffed. She barely notices Narraboth kill himself with grief at witnessing her display.

Herod - accompanied by his fellow diners - arrives on the scene and lusts after Salome. Initially detached and resistant, Salome agrees to dance for him when he promises her anything she desires. After the notorious 'Dance of the Seven Veils', Salome declares she wants Jokanaan's head on a silver platter. Herodias - a target of Jokanaan's invective - is delighted, but Herod - who is spiritually troubled and intimated by Jokanaan's aura of divine authority - refuses, offering untold riches instead.

However, Salome does not waver. Eventually, Herod gives in and orders Jokanaan's execution. Salome finally crosses the line into obsessive insanity, cradling the severed head and kissing its lifeless lips. In horror, Herod has her killed as the opera ends.

(Michael Volle as Jokanaan and Malin Byström as Salome, photographed for the ROH website by Clive Barda)

The ROH staging pulls no punches. Set in a slightly 'hyper-real' modern timeframe - characters in recognisable military/fascistic garb and country-house aristo black tie, but with executions meted out by enormous cleavers and prison doors sealed with chains and pulleys - we only catch a glimpse of the decadent feast above stairs. The main action plays out in the grimy expanse of the kitchens just above Jokanaan's dungeon. No-one entering this space leaved uninfected.

The set design seems to grow organically from the interior state of the characters (this reminded me of McVicar's astonishing staging of 'Pelléas et Mélisande' for Scottish Opera, which I was lucky enough to see last year). The prison cell is sealed by a circular lattice grille, on which the smitten Salome can sprawl like a predatory spider. However, the stairs also lead from the feast down to the main kitchen space through a circular aperture, mirroring the cell and identifying the overall stage area as a larger dungeon or tomb where the protagonists are trapped.

The production also exploits the one-act structure and relentless build-up of tension to give the opera a near-cinematic feel. Nowhere is this more masterful than in the 'Dance of the Seven Veils'. This instrumental section - essentially, at face value, a striptease - must present every director of 'Salome' with a conundrum. There have been productions where the soprano has, well, gone for it - while others have used dancers, or found alternative ways to interpret or illustrate it.

In a superb visual coup, McVicar uses the Dance as the only moment we escape the main set's claustrophobia. The walls explode apart and recede, allowing Salome to lead Herod through a series of rooms in suspended, semi-darkness. It's a full-blown. filmic dream sequence. As a possibly ironic double commentary on the salacious nature of the scene, it's Salome's psyche that's laid bare, as she tries on a series of costumes that reference stages in her life up to that point, including her likely abuse by Herod at a much earlier stage of her childhood. Her disturbed nature is already in place long before the opera opens. Parallels from cinema came into my head, much more so than other opera or stage works: Polanski's 'Repulsion', say, or even Miike's 'Audition'.

(Malin Byström as Salome, photographed for the ROH website by Clive Barda)

There is as much intensity in the sound as in the visuals. The role of Salome herself is famously difficult - the ROH publicity repeats Strauss's quote that the part is for 'a 16-year old with the voice of an Isolde' - but Malin Byström is utterly convincing. Every aspect of Salome's fractured personality is there in her vocal performance - coquettish towards Narraboth, lustful with (the living) Jokanaan, steely and scornful with Herod and finally, searing, unhinged as she falls, drenched in blood, on the prophet's head. On top of that, her body language was brilliantly realised - agitated, slightly awkward (this is a teenager, after all) as she schemes to gain access to Jokanaan, but with real balletic grace for the dream-state Dance.

The support was equally fine, with Michael Volle a particular stand-out as Jokanaan. Like MB, Volle gave a memorably complete interpretation: his immense vocal power allowed the prophet to sound as commanding from deep within his cell as onstage - but physically, this John was a restless, caged animal, all shuffling, feral movements, hair mixed with brawn, barely able to tolerate the decadence around him.

An unforgettable evening, then, that will take you to dark places other than the auditorium - and as I write this, there are still some tickets left for the final three performances. Go if you can.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Retrospecstive 2017: live

Happy new year, everyone. I hope your 2018 will be full of music, alongside many other good things.

Whatever its other shortcomings, I can at least say my 2017 was packed with musical highlights. Here is my usual annual round-up of the live events (concerts and opera) I enjoyed the most. If you'd like to read about my CDs of the year, please take a look here.

In the meantime, on with the show(s)...


English National Opera: 'The Day After', 'Marnie' and much, much more...

It's hard to overstate the pleasure this company has given me over the year, so much so that I can feel my step gain some extra buoyancy whenever I'm heading for the Coliseum. Whatever difficulties they have faced behind the scenes (and there have been plenty, well-documented), there is never any question that what we see on stage is full-on, 100% dedication and commitment. I'm not trying to make out that everything they ever do is 'perfection' - you can't say that about anyone or anything - more that their hit-rate for somehow nailing exactly what I love about going to the opera is astonishingly high.

I've heard some fantastic lead performances: the knockout trio of Sarah Tynan, Patricia Bardon and Rupert Charlesworth in 'Partenope', the great pairing of Rebecca Evans and Tim Mead in 'Rodelinda' and Latonia Moore's powerful 'Aida'. ENO has also presented two excellent premieres. Earlier in the year, Ryan Wigglesworth's 'The Winter's Tale' featured heartrending work from Iain Paterson and Sophie Bevan... and - in my opinion - the even more exceptional 'Marnie', Nico Muhly's latest opera, which gave the superb mezzo Sasha Cooke the opportunity to shine in a complex, compelling role.

But the absolute backbone of ENO - its foundation and supports - are the fantastic orchestra and chorus. The greater the opportunity to foreground this supremely talented crew, the greater the achievements. Examples include the dramatic presentation of 'The Dream of Gerontius' at the South Bank and in particular, the ENO Studio Live performances, where the company went almost 'back to basics', taking over their rehearsal space and staging smaller works in a kind of off-the-leash guerrilla spirit. Members of the chorus took some of the lead roles in Jonathan Dove's 'The Day After', resulting in unforgettable performances from soprano Claire Mitcher. mezzo Susanna Tudor-Thomas and bass Robert Winslade Anderson.

More power to you all, ENO folk.

Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall

Simply seeing these two walk onstage together caused this piano fanboy to have a bit of a 'moment', but for all their individual star power, they played in the complete service of each other and the music. The centre pieces of the programme were Stravinsky works for two pianos - including a jaw-droppingly intense arrangement of 'The Rite of Spring'. Pleasingly, Hyperion is bringing out a CD - available in the next few weeks, I believe - documenting the collaboration.

BBC Symphony Orchestra performing 'Doctor Atomic' (Barbican) and 'Khovanshchina' (Proms, Royal Albert Hall)

Two very different - but equally brilliant - part-staged/concert performances of operas you don't get to see every day. As part of a variety of 70th birthday events, John Adams himself turned up to conduct his own work, featuring Gerald Finley (who created the Oppenheimer role), and - among a group of fine soloists, some favourite singers of mine - Marcus Farnsworth and Jennifer Johnston. The Proms performance of Mussorgsky's epic national opera simply blew me away - in particular the overwhelming power of the choral writing (performed here by four choirs!) and Elena Maximova's superb portrayal of Marfa.

Alice Coote, Julius Drake: Schubert at Wigmore Hall

One of THE great recitals at Wigmore Hall, probably in recent memory: a cherry-picked selection of many of Schubert's finest songs, brought to transcendent life by surely one of his most searching and passionate interpreters, Alice Coote. The intimacy of the venue allowed AC's abilities as an actor-singer to come across with maximum impact - from the tenderness of 'Du Bist die Ruh', through the lilt of 'An Silvia', to the horror of 'Erlkonig': all were brought to vivid, distinct life.

The musical chemistry the duo share was audible, with Julius Drake's accompaniment matching AC every step of the way. Their forthcoming Schubert CD will be an absolute must.

The December Quartets (The Harrison, London)

This was a modest, one-off event of improvised music featuring Spyros Giasafakis and Evi Stergiou of Greek band Daemonia Nymphe, cellist-composer Jo Quail from London, UK, and Belgian classical/jazz vocalist Lucie Dehli. While there is some history of collaboration - and heaps of mutual respect - between these acts, I believe this was the first time all four had shared a stage to create music together.

I only bring geography into it, because that was a key part of the evening's success. DN are an intriguing group who write music for ancient Greek instruments, and for many of the pieces they created the sound 'platform' so to speak, for the cello and vocal to dovetail and dance around. While tracks from both DN's catalogue and Jo Q's recordings provided some starting points, the feeling that anything could happen gave the concert real electricity, only made more intense in the 50-odd capacity miniature venue. It's easy to speak of 'merging or mixing genres' but for an hour or two here, it really was like catching a glimpse into music-making that managed to be classical/world/jazz all at once, with no audible joins. The warmth between the artists was visible as well as audible - and it's worth pointing out that LD could only make it to UK shores shortly before the gig... then came on and, basically, smashed it - a really vibrant, intoxicating performance that clearly wowed her onstage collaborators as well as the rest of us. Hopefully, lightning will strike twice and there'll be another December Quartets event in due course.

'The Exterminating Angel' (The Royal Opera)

Based on the Luis Bunuel film of the same name, Thomas Adès's new opera presents the audience with the same enigma as the movie. An array of dinner party guests, once gathered in a single room, find they're inexplicably unable to leave. (They're not locked in, or incapacitated. The barrier is either invisible, psychological, or in some other way supernatural.) Days go by, and before one of the characters suddenly identifies a possibly way to break the spell, their veneer of society manners will have broken down completely. The work seemed to divide audiences and critics, but I recall it as a somewhat thrilling event - the score was a ruthless exercise in creating unease and mounting tension, and the need for an ensemble cast brought together a generation-spanning pantheon of dream singers, including Christine Rice, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sally Matthews, Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Thomas Allen, John Tomlinson... all operating well outside what you might call an ROH 'comfort zone'. Blackly funny, disturbing fare.

The 'Little Greats' Season (Opera North)

Such a brilliantly-realised achievement. A series of short operas, too rarely staged, each performed with massive enthusiasm, loving attention and innovative flair. Wildly varying in style/content but given an aesthetic unity through the clever, economic production design: the more of the six you were able to see, the more connections you could make. Highlights for me were the searing, almost post-modern 'Osud' (Janacek) and the unblinking, yet tender, domestic drama 'Trouble in Tahiti' (Bernstein). By a happy coincidence, these were the two picked up for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 - still on iPlayer at the time of writing, here.

Joseph Middleton... with the Myrthen Ensemble, Clara Mouriz, Carolyn Sampson

As I previously touched on in my 'CDs of the year' post, the pianist Joseph Middleton is both a brilliant collaborator and master programmer. His art song 'supergroup' the Myrthen Ensemble performed a joyous entry in Wigmore Hall's 'Complete Schubert' series, and he also accompanied one of their number, mezzo Clara Mouriz, in a wonderful, wide-ranging lunchtime recital, 'Songs of the Antique'.

However, his ongoing partnership with Carolyn Sampson continues to deliver highlight after highlight. Their recital 'Reason in Madness' (also to become a CD in due course) presents a series of luckless heroines - Mignon, Bilitis, Ophelia - as immortalised in first German, then French art song. In a single evening, we moved from Schubert, Brahms and Wolf to Duparc, Debussy and Saint-Saens - and more besides. The climax of the evening arrived with a bravura performance of Poulenc's miniature one-woman opera, 'La dame de Monte Carlo'. The concert combined humour, tragedy, sensuality, violence, pathos - just outstanding in every respect.

'Passages' (Proms, Royal Albert Hall)

What the slightly surreal and hallucinatory Light Night Prom experience is all about - a chance to hear an atypical work in impossibly grand surroundings, and go back out into the night transported, even slightly changed. Here the collaborative album made by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar was beautifully revived, pairing sitar genius Anoushka Shankar (R's daughter) and her team of Indian musicians with the spirited and perennially up-for-it Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Glass specialist Karen Kamensek. KK's brilliant mastery of the material enabled the musicians to move past any clichéd notions of 'minimalist' playing into a deeply-felt fusion of two distinct soundworlds.

'Pelléas et Mélisande' (Scottish Opera)

Everything about this production soared. The orchestra (under Stuart Stratford) captured the almost sinister shifting shimmer of Debussy's score, and the cast shone as much for their persuasive acting as their singing - especially Roland Wood's wracked Golaud and Alistair Miles's memorable, sympathetic Arkel. But - making her role debut as Mélisande, with a complex characterisation blending lithe playfulness with unknowable pathos - it was Carolyn Sampson's evening. Her brilliance in French song must have also contributed to her sounding as natural as air in the part. Add to this a superb David McVicar production that, in the staging itself, manages to move you at the same time as pulling you up short with its dramatic intelligence - you have the perfect night at the opera.

Matthew Rose, Gary Matthewman: 'Winterreise' at Wigmore Hall

I wanted to mention one of the most powerful, heartfelt - yet unusual - 'Winterreise' renditions I've seen. Possessed of a profoundly emotive, resonant bass voice, MR is a subtle, even modest, performer to whom any notion of grandstanding seems completely alien. He sang the cycle in virtual darkness to the side of the stage, allowing us to focus on a projected sequence of beautiful images created by artist Victoria Crowe. In recognition that the 'reality' of this cycle is far removed from a besuited figure in a concert hall, this approach took us out of that space and - for all its visual allure - placed even greater emphasis on the songs themselves.

Trio Mediaeval with Nils Økland at Wigmore Hall

Trio Mediaeval's visits to Wigmore Hall tend to be red-letter evenings for me, those three pristine voices fitting that fine acoustic like a glove. Accompanied by violinist Økland, they gave a Yuletide-themed recital - ranging as ever from early music, to traditional Scandinavian folk tunes, right up to contemporary compositions: here represented by 'Lux', a new piece by Andrew Smith. Performing with no interval, a mood of immaculate beauty was maintained throughout - harmonies, sounding both familiar and alien, enveloping the audience in winter warmth.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Night and dreams: Alice Coote & Julius Drake

It's hard to believe that Wigmore Hall's 'Complete Schubert Songs' recital series is finally coming to end, with the final concert in the sequence falling on the composer's birthday, 31 January. I've not been keeping strict count - but overall, I think the whole enterprise has involved some 40 gigs, and an extraordinary roll call of singers and accompanists. However, it's likely that the performance given by the mezzo Alice Coote and pianist Julius Drake earlier this month will be remembered as one of the very best.

It's always a joy to hear AC and JD together: a regular partnership, they seem to have reached that telepathic stage where you almost sense there's one unified mind operating on stage through two agents. I had two key reference points that had been making me look forward to this recital for months. First, there was the duo's CD of 'Winterreise', recorded live at Wigmore Hall for the venue's house label - and a desert island art song disc for me. Second, I had been fortunate to hear them play a while ago at Middle Temple Hall, where they included not only some Schubert selections but an astonishing rendition of the piano/voice version of Elgar's 'Sea Pictures'.

(Photo copyright Benjamin Ealovega, used on Wigmore Hall website)

This time, of course, we had full-on Franz. The programme was something approaching perfection, with almost the feel of a Schubert 'greatest hits'. Many of the selections are well-loved, and frequently performed - but all the more welcome in their inclusion here for the chance to hear this pair's intepretations. I've tried to describe this quality before - and I'll keep trying: Alice Coote is so fundamental an actor-singer, so able to absorb herself into the personalities and actions in the songs, that to hear her perform lieder is a little like watching a series of self-contained four-minute operas. An obvious place for her to shine is 'Erlkönig', featuring three characters: the rider, his son, and the devilish sprite who steals the boy's life away. AC gives each one their own distinct voice, using lightning changes of timbre and volume as the story builds to its dreadful climax. And while everything we need to experience the thrill-ride is all in the voice, she allows her face to cloud with terror one moment, menace the next - utterly transfixing in such an intimate recital environment.

AC is surely one of classical music's great communicators, with passion for every note of the material audible in her singing. A good number of my own (and no doubt many others') personal favourites featured in the set-list - including 'Nacht und Träume', 'Du Bist die Ruh', 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen' and in particular, what I think must be one of the most beautiful songs ever penned by anyone, 'Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen'. Yet even after the hundreds of times I must have played or heard these by so many performers, for these couple of hours I felt I was in a suspended animation where I could listen to the familiar as if it was for the first time. AC could place me inside the songs, whether playful, tragic, romantic, horrific - the voice is rich, generous, able to hold my attention as if in a cradle.

(Photo copyright Marco Borggreve, used on Wigmore Hall website)

And just as Schubert wrote his piano parts to be on an equal footing with the voice, so JD matches AC's virtuousity and versatility with his own, providing a wide range of colours and dynamics - often within a single song. From the joyful bounce of 'An Silvia', through the visceral powerhouse of 'Erlkönig', to the gliding runs of 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen', he is every bit as vital to creating the worlds these songs inhabit.

Of course, both AC and JD work with plenty of other people - but relative to their history of performing live together, I think their special partnership is a little under-recorded (I only know of their collaboration on AC's debut CD, and the 'Winterreise' I mentioned before). However, I understand - with unchecked glee and off-the-scale levels of anticipation - that they have recorded a Schubert album together for release in the near future. If this concert in any way represents what we can expect from the disc, it will be one for the ages.

The recital itself is already one of my indelible muscial memories: everything I love about my favourite composer brought to life by two of my favourite musicians, at my favourite venue. So fine that if I only had one lieder concert to try and show someone 'the complete Schubert', instead of 40, I would point to this one.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Retrospecstive 2017: recorded

2017 seems to have gone by in about five minutes - is life getting even more frantic, or am I just slowing down? Anyway, time for this extremely pleasant end-of-year duty: posting my pick of the year's CDs up on the blog. (I'll post my round-up of operas and concerts in January.)

As ever, it's a bit of a melting pot (lieder fans might want to look away at the 'extreme metal' section), so here's a handy summary, with my discs of the year in bold. (I was aiming for a round 20, but ended up at 22 and couldn't bring myself to drop any...)

Classical: Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton; Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton; Ilker Arcayurek and Simon Lepper; The Sixteen; Mark Deeks; Penguin Café; Matthew Wadsworth; Alexei Lubimov; Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen; Kate Lindsey & Baptiste Trotignon; Marianne Crebassa & Fazil Say.

Everything else: Offa Rex, Sacred Paws, Wire, The Disappointment Choir, Anouar Brahem, Ralph Towner, John Carpenter, The Radiophonic Workshop, Akercocke, Wolves in the Throne Room, Converge.

As ever, I've tried to use YouTube for clips, as I know some people cannot or prefer not to use Spotify. I've only resorted to the latter if it was the only place I could find a decent sample. Hope you enjoy this year's selection box!


Joseph Middleton, pianist and collaborator extraordinaire, is at the keys for two of my favourite song discs of the year. I can't say I'm surprised by this - his last recording with Carolyn Sampson, 'A Verlaine Songbook', was one of my 2016 highlights, and both of these releases bear witness to his versatile, brilliantly alive playing, and flair for inventive programming. 'Lost is My Quiet', which brings Sampson together with Iestyn Davies in a to-die-for vocal partnership, marrying English song with lieder in performances showcasing two voices tailor-made to dovetail around each other. The programme grew out of one of the most joyous chamber Proms of 2016, and that spirit is fully captured on disc. (And, I hope you'll agree, in this live video clip.) Album of the year.

'Voyages' with Mary Bevan - striking out with a solo album following her work with JM in the Myrthen Ensemble - is another fascinating set of songs revolving around the Mignon character. Using Debussy and Schubert sequences as signposts, the pair unearth fascinating alternative settings and bring some truly gorgeous selections to light. MB is simply captivating throughout - hopefully there'll be many more CDs to come, allowing her to stretch out and inhabit the repertoire like this.

Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton: 'Lost Is My Quiet' (track - Purcell's 'Sound The Trumpet')

Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton: 'Voyages' (track - Duparc's 'La vie anterieure')

An all-Schubert song CD will always have a head start with me, but Ilker Arcayurek's debut really took hold of me, with its committed performances and consistency of mood (the songs all deal with solitude). SL complements IA's rich tone with real delicacy. On YouTube, I found both a live version of one track, plus a 'making of' video.

Ilker Arcayurek and Simon Lepper: 'Der Einsame' (track - 'Nacht Und Traume')

I do like a bit of fusion / mash-up / call-it-what-you-will, and my other album of the year is a folk-rock triumph by Offa Rex. This is a supergroup of sorts, with US band The Decemberists - who have fashioned a kind of mythical indie Americana sound all of their own - backing the pristine vocals of English singer Olivia Chaney. Anyone who's heard the Decemberists live will recall that they simply SWIRL, wiring up and sending a jolt of electricity through these trad covers, and galvanising Chaney into true glory. News just in - it's up for a Grammy! Almost as prestigious as a mention on this blog.

Offa Rex: 'The Queen of Hearts'

On the subject of mash-ups, if you've ever wondered what an impossibly cool female indie band might sound like if they'd listened to nothing but Afrobeat for years - science has provided an answer. Sacred Paws's album, plays highlife guitar and hyperactive drumming against unhurried, laidback vocals - the result: utterly infectious.

Sacred Paws: 'Strike A Match' (track - 'Strike A Match')

As someone who came to The Sixteen through much earlier music and tends to associate them (simplistically, I know) with a kind of gossamer perfection... I absolutely love it when they tackle other repertoire. They engage with Poulenc's sacred music - unquestionably beautiful but also somehow wracked - head-on.

Francis Poulenc: 'Choral Works' (track - 'Ave verum corpus')

It's so pleasing to see a band in their 40th anniversary year (with three-quarters of their original line-up present) make surely one of the best albums of their career. I love the way Wire still sound 'punk', yet totally in control - a kind of detached energy. The drumming alone would prompt me to include the album here.

Wire: 'Silver / Lead' (track - 'Playing Harp For The Fishes')

I was really pleased this year to hear and support two great records by unsigned musicians. First, there was the marvellous Disappointment Choir. (I always feel bound to mention that the two members, Rob and Katy, are friends of mine, but it's actually irrelevant when it comes to rating the music. I would find it impossible to evangelise about their material to the extent I have if I didn't genuinely, unreservedly love it.) The DC's particular gift is to take a kind of resigned, yet resilient melancholy and weld it to gloriously uplifting, synth-driven electro-pop. On their day, they can make you want to cry and dance at the same time. By contrast, Mark Deeks has produced an album of beautiful sound-pictures, conjuring up the Northumberland coast in a sequence of restrained, yet emotive solo piano pieces. The often stark beauty of the terrain that inspired the record is present throughout.

The Disappointment Choir: 'Vows' (track - 'Heartstrings')

Mark Deeks: 'Left By The Sail Road' (track - 'Wǽg')

Simon Jeffes - founder and leader of Penguin Café Orchestra, who died in 1997 aged only 48 - is one of music's great losses. All the more inspiring, then, that his son Arthur should not only gather a group of musicians to keep the flame alive, but then use that as a springboard to create his own, equally arresting and genre-mocking, body of work. 'The Imperfect Sea' emerged on the Erased Tapes label, a perfect home for a band who seem to have found a way to adapt a hypnotic, electronica sensibility into entirely acoustic arrangements.

Penguin Café: 'The Imperfect Sea' (track - 'Cantorum')

The latest release from lutenist Matthew Wadsworth is a delight from start to finish - but all the more remarkable for its inclusion of a newly-written suite for theorbo, 'The Miller's Tale', composed by guitarist Stephen Goss. (The theorbo is that flamboyantly large early-music stringed instrument that looks like someone has crossed a lute with a giraffe.) MW suggested that Goss tune his guitar more in line with a theorbo to compose the work, and the original result makes full use of the resonant bass notes of the older instrument. So often mixing ancient and modern involves taking something historic and doing something technologically advanced with it - here the contemporary sensibility is 'retro-applied' to old machinery, to superb effect.

Matthew Wadsworth: 'Late Night Lute' (tracks - 'Epilogue' / 'Estampie' from 'The Miller's Tale')

Always a stamp of quality - and recording excellence in particular - ECM had a most Specs-pleasing 2017, releasing a spine-tinglingly good CPE Bach recording by Alexei Lubimov, oud player Anouar Brahem back with possibly his greatest band yet (Jack DeJohnette still sounding like one of the finest drummers of all time), Trio Mediaeval's lovely collaboration with trumpeter Arve Henriksen (fans of the Hilliard Ensemble / Jan Garbarek albums should make haste), and Ralph Towner's latest modest masterpiece.

The Lubimov album is especially fine - Lubimov performs on a tangent piano, a piece of technology caught between old (harpsichord) and new (piano): so fitting for a composer who sometimes feels like he's straining out of the past towards the unknown future.

Alexei Lubimov: 'Tangere' (track - 'Solfeggio, Wq. 117/4')

Anouar Brahem: 'Blue Maqams' (track - 'Bom Dia Rio)

Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen: 'Rimur' (track - 'Morgunstjarna')

Ralph Towner: 'My Foolish Heart' (tracks - 'Saunter', 'Dolomiti Dance')

Two majestic - and unusual - song recordings from mezzos. Marianne Crebassa's survey of French song is as sumptuous as you might expect, with a magnificent voice/piano recording of Ravel's 'Sheherazade' at its core (after hearing MC perform this with orchestra at the Proms, the intimacy of this version was breathtaking), and a bold tour-de-force at the CD's climax with a wordless composition by pianist Say. Kate Lindsey collaborates with jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon for a programme centred around Kurt Weill - the pair finding an abundance of common ground, KL inhabits the songs with such versatility of character, it's impossible not to be swept along. I really enjoyed the short documentary about the album on YouTube, here alongside the title track.

Kate Lindsey & Baptiste Trotignon: 'Thousands of Miles' (track - 'Thousands of Miles / Big Mole')

Marianne Crebassa & Fazil Say: 'Secrets' (track - from 'Sheherazade: Asie')

Two great recordings for fans of 'scaring oneself witless with sound alone'. Director John Carpenter wrote the chilling, atmospheric (and largely electronic) soundtracks for many of his films, their icy nature a perfect foil for his distinctive approach to horror. After kick-starting a late second career as a recording musician (with two hugely enjoyable 'Lost Themes' albums), he and his band have gone back to his film scores and re-recorded his 'greatest hits'. Meanwhile, the Radiophonic Workshop (yes, the 'Doctor Who' people, although as their shortened name implies, no longer part of the BBC) have made a genuinely unsettling album of electronic improvisations. There's some piano in there to anchor it to our planet, but for all the world it sounds like a capsule of our music has travelled to another part of the universe and fused there with something alien.

John Carpenter: 'Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998' (track - 'Assault On Precinct 13'

The Radiophonic Workshop: 'Burials In Several Earths' (excerpts)

Finally, for those of us who like their metal on the complex, yet noisy and shouty, side - 2017 has brought the return of three tremendous bands after some years' absence. In the case of Akercocke, we had reason to believe they would never record together again, but their 'comeback' album is exactly as you'd hope: more mature and thoughtful, yet still writhing with the old venom and aggression. Wolves in the Throne Room return to their skyscraping, epic rage after the previous album's ambient detour. And finally, a slightly-extended break doesn't seem to have halted Converge's momentum in the slightest - another group who just seem to get more vital, more rewarding as time goes on.

Akercocke: 'Renaissance in Extremis' (track - 'One Chapter Closes For Another To Begin'

Wolves in the Throne Room: 'Thrice Woven' (track - 'Born From The Serpent's Eye (edit)')

Converge: 'The Dusk In Us' (track - 'Trigger')