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')


Sunday, 10 December 2017

Sea changes: 'Left By The Sail Road' by Mark Deeks

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.


This is a solo piano album of austere wonder. Composer and performer Mark Deeks hails from Northumberland, and in tribute to his home patch, the eight original pieces here are named in the county’s old dialect (the album also includes a cover version of John Ireland’s ‘Sea Fever’). A water theme runs through the record like a river, with tracks named for waves, floods, showers, ice… so we have, in some ways, a tone poem: a suite of works that, over its running time, builds a picture of the North Sea coastline in audio.

To do this successfully, there would have to be a starkness to underpin the picturesque, and MD achieves that balance perfectly – the music is beautiful throughout, but favours sparse reflection over ‘prettiness’. I think listeners of Glass, say, or Satie would find much to enjoy in these pieces: that’s not to simplify and say that MD is ‘like’ those composers – more that he also prizes the effects of a rhythmic pattern, the power of a silence, and the value of unhurried contemplation.

While the album sustains a coherent mood, close and repeated listening reveals the individual personalities of each track, the way they embody their liquid titles. For example, opening track ‘Wǽg’ (‘Wave’) features an undulating rhythm in the bass, perhaps unsurprisingly – but above that, the melody not only turns about itself in an ebb and flow movement, the chords cut across the bassline as if ‘breaking’ onto the shore. While later in the sequence, ‘Scúr’ (‘Shower’) moves the initial, insistent rhythm into the right hand, as if the rain is starting to pitter-patter onto the ground.

The superb ‘Flódas’ (‘Floods’) moves along with a more hyperactive, unpredictable gait, and ramps up the intensity until the melody almost breaks – bursts its banks. While the serene ‘Gyrwe’ (‘Wetlands’) – for me, one of the album’s absolute highlights – allows its left-hand to glide calmly while the restrained, delicately-judged interventions of the right-hand conjure up the momentary drips and breeze-driven disturbances from the reeds and grasses.

I was completely won over by this record’s confident restraint: give it time and drift through its space.

It’s also worth mentioning that, perhaps due to its steady pace and focus on melodic ambience, much of the suite sounds accessible to fellow pianists – and sure enough, MD has produced a very limited run of sheet music for the album, available to buy alongside the CD. To buy either – or, let’s not be coy – both, you can visit the artist’s Bandcamp page for the album here.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Two anti-heroines: 'Marnie' and 'Semiramide'

As can happen from time to time when juggling booking dates, I recently enjoyed a two-opera weekend - catching opening performances of Nico Muhly's new work 'Marnie' (English National Opera) and the Rossini behemoth 'Semiramide' (Royal Opera). For such an accidental and slightly odd juxtaposition, it was interesting to see these side by side: written nearly 200 years apart, but both placing strong women with dark secrets and murky pasts at their centre, asking the audience to understand and even sympathise with their passions and motivations. That both operas succeeded in doing this is a tribute to the productions and chiefly to the two mezzo-sopranos taking the lead roles.

'Marnie' is based on a novel by Winston Graham, itself far eclipsed in fame by the Alfred Hitchcock film it inspired. By all accounts, the book is a more melancholy, fatalistic affair than the movie, and it is this lower-key version that Muhly and librettist Nicholas Wright focus on. (This has led to at least one review I've seen suggesting that lovers of the Hitchcock film would inevitably be 'disappointed' by the opera - perhaps they would also, in their confusion at where they were, bemoan the lack of a big screen, special effects and popcorn? I tire of manufactured criticism like this, especially of ENO, very easily.)

The action of the opera is as much character study as it is thriller. Marnie is a career thief, with a tried and trusted MO: she gets a job, usually working with wages or accounts - then when thoroughly settled, steals whatever cash is on her employer's premises and flees. A new name, look and town - and the cycle starts again. But whatever kick-started this life of crime is rooted in some childhood catastrophe, and the action of the plot sees this repressed trauma finally break out on to the surface and bring Marnie to a kind of closure.

(Sasha Cooke as Marnie - ENO photograph copyright Richard Hubert Smith)

In the sense that the story turns on some major coincidences and contrivances, you could argue that it's perfect for opera. Marnie finally gets in too deep when she takes a job working for Mark Rutland, a client of the last employer she embezzled. Mark falls in unrequited love with Marnie, but because he works out what she's up to and catches her at the safe red-handed, he is able to blackmail her into marriage. As she won't consummate the union, he then tries to rape her. (The fact that Mark is the closest we have to a romantic lead helps explain why Marnie is by some distance the most sympathetic character in the opera.) However, Mark himself partly mirrors Marnie as the dysfunctional Rutlands provide their own subplot: he's a man in charge of a family firm but with no business acumen, saddled with his feckless brother and, crucially, still under the thumb of the iron-willed matriarch. Maternal issues also hold the key to Marnie's compulsions, and it's Mark who brings matters to a head by striking a deal with Marnie for her to undergo therapy.

Where the opera succeeds, I think, is that is fully engages - and illustrates on-stage - not just the cogs and gears of the plot but even more so, what's happening in Marnie's head. Marnie herself is tracked by four 'Shadow Marnies' dressed in bold, plain colour variants of whatever she is wearing. Not merely 'split personalities', but different moods, shades of her fractured psyche: in one riveting sequence where Marnie visits the analyst, they all dovetail among themselves to take turns on the couch, the 'real' Marnie becoming just one of their number, going neither first nor last. Equally, a troupe of male actor-dancers in grey suits and hats initially appear to close in on Marnie during the first robbery - are they police, or agents? - but in fact, they take on the more nebulous role of fate, or even conscience, as they recede as mysteriously as they came - sometimes moving scenery, or even providing abstract illustration for certain scenes, such as their fevered enactment of a fox hunt.

(The shadows surround Marnie on the analyst's couch - ENO photograph copyright Richard Hubert Smith)

Most of all, while all the other characters interact realistically, Marnie gets to break the fourth wall, make eye contact with us, and confide her schemes aloud. Here is perhaps the best place to praise Sasha Cooke in the title role - possessed of a ravishing voice (playing a master of disguise demands that she 'colour' a number of different versions of her character, a vocal representation of the Shadow Marnies' visual effect), but also a brave, brilliant actor. Resisting any temptation to make us love or pity Marnie, she fully embodies her myriad contradictions - cold fury, cruel beauty, fragile strength.

Muhly's use of voice types created some intriguing character tension. So often, the female lead is a soprano: playing on the 'mezzo as villainess' cliché gave us the opportunity to hear SC's deeper, resonant tone envelop us more or less throughout the whole opera. Daniel Okulitch is a bass-baritone, giving Mark an air of steely capability that turns out to be entirely false. While counter-tenor James Laing, in a superbly volatile performance as younger brother Terry, could use his pitch to convey the dangerous unpredictability of an overgrown adolescent.

Overall, the score felt pacey and urgent - the use of strings to build suspense was in fact more or less the only thing that reminded me of the Hitchcock film, and I'm sure the nod was deliberate - but melodic and poignant, supportive of the singers and story. I was most impressed by the choral writing - it felt to me that Muhly understands full well the particular versatility and accomplishment of the ENO chorus and wanted to draw this out. The ENO choristers have always excelled in functioning as a fearsomely tight unit, but when needed, are able to flesh out every individual as an observable character in their own right. In their key scenes as workers or onlookers commenting on the action, Muhly mostly resisted a unison approach to give what sounded like 'pockets' of the chorus various comments at different times, creating a more realistic 'bustle' effect: the moment when they hit the pub and place their orders at the bar may have been welcome light relief, but truly sophisticated and memorable for all that.

I hope 'Marnie' finds its place on a recording and in the repertoire - it has lingered in my mind with a kind of implacable staying power in keeping with its title character's resilience. Please note - especially if you won't make it to a performance - that BBC Radio 3 are currently scheduled to broadcast it on Saturday 9 December.

In 'Semiramide', the crimes of the main character are writ somewhat larger - literally, in fact, as the opera is lavish in both setting and length, and some years before the action even begins, the Queen conspired with her confidante, Assur, to murder her husband, King Nino. Their son, Ninia, disappeared. I'm fearful of describing the convoluted plot, as I'm absolutely convinced I'll leave out something crucial. But in a nutshell (assume this is quite a large nut)...

Semiramide has to name a successor, who will both become king and take her hand in marriage. There are three main contenders: Assur, her old confidante, who expects to be rewarded for his faithfulness; Idreno, an Indian king; and the fearless soldier in charge of the Assyrian army, Arsace. Romantically, there are sundry complications: Azema, a princess seemingly destined for 'trophy wife' status among these nobles, is in love with Arsace. However, Idreno loves Azema and, while he would like the throne, would much rather marry Azema than Semiramide. In turn, Semiramide has tired of Assur's attentions and has fallen for Arsace. In fact, no-one likes Assur, primarily, it seems, because he's a dolt.

To cut a (really) long story short: Semiramide announces Arsace as the, er, lucky winner - but the ghost of the murdered King chooses this moment to make an appearance and rather ruin the atmosphere. The birds come home to roost. The High Priest reveals to Asarce that he is, in fact, the long-lost Ninia, saved as a boy by one of the brethren. As a result, not only is the marriage to Semiramide now impossible, he must also avenge his father. Inclined to spare his mum, he tells her the whole story and heads off to kill Assur. In turn, Assur, driven over the edge, vows to murder Asarce. In distress, Semiramide goes to pray and all three of them end up in the darkness of Nino's tomb. Thinking he is striking Assur, Arsace kills Semiramide by mistake. Assur is taken away, leaving Arsace to take the throne.

While it's easy to make light of the melodramatic mayhem, the opera easily transcends its storyline. From the opening moments, the score is gripping - the overture is very highly regarded and, by previewing some of the work's great tunes (the kind of technique we're more used to in modern musicals), presents you at the outset with a medley of sheer magnificence. Conducted by their boss, Sir Antonio Pappano, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played with tireless vivacity and variety, making a long opera seem much, much shorter. It's quite something to sit back at the end of any 4-hour performance and think - 'I'd happily just stay here and listen to that again.'

(ROH poster graphic for 'Semiramide')

The production, by David Alden, relocated Babylon to a more modern, but still exotic, dictatorship: bright colours, military iconography. The costumes for the women in particular seemed intriguing, and meaningful: Semiramide moved from flamboyant regalia to a dark night-dress - not only showing the character's mental shift from ruler to potential lover, but underlining her vulnerability and forthcoming loss of power. Azema - shaved head and literally weighed down by her gold outfit - was the personification of a prize, untold riches to be given or traded.

With one (understandable) exception, the singers were phenomenal. While Semiramide is a soprano role, mezzo Joyce DiDonato sang with exquisite power, with the greater 'weight' to her voice arguably allowing her to embody the Queen's troubled complexity more completely. With Arsace also a mezzo 'trouser role' - here the superb Daniela Barcellona - their voices in duet seemed to blend particularly closely and lend a kind of audio-irony to the characters' initial ignorance of their being mother and son. Lawrence Brownlee sang Idreno with bravura agility and precision, and Jacquelyn Stucker - charged with a very physically demanding interpretation of the role (especially given the costume) - imbued Azema with both frustration and dignity.

The only slight technical hitch was Michele Pertusi as Assur in Act 1, who seemed quiet - no wonder, it turned out, as he had fallen ill. (He had already replaced Ildebrando D'Arcangelo in the role, so hopefully this isn't the curse of Nino working its way through a succession of basses.) At the interval, Mirco Palazzi took over at short notice and sang the role with much greater, er, 'Assur-ance'. [Eh, readers?] In an opera that revolves around strong female voices, Assur is one of the much rarer male roles to have a full-blown 'mad scene', and I feel grateful to have heard it given by someone on peak form.

Two real events, then: a handsome world premiere, and a triumphant production of a marvellous, if all-too-rarely staged classic. I'm now aware that this post might almost be long enough for Rossini to set it to music - so I will end here.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Personal space: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

I imagine it's fair to say that the artist Rachel Whiteread is still best known for her major 'public' works. In the UK, she won the Turner Prize in 1993 with 'House', the concrete cast of an entire derelict residence (now itself demolished), and in 2001, provided one of the pieces for the temporary outdoor location on the 'fourth plinth' in Trafalgar Square. This work was a resin cast of the actual plinth, placed upside down on the top to form a vertical double image: imposing, haunting and demonstrating a strangely austere wit.

I've also never forgotten seeing her Holocaust Memorial on a trip to Vienna several years ago. It's a large room-shaped cast, but with the appearance of a library turned inside-out: the exterior walls are lined with bookshelves, and the books have their pages, rather than spines, facing outwards. Not only did Whiteread's aesthetic approach capture the industrialised horror of its subject matter, the work seemed to illuminate this suppression of history, knowledge and identity: the attempt to not only wipe out the physical presence of an entire people, but also the very idea of their existence.

(The model of the Holocaust Memorial.)

So I was very curious to see the Rachel Whiteread retrospective at London's Tate Britain. I was having trouble even picturing how it would work - for a start, I'd hardly seen anything she had produced contained within an indoor location. Brilliantly, the show bats off any concerns along these lines at the outset. On arrival in the Duveen Galleries (the huge central halls), RW's 'One Hundred Spaces' installation - resin casts of the 'gaps' underneath various chairs - guide you towards the main exhibition area like an array of vast cats' eyes.

When you reach the corridor-like annexe in front of the exhibition doors, the major public works are presented through a range of photographs, plans, video footage and scale models. The models in particular are a great idea: they give you a view of the piece that you couldn't actually get in real life, and they also 'scale you down' mentally so you don't go in expecting to see something the size of 'House'.

Although, to be honest, it almost feels like you do. I can't think of an exhibition I've been to in recent years where the 'hang' has been so important, and so clever. On walking through the entrance, you find yourself in a corner of a colossal, single space. The map on the leaflet, which in most exhibitions typically guides you from room to room in sequence, here simply indicates the type of work you can find in each part of the sprawling, open area. So, while you can plan a route of sorts, and identify the phase or series of pieces you're looking at, it's far easier after a bit of acclimatisation to just wander around and absorb the sheer 'presence' of the sculptures, visiting and re-visiting pieces as something about one of them reminds you of one of the others. I did a circuit of the room 'on duty', as it were, sensing I was almost certainly going to want to write about it, and taking the photos for this post on my phone - then I put it away and spent at least twice as long again in the exhibition, just looking and thinking.

Two large-scale works do, in fact, dominate the space. 'Room 101' casts the room in Broadcasting House (former home of the BBC) where George Orwell worked, and which apparently inspired the infamous torture chamber in '1984'. Its apparent featurelessness again brings to mind the implacable, faceless bureaucracy of the novel, while at the same time forming a somehow pleasing monument to the old BBC building, the doorways, windows - even the plug socket - remnants of the former energy.

'Stairs', meanwhile, is cast from the staircase of a building where Whiteread lived, itself an old warehouse and, before that, synagogue. As the leaflet points out, the wear and tear on the stairs is testament to all those that had come and gone in the premises: but I was hypnotised by the surreal nature of the piece - the way it seemed only the two flights in balance were keeping it upright, and how the 'spaces' cast still looked like stairs but could no longer be climbed.

Surrounding these were a host of smaller works, some of them from early in RW's career. Seeing many of these more modest casts - furniture, utensils - made me realise why perhaps it is I'm such a fan of RW's work, even though I wouldn't say I necessarily liked every individual piece. But I recognise that I'm strongly drawn to art of any discipline where the practitioner works away at central themes with obsessive commitment - minimalist classical compositions, drone/riff-based metal or electronica, the paintings of Rothko, the novels of Golding. I felt this exhibition drew out a timeline of sorts for Whiteread, with 'House' as a kind of pivot: many of the earlier pieces seem to be a working-out, establishing a style, method and template leading up to a literal magnum opus. Then afterwards, the later work, which includes 'Room 101' and 'Stairs', while inevitably reducing again in scale, seems to display a constant refining and interrogating of ideas. The dimensions visibly contract as space takes over from form, and we see arrangements of boxes, casts of doors and windows, paper casts of shed walls... edging steadily from 3D to 2D. Absence - we see the merest fragment of an original location - replaces the oppressive presence of the earlier, bulkier pieces. She even calls her more recent large casts - cabins and sheds in secluded areas - 'shy sculptures', removed from any prominent view.

As well as making the viewer acutely aware of physical space, all of the work seems to inspire a range of mental reactions and responses. I found much of the exhibition inescapably political. For example, the bookshelves with only the outline shapes of the books remaining (work made that would lead to the Holocaust Memorial) seem to represent something so current: library closures, dismissal of expert knowledge, unthinking uniformity. Or the works on paper surrounding the development of 'House', where property is erased, vanished from the street. The constant motif of substance filling spaces illustrated, to me, claustrophobia, displacement, the stress of modern urban living, the fragility of our surroundings.

Emphasising these thoughts was - as I mentioned before - the superb way the exhibition was arranged, to the point where you almost felt you were in a Whiteread space yourself. The stone colours of the gallery toned so well with those of the exhibits (in particular, I was struck by how the boxes pieces were echoed by their environment), and the single-room layout meant that there were endless ways you could 'interact' with the work as a viewer.

For all of these reasons, I would rate this exhibition as a must-see if you are in the area, and at all intrigued by artists with a singular vision of this power and consistency. Rachel Whiteread runs at Tate Britain until 21 January 2018.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Lost in Franz

The work/life/blog balance has been heavily weighted towards work/life in the last couple of weeks. To calm myself - and I hope bring you some peace and pleasure too - here's a playlist of Schubert lieder.


Elly Ameling, Irwin Gage: 'Atys'

Fritz Wunderlich, Hubert Giesen: 'An Sylvia'

[Here's Sylvia!]

Sylvia Schwartz, (pianist shrouded in mystery): 'Du Bist die Ruh'

Werner Güra, Christoph Berner: 'Nachtstück'

Bernarda Fink, Gerold Huber: 'Romanze'

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: 'Wilkommen und Abschied'

Barbara Bonney, Geoffrey Parsons: 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen'

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber: 'Fischerweise'

Ruby Hughes, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Juanjo Mena): 'Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen' (arr. Max Reger)

Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten: 'Die Taubenpost'