Monday, 8 October 2018

Bible black: 'Salome' at English National Opera

Brief alert - this production of 'Salome' carries a warning for adult images and themes... and to discuss it properly, I inevitably touch on some of those images and themes as well. So - please read after the watershed - and exercise discretion, as you will. Thanks!


Well, this has certainly divided opinion. The 'ayes' and 'noes' are separated as cleanly as John the Baptist's head from his shoulders.

Some people seem to have loathed the new English National Opera ('ENO') production of Strauss's notorious opera 'Salome' with every fibre of their being - while others have been stimulated and impressed. If I had to make a call, I'd say that the critics have been broadly negative (some perplexed or irritated, if not nakedly hostile), while audience reactions online have been relatively warmer. Plenty in both camps, however.

And of course, nothing is without context. Some who are prone to unkind pronouncements about ENO have continued in the same vein. (Some have imperiously dismissed the very idea of the production, only to cheerfully add that they haven't seen it. Helpful.) Also, 'Salome' has got about a bit recently and other versions may be fresh in people's eyes and ears. The current Royal Opera House ('ROH') production by David McVicar was last revived at the start of this year, when I saw it for the first time. Placing the action in a kind of totalitarian nightmare environment, it's held by many as a kind of gold standard - and I can see why. Opera North also presented an acclaimed version (which sadly I didn't get to) in the spring: powerful though that sounded, it was essentially a concert performance - so the company sidestepped much of the potential staging trauma that 'Salome' must involve.

Fast forward to the start of this season, and it's ENO's turn to revisit opera's most troublesome teenager. For those unfamiliar, the plot is taken directly from Oscar Wilde's play (based on the Bible story), with the composer editing down a German translation into a lean, mean libretto: a single, relentlessly-paced act, running to about one-and-three-quarter hours.

Snapshot of the action: Herod, ruler of Judaea, has married his brother's wife, Herodias - making him stepfather to her daughter Salome. Since Herod had his brother killed, the set-up is already somewhat dysfunctional - made even worse by Herod's inability to disguise his erotic fascination with Salome. At the same time, Herod has arrested and imprisoned the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist). Jokanaan is a fanatic: while proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, he also launches tirades against the royal family and, seemingly, Herodias in particular. But he survives, for now, because Herod is fearful of killing a holy man.

Salome, escaping from a palace feast and hearing Jokanaan's voice, demands to see the prisoner. Instantly besotted, she ecstatically praises Jokanaan's appearance, even while he vehemently rejects and denounces her. (The carnage starts early, as the guard Narraboth, who loves Salome, kills himself in dismay.) Herod, castrophically misreading the situation, thinks a dance from Salome will cheer him - and the evening - up. She eventually agrees, but only after securing a promise from him to grant anything she desires. Dance over, she demands Jokanaan's head on a silver platter. Herod does all he can to get out of the bargain, but Salome won't budge. When her stepfather ultimately gives in, and Salome receives the head, she finally tips over the edge and gives full vent to her lust. As she kisses the dead mouth, a horrified Herod orders his soldiers to kill her.

Even taking what happens at face value - the actual events of the original play and libretto - this is extraordinarily provocative stuff, careering headlong into some very dark psychological places. So extreme is its characters' behaviour, I can well understand why directors, let alone audiences, want answers, explanations. (McVicar's ROH production stages the infamous 'Dance of the Seven Veils' as a tableau of flashbacks suggesting the Herod has abused Salome in the past.)

This production starts in a very dark psychological place, and never leaves. What we see is the product of an all-woman creative team: director Adena Jacobs, stage designer Marg Horwell, lighting Lucy Carter, and choreographer Melanie Lane. In an ideal world, this would not be remarkable, or even especially 'meaningful'. But for this opera, I feel it has particular significance. It means that whatever queasiness or discomfort we might feel at the potential exploitation or objectification of Salome (or any of the other characters) cannot be put down to straightforward sexism or misogyny. If anything, this was going to hold a mirror up to the 'male gaze' and rightfully cast it, blindingly, back in our direction.

The staging seems to be entirely surreal/symbolic, not rooted in any kind of reality. Both background and costumes are uniformly black, as if nodding to the not uncommon 'repressive regime' style of staging to signify dystopia. But this is one of a number of instances where the production subverts expectations as it goes along. Rather than present Jokanaan's cistern as a dark dungeon, the stage is saturated in bright white light, as if referencing both his holiness and his uncomfortable illumination of the rotten society around him. The initial blackness also gives way to gaudy colour, both in an enormous, pink, decapitated 'My Little Pony'-style horse which appears as the centrepiece of the feast, spilling out its entrails of fake flowers, and in the glittery decayed decadence of Herod's and Herodias's outfits.

Salome's loss of innocence and, ultimately, sanity is telegraphed early and built on step by step, following its own logic but pulling the rug out from under our, and the opera's, feet. Almost everything around her in the production could double as a cipher, contributing to this development. When Jokanaan is first seen, flat out on the ground, he is clad only in briefs... and a pair of red stilettos. He never walks in these - he kicks them off well before he stands up - and if you wanted to make a plot point out it, you could imagine Herod (something of a cross-dresser himself) and a bunch of cronies taunting the captive and dressing him up. But I was also struck by the timing - Jokanaan kicks off the shoes and in some way seems to transfer a kind of sexuality, or at least sexual awakening to Salome. While Jokanaan is present and still very much alive, Salome strips to the waist while singing her lust for him, and (discreetly) masturbates while he preaches. (This is one aspect where I wondered if a woman directing has flagged what a bloke might not even have observed - that Salome is not a two-dimensional maniac who only reaches sexual fulfilment through necrophilia: rather, there are stages along the way before the madness provides the only release. Equally, if a male director had stripped Salome at this point in the opera, would we be able to assume something similar or might we doubt his motives? Questions, questions.)

There is a third piece of 'clothing' for Jokanaaan that I didn't mention: a skeletal mask that at first I took to represent a kind of torture instrument. However, it held a miniature camera, pointed back towards his face. As a result, a large, live projection of his mouth appeared on the back wall - in black and white, with the effect of looking slightly grimy/grotesque. This pointed up Salome's obsessive attraction/repulsion towards the prophet's mouth; it drew attention to his dark utterances; and it foreshadowed the expected kiss once his head is severed.

So it goes on. Narraboth's suicide results in a pool of pink blood on the stage. (Herod at various points returns to this, smearing himself in the gore as if he cannot remove the stain on his character.) Salome falls on Narraboth's body before it is removed, using it as a substitute for the unattainable Jokanaan. The floral guts of the suspended horse can be read as a 'deflowering' motif. Salome reappears as a kind of fetishised Lolita figure: white vest, black hot pants and trainers - later, this youthfulness will be underlined further as she flings aside her long blonde wig to reveal a boyish crop.

By this time, with a few taboos not just broken but smashed into a pulp, I wondered how hard the production would stab at the outrage button. With its burlesque/striptease pedigree (and the fact we'd already seen a half-naked Salome), what kind of 'Dance' were we going to get here? In the event, Jacobs takes another swerve. This Dance was brilliantly disturbing, with Salome - clothed throughout - slowly, deliberately assuming a brief sequence of poses (almost like coquettish exercise moves: turns, bends and stretches), then reclining while a group of cheerleader-dancers ramped up the speed and sexual tension.

Following this thread, when the head is finally delivered to Salome, the 'silver platter' is a cheapo plastic carrier bag - never opened. She cradles the concealed head but never 'consummates' her obsession with the kiss. It’s as if the production puts the brakes on the body horror once the psychological damage is done. Herodias appears behind Salome and you wonder if the mother will carry out a mercy killing at Herod's command before the soldiers arrive. In the closing seconds of the opera, Herodias - still directly behind Salome - helps her daughter raise a pistol and point it backwards, horizontally, directly towards her mouth. Is this the actual kiss of death? And if the gun is fired, both women would likely die in a double suicide. (At this instant, we recall Herodias's treatment by Herod and the circumstances of their marriage.) The lights go out before we hear the shot.

As I applauded, my head was spinning. This was an assault on the senses, and I approved. The production isn't there to make friends, but to kick arse. Making the case that a piece of vintage art - whether it's a period novel, Shakespeare play, or an opera - is Relevant To Today's Society can so often be problematic, because you can be passionately and genuinely keen to prove how the medium you love still speaks to modern times, while simultaneously being aware it can lapse into cliché. But given the ongoing reports we're now seeing of the horrifying - and shamefully widespread - treatment women receive at men's hands … is there a more appropriate story than Salome's to illustrate its devastating effects?

(Allison Cook as Salome. Photo by Catherine Ashmore, taken from the ENO website production gallery.)

None of it would convince, of course, without utterly committed performances - and we got those. Allison Cook, playing the title role for the first time, was fierce and fearless, singing with subtlety as well as power, and with such consistent character acting that it was hard to take your eyes off her during her significant time silent onstage. David Hoar as Jokanaan struck the balance between intimidating/commanding while prophesying, and the wracked melancholy of the doomed. It was also great to see some of the chaps from the mighty ENO Chorus - Robert Winslade Anderson, Trevor Bowes, Ronald Nairne and Adam Sullivan - cast in roles that allowed them to make their impressive, individual marks.

The ENO Orchestra under the company's Music Director Martyn Brabbins also deserve to share star billing. Rather than bludgeon us with high-octane hysterics, the sound was full of space, the Coliseum's acoustic almost providing a sense of 'stereo separation', all clarity and detail.

I think, then, that this is a vital and necessary production. It doesn't really matter to me that some people don't like it. I didn't like all of it and I didn't necessarily think every idea worked. (I thought the horse, for example, was too much of a distraction. The point I felt it was making seemed to be nailed more effectively elsewhere.) But I did like having these ideas thrown at me, challenging my preconceptions about the opera - both its story, and the wider issues it forces you to confront.

ENO has been - and can be - many things to many people. One piece of its jigsaw identity is as the alternative, occasionally rebellious, and even stroppy younger sibling of the grander ROH down the road. I think the grandeur of its own home venue, the Coliseum, sometimes makes it easy to overlook this side of the company's personality - and the brilliance of ENO Studio Live (and similar ventures) has helped to bring some of that punkish, guerrilla spirit back to the fore. That approach may always risk imperfections, but for me, this new 'Salome' is a welcome, dangerously contaminated, shot in the arm.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

New directions: 'Winterreise' at Wigmore Hall

This is the second of two posts running about Schubert's 'Winterreise'.

Last time, I archived a piece I'd originally written for the Cross Eyed Pianist blog, mostly discussing a summer performance of the song cycle given by the mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager, accompanied by Julius Drake. It includes some of my current thoughts about 'Winterreise' in general, which I won't repeat here - so if you haven't seen it and would like to read through it, go here.

This post looks at a more recent, and very different, concert.


Over three years ago, I heard Iain Bostridge sing 'Winterreise' at the Barbican. The pianist on that occasion was Thomas Adès - perhaps better known as a composer. I'm most familiar with his work through opera - 'Powder Her Face' and 'The Tempest' have both entered the repertoire, and I'm sure his recent 'The Exterminating Angel' will do the same - but he's written a wide range of orchestral and chamber music, most of which I'm yet to discover.

I was impressed by their interpretation - IB was, as ever, utterly committed and immersed in the protagonist's character, and TA seemed acutely attuned to every twist and turn the singer took. They also seemed to have steeled themselves for the venue's peculiarities: the hall in the Barbican is vast, and they filled it with a driven performance. Nonetheless, it was a bit of a mismatch between work and setting, and the audience did at points disengage (most notably with almost epidemic levels of coughing and page rustling, which the Barbican acoustic ramped up to an even volume with the voice and piano).

Fast forward to September 2018, and this time the duo were performing 'Winterreise' at Wigmore Hall. This is now part of a wider project: IB is surely the British singer most associated with the work (the Wigmore website points out he has sung it over 100 times) - and this is the first in a sequence of three recitals at the Hall where he will sing each of the three Schubert song cycles with a different accompanist. (Pleasingly, the concerts will be preserved for posterity on the Wigmore Hall Live record label.)

(Photo of Ian Bostridge by Sim Canetty-Clarke.)

I confess that I can't begin to guess how many pianists must feature in IB's century of Winterreisen, or how often he has sung it with TA (if at all) since the 2015 performances. But they do seem to generate something quite uncanny between them, and for me, at the Wigmore, it came into focus.

As a singer, IB is a dominating and at times divisive presence. I always feel that Schubert would heartily approve of his lieder interpretations because you really feel that he is 'living' the material. He's not afraid to appear or sound eccentric or mannered, affected by the songs which play with their protagonists so cruelly. IB uses his tall, slim build to maximum effect: when he sways, it's as if he's in the grip of fate; when he bends double, it's as if he is broken. However, in TA he has a partner as wilfully individualistic, as singular on the piano as IB is vocally.

As readers of some of my past blogs will know, I'm a bit obsessed with song accompaniment, and the importance of giving the pianist equal consideration with the singer. In my experience - which is obviously limited compared to many lifetime listeners - I've heard two 'types' of approach to accompaniment. Perhaps this is stating the obvious: specialists in accompaniment often seem to have a near-telepathic link to the singer and - without losing their own stylistic trademarks - can serve the patterns of the voice with almost chameleonic versatility. On other occasions, I've heard 'solo pianists' - that is, players who are more known for performing as pianists in their own right - take on the accompanist's role. In most cases, they've unsurprisingly stamped much more of their own 'personality' on to the accompaniment - a perfectly valid approach, which can lead to interesting tensions and effects in the pairing. (Even if - *whispering* - my heart more often belongs to the former group.)

(Photo of Thomas Adès by Brian Voce.)

But in Adès's performance, I felt like I was hearing something completely new to me - an accompaniment that sounded recognisably like it was being played by a composer. I think this was hinted at in the Barbican performance but stifled by the setting - in the more confined, crystalline acoustic of the Wigmore, it seemed to ring loud and clear. I had the impression TA had taken the whole cycle apart to see how it worked, then put it back together again (and I recalled IB saying in an interview some time back that TA had looked at a manuscript and was brilliant enough to pick up instantly on certain features to bring out). This now had something of the unpredictability of an Adès score.

We seemed to be hearing new things. To give a single example, it struck me that in the 20th song, 'Der Wegweiser' / 'The signpost', TA was emphasising the tolling right hand to recall song 1, 'Gute Nacht' / 'Good night', while playing the ascending run of notes in the left hand to echo song 10, 'Rast' / 'Rest'. 'Der Lindenbaum' / 'The linden tree', normally the cycle's gesture towards prettiness, was absorbed into its overall desolation. There were enough quiet-LOUD-quiet dynamics to jolt even a Pixies or Nirvana fan, climaxing in an unforgettable 'Der Leiermann' / 'The Hurdy-Gurdy Man' - not the sound of weary defeat this time, but a raging, almost determined cry of defiance.

Something about Adès's fearless way with the material meets Bostridge's technique head-on, and the outcome is a surprisingly robust, wilful interpretation that doesn't skimp on the anguish or even horror, but doesn't give in to it, either. Already a pioneering work when first penned, this performance made 'Winterreise' sound for all the world like a new, contemporary cycle.

I was at the first of two performances - I assume both will be recorded to ensure the best renditions go onto the disc. I'd love to know if the second gig was different again, and I can't wait to play the performance back. It was wonderful to be so shocked and surprised all over again by a work I thought I knew so well.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Chill factor: 'Winterreise' at Temple Church

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

The timing for archiving this post is deliberate. This was a review I wrote for Frances about an intriguing performance of Schubert's 'Winterreise' we saw during the summer - in the writing, it expanded a little to include some thoughts about the piece itself. In my next post, I'm planning to cover a very different rendition of this masterpiece, so it felt right to place this here as a companion.


Franz Schubert – ‘Winterreise’, Temple Church, 24 July 2018

Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzo-soprano, and Julius Drake, piano

Schubert’s song cycle – surely the greatest work of its kind – sets to music a series of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller. In the opening lines, the protagonist begins an unspecified journey on foot, leaving behind a woman who, back in the Spring, he believed he would marry. But now the affair is over. By the second song, we find out her parents have made a better match.

In the bitter, freezing night, he strives to leave the town behind him. But his route is obscure, as he encounters familiar landmarks, signposts, a village, even the post van – and most of all, throughout, he feels the effects of nature: snow, wind, water, clouds, lightning. Towards the end of the cycle, the sense that this voyage is at least partly interior strengthens. Hallucinations get the better of him: an apparently friendly guiding light, multiple suns – all symbols for what he has lost). Finally, he meets a mysterious ‘organ-grinder’, and considers joining him, to sing and play together. There are a number of interpretations of the ending out there: the one I favour – and I think I’ve come across the most – is that the figure indicates the cycle is eternal. The hurdy-gurdy goes round and round for ever, and the grinder could even be the wanderer’s future self. Or, he could, simply, be Death.

(No-one seems to think he’s just an organ grinder.)

Schubert composed the first 12 songs in the cycle in early 1827, before he even knew about the rest of the poems in the sequence. The story of his friends’ utter bewilderment on hearing them is often told in programme notes and CD booklets, so I won’t repeat it in detail here. But with all these years’ hindsight, it seems to me that ‘Winterreise’ must have sent shivers down their spines because Schubert wrote exactly the music the words demanded. There are tantalising flashes of vigour, even joy – and brilliantly robust, yet fractured piano parts that mirror so well a voice wracked with both determination and despondency – but the overall mood is poignant, downbeat and unresolved.

‘Winterreise’ might be cold to the touch, but it’s difficult to escape its icy grip. Speaking as an avid listener, I seem to gather recordings of it in an almost addictive way, constantly searching for new angles and insights.

Singers are drawn to it like moths to a blue flame. Perhaps it’s the art song equivalent of a Hamlet, or Lear – a rite of passage. Many feel the urge to visit and re-visit it. Ian Bostridge has a famously close relationship with the cycle, writing a book about it, and recently performing a semi-staged, orchestrated version against projected footage of this younger self. Mark Padmore and Florian Boesch have each recorded it twice in the last ten years (with different accompanists).

And that’s just a few of the men. However, the protagonist of ‘Winterreise’ – definitely a chap – must be an irresistible ‘trouser role’…? (It’s easy to forget that song is as visual a medium as opera – writing before recorded music was dreamt of, Schubert could only ever have imagined someone standing up, putting these songs across to a live audience.) But even though there are numerous recordings – including Brigitte Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig, Nathalie Stutzmann or one of my personal favourites, Alice Coote’s searing live disc – the opportunity to hear a woman perform ‘Winterreise’ live still feels all too rare.

Tonight, we were in Temple Church to hear mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager’s interpretation, for the first time. I’ve always found AK’s performances of art song thrilling: as much acted as sung, and with a captivating emotional range. I was excited to hear how she would apply this over a continuous narrative, rather than stand-alone lieder. What I experienced was completely fearless, at times frustrating but always fascinating.

The venue was both friend and foe. In Temple Church, at least where my companions and I were sitting, there’s a gloriously resonant but quite echoey acoustic. I’m not a sonic scientist, but at times, it felt like the voice and piano clashed slightly because a rumble of bass notes would tumble all over each other, or a phrase would be lost (for example, in the helter-skelter ‘Rückblick’ / ‘A backward glance’). At other points, however, in slower songs like ‘Wasserflut’ / ‘Flood’ or ‘Irrlicht’ / ‘Will-o’-the-wisp’, a fantastic sustain effect was created, allowing AK and JD to continue singing and playing with the traces of the previous note or two still fading. This really enhanced the continuous feel of the performance and lent a sinister edge that would be hard to replicate in a studio recording.

AK’s commitment to the piece was total, and I believe she portrayed the cyclic structure of the story as much through her body language as her voice. In the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ / ‘Good night’, she was still, transfixed, even to the point where I thought she was warming up in some way, not quite in full flow yet. Almost immediately, though, she opened out and began to move. Only in the final song, ‘Der Leiermann’ / ‘The organ-grinder’, when she withdrew back into herself, adopting the same pose, staring at some phantom far beyond the audience, did I realise – thoroughly moved and disquieted – that at the start we had seen her protagonist emerge, and now disappear.

Unafraid to sound harsh or broken when the context demanded, AK could come across at times as if the acting were leading the singing. So effective was she in the cycle’s moodswings that the intensity felt a bit like listening to a 75-minute ‘Erlkönig’, a rollercoaster ghost-train ride that kept me riveted. But this didn’t prevent the emotional high-points of the sequence – in particular, the soaring anguish of the penultimate song ‘Die Nebensonnen’ / ‘Phantom suns’, AK’s bright, glorious tone so tragically affecting – hitting home with a devastating beauty.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Logger rhythms: ENO Studio Live's 'Paul Bunyan'

I was quite late to this particular party. I'd managed to get tickets for 'Paul Bunyan' on the last day of its week-long run. As a result, once it opened, I had the pleasure of seeing the great reviews it received rolling in, and hearing that every last ticket had sold... combined with the agony of having to wait the whole week to see it for myself.

Now another week has gone by. The (saw)dust has settled on the production, and I've hardly stopped thinking about it since. I already know that it will be one of my absolute highlights of the year - but how to start explaining why...?

The show was the latest in English National Opera's 'ENO Studio Live' initiative, now two summers old and going from strength to strength. It's a beautifully appealing idea: outside the regular opera season, when their vast home venue the Coliseum tends to host musicals, the ENO ensemble 'breaks free' to mount smaller-scale productions. But because this is ENO's Chorus and Orchestra we're talking about, 'smaller-scale' doesn't mean there's any reduction in ambition or achievement - quite the opposite.

ENO Studio Live productions before 'Paul Bunyan' have all been staged in the company's rehearsal studios, Lilian Baylis House in West Hampstead. But this time, the setting would be Wilton's Music Hall, the oldest surviving establishment of its kind, a noble relic of sorts with a structure that seems to consist entirely of nooks and crannies. Once in the auditorium, you get a simultaneous impression of narrowness and height - which, as the show will prove, offers the ideal combination of intimate theatrics and vast sound.

'Paul Bunyan' is an operetta by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto by W H Auden. It pre-dates all of Britten's mature operas, being a product of his stay in the US, and as such the score references jazz, blues and show-tunes in a dazzling display of genre-hopping versatility. This is just one of the ways it feels very 'current', in a year when we are celebrating Bernstein, and ENO's first production of the Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess' is only a couple of months away.

The operetta's subject matter deliberately mines American myth, focusing on Paul Bunyan, a legendary giant logger who clears the forests to usher in modern agriculture, progress over the primitive, man over nature. In a masterstroke, Bunyan himself is never seen, written as an offstage speaking voice to which the visible characters react. This gives him the aura of a 'Voice of God', for sure - but equally serves to distance him from the mayhem his innovations create.

The action walks a constant - but sustained - tightrope between the absurd/surreal and the truly affecting. Amid groups of talking trees and animals, in-fighting lumberjacks and a pair of chefs who can only rustle up soup and beans between them, several characters emerge to absorb the full impact of Bunyan's orbit. Among them are Bunyan's daughter Tiny, who suffers her parents' break-up and the loss of her mother; Hot Biscuit Slim, the cowboy who can actually rustle up a decent meal; Johnny Inkslinger, the reluctant book-keeper; and Hel Helson, the hapless foreman.

It's an 'unbalanced' work, in every sense - at moments, you feel it's properly unhinged. Equally, the first act is almost like a revue in its quickfire array of set-pieces and 'hit mumbers', while the second act is required to slow down, resolve the strands of story and supply the necessary weight, as Bunyan moves on to leave his acolytes searching for their version of America.

(The men's Chorus face the orchestra. All production photos by Genevieve Girling, taken from the ENO website.)

However, ENO's production finds the balance. I thought this was one of the most deftly thought-through stagings I've seen, precision-tooled for the venue. The orchestra were vertical rather than horizontal, arranged in storeys at the back of the stage - meaning no playing area separated us from the actor-singers. Under Matthew Kofi Waldren, they negotiated the lightning shifts in style with real pizzazz, finding that under-explored middle ground between pit and nightclub. As the story got darker, red blinds gradually drew over the players, as if twilight was descending on the stage. The recording of Bunyan's voice (a rich, booming Simon Russell Beale), neon lights and plastic props presented a kind of 'electric cabaret', conjuring up a mid-20th century New York milieu, channelling it through the history in the bricks and mortar of Wilton's, and bringing it all into collision with the enchanted forest.

The use of the space to maximise the effect of the voices was breathtaking. The opening moments would have been worth the price of admission alone, as we suddenly realised we were surrounded by the ENO Chorus, and we were inside the sound they were making. I've written before that one of the key joys of ENO Studio Live is that you get so close to the Chorus - it feels exactly like a classical equivalent of seeing a popular band you love in a small club instead of an arena. You start to hear how each individual singer, always captivating in their own right, forms their particular part of the overall blend - as they move, of course their voice travels with them and you have the luxury of experiencing a 'live', ever-shifting sound mix. However, in 'Paul Bunyan' we get to take that further still, a wall of glorious surround-sound as the choristers moved around and among us. It almost felt like being in the Chorus, without having to sing oneself: result!

But more than ever, this latest Studio Live enterprise gave the deserving Chorus - full of gifted singer-actors and always great movers - a significant number of individual parts, too. Various members morphed in and out of different roles, but I'll try and give credit as clearly as I can.

Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor-Thomas (above) combined the narrator role with a trio of wild geese, offering a sassy commentary on events: on stage for almost the entire duration, they pulled off the difficult trick of sounding gorgeous - running the gamut from sultry to sarcastic - while nailing the physical comedy. This set the pattern, though, for their colleagues. David Newman made an indelible stamp - eh, readers? - as the world's most dedicated postman, and - with Morag Boyle, Michael Burke and Paul Sheehan - formed part of the Quartet of the Defeated, an absolute showstopper of a blues song, delivered straight and all the more chilling for it: 'You don't know all, sir, you don't know all' (below).

Tenor Graeme Lauren and bass Trevor Bowes were superbly (mis)matched as Sam and Ben, the useless cooks: so heartfelt was their acting that, unexpectedly, I found myself thinking, 'I could actually go some soup and beans' - they never let their ludicrous personas get in the way of their powerful delivery.

Deborah Davison, Fiona Canfield, Amy Kerenza Sedgwick, Suzanne Joyce and Jane Read were genuinely terrifying as the woodland elements and animals mocking Helson's failure. While Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan, Geraint Hylton, Ronald Nairne, Paul Sheehan (again!), Pablo Strong and Andrew Tinkler were on whip-smart comic form as a variety of Swedes, lumberjacks and farmers. Sophie Goldrick and Lydia Marchione were suitably slinky, disdainful feline foils to guest artist Fflur Wynn's sentimental dog Fido.

I could, quite easily, list the entire Chorus here and I apologise if I've unwittingly left anyone out. But the whole point of naming them is to recognise the distinct mark each member makes on the production.

A true company project, all the remaining soloist roles were taken by singers on the ENO Harewood Artists scheme. Elgan Llyr Thomas was memorably wracked as the conflicted Inkslinger, Rowan Pierce heartrending as Tiny, Matthew Durkan a humorously drawn yet fearfully intense Helson, and William Morgan a heroically confident Slim. These four handsomely carried the final moments of the show where, without disturbing Britten and Auden's closing words and music, they skilfully shifted the mood, through their acting alone, to flip the American Dream into Nightmare.

Congratulations then to director Jamie Manton, himself an ENO Studio Live veteran after directing the first in the series (Dove's 'The Day After'), and his creative team, for reviving this piece, which seems so peculiarly relevant to our current situation. In 'Paul Bunyan', for all its fabulous comedy and derangement, there is damaged nature, reckless humanity, environmental change, techno-fear, mental instability, bullying, broken homes, latent racism, intolerance, the rise of a new world order. Light on its feet, the production manages to examine, criticise or condemn these as appropriate - following through to its downbeat conclusion - while still sending you out of the Hall feeling thoroughly entertained and energised.

Which finally brings me back to the mighty Chorus, whose collective star wattage forms the absolute backbone of ENO Studio Live, and creates much of this energy, almost to the point of sending electricity coursing through the seats. I hope this show, along with its forerunners if possible, can be revived and - perhaps more importantly - recorded, so we have it for posterity. That said, the sky's now the limit: what will they perform - and where - next summer?

Monday, 3 September 2018

Queasy listening: a pick-me-up playlist

Well, I've been feeling pretty sorry for myself. A trifling matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, I realise, but a wretchedly sharp broken tooth has been driving me to distraction. With no recourse to the dentist for a few days, I am having to be extremely careful when eating and - no doubt to Mrs Specs's temporary delight - try not to talk too much. Imagine! - when two of my chief pleasures in life are (a) food, and (b) banging on about things.

Inevitably, I've sought musical solace. Not able to concentrate on anything too long-form (back on the shelf with you, 'Götterdämmerung'), I've been digging out favourites ancient and modern, making new discoveries and generally pinging about YouTube and Spotify with the attention span not of a gnat, exactly, but perhaps a sloth with toothache.

The playlist that has resulted is - to dip into academic musical jargon for a moment - 'all over the shop', but the common thread is that listening to every track here made me feel better. Not just medically, so to speak - temporarily forgetting my Ailment for four minutes at a time - but uplifted and somewhat renewed. I hope you enjoy it.

Practical footnote - YouTube videos don't always stick around for ever, so the playlist repeats at the end in a version for Spotifiers. However, I recommend watching some of these videos if you can, particularly the deliriously silly 'Funky Town' - it's my new ambition to feel as excitable about life in general as the drummer in Pseudo Echo clearly does.


Poppy Ackroyd (featuring cellist Jo Quail): 'Quail'

Sandrine Piau, Jos van Immerseel: Debussy - 'De grève'

Iron & Wine: 'Woman King'

Mathias Eick: 'Oslo'

Pseudo Echo: 'Funky Town'

Trio Aristos: Per Nørgård - 'Pastorale'

Talking Heads: 'Found a Job' (Live)

Susan Graham, Malcolm Martineau: Ned Rorem - 'Early in the morning'

Sky: 'Scipio (Parts I & II)

Thomas Dunford: Bach - 'Chaconne' (from Violin Partita no.2)

Robbie Robertson: 'Somewhere Down the Crazy River'

Grant Green: 'Django'

Alice Coote, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Marc Albrecht: Mahler - 'Um Mitternacht'

David Bowie: 'I'd Rather be High' (Venetian Mix)

Kronos Quartet: Terry Riley - 'G Song'

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Scatter shots across the bow: Sieben's 'Crumbs'

Sieben is the alter ego of Matt Howden, one of our most original musician-songwriters - and an artist who will already be familiar to those of you who have kindly followed this blog for some time. It's always a joy to write about his records and performances, partly because you can never quite be sure what he'll do next. All the evidence is in front of you - all the building blocks are there - but he'll push them in a confounding new direction, taking something that might resemble a formula then wrangling it, in front of your very ears, into a sound you've simply not heard before.

Some entry-level information: Sieben in its purest form is MH entirely solo. A jaw-droppingly intense, virtuosic violin player, he rejoices in a slightly unusual set-up: vocals, fiddle, both fed into an increasingly complex bank of pedal technology. As a result, he becomes his own full band.

He loops not just sections of songs - lending many Sieben tracks a signature, addictive groove - but live effects, creating beats with strikes to the side of the violin, or scratching his chin against it to sound like a shaker or hi-hat. He overdubs himself onstage, cloning himself into a string section or providing a distorted metal bassline. Part of the thrill of a Sieben show is seeing just what he has to do to make the sounds he needs: I'll never forget the first time I saw him nail a backing vocal by singing it into the violin pick-up instead of the normal mike, a second voice echoing all around us, but seemingly at a distance, slightly distorted.

In contrast to this potentially restrictive set-up, Sieben on record is all about leaving any so-called limitations for dust. Each album is in some way a reaction to or consolidation of the ones that came before it. Emerging during the century's first decade as part of an underground 'dark folk' scene, MH created a series of albums representing an absolute high watermark for that genre: a gifted lyricist, he would experiment as much with words as music: 'Sex and Wildflowers' crafting a new botanic vocabulary to underpin its love poetry, and 'Ogham inside the Night' pursuing the ritualistic links between nature and language.

But after making such accomplished, definitive statements - what next? Refinement and reinvention. Freed from country matters, the Sieben identity somehow becomes more fully-formed, yet more elusive, in parallel. Gradually, MH's lyrics have abandoned the pastoral for the personal and political, while the sonic exploration continues: 2012's 'No Less Than All' a restlessly intense shapeshifter; 2014's 'Each Divine Spark' conversely one of his most intimate, beautiful achievements; then the astonishing 'Old Magic' project (mostly 2016), which collected three EPs into an epic masterpiece that set history and modernity, rural and civic, on 10-minute collision courses with each other against some of his most skyscraping arrangements yet.

('The Other Side of the River', taken from 'The Old Magic', 2016.)

But none of these releases - none - prepares you for the latest Sieben album, 'Crumbs'. This is a record of its time, for its time, born from unchecked anger. Protest anthems, Sieben-style, there's no room for ambiguity in the songs' meanings - instead, the rug is pulled from under our feet with a satirical, almost vaudevillian atmosphere that makes you smile against the despair.

It's a punk album. No accident, surely, that the font on the CD credits resembles the Crass stencil. (The artwork is full of satisfying touches - not least in the photos, where instead of a shooting stick or fencing sword, MH's weapon of choice is of course his bow.) Training his sights on the world's current Brexit/Trump axis of nastiness, 'Crumbs' roars out of the traps with a clutch of songs that once again reboot our hero's musical approach.

'I Will Ignore the Apocalypse' sounds like previous Sieben - strummed, isolated violin strings - for all of 30 seconds, before the military drum tattoo starts (Tom Didlock guesting for a few songs on an actual kit), panicked air-raid siren fiddle whirrs into the landscape and MH starts looping his vocals round in an obsessive call-and-response. 'Coldbloods' continues the momentum, with the looped voice in the background chanting rhythmically, emphasising the pounding beat and tightly-wound riff.

('Coldbloods', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

Then 'Is It Dark Enough?' almost pushes this style to breaking point, playing two styles of vocal against each other - robotic repetition against a world-weary croon - so cleverly woven that the two lines intersect at certain points in the lyric while the tenser-than-ever percussion taps away in agitation and the fiddle line ascends, conveying terror in the way only furiously-scrubbed strings can.

As the album continues, you realise how closely the arrangements fit the concept. Even if a song starts innocently enough with a single melody or beat, chaos soon takes over. Elements that sound at first like they should be in completely different songs are made to clash ruthlessly, then in fact gel perfectly. 'Here is the News' is pure cabaret - mannered, queasily jaunty vocals - but set against hyperactive drum-and-bass, and metallic violin that sounds like a jolt of electricity about to burn out the headphones. 'Sell Your Future' manages the feat of combining what sounds like a doom-laden string quartet of sorts, with an off-kilter breakneck electronic riff (the intro almost seems to feature 'wobbles', as if to convey warping) and declamatory near-rapping. Even when the drums temporarily fall away in the middle, there's no pause for breath in the onslaught.

(The official video for 'Sell Your Future', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

In the words of John Lydon (on PiL's 'Rise'), 'anger is an energy' - and that could be this album's strapline - however dark the subject matter, the sheer fury and commitment makes for an endlessly exhilarating listen. None of the songs outstay their welcome - as soon as MH has pushed each one as far as it can go, it suddenly stops dead and the next one picks up the baton. At its most experimental end, the album features several tracks lasting mere seconds, as if snatches of tracks caught between radio stations on the dial, the listener realising there's no escape from the nightmare these songs address.

Out of nowhere, an extraordinary song finally slows 'Crumbs' down - 'Forge a Better World'. Assembled with real maverick confidence, this brief ray of optimism is almost a ballad, with moments of genuine reflection and actual silence - but still the wail of the fiddle prevails, giving even this hopeful moment an ominous, industrial edge.

'Crumbs' might sound like pretty much nothing else on earth, but for the longer-term Sieben-watcher, it's a pleasure to hear certain elements of previous incarnations still in there. Some of the cavernous, expansive bass sounds and one-man orchestra density will thrill fans like me who have a special fondness for 'The Old Magic'. Perhaps most of all, MH's gift for wordplay and unusual coinages - so skilfully deployed all the way back to the 'pastoral' albums - is now used to razor-sharp effect. Against some prosaic, familiar phrases - 'here is the news', 'roll-up, roll-up' - unexpected Siebenisms appear to pull you up short and make you listen again: 'heart trumps hate', 'pig-pin-prick eyes', 'a Brexit-ear in which to scream', 'grain-shake lies'. Themes of making, building and rebuilding - recurring Sieben themes - here have extreme resonance, as the album imagines the task of putting the world back together when 'a better nature will endure'.

A triumph out of tragedy, 'Crumbs' is testament to what's possible when an artist tackles something unexpected and unpredictable by bringing their full range of talents to bear on it. It's as if Sieben had been keeping dynamite in the violin case, waiting for something to ignite it. Fearsomely good.


Practical points. The best way to enjoy 'Crumbs' is on CD. There are two bonus tracks, which are well worth having: 'Coldbloods' and 'Here is the News', arranged for a full band. Not only is it a novel delight to hear Sieben tracks performed in such a way, it's also an eye-opener on the complexity of the versions he achieves with just the violin and loops.

You can buy the disc from the Matt Howden / Sieben online shop here.

CD and download are also available on Bandcamp here - remember, if you go 'digital only', you don't get the two extra tracks.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Garden, city: New York (slight return)

A few weeks ago now, I posted some photographs from a recent visit to New York (first time for both Mrs Specs and me) and - in possibly this blog's first-ever cliffhanger - promised a follow-up entry with some more snaps.

Last time, the pictures fell into two definite groups: our walking the length of the inspiring elevated garden, the High Line, followed by various awestruck pictures of the famous NY panorama. You can find that post here.

This closing follow-up is a far more meandering selection, but I hope you still enjoy our flying visit to the city.


The swiftest of strolls through Central Park...

A couple of musical pilgrimages. No opportunity to attend a performance this time, but I desperately wanted to see the Lincoln Center complex and pay homage to the Metropolitan Opera. Its shop - along with the Juilliard Store - proved irresistible.

Browsing in the Juilliard, it struck me how rare it seems these days that stock in record shops (well, ok, record shops are quite rare these days, but that aside) is shelved right down to the floor. I spent half my time in there literally clambering about on all fours, or delving carefully, but firmly, into the Sale goodies like an archaeologist on a dig. I reflected that to do this at length, in comfort, it was probably best to be student age, rather than my 'early onset grey' vintage.

For any fan of the genre, the Met Opera store is basically heaven on earth, in handy CD, DVD and Blu-ray formats. It made me pine for the old Royal Opera House shop - if it isn't restored to its former glory once the current works finish, I'm just going to have to keep going to New York.

One musical 'moment' occurred entirely inside my head, though. Walking through much of NY, in my opinion, feels to an out-of-towner like inhabiting your own movie - but I wasn't necessarily expecting to imagine myself in an album cover. As soon as I set eyes on this tenement wall, however, Led Zeppelin's 'Custard Pie' fired up in my mind's ear, and I imagined the residents of the 'Physical Graffiti' sleeve lurking behind these windows.

Managed to squeeze in a few hours at the Guggenheim. A real bonus was the major Giacometti exhibition - I had missed it, or one very much like it, at Tate Modern last year. The sparse consistency of the sculpture was so suited to the museum's unique hang, spiralling around the central hall.

Our local green space for a significant part of our stay: New York Botanical Garden (in the Bronx):



… and its sibling, Brooklyn Botanic Garden (here the serenity of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden):

But to finish, some more evidence of how easy it is in NY to simply look around and about... and especially up... and stop short.