Monday, 12 March 2018

Ten for today

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

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

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

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

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


Roxy Music: 'Stranded'

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

Mekons: 'Journey to the End of the Night'

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

Emmylou Harris: 'Wrecking Ball'

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

Talking Heads: 'More Songs about Buildings and Food'

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

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

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

Kate Bush: 'The Sensual World'

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

Keith Jarrett: 'Vienna Concert'

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

Billy Bragg: 'Workers Playtime'

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

The Handsome Family: 'Through the Trees'

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

Anna Calvi: 'Anna Calvi'

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


Monday, 26 February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, 18 February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Dark star

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

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


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

"A singing nation": Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 January 2018

Head girl: 'Salome' at the Royal Opera House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Retrospecstive 2017: live

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

More power to you all, ENO folk.

Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall

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

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

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

Alice Coote, Julius Drake: Schubert at Wigmore Hall

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

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

The December Quartets (The Harrison, London)

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

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

'The Exterminating Angel' (The Royal Opera)

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

The 'Little Greats' Season (Opera North)

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

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

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

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

'Passages' (Proms, Royal Albert Hall)

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

'Pelléas et Mélisande' (Scottish Opera)

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

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

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

Trio Mediaeval with Nils Økland at Wigmore Hall

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