Sunday, 12 November 2017

Personal space: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

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

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

(The model of the Holocaust Memorial.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Lost in Franz

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


Elly Ameling, Irwin Gage: 'Atys'

Fritz Wunderlich, Hubert Giesen: 'An Sylvia'

[Here's Sylvia!]

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

Werner Güra, Christoph Berner: 'Nachtstück'

Bernarda Fink, Gerold Huber: 'Romanze'

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: 'Wilkommen und Abschied'

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

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber: 'Fischerweise'

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

Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten: 'Die Taubenpost'

Monday, 23 October 2017

Grand designs: Opera North's 'Little Greats'

While I realise we are spoilt for cultural choice in London, I am still greedy enough to wish that Opera North were also just down the road. I encountered the company for the first time when they obligingly visited the capital, to perform their magnificent Ring Cycle at the South Bank - and since then, Mrs Specs and I made the trip to Edinburgh to catch their superb Puccini double bill and 'Billy Budd' on tour.

This time, we met them on their home turf, in Leeds. The latest Opera North season is made up of the brilliantly inventive 'Little Greats'. Instead of presenting three or four evening-length operas, ON have chosen six one-act works, each lasting from around 45 to 80 minutes. Tickets were available separately for every performance of every opera, to give audiences maximum flexibility - however, for practical purposes, most (if not all) 'visits' were programmed as double bills. The company mixed up the scheduling throughout, giving people access to almost any combination they fancied, and allowing some surprising juxtapositions.

Fascinated by the idea, I looked into the logistics of a trip. However - as a non-local, I found my booking decision made itself. I worked out that if Mrs Specs and I went on the final Friday evening and Saturday afternoon/evening performances, we could see all six. Rude not to, in fact.

Here are the six operas, then, in the order we saw them:
  • Friday evening: Janáček's 'Osud' ('Destiny'), with Ravel's 'L'Enfant et les sortilèges' ('The Child and the Magic Spells').
  • Saturday afternoon: Bernstein's 'Trouble in Tahiti', with Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury'.
  • Saturday evening: Leoncavallo's 'Pagliacci', with Mascagni's 'Cavelleria rusticana'.
[Seasoned opera-goers will know that it's in fact a longstanding tradition to perform these last two together - although more commonly the other way round (resulting in their joint nickname 'Cav/Pag'). However, the fact we saw them as a pair was simply circumstance - earlier in the season, there were several opportunities for punters to combine each one with a selection from the other four.]

ON's General Director, Richard Mantle, writes that a key aim of the 'Little Greats' season is "to explore the boundless variety of opera" - and here they certainly succeeded. Even the classic coupling of 'Pag' and 'Cav' - which both represent the short, sharp shock of Italian opera at its most visceral - had undergone a kind of interrogation of their differences: 'Pagliacci's theatre group in a chaotic state of rehearsal realism, mayhem holding sway even before the bloodshed becomes a reality... while 'CR's characters inhabit a more surreal, suspended limbo where their conversations and actions criss-cross - yet the storytelling maintains its clarity right through to the chilling conclusion.

'Osud' is an astonishing work that, to my mind, belongs properly in the repertoire. Its flashback structure (emphasising the characters' inexorable journey to the 'destiny' of the title) and self-perpetuating plot - about a composer who uses the disasters in his life to fuel his opera-in-progress and, as a result, can never complete it - give it a thoroughly contemporary 'meta' feel that would make it a natural bedfellow to a piece like 'Written on Skin'. 

Yet the biggest surprise to me of the six was the Bernstein. Familiarity with 'West Side Story' alone would suggest the ability to mix some of the most joyous music with gritty, bittersweet and even tragic situations, and the almost carefree elision of jazz and classical styles. But it seems this was all there, 100%, in his first opera-in-miniature. 'Trouble in Tahiti' is a day-in-the-life story, lasting well under an hour, which we spend with Sam and Dinah, a married couple who have lost the ability to communicate. Each day, it seems, they could reach a point where they talk it through, but instead they bicker, avoid each other, then seek refuge in a movie before 're-setting' for the following day. In a genius touch, a Greek chorus role is taken by a doo-wop style trio on the radio, singing their hymns to the perfect suburban life which we watch and hear going so poignantly wrong. Despite the fierce bravura of 'Cav', 'Pag' and 'Osud', this was in fact the Little Great that got to me the most, brought me closest to tears.

In comparison, the Ravel and G&S works are confections. In the former, a naughty boy is banished to his room, only to have everything he has abused - from the formerly inanimate objects in his room to the animals in the garden outside - come to life and turn on him. 'Trial by Jury', on the other hand, is almost beyond farce: a blurry rush of lunacy that delights in its own daftness - an early work that seems to have G&S testing each other's limits without worrying about niceties like plot or logic. However, part of the collective genius of this project is that these lighter pieces were delivered with as much care and conviction as the others, giving both the light and dark side of opera equal worth and weight.

I knew before seeing these operas that I would almost certainly post about them, and I reasoned that I would write about all six in turn, perhaps a couple of paragraphs on each. But in fact, that has proven impossible. This is because, while each one works perfectly well by itself, the cumulative effect of seeing all the Little Greats in fairly quick succession is to realise how unified the season is overall: there are references and continuities that don't make or break one's enjoyment of each individual opera at all - but they can enhance the experience if you want them to.

For example, the shared nature of the operas as 'blink and you'll miss them', momentary suspensions of disbelief is embodied in the visual presentation. While several directors were involved, Charles Edwards designed all the sets - and in each opera they present a temporary enclosed world that the characters to some extent manipulate and dismantle onstage - from the fading front room of 'Tahiti', the looming cross on the church wall in 'Cav', the disintegrating classroom in 'Osud', the bedroom imperceptibly giving way to the outdoors in 'L'enfant'... to the rehearsal area itself in 'Pagliacci' which, neatly, features designs for the other five Little Greats pinned up onto the sets. Equally, we see or hear constant reminders of time in all the productions, whether the characters are society gossips staring at a clock face willing 10am to arrive ('Trial'), a radio chorus trying to time their entrances and exits accurately ('Tahiti'), villagers heeding a tolling church bell ('Cav') or in fact the personification of a broken clock ('L'enfant')!

For all this pleasing unity, perhaps the most thrilling element of the Little Greats for audiences will prove to be the wonderful performances. It was a privilege to hear the Opera North orchestra in such clarity (when used to the sheer size of London houses and, accordingly, sitting much further away from the action - everything here was several times clearer and louder) - in particular the string section, setting their stall at the outset as engines of terror in the Janáček. The chorus, too, not only made a great sound - providing the entire cast, solo parts and all, for 'Trial by Jury' - but proved masters of physical comedy and movement: I'm thinking in particular of the crowd scenes in 'Osud' and, even more so, the rowdy players just about keeping the action in 'Pagliacci' on the sane side of anarchy until the shocking, closing tableau. My admiration for players and singers alike increased with every performance: the sheer versatility on display, in such compact circumstances.

The season also encouraged brilliance from the soloists, who would from time to time reappear as a result of fascinating casting. Giselle Allen gave two studies of the wronged woman - the down-trodden Mila in 'Osud' and the repressed Santuzza finally reaching breaking point in 'Cav' - both given gorgeously yearning voice, yet so distinctly characterised as to feel at first like two different sopranos. Rosalind Plowright also appeared in the same two operas, as a mother-figure in each: in the former a dangerous loose cannon, vocally fearsome, while in the latter, a more uptight, withdrawn individual with a more resigned, brittle tone. It was also a joy to see singers taking relatively small roles in some productions come to the fore in others: for example, two of the supporting players in 'Osud' went on to dominate 'Pag' - Peter Auty as a heartbreakingly unhinged Canio opposite Richard Burkhard's terrifyingly malevolent Tonio, attacking every syllable with all-too-believable venom.

It's so hard to single people out when this whole enterprise was so clearly the result of a committed ensemble. But I would have to mention Wallis Giunta, who switched overnight from the bolshy defiance of tearaway boy in the Ravel - played tenderly and convincingly as a proper junior 'trouser role' - to the longing and disquiet of Bernstein's Dinah. I'd also pay tribute to the acting (as well as singing) of John Graham-Hall, utterly inhabiting the lead role of Zhivny in 'Osud' - fragile nerves, paranoia, panic, obsession - only to spend the rest of the evening, thanks to Ravel, as either a tea-pot or a tree-frog. That really is range.

As I write, the Little Greats have closed in Leeds but now head out on tour to Hull, Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford - so, if any tickets remain, please get to some or all of them if you can. Just like that astonishing interpretation of the Ring, these productions have the stamp of a company with sky-high ambitions, backed up with the imagination and talent to achieve them.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Parent company: my folks vs opera

Since retiring, my mum and dad have probably focused on the normal 'H'-related activities (home, holidays, and inevitably, a bit of hospital) - but there are signs they've acquired a slight taste for adventure. Taking travel as an example, they were essentially UK-bound thanks to a shared fear of flying - one reason I know probably every centimetre of the Isle of Wight - but in later years, seemingly possessed, they've boarded Euro-bound coaches to some further flung regions on the continent: and more power to them.

It's also starting to happen in other areas, too. For a recent Mothers' Day, Mrs Specs and I took them to the Royal Opera House: not for an actual show, but for the treat-laden afternoon tea. However, as the special occasion merited, members of the chorus performed arias with piano accompaniment throughout the session. It was a superb afternoon, but the big surprise towards the end was when Dad announced: 'You know - I'd like to go the opera one day.' Mum: 'Me too. If it's anything like this - that would be lovely.'

I instantly said: 'Well, that's great! Leave it to me.' I was overjoyed. This really was new. Dad was Team Sinatra. Tribe of Elvis. Mum probably last put a record on in 1964. We'd always had bonds culturally - books, films, TV - but music only tangentially. To hear them express an interest in anything to do with classical music awakened that impulse in me that perhaps every child recognises when there's a chance to fix something up in their 'field' for their parents: to give a bit of all that nurturing and education back.

I had a few problems to negotiate. Which opera? It would need to have 'proper' melodies (I love a lot of contemporary stuff, but this visit was not about me.) Thanks to Dad's fear of heights, I needed to find the exact point in the auditorium between affordability and terra firma. Couldn't be too long, either, or Mum could fall asleep and Dad's leg would fossilise - the last thing I'd want would be for him to stand up for the interval only to tip serenely over into the next row. So that's 'Parsifal' out. In the end, I spotted that 'Tosca' (with one of my favourite singers in the title role) was coming round early next year at the ROH. Perfect - a real thriller of a 'starter' opera: tense, tragic, tune-packed.

I can't wait for the date to arrive and see what they make of it. In the meantime, a conversation I had with Dad today indicates the learning curve may be steep-ish... it began with Mum saying 'You were at the opera all weekend!'

(The Coliseum, home of English National Opera, where I was 'at the opera all weekend'.)

Me: Well, sort of. I just ended up getting tickets two nights running. 'Aida' on Friday, 'The Barber of Seville' on Saturday.
Dad: Ah! 'The Barber of Seville'! Heard of that.
Me: Yep. You know, 'Fiiii-ga-ro', that one. Laugh-out-loud funny. Brilliant.
Dad: He's married, isn't he?
Me: No. [Pause.] Oh. You must be thinking of 'The Marriage of Figaro'.
Dad: Yes, exactly. He's married.
Me: No, I mean - 'The Marriage of Figaro' is a completely different opera. Mozart. 'The Barber of Seville' is by Rossini.
Dad: [A facial expression which says 'I am tolerating this, for now'.]
Me: Figaro is a character from some old French plays, and the operas are based on those. So, while the composers are different, 'The Barber of Seville' is a bit like a prequel to 'The Marriage of Figaro', in story order.
Dad: So he does get married.
Me: YES but not in the opera I saw on Saturday. He gets married in... well, in 'The Marriage of Figaro'. In 'The Barber of Seville', he helps a nobleman rescue the woman he loves from the clutches of her guardian.
Dad: But he's involved with some woman downstairs, isn't he? They're in on it together?
Mum: Don't look at me, dear.
Me [after some moments]: Well. The woman, ok, is upstairs. A prisoner in her own room, so to speak, but yes, she's in on what they're doing - she wants to escape.
Dad: No no no, she's downstairs. The people go down a trap door, and she puts them in the pies. She's in on it, with Figaro - right?
Me: That's Sweeney Todd, Dad.
Dad: THAT'S IT! I knew it.

If an enterprising composer out there would like to write 'The Demon Barber of Seville', my Dad's going to love it.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Beat poets: The Disappointment Choir's 'Vows'

I should say upfront - as I normally do when posting about the Disappointment Choir - that they are friends of mine. Full disclosure and all that. Luckily, that's never been an issue when it comes to spreading the word about their music. It's superb.

As one might expect from a duo with separate lives, day jobs and families, new music from Rob and Katy doesn't always arrive quickly - but when it turns up, it's worth many times the wait. These are exciting times for Choir acolytes, as the new album 'Vows' (their second full-length after 2013 debut 'Polar Ships' and interim EP from 2015 'To the Lake') arrives at last, in just a few days' time: Friday 6 October.

I'm pleased to report that 'Vows' is exactly the follow-up album one would want the band to make. From the outset, they were singular enough: an adult, melancholy sensibility - a mournful indieness that would comfort fans of the Magnetic Fields or the National - made buoyant on sparkling keyboards, synths and samples - think Pet Shop Boys in their more reflective moments. A couple of the songs on 'Vows' that exemplify this - 'Need Someone' and 'Centre of the World' - date from the EP, and are clearly too gorgeous not to find a home on a proper album.

But elsewhere on the record, there are new games afoot that push the DC sound into further realms of genre-scorning magnificence. While the production is hardly in-your-face, there's something a little more souped-up in the engine, and the inventiveness has certainly been turned up to 11. Take the first song released ahead of the album (for older readers, the 'single', if you will), 'Heartstrings'. Here it is:

I think it's almost possible to audit scientifically why 'Heartstrings' is such a glorious, affecting pop record. I shall use bullet points:
  • The verse is as immediate as some of the best choruses.
  • Then the chorus is a real winner as well.
  • The gentle, but insistent propulsion all comes from the melodies - the constantly moving synth bass makes your head nod and foot tap, but the percussion is quiet, almost a suggestion.
  • It's also the song's drive, its sense of purpose, that helps make it uplifting and wistful at the same time.
  • Where the lyrics repeat most busily, they actually match and encapsulate the exasperation of the character in the song.
  • Vocal harmonies have always been one of the band's strengths. Unlike, for example, the more familiar idea of groups with a seamless 'blend' of voices (siblings like the Everlys or Beach Boys, or Simon & Garfunkel, say), Rob and Katy have entirely distinct singing styles and timbres. So, while on the first few listens, you still get a unified feel for the overall tune, repeated plays reward close attention as you can follow each voice quite clearly and appreciate how the vocal lines dovetail around each other.
  • The song probably has the best-deployed "Oh-ho-ho" in recorded history.
  • When you get to the outro to find how THAT verse and THAT chorus can in fact be sung at the same time and sound amazing, it's a proper musical 'punch-the-air' moment.
  • And finally, the song doesn't outstay its welcome. So you play it again.
Two of the most extraordinary songs on the album are full-on dancefloor monsters. '1971' sounds for all the world like Daft Punk (armed with their vocoder) and Chic invading the Home Counties, its three minutes sporting massed anthemic chants, relentless synth bass and a genuine contender for a Deathless Disco Couplet: "It doesn't matter what's making the sound / If it's shaking the ground". Even a keening, 'Heroes'-style guitar makes an appearance towards the end.

And the opening track, 'A Quid's Worth of Free Advice' could be one of the best things they've ever done. Again, it's possible to hear them meld, and even surpass potential influences: the dancing blips nod to the 80s heyday of Depeche Mode and Erasure, while the brilliant interplay between the guitar and backing out-Electronics Electronic. But as both the Choristers increase even further in confidence vocally, the singing means this couldn't be by anyone else as Rob's regret-filled agility and Katy's forceful purity carry a lightning call-and-response through the verses.

I could go on: there's the winning closing moments of '2½ Minute Love Song' where each of the pair seem to happily inhabit their own separate record; the unstoppable 'Captain, 15' with its soaring vocal line, approximately 37 different versions of the main rhythm, and instrumental break worthy of the atmosphere of 'Telstar'; the gorgeous 'That's When We Fall', mining its poignancy from the way all the instruments appear to initially hold back from the beat. Eleven tracks in all, precision-tooled to keep both the ears and brain fully occupied.

If you're struck by what you hear, then please support the band, and we'll have more of this heady, powerful pop brew to look forward to. You can order 'Vows' on various formats, all the way from a mere phantom digital option, to a (no doubt synthesised) bells-and-whistles vinyl/CD/bag - yes, BAG - combo for those of us who appreciate something a little more luxurious. All Disappointment Choir-related sonic riches can be found here on their Bandcamp page. Make haste!

Friday, 29 September 2017

Face the music

As someone who's obsessed with both music and portrait photography, I doubt I'll surprise anyone when I say that I've always been fascinated with album cover art - especially when there is some clear intent behind how the musicians (if they appear) are represented.

Of course, some record labels have a very particular aesthetic that seems to elevate them - rightly or wrongly - above their roster of individual artists. Those of you sharing my vintage may well recall Manchester's Factory, which favoured the austere, industrial sleeve design of Peter Savile over band photos. Perhaps the most successful and fitting use of this kind of approach is ECM, where the clean, sparse, yet atmospheric and often abstract sleeves encapsulate the meticulous production values of the recorded sound. The label almost steps back, self-effacing, an anti-identity in complete service of the musicians.

But much as I admire this kind of approach, it can't win my love in the way that, say, Blue Note's unforgettable album covers can: Francis Wolff's majestic photography, married to bold typography that gives the sleeve a level of design class that a Saul Bass opening sequence would lend a film.

Or - looking through a different lens - the extraordinary sleeves Morrissey collated for The Smiths: together, a kind of second-hand, self-defining portrait archive drawn from movie stills and publicity shots that located the band's records in a very specific universe.

However, talking of very specific universes: on discovering and exploring classical music, I was if anything even more intrigued by the way a lot of the records - admittedly, more often than not shrunk to CD size nowadays - actually looked. To reel off the clichés: overwhelming quantities of decorous paintings, drawings of the relevant composers with forbiddingly serious countenance, and elder-statesmanlike portraits of conductors - presented with a kind of solid, furrowed intensity that could convince you Karajan had been carved out of Mount Rushmore.

It struck me that the visual presentation of classical recordings must have always presented a peculiar set of challenges. To begin with, there's the scholarly 'catalogue' aspect (no doubt feeding into the music's ongoing, regrettable dry/academic/elite image) of including all the necessary information in the title: composer, piece, conductor, soloists, orchestra, etc. Fine art must have been a very welcome option, not just in keeping with 'tradition'/'history', but also sidestepping any decision about exactly how many people to try and get onto the cover.

(The marvellous Hyperion record label has a house style of sorts - line up their CDs on your shelf and you'll see that the spine typeface is almost always the same - but it seems caught between these old and new styles of presentation: compare these art song titles, and you'll see quite a difference between the 'old school' Strauss and Hahn covers and the striking portraits of the Liszt and Brahms series.)

How do you get past the fact of so many releases called more or less exactly the same thing? - how many thousands of 'Beethoven: 5th Symphony's must there be? It's perhaps no wonder that the conductor in particular often becomes the 'brand' of a recording, and their noble visages still grace their latest projects: think of how Riccardo Chailly appears on the Gewundhausorchester Brahms and Beethoven cycles, or the current Elgar sequence from Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim, where the maestro appears almost preserved in an Old Master-ish sepia.

Entire books have been written and assembled about album sleeve design, and rightly so. All I have here is a blog post, but I mainly want to flag a few recent examples I've noticed in the classical genre where some of the conformities and constraints seem to have been more relaxed. I hope this becomes at least a tendency, even better a trend. Listeners like me who come to classical after rock, jazz, folk and so on are so often 'artist-led' and used to 'albums', rather than 'works'.

Sometimes it's as simple as owning something by naming it. I'm interested in how Rachel Barton Pine gives her records an extra title that 'overlays' the contents - and instantly announces the releases as albums - more personal projects, somehow, than 'mere' recordings. The DG label seems to be trying the same thing with the Liszt release from Daniil Trifonov. And the Andris Nelsons Shostakovich discs - which clearly nod to the 'austere conductor portrait' tradition - acquire an extra brand boost with the overarching title 'Under Stalin's Shadow' - something that will bind this series of CDs together to tell some kind of story alongside the music.

I find it very satisfying when the visual art seems to communicate something very specific about the performers. Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau are an ideal lieder team: in Schubert's songs where the voice and piano are so often equal partners, FB's willingness to almost 'step back' and allow his baritone to melt into MM's characterful playing makes for a near-perfect balance between them. So I wonder if it's coincidence that the art for their Schubert song-cycles on Onyx gives both men equal weight: two halves of the same enterprise. (I'd also love to know what prompted the 'slight' change of tack for the fourth CD of stand-alone lieder - certainly eye-catching! - although the fact that these are 'unconnected' songs in a variety of moods is well conveyed by the miniature repeats of the 'faces' motif in a range of colours.)

Some of my favourite singers and musicians are building bodies of work featuring intriguing and adventurous approaches to performance and programming - and the photography and design surrounding their music only underlines this. I don't see it as incidental that singers so often 'present' in this way - as, much like in the rock world, they are essentially in the 'frontman/woman' role.

Carolyn Sampson's recital albums with Joseph Middleton for BIS are strongly thematic (flowers, followed by the poetry of Verlaine) and the CD covers feature striking images of CS in line with the concept (surrounded by blooms, then beneath a shimmering 'clair de lune'). The forthcoming album of mad songs promises to have her appearing as the ill-fated Ophelia on the sleeve. But for their current release, where the duo team up with Iestyn Davies, the photo on the cover is a brilliantly bold, almost stark, double portrait: not only is it a great shot, but could you better capture the way the music on the CD itself marries 'old' and 'new' material and interpretations? ID exudes similar levels of cool on the sleeve of a recent Hyperion Bach disc, the font on the front of the sheet music echoing the record label's own distinctive logo, but both delightfully out of time with the rest of the composition.

This final selection, to me, seem to attain a kind of extremity of design - perhaps no surprise, given that they mostly belong to the work of Barbara Hannigan, renowned for her powerful and highly physical performances, and - I think it's clear - someone very much in control of curating her image. From the icy pallor of the 'let me tell you' song sequence (more Ophelia), through the candid nonchalance of the Satie recording with Reinbert de Leeuw - possibly the least diva-like cover shot you could imagine - right up to the stylish abandon adorning her new album: these all have the distinction of being shots it's impossible to imagine featuring anyone else. Likewise, my closing choice, the most recent CD from Anna Prohaska - another inventive recital programmer, here collecting 'Arias for Dido and Cleopatra' - explaining the astonishing cover portrait's arresting combination of tattoo and terror in the eyes.

I could have chosen so many more, but I think time and space (which just about covers everything) are against me. Maybe a follow-up post will conjure itself up in the future.


Friday, 15 September 2017

Snap decisions: Specs on holiday

My job has been fairly intense in recent months, and given the old work/life balance a bit of a knock. So it was fantastic to finally get away to our 'regular' retreat in Northumberland - although this visit would be the first in three years. It was wonderful to relax, have the time and space to think and breathe... and write, without all the technical copy I have to come up with during the working day crowding my brain. My recent Proms posts were drafted in the idyllic setting of the holiday cottage.

Regular readers - or perhaps, in this case, viewers - will know about my photography hobby, and the portrait work I do with a group of friends very much represents me at my 'artsiest'. The camera always comes with me on holiday, but I'm aware that my pictures of Northumberland must run into several hundreds, with many near-duplicates and recurring subjects.

So - it's hard to explain, but this time, almost subconsciously, I largely just larked about. My mental energy was so sapped, I didn't want to 'worry' about every photo. I rediscovered the ubiquitous Instagram, which I hadn't used properly for years. I'd forgotten how the instant edit functions - a border here, some drama or trickery there - made taking snapshots just fun: nothing more, nothing less. That said, even though you're no longer quite so restricted within the app, I really enjoyed sticking, come what may, to the square ratio. It's impossible for the music nerd in me to separate that format from the traditional album cover... which added a whole new dimension to how I composed a few of the shots.

So, this isn't a showcase for my photography by any means - certainly not in the way I proudly share some of the portraiture - but it is a bit of a shout-out to Northumberland, one of my very favourite parts of the world. If you're in the mood to have a look through my holiday snaps, press on - I hope you enjoy them.


The Angel of the North welcomes us - and everyone else - back with open arms.

The view from our cottage.

The Cragside estate is a real refuge for us - we always seem to end up going more than once on every trip. A cameo appearance from Mrs Specs here!

Dunstanburgh Castle.

The Alnwick Garden.

A sequence of photos taken at Wallington - like Cragside, another National Trust house and estate. I was extremely pleased to see whose music took pride of place at the piano. The house itself is a den of eccentricity: a library of some 3,000 books in a single room, Escher-like staircases and a blood-freezing collection of dolls' houses. (My in-laws came down from Scotland to meet us for a few days, and it's them, along with Mrs Specs, traipsing the woodland path.)

The second-hand book shops in Northumberland are of the very highest quality.

An excursion to Kielder Water, now home to some unusual art installations - in particular this secluded 'Minotaur Maze'. I should point out that Mrs Specs isn't still there.

A day trip to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, returning via Tynemouth - where (to continue the spookiness theme) we discovered the most terrifying Toy Museum on the planet. So scary, it's now called only the 'To Useum'.

There is more than one second-hand book shop in Northumberland.

Return to Cragside for a PROPER walk this time - one of those slightly mystical country treks where there is definitely more uphill than downhill. 'Invigorating'.

Where we stay. It's all farmland, with the croft and cottages at the top. The overall property is also home to a ruined castle and disused viaduct.


It's become a running joke that anywhere we have a meal out in this neck of the woods is completely deserted. This was a homely place with a slight buzz when we arrived. Looking about us after demolishing our starters, we saw this:

It is us. It's definitely us.