Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Retrospecstive 2016: recorded

Hello, everyone - I hope you've been having an enjoyable, and ideally, musical holiday season. 2016 has not been the easiest of rides, but this blog entry is at least somewhere you can hopefully relax and enjoy some of the finest treats the year had to offer. I've repeated my approach from last time, which is to split my survey into two posts. This one covers music released on disc - then, I'll turn my attention to the live/onstage experiences I've loved during 2016 and assemble a second round-up when I get the chance!

The selections below cover both classical and rock/folk/electronica, in the hope that many of you will want to browse the lot. However - here's a brief digest for purists, with my album(s) of the year in bold type:

Classical: Hans Abrahamsen / Barbara Hannigan, Mahan Esfahani, Jamie Barton & Brian Zeger, Florian Boesch & Malcolm Martineau, Ian Bostridge & Xuefei Yang, Copland / John Wilson, Ruby Hughes & Joseph Middleton, Pavel Kolesnikov, Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Roderick Williams & Iain Burnside.

(I had to pick joint 'winners' for the classical recordings as the Sampson/Middleton recording is so recent. I think, however, that I've already played it as much as all of the others.)

Rock/folk/electronica: Baltic Fleet, Brian Eno, The Handsome Family, The Olympians, Jo Quail, Raf and O, Sieben, Silver Apples, Trembling Bells, Wolf People.

(One last thing - I appreciate that some people prefer not to use Spotify, and I can be ambivalent towards it myself: for me, it's strictly a 'try before you buy' tool. I have only used Spotify links below where I reached the 'tearing my hair out' point trying to find suitable audio on YouTube, Bandcamp or similar.)

Dive in!

Hans Abrahamsen, Paul Griffiths: 'let me tell you' - Barbara Hannigan with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons

Although BH is without doubt a fearless and at times showstopping performer, it was interesting that two lower-key recordings emerged this year that were just as powerful as her more flamboyant enterprises. I love her Satie disc with Reinbert de Leeuw, 'Socrate', but this new Abrahamsen song cycle just had me spellbound. (And given its success in end-of-year lists and awards, many other listeners, too.) The text, adapted by Griffiths from his own novella, paints an alternative portrait of Ophelia using only her words from 'Hamlet'. But it's Hannigan, waving rather than drowning amid the orchestra, who gives her three dimensions.

Bach: 'Goldberg Variations' - Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord

ME is a champion of the harpsichord in all senses of the word. He must be one of the greatest players in action today - however, he also speaks eruditely and engagingly about the music during his recitals, which often have a touch of the 'evil genius' about their programming. Refusing to limit the harpsichord to past glories, he airs recent and contemporary material, sometimes using double tracking or electronics to realise his ambitions. So, after a wide-ranging debut disc for DG, it was fascinating to hear him tackle one of the great works from start to finish on the follow-up. I have a few Goldberg recordings and this is rapidly becoming my favourite: so consistent is the sound that it feels as if musician and machine are one entity. Once I put it on, I can't stop it until it's finished.

Baltic Fleet: 'The Dear One'

Paul Fleming (the one-man band behind Baltic Fleet) returned with a third album of soaring instrumentals which seem to combine several of my favourite things: excellent deployment of synthesiser buzz and squelch, skyscraping melodies and tight, relentless beats. As much as I love 'high-end' electronica (Jean Michel Jarre, say, or Vangelis), the Baltic Fleet sound - somehow dense and wide-screen simultaneously - allows you to hear the painstaking assembly of the thing, and is all the better for it. 'Lights of Rock Savage':

Jamie Barton, Brian Zeger: 'All Who Wander'

This CD is almost self-recommending. Anyone lucky enough (like me) to be at JB's debut recital at Wigmore Hall this year will recall its real 'event' atmosphere - and that exhilarating feeling of a glorious voice barely contained by the venue is brilliantly captured on this disc. A great choice of repertoire: JB proves majestic in Mahler, dramatic yet agile in Dvořák and - in perhaps the highlight sequence - radiating a stately beauty in Sibelius. BZ is a robust and reactive partner. Sibelius's 'Flickan kom ifran sin alsklings mote (The girl returned from meeting her lover)':

Florian Boesch, Malcolm Martineau: 'Schubert'

After recording the three great song cycles, these regular recital partners produced a magical disc of 'stand-alone' Schubert lieder. Boesch gives a carefully calibrated performance, not quite the caressing tone of, say, Christian Gerhaher's 'Nachtviolen' disc, but brilliantly controlled: sometimes the ever-versatile Martineau takes the 'dramatic' lead over FB's conspiratorial tone. Then, when the voice is fully unleashed - for example, in 'Der Zwerg' - it's phenomenal. A spirited 'Fischerweise' aside, the mood is largely measured, the cumulative effect formidable. 'Am Tag Aller Seelen':

Ian Bostridge, Xuefei Yang: 'Songs From Our Ancestors'

A strong year for IB, with the 'Shakespeare Songs' collaboration with Antonio Pappano (and others, including lute genius Elizabeth Kenny) also something of a winner. But this recording has the edge - and it's certainly one of my discs of the year. It's the first release on a label run by Shakespeare's Globe, confusingly enough, to showcase music performed in its Sam Wanamaker Playhouse indoor space. In such an intimate arena, IB seems to find almost a new voice - not exactly relaxed, but miles away from his 'I'll get through this if it kills me' setting - and it's XY who punctuates his notes with a lively, kinetic accompaniment. In fact, at times it's The Xuefei Yang Show, as her solo guitar pieces astonish (especially the marvellous 'Sword Dance'). The programme, ranging from early music to newly-commissioned works, really satisfies. It's as if the duo, wondering if they'd ever get to do this again, threw as many elements in as they could to represent their two worlds. But this isn't their first recording together (see the excellent 'Britten Songs' CD) and I hope it's far from the last. Dowland's 'Come again, sweet love doth now invite':

Copland: 'Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 - Ballets' - BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Wilson

I realise that I'm such a song/opera person that it's quite rare for an orchestral disc to barge a few contenders out of the way and lodge itself in my end-of-year rave... but this recording is irresistible. While JW is surely now best known for his Orchestra's revivals of great US songbook/musical material, his affinity clearly extends to American classical and he brings the same 'brio' to this selection of some of Copland's best-loved works. I couldn't find a studio extract, but here's a concert with the same personnel, marrying much of the disc content with some Barber and Bernstein:

Brian Eno: 'The Ship'

I don't know if Brian Eno actually woke up one morning and thought, 'I know - what if I made an album of songs, but recorded it as if it was one of my ambient ones?' (Or vice versa.) But that appears to be exactly what he's done with 'The Ship'. Restful, enveloping, but somehow sinister, the title track stretches out to the length of a side - in old money. Appropriately enough, it manages to be both beautiful and eerie in the way the shipping forecast itself can be (as befits a lyric inspired by the Titanic). The multi-part track taking up the second half of the album, 'Fickle Sun', features a computer-generated poem read by Peter Serafinowicz, then morphs into a gorgeous cover of the Velvet Underground's 'I'm Set Free'. Eno hasn't sung on an album in some time, but here he marries his rich, elder-statesman vocal with the tracked harmony approach reminiscent from some of his production work (particularly with the band James). An album to lose yourself in:

The Handsome Family: 'Unseen'

It's hard to know what to say about husband-and-wife duo Brett & Rennie Sparks that I haven't already. They have been such a constant, consistent presence in my listening life for so long. I can't imagine a situation where every couple of years, another ten or twelve perfectly-wrought, haunted short stories set to stealthily catchy Americana doesn't arrive - but luckily, as yet I haven't had to. Two decades or so into their career, they suddenly came to wider public consciousness when their song 'Far From Any Road' was chosen as the theme to series 1 of 'True Detective'. (And the album that track hails from, 'Singing Bones', is an absolute belter.) But this latest record is right up their with their best - the deceptively gentle country-ish sway is actually swinging you over the edge of the abyss. Here's the lead track, 'Gold':

Ruby Hughes, Joseph Middleton: 'Nocturnal Variations'

JM - of whom more later - seems to have a habit of collaborating with singers to produce superbly-programmed recital discs. These 'songs of the night' sit together superbly - starting with Schubert's melodicism but progressing through Mahler, Berg and Britten to take us into a rather more disturbed, agitated dreamscape. Astonishingly, this is RH's debut song CD as solo singer: I love the regulated drama of her tone and her mastery of dynamics - as well as a real sense of control which unifies the selections, however stormy or serene. If anything, the Britten songs carry the day, where JM is clearly in his element - it's no wonder that the partnership also shine (along with other fine singers) on JM's album of Britten's Purcell Songs (also 2016). Schubert's 'Abendstern' features in the promotional clip for 'Nocturnal Variations':

Chopin: 'Mazurkas' - Pavel Kolesnikov, piano

I don't yet know as much about PK as I would like - I've yet to hear him live (hopefully fixing that in 2017), so my experience is limited to his two CDs for Hyperion: Tchaikovsky's 'Seasons' and now this. I feel there's so much to like about this collection - it's certainly confidently and winningly played. However, I can identify two aspects of the disc that explain why it appeals to my tastes so much. First, in the performance, I feel that PK never forgets that the pieces are rooted in dance, and even the more measured numbers reflect that rhythmic lilt. Second, the recording is just glorious. Thanks to whatever sonic alchemy occurs between the recording technicians and PK's left hand, there's a terrific 'bottom end' in the sound that really keeps the motor running. 'Mazurka in A minor', Op 68 no. 2:

The Olympians: 'The Olympians'

If I have a prejudice or bias in choosing this album, it's perhaps that I have a planet-sized soft spot for house bands. Stax had Booker T and the MGs, Studio One had Sound Dimension... and the great modern soul label Daptone Records seemingly has a whole host of musicians that have come together in various combinations - including the Budos Band and the Menahan Street Band, who have made superb instrumental albums in their own right. The Olympians project - the name seems to belong to the band, the album and the concept - brings together a large collective of these folk for more vocal-free goodness. I particularly like the way (and this might appeal to fans of, say, early Lambchop) that such a sizeable gathering plays with such discipline and restraint to make an undeniably funky, but laidback, sound. A modest triumph. 'Mercury's Odyssey':

Jo Quail: 'Five Incantations'

JQ may not need an introduction to many Specs readers, but for those unfamiliar: she is a cellist and composer who uses looping technology to perform her incantatory creations live. That's a massive over-simplification of her accomplishments, though - equally adept on both acoustic and electric cello, her body of work ranges from her solo recordings and performances to longer-form classical arrangements and compositions for multiple musicians: a recent highlight being the 20-minute 'This Path With Grace', for strings and choir. Always open to keeping pieces alive with onstage collaboration and improvisation with guest musicians, by contrast JQ finally achieved another contrasting ambition on disc: a solo suite of linked sections, playable note for note from start to finish by her alone. It's an enthralling work: taking the elements as inspiration, for every soaring rush ('White Salt Stag', and especially the unstoppable, yet unpredictable rhythms of 'Salamander'), there's calmer contemplation ('The Breathing Hand', 'Between Two Waves'), all building to the unforgettable climax of 'Gold', which brings all the moods of the album together magnificently. Here's an edit of 'Gold', but really you need the full version, so I'd buy the album without hesitation if I were you:

Raf and O: 'Portal'

Sometimes, it feels to easy to type: 'Here's a band that doesn't sound like anybody else.' But here's a band that doesn't sound like anybody else. Duo Raf and O are the closest I've heard a group come to embodying the phrase 'ghost in the machine'. Raf's vocals might be otherworldy but her voice can convey worlds of frailty or fortitude. Supporting her electric guitar caresses, 'O' drums on a kit that is, in turn, fed through electronics that turn him into a futuristic percussion ensemble - as if a drum machine wanted to play in the style of a real human. As a result, their music - especially on the perfectly-named 'Portal' - sits on some kind of border between pop as we know it, and pop as we don't. Magical, enigmatic. 'Sonnet 62':

Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton: 'A Verlaine Songbook'

CS made her entry into the world of art song - aided and abetted by the redoubtable JM - early last year with 'Fleurs', my favourite classical disc of 2015. Clearly toying with me, they've unleashed the follow-up just before the end of this year, so I haven't had that long to live with it. No matter. Arguably, it's even better than its predecessor: this time, there's a more completely realised overall mood - as all the texts are by Verlaine, we're more or less wholly in the sensual, seductive world of the 'mélodie'. What better guides than that beautiful, endlessly flexible and nimble voice, supported by such versatile, responsive accompaniment? I've already played this more times than I care to count - it seems to afford limitless listening pleasure. Sadly, I can't find any evidence at all of a CS/JM Verlaine performance online - the closest I can get is this live rendition of a Fauré song from 'Fleurs',
'Les roses d'Isaphan', which will at least give you some idea of their approach:

Sieben: 'The Old Magic'

Sieben is the songwriting/performing alias of Matt Howden, another artist who I already feel hugely evangelical about - and who then routinely justifies that faith by releasing ever more brilliant records. One reason MH is so good is his restlessness and innovation: using a violin and loop station (and yes, he is a kindred spirit and collaborator with Jo Quail, mentioned above), he adds precision lyrics to persuasive grooves: rejecting, revisiting, revitalising themes and concepts - and sometimes entire songs - moving them on, refining them as he wrests more and more sonic possibilities from his set-up. Embarking on a series of EPs that, in the words, resurrected both past societies, and at the same time, past themes that he had purposefully buried, MH excavated on, honing the EP tracks themselves into an emerging, coherent whole. As a result, 'The Old Magic' album is a work crafted with extraordinary commitment and care, bolstered by its companion CD 'The Other Side of the River', which features original EP versions and what, in old money, would be 'B-sides', covers of older Sieben tracks in 'Old Magic' style. Still a one-man band, he is now the master of an electronic string orchestra thanks to his pedals, singing with great range and greater confidence, creating a sound that's memorably heavy, knotty, organic and immersive. Unmissable. Here's the title track:

Silver Apples: 'Clinging To A Dream'

I don't know too many details about the history of Silver Apples, except that they go back some 50 years, and the founder - and now sole - member is a chap called Simeon. The band - or at least the band name - has survived record company collapse, years of inactivity, serious injury and even death. Woozily psychedelic with a backbone of motorik oomph, this new record was his/their first in nearly two decades, and arrived not a moment too soon. The lovely opening track, 'The Edge of Wonder':

Trembling Bells: 'Wide Majestic Aire'

One of the UK's finest bands continued their full-on, at-the-top-of-their-game and hopefully infinite imperial phase by releasing this more folk-orientated companion CD (some say mini-album, but there are enough ideas on this for a box set) to 'The Sovereign Self', their rockier, genre-defying epic album of 2015. The title track (video below) feels like a standard of tomorrow, while songs like 'England was Aghast' demonstrate TB's perfect-storm combination of complex, winding melody and exquisite turns of phrase. There's always a joyous friction between Lavinia Blackwall's vocals - by turns angelic and earth(l)y - and the band's combustion engine of twin guitar, keyboards, bass - plus drummer and songwriter-in-chief Alex Nielson's jazz-inflected insistence on playing his kit like the lead instrument.

Roderick Williams, Iain Burnside: 'Schubert Lieder: Der Wanderer'

The second in pianist IB's series of Schubert discs on Delphian (following the wonderful 'Nacht und Träume' with Ailish Tynan) places the excellent RW centre-stage. As the name suggests, the track selection reflects the recurring 'wanderer' theme in a number of Schubert songs, perfect for the singer's rich, but never overpowering, baritone. There are moments of righteous gusto (the CD begins at a great clip with 'Wilkommen und Abschied' - see the extract below, filmed by Katherine Cooper of Presto Classical) - but perhaps the disc scales its greatest heights at its most tender and contemplative: a delicately hymnal 'Wandrers Nachtlied II' and a beautiful version of one of my personal favourites, 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen'.

Wolf People: 'Ruins'

Wolf People are one of the best live bands I've seen in recent years. Sometimes, it's hard to believe they're actually current: they appear to have beamed in from a far longer-haired, wider-trousered time when an entire record could be sustained by a riff and a sense of wonder. Catchy and tuneful, but also a mite spooked - and devoutly respecting the occasional need for a 'wig-out' - it's a pleasure to report that new album 'Ruins' more than matches past glories. Here's 'Ninth Night':

As a post-script, I wanted to quickly mention a few 2016 reissues - so, not part of the main list, but worth a look:

Dead Can Dance: 'Garden of the Arcane Delights / Peel Sessions'

4AD are reissuing their DCD catalogue on vinyl. To bolster the re-release of the 4-song EP 'Garden of the Arcane Delights', they have added the band's Peel Sessions. In a fan-friendly move that does them great credit, they have also put this title out on CD, so that non-vinyl buyers can also have access to the Peel recordings. They are well worth acquiring for that 'live in the studio' feel that adds a bit of extra energy to some of the album versions - this thunderous version of 'Threshold', for instance:

Herbie Nichols: Four Great Albums

A woefully-underrated jazz pianist, Herbie Nichols seemed to slip under the radar and - unless I'm wrong - his Blue Note recordings simply went out of print for well over a decade. Reissue label Avid to the rescue, with four lovely albums on a 2CD package. Looks a bit primitive, but the musical contents are anything but. Here's 'Step Tempest':

Pentangle: 'Finale'

I consider myself very fortunate to have seen the reformed Pentangle at what might have been one of their very final gigs before the death of the great Bert Jansch. (Now, of course, his sparring partner John Renbourn has gone, too.) I had no idea any of those late concerts were taped, or that some years later, we would now have the permanent record - a great memory, and fine performances. This is 'Hunting Song':

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

House calls: the greatness of 'Together Alone'

I note with wallet-troubling interest that Crowded House have re-issued all their albums in rather posh deluxe editions, each with the now-customary extra disc of demos, rarities and the like. A longtime fan of the band, these are going to sorely tempt me. One album in particular - their fourth, 'Together Alone' - has a particular place in my heart.

I was first introduced to the group when some friends of my parents - then living in Australia - came to visit and brought some music over for me. I was in my mid-teens, and teetering on the precipice between only hearing chart stuff and plunging into a John Peel-fuelled underworld of indie, metal and techno. The visitors were pretty sure I would love the John Farnham album (nope), but almost as an afterthought, they had brought along Crowded House's self-titled debut. I was captivated by it at the time, no doubt because it is just so endlessly melodic. Not only that, but for a proper rock album by proper rock people, it feels unexpectedly playful and joyous: the jaunty piano break in 'Hole in the River', for example, totally belies the poignancy of its subject matter (a family suicide).

However, as Crowded House continued - and I grew older and more musically aware - it became increasingly clear what a strange band they were (and are, I hope). For those of you unfamiliar with CH, they are led by Neil Finn, who cut his teeth in his older brother Tim's band, Split Enz. (The Finn brothers are New Zealand songwriting royalty, and whether in or out of their own bands, or simply playing and recording as a duo, their musical paths are inextricably woven together.) Crowded House emerged in Split Enz's wake, and had I known much then about the earlier group's eccentricity, none of CH's oddities would've surprised me in the least.

I won't dwell on their first three albums here (or their later ones, when they reformed after a hiatus), but every CH record has something to recommend it - especially if you like your beautifully-wrought tunes enhanced with seemingly small but rewarding and somehow subversive details. 'Temple of Low Men', for example, contains the unforgettable 'Into Temptation', a ballad that subverts a potential love theme into the threat of infidelity - the second time you hear the line "the cradle is soft and warm", the vocal stops abruptly mid-verse, the rug is pulled from under your feet and you are yourself seduced by the unexpected strings. Or on 'Weather With You' - a huge hit from the 'Woodface' album - you hear all the verses and middle eight before any hint of the chorus (it was remixed into a more conventional order for the single release).

However, for all the leftfield touches, the production on those albums - in my opinion - locates CH firmly in the mainstream. They are crisp, bright albums - whatever their darker undercurrents, they sound full of verve and eager to please. 'Together Alone', which came next, is something rather different.

For all that I liked CH, I hadn't followed them too closely since that first record. I was an indie kid throughout my teens, feeding my ears distortion and disaffection: the furious electric engine of The Wedding Present, the primal howl of Pixies. A student in my final year by this time, I wandered into the local HMV most Mondays to look at the new releases - and I heard a gorgeous swirl, punctuated by a delicately picked hook, fill the shop. Completely confused - nothing in the 'just out' racks seemed to fit what I was hearing - I asked the till chap what they were playing. 'The new Crowded House,' he said. I blinked. Unsuccessfully resuming my cool browser pose, I picked up the CD and checked out the track listing. I worked out we were more or less near the start of the running order and stayed in the branch listening for as long as I felt I could, as one instantly memorable track followed another. I knew I had to buy it. And it's never really left me since.

I can say, for example, that it's the album that got me through my finals. Its extraordinary knack of expressing angst and aggression where necessary - before absorbing it back into an overall aura of serenity and harmony - made it very therapeutic listening for a stressed-out, revision-ravaged twenty-year-old. And on the subject of therapy, I also found out CH's latent power to forge bonds, as friends emerged as fellow fans. In our various ragged collectives that we occasionally, optimistically called 'bands', many happy hours were spent trying to cover the record's slippery, secretive masterpieces. I think the little finger on my left hand is still recovering its correct position from the hours spent practising a cobbled-together - and no doubt utterly incorrect - version of 'Pineapple Head'.

But what is it about 'Together Alone' that hooked me so instantly, and permanently? To start with, as facile as this may seem, it was the album's sound. It simply doesn't sound like any other CH album - and, to my knowledge, like very few other albums by anyone. After working with Mitchell Froom on their previous albums, the band brought in Youth as co-producer. Perhaps this was a surprising move, as Youth (given name Martin Glover) is the bass player in Killing Joke. But as soon as you know this, you can hear his input. 'Together Alone' is cavernous. I might have been minding my own business in a high street HMV, but I was gathered up into the album's arms - it had me surrounded.

Also - and this makes a lot of sense given who was at the controls - Nick Seymour's bass takes a central role. An immensely fluid and intuitive player, NS creates basslines that lurch or leap as required. With an unerring instinct for filling spaces in the mix, he punctuates some of the tracks with engine-like runs of notes that 'rev up' the songs and urge them forward. The combination of the surround-sound and emphasis on the bass give the album a slight 'dub' feel, which only adds to its enveloping allure.

The track I've already mentioned, 'Pineapple Head', is a superb example of this - during the verses, the bass is essentially the lead instrument. The song also demonstrates another magnetic quality to Neil Finn's songwriting - his flexibility within songs to just follow what he thinks works. If a verse could do with being a bit longer than the others - let's do that. If we want to end each chorus differently, that's fine too. His melodic gifts are so strong that the overall tune lodges itself in your brain anyway - but the tweaks along the way are what make you repeat-listen. In 'Pineapple Head', the first two verse-chorus sequences run as you might expect: however, the third chorus is lengthened with extra lyrics to build up a new series of backing harmonies - then it retraces its steps with subtle changes along the way until he reaches the last line again and adds a cry of release.

The track that perhaps holds me most spellbound of all is 'Catherine Wheels'. A delicate, melancholy verse resolves into a gorgeously affirmative major chorus (0:55 in the YouTube video) that dies away back into the verse almost as soon as it arrives (1:08). The second verse, though, is half the length of the first - while the second chorus is longer - only by a single line, but it makes all the difference. It propels the song into a blissful, transition section (2:04), featuring a glorious wordless choir and an almost indefinable shift towards a slightly funkier rhythm. A chiming riff that has been a hovering, gentle presence in the choruses gradually asserts itself and comes to the fore (2:50). Car-engine bass (3:03 onwards), and the lead vocal returns, cutting across the 'wrong' part of the figure, a little out from when you'd anticipate. Suddenly, piece by piece, we've been taken into a new song, listening to an even more bewitching melody than we started with. We shift up at least one more gear (3:54) for the final verse, then the song(s?) finally take its leave.

Even the sublime 'Catherine Wheels' drifts off in a fog of distortion - the other side of 'Together Alone'. On tracks like the immense 'In My Command' (sadly, I can't find the studio version on YouTube), the band unleash an unprecedented - for them - level of guitar fury, as if finally releasing something they've had to somehow contain on all their previous albums. However, this is all still married - simultaneously - to precision vocal harmonies and beautiful tunes. During 'In My Command', the backing voices hold the key to this, as they soar behind the final chorus and hit a new height, providing a moment of exquisite release into the outro. (There's a lot of exquisite release on the album. 'Nails In My Feet' - again, a good internet version eludes me - builds for the whole song to a final stanza: "Total surrender / Your touch is so tender / Your skin is like water on a burning beach / And it brings me relief". The climactic point of the melody - where the tension finally overflows and relaxes - arrives at "brings me relief". Perfect.)

There are 13 tracks on 'Together Alone' and I could go on like this about them all. Every out-and-out rocker - such as 'Locked Out' - has a key harmonic moment that anchors it to the delicate pop song beneath the noise. Every ballad - such as 'Walking On The Spot' - has a strange chord or sonic twist that stops it being completely 'safe'. Listening to the record over and over again reveals more of these deft, inspirational touches. You really need to buy it - you really do - to uncover its riches.

Two jobs after leaving university, I started working at the library in a printing/packaging research institute. Sounds glamorous, I know, but don't be deceived. However, I got on very well with a colleague who would sometimes drive us both into the local town centre at lunchtime. I asked what music she listened to in the car, and opened the glove compartment. A cassette of 'Together Alone' toppled into my hand. Fortunately, since then, Mrs Specs and I have focused mainly on the 'together' part.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Northern songs: Britten and Puccini in Edinburgh

Great excitement in Specs Towers at the start of December, as we prepared for our first dedicated travel outside our home turf, just to see opera - Opera North, to be precise. There is so much to see on our doorstep in London, that a combination of budget and conscience has tended to keep me from considering these kinds of excursions in the past. That is starting, slowly, to change - for a number of reasons.

As I become more and more serious about opera, I recognise that I'm likely to go through a slight transition. Currently, I'm still seeing an awful lot of works for the first time, as they come round in Royal Opera or English National Opera productions. These are my 'locals', and I'm determined to support them. But the more I see and hear, the more my taste evolves and I become more of a 'fan' - whether it's particular singers, players or conductors: I'm getting better at hearing the differences between them and deciding what I especially respond to. This makes it more likely that I'll travel to hear a favourite artist in something, rather than default to a London production. (I'll be keeping an eye on myself to see how this develops.)

This jaunt looked too good to resist. We knew we loved the sound of the Opera North orchestra - and, although this is harder to define, the 'cut of their jib' - from their celebrated Ring Cycle, which they brought to London. We were blown away, not just by the committed, powerful performances, but also the style: a 'dramatic concert performance', the singers acted up a storm with all the visual atmosphere generated by back projections which blended the surtitles with constantly shifting imagery. So, from that point on, I made a mental note to keep a much closer eye on Opera North seasons, even though it would normally be us who had to make the journey.

Opera North reside in Leeds, but take some or all of their productions on tour to several other cities. Two were heading to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh: Britten's 'Billy Budd', and a Puccini double bill, 'Il Tabarro' and 'Suor Angelica'. (This pairing is the first two-thirds of Puccini's 'Il Trittico' - a set of three hour-long operas originally intended for performance in a single evening. It's quite common for companies to break it up - Opera North did the third part, 'Gianni Schicchi', separately in 2015 as part of another double bill. The Royal Opera's current production, however, is the whole shebang.) Add to that some immensely appealing casting - more of which later - and a plan began to form. As, through Mrs Specs, we 'have people' in Edinburgh, I pitched the idea of taking in both productions on the Thursday and Friday, then catching up with our connections over a gratuitous long weekend. This received the necessary approval from the authorities* (*Mrs Specs), and arrangements were duly made.

'Billy Budd' was everything I'd hoped it would be: affecting, nuanced, unflinching, ambiguous. Captain Edward Vere first appears to us as an old man, remembering the main events of the opera in flashback. Billy Budd, a naïve, easy-going able seaman, is pressed into service on Vere's ship, the Indomitable. He finds instant popularity with the other men, and the senior officers consider him a real find - his only apparent defect being an occasional stammer. However, the Master-at-Arms, Claggart, vows to destroy Billy: considering himself depraved, he loathes Billy precisely for the 'goodness' that makes him so loved by the rest. Engineering an accusation of mutiny against Billy - which Vere realises is nonsense straightaway - Claggart nevertheless confronts Billy before the Captain. Billy - stressed and enraged - cannot speak for his stammer and lashes out, dealing Claggart a fatal blow. Vere feels the horrific situation leaves him no choice: according to the Articles of War, Billy will almost certainly have to hang for killing an officer, and the swift court-martial they carry out on board confirms the verdict. Vere tells Billy the outcome himself (famously, this conversation is 'imagined' in a series of shaded chords from the orchestra alone, rather than sung), and the following morning the execution goes ahead. We return to the older Vere, wracked with the thought that he could have saved Billy... but in fact concluding that Billy redeemed him.

The staging, mostly made up of monochromatic panels, with a curved ramp slicing across the space, doubled as both an anonymous decaying hall (where the old Vere loiters) and the Indomitable. Reminding us that we are at the mercy of Vere's memories, the aged captain still lingers a while on the stage as the sailor-chorus from the past appears, making the two timeframes overlap. It was an economic, yet elegant production. The crew thronging below the ramp as the higher ranks strode along it neatly underlined the upstairs/downstairs hierarchy of the ship society. A nicely-worked surreal effect where Vere's private quarters were indicated by sailors forming a human wall shone an interesting light on who might be keeping who safe.

We were treated to three sublime lead performances. Roderick Williams was dream casting as Billy - his broad grin and sunny aura made the almost impossibly pure Billy seem real, but as the character shifted through anger, resignation and dignified acceptance, so did he. This change was fully realised in the voice, with the full-throated gusto of the early scenes dented and sharpened by experience. Alan Oke's brilliant incarnation of Vere - who as captain is robust, but as the older man somewhat broken - managed to lace his powerful tenor with uncertainty and fear. And as Claggart - who could so easily become a one-dimensional bogeyman - Alastair Miles gave a complex, searching portrayal. Again, you felt that his unstoppable, rich bass was still somehow battered by agonising self-doubt: AM gave a particularly physical, restless performance that communicated first guile, then denial and finally hatred. And I could go on to mention any number of supporting performances that all buoyed up the three main characters and animated the working ship as a functioning whole.

One can only imagine how important this opera must have felt to the men who brought it to life: composer Britten, his partner, the tenor Peter Pears (who would create Vere on stage), and librettist E. M. Forster (working with regular Britten wordsmith Eric Crozier). Living and working in a society where homosexuality was still illegal, this theme of repression in the opera is given full justice by Opera North's sensitive investigation. A key point has always been: why doesn't Vere step in and save Billy? The inference - that the captain is suppressing his love for the sailor, which widens symbolically to represent the need to conceal homosexuality from society - is inescapable. But the court martial also asks the crucial, unanswered (to them) question: why does Claggart make such a bizarre accusation against Billy? AM's tormented performance allows Claggart to mirror Vere's internal struggle through a glass darkly: his loathing is self-loathing, his violence is against himself.

I hope the fact that I left the theatre profoundly troubled, yet exhilarated, is high enough praise.

The following evening, we were back for Puccini x 2. 'Il Tabarro' - 'The Cloak' - is a high-octane melodrama revolving around Michele, a barge-owner, and his wife Giorgetta. Their marriage is in trouble - as the drama unfolds, we learn that they had a child who has died. This is not the only reason for their mutual distance: Michele is convinced Giorgetta is being unfaithful, and he's right - she's having a fling with Luigi, one of the dockworkers casually employed by Michele. While several other characters punctuate the drama, they mainly serve to help build the tension towards the climax. Giorgetta's plan to meet Luigi goes awry when the lover mistakes Michele's matchlight for their signal. He turns up for the assignation to find hubby waiting - Michele kills him and wraps him in the cloak he used years ago to warm himself, Giorgetta and their baby. When Giorgetta arrives, Michele pulls the cloak aside to show her the dead Luigi.

The Royal Opera production of 'Il Tabarro' is perhaps understandably on a grander scale and features a seemingly expansive waterside. Here, though - to the piece's infinite benefit - we get a kind of gritty claustrophobia. A substantial part of the action takes place within a suspended container (seemingly - although perhaps not exclusively - a cross-section of the barge), which focuses our viewpoint in on an area only a fraction of the stage's full width. The players, however, can move all around it, and climb into or on top of it. As well as being visually striking, the set serves the plot terrifically well too, as we can see everything more or less all the time - while the characters cannot.

Again, the lead trio of performances utterly sold the action. Ivan Inverardi roared his anguish as Michele, weatherbeaten, in turmoil. Giselle Allen and David Butt Philip were genuinely electric as the lovers. GA in particular offered a masterclass in secretive looks and sensual movement, switching from a caressing, reassuring tone for Michele into ardent, passionate declarations for Luigi.

'Suor Angelica', a sacred drama set in a convent, cleanses 'Il Tabarro' from the stage. Sister Angelica is a popular but reserved member of the community - and rather useful with remedial herbs and lotions that soothe any of the sisters' complaints. We learn that she was made to join the order seven years ago, in exile from her wealthy family. A Princess, Angelica's aunt, arrives with news that the nun's sister is about to marry. She brandishes a document the nun must sign to waive her inheritance in her sister's favour. We learn Angelica's secret: that she bore an illegitimate son. As the heated conversation nears a kind of meltdown, the Princess admits that Angelica's son became ill two years previously and died. In her grief, Angelica poisons herself to join her son, but realises too late that she will actually die in mortal sin, away from heaven. Praying for mercy, she is rewarded with a vision of the Virgin, alongside her son bidding her welcome as she dies.

While the ensemble is important and many of the nuns are given room to carve out individual character sketches, 'Suor Angelica' is really about the lead role: an extraordinary showcase for a soprano willing to push some very deep and personal emotions to the limit and spend an hour undergoing an internal - then literal - transformation. When we first meet Angelica, this pain is all on the inside and she is in fact the practical, even scientific one. The Princess's visit is the catalyst for the emotional poison she has bottled up inside her to flood out in a state of total crisis. She has had the punishment - death is the release. Anne-Sophie Duprels gave a searing performance in the title role. The beauty and agility of her voice notwithstanding, the part demands savagery as well as spirituality - we heard both, with all points inbetween.

The staging was deceptively simple - the convent wall, changing its angle slightly to suggest an exact room or location. However, Angelica's dying visions - as the real world, convent and all, just ceased to exist - were displayed as a stained glass projection, fleeing glimpses of her child inside and outside the womb as the nun slowly approached the back of the stage towards her own rebirth. The contrast between how we started and ended could not have been more effective.

I came away from the weekend with an even greater appreciation for Opera North. Clearly, they are operating within certain budget constraints, not to mention the logistics involved with making all your productions portable. But it was so obvious how this seemed to spur on their creativity and resourcefulness. (Even touring 'Billy Budd', which only features men's voices, alongside the all-female 'Suor Angelica' is a brilliantly practical way to show your chorus off to the best effect.) All three of the operas we saw displayed very little in terms of onstage bling but still scorched unforgettable images on the brain. They were performance-led, allowing the leads room to get the full measure of their characters - and, as a result, so did we. And hearing Britten one night followed by Puccini the next is an excellent way to appreciate how supple and versatile the marvellous ON orchestra can be.

I don't know how often we'll manage to arrange future pilgrimages to see this fine company - but the spirit, believe me, is more than willing.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Exquisite hour (and 20 minutes): Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton

Readers with excellent memories and above-average loyalty may remember that one of my best-loved and most-played discs of last year was 'Fleurs', the debut recital album by soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton. It has since nestled itself comfortably amid my all-time favourites.

I was so excited about their follow-up recording, 'A Verlaine Songbook', that in the few weeks ahead of its release date, I actually felt like it would never come out. It reminded me so much of waiting for new albums from the bands and artists I idolised in my youth, and it felt good that this time it was classical music inspiring a healthy dose of unchecked enthusiasm, not to mention anguished impatience.

Now it's arrived, I'm overjoyed to report that it's stunning. Obviously, I haven't lived with 'A Verlaine Songbook' for as long, but early signs are that the new disc is every bit its predecessor's equal, if not even better. I know! Better than 'Fleurs'! Imagine!

Reassuringly, 'Verlaine' was recorded in the same place, with the same instrument, a Steinway D. So the acoustic - which they utterly nailed on 'Fleurs' - is as pristine, and as familiar. While I'm aware that very few recital partners exist in a bubble - they all regularly sing and play with other musicians and ensembles - I'm finding it hard to think of any duo that better capture their particular rapport on disc than CS and JM. Both find beauty in precision, and JM's high notes dance cleanly around CS's vocal - neither could 'drag' a phrase if they tried. However, the sound is so pin-sharp that even in the split-seconds between note-making, we hear the occasional pedal stroke, or lightning intake of breath - and the result is an encompassing intimacy, a genuine 'you're in the room' feel. What's the opposite of airless? Airful? It's warm, real.

As the name rather gives away, all the songs are settings of Verlaine texts - so this intimate atmosphere establishes the perfect mood for an entire set of 'mélodies'. At a hugely generous 80 minutes (which I think is still more or less the maximum amount of music a CD will take), it's possible to become almost intoxicated at times, to drown pleasurably in the waves and ripples courtesy of Debussy, Fauré and a host of fellow composers. (CS and JM are master programmers, by the way, as 'Fleurs' fans will already know.)

It's a pleasure to see some complete sets of songs find their way onto the album. These include Fauré's 'La Bonne Chanson' - the last two settings in particular ('N'est-ce pas?' and 'L'hiver a cessé') require superb transitions of mood from the pair: JM darts across the keyboard with dizzying velocity before 'bringing it back home' with bluesy closure, as CS negotiates the shift down in gear with subtly effective adjustments to volume and tone, allowing some syllables to fade away, suggesting a closer audience than in a concert hall. (It really brings home the thought that melodiés are, after all, chansons' posh cousins.)

Debussy's 'Ariettes oubliés' form the (near) climax to the album, and again for me the highlights are two songs mid-cycle. 'Chevaux de bois' seems to involve JM playing more notes at once than he has fingers, or possibly than there are keys on the piano - but a song like this is also a perfect vehicle for CS, whose ability to sing at such exhilarating speed (perhaps baroque-fuelled) with no loss of character or volume more than matches the power accompaniment and in fact rides it to greater heights. After this comes the astonishing 'Green', its nudging piano riff punctuating what I think must be the most sensual performance from CS I've ever heard. Initially, the tempo changes accentuate the voice's gentle pleading, while the second verse carefully steers her towards the tour de force of the final minute: as the lovers in the song relax post-passion, the high note on 'baisers' ('kisses') simply stops. Then, she sings almost conversationally, as if leaning into the listener's ear alone - with all the feeling, expression, and placing of the note still present, she becomes gradually softer, more delicate, as the accompaniment resolves around her.

It's one of those apparently small, but in fact crucial points in a performance that make you realise you're listening to people who really are brilliant: the kind of decision that makes a rendition truly great. 'Green' is a beautiful song, but this version stopped me dead in my tracks - it's that good. It makes me desperate to hear the duo tackle a complete 'Proses lyriques' (they tantalised with just the one on 'Fleurs').

'A Verlaine Songbook' also deserves praise for unearthing some of its perhaps more buried treasure. There's a wholly positive Polish influence. Marvellous to hear female composer Poldowski (Belgian, with a Polish dad) championed with five songs, all distinctive in their elements of playfulness and passion, and perhaps understandably (without wishing to second-guess or over-simplify), they seem to bring out an especially sympathetic response from the soprano. And one of my personal favourites on the record is Szulc's setting of 'Clair de lune', as its glorious descending piano figure in the intro shape-shifts beneath CS's gliding vocal (an audio encapsulation of the still light caressing the rippling water) before returning at the close.

I could go on: there's so much to enjoy - from the bass rumble the JM touch conjures up during the Debussy 'Clair de lune' to the unhurried, seemingly effortless elegance of CS's performance of the classic Hahn setting of 'L'heure exquise'.

I can't recommend it highly enough. Buy it. Or ask Santa, but for pity's sake, do something. Now I need to return to being excited about what the pair of them will come up with next...