Tuesday, 2 June 2020

The African Concert Series goes online

Thanks to the internet - and, I still like to believe, open minds, wider arms - there's no need for such a short-hand term anymore: but most of the non-UK/US musicians I have grown to love over the years, I first got to know when our music media treated them all as part of an enormous nebula, 'world music'. French chanson, devotional Qawwali, Cuban senior citizens, Nigerian high-life... all in the same few racks in HMV, for those of us into 'foreign'. I only discovered Zambia's Amayenge through a John Peel session. I only heard the oud maestro Anouar Brahem because I'd already got a bit obsessed with 'the ECM sound' (the distinctive record label he records for). 

But in all that time, I never encountered African classical music. Then, in 2018, I read about 'Ekele', Rebeca Omordia's disc of African solo piano works. Of course, it was bound to appeal, but I soon became smitten by it. Trace elements I could recognise, particularly in the rhythms... but as part of a brand new, instantly welcoming soundworld.

I got to hear Rebeca Omordia perform an incredible concert based on 'Ekele' the following February. She expanded on the CD's repertoire, and the programme opened my ears to an even wider range of composers. I wrote about the experience here.

That gig turned out to be part of a festival, also curated by RO, the African Concert Series. I was hopeful for a follow-up in 2020, and perhaps the opportunity to attend more events. Well, yes and no. Inevitably, due to the pandemic, there are no fully-mounted concerts with audience: but I was encouraged and grateful to see this year's version go online, with a shorter, 'virtual' concert broadcasting every day during the last week in June.

I'm going to tune in to as many of these as I can, and I encourage you to do the same. I'm especially excited to hear RO perform solo again on 29 June; one of the composers featured on 'Ekele', Fred Onovwerosuoke, is performing in person on 22 June; and 'The South African Double Bass' on 24 June features Leon Bosch previewing his upcoming disc on Meridian Records.

Please follow the African Concert Series on Facebook at this link for ongoing updates on times/programmes.

And you can buy the superb 'Ekele' directly from Heritage here.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Shelf life: more sifting in the Room Into Which You Must Never Look

I've been fortunate enough to keep working my full-time job from home during the outbreak - so while I'm acutely bereft by the total absence of the live music scene, I haven't had quite as many newly-empty lockdown hours to fill as I might have expected.

However, some of the downtime has been spent embarking on the long overdue 'Sifting' - first mentioned in this earlier post - where, after 35 years of buying too many records, I now have to sort through them all and decide what can go.

Of course, what I've ended up doing a lot of the time is coming across stuff I definitely want to keep. The Room Into Which You Must Never Look had reached a level of disorganisation such that, I knew there would be CDs that perhaps might only be a few years old but that I could easily have overlooked since absolutely caning them on initial purchase.

So it has proved. Below are some typical examples - not forgotten, because I still closely follow all the artists concerned, where applicable - but certainly neglected.


Stile Antico - 'Music for Compline'

My memory for timespans is horrendous, and I still think of myself as a classical music rookie of sorts, only immersing myself in it hook, line and sinker in the early 2010s. However, Mrs Specs had already instilled her love of choral music in me before that, and Stile Antico were one of the first ensembles we discovered together. We've tried to keep up with their releases since, which made me realise with some degree of shame that their still-startling debut, 'Music for Compline', had gathered a little dust. The dust is gone now.

(Byrd - 'Nunc dimittis')

Various Artists (compiled by DJ Muro) - 'Super Funky Afro Breaks'

Through some great record shops (in particular Sounds of the Universe in London's Soho district), I was able to hear fantastic compilations of hard-to-find soul, funk and African/Latin recordings, often edited into euphoric mixes by DJs who sounded like fictional characters. The mysterious 'Muro' is behind this one. The YouTube video I've included below is in fact the WHOLE mix, which I wouldn't normally do - but the CD now appears to be quite hard to find and potentially expensive. Oh well, better hang onto it, then.

Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Aribert Reimann: 'Lieder'

Another recording that I think might be quite hard to find now (although perhaps not scarce, as I got it quite cheaply second-hand). DFD takes a long tour - 3 discs long - around a dizzying array of 'other' lieder composers who rarely occupy the spotlight now but who make for a fascination, if motley, crew. The example below is intriguing, a slow-burn treatment of Goethe's 'An den Mond' by Pfitzner, in marked contrast to Schubert's repeat visits.

(Pfitzner - 'An den Mond')

Ruby Blue - 'Down from Above'

A battered old CD surviving from just before I went to university and sustaining me for some years thereafter - a folk-rock band that never quite made it... stumbling after losing key songwriter and vocalist Rebecca Pidgeon - who went to the US to pursue a joint singing/acting career. I put it on and the serene harmonies immediately made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, just as they had 30 years earlier.

('Stand Together')

Baltic Fleet - 'The Dear One'

A one-man band (Paul Fleming from Warrington, UK) making a thrilling brew of electronica, ambient and driving rock. Three albums into his career, and I simply couldn't remember where I had shelved the third one. Until, of course, the Sifting.

('Swallow Falls')

Anthony Braxton - '23 Standards (Quartet) 2003'

Perhaps the most famous modern jazz group to take a few minutes of any given standard and use them as a launchpad for truly epic improvisation was the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio. Being a fan of that band, I was fascinated to read about this project from Anthony Braxton - who, up till that point, I'd assumed has focused almost exclusively on free jazz (track names that look like equation and chemical formulae - that sort of thing). Over several years, the enterprise stretched across three 4CD sets - some 13-14 hours of live music. A stroke of genius was making the quartet sax, guitar, bass and drums. Guitarist Kevin O'Neil seems especially telepathic, and while he has the chordal instrument, his sensitivity and lightness of touch - in place of a bulkier sound like a piano - still help the music to feel spacious, unmoored. The full set is a worthwhile commitment, and a joy to re-discover.

('Countdown' - a John Coltrane cover)

Ian Bostridge & Xuefei Yang - 'Songs from our Ancestors'

And on the subject of guitar... Xuefei Yang has such a beautiful sound (and has been making some lovely recordings during lockdown), but - unless I'm way off beam here - her CD catalogue seems to disappear quite fast, with certain recent releases not even making it onto a physical format. As it happens, this CD is a gorgeous object - the debut release from Globe Music (the record label established by Shakespeare's Globe to record artists who perform in their new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse space). This is an inspired partnership, choosing repertoire perfectly suited to both.

(Schubert - 'Ständchen')

Genesis - 'Genesis'

When I last wrote about the 'Sifting', I mentioned that I had quite a few Genesis records. In fact, more than I realised. For a day or two, I kept finding them - in fact, a couple of albums I thought I'd already passed on, then regretted doing so. This self-titled release, with the still-quite proggy 'Duke'/'Abacab' era one side of it and the stadium-conquering 'Invisible Touch' pop years the other. Side 1 mostly points to the past, and for me is one of the strongest 20 minutes the band ever recorded: there's an entrapment theme throughout - the shocking, intense 'Mama', the deceptively-wracked lyrics in the loping 'That's All', and the ghost story 'Home by the Sea'. To my mind, Side 2 loses its way a little and the atmosphere evaporates. An oddball LP, as if the band are on a bridge, and they're either going to turn back, or cross it.

('Home by the Sea' / 'Second Home by the Sea')

Dengue Fever - 'Venus on Earth' / Various Artists - 'Electric Cambodia'

This was the first album I owned by Dengue Fever - I suspect because it came out on Peter Gabriel's Real World label and made it into more shops and music papers. An LA band who fell in love with 60s Cambodian guitar music... to the point where they recruited a Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, to help get the sound just right. More recently, they put together a compilation of some of the tracks that influenced them (one of the older tracks comes first, below). The shimmering, winding 'Seeing Hands' is a genuinely hypnotic record, right up to its last half-minute or so where the tension is held as long as possible until it resolves.

(Pan Ron - 'Don't Speak', followed by Dengue Fever - 'Seeing Hands')

Barbara Bonney, Antonio Pappano - 'Diamonds in the Snow'

This is probably one of the finest recital albums I own - bright, shining renditions of Nordic art song. It's also one of the few CDs I've accidentally bought several times. (I think that most record collectors, myself included, generally try and avoid this sort of thing.) But the 'Sifting' tells no lies and admits no hiding place. I comfort myself with the thought that every time I've come across it in a second-hand shop, I must have panicked at the possibility I might not have it after all, and picked it up. The keeping copy will stay prominent, visible on the shelf now.

(Stenhammar - 'The Tryst')

Various Artists - 'Reich: Remixed'

Fascinated to re-discover this snapshot in time - perhaps it's easy with hindsight to see obvious crossover links between the 'minimalist' composers and rock music, but at the time I was just gathering snippets of information. Some bloke (Glass) had written symphonies based on Bowie's music - really? And now they were doing classical remixes? I was already aware of Four Tet, though - the alter-ego of the ceaselessly inventive electronica musician Kieran Hebden - and fell very readily for his take on Reich's 'Drumming'.

Wolves in the Throne Room - 'Two Hunters'

All the metal is on the very highest shelves, as it's the type of music I listen to that Mrs Specs likes the least - so she's not bothered whether it's hard to find, let alone reach, or not. So, in order to go through the CDs, I need to use a set of steps that look like they might have been constructed as part of a school project or during a Blue Peter episode, and the teetering jeopardy obviously adds an appropriately 'metal' thrill to proceedings. One doesn't realise, I suspect, how important the layout of even quite a small room can be. Some of my metal CDs were genuinely hidden - or, if you prefer, OCCULT! - because I was double-shelving in various places. So I went to them more rarely than I would have predicted - I must have defaulted regularly to something both noisy and nearby. Pleasure to blast the ear-drums again with US band Wolves in the Throne Room, who bring an epic elegance to their splendid roar.

(I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots)

Brian Eno - 'The Ship'

I have absolutely no idea how many records Brian Eno has put out, but I do think sometimes that - thanks to his pioneering experiments with ambient and automated music - it's very easy to think of him as half-musician, half-boffin, and forget about some of his earlier eccentric, yet tune-packed albums from the years after his departure from Roxy Music. So, when 'The Ship' came out - apparently inspired by his impulse to flex his deepening singing voice - it was like a precise collision between the 'soundscape' feel of his ambient work.... and songs. The title track, below, is the entire first half of the album - or 'side', as geriatrics like me call it - and it really is like someone has fashioned an anthem out of sonar, for the depths of the ocean.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Broadcast news: Wigmore Hall online live ... and beyond

A really encouraging, uplifting development today, as Wigmore Hall's Director, John Gilhooly, announced a series of lunchtime concerts, starting on 1 June and then every weekday at 1pm until the end of the month. Obviously, many of the people I know or follow on social media are musicians, music writers or dedicated listeners - so it was heartening to see my phone continually alive with the news as the word spread.

Of course, these are not gigs as we understood them in the days BC ('Before COVID'). The performers will sing and play to an empty venue. Only the tiny number of people needed to make the technology work will be there with them. Instead, the remote audience can tune in live to watch and listen on the Wigmore Hall website feed, or choose an audio-only option on BBC Radio 3.

I admire the quiet genius of this idea, which might never have arisen with a different combination of boss and venue. A chamber auditorium with a heavenly acoustic, the Wigmore is almost tailor-made for socially-distant performance. After all, for many of its concerts, only one or two people occupy the stage anyway, even when there isn't a pandemic outside to worry about. And while the WH is hardly unique in having form with radio broadcasts and live streams, their relatively modest and flexible set-up means they're essentially 'ready to go', with all the tech - from piano to cameras - in place.

Wigmore's 20-gig series (with hopefully more to follow) features a stellar line-up - check the website here for the full programme.

Lockdown has resulted in some interesting developments in music-making. Some musicians who perform solo have given generously of their time and talents online, allowing us glimpses into their homes and music rooms. These have often been brilliantly intimate, casual affairs, while still musically transporting and emotionally resonant.

At the other end of the spectrum, some ensembles have been spurred onto astounding technical feats to get round the fact they can't actually meet. These 'isolation' performances - such as the ongoing 'St John Passion' from Oxford Bach Soloists and multiple friends, or on perhaps a more showbiz-bonkers scale, the orchestral segments of the recent online Met Gala - can only be realised through painstaking efforts not just on the players' part but in the production, mixing, visual design, and so on. Stile Antico multiplied themselves into a 40-strong choir for an astonishing version of 'Spem in Alium'. Watching some of these, I've found myself tearing up... and at first I thought, 'well, we're all fragile at the moment - and let's face it, live music is the thing I most miss'.

Now I actually think there's more too it than that. Obviously, it's awful for me, not being able to go to concerts, and be in the same room as the musicians I admire, sharing the live experience with a like-minded audience... and it's far worse for the performers, who obviously miss all the stuff I do, but with an extra layer of financial uncertainty on top. We can't get back to (some kind of) normal soon enough.

But without contradicting any of that, I've found that a remote connection is still a connection. That my favourite musicians have still moved, inspired and comforted me even though we're not in the same space. I'm not suggesting for a moment that remote performances are 'as good' as live concert attendance - there is nothing as good as that, it's irreplaceable.

This is a different kind of bond with the artist, I think: the act of reaching out, of communion between performer and listener, has become more necessary, important, and I am really feeling it. In a way, it's more personal perhaps, as it's much easier to pretend they are performing just for me! - I wonder if the artists can sense the thousands of grateful onlookers as they sing or play to their laptop camera, or if it's all too surreal? By all means, let me know, someone. I also wonder if, when we are all together again in our concert venues and opera houses, this is the key, indescribable emotion that will stop us taking our access to culture for granted. We'll be back, grateful, relieved... but also changed, I think - and possibly (speaking as an audience member) for the better.

Limitations can bring out the best in us. When I call to mind our newly-online musical life, from the more relaxed, informal 'down-home' performances, right through to the technical inventiveness of the isolation recordings ... I also think about what this phase could bring to the music world after the crisis passes. Huge leaps in outreach to listeners who, for any number of reasons, may never get to live concerts? New models for performance and recording that take advantage of - ironically - a closer-than-ever bond between artist and audience, potentially increasing their income and ultimately improving the haphazard ways they are paid? Wider opportunities for smaller ensembles to cast convention aside, and tackle different repertoire in the studio that might not be feasible for them live?

The Wigmore concerts might prove to be one of the important stepping stones we look back on from our musical future. The buzz of live attendance will be missing, of course - but they are still a serious venture towards evoking the 'shared concert experience' - its ceremony, flair and excitement. I think we will find that the artists still connect with us very deeply: a connection we'll acknowledge with warm applause when we are back together with them again.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Matt black: Sieben's '20:20 Vision'

Further reason to hang out the bunting: long-standing Specs favourite Matt Howden - a.k.a. Sieben - has returned with another leftfield, left-turn of an album, '2020 Vision'. As so often, the fundamentals are much the same... a few guest contributions aside, he works with only his voice, violin and a loop station placing a range of electronic effects literally at his feet. But yet again, from these apparent limitations comes an unexpected, unpredictable record. It clearly fits snugly into one of the most stubbornly original bodies of work I've ever come across - but it's a knotty, thorny beast: provocative yet endearing, funny but bitter, pushing you away while winding you in.

When writing about Sieben, it's always tempting to try and tell the entire history: the development of the 'dark folk / pastoral' sound in the earlier, more bucolic masterpieces like 'Sex and Wildflowers' or 'Ogham in the Night'; the ramping up of intensity in records like 'Desire Rites' or 'No Less than All'; the more expansive, searching soundworlds of 'Each Divine Spark' and 'The Old Magic'. I won't attempt to do that here, apart from to say that the characters of each album dovetail around each other to make the overall canon rich in surprises: the most intimate can also be the most chilling; the most aggressive also the most rousing. What I find endlessly fascinating is how each new album - and this certainly applies to '2020 Vision' - picks up the bow and runs with it, bringing forward some of what's gone before but always through a new lens, from a new angle.

And this time, importantly, with a new instrument. MH now wields an electric Kevlar violin with five strings (one louder!) - so there's additional heft to the riffs, beats and basslines without sacrificing the scarily agile, on-the-brink-of-chaos melodies and solos on the top. This is particularly appropriate, given the raging subject matter.

I think it's fair to say that for all the musical volatility over the years, '2020 Vision' does continue perhaps the longest identifiable Sieben 'phase' since the folkier days: these are the protest years. 2018's 'Crumbs' and follow-up EP 'Kickstart the Empire' found Sieben ignited by horror and indignation at the surrounding political mess, and the new record continues to mine this seam of outrage, with its searing climate warnings foreshadowing our current nightmare scenario with uncomfortable prescience.

If this all sounds unbearably gloomy, think again. To begin with, the album is suffused with bone-dry humour, and MH's undimmed gift for phrases that meld the sing-song with the sinister: song-titles include 'Enzosonbenzos', with its chant of 'Milk-turned-sour happy hour' nailing small-town immigrant disillusionment, and 'Berylsinperil' - rhyming 'this sceptred nan' with 'mouldering flan'. The final two songs pitch the 'cult of blight' against the 'cult of light'. This facility with chiming language - perfect for songs that by definition loop around themselves - has been a constant feature of Sieben music and converts even the most sobering track into a pleasurable earworm.

It's also an unapologetically eccentric set, paying homage in places to an object rarely seen these days: the comedy album. Amid these deadly-serious lyrical concerns, we hear occasional snippets of conversation between player and violin - christened 'Kev' - who has acquired his own mournful personality and willingly undermines his owner at every opportunity. Sieben records often feature 'meta' moments which look inward at the creation and construction of the songs, and this is the most irreverent, puckish treatment of that yet. (Long-time listeners will perhaps see an ancestor for this album in the mighty 'Desire Rites', which - spoiler alert! - featured Matt breaking into a less clearly-defined alter-ego and tear down his opening track a minute in. And the album features at least one other sonic 'Easter egg' for the veteran, as the final track ushers in the 'Sun divine', in rather different circumstances from its use in the 'Ogham' days.)

If Kev's occasional bon mots sometimes call to mind a defiantly morose take on skits spliced between tracks on a hip-hop album, that's no bad thing. Many of these tracks typically feature propulsive beats that come close to techno, with choppy, agitated violin - almost seeming to sample itself at times - pushing against some of MH's most accomplished, impassioned vocals. Examples of this include 'Reckoning Beckoning' (again, that sing-song tone), and 'The Darkness You Have Drawn', where the layered bleeps and blasts pack the song to near-overload.

At other times, the brakes are temporarily applied, with no loss of impact. The video in this post is the lead track released from the album - it's called 'Death Tape Updated for 2020', and in its intro may remind some of the slower-burning, abrasive majesty of the 'Old Magic' era material. But this is a leaner, meaner model, the slinky bassline playing against the keening voice ('If you knew what was ahead of you...') to create something of a haunted groove. Cut from similar cloth - appropriately enough - is 'Shirt of the Apocalypse', a more hesitant doo-wop paced shuffle as the lyric laments our banal acceptance of disaster ... as well as the masterful 'Vision', built around a stunningly-wrought figure that somehow makes a doom-metal riff natural bedfellows with a rising, splintering line of fiddle.

It's a record full of anger and anguish, clearly sincere and genuine - but still delivered with utter musical sure-footedness, confident, even militant in its originality and flair. Still a unique vision.


Buy '20:20 Vision' - as well as the whole back catalogue (and if you want any recommendations, I'm your man) - at the Sieben Bandcamp page. Download only for now - physical copies should follow once they are easier to produce. This can only happen with listener support - so please do so.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Down on your lock?

While still getting my head around what I want to write about and how, during this drought of live events, I've been immersing myself in music that gives me a combination of energy and beauty. Without necessarily looking for the relentlessly upbeat - although some of that is fine - what I'm seeking, of course, is an uplift of some kind. The more stuck in one place I am, the more the urge for movement. And quiet or loud, busy or sparse, there's plenty of that below. (Well, perhaps not in the photo, but in the tunes...)

I hope you enjoy the selection. I'm particularly pleased to include the incredible version of Thomas Tallis's 'Spem in Alium', recorded in isolation - yet still so powerfully and dynamically - by the brilliant choral ensemble Stile Antico. The music famously has 40 individual parts, and the video illustrates how they multiply themselves up from 12. Sublime.

Stay safe and well.


Dr John - 'Locked Down'

R Strauss: 'Burlesque in D minor for Piano & Orchestra' - Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Herbert Blomstedt

The Bar-Kays - 'Holy Ghost'

Penguin Cafe Orchestra - 'Dirt'

Miles Davis - 'Spanish Key'

Michael Chapman - 'The Last Polish Breakfast'

Cymande - 'Dove'

John Adams: 'The Chairman Dances' - San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart

Cavern of Anti-Matter - 'traces'

Max Richter - 'November'

Booker T & the MGs - 'Melting Pot'

Stile Antico - Tallis: 'Spem in Alium'

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Tony Allen

Wakeful, and heard the news about Tony Allen's death. Pioneer of the Afrobeat sound, and surely one of the most joyous, uplifting drummers of all time. The last hour or two have been spent hurtling giddily through YouTube, reminding myself of some classics and making new discoveries. Here are some of the results. (Please feel free to comment or get in touch on Twitter with any recommended tracks or albums.)



'Wolf Eats Wolf' (from 'The Source')

'Afrodisco Beat' (from 'Progress')

'Herculean' (from The Good, The Bad and The Queen: 'The Good, The Bad and The Queen')

'Stalemate' (from Fela Kuti: 'Stalemate')

'Cella's Walk' (from 'Inspiration Information', with Jimi Tenor)

'Boat Journey' (from 'Film of Life')

'Losun' (from 'Lagos No Shaking')

'Sounding Line 1' (from Moritz Von Oswald Trio: 'Sounding Lines')

'Politely' (from 'A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers')

'The Same Blood' (from 'Black Voices')

'Roforofo Fight' (from Fela Kuti: 'Roforofo Fight')

'Obama Shuffle Street Blues' (from 'Rejoice', with Hugh Masekela)

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Music in store

As I type this on 18 April 2020, today would have been Record Store Day - the annual event which sees loads of enthusiasts, collectors, boffins and insomniacs start queuing from break of day at independent record shops across the land to get their hands on exclusive, limited-edition releases. It might attract criticism for all sorts of reasons - 'you should support your favourite businesses all year round'; 'why limit the releases' availability? - unscrupulous buyers get in quick and sell them on'; 'the prices are way too high'... and so on.

But on the positive side, it seems to have helped re-awaken some love for cherishing - and therefore buying - albums as physical products, particularly in the resurgence of vinyl sales; re-establish community among record collectors; but most importantly, give the shops an absolutely massive boost on their busiest day of the year. I know we can never truly go back to the days before digital and streaming changed the music industry as we knew it, but this gives one hope that we can all keep buying our music in the format we want, all available and co-existing.

Currently, for obvious reasons, Record Store Day itself is postponed until 20 June. Hopefully, it will still happen - but in the meantime, the records shops are not only missing out on their regular April shot-in-the-arm, but also gamely pressing on during lockdown to keep customers supplied through mail order.

With that in mind, the Record Store Day organiser have created a Twitter campaign, with the hashtag #RSDFillTheGap. (Or, 'Fill the Gap', for people who still prefer to read normally.) The hook is that if everyone who would have gone out today to buy records - and more folk welcome, obviously - orders an album they've always wanted, or had their eye on, from an independent retailer, it will still send some much-needed revenue the shops' way.

While classical music still seems to barely edge its way into Record Store Day, it hasn't been totally absent. One year, Teldec put out a USB stick of the Bach complete works: while the format seems a tad random, perhaps, it's an attractive proposition compared to the CD version, which is obviously so vast it looks a little like a plank you might expect two workmen to carry between them. The Halle once packaged together a multiple-disc compilation of self-released recordings. Handsome vinyl re-issues also crop up: this June, you might be able to pick up a 4LP 'Essential Philip Glass', or a 10" of Walton's 'Facade' with Edith Sitwell reading her own poems.

Until then, why not 'Fill the Gap' in your classical collection?

I have a few suggestions below, but in order to impose some kind of structure / word limit, I've stuck to my favourite area of classical music: art song and vocal recitals. 2020 has got off to a cracking start in this genre, so I offer a few releases that have turned my head - plus an idea or two to 'fill the gap' for those artists if you've heard or bought the latest titles. (Apologies for the slightly makeshift appearance of the table - attempts at anything more technical than this mostly resulted in complete user meltdown.)

Some of these - along with a whole host of other recordings - appear on 'Support Action', my other blog which has links to purchase discs by musicians affected by cancellations this spring/summer.

While there are a lot of options for you to buy discs - including from the labels directly - today is really about the shops. With that in mind, I feel happy to recommend Presto, an independent classical music specialist I often see mentioned by music websites, and who have always provided me with brilliant service. Happy hunting!

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Space invasion: the dreaded clearout

It couldn't be put off any longer. Next year - and I realise, given the extreme abnormality of this year, very little is likely to be running to schedule - we are still hoping to have some fairly major work done to the house. First-world problem ensues. Mrs Specs and I are both collectors (she: books, me: records), so the question arises... what are we going to do with all our stuff before succumbing to total upheaval?

Answer: some of it has to go. I buy too many CDs - I know that - but I've been doing so for about 35 years, from all my pocket money, Christmas & birthday vouchers back in the day, to a chunk of my disposable income now. I've made laughable attempts at weeding out before (although Mrs Specs wasn't laughing) without making the merest scratch, let alone dent, in the collection. This time, it has to be different. I need to be ruthless, unfeeling, possibly even villainous. Bordering on brutal.

And while I'm lucky enough to keep working from home full-time during this lockdown, I know I would be mad not to use a fair few of the leisure hours I've been unceremoniously handed back (when I'd normally be out hearing live music, dagnammit) to try and break the back of this heroic task.

Burying myself deep in the spare room, I began trying to determine what I could do without. Predictably, sifting through my albums is like sifting through my past, but I wasn't fully prepared for the headlong journey I'd be taking into the recesses of my mind...

I might have been a weirder teenager than I thought I was.
Before starting the Sifting, my memory of my 'young' listening seemed perfectly in tandem with what all of my mates were playing as well. We all had our favourite chart bands as kids (mine was Ultravox), we all started listening to John Peel and earning our indie stripes at around the same time, then broadened our horizons at university or during early adulthood and beyond.

My old CDs, though, are telling a somewhat different story. Genesis. So much Genesis. In fact, my first gig was when I won tickets to see them at Wembley Stadium. I realise they had become, in essence, a pop band by then, but I had the old stuff as well.

I absolutely love prog now - I listen to loads of prog, I buy 'Prog' magazine and if I could, I'd wear prog socks - but I had no coherent recollection of quite how long it had been my companion. Marillion. Sky. Pink Floyd. And sometimes, beware children, proggers come in disguise. Supertramp. XTC.

I very much belong to the 'there are no guilty pleasures' camp, and I find no shame in listening to anything I want to listen to - then or now. Prog rock has its detractors, people who still think it's all about capes and goblins (as if that would be a bad thing). But in fact, it's a thriving, vital scene at the moment and its current appeal to me seems obvious: now I've been a serious devotee of classical music for around a decade, it stands to reason I would also like rock or folk music that stretches out, aims for virtuosity and intricacy, insists on holding the attention.

But the discs nestling at the back of my shelves reveal that this type of music exerted a pull on me from the outset. Ironically, when I became totally hooked on classical (without actually owning any Hooked On Classics), the genre that instantly connected with me was art song, where the composer often conveys their intention in a mere two or three minutes, rather more the length of a pop hit.

So I have a deep-seated love for rock music that strives to feel classical, and classical music that has the same effect on me as rock. It's sheer good fortune I've turned out as well as I have.

I'm definitely artist-led.
This must also be a legacy of my pop and rock years. I am much more likely to go where a certain artist takes me, than home in on a genre, type or period of music... or even a particular composer. I do have a favourite composer - Schubert (see below) - but I still don't obsessively collect his entire body of work in its own right.

I have some historical, famous recordings of great works - versions you are 'supposed' to own - but as a rule, I don't play them very often. I know that some of them will become casualties of the Sifting. The ones I always go back to are mostly current: made by musicians who I can still go out and hear live - their interpretations feel more immediate to me, more 'present'. And if an artist is on a particular musical journey that makes sense to me, I will follow.

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know I'm a huge fan of the soprano Carolyn Sampson. I think I properly realised how much I loved her voice when she gave her first voice/piano recital at the Wigmore Hall - and from that point, you could explore backwards through a career that already encompassed (among other things) a range of Baroque/chamber/orchestral vocal music, and then since expanding into brilliantly programmed CDs of art song with Joseph Middleton, perhaps an increase in focus on contemporary, and so on. While the range of timbres, colours and styles in her voice is extraordinarily versatile, its essential sound and character are through-lines through all these different kinds of repertoire. She might actually need her own section in the post-Sifting record den, as I wouldn't give up a note of these:

Going through the maze of discs brings to light other classical musicians that have clearly had a similar double-effect on me: not only delighting me with the sound they make but also shining their torches to show me the way to more and more great music. The pianist Stephen Hough, who mixes complete recordings of selected works with brilliant recital albums that almost work like playlists - again, uniting a really disparate discography with his sure, but sensitive touch. The incredibly soulful, moving work of cellist Steven Isserlis (a collaborator and label-mate of Hough). The choral ensemble Stile Antico, collating themed works of unnerving beauty, performed with their habitual, conductor-free, vibrancy. The harpsichord champion Mahan Esfahani, promoting his instrument with a missionary zeal, and using his albums and concerts to place it in a firmly modern context.

To me, this feels exciting: you become invested in their development, and their choices; you give your trust; you want to find out what they will all record or perform next, and how they will interpret it. And while classical musicians mostly work with material that's already there (rather than write new stuff), this process gives me the same buzz as I felt following, say, Brian Eno or Paul Simon move ceaselessly through innovative styles and techniques, or perhaps a bit later and more within my normal sphere, allowing bands like Radiohead or Dead Can Dance to place you in a new universe with each album. Obviously, there are cosmetic and circumstantial differences, but to me, this experience, this investment is the same at its root in the rock and classical worlds. Exactly the same.

You can't have too many versions of 'Winterreise'.
Clearly this is unarguable. But consider - this is the crowning art song masterpiece by my favourite composer. Add to that the fact that it's a famously enigmatic, inscrutable work, allowing everyone who records it to add to its stature - illuminating aspects of it while it still remains somehow unknowable. I haven't carried out a formal count (*embarrassed cough*) but it's possible I have enough versions to create a mad playlist with every song in the cycle performed by a different duo. Don't try this at home, kids.

What this has done is crystallise in my mind my personal favourite three versions of 'Winterreise'. (Although I'm a bloke of a certain age who typically thinks in musical lists as a matter of course, there is a reason for this: not long ago, a Twitter friend put this conundrum to me, and I haven't been able to arrive at just three contenders. Until now.) Today, my personal top trio are...
  • Desert island version: Alice Coote and Julius Drake, recorded live at Wigmore Hall. For the sheer searing intensity, AC taking on the protagonist with all the heartfelt conviction of a fully-realised 'trouser' role.
  • Stone-cold classic version: Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier. A measured, sympathetic interpretation given extra chills from the sound of Staier's fortepiano.
  • 'Didn't see THAT coming' version: Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès, also recorded live at Wigmore Hall. Bostridge - a veteran of the piece - arguably at his most commanding, spurred on by the brilliant Adès finding and drawing out elements of the accompaniment I was only noticing for the first time.
But I'm not just keeping three. I'm keeping them all. (Sorry, Mrs Specs.)

And no wonder I need Specs.
As a collector, I prize neatness, conformity, uniformity. I like things to look good on the shelves, trivial though this perhaps might be to many 'true' listeners. I love a band that (a) has a logo, then (b) keeps it throughout their whole career. I love record labels that make a visual aesthetic as much of their 'brand' as the music, whether that's Deutsche Grammophon, ECM, Blue Note or Earache.

However, I'm now wondering if this is wise. The tidy, almost scholarly approach to typefaces by some record companies can produce these squint-inducing results. This is one of those rare crossover areas between the not-often-twinned genres of classical music and black metal... who knew?

Aargh, my eyes!

If any more insights, or assuming I don't go blind, mere sights present themselves as the Sifting continues, I will of course let you know...

Friday, 10 April 2020

Specs speaks!

Before it becomes a distant memory - and while, I suspect, many people may have a little more time than usual to tune in... I wanted to post a thank you, with a warm recommendation on the side, to the Thoroughly Good blog.

The mind behind Thoroughly Good is Jon Jacob, a highly-skilled and brilliantly incisive writer, trainer and development coach, specialising in the arts / classical music sector. So I 'met' him first - recommended by a mutual friend, Fran Wilson (aka the Cross-Eyed Pianist) - through his writing, on the TG blog.

I found Jon's approach a real eye-opener, because I immediately felt a sense of urgency in his prose - not a vibe you'd necessarily associate with arts content, particularly classical music. Without actually sounding like anyone else at an individual level, it reminded me almost of the finest film and - perhaps even more surprisingly - sports journalism that I'd read. A way of talking about music that insists it is as vital, present and important as anything else; more so. And add to that a talent to weave in his own thoughts and experiences (without slowing the pace or falling into a 'writing about writing' cliche trap), which, as we know, inform a performance as much as what's going on onstage. Take a read of this fantastic recent post about Jonathan Biss, as an example.

Having got to know Jon a little, mostly virtually but once 'IRL', I was thrilled when he asked me to take part in the Thoroughly Good podcast, in a subset of 'Emergency' episodes that he was creating to find out what his guests were listening to as succour during this time of lockdown or isolation. I was a bit nervous, having only taken part in a couple of rock music podcasts some time ago, but Jon put me at my ease instantly and - no wonder he is such a great coach - made me feel like I was having the most relaxed conversation imaginable with someone who knew and understood me really well.

I've listened back to the episode and I couldn't be happier with it. God knows that isn't because it's a 'performance', or some kind of exam I passed. This is true for everyone listening back to their own voice, I'm sure - but I can hear all my vocal tics, or moments where my mouth is going faster than my brain - it's clear I'm more of a written, rather than spoken, word person. But I think what does come through is that you can hear my enthusiasm, how delighted I am to be there: and if there is anything that ties together all my writing and communicating about music and the arts, that's it.

Here are a few handy links.

The world of Thoroughly Good:

  • To go straight to the podcast, I'm on (thank you, darlings, thank you) - go here.
  • Take note, however, that there are over 80 other episodes to lose yourself in - here's the browsing page for those.
  • Finally, the overall homepage with links to all of Jon's activities and services is here.

The artists I mention:

  • The Wigmore Hall live album of Schubert songs (first in a series of 4!) by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake is now a download only from the WH site.
  • Kate Arnold's 'Rosa Fortuna I' EP is available from her Bandcamp page...
  • And likewise for Jo Quail's 'Exsolve'.
  • 'The Contrast' by Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton can be bought directly from BIS, or other online CD stores.

Finally, if you are in a position to buy some music, please consider a browse on my other blog, Support Action, which features links to purchase recordings from artists affected by cancellations during this summer - I'm trying to add to this as and when I can, so if you are a musician (or a fan), please feel free to send suggestions for inclusion. Thank you!

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Versions of Joanna

As I type (and for a few more hours yet) it's World Piano Day. So here's a highly topical playlist that I hope you'll enjoy... not just classical piano solo pieces, but some jazz and rock records where - in my opinion - the keys are, well, key.

Hope you are all taking care and keeping safe.


Stephen Hough - Brahms: 'Clavierstücke, Op 118 13. No 3 in G minor: Ballade'

John Coltrane Quartet - 'Equinox'
(piano: McCoy Tyner)

Simon Jeffes - 'Silver Star of Bologna'

The Charlatans - 'Just When You're Thinkin' Things Over'
(piano: Rob Collins)

Víkingur Ólafsson - Glass: 'Études - No. 6'

Rubén González - 'Tumbao'

Ruth Willemse - Elgar: 'Sea Pictures, Op. 37: The Swimmer'
(piano: Vital Stahievitch)

Elvis Costello - 'Favourite Hour'

Pascal Rogé - Satie: 'Gnossiennes - No. 1 - Lent'

Grant Green - 'Idle Moments'
(piano: Duke Pearson)

Grigory Sokolov - Couperin: 'Le Tic Toc Choc Ou Les Maillotins for Piano'

Happy Mondays - 'Step On'
(keyboards: Paul Davis)

Imogen Cooper - Albéniz: 'Iberia, B. 47, Book 1 (Excerpts) : No. 3, El Corpus en Sevilla'

Herbie Hancock - 'Canteloupe Island'

Alexei Lubimov - Schubert: 'Impromptu, Op. 90 D. 899, No. 4 in A-Flat Minor: Allegretto'

Tuesday, 24 March 2020


Hello there - I hope this post finds you safe and well.

Mrs Specs and I are both working from home at the moment and so far, thankfully, we are symptom-free. As a result, we're being socially distant, if you will, without having to self-isolate completely. It seems very odd to partly withdraw from normal life, with the world outside seemingly caught at the mid-point between eerie calm and random chaos.

Among all this, writing an arts blog is a tiny thing, an atom making up a fraction of a drop in the ocean. But tiny things add up. It's certainly been good for my mental wellbeing to see so many venues and institutions, not to mention individual artists and musicians, take their talents and facilities online: where we had concerts, performances and masterclasses, there are now broadcasts,  YouTube videos and online coaching. It's worth noting that many performers are doing this in the face of sudden financial hardship from sudden cancellations - more of which below.

The music irrepressibly plays on, and accordingly, the appreciation and discussion continues alongside it. If I was ever foolish enough to take my favourite singers and players for granted in the past, I feel it's unlikely I will do so again.

The 'Specs' blog is, of course, based heavily on my going out to see and hear concerts, operas and exhibitions - and then enthusing about them in your direction. The 'going out' part of that is, of course, on hold for now.

But I am going to keep writing. I don't yet know quite how this will take shape: I'll no doubt post about recordings I want to recommend, or finally tackle some features I've wanted to write. I'll put up some playlists that might pass some time or even gladden your heart if you are - or feel - isolated. I'm also planning to do some more writing for the Cross Eyed Pianist, my online 'home from home'.

I hope you will still keep me company through the weeks ahead. Please take care.


Support Action

While I'm here, please could I ask you to visit my spin-off blog, 'Support Action', based on an idea from my last Specs post. The ongoing aim is to create an easy-to-browse, manageable site where people can check out recommended recordings by musicians hit by this spring/summer's cancellations - then follow a link to purchase their music from somewhere close to the source (rather than streaming on Spotify or simply defaulting to Amazon).

I hope you might enjoy zipping around the entries, possibly feel moved to buy someone's disc ... and if you're an artist yourself, or an agent, or fan, and would like to let me know about a title to add, please do: I'd love to hear from you.

You can find me on Twitter as @Adrian_Specs - many thanks!

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Support acts

My 'beat', as you know, is music and the arts. So it's with a peculiar feeling of horror mixed with resignation that I've watched the current, widespread cultural shutdown move from theory into practice. As I type, with our virus-based predicament likely to last for some time, I know that many people will be facing hardship and uncertainty. I also know that many people in better straits will want to help and take action.

It might not have immediately occurred to you - it was a steep learning curve for me - quite how precarious a living in the arts can be. Confronted with instant cancellations and no guarantee of substitute income, our musicians, artists, composers and venues are all immediately and, in some cases, dramatically affected.

This is a small idea I tweeted a day or so ago, but I'm hoping it might gain a little traction. I'm starting a list - which I will keep adding to - of CD/download releases (either relatively recent or pertinent to the event, all readily available) by, or featuring, musicians that I know have been hit by sudden loss of work. If you like or follow an artist, and especially if you were going to hear them perform in the near future and now can't, please consider buying a recording of theirs. I know this is an imperfect scheme - artists don't make a lot from recordings, but it's miles better than streaming them for free on Spotify; and anything to keep their sales up and maintain their profile will help them make more albums and get more work... and so on.

ALL artists deserve, and can do with, our support right now. But obviously I can't include them all. My list will heavily feature classical song, for example, because those are the musicians I hear from and about most readily. Plus I do range around genres a bit (as you might have come to expect). But if you read this and you're a musician with a recent recording, or you want me to add an artist you feel passionately about, please get in touch - Twitter is probably best, where I'm @Adrian_Specs. Also, I'm not alone in this venture - m'learned friend and colleague Frances Wilson, a.k.a. The Cross Eyed Pianist, is pooling information with me and she will be featuring wider information and publicity for anyone needing it than I can do on here.

Where possible, purchase links are to the record companies direct. If more appropriate, I've used artists' websites or Bandcamp pages. Let's go!


Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton, 'Lines Written During a Sleepless Night'
Songs by Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Medtner and Britten.
Buy from Chandos.

Kate Arnold: Rosa Fortuna I
Hammered dulcimer, violin, vocals.
Buy from the artist at Bandcamp.

Mary Bevan & Joseph Middleton, 'The Divine Muse'
Songs by Haydn, Schubert and Wolf.
Buy from Signum.

Brian, The Vision of Cleopatra, featuring the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, soloists, Martyn Brabbins
All too rare appearance on disc of the ENO ensemble.
Buy from Dutton Vocalion.

[can't find any video - aargh]

Daisy Chute
Folk / Americana from multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter.
Tracks for download on the artist's website.

Allan Clayton & Julius Drake, 'The Songs of Liszt - volume 5'.
Buy from Hyperion.

Iestyn Davies & Thomas Dunford, 'The Art of Melancholy'
Songs by Dowland.
Buy from Hyperion.

Hanna Hipp & Emma Abbate, 'Sera d'inverno'
Songs by Ildebrando Pizzetti.
Buy from Resonus.

Ruby Hughes, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen: 'Clytemnestra'
World premiere recording of Rhian Samuel's suite, plus Mahler and Berg.
Buy from BIS.

Leon McCawley: Schubert Piano Music
Buy from SOMM.

Tim Mead: 'Purcell: Songs & Dances'
with Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien, François Lazarevitch.
Buy from Alpha.

Jo Quail: 'Exsolve'
Contemporary classical - cello/electronics.
Buy from the artist at Bandcamp.

Alex Rex: 'Andromeda'
Dark folk-rock from former Trembling Bells singer/songwriter/drummer/mastermind.
Buy from the artist at Bandcamp.

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, 'The Contrast'
English Poetry in Song.
Buy from BIS.

[can't find any video - aargh]

Sean Shibe: 'softLOUD'
Acoustic and electric guitar heroics in Gramophone's first 'Concept Album' award winner.
Buy from Delphian.

Nicky Spence & Julius Drake, Janacek 'The Diary of One Who Disappeared'
...and other works.
Buy from Hyperion.

Sullivan: 'Haddon Hall', featuring BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews
also includes Ford: 'Mr Jericho' and Cellier: 'Captain Billy'.
Buy from Dutton Vocalion.

[can't find any video - aargh]

Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams & William Vann, 'The Song of Love'
Songs by Vaughan Williams.
Buy from Albion.

Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn, 'Winter Journey'
Schubert's 'Winterreise' in English.
By from Signum.

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 plus, featuring Elizabeth Watts and David Butt Philip
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins.
By from Hyperion.

[can't find any video - aargh]

To be continued....

Monday, 9 March 2020

Wig out: Sean Shibe plays Fennessy, Gubaidulina, Bach and Lentz

I had heard guitarist Sean Shibe once before at the Wigmore Hall, giving a late-evening recital based on his second CD, 'softLOUD'. If you've heard of - but not actually heard - 'softLOUD', it may be because it won Gramophone magazine's inaugural Concept Album award in 2019.

Banish any images of 'Tommy' or 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' that phrase may have just conjured up. Shibe's concept was partly to demonstrate the two distinct sides to his practice: the first half of the album acoustic and the second half electric. There's no doubt that the album throws down a gauntlet to the listener, settling them in through a sequence of beautiful Scottish lute tunes, only to shake their foundations by the end with the scorching 'Killer' by David Lang.

But the genius twist on the idea, in my opinion, was to resist the suggestion that the dividing line was as absolute between 'old/new' or 'traditional/modern'. (I don't think it's accidental that the words in the title are run together, or even superimposed on each other in the album artwork.) For example, the Macmillan pieces arranged for guitar in the acoustic section are far more recent than the Reich in the electric part. Elements of the LOUD selections call earlier tracks to mind, whether it's the relative gentleness of the Slow movement of 'Electric Counterpoint' or the Julia Wolfe suite that still carries the atmosphere of the bagpipes it was originally written for, ensuring both halves of the record carry a tartan flavour. It's as if the mischievous, disruptive side of Shibe's musical personality turned to its more restrained counterpart, chuckling like a Bond villain, "Ah, Quiet Sean? Perhaps we are not so very different after all..!"

Looking back, this desire for mixing things up was always there: Shibe's debut all-acoustic disc, 'Dreams and Fancies', focuses on English music but stretches from Dowland to Britten. But it wouldn't have prepared you for 'softLOUD'; and with this latest recital programme, he pushes the boundaries even further than before...

Rather coyly, Wigmore Hall advertised Shibe's instrument as merely 'guitar'. However, I remembered from that previous recital that he had blown a few cobwebs away from the corner of the auditorium when he plugged in and let rip. So, deliberately avoiding any advance listening (so the concert would have maximum impact), I confined myself to reading up a bit ahead of time on 'Ingwe', the piece by Australian composer Georges Lentz that was to take up the entire second half of the gig. 'Ingwe' is an Aboriginal word for 'night', and forms part of an ongoing - and seemingly never-ending - cycle of works by the composer that chart his arrival at a kind of spiritual emptiness. The work aims to conflate, I understand, a 'long dark night of the soul' with the vastness of the Australian desert night. It's a 60-minute piece for solo electric guitar.

So, in some respects, this concert was modelled on the 'softLOUD' template. As the lights dimmed for the first half, Shibe appeared in smart, sober attire, took a seat and leaned over his acoustic classical guitar. And despite the 'soft' instrument of choice, the works we heard were contemporary (David Fennessy's 'rosewood' from 2011), closer to mid-20th century (Sofia Gubaidulina's 'Serenade' and 'Toccata'), then right back to the early 18th for an arrangement of Bach's 'Suite in E minor' for lute (or lute-harpsichord). In itself, this part of the evening held its fair share of revelations for me: the inescapable reach of Bach through the centuries, and how current the suite sounded alongside the more modern pieces. Also - and I realise this is a personal reaction from someone who also listens an awful lot to singer-songwriters wielding acoustic guitars - there is something inescapably rhythmic, danceable about the way a solo guitar must provide propulsion and melody together - it's almost percussive. All three composers provoked this reaction in me, in spite of their very different styles, circumstances and, of course, timeframes. Shibe treated them with equal reverence, dazzling displays of seemingly impossible fingerwork never disrupting the delicacy and space certain passages demanded. More of this later.

After the interval, reverence was perhaps in shorter supply, in favour of abandonment. During the break, the Wigmore 'roadies' had quietly electrified the set-up. Speakers were already in place at each side of the stage: now an amp appeared, and a full-height stand with an iPad, presumably displaying the 'Ingwe' score, whatever format that may take. Then the great visual coup de grace of the evening: Shibe reappearing in a bright jumpsuit (shocking pink, to my eyes and my phone camera) - the colour remarkably similar to that of his guitar lead, as though he was an extension of it: as if to emphasise the idea that whatever we were about to hear, he was somehow the conduit, or channel, for it, not wholly its master.

The ritual began; closely followed by the first walkouts. Notes were struck suddenly, at immense volume, then separated by silences. Riffs seemed to arrive then almost immediately depart. Single strings or chords were picked or strummed repeatedly, to build and build, Shibe seeming to half-scream as if lost in a 'solo'. But while he looked every inch the rock star, this wasn't rock music we were hearing. Lentz constructed 'Ingwe' in deliberate sections, and wrote within a framework (set number of beats to a bar, varied number of notes to each beat) that allows for a certain freedom within limitations. Accordingly, the longer you listened, the more this structure emerged, as certain patterns or ways of playing recurred, even in the spaces between the shredding.

As regular Specs readers will know, I'm a fan of extreme metal / guitar music, so I didn't expect this piece to faze me. It's worth pointing out that anyone with similar leanings - who might be familiar with the subterranean drones of Sunn O))), or who has experienced a Swans gig where the sound can be felt against your skin, would 'get' the power of 'Ingwe' straightaway.

For all that, I have some sympathy with those who felt they couldn't take it - while this was a more youthful audience than many I've seen at the Wigmore, a lot of their regulars are simply infirm, or have hearing issues. If they turned up with an open mind but primarily because they liked the Bach suite, they may not have expected some subtle rearrangement of their internal organs in the second half. But the point is: most people, overwhelmingly so, were captured by the work's relentless focus, and accordingly, stayed.

Shibe played 'Ingwe' like a man possessed, contributing to the intensity already inherent in the stop-start, brutal dynamics of the piece. If the music describes something akin to a mental collapse, fractured, unpredictable, obsessive, then Shibe embodies it. The jumpsuit itself becomes a resource, as various playing tools and devices come out of the pockets; he physically attacks the sound, stabbing at his effects pedal to warp and damage the sustained notes. There are moments of awesome beauty - I found one passage in particular almost unbearably moving, where a keening melody in a high register somehow keeps replenishing itself above a thick, distorted foundation.

Even as my senses were reeling, these snatched moments of delicacy brought home to me the brilliance of the overall programme, as those elements of repetition, space, even use of silence in the first half were sowing seeds for the monumental, supercharged, dark reflection of them in the second. A phenomenal evening.