Tuesday 27 November 2012

Miniature heroes

Two visits to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank to tell you about. The more recent concert is the easiest to describe, as it was a 'regular' (if that's really a suitable word to describe such incredible talent and sublime music) classical programme by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The evening was loosely themed around heroism. We had two longish works, one each side of the interval: first up was Haydn's 'Nelson Mass', otherwise known as Hob.XXII:11 (by absolutely bloody no-one, surely), followed by Richard Strauss's tone poem 'Ein Heldenleben' ('A Hero's Life').

It proved to be an inspired double bill. I've decided that I really really love Haydn. It seems to be that all of the Hadyn I've heard reaches for glory without ever sounding pretentious; music with a kind of automatic beauty that comes not just from good tunes but also from stateliness, reassurance and warmth. The Mass is quite full-on in terms of volume - sizeable orchestra and choir, all giving it loads - but delicacy is at hand in the form of four soloists, who take the melody down to one or two voices before it all kicks back in. The 'Credo' section in particular was full of variation and inventiveness. Lovely.

Strauss was already one of my favourite composers so I didn't undergo quite the same epiphany with the second half of the concert, but the performance was still spellbinding. Always good to watch the percussion during Strauss, and sure enough there was pleasing deployment of snare drum, tom tom and - on one memorable occasion, the gong - brought in for one bash only. 'Hero's Life' is actually full of humour - a 45 minute sequence of smaller sections (unbroken) which are more or less about Strauss himself. (Yes, coming from a rock angle like I always seem to, I couldn't help but think of concept albums, and prog - particularly since Strauss is not just deciding that his whole piece is about the same topic, but using recurring musical motifs and references to back the idea up.)

Some particularly effective passages are where he gives 'voice' to his carping - and here, parping, critics with various abrasive combinations of instruments, but the prize goes to the amazingly talented orchestra leader - that is, the head honcho of the first violins - who took essentially a soloist's role, as Struass voiced his wife with a lone violin line. Apparently Frau S could be quite *cough* a challenge, and the part demands furious bursts of noisy, breakneck playing, alternating with pensive sensitivity the next. The player here was totally on the money, and the conductor (who must have already been impressed in rehearsals) had a bottle of champers on standby to present to him onstage after the performance. Quality touch.

(And since it was our anniversary outing, we were totally comfortable with any aspect of the evening that involved flinging a bit of bubbly around!)

The previous weekend, I'd been to see somethng rather different. I'm a huge fan of John Surman. *waits* "WHO?" *resumes* John Surman is a jazz 'reedsman' - in other words, while he focuses on saxophone, he can and does in fact play a variety of different saxophones, and pretty much anything else that makes a sound when you blow into it. (I'm referring only to inanimate objects here, of course.)

John Surman is on the ECM record label - if that's new to you, maybe the quickest way of describing the 'house sound' is that it primarily features European and often Scandinavian musicians making a type of glacial, cerebral jazz that doesn't belong to - yet also somehow relies upon - its US blues/trad/bop cousin. (Ironically, the label has an American as probably its single best-selling artist - celebrated piano genius and eccentric curmudgeon Keith Jarrett. But you could probably have a humdinger of a pub argument over whether Jarrett is a European musician trapped in an American's body.)

ECM has a classical wing, and label boss Manfred Eicher delights in bringing the two worlds together to see what happens. Surman has made a couple of terrific albums with a string quartet (here is the track 'At Dusk' from the album 'Coruscating'), for example - although the pairing that made the biggest splash was when the saxophonist Jan Garbarek began recording with the chamber choir Hilliard Ensemble.

Surman also releases solo albums. They have always featured pulsing electronics and synthesiser rhythms and loops, over which he plays (and improvises) melody lines on his arsenal of wind and brass. They are often hypnotic and rather gentle, and again appeal to my liking for automated beauty. His latest record, 'Saltash Bells', is one of this series. However, the concert I attended - one of the last in this year's London Jazz Festival - is billed as a gig of two parts: a newly-commissioned work, 'Lifelines' for reeds, piano and (wait for it) Welsh male voice choir... along with some solo playing.

Because I absolutely adore this man, I wanted (and expected) 'Lifelines' to be amazing. For the most part, it is: there are about eight 'songs' (arranged in three groups) and range from ambient sound-pictures to anthemic chants from the choir - even at one point he gets the whole lot of them to genuinely swing as he (along with the versatile keyboard player Howard Moody) propels the most overtly 'jazzy' section to a thunderous finish.

There is a chink in the armour: the lyrics. With a Welsh choir at his disposal - and I can sort of understand this - Surman steams head-on into the industry/mining/poverty genre of protest folk and ends up with some of the words sounding amateurish (couplets of the 'journey's end'/'fog it did descend' style). It certainly seems at odds with some exhiliratingly complex and sophisticated music, when at times you forget that there are only two instrumentalists on stage.

At other points - for example, when he has the full choir sing in a tribal dialect - the effect is overwhelmingly stirring and you wish for more of that. What saves the whole caboodle is that even in the mawkish segments, the sheer emotional heft the choir brings to proceedings (for whom the subject matter is of course directly relevant) carries the day.

The concert was a tad 'mis-sold'. 'Lifelines' was just over an hour long and a happy but drained Surman clearly regarded that as the whole concert, more or less (it was a reasonably priced matinee). With everyone else now off the stage, he told us - in a typically modest old-school way - that while the blurb drew attention to the solo material, he felt he shouldn't really play it because of all the overdubs - how could it be honest?

At this point, I did rather want to shake him, and point out how electronica and looping bands/artists can be absolutely amazing live, and that he shouldn't worry about it, and this is the 21st century and LOOK JUST PLAY SOME OF IT... Fortunately, before I had to get on his case, he did - as an encore. He started a loop on a small machine next to him, and played one of the most bewitching extended improvisations I can remember hearing.

For that, he is the third hero, after Nelson and Strauss, of this post. This second video is a track called 'Tintagel' from an earlier solo album, 'Road to St Ives'. He made up something similar to this for us, on the spot, knackered.

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