Thursday 28 August 2014

When everything clicks

Every now and again, the words (and indeed the music) take a back seat, and I take the opportunity to post some of my photography. I don't think the blog would display a fully rounded picture of 'me' if I didn't - and yet I always surprise myself when I realise how long it's been since I last shared any work.

My last three major outings with the camera have all been portrait sessions - my favourite kind of session. I often start with the germ of an idea, and then think about who I should ask to take part accordingly. But by the time we are a short while into the day itself, the 'subjects' are always fully-fledged collaborators and their ideas and enthusiasm helps the theme take off to in ways I could barely imagine when making the initial plans. I hope you enjoy these recent examples.

Ellie has taken part in past sessions, and my photos of her have tended to have quite a modern feel - partly due to her terrific energy levels, which could make even the National Grid seem a little 'underpowered'. To try something different, I kept in my head some old Hollywood studio photo sessions I had seen (in particular, one of the actress Deborah Kerr near the start of her career) and we settled on a floral outfit for E to wear against a leafy, city park location. Rest assured, however, that to obtain some of these vantage points, the model still had to clamber up low-level walls and benches... Many thanks, Ellie.

Louise and Robin are absolutely steeped in fantastical literature and lore, and highly active themselves in all manner of creative endeavours (I'm particularly familiar with Robin's painting and Louise's short stories, both haunting, arresting and amusing in equal measure). To do them justice, I aimed at a kind of potential narrative or suggestion of some otherworldly element, in the hope that you wouldn't be surprised to find these stills lurking in a vault gathering dust somewhere in the BFI. The park location was full of appropriate nooks and crannies, verticals and horizontals. And in any case, the pair looked magnificent. Thank you, both.

Last but ABSOLUTELY not least, I received an unusual commission - from Mrs Specs, who needed an 'official' photograph. Obviously, taking pictures of one's partner can come with certain risks (divorce, torture, Hobnobs laced with rat poison) but luckily these passed muster, and I still live. The National Trust property Nymans was my ally, providing lots of convenient framing trees and hedges.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Strauss relief: Schwanewilms & Martineau

This particular Prom happened by accident. Another in the Monday lunchtime chamber series - like Rachel Podger's C P E Bach concert, which I wrote about here - this concert was due to feature the superb mezzo Alice Coote, accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, performing a selection of songs by R Strauss and Wolf.

However, we were informed a few days ahead of time that Alice C was sadly unable to perform due to illness. Like many others, I'm sure, I felt a pang at not hearing AC - she has a rich, enveloping voice and her stagecraft is magnificent. I saw her perform Schumann lieder at the Wigmore Hall a short while ago, and was stunned by her ability to convey the deep emotion of the songs yet still maintain an engaging, uninhibiting presence. You can also get an idea of her brilliance by catching her performance of Elgar's 'Sea Pictures' earlier in the Proms season, on iPlayer here for another couple of weeks or so. Speedy recovery to her. (Huge fan of AC that I am, it would also be wrong not to mention Julius D, who is always worth hearing - he is so adaptable to different singers but his own elegant, restrained style is always there.)

Stepping in at short notice were the soprano Anne Schwanewilms, with Malcolm Martineau on piano. Leaving aside the circumstances, this was genuinely thrilling news. I had never heard either of them perform in person - only on disc,YouTube and so on. Anne S, it seems to me, is one of today's great acting singers. Recent roles - both Strauss, in fact, who I think is a speciality of hers - include the Empress in 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' and Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister.

These spring to my mind because they not only sound challenging to sing, but also require a great sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. It can't be easy to find those notes with utter confidence yet somehow convey fragility and tenderness while doing it, but AS has that alluring skill. I had previously encountered Malcolm M only on CD, as a fine accompanist for baritone Simon Keenlyside.

A number of Proms include Strauss this season because of the 150th anniversary of his birth. AS and MM kept the link by including seven Strauss songs as the second sequence of the concert. The first half was a performance of a four-song sequence by Debussy, 'Proses lyriques'.

These were a complete revelation to me. Given the composer concerned, I suppose I could have expected a style where the piano is of at least as much interest as the voice - and writing the words as well, Debussy could calibrate the balance exactly as he wanted it. The songs' themes and subject matter are perhaps not too surprising either - the atmosphere and mood refracted through skies, moons, flowers and water.

But the realisation of these ideas at times genuinely took my breath away. I've included here a YouTube upload of the second song, 'De greve' ('Of the Shore') to give you an idea of how arresting these pieces sounded. The clip features AS singing, although not MM playing, I'm afraid.

The hyperactive piano suggests the constant ripples and waves of the water, pushing at the voice, yet also seemingly independent of it (although you can see how it fits together if you can read music and follow it on the video). AS began the cycle without moving too much, and I wondered for a very brief period, if this was simply an inevitable need for extra focus when giving a recital you didn't know about a few days previously. But I soon realised that she was the still point, her melody soothing the piano notes like the lyric's moon calming the sea. You can hear this effect as Debussy resolves 4ths to 3rds at around 0:50 to 0:54, and at the very end, 3:05 onwards.

Strauss is one of my favourite composers, as regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) may know - so, if anything, I might have enjoyed the second half of the concert even more. I'm quite new to hearing classical song live, so I've relatively few past gigs to draw on - but it struck me that the singers I've been to see so far are native English speakers (Sir John Tomlinson, Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman, Gerald Finley and Alice Coote). Here, AS was singing in her own language and I'm sure it must make a difference - her expressions and body language supported every word, and the rapport between the duo intensified as she moved towards the piano much more and made even greater eye contact not only with MM but with us, too.

The most flamboyant example was the showstopping last song, 'Ach was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen', which despite the title ('Ah, the grief, torment and pain...') is actually a humorous folk song adaptation where Strauss dramatises the singer's struggle with her own tongue to keep her passion a secret: "Must pretend...I'm full of joy, since I - hmm hmm hmm." The song jerks and shudders with indecision and they were both acting for each other's benefit, AS cheerfully hamming it up with shocked reproachful glances towards the piano, biting her lip in mock agony. MM simply reacted like he was the happiest man alive.

But there were more low-key touches, too. Burned into my brain is the song 'Geduld', or 'Patience'. Each verse starts with the protagonist being told to wait - "'Patience,' you say..." - and the weary disillusionment with which AS invested each "sagst du" tugged at my emotional response centre every time until I was a broken man by the end. No higher praise.

It was the kind of performance that made me want to track down everything the two of them have ever done. You can hear it on the iPlayer, here, for another four weeks(-ish).

Note: Both photographs are taken from the item 'Schwanewilms and Martineau save the day!' on their management agency Askonas Holt's website. The photo of AS was taken by Javier del Real and that of MM by Russell Duncan. Copyright belongs to the photographers - any issues, let me know and I'll remove.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Going over old sound: the 'covers' album

Let me make possibly a bold claim: for the most part, we are quite happy with the idea that some people were born to write tunes, and others to put them across. In classical music (although numerous composers were more than able players), this is an absolute given. In folk and jazz, songs are handed down like heirlooms - often, the former aims to preserve them, while the latter tears them apart. Dedicated songwriting teams (Brill Building / Motown) assembled to provide ready-made hits for the charismatic label artists to perform. (And essentially laid the groundwork for the Stock Aitken Waterman / X-Factor machinery of recent years.)

Nonetheless, to many there is something sacrosanct about writer-performers. I don't know if there's an accepted starting point for this: it's tempting to thank / blame (delete as applicable) the Beatles, like one does for everything, or maybe Dylan. You could probably settle on a number of the great 60s acts as collectively hammering home the importance of playing your own stuff, and many of my own favourites (old and new) fall squarely into this category.

But for all that, I'm suspicious of this peculiarly 'rock' love of self-sufficient authenticity - especially since it gives rise to such deep mistrust of the 'covers' album. Fans hear alarm bells drowning out the music when such a project looms, fearing at best a lazy cop-out or worse, signs that writer's block has set in. But this doesn't explain why, say, artists who have gone to great lengths to carve out a distinctive sound are still drawn to the genre (Anna Calvi's new 'Strange Weather' EP), or why some of the more celebrated examples are by writers who are renowned for their own songwriting prowess (Elvis Costello, David Bowie). I think the truth is that great covers albums can shed new light on music in shadow, and restore your faith in an artist's genius in a way that sometimes even their own material cannot manage. Here are ten.

All about me

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - 'Kicking Against the Pricks'
This record is all about putting the Bad Seeds' unique sound on the map. Only four albums in, NC chose a set of stately, incantatory tracks, which provide a ready-made sense of eerieness and steady pace. Imposing choices like 'All Tomorrow's Parties' and 'The Carnival is Over' are like threadbare padded cells, and the band, barely confined, throw themselves against the walls. New member Thomas Wydler's drums contribute significantly to this: tribal, militaristic, unhinged. Never has sheer oomph sounded so oppressive.

Bryan Ferry - 'As Time Goes By'
Ferry is one of rock music's deliberate imposters. On his solo records (many released in parallel with Roxy Music's on-off existence), he's proved himself something of a covers addict, with albums full to bursting of other people's songs. Ferry's suave persona is so persuasive that this record seemed almost obvious - had he really not done it before? - but of course he is only a crooner in image, not in voice. Here, in jazz band settings, he is in fact high-voiced, breathy, almost fragile - making easy listening sound more difficult, personally felt and meant.

Labours of love

Andrew Bird - 'Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of...'
Some of you will already know the highly distinctive spook-Americana music of Brett & Rennie Sparks, aka The Handsome Family. Bird probably knows it better than anyone, The Handsome Family included. An idiosyncratic singer, writer and fiddler who has guested and toured with (and already covered) the couple, and this record - out only this year - is his full-length tribute. The playing is immaculate. Bird is in love with these songs like they're an unknowable partner: he's utterly devoted but also daunted. Each track is a delicate re-arrangement as if he cannot bring himself to tread on the originals - titles, melodies are changed, as if he wants to give you a description of the thing he loves, but knows he'll never do it justice. (He does, of course.)

Janice Whaley - 'The Smiths Project'
A Californian vocalist steeped in UK alternative music, JW decided to record all 71 songs (in order) by her favourite band, in the space of a year (2010), using only her voice. Scale and skill go hand in hand, combining the purity of the harmony vocals (30 Janices at once in places), with the baffling range of sounds and beats she can conjure up with just throat and laptop. Thrillingly, just as The Smiths evolved and took such giant steps in their short time together, you can hear JW do the same. The band's music becomes the still point, and Janice moves from beautiful, ethereal takes on the debut album material to driving, swirling grooves on the later likes of 'Shoplifters of the World Unite' and 'A Rush and A Push...' She even speaks the samples on 'Rubber Ring'. Utterly beguiling.

Like for unlike

Booker T and the MGs - 'McLemore Avenue'
Dazzled by the point the Beatles reached on 'Abbey Road' - where they had so many tunes, they could seemingly afford to chuck them into minute-long tracks and stitch them together like a patchwork - Booker T decided to cover the album 'whole'. This is genius for several reasons. To begin with, *all* of 'Abbey Road' is fragmentary - the band were falling apart, and even the 'full' songs are uneasy bedfellows. Seemingly recognising this, the MGs knit almost every track into long medleys, treating all the tunes as if they were part of that Side 2 sequence. They also pull off a brilliant 'cheat' by leaving out three full tracks: screamfest 'Oh Darling' and the whimsical 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' and 'Octopus's Garden'. This cruel but careful edit, coupled with the fact that the band are instrumental, make this a streamlined, bonkers-light rendition. The band are as tight as ever, with guitarist Steve Cropper stealing the show as usual, switching between melodies, solos, and stabbing riffs without sounding like he even has to move.

Easy Star All-Stars - 'Radiodread'
This group specialises in reggae versions of entire albums - they kicked off with 'Dub Side of the Moon' and their most recent is 'Thrillah'. Whether this is 'trademark' or 'gimmick' is down to personal taste, but on this track-for-track cover of 'OK Computer', they identified that cavernous dub bass and vocals suffused with wary ennui were perfect for conveying the original's sense of, er, dread (sorry). Opening track 'Airbag', with Horace Andy's divine voice, is a particularly good example. It's also crucial (sorry), that where flashes of wit appear - in particular the way that horns come in to replicate some coruscating guitars or effects, like sunshine failing to dispel cloud - the humour is aimed at reggae, rather than Radiohead. Skilfully done.

Off the map

Peter Gabriel - 'Scratch My Back'
The entire album is orchestral. However, these are bold contemporary arrangements - not just the 'adding strings' cliche - and because they're applied to rock songs, they have the cyclical feel of minimalist classical works. Play the opening of Gabriel's version of Regina Spektor's 'Apres Moi' next to a bit of John Adams's 'Shaker Loops' and you'll hear what I mean. There even seems to be an underlying theme of PG (Mr WOMAD) choosing some Western artists who employ international musical flavours - Paul Simon and Talking Heads, as well as Spektor - and stripping away the exotica to see what happens. Deep and uncompromising.

Seu Jorge - 'The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions'
Included partly due to sheer loveliness, this is the album borne from Jorge's character in the 'Life Aquatic' film performing Bowie songs in Portuguese on an acoustic guitar. I love the way this record makes the songs seem alien again now we know the originals so well, with all the 'Bowie' stripped out of them - and Jorge's magnificently fluid playing is a treat in itself.

Originality in disguise

Tortoise & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - 'The Brave and the Bold'
At face value, this could be the most arch record ever. Two defiantly avant-garde acts - post-rock instrumentalists who don't really do 'songs' backing a wilfully eclectic, experimental singer - presenting a track listing including numbers by Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Richard Thompson. Admittedly, they include some more obscure choices - Melanie Safka, Minutemen, Lungfish - but you could be forgiven for assuming the album mainly consists of 'mucking about'. Instead, the collaborators tear into the songs with wilful sincerity. Tortoise couldn't sound like a normal group if they tried, so the band feel their way around the tracks, sometimes meandering towards the doorway, at others smashing it down, with BPB giving one of the most sustained, committed vocal performances of his career. Musicians starting from 'out there', wanting to come inside for a while.

Barb Jungr - 'Hard Rain'
Another very recent album, but an instant classic. Barb Jungr - a singer and writer who patrols the territory between jazz, folk, rock and cabaret - is a matchless interpreter. She can take any given song, it seems - especially if written by a man - and invest it with warmth and vulnerability without losing any of its bite or resolve. This particular record's theme is the political songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. The chamber arrangements by Simon Wallace - sensitive yet sinister - pull you ruthlessly towards the harsh messages with rolling yet restrained piano and otherworldly flourishes of shakuhachi (a Japanese flute). You wouldn't think 'Blowin' in the Wind' could be re-invented, but they do. A concept, protest album that brings anger back from the past to rage against the same issues in the present.

Many thanks to Magnus Shaw of the superb Rocking Vicar website for the conversation that sparked the idea for this piece.

Friday 1 August 2014

Son shades: C P E Bach at the Chamber Music Proms

Yes, the Proms are up and running again. A few more evenings this summer (though not quite as many as last year, when I heard the entire Ring cycle in a week, standing up...), I'll be back at the Royal Albert Hall, swept up and sweltering in the whole massed rush of the thing.

And as thrilling as those main concerts are, there is something of the treat, the delicacy, about the Chamber Music Proms, which take place every Monday lunchtime at Cadogan Hall throughout the entire season. For a start, just going to one in the first place means a day off work for many in the audience (including me), so there is that truant sense of occasion. More importantly, the acoustics are glorious, and there doesn't seem to be a bad seat in the place - so you're more or less guaranteed a relaxing yet immersive listen.

Even within those parameters, this particular Prom already feels to me like one of the great classical gigs I've been lucky enough to attend - exactly the right players performing exactly the right music in exactly the right location. (And I didn't even realise until we arrived that I'd managed to book second row seats! Modest applause, please.)

It's C P E Bach's 300th birthday year (obviously we're having to celebrate in his absence), and the anniversary has seen him creep stealthily into the spotlight that normally shines so brightly on his dad, J S. I've yet to explore his music fully but what I've heard appeals to me enormously. Clearly the paternal influence must have been monumental, unshakeable. But Emanuel's writing seems to reflect the recognisably Baroque flourishes he must have grown up with, merged with an almost rebellious "I'm going to do WHAT I LIKE" straining at the leash. Earlier this year, the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani released a brilliant album of C P E Bach sonatas, and I overheard one concert-goer tell another how well they thought the playing on that record "tamed some of the madness" in the music.

Analysts poring over the wild moodswings in the music have begun to speculate that Emanuel, rather than living life in a permanent teenage strop in reaction to his intimidating pater, may actually have been bi-polar. This was just one of the intriguing snippets of information and insight from Rachel Podger, the violin virtuoso and Baroque specialist who had put together the programme and ensemble for the concert.

All the Proms are broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and a feature of the chamber sessions is that the radio presenter is a bit more hands-on, introducing the performers and conducting mini-interviews with them during short breaks or change-overs. (This Monday it was Petroc Trelawny, to Mrs Specs's frankly unseemly delight.) Initially, this used to strike me as a bit cruel, like the musical equivalent of those dreadful on-court interrogations that take place ten seconds after the winning shot at Wimbledon - "what do you mean, you're out of breath - I need answers!" - but in Rachel P, we had a natural communicator and highly persuasive ambassador for the music.

She had put together the sequence of pieces carefully and cleverly. None of them had been performed at the Proms before (we're now on season 120), and to do them justice, RP had assembled a crack team including herself on violin, Katy Bircher on flute, Bojan Cicic literally playing second fiddle, Tomasz Pokrzywinski on cello and Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano. I wanted to mention them all (and yes, I am painstakingly keying in the names from the programme beside me!) because they all brought something crucial to the enterprise. None of the four works used exactly the same combination of players, so everyone's contribution was vital.

The first two pieces highlighted the development between Emanuel's early and mid career stages. A Trio Sonata foregrounding violin and flute, begun in his early teens (and, suggested RP, benefiting from a few of Dad's hints and tips) sounded carefree and upbeat, an impression underpinned by the gossamer breath of the flute gliding above the other players. Fast forward thirty years to a violin sonata that gave RP the opportunity to show as much shade as light, and bring some of the lightning mood changes she was telling us about into focus.

Next, Kristian B took the stage solo for a technically demanding keyboard sonata, that really made me appreciate the skill involved in playing the fortepiano. I wasn't too familiar with this instrument - heard it a few times, never seen one played - and if I had to guess, it seemed to be the technological mid-point between the harpsichord-style keyboards and what we know as the 'normal' piano: a 'fuller' sound than its predecessors but not quite the lengthy, robust sustain of the modern instrument. As such, it's very well suited to the Baroque flurry of cascading notes that KB seemed to play with such ease, the signs of effort appearing only on his face from time to time, never his fingers.

Finally, all five musicians came together for another Trio Sonata, called 'Sanguineus and Melancholicus'. RP explained that the piece was written as a kind of 'duel' between two violins - one cheerful, one morose - the happier instrument trying to buck the other one up. The score is full of instructions for the two soloists on how to inject their parts with various emotions, and Emanuel's aim was to give these wordless sparring partners as much vitality and coherence of expression as you would expect from characters in opera.

The composer couldn't have asked for better 'actors' - to the point where it was impossible to imagine Rachel P and Bojan C swapping roles. As the last piece, the sonata clearly had an element of fun to it - with BC staring intently at his strings, resisting the irrepressible advances of RP, beaming, pretending to try and catch his eye, and even edging closer as if to give him a playful nudge. And Bach's achievement: to write such clearly distinct happy/sad melody lines and have them dovetail with each other so seamlessly that it all makes perfect musical as well as dramatic sense. An extraordinary finale.

While Rachel Podger is clearly a generous programmer and keen collaborator, there is something truly special about her ability to engage with us as well as her fellow musicians. I was reminded of a recent performance I saw of Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time' which featured Steven Isserlis on cello - and he seemed particularly willing and able, of all four on stage, to involve the audience - to stare and smile them almost into participation. I felt that Rachel P and Steven I both possess that great gift of being so at one with - and at home within - the music that they have the spare performing capacity to make eye contact with the audience and let the music write itself across their facial expressions and body language as well as in the notes.

Performers like these make it as important and rewarding to see as well as hear classical music. 'Live' is good. Really 'alive' - even better.

(The concert is still on BBC iPlayer, and they're extending the 'listen again' period so that you have 30 days instead of 7 to catch each Prom after the event. So, until late August, find it here.)