Saturday 19 December 2015

Specsmas! 'Messiah' at the Barbican

Every so often it hits me (again) that there are certain masterpieces - universal, deathless works known and loved by seemingly everyone - that have so far passed me by completely.

I do feel slightly odd about this. I'm drawn to intensity/extremity - that's years of listening to scary metal and jazz for you - and perhaps that's the reason I've seen 'Elektra' (twice), 'Wozzeck', or stood through the entire Ring cycle at the Proms in a single week... without ever getting near a 'Traviata', 'Magic Flute' or 'Fidelio'. And three decades of immersion in rock/folk/pop/you-name-it before broadening my horizons must surely be why I was instantly smitten with classical 'art song'. I like hooks, riffs, tautness, precision, and always will - so maybe it's no wonder I managed to gather an embarrassing number of Schubert lieder recordings before it even occurred to me to listen to his symphonies. (Error since rectified!)

I've had further cause to think about this recently, thanks to getting handsomely lubricated at some festive office drinks. While much of the evening is hazy, I have a clear recollection of trying to convince a colleague that Schubert has more riffs than Led Zeppelin. I think this is a scientific, mathematical fact - Schubert made it past the 600-song mark, and LZ, well, didn't. But I wasn't really debating at my highest level. Instead I'm rather fearful I was trying to hum the hook for 'Fischerweise' (appropriately enough) as if it was 'Whole Lotta Love'. Oh yes. I'm all about spreading the word.

Anyway... we had booked for the Barbican 'Messiah' this year - and it suddenly dawned on me that I'd never heard the 'Messiah' performed live. Not only that, even though Mrs Specs had a couple of copies in the house (I suppose the more recent recording she bought is, in its own small way, the Second Coming) - I hadn't heard it all the way through. I felt like I had, because the 'hits' are so familiar - but that's not the same thing at all. I realised I didn't actually know quite what to expect - the best way to turn up to anything.

(This is the Balthasar Denner portrait of Handel - apparently the image is in the public domain.)

Of course, that's not 100% true. We'd booked for this particular performance (without wishing to blaspheme, there are a few Messiahs knocking about at this time of year) because of our admiration for two of the soloists, soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Iestyn Davies (singing the alto part). The rest of the team were tenor Allan Clayton and bass Robert Davies (both new to us), with the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices, conducted by Eamonn Dougan.

I think I struck lucky on my first time, because everything I heard (and saw - more on this later) felt spectacularly good. Clearly, I'm still new to the work as a whole, but one hearing is enough to understand its popularity. Particularly striking to me was how seamlessly the Baroque-motorik zip (Pawel Siwczak's harpsichord seemed brilliantly hyperactive, its glorious rhythms slicing through the sound) is married to the slower passages, more about breaking your heart than the speed limit, focusing your attention not just on the 'higher' subject matter but the sheer beauty of the melodies.

I confess that the only time I've seen a Handel opera live - 'Xerxes' - I found it slightly problematic, because of the multiple-repetitions of lines that seemed to hobble the action. 'Messiah' is an oratorio rather than an opera: here, the more modest levels of repetition actually work a treat, partly because it's an appropriate topic for a more ritualistic, liturgical treatment, but also because it so mesmerises and involves you that you become caught up even further in the emotion. Iestyn Davies's spine-tingling performance of 'He was despised' was especially fine here. Then the famous choruses - especially the 'Hallelujah!' at the end of Part 2 - allow that emotion to burst, the outpouring of sound providing the much-needed release.

But lack of plot doesn't have to mean lack of drama, and some subtle touches of stagecraft seemed to boost singers and players alike. The Barbican Hall stage is wide, and a pair of soloists were seated at each of the extreme edges: CS and ID to the audience's left, AC and RD to the right. I don't know how many Messiahs use this effect, but even the fact that they had quite a long walk to come into the centre of the stage to sing created some movement, and brought out a sense of timing (Carolyn S, for example, conveyed such a sense of bliss after one of her sections that she stayed put in apparent rapture, holding the pose for what felt like a good few minutes after she stopped singing, before finally walking back to her seat).

Also - the left side, with the soprano and alto, seemed very much 'the side of the angels', heaven; while AC's warm, rich tenor and RD's subterranean, but agile bass represented earth, on the right. This supports the text, as the soprano and alto focus on Christ, while the tenor and bass more on the activities and reactions of the people interacting with him. The two worlds are finally brought together with 'O death, where is thy sting?', as the alto and tenor, 'meeting' at both sides of the podium, sing a duet.

I also liked the way that the only time a soloist looked anywhere other than outwards towards the audience was during 'The trumpet shall sound', when RD turned to face trumpet-player Paul Archibald (superb) in acknowledgement that this section was also a true duet. Earlier in the evening, we had already heard the trumpets, but from a window halfway up the back of the stage - the closest the Barbican could get to celestial!

Although I've made specific mention of two players, I would have to give equal credit to everyone in the Sinfonia and Voices. With the Barbican's acoustic, you sense there really is no hiding place for groups of this size (every instrument apart from the violins was represented on stage by only one or two musicians). Under ED's direction, they were pin-sharp and expressive - sometimes individually audible, yet completely tight, the ideal orchestra working as 'single organism'.

In the end, though, the soloists give the piece its character. CS was absolutely in her element: combining breathtaking accuracy with real beauty, committed, heartfelt, graceful. ID seems able to achieve a superhuman purity of sound, coupled here with a fitting serenity. AC's singing had real attack, making a character of his part, refreshingly 'non-stately' and bringing a personal, engaging and earth(l)y voice into the mix, while RD was sonorous, portentous - exactly the heft needed to underpin the others.

A genuinely glorious achievement.


Thank you, everyone, for reading the blog - I really appreciate the support.

Work mayhem in the run-up to Christmas - plus the imminent Invasion Of The In-Laws! - mean that, while other stuff takes over, I'm likely to put my Specs away now for the holiday season. I'll be back as early as possible in the New Year with my usual look back at the old one.

In the meantime, I hope you and yours have a happy, peaceful and - hopefully - musical Yuletide.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Chorus lines: speaking up for the arts (again)

At the time of writing, London opera has been enjoying - or rather, enduring - another few headline-making days. Seemingly a plague on both our houses. At the financially-embattled English National Opera, talk of cuts to the chorus, and a reduced number of productions - while over at the Royal Opera House, director of opera Kasper Holten announced he would be leaving in 2017 to return with his family to Copenhagen.

I'm sad to see Holten go - I'm an admirer of his work and it feels a little like he's just getting started. Of course, opera productions take years to plan - so in his 'early days', like any new arrival to a similar post, he was overseeing many of his predecessor's plans come to fruition. To all intents and purposes, he really is only on the point of making his mark. (Emphatically so, with the magnificent 'Krol Roger' this year.) In turn, even after he steps down, his legacy will last until around 2020. I really think he's a force for good, and am looking forward to seeing what plans he has in store for the next few years.

In contrast to what will hopefully be a smooth transition at ROH, ENO seems beset by turmoil. Famous musical and operatic names have rounded on the apparent proposals, only for ENO to respond rather vaguely about necessary cuts; effectively, thanks for your input etc - that's all very well but you don't have to solve the problem. (You can read the Telegraph's piece about this here.)

I don't have The Answers, of course. I so wish I did. But I do have some questions. It seems to me (and many others, I believe) that the only folk really likely to suffer from this are the singers and players - and I am with them. Excuse my naivety in putting some of these thoughts out there, when I know relatively little about 'business' - but then we're living in a world where business people who know nothing about talent or creativity make decisions that affect artists' lives.

Apparently, ENO's 'management team' will take 'several months' to work through these proposals and come to a decision...
  • How many people are on this team? Maybe that number could be halved. Maybe the decision would then take half the time.
  • Is any money being unnecessarily spent on external help/consultancy, or any convenient expert likely to come in and say what a good idea cuts would be?
  • Cuts of any kind are by definition short-sighted. They're always a reaction to "Find extra money! Now!" directives from state or shareholders. What if a future Government places more restrictions on funds? You could make more cuts. But post-cuts, the time to grow will come again, and you start from a much worse place than you were in before, arguably unable to truly repair the damage.
  • Instead of cutting, what money-making opportunities have been explored? I know seat pricing has been controversial, so I think the ENO team need to show clearly that they've investigated that deeply. Also, they are staging musicals - I imagine this does bring in a few extra quid, but it can only ever be short-term. Musical audiences are transient and go to the show they want to see, wherever it's playing. ENO could possibly do more to build its longer term 'fanbase', in the way that, say, Wigmore Hall does.
  • Equally, ENO doesn't have a shop; it's only just started doing cinema relays, and operas seem to be rarely recorded or filmed for commercial release. What about putting the amazing chorus and orchestra centre-stage for concerts, similar to Pappano's gigs at the ROH?
I'm quite sure that corporate types could tell me why any or all of this wouldn't work. To a certain extent, I don't care. If you're management experts, think innovatively and make some of it work. From a creative perspective, I can tell you what definitely won't work: reducing the chorus. (I can live with the idea of fewer productions, if it creates an atmosphere free of financial stress for those working on them, and longer runs for those shows, giving more people a chance to go.)

(This photo is of the ENO production of Verdi's 'The Force of Destiny' - taken by Robert Workman.)

Forgive me for getting a bit emotional about ENO's chorus - but they are recognised as one of the finest ensembles of their kind, in the world (as testified by their shortlist place in the 2015 International Opera Awards). They don't just have the power - they have a group subtlety and company bond that makes them particularly good at establishing joint character, whether an intimidating crowd or heavenly choir. They all - all of them - act, all the time... and this has stood some of them in good stead as they've more than adequately covered for absent soloists, or taken on a more individual role in the action.

If you had the world's finest thoroughbred racehorse or sports car at your disposal but needed to trim your belt, you wouldn't lop off a leg or a wheel. Yes, you'd save some cash with no more travel to all those pesky meetings or venues ... but you might also find that the ability of your prized possession to do its job properly and maintain not just its, but your, reputation has been somewhat hampered. Was it you tearing round that course or track? No.

I realise there is more than one way to 'cut' a workforce. You can shorten hours or contracts if you don't want to reduce actual numbers. I would say, however, that applying anything like this to ENO's singers (or players) would be stupidity. That sound does not come from a casual approach - it's from constant, regular, intimate practice, rehearsal and performance, developed over time. And that sound will resonate, I'm afraid, how ever many managers come and go in the meantime.

I'm reminded a little of what we keep reading about the BBC. God knows, it needs a structural shake-up but the only solution we ever seem to hear about are cuts to programmes and channels - in other words, targeting the programme-makers - the people who in fact make the Beeb the beacon of quality it is - instead of the internal machinery. And the BBC has an part-educational remit bound up in its State support - I think it's all too easily forgotten that ENO was created in a similar spirit, bringing English-language versions to as wide an audience as possible. Whatever beef the Arts Council have with ENO over funding and management issues, it would have done well to consider the organisation's wider aims that matter somewhat more than instant profit.

This whole affair ultimately made me think about art and music, and how we relate to them. I was saddened, for example, to see some of the callous social media traffic following both Holten's announcement and the ENO story. Obviously, there were lovely messages of support. But - 5... 4... 3... 2... 1 - and out they came: never been impressed ... surprised he was asked to stay that long ... what would we miss if they went altogether? ... well, I never liked [insert person/production of choice] anyway...

Gather round, you lot. That's enough. Time to shut up.

Many of us tweet, post and blog - and within the context of a review or critique, we're perfectly within our rights to make constructive as well as positive comments and be honest about our reaction to something. (I rarely post negatively, I realise that - but that's my choice.) Could I suggest, however, that outside that environment, and against a background where these people - the ones that work incredibly hard to provide those hours of entertainment that you so casually dismiss, often in fewer than 140 characters - are facing real uncertainty and pressure ... you simply put a lid on it? Thank you.

We're in a situation where more than anything, we should demonstrate not just support, but also kindness and appreciation for our singers, musicians, or any type of artist. The arts are for us: they enrich our lives, widen our horizons, release our emotions and stimulate our soul to make us more than machines. But this is not about us - for once, this is about them, the creators, who fall victim to the most astonishing thoughtlessness from the corporate world, the political arena, right through to the booing louts in audiences and armchair attacks from the cyber-lazy.

It's time for us fans and patrons of the arts to say, loud and clear: they are as vital to our quality of life and wellbeing as healthcare, education, or any other indispensable service you care to name. These people, and what they do, are precious: imagine life without them, and the effect that would have on you... then speak and act accordingly.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Keeping the cold in: 'Voices of the Winter Hearth'

I wanted to write a few words about a terrific event I visited last Friday. As happens so often, there's a mild thread of guilt running through the lines of this blog post, as the exhibition I'll be describing is now over. However, some of its key elements endure, so well worth drawing to your attention all the same.

The show itself was called 'Voices of the Winter Hearth', installed in the belfry at the top of a spiral stairwell in St John on Bethnal Green, London. Curated by Joanna Vale and Renaud C Haslan, and bringing JV's poetry together with work from RCH and a collective of like-minded artists, it was a sequel of sorts to their first exhibition at St John's just over a year ago, 'Tales from the Autumn House'. To commemorate the final day on both occasions, cellist Jo Quail was asked to put together a programme to add sound to the already multi-media experience.

Regular readers of the Specs blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know how highly I rate Jo Quail's music, and indeed it was through wanting to hear her live in an acoustic setting that I came along to the autumn exhibition in the first place. Then, she performed in the actual stairwell with the audience curving round above her: the result spellbinding as ever, in its beauty and strangeness. This time, the performance would be candle-lit, in the main area of the church, as she had called in reinforcements in the shape of Robyn Sellman and Laura Lee Tanner, singers in the brilliantly versatile electro-classical band Autorotation.

I arrived ahead of time to look at the exhibition before the music started. The first incredible thing to note is just how perfect the location is for a display like this. The higher you ascend, the dimmer the light, and you experience a kind of increasing 'visual chill', until you get to the very top and realise the room itself is in near-darkness. As JV later explained to the audience, the aim was to conjure up an atmosphere of winter as our ancestors experienced it: no artificial light or heat, remote, even intimidating. What they might have seen and felt is brought to life in the chillingly vibrant art - I particularly liked RCH's work (the 'Estonian Church' below), the haunting photography of Asia Schmidt, and Sarah Turpin's otherworldly illustrations. These images below are from the event Facebook page (link below) - photos, top to bottom, by Olga D Kay, Marcus Tylor and Renaud C Haslan.

JV's evocative poetry, itself image-rich, was appropriately displayed as art among the pictures, representing the mythological/folkloric tales that would've been exchanged over food and fire by our forebears. Using a heightened, densely-packed language, the verse made you feel the power of a saga or epic condensed into a handful of lines - I'm still thinking of ravens as 'ragged black flags', and probably always will

The installation was also 'total', earth and branches underfoot, barely-lit - again, replicating conditions from literally darker ages. To appreciate what you were seeing properly, you had to take the time for your eyes to adjust, or go back and look at certain images or words again. I feel that the word 'interactive' is over-used now, to the point where anything electronic, or where you have to push a button or click a link might qualify for the tag. But this experience was truly interactive - you had to accommodate the exhibition physically, as much as it accommodated you: not only waiting for your eyes to adapt, but peering closely at almost hidden objects, leaning into constricted spaces. Treasures were not simply laid out before you, but instead, waited to be discovered.

It's a joy to see several disciplines combine to make such a satisfying whole: along with the words, the art featured paint, print, collage, photography, 3D work - and the eerie dusk of the hang meant that it wasn't always immediately obvious what was what. The last night's music only enhanced this effect.

The church itself was candlelit around the stage/choir area for the performance. Jo Q started the evening solo, with a performance of Bach's D minor Cello Suite. It is always a pleasure to hear JQ play Bach, and the suites have long taken up residence in her soul as well as her hands. But the cyclical, flowing lines of the Bach, spread like tree roots from the earthy, wooden tone of the cello made it the perfect choice for an exhibition concerned with myth and mystery - when even elements of the creation and purpose of the suites themselves remain uncertain, and for years they were all but unknown, until their re-discovery in the 20th century.

Then Robyn and Laura from Autorotation joined JQ on stage to bring all the various aspects of the exhibition together. They had created musical settings - allowing the performance to be part-composed, part-improvised - for four of JV's poems, to piano and cello accompaniment. Gorgeous piano hooks courtesy of Robyn (which again featured some appropriate dischord/resolution cycles to match the seasonal theme), punctuated by seemingly spontaneous but precision-accurate cello from Jo - from bass line, to melody, to sound effects ... all helped underpin Laura's virtuoso vocal delivery, from perfectly-articulated and audible spoken word to a wolf howling - in tune - and all points in between.

The sequence of songs was so arresting, that it made me greedy for more. There is of course a rich tradition of classical art song, taking fully-fledged stand-alone poetry and setting it to music - one could look back to Schubert and his dramatisations of the otherworldly in his lieder... or perhaps only as far - and closer to home - as Britten's numerous folk song treatments. It would be lovely to see these musicians take this forward and allow JV's words to leap even further from the page than they do already.

The evening closed with the beautiful 'Between the Waves', from JQ's forthcoming album, its oceanic grandeur enhanced by Robyn and Laura's abstract vocals - performed on the night for the first time! This is one of my favourite things about JQ in a live setting: tunes are always living, evolving creatures, developed and developing in performance. I have never known her miss an opportunity to involve other musicians to re-interpret or collaborate on new incarnations of pieces - often improvised, just to see what they will bring to the sound, or where the overall enterprise will take them both. (In fact, Autorotation have a nifty track record for doing this, too - and the mutual appreciation between them and JQ has led to some brilliant gigs.)

So - for all the remarkable individual talents on display, the final evening of 'Voices of the Winter Hearth' showed how much artists of all kinds have to offer each other in collaboration, and that in joining forces to bring the past alive, point the way towards countless possible futures.


For those of you who'd like to find out more:

St John on Bethnal Green is a magnificent venue (designed by Sir John Soane), and an established hub for the arts - not to mention the satisfyingly well-stocked bar on event evenings. It contains the specially-commissioned and unforgettably haunting 'Stations of the Cross' paintings by Chris Gollon, in themselves an absolute must-see.

Here is Jo Quail's website ... or if you are on an unstoppable, and understandable, quest to hear her most recent music as quickly as possible, her Bandcamp page contains an exclusive version of 'Gold' from her forthcoming record, and the 20-minute masterpiece for strings, percussion and choir, 'This Path with Grace'.

And here you can find all things Autorotation - including a very handy Soundcloud jukebox. Their back catalogue is also available at very reasonable prices on Bandcamp, so don't tarry...

The 'Voices of the Winter Hearth' Facebook page is still up, with more photos and info about JV's work and the collective of artists who took part.

Monday 30 November 2015

The Ballad of John and Barb

As I write this, some 24 hours after the event, I'm still on a kind of Fabs-induced high after going with Mrs Specs to see 'Come Together', an intimate cabaret performance of Beatles songs by Barb Jungr and John McDaniel. To hear musicians of this calibre dip into such a rich catalogue would automatically guarantee two hours of pure pleasure. But in fact the evening soon reveals itself as something unique. With almost every number, the duo had me - while simultaneously revelling in every familiar verse and melody - completely re-calibrating how I think and feel about the Beatles. What were these two people doing to make me react to music that - to be honest - I regard almost as part of my eardrums by now, in such a way that it was like hearing it completely afresh?

Well - I wasn't quite as surprised by this as you might expect, because I've been to see Barb Jungr live a few times now. I'm absolutely convinced she is one of the finest interpretative singers of our time. She's a jazz singer, for sure - a versatile voice capable of heart-rending tenderness and forthright assertion, a terrific improviser, often working in a small acoustic band context - but that description doesn't give anything like a full picture of her activities. Most known perhaps for her matchless recordings of Bob Dylan (and more recently Leonard Cohen) songs, she has also devoted projects to Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, French chanson, alongside albums featuring a variety of well-chosen covers (and some brilliant original songs woven in along the way). In particular, she seems to specialise in recording songs normally associated with men - somehow channeling the strength yet mining the latent sensitivity in the material. In this respect, the Beatles are ready-made for the Jungr treatment, in all their restless, thorny, fuzzy masculinity.

John McDaniel is a celebrated arranger (he's served as music director on eight Broadway musicals) who invited Barb J to teach at his cabaret conference in the US ... After discovering they were both Fab Fans, they gave a one-off gala performance of a Beatles medley, which then grew into this show.

(Can't find a credit for the fantastic double portrait!)

As a partnership, they're made for each other - certainly in this repertoire. Barb J grew up with Beatlemania going on, more or less, down the road. She's giving the insider view, re-living it, explaining the direct impact it had on her and her friends. John McD found the Beatles a little later on (as cabaret veterans, they get enormous comic mileage from this slight age gap) and took a more detached line - not just from being light years away in the US, but also, it's implied, with some possible herbal assistance. As such, he has the entire band in his head and hands, and treats the songs with respect, but not undue reverence. In his skilful and endlessly creative playing, you can hear the arranger at work, condensing all that melodic invention into his accompaniment - and you honestly don't miss the group sound. The treatments vary, so you can't nail him down to one approach: for a track like 'Mother Nature's Son', he's able to replicate the signature, circular hook in the middle of the overall sound, while for another - say, 'Back in the USSR' - everything is re-tooled - in this case, the original's surf rock is ground down into a swaggering, bluesy showstopper.

Meanwhile, Barb J's gift for reinventing the familiar was in glorious evidence throughout. I was particularly struck by her performance of 'Fool on the Hill', sung with such wandered delicacy that the character came fully to life. Filling in her own back story and experiences between tunes gave 'For No One' a genuinely arresting context - with the soft but brisk original seemingly meant to show McCartney at his most contradictory, she gave the song a real edge: reflecting the female emancipation of the time, we heard a kind of disdainful understanding between the two women - the one singing, the one in the song - as the latter casts off her lover.

There are so many reasons to love this show. (One purely personal one is the remarkable hit-rate for my personal favourites: 'Mother Nature's Son', 'Things We Said Today', 'In My Life', 'Hello Goodbye'... *sigh*.)

I loved the fact that some of the more neglected corners of the canon were brought into the spotlight: 'White Album' fans were very well served - we also heard a spine-tingling 'I Will', and even 'Piggies' made a cameo appearance - and it was great to hear the 'Magical Mystery Tour' tracks - I would never have predicted those.

I loved the unabashed ambition of the selections. 'Eleanor Rigby', stripped of its hyperactive string quartet and under dimmed lights, was stark and shattering. The duo used both of their voices to thrilling effect on, of all things, the 'Abbey Road' side 2 medley. And I will never forget the version of 'Long and Winding Road' - quite a divisive tune because of the different opinions about whether the whole 'Let it Be' record should've had the full-on Phil Spector production job or not; somehow all that extra oomph and power found its way not so much into the piano, but the voice, with Barb J delivering a vocal so strong and overwhelming we could've been in a stadium, let alone a studio.

And I loved the rapport. With the pair riffing on the 'chatty Brit / mild-mannered American' contrast, John McD was often in fits of laughter, seemingly flummoxed at what Barb J might say next (sample exchange - from memory, of course, so apologies if slightly awry: "He is improving his English." / "I'm making progress." / *eye-roll* "Well, yes, or prow-gress, as we correctly say it.") - but of course, they are utterly relaxed with each other and act as if they had been mutual artistic foils for years.

Sadly, the London run has ended (we were at the last of four nights), but I am sure that this show has a lot of life left in it yet. And with a canon as vast as the Beatles' legacy, one dares hope for a sequel. I certainly hope that somewhere along the way they record an album of their favourites - yes, the songs are fantastic to begin with, but what Barb and John brought to them has permanent value. One of the concerts of the year.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Sea passage: 'Morgen und Abend'

Warning! As I post this, tickets are still available for the final two performances of 'Morgen und Abend' on Wednesday 25 and Saturday 28 November. It's also being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 5 December. So, if you would like to see or hear the opera knowing as little about it as possible, please stop reading here, with my blessing, and by all means come back later. Otherwise, onwards!


Very exciting evening for me. My first visit to a brand new, contemporary production on the Royal Opera House's main stage. I'm more used to seeing the magnificently modern at the English National Opera's Coliseum (wonderful new works from Julian Anderson and John Adams) ... or on a smaller-scale, some new chamber opera at the ROH's studio space, the Linbury. And I'm still smarting a little from getting into serious opera-going not long after George Benjamin' extraordinary 'Written on Skin' played there. So, this did feel like a bit of a special occasion. Would the work itself live up to my good mood?

'Morgen und Abend' is a new opera from composer George Freidrich Haas, with a libretto by Jon Fosse (based on his own novel). It's a compact 90 minutes in a single act, and the synopsis is essentially a one-liner: Johannes enters the world, then leaves it. The ROH website offers more clues: we are to see Johannes's birth, we know he will work as a fisherman. Then, when much older, he begins to see figures from the past and discovers that, like them, he has now died.

First things first: I loved the score. To people who lean towards the extreme "it's modern, so probably hasn't got any tunes" viewpoint: you're quite right. Stay away - this isn't really aimed at you. However, if you accept that a great deal of contemporary classical music is exploratory - looking for new sounds, chords, even notes - finding new ways for music to work - then get a ticket. Haas marshals huge forces here - I hope you can make out from my hasty, fuzzy photo the extra arrays of instruments ranged along the sides - and conductor Michael Boder does a brilliant job with the dynamics, making every jolt count. From ripple to wave, keening wind noise, to explosive drum-storms: Haas manages to make the orchestra embody its own character - the sea, the unstoppable, cyclic pulse that shapes and underpins these characters' lives. It's a perfect extra piece of symbolism (on top of the 'morning/evening' journey), the constant ebb and flow of the sound, mirroring the push and pull into, and out of, life.

The structure of the piece also intrigues - to the point where some have decided it isn't an opera at all. The opening third is arguably the most challenging section, as while you are still getting used to Haas's soundworld, the lone figure on stage is actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. He plays Olai, Johannes's father, anxiously waiting on news of his son's birth, the labour progressing behind a closed door. Olai's part is entirely spoken, part realistic monologue, part a kind of heightened poetry - with the added flavour of a primal-scream passage where he seems to be empathising through some kind of birth-memory of his own. At first, I freely admit, I had no idea what to make of it, until I locked into the rhythms of Brandauer's speech and how Haas had written the 'quiet/LOUD' accompaniment around him as closely as if he was singing.

(The two superb production photos here are by Clive Barda, taken from the ROH website.)

But why a speaking role at all? I think it ties into the opera's sense of limbo/displacement (brought out fully in the staging - which I'll come onto next). Brandauer is Austrian, yet delivers his dialogue in English, obviously accented. The singing parts, however, are in German. At the point where Olai effectively hands the opera over to the other characters, he speaks in English to the midwife, singing her replies in German - signifying that whatever's happening here, wherever this is, it's not 'reality'. (I was also interested to read that this was a co-commission from the Royal Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin, so it feels very appropriate that both languages are incorporated to good, useful dramatic effect.) I also think that Olai's soliloquy acts as a modern take on an overture - as his meditations on birth and death appear to be borne out in how we see the rest of the opera unfold.

The staging is sparse, everything a kind of off-white - not quite heavenly. The props are essentially symbolic - a door (isolated - there is no room set either side of it), a few chairs, the bed, the fishing boat. There is no attempt to disguise the revolving wheel on the main stage, as almost imperceptibly the appropriate piece for the action taking place glides glacially to the front. The characters are also dressed from head to toe in the same colouring, so that they can at times appear little more than outlines against the background. A piercing bright light moves from right to left around the vertical perimeter of the stage, so on one level, we do move from morning (sun in the east) to evening (west), but at the same time, it cause the shadows and light to fall differently on the set and characters, and finally - the eye of the afterlife, if you like, it's coming to us all! - it turns its gaze on the audience.

It seems to me that this is an opera of ideas. I liked the fact that I was not only sitting there appreciating, I was also 'on my mettle', so to speak, my mind fizzing with 'mirroring' touches that I'm still thinking about days later. Because the mysteries of birth and death are unknowable - is death a return to the same state? - both are behind the closed door. We see the limbo element but Johannes is born behind the door, and once he has passed to the other side of the portal, his daughter cannot see or go through the door after him. Whereas Johannes's final move into actual death, led from this mid-space by his late friend Peter, is obscured from our vision by the blinding light.

The midwife at Johannes's birth and Johannes's daughter are sung by the same soprano (a lovely performance from Sarah Wegener, making both characters quite distinct), bringing him into life and watching him leave it. Olai's near-reluctance to go and see his new-born son - he's been so worried and seemingly can't quite believe he's a dad - is echoed in the uncertain tussle Johannes goes through in his initial resistance to confront his death, providing a link between father and son, who never actually share the stage. Importantly, we never see these characters' ongoing daily lives (it's morning and, not to, evening), but these economic connections can convey a wealth of storytelling. I also liked the way the surtitles were projected onto the staging, again making more of the English/German mix, but also lending a thought-bubble quality to what the characters were singing - given that we are almost certainly in Johannes's fading mind.

Baritone Christoph Pohl is outstanding in the central role. I found the subversion of voice types appealing: Pohl's tone still conveying Johannes's confusion and uncertainty while retaining the robust quality of a man of the sea. The comforting contralto of Helena Rasker as Erna, J's late wife but in fact only a spirit angel of mercy, along with tenor Will Hartmann giving a finely-nuanced and finally 'anti-heroic' performance as J's eventually stern, unstoppable guide into death.

I would broadly recommend this to anyone open to a bit of a mental and musical challenge - in fact, if you like a range of music outside the classical world - say, ambient/electronica - you can hear Haas achieve equally fascinating results here with an orchestra. Give it a try. A workout for the mind as well as the ears.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Norse codes: the new Sieben EP

Matt Howden - who mostly records as Sieben - is one of the most restlessly creative musicians currently working. His ongoing project, 'The Old Magic', is shaping up to be his most successful fusion of past and present so far ... a perfect expression of his uncanny ability to look backwards while only ever moving forwards. Time to explain.

Or first, to rewind. I've followed Matt / Sieben for a number of years now, so if you drop in on the Specs blog regularly, he may well be familiar to you. But just in case, here are a few key points... The Sieben sound is generally made up of just vocal and violin, layered and looped. So, automatically built into every track is a kind of electric (forwards)/acoustic (backwards) tension. The loops enhance and sustain this, inevitably lending each song the flavours of chant and ritual, ideal meeting points of catchiness and stateliness.

However, this seemingly limited set-up works more as a springboard than a straitjacket, as typically, most Sieben albums kick against the one that went before - not in a spirit of rejection, but finding new routes, new angles. Clearly showing an affinity for pagan/naturalistic 'dark folk' themes (I first discovered Sieben on a neofolk compilation), while inhabiting a strikingly original genre of one, MH produced a series of increasingly confident 'concept' albums involving a new lusty language based on plant names ('Sex and Wildflowers'), the ancient Ogham alphabet fused with both music and nature ('Ogham Inside the Night'), through to a full musical mystery play ('High Broad Field'). Songs were often long and luxurious, the loops building up in organic fashion, as if they were somehow dramatising the natural themes in the lyrics. Then - a complete break, as the personal focus of 'Desire Rites' with its wracked internal drama brought ruthlessly pared-down lyrics and layering time. Matt also took the opportunity to record some older Sieben material in this more streamlined form for the retrospective album 'As They Should Sound' - still a superb starting point for newcomers and a fascinating exercise for what, with hindsight, now seems a regular Sieben motif of never feeling that any song is necessarily finished. More of this later.

Seemingly freed and fired up by this, subsequent Sieben albums have mixed the ingredients in different proportions, with the concise, yet more mellow 'Star Wood Brick Firmament' followed by the raging, industrial 'No Less Than All'. As the lyric techniques have been honed to give shorter, sharper messages, so the sonic experiments have become more prominent. The most recent full-length album 'Each Divine Spark' was an extraordinary production achievement, its 'live in the studio' recording placing some of Matt' finest work to date in a warm, 3D space - no mean feat when parts of songs have to auto-replicate to build the structure. But, perhaps sensing a summit of sorts, Matt has evolved Sieben yet again.

The sound is, once again, expanding. I think that two important changes have happened at once. There is new kit at Sieben's feet, giving access to a fully orchestral - and beyond - range of timbres and pitches. At the same time, nursing the idea of retreating from physical releases and working in the digital EP format, Matt has reawakened the more ritualistic elements of his songwriting. With no format restriction on what he puts out, he is exploring what happens when you push the chord sequences for nine or ten minutes: what emerges, what changes, what disappears. What makes near-repetition so potent (it is never 'just' repetition)?

The first fruit of this new direction was the mighty 'Lietuva' EP, which in 'U┼żupis' had one of the most breathtaking Sieben tracks to date: a brilliant lyrical idea (a tribute to the self-declared artistic republic in Latvia) wedded to a newly-panoramic production bursting with fiddle-generated bass and sheets of strings.

Imagine my delight, then, to find that the new 'Norse' EP takes everything I loved about 'Lietuva' and whacks it up to 11. Even greater strides are taken here - and in one case, at bone-rattling speed. Nestling in the 'B-side' position is 'Ready for Rebellion' - a hyperactive, frenetic track with short sharp strokes pushing the beat - which at times really does feel ready to rebel itself - towards a keening violin hook around the three-minute mark which weaves the pounding bass and jittery bow together. The purity of this one element provides an effective contrast to the provocative, pushy vocal, distorted to match its anarchic aims. As the revolution gains control, a dirtier, fuzzier mirror version of the 'clean' hook moves gradually forward in the mix to take over. You couldn't ask for a more cleverly-realised, or relentless, musical depiction of a coup from the inside.

But the headline track is almost certainly 'The Old Magic'. There is so much content in these ten minutes that it's hard to know where to start. It retains in its opening moments some of the ethnic, almost gypsy feel of parts of 'Lietuva', but this time the bass line comes in early after a minute and shakes the foundations of your eardrums. Lyrically, the song resurrects Norse nature words, which - amid this new wall-of-Sieben-sound environment - sends a lightning-rod connection back to the older pagan concepts, delighting this long-toothed fan. But as always with MH, this isn't just a 'call-back' - in fact, his skill at the choice and placing of relatively sparse lyrics just gets more refined and artful with each release. For example - depending on where you are in the chorus, the voice refers to 'the old magic words' - the arcane Norse dialect - or simply 'the old magic' - the beliefs conjured up by the ritualistic, circular music. Also, the words and music should 'whirl, unfurl' ... with a vocal leap on the word 'unfurl' that actually opens the melody out - as if the lyric is instructing the tune. (At the same time, this exhortation in the chorus to physically revive these spells places the track in an esteemed company of Sieben songs that talk about music-making itself as something to be wrought, constructed - go find them, scattered across the canon!)

As the track develops through its early section - winningly, very little of it sounds much like the instrument being used to play it - we can almost hear the actual elements. There's a wailing behind the percussion, a disturbance of the equilibrium. Then, approaching the three-minute mark, the signature violin arrives with a dissonant, woozy attack that somehow sounds exactly right, resolving just at the turn of each loop, throwing the song slightly off-centre and making it necessary to go round again. Across the remainder of the track, the various loops intensify, somehow magnifying to make the distinct layers move 'closer' to each other - and to you, the listener. By the time the song ends, you can't be exactly sure how it was done. This is Matt's old magic.


Through Matt's blog, we now learn that the 'Norse' EP is the second of three - which, together, will in fact be issued as a physical album (he couldn't stay away!) with the overall title 'The Old Magic'. This is fantastic news for so many reasons. For a start, it's typical of Sieben's 'innovation from restriction' ethos that dabbling in individual EPs has unleashed enough creative energy to conjure up a fascinating new concept and record an hour-long album made up solely of epic 12"-length tracks. Also, I'm an old-fashioned chap and I think this music deserves the physical existence Matt writes about - not to mention the opportunity to showcase the lyrics and Martin Bedford's striking and sympathetic artwork.

Making the EPs even more desirable are the re-workings of older Sieben tracks, given a new lease of life on the upgraded machinery - again, a good example of post-'As They Should Sound' Matt giving his past a kick up the future. This time round, we're treated to companion tracks 'Loki' and 'Loki Rides Again', bending the new space and clarity to gentler ends, and giving MH's increasingly confident vocals a chance to shine.


I strongly suggest you buy this EP - along with as much other Sieben music as you can lay your hands on - and the best place to start is the Bandcamp page. The main artist website for chapter and verse on Sieben (and Matt's other musical adventures) is here.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Duo tones: The Disappointment Choir

Opening disclaimer: this band consists of two friends of mine, Katy and Bob. So can this genuinely be a truly impartial post about their new EP? Answer: yes, because in total opposition to their name, the pair's music has never failed me yet. Plus, I do admit to a level of bias towards things I believe are excellent.

'To the Lake' is the second 'full' release from The Disappointment Choir, following their superb debut album 'Polar Ships'. I did arch an eyebrow on first seeing that this was an EP - "please sir and madam, can we have some more?" - but it's a non-stingy five tracks ... and the good news is that it has the ideas of at least twice that many.

For those of you yet to hear the DC, they're like-- like ... well, there's the thing. Their sound is a thrilling patchwork of different elements that make you think of all sorts of pop and rock precedents without being slavishly similar to much else at all. 'To the Lake' - even more so than its predecessor - gives the impression that the DC were challenged to make a chart-conquering pop record using only an indie toolbox, and succeeded. (Well, they may not actually conquer any charts, but you could of course help to change that...)

Being pop and indie all in one go helps to give their music a lovely tension. Lead track 'Need Someone' has some 'power ballad piano' immediately thrown off-kilter by the stop-start jerky rhythm. And while synthesised instruments play a huge role, the acoustic guitar - even when picked - cuts through the mix like a knife, chiming amid the electronic grinds and bubbles of 'Aimee' and punctuating the opening wash of 'Skin in It' with an almost Latin bounce.

As on 'Polar Ships', the vocals are crucial, distinctive. There is no 'blend' as such when they harmonise - instead, you have two strikingly different voices which complement each other but, in fact, don't mix. There's also a reversal of genetic stereotypes as, if anything, Bob's mournful croon takes the more diffident role against Katy's more deliberate, yet still sensitive tone: they swap the lead melody between themselves, so it's possible to focus on one voice and then the other and realise that both are singing something interesting. Certainly the vocals on 'To the Lake' have an extra oomph to them - perhaps a gain in confidence from 'Polar Ships' - but one of the nice 'indie' touches is that both B and K sound closely recorded, and quite unruffled, whatever the sonic mayhem surrounding them.

A final apparent contradiction that I think is vital to the record's success is that, on the one hand, the tunes themselves are positively anthemic: 'Aimee', 'Need Someone' and even the slower 'Centre of the World' have the kind of circular, land-just-where-you-want-them-to vocal melodies that stay with you far longer than the track time. Yet the arrangements have a kind of geeky (compliment) intricacy to them, busy but everything in its place. Just keeping track of what the percussion's doing can constantly wrong-foot the careful listener: recalling the old drummer joke that a drum machine is better because "you only have to punch the instructions into it once", I certainly feel like the DC must've taken trusty third member 'Bob's laptop' out for a pint or two to cajole it into assembling these arrangements. The extremely delicate pulse on 'Centre of the World' is a masterclass of restraint, of knowing when not to let rip. Even when some rug is cut - normally courtesy of a Bob guitar solo - it's never excessive, always performs a service to the track.

So - a pop synth duo with indie guitars. A great pair of voices held delicately in check. Memorably concise tunes over complex electronica beats. And all this in five tracks. I refer the band to my previous question: can we have some more?

(You can buy 'To the Lake' and 'Polar Ships' at extraordinarily pocket-friendly prices at the DC's Bandcamp page. If you like the band photo on 'To the Lake' *cough* then by all means go for the limited CD version!)

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Good grief

*Lies down on couch, analyses self*

I hope I'm not generally thought of as the unfeeling type, but one emotional phenomenon that I've always struggled with is grief for public figures. It's always seemed to me that when death takes the famous, at that moment more than any other they are the same as the rest of us: the spotlight is turned off, and their loved ones can have the privilege of mourning in private. How could I 'share' that, even if I wanted to? Who am I to intrude, even remotely?

(To give probably one of the most extreme examples in recent history - I could not 'buy into' the mass outpouring of sorrow when Princess Diana died. Not because I had any 'pro' or 'anti' feelings about Diana - simply because she wasn't my partner, or mum, or friend. It wasn't just that I couldn't share in the grief - I felt that I shouldn't.)

And yet - this week, the esteemed film critic Philip French died, in his eighties and (mostly) retired, a grand old man of the profession. Ordinarily, I would have remarked on the sadness of the occasion - but also the greatness of the achievements - and moved on. But not this time. I felt sad, in spite of the knowledge that French had led a long life, well lived. And not through some imagined 'connection' with his family, either - I still feel that their grief belongs to them, and it is not something French's public have the automatic right to access. No: I felt sorry for me. At my loss. What on earth was happening?

(Philip French, photographed for the Observer in 2007 by Richard Saker - featuring in the Guardian website's 'life in pictures' piece on French this week - take a look here.)

I tried to think if I'd had this reaction before and one other name sprang to mind: John Peel. For the uninitiated, Peel was a unique figure in UK radio - a tireless champion of new and unusual music well into his veteran days. For many youthful listeners he was the groovy uncle who would shine a torch into musical corners you didn't even know were there: dub reggae, speed metal and grindcore, techno, indie - it was all uncharted - and uncharting - territory. Peel died suddenly in his mid-sixties back in 2004.

I'm adopted. Whether this has something to do with my 'disconnect' from public empathising, I don't know, but I certainly don't have the same impulse as those adoptees who feel they have a piece missing, and who head out to seek their biological parents. I'm not interested. I accept this must be partly linked to my good fortune at being adopted at 6 days old - so there are no memories for me of 'parentless' times or any kind of interim or substitute care. Equally, Mum and Dad are, frankly, my Mum and Dad - no-one else had the wherewithal, or the qualifications, and then the sheer stamina and gusto to shape me into a sentient being, so they deserve all the credit (or blame) going.

But if you're adopted, you are perhaps more given to thinking from time to time about how you're put together. My enviable looks and physique (*ahem*) are presumably thanks to anonymous nature, but my mind and soul are surely 100% nurture - and not all from Mum and Dad. For example, both my folks would agree in an instant that my obsession with music was almost entirely due to my grandmother on Mum's side, who got me playing and listening as soon as I could lift a piano lid. Equally, Lilian was a heroically open-minded listener herself, and I could take any old noise I was currently into, by any band, and she would give it a spin, and explain exactly why she might really like certain elements but recoil from others. One of my fondest memories of her is when I was staying with her once, and we turned on the TV to find a world-music awards show on, back when this stuff wasn't just a click away. A new soundworld to us both, we couldn't switch off and spent a happy evening discussing the performances. Lots of shared love for Salif Keita, I recall.

For all my nan's efforts, there would of course be gaps in my personality that no-one in my immediate surroundings was going to fill. Do we subconsciously keep looking all the time for people to help us complete the jigsaw puzzle of our character? If I had not been huddled next to my radio each evening, listening to John Peel, then yes - I would still like music - but would I have had the same voracious appetite for it - the need (and it is a need - I feel it) to try out every genre, to explore every musical nook and cranny that I can, and try not to miss out on anything--? No. Of course not.

And when I was discovering my inner film nut in my student days and into my twenties - with access not just to mainstream movies but all the old, foreign and arthouse films playing in the local rep cinemas - Philip French's weekly review columns were an addiction. It felt like you were receiving simple advice about which films to see - the tone was that light and concise - but actually, by the end, you had learnt so much, with French weaving in just the right amount of context and critique, so that chances were you'd suddenly be in the know about twice as many films as you previously thought. Again, like some kind of remote mentor, it wasn't that he suddenly made me like films - I always loved the cinema. But he changed the way I would watch and learn about movies, helped me understand their history and unfolded the map for me to explore.

Just like it is with your actual teachers, you fall away from these influential figures. When Peel died, there was of course a chorus of 'gone too soon' but I wasn't mourning for all those shows that weren't to be. I hadn't listened for years. He'd already worked his magic on me - as had French, many of whose later columns I missed simply through not bothering with a Sunday paper. But all the same, I'd be seeking out new films, directors, genres (often on DVD, with gig tickets swallowing up my cinema money!) purely because of him - no-one else.

You will all, I'm sure, have your own Peel and French equivalents. I never met them, but they played a vital role in making me who I am. I am fascinated by the fact they are not music or film makers themselves: they are the enthusiasts who went ahead of me, who helped me to decide and articulate why I also love the artforms that they loved. Their passing makes me sad, but also thankful they were here at all; they make me nostalgic for the times when they made such an impression on me, and guilty for the years I wasn't listening. So I feel all right about grieving for them, because without them, I probably would be someone with pieces missing.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Show stoppers: Jonas Kaufmann at the Royal Festival Hall

This was always going to be an interesting one. Kaufmann is, as many of you will know, an operatic megastar: a tenor who seemingly 'has it all' - he's in demand for German, Italian and French repertoire as well as maintaining a long-standing commitment to lieder performance with pianist Helmut Deutsch. He's building up a formidable discography with albums mostly dedicated to surveys of particular composers: 'Wagner', 'The Verdi Album' and now 'Nessun Dorma - The Puccini Album'. And - there's no dodging this - his charisma and sex appeal have resulted in terms like 'Kaufmania' to describe the fervour of some of his more 'enthusiastic' fanbase. (His last high-profile appearance in London, the Last Night of the Proms, even involved some knicker-throwing ... Tom Jonas, anyone? Well, moving on...)

So, in short, around JK, there's a lot of noise. What roles he should be singing. Whether he can possibly live up to his hype - or indeed, the high ticket prices you have to pay to hear him. Whether he is 'selling out' by dipping his toes into, say, operetta (the recent album 'You Mean the World to Me').

To declare my starting position: I'm already a fan, though not exactly a fanatic. When I first got into opera, I heard more Wagner than anything else (thanks to my obsessed pal David) and the rich, expansive sound of JK - not to mention the sheer power and stamina, and the fact that German is his native language - mean he's probably at his best here. The 'Wagner' album and the DVD of 'Parsifal' at the Metropolitan Opera would perhaps be good cases in point. I really enjoy his CDs, while being aware that it's partly because of his status that he gets to make brilliant CDs. As a card-carrying lieder nut, I can appreciate his sensitivity and control on discs of Strauss and Schubert. I've seen him live in 'Manon Lescaut' and thought him little short of phenomenal - voice pinning us to the backs of our seats even in the Royal Opera House amphitheatre, and acting up a storm, benefiting from a terrific chemistry with Kristine Opolais in the title role.

Now, here he was, in support of the new record, performing an all-Puccini programme with conductor Jochen Rieder and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (the main 'house band' at the Southbank). What would it actually be like? Ultra-correct and serious? More like a gig? Somewhere in between?

To get, I suppose, something resembling a gripe out of the way first - the concert was a somewhat distant relative of the CD, which has 16 vocal tracks. Here, JK was actually performing 7 arias out of a total of 15 selections, otherwise drawn from Puccini's preludes and intermezzos. I realise comparing the classical and rock worlds isn't always helpful, but I was imagining what, say, a Springsteen concert would be like if Bruce actually left the stage for every other song, leaving the E-Street Band gamely playing instrumentals for half the gig. Your knee-jerk reaction might be: "Well - that's different" - but is it that different? Especially since we know JK is capable of singing for epic running times - I would argue tirelessness and energy are among his chief qualities.

I don't expect JK to sing an entire concert without any breathers. But the protocol of these things meant that after every aria he left the stage, then came back on after the orchestral interlude, and so on - alternating throughout. So there was a lot of stop-start-applause taking up time that could've been usefully occupied by more music. Also, I felt that billing this particular programme - which was, to my mind, a concert of exquisite Puccini with a really special soloist - as a 'Jonas Kaufmann' event rather downplayed the orchestra's role. As it turned out, the LPO were not only doing much of the 'heavy lifting' but more than that, were utterly superb, clearly alive to the sense of occasion and making a real case (should one be needed) for the excellence of Puccini in instrumental mode.

To put that thought into context, our view is in the photo below - I've never quite been that 'on top' of an orchestra before.

It made me appreciate a number of things afresh. The sheer physical effort and dexterity needed - the visible movement going into the enterprise, the 'single organism' tautness of the sound, through to the deftness required even to turn pages. And the broad smiles on all of their faces, aware - I hope - that they were playing a blinder. And while I expect an overall 'mood' to prevail when seeing a single opera, hearing so much disparate Puccini from all points of his career really brought home to me the filmic sweep of his sound, so consistent from earlier, lesser known works right up to the 'greatest hits'.

So... I was a bit miffed on the LPO's behalf. But if you think that means my overall response is negative... well, think again. On its own terms, it was a terrific concert. At the side and near the front, we had horns and the lower strings more or less beneath us... so I was thinking, JK's probably doing brilliantly if we even hear him ok over here. And the point is: he delivers. He does, in fact, take the affair very seriously. He is in formal dress, and aside from some pleading arm gestures, moves very little. You realise that it's all there, in the voice - yes, there's the unstoppable volume, blasting like a JCB through the orchestra, but also the timbre is working its emotional magic as well. It took me and my untrained ear a while to get used to the variation in the voice 'up top' - at quieter moments it almost seemed to have changed into another sound, a bit more tender, 'lieder-y' (technical term). I tried to explain what I meant to my learned Twitter friend David, who explained that it was probably use of head rather than chest voice to negotiate those passages.

(Regular readers of the blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - may have realised that 'Twitter David' and 'Wagner David' are two separate people. Clearly, the learning from this is that if you have any kind of musical question, simply ask the nearest person called David and they will be happy to help you.)

But in the end the variation in tone simply brought to the fore another side to this roaring talent. The sequence might've been bitty, but it was clever: the obscure choices upfront, followed by arias belonging to characters JK has played recently and has right at his fingertips, allowing the intensity and excitement to build: Des Grieux in 'Manon Lescaut', Cavaradossi in 'Tosca', and Dick in 'La Fanciulla Del West'. The famous aria from 'Tosca' ('E lucevan le stelle') was beautifully handled, with the audience hanging on every word (no mean feat, given that one attendee chose this aria to fall into a coughing fit so flamboyantly tubercular, it sounded like they were actually exploding). My personal highlight was 'Una parola sola' from 'Fanciulla' (one of my favourite operas in any case), delivered with appropriately desperate melodrama and gusto.

The closing number of the concert, then, was to be 'Nessun Dorma' itself ... thanks to Three Tenors / World Cup etc, surely one of the most widely known and loved arias ever. Again, to be cynical, there are solid commercial reasons for naming JK's Puccini CD after the song, but I can't imagine how terrifying it must be as a singer trying to make your own personal stamp on it. However, anyone who saw JK perform this at the Last Night of the Proms will know that the tune just pours out of him - I've added the YouTube video to give you an idea. The version we heard was without choir, and some of the quiet notes were quieter - but we couldn't have asked for more from the climax, JK seemingly summoning up the power of at least three tenors, the searing, soaring notes filling the auditorium - you could be fooled into thinking the roof had actually been raised.

Three encores - pleasingly upping the Kaufmann content of the evening! - sent us happily into the night. JK was astonishing and, since I'd never heard him 'up close', still an absolute vocal revelation to me. But thanks to the LPO under Rieder, and perhaps most of all Puccini, I will remember the occasion as a thrilling team effort.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Recital round-up: back at the Wigmore Hall

I last wrote up some visits to the best venue in the universe, Wigmore Hall, back in August. Hardly any time seems to have passed and the hallowed space is open again after the summer break. For reasons I'll go on to explain, if anything my trips there are likely to increase further... and I even astonished myself when I sat down to gather my thoughts for this post and realised I'd been to six concerts this season already.

With that in mind, I will have to settle for giving you just brief impressions of each gig - since they were all beautiful, and worthy of mention. If the survey approach does nothing else, I will be happy if it conveys just how lucky we are in London to have a place like this - that allows us to enjoy such virtuosic performances in a relatively intimate, and acoustically immaculate, setting.

(A note on the clips: I wanted to share some of the songs that I particularly enjoyed from the concerts, but often those particular pieces have not made it to CD or YouTube recorded by the same team. So, to avoid any unnecessary compare/contrast antics with contemporary performers, I've pasted in historic renditions by the great Lucia Popp, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Nicolai Gedda.)

I also wrote recently about the mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, following her superb performance of Handel arias at the Proms, with the English Concert. Now I was at the WH only just over a week later to hear her sing a full programme of lieder by R Strauss, Wagner and Wolf, accompanied by Julius Drake. Although I have heard AC in recital before, hearing this particular concert so close to the Handel evening was fascinating - to me it underlined how consistent her approach is, whatever the material.

AC seems to me one of the most generous of performers. It isn't just a case of 'giving everything you've got' - it's more that she inhabits each song so completely, it's as if she has fashioned it into its own miniature opera. While Wagner's 'Wesenonck Lieder' were understandably placed as the climax of the concert (how better to finish than a heart-rending 'Traume'?), the song that still haunts me is Strauss's 'Geduld' ('Patience') - a tale of love denied, so searingly rendered here that I caught my breath at several points. JD, always brilliantly chameleonic when required, tracked every change in mood and intent like a telepath. An extrordinary night.

At my only lunchtime concert of the season so far, I saw a soprano whose appeal perhaps rests in taking a polar opposite approach. I first heard Anna Caterina Antonacci sing live in a concert given by the Royal Opera House orchestra, performing Chausson. Utterly enigmatic, she came to life when singing, then during the instrumental passages, just rested within the music, swaying gently, eyes half-closed. It was as if we, the audience, weren't there - and I mean that as a compliment. At the Wigmore, she was performing two pieces by Poulenc (with Donald Sulzen on piano), both based on works by Cocteau: the first, 'La dame de Monte Carlo', is essentially a long song portraying the resolution of a woman ruined by gambling to throw herself into the sea. But the main event, 'La voix humaine', lasts a full 40-odd minutes - a 'chamber opera' for one woman, depicting her character's side of a final telephone conversation with her lover. It's a fully-realised monologue in song, played with chair, desk and phone. While the shorter number was beautifully sung, it was amazing - almost a transformation - to see ACA snap fully into character for the drama. Electrifying, and electrified, as if suddenly plugged into the mains. Constantly on the move, negotiating with ease the variety of tone in the piece, from half-spoken admonishments (whether to the lover or the hapless 'wrong number' who won't go away - all unheard, of course) ... through to passages of fury, fear or fragility, ACA delivered a real tour de force. As it went out as a Radio 3 broadcast, I'm rather hoping it will surface as a CD at some point....

(This photo of Anna Caterina Antonacci was taken at the Wigmore Hall. It's from her management website - Askonas Holt - and is copyright Benjamin Ealovega.)

One of the reasons I'm back at the WH so much is their programming of a hugely ambitious project: the Complete Schubert songs. Allowing for the odd repeat, and inclusion of some Franz in certain mixed programmes, the enterprise is going to take some 40 concerts, over the next two years. I'm planning to attend as many as I can (dropping a ticket price band in many cases, so I can go to more gigs with a clear conscience!) but of course my chances of seeing them all without some kind of clash are pretty slim.

The series has got off to a resolutely baritonal start. Florian Boesch gave the launch concert, accompanied by Graham Johnson, then played the Hall again two nights later, this time with Malcolm Martineau on piano. Again, the marvellous, rare opportunity to hear the same singer perform with two different pianists in such quick succession was rewarding and instructive. GJ is surely the elder statesman of lieder accompaniment, author of the definitive 3-volume tome on Schubert's canon, and the driving force behind so many of Hyperion Records's art song collections. And to me, his playing even felt scholarly, pristine, the music an inseparable part of the man. FB, then, dominated the evening, with perhaps the best results in those songs that dialled down the volume slightly, such as the sublime 'In der Mitternacht'.

It was another story in the next concert. MM is one of my favourite pianists anyway (out of them all - soloists or song/chamber specialists). He has such an expressive, free-flowing signature sound - especially perfect, in my opinion, for French song - but always there 'in the mix', whoever he is accompanying, in whatever genre. I also like the way that he allows his moods (primarily enjoymnent!) to show - bringing the accompanist 'into character' as well as the singer. Partnering a robust, invincible voice like FB (and they are collaborators of old, with at least four discs together: the 3 great Schubert song cycles, plus an album of Schumann lieder), MM - without sacrificing any of his fluidity - somehow ramps up his own presence, so that the pair deliver forceful, yet always sensitive, renditions. 'Im Walde' was a textbook example of this, its incessant bubbling piano rhythm ideal for MM, who was still ready with the necessary oomph (technical term) to deliver some suitably intimidating bass figures. The brew was no less potent in the encore, one of the most beautiful renditions of 'Nachtviolen' I have heard.

All change, then, for a third Schubert recital by Henk Neven (also a baritone) and pianist James Baillieu. I had never heard HN before, but he's a singer of real charm - and stamina. Most of these concerts will necessarily include some of Schubert's less frequently performed works - I wonder how often singers choose to programme 'Der Taucher' (which means 'The Diver'), an epic, tragic adventure story that must last some 20 minutes. It made me think a bit of a classical precedent for those Dylan songs that involve characters called 'Blind This' and 'Jack of That' and go on for hundreds of verses - except this can boast more than its fair share of melodic thrills and spills, especially near the end when JB gets to go off the deep end in a furious instrumental break. Other highlights for me were the gathering pace and urgency of 'Ganymed' (the duo are clearly drawn to the dramatic), and the good-humoured yet ultimately wistful 'Fischerweise' (which - I warn you now - should probably carry a weapons-grade earworm warning...)

(I love the casual, intimate nature of this clip with DFD singing with Sviatoslav Richter. You'll enjoy watching SR, who as the song progresses - and especially from around two minutes in, increasingly gets his groove on..!)

Finally, a pairing I'd been hoping to hear live ever since getting hold of their recording of Schumann's 'Dichterliebe': tenor Mark Padmore, accompanied on fortepiano by Kristian Bezuidenhout. I'm addicted to the sound of the fortepiano, and have really enjoyed KB's performances in several settings - as part of Rachel Podger's chamber Prom band, for example, as well as solo. MP's unearthly, unique voice has an almost choral quality (he's famed for playing Bach's Evangelist roles), a near-angelic timbre with seemingly infinite flexibility as he glides above the chiming accompaniment. The ringing tone of the fortepiano only enhances the holy/spiritual effect.

The recital was, at face value, a date based on their new CD of songs by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but Schubert even made his way into this programme - including another epic, the much-loved 'Viola' (hopefully he'll feature when they next record). But I think the laurel goes to the Beethoven masterpiece 'Adelaide' - its secular, lovelorn theme somehow elevated by the devotional, hymnal repetition of the title make it a perfect fit for the MP/KB combination. One of my gigs of the year - I hope this duo goes on to build up a handsome body of work (and air it all live at the Wigmore as they go along, naturally!).

Friday 2 October 2015

In character

If you've taken a look at some of my recent photography posts, you may recall that I've started work on a specific portrait project. I have an overall concept in mind, which I admit (again) I'm hesitant to describe too closely on here before it really starts to come together. But for now, what's making it different and exciting for me in these early stages - and hopefully for my friends too - is that they all have a chance to inhabit a persona or character outside themselves.

Clearly, they all bring parts of their own personality and nature to the sessions, and in turn, to their portraits. And in turn, I have tried to 'cast' the characters appropriately, in the hope that my tireless volunteer models will feel a connection to their fictional counterparts.

I'm anticipating I will need about two days' photography with each person, with possibly a third 'wrap-up' re-match to capture anything 'missing'. I've already posted from my first shoots for the project with Suzanne and Ellie - and as things turned out, I recently completed 'Day 2' sessions with them both (before starting work at all with anyone else!).

Following up the first sessions relatively quickly paid real dividends. I was amazed at how focused I felt, drawing on what happened (and what didn't) in the 'Day 1' shoots ... just a perhaps understandable buzz at the sense of having a Real Plan, a mental blueprint to follow.

Suzanne and Ellie were able to re-capture their characters, and they both carried off the subtle changes required brilliantly. Suzanne's persona in these pictures is a visibly more confident version of who came before; while Ellie was tasked with showing two quite separate sides of one woman. From a practical point of view, Ellie's session also came with some interesting (self-inflicted) limitations. Making use of her newly-occupied abode before any art reaches the walls - and in a 2-hour 'window' before commitments drew us elsewhere - the session had a good-humoured intensity about it as we decided on the hoof how to make the best use of the space, light and time. As ever, thanks to both for entering into the spirit of the project so wholeheartedly. I hope you enjoy the portraits.