Friday 30 January 2015

Well-executed: 'Andrea Chénier' at the cinema

French Revolution melodrama 'Andrea Chénier' feels, in many ways, like THE event of the Royal Opera House's current season. The only one of Giordano's operas performed with any regularity, and only its first appearance at the ROH in 30 years. And as if that wasn't enough, the star wattage supplied by the two leads - Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek - was probably sufficient to power the lights for the entire run.

I remember when booking came up for this opera last year, I was in a "can't go to everything" frame of mind - so I let this one slip down the list. I tried to gauge how enthusiastic I really felt about the subject matter, leaving aside the stellar casting - and I think the completely unjustified fear of a 'posh Les Mis' made me twitchy. So, I decided to play it safe and see the cinema relay instead of 'live'.

Chénier was real and went to the guillotine only a few days before Robespierre. The story of the opera, however, is a tragic (fictional) love triangle built on the scaffold of the facts. Using a 'four meetings and a funeral' structure, the opera shows key points leading to AC's fate. Maddalena is the spoiled daughter of the Countess of Coigny, who throws a party for her fellow society aristocrats, wilfully oblivious to the suffering and poverty surrounding them. Gérard, one of the servants, has long been in love - secretly - with Maddalena, who is in turn attracted to poet Chénier, one of the guests. Goaded into versifying like a performing seal, Chénier protests at first but is provoked into improvising a 'power to the people' invective that not only ruins the mood somewhat, but inspires Gérard to revolutionary fervour and he storms out of his job, taking his old dad with him.

Fast forward to more dangerous times, and Chénier is waiting in a cafe to meet a mystery woman who has been sending him letters. Inevitably, this is Maddalena, now vulnerable after her parents' execution. The pair declare their love shortly before Gérard - now a revolutionary bigwig - arrives. He fights with Chénier, who gains the upper hand and wounds Gérard. With Maddalena's interests at heart, Gérard realises that if he dies, only Chénier will protect her, so he encourages AC to flee and throws his mob off the scent.

Gérard survives, however. Chénier is eventually arrested, and Gérard - after a struggle with his conscience - signs the accusation that will condemn AC to death and allow him to take possession of Maddalena. She turns up to plead for Chénier's life and when she offers herself to Gérard in return for mercy, his resolve is broken and he tries to withdraw the charges and get AC acquitted. The jury condemn Chénier anyway. Maddalena decides to take the place of a young mother condemned to die on the same day, and the couple go to the guillotine together.

This production has been greeted - rightly, I think - with a huge amount of enthusiasm. Getting a close look thanks to the cameras, it's clear how sumptuous the traditional staging and costume is, and I can imagine the sheer sense of occasion rippling through the audience in the opera house like a wave. That said, a great deal of the positive reaction I've seen - whether from punters on Twitter or the singers in the on-screen interviews (more on this later) - is solely concerned with the music: how beautiful it is, how brilliantly it's written for singers. And I think I can see why.

Being a bit more detached in the flicks, I felt the creaks in the opera's dramatic structure were a little more exposed. Often in a piece of theatre or opera, undying love can develop between the two leads in a matter of seconds (or better give them minutes, say, in Wagner), so it's hard to complain about that. But by dropping in on the characters in stages, it makes it harder for them to fully come to life.

As a result, it's all about the music - the glorious melodies in the opera, which snatch beauty from the jaws of (the) Terror, and even more so, the voices: Giordano gives the tenor and soprano some majestic showcase tunes along the way and a crucial final duet. This last act has an almost maniacal sweep to it - ecstatic love, acceptance of fate, grief, a kind of martyrdom (Westbroek's superb facial expressions - another advantage of cinema viewing is better appreciation of the acting - manage to convey Maddalena's sudden and rather twisted near-lust for death as a way to put things right) and transcendence.

As a result, the scene is totally dependent on the ability of the two leads to take the audience on the same emotional helter-skelter they go on, and JK and EMW were suitably riveting. Kaufmann at full-throttle seems to go beyond decibels into somewhere on the Beaufort scale, but Westbroek was with him all the way, matching his intensity and perfectly audible. I also want to point out that the ROH Orchestra were on spine-tingling form and some of the instrumental passages - in particular a lantern-lighting sequence carried out to a sinister, ominous riff - were as thrilling as anything from the singers.

With one exception: Željko Lučić as Gérard. (The photo of Lučić is from the Royal Opera House website, taken by Bill Cooper.) The character is a great head start, coming out fighting against the restrictive structure and emerging as a fully rounded, convincing antagonist - the 'baddie' doomed to take the Scarpia role but with all too real mood-swings, changes of heart, internal moral dilemmas and genuine love at the root of all his bad - and good - decisions. Lučić never once takes the panto villain route, opting instead to make Gérard a bruised bear of a man, truly terrifying on occasion (his point of maximum fury, about to seize Maddalena before his crisis of conscience) but wracked with guilt, unpredictable, emotional. He made his control of volume part of the characterisation. His quiet withdrawal after failing to clear Chénier is contrasted with the slightly queasy euphoria of the lovers' skyscraping death-song, leading me to wonder who the truly tragic figure really is. A brilliant performance.

The ROH cinema relays are a fantastic enterprise, with accompanying interviews and featurettes illuminating various aspects of the operas being broadcast. (In particular, I think we should get a TV series - maybe only 15-20 minutes an episode - based solely around maestro Pappano sitting at a piano, being hugely informative and entertaining about any given work he likes.) My only suggestion here would be to show these items before the opera - a bit like the halcyon days of my youth where you'd get a short before the main film - rather than in the interval, especially if - as with this event - the interviewee is Jonas Kaufmann. Not because I didn't want to hear what he had to say - he's in fact a really winning, infectious and communicative talker - but because it 'took me out' of seeing him as Chénier: I'd prefer to stay in the same 'headspace' through the interval - just securing an ice cream is traumatic distraction enough - and be carried along with even more conviction.

Sunday 25 January 2015

Travelling light: Christopher Ainslie, Wigmore Hall

For some years, the only countertenors I heard regularly in my classical music listening formed part of a group - in particular, the CDs and concerts of the Hilliard Ensemble and The Sixteen. Always an otherworldly presence, pulling the collective sound up towards the heavens.

Yet several recent opera productions have introduced me to this most arresting of registers, exposed and exploited for its own sake. It seems to me a lot to do with innocence, or the losing of it.

For example, Idamante - the son in Mozart's 'Idomeneo' - was originally a part for a castrato, and the casting of Franco Fagioli in the latest Royal Opera House production underlined a 'hasn't-his-voice-broken-yet?' naivety of the boy-prince. Bejun Mehta's 'boy' in the George Benjamin opera 'Written on Skin' is the alter ego of an 'actual' modern angel who, in spite of himself, reciprocates the love of his host's wife and brings doom upon the house. And in 'Thebans', by Julian Anderson, the messenger parts - whose job it is in Greek tragedy to report offstage events of unpalatable horror that they can never 'unsee' - are countertenor (neatly reflecting the fact that we get our word 'angel' from the Greek word for 'messenger').

In the English National Opera premiere production of 'Thebans', this countertenor was Christopher Ainslie. Such was the impression he had made on me that his name leapt out when I was looking through the Wigmore Hall recital brochure, and I booked tickets.

Ainslie is a thoughtful and astute programmer, and the Wigmore Hall brochure from several months ago had an old running order that has since changed into an arguably more structured and balanced selection. Making some brief scene-setting remarks, he explained how the nomadic life he led as a singer made him link night and travel, since a wanderer tends to feel their emotions at the highest pitch in the dark.

There are some lovely symmetries to the concert. Broadly speaking, the two themes are each given their own half. Brilliantly, Ainslie curates a quasi-cycle in the first section, with 'night' songs from Gurney, Quilter, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Wolf and Brahms, which all marry the theme with love, longing or both. Then this underlying atmosphere also links to the second half which is dominated by Vaughan Williams' beautiful 'Songs of Travel' sequence. The programme notes refer to this (wryly, thank heavens) as sometimes dubbed an 'English Winterreise' - it isn't, although the reference nicely reflects the Schubert we do hear in part one. However, 'Songs of Travel', for all its melodicism and melancholy, has a typically robust 'stiff upper lip' quality to its rhythm and attack - you can't imagine this chap just collapsing in a heap in front of a hurdy-gurdy man.

The ace in the pack - and a new discovery to me - is the music of Frank Bridge (dates 1879-1941). Again with an eye on the two halves seemingly mirroring each other, we hear two instrumental pieces for viola and piano in the 'night' sequence, dreamlike in that one is restful, the other agitated ... then three contemporary songs for viola and piano in the 'travel' half that jolt the listener into heightened awareness before VW takes over.

James Baillieu's piano is sympathetic but at the same time rock solid, laying the foundation as Ainslie soars. I had not heard a countertenor sing alone with piano before, but the 'sound' here is of the accompaniment taking a more forthright role, to give the necessary overall heft. Adding Gary Pomeroy's versatile viola works superbly - again, its lower tone never threatens to overlap or interfere with the voice but fills out the acoustic space beneath it perfectly.

Ainslie himself was everything I'd hoped he would be after 'Thebans'. While that extraordinary pitch can easily suggest fragility or delicacy, this was a commanding and powerful performance. From volume and even vitriol in Bridge's anguished 'Where is it that our soul doth go?', to an almost music-hall comedy rendition of Wolf's humorous 'Storchenbotschaft' ('Stork-tidings') ... Even the occasional lower note seemed to show a 'hint of tenor' then somehow, instantly, he was back into the falsetto without any sign of a pause or break. The encore was a South African lullaby called 'Thula Baba', rendered in a gentle arrangement by the trio, themselves all from that country (on YouTube, the piece seems to be mostly present in rather ramped-up, sleep-preventing form with sopranos, choirs and orchestras - 'HUUUUSH! MYYYY! BAAABY!' etc). During an instrumental section between verses, Ainslie kept a modest, single-note hum audible throughout, which created alternate harmony or mild discord as the viola and piano weaved around it, a moment of almost choral 'world music', soothing and compelling.

For its combination of skilful programming, relatively unusual lieder voice and settings, and wonderful performances from all three musicians - this has really set the bar high for my 2015 recital visits. I was pleased to see that the recording microphones were up in the auditorium. I really hope this concert gets a broadcast or even better a CD release (possibly through the venue's own Wigmore Hall Live label) - it was busy but not packed, and it would be great if this spellbinding evening reached a wider audience.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Head and tails: Ian Bostridge & Thomas Adѐs, 'Winterreise'

Schubert's monumental song cycle 'Winterreise' is a rite of passage (appropriately enough) for many singers and pianists, all bringing their own interpretations and personalities to the work, and often returning to it as their own life-journey continues and world-view changes. (I think there are at least three separate recordings by the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for example.)

However, tenor Ian Bostridge possibly has a closer relationship with it than most. After singing it for some two decades, his ongoing engagement with the sequence has resulted in an intriguing book, 'Schubert's Winter Journey', and luckily for us, a tour to accompany it, with Thomas Adѐs on piano.

Tonight's venue, the main hall of the Barbican in London, is almost comically huge for a recital of this kind - as we take our seats, the piano looks rather lost in the middle of a vast, otherwise empty stage. The atmosphere changes, however, when the two men arrive - solemn expressions above the neck, full white tie below - and a circle of light homes on in them, leaving the wings greyed out of our vision.

I've written briefly about IB before now but I'll re-cap a little here (rather than send you off following links). I think he is one of our most individual and distinctive performers, in any musical genre. To begin with, Bostridge's voice is something quite other. Producing a 'high', or narrow timbre to match the high pitch, he sings with a keening, yearning quality that can convey fear, anguish or even nervous energy without sacrificing any power. (Reference points for a novice like me are really hard - it's a world away from a 'mega-tenor' Kaufmann-like sound... a similar orbit to Mark Padmore, perhaps, but with a harsher edge than MP's choral serenity... sometimes I also convince myself I hear a little of Peter Pears - and Bostridge has recorded a great deal of Britten. But these are passing impressions and none of them would necessarily prepare you for hearing IB in full flight for the first time.)

When considering why I find him such a fascinating presence, I started to focus on two points in particular:
  1. It's perhaps no surprise that Bostridge has produced a book on 'Winterreise' - he began professional life in documentary-making and then entered academia full-time (history and politics). I've found his previous writing intricate - even demanding in parts - but always involving. When he sings, there is often a kind of furrowed-brow concentration on his face as though everything stored in his intellect about the sequence is whirring around his head simutaneously and trying to escape through the voice.
  2. He's very tall and slender. (Please don't confuse this with a comment on his 'looks'.) In tails, this is exaggerated, so that as he moves with the music, he's like a branch bending - but not quite snapping - in the wind.
I think this combination of the cerebral and physical is behind the sense I get that Bostridge lives 'Winterreise' every time he sings it. His facial expressions dramatise the text and amid the frowning focus I mention above, we get defiant, slightly manic smiles as the speedier songs - as late as no.22, 'Mut!'/'Courage!' - propel the traveller to journey's end. (I find that no matter how many times I listen to 'Winterreise', it always moves that little bit faster than I remember from the previous play - Schubert is relentless in pushing you onwards.) And where there is ugliness or terror, IB is unafraid to bring it out vocally. In this performance, for example, the Crow ('Die Krähe') from the 15th song makes its presence felt in a cruel rasp, rupturing the beautiful tones surrounding it.

And Bostridge's angular frame is hardly ever still. In the Q&A after the recital, an audience member asked him about his theatricality, and he admitted that while he never exactly 'planned' it, he'd become more aware of what he was doing. Leaning on (and into) the piano for apparent support, as though it contained some new idea or truth, even walking to its far end as if to circle it, he never stops stoking this sense of constant motion. (Leaving aside Michelle Pfeiffer in 'The Fabulous Baker Boys' for the moment - as we must - it's hard to imagine a more convincingly felt interaction between vocalist and piano.) And mention of the piano brings me to the pianist.

Thomas Adѐs is perhaps more widely known as a composer than performer, although his charismatic presence at the piano made him very much Bostridge's equal partner. He was also a real 'mover' - leaning in close to caress quiet notes from the keys, then straightening up imperiously during the crucial moments of volume and heft... and choosing to turn his own pages. This really caught my attention - as if it gave him (as someone who's normally deciding what the notes will be) more psychological dominance or control over the material. I thought he played wonderfully - really delicate lines for Bostridge to weave or dice his way through, and choosing his moments to let rip with sparse precision. I felt the two of them were like working parts of an engine, almost presenting symmetry as Adѐs pumped the energy into the piano through the keyboard, for Bostridge to draw on as he gripped the edge of the instrument for dear life.

This kinetic interpretation was especially important on this occasion, I feel, because of the hall's size. Their sense of dynamics - movement as well as volume - gave them the best shot possible of making 'Winterreise' truly three-dimensional and as heart-rending at the back wall as in the front row. In the interview, Bostridge linked the decision to wear tails to this predicament: he explained that the attire made his posture better and helped free up his chest to project more sucessfully. Did their efforts succeed? For me, personally (in the circle), a resounding yes. I loved every minute - I'm in awe of IB in particular, and what he does. I thought it might be years before I ever heard him sing this live and, suddenly, here was the opportunity, and the performance was all I hoped it would be.

But a large crowd can defeat a mood. The 'hive mind' is a strange phenomenon, pathologically scared of just shutting up. 24 songs means 23 brief pauses - and in them all, the panicked ca-cough-ony was terrifying, as if TB had taken the Barbican like Poe's Red Death. More exploding heads than 'Scanners'. Add to that the couple of occasions when everyone turned the pages of their texts simultaneously to keep following the words: in an intimate space, it's not so bad - when there's a couple of thousand folk doing it, it's like being in a regatta.

If a feature of winter travel is that everyone on the trip has a bewildering variety of noisome diseases, then perhaps on this particular night we had a little too much authenticity. But this is to take nothing away from the commanding duo on stage, who battled against the adverse conditions and calmed the audience into the awed silence that a truly great 'Winterreise' demands at its close. Then the most deafening sound of the evening: the applause.

Here is a complete performance by IB of 'Winterreise' (with the marvellous Julius Drake on piano):

Sunday 4 January 2015

Retrospecstive 2014: rock/folk/electronica

A rush and a push into the second half of my 2014 round-up! In case you missed it - if you also like exploring classical/opera avenues, please have a look through 'part one' as well.

As with the previous post - 15 highlights of the year (assuming my maths is sound), in alphabetical order, with evidence where I can find it. If I've already written about a selection, I've included a helpful link. Here goes....

Alvvays: 'Alvvays'
Although, as a Plain English chap, I find myself struggling with these 'quirky' band name spellings - "Apparently it's pronounced 'Always'--" AARGH! Of course it is! Spell it properly! And that goes for you too, so-called 'Chvrches' - where was I? Oh yes, well, name aside, this album has to be the dream-pop delight of the year. Brief, catchy and more importantly, keyboards set almost exclusively to 'squelch' and that lovely echo on the vocal. Glorious.

Bitter Ruin: 'Waves'
A supremely talented band capable of inspiring enough devotion in their fanbase to hit their Kickstarter album funding target in a day - Bitten Ruin's latest record is a near-perfect distillation of a unique blend. Georgia Train's seemingly limitless voice, careering through pop, jazz and even operatic tones, sometimes in a single song, dances around Ben Richards's rock solid, often acoustic, guitar. The album works so well because it adds enough flourishes to this template without going crazy or upsetting the central balance between the two protagonists. Or antagonists, given the turmoil and drama in their storytelling. A superb set - available here.

The Budos Band: 'Burnt Offering'
The Budos Band are a superb soul/funk collective who have so far released three albums of searing instrumental work-outs: a self-titled debut, 'II', and 'III'. Either 'Burnt Offering' is the worst spelling of 'IV' I have ever seen, or something a bit different is going on - and it turns out to be the latter. Finding inspiration and common ground in the grinding catchiness of doom/stoner metal, we get guitar riffs underpinning the horns and the results are spectacular.

Kate Bush's 'Before the Dawn'
After 35 years away from the stage, Kate Bush must have been aware that in fans' eyes this was always going to be more than 'just a gig'. So that's what she gave us. None of the old stuff - but an epic show, pointing up the gems in her later catalogue, sumptuously played by an immaculate band, against an extraordinary array of visual set pieces, sketches and bravura optical illusions. A truly beautiful performer - glorious voice, effortless grace.

Michael Chapman and James Blackshaw at Bishopsgate Institute
An astonishing double bill here of two people who can pick up a guitar (each, obviously) and make you feel like you could be hearing full bands, orchestras and choirs with it. James Blackshaw has the quiet confidence of the virtuoso - he simply suggests the audience have a chat between numbers so he can change the tuning on his 12-string every time - but once he starts playing, the immersive cycles and runs have us in a rapt silence. Michael Chapman - exploring the possibilities of his instrument since the sixties - is a hero to players like Blackshaw and, in turn, is now pushing towards further outer improvisational limits with mutual support and appreciation from and for the new generation. I spent the evening in a kind of blissed-out aural heaven.

Cut Hands: 'Festival of the Dead'
Raging sampled tribal percussion - probably the best Cut Hands album so far. William Bennett makes head-spinning, complex rhythms not just cohere but dovetail and weave so that you almost stop noticing that the beats are the entire sound. An incredibly bold project - with each record I wonder what he can do next, where he can take it - but he always surprises and enthralls.

The Handsome Family at Islington Assembly Hall, London
One of my all-time favourite bands, Brett & Rennie Sparks didn't release an album this year but played a London show that, for me, was one of those 'perfect' gigs. Not simply that they were on top form (HF live shows are always superb value, with the eerie, haunting power of the songs punctuated with Rennie's dry stories) - it was one of those evenings where it was as if they'd handed me the magic marker to write the set-list. So many personal picks were aired, one of them below - 'Tesla's Hotel Room'. I've rather indulgently added two videos here, though, to include 'Far From Any Road' - one thrilling twist in their career was when the show 'True Detective' used this song as its main theme, prompting the rediscovery/resurrection of the superb 'Singing Bones' album and introducing all corners of the globe to their spooked universe. The full version of the song highlights something else that's also apparent live - Rennie's emergence as a duet singer of real beauty and character.

Barb Jungr: 'Hard Rain' (both the disc and Purcell Room London gig)
One of the UK's best vocalists in any genre, Barb Jungr is perhaps best known for her interpretations of songs often written by men - especially Bob Dylan, who had a couple of her releases all to himself even before the 'Hard Rain' record, which brings together political songs from both Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As interested in cabaret and opera as her 'home' genre, jazz, she is a fearless live performer and really communicates these songs: her stunning voice gets under their skin with just the right combination of questioning tenderness and outraged steel. Simon Wallace's discreet arrangements give her all the room she needs.

Naevus: 'Appetite and Application'
Naevus have made one brilliant album after another, but I've often wondered if we would ever get a live record or DVD to capture their thunderous presence on-stage. This wish was fulfilled this year, with the 'Appetite and Application' CD bottling a terrific set from Leipzig in late 2013. There's something about the ever-present ring of the acoustic guitar and the pounding beat (drummer Hunter Barr plays standing up) that add a ritual element to the rock swirl. By the way, there are only 100 physical copies of this - so hurry to Bandcamp and buy one - or, there's a download there for you instead if you prefer, of course. (While you're there, feel free to dip further into the Naevus back catalogue because it's all great - you could start with the majestic 'Stations' compilation or most recent album 'The Division of Labour'...)

Raf & O: 'Time Machine'
This duo really have nailed a unique sound. While the term 'folktronica' has become a byword for bleepy meandering, to my mind this band have come far closer to realising the full potential of the idea. Raf's delicate guitar and breathy, intimate vocals lure you in, while O constructs the sonic background: live, I found this spellbinding to watch - O sits at a drum kit and plays with a hyperactive dexterity, triggering modified sounds along the way. The overall impression is that instead of trying to programme 'real'-sounding drums, O has reversed the process to almost mechanise himself, creating a 'ghost in the machine' vibe. The album, like their performances, suspends you between swoon and shudder: a fantastic release, available here.

Rasp: 'Radiate Power Words'
I wrote extensively about Rasp when it happened - here - but now the CD is out, it's great to be able to recommend it and enthuse about the enterprise all over again. In brief, the project is the work of songwriter/violinist Matt Howden and cellist/composer Jo Quail. The records they make individually are very different, and they've arguably released 'best ever' records in 2014: JQ's 'Caldera' is in my classical round-up, and the latest release from Sieben (MH's alter ego) is a paragraph or two below. Recognising their strong musical rapport, they came up with an ambitious and unusual plan - assemble a record from start to finish in two days. This involved a writing session (in public and on the web) on the afternoon of day one, a live performance that evening to road-test the material, then a follow-up session the next evening to record the songs live to tape. The result was raw (as you'd expect), heady and powerful - being there is likely to remain one of my most treasured musical experiences and the album captures the atmosphere of delicate abandon. The album is available from both MH's and JQ's websites.

Shadow Biosphere: 'Parallel Evolution'
A fascinating album of instrumental electronica inspired by the theory that other life has evolved separately on Earth and co-exist with those we know about. This idea could be coldly scientific, the stuff of weird horror, or both - depending on your imagination or point of view. The music runs with this brilliantly, combining forensic attention to detail with absorbing melodies and a real sense of 3D space/atmosphere. You'll be pleased to hear that I rave about it at greater length in a full review here. In summary, though, I'd suggest you take note of how fully-formed the project is at its arrival - the music and visuals work in tandem to bring the concept (and its lifeforms) alive in your ears and eyes. The hints of early electronic music only underline the suspicion there's something organic in the programming... Digital version available at Bandcamp, or message the band through their Facebook page to see if any physical copies are still available.

Sieben: 'Each Divine Spark'
Setting the benchmark for brilliant albums very early on in 2014, Matt Howden released possibly his greatest record so far (full review here). Still based around his voice, violin and loop pedal - and the endless ways he invents and re-invents to use them - 'Each Divine Spark' was a masterclass in varied, versatile songwriting and arranging. Tracks build from initial plucked notes before launching off in all kinds of directions: haunting laments, sinister distortion, addictive beats. It feels like everything has been ratcheted up - powerful, succinct lyrics (MH has long been a masterful word-wrangler) sung close to the mic, and a production job with some of the tracks and loops cut 'live' so you feel the music is wrapping itself around you. Let it. (Again, best way to do this is through the Sieben shop.)

Scott Walker & Sunn O))): 'Soused'
A collaboration that first provoked almost a delighted disbelief...(the appearance of the 'scott O)))' logo), then seemed to make perfect sense, and then didn't actually sound quite like what people expected. I suppose given Walker's unhinged solo releases and Sunn O)))'s anatomy-rearranging drone and volume, many people were expecting something that couldn't be safely listened to by humans. On the contrary, 'Soused' is a shatteringly heavy but accessible and fascinating metal record that preserves everyone's integrity but at the same time buffs them up and makes them face outwards. (Warning - the video is very much of the 'arthouse horror' variety - please view responsibly: it's NSFW and probably NSF anyone delicate. Not sure how many Scott Walker or Sunn O))) fans are likely to be 'delicate' but I'm a cautious chap.)

Wolf People at the Con Club, Lewes
Wolf People were a delight in 2013, releasing the remarkable 'Fain' album to the delight of people with large proggerific record collections, beards, or - like me - both. 2014 was quieter (hopefully they're making the next album) so imagine my delight when my friend Juliet, who has the mighty record collection but emphatically not the beard, invited me down to hear them play this low-key gig. One of my absolute gig highlights of the year: small room, superb sound, warm appreciative crowd - Olympian levels of synchronised nodding - and the band able to relax while still being completely on their mettle. And before I go - if you fancy another look back at 2014, please have a listen to Jules's superb radio show Indie Wonderland, which normally goes out on Barricade Radio on Wednesday evenings 9-11pm before it's uploaded on the Mixcloud and Rocking Vicar sites for posterity. The 'review of the year' show is here - it's a marvellous listen.

Friday 2 January 2015

Retrospecstive 2014: classical/opera

I've had such a fantastic cultural year that I've had to split my highlights round-up into two this time round, so this post focuses on the more classical end of the spectrum, with the rockier stuff to follow, as soon as I can!

I tried to keep the list to 15, unless I've miscounted (it's not easy when you have to use both hands and a foot). Caveat lector: I'm a London-based punter - rather than a critic, say - so you will see the same venues keep cropping up, and I obviously try and go primarily to things I expect to enjoy. As a result, it gives me the chills to think of some of the marvellous concerts or releases that I had to leave out - with a special honorary mention to Wigmore Hall: that magnificent chamber venue where, as well as those mentioned below, I was privileged to hear Alice Coote, Simon Keenlyside, Steven Isserlis, Mahan Esfahani... it really is a jewel in the capital's musical crown.

Still, dry those tears, Specs. Onwards! (By the way - where I've written more abut a selection, I've included a link to that post for ease of reference...)

Adams: 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' - English National Opera
John Adams reached new heights of beauty and power with this sort-of sequel to 'El Nino' - this time tackling the Passion instead of the Nativity. My extract below is from the CD, which came out earlier in the year - but for the staged premiere at ENO, Peter Sellars introduced austere sets and once-seen, never-forgotten displays of dance and movement, as each character's emotions were brought out further by an eloquent shadow.

Anderson: 'Thebans' - English National Opera
Another new opera at the Coliseum: Julian Anderson enlisted playwright Frank McGuinness to condense all three 'Theban' plays by Sophocles into one libretto. As a result, the English text still carried the weight and foreboding of poetic drama. The original tragedies were never presented as one trilogy in their own time - they were written apart - but nonetheless they cover the key events in the Oedipus story in spite of themselves. Anderson and McGuinness reflect this by playing with the time sequence and structure, fragmenting the events as the family collapses. Peter Hoare channelled his tenor voice into chilling callousness as Creon, and fittingly, there was magnificent writing for the chorus.

Beethoven: 'Missa solemnis' - 2014 Proms
John Eliot Gardiner re-assembled his crack 'Missa' team with only one personnel change from the Barbican recording: the Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, and four stellar soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Jennifer Johnston, bass Matthew Rose, and tenor Michael Spyres (although it's James Gilchrist you hear on the CD). This was for me one of the stand-out concerts of the Proms season - as you can see and hear from the video (the performance in full!), everyone involved is on top form, and in particular the Fantastic Four are never less than brilliant - you'll be hooked from the moment early on when their voices are drawn out from the throng. (I was lucky enough to see the versatile Lucy Crowe in very different guise as Adina in Donizetti's 'L'elisir d'amore' at the Royal Opera - if that production/cast resurfaces, please try and see it. And if you're blown away as I was by Matthew Rose's voice, luxuriate in his two Schubert song cycle discs, 'Winterreise' and 'Schwanengesang'.)

Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake: 'Songs by Schubert' (Wigmore Hall Live)
Bostridge has plenty of Schubert releases out there, but currently he's in the midst of programming a series of recitals with JD at the Wigmore Hall exploring various corners of Franz's vast canon. Wigmore has its own terrific label devoted to recordings of concerts at the Hall and hopefully, in the wake of this one, the whole IB/JD series will be released. This has all the urgency you could want from any 'live album' - it hooks you in immediately with a turbulent 'Der Strom', then builds in intensity through the glorious 'Nachtstuck' (studio version below), the epic 'Viola' (five or six times the length of many lieder with even the refrain returning differently each time) and then, at last, a release of tension with 'Auflösung' ('Dissolution'). This breakneck performance echoes some of the earlier moments (agitated piano beneath stately voice) but in a rush of kinetic energy that knocks the audience sideways: the song lasts two minutes, the applause a full minute. And that's just the first half.

Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall
For me, two of the finest concerts at the Proms season didn't take place in the Royal Albert Hall. The Monday lunchtime chamber series included a joyous CPE Bach recital by Rachel Podger and a brilliant shape-shifting band including renowned fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. (This hasn't been released commercially as such, but a recording of the concert was on the free CD with BBC Music Magazine, and back issues are still available!)

There was also an unexpected treat - due to hear an Alice Coote recital, we heard shortly in advance that sadly AC was unwell, and that Anne Schwanewilms, with Malcolm Martineau accompanying, would step in with a performance of Strauss and Debussy. (The clip below has AS singing one of the Debussy songs - sadly not MM playing but you get to hear him later.) I was just enthralled by their rapport, the beautiful balance of their programme, and how - while they sounded spectacular throughout - they visibly relaxed as the surprise gig went on. A sumptuous pleasure, all the sweeter for being out of nowhere.

The Hilliard Ensemble say goodbye
This most cherished of small vocal groups decided to do what any of us are supposed to do after 40 years' loyal service: retire. (Although I believe that 'new boy' Steven Harrold has been part of the line-up for a mere decade and a half.) I caught one their final concerts with saxophonist Jan Garbarek at Temple Church - their trio of albums starting with best-seller 'Officium' chart an extraordinary collaboration that kept nudging at what could be done with improvisation in a seemingly alien, early-music context. But I suspect no other recital will feel quite the same as their actual Farewell Concert at Wigmore Hall. Programming a tight 75 minutes, they avoided some of the big hitters of their repertoire (no Victoria, Palestrina, Gesualdo) and instead veered happily between particular musical causes they had championed, both old (Perotin) and new, especially Arvo Pärt. Visibly moved but unsentimental - I guess they'd been getting used to the idea for more than a year - they gave light-hearted introductions to the material before re-summoning their otherworldly voices. We sent them backstage, for good, with a standing ovation.

Stephen Hough - live and on disc
Two highlights in one go from Stephen Hough, who as well as being a fine pianist and writer is a fascinating composer and has a real genius for programming. His 'In the Night' disc finds the disquiet and restlessness in the darkness. It features his own 2nd sonata (a single long movement that references - as the liner note points out - the 'brightness of a brash city', as well as 'irrational fears or...disturbing dreams') alongside Schumann's 'Carnaval' and a version of Beethoven's 'Moonlight' sonata that might make you think again about that famous opening movement and how it can warily, edgily prepare you for what's to come. (A live performance is below.) In summer, SH's recital at Wigmore Hall to a certain extent promoted 'In the Night' - with 'Carnaval' taking up the second half - but before that we heard more unusual fare, including some Schoenberg miniatures. I was interested to hear solo piano works that seemed to bring together composers famed for making statements with much larger forces: Strauss, Wagner and - best of all - something resembling a solo symphony from Bruckner, called 'Erinnerung'. (I've only seen this appear on one CD and I really hope SH records it.) I'm in awe at how Hough has the delicacy to glide across the keys yet strike with such a controlled and robust sound: gossamer and grit. We even heard a generous four encores: a masterclass.

Poulenc: 'Dialogues des Carmelites' - Royal Opera
Not much to say here except that this is one of the most affecting and devastating of all operas, in a production that laid the horror open with its subtlety and restraint. The Carmelite nuns go to the guillotine one by one at the end, with the slice of the blade cutting through their final hymn. In this staging (in the video) - which I know has polarised people - the nuns perform choreographed movements and simply fall in turn with each strike. I can think of no better way of uniting them as they are transfigured by their act - even we, the audience, are excluded as it is hard to tell for some time who is dropping out and when. It's totally in keeping with the beautiful visual ideas elsewhere in the production - the nuns lying face down around their dying Mother Superior (a searing performance from Deborah Polaski), or forming a human wall for the monastery.

Puccini: 'The Girl of the Golden West' - English National Opera
Puccini's Western came to the ENO for the first time in 50 years, in an absolutely stunning production. Susan Bullock as heroine Minnie gave a brave, mature performance that brought out longing as well as desire - and the idiomatic translation, rendered with a knack for 'cowboy movie' turns of phrase, worked a treat. Puccini's proto-cinematic score (if your pulse doesn't race during the pared-down soundtrack for the card game, I can't help you) couldn't have been championed more lovingly and effectively.

Jo Quail: 'Caldera'
Contemporary classical brilliance didn't restrict itself to the opera house this year. Composer/performer Jo Quail (regular Specs perusers will know the name by now, I'm sure) writes pieces and suites which she can play solo, live, on her electric cello and loop station. As a result, you are as likely to find her on the bill in a dark folk or neoclassical gig as you are at a church or hall recital. There's no question, though, that latest album 'Caldera' contains some of the most beautiful music of 2014, from any genre. And while you can simply close your eyes and abandon yourself to it, close listening brings greater rewards: the chattering beat of 'Laurus' created with the back of the bow (as in the live performance here, from the album launch); the dovetailing picked and bowed notes combining the sensual and sinister in 'Jhanoem the Witch'; and the evocative 'Hidden Forest', performed acoustically but with an initial repeating note suggesting a loop that isn't there. To me, this is the kind of music that NMC or ECM New Series could be releasing: a composer of quiet genius working at the edge of what strings and electronics can do... then packing it all up in a couple of cases and taking it out to the world. Support! - albums and concert news here.

Dorothea Röschmann and Malcolm Martineau: 'Portraits'
This disc came out very late in the year, but it's clearly something rather special. DR - as far as I can tell - is not as recorded as she should be, but I hope this album changes all that. A labour of love to a certain extent, the programme is all-German (Schubert, Schumann, Strauss and Wolf) and based around female characters in lieder. While this is a showcase for DR's sublime voice, it's remarkable how intimate they both sound, with each other (MM's playing is as expressive and responsive as ever) and with the listener. The dynamics - as much in the performance as production - are stunning. In this example, the way the piano (mimicking the distracted turn of a spinning wheel) is literally running rings around the vocal, to breathtaking effect.

Carolyn Sampson and Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall
Carolyn Sampson has sung in a wide range of repertoire but I think it's safe to say that most of her recorded output focuses on her exquisite Baroque performances. However, there's been some recent wandering. A beautiful recording of Poulenc's 'Stabat Mater' (the clip), and the late-night Tavener 'Requiem Fragments' Prom rang the changes. And then this particular concert, apparently her first ever 'art song' recital. With JD on typical chameleonic form, CS gave one glorious rendition after another: Brahms, Debussy, Faure, Grieg and Poulenc. I can't remember when I was last so disappointed to realise that there were no recording microphones in the auditorium. I hope Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi (or any label with any sense) let her loose on this music so we can have a disc. It would come with me to my desert island for sure.

Strauss: 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' - Royal Opera
'Strauss 150' featured plenty of treats - not least the 'Salome'/'Elektra' weekend at the Proms - but the one that haunted and transported me the most was this truly imaginative and otherwordly production of this peculiar but affecting dark fantasy. Animal heads and gliding sets all played their unsettling part; but most complelling were the performances: Johan Reuter shone as Barak the Dyer, but Emily Magee was extraordinary as the Empress. She was triumphant vocally but also acted physically with real grace, as her character, trapped between the two worlds, mirrored the movements of both spirits and humans.

Wagner: 'Tristan und Isolde' - Royal Opera
Finally - the latest entry of all. This run has only just finished, to great acclaim. Nina Stemme is widely regarded as an essentially matchless Isolde (the clip shows her performing the 'Liebestod' - Isolde's final 'aria' sung over Tristan's body - in a concert setting but her face still acts every word). In this sparse monochrome staging, one could lose oneself in Wagner's almost queasily beautiful score (which, however gorgeous, famously never truly comes to rest until the very end) and lap up the performance masterclass, not just from Stemme: Stephen Gould was an impressive Tristan, John Tomlinson charismatically broken as Marke. Special mentions too for the companion characters: Sarah Connolly and Iain Paterson both sang as if their lives depended on it and fully deserve their share of all the plaudits showered upon the leads. A great work, given by a brilliant ensemble.