Wednesday 26 August 2015

S-pecs: Swiss report

Mrs Specs and I have just enjoyed a fortnight’s holiday in the beautiful Engadine region of Switzerland. Our base was Zuoz, a village along the railway route connecting Schuol-Tarasp (like a number of similar stops, it describes the two places it serves, run together) with St Moritz. This is the Romansch-speaking area of the country, and I couldn’t help falling for the place names which look, as well as sound, so exotic to me: Zernez, Cinous-chel-Brail, S-chanf, La Punt Chamues-ch…

We were extraordinarily lucky with the weather and, as you might expect, spent as much time as possible riding the distinctive Rhaetian Railway trains and heading up the cable car rides to the highest viewpoints (we’re not quite at ‘peak fitness’ – ha!), or actually getting the walking boots on for lower-level escapades by local woods and rivers. As is my habit, I’ll put some photos up on the blog before long to share some of these amazing views with you.

In the meantime, however, a couple of cultural highlights cropped up along the way. I suppose I should’ve been alerted to this at the outset when I saw these names on the entry-phone board of our accommodation block … and there was a rather appealing poster up in our flat, too:

However, the first event did – almost literally – take place on our doorstep. On the information board at Zuoz station, we saw that a string quartet concert was taking place the Thursday after we arrived, in one of the churches in the heart of the village, Kirche San Luzi. Rather seduced by the programme (wouldn’t you be?), we popped into the tourist office and bought tickets straightaway.

The ‘Friends of San Luzi’ appear to be the society organising the concert and not – as I thought at first glance – the name of the quartet. In fact, the players – all professionals – seem to be assembled as a group especially for the concert: the occasion seems to be semi-regular, and the biographies of all but one of them included a reference to playing the Zuoz gig in the past. Not unlike some concerts we’d attended back home at London’s Middle Temple, then, the evening was bookended by most of the audience – who clearly knew each other – exchanging warm greetings (I suspect we were the only ‘incomers’!) as well as some hearty speechifying.

An extra-special, if slightly surreal, touch was when I first noticed the cellist, Benjamin Nyffenegger, arranging his music and preparing for the concert. I leant over to Mrs Specs and whispered, “I’ve seen him somewhere before.” I could feel my face scrunch up in concentration, racking my brains: cellist, small group, must be Wigmore Hall, mustn’t it? … but mostly I go to song recitals there … then I had it. It was the same chap who played cello in the Oliver Schnyder Trio, who I’d seen accompany the tenor Daniel Behle in his piano trio arrangement of ‘Winterreise’. Far more sensibly, Mrs Specs had simply turned to BN’s biography in the programme leaflet – and there was confirmation: Behle and the Hall both mentioned in his impressive round-up. How fantastic! – that we could choose to holiday in Zuoz at this exact time, then find ourselves listening to a (superb) player I had heard in my favourite London venue.

It’s clear to see – and hear – why the residents would want to hold chamber concerts in Kirche San Luzi. It’s a very intimate space with great acoustics – slightly favouring, I think, the viola and cello, which gave a very rich, grounded sound – but the fine overall balance allowed the ear to be as fast as the eye in discerning exactly which line of notes each member of the quartet was playing.

The slow movements in particular shone throughout: I had no idea that the Haydn piece provided the tune for one of my favourite school hymns, ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ … adding yet another flashback to the evening. (I’m not very nostalgic about my schooldays at all in general, but this felt quite poignant, and touched me to a greater extent than I might have expected – how like music to achieve this effect.)

It was intriguing, too, to find so much Beethoven ‘brio’ present in so early a composition … and those that know me well will realise what a thrill it was to hear some rare Schubert. Violinist Sebastian Bohren explained that he had to convince the others to play the Schubert fragment but by the time they’d rehearsed the piece, they’d fallen for it as well. Hard to believe, perhaps: but in a strange way reminiscent of the famous story where none of Schubert’s friends or contemporaries saw anything at first in ‘Winterreise’, either…

We found a second artistic oasis, tucked away in a side street amid the bustle of St Moritz: the Berry Museum. Peter Robert Berry was a Swiss artist, broadly contemporary with the Impressionists, who turned to painting full-time in his thirties after starting his working life as a doctor. (His grandson founded the museum, and is the latest in several generations of Berrys practising medicine in St Moritz.)

The key influences on Berry mentioned in the museum guide are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Impressionists themselves (he spent some time studying in Paris) and Ferdinand Hodler, another renowned Alpine artist with strongly individualistic, stylised tendencies, who encouraged him. Berry would make the mountains his main focus, and the museum is brilliantly upfront about showing those paintings where he was clearly working through these influences – there’s a captivating Impressionist-style painting of sleigh tracks leading through the snow into the distance, for example, and pointillist treatments of, say, blazing skies.

But Berry’s own distinctive style soon emerges from these influences. While showing a clear love of depicting the landscape, he also seemed determined to include an element of unflinching reportage in his work, documenting for example the mail carriers riding through the snow (and, in one macabre sketch, perishing in an avalanche). Painter by day, musician by night, there’s a lovely touch of humour in one work showing his own possessions in transit towards his mountain outpost – including his piano, the artist perched cross-legged on top of it.

The only phrase I can think of (and I fully realise it’s something of a contradiction in terms) is ‘accurate impressionism’ – harnessing some of those techniques to make his particular artistic ‘truths’ more vivid to the viewer.

However, given my love of portraiture (and Berry seemed to have a Rembrandt streak that saw him produce several paintings of himself), I was irresistibly drawn to this image of his wife, Maria.

The description of the picture drew attention to the carefree approach of the artist, reflecting Maria’s lively character and obvious ease in front of the easel. It’s a beautifully different way of demonstrating away from the landscapes how Berry could always use an apparently casual approach to find an uncanny precision.

(Berry images taken from the Berry Museum website.)

Sunday 16 August 2015

Wigmore week

Regular readers of the Specs blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know by now how much I love London’s Wigmore Hall. While I always feel thrilled – and lucky – whenever I enter, say, the Royal Opera House, or the Coliseum … let alone religiously thankful when I manage to find my way into the Barbican … there is nothing quite like the feeling I get on crossing the Wigmore threshold.

For those unfamiliar, the WH is one of the finest chamber venues on the planet’s surface – he declared, scientifically – and home to recital after glorious recital of art song, and music for small choral or instrumental ensembles. It’s a gorgeous building to be in, for a start, ornate and comfortable – and blessed with crystalline acoustics. Because of its remit, it’s the perfect size to keep a sense of intimacy while still packing in a decent number of punters, and there isn’t really a ‘bad’ seat in the place (though regulars have their definite favourites). As a lieder junkie who normally sits in the gods at the opera, it’s an absolute privilege to see and hear some of my favourite performers bring all their expressive skills visibly to bear on these more fragile works, with only the piano for support, and only a few feet away.

Within those constant parameters, the WH experience is, of course, ever-changing. With a different concert every night (plus some mornings, afternoons, and lates), receiving the booking brochures is a rather more intense experience than, say, the ROH. Instead of weighing up if and when I can go to, say, four or five operas, with the Wigmore I can easily find 20 or 30 gigs of interest. It then becomes a matter of calendars, charts, maths and, occasionally, brutal decisions.

Alive, I’m sure, to how this wide-ranging programming attracts disparate audiences, the Wigmore has found a marvellously effective way to unite those who have fallen under its spell: of all things, Twitter. By maintaining a mischievous, witty – yet still thoughtful and responsive – account, it has created a follower fanbase that not only includes the capital-based die-hards that practically live in its aisles, but also semi-regular attendees from out of town, right through to passionate supporters overseas who try to ‘hit the Hall’ whenever they’re in the UK. I’ve met some fantastic people – some Twitter friends already who I can now confirm are (yes!) real people … and others for the first time on- or off-line – simply through the WH’s superb idea to hold a couple of receptions just for Twitter followers. Long may this willingness to reach out bring the Hall the reward it deserves in audience numbers.

As the WH enjoys its summer breather, it seems a good time to look back on a hectic few days I spent there recently – it might well have helped if I could’ve moved in for that week. Because, of course, you have to go on the night the person you want to see is performing (occasionally there are ‘repeat’ concerts, especially if the recital is being recorded, but these are a rare luxury) – I found myself booking four concerts there across three days. It was absolutely worth it. It was brilliant.

Gig number one was a chance to see a singer I had admired for a while: Matthew Rose. A bass with real presence, I had come across him in various guises, notably as one of the A-team of ‘Missa solemnis’ soloists under John Eliot Gardiner, and as Talbot in ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the ROH. Accompanied by Helen Collyer at the piano, he had put together a fascinating recital of Purcell/Britten arrangements, Brahms lieder – an ideal vehicle for so powerful a voice – and, perhaps most arrestingly of all, some epic and arguably unhinged songs by Loewe (…”Oh!”). These at-times manic episodes allowed MR to demonstrate that speed and agility belong as much to the lower register as anywhere further up the scale. And special mention must go to HC’s superb accompaniment, which married lightness-of-touch with the necessarily robust playing to meet MR’s sound on equal terms. (I was really pleased to see that this performance was being recorded for a live CD on the WH label. I’ll be buying it, and encouraging all of you to do so, too – this was a great programme and deserves the wider audience it’ll receive.)

(MR photo copyright Lena Kern)

The following night was a solo recital by the pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. While Hamelin’s reputation as a technical genius certainly contributed to my wanting to be there, I find on CD that the precision of his playing is just part of the story and that there’s a kind of joyous thoughtfulness also in evidence. His ‘encore’ discs alone belie a questing interest in bringing less known composers to light, along with a very upfront desire to entertain. (Add to that he’s a composer of some note, too.) So I went along expecting to be dazzled – and hoping to be moved. Both applied. From the hypnotic resonance of a Schubert sonata to a Chopin funeral march of defiant, uncompromising power, he held us transfixed. A towering talent.

For all these delights, the chances are that evening number three might take its place as one of my most cherished musical memories of all. A Friday night, it featured two concerts, one at 7pm and another ‘Wigmore Late’ event at 10pm. Initially, it was the 10pm gig that caught my eye, because Trio Mediaeval were performing – an act very close to Mrs Specs’s and my hearts after catching them (also at the WH) several years back. Based in Norway, their London visits seem all too rare.

Then I realised what a treat it would be to essentially set up camp there for the evening and go to the 7pm too. I was delighted to see that it was a recital by a mezzo I had wanted to hear for a long time, Angelika Kirchschlager, accompanied by Malcolm Martineau. The little I had managed to hear of AK, I had liked very much; whereas I love MM’s piano style almost beyond reason. So – this was going to be good.

If I had to pick one word to describe this recital, it would probably be ‘warm’. It was simply a pleasure to be in this duo’s company. Obviously, some singers prefer to create an atmosphere and rarely bridge the artist/audience divide (think of someone like Ian Bostridge performing Schubert – inhabiting a certain persona can be essential), while others bring more of their ‘off-stage’ personality into the proceedings and in so doing, ‘include’ us a little more. This is what AK and MM chose to do. The programme was rich in beauty and – for art song – contained room for humour as well as drama: Brahms, Wolf and Schumann lieder, followed by some typically gorgeous Hahn melodies.

(AK photo from Askonas Holt website - could not see photo credit)

AK was smiling throughout, not – as so often with song recitals – supporting herself on the piano, but a lithe, forthright presence, making only natural those moments where the ‘big’ mezzo power was unleashed. MM – whose playing is so fluent and expressive – also allowed himself to move occasionally into character, making eye contact with the audience after executing several perfect outros. (And what more perfect pianist for Hahn than Martineau? – listen to his liquid Debussy or Poulenc accompaniments: he really is the ‘melodie’ man.) The rapport between them was so strong – there seemed to be so much shared between as well as during the songs – that I can only hope for more recitals, or even a disc – and soon, please!

Trio Mediaeval (Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth & Berit Opheim) rounded off the evening with their own brand of perfection. Each of the women has an extraordinary voice, and the kind of vocal dexterity that allows two of them to sound like three, and the three of them a choir. Their range is so wide and the tones so pure that you have no choice but to surrender and let the sound surround you. For some of the songs, this literally happens, as one of them goes on patrol behind the audience to form a triangle – we get to be in the midst of the music, transported without moving.

The Trio’s repertoire has often been a mix of early and contemporary choral, and the new album ‘Aquilonis’ (which they were performing here) is no exception. Some lovely modern pieces – in particular by Andrew Smith – feature and hold their own against, say, a selection of English carols from the 1400s. But for me, the greatest discovery by far – and the most gorgeously strange, as the Trio harmonised above their alien-sounding melody chimes (like single hand-held glockenspiel keys with beaters attached) – was the ‘St Thorlak’ collection of 14th century Icelandic hymns. I think there were moments during these pieces – scattered through the recital as if to hear them all together might close-pack too much beauty – when the audience held its breath, as if we somehow couldn’t be silent enough.

I hope writing this hasn’t increased the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. (Time to close the laptop. Drum fingers on the table. Wait for the Wigmore to re-open…)

Peal sessions: Trembling Bells

I’m convinced that Trembling Bells are one of the best bands currently active, and possibly of all time. This post aims to convince you too.

Recently, the group released their latest album, ‘The Sovereign Self’. Many right-thinking people, I’m sure, would describe this record as ‘long-awaited’. Trembling Bells began in a burst of prolific activity – three majestic albums in as many years. The fact that one of their finest songs (‘Goathland’) appeared early in the band’s life on a sampler CD but only made its official, more polished bow on the third record suggests that tunes may have been pouring out of the band’s chief songwriter – and drummer/vocalist – Alex Nielsen, even as he was nailing down the sound he wanted to achieve.

And the sound is… Well. On the surface, you might call it folk-rock. Or, to borrow a more recent term, you might hear ‘psyche-folk’ in it. It’s all of that and more besides. It mixes not only genres, but ideas, personalities. While the folk influence may well be the over-riding feature – or perhaps just the most convenient tag – everything about how the band operates unglues any idea of a ‘trad’ approach, instead focusing firmly on the present and future.

One reason for this is the key personalities involved. To start with Alex N – he is upfront about how certain folk luminaries – Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy – helped him to form his musical character. But in essence, I feel AN is a jazz drummer – a quality that already sets the Bells apart. Somehow making me think of both Billy Higgins and Paul Motian – among others – at the same time, he can keep a rocking beat with the best of them, but seems to use the kit as much for colour and embellishment, helping the song along like you might a hoop with a drumstick. His playing never settles – it’s always doing more, finding new ways to support the song without over-dominating.

(Meshing genres in this way – not to create a bolted-together fusion but more to alter the ‘fabric’ of the overall sound – is, to me, a sign of forward-thinking creativity. It seems quite suited to freestyle drumming – listen to how Brann Dailor lifts the sound of the metal band Mastodon – or, to give another example, there’s also the sadly short-lived way Portico Quartet constructed a kind of alien ethereal jazz by making an instrument called the hang a fundamental feature of their music.)

AN’s lyrics also pull the Bells away from folk clichĂ©, often fixed in the personal realm and with a very current sense of time and place: "Killing time in Clerkenwell"; "When Lou Reed and Lauren Bacall / Defeated Asterix the Gaul"; "Tilt towards the A61"...

Main vocalist and keyboard player, Lavinia Blackwall, has a truly exceptional voice, and the perfect voice for the band. Able to scale angelic heights, she can then assume a more earthbound/earthy tone at no notice, simultaneously breaking hearts, lifting spirits and loosening collars: you can hear this effect in the chorus of ‘Goathland’ – try around 2:30 to 2:40.

With this much going on, it’s perhaps easy to see why Trembling Bells have too many ideas for one band. AN and LB have previous form in an improvising duo called Directing Hand, and AN unleashes the fury in a free jazz trio called Death Shanties – possibly unique in that, alongside drums and saxophone, one member creates abstract art spontaneously while they play – matching a moment of visual creation to the instantly-composed music. AN and LB also both sing, alongside Katy Cooper and Harry Campbell of traditional troupe Muldoon’s Picnic, in a mostly unaccompanied quartet called Crying Lion.

(Digression: I adore Crying Lion, and I urge you to get their LP, ‘The Golden Boat’ – somehow more mystery-soaked than the main band, the mix of voices, which blend and yet remain four distinct characters, creates shiver-down-the-spine stuff. Singing stereotypes are not followed: the ‘softer’ voices are Katy C and Alex N – who often openly downplays his singing ability, but in fact has a fragile timbre but solid technique, a tender line cosseted by the others; Lavinia B provides some of the grit to match Harry C’s lower register. In its own, quietly forceful way, Crying Lion’s ancient acoustic is confrontational, challenging and rewarding. Recommended.)

They also have a knack of working with their heroes and influences. The band have an ongoing live partnership with Incredible String Band veteran Mike Heron, and they collaborated across an entire – superb – album called ‘The Marble Downs’ with Bonnie Prince Billy. So, rather than writer’s block or some other kind of creative freeze, in the four years since previous Bells album ‘The Constant Pageant’ it’s a wonder they’ve found time to make ‘The Sovereign Self’ at all. Let alone make it a masterpiece.

With eight fairly lengthy tracks, one of the most pleasing aspects of the new record is how the sound seems fit to burst, pushing against its constraints – as if the Bells had found a way to reflect or symbolise their broiling stew of elements in audio form. In the past, say, the debut album ‘Carbeth’ stretched out in new-born eccentricity (I still believe that its first track, ‘I Listed All The Velvet Lessons’, is one of the great opening statements by any band), while the next two records arguably saw them hone this tendency into a sharper attack.

With ‘The Sovereign Self’, they somehow find the meeting point between all that has gone before – the epics return, but with multiple strands and sections – and a kind of fearless, complex all-out rock that sees them take a flying leap forward.

Close listening reaps all kinds of rewards. For example, one of my favourite tracks, ‘O, Where Is Saint George?’, starts with the chorus chanted above a free-form swell of sound, before the country-rock shuffle of the verses kicks in. But then, when the chorus returns, a ritualistic rhythm pounds beneath it … and finally, the third time, they somehow attach the verses’ loping beat to the chorus, binding the whole shebang together.

Possibly the most thrilling signature touch in the whole album for me comes right near the end, in the rollicking closer ‘I Is Someone Else’. The song rattles along at a terrific clip, with Lavinia B’s vocal line gradually rising a couple of times in each verse until she arrives at one of those ‘release’ notes – that is, the exact pitch you’ve somehow been wanting her to reach. Just before that point, Alex N’s drumming switches for no more than a bar or so to half-speed. The effect is of the band standing back in appreciation of the voice – a split-second inner “Woah!” – before the top note triggers them into picking the pace back up in an instant. A seemingly casual detail that makes the song so much more powerful.

It’s tempting to describe all of the other six tracks as fellow highlights. I could mention ‘The Singing Blood’, which has a sort of halting resolve that puts me in mind of the first Palace Brothers album (what greater compliment?). There’s ‘Killing Time in London Fields’, which uses organ and guitar first to match riffs, then dovetail two hooks within each other, and on top of all that, literally stop the clocks mid-verse. I’ll let you discover the other half of the album for yourself.

Luckily for me, the band’s latest tour included three London dates. First up was a two-night residency at CafĂ© Oto to celebrate the album launch. Some superb guests were lined up across the two evenings, which only goes to show how much the respect Trembling Bells pay towards other artist-influences is returned. Particular high points for me were hearing Alasdair Roberts play a beautiful set on night one, then the following evening to see Martin Carthy – yes, I know – ten feet away in the same spot, holding the audience spellbound.

But the main event – both at the residency and the follow-up gig in 229 The Venue a few weeks later – are unquestionably the Bells themselves. Always playing ‘forward’ – in the set proper, we get just one ‘oldie’, most of the new record and an even younger, spectacular track called ‘The Wide Majestic Aire’ – they harness, replicate then ramp up the controlled chaos into a riotous swirl.

If you like thrilling, thinking music, Trembling Bells are absolutely made for you. Catch them live, then give into that irresistible impulse to buy the album at the merch stand. It’ll be a hardy companion.

PS! While I realise you might need a full-time manservant to keep up with all the band’s activities on your behalf, one extra-curricular release you shouldn’t miss is the special single made for this year’s Record Store Day. The 7” physical copies are still around here and there, but limited – however, both songs are available on download. ‘Hallelujah’ – not that one – is a brilliant and concise hybrid of folk mantra and pop song (ace as it is, you can see why it might not have felt like a natural fit for the album), while the flipside is a soaring cover of George Harrison’s ‘Wah Wah’. Any argument needed for keeping the single alive? – Here it is.