Sunday 24 April 2016

Divided opinion: 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the ROH

When I started this blog, I decided to keep the tone as positive as possible. I don't mean, of course, that I would pretend to like things that I disliked - rather that I would focus solely on performances and recordings that I enjoyed. It's one reason that I tend not to describe my posts as 'reviews' (although I'm quite happy for others to do so, as I'm always honest). Professional critics are paid to see a range of things and give a learned opinion accordingly. I'm a punter: I pay to see what I write about, and I'm still a relative newbie on something of a musical learning curve - so to go back to a phrase I used in Specs's very early days, it's more a way of keeping a 'cultural diary'. I'm infinitely more comfortable trying to explain why something has really fired me up, and turning that into an enthusiastic recommendation - 'spreading the love', shall we say - than I am weighing into something.

By now, you might be asking, "Where on earth is this going?", so forgive the long preamble. It's just that after seeing the new production of Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the Royal Opera House, I found myself having such conflicted, even confused reactions to it - far more so than usual - that I knew I'd end up writing about it ... if only to try and sort my thoughts out. It won't be 100% praise, though.

I'm not alone. Reaction to the production has been varied, to say the least. I see a cross-section, I suppose, of critics, comment-makers, experts and enthusiasts across newspaper websites and social media links - and a few people have really loved it. Some others have hated everything about it. What I found even more interesting was that even though there were some extreme responses, various people liked/detested completely different things - to the point where you wondered if they'd been to the same opera. The staging was either interesting/innovative or a complete failure; the singing utterly glorious - or it barely passed muster. There's just one area which seems to broadly unite everyone: I'll come back to it a bit later.

First, a quick canter through the plot, which is 'freely' based on a Walter Scott novel. Scotland. Two families, Ashton and Ravenswood, at historical loggerheads. Lucia, of the former, loves Edgardo, of the latter. (The forenames of the characters are all 'Italianised' in the libretto.) Their cover is blown, and Lucia's brother Enrico determines to put a stop to the relationship, not just because of the feud - he also needs Lucia to make a good marriage to another lord, Arturo, to save the family from ruin.

While Edgardo is away on political business, Enrico and his cronies have been intercepting letters between the pair in an effort to end the romance. Enrico forces Lucia to go through with the wedding. As if that wasn't bad enough, Edgardo returns unexpectedly, just in time to see Lucia's signature on the marriage certificate and he rejects her as well.

The final act of the opera then brings two especially celebrated sequences: the 'Wolf's Crag' duet, where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel, followed by Lucia's 'mad scene': now beyond reason, she has murdered Arturo and re-appears, fantasising about life with Edgardo, before collapsing. Enrico's anger turns to remorse. The duel never happens - news of Lucia's death reaches Edgardo, and he takes his life, expecting to reunite with Lucia in heaven.

As I mentioned, I'm enough of a rookie to still be at the stage where I'm seeing most of the operas I go to for the first time, including this one. One thing a critic or amateur expert must surely do automatically (whether they want to or not) is carry into each opera a mental database of previous versions. They would be able to recall 10, 20, 30 Lucias - including their own favourite as a benchmark, or control - against which they measure the current version's worth. Until I gather up a few recordings or chalk up some more productions, this latest one is 'my' Lucia, and my experience - and accordingly, my reaction - will inevitably be different.

To begin with: I found that I really enjoyed the staging - or to be more accurate, the ideas behind the staging. Director Katie Mitchell has a vertical division cutting the stage in half - or strictly speaking, into two parts, as the two halves are unequal. The effect is exactly as if the split-screen technique familiar from the movies is being employed live. (I couldn't help thinking of possibly the most famous use of this in horror cinema: the original 'Carrie', where the closing scenes of destruction are shown from two viewpoints at once. Is it a coincidence that the architect of the havoc is also a youthful manipulated woman in a blood-soaked dress?)

For practical purposes, this means that while the opera 'as we know it' is being sung on one half of the stage, a simultaneous 'silent' scene is generally being played out on the other. (There are a few moments where one half is 'dark'.)

(Production photo copyright to the ROH / Stephen Cummiskey)

KM's feminist interpretation highlights the fact that the opera sidelines its women: most obviously, both Lucia's act of defiance - the murder - and her death are normally off-stage. Also, Lucia's mother is not long dead before the opera opens; and Lucia tells of being spooked by the ghost of an Ashton girl killed by one of the Ravenswoods years earlier.

KM has this play out before our eyes: Lucia, with the help of her maid Alisa, murders Arturo in front of us while Enrico and Edgardo sing the Wolf's Crag duet, and during Edgardo's final soliloquy, Lucia prepares to slit her wrists in the bath. The ghosts of the young girl and the mother are re-animated, silently inserting themselves into Lucia's vision throughout as harbingers of doom: clearly, Lucia is fated to a similar early death as the girl, while the mother's apparation is perhaps more ambiguous. It signifies, one supposes, the part grief might play in Lucia's madness, but I also wondered if KM might be referencing the original novel, where Lady Ashton is the 'villain', attempting to prevent the union in the way Enrico does in the opera (another suppression of a woman's active involvement, however evil) and as such could be an image of pure horror to Lucia.

Other plot enhancements are added to support KM's approach, but because of the 'split-screen', they didn't seem to me to interfere or derail the action of the 'real' opera. For example, this Lucia is without doubt a thinking, acting, independently-minded woman - not just the human commodity she is treated as, and risks lapsing into. In their early, clandestine meeting, Lucia seduces Edgardo - and we see the outcome of this when Lucia endures bouts of morning sickness later on. Then, the stress of the murder brings on a miscarriage. (Some of you may be familiar with production stills, or DVD covers for this opera: the mad scene is so well-known that most Lucias seem to be depicted in white, covered in her groom's blood. The audience know that most of the blood covering this Lucia is her own - horrific and desperately sad at the same time. I also thought Diana Damrau as Lucia played this just right - a beautiful, versatile voice but for a mad scene, somewhat low-key, her character drained of energy: a sense of real poignancy.)

Splitting the stage also invites us to consider male and female 'space', and how one invades the other. Men constantly burst into Lucia's room - and then her bathroom. (People were swift to point out - fairly - that one of the concept's weaknesses is that she would surely have just got a lock for the door.) But Lucia's mad scene has her wandering into the chaps' billiard room, filling it with her literal hysteria, hopeless fantasy and bloody dress like a self-respecting repressed gentleman's worst nightmare. Finally, in a monstrous twist, Edgardo - who normally dies apart from the unseen Lucia - breaks into the house, finds her in the bath and kills himself over her body, uniting them in defiance of the onstage barrier.

In my opinion, bringing fresh viewpoints like this to an opera like this can reap multiple rewards - but where I felt the production was strong, the direction went awry. I think some veterans of the opera were particularly vexed by the idea that people would inevitably be distracted by the action of the murder during one of the most crucial and revered vocal scenes, for example. And they have a point, certainly - not because I think it's impossible to understand two things at once, but because it meant the murder took too long. This may not have been a directorial accident - it could've been a 'Torn Curtain'-style attempt to show how hard it is to polish someone off: Lucia here implicates Alisa because it takes them both to finally subdue Arturo. But the overwrought physicality of it teetered into slapstick, prompting some of the audience to laugh. Again, you could argue this was a deliberate risk because the ensuing miscarriage is then a harsher jolt - but that feels unconvincing. Certainly - deliberately or otherwise - it 'damaged' our appreciation of the men's duet.

On a less psycho-analytical note, there also simply seems to have been some slightly odd decisions for using the space. The chorus were sometimes crammed into enclosed nooks and crannies, and characters had to stand still and remonstrate much of the time because they couldn't 'roam'.

I think it's worth considering a couple of bits of context to this. In addition to applying a feminist reading, I think KM is also showing a strong level of 'aesthetic' consistency. Her previous ROH production of the then-new opera 'Written on Skin' also carved up the stage space between sterile, modern rooms (a view of a heaven populated by analytical angels) and the medieval dwelling of the main characters. I've only seen this on disc (it premiered not long before I started going to the opera seriously) so I can't wait for the forthcoming revival - I really love it. While I've yet to experience the way the space works live, on-screen it's stunning. The verticals seem crucial - the angelic associations; the idea that the protagonists are being watched and infiltrated; even the character Agnès's death - a Tosca-like plummet from the roof-top. So I think the 'Lucia' production design fits into an existing fascination KM must have with dividing up space to give material multiple meanings or viewpoints.

('Written on Skin', also copyright to the ROH / Stephen Cummisky)

However, I also couldn't help thinking of the ROH's recent production of 'Boris Godunov', which split the stage horizontally. This worked for all kinds of reasons - characters on both levels had space to move freely, the upper area took on a hallucinatory 'dream sequence' vibe in comparison to the earthbound action below... and there were no (as far as I know) sightline issues. I got the impression that people at the sides in this 'Lucia' could struggle to get the full picture - literally - whereas up in the Amphitheatre section I had the entire stage in my field of vision. If that's true, it implies that some of the cheaper (that is, worse) seats had a better view - clearly not ideal, even if I'm not personally complaining.

Where something really was lacking, however, was the orchestra - or to be more accurate, the conducting. Daniel Oren is the baton-wielder for 'Lucia' - and I remember him conducting a production of Verdi's 'Un ballo in maschera' at the ROH where the pace was so slow, at least one of the singers was audibly struggling for breath when trying to sustain longer notes. (This issue seems to be where most opinions meet.) Here, I could hear that the orchestra lacked the kind of 'zing' or 'oomph' - the wide dynamic range that you'd get when their boss Antonio Pappano, say, is in charge. I couldn't really detect any noticeable variations in speed or sound, and the music struggled to make itself stand out for its own sake. So the singers had to carry the day, vocally and physically. Charles Castronovo had a great voice, I thought, and made a suitably impassioned Edgardo, almost matched by Ludovic Tézier as Enrico - although the stage action rather seemed to 'overtake' his opportunity to convey his regret. I've already suggested, I think, that the acting honours go to Diana Damrau, who really brought to life this more assured, and perhaps as a result more tragic, Lucia - again, not just vocally, but in her movement - the way her spirit ebbed out of her as the opera went on. (Wags may comment that the conductor was doing just that to the score!)

So - an evening where the staging seemed inventive and meaningful but where the direction failed to place the characters realistically in that universe. Where the voices seemed to work but the underlying music didn't. How could I not write about it? I'm still puzzling over it days later. Mad scenes.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Duo dynamics: two Wigmore Hall recitals

The Wigmore Hall continues to act as a kind of second home at the moment (I wish!), thanks to my ongoing mission to try and get to as many of its 'Complete Schubert Songs' recital series as possible - as well as the many additional delights it has to offer.

I do try to see some solo and chamber instrumental performances - and on occasion succeed - but they're currently spread a bit more thinly through my diary than they might be otherwise. The Schubert series continues until summer 2017, so my trips to the WH will be overwhelmingly song-based until then.

Not that I'm complaining! Two recent recitals in particular really brought home to me that even if the tools in use - voice and piano - stay the same from concert to concert, our experiences as attendees and listeners are almost infinitely varied and surprising.

The first featured the renowned US mezzo Susan Graham, accompanied by Malcolm Martineau. This duo are long-standing performance partners, with MM playing on most (I think) of SG's recital albums. Of the ones I own, a couple are single-composer surveys - Reynaldo Hahn (recorded with Roger Vignoles), Ned Rorem - but what really seems to fire the pair up is creating mixed, themed programmes that give SG the chance to genre-hop into jazz/cabaret mode and the listener an opportunity to discover something new. For example, the album 'Vixens, Virgins & Viragos' sets out its survey of womanhood from Purcell and Schubert through to Porter and Sondheim. Another favourite of mine is 'Un frisson français' which, as you might expect, is French song throughout but with one song per composer - giving it almost the feel of a mixtape that your enthusiast classical music pal might put together for you. (Which I suspect is how they approached it.)

This flair for programming was still in evidence for the Wigmore recital (and I'm very pleased to learn there'll be a disc of this material to come). The evening was called 'Frauenliebe und -leben: Variations'. Some of you will recognise the title before the colon as a celebrated song-cycle by Schumann. It sets eight poems (from a longer sequence by the marvellously-named Adelbert von Chamisso) which run through key emotional moments in its female protagonist's life, from meeting her future husband through to their wedding, parenthood and, ultimately, his death.

Brief digression: both SG and Renée Fleming - who I got to hear perform the cycle last week, but perhaps that's for another post! - both felt the need to 'apologise' to some extent for it. Fleming explained that it was hugely popular for years but fell out of favour more recently because of the apparent subservience/abandonment/devotion/what-you-will shown by the woman towards the man. Yet the way it covers such a range of emotions in its compact form - conveyed with such glorious melodies - must have great appeal for a singer. It seems to be back: alongside SG and RF, Alice Coote and Dorothea Röschmann have both released lovely versions in recent months. Interesting, too, that Schumann's piano part attracts players who are more often soloists, with Christian Blackshaw accompanying AC, and Mitsuko Uchida with DR. RF had decided that audiences could cope with the idea that the attitude in the songs was of its time; SG also pointed out that the longer version of the story told in the full sequence of poems hinted that the wife was not quite as meek and compliant as the compressed version implied.

Anyway - SG and MM had devised their own way of expanding the cycle, and this is where the 'Variations' come in. Instead of performing the Schumann uninterrupted, they gathered a small group of songs around each Schumann lied that tied into it thematically. So, to give an example, the 'loving from afar' topic of the second song ('Er, der Herrlichtse von allen', or 'He, the most wonderful of all') was grouped with Johnny Dankworth's setting of 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' - again, a jazz detour of sorts - alongside love songs from Fauré and Rangstrom. As SG gleefully announced, the programme ranged widely across countries, with the mezzo tackling eight languages by the end of the evening. Her voice is warm and luxurious, convincing in any tongue: I was particularly drawn to the two Spanish settings (songs by Turina and Granados). But given the duo's form, perhaps it isn't surprising that the perfomances really haunting my memory are French: as well as Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc all putting in an appearance, there was a heartrending version of 'Absence' from Berlioz's 'Les nuits d'été' - a work new to me but, I understand, far more commonly heard with orchestra... not that I would've known given MM's immaculate accompaniment.

I realise I've mentioned several times that SG talks to the audience. Before singing a note, she explained at length the concept of the recital, and even covered some 'housekeeping' - for example, when we should applaud. (That is, "when Malcolm stands up". Inevitably, when someone clapped out of place, we got a lovely bit of business where SG gestured ostentatiously towards MM, mouthing "He's. Still. Sitting. Down.")

I really enjoyed that aspect of the performance. There's no doubt that this was an 'event' recital, with SG radiating star power from the stage, but the rapport she established with the audience - not to mention that she already shares with MM - punctured any impulse towards hushed reverence and made for a properly 'inclusive' concert, largely characterised by warmth, humour and affection. When the serious songs came, they were played with appropriate gravitas and grace - and all the more affecting for it - but on balance, smiles prevailed. MM's approach is a huge part of this - able to play 'in character' as much as the singer, he is a superb communicator with the audience himself, and SG acknowledged this by more or less forcing him to take his own bow at the end.

(A rather lovely 'bootleg' recording of the duo playing a signature song, Hahn's 'A Chloris' - their relaxed performance style clear to see.)

And then ... for something completely different. I'd thought for some time that I would have to miss the great baritone Christian Gerhaher's contribution to the Complete Schubert series - it sold out before my WH booking was processed. Luckily, however, a return came up, so Cinders (me) could go to the ball (recital)!

CG is certainly a prominent operatic performer - his recent performance as Wozzeck is due to appear on DVD, he's in ROH's 'Tannhauser' shortly, and the only other time I'd heard him perform live was as Pelleas a few months ago at the Barbican. But I think it's fair to say he's something of a recital specialist, with Sony calling its recent box-set of his recordings - running to a handsome 13 discs of lieder - 'The Art of Song'. (And we are strictly talking about 'lieder' here - the entire set is German song, and in general, CG seems to stray only very rarely from his native tongue, at least on disc. Perhaps this is part of the reason he seems able to inhabit these songs so completely.)

Too recent for inclusion in the 'Art of Song' box was 'Nachtviolen', a 2014 album of Schubert lieder CG recorded with his regular recital accompanist, Gerold Huber. It's one of my favourite classical discs of recent years - the selection of songs helps to create the 'dark' mood hinted at by the title, and the production has an intimate, 'close-mic' feel that makes CG sound like he's singing right next to you, and your attentiveness rockets up accordingly. There are bursts of energy on the record - a pairing of 'Herbst' and 'Über Wildermann', for example, or the macabre 'Der Zwerg' - that feel all the more effective given the more 'hushed' nature of their surroundings.

I dwell on the excellence of the album because I wasn't quite prepared for the recital programme - which was 'Nachtviolen', track by track, in order. Obviously, order is quite important in classical music (you don't re-arrange symphonic movements, say) but taking a CD and playing it in sequence is something I still associate unshakeably with the rock world - for example, Paul Simon playing all of 'Graceland' on an anniversary tour. It made me think that CG - and GH - must be aware that (a) it really is an unstoppably great album, and (b) they're exactly the right Schubert songs for CG at this time - don't mess with what works. The overall flow of the disc - its unified atmosphere with perfectly-judged gear changes - survived into the live performance intact, and yet I think this has as much to do with the duo's skilful stagecraft as their sound.

(The glorious 'Nachtviolen' itself.)

In many respects this was the polar opposite of the Graham/Martineau approach. CG wasn't in anyway aloof - he smiled, made eye contact, accepted applause. But he didn't say a word to us. And he hardly moved, either: it was all about the voice, which is - let's not be coy - beautiful. It's a deep but delicate caress. Completely uninterested, it seems, in knocking us into the back of the hall with a baritonal blast, CG somehow sang exactly how you'd want a living version of the album to be: I was back in row W, but he was projecting 'quietly', as if singing to me from the next seat. But then, of course, when the occasional fast or loud sections come along, live they carry that much more 'zing', and he nailed every such moment.

Interestingly, the visual effects - so to speak - came from GH, an expressive, mobile pianist who seems to play with his whole upper body, but never tips the balance into showboating theatrics. On the contrary, with a singer more than prepared to dial it down, he clearly has to play with a great deal of control himself - but after performing and recording together for so long, the two of them clearly have the dynamics comfortably worked out. It was a kind of perfection - not necessarily 100% pristine, but consummate, measured. Confident enough to hold something in reserve, allowing the revered Wigmore acoustic to do its job and wrap the melody around us.

Saturday 9 April 2016

A backwards glance

As regular visitors to the blog ('Speculars'? Carry on...) will know, I tend to post occasional updates on my photography amid the gig and opera write-ups - mainly because it's as important a part of me as all the music and, I suppose, it's an area where instead of my usual role - appreciator - I'm creator and collaborator.

It's all strictly amateur - I've no studio, for example, or significantly powerful editing kit - but then searching out locations and themes 'at large' for me, is a a huge part of the fun. And because my favourite field is portraiture, I'm lucky to have a growing band of friends who've now become part of my photographic 'family', all coming up with ideas and input so that the actuality of who 'directs' or steers part or all of each shoot often becomes happily blurred.

For this session, Suzanne decided to go 'vintage', with hair, make-up and outfits harking back to, say, Hollywood, film noir or perhaps somewhere in between. As we went along, she realised she liked a large number of the colour photographs and wanted them kept that way - when, perhaps, before we got going, we might have expected to produce a full series in monochrome. I got the opportunity to experiment with soft focus 'on the go', as well as trying to control the composition to banish anything too modern... and Suzanne absolutely nailed the look - thanks as ever, S, for all your efforts! I hope you enjoy the pictures.

(The above is one of those happy accidents of location-spotting. I missed this staircase the first time I passed it. Outside the shot, you could see we were on a spiral of concrete... and instead of the haunting lantern I would've craved, the light top right came from an ultra-modern box-shaped lamp.)

(Extra points to the model in the above shot for successfully conveying, in her words, 'mild peril'...!)

(The above shot is an homage to an old photograph I have of one of my favourite actresses Deborah Kerr - so there is a genuine precedent for the 'star emerging from foliage' genre.)

Friday 1 April 2016

Voice of reason: Barb Jungr's 'Shelter From The Storm'

It's lovely to follow a sense of purpose and continuity in an artist's work. Barb Jungr has long been one of our finest jazz vocalists, but to my mind her talent and instincts for putting together an astonishing collection of songs are now unerring. 'Shelter From The Storm' - album and show - is her latest thing of wonder.

One of the reasons the new record is so satisfying is that it seems to tie together various threads of Barb's recent work, acting as a kind of unofficial sequel to about four recent projects, while still finding a new direction (so, a perfect place to jump in, then take off!)... Brilliant at finding the nerve centre of songs - particularly by men, stripping away any masculine bravado to expose the raw sensitivity beneath - Barb made a magnificent record in 2010 called 'The Men I Love', where her 'new American songbook' featured songs by Paul Simon, David Byrne and Todd Rundgren among others, including two hugely important figures in her discography: Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Then came 'Stockport to Memphis', an eclectic selection (from Sam Cooke to Joni Mitchell) but crucially, featuring some imaginative and infectious originals, written with pianist/arranger Simon Wallace. The pair also collaborated on the follow-up, 'Hard Rain', devoted to Dylan and Cohen protest songs - an uncompromising, unashamedly political programme with its steel softened by the unfailingly creative arrangements (if you thought it was impossible to hear 'Blowin' in the Wind' as if it was new - think again). Then, most recently, she collaborated across the pond with another master arranger, John McDaniel, for 'Come Together' - an evening of Beatles songs, again, re-imagined and reshaped not only by B's feminine perspective but J's US angle, ensuring that the song selection wasn't too obvious (all hail the White Album!) and the covers were respectful but never too reverential. I'm feverishly hoping they bring those interpretations to disc at some point.

Well - that was an early digression! But 'Shelter from the Storm' is in some ways the strong-willed, slightly rebellious offspring of all these forerunners. More than anything, the album artwork/typography suggests this is 'Shelter' from the 'Hard Rain', that album's bleak content now answered by the new record's subtitle 'Songs of Hope for Troubled Times' and the dark interior now opening out into a leafy park. However, the album ranges across an even wider choice of covers than 'The Men I Love' - with showtunes nestling in among the more brittle, modern entries - and, more good news, Barb is back writing again, with a new American collaborator and piano magician, Laurence Hopgood.

(Album cover photography by Steve Ullathorne.)

How the record expresses this hope is woven as much into the musical arrangements as the lyrics. The Cohen song on this album is my all-time favourite of his: 'Sisters of Mercy'. Thanks to its nun-more-spiritual title and acoustic arrangement, the original certainly lends itself to a hushed, genteel treatment (such as the Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris duet cover, angelically gorgeous but utterly chaste)...but not here. As Barb points out in her live introduction to the song, this is from when Cohen 'had the energy for two women'. The Jungr / Hopgood take teasingly begins in a just-this-side-of-exaggeration gospel style, before easing into a Latin shuffle that suggests the song's protagonist probably does have a few things to confess about. The song features what I think is one of the best closing couplets ever written: entirely as ambiguous or elegantly simple as you want it to be: 'And you won't make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night / We weren't lovers like that, and besides - it would still be all right.' Barb seizes on this as the key to the song, riffing on it as it nears its, well, climax. *cough* *goes for lie-down*

The band also rev up Joni Mitchell's 'Woodstock' in what must be one of the record's stand-out tracks. Again, I sense a little mischief as the song opens with graceful solemnity - I'm hoping it won't spoil it for you too much if I say that you can expect a gear change or two, leading into an addictively funky groove that restores an air of celebration to the song, however temporary. I love the way that with L's use of different keyboard sounds, matched by B's varied, virtuosic vocals (with the occasional nod, I *suspect*, to JM - 'staaaaaaaaaar-dust!' - but always retaining her own uniquely rich tone) - you do also get a sense of different bands mashed up, following each other, chasing the same tune.

But any playfulness never over-rides the album's sincerity, and fundamentally good heart. The programme on the album must have been very carefully worked out, and is - to me - utterly emotionally true. For example, the artists' roving eyes for material demonstrate that whether you go all the way back to the 'first' great American songbook or come closer to the present, human longing has been a constant. The opening selection is an inspired 'Bali Hai' - stripped from its 'South Pacific' context and re-cast in this small band setting, the song acquires a lighter-footed, sinewy 'oomph', while staking its claim as a universal anthem of belonging. I was also struck by the inclusion of Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower' and Peter Gabriel's 'In Your Eyes' as a single song, with verses for each woven around each other. An inspired move, musically for sure, to see how the backbones of both could be fused - but also neatly symbolic of the album's collaboration between UK and US artists. It's also fascinating to hear how the mythic elusiveness of the Dylan lyric is punctured by Gabriel's emotional directness: sometimes you just need to get to the heart of the matter.

The celestial is a recurring theme: a tender treatment of Bowie's 'Life on Mars?' and 'Space Oddity' closes the disc, and the three new tracks all look heavenward - to the stars, planets and - powerfully so - Nina Simone's spirit. ('Stars Lazy But Shining', both complex and catchy, weaves its spell in the video below.)

As you've probably gathered, 'Shelter from the Storm' is not without melancholy: it understands that by definition, hope is always for something yet to come. But track by track, it shows us how to cling on: through optimism, humour, love, resolution and strength. Hope and jazz do, in fact, have this in common, don't they? - the journey is what sustains you, even if you can never know what's coming next.


Live, 'Shelter from the Storm' is all you could want from a gig - the already-brilliant album material given a generous blast of nuclear-powered energy and intimate focus. (I was at one of the recent London dates and was happily overwhelmed!) The initial run of UK performances is nearly over - although in early April you can still make Corby or Portsmouth. However, as you can see from Barb's epic live dates webpage, she keeps several of her programmes alive at any one time, and it's sure to be back.

In the meantime, you can buy the album here. Visit the Linn website anyway, because there are two extra tracks waiting for you that you can download for free. They do fill out the overall picture - Bacharach & David's 'What the World Needs Now is Love' is a suitably soulful addition, plus an indispensable version of Springsteen's 'Long Walk Home' (again, a personal favourite - I sometimes feel I might be a bit out of step in my affection for the 'Magic' album), the most recent song covered in the project, and fitting the theme like a glove.