Friday 29 December 2017

Night and dreams: Alice Coote & Julius Drake

It's hard to believe that Wigmore Hall's 'Complete Schubert Songs' recital series is finally coming to end, with the final concert in the sequence falling on the composer's birthday, 31 January. I've not been keeping strict count - but overall, I think the whole enterprise has involved some 40 gigs, and an extraordinary roll call of singers and accompanists. However, it's likely that the performance given by the mezzo Alice Coote and pianist Julius Drake earlier this month will be remembered as one of the very best.

It's always a joy to hear AC and JD together: a regular partnership, they seem to have reached that telepathic stage where you almost sense there's one unified mind operating on stage through two agents. I had two key reference points that had been making me look forward to this recital for months. First, there was the duo's CD of 'Winterreise', recorded live at Wigmore Hall for the venue's house label - and a desert island art song disc for me. Second, I had been fortunate to hear them play a while ago at Middle Temple Hall, where they included not only some Schubert selections but an astonishing rendition of the piano/voice version of Elgar's 'Sea Pictures'.

(Photo copyright Benjamin Ealovega, used on Wigmore Hall website)

This time, of course, we had full-on Franz. The programme was something approaching perfection, with almost the feel of a Schubert 'greatest hits'. Many of the selections are well-loved, and frequently performed - but all the more welcome in their inclusion here for the chance to hear this pair's intepretations. I've tried to describe this quality before - and I'll keep trying: Alice Coote is so fundamental an actor-singer, so able to absorb herself into the personalities and actions in the songs, that to hear her perform lieder is a little like watching a series of self-contained four-minute operas. An obvious place for her to shine is 'Erlkönig', featuring three characters: the rider, his son, and the devilish sprite who steals the boy's life away. AC gives each one their own distinct voice, using lightning changes of timbre and volume as the story builds to its dreadful climax. And while everything we need to experience the thrill-ride is all in the voice, she allows her face to cloud with terror one moment, menace the next - utterly transfixing in such an intimate recital environment.

AC is surely one of classical music's great communicators, with passion for every note of the material audible in her singing. A good number of my own (and no doubt many others') personal favourites featured in the set-list - including 'Nacht und Träume', 'Du Bist die Ruh', 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen' and in particular, what I think must be one of the most beautiful songs ever penned by anyone, 'Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen'. Yet even after the hundreds of times I must have played or heard these by so many performers, for these couple of hours I felt I was in a suspended animation where I could listen to the familiar as if it was for the first time. AC could place me inside the songs, whether playful, tragic, romantic, horrific - the voice is rich, generous, able to hold my attention as if in a cradle.

(Photo copyright Marco Borggreve, used on Wigmore Hall website)

And just as Schubert wrote his piano parts to be on an equal footing with the voice, so JD matches AC's virtuousity and versatility with his own, providing a wide range of colours and dynamics - often within a single song. From the joyful bounce of 'An Silvia', through the visceral powerhouse of 'Erlkönig', to the gliding runs of 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen', he is every bit as vital to creating the worlds these songs inhabit.

Of course, both AC and JD work with plenty of other people - but relative to their history of performing live together, I think their special partnership is a little under-recorded (I only know of their collaboration on AC's debut CD, and the 'Winterreise' I mentioned before). However, I understand - with unchecked glee and off-the-scale levels of anticipation - that they have recorded a Schubert album together for release in the near future. If this concert in any way represents what we can expect from the disc, it will be one for the ages.

The recital itself is already one of my indelible muscial memories: everything I love about my favourite composer brought to life by two of my favourite musicians, at my favourite venue. So fine that if I only had one lieder concert to try and show someone 'the complete Schubert', instead of 40, I would point to this one.

Saturday 16 December 2017

Retrospecstive 2017: recorded

2017 seems to have gone by in about five minutes - is life getting even more frantic, or am I just slowing down? Anyway, time for this extremely pleasant end-of-year duty: posting my pick of the year's CDs up on the blog. (I'll post my round-up of operas and concerts in January.)

As ever, it's a bit of a melting pot (lieder fans might want to look away at the 'extreme metal' section), so here's a handy summary, with my discs of the year in bold. (I was aiming for a round 20, but ended up at 22 and couldn't bring myself to drop any...)

Classical: Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton; Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton; Ilker Arcayurek and Simon Lepper; The Sixteen; Mark Deeks; Penguin Café; Matthew Wadsworth; Alexei Lubimov; Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen; Kate Lindsey & Baptiste Trotignon; Marianne Crebassa & Fazil Say.

Everything else: Offa Rex, Sacred Paws, Wire, The Disappointment Choir, Anouar Brahem, Ralph Towner, John Carpenter, The Radiophonic Workshop, Akercocke, Wolves in the Throne Room, Converge.

As ever, I've tried to use YouTube for clips, as I know some people cannot or prefer not to use Spotify. I've only resorted to the latter if it was the only place I could find a decent sample. Hope you enjoy this year's selection box!


Joseph Middleton, pianist and collaborator extraordinaire, is at the keys for two of my favourite song discs of the year. I can't say I'm surprised by this - his last recording with Carolyn Sampson, 'A Verlaine Songbook', was one of my 2016 highlights, and both of these releases bear witness to his versatile, brilliantly alive playing, and flair for inventive programming. 'Lost is My Quiet', which brings Sampson together with Iestyn Davies in a to-die-for vocal partnership, marrying English song with lieder in performances showcasing two voices tailor-made to dovetail around each other. The programme grew out of one of the most joyous chamber Proms of 2016, and that spirit is fully captured on disc. (And, I hope you'll agree, in this live video clip.) Album of the year.

'Voyages' with Mary Bevan - striking out with a solo album following her work with JM in the Myrthen Ensemble - is another fascinating set of songs revolving around the Mignon character. Using Debussy and Schubert sequences as signposts, the pair unearth fascinating alternative settings and bring some truly gorgeous selections to light. MB is simply captivating throughout - hopefully there'll be many more CDs to come, allowing her to stretch out and inhabit the repertoire like this.

Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton: 'Lost Is My Quiet' (track - Purcell's 'Sound The Trumpet')

Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton: 'Voyages' (track - Duparc's 'La vie anterieure')

An all-Schubert song CD will always have a head start with me, but Ilker Arcayurek's debut really took hold of me, with its committed performances and consistency of mood (the songs all deal with solitude). SL complements IA's rich tone with real delicacy. On YouTube, I found both a live version of one track, plus a 'making of' video.

Ilker Arcayurek and Simon Lepper: 'Der Einsame' (track - 'Nacht Und Traume')

I do like a bit of fusion / mash-up / call-it-what-you-will, and my other album of the year is a folk-rock triumph by Offa Rex. This is a supergroup of sorts, with US band The Decemberists - who have fashioned a kind of mythical indie Americana sound all of their own - backing the pristine vocals of English singer Olivia Chaney. Anyone who's heard the Decemberists live will recall that they simply SWIRL, wiring up and sending a jolt of electricity through these trad covers, and galvanising Chaney into true glory. News just in - it's up for a Grammy! Almost as prestigious as a mention on this blog.

Offa Rex: 'The Queen of Hearts'

On the subject of mash-ups, if you've ever wondered what an impossibly cool female indie band might sound like if they'd listened to nothing but Afrobeat for years - science has provided an answer. Sacred Paws's album, plays highlife guitar and hyperactive drumming against unhurried, laidback vocals - the result: utterly infectious.

Sacred Paws: 'Strike A Match' (track - 'Strike A Match')

As someone who came to The Sixteen through much earlier music and tends to associate them (simplistically, I know) with a kind of gossamer perfection... I absolutely love it when they tackle other repertoire. They engage with Poulenc's sacred music - unquestionably beautiful but also somehow wracked - head-on.

Francis Poulenc: 'Choral Works' (track - 'Ave verum corpus')

It's so pleasing to see a band in their 40th anniversary year (with three-quarters of their original line-up present) make surely one of the best albums of their career. I love the way Wire still sound 'punk', yet totally in control - a kind of detached energy. The drumming alone would prompt me to include the album here.

Wire: 'Silver / Lead' (track - 'Playing Harp For The Fishes')

I was really pleased this year to hear and support two great records by unsigned musicians. First, there was the marvellous Disappointment Choir. (I always feel bound to mention that the two members, Rob and Katy, are friends of mine, but it's actually irrelevant when it comes to rating the music. I would find it impossible to evangelise about their material to the extent I have if I didn't genuinely, unreservedly love it.) The DC's particular gift is to take a kind of resigned, yet resilient melancholy and weld it to gloriously uplifting, synth-driven electro-pop. On their day, they can make you want to cry and dance at the same time. By contrast, Mark Deeks has produced an album of beautiful sound-pictures, conjuring up the Northumberland coast in a sequence of restrained, yet emotive solo piano pieces. The often stark beauty of the terrain that inspired the record is present throughout.

The Disappointment Choir: 'Vows' (track - 'Heartstrings')

Mark Deeks: 'Left By The Sail Road' (track - 'Wǽg')

Simon Jeffes - founder and leader of Penguin Café Orchestra, who died in 1997 aged only 48 - is one of music's great losses. All the more inspiring, then, that his son Arthur should not only gather a group of musicians to keep the flame alive, but then use that as a springboard to create his own, equally arresting and genre-mocking, body of work. 'The Imperfect Sea' emerged on the Erased Tapes label, a perfect home for a band who seem to have found a way to adapt a hypnotic, electronica sensibility into entirely acoustic arrangements.

Penguin Café: 'The Imperfect Sea' (track - 'Cantorum')

The latest release from lutenist Matthew Wadsworth is a delight from start to finish - but all the more remarkable for its inclusion of a newly-written suite for theorbo, 'The Miller's Tale', composed by guitarist Stephen Goss. (The theorbo is that flamboyantly large early-music stringed instrument that looks like someone has crossed a lute with a giraffe.) MW suggested that Goss tune his guitar more in line with a theorbo to compose the work, and the original result makes full use of the resonant bass notes of the older instrument. So often mixing ancient and modern involves taking something historic and doing something technologically advanced with it - here the contemporary sensibility is 'retro-applied' to old machinery, to superb effect.

Matthew Wadsworth: 'Late Night Lute' (tracks - 'Epilogue' / 'Estampie' from 'The Miller's Tale')

Always a stamp of quality - and recording excellence in particular - ECM had a most Specs-pleasing 2017, releasing a spine-tinglingly good CPE Bach recording by Alexei Lubimov, oud player Anouar Brahem back with possibly his greatest band yet (Jack DeJohnette still sounding like one of the finest drummers of all time), Trio Mediaeval's lovely collaboration with trumpeter Arve Henriksen (fans of the Hilliard Ensemble / Jan Garbarek albums should make haste), and Ralph Towner's latest modest masterpiece.

The Lubimov album is especially fine - Lubimov performs on a tangent piano, a piece of technology caught between old (harpsichord) and new (piano): so fitting for a composer who sometimes feels like he's straining out of the past towards the unknown future.

Alexei Lubimov: 'Tangere' (track - 'Solfeggio, Wq. 117/4')

Anouar Brahem: 'Blue Maqams' (track - 'Bom Dia Rio)

Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen: 'Rimur' (track - 'Morgunstjarna')

Ralph Towner: 'My Foolish Heart' (tracks - 'Saunter', 'Dolomiti Dance')

Two majestic - and unusual - song recordings from mezzos. Marianne Crebassa's survey of French song is as sumptuous as you might expect, with a magnificent voice/piano recording of Ravel's 'Sheherazade' at its core (after hearing MC perform this with orchestra at the Proms, the intimacy of this version was breathtaking), and a bold tour-de-force at the CD's climax with a wordless composition by pianist Say. Kate Lindsey collaborates with jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon for a programme centred around Kurt Weill - the pair finding an abundance of common ground, KL inhabits the songs with such versatility of character, it's impossible not to be swept along. I really enjoyed the short documentary about the album on YouTube, here alongside the title track.

Kate Lindsey & Baptiste Trotignon: 'Thousands of Miles' (track - 'Thousands of Miles / Big Mole')

Marianne Crebassa & Fazil Say: 'Secrets' (track - from 'Sheherazade: Asie')

Two great recordings for fans of 'scaring oneself witless with sound alone'. Director John Carpenter wrote the chilling, atmospheric (and largely electronic) soundtracks for many of his films, their icy nature a perfect foil for his distinctive approach to horror. After kick-starting a late second career as a recording musician (with two hugely enjoyable 'Lost Themes' albums), he and his band have gone back to his film scores and re-recorded his 'greatest hits'. Meanwhile, the Radiophonic Workshop (yes, the 'Doctor Who' people, although as their shortened name implies, no longer part of the BBC) have made a genuinely unsettling album of electronic improvisations. There's some piano in there to anchor it to our planet, but for all the world it sounds like a capsule of our music has travelled to another part of the universe and fused there with something alien.

John Carpenter: 'Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998' (track - 'Assault On Precinct 13'

The Radiophonic Workshop: 'Burials In Several Earths' (excerpts)

Finally, for those of us who like their metal on the complex, yet noisy and shouty, side - 2017 has brought the return of three tremendous bands after some years' absence. In the case of Akercocke, we had reason to believe they would never record together again, but their 'comeback' album is exactly as you'd hope: more mature and thoughtful, yet still writhing with the old venom and aggression. Wolves in the Throne Room return to their skyscraping, epic rage after the previous album's ambient detour. And finally, a slightly-extended break doesn't seem to have halted Converge's momentum in the slightest - another group who just seem to get more vital, more rewarding as time goes on.

Akercocke: 'Renaissance in Extremis' (track - 'One Chapter Closes For Another To Begin'

Wolves in the Throne Room: 'Thrice Woven' (track - 'Born From The Serpent's Eye (edit)')

Converge: 'The Dusk In Us' (track - 'Trigger')


Sunday 10 December 2017

Sea changes: 'Left By The Sail Road' by Mark Deeks

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.


This is a solo piano album of austere wonder. Composer and performer Mark Deeks hails from Northumberland, and in tribute to his home patch, the eight original pieces here are named in the county’s old dialect (the album also includes a cover version of John Ireland’s ‘Sea Fever’). A water theme runs through the record like a river, with tracks named for waves, floods, showers, ice… so we have, in some ways, a tone poem: a suite of works that, over its running time, builds a picture of the North Sea coastline in audio.

To do this successfully, there would have to be a starkness to underpin the picturesque, and MD achieves that balance perfectly – the music is beautiful throughout, but favours sparse reflection over ‘prettiness’. I think listeners of Glass, say, or Satie would find much to enjoy in these pieces: that’s not to simplify and say that MD is ‘like’ those composers – more that he also prizes the effects of a rhythmic pattern, the power of a silence, and the value of unhurried contemplation.

While the album sustains a coherent mood, close and repeated listening reveals the individual personalities of each track, the way they embody their liquid titles. For example, opening track ‘Wǽg’ (‘Wave’) features an undulating rhythm in the bass, perhaps unsurprisingly – but above that, the melody not only turns about itself in an ebb and flow movement, the chords cut across the bassline as if ‘breaking’ onto the shore. While later in the sequence, ‘Scúr’ (‘Shower’) moves the initial, insistent rhythm into the right hand, as if the rain is starting to pitter-patter onto the ground.

The superb ‘Flódas’ (‘Floods’) moves along with a more hyperactive, unpredictable gait, and ramps up the intensity until the melody almost breaks – bursts its banks. While the serene ‘Gyrwe’ (‘Wetlands’) – for me, one of the album’s absolute highlights – allows its left-hand to glide calmly while the restrained, delicately-judged interventions of the right-hand conjure up the momentary drips and breeze-driven disturbances from the reeds and grasses.

I was completely won over by this record’s confident restraint: give it time and drift through its space.

It’s also worth mentioning that, perhaps due to its steady pace and focus on melodic ambience, much of the suite sounds accessible to fellow pianists – and sure enough, MD has produced a very limited run of sheet music for the album, available to buy alongside the CD. To buy either – or, let’s not be coy – both, you can visit the artist’s Bandcamp page for the album here.