Monday 31 December 2018

Retrospecstive 2018: recorded

Happy new year to you all, with my very best wishes for 2019.

Before all that, though, here is my first round-up of 2018 - this post covers recordings, while a follow-up in the near future will look at live performances.

I'm all too aware that people fall in and out of love with lists, so I have deliberately avoided ranking these selections or choosing 'albums' of the year, whatever the genre. There was just too much I wanted to enthuse about and recommend: 30 titles this time.

As a bit of a guide, I have set them out here at the top, in two groups - classical, and 'everything else' - then alphabetically, within those groups. However, what I really hope is that those of you who have time will range across the main body of the post and try out some choices you may not otherwise have discovered or listened to. (One caveat: the epically loud / extreme metal stuff is at the end. Just before Clutch, there's an imaginary glass door, like they used to have in the Virgin and HMV megastores, which listeners of a sensitive disposition may not wish to pass through!)

A final mention in passing for one of my favourite ever bands, Trembling Bells. Regular readers may have expected me to include their 2018 release 'Dungeness' in this round-up - and I thought about it. But the truth is: you really don't know what you've got till it's gone. I didn't have time to write properly about the album, or catch them on the latest tour. Now, as we reach the end of the year, the Bells are no more. The good news is that the split seems amicable enough, and the various members are stretching out into multiple separate projects that will carry the torch. In the meantime, I want to write a proper appreciation of their whole career, including that blazing final album: they had never made a record that was anything less than excellent, and with the exit sign lit up, they weren't about to start. Watch this space.

But in the meantime - off we go...


Classical: John Adams, Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Colin Currie Group, Thomas Dunford, Mahan Esfahani, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw, Kim Kashkashian, Anja Lechner & Pablo Marquez, Viktoria Mullova, Rebeca Omordia, Sandrine Piau & Susan Manoff, Jo Quail, Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton.

'Everything else': Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Matt Berry, Anna Calvi, Neko Case, Olivia Chaney, Clutch, Drudkh, Barb Jungr & John McDaniel, Heather Leigh, The Necks, Parquet Courts, Pig Destroyer, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Sieben, Richard Thompson.


My favourite recital duo with a disc devoted to my favourite composer - I'm sure I had unreasonably high expectations but it lived up to them all. The all-Schubert focus may have unified the mood more than on their previous titles, but the flair for inventive programming remained, with the sequence charting the perfect course for CS's voice. Just brilliant.

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton: 'A Soprano's Schubertiade' (track - 'Gretchen am spinnrade')

Cellist-composer Jo Quail is essentially carving out her own genre, with her latest stunning record combining an avant-garde classical structure with intense, percussive melody (created and built with only JQ's cello and loop station) - and guests providing metal guitar and vocalese heroics. It's unpredictable, addictive and wholly original.

Jo Quail: 'Exsolve' (track - 'Mandrel Cantus', video edit)

Mahan Esfahani's latest release is the kind of CD which, if money was no object, I would just press into people's hands. (And as it's on Hyperion, you can't hear the whole thing on Spotify.) A great place to start (or continue) if you're curious about the harpsichord, or even if you aren't. The album is like one of the artist's recitals - programmed and performed with audible, robust joy and enthusiasm.

Mahan Esfahani: 'The Pasinge Mesures' (track - excerpts video)

Two albums from two guitar geniuses. One I was excitedly waiting for - I've been a fan of Anna Calvi since her debut. It was thrilling and fascinating to hear how, after the carefully controlled simmer of her earlier music (and image), the new record was like an explosion - thunderous songs like 'As A Man' and 'Don't Beat the Girl out of my Boy' as total declarations of intent.

The other came out of nowhere. I had heard of genre-straddling pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh, but first heard her in her duo partnership with free jazz sax wielder Peter Brotzmann. But her solo material is something other: 'Throne' creates a bath of sound, abstract but mobile - you can hear on the track I've selected how the pedal steel warp/weft is used to such great effect - which cradles her beautiful vocals: I've heard Kate Bush used as a reference point - useful, perhaps - but to be honest, this is a unique brew: wild agility, yes, but intimate, confident, with elements of both a 'correct' folk voice with a bluesy sensuality. Again, something special is going on here: rich, tense, feminine, uncompromisingly personal music - profoundly affecting.

Anna Calvi: 'Hunter' (track - 'Hunter')

Heather Leigh: 'Throne' (track - 'Days Without You')

Barbara Hannigan can give such gloriously extreme performances that it's easy to forget she's prepared to travel as far inward. Her partnership with pianist Reinbert de Leeuw seems to yield such delicate results - I thought 'Vienna' was a particularly lovely compendium of art song.

Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw: 'Vienna: Fin de Siecle' (track - 'Irmelin Rose', composed by Zelimsky)

I love it when jazz bands lock into a groove - any kind of interactive improvisation between musicians always impresses me, but nothing beats those moments when they seem to telepathically reach a point at the same time when they all let rip. It's always remarkable how the Necks sustain their album-length pieces, but this year's 'Body' was a pure rush to the head and heart (the 'track' I found on YouTube is the whole album - if you like it, for pity's sake, buy it!). Ronin - following their leader Nik Bärtsch's maxim of 'ritual groove music' - don't stretch out at quite the same length but 'Awase' was still full of satisfying rhythms.

The Necks: 'Body' (track - 'Body'!)

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: 'Awase' (track - 'Modul 36')

Dextrously played, unusual piano rhythms actually leads me onto my next classical choice - a recital of solo piano pieces written by Nigerian composers, little known or performed within Western musical circles. Clearly a labour of love for the artist, who is half-Nigerian herself - but there is no sense of self-indulgence or sentimentality. The playing is so alive, and the pieces themselves so infectious: certainly a window into another area of classical music for me, and I'm sure for fans of 'world music' in its more familiar guises (such as Afrobeat or 'desert blues').

Rebeca Omordia: 'Ekele' (track - 'Ya Orule', composed by Ayo Bankole)

Nostalgia for old themes and soundtracks often feels rooted in a kind of 'coolness' that surrounds the music - the frequency with which the themes belong to crime/SF/horror films or shows, or even the enigma of much of the 'library music' itself. I love all that stuff. But Matt Berry's homage album of theme tune covers seemed to subvert all that. 'Doctor Who' might have been a predictable choice, but elsewhere you might think some of the selections slightly deranged: 'The Good Life'? 'Rainbow'? Brilliantly, MB spends the half-hour painstakingly world-building, even including covers of the LWT and Thames Television idents (for non-British or, let's face it, younger readers, these are now-defunct commercial broadcasting companies based in London). And now and then, after reproducing an aural past, gently spices it up - among other delights, you have the dub sections of 'Are You Being Served?' and 'Sorry' to look forward to.

Matt Berry: 'Television Themes' (track - 'Picture Box')

Two records which remind me of one of my favourite countries I've ever visited: Estonia. On the Pärt album, understandably, this orchestra and conductor seem to be breathing as much as playing the music, and VM sounds spectacular. Being 'artist-led' (no doubt my ground in pop/rock music), I sometimes find out about releases that might otherwise pass me by. This is true of the disc of Schumann works, which features both Carolyn Sampson and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. I will gladly follow where these artists take me: in this case, a world premiere recording of Schumann's 'Adventlied' (and more besides) - a lovely discovery.

Viktoria Mullova, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra / Järvi: 'Arvo Pärt' (track - 'Fratres')

Schumann's 'Adventlied' and 'Ballade vom Pagen und der Königstochter' / Bach's Cantata BWV 105, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra / Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Hakkinen (track - 'Adventlied: II. Allmächt'ger Herrscher ohne Speere')

For someone so obsessed with song, I have this seemingly contradictory leaning towards records where the band supply much of the musical 'snap' - melody, rhythm, 'body' - and the vocals almost tumble out, untethered. Early Springsteen, where the words just pour out of him; Dylan's endless versifying; John Lydon's collapse into anger; Mark E Smith's Speaker's Corner rants. Here, RBCF have come up with a gorgeous debut full-length album with dazzling, dizzying guitars, and stream-of-consciousness vocals providing extra verve on top (I was really reminded of the energy of the Blue Aeroplanes). For a noisier alternative, the barely hinged punk band Parquet Courts made an album with Danger Mouse (the producer, not the cartoon super-rodent) - an interesting collaboration, as DM seems to supply a laidback funkiness to everyone he works with. On this occasion, he's certainly put a spring in their step.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: 'Hope Downs' (track - 'Talking Straight')

Parquet Courts: 'Wide Awake!' (track - 'Freebird II')

I've no doubt it's reductive (now, if not before) to place these US 'minimalists' in a group, but I was interested that a release from each made it comfortably into my list. Fantastic to have the recorded counterpart to the brilliant Doctor Atomic performance finally arrive on disc. Anthony Roth Costanzo marries Philip Glass's music with Handel on a bold debut CD - again, anyone who watched and listened in awe at his performance in 'Akhnaten' (I saw the ENO production at the London Coliseum) will rejoice in 'Hymn to the Sun's inclusion on the album. And Colin Currie launched his record label in style with a taut, exciting rendition of Reich's 'Drumming'.

John Adams's 'Doctor Atomic', BBC Symphony Orchestra / Adams (track - 'Batter my heart', performed by Gerald Finley)

Anthony Roth Costanzo: 'ARC' (track - 'Liquid Days' by Philip Glass, lyrics by David Byrne)

Steve Reich's 'Drumming', performed by Colin Currie Group (track - part 1, excerpt)

Olivia Chaney and Neko Case have little in common, perhaps - but after recent work by both in a band context (Chaney teaming up with the Decemberists as Offa Rex, Case as a long-standing member of the New Pornographers), they seem to have followed up with extraordinarily powerful solo records that distill the strength of their personalities. OC has a classically crystalline folk voice but harnesses it to wilful, insistent originals. Meanwhile, NC's songs lead you through a labyrinth of her design, modern shapeshifters under her timeless vocals.

Olivia Chaney: 'Shelter' (track - 'Roman Holiday'

Neko Case: 'Hell-On' (track - 'Gumball Blue')

Ian Bostridge singing Schubert at the Wigmore Hall is an invariably exciting recipe - so much so, that the venue's label released a fourth CD taken from his sequence of recitals programming lieder choices freely (rather than cleaving to a particular song cycle, say). Of course, the high-octane angst is there, but he is equally commanding when not at Defcon 1 - as shown by this selection.

Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake: 'Songs by Schubert - 4' (track - 'Nacht und Traume')

'Anger is an energy', as the PiL song goes, and nowhere more than on this set of releases. A period of personal disquiet provoked Richard Thompson to produce his most keenly-felt assemblage of guitar fireworks in years... While violin/loops maestro Matt Howden - a.k.a. Sieben - whose work has been continually gaining in focus and precision, unleashed his rage at the current political climate. Never has his ability to sound like a one-man orchestra (with added punk and jazz trimmings) been more effective or necessary.

Richard Thompson: '13 Rivers' (track - 'O Cinderella')

Sieben: 'Crumbs' (track - 'Sell Your Future')

Another art song album that (for me) unearthed some buried treasure - another carefully themed and sensitively performed recital... in particular, please pay close heed to the fantastic playing of Susan Manoff: swinging, rhapsodic.

Sandrine Piau & Susan Manoff: 'Chimère' (track - 'Solitary Hotel', composed by Samuel Barber, using text from James Joyce's 'Ulysses)

This is an album of Sting covers. While this may seem a suprising choice to some, that Jungr wanted to tackle the Sting songbook is itself a benchmark of quality - she doesn't so much interpret as inhabit any material she takes on. With the aid of master arranger McDaniel, she finds new angles and approaches while enhancing the enduring appeal of the originals.

Barb Jungr & John McDaniel: 'Floats Like a Butterfly' (track - 'Fortress Around My Heart')

By coincidence, three of the classical recordings I've most enjoyed this year involve adapting works to different instruments - and two of these involve the Bach Cello Suites. Both Thomas Dunsford and Kim Kashkashian create versions that, on their 'lighter' toned instruments, sound magically fleet. Perhaps more out of leftfield come Lechner & Marquez, adapting Schubert lieder (and more) for cello and guitar. This creates some arresting effects - for example, the 'voice' carrying more heft than the accompaniment: it gives a faster track like 'Fischerweise' a whole new perspective, the guitar 'out-dancing' the cello.

Thomas Dunsford: 'Bach' (track - 'Chaconne', adapted from Violin Partita, no. 2)

Kim Kashkashian: 'Bach - Six Suites for Viola Solo' (track - 1st suite, Prelude)

Anja Lechner & Pablo Marquez: 'Franz Schubert: Die Nacht' (track - 'Fischerweise')

And to finish - the very loud section. Just when you think Clutch must surely have carved out every riff from the rock of, er, rock - they come along every year or two with another 12 or so 'bangers'. 'Book of Bad Decisions' is no different - 'weaponised funk', indeed. Pig Destroyer (I know, I know) - for many years a borderline-feral trio of voice, guitar and drums - now flesh out the sound with bass and electronics - as a result, 'Head Cage' is slightly more accessible than usual, the sound feels a little more anchored. But the aggression and release still burst from the speakers. Finally, the ultra-mysterious Ukrainian black metal band Drudkh (no website, no interviews etc) produced one of their best albums in years - five long tracks of atmospheric, expansive fury.

Clutch: 'Book of Bad Decisions' (track - 'In Walks Barbarella')

Pig Destroyer: 'Head Cage' (track - 'House of Snakes')

Drudkh: 'They Often See Dreams About the Spring' (track - 'Za Zoreyu Scho Striloyu Syaye')

(To be continued...)

Sunday 23 December 2018

Sounds of love: the Kate Bush reissues

Kate Bush and I have never met, but nonetheless, we go back rather a long way. I was a bit young to be affected by the impact of her debut single 'Wuthering Heights'... But fast forward to the mid-80s (the arrival of puberty and a decent record player - heady times) and I was exactly the right age to be seduced by the all-conquering 'Hounds of Love' album. That EMI were canny enough to put out the best-of collection 'The Whole Story' hot on the Hounds' heels meant that, all of a sudden, it became clear there was a wealth of past wonder and strangeness to discover.

She is without doubt one of my favourite musicians of all time. Of course, I had an almighty adolescent crush on her - posters on the bedroom wall, fan-club membership - and she remains the only public figure I've ever written a song about. (Unlike her work, those particular four minutes of lovelorn student angst are perhaps best lost to posterity.) She was - and is - a highly visual artist: in her appearance (I don't mean her 'looks' as such - more her attention to costume/make-up and so on, always in service to the material), and especially in her movement and sense of drama. Dance and mime are so crucial to almost all of those unforgettable videos - and it would seem to her overall perception of her art, from the decision to stop touring after the exhausting demands of her first shows.... to her triumphant return to live performance in the fully-staged 'Before the Dawn' gigs in 2014.

But in the end, it's KB's musical universe that, once entered, you never really leave. I think she genuinely warrants the word 'unique'. While it's far-fetched to say anyone truly arrives in the arts 'fully formed' - who stops developing as soon as they start? - she has a sound that is wholly hers, not bearing any obvious influences. And you could equally argue that, while she is inspirational to artists that came after her, she is not necessarily that influential either - perhaps because no-one can come close to doing what she does. But what is it?


For many years, it seemed KB wasn't interested in looking back on anything. The compilation I mentioned previously, 'The Whole Story', is one of the oddest albums of its kind. The idea came from the record company, and KB was initially ambivalent - however, it gave a home to the terrific stand-alone single 'Experiment IV', and she included an updated version of 'Wuthering Heights' that reflected her deepening vocal style.

('Experiment IV', from 'The Whole Story')

However, it feels like a modest, almost apologetic affair. There are only 10 other tracks, including three from 'Hounds of Love', whose purchasers this was aimed at. The gorgeous packaging, in its vinyl gatefold, included images of all her single sleeves - so to this new fan, it was perplexing that so many of these A-sides, paraded before me on the artwork, weren't actually on the LP. Even its name was clearly, cruelly misleading. Ultimately, of course, none of this mattered, because from its first to last note, 'The Whole Story' is a captivating and utterly cohesive listen. Its teasing brevity only made me more eager to explore the back catalogue.

After 'The Whole Story', her music carried on inhabiting its own world, but just took longer to reach us. Four years' wait apiece for 'The Sensual World' and 'The Red Shoes', then a heroic 12-year gap before 'Aerial' arrived in 2005. In 1990, everything up to 'Sensual World' was collected in a box called 'This Woman's Work' - literally, a case with the existing CD issues inside, plus B-sides on an extra couple of discs. While this really was 'the whole story' at the time, it still seemed a Kate-free exercise, more product than project.

While it sounds potentially dismissive or clichéd to refer to the pre-'Aerial' hiatus as a parenting sabbatical, it's massively significant to the music, as Bush's son Albert (or Bertie), born in 1998, has become a key figure in his mum's creative life. 'Aerial' includes a song about him, but more than that, he encouraged her to perform live again and took an onstage role in the show itself.

('How to be Invisible', from 'Aerial')

Parenthood, or the idea of regeneration/renewal - or even the thought of simply passing the baton - whether these matters carry any weight at all, I can only speculate. But somewhere along the way, KB has re-engaged with her legacy. First, in 2011, the fascinating 'Director's Cut' appeared, featuring reworked versions of older songs - but only from the 'Sensual World' and 'Red Shoes' albums, as if nothing else needed tweaking. And as if to quash any thoughts that this re-tooling was somehow disguising a dearth of new material, she released the lovely '50 Words for Snow' eight months later. (The last time two Kate Bush records appeared in a single year was 1978.) Both new albums appeared on Fish People: still part of EMI, but a new label - boasting highly distinctive visuals and production values - solely created for Bush's own music. At last it felt like the artist herself was part of the process again, little by little - for want of a much, much better phrase - 'taking back control'.

Then, hallelujah! With relatively little fanfare, November 2018 brought two comprehensive box sets of remastered reissues (or four boxes if you prefer vinyl). Just like that. When I first saw them advertised, I couldn't quite believe it. The approach seemed carefully thought out, too. Box 1 contains all the albums, no frills, from the debut through to 'The Red Shoes' - to many, this is the Imperial Phase. The best known albums, with the best known songs, and more. Some people will be very happy with just this first treasure trove.

Box 2 seems geared more towards the completist: it gathers up the remaining three albums, throws in the live album of the 2014 shows as a bonus, and - most importantly - has a magnificent, updated 4-CD compendium of 12" versions, B-sides and covers. This time, the whole enterprise feels like a labour of love. Winningly, the remastered albums are all available individually, too, for those who might want to dip their toes into the water and wade in gradually, rather than plunge in with a deep dive. Could I draw your attention to two of these in particular?


'Hounds of Love' is likely to be the Kate Bush album that, ultimately, is best remembered by the most people. Perhaps this is partly due to the way it arrived - the massive hit 'Running up that Hill' placed KB right back in the public eye after something of a 'wobble' (more below), and created the appetite for an album that more than lived up to the single's promise. The LP also seemed to bottle that essential Kate-ness for keeps: side one had all the singles, a synth symphony of warm, intelligent melody, while side two had the brilliantly-realised 'The Ninth Wave', a suite of songs about a woman adrift in the sea awaiting rescue. It was as if KB was physically split between pop and prog, able to bring together her affinity for both the catchy and conceptual (not that the two are mutually exclusive).
As much as I adore 'Hounds of Love', its effortless beauty makes it feel almost serene, like the eye in the middle of a creative storm. My two favourite Kate albums are the ones either side of it: 'The Dreaming' from 1982, and 'The Sensual World' from 1989.

Even within such a singular body of work, 'The Dreaming' stands out as something other. It's the record where KB first assumed more or less complete creative control, helped no doubt by being an early adopter of the new Fairlight synthesiser. On her first three albums, however unusual the songs, you still broadly have the sense that there's a band in the room. Listening to 'The Dreaming', you're not even 100% sure there's a band. Or a room. Suddenly, there are noises as well as notes, cavernous atmospheres, intense clatter. The piano is still in there somewhere to give proceedings a vaguely earthbound feel, and there are plenty of tunes - but we're at arms-length, listening to something play itself out.

So much of the album seems to be about release or escape (there's even a track called 'Houdini'), often by visceral or explosive means - blowing up the safe in 'There Goes a Tenner', or detonating the grenade in 'Pull Out the Pin'.

('There Goes a Tenner', from 'The Dreaming')

There's a fair amount of 'key' imagery, nicely doubling as a musical reference as well as an unlocking motif. One song instructs us to 'Leave it Open'; another to 'Get Out of my House'. While this could all be interpreted as an artist breaking free of expectations or restraints, there's something else, too - a kind of prototype multiple music personality, as if characters are at war in Bush's head. She puts on a lot of 'stage voices' - the sinister creep in 'The Dreaming', the 'Lahn-dahn' geezer in 'There Goes a Tenner', the childish wails and distorted confidences of 'Leave it Open', the anguished screams in 'Pull Out the Pin', the death-metal growl about a minute into 'Houdini'... you never know who, as well as what, might be around the corner. The most gentle track - one of my desert-island Kate songs - is 'Suspended in Gaffa', which still depicts the narrator pushing against restraints. I love the way the whole record is so questing - and the more settled 'Hounds of Love' seems to provide an answer.

('Suspended in Gaffa', from 'The Dreaming')


I wonder if, after attaining such equilibrium with 'Hounds', 'The Sensual World' functions almost as an 'anti-Dreaming': particularly with 'The Ninth Wave' and 'Cloudbusting', KB had stepped outside what was happening to her characters, and now perhaps it was time to look more deeply inward again. But 'The Sensual World' doesn't display the tumult of 'The Dreaming'. Here the heart is unquiet, rather than the head. It begins with the title track's ecstasy (based on the erotically-charged closing passages of Joyce's 'Ulysses), then the euphoria of 'Love and Anger' - a song I think is much under-rated but really brings to life the slow-building tension of the lyric's 'two strings beating'.

('Love and Anger', from 'The Sensual World')

Beauty is as constant a feature on this album as terror was on 'The Dreaming'. 'Reaching Out' is such a modest song, but with its string arrangement still stretches out for the stars. The Trio Bulgarka guest on three tracks, and give the album some further unity: who but KB would have thought to deploy their traditional/natural harmonies during the lines given to a sentient computer in 'Deeper Understanding'? The intervals are of course slightly 'alien' to our ears, so fit perfectly with the song's intent to humanise the machine while maintaining its difference. 'Rocket's Tail' has the best of both worlds, with a spine-tingling opening featuring only vocals (Bush plus the Trio) before launching into thunderous drums and rock guitar.

As ever, KB avoids the straightforward, looking at matters of the heart through a typically distorted lens: protecting a couple from a potential intruder in 'Between a Man and a Woman', accidentally smooching with Hitler in 'Heads We're Dancing'. Both these songs illustrate the situations musically with brittle, off-kilter rhythms, but they are content to sow unease, rather than - as on 'The Dreaming - tear the house down.

I'm aware that I'm drawn to unrest in music (could help partly explain why I'm into both opera and extreme metal....) - and I love the fact that these two albums flank an arguably 'perfect' record, the former releasing the demons getting in the way, and the latter - older, wiser - controlling them. I asked the question earlier - what exactly is it Kate Bush does? As well as writing and performing such sublime music, I think that nobody has walked this particular tightrope as successfully - to remain an enigma, utterly true to themselves, yet produce work so personal and visceral it feels to the listener like you are being let in, granted access to their innermost secrets. For that, she'll remain endlessly fascinating.

Monday 10 December 2018

Just can't get ENOugh

In recent months, when the day job has produced its fair share of stresses and I've still tried to 'work hard / play hard' - that is, still take in as much live music or art as possible - I know that the blog suffers. I sometimes find I've been to a whole range of performances or shows much faster than I can actually write about them. Not an unpleasant problem to have, of course, but I get annoyed with myself at being so slow to celebrate or get the word out about what I've been enjoying until weeks afterwards.

This is particularly true of the most recent run of productions by English National Opera (ENO). The last time I reported back from an ENO trip was my post on 'Salome', the first opera of the current season. It certainly seemed to polarise audiences and critics, but I really felt it was an important and arresting interpretation. As the opening salvo in a season which artistic director Daniel Kramer intends will explore the impact of toxic masculinity / the patriarchy, it felt like ENO had real venom in its fangs.

Since then, I've managed to catch all of the subsequent productions in the season, apart from the recently-opened and well-received 'La boheme' (not seeing that until February - woe!) - namely, Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess', Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor' and most recently, a staged version of Britten's 'War Requiem' to commemorate the Armistice Centenary (that is, 100 years since the end of the First World War).

Is there any other work quite like 'Porgy and Bess'? While it's clearly a fully-fledged opera, it has 'showstopping' numbers in the sense a musical does, and of course revels in Gershwin's particular synthesis of jazz and folk, dressed in classical threads. I wonder if it's a textbook example of a piece that many people feel they've seen, but in fact haven't. This definitely applied to me: I realised my familiarity with a lot of the tunes was through the Miles Davis LP.

('Porgy and Bess', production photo by Tristram Kenton)

The production had a real sense of occasion about it. ENO had honoured the Gershwins' intentions of assembling an all-black cast (in the appropriate roles) and chorus. Conducting the ENO orchestra was John Wilson, widely recognised as having a particular affinity for classical Americana - not only through his much-loved series of showtune and musical Proms, but also, say, his series of brilliant Copland recordings for the Chandos label. From the gospel sheen of the onstage ensemble to the exuberant punch of the players, the evening certainly swung. The staging was traditional yet stylised - the tenements a skeleton network of rooms and stairs that allowed the actor-singers to display a gutsy physicality, using all the nooks, crannies and shadowy retreats available. Porgy and Crown's staircase fight had me feeling the pain of each blow in the same way watching 'Raging Bull' might do. The soloists that really stood out, to me, were those who translated this physical, 'from the gut' heft into the singing, slicing through JW's rich soundworld: these being Eric Greene's Porgy - a startling portrait of damaged nobility and naivety, Nmon Ford's Crown - a domineering performance that seemed to consist of 95% sinew, and Nadine Benjamin's Clara, making an immediate, unforgettable impression with the opening 'Summertime'.

You could not have asked for a greater contrast than 'Lucia di Lammermoor'. This production's aura of intimate menace drew you in like a chamber piece. I think Sarah Tynan's interpretation of the title role deserves an enormous amount of credit for this - somehow she still managed to sing dramatically and powerfully, yet bring an almost introverted quality to Lucia. Even in the mad scene, she wasn't unleashing the fury... she was unravelling, coming apart - the otherworldly sound of the accompanying glass harmonica only serving to enhance the effect. This shattering of her mind was given a shocking visual metaphor in a very clever staging coup: after the murder, she is seen in profile, sitting on her favourite perch, eerily pale, seemingly unblemished. Only when she lets herself down to wander across the stage do we see her right-hand side, previously hidden from view, drenched in blood - half Polyanna, half Carrie.

('Lucia di Lammermoor', production photo by John Snelling)

You are made throughout to feel the claustrophobia of Lucia's situation. An argument is made that she and her brother Enrico (an explosive Lester Lynch) have never really had the chance to grow up: Lucia a 'little girl lost' and Enrico a petulant bully, attempting to repress all his adult impulses (including a struggle against forbidden feelings for his sister), seduced instead by their nursery toys. Lucia's lover Edgardo is a lightning bolt of machismo, their 'love' seemingly closer to infatuation, a Boys' Own version of romance. Even the mighty ENO Chorus take on a sinister collective persona, looming in the guise of guests or servants, closing in on the characters en masse, watching their every move, restricting their space.

Mention of the ENO Chorus, and the masterful way they move as well as sound, brings me on to 'War Requiem'. I've never seen anything quite like this at the opera. If we want our art to be the best possible synthesis of emotion/passion and skill/achievement - then this is the sort of thing we need to aim for: an experience that convinced as both a labour of love and a triumph of intellect.

Probably a good idea to start with the staging, since many would reasonably ask: why stage the piece at all? But I think a more accurate description is a 'setting'. Daniel Kramer has enlisted the services of photographer Wolfgang Tillmans as stage designer. Whether taking unforgiving candid portraits or near-abstract compositions, Tillmans is a master of the direct, unflinching image. Sequences of photos and illustrations, projected to huge dimensions, hoover up your gaze. From historical depictions of horrendous war injuries, to contemporary captures of modern-day street violence, Tillmans's visual choices are a testament to the impact of the still image, a documentary of the outcomes of fear and hatred. One moment of 'mobile' stagecraft - the snowfall explosion - gains a shocking immediacy as a result.

Another reason these monumental, altar-like diptychs and triptychs work so well is the contrast between their implacable stillness and the fluid movement of the chorus and actors. The overall group was made up of a one-off ensemble featuring the ENO Chorus, the ensemble from 'Porgy and Bess', and Finchley Children's Music Group. A dumb-show narrative of sorts gave the action a framework (in particular, a pair of war-damaged children moving through a vicious circle to become enemies), but the ensemble's universal dark attire - putting them in a kind of part-peasant, part-military every(wo)man space - allowed you to focus on what they did rather than how they looked. Sometimes they were onlookers but often full participants, whether consoling children or brandishing knives, their tightly choreographed patterns across the stage lending a quite different air of ritual to that you might feel from a concert performance in a church. And I think it's significant to note here that 'War Requiem' - a thorny, original and challenging work - is normally performed static, with score in hand. Here both ensemble and soloists had to memorise and fully act whichever character or group they were personifying at the time. Whatever one's reaction to the staging, I don't think this significant achievement should be overlooked.

('War Requiem', production photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

The three soloists - Emma Bell, David Butt Philip and Roderick Williams - sang with great force and poignancy, acting these 'parts' that aren't quite there with charisma to spare, but also with a sense of modesty that deferred to the vastness of the overall 'project'. RW, in particular, could steal your attention and break your heart one moment, then fold himself back into the action the next. This was too important a message for any grandstanding. Martyn Brabbins, ENO's musical director and a true champion of modern British composers, was conducting, bringing out extraordinary dynamics from the orchestra as they shifted between chamber and full configurations (in line with Britten's demands).

From where I'm sitting, then (usually the Upper Circle), ENO are giving us a superb season. Does the toxic masculinity theme carry? - so far, I'd say yes. There is a school of thought that identifies most opera as essentially misogynist due to the fates of many of its heroines - that's a conversation for another time. But these productions have brought to light specific examples where male violence begets male violence. They go so far as to examine what makes a man a monster or killer - whether it's relentless exposure to war and its effects, a recurring cycle of abuse, clinging to a notion of feudal/familial honour, or fighting your way hopelessly out of poverty and loneliness... But crucially, they never excuse it, exposing men's weakness and failure to conquer these impulses and desires without resorting to their basest level.

When I see ENO following through on stuff like this, I get increasingly bruised on their behalf when either the press or social media persists in badmouthing them. This could be something relatively trivial, like the ludicrous brouhaha over the 'water bottle' policy which led to one commentator in particular wishing a speedy end to the 'Nazi scum' organisation... right through to the director Barrie Kosky's recent comments on Bachtrack giving ENO well-meaning (I'm sure) but rather contradictory advice. In a nutshell, Kosky felt ENO should get rid of their key practice of singing in English (I was surprised at how readily some people agreed with this, as though accessibility - in this case, to those with poor sight who can't rely on staging or surtitles - wasn't a crucial part of ENO's mission). Yet, on the other hand, he thought ENO should be 'everything that Covent Garden isn't', including assembling a specialist company of soloists and performing works 'that you wouldn't normally see'. Elsewhere in the interview, he makes some upfront statements about how his company, Komische Opera in Berlin, benefits from the subsidies available in Germany that allow them to price tickets lower than the cinema... and I think it becomes clear that Kosky is speaking from a place that ENO will never get to occupy.

This kind of attitude also seemed to colour some of the responses to an enthusiastically received one-off concert performance at the Barbican of Mark-Antony Turnage's 'The Silver Tassie' - an opera originally commissioned by ENO. Some commentators' main takeaway from the success of the evening was to have a pop at ENO for not reviving it for the Armistice Centenary. Leaving aside what I'm sure might have been colossal practical considerations (it seems to me that a stand-alone event with no staging is not the same undertaking that a full-on staged revival over several performances would have been), let's enjoy the success of 'The Silver Tassie' for what it was - by all accounts a complete triumph for all concerned on the Barbican stage.

Then let's return to the separate, but no less compelling triumph of ENO's 'War Requiem'. With its bold idea to flesh the work out into three dimensions, it is attempting reinterpretation and reinvention of the familiar into something with a flavour of arthouse edginess. And with its combination of the 'P&B' and ENO choruses, and collaboration between British and German creative minds, it quietly sends out a diversity message that won't be lost on the range of audiences coming to see it. Mission, at this rate, accomplished.

Monday 26 November 2018

30-day song challenge: part 2

Here's the second part of my playlist, inspired by the popular meme that asks 'players' to post a song every day for a month, based on certain prompts. It does feel a bit like a thought experiment at times, as you can't simply post 'faves' - you have to dredge up certain memories, associations and even emotions.

But I'm actually quite pleased with the set of tracks I ended up with, and would happily listen to the playlist through.

If you like to watch the YouTube videos (or simply don't have or like using Spotify), then songs 16 to 30 are below, and you can find songs 1 to 15 in 'part 1', here. If you are happy using Spotify, a playlist of all 30 tracks appears at the end of this post.

Hope you enjoy the tunes. (Classically-inclined readers - I haven't catered to you this time round, but watch this space!)


A song that's a classic favourite

Ultravox: 'Vienna'

One of my first 'favourite' bands. This - with hindsight - is such an impressively strange song, with its crashing-together of mournful strings and brittle early synth rhythms. Warning: big spider in video. Made me feel like singing, 'This means nothing to meeeeee….AAARRRGH! Big spi-deeeeeer!'

A song you'll sing a duet with someone on karaoke

Simon & Garfunkel: 'The Boxer'

Remembering a friend from student days (no longer in touch, sadly) - summer evenings, mates in back gardens, guitars out … him teaching me the harmony parts to the S&G songbook.

A song from the year you were born

Roxy Music: 'Psalm'

The 'Stranded' album, when Roxy really were stranded in a way, between the 'Eno era' and the sleek outfit they would become. Defiantly odd throughout - for me, their finest hour.

A song that makes you think about life

Billy Bragg: 'Brickbat'

BB always sang about struggle - political and personal - but this disarming track saw him examine his contentment. Frank and tender.

A song that has many meanings for you

Jo Quail: 'Gold'

Instrumentals encourage interpretation, and JQ's music (best heard on headphones, in darkness) seems to prompt an infinite range of images and emotions: for me, here, anything from a conflict between urban and pastoral, to the musical expression of a body clock. Rich, resonant.

A song you like with a person's name in the title

The Handsome Family: 'Tesla's Hotel Room'

One of the HF's classic short stories in song: witty, poignant, transcendent.

A song that moves you forward

Jon & Vangelis: 'I'll Find My Way Home'

A song that, when I was a kid, just made me cheerful and feel somehow supported: under the surface, it was also drawing me imperceptibly towards both prog and electronica.

A song you think everybody should listen to

Dead Can Dance: 'Rakim'

It's a cliché to say no-one really sounds like DCD, but it's partly true because no-one really does what they do. I push this song at people, saying 'Look! Look how much care and intricacy there is in this track! And it's live! And they make entire albums like this!'

A song by a band you wish were still together

Talking Heads: '(Nothing But) Flowers'

Actually, I sort of don't wish this, because they'd probably kill each other.

A song you like by an artist no longer living

David Bowie: 'Queen Bitch'

But his music is so alive. This is pure adrenalin.

A song that makes you want to fall in love

Martha Wainwright: 'Far Away'

One of rock's most yearning, alluring voices, singing this: 'I have no children, I have no husband, I have no reason to be alive, oh, give me one.' I am quite unmanned.

A song that breaks your heart

Richard Thompson: 'The Ghost of You Walks'

...but in a good way. I think this is one of the finest songs ever written.

A song by an artist whose voice you love

Sally Timms: 'Cancion Para Mi Padre'

One of our greatest singers, her recordings (solo and with the Mekons) are so precious - she simply sounds lovely, equal parts purity and intimacy.

A song you remember from your childhood

Eurythmics: 'Love is a Stranger'

'Sweet Dreams' wasn't the scary one - this was.

A song that reminds you of yourself

Sieben: 'Ogham Inside the Night'

This is quite an old track now, and Matt Howden (the man behind the 'Sieben' pseudonym) has tackled many different styles and subjects since, while staying true to his voice, violin and loops template. But this is one of the first songs of his I heard, and I was instantly hooked. The track exhibits such facility and fascination with language, alongside a determination to marry the ancient and modern. It seems to represent in music and lyrics much of what I aspire to be as a listener and writer.


Here is the playlist in handy Spotify format!

Monday 19 November 2018

30-day song challenge: part 1

Perhaps inevitably, I am a complete sucker for those internet challenges that get you to list or recommend music, films or books in some form or another... But I also find that life gets in the way and I can't keep up with the (usually) daily pace.

This latest 'game' - mostly prevalent on Facebook as far as I can tell - asks for a song a day, for a month, generated by certain prompts. So, rather than trying to come up with some kind of 'Top 30', the meme probes deeper into your psyche, to see what you might pick to fit the 'clues'.

Instead of attempting to post every day, I decided to do this one through the blog. So, here are my first 15 choices: I hope you enjoy them. Part 2 (hopefully with a Spotify version, if I can find all the tracks) to follow very soon.


A song you like with a colour in the title

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: 'Green Shirt'

One of those classic EC songs that the Attractions somehow make both poppy and eerie.

A song you like with a number in the title

Kate Bush: 'Experiment IV'

A genuinely terrifying SF tale wrapped up in an amazing song. That 'missing' drum beat can really get to you.

A song that reminds you of summertime

Texas: 'Faith'

An explosion of slide-guitar joy, speaking of stadiums and accidentally discovering support bands.

A song that reminds you of someone you'd rather forget

Elvis Presley: '(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame'

Marie was not an old flame, or anything even like it. I still shudder anytime I'm reminded of her, though.

A song that needs to be played loud

Led Zeppelin: 'When the Levee Breaks'

Scientifically impossible to play this quietly, surely.

A song that makes you want to dance

A-ha: 'Riding the Crest'

I think it's the rumbling synthy bass during the verse that gives my feet a mind of their own (which is a very accurate description of my 'dancing' in any case).

A song to drive to

Clutch: 'Gullah'

I genuinely think this band write the best riffs of any group currently working today.

A song about drugs or alcohol

Uncle Tupelo: 'Whiskey Bottle'

Arguably the first 'alternative country' band; definitely one of the finest.

A song that makes you happy

Broken Bells: 'After the Disco'

James Mercer of the Shins collaborating with Danger Mouse is such a glorious meeting of minds: JM's wistful melancholy fronting DM's laidback beats - I love that it sounds like the euphoria and the comedown simultaneously. Every section of the song sounds like a chorus. Perfection.

A song that makes you sad

Nick Drake: 'Cello Song'

What could have been.

A song you never get tired of

Belle and Sebastian: 'Play for Today'

It's a good seven minutes, and I'll still happily play it on repeat over and over. Not a second is wasted, especially as the backing singers ("Author! Author!") creep up on the lead vocalists in the outro.

A song from your preteen years

Fine Young Cannibals: 'Johnny Come Home'

Unforgettable hook in this chorus. Regularly comes to my mind, all these years later.

A song you like from the 70s

Joni Mitchell: 'Carey'


A song you'd love to be played at your wedding

Sailor: 'A Glass of Champagne'

Bit late to be choosing wedding songs! - but if we'd had a first dance, we'd have flung ourselves round like goons to this.

A song you like that's a cover by another artist

Emmylou Harris: 'Goodbye'

From the mighty 'Wrecking Ball' album, where EH stepped outside country into spacey, ethereal rock surroundings and utterly transformed a particular batch of songs in the process. This was originally a Steve Earle track.

To be continued...

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Two worlds: Jo Quail’s ‘Exsolve’

The latest brilliant release from cellist-composer Jo Quail is an album that speaks of mirrors, doubles and opposites. Always an artist that convinces equally whether one views her music as avant-garde classical or underground electronica, ‘Exsolve’ is Jo’s most perfect expression yet of how to create pieces that somehow inhabit, yet defy genre at the same time.

I’m sure this is also what makes her music such a pleasure to write about – as I have done frequently, including CD liner notes. Jo builds her compositions around electric cello, fed into a loop station that she simultaneously operates like a second instrument – allowing her to play almost all her material live, solo, standing (her feet dancing across the pedals as she creates layer upon layer of rhythm and melody).

But from first note to last, ‘Exsolve’ thrives on creative tension, looking inward and examining head-on this marriage of ancient/acoustic and modern/electronic. As instrumentals so often do, Jo’s music always becomes ‘visual’ for me, provoking images, memories even, in my mind. Water is a recurring motif in earlier JQ track titles, and here I inescapably thought of Turner’s ship caught in the Snow Storm. Throughout, it felt like something was breaking through, a kind of sonic or atmospheric disruption – depending on your personal tastes, this could be as menacing as Cthulhu or as exhilarating as a cloudburst.

New tunings and new sounds help to make this a classic ‘headphones’ record, as Jo explores distortion and percussive techniques to conjure a military drum tattoo or a doom-laden bass riff from her cello. When listening, you really are surrounded: the music closes in, each of the three lengthy tracks building not necessarily in volume, but in presence, intensity ('Exsolve' was produced by Chris Fielding and mastered by James Griffiths: plaudits to them for the album's fearsome clarity).

Another creative pair of ‘opposites’ the album reflects is the personal with the collaborative. For such a self-sufficient performer, Jo has always featured guests on her albums and sought to programme live events with full bands or classical performers. ‘Exsolve’ welcomes three visitors, who play a crucial role on one piece each. Dan Capp and Nik Sampson both contribute heroically exciting guitar parts, while Lucie Dehli adds her supernaturally fluid vocalese in an unforgettable cameo. But while these guest appearances gesture towards extreme metal and even jazz, they blend perfectly into the array of unearthly sounds already coming from the cello.

(Photo by Simon Kallas, taken from JQ's website.)

Classical and metal really are ‘twinned’ here, in a way quite distinct from, say, hard rock bands using orchestras or string sections for added bombast (not that there’s a problem with that!). Album by album, Jo has been assembling tracks more like parts of suites or sequences, and ‘Exsolve’ – with its three ‘movements’ that are both coherent stand-alone pieces, but which all contribute and develop towards a key central idea – can almost feel like a concerto for cello and studio. In this respect, it’s a genuinely avant-garde classical achievement. Yet, at the same time, it reaches a powerful heaviness borne of thunderous riffs and insistent hooks. In other words, it rocks.

If ‘Exsolve’ tells me a story, it’s of these two genres almost struggling for supremacy within Jo’s music. The balance shifts this way and that. The insistent, cyclic guitar that takes control of ‘Forge’ gives way to the acoustic ‘Of Two Forms’ section. The dancing pizzicato of ‘Mandrel Cantus’ breaks into atonal soloing, distorted cello riffs and a final guitar explosion – but then its steady comedown progression dissolves into the chiming, Pärt-like coda. Finally, however, ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ brings matters to a head, its keening melody and agitated reel leading to a seismic shift and temporary sonic limbo, before the finale crashes through. No guitars this time: the cello supplies the heaviness, the electricity, and ultimately the full force of the wordless vocal is unleashed, resolving the conflict and bringing equilibrium with a triumphant, euphoric female battle cry.

A fascinating and beautiful listen, as always. And especially here, addictive, cathartic.

(Video edit of 'Mandrel Cantus', filmed by Simon Kallas and Michael Fletcher.)


Jo releases her music independently, so you can buy physical and/or digital versions of 'Exsolve' - along with all her earlier work - directly from Bandcamp. Dive in here.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Quarter masters: Sieben, Kate Arnold, Andy Whitehouse

If you've been around these parts before, you may recall my writing in the past about Sieben - the alter ego of Matt Howden, singer, songwriter, violinist and all-round sonic magician. (In fact, you can read my write-up of his latest album, 'Crumbs', here - it's a formidable set of protest songs, channelling a tangible sense of rage through such intricate and complex playing. Warmly recommended!)

Sieben gigs in London don't come round all that often - at least not as often as I'd like - so I was thrilled to find MH heading up an intriguing triple bill, arranged by Kaparte Promotions at the pleasingly intimate Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston. The other two artists were completely new to me: Andy Whitehouse and Kate Arnold. (Both have full bands - AW, The Silver Darlings, and KA, Fear of the Forest - but for tonight's gig they were playing as solo artists.)

Andy Whitehouse was first on, and instantly brought the room to an attentive hush. His songs have an insistent gentleness, a quiet confidence that you will willingly succumb in your own time. His lyrics succeeded in being both witty and wistful simultaneously - for example, his tale of customising saints for one's own personal use, 'Anthony and Rita', has an aching sadness at its heart, while making you smile at how skilfully the metaphor is sustained through the song.

(Andy Whitehouse's 'Cherry Blossom'.)

I was also very taken with the guitar sound and style - quite unusual to hear electric guitar in this context compared to how often acoustics turn up, but perfect for this musician's soulful restraint. It charged the atmosphere with warmth. A lovely start to the evening.

Kate Arnold's set then took us off in a completely different direction. At the start, she tipped her hat to a traditional folk sound - fiddle and voice - for her song 'Shanty'. But suddenly all bets were off, as she began playing the hammered dulcimer - stroking it, tapping it, even bowing it - and layering beats and melodies to form 'Skeleton Key', a genuinely jaw-dropping track that conjures up glitchy electronica on this chiming, brightest of instruments.

(Kate Arnold playing a version of 'Skeleton Key' from YouTube, brilliantly filmed during a Daylight Music gig at the Union Chapel, Islington.)

It was an all-too-brief, but brilliantly constructed set, because hearing these two 'extremes' of KA's approach gave the ideal context to hear her remaining songs - as if the 'skeleton key' really did unlock her sound for us. The beautiful 'Fairy Tale Ending' is all the argument you could want for the dulcimer as sole accompaniment - coupled with her natural, affecting yet unaffected vocals, KA has somehow married a kind of 'roots' music to something otherworldly: as if you could reach for Dead Can Dance and Fairport Convention as reference points at the same time. Sincere, spectral and quite wonderful.

Rightfully, and righteously, Sieben's set then lit a fire under the whole gig. Live, MH loops and layers percussion sounds, basslines and hooks on the violin before singing over the whole heady brew. A restless musical craftsman, he continually pushes the violin/electronics set-up as far as it will go, reinventing his sound as his lyrical concerns change over time. He's gone pastoral, personal and now political, galvanised by the injustice and greed around us into producing a genuinely angry, bitingly satirical suite of songs: on stage, this results in a kind of punkish, yet puckish fervour. Always an animated, energetic performer, tonight it was like the stage couldn't contain him, and any minute he'd career out into the audience, taking someone's eye out with his whirling bow.

(Sieben's 'Coldbloods'.)

This idea of the anger almost boiling over and out of the music is all there in the arrangements, with many of the 'Crumbs' tracks featuring a relentless motorik pulse and grindingly deep riffs, before MH performs more solos on the fiddle than ever before, their explosive speed and agility seemingly providing a necessary outlet. 'Sell Your Future' sounded like a train that had already been derailed; 'Coldbloods' walked the tightrope between resignation and panic. It's been a great pleasure to follow Sieben live over the years, as older songs are re-cast in the newer sound: one such classic tonight is 'Love's Promise', a sensual ode which here becomes a slinkier, slightly more seedy beast - again, this time bringing out a lustfulness, more impulses that might be difficult to suppress.

The gig closed with all three performers gelling perfectly in a rendition of Andy Whitehouse's song 'Almost Home'. It struck me at this point - to the credit of Klarita, of Kaparte Productions, who organised the event - what a superbly programmed evening this was. It felt that buried in all their musical influences was a 'folk' sensibility of sorts - not necessarily trad folk, new or alternative folk, folk rock or any genre as such - more a connection to home, a gesture towards chronicling something that deep inside we all recognise - but then fractured and reassembled in the most diverse and creative ways imaginable. A shared brilliance.

Saturday 20 October 2018

Rick Wakeman's 'Piano Odyssey'

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.

I was asked by Frances to review the latest album from Rick Wakeman - as I'm as much 'prog' as 'piano', this proved to be a happy assignment. Here's my write-up.


Rick Wakeman: ‘Piano Odyssey’ (Sony Classical)
featuring the Orion Strings and English Chamber Choir

Rick Wakeman has been a consistently fascinating artist throughout his decades-long career. As a fan of both classical and progressive rock music, I feel he’s been a constant presence, his cape sweeping nonchalantly across any so-called dividing lines between genres and styles.

In contrast to the grandeur of some of his earliest and most familiar work, Wakeman’s most recent releases have felt more intimate and introspective. The 2017 album ‘Piano Portraits’ was just that: solo piano treatments – somewhere between arrangements and variations – of an eclectic range of pieces that covered Debussy and Fauré, Elgar and Holst, Bowie and the Beatles… and not to leave out his own band, Yes.

This new album, ‘Piano Odyssey’, is in many ways a sequel with seemingly deliberate echoes of its predecessor. As before, there are two Beatles tracks, and just the one from Bowie this time, amid other carefully chosen cover versions. Yes is represented by two new arrangements. On the classical team are Liszt, Dvorak and Handel.

As the album title suggests, though, a journey of some kind has taken place. Rather than simply repeat himself, Wakeman has added strings and a choir more or less throughout, diluting the forensic focus on the lone piano. However, the lush arrangements can’t disguise the fact that this feels like an even more personal project, surveying Wakeman’s career more incisively and giving it a perhaps unexpected unity.

I think this unity is behind the quality I loved most about the disc, which is that it sounds exactly like something its creator would pull together – and yet at the same time, it feels like a surprise, not quite like anything else. In theory, given the forces involved, the classical feel should dominate, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, it’s rather more like listening to a kind of ‘chamber’ prog: Wakeman often deploys his string players and singers as if they were band members, the choir in particular performing ‘solos’, moving in and out of tracks as needed rather than saturating them. His own distinctive playing has him operating like a combined rhythm and lead guitar might, capturing the melodies at the top end with great delicacy (and some very agile embellishments!), without sacrificing a sense of real propulsion.

As a result, the pieces that really hit home for me are the two Yes songs, in particular ‘And You & I’, and the reworks of two of his solo tracks, ‘After the Ball’ (now merged with Liszt’s ‘Liebestraume’), and ‘Jane Seymour’ (originally composed on organ, and with Bach coursing through its bloodstream). In the CD liner notes, Wakeman explains how the new versions make what he was trying to do clearer, more audible. And there’s no doubt that ‘Piano Odyssey’ is giving him the opportunity to shine a light on his practice: without trying to ‘match’ or ‘outdo’ Liszt, he has deliberately designed his medley to show how the composer influenced him. (Elsewhere, he uses this technique to illuminating effect in ‘Largos’ – merging Dvorak and Handel with the utmost respect, but a refreshing lack of deference.) Equally, in ‘And You & I’, the sparkling high-pitched melody is so evocative of Jon Anderson’s vocal it’s somehow uncanny.

I don’t think the record is totally flawless. How you react to the more familiar covers will inevitably depend on your relationship to the originals, and what you want a new version to achieve. I felt ‘The Boxer’ was a misfire: to me, the song, while tender, has an underlying resolve and pugnacity that befits its title. Here, the slow pace fatally weakens it, along with oppressive strings and the choir contributing isolated ‘lie la lie’s with no context. On the other hand, a similarly sentimental treatment of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ fits the song like a glove. The version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is shot through with wit, subverting any bombastic expectations the listener might have – even Brian May’s guitar cameo appears out of nowhere.

Two completely new compositions again emphasise the personal – named for two adopted moon bears, Rocky and Cyril (Wakeman is a passionate animal rights advocate). Writing from scratch in this idiom allows Wakeman to produce probably the most nakedly emotional tracks on the record, the signature traits (again, the steady motor, the climb to the high register) reflecting how much of himself he has put into these pieces. And I think it’s fair to say that the whole album – a heart-on-sleeve musical autobiography-of-sorts – wins through as an accomplished yet totally sincere attempt by the artist to communicate a true audio sense of himself.

Monday 8 October 2018

Bible black: 'Salome' at English National Opera

Brief alert - this production of 'Salome' carries a warning for adult images and themes... and to discuss it properly, I inevitably touch on some of those images and themes as well. So - please read after the watershed - and exercise discretion, as you will. Thanks!


Well, this has certainly divided opinion. The 'ayes' and 'noes' are separated as cleanly as John the Baptist's head from his shoulders.

Some people seem to have loathed the new English National Opera ('ENO') production of Strauss's notorious opera 'Salome' with every fibre of their being - while others have been stimulated and impressed. If I had to make a call, I'd say that the critics have been broadly negative (some perplexed or irritated, if not nakedly hostile), while audience reactions online have been relatively warmer. Plenty in both camps, however.

And of course, nothing is without context. Some who are prone to unkind pronouncements about ENO have continued in the same vein. (Some have imperiously dismissed the very idea of the production, only to cheerfully add that they haven't seen it. Helpful.) Also, 'Salome' has got about a bit recently and other versions may be fresh in people's eyes and ears. The current Royal Opera House ('ROH') production by David McVicar was last revived at the start of this year, when I saw it for the first time. Placing the action in a kind of totalitarian nightmare environment, it's held by many as a kind of gold standard - and I can see why. Opera North also presented an acclaimed version (which sadly I didn't get to) in the spring: powerful though that sounded, it was essentially a concert performance - so the company sidestepped much of the potential staging trauma that 'Salome' must involve.

Fast forward to the start of this season, and it's ENO's turn to revisit opera's most troublesome teenager. For those unfamiliar, the plot is taken directly from Oscar Wilde's play (based on the Bible story), with the composer editing down a German translation into a lean, mean libretto: a single, relentlessly-paced act, running to about one-and-three-quarter hours.

Snapshot of the action: Herod, ruler of Judaea, has married his brother's wife, Herodias - making him stepfather to her daughter Salome. Since Herod had his brother killed, the set-up is already somewhat dysfunctional - made even worse by Herod's inability to disguise his erotic fascination with Salome. At the same time, Herod has arrested and imprisoned the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist). Jokanaan is a fanatic: while proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, he also launches tirades against the royal family and, seemingly, Herodias in particular. But he survives, for now, because Herod is fearful of killing a holy man.

Salome, escaping from a palace feast and hearing Jokanaan's voice, demands to see the prisoner. Instantly besotted, she ecstatically praises Jokanaan's appearance, even while he vehemently rejects and denounces her. (The carnage starts early, as the guard Narraboth, who loves Salome, kills himself in dismay.) Herod, castrophically misreading the situation, thinks a dance from Salome will cheer him - and the evening - up. She eventually agrees, but only after securing a promise from him to grant anything she desires. Dance over, she demands Jokanaan's head on a silver platter. Herod does all he can to get out of the bargain, but Salome won't budge. When her stepfather ultimately gives in, and Salome receives the head, she finally tips over the edge and gives full vent to her lust. As she kisses the dead mouth, a horrified Herod orders his soldiers to kill her.

Even taking what happens at face value - the actual events of the original play and libretto - this is extraordinarily provocative stuff, careering headlong into some very dark psychological places. So extreme is its characters' behaviour, I can well understand why directors, let alone audiences, want answers, explanations. (McVicar's ROH production stages the infamous 'Dance of the Seven Veils' as a tableau of flashbacks suggesting the Herod has abused Salome in the past.)

This production starts in a very dark psychological place, and never leaves. What we see is the product of an all-woman creative team: director Adena Jacobs, stage designer Marg Horwell, lighting Lucy Carter, and choreographer Melanie Lane. In an ideal world, this would not be remarkable, or even especially 'meaningful'. But for this opera, I feel it has particular significance. It means that whatever queasiness or discomfort we might feel at the potential exploitation or objectification of Salome (or any of the other characters) cannot be put down to straightforward sexism or misogyny. If anything, this was going to hold a mirror up to the 'male gaze' and rightfully cast it, blindingly, back in our direction.

The staging seems to be entirely surreal/symbolic, not rooted in any kind of reality. Both background and costumes are uniformly black, as if nodding to the not uncommon 'repressive regime' style of staging to signify dystopia. But this is one of a number of instances where the production subverts expectations as it goes along. Rather than present Jokanaan's cistern as a dark dungeon, the stage is saturated in bright white light, as if referencing both his holiness and his uncomfortable illumination of the rotten society around him. The initial blackness also gives way to gaudy colour, both in an enormous, pink, decapitated 'My Little Pony'-style horse which appears as the centrepiece of the feast, spilling out its entrails of fake flowers, and in the glittery decayed decadence of Herod's and Herodias's outfits.

Salome's loss of innocence and, ultimately, sanity is telegraphed early and built on step by step, following its own logic but pulling the rug out from under our, and the opera's, feet. Almost everything around her in the production could double as a cipher, contributing to this development. When Jokanaan is first seen, flat out on the ground, he is clad only in briefs... and a pair of red stilettos. He never walks in these - he kicks them off well before he stands up - and if you wanted to make a plot point out it, you could imagine Herod (something of a cross-dresser himself) and a bunch of cronies taunting the captive and dressing him up. But I was also struck by the timing - Jokanaan kicks off the shoes and in some way seems to transfer a kind of sexuality, or at least sexual awakening to Salome. While Jokanaan is present and still very much alive, Salome strips to the waist while singing her lust for him, and (discreetly) masturbates while he preaches. (This is one aspect where I wondered if a woman directing has flagged what a bloke might not even have observed - that Salome is not a two-dimensional maniac who only reaches sexual fulfilment through necrophilia: rather, there are stages along the way before the madness provides the only release. Equally, if a male director had stripped Salome at this point in the opera, would we be able to assume something similar or might we doubt his motives? Questions, questions.)

There is a third piece of 'clothing' for Jokanaaan that I didn't mention: a skeletal mask that at first I took to represent a kind of torture instrument. However, it held a miniature camera, pointed back towards his face. As a result, a large, live projection of his mouth appeared on the back wall - in black and white, with the effect of looking slightly grimy/grotesque. This pointed up Salome's obsessive attraction/repulsion towards the prophet's mouth; it drew attention to his dark utterances; and it foreshadowed the expected kiss once his head is severed.

So it goes on. Narraboth's suicide results in a pool of pink blood on the stage. (Herod at various points returns to this, smearing himself in the gore as if he cannot remove the stain on his character.) Salome falls on Narraboth's body before it is removed, using it as a substitute for the unattainable Jokanaan. The floral guts of the suspended horse can be read as a 'deflowering' motif. Salome reappears as a kind of fetishised Lolita figure: white vest, black hot pants and trainers - later, this youthfulness will be underlined further as she flings aside her long blonde wig to reveal a boyish crop.

By this time, with a few taboos not just broken but smashed into a pulp, I wondered how hard the production would stab at the outrage button. With its burlesque/striptease pedigree (and the fact we'd already seen a half-naked Salome), what kind of 'Dance' were we going to get here? In the event, Jacobs takes another swerve. This Dance was brilliantly disturbing, with Salome - clothed throughout - slowly, deliberately assuming a brief sequence of poses (almost like coquettish exercise moves: turns, bends and stretches), then reclining while a group of cheerleader-dancers ramped up the speed and sexual tension.

Following this thread, when the head is finally delivered to Salome, the 'silver platter' is a cheapo plastic carrier bag - never opened. She cradles the concealed head but never 'consummates' her obsession with the kiss. It’s as if the production puts the brakes on the body horror once the psychological damage is done. Herodias appears behind Salome and you wonder if the mother will carry out a mercy killing at Herod's command before the soldiers arrive. In the closing seconds of the opera, Herodias - still directly behind Salome - helps her daughter raise a pistol and point it backwards, horizontally, directly towards her mouth. Is this the actual kiss of death? And if the gun is fired, both women would likely die in a double suicide. (At this instant, we recall Herodias's treatment by Herod and the circumstances of their marriage.) The lights go out before we hear the shot.

As I applauded, my head was spinning. This was an assault on the senses, and I approved. The production isn't there to make friends, but to kick arse. Making the case that a piece of vintage art - whether it's a period novel, Shakespeare play, or an opera - is Relevant To Today's Society can so often be problematic, because you can be passionately and genuinely keen to prove how the medium you love still speaks to modern times, while simultaneously being aware it can lapse into cliché. But given the ongoing reports we're now seeing of the horrifying - and shamefully widespread - treatment women receive at men's hands … is there a more appropriate story than Salome's to illustrate its devastating effects?

(Allison Cook as Salome. Photo by Catherine Ashmore, taken from the ENO website production gallery.)

None of it would convince, of course, without utterly committed performances - and we got those. Allison Cook, playing the title role for the first time, was fierce and fearless, singing with subtlety as well as power, and with such consistent character acting that it was hard to take your eyes off her during her significant time silent onstage. David Hoar as Jokanaan struck the balance between intimidating/commanding while prophesying, and the wracked melancholy of the doomed. It was also great to see some of the chaps from the mighty ENO Chorus - Robert Winslade Anderson, Trevor Bowes, Ronald Nairne and Adam Sullivan - cast in roles that allowed them to make their impressive, individual marks.

The ENO Orchestra under the company's Music Director Martyn Brabbins also deserve to share star billing. Rather than bludgeon us with high-octane hysterics, the sound was full of space, the Coliseum's acoustic almost providing a sense of 'stereo separation', all clarity and detail.

I think, then, that this is a vital and necessary production. It doesn't really matter to me that some people don't like it. I didn't like all of it and I didn't necessarily think every idea worked. (I thought the horse, for example, was too much of a distraction. The point I felt it was making seemed to be nailed more effectively elsewhere.) But I did like having these ideas thrown at me, challenging my preconceptions about the opera - both its story, and the wider issues it forces you to confront.

ENO has been - and can be - many things to many people. One piece of its jigsaw identity is as the alternative, occasionally rebellious, and even stroppy younger sibling of the grander ROH down the road. I think the grandeur of its own home venue, the Coliseum, sometimes makes it easy to overlook this side of the company's personality - and the brilliance of ENO Studio Live (and similar ventures) has helped to bring some of that punkish, guerrilla spirit back to the fore. That approach may always risk imperfections, but for me, this new 'Salome' is a welcome, dangerously contaminated, shot in the arm.