Friday 27 December 2019

Retrospecstive 2019: recorded

Just up on the blog in time to assist with any voucher spending this weekend - here's my round-up of 25 favourite recordings from the past year ... plus a couple of extras! (Favourite live events from 2019 will be in a forthcoming post...)

As on previous occasions, there's an 'at-a-glance' list of artists at the top, divided into classical and non-classical (with my very favourite in each in bold)... but I sincerely hope that whatever your tastes, you will genre-hop through the choices and perhaps discover something new.

For those of you who like to listen straight through, there's a Spotify playlist version at the end, which is as close as I can make it to the individual selections.

I hope you all had a happy and peaceful Christmas.


Classical: Claire Booth & Christopher Glynn, Ian Bostridge & Thomas Adès, Adèle Charvet & Susan Manoff, Imogen Cooper, Lucas Debargue, Shahbaz Hussain & Helen Anahita Wilson, Elizabeth Kenny, Penguin Cafe, Rachel Podger, Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Robin Tritscher & Malcolm Martineau, Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu.

Non-classical: Areni Agbabian, Big Big Train, Steve Gunn, Here Lies Man, Jambinai, Barb Jungr, Mekons, Raf and O, Alasdair Roberts, 75 Dollar Bill, Tunes of Negation, The Utopia Strong, Vampire Weekend.


Rachel Podger: Bach 'Cello Suites' / Violin (track: Suite 6, 1. Prelude)
One way the Cello Suites seem to suggest the infinite is how readily non-cellists step up to their challenge: no surprise, perhaps, that this gliding, fleet interpretation is so exciting.

Mekons: 'Deserted' (track: 'After the Rain')
The seemingly indestructible punk-country-folk collective made one of their most thrilling albums yet, a mere four decades or so, since forming. There's beauty amid their shanties, here for example.

Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton: 'Reason in Madness' (track: Schubert, 'Gretchen am Spinnrade')
Regular readers will know how much I admire this duo and evangelise about their body of work. This latest album is a fascinating programme (drawing attention to art song's harrowing catalogue of women driven out of their wits) that allows CS to seamlessly convince in a range of characters from Gretchen at the spinning wheel to Poulenc's lady of Monte Carlo. [Tech note: I couldn't find a trace of visual relating to this album, so I've had to cheat and borrow a performance of 'Gretchen...' for an earlier, equally fine CD, 'A Soprano's Schubertiade'.]

Raf and O: 'The Space Between Nothing and Desire' (track: 'Your Gazing Stare')
Raf and O occupy many 'spaces between': rock and electronica, distance and intimacy, retro and future, human and machine. Perhaps the group I know who most transcend their influences: compelling and utterly unlike any of their peers.

Imogen Cooper: 'Iberia Y Francia' (track: Albéniz, 'Rumores de la Caleta')
Another gorgeously programmed disc; pure pleasure.

75 Dollar Bill: 'I Was Real' (track: 'WZN3')
Although the album features a few extra folk, 75 Dollar Bill are essentially a guitar and percussion duo. Quite how they create the resulting whirlwind of mesmeric 'desert' blues is one of those mysteries I don't really want to solve.

Ian Bostridge, Thomas Adès: 'Winterreise' (track: 'Die Nebensonnen')
After years of performance, Ian Bostridge must know 'Winterreise' inside out, but he still seems to be searching for new angles and approaches. Cue Thomas Adès bringing a composer's eye to the piano part, and the pair make us hear it differently, again.

Steve Gunn: 'The Unseen In Between' (track: 'New Moon')
A restrained guitar hero with a detectable 'shimmer'.

Penguin Cafe: 'Handfuls of Night' (track: 'Chapter')
The latest album from the Penguins is rich in ambient atmospherics - a sublime 'headphones' record that makes you feel surrounded not so much by instruments as elements. Here, though, they've made a great video for perhaps the most 'theme tune'-like track.

Here Lies Man: 'No Ground to Walk Upon' (track: 'Iron Rattles')
Scary work-rate but apparently no let-up from Here Lies Man, three albums into their project aiming to chuck blues, psych, metal and Afrobeat into a blender and see what comes out. Goodness, that's what.

Shahbaz Hussain & Helen Anahita Wilson: 'Diwan' (track: 'Azar')
To me, this album - and this opening track in particular - is like an uninhibited dance between partners who may not have known each other very long. On the surface, it's east/west fusion: but you can hear how the approaches blend and influence each other: her rhythms, his melodies. Truly uplifting.

Barb Jungr: 'Bob, Brel and Me' (track: 'Incurable Romantic')
A song interpreter of such skill that she can take the inscrutable, elusive Dylan alongside the unchecked outpourings of Brel, find the confessional through-line between them AND mix in some fine songs of her own (like this track) - I think this must be Jungr's finest achievement yet.

Big Big Train: 'Grand Tour' (track: 'Alive')
I love prog, I really really do, so I was always going to find Big Big Train eventually - but in a genre that (unfairly) still makes some people picture serious, noodling musos, this band reminds you that all that versatility and expertise can serve soaring euphoria. There are longer songs on the album (natch), but this hoists you on its shoulders the quickest.

Claire Booth, Christopher Glynn: Grieg, 'Lyric Pieces' (track: 'Mens jeg venter from Digte Op. 60')
Something about this duo's bright, committed performances - as also on their previous Grainger disc - suggest total enthusiasm for and belief in the composer. Here the mix of songs and piano solo widen the scope of the recital and allow the vocal selections breathing space and room to shine.

Alasdair Roberts: 'The Fiery Margin' (track: 'The Evernew Tongue')
Even when Roberts releases a self-written album, it's as if he's stumbled out of a time capsule with his latest batch of sheet music under his arm. This fiercely individual album (featuring in particular the magnificent Alex Neilson on drums) could almost come from another dimension, let alone decade.

Lucas Debargue: Scarlatti, '52 Sonatas' (track: 'Sonata in F major, K.438')
After three single discs, each featuring multiple composers, the remarkable LD took a deep dive - 4 CDs' worth - into just one. Such a dazzling indulgence - and only 503 more sonatas to go.

Vampire Weekend: 'Father of the Bride' (track 'Harmony Hall')
Or Re-vampire Weekend (eh, readers?) - after a line-up shuffle and a few years' absence, bandleader Ezra Koenig returned with a double-album full of ideas, stretching out in the best sense. Some of the hyperactive exuberance remains, along with a somehow more mature kind of urgency - such as this fine track's slinky anguish.

Adèle Charvet, Susan Manoff: 'Long Time Ago' (track: Bolcom, 'Amor')
I confess I'd not heard this mezzo before until coming across the disc and being fascinated by the programme, which ranges across jazz/cabaret as well as art song. A great way to discover this gloriously rich voice - with Susan Manoff superbly sensitive as ever.

Tunes of Negation: 'Reach the Endless Sea' (track: 'The World is a Stage / Reach the Endless Sea', featuring Heather Leigh)
The latest alias/collaboration from electronica genius Shackleton, Tunes of Negation's double album is like science fiction in sound... this opening pair of tracks featuring spectral vocals from Heather Leigh, the singer and pedal steel guitarist who made one of last year's finest albums, 'Throne'.

Elizabeth Kenny: 'Ars longa: old and new music for theorbo' (track: Kapsperger, 'Canario' in a live version for Classic FM)
A dazzling, centuries-spanning collection of which this is one of the highlights. [Tech note: Also no sign of this album online apart from this live track, so sadly I've had to leave the EK record out of the Spotify list.]

Jambinai: 'Onda' (track: 'Event Horizon')
This Korean band weave traditional instrumentation from their home country into a seismic doom/drone metal assault. Like the best heavy music, punishing AND rewarding.

Robin Tritschler, Malcolm Martineau: 'Song's First Cycle' (track: Beethoven, 'An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98: VI. Nimm die hin denn, diese Lieder')
I wholeheartedly approve of RT & MM's tendency to release double CDs, and this is a fine, generous release charting the early days of the song cycle via Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart and Weber. RT's strength of feeling and bright, pure tone translate from the concert stage into the studio.

Areni Agbabian: 'Bloom' (track: 'Patience')
As the track name suggests, this is patient music: intimate, sparse and spectral - drawing you into its space. If ever an artist was particularly suited to - and well served by - the 'ECM sound', it's this one.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen, James Baillieu: CPE Bach, 'Complete Works for Violin & Keyboard' (track: 'Fantasia in F-sharp Minor')
Another multi-disc delight that allows you to just get lost in a composer's soundworld and put yourself in the capable hands of fine artists - JB in particular I mostly know from his collaborative work with singers, so this is in some respects revelatory. (And *whispers* CPE is the best Bach - right? *ducks*.)

The Utopia Strong: 'The Utopia Strong' (track 'Konta Chorus')
Steve Davis - yes, that one, the former snooker champion - is also a prog rock super-enthusiast. After DJ-ing in the genre for some time, he has finally taken the step into making music, as a third of this synth-heavy psych group. This is heady, propulsive, addictive stuff.

Two bonus tracks! (not commercially available; not in the Spotify list)

Dobrinka Tabakova's 'Timber and Steel' - world premiere given at the 2019 Proms by the BBC Concert Orchestra
An absolute marvel - keeping everything crossed for a proper recording soon.

Kate Arnold: 'For Barely One in a Thousand (The Practice of Lights)'
This has only appeared in the last few days, ahead of its writer/performer's new EP early next year. If you like some of the dark folk / new classical artists I write about (Jo Quail, Sieben), here is another kindred spirit to add to your roll call. Dulcimer, violin and crystalline vocals - all courtesy of KA - build into an unforgettable whole: now in total suspense to hear the other songs. Medieval genius.

Spotify version:

Sunday 15 December 2019

Freedom of movements...

...and easy passage across genre borders.

I don't tend to come over all political on the Specs blog. So, here's a European playlist.

Hope you enjoy it. (YouTube clips immediately below, then a Spotify version at the end.)


Poland, represented by composer Karol Szymanowski: 'Nocturne and Tarantella, Op. 28: II. Tarantella: Presto appassionato', performed by Tamsin Waley-Cohen & Huw Watkins.

Belgium, represented by singer-songwriter Jacques Brel: 'La chanson de Jacky'.

Norway, represented by composer Edvard Grieg: 'Haugtussa Op. 67: VIII. Ved Gjætle-Bekken, perfomed by Claire Booth & Christopher Glynn.

Greece, represented by progressive rock band, Aphrodite's Child: 'It's Five O'Clock'.

Estonia, represented by composer Veljo Tormis: 'Raua Needmine (Curse upon Iron)', performed by Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Tõnu Kaljuste.

Switzerland, represented by ritual jazz collective Nik Bärtsch's Rohin: 'Modul 36'.

France, represented by composer Louise Farrenc: 'Air russe varié, Op. 17', performed by Biliana Tzinlikova.

Ukraine, represented by atmospheric black metal band Drudkh: 'Autumn in Sepia'.

Spain, represented by composer Isaac Albéniz: 'Asturias', performed by Xuefei Yang.

Finland, represented by neofolk band Tenhi: 'Sutoi'.

Italy, represented by synth-rockers and horror-soundtrackers Goblin: 'Snip Snap'.

Germany, represented by composer C.P.E. Bach: 'Variations in D minor on "Die Folie d'Espagne", Wq 118/9 & Wq 270', performed by Andreas Staier.

Sweden, represented by arguably finest pop group of all time ABBA: 'Cassandra'.

Latvia, represented by composer Ēriks Ešenvalds: 'The First Tears', performed by Portland State Chamber Choir / Ethan Sperry.

Austria, represented by composer Franz Schubert: 'Nachtstück', performed by Ilker Arcayürek & Simon Lepper.

Spotify version:

Sunday 1 December 2019

Shape shifter: Bridget Riley at the Hayward Gallery

A 'photo-blog' this time, following my visit to the Bridget Riley retrospective exhibition, running at the Hayward Gallery in London's Southbank Centre until 26 January 2020.

Riley's work was among the very first abstract art I loved. While I had no idea what 'op art' was at the time, I always loved 'optical illusion' puzzles and curiosities as a kid. No surprise, then, that I've always been mesmerised by Riley's manipulation of colours (or the lack of them) and shapes (or the spaces between them) - and the grand scale on which she achieves it.

Here, I'm going to take you on a short tour of some of my highlights of the show. Nothing - not even a copy of the handsome catalogue - can really replace going to see the pieces in the 'flesh'. You have to imagine many of them filling your field of vision, or being able to get close enough to see the subtle variations in the lines and patterns, or marvel at the brushwork's precision in the service of such restrictive, rigorous designs.

The dazzling black and white images - surely her most recognisable work to this day - have this almost frightening ability to make you see false shapes, or a third dimension that isn't there, especially as you move forward and back or side to side in front of the painting. In some cases, I had that weird sensation not unlike when the eyes of a portrait seem to follow you around the room - but here it's a void that responds to your actions. Then I think the art touches on something almost terrifying, apocalyptic.

As a comprehensive survey, the exhibition covers some aspects of her career that I hadn't previously been aware of - for example, her admiration for Seurat. While the art she went on to produce doesn't resemble Seurat's, she was influenced by his approach - and the curation does its best to tease this out:

We also get to see some of her very early pieces...

I was fascinated to see signs in the 'pre-abstract' work of possible later preoccupations: the 'rejections' of the face, each hidden, altogether missing, or fading, somehow incomplete; shapes and their shadows; geometric lines.

The show also took in some less familiar media - for example, some of her works on perspex (where the images feel almost like trademarks or esoteric logos of some kind), and her only 3-D large-scale installation, where you can walk inside and be surrounded by a Riley painting - notwithstanding the short queue, very few people stayed in there for long!

But the more familiar I am with an artist and the more I go to see their work, the more easily I can let my mind wander onto other aspects ... in particular, the 'hang'. I was struck by how sometimes an exhibition can find its perfect gallery, and that has definitely happened here. My final sequence of snaps is meant to give you an idea of just what it was like to move around in the space and experience these pictures: surely the white and grey austere lines of the Hayward were just waiting for Riley to come along.

(Brief warning - as this is a little like street photography with a roof, I'm anxious that no-one in the photos can be readily identified. As a result, I experimented with the editing functions on my laptop and, in an unexpected turn of events, managed to completely remove two peoples' heads. I've actually left these individuals in the pictures as a kind of tribute to Riley's erasure of faces. Please rest assured that I didn't actually decapitate anyone in the gallery to achieve my aesthetic aims...)

I hope you've enjoyed the photographs. You can find details of the exhibition here on the Southbank Centre website.

Monday 18 November 2019

Cross purposes: 'The Greek Passion', Opera North

More musical travels, this time to the Theatre Royal, Nottingham to see Opera North's production of Martinů's 'The Greek Passion'. A completely new work to me, I was quite unprepared for how moving - and ultimately overwhelming - a piece it is. And, much like everything else I've seen so far from Opera North, this production felt supremely confident, generating a grandeur above its means... while, at the same time, communicating something real, focused; drawing out extraordinary drama from previously ordinary lives.

The opera is based on 'Christ Recrucified', a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote the novels that inspired 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and 'Zorba the Greek'). The villagers of Lycovrissi stage a passion play every Easter Sunday; once the performance is over, the powerful priest Grigoris immediately casts the roles for the following year. The devout nature of the community is such that the new group of 'actors' bond straightaway and begin studying and rehearsing their characters.

Before long, the innate power of the gospel story starts to affect the cast, who take on aspects of their biblical alter-egos. In particular, the quiet shepherd Manolios - playing Jesus - turns inward, allowing his fiancée to drift away into a rival's arms. The play's Mary Magdalene, Katerina, is attracted to Manolios, but he resists her affections and urges her towards piety. However, her current lover, Panait - as Judas - watches this chaste romance play out, and broods...

Meanwhile, as the players wrestle with their inner demons, a true test of their Christian values presents itself. Refugees from another village, destroyed by the Turks, arrive seeking help. Immediately fearful and suspicious, Grigoris turns them away, despite the heartfelt and eloquent pleas of their leader Fotis, himself a priest. However, the players advise the refugees to remain close by, on the nearby mountain.

Tensions rise as time passes and the actors identify more and more strongly with their roles. Manolios preaches compassion for the refugees; Katerina takes them milk; Yannakos (the postman playing Peter) is tempted by one of the village elders to steal from the new arrivals but discovers his conscience in time. Ultimately, however, Grigoris manages to turn the village against both the refugees and Manolios. In the melee, Panait - fulfilling his character's destiny in the most chilling way imaginable - seizes the opportunity to murder Manolios ... and the crisis abates. Lycovrissi enjoys a normal Christmas, with the hungry, frozen refugees dying outside its borders.

This opera must make tremendous demands of its soloists' acting abilities. While we never see the full passion play as a piece of discrete drama (chaos erupts too soon), from the opera's outset we watch the players not only take on a further character of their own, but then mine a third seam as the lines become blurred between their fiction and their reality. Each of them managed to embody what seemed to me one of the work's more mystical aspects: that Grigoris's casting seems in some way pre-ordained, and that each villager selected has, somehow, been waiting to inhabit their role all along.

Nicky Spence as Manolios was masterful in this respect. Even when we meet the character for the first time, he is oddly apart, distracted - and somehow unsuited to earthly preoccupations like romantic love. For such a vocal powerhouse, Spence gave a bravely quiet performance, establishing the accidental Christ figure with wandering, distracted looks and diffident body language. Only with his increasing confidence as a preacher came the familiar richness of tone and caressing volume.

It seems harsh to single others out, but still firmly lodged in my mind's eye (and ear) are Magdalena Molendowska's Katerina finding a kind of peace in charity, Paul Nilon's haunted, conflicted Yannakos and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts interjecting cries of hate and horror to create Panait's seething, inarticulate rage.

Turning outside the village, John Savournin was a compelling presence as the refugees' spiritual and political leader, Fotis. Stressing these two sides of his character is important, as Savournin's delivery conveyed both compassion and strength, showing us a man of great dignity and self-possession, even when he and his people are at their lowest ebb.

While the performances were impassioned and visceral, the unforgiving poignancy of the plot was underlined by the staging. A casual glance at photos of Christopher Alden's production will immediately tell you that the refugees are represented by effigies. But in fact, this oversimplifies a beautifully subtle idea. Each member of the formidable Chorus of Opera North carries one of the 'bodies'. As such, when the figures are placed in rows en masse, their oppressed silence is visually stifling; yet when the action calls for the Chorus to give the refugees a joint voice, the impact is overwhelming. No-one who saw and heard the 'Kyrie' at the end of Act 2 is likely to forget it, an explosion of tribal anguish and devotion.

But the double expression of body and voice works brilliantly too, as identities merge and swap. For example, an old refugee, about to die, handed his effigy to the villager Yannakos: the 'body' still in his arms as the singer crawled across the stage to die in his grave. To suggest so much - separation of soul from body; the emptiness of a corpse once the light has gone out; the 'levelling' and even communion brought by death to the haves and have-nots - with such stark visuals: elegance and eloquence in tandem.

I loved the layers of meaning that emerged from this apparent simplicity. The monochrome effect of the refugees (white effigies, black-clad Chorus) contrasted with the ironic opulence of the passion players' coloured robes. (Their stylised posture against the black backdrop reminded me of Bill Viola's 'video paintings', themselves influenced so heavily by older religious art.) The placing of the characters in a 'bikers and barmaids' environment with rustic, menial jobs ensuring there is only the merest sliver of difference between their situation and that of the refugees.

But really my final paragraphs of praise should go to Opera North's Orchestra, conducted here by their incoming Musical Director, Garry Walker. The score is really a character in itself, with Martinů's storytelling so economical (brief, partly-spoken links ensure the story rockets along from incident to incident) that he succeeds in creating an innovative hybrid that feels at times like a purely choral work as much as an opera. This mass-like purity is offset, however, by strains of folk and roots music: in the Theatre Royal, it appeared that two or three orchestra members took turns in a kind of makeshift Unusual Instrument Booth to the conductor's left - one wielding an accordion, for example - to anchor the sound to the soil. To me, the orchestra just felt buoyant - shifting mood, register, tempo as if they were generating a live soundtrack to the stage action.

While the run has now ended, 'The Greek Passion' was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 - which means you can still hear it on their website here, or through the BBC Sounds app. At the time of writing, it will be up for another 20 days or so... taking you to around 8 December. Please listen if you can - it doesn't come around too often and Opera North have done it incredible justice.

(Photos from the Opera North website, with the two production stills by Tristram Kenton.)

Monday 11 November 2019

"It feels like love": Barb Jungr, 'Bob, Brel and Me'

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent ArtMuseLondon website. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


A new album by Barb Jungr is always a cause for celebration, but it's a particular delight to be able to write about what must be one of her very finest recordings. 'Bob, Brel and Me' is the kind of coherent, complete - and importantly, open-hearted and generous - release that makes a long-term fan like me want to take an armful of copies out and press them into the hands of friends, relatives, even unsuspecting passers-by. I'd just have time to say, "If you want to understand why this artist is so special, take a listen to this. It's all in there"... before moving on to my next target. But I will try to explain here, too.

For those of you yet to encounter Barb Jungr's music, I would say the closest genre fit is jazz - that's the section where you'll find her CDs. But in fact, I think she's one of the finest interpreters of  modern song - any song - we currently have. Whether it's a number as old as the hills, rehearsed and retrod by hundreds of other musicians, or something relatively new or obscure - songs undergo a genuine transformation in her hands, and you never listen to them in quite the same way again. While the material might look like jazz - acoustic, usually piano-based, partly improvisatory - it doesn't always feel like it. Jungr ranges across folk and rock for source material, especially the singer-songwriter lineage of the 60s and 70s. At the same time, somehow, she inhabits a world of cabaret and chanson: live, she is absolutely fearless, unpredictable and magnetic - totally unafraid to take the audience on a journey where they have no idea of the destination.

This powerful performing style might partly explain why, in particular, she has a special gift for covering songs by men. (One of my favourite discs from her back catalogue is called 'The Men I Love: the New American Songbook' - featuring material by David Byrne, Todd Rundgren, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen among others.) But the Man She Loves The Most in this context is almost certainly Bob Dylan, who has two whole Jungr albums to himself (the mighty 'Every Grain of Sand' and the compilation 'Man in the Long Black Coat') and finds his way in some shape or form onto many of the others.

I don't think it's an accident that these blokes are especially renowned and valued for their lyrics - complex, intriguing words and images come pouring out of them - so their work immediately lends itself to Jungr's storytelling charisma and technical precision (the way she seems able to communicate such emotion while dancing around the melodies and preserving crystal-clear diction is worthy of several air-punches throughout this new CD alone). A superb songwriter herself, Jungr's own lyrics are witty, tender and rich in detail, so it's an extra treat when one of her records features a few self-penned tracks.

Essentially, I think her versions of this kind of  'male canon' are so successful because she has an uncanny ability to take the pulse of a song. Her strength and tenacity mean the material retains its grip, but at the same time she punctures any aggression or 'toxicity' in the masculinity - a double threat.

So we come to the latest record, which seemes designed to bring together these three key areas of her craft: 'Bob' is of course Dylan, now accompanied by Jacques Brel to represent the chanson element, and a clutch of mostly new songs written by Jungr with a range of collaborators. Mixing up these three groups of songs results in a seamless listen, due not only to Jungr's voice, but the talents of a really top-notch band - tight and responsive, every track seems to 'evolve' as you listen. There's a large cast, but if I had to mention two specific players who have leapt out at me in the first couple of listens, it would be pianist and arranger Jenny Carr and drummer Rod Youngs.

Two songs sequenced together near the start really showcase their talents. 'Jacky' (Brel) and 'Mr Tambourine Man' (Dylan) make a perfect pair, presenting the 'song and dance man' troubadour side of both their creators. Accordingly, Youngs lifts a terrific version of 'Jacky' with the merest nod to the military might of the original, but with a world-weary, buffeted beat that, more than keeping time, colours the mood of the song around it. While on the other hand, 'Mr Tambourine Man' might be a song that almost everyone thinks they know inside out (especially through the Byrds version) - but here, Carr's intricate arrangement makes her own piano part relatively sparse, but crucially features a tolling, slightly off-kilter, bell-like note, over and over again. It gives the song a flavour of the cyclic, eternal, like a jazz take on 'Winterreise's hurdy-gurdy man. And on both, Jungr weighs each word to perfection, making you wonder how she's actually managing to get through every syllable-packed line while teasing new variations and additions out of the tunes.

But the whole album is full of  commanding vocal performances. 'The Cathedral' (Brel) exchanges the manic intensity of the original with more of a seductive slow-build, Jungr's vocal managing to caress the melody with more layers of attractive embellishment - while at the same time becoming more conversational and persuasive. I'm still not sure how she manages to communicate multiple, at times conflicting moods with just the timbre of her voice, but she does. Another song that benefits from this stately attention to detail is Dylan's 'Buckets of Rain', which here is a hymnal blues underpinned by organ and double bass, elevating the earthly to something spiritual: accordingly Jungr moves apparently effortlessly between a delicate soar and a breathy intimacy.

One pleasing side-effect of these regular returns to Dylan is that the theme of each project overall affects the kind of light Jungr shines on his work. Here, Barb and band have placed him squarely in the Brel Building, with accordion decorating 'Buckets of Rain', and jazz-club piano and sax launching a propulsive pincer attack on the more Bob-like harmonica solo. 'Simple Twist of Fate' is sheer joy from start to finish, with the twist of the title finding its way into the vocal treatment, Jungr varying the circle of the vocal melody or pace while the band changes keys like they were gears.

Scattered among these masterful covers are several infectious originals, seemingly written and scored to stand shoulder to shoulder with the two other 'B's. 'In the Secret Spaces' (written with Jamie Safir) makes more of Youngs's delicately hyperactive drumming, the two-left-feet rhythm matching the bright, conversational tone of the vocal ("the moon - my God, the moon is huge!"), while opener 'Rise and Shine' - a co-write with Level 42's Mike Lindup, gives us tragicomedy in both lyrics and music, as Jungr cheerfully puns and rhymes her way through an agonising break-up story as the band seek to constantly buoy her up. My favourite new song on the record was also written with Lindup: 'Incurable Romantic' casts a characteristically amused look at the old clichés - what concision there is in lines like "Falling free / Into those arms, and no net / How many fish can there be in the sea?" - but set to a sublime tune of deceptively detailed beauty. Looking at the marriage of humour, heart and honesty in Jungr's own work illuminates how and why Dylan and Brel must be so important to her - and, in turn, what she can bring to them.

Barb Jungr has made so many great records. But there's an argument for this one being the finest distillation yet of  where she's coming from, why and how performs such compelling music, and what makes her unique. Warmly recommended.


You can buy 'Bob, Brel and Me' online here.

Barb Jungr's website lists all her upcoming live dates here - go go go!

Thursday 31 October 2019

Taking soundings: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, 'Four Last Songs'

A rare but welcome concert outside London for me, this, as I took the bus to my old university town and paid a flying visit to catch just one of the gigs in the Oxford Lieder festival. As regular readers of the Specs blog will know, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton are one of my 'favourite bands' - no recital duo has kept me so consistently enthralled, fascinated and delighted as these two. With the promise of hearing them perform the famous 'Four Last Songs' by Strauss - not on any of their CDs (yet!), and so much more familiar in their orchestral versions - this was unmissable.

In the event, the Strauss was the finale to a generous and richly varied selection of art song. The evening began in epic mode, with Haydn's 'Arianna a Naxos', a continuous suite of four songs taking us through Ariadne's gradual realisation that she has been abandoned by Theseus. The rest of the first half comprised four early songs by Schoenberg (Op. 2), and two songs from Mahler's 'Das Knaben Wunderhorn' contrasting 'heavenly' and 'earthly' life.

After the interval, we took a detour from lieder into melodies, specifically a sequence based on Louÿs's 'Bilitis' poems, with two settings by Koechlin bookending Debussy's three 'Chansons de Bilitis'. Finally, we heard the Strauss: not only the 'Four Last Songs', but a beautiful encore rendition of 'Morgen!'

I realise that was a somewhat dry, list-based description: but I wanted to quickly lay before you the embarrassment of riches ... And also, I think, to get across what an affecting and sublime experience this was, it's more pertinent to 'range across' the repertoire and keep sight of how all the material made for a perfect fit. Transporting in all senses: not just that feeling of uplift you get from the finest music or art, but also a sense of profound change, that you end the concert in a slightly different place, emotionally and - yes - intellectually, from where you started it. Talking about 'journeys' in this way - those of the heart and mind - might seem like a well-worn cliche by now, but sometimes that's simply what it is: you know that you've somehow travelled.

Previously, I had heard the duo perform recitals that generally matched or showcased particular discs. However, the overall theme of Oxford Lieder in 2019 was 'Tales of Beyond: Magic, Myths and Mortals'. Accordingly, they had assembled a mix of old and new - I understand that the Strauss, at the very least, is planned for a future recording project, while the Bilitis sequence was a highlight of their last release, the superb 'Reason in Madness'. However, as CS explained onstage, the programme as assembled for this gig explores the theme of heaven and earth: how they interact, how they differ.

This ability to choose and sequence sets of songs that just 'click' has been a feature of Sampson and Middleton's work right from the start of their collaboration. On this particular evening, more than the overall theme providing a sense of unity, there was also a deliberate build-up in intensity.

I spoke of journeys earlier, and it seems to me that, particularly since increasing her focus on art song around five or so years ago, Carolyn Sampson has partly been on an exploratory voyage 'into' her voice. I've always appreciated the combination of precision and purity she's rightly renowned for as a Baroque specialist, and the way she brings those qualities intact to art song performance is thrilling. However, in the close quarters and splendid acoustic of St John the Evangelist, I was more alive than ever to the way she inhabited each song and gave life to their characters with an ever-increasing variety of timbres and colours, accessing rounder, 'lower' tones as she stepped up the sensuality, and built at various points to moments of devastating volume and power (Schoenberg's 'Erhebung', say, or Koechlin's 'Hymne à Astarté'). The performance also underlined her skills as an actor-singer, her gestures and body language raising each song into its own miniature drama.

Joseph Middleton is the perfect partner throughout. An extraordinarily versatile collaborative pianist, he seems able to provide a 'through voice' for any array of styles - a look back at the duo's debut CD, 'Fleurs', reminds one how he and CS bring a sense of unity to a mix of so many composers. I've always loved hearing him play Britten, for example, the touch and control making instant sense, for me, of music that can seem so unpredictable or fractured. His playing has helped me to draw connections that I might never otherwise have done: in the Oxford concert, for example, I was struck how the piano seemed to 'dance through' the voice in both the Schoenberg and Debussy.

Their approach reached fulfilment in the Strauss. CS sang with delicacy and passion, and JM managed to achieve a truly 'orchestral' feel. But while a song like 'September' can feel so sumptuous in its full arrangement, here the duo avoided the sense that a piano/voice version was in any way a reduction. Quite the contrary - they laid the songs bare to some extent, the emotion more exposed, a crucial note of fragility, the complete absence of grandstanding, that befitted the work's valedictory nature. I was aware of myself applauding in an almost out-of-body sense - but at the same time, I was quite overcome, processing, not wanting to exit my suspended state for a short while. I knew I had been at a masterclass.

Enhancing this feeling were in fact all manner of 'suspended states': the programme was finely spun between heaven and earth; myth and reality; desire and separation; life and death... all taking place in a holy building now mostly given to the secular arts. An evening of exquisite tension, then resolution.

After every concert by CS and JM, I'm inevitably drawn back to what is already a handsome body of recorded work. As it builds, it occurs to me that they're taking their listeners on continuous voyages. Their joint programming instincts are certainly giving fans like me an education: their ability to draw together such a variety of material under compelling overall themes has meant I've been introduced to so many corners of the canon I may never have found a map to otherwise. Equally, CS - particularly on the most recent two discs, 'A Soprano's Schubertiade' and 'Reason in Madness' - is mining a rich seam on the treatment and experience of women as characters and protagonists in art song, and I'll be fascinated to see if and how this overarching motif might continue. I cannot recommend their CDs highly enough - here's a page where you can browse them all and listen to samples, courtesy of a highly reputable retailer.


Post-script: I've penned this write-up of the concert after recovering from a Terrible Cold. A few nights ago, I was feeling both rotten, yet strangely upbeat (could've been the drugs!) - but I couldn't face an evening full of screen work. As a result, I carried out an experiment of sorts, talking into my phone (totally unscripted, utterly unprepared) - partly about the gig, but also about the wider 'road trip', and how I felt about visiting my alma mater. If you're curious, and like your concert chat seasoned with ramblings about fearing nostalgia and battling oversized kettles, please feel free to watch it on this page. But the detail is in the piece above.

Monday 28 October 2019

Voice coach

Specs is under the weather... so keeping typing and eyestrain to a minimum. However, after attending a terrific gig last week that I'm bursting to talk about, I've tried a little experiment: talking to you about it, instead of writing.

I hope you enjoy this slight departure from the norm. It's obviously completely unpolished, delivered without notes, and lacks the refinements and revisions I'd apply to a normal post (yes, it's true!). My brain, let alone my voice, is clearly operating in 'low power mode'. But I thought I'd post it anyway, partly because I ramble into a corner of my psyche. But mainly because it's sincere, genuine, and even several days later (and in a fug of cold), I clearly still get an emotional buzz when thinking about the concert. That's Sampson & Middleton for you.


Saturday 19 October 2019

The Japes of Goth / Doom for manoeuvre / as you will

Most of the time on Specs, you'll find me writing about music and art ... but regular visitors will be familiar with another passion of mine, portrait photography. This is where I get to flex a few different creative muscles - so I feel it belongs on the blog along with everything else, the whole thing adding up to an online self-portrait of sorts.

One of the best things about focusing on portraiture is collaborating with friends who are willing to step in front of the lens. I've photographed Fliss and Tony, the subjects here, often: they're extraordinarily game, endlessly co-operative and - as experienced amateur actors - bring a whole host of ideas and, usefully, outfits to the enterprise.

This is the second shoot running (after my recent pictures of Suzanne here) where the day was far more loosely-planned and improvisational. I have in the past made meticulous location plans for sessions - and will no doubt do so again - but here we decided to wing it, relatively speaking, and aim for fast results in a small number of backgrounds. All I knew in advance was that they wanted to 'go goth' - which to me could embody a gloomy sincerity, or self-aware, slightly self-mocking melodrama... or all points in between. I'm pleased with these pictures: huge fun to do, and I like to think they convey the idea that 'dressing up and larking around' can be a serious business. I hope you enjoy them.