Saturday 30 March 2019

An ECM playlist

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.

Late last year, I sent Frances a selection of music by artists on ECM Records. The label had only embraced streaming the year before - so curious listeners could explore its distinctive approach more easily (and cheaply!). 2019 sees ECM reach its 50th anniversary. As I'm currently in 'playlist mode' (see my previous post) - and about to go away on a short break - it seemed a good time to archive my ECM mix here. I hope you enjoy it.

We’re coming up to the first anniversary of a slightly unusual and unexpected musical event – or to be more accurate, ‘music business event’. On 17 November 2017, the record label ECM made virtually all of its catalogue available on streaming services for the first time.

For anyone unfamiliar, ECM is a Munich record label, founded almost 50 years ago – and still run – by producer extraordinaire Manfred Eicher. Initially the focus was on modern jazz music, but in the mid-eighties Eicher established the parallel ‘ECM New Series’ imprint to cover classical music.

It may be because the boss is a producer that ECM is famed for exceptional recording quality and detail. It’s tempting to think that the New Series seemed at once boldly contemporary (featuring composers linked to minimalism, like Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich) and wilfully archaeological (the exquisite early choral recordings of Trio Mediaeval or the Hilliard Ensemble), because these ‘extremes’ of classical music particularly benefited from such finely-wrought clarity.

This wide variety means that while there isn’t an ‘ECM sound’ as such, there’s definitely an ECM aesthetic. As well as making the records sound gorgeous, the label’s sleeve design – even into the CD era – has a largely abstract austerity that totally fits its musical output: enigmatic yet welcoming, arty, classy, attractive, open to wide interpretation.

This strong identity is arguably what kept ECM away from streaming platforms for as long as possible: the physical object, played on the best equipment you can muster, is part of their ideal. However, the fact that Eicher and co have now given in means you can at least explore a remarkable range of beautifully documented music at great leisure (and little or no cost) – hopefully on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, as a shelfful or so of ECM releases is a truly joyful sight.

Perhaps treating all of its artists with the same sonic respect, whatever the genre, is the engine behind another distinctive feature of ECM’s output: inspired collaborations. Eicher seems to delight in bringing musicians on the label from both jazz and classical camps together, resulting in highly rewarding joint releases, without compromising the spirit of their individual recordings.

This is a key theme in my very personal ECM playlist. There’s a run of three tracks where Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek first plays with a group of Pakistani musicians, followed by a selection from his celebrated partnership with the Hilliard Ensemble – then we hear the Hilliards on their own performing a striking contemporary piece in contrast to their original ‘early music’ idiom.

Latterly, the Trio Mediaeval have recorded an album with trumpeter Arve Henriksen – a record that, while very different, seems to rejoice in a similar spirit, and a choice from this starts the whole playlist off. Bringing proceedings to a close is John Surman – another versatile saxophonist who can career from furious hard bop to drones/electronica and all points in between. However, his two albums with a string quartet are real jewels in ECM’s crown, as I hope ‘At Dusk’ proves.

Along the way, I’ve tried to bring in some of ECM’s most arresting characters. There’s Stephan Micus, who seems to learn and compose on a different array of instruments from all over the globe on each release, yet here foregrounds his own voice. Or Nik Bartsch, a Swiss pianist who describes his work as ‘ritual groove music’ (about four minutes into the playlist track, you’ll hear why). He records mainly with two bands, Ronin – who feature here – and Mobile, depending on the configuration of musicians the material needs. The distinctive, unhurried and wonderfully delicate piano of Marilyn Crispell, followed by the atmospheric vocalising from Susanne Abbuehl.

And much more… I could have carried on and on but thought I had better stop at 20 tracks (and 2 hours)! As you will find if you explore ECM further for yourself, I could have gone off at so many tangents: used Ralph Towner as a springboard to fellow guitarists John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny or Terje Ryphal; or followed Alexei Lubimov into the label’s roster of esteemed classical pianists (including Sir Andras Schiff). Keith Jarrett’s recordings alone must provide more than 100 hours of listening (some 90 recordings, including a few multi-disc sets).

I hope you enjoy this rather focused selection, then, and feel inspired to find ‘your ECM’ among the label’s near-limitless riches.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Beat the clock

Following a brief period of relative quiet on the live cultural front, it felt like the time was right for a new playlist on the blog.

After de-stressing one evening recently by motoring through a load of pop songs on YouTube, I started to have flashbacks to my teenage and early working years, when doing a similar sort of thing might have meant sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of seven inch singles, or albums, or CDs - so that losing yourself in the music almost felt like a physical, as well as aural, experience.

Because, by definition, nostalgia is a modern activity, I think a lot of Today's Youth are as tuned in to how people my age (add the prefix 'middle') used to enjoy music as they want to be. Those who like a tactile channel for storing music are certainly helping the vinyl revival along. And even a term like 'mixtape' survives as a catch-all description for a lovingly-compiled playlist, even though the 'tape' bit no longer really features.

I used to set myself the task of compiling entire tapes of tracks where there was one rule: nothing longer than 3 minutes. Minimum boredom (and therefore, as little fast-forwarding as possible), maximum variety. I've resurrected that rule again here, but there's a bit more classical and jazz than there used to be in the melting pot.

I think it turned out to be a relatively gentle selection (with a few bursts of oomph and welly), but I hope you enjoy the rate of the changes. With 15 tracks in all, I hope it will strike a particular chord with any listeners immediately cheered by the phrase "fits on one side of a 90".


I've included versions taken from YouTube directly below - then at the end of the post there's a repeat of the playlist for Spotifiers.

Fleetwood Mac: 'Never Going Back Again'

Ralph Towner: 'Gloria's Step'

Talking Heads: 'Paper'

Sandrine Piau, Susan Manoff: 'C'est ainsi que tu es' (Poulenc)

Penguin Café Orchestra: 'Giles Farnaby's Dream'

Kate Bush: 'Army Dreamers'

Beirut: 'Corfu'

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven'

Thelonius Monk: 'Well You Needn't'

Six Organs of Admittance, 'Lisboa'

Véronique Gens, Roger Vignoles: 'La flûte de Pan' (Debussy)

Cotton Mather: 'My Before and After'

Nigel North: 'Mrs Winter's Jump' (Dowland)

Oregon: 'The Silence of a Candle'

Dame Janet Baker, Gerald Moore: 'Corpus Christi Carol' (arr. Britten)

Sunday 10 March 2019


A slightly different post today, with a celebratory tone. On occasion, especially lately, I think I've let my exasperation show on the blog about the day job eating up more and more time - so, while I'm still determined to see and hear as much music/art as I can, I can't write about it as quickly as I'd like, if at all. A classic 'first world problem', of course - I know how fortunate I am to be able to go to these events in the first place - but it still pains me when I feel I'm not getting the word out.

So allow me to wallow in a couple of occasions when I've already written about some music and performances which are now re-emerging into the spotlight - where my finger has briefly, if not quite touched the pulse, at least pointed at it fairly accurately as it hurried past!

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton's 'Reason in Madness'

A couple of Fridays ago, Mrs Specs and I took a gratuitous day off work to hear Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton give a lunchtime recital at LSO St Luke's of selections from their beautiful 'Verlaine Songbook' CD. It was a reminder - were one needed - of CS's infallible purity of tone and emotional expression, gliding over JM's impossibly fleet, delicate accompaniment. Both concert and album are also a reminder of the duo's love of in-depth programming - what other recital would not only remind you of Debussy's famous 'Claire de lune' setting, but make the case that there are at least two others that might be even greater? Look out for the concert on BBC Radio 3 on 10 April (then on BBC Sounds afterwards, I'd hope) and, even better, buy the CD (more songs!).

But, in a way, I digress. Another exciting feature of the event was that the artists were signing advance copies of their new recording, 'Reason in Madness' - released this coming week. This was a particularly welcome development, as I'd been eagerly awaiting this disc after being utterly blown away by the Wigmore Hall concert they gave of this programme all the way back in July 2017. (You can read my write-up here.)

I don't want to give the impression that their CDs are 'routinely' brilliant, because there is evidently so much planning, forethought and care poured into every one. But 'Reason in Madness' the album is as fine a realisation of the gig as you could hope for. As with their previous discs, it's hard to imagine reaching the end of the year without this remaining as one of my top releases.

The songs chart not just the poignancy and frequency of female madness in literature but also the cumulatively unsettling fascination of male poets and composers with the subject - in one case, the poet Pierre Louÿs actually claiming his Bilitis verses, set by Debussy, were written by a contemporary of Sappho. The concert version played out in two halves around the interval - German and French - each building in atmosphere and intensity in quite different ways. On the CD, they have carefully adjusted the sequence to work as a single listen: 'sets' of songs are preserved (for example, a trio of 'spinning' tales, Ophelia lieder from Strauss and Brahms, Wolf's Mignon Lieder), but the German and French treatments now dovetail each other, sustaining the mood throughout, and emphasising the pervasiveness of the theme - almost as insidious as madness itself.

At the end, and rightly so, is the near-operatic showstopper 'La Dame de Monte-Carlo' by Poulenc. The heartrending, characterful gear-shifts here (combined with the memory of CS's recent haunting portrayal of Debussy's Mélisande for Scottish Opera) make me hopeful that this pair will one day tackle the voice/piano version of Poulenc's 'La voix humaine'. Putting in my official request now!

Keep an eye on the BIS Records website to buy 'Reason in Madness' on release.

English National Opera recognised by the Olivier Awards

As regular readers will know (thank you, darlings, thank you), I'm a fairly vocal supporter of English National Opera. Historic trauma behind the scenes (well-documented and, one hopes, increasingly a thing of the past) has resulted, I believe, in ENO negotiating choppier waters in the public eye than certainly the performing ensemble deserve. But whatever the various pressures they've been under, the resident company have never let me down: from the luxurious versatility of the Orchestra to the truly outstanding Chorus - a group of fiercely talented actor-singers (reliably taking on solo parts when required), who are always able to deliver that spine-tingling wall of sound, while convincing you that you're watching an array of individuals who somehow work in sync, constantly aware of each other. They are the reason that ENO Studio Live - a Chorus-driven enterprise that takes smaller productions out of the Coliseum into more intimate venues - has been such a great success: they can clearly 'headline' and shoulder a show in their own right, bringing the audience close enough to hear their separate voices and see just what they're capable of.

How brilliant, then, to read that four ENO productions have been highlighted in this year's Olivier Award nominations. One of them, I confess, I didn't manage to see: the collaboration with Regent's Park Open Air Theatre on Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw', which has been nominated for Best New Opera Production. It's up against a couple of strong contenders (both Royal Opera House - 'Katya Kabanova' and the terrifying 'Lessons in Love and Violence') - best of luck to them all.

The other three nominations are for Outstanding Achievement in Opera...

  • David Butt Philip and Roderick Williams in 'War Requiem'
  • The ENO Chorus for 'Paul Bunyan'
  • The specially-created Ensemble for 'Porgy and Bess'
Thoughtlessly gatecrashing the nominations without having anything to do with ENO is Andris Nelsons, for his conducting of ROH's 'Lohengrin'. Even if AN's great work brings him eventual victory (though I shall have to write an indignant 'Nelsons column' if he does!) … this is such a great reflection of how ENO has been firing on all cylinders in recent months - and hopefully into the future, too.

You won't be at all surprised at my hope that 'Paul Bunyan' gets the nod, despite my admiration for the other nominees. I'm a little disappointed that the 'War Requiem' nomination didn't include Emma Bell (the piece gives prominence to three soloists), or for that matter the combined vocal forces (which included the regular ENO Chorus, the 'Porgy and Bess' ensemble and Finchley Children's Music Group, all acting from memory a piece normally performed with score as a static work.

But 'Paul Bunyan' - with ENO's Chorus and cohorts taking over Wilton's Music Hall, bending and shaping it into an idiosyncratic opera grotto, was such a consummate achievement for all concerned, combining the volume and command of operatic voices with a guerrilla-revue sensibility and the immediacy and intimacy of a club gig. No-one who saw it will forget it, and it's already earned its first revival, this time at Alexandra Palace Theatre. (I've booked.)

ENO always inspire me to write, so you can refer back to some of my old posts for more info. My reaction to 'Paul Bunyan' is here - which I hope might prompt you to book a seat for the revival. I also did a part-season round-up which included 'Porgy and Bess' and 'War Requiem' - here.