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.