Tuesday 18 February 2020

Hammer time: Kate Arnold's 'Rota Fortunae I'

Back in December, I put together my usual post rounding up my recorded highlights of the year. While it mostly consisted of full albums and recordings, I felt unable to leave out a single track that had crept onto YouTube and absolutely knocked me sideways: 'For Barely One in a Thousand (The Practice of Lights)' by the brilliant Kate Arnold.

That song was a taster for the newly-released EP, 'Rota Fortunae I'. ('Rota Fortunae II' will hopefully be with us later in the year. Since proceeds from the first part will help with further recordings, it's extremely important that you, and everyone you know, buy this EP as soon as possible!)

In case you missed that video first time round, here it is:

I think I have played that song pretty much daily since I first heard it. It lifts my spirits and fills any euphoria-shaped gap in my mindset.

I discovered Kate Arnold's music relatively recently, after seeing her play live amid line-ups featuring what I would call 'kindred spirit' musicians. I'm thinking of artists like Jo Quail and Sieben - both familiar to regular Specs readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) - who use various classical or acoustic instruments, combined with modern looping/electronic techniques to build up their own soundworlds. KA's weapons of choice are hammered dulcimer, violin, drum - and vocals.

Although an EP is, by definition, an all-too-brief experience, one of the great characteristics of 'Rota Fortunae I' is how it carefully, deliberately sets out Arnold's stall as an artist. On your first few plays, it will be enough to appreciate the gorgeous tunes, beautifully played and sung. However, if one of your chief joys when listening to a record longer-term is to focus intensely on various elements of the arrangement and production, marvelling at the precision with which it's been assembled - these 20 minutes are going to reward you for months, then years. 

The opener, 'Skeleton Key' hardly features KA's voice at all. But as an introduction, it's perfect, as the near-instrumental really does provide a skeletal framework, using just the dulcimer to set up a series of percussive rattles, then gradually placing flesh on the bones with keening strings, layers of chiming melody, and - something of a trademark, this - a sudden 'shift' in the harmonies late on that pushes those euphoria buttons I alluded to earlier. In 'Skeleton Key', the single vocal line includes a soft hum that seems to come out of nowhere at first; then, as it reappears near the end, the full picture is revealed as it slots perfectly into the massed, looped chords.

We next hear the EP's only cover version, the comfortably out-of-copyright 'The Wind and I Must Sing', a composition from around 1180 by the troubadour Beatriz de Dia. Sung in Occitan (medieval French is another string to KA's crossbow), the otherworldly strains that open the track really do suggest that the tune has drifted down to us through the centuries. But seconds later, the song feels suddenly, thrillingly modern, with an insistent bassline cutting through the fractured swirls, and most important of all, an arresting and forthright vocal performance. KA makes Beatriz feel like an immediate, present personality, and you're conscious of how even something so stately and chant-like contains seeds of mélodie and chanson.

(Photography for CD inlay by Scott Brimley)

Hit single (in my universe anyway) 'For Barely One in a Thousand' follows, and brings together features from the previous two tracks - a pulsing bass note, with dulcimer and violin dancing round it, maintaining the tension through the first two verses. But the devil is in the detail - for example:

  • The way the ascending violin line (starting around 0:40) keeps going behind the second verse (1:02 onwards);
  • The layers of strings building to a two-chord mini-climax, celebrated with the first pound of the drum (2:04);
  • 'Drop by drop', answered by a tiny cascade on the dulcimer (2:30);
  • 2:37 to 2:47 - ten of the most impressive seconds of music I've heard in a long time; another of those shifts where the setting is 're-cast' so that each note of the verse line gets to 'resolve' one by one in a warm chord progression that somehow cycles back to the climax from the previous instrumental break.
Like I said, I've spent a long time listening to this tune. Not a wasted moment.

Finally, 'Fortune's Wheel' is perhaps the track where the versatility of KA's voice is shown to best effect, multiple Kates soaring above the minimum instrumentation, just about keeping them tethered. We almost hear lead and rhythm vocals, as chants and near-spoken rounds punctuate the sky-high longer melodies. Despite being a brand new work, it actually makes a perfect companion to 'The Wind and I Must Sing', blending a similar stateliness with confident, intimate vocals.

This is magical, magnificent, meticulous music, feeding the head while filling the heart.

Support the artist by buying the EP through Bandcamp here.

Sunday 9 February 2020

2 x 2: Elsa Dreisig & Jonathan Ware; Ermonela Jaho & Steven Maughan at Wigmore Hall

I was lucky enough to spend most of last weekend at Wigmore Hall, which had absolutely packed out its schedule with several concerts on each day. However, it's the Sunday in particular I want to write about here. I attended two song recitals: in the afternoon, soprano Elsa Dreisig with Jonathan Ware on the piano; then, in the evening, soprano Ermonela Jaho with Steven Maughan on piano.

(Elsa Dreisig, photographed by Ólafur Steinar Gestsson)

I had a great time at both - but in such different ways, and for such different reasons, that it set me off on two distinct trains of thought: one, the infinite possibilities that even that most pared-down of formats, voice and piano, can offer; and two, what I look for in a recital (whether I know it or not), and how the variations in performance style affect both my critical faculties and emotions - my head and my heart, if you like.

I'm going to look at the second concert first. This was an event that understandably had a real buzz surrounding it, and no wonder. Now, by any reckoning, one of opera's global superstars, Jaho is particularly acclaimed for pushing at the edges of emotion - both her own, and that of her audiences. Many opera singers, of course, can rightly claim that they aim for a transformational approach: a total commitment to absorption in the role. But there is also the extent to which they let the role become them: if I had to try and describe the occasions I've seen Jaho at her most powerful, it's as if her stance, even her shape changes - let alone her sound - in line with the character. After a recent ROH 'Traviata', I could've sworn she'd actually lost half her body weight over the course of the opera.

So, as well as being excited, I was desperately curious to see how this would translate to a recital hall (this was EJ's Wigmore debut). The concert was billed 'An Evening with Rosina Storchio' - a soprano who flourished as the 19th century moved into the 20th; star of several world premieres, including 'La Boheme' and 'Madama Butterfly', and greatly admired by Puccini and his peers. Clearly Jaho feels a strong affinity with Storchio, also reviving her predecessor's title role in Opera Rara's recording of Leoncavallo's 'Zazà'. Opera Rara promoted this concert, ahead of releasing Jaho's companion recital disc this coming September... and so it all fits together.

The programme for the evening mainly - though not exclusively - combined arias from 'rescued' or obscure operas (along similar lines to 'Zazà' and, of course, Opera Rara's stock in trade) with stand-alone songs by the same composers. It was a thrill and a privilege to be this close to Jaho, and her voice: while her fearsome reserves of power could pin you to your seat, the more intimate space brought home her dynamic range, the softness of her delivery in the tenderest of moments still reaching us near the back of the hall but drawing us helplessly in. And of course, there are no other distractions: no staging, no fellow actors, concert dress, meaning that every mood swing, every dramatic twist and turn came from EJ herself and her all-consuming approach.

(Ermonela Jaho, photographed by Fadil Barisha)

I wouldn't have missed this for the world: she is such an exciting and inspiring performer. However, I did have some minor reservations about the event itself. Piano man that I am, I felt a little for Stephen Maughan, who played beautifully but, it seemed to me, was only given a few opportunities to shine. In many cases, I assume he would of course have been playing from piano reductions of full scores. When an actual art song appeared - in particular, a fabulous performance of Gounod's mélodie 'Sérénade' - it was as if he could suddenly take flight, an equal partner. Jaho's ability to almost regenerate into one operatic heroine after another, culminating in a heartstopping Mascagni death scene, was truly magnificent; but inevitably it slightly unbalanced the 'whole'.

It got me thinking that, although the programme and presentation were clearly scaled down with the Wigmore in mind, that the ideal environment would in fact have been bigger. A larger auditorium. Greater forces (I think it's significant that the forthcoming album is with orchestra rather than piano). And for that matter, I wonder if Jaho has ever considered longer 'recital' works - I wonder what her take would be on 'La voix humaine', for example?

This is what I meant when I said, at the top of this post, that these two recitals made me think harder than normal about how I react to them and why. I feel that with EJ and SM, I experienced a musical version of visiting an exhibition where I'm magnetically drawn to each individual artwork but less persuaded by the 'hang'. I can't wait for the CD to come out, though - to put my headphones on, crank it up and just abandon myself to it.

Rewind, then, to the afternoon, and a more modestly proportioned gig. Elsa Dreisig and Jonathan Ware's recital fitted into the classic Wigmore non-evening format of roughly an hour, no interval. The concert was also linked to a CD: the duo's new recording 'Morgen' - thankfully already out, so no wait necessary! The programme's concept (Dreisig describes it as an 'inner journey') added further layers of interest as selections from three composers were 'shuffled': we heard several Duparc mélodies, R Strauss's 'Four Last Songs' and selections from Rachmaninov's final cycle 'Six poems for voice and piano', but separated, scattered and dovetailing around each other so that Duparc's opening invitation really was the start of a metaphorical musical voyage.

ED also gave a short, poetic introduction, and made a point of telling us at the start that, while there might be a few silences, the sequence was meant to be unbroken (that is, no subsets of songs, or applause breaks). House rules established, the pair began building their own type of atmosphere.

Dreisig has a voice of bright clarity and affecting gentleness, capable of heartstopping volume and soft poignancy. It is, fittingly for the subject of this recital, truly inviting - and this quality is enhanced by the stage presentation. One song is delivered seated on a stool by the piano - another, advancing from the back of the stage, slow-paced, towards the front. This will sound totally contradictory, but her movements are 'still': careful, deliberate, circling the piano, almost spectral at times. Slightly unexpected reference points kept popping up in my mind, not from the classical world - such as Kate Bush, or the folk/black metal artist Myrkyr - other women whose onstage presence captures a sense of controlled power.

(Jonathan Ware, photographed by Kaupo Kikkas)

The programme was democratic enough that each composer was also represented by a solo piano piece. This introduced some further variation, for sure, but also drew one's attention to Jonathan Ware's spectacular, charismatic playing, a feat of some stamina (the entire programme with virtually no pauses) as well as sensitivity. Rather than leave the stage, Dreisig continued a scaled-down version of her patrol, or paused to watch and listen, audience temporarily forgotten; as part of the performance as when she was singing.

I think this is worth drawing out, because everything about the recital underlined that they were a team, and that the intensity and chemistry was being generated by them both. Ware's distinctive touch enabled the three composing styles to meld successfully into a flowing narrative, and allowed Dreisig the storyteller to find the poetry's heartbeat. When 'Morgen!' itself arrived - perhaps an inevitable encore but no less welcome for that - the euphoria was as much ours as theirs.


This is the promotional video for the 'Morgen' album, featuring Elsa Dreisig and Jonathan Ware performing Rachmaninov's 'Dream', from 6 Romances, Op. 38.