Saturday 28 March 2020

Versions of Joanna

As I type (and for a few more hours yet) it's World Piano Day. So here's a highly topical playlist that I hope you'll enjoy... not just classical piano solo pieces, but some jazz and rock records where - in my opinion - the keys are, well, key.

Hope you are all taking care and keeping safe.


Stephen Hough - Brahms: 'Clavierstücke, Op 118 13. No 3 in G minor: Ballade'

John Coltrane Quartet - 'Equinox'
(piano: McCoy Tyner)

Simon Jeffes - 'Silver Star of Bologna'

The Charlatans - 'Just When You're Thinkin' Things Over'
(piano: Rob Collins)

Víkingur Ólafsson - Glass: 'Études - No. 6'

Rubén González - 'Tumbao'

Ruth Willemse - Elgar: 'Sea Pictures, Op. 37: The Swimmer'
(piano: Vital Stahievitch)

Elvis Costello - 'Favourite Hour'

Pascal Rogé - Satie: 'Gnossiennes - No. 1 - Lent'

Grant Green - 'Idle Moments'
(piano: Duke Pearson)

Grigory Sokolov - Couperin: 'Le Tic Toc Choc Ou Les Maillotins for Piano'

Happy Mondays - 'Step On'
(keyboards: Paul Davis)

Imogen Cooper - Albéniz: 'Iberia, B. 47, Book 1 (Excerpts) : No. 3, El Corpus en Sevilla'

Herbie Hancock - 'Canteloupe Island'

Alexei Lubimov - Schubert: 'Impromptu, Op. 90 D. 899, No. 4 in A-Flat Minor: Allegretto'

Tuesday 24 March 2020


Hello there - I hope this post finds you safe and well.

Mrs Specs and I are both working from home at the moment and so far, thankfully, we are symptom-free. As a result, we're being socially distant, if you will, without having to self-isolate completely. It seems very odd to partly withdraw from normal life, with the world outside seemingly caught at the mid-point between eerie calm and random chaos.

Among all this, writing an arts blog is a tiny thing, an atom making up a fraction of a drop in the ocean. But tiny things add up. It's certainly been good for my mental wellbeing to see so many venues and institutions, not to mention individual artists and musicians, take their talents and facilities online: where we had concerts, performances and masterclasses, there are now broadcasts,  YouTube videos and online coaching. It's worth noting that many performers are doing this in the face of sudden financial hardship from sudden cancellations - more of which below.

The music irrepressibly plays on, and accordingly, the appreciation and discussion continues alongside it. If I was ever foolish enough to take my favourite singers and players for granted in the past, I feel it's unlikely I will do so again.

The 'Specs' blog is, of course, based heavily on my going out to see and hear concerts, operas and exhibitions - and then enthusing about them in your direction. The 'going out' part of that is, of course, on hold for now.

But I am going to keep writing. I don't yet know quite how this will take shape: I'll no doubt post about recordings I want to recommend, or finally tackle some features I've wanted to write. I'll put up some playlists that might pass some time or even gladden your heart if you are - or feel - isolated. I'm also planning to do some more writing for the Cross Eyed Pianist, my online 'home from home'.

I hope you will still keep me company through the weeks ahead. Please take care.


Support Action

While I'm here, please could I ask you to visit my spin-off blog, 'Support Action', based on an idea from my last Specs post. The ongoing aim is to create an easy-to-browse, manageable site where people can check out recommended recordings by musicians hit by this spring/summer's cancellations - then follow a link to purchase their music from somewhere close to the source (rather than streaming on Spotify or simply defaulting to Amazon).

I hope you might enjoy zipping around the entries, possibly feel moved to buy someone's disc ... and if you're an artist yourself, or an agent, or fan, and would like to let me know about a title to add, please do: I'd love to hear from you.

You can find me on Twitter as @Adrian_Specs - many thanks!

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Support acts

My 'beat', as you know, is music and the arts. So it's with a peculiar feeling of horror mixed with resignation that I've watched the current, widespread cultural shutdown move from theory into practice. As I type, with our virus-based predicament likely to last for some time, I know that many people will be facing hardship and uncertainty. I also know that many people in better straits will want to help and take action.

It might not have immediately occurred to you - it was a steep learning curve for me - quite how precarious a living in the arts can be. Confronted with instant cancellations and no guarantee of substitute income, our musicians, artists, composers and venues are all immediately and, in some cases, dramatically affected.

This is a small idea I tweeted a day or so ago, but I'm hoping it might gain a little traction. I'm starting a list - which I will keep adding to - of CD/download releases (either relatively recent or pertinent to the event, all readily available) by, or featuring, musicians that I know have been hit by sudden loss of work. If you like or follow an artist, and especially if you were going to hear them perform in the near future and now can't, please consider buying a recording of theirs. I know this is an imperfect scheme - artists don't make a lot from recordings, but it's miles better than streaming them for free on Spotify; and anything to keep their sales up and maintain their profile will help them make more albums and get more work... and so on.

ALL artists deserve, and can do with, our support right now. But obviously I can't include them all. My list will heavily feature classical song, for example, because those are the musicians I hear from and about most readily. Plus I do range around genres a bit (as you might have come to expect). But if you read this and you're a musician with a recent recording, or you want me to add an artist you feel passionately about, please get in touch - Twitter is probably best, where I'm @Adrian_Specs. Also, I'm not alone in this venture - m'learned friend and colleague Frances Wilson, a.k.a. The Cross Eyed Pianist, is pooling information with me and she will be featuring wider information and publicity for anyone needing it than I can do on here.

Where possible, purchase links are to the record companies direct. If more appropriate, I've used artists' websites or Bandcamp pages. Let's go!


Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton, 'Lines Written During a Sleepless Night'
Songs by Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Medtner and Britten.
Buy from Chandos.

Kate Arnold: Rota Fortunae I
Hammered dulcimer, violin, vocals.
Buy from the artist at Bandcamp.

Mary Bevan & Joseph Middleton, 'The Divine Muse'
Songs by Haydn, Schubert and Wolf.
Buy from Signum.

Brian, The Vision of Cleopatra, featuring the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, soloists, Martyn Brabbins
All too rare appearance on disc of the ENO ensemble.
Buy from Dutton Vocalion.

[can't find any video - aargh]

Daisy Chute
Folk / Americana from multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter.
Tracks for download on the artist's website.

Allan Clayton & Julius Drake, 'The Songs of Liszt - volume 5'.
Buy from Hyperion.

Iestyn Davies & Thomas Dunford, 'The Art of Melancholy'
Songs by Dowland.
Buy from Hyperion.

Hanna Hipp & Emma Abbate, 'Sera d'inverno'
Songs by Ildebrando Pizzetti.
Buy from Resonus.

Ruby Hughes, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen: 'Clytemnestra'
World premiere recording of Rhian Samuel's suite, plus Mahler and Berg.
Buy from BIS.

Leon McCawley: Schubert Piano Music
Buy from SOMM.

Tim Mead: 'Purcell: Songs & Dances'
with Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien, François Lazarevitch.
Buy from Alpha.

Jo Quail: 'Exsolve'
Contemporary classical - cello/electronics.
Buy from the artist at Bandcamp.

Alex Rex: 'Andromeda'
Dark folk-rock from former Trembling Bells singer/songwriter/drummer/mastermind.
Buy from the artist at Bandcamp.

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, 'The Contrast'
English Poetry in Song.
Buy from BIS.

[can't find any video - aargh]

Sean Shibe: 'softLOUD'
Acoustic and electric guitar heroics in Gramophone's first 'Concept Album' award winner.
Buy from Delphian.

Nicky Spence & Julius Drake, Janacek 'The Diary of One Who Disappeared'
...and other works.
Buy from Hyperion.

Sullivan: 'Haddon Hall', featuring BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews
also includes Ford: 'Mr Jericho' and Cellier: 'Captain Billy'.
Buy from Dutton Vocalion.

[can't find any video - aargh]

Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams & William Vann, 'The Song of Love'
Songs by Vaughan Williams.
Buy from Albion.

Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn, 'Winter Journey'
Schubert's 'Winterreise' in English.
By from Signum.

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 plus, featuring Elizabeth Watts and David Butt Philip
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins.
By from Hyperion.

[can't find any video - aargh]

To be continued....

Monday 9 March 2020

Wig out: Sean Shibe plays Fennessy, Gubaidulina, Bach and Lentz

I had heard guitarist Sean Shibe once before at the Wigmore Hall, giving a late-evening recital based on his second CD, 'softLOUD'. If you've heard of - but not actually heard - 'softLOUD', it may be because it won Gramophone magazine's inaugural Concept Album award in 2019.

Banish any images of 'Tommy' or 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' that phrase may have just conjured up. Shibe's concept was partly to demonstrate the two distinct sides to his practice: the first half of the album acoustic and the second half electric. There's no doubt that the album throws down a gauntlet to the listener, settling them in through a sequence of beautiful Scottish lute tunes, only to shake their foundations by the end with the scorching 'Killer' by David Lang.

But the genius twist on the idea, in my opinion, was to resist the suggestion that the dividing line was as absolute between 'old/new' or 'traditional/modern'. (I don't think it's accidental that the words in the title are run together, or even superimposed on each other in the album artwork.) For example, the Macmillan pieces arranged for guitar in the acoustic section are far more recent than the Reich in the electric part. Elements of the LOUD selections call earlier tracks to mind, whether it's the relative gentleness of the Slow movement of 'Electric Counterpoint' or the Julia Wolfe suite that still carries the atmosphere of the bagpipes it was originally written for, ensuring both halves of the record carry a tartan flavour. It's as if the mischievous, disruptive side of Shibe's musical personality turned to its more restrained counterpart, chuckling like a Bond villain, "Ah, Quiet Sean? Perhaps we are not so very different after all..!"

Looking back, this desire for mixing things up was always there: Shibe's debut all-acoustic disc, 'Dreams and Fancies', focuses on English music but stretches from Dowland to Britten. But it wouldn't have prepared you for 'softLOUD'; and with this latest recital programme, he pushes the boundaries even further than before...

Rather coyly, Wigmore Hall advertised Shibe's instrument as merely 'guitar'. However, I remembered from that previous recital that he had blown a few cobwebs away from the corner of the auditorium when he plugged in and let rip. So, deliberately avoiding any advance listening (so the concert would have maximum impact), I confined myself to reading up a bit ahead of time on 'Ingwe', the piece by Australian composer Georges Lentz that was to take up the entire second half of the gig. 'Ingwe' is an Aboriginal word for 'night', and forms part of an ongoing - and seemingly never-ending - cycle of works by the composer that chart his arrival at a kind of spiritual emptiness. The work aims to conflate, I understand, a 'long dark night of the soul' with the vastness of the Australian desert night. It's a 60-minute piece for solo electric guitar.

So, in some respects, this concert was modelled on the 'softLOUD' template. As the lights dimmed for the first half, Shibe appeared in smart, sober attire, took a seat and leaned over his acoustic classical guitar. And despite the 'soft' instrument of choice, the works we heard were contemporary (David Fennessy's 'rosewood' from 2011), closer to mid-20th century (Sofia Gubaidulina's 'Serenade' and 'Toccata'), then right back to the early 18th for an arrangement of Bach's 'Suite in E minor' for lute (or lute-harpsichord). In itself, this part of the evening held its fair share of revelations for me: the inescapable reach of Bach through the centuries, and how current the suite sounded alongside the more modern pieces. Also - and I realise this is a personal reaction from someone who also listens an awful lot to singer-songwriters wielding acoustic guitars - there is something inescapably rhythmic, danceable about the way a solo guitar must provide propulsion and melody together - it's almost percussive. All three composers provoked this reaction in me, in spite of their very different styles, circumstances and, of course, timeframes. Shibe treated them with equal reverence, dazzling displays of seemingly impossible fingerwork never disrupting the delicacy and space certain passages demanded. More of this later.

After the interval, reverence was perhaps in shorter supply, in favour of abandonment. During the break, the Wigmore 'roadies' had quietly electrified the set-up. Speakers were already in place at each side of the stage: now an amp appeared, and a full-height stand with an iPad, presumably displaying the 'Ingwe' score, whatever format that may take. Then the great visual coup de grace of the evening: Shibe reappearing in a bright jumpsuit (shocking pink, to my eyes and my phone camera) - the colour remarkably similar to that of his guitar lead, as though he was an extension of it: as if to emphasise the idea that whatever we were about to hear, he was somehow the conduit, or channel, for it, not wholly its master.

The ritual began; closely followed by the first walkouts. Notes were struck suddenly, at immense volume, then separated by silences. Riffs seemed to arrive then almost immediately depart. Single strings or chords were picked or strummed repeatedly, to build and build, Shibe seeming to half-scream as if lost in a 'solo'. But while he looked every inch the rock star, this wasn't rock music we were hearing. Lentz constructed 'Ingwe' in deliberate sections, and wrote within a framework (set number of beats to a bar, varied number of notes to each beat) that allows for a certain freedom within limitations. Accordingly, the longer you listened, the more this structure emerged, as certain patterns or ways of playing recurred, even in the spaces between the shredding.

As regular Specs readers will know, I'm a fan of extreme metal / guitar music, so I didn't expect this piece to faze me. It's worth pointing out that anyone with similar leanings - who might be familiar with the subterranean drones of Sunn O))), or who has experienced a Swans gig where the sound can be felt against your skin, would 'get' the power of 'Ingwe' straightaway.

For all that, I have some sympathy with those who felt they couldn't take it - while this was a more youthful audience than many I've seen at the Wigmore, a lot of their regulars are simply infirm, or have hearing issues. If they turned up with an open mind but primarily because they liked the Bach suite, they may not have expected some subtle rearrangement of their internal organs in the second half. But the point is: most people, overwhelmingly so, were captured by the work's relentless focus, and accordingly, stayed.

Shibe played 'Ingwe' like a man possessed, contributing to the intensity already inherent in the stop-start, brutal dynamics of the piece. If the music describes something akin to a mental collapse, fractured, unpredictable, obsessive, then Shibe embodies it. The jumpsuit itself becomes a resource, as various playing tools and devices come out of the pockets; he physically attacks the sound, stabbing at his effects pedal to warp and damage the sustained notes. There are moments of awesome beauty - I found one passage in particular almost unbearably moving, where a keening melody in a high register somehow keeps replenishing itself above a thick, distorted foundation.

Even as my senses were reeling, these snatched moments of delicacy brought home to me the brilliance of the overall programme, as those elements of repetition, space, even use of silence in the first half were sowing seeds for the monumental, supercharged, dark reflection of them in the second. A phenomenal evening.

Sunday 1 March 2020

A full English: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, 'The Contrast'

Absolute red letter day for me a couple of Fridays ago (14 February). Obviously, it was Valentine's Day - ahem, Mrs Specs may be reading this, you never know - but as well as that, it was the launch concert at Wigmore Hall for the new album from soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton. So we knew where we needed to be.

Regular readers will know that Team Sampson/Middleton are my favourite classical song duo, and won't be at all surprised that this recital had been circled in my calendar for months. The new release is called 'The Contrast: English Poetry in Song' and features work by Bridge, Quilter, Vaughan Williams and Walton, alongside the world premiere recording of 'Five Larkin Songs', originally composed by Huw Watkins for Carolyn Sampson around ten years previously. (For the hour-long concert, we heard a streamlined version of the album that omitted the Vaughan Williams tracks and one of two groups of Walton songs.)

When I heard that the focus this time round was on English composers, I was intrigued straightaway. It's not as if the repertoire has been hiding in a cupboard, as such - Quilter had also featured on the duo's superb 2017 release with Iestyn Davies, 'Lost is My Quiet', alongside some of Britten's Purcell arrangements. But I did pause to reflect guiltily on the sheer number of lied and mélodie recitals I had been to in comparison, and the scarcity of English recital discs I seem to notice when browsing in a classical CD shop (mind you, these establishments are, admittedly, pretty scarce themselves). For example, Claire Booth and Christopher Glynn's excellent Grainger disc, or Roderick Williams and Susie Allan's 'Celebrating English Song' are both three years old now, too. I would gladly be directed towards any I've missed. Am I accidentally overlooking the art song on my own doorstep? Or are we more widely modest, even shy, about our 'own' classical song? Does it feel a bit 'on the nose' when it's our own language?

The prospect also made me think about my own general relationship with art song. I am not a gifted linguist... So, while I read the relevant translations and make myself aware of the subject matter, I can also very easily and happily listen to lieder or melodies as pure 'sound', while they are new to me: relying on the music to tell me the meaning until the song is so ingrained that I connect with every line. Of course, this would not be the same with a 'full English' programme - I could expect to decipher the words, and my connection this time would be more immediate, possibly instant. I wondered how different it would feel from listening to any other type of homegrown song - pop, folk, jazz - delivered with just piano and voice.

I was right about experiencing an instant response. I was momentarily surprised when no song texts were available (obviously they're a given when translations are needed) but in the event, of course we didn't need them. CS's diction, and emotional investment in every syllable, meant that I heard and understood everything straightaway.

After last seeing Sampson & Middleton perform (at the Oxford Lieder festival), I wrote that I felt CS was on a kind of 'journey' with her voice - I was trying to say that with each album or recital she seems to find different ways of using it, exploring its possibilities.

All of this comes to the fore from the outset in the Walton cycle 'A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table' (1962). Here, she went fully into character - and accent - as the downtrodden EastEnder of 'Wapping Old Stairs', and embraced the arch shift in tone in 'The Contrast' to produce several lines of audible, yet still sweetly delivered, sarcasm.

Perhaps partly - or especially - because I was previously unfamiliar with much of his work, Walton in fact emerges for me as the wild-card / loose-cannon figure in the enterprise. Given his years of activity, he seems to have been particularly alive to jazz and blues. The CD closes with a track called 'Old Sir Faulk' which is essentially a gospelly rag, playing beautifully with CS's angelic tones above JM - not to be coy - getting his funk on with a swinging accompaniment.

(The way both Walton cycles in places conjure up musicals - and music halls - or jazz/cabaret made me think of an English version of those points of intersection where you can hear the lines blur between mélodies and chanson.)

Those 'Façade' settings of Edith Sitwell poems belong to the thirties, but the jazz influences are surely still firmly in evidence a few decades later in the 'Lord Mayor' cycle, with the title track exploding into vamping chords, say, or 'Rhyme' taking the familiar 'Oranges and Lemons' chant as its starting point but exploring changes and variations on the original theme throughout. Both of those songs also reach their climaxes in dizzying vocal cascades, that - contradiction alert! - give the impression of being written to sound improvisatory.

To this listener, the Walton songs seem to place extraordinary demands on the voice, but Sampson inhabits them to the extent that the leaps, bounds and quick changes sound utterly natural. Natural not only because of her characteristic purity and precision, but also because Walton's writing tracks the words like prey, binding the poetry to the setting - it may be straining at the leash, but never lets go.

This intricate relationship between the sense of the verse and the setting make Watkins' 'Larkin Songs' perfect companions to the Walton. I remember from studying Larkin how he wielded words and their rhythms, syllable by syllable, as if using a scalpel: a fine point, capable of such delicacy, but then a sucker punch or harmful wound. Watkins' formidable achievement is to weld these sharp surprises into the fabric of the tunes. The horror of the drowning image in 'Who called love conquering'; the building hysteria of 'Wants', flipping into panic at mentions of sex and death but lapsing back temporarily into woozy hesitation for the calendar, and life insurance; the racing cynicism and ranging thoughts of 'Money', slowing down with increasing realisation for the final line; the accompaniment for 'Dawn' nailing with its near static pace the way Larkin, perhaps typically, found something funereal in the start of a new day.

The magnificent piece at the centre of the group, 'Love Songs in Age', still resists sentiment. But Larkin is capable of sympathy and understanding. Watkins' sensitivity to the song's protagonist is immense: JM's delicate accompaniment to CS's gentle rendition of the melody invokes the playing of the love songs themselves, until the sudden build to a pitch that takes us outside the situation, and the realisation that love did not always 'solve, and satisfy' as the songs promised.

The divide between town/urbanity/hyperactivity and country/emptiness/quiet in the title track could also be a reflection of the album's contents as a whole. The selection and sequence is another programming triumph, as deliberately modern approaches are punctuated with songs aiming more for a pastoral, reflective beauty: Vaughan Williams in 'The sky above the roof' and 'Silent Noon', for example, or Quilter's 'By a Fountainside' and 'Autumn Evening'.

The appropriately-named Bridge somehow spans both worlds. Songs like 'Go not, happy day' and 'When you are old' find JM scattering near-abstract shimmers of notes beneath CS's apparently effortless gliding vocal; while in the tour-de-force of 'Love went a-riding', JM's drastic gallop pushes CS to ever-greater dramatic heights.

It's beautifully recorded, as usual - terrific production job by Jens Braun - in a way that allows you to 'hear' the performance: there are points when you can 'see' CS move around or lean into the microphone and the piano sustains and resonates without any blurring of the overall sound.

It would be easy to say (and I'm sure I often do) how gorgeously the music is both sung and played, just like their previous releases. But this CD has an envelope-pushing atmosphere to it. Perhaps because it's all in English, it is clearer than ever how the timbres and colours Carolyn Sampson chooses to foreground in her voice enrich her interpretations of the material. And Joseph Middleton seems to deploy an even greater array of styles than usual, often at the same time - his control of the dynamics of the piano feels almost supernatural at times, whether tip-toeing around the vocal or thundering beneath it. It contains the most fiercely contemporary material they've yet recorded, and they've matched it with slightly older works that may also carry a hint of a challenge, but yield deep rewards.

Every album this duo has made has been a treat, but even by their own standards, 'The Contrast' is - well - something different.