Sunday 29 November 2020

Spired and emotional: the Oxford Lieder Festival 2020

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.

On paper, the Oxford Lieder festival (wholly online this year, for contagious reasons) ended about a month ago. But not for me. Right up to the last minute, I’ve been extracting the maximum value I possibly can from my catch-up pass, viewing as many concerts as possible before the on-demand video archive finally vanishes from the Digital Concert Hall and takes its place – like most live music used to! – solely in the memory.

Rest assured, I am desperate – like so many others – for the live experience as we knew it, pre-pandemic, to return. As a keen concertgoer, I’m craving that shared excitement, the unique connection a great gig generates between performers and audiences. And – ideally this would go without saying – I’m raging at the ignorance and incompetence that perpetuates this terrible situation, forced on everyone currently working in the arts.

But none of that should take away from the efforts so many in the industry are making to bring us music online. I genuinely hope that once we are back to normal, some of the discoveries and developments – innovations, even – made during this period will remain to complement the ‘old ways’.

I’m reluctant to talk about particular ‘pioneers’, because I think that term applies to every organisation or venue that has even tried to continue with remote performance this year. Each has its own set of challenges, leading to its own unique approach. This was a different kind of creativity. (Just to give two examples firmly in the centre of my radar – it felt typically ‘in character’ for Wigmore Hall to refine its existing model of modestly shot performances for social distancing, in the same way that it was ‘very’ ENO to dream up a drive-in, all-weather opera at Alexandra Palace.)

If I had both the viewing and writing time, I would want to cover almost everything. But here, I’m focusing on Oxford Lieder, for a couple of reasons. First, so much art song packed into so intense a period felt unmissable. Second, the festival team (headed by its artistic director, pianist Sholto Kynoch) seemed to decide at an early stage that, as this would almost certainly be an online event, they would give themselves over to that medium. In other words, in any aspect where the technology or circumstances presented an opportunity to do something unusual, something that perhaps couldn’t be fully achieved in a ‘real world’ scenario – they took it. (More on this later…)

Called ‘Connections Across Time: a Brief History of Song’, the festival was meticulously programmed and rich in overlapping themes. The title concept of song’s reach through the ages ran ‘horizontally’ through the week, with many artists choosing repertoire ranging across centuries for their set lists. This theme was elegantly reflected in the careful balance across ‘generations’ of singers, with relative newcomers dovetailing in among the more established names – often in the same concert, thanks to the Momentum initiative for bringing ‘support acts’ into recitals.

Each day, however, had its own ‘vertical’ theme to give additional focus: for example, one day centred around nature songs; another examined the interplay between sacred and secular subjects; another acknowledged the Beethoven anniversary. The headline evening concert each day was just part of a chain running from late morning to last thing, with the late-night slots (lower-key Proms-style) lending themselves to a slightly more esoteric selection of gigs.

(The Voice of Santur)

Some of the highlights of the entire festival for me lay amid these 10pm treasures. On a day devoted to the influence of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez on more modern art song, the evening ended with an astonishing performance by The Voice of Santur, an Iranian quartet (voice, violin, tabla and qanun – a stringed instrument resembling an autoharp played across the lap, but with a deeper, percussive edge to its sound) playing settings of Hafez in their own tradition arranged or composed by their founder, Peyman Heydarian (who sadly couldn’t be at the concert himself). It was a fascinating reminder that ‘our’ classical is not everybody’s classical (similar to watching the online African Concert Series broadcasts earlier in the year): to my Western ears, I can certainly find enough entry-points to help me dive in – the fact it was still ‘art song’, poetry set to music; and the familiarity of the violin – but the rhythmic language in the tabla and qanun brought a wholly new form of sensuality and even danceability.

(Lotte Betts-Dean and Sean Shibe)

One of the most tender and intimate performances of the whole festival closed out the event, with mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean and guitarist Sean Shibe performing ‘Songs of the Stars’, ranging through Dowland, Schubert, Britten and Debussy, among others. Seated in the Radcliffe Observatory, the night itself almost became their venue, and in the hushed aura, the duo performed with exquisite restraint and a natural rapport (nowhere more so than in the relaxed encore of ‘Blue Moon’). And speaking of time-spans, I felt this concert created a pleasing symmetry with the early-evening performance by James Gilchrist and Elizabeth Kenny right at the start of the week, in the Oak Room at Broughton Castle, with songs for voice and lute: a fascinating opportunity to compare approaches between ‘generations’ of performers and the effect of performing with period and modern instruments on songs both old and new.

Perhaps the most arresting late-night session closed out the ‘Future of Song’ day, which was built around the performances of three world premières. The Hermes Experiment are a quartet featuring soprano voice, harp, clarinet and double bass – and as a result, in the few years they’ve been around have become a driving force for contemporary classical music through commissioning most of their repertoire anew. Philip Venables’ ‘A Photograph’ demonstrated the potential of the band’s format for unpredictable, edge-of-the-seat storytelling. And from an art-song perspective, the fact that this is a Proper Group – plenty of noise available – but without a piano, means sinewy, snaking lines around the voice, instruments behaving as characters, and the space in the sound (particularly in the superb acoustic of Christ Church Cathedral) giving a high-wire electricity to the performance.

Looking at the late-night events alone helps to demonstrate the festival’s range. As much as I love the voice/piano format, I was excited and engaged by its insistence that art song comes to life in any arrangement. It didn’t stop there – there was the fascinating afternoon concert in Rycote Chapel from soprano Loré Lixenberg and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki, inspired by Lixenberg seeing Berlin street musicians playing Baroque repertoire; and violinist Jonathan Stone joining Kynoch to accompany mezzo Caitlin Hulcup in folk song and French mélodies.

It’s also worth noting the venues where the concerts took place. For me, this was one of the masterstrokes of committing to a totally online event: it allowed us to visit places where audiences would have been an impossibility, or at the minimum a logistical nightmare; bring music to spaces that would never normally be used for that purpose – and take advantage of what they had to offer. For example, a brilliant lunchtime concert of Bach and Britten allowed Ian Bostridge to move around Merton College Chapel depending on whether he was singing with the Oxford Bach Soloists or Saskia Giorgini at the piano. There were also the ‘impossible’ lectures, such as ‘The Story of the Rose’, showing how the development of the rose itself was closely tracked in song: visually, this took the form of a virtual tour of Oxford Botanic Garden’s roses, with Laura Tunbridge and the Garden’s Director Simon Hiscock contributing informative links between song performances by Lauren Lodge-Campbell and Dylan Perez.

These were somewhat surreal, but wholly successful, ways of presenting events that weren’t trying to replace the ‘real world’ version of the festival, because they could never be replicated in live circumstances.

The main evening concerts in the Holywell Music Room were arguably the most traditionally-presented sessions, but even then the direction felt intimate and adventurous – at times, the camera was sometimes placed where some of the audience would be (gliding along benches), or if not, where it would block their view. We have been spoilt for some time now with live streams and cinema relays giving us close-ups of facial expressions and movements that are hard to discern in, say, the opera house. Here, though, the intimacy was enhanced by the camera’s interest: it seemed to be a particularly dynamic presence, giving us multiple points of view, circling the performers and capitalising on their intensity.

(Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper)

I wondered if the performers, deprived of an audience right in front of them, channelled this energy instead. Certainly, we had a week of impassioned, committed performances. Kitty Whately’s programme dedicated to women poets (and including many female composers) reached extraordinary heights, in particular with the settings by Jonathan Dove, whose song cycles she has recorded with pianist Simon Lepper – not only demonstrating his intuitively sensitive touch here, but also truly Olympian skills as his own page-turner: knife-edge viewing. Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn devoted their concert to settings of Thomas Hardy, ensuring a modern, informative recital with some captivating contemporary pieces from Judith Weir and Ian Venables, unfamiliar selections (to me) from Arnold Bax and James Burton, and finally, the complete Finzi song cycle ‘Before and After Summer’. Williams’s affable presence served the programme well as the darker songs built in emotional impact.

On the day of premières, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton gave a typically well-balanced programme of lieder, mélodies and English art song, featuring the new work ‘Six Songs of Melmoth’ by Cheryl Frances Hoad, with text by Sophie Rashbook (inspired by novels by Sarah Parry and, originally, Charles Maturin). This was a bold, dramatic cycle concerning a pact with the devil – the protagonist can only escape hell by transferring the curse to another – and the work ends (spoiler alert!) with the singer beckoning the audience to take the bait. In a ‘real’ live setting, Sampson would of course have drawn all eyes towards her for the climax and dragged us willingly to damnation. But in these unusual circumstances, I doubt there will have been many ‘televisual’ artistic or cultural moments this year with the chilling impact of what Sampson manages to do here:

(Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton)

As I mentioned at the start, the festival has taken care to imitate real live work, in one respect: the concerts are transient. Now gone after the catch-up interval, only some carefully selected excepts survive. As much as I could crave to revisit them, I sympathise with this – it allowed paying ticket-holders to share in an experience which then passes, never to be repeated, only relived.

But I think the legacy of this year’s Oxford Lieder festival – and others like it – could be significantly longer lasting. Most of us want to get back into venues to support artists in person, but some people can’t – for a whole host of reasons: age, infirmity, disability, financial situation, lack of travel options, work/life balance. A hybrid model combining fully-attended gigs with online-only events – all fairly priced – could perhaps lead to growth for some festivals and events, with more performers able to take part (and therefore build their earnings back up) and a much wider range of ‘attendees’ – some of whom would actually be there, but not all.

And the more join the enterprise, the better: Leeds Lieder managed to bring in audiences for its three autumn concerts, and it will be fascinating to see what form its spring festival takes. ENO reversed out of Ally Pally and returned to their home, the Coliseum, to perform Mozart’s Requiem: originally planned for a live audience, the second lockdown meant that instead, the performance was broadcast on BBC2, placing a new classical music event, seemingly out of nowhere, on weekend prime-time TV to a universally warm response. The awareness-raising potential from this point onwards is huge, and it could help not only place the arts industry in the forefront of the public’s consciousness, but throw much-needed lifelines to those working within it.

Monday 16 November 2020

Mystery lays: Stef Conner, 'Riddle Songs'

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


This startling, life-affirming record somehow manages a feat that has otherwise eluded science so far: time travel. Stef Conner has composed a suite of songs that demonstrate how, through the arts, the past is all there, all at once, running parallel to our present. What are its secrets?

A bit of background (although Conner’s liner notes for the CD are so informative and engrossing, I don’t want to simply replicate extracts here). Conner takes particular interest in combining research with composition: the theme of this album rests on the intriguing fact that there are no surviving Old English songs. Or, to be more precise, we have poetry and text, but no extant musical instruction or notation to go with them. Conner sets out to bring the words to life with new settings. Among these are a group of riddles, which give the album its name, as well as an overarching metaphor for the central puzzle behind the verse: that we can never know exactly how the music would have sounded.

From the first glance at the evocative cover image, the disc looks set to catapult the listener back to an era when even ‘early music’ was in the future. Conner (alto voice, lyre) collaborates with Hanna Marti (soprano voice, harp) and Everlasting Voices, a ‘super-group’ of singers who assemble for specific projects, here conducted by Jonathan Brigg. Marti contributes or co-writes three tracks. The arrangements honour authentic instrumentation and tunings, without forcing anything material from the present day into the album’s soundworld.

However, this is not so much historically-informed, as historically inspired performance – and we are not listening to a reconstruction, some kind of attempt at reanimating a lost artform. This is brand new writing, brand new music – and it sounds like it. Conner is quick to flag where she references known early motifs and these can range from taking harmonic inspiration for a mnemonic rhyme from medieval Latin recitation settings (the splintered ‘Rune Poem’) to incorporating drones to simulate bagpipes (‘Song-pack’). But while at pains to acknowledge these launchpad characteristics, Conner is not reliant on them: instead, they are springboard for her own compositional verve and flair.

Less than two minutes into the album and second track ‘Fire’ makes it clear that this is something different: the unexpected full force of Everlasting Voices bending chords around a winding tenor solo, the heat-intensity audible. The arrangement then tracks the demands of the lyric (the Phoenix myth), calming and resolving before building again to agitated repetition as flame engulfs the bird, then into the ambiguous closing hint at resurrection. Mirror track ‘Ice’, near the record’s close, uses a similar pattern of tension and release (no spoilers, but listen out for the modest jump-scare!) on an even more epic scale, the group nudging the storytelling along with dissonance/harmony as the narrative dictates.

But even these arrangements are spare and steady, and much of the album is sparser still. It feels as though Conner has constructed a set of elements or patterns and made the most of the combinations they provide. Vocally, there is Everlasting Voices and the mix of sounds they provide; but Conner has also decided to sing both solo, and in duet with Marti. There are accompaniments by solo lyre, solo harp, sometimes both are together, other times both are absent. As a result, very few tracks present themselves with exactly the same mix of voices and instruments so, accordingly, there is always some variation in mood. There is no sense of chant or litany to fix this music in a tradition: its modern sensibility always wins through.

There are exceptions, of course, to prove this rule. The ‘Rune Poem’ I mentioned above is split into segments that provide a consistent, anchoring thread throughout the disc, and is sung in its five-part entirety by Conner and Marti. Their voices complement each other beautifully and blend naturally: following the same melodic pattern (with the different colours/timbres from their own registers) they almost sound like a multi-tracked entity. Two tracks, ‘Flint’ and ‘Night-bard’, feature Conner accompanying herself alone on lyre, and the added intimacy this provides make one hope – without diminishing the shared achievement of this project in any way – that a solo record may lie in the future.

(Video by Foxbrush Films)

The album overall is utterly unafraid of space (plaudits to Paul Baxter here, too, for such three-dimensional clarity in the production). Key pauses are embraced. Even the lack of sustain from the lyre is used ingeniously, offsetting any sense of ethereal fragility with its blunt pulse – try ‘Seed Spell’ to hear how the voices are suspended above the percussive strum, almost like an acoustic click-track supporting the song’s ritualistic nature. Elsewhere, on ‘Tide-mother’, Marti’s cascading, rippling harp figure recalls the suggested answer to the text’s riddle, water.

If setting a text to an onomatopoeic accompaniment calls to mind lieder or mélodies, no bad thing. I found this album spoke most clearly to me as art song, with its placing of existing verse in sympathetic settings that allow the instruments used to both serve the needs of the text while acting as the voice’s equal. And ‘Riddle Songs’ makes an excellent song cycle, with its multiple underlying themes (mythology, nature and the elements) and carefully-plotted sequencing that both builds to a climax and brings the album full circle.

The record company calls this a ‘concept album’, and Conner herself has described it as ‘prog-choral’. In both cases, this is a little like saying “we have created this CD especially for you, Adrian”: however, the descriptions are just, as this record can cross genres quite comfortably. Anyone who follows, say, Dead Can Dance, cherishes the ‘Mystère des Voix Bulgares’ albums, or keeps an eye on the ECM New Series label (think Trio Mediaeval, especially) is sure to enjoy ‘Riddle Songs’.

It’s a delight to discover an album steeped in history and heritage that, crucially, sounds so contemporary. A stunningly well-realised work.


‘Riddle Songs’ is out now on Delphian Records – you can buy it directly from their online store:

Sunday 1 November 2020

Yes, surprises: Rick Simpson, 'Everything All of the Time: Kid A Revisited'

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


This album is an extraordinary achievement – certainly no ordinary ‘covers project’. Rick Simpson and his ensemble wilfully tackle head-on perhaps the original writers’ most elusive set of tracks and, fittingly, bring the same sense of adventure to the material as Radiohead might recognise from recording much of their music first time around.

It’s impossible to approach a record like this – a song-for-song interpretation of Radiohead’s fourth album ‘Kid A’, released in celebration of its 20th anniversary – without mentally rewinding to one’s experience of the parent LP. Hindsight, and a handsome sequence of Radiohead albums since, help to give ‘Kid A’ a clear place in the scheme of things. But it remains an impressively strange album – not necessarily in its sound (it wears its electronica / modern composition influences on its sleeve like a fluorescent armband), but more in its approach and attitude.

In fact, Radiohead had taken great strides with every record, from a slightly muddy debut album, to the scarily assured follow-up ‘The Bends’, to the expansive, precision-prog of critical and commercial smash ‘OK Computer’. This time, however, the steps leading up to the next giant leap were tense and tentative. Reading back about how the band came to create ‘Kid A’, it feels as though they had a kind of collective ‘freeze’ in their ability to function; a sort of slow-building Y2K problem personified by five blokes in a studio.

And even though the album is its own kind of masterpiece, I think its traumatic origins are audible, in its grooves. I find it amazing still that they had enough material for two albums – yet the follow-up with the leftovers, ‘Amnesiac’, has the lion’s share of unshakeable melodies. And since then, they have constantly shifted this way and that, carving out their unique niche between the anthemic and the avant-garde. Think how many Radiohead songs (whether earlier – ‘Planet Telex’, ‘Lucky’, ‘The Bends’, ‘Karma Police’ – or later – ‘Burn the Witch’, ‘Supercollider’, ‘House of Cards’, ‘You and Whose Army?’, ‘There There’), whatever sense of angst or danger they carry, still have sections, even particular moments, that take you to a point of euphoria and release. But there in the middle, ‘Kid A’ is curiously bereft of those moments. It’s taken a crack team of jazz musicians to draw them out.

Radiohead are widely covered, not least in jazz – perhaps because they have such a distinctive musical stamp, especially in Thom Yorke’s unmistakeable vocals. I can imagine artists seeing a clear way through to making a Radiohead track their own, especially as an instrumental. I’d also speculate that as many of their tracks embrace sophistication (unusual time signatures, song structures) without being over-complex or messy, they must provide appealing starting points for improvisation.

But as bandleader and arranger, Simpson has set himself the unenviable challenge of re-working an entire Radiohead album: not only must each individual track go under the microscope – but can also he preserve the sense of unity and coherence over the whole set? Yes, it turns out.

Simpson himself is on piano, and he would be the first to acknowledge the contributions of his band: Tori Freestone and James Allsop on saxophones, Dave Whitford on bass and Will Glaser on drums. After performing this set together live, they recorded these album versions in one afternoon. As a result, they replace the original’s introverted hesitancy with a sense of excitement and drive: Yorke’s cut-up, repetitive lyrics from the original, that seemed to rein the ‘Kid A’ songs in, hold them back somehow – are, of course, now gone, and the tracks gain a renewed sense of purpose and forward motion.

This doesn’t mean any of the sensitivity is lost: far from it. ‘Treefingers’ is a virtually ambient instrumental on the original, a kind of looped chord sample that periodically renews itself. Simpson has percussion – rumbling toms and echoing cymbals – build the ambient ‘wash’, as delicately sustained piano dissolves into runs and trills before re-charging with a new chord, calling to mind the ‘release valve’ feel of the Radiohead version. Likewise the closing tune, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, is barely there on ‘Kid A’, smothered in effects: Simpson exposes the beautiful melody using piano and saxophone, but then offsets it with a surround of percussion and second sax, honouring the original’s impulse to hide.

But if the aim of jazz is to surprise the listener, this group are on top of the brief. Anyone familiar with the title track of ‘Kid A’, its coiled riff perhaps the closest a song can sound to someone curling up into the foetal position, will be thrilled at how the band take its bare bones off in myriad different directions but preserve its stop-start restlessness and closing ‘mash-up’ of elements.

On the other hand, ‘The National Anthem’ – the Radiohead album’s most explicit nod to jazz – is skilfully harnessed into something more controlled and incisive. The insistent bassline is present and correct, but otherwise the track is turned inside out. The frontline horns providing the rhythms and, in a bravura individual performance, Simpson’s piano not only captures the throwaway vocal melody but leads the way in creating, solo, the sonic mayhem generated by an entire jazz group in the original. (Fortunately, everyone joins him by the end, so we’re not cheated of the track’s chaotic climax.)

For those tracks where ‘Kid A’ is at its most ‘song-like’, the ensemble waste no time in getting under the bonnet and re-tooling them in their own image. ‘Optimistic’ lives up to its title as the band take flight over a kind of demented samba-on-speed rhythm. ‘Idioteque’ hits a punch-the-air moment at around two-and-a-half minutes where the duelling saxophones are suddenly de-railed by the piano and bass imitating the keening vocal line (perhaps this is also one of Simpson’s favourite points, as the sung lyric here is “everything all of the time”).‘How to Disappear Completely’ is perhaps the most direct ‘cover’ here, using sax and piano to give us a loyal take on the original’s voice and guitar. But the restraint allows Freestone – here providing pared-down ‘swoon’ on violin – and Glaser to truly shine. (Listen out, too, for Glaser’s extraordinarily measured opening solo on ‘Morning Bell’.) It demonstrates how Simpson’s band mesh so well together that they can use their instruments to create a sense of ‘noise’ amid the melodies (a role played by glitchy samples and electronics on ‘Kid A’ itself).

To end at the beginning, one track that I think gloriously sums up the whole enterprise is ‘Everything in its Right Place’. It’s a modest start, over a minute shorter than the Radiohead version. It treats the original with respect, the haunting hook and progression in place, but in no time at all every band member has made their mark on it, Simpson finding endless melodic avenues around the pattern, Freestone and Allsop working in telepathic tandem to briefly bend and shape the tune in Simpson’s wake, while Whitford and Glaser awaken the beat into buoyant, unpredictable life.

Like the whole album, it brings the claustrophobic, insular world out into the light. It takes something electronic, trapped in its own machinery, and lets it breathe acoustically, on real instruments. It takes music borne of difficulty, intensity and uncertainty, and replays it with spontaneous, natural exuberance.


Rick Simpson’s ‘Everything All of the Time: Kid A Revisited’ is available to order now on vinyl, CD and download from the artist’s Bandcamp page: