CD review: Meredith Monk’s On Behalf of Nature

First published in the Guardian on 20 October, 2016

Meredith Monk: On Behalf of Nature
Meredith Monk & Ensemble (ECM)

“I work in between the cracks,” says vocalist/composer/performance artist Meredith Monk, “where the voice starts dancing, the body starts singing, the theatre becomes cinema.” Is a way everything she does is about ecology — that interconnectedness; those wild vocal noises — and now On Behalf of Nature is a treatise without text, an outcry without words. She wants the work “to expand our awareness of what we are in danger of losing” and does that by making music that sounds like it comes from the earth, feet planted in the mud, voices erupting and gusting and keening. As a live show its physical gestures were a bit stilted and obscure; for me it’s more articulate as music alone. And though Monk’s incredible technical range is going, the softer stuff is still enthrallingly playful and ritualistic. Sometimes it feels weird being a bystander to her music: this kind of elemental rite should involve us all.

CD review: Dunedin’s Christmas Oratorio

First published in the Guardian on 20 October, 2016

Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Dunedin Consort / Butt (Linn)

Way-too-early seasonal content (sorry) but this latest release from the Dunedin Consort is too good to wait. It’s surely one of the finest accounts now available of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The approach of scholar/conductor John Butt is never authenticity-or-die, but full of historical investigation without purporting to recreate what Bach might have actually done. (Which would be tough, anyway, given the original 1734 vocal soloists probably doubled on an instrument or two.) The singers here are Dunedin regulars including Joanne Lunn, Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Mulroy, all excellent, with Mary Bevan as a standout newcomer. The choral sound is pert, sinewy, natural; the instrumental playing is punchy, broad, charismatic. Butt’s navigation of the sprawling six cantatas is tremendously enjoyable — it’s not just how he handles tempo and gait to make us feel the character of individual movements, but how he turns corners and paces the big picture.

CD review: Isabelle Faust’s Mozart

First published in the Guardian on 20 October, 2016

Mozart: Violin Concertos
Isabelle Faust / Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini  (Harmonia Mundi)

Mozart was 19 when he wrote his violin concertos, a cocky teenage genius. The music is astoundingly elegant but it also prances and preens, and I had wondered what Isabelle Faust — most refined and intellectually scrutinising of today’s violinists — would do with all that cheek and bravado. Turns out she makes it fly where it counts, and always on her own terms. This is the kind of recording whose booklet notes list the instrument pedegree of every single member of Il Giardino Armonico, which might seem precious if the ensemble playing wasn’t so fresh and buoyant, if it didn’t sound like every player was an alert and integral part of the whole. Giovanni Antonini conducts but the music seems to be led from everywhere. Meanwhile Faust’s touch is light, finespun, pristine — often her bow hardly glosses the strings, but there’s proper robustness to balance in the chunky, sparky cadenzas.

Interview: John De Simone

First published in The Herald on 19 October, 2016

Sound — Scotland’s festival of new music, a two-and-a-half-week series of concerts in and around Aberdeen — has announced John De Simone as its inaugural Composer in Residence. What that means in practical terms is yet to be worked out; mainly, it seems a welcome statement of support for a composer whose music is courageous and singular and very much worth hearing. This year’s festival features De Simone’s solo cello piece Misremembrance (performed by Robert Irvine on October 22) and his string quartet Intimacy (performed by the Edinburgh Quartet on October 27). It also features a new piece for Red Note Ensemble, to be premiered  on October 29 alongside Louis Andriessen’s epoch-defining 1970s work De Staat.

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Why Scotland should be a Nordic nation.


First published in The Herald on 12 October, 2016

Scandinavian Scotland. Nordic Scotland. I’m not talking 8th-century Viking raids or 15th century Norwegian earldoms in Orkney and Shetland. I’m talking the political zeitgeist of now — that handsome notion of aligning ourselves north-eastward with progressive social democracies advocating egalitarianism, high taxes, higher welfare. The argument gained new urgency after the Brexit vote: how to avoid isolation as a small nation outwith the EU? In July the Icelandic legal expert Katrin Oddsdottir — among those elected to draft a new Icelandic social contract after her country’s financial collapse — suggested that an independent Scotland should join the inter-parliamentary Nordic Council and that Scotland should “look further north towards Reykjavik and Oslo rather than Brussels”. Now it’s not just a case of how to be more like our Nordic neighbours, but how to actively participate in their pan-Nordic networks and institutions.

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Profile: Sally Beamish

First published in Gramophone, October 2016

In a way, music was Sally Beamish’s first language. Her mother, a violinist, taught her to read and write notes at the age of four — before she could play an instrument, before she could even read or write words. She would draw little flowers or faces on the manuscript and her mum would interpret how the graphic notation might sound. “I always wanted to make my own stuff,” she says. “I’ve made my own clothes, written stories, painted…” When she started learning piano aged five, she constructed herself a little exercise book.

Today Beamish is one of the UK’s busiest and most warmly respected composers, with commissions coming in thick and fast for scores ranging from large-scale ballet and oratorios to chamber, theatre and solo works. At 60 she already has a catalogue of more than 200 pieces and that number is rising fast: this year she has been writing three piano concertos among several other projects. For many listeners, the great appeal of Beamish’s music is the space it finds between softness and steel — her knack of blending folk-flecked lyricism, emotional candour, a sense of the natural world and a propulsive way with rhythm plus real economy, directness, luminous orchestrations and rigour of craft. She’s the kind of composer who seems to know exactly what she wants a piece to say and finds the most compassionate and least fussy way of saying it.

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CD review: Steven Osborne plays late Beethoven

First published in the Guardian on 6 October, 2016

Beethoven: Piano sonatas Op. 90, 101 & 106
Steven Osborne (Hyperion)

This is Steven Osborne’s 25th recording for the Hyperion label and what marker it is. The Scottish pianist plays with an authority built on intelligent, very human musicianship: his accounts of these three late-period Beethoven sonatas are hugely personal but are never about him. He orders the music in reverse, starting with the fearsome Hammerklavier and playing the explosive outer movements with a high-definition élan that makes this wildest of Beethoven sonatas sound even wilder. Slow movements are tender, plain-speaking, profound; there are marvellously shaded places in Opus 101’s third movement and subtle, joyous colour changes every time the golden theme of Opus 90’s second movement comes around. Meanwhile the piano’s damper pedals rise and fall with audible percussion — nice to hear some tangible mechanism noises in a recording, but distracting in playing that invites such close listening.

CD review: Belcea Quartet plays Brahms

First published in the Guardian on 6 October, 2016

Brahms : String Quartets & Piano Quintet
Belcea Quartet / Till Fellner (ALPHA)

Brahms wrote three string quartets — or rather, he wrote three string quartets that he liked enough to let us hear and we’ll never know how many others were burned and abandoned along the way. The survivors are outpourings of angst, ardency and resolute jubilation, all characteristics that the Belceas do brilliantly. This recording features intense and wonderful quartet playing: lucid and agitated, sleek and muscular, with Corina Belcea’s silvery-lean first violin sound balanced by the huge warmth at the centre of the ensemble from violist Kzystof Chorzelski. In the Piano Quintet, pianist Till Fellner’s light touch makes him less of a soloist, more of an integrated texture — he’s a good match for the Belceas in that respect, but it feels like he’s responding rather instigating. Some listeners might reasonably like their Brahms with a burlier kind of pianism.

CD review: AAM plays Castello

First published in the Guardian on 6 October, 2016

Castello: Sonate Concertante in Stil Moderno, Primo Libro
AAM/Egarr (AAM)

Who even was Dario Castello? Some say he died of a plague that devastated Venice in 1630; others say he survived until well into the 1650s — one reputable source lists him as being born in 1610 and dead by 1620, which would make a miracle of the two hefty volumes of sonatas he published supposedly by the age of 10. Whatever we don’t know about Castello, Richard Egarr and instrumentalists from the Academy of Ancient Music show him to be a flagrant pusher of baroque boundaries, his music frenetic and uncompromising but also sumptuous. He was a wind player and it shows in the tactile chamber writing — these are works that sound fun to play. Egarr is on harpsichord and chamber organ and his sense of drama is never shy; I was probably most seduced by sonatas 7-11 featuring the dulcian, an early version of the bassoon played here with great finesse and flourish by Benny Aghassi.

Interview: Robin Ticciati

First published in The Herald on 5 October, 2016

Robin Ticciati strides up to me in Barnes, south-west London, one bright Saturday morning in September. This is in itself remarkable because in February the conductor suffered a herniated disc and for several bed-bound months the prospect of walking was a remote glimmer, let alone striding, let alone conducting. After a summer of intensive physio and painful cancellations — he had to pull out of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict at Glyndebourne, among other engagements — he returned to the stage in August to conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette at the Edinburgh International Festival. “It had to be the SCO I came back to,” he says. This will be his last season in Scotland as principal conductor (next year he takes the helm of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin) but he still thinks of the orchestra as home.

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