Schumann, Dvorak & the art of subtle anomaly

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First published in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra autumn 2017 newsletter, then in The Herald on 18 October, 2017

History is full of the times we got it wrong. The times an artist unveiled a bold new work or a change in direction and was met with incomprehension, or plain derision, from audiences and critics and their own artistic community. Beethoven got it for exploding string quartet form in the Grosse Fuge. Puccini got it for putting the lives of the poor and the sick on stage in his opera La boheme. Stravinsky for, well, pretty much everything about The Rite of Spring. Miles Davies for going electric.

In the cases I’ve just mentioned, general consensus swung around and, sooner or later, works that were initially heard as too weird or too radical were absorbed into the canon of ‘greats’. (Which didn’t always do them favours; ’canonical’ status often softens the way we play and hear things that still deserve to sound shocking.) In other cases, usually when the work in question is less obviously ‘out there’, those negative first impressions seem tougher to shift. We’re happy to reconsider wild unconventionality as creative genius in retrospect, as the product of a rogue but brilliant mind. But with subtler eccentricity we tend to fixate on the flaws. And one quality in particular that we can’t seem to handle is frailty.

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CD review: Roland Kayn’s A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound

First published in the Guardian on 12 October, 2017

Roland Kayn: A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound
(Frozen Reeds)

22 movements, 14 hours and 16 CDs worth of spangling cosmic sound play: this premiere release of the magnum opus by German composer Roland Kayn is a colossus and a marvel. Roland who? In a profession that glorified big egos, that fetishised the kind of creative genius who demanded total control, Kayn went to more selfless extremes. He worked in the pioneering electronic studios of Germany and the Netherlands through the mid-20th century and built fastidious command systems with the aim of making ‘self-sufficient cybernetic’ music — essentially, he set machines whirring and did himself out of a job. It sounds like some dark post-human dystopia but the results couldn’t be further from. Dip into this monumental work (it has been lovingly restored by Jim O’Rourke) and the sound world is ungraspable and unknowable but never grates or alienates. The mystery, the grace, the boundless invention — Kayn’s machine music is a vast catalogue of very human wonder.

CD review: Steven Osborne plays Debussy

First published in the Guardian on 12 October, 2017

Debussy: Images, Estampes, Children’s Corner
Steven Osborne (Hyperion)

I’ve always loved the way Steven Osborne plays French music — for the flux and febrile atmosphere, yes, but more for the rigour and steel. Forget any cliches of hazy impressionism; Osborne brings directness, muscle, and the boldest aspects of texture, form and image stand out in ultra high definition as a result. His latest Debussy album is a perfect example. The goldfish of Poisson d’Or move in jerks and sudden flashes. The water droplets in Reflets dans l’Eau are super crisp, like pointillism writ large. At the end of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, the tune rings out like a defiant shout. It’s not pretty but it’s exhilarating. There is gentleness too — try The Snow is Dancing, whispered and supple — but what makes Osborne’s interpretations so revelatory is his willingness to state in plain terms what many pianists make blurry. It shows up the astounding modernism of Debussy’s piano music.

CD review: Peter and the Wolf via Liverpool

First published in the Guardian on 12 October, 2017

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf
RLPO/Petrenko/Armstrong (Warner)

Peter and the Wolf is a gift for storytellers. It’s the ultimate in musical characterisation — slinky clarinet cat, ditzy flute bird, wholesome string-section Peter, all told in Prokofiev’s most taught and tuneful writing. There is no shortage of loveable recordings; I can’t imagine this new version from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic making much of a dent. It sounds classy, cool, a bit sedate. There’s plenty to admire in the gleaming textures, the skilful pacing, but this piece deserves outright exuberance. The narrator is Andrew Armstrong — voice of Danger Mouse, glossy and unmemorable next to historic renditions from Alec Guinness, Richard Baker, Dame Edna Everage, Sting, Lenny Henry… the list goes on. Also on the disc is Saint Saens’s Carnival of the Animals (complete with doggerel verse by Ogden Nash that overstates what the music more magically conveys) and Alan Rawsthorne’s prosaic setting of T.S Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The playing is excellent.

Interview: Graham McKenzie on 40 years of Huddersfield

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First published by Sounds Like Now, September 2017 edition

In his early years as artistic director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Graham McKenzie introduced a festival slogan: ‘Music Lives in Everything’. It wasn’t as new-age as it might sound. (If you’ve ever been in the company of the acerbic Glaswegian, who dresses exclusively in black and keeps his mood about as demonstrative, you’ll know that new-age is pretty wide of the mark.) The slogan was about widening parameters, about subtly but purposefully infiltrating a field that, he thought, had become too narrow. “The festival has become fixed on a very one-sided view of what new music is,” McKenzie said in 2006, his first year as director. “It has always dealt in music that is elaborate and complex, because it’s fully written down. I’ve nothing against written-out music — in fact, you’ll find plenty of it in the festival. But there’s this whole other area the festival has neglected.”

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CD review: Danish String Quartet’s Last Leaf

First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2017

Last Leaf
Danish String Quartet (ECM)

With their first folk album, Wood Works, the Danish String Quartet set themselves apart from most cases of classical-musicians-going-folky. Clearly they weren’t faking their polskas; leader Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen also plays with folk trio Dreamers’ Circus, and cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin contributes several fine self-penned tunes to the quartet’s latest collection of Nordic folk material. Melodically it is a beautiful set, ranging from traditional Faroese ballads to bittersweet self-penned waltzes, and there’s no question the band can play: the sound is lissom, polished, flawless. But all the glossiness doesn’t sit quite right. The arrangements go in for rousing harmonies, silky textures, big builds — which sanitises the character of the tunes, straightens out the beautiful kinks. They hurtle through reels, playing fast because they can. I’d take slower with more swing any day,

CD review: Le Caravanserail’s A Fancy

First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2017

A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tunes
Le Caravanserail/ Cuiller / Redmond (Harmonia Mundi)

London’s theatres were often more music than speech during the Restoration period. To dodge the censors, plays were stuffed full of songs and interludes, and composers like Matthew Locke — the Morricone of the English baroque — wrote music to set the scenes and tug at the heartstrings. This new album from French period-instrument ensemble Le Caravanserail is an enticing survey of the period, opening with a sumptuous Curtain Tune by Locke and taking in contributions from Gibbons, Grabu, John Blow, Henry Purcell and others. The instrumental playing under Bertrand Cuiller is supple and vivid, but the real star of the show here is soprano Rachel Redmond: she sings an Akeyrode drinking song with bright swagger and articulates Purcell’s lamenting O Solitude with soft, grainy intimacy. She’s a singer of real personality.

CD review: Messiaen’s Poemes pour Mi

First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2017

Messiaen: Poemes pour Mi, Trois petites liturgies
Seattle Symphony/Morlot/Archibald (Seattle)

For a lesson in how to sing rapture without getting gushy or vague, try Jane Archibald’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ecstatic Poemes pour Mi. The title refers to the composer’s nickname for his first wife Claire Delbos (he called her ‘Mi’, French for the highest string on the violin) and the nine poems marvel at beauty, at nature, at God. Archibald delivers the cosmic vocal lines with stunning cool; she swirls and seduces but never overeggs it. Meanwhile conductor Ludovic Morlot does beautifully precise and evocative things with the Seattle Symphony, but I’m not convinced by his choice to use a boys’ choir in place of women’s voices in Trois petites liturgies de la presence divine. This is music composed in 1944; it is intensely, sensuously spiritual, and although the Northwest Boychoir sings superbly, their sound is too diffuse, too wan for Messiaen’s grand technicolours.

Interview: Thomas Dausgaard on ‘composer roots’

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First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2017

When it was announced that Thomas Dausgaard would be replacing Donald Runnicles as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, various commentators pointed out that Runnicles would be a tough act to follow. The Scottish Wagnerian had the grandeur, the clout of top-flight opera houses, the romance of local-boy-done-good. What mark could Dausgaard, relatively demure, relatively unknown, relatively generalist in his repertoire, make on City Halls?

As the Danish conductor begins his second year in Glasgow, an answer is starting to emerge. Running through the BBC SSO’s new season – which opens tomorrow – is a strand called Composer Roots, and this strand has Dausgaard’s creative stamp all over it. The concept is simple. The orchestra will present a major piece of symphonic repertoire in the context of music that influenced it. Influences might include folk music, sacred chant, renaissance polyphony, certain key composers who paved the way.

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CD review: Imogen Holst chamber music

First published in the Guardian on 18 September, 2017

Imogen Holst: String chamber music
Court Lane Music (NMC)

Imogen Holst is in the blood of NMC records: in 1984 – the year she died – she set up the foundation that would end up kickstarting the label five years later. And even through the core remit of NMC is to champion living British composers, it also does a noble line in saving important recordings that fall through the cracks. The opening chords of this album (originally released in 2009 but already out of print) alone prove the point of rescuing it. Holst’s music is potently expressive and generous, reminiscent but never maudlin. “I’d much rather be dealing with crotchets and quavers than people,” she once told Benjamin Britten, and although her music can be introverted, these superb performances by Court Lane Music make sure the huge warmth of the writing wins out. Holst was a life-long advocate of other English composers; we owe it to her, and to ourselves, to keep listening to her brave and confessional works.