CD review: Monteverdi’s Mirror

First published in the Guardian on 2 December, 2016

The Mirror of Monteverdi
Huelgas Ensemble/Van Nevel (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

What’s the term for when parody surpasses the material it parodies? Musicologists have described Monteverdi’s Missa in illo tempero as a ‘parody mass’ because it’s built around archaic material and techniques, but when he wrote it at the dawn of the 1600s Monteverdi was already looking back from some distance at the previous century — already inventing a kind of neo-Renaissance gloss that simultaneous confirmed him as a master of the old polyphony and blazed into new baroque sounds and styles. This robust, bold-sculpted recording from Paul van Nevel and his Belgian early music group Huelgas splits up the mass movements with four earlier madrigal, so the Kyrie segues into the  chromatic thicket of Nicola Vicentino’s Laura che’l verde lauro, then the stately, pliant Credo sinks into Giaches de Wert’s Mia benigna fortuna, and so on. As if Monteverdi’s meta-mass wasn’t enough for anachronisms, the extra chronological disjunct here is enjoyably disorientating. And the performance is excellent — vibrant, shapely, sensitive singing.

CD review: Elias’s Beethoven vol 3

First published in the Guardian on 1 December, 2016

Beethoven: Quartets, volume 3
Elias Quartet (Wigmore Hall Live)

In 2015 the Elias Quartet (sisters Sara and Marie Bitlloch plus violinist Donald Grant and violist Martin Saving) ended several years of intense Beethoven immersion by recording the complete quartet cycle live at the Wigmore Hall; this third instalment groups Opus 18 no 3, Opus 95 and Opus 130. Qualities that always strike me about the Elias are their diligence and candour, their unguarded, searching commitment, but this performance adds new daring and flair, too. Opus 130’s first movement is spiced with suggestive slides; the second movement skits and scurries; the fourth is playfully elastic. Even the sacred Cavatina is milked for slow melodrama and big swoops, possibly too much in music of such profoundly simple beauty but in general I enjoyed the personality and élan tremendously. Given the technical composure and focus of the playing it’s doubly impressive this is recorded live. Applause is left in, and it surprised me on every listen.

CD review: Gavin Bryars – The Fifth Century

First published in the Guardian on 1 December, 2016

Gavin Bryars: The Fifth Century
PRISM Quartet / The Crossing (ECM)

“In an ideal world,” says Gavin Bryars, “I would choose to write vocal music.” And although the Yorkshire minimalist only came to voices relatively late, his house style is an easy fit: those spacious progressions unfolding at what he describes as “a human rate”; that formula for evoking meaningful timelessness out of scrunchy new harmonies and tropes of old spirituality. The Fifth Century (2014) is a big piece for saxophone quartet and choir with words taken from the 17th century English mystic Thomas Traherne. It’s sullen, cloying and rather aimless; the saxes weave around like extra voices — think Garbarek and the Hilliards but more of everything — and the blended sound of The Crossing and PRISM is creamy and pliable. This all-Bryars release also includes his Two Love Songs (2010), airy settings of Petrarch sonnets for a cappella female choir, sung with chilly grace.

Thoughts on a new concert hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: what kind of venue does Edinburgh really need?

First published in The Herald on 30 November, 2016

A fortnight ago the Scottish Chamber Orchestra announced a plan that’s been hatching backstage for years. It will get its new concert hall in Edinburgh. The statement comes now, the orchestra’s Chief Executive Gavin Reid told me, because next step is to launch an architecture competition and he’d be hard put to do that in secret.

Major details are yet to be finalised but here’s what we do know. The venue will be located behind the Royal Bank of Scotland at 36 St Andrew Square. (A 1960s RBS office block will be flattened to make way) The land will be leased long-term from the RBS to a charitable trust set up by the new hall’s major donor Carol Grigor and by Ewan Brown, former deputy chairman of the Edinburgh International Festival. This trust is called IMPACT Scotland and it will own and run the hall; the SCO will effectively be a tenant.

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Interview: Martyn Brabbins on Tippett

First published in The Herald on 23 November, 2016

I wonder what Michael Tippett would have made of our times. What kind of lush, kinetic music he would have summoned in response to a geopolitics of post-truths and hypernormalised hate speech. This was the composer who began work on a pacifist oratorio the day Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, who later went to prison as a conscientious objector. He made the opening words of that oratorio as bleak and urgent as the way he was feeling: “The world turns on its dark side,” sings the chorus.

One of my favourite Tippett quotes relates the artists of today — his day, our day — to an age-old tradition that, he said, “goes back into prehistory and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form. […] Images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty.”

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CD review: Laurence Crane’s Sound of Horse


First published in the Guardian on 17 November, 2016

Laurence Crane: Sound of Horse
Asamisimasa (Hubro)

Laurence Crane builds graceful, cheeky, elusive music out of ordinary things. Plain triads float across a long drone in the opener of this disc, John White in Berlin. The triads are bright, the drone is a bit murky. In the piece Events, soprano Ditte Marie Braein reads out various lists from The Guardian. Old Life Was Rubbish pivots on just two chords like a line-drawing of a wonky seesaw. There are allusions all over the place but Crane’s trick is to make them fleeting and decontextualised so that everything sounds new and not new. Electric guitars, electric organs, bass clarinets and vibraphones give these small-ensemble pieces a warbled vintage pop sound — bleached-out surf rock left in the sun a few decades then turned to the gentle absurd. The title piece is also the most recent of the collection (2009) and the most gleefully wayward; Norwegian group Asamisimasa plays it all with exactly the right balance of tenderness and deadpan anarchic humour.

CD review: Aisha Orazbayeva deconstructs Telemann’s Fantasies

First published in the Guardian on 17 November, 2016

Telemann: Fantasies
Aisha Orazbayeva (PRAH)

This was never going to be a straight-up rendition of Georg Philipp Telemann’s baroque fantasias, not when the performer in question is Aisha Orazbayeva. The London-based Kazakh violinist specialises in fearless confrontational ventures into postwar modernism and the avant-garde of now; unsurprising that her account of Telemann’s 1735 pieces takes the fantasy name at face value and totally reimagines them, fixating on a lonely wisp here, a nasty scrape there. When she does come round to playing the originals (she includes six of the 12 fantasies) they sound impossibly pristine and delicate, precious things lost and self-consciously glittering in a scraggy broken landscape. Orazbayeva first used these Telemann deconstructions for a 2015 Tanztheater Wuppertal dance piece by Tim Etchells called In Terms of Time which the Guardian noted for its absurdist ritual and truncated communication. I would say the same description applies here.

CD review: Giuliano D’Angiolini’s Cantilena

First published in the Guardian on 17 November, 2016

Giuliano D’Angiolini: Cantilena
Quatuor Parisii, Melaine Dalibert, Manuel Zurria etc (Another Timbre)

A port in the storm, this. Giuliano d’Angiolini is a Paris-based Italian composer and ethnomusicologist who makes music of whispered, consolatory indeterminacy. He’s probably best known (if he’s known at all) for a 2011 album called Simmetrie di Ritorno, but I’d argue this new release is more sublime, or maybe just more timely. It contains poised and attentive performances of the piano piece Finale, the string quartet (suoni della neve e del gelo) and the five-flute Aria del flauto eolico, all of it the most discreet and enabling kind of chance music — like John Cage, d’Angiolini uses procedures that play out differently every time — that isn’t didactic or abrupt and doesn’t resort to shock tactics. Instead it lays sounds bare and leaves generous opens spaces for a listener to feel her own responses, or not. This is music in the present tense, no guile or bile or shouting, no post-truths.

Interview: Gavin Reid on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra


First published in The Herald on 16 November, 2016

Turn on the radio and you’ll recognise the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a flash. Mozart that fizzes, Berlioz that’s lithe and nimble, ensemble intuition that darts and dares and turns on a dime. On a good night, at its best under the microphones, the SCO has a rare elegance laced with a rare explosive charisma and the combination is a thrill. And so it seems there is a disjunct here between artistry and administration. In managerial matters, the general ethos of the SCO has been a lot more sedate than its spry signature sound. A year ago Roy McEwan announced his retirement as Chief Executive after more than two decades in the job, and some felt that now might be the time to inject fresh blood, vision and energy into the select top tier of Scottish orchestral management.

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Review: Anno

First published in the Guardian on 14 November, 2016

At the start of Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake, the beleaguered Daniel spends hours on the phone to the DWP, driven nuts by a chirpy holding jingle. Later we see Dan take a spray can to the local Job Centre: “I, Daniel Blake, demand my appeal date before I starve. And change that shite music on the phone.”

The ‘shite music’ in question is the opening of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: overplayed to numbing point, life-sappingly familiar. Various musicians have made various efforts to strip back the naff associations and remind us that these four concertos are real and wonderful pieces. “Gentle confusion can give everyone a chance to hear something in a new way,” writes Jonathan Morton, artistic director of the Scottish Ensemble, and to demonstrate he commissioned sisters Anna (composer) and Eleanor (illustrator) Meredith to make an audiovisual work that might frame, refract and refresh Vivaldi’s originals.

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