On the Scottish International Piano Competition

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First published in The Herald on 6 September, 2017

“I don’t envy them. No way. Nope.” It’s dinner break on Day One, Round One of the eleventh Scottish International Piano Competition and Steven Osborne, one of this year’s judges, is having flashbacks. “The first competitions I entered were bad enough when it came to nerves,” he winces. “As I got older things only got worse.” Fellow judge Olga Kern tells me that the only form of nerve control that ever really worked for her was giving birth. “When I competed in the Van Cliburn I had a one-year-old child,” she says. “I decided I would play my recital for him. I had travelled all that way across the world without him… I wasn’t going to waste the effort. It put things in perspective!”

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CD review: Francesco Tristano’s Circle Songs

First published in the Guardian on 31 August, 2017

Francesco Tristano: Piano Circle Songs
Tristano/Gonzales (Sony)

“Maybe we have to come up with a new series of labels,” says Francesco Tristano, suggesting “acid classical” or “acoustic disco” before thinking better of it. “Let the music speak for itself.” The Luxembourg-born pianist/composer/producer has done good on either side of the indie classical line, with previous albums variously featuring the solo music of Luciano Berio and orchestrated versions of Detroit techno anthems. His latest project lands in some innocuous middle zone, with stripped-back piano writing borrowing the loops and layers of deep house and the spacious textures and wan harmonies of ambient tracks. Canadian polymath Chilly Gonzales adds jazz-ish inflections and some buoyant interlocking grooves but not much else that I can hear; the pace of the album roams just enough to keep things interesting, with the final track, Third Haiku, arriving unexpectedly at somewhere quite delicate and introspective.

CD review: Phantasm plays Tye

First published in the Guardian on 31 August, 2017

Christopher Tye: Complete Consort Music
Phantasm (Linn)

Much is made by Laurence Dreyfus, director of the viol consort Phantasm, of Christopher Tye’s eccentric ways. “Craggy lines, indecorous clashes and sudden deviations work their special magic,” Dreyfus writes in the sleeve note. And indeed they do, with sudden mood swings, rogue metre changes and harmonic mayhem making the ground feel like it’s always shifting under your feet. But what strikes me about this recording is its suaveness, its evenness, its consistent beauty. Phantasm rides the impish contours of Tye’s imagination with unbending calm. Even in a stunning ‘free’ composition like the three-part Sit Fast — which breaks out of its lamentations into sudden squalls of dance, like someone who momentarily forgets they’re at a funeral and goes a bit disco — Phantasm’s control is absolute. The playing is remarkable, technically flawless, but in music so full of surprises I would love to hear some surprise.

CD review: Rameau’s Pygmalion

First published in the Guardian on 31 August, 2017

Rameau: Pygmalion
Les Talens Lyriques/ Rousset (Aparte)

The sculptor Pygmalion renounces love then falls for one of his own creations (the image of a perfect woman, whatever that looks like). He persuades Venus to bring the statue to life, and in Rameau’s hands the myth becomes a seductive ‘acte de ballet’ — basically a one-act comic opera that’s heavy on instrumental numbers, almost more dance than song. It is glowing, gregarious music, one of Rameau’s most popular pieces during his lifetime and this new recording from Christophe Rousset and his French baroque specialists Les Talens Lyriques demonstrates why. The playing is sumptuous, broad, vibrant; Cyrille Dubois sounds rapt and vigorous as Pygmalion, a natural for Rameau style which is as much about acting as singing, while Celine Scheen is more piquant as the Statue. Also on the disc we get a graceful, earthy performance of Rameau’s orchestral suite Les Fetes de Polymnie.

Autumn preview

First published in The Herald on 30 August, 2017

We reach the end of a couple of eras. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has yet to name its next principal conductor but Robin Ticciati has already started his new job with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin, and their debut recording together, a beautiful disc of Debussy and Faure soon to be released on Linn, suggests the move has been a good one. Ticciati’s final season with the SCO focuses on the music of Dvorak and welcomes some illustrious pianists, with opening night including Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony and Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart (Edinburgh & Glasgow, October 12 & 13) and Andras Schiff performing Dvorak’s rarely-heard Piano Concerto (Edinburgh & Glasgow, December 7 & 8).

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On James Horner’s Titanic music. Yes.

First published in the Guardian on 29 August, 2017

Yesterday we learned that James Horner’s soundtrack to Titanic is the biggest-selling classical album of the last 25 years. According to the Ultimate Classic FM Chart, Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture has sold more than one million copies in the UK alone, surpassed 30 million copies worldwide and risen to number one album in 20 countries.

You know you know it. Cast your mind back to 1997. First come the uilleann pipes: that’s Eric Rigler, an American player who previously worked with Horner on Aliens and Braveheart and has a band horrifyingly called Bad Haggis. His grace notes communicate right to the album-buying soul of America’s Celtic diaspora. Then comes the breathy vocalise of Sissel Kyrkjebø, the bass lines lurking like icebergs in the deep and Horner’s intriguing ability to make the real instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra sound like midi files. Celine Dion’s big tune pops up all over the place, relentlessly rousing, though without the full force of her larynx it never feels quite right. (Eventually we get Celine herself, after an agonising hour.)

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Interview: Rachel Podger

First published in The Herald on 23 August, 2017

There are big laughs at the end of the phone. Violinist Rachel Podger, if you can pin her down, is a bright spark. On the day we’re due to speak she has six hours of train travel on various branch lines: she lives in Brecon, a village in the Welsh hills whose charms don’t include speedy access. That plan is scuppered when the bridge of her violin collapses and takes the finger board down with it. It’s the kind of instrument crisis that would panic most touring musicians, let alone one about to direct her own group for the first time at the Edinburgh International Festival. A few days later Podger is cheerfully telling me about her genius luthier in Ludlow. “The calmest man in the world,” she says. “He just exudes reassuring vibes. Fiddle sounds great now. Better than before!”

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Review: Had We Never

First published in the Guardian on 18 August, 2017

Robert Burns asked the question in his love song Ae Fond Kiss: ‘had we never loved sae kindly/ Had we never loved sae blindly”. His conclusion was bittersweet, to do with simple heartbreak. A current exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery applies the same conditional tense to darker scenarios, playing out ‘what ifs’ that cannot be romanticised. What if Scotland’s national bard had gone to Jamaica in the 1780s to profit from the slave trade?

We know he planned to. In 1786 Burns booked himself a ticket to the West Indies, though whether out of financial desperation or to escape a botched love affair is unclear. He didn’t end up going — luck picked up at home — and in 1792 he published a troubled lyric called The Slave’s Lament which imagines a forced journey from Senegal to Virginia. That poem was the starting point for Graham Fagen’s video installation at the 2015 Venice Biennial showing reggae vocalist Ghetto Priest singing Burn’s words to music by Sally Beamish and dub producer Adrian Sherwood played by the Scottish Ensemble.

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Review: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe meets Harry Bertoia

First published in the Guardian on 17 August, 2017

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe: Levitation Praxis Pt 4
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (DDS)

Harry Bertoia designed furniture — most famously wire chairs, amorphic and functional — but he also built sound sculptures and left a collection of huge pieces in a converted ‘sonambient’ barn in Pensilvania. These metal rods and gongs and look majestic, a cross between mid-century modern art and Fingal’s Cave, and they can be played as vast resonating instruments. So when New York’s Museum of Arts and Design commissioned polymath composer/vocalist/drone metal artist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe to respond to a Bertoia exhibition and gave him full access to the barn, he came up with a stunningly immersive album in which he weaves through the sculptures and makes them throb, shimmer and sing. He sings himself, too, high and eerie, and the effect is ghostly and lush, untethered and earthbound. Bertoia himself made plenty of recording with these sculptures but Lowe makes them, and the space, his own.

CD review: Matthias Goerne’s Bach cantatas

First published in the Guardian on 17 August, 2017

Bach: Cantatas for bass
Freiburg Baroque/Goerne (Harmonia Mundi)

Perverse thing to say about a disc of solo bass cantatas, but I like this recording best for its ensemble playing. Freiburg Baroque are at the top of their game: lithe, shapely, tuneful. The strings seem airborne, the winds are gracious, there’s easy warmth in the interaction between them. The oboe playing of Katharina Arfken is reason enough to buy it— clearly someone else thought so, too, because between the cantatas (Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen and Ich habe genug) we get Bach’s fourth harpsichord concerto reconstructed (or possibly reinstated) as a concerto for oboe d’amore. As for the singing? Matthias Goerne is all breath and vowels and gravel and intensity. A long-lined aria like Schlummert ein can feel like being slowly drowned in treacle. There is suave bluster in Mein Gott! wenn kommt das schone: Nun! and well-fed elation in Endlich, endlich will mein Joch. It’s very plush, but lacks in raw, hard-hitting expression.