Monthly Archives: June 2015

CD review: Armonico Consort’s Dido and Aeneas

First published in the Guardian on 4 June, 2015

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Armonico Consort/Monks (Signum)

Purcell’s opera is over before you know it, the fate of the gods and the ruin of a great queen played out in less than an hour. Its emotional enormity is built on miniatures — the longest ensemble is just over three minutes — but a fine performance should still magic up a sense of epic. Christopher Monks and his Armonico Consort almost do. This is a clean, uncluttered account featuring crystalline voices, good diction, safe tempos and well-defined phrasing. Occasionally it all feels too lightweight and properly behaved. Dance numbers are jaunty; the witches are cheerful; the Echo Dance of the Furies is laboured; the Sailor’s Dances have a faux-West Country brogue that’s plain forced. Eli Manahan Thomas is airy and supple as Belinda; as Aeneas, Robert Davies is regal but reserved, hardly overt in seduction tactics. On the flip side, the vocal ensembles are beautifully sparse and luminous and the instrumental playing is brightly streamlined. Best of all is Rachael Lloyd’s dignified Dido, rich-voiced and flawlessly delivered.

Interview: Isobel Buchanan

First published in The Herald on 3 June, 2015

Soprano Isobel Buchanan is wagging a finger at me intently from across the kitchen table. “I don’t care how much anyone tells you about technique,” she says. “Singing is all about the mind. The minute your confidence goes, everything else starts to fall apart too.”

Buchanan has experienced it both ways. Hers was a stratospheric early career: in the 1970s she was Scotland’s golden operatic talent, swept off to Australia by no less a figure than Joan Sutherland and catapulted into star roles and a staggeringly young international career. But an undiagnosed physical conduction left her confidence dented and she withdrew from the limelight. Now 61, she has recently returned to the stage thanks to proper medical care and recital formats in which she feels comfortable again. When she sings at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney this summer, it will be her first appearance in Scotland for decades.

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Interview: Lau

Lau ?? Genevieve Stevenson-6

First published in the Guardian on 29 May, 2015

“At some point,” says Martin Green, accordionist and one third of the folk trio Lau, “we should maybe record some actual traditional music.” He’s looking sheepish, like he’s just acknowledged a big guilty secret. “I mean wooden instruments, no cables. Thing is, we often turn up at a tour venue, spend two hours setting up loads of complicated electronics then sit around playing fucking hornpipes.”

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Interview: Alexander Janiczek


First published in The Herald on 27 May, 2015

Alexander Janiczek jokes that he should have been born a couple of centuries ago. It’s partly a musical thing: the violinist is pure old-world pedigree, born in Salzburg with Czech and Polish roots, brought up at the heart of the Central European school under the tutelage of the Hungarian chamber music luminary Sándor Végh. These days Janiczek is most often heard in Scotland playing and directing Mozart with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; it’s his home repertoire, the music he is most obviously associated with, and the current SCO programmers seem happy to opt for tried and tested recipes.

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CD review: Bach sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord

First published in the Guardian on 22 May, 2015

Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord
Russell/Butt (Linn)

These six sonatas, likely dashed off in the early 1720s between Bach’s weekly cantata duties at the Thomaskirche, were intended to be played at home or in Leipzig’s bustling coffee houses. Violinist Lucy Russell captures something of their intimate charisma. Her playing is stripped-back and silvery — whispered and introverted in the fourth sonata, searching in the third — but slightly earnest in some slow movements and laboured in some faster passages. Harpsichordist John Butt reigns in his most rambunctious side (listen to his recent recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier for a taste of that) but revels in the busy invention of the contrapuntal lines and fully embraces the keyboard’s emancipation from accompanying role to real sparring partner. His woozy rubato might drive some listeners crazy but I’m all for it: his playing is rooted in bullet-proof scholarship, but it’s always the scrunchiest harmonies and most roguish dance rhythms that win out.

CD review: Litton’s Prokofiev Five

First published in the Guardian on 22 May, 2015

Prokofiev: Fifth Symphony, Scythian Suite
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Litton (BIS)

Prokofiev declared that his Fifth Symphony would “sing of mankind free and happy”; given it’s a Soviet work composed in 1944, most conductors search for trepidation or sarcasm beneath the surface, but Andrew Litton takes the sentiment to heart and gives us a straight-up, breezy Prokofiev Five. In many ways it is typical Litton: wholesome and unguarded, often great fun and refreshing in repertoire that’s customarily loaded with innuendo. There’s great momentum and some nice colour from the Bergen orchestra, but whether the performance works for you will depend on just how pummelled you want to be by your wartime Prokofiev. For me, it doesn’t access dark enough places, and by consequence not enough truly exalting places, either. If the Adagio’s climax isn’t laced with deep pain, how can the redemptive theme that follows feel properly saturated with relief? Bizarrely, there’s more bite in the Scythian Suite, a 1914 ballet score whose jovial kind of menace seems to suit Litton better than the Fifth’s ambiguous murk.

CD review: Keith Jarrett plays Barber, Bartok, Jarrett

First published in the Guardian on 22 May, 2015

Keith Jarrett: Barber, Bartok, Jarrett

Recorded live in the 1980s with ecstatic applause left in for proof, this is one of two ECM releases marking Keith Jarrett’s 70th. The other is a subdued collection called Creation; both are miles away from the pianist’s best slow-builds on the trio albums or revelatory vistas of the solo concerts in Cologne and Paris. Jarrett can do the nimble fingerwork and spry attack required by Barber and Bartok, and it’s easy to hear why he gravitated to these jazz-attuned composers, but the results still end up sounding mostly like Jarrett. His iconic way with rhythm — spiky, pliant — makes the opening of Bartok’s Third Concerto beguiling, but Barber’s concerto has none of the colour gradations of a Jarrett great. The New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazuyoshi Akiyama is gung-ho in the Bartok; Dennis Russell Davies and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken never quite relax into Barber’s soft-grained textures. The disc ends with a five-minute Tokyo Encore — pure Jarrett, where he sounds most comfortable.