Monthly Archives: May 2016

Interview: John Tilbury

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First published in The Herald on 6 May, 2016

“And so sometimes,” says John Tilbury, rounding off another fine anecdote, “sometimes I feel there is too much general respect for me just because I’m old. A legend and what have you.” Legend-and-what-have-you is about right: the 80-year-old pianist is a formidable interpreter of contemporary music, champion of the ultra longform works of Morton Feldman, author of the definitive biography of Cornelius Cardew and a member since 1979 of the British improvising group AMM alongside Keith Rowe and Eddie Prevost. At this year’s Tectonics — Glasgow’s pioneering orchestral experimental music festival hosted by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at City Halls over the next two days — Tilbury performs works by Annea Lockwood and Michael Pisaro, a new piano concerto written especially for him by Howard Skempton and an improvised duo with his own former student Sebastian Lexer.

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CD review: Barbara Hannigan sings Satie

First published in the Guardian on 5 May, 2016

Satie: Socrate etc
Barbara Hannigan/Reinbert de Leeuw (Winter & Winter)

Barbara Hannigan sings the songs of Erik Satie as if she’s sitting right there next to you, whispering and cooing across the kitchen table with all the breathiness and soft edges and exquisite spaciousness to match Reinbert de Leeuw sweet-melancholy piano chords. They open with Trois Melodies (1886) — languorous, tender little love songs that Satie wrote when he was 20. The pace picks up but the space and sweetness remain in Trois Autres Melodies and the majestically placid Hymne. Then there’s Socrate, the bizarre cantata that stands out in Satie’s oeuvre as a work of comprehensive seriousness. Or does it? In 1916 the Princesse de Polignac commissioned a melodrama based on Plato’s Dialogues and the composer obliged with this baffling setting of a fuddy-duddy translation by Victor Cousin. It was either an extreme manifestation of Dada anti-sentimentality or his ultra-dry humour gone rogue; either way, Hannigan makes intimate confessionals of the plain text and archly non-eventful melodies, and clinches the art of enigmatic understatement.

CD review: Cuckson & McMillen play Bartok, Schnittke & Lutoslawski

First published in the Guardian on 5 May, 2016

Bartok/Schnittke/Lutoslawski: works for violin and piano
Miranda Cuckson/Blair McMillen (ECM)

“Humour is a tool of provocation and survival in the music of Schnittke,” writes violinist Miranda Cuckson in her sleeve notes. “A cheeky attitude anchored by deep purpose.” Which isn’t a bad summation of the commonalities between Bela Bartok, Alfred Schnittke and Witold Lutoslawski — all composers who loved the jostle between wit and weight, spirit and logic, raw emotion and modernism. Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen end up delivering less of the cheeky attitude and more of the deep purpose: their playing is frank and urgent, with powerfully stripped-back quiet passages in Bartok’s Second Sonata, a gritted-teeth kind of ecstatic climax at the heart of Lutoslawski’s Partita and brutal attacks and silences in Schnittke’s extraordinary Second Sonata. Cuckson calls those silences “tongue-in-cheek,” but she plays them absolutely stony-faced.

CD review: Mozart’s Gran Partita

First published in the Guardian on 5 May, 2016

Mozart: Gran partita
Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble/ Pinnock (Linn)

Chamber music for winds doesn’t get better than the mighty Gran Partita — 50 minutes of Mozart at his most sublimely tuneful and blithe — and from their glowing first chord to the extravagantly mellow colours of the variations to the deft fizz of the finale, this is seriously impressive playing from students of the Royal Academy of Music under Trevor Pinnock. The piece needs a superb first oboe and the Academy has that in Thomas Blomfield, who leads with a gorgeously assured musicality. In general the ensemble sound is elegant and refined, and technically near-immaculate,  so it feels churlish to complain when things are too clean. But for me what’s lacking here is a gutsier swing in the minuets, a more audacious sense of drive from the bottom up, a hint of wonky squeeze-box in inner textures and an edge of reckless abandon in fast movements. With players this good, Pinnock could afford to let loose a bit.

Preview: Plug 2016

First published in The Herald on 3 May, 2016

A young man stands on a bleak Glasgow tenement street and begins to moan. The moan rises to a cry, which rises to a scream, which rises to an amassed holler from a chorus of blindfolded singers. This is the audacious opening image of Ūhte: a new 13-minute screen opera that premieres tonight at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and kicks off the 10th annual Plug festival of contemporary music.

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