Monthly Archives: May 2017

Interview: Nicholas Mulroy on Monteverdi’s Madrigals

First published in the Herald on 17 May, 2017

“It doesn’t gloss over you. It burrows in deep.” Tenor Nicholas Mulroy is talking about Monteverdi’s madrigals — music he’ll be directing (and singing) with the Dunedin Consort in Aberdeen, Lerwick and Edinburgh this week, music that is four centuries old and still some of the most daring, technicolour and radically expressive vocal work ever written. Monteverdi compiled eight books of madrigals during his life and a ninth was published posthumously. They make for a diary of his own creative and philosophical awakening: the writing gets bolder and bolder, not just in the shock dissonances and the ultra-vivid way he deals with words, but in the essential form and function, how the voices work, how they sing together, what kind of fierce impact they make on his listeners.

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CD review: Mala punica

First published in the Guardian on 11 May, 2017

James Weeks: Mala Punica, Walled Garden
Exaudi/Hortus Ensemble/Weeks (Winter & Winter)

This is a seductive thing: lush, finespun music by James Weeks performed by his peerless vocal ensemble EXAUDI and the excellent instrumentalists of the Netherlands-based Hortus Ensemble — artfully recorded, too, by the Winter & Winter label. Mala punica (the name means pomegranate) is a set of eight pieces based on the Egyptian and Mesopotamian love poems of the Song of Songs. Walled Garden comprises three pieces for strings and flute trios that weave around the voices to create the image of an enclosed aural garden where beautiful sounds can grow. Weeks hones in on horticultural imagery in the texts so we get vine tendrils and flowers waving in the breeze, all treated with a close, gentle sensuality that shimmers and beguiles but never gets lurid. There’s a refinement and definition to the writing that sounds just right in EXAUDI’s chiselled-but-definitely-not-chaste delivery.

CD review: Brahms string sextets

First published in the Guardian on 11 May, 2017

Brahms: String Sextets
Mandelring Quartet/Glassl/Schmidt (Audite)

Brahms held off writing string quartets in his 20s: maybe he was nervous to touch the venerated form that Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven had all made their own. He would get there eventually, but first he turned his hand to the ultra rich and gutsy textures of the string sextet — standard quartet plus extra cello and viola. A recent recording of both sextets fronted by the Capucon brothers went for litheness and brilliance; this account from Germany’s long-standing Mandelring Quartet with violist Roland Glassl and cellist Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt is more august, more hefty, with stately tempos and broad, well-fed textures. It’s fine ensemble work, no doubt, but an autumnal sound for such youthful music, and to my taste it overdoes the gloop and solemnity. If you’re of the school of thought that all Brahms is essentially melancholy and thwarted desire then it might be for you.

CD review: Simone Lamsma plays Shostakovich & Gubaidulina

First published in the Guardian on 11 May, 2017

Shostakovich/Gubaidulina: Violin Concertos
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Lamsma/Gaffigan/Leeuw (Challenge)

Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma pairs concertos by Shostakovich and Sofia Gubaidulina, composers who both earned disfavour from the Soviet regime, who both use the solo violin to articulate deeply personal tenderness and torment. Lamsma is a terrific player with a beautiful, resilient sound, but at times that beauty is her handicap: she doesn’t do ugly or grim, which makes her interpretations of this dark music feel like a gloss. In Shostakovich’s First Concerto — composed in the late 1940s, laced with venom, suffused in angst — she’s not insistent enough in the tugging theme of the Passacaglia. In Gubaidulina’s In Tempus Praesens — an even darker work, if that’s possible; at one point the orchestra effectively crucifies the violinist with violent stabs — she holds her own defiantly, but again, the delivery is unfailingly gleaming. The orchestra sounds broad and a little unfocused conducted by James Gaffigan in the Shostakovich and by Reinbert de Leeuw in a live performance of the Gubaidulina, page-turns and all.

St Cecilia’s of the Cowgate

First published in The Herald on 10 May, 2017

Here’s a heckelphone (an oversized oboe); here’s an alto fagotto (a tiny bassoon). Here’s a guitar from 1650s Venice made of a thousand small pieces of wood glued together like a parquet floor. Here’s a weird looking flat-bellied violin like the ones Henry VIII imported from Italy. Over here are instruments from Burma, from 14th century Iceland, from Mexico and Uganda, a Yamaha DX7 — think 1980s synth pop — and a wall of saxophones made by Mr Sax himself. Over there is a complete 1920s jazz band, the likes of which would have played upstairs when St Cecilia’s was a dance hall.

I’m in the new gallery space at St Cecilia’s, which opens to the public tomorrow after a £6.5 million redevelopment that brings Edinburgh University’s collection of historic instruments under one roof for the first time. There is a unique joy in wandering around an instrument museum like this. The weird and wonderful old marvels, the outlandish serpents, the ancient clarinets, the unidentifiable prototypes and precursors of instruments we nowadays take for granted. Downstairs the building houses two galleries: one arranged taxonomically, the other thematically into ritual, classical, popular and folk instruments. Upstairs are the keyboard instruments and the gem of a concert hall itself.

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Interview: Linda Catlin Smith

First published in The Herald on 3 May, 2017

Subtle music is having a moment. Maybe it’s not surprising: a quiet revolution of slow, careful, inconclusive sounds that speak, or whisper, against the noise and dogma of the times. “Maybe people are wanting work that allows you space to just be with it,” suggests Linda Catlin Smith, a Toronto-based composer whose calm, clear music features at this weekend’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow.

Catlin Smith is part of what she calls a “lineage” of composers who spend their lives writing delicate abstract scores. A double album of her work was released recently as part of a major study on Canadian composers by the Sheffield-based contemporary music label Another Timbre. It’s a series that doesn’t so much try to define a Canadian school, and certainly doesn’t bother with any cliches about wildernesses or frontier mentalities, as link together composers who share a “similar art pad”.

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CD review: Minkowski’s John Passion

First published in the Guardian on 27 April, 2017

St John Passion
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Minkowski (Erato)

Conductor Marc Minkowski describes Bach’s John Passion as “the most violent, vivid and dramatic score” of the early 18th century, so it’s not surprising that violence and drama is what we get from his excellent Grenoble-based period band Les Musiciens du Louvre. This passion is brutal from the start — bass notes in the opening chorus are full of threat, a contrabassoon added for extra thud — but it’s also punctuated with sudden and very devastating gentleness. Try one of the silky chorales or an aria like Mein teurer Heiland to see what I mean. The eight-voice ensemble singing is terrific, now vicious, now officious, now keening, and although the vocal soloists aren’t always dazzling (I found Lothar Odinius’s Evangelist a bit cloying, the soprano voices a little shrill) there’s great poise in the alto and bass numbers. That contrabassoon is back for the final chorus, underpinning the exhausted grief with a grim inevitability. It’s an intense, full-throttle account.

CD review: Staier & Melnikov play Schubert

First published in the Guardian on 27 April, 2017

Schubert: Fantasie in F Minor etc
Staier/Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi)

Schubert played piano duets in living rooms, with friends, for friends. To me it feels a bit weird seeing these pieces on big stages under concert lights, so I love a recording that takes them back to living room vibe. Andreas Staier and Alexander Melnikov play a nut-warm, sweet-voiced fortepiano modelled after the kind of instrument Schubert would have known (for the cognoscenti: it’s a Graf copy by Christopher Clarke). They open with the magnum opus of duet repertoire, the F Minor Fantasie D.940, but it’s not the moody, broody thing it tends to be on modern Steinways. The sound is more intimate, more spruce; high notes have a pearliness that make the melodies really ping, and whichever pianist is playing the upper part (I’m guessing Staier — something about those flourishes) adds dainty ornaments that make the whole thing feel partly improvised. The disc also includes bits and bobs like the gracious Rondo D.951, the Variations D.813 and the 6 Grand Marches D.819.

CD review: Michael Pisaro’s Sometimes

First published in the Guardian on 27 April, 2017

Michael Pisaro: Sometimes
colectivo maDam (Wandelweiser)

Wandelweiser music feels extra appealing at the moment. Maybe the grace and quiet, honest fragility is a tonic against shouty geopolitical absolutism. American composer Michael Pisaro pinpoints his encounter with Wandelweiser stylistic brethren in the early 1990s as the most decisive moment in his career (“this literally saved years of my compositional life”). The way Kunsu Shim, Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey were thinking about silence and subtle gradation was right up his street and he joined their gentle ranks. A piece like Sometimes — first of his 34-part Harmony Series — is typical of Pisaro’s intensely unhurried, quizzical house style. The score specifies only the durations and pauses between notes, so a lot of detail comes down to the performers. Here the vocalist and three electronic musicians of colectivo maDam pose warm-hued intervals like open questions. Pisaro says he hears the piece as “a (very long) song”, which makes the deep silences work like very long pauses for thought.