Monthly Archives: May 2017

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.