Monthly Archives: August 2017

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.

CD review: Filippo Gorini plays Diabelli

First published in the Guardian on 17 August, 2017

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
Filippo Gorini (Alpha)

Beethoven’s massive and confounding Diabelli Variations isn’t the obvious choice for a debut disc, but the young Italian pianist Filippo Gorini seems intently drawn to the strange drama of this martial little tune and its mysterious decorations. When Alfred Brendel heard him playing it he invited Gorini to study with him and you can hear why. Gorini has a fearless attack in heftier variations and an inquisitive, ultra-focused touch as the themes start to splinter and turn inward. His chorale in Variation 20 is breathtakingly still; the whispered Variations 29-31 are haunting. For me the clinch moment of this piece comes at the end of Variation 32, when the bombast suddenly drains away as if there’s nothing left to say. Gorini takes us to a very desolate place before unfolding a pearl-like closing minuet, full of new fragility. It is brave, original playing for a musician of any age.

Interview: Gianandrea Noseda on La bohème

First published in The Herald on 16 August, 2017

Winter of 1896, Teatro Regio, Turin. The star conductor Arturo Toscanini, not yet 30, premieres the latest opera by Giacomo Puccini to polarised reaction. Some factions of the audience can’t understand why they’ve just spent an evening watching the grotty minutiae of impoverished nobodies; surely opera is the platform for gods and noblemen. The streets of Paris have been revealed as dirty and cold. We see tough prostitution, the unnecessary death of a beautiful young woman whose only fault is to be poor. And the music – so compact, so direct, so impatient. Where are the luxuriant expanses of Verdi and Wagner? What new operatic urban realism is Puccini getting at?

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Classical music on the Fringe

First published in The Herald on 9 August, 2017

The International Festival series at the newly re-opened St Cecilia’s Hall is totally sold out — unsurprising given the room only seats 200 — but you can experience the museum’s stunning historical instruments and the gem that is the oval concert hall in five concerts hosted by the Friends of St Cecilia’s, starting today with keyboardists John Kitchen and David Gerrard playing music by Francois and Louis Couperin on the ultimate 1769 Taskin harpsichord. (St Cecilia’s Hall, August 9, 12, 16, 19 & 23, 3pm.)

If you’re missing soprano Anna Dennis as part of the superb Monteverdi operas coming to the International Festival next week (or even if you’re not), hear her in recital tomorrow: she’s joined by Owen Willetts (countertenor) and Tom Foster (harpsichord) for a programme of Baroque arias, cantatas and duetti da camera by Durante, Geminiani, Handel and Scarlatti. (St Andrews and St Georges West, August 10, 430pm.)

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Review: Greek in Edinburgh

First published in the Guardian on 6 August, 2017

After it’s over, after he’s killed his dad and done the worst with his mum and put out his own eyes, Eddy — our modern-day Oedipus and protagonist of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek — offers a moral of sorts. “Bollocks to that,” he grins, blood smeared across his face. Reason drums home the horror of his actions but in his gut he wants to do it all again. He wonders whether ignorance acquits him of responsibility. Take your pick of contemporary overtones.

This was the opera that made Turnage’s breakthrough with its screaming trumpets and cockney slang lifted from Steven Berkoff’s tough state-of-the-nation play. The UK premiere was at the 1988 Edinburgh International Festival; three decades later, here was Turnage again taking a bow alongside Berkoff — and the piece still feels clever, still full of a bleak humour and social malaise that hit a very live nerve. Besides a couple of Maggie references, the drama updates with depressing ease.

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CD review: Re:Works Piano

First published in the Guardian on 3 August, 2017

Re:Works Piano
Various (Decca)

In 1917, Erik Satie coined the term ‘musique d’ameublement’  (‘furniture music’) in a radical stunt of deadpan performance art. “It’s new!” he wrote in his manuscript. “It isn’t tiring! It isn’t boring!” Satie’s rogue irony pre-empted Muzak by several decades and set in motion (or anti-motion) the slow cogs of ambient music and experimental minimalism. Then there’s the dross. The most callous kind of crossover saps the integrity of both forms crossed. Decca — once a stamp of prestige, now part of the Universal label group that cashes in on insipid ‘neo-classical’ or ‘indie-classical’ or whatever — releases the next in its Re:Works series with this grim chill-out collection of electronic remixes. Cheerless, senseless and overproduced, it smothers the remaining life out of Pachelbel’s Canon, weirdly straitjackets Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and trashes the maverick surrealist stasis of Satie’s Gymnopodies and Gnossiennes. It’s not new, it is tiring, it is very boring.

CD review: Marsyas play Barsanti

First published in the Guardian on 3 August, 2017

Barsanti & Handel: Edinburgh 1742
Ensemble Marsyas/Whelan (Linn)

What went on behind closed doors in Edinburgh in 1742? The Enlightenment city had no concert halls but there was plenty music afoot. Any self-respecting merchant had a couple of horn-playing servants to follow him up Arthur’s Seat; meanwhile the keen amateurs of the Edinburgh Musical Society imported professional string players from Italy to up their own game. One was composer Francesco Barsanti, who lived in Scotland for eight years and loved the traditional fiddle music he found here. The superstar castrato Tenducci also wound up singing Society gigs while hiding from scandal abroad. Peter Whelan and his terrific Ensemble Marsyas reconstruct a typical Society concert and it’s a intriguing insight, played with great style and charisma. We get the broad, bright elegance of Barsanti’s concerti grossi, his tasteful treatment of old Scots tunes plus a double horn concerto and an aria from Alcina by Handel, mezzo Emilie Renard fierce as Tenducci.

CD review: Judith Wegmann

First published in the Guardian on 3 August, 2017

Judith Wegmann: Le Souffle du Temps
Wegmann (HatHut)

Judith Wegmann, a Swiss jazz improviser and classical pianist, makes beguiling sounds on a prepared piano. This album of improvisations inhabits a spangly, half-lit world of forlorn voices and jittery winged beasts. The name translates as ‘the breath of time’; the subtitle, slightly laborious, is ‘X (rétro-) perspectives’. What I like is how elusive the playing is, meticulous but still indefinable. Characters appear and flit around without any sense of hurry — there’s a grace to the aimlessness. Muted strings twang and clatter gently like a ghostly production line while lonely tunes meander through the din. There is a recurring impression of bells tolling somewhere in the near distance. For me the most satisfying moments are when the sounds go deepest, clangiest and most consonant: the moments when Wegmann appears the least precious and the most gutsy.