First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2017
Messiaen: Poemes pour Mi, Trois petites liturgies
Seattle Symphony/Morlot/Archibald (Seattle)
For a lesson in how to sing rapture without getting gushy or vague, try Jane Archibald’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ecstatic Poemes pour Mi. The title refers to the composer’s nickname for his first wife Claire Delbos (he called her ‘Mi’, French for the highest string on the violin) and the nine poems marvel at beauty, at nature, at God. Archibald delivers the cosmic vocal lines with stunning cool; she swirls and seduces but never overeggs it. Meanwhile conductor Ludovic Morlot does beautifully precise and evocative things with the Seattle Symphony, but I’m not convinced by his choice to use a boys’ choir in place of women’s voices in Trois petites liturgies de la presence divine. This is music composed in 1944; it is intensely, sensuously spiritual, and although the Northwest Boychoir sings superbly, their sound is too diffuse, too wan for Messiaen’s grand technicolours.
First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2017
When it was announced that Thomas Dausgaard would be replacing Donald Runnicles as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, various commentators pointed out that Runnicles would be a tough act to follow. The Scottish Wagnerian had the grandeur, the clout of top-flight opera houses, the romance of local-boy-done-good. What mark could Dausgaard, relatively demure, relatively unknown, relatively generalist in his repertoire, make on City Halls?
As the Danish conductor begins his second year in Glasgow, an answer is starting to emerge. Running through the BBC SSO’s new season – which opens tomorrow – is a strand called Composer Roots, and this strand has Dausgaard’s creative stamp all over it. The concept is simple. The orchestra will present a major piece of symphonic repertoire in the context of music that influenced it. Influences might include folk music, sacred chant, renaissance polyphony, certain key composers who paved the way.
First published in the Guardian on 18 September, 2017
Imogen Holst: String chamber music
Court Lane Music (NMC)
Imogen Holst is in the blood of NMC records: in 1984 – the year she died – she set up the foundation that would end up kickstarting the label five years later. And even through the core remit of NMC is to champion living British composers, it also does a noble line in saving important recordings that fall through the cracks. The opening chords of this album (originally released in 2009 but already out of print) alone prove the point of rescuing it. Holst’s music is potently expressive and generous, reminiscent but never maudlin. “I’d much rather be dealing with crotchets and quavers than people,” she once told Benjamin Britten, and although her music can be introverted, these superb performances by Court Lane Music make sure the huge warmth of the writing wins out. Holst was a life-long advocate of other English composers; we owe it to her, and to ourselves, to keep listening to her brave and confessional works.
First published in the Guardian on 14 September, 2017
Crazy Girl Crazy
Barbara Hannigan/Ludwig Orchestra (Alpha)
Canadian soprano opens this album with a reminder, in no shy terms, of what a stupidly seductive vocalist she is. She flits and warbles and giggles through Berio’s high-wire Sequenza III from 1965; she has a way of making everything just float. The novelty of this release is that it is Hannigan’s first as a conductor as well as a singer, and though her fierce musicianship is never in doubt – she cooly leads the Amsterdam-based Ludwig Ensemble through Alban Berg’s tough Lulu Suite and Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (in a new suite arranged by Bill Elliott) – the ensemble playing doesn’t match the rapture and agility of her voice. That would be a tall order. Even in the Gershwin, which to my ears doesn’t suit her as well as previous recordings of Satie, Abrahamsen or Benjamin (it needs more bulk, less shimmer), her effortless style is bewitching.
First published in the Guardian on 14 September, 2017
Debussy/Faure: La Mer/Pelleas et Melisande
If you’re used to hearing Robin Ticciati with the fleet-footed Scottish Chamber Orchestra then the pure heft of this recording — his first as music director of Berlin’s Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester — might take a bit of getting used to. It’s exciting, and it bodes well. The orchestra has a powerful engine that always feels on the verge of breaking loose, but Ticciati harnesses the depth and drive of that energy and adds some gorgeously febrile stuff. Maybe some of the corners aren’t as nimble as they’ll become a few years into his new job, but Faure’s Prelude to Penelope surges and sweeps, Faure’s Pelleas et Melisande suite has a rich, sombre beauty and Debussy’s La Mer sounds robust, brooding and vast. Magdalena Kozena sings Debussy’s Ariettes oubliees (as orchestrated by Brett Dean) with a steely grandeur.
First published in The Herald on 13 September, 2017
It’s a shifty thing, authenticity, especially when it comes to dramatising a character whose image has been constructed and reconstructed over the centuries, shapeshifting to suit whoever is telling the story. Take Joan of Arc. The 15th century saint has been variously claimed, or vilified, as a feminist, Catholic martyr, resistance fighter, French patriot, cross-dresser, pixie cut icon, political emblem of the left and of the right. For anyone who has seen Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, only one image of Joan will forever be burned into their retinas: those steely cheekbones and saucer eyes of Renee Maria Falconetti.