Author Archives: Kate Molleson

CD review: Barbara Hannigan’s Crazy Girl Crazy

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.

CD review: Ticciati conducts Debussy & Faure

First published in the Guardian on 14 September, 2017

Debussy/Faure: La Mer/Pelleas et Melisande
DSO/Ticciati/Kozena (LINN)

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.

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc: getting the music right

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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.

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On the Scottish International Piano Competition

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First published in The Herald on 6 September, 2017

“I don’t envy them. No way. Nope.” It’s dinner break on Day One, Round One of the eleventh Scottish International Piano Competition and Steven Osborne, one of this year’s judges, is having flashbacks. “The first competitions I entered were bad enough when it came to nerves,” he winces. “As I got older things only got worse.” Fellow judge Olga Kern tells me that the only form of nerve control that ever really worked for her was giving birth. “When I competed in the Van Cliburn I had a one-year-old child,” she says. “I decided I would play my recital for him. I had travelled all that way across the world without him… I wasn’t going to waste the effort. It put things in perspective!”

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CD review: Francesco Tristano’s Circle Songs

First published in the Guardian on 31 August, 2017

Francesco Tristano: Piano Circle Songs
Tristano/Gonzales (Sony)

“Maybe we have to come up with a new series of labels,” says Francesco Tristano, suggesting “acid classical” or “acoustic disco” before thinking better of it. “Let the music speak for itself.” The Luxembourg-born pianist/composer/producer has done good on either side of the indie classical line, with previous albums variously featuring the solo music of Luciano Berio and orchestrated versions of Detroit techno anthems. His latest project lands in some innocuous middle zone, with stripped-back piano writing borrowing the loops and layers of deep house and the spacious textures and wan harmonies of ambient tracks. Canadian polymath Chilly Gonzales adds jazz-ish inflections and some buoyant interlocking grooves but not much else that I can hear; the pace of the album roams just enough to keep things interesting, with the final track, Third Haiku, arriving unexpectedly at somewhere quite delicate and introspective.

CD review: Phantasm plays Tye

First published in the Guardian on 31 August, 2017

Christopher Tye: Complete Consort Music
Phantasm (Linn)

Much is made by Laurence Dreyfus, director of the viol consort Phantasm, of Christopher Tye’s eccentric ways. “Craggy lines, indecorous clashes and sudden deviations work their special magic,” Dreyfus writes in the sleeve note. And indeed they do, with sudden mood swings, rogue metre changes and harmonic mayhem making the ground feel like it’s always shifting under your feet. But what strikes me about this recording is its suaveness, its evenness, its consistent beauty. Phantasm rides the impish contours of Tye’s imagination with unbending calm. Even in a stunning ‘free’ composition like the three-part Sit Fast — which breaks out of its lamentations into sudden squalls of dance, like someone who momentarily forgets they’re at a funeral and goes a bit disco — Phantasm’s control is absolute. The playing is remarkable, technically flawless, but in music so full of surprises I would love to hear some surprise.

CD review: Rameau’s Pygmalion

First published in the Guardian on 31 August, 2017

Rameau: Pygmalion
Les Talens Lyriques/ Rousset (Aparte)

The sculptor Pygmalion renounces love then falls for one of his own creations (the image of a perfect woman, whatever that looks like). He persuades Venus to bring the statue to life, and in Rameau’s hands the myth becomes a seductive ‘acte de ballet’ — basically a one-act comic opera that’s heavy on instrumental numbers, almost more dance than song. It is glowing, gregarious music, one of Rameau’s most popular pieces during his lifetime and this new recording from Christophe Rousset and his French baroque specialists Les Talens Lyriques demonstrates why. The playing is sumptuous, broad, vibrant; Cyrille Dubois sounds rapt and vigorous as Pygmalion, a natural for Rameau style which is as much about acting as singing, while Celine Scheen is more piquant as the Statue. Also on the disc we get a graceful, earthy performance of Rameau’s orchestral suite Les Fetes de Polymnie.

Autumn preview

First published in The Herald on 30 August, 2017

We reach the end of a couple of eras. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has yet to name its next principal conductor but Robin Ticciati has already started his new job with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin, and their debut recording together, a beautiful disc of Debussy and Faure soon to be released on Linn, suggests the move has been a good one. Ticciati’s final season with the SCO focuses on the music of Dvorak and welcomes some illustrious pianists, with opening night including Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony and Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart (Edinburgh & Glasgow, October 12 & 13) and Andras Schiff performing Dvorak’s rarely-heard Piano Concerto (Edinburgh & Glasgow, December 7 & 8).

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On James Horner’s Titanic music. Yes.

First published in the Guardian on 29 August, 2017

Yesterday we learned that James Horner’s soundtrack to Titanic is the biggest-selling classical album of the last 25 years. According to the Ultimate Classic FM Chart, Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture has sold more than one million copies in the UK alone, surpassed 30 million copies worldwide and risen to number one album in 20 countries.

You know you know it. Cast your mind back to 1997. First come the uilleann pipes: that’s Eric Rigler, an American player who previously worked with Horner on Aliens and Braveheart and has a band horrifyingly called Bad Haggis. His grace notes communicate right to the album-buying soul of America’s Celtic diaspora. Then comes the breathy vocalise of Sissel Kyrkjebø, the bass lines lurking like icebergs in the deep and Horner’s intriguing ability to make the real instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra sound like midi files. Celine Dion’s big tune pops up all over the place, relentlessly rousing, though without the full force of her larynx it never feels quite right. (Eventually we get Celine herself, after an agonising hour.)

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Interview: Rachel Podger

First published in The Herald on 23 August, 2017

There are big laughs at the end of the phone. Violinist Rachel Podger, if you can pin her down, is a bright spark. On the day we’re due to speak she has six hours of train travel on various branch lines: she lives in Brecon, a village in the Welsh hills whose charms don’t include speedy access. That plan is scuppered when the bridge of her violin collapses and takes the finger board down with it. It’s the kind of instrument crisis that would panic most touring musicians, let alone one about to direct her own group for the first time at the Edinburgh International Festival. A few days later Podger is cheerfully telling me about her genius luthier in Ludlow. “The calmest man in the world,” she says. “He just exudes reassuring vibes. Fiddle sounds great now. Better than before!”

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