Big Issue column 29

First published in The Big Issue, February 10-16

English Touring Opera describe their new production of King Priam as their most ambitious project to date. Most audiences won’t know the piece: Michael Tippett’s pacifist opera was written for the consecration of Coventry’s new cathedral in 1962 – just like Britten’s War Requiem, which became the far more famous work. It’s the old axiom that Britten’s legacy outshines Tippett’s. The War Requiem has been performed hundreds of times since its iconic premiere, King Priam hardly ever.

But Priam delivers its message every bit as profoundly. Tippett embeds a sense of human responsibility into his take on Homer’s Iliad (he wrote his own libretto, recreating the last days of Troy from the perspective of the ageing king) which somehow leaves a more troubling aftertaste than the bluntness of Britten’s score. The opera’s characters, Priam in particular, are all too aware of their own fallibility, of how their active decisions have led to the brutal mess of war. Tippett doesn’t shift blame onto the meddling gods; for him, the fault and the potential for change rest on human shoulders. London, 13-22 February; Poole, 15 March; Snape, 29 March; Cheltenham, 22 April; Sheffield, 12 April; Canterbury, 23 April; Norwich, 26 April; Exeter, 17 May; Durham, 20 May; Cambridge, 27 May.

A gorgeous new disc of Monteverdi madrigals from period-instrument ensemble Arcangelo shows the composer at his most inventive and his most emotionally extreme. Called Love and Loss, the album’s material covers the reaches of sorrow and agitation with a raw beauty that only Monteverdi could muster. From flighty instrumentals and raucous dance variations to desolate laments and sumptuous choral passages, it’s all superbly performed: vivid singing, sizzling instrumental playing and the whole thing warmly balanced by Hyperion’s sound engineers. Tenor James Gilchrist is an acutely expressive soloist but the ensemble voices are every bit as gripping. Arcangelo also perform music from the album at the Wigmore Hall in London on 14 March. [HYPERION CDA 68019]

The latest release from Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen and his quartet (Tore Brunborg on saxophone, Mats Eilertsen on bass, Jarle Vesperstad on drums) opens with the perfectly-named Right There: the directness and eerie simplicity of this bluesy ballad gets you right into Gustavsen’s strange lyricism. The album roams through restless patches and whimsical introspection – at times it’s overblown and at times a little saccharine, but the slow numbers (The Gift, especially) are soulful, spacious and haunting. One for the winter months. [ECM 2358]

And Tom Poster’s debut recital album opens with a whispered transcription of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Not exactly a crashing entrance from this excellent English pianist, but one that sums him up as a musician of real subtlety and searching instincts. The rest of the album – called In Dance and Song – treads an intriguing path through Grieg and Bartok, Chopin, Kurtag, Schubert and Ravel, all of it delivered with classy judgement and a pianistic touch that manages to be both beautifully soft-edged and deftly commanding. Poster is best known as the pianist of the Aronowitz Ensemble, but there’s no question that he also deserves centre stage. [Champs Hill Records: CHRCD075]

AND ANOTHER THING: Bath’s Bachfest is a small but classy affair; artists this year include Richard Tognetti, the Academy of Ancient Music and the crystalline German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. 20-22 February

GO TO: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. New music by guitarist Fred Frith, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trombonist George Lewis, who all perform together for the first time. Glasgow, 22 February.