CD Reviews

CD review: Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2017

Piazzolla: María de Buenos Aires
Mr McFall’s Chamber (Delphian)

Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera is fierce and hot-blooded thing, with its swirling text by Horacio Ferrer and deft mashup of fugue, milonga, cabaret, even 1960s psychedelia. The drama inhabits bars and brothers where characters are ultra vivid but mysterious and a bit supernatural — if Maria represents the city, the bandoneon (superbly poised playing from Victor Villena) brings out her most seductive and destructive sides. Edinburgh ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber has been championing Piazzolla for 20 years and their take is considered and dignified if low on danger or breathless passion. I blame the percussion, far too well behaved. But the sultry exchanges between violin and bandoneon are irresistible, and the voices: smoky narration from Juanjo Lopez Vidal, Valentina Montoya Martinez unflinching as Maria, and huge-hearted chansons from Nicholas Mulroy. If you know him as Bach’s Evangelist, just wait to you hear his way with a slow milonga. Devastating.

CD review: Colin Riley’s Shenanigans

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2017

Colin Riley: Shenanigans
Various artists (NMC)

This portrait album of composer Colin Riley is a charmer: fun name, fun cover art, opening track a taught and wonky disco called Purl. But it’s more than that, too, and there’s something very endearing (possibly very British?) about the way Riley deflects the beauty and sincerity at the heart of his pieces by giving them names like Bob or A Cool Carfuffle and framing his serious moments with music that fools around. Inspirations include Genesis, John Martyn and Joy Division; there’s a delicate set of Lyric Pieces, a closing piano solo in dreamy soft-grain called As the Tender Twilight Covers. The title work is a collection of six miniatures, lopsided rhythms cut with snippets of gentler stuff. The performances (violist Jessica Beeston, clarinettist Tom Lessels, pianist Kate Halsall and others) get the right balance of wry, fond, understated and slightly bonkers.

CD review: Theatre of Voices sing Buxtehude & co

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2017

In Dulce Jubilo: music for the Christmas season by Buxtehude and friends
Theatre of Voices/Hillier (Dacapo)

[four stars]

Apologies for the advance seasonal selection, but this is as classy as Christmas albums come: music from an important Swedish archive of north-European baroque music (the Duben collection at Uppsala University) delivered with razor-sharp clarity by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices and luminous period instrumentals. Works are grouped thematically (Advent, Shepherds, Nativity, Epiphany) with images of light, dark and wonder underpinning all of them and special attention given to the elegant and multicoloured music of Dietrich Buxtehude. Elsewhere we get gems by Franz Tunder, Buxtehude’s successor as organist in Lubeck, and a splendid bit of vocal polyphony by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. The recording was made in an 18th century church in Copenhagen, all wood and clean surfaces, and its pristine sound will make an ideal airy, lissom antidote to general excesses of the season.

CD review: Eliane Radigue’s Occam Ocean

First published in the Guardian on 26 October, 2017

Eliane Radigue: occam ocean 1
Robinson/Eckhardt/Davies (shiiin)

Eliane Radigue spent most of her career taming synthesiser feedback into exquisite astral sounds. Her pieces lasted for hours; grand vistas that unfolded with monumental slow grace. Now she’s into her 80s and writing her ultra-slow music for acoustic instruments, working on a roaming series of solo and ensemble pieces called Occam after the theory of philosopher William of Ockham that the simplest option is always the best. There are no scores, only verbal instructions, and nothing can move fast, so Radigue is very particular about which musicians she’ll trust to take her ethos seriously. The three featured on this album are the very best: harpist Rhodri Davies, violist Julia Eckhardt and clarinettist Carol Robinson, all stunningly adept at summoning those ephemeral overtones and partials, all masters of what Radigue calls “the virtuosity of absolute control”.

CD review: Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra

First published in the Guardian on 26 October, 2017

Cage: Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Wolff: Resistance
Apartment House/Thomas (HCR)

Performers of John Cage’s piano concerto could theoretically play nothing at all, if that’s what they wanted. The point is about choice. “John, you’re my man,” said a trombonist in the original performance. “I’ll play for you any time.” Trust is the making of indeterminate music and Apartment House’s new recording is all trust. Philip Thomas makes the piano part magnetic, like the centrifugal planet in an erratic constellation. Around him spin trumpet, violin, flute and others, everyone quick-witted and playful. After 53 minutes the tenuous ecosystem suddenly dissipates and I was left pondering stark ecological resonances. 60 years on, 83-year-old Christian Wolff has written a companion piece for Cage’s concerto that should feel like a throwback: the name Resistance, the quotation from a Pete Seeger protest song, the old chance techniques. But Wolff’s music, his gracious, urgent way of questioning how we relate to each other, still feel entirely relevant.

CD review: Quartet for the End of Time / Martin Fröst & co

First published in the Guardian on 26 October, 2017

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Fröst/Jansen/Thedéen/Debargue (Sony)

This music emerged from such horror — most of it was written in a WWII camp; the premiere took place in the freezing cold with guards and prisoners as audience — that you might expect overwhelming disconsolation and brutality. Actually the intensely religious Messiaen tapped the sublime. He packed the score with rapture, and that’s the biggest challenge: how to convey the clanging images of the apocalypse without bulldozing the ecstasy. There have been dozens of recordings and none has yet got the balance right across all eight movements. This new one from clarinettist Martin Frost, violinist Janine Jansen, cellist Torlief Thedeen and pianist Lucas Debargue comes the closest I’ve heard. The playing is flawless but still deep-felt, unflinching in the white heat of the Dance of the Fury, intently hushed in the Abyss of the Birds, fervent in the two tender Louanges.

CD review: Roland Kayn’s A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound

First published in the Guardian on 12 October, 2017

Roland Kayn: A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound
(Frozen Reeds)

22 movements, 14 hours and 16 CDs worth of spangling cosmic sound play: this premiere release of the magnum opus by German composer Roland Kayn is a colossus and a marvel. Roland who? In a profession that glorified big egos, that fetishised the kind of creative genius who demanded total control, Kayn went to more selfless extremes. He worked in the pioneering electronic studios of Germany and the Netherlands through the mid-20th century and built fastidious command systems with the aim of making ‘self-sufficient cybernetic’ music — essentially, he set machines whirring and did himself out of a job. It sounds like some dark post-human dystopia but the results couldn’t be further from. Dip into this monumental work (it has been lovingly restored by Jim O’Rourke) and the sound world is ungraspable and unknowable but never grates or alienates. The mystery, the grace, the boundless invention — Kayn’s machine music is a vast catalogue of very human wonder.

CD review: Steven Osborne plays Debussy

First published in the Guardian on 12 October, 2017

Debussy: Images, Estampes, Children’s Corner
Steven Osborne (Hyperion)

I’ve always loved the way Steven Osborne plays French music — for the flux and febrile atmosphere, yes, but more for the rigour and steel. Forget any cliches of hazy impressionism; Osborne brings directness, muscle, and the boldest aspects of texture, form and image stand out in ultra high definition as a result. His latest Debussy album is a perfect example. The goldfish of Poisson d’Or move in jerks and sudden flashes. The water droplets in Reflets dans l’Eau are super crisp, like pointillism writ large. At the end of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, the tune rings out like a defiant shout. It’s not pretty but it’s exhilarating. There is gentleness too — try The Snow is Dancing, whispered and supple — but what makes Osborne’s interpretations so revelatory is his willingness to state in plain terms what many pianists make blurry. It shows up the astounding modernism of Debussy’s piano music.

CD review: Peter and the Wolf via Liverpool

First published in the Guardian on 12 October, 2017

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf
RLPO/Petrenko/Armstrong (Warner)

Peter and the Wolf is a gift for storytellers. It’s the ultimate in musical characterisation — slinky clarinet cat, ditzy flute bird, wholesome string-section Peter, all told in Prokofiev’s most taught and tuneful writing. There is no shortage of loveable recordings; I can’t imagine this new version from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic making much of a dent. It sounds classy, cool, a bit sedate. There’s plenty to admire in the gleaming textures, the skilful pacing, but this piece deserves outright exuberance. The narrator is Andrew Armstrong — voice of Danger Mouse, glossy and unmemorable next to historic renditions from Alec Guinness, Richard Baker, Dame Edna Everage, Sting, Lenny Henry… the list goes on. Also on the disc is Saint Saens’s Carnival of the Animals (complete with doggerel verse by Ogden Nash that overstates what the music more magically conveys) and Alan Rawsthorne’s prosaic setting of T.S Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The playing is excellent.

CD review: Danish String Quartet’s Last Leaf

First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2017

Last Leaf
Danish String Quartet (ECM)

With their first folk album, Wood Works, the Danish String Quartet set themselves apart from most cases of classical-musicians-going-folky. Clearly they weren’t faking their polskas; leader Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen also plays with folk trio Dreamers’ Circus, and cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin contributes several fine self-penned tunes to the quartet’s latest collection of Nordic folk material. Melodically it is a beautiful set, ranging from traditional Faroese ballads to bittersweet self-penned waltzes, and there’s no question the band can play: the sound is lissom, polished, flawless. But all the glossiness doesn’t sit quite right. The arrangements go in for rousing harmonies, silky textures, big builds — which sanitises the character of the tunes, straightens out the beautiful kinks. They hurtle through reels, playing fast because they can. I’d take slower with more swing any day,