CD Reviews

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.

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.

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.

CD review: string trios by Milhaud & Martinu

First published in the Guardian on 20 July, 2017

Milhaud/Martinu: Complete String Trios
Jacques Thibaud String Trio (Audite)

“Chamber music is a genre with which one can express one’s deepest feelings,” said Darius Milhaud, and just listen to the tough, haltering chorales of the Modere from his 1947 String Trio to hear what he means. There are good reasons to pair the music of the Provencal Milhaud and his Moravian-Bohemian contemporary Bohuslav Martinu. Both gravitated to jazz-crazed Paris after the First World War but neither forgot the special rhythms and songfulness of folk music from home. Both headed for the USA in the 1940s (Milhaud as a Jew, Martinů as an exiled Czech) and both wrote for small ensembles with nimble intimacy. This recording from the Jacques Thibaud String Trio gives everything an essential quality. It’s a sound perfect for French music, stripped-back and quicksilver, but I also love their fearless way with Martinu’s jagged edges.

CD review: Ashley Solomon plays Telemann

First published in the Guardian on 20 July, 2017

Telemann: Fantasias for solo flute
Ashley Solomon (Channel)

I restarted the first piece on this album about 20 times because the sound of Ashley Solomon’s opening note, played on a granadilla wooden flute modelled on an instrument from 1750 , is just so astonishing. It’s very warm, very grainy, so broad and breathy that it sounds more like a low recorder than a modern flute. Telemann’s Fantasias were meant for instruction as well as performance and they’re a test and a bounty for flautists, a tangle of freewheeling challenges that can easily come a-cropper in lesser hands. Solomon makes them dance and sing. He makes them spacious. The articulation is immaculate; the rhythms are buoyant; the recording quality, done in big church acoustics, is immediate and generous. Solomon doesn’t play the whole thing on granadilla – we get flutes of porcelain and ivory, both instruments made in 1760, both full of charisma.