CD Reviews

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,

CD review: Le Caravanserail’s A Fancy

First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2017

A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tunes
Le Caravanserail/ Cuiller / Redmond (Harmonia Mundi)

London’s theatres were often more music than speech during the Restoration period. To dodge the censors, plays were stuffed full of songs and interludes, and composers like Matthew Locke — the Morricone of the English baroque — wrote music to set the scenes and tug at the heartstrings. This new album from French period-instrument ensemble Le Caravanserail is an enticing survey of the period, opening with a sumptuous Curtain Tune by Locke and taking in contributions from Gibbons, Grabu, John Blow, Henry Purcell and others. The instrumental playing under Bertrand Cuiller is supple and vivid, but the real star of the show here is soprano Rachel Redmond: she sings an Akeyrode drinking song with bright swagger and articulates Purcell’s lamenting O Solitude with soft, grainy intimacy. She’s a singer of real personality.

CD review: Messiaen’s Poemes pour Mi

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.

CD review: Imogen Holst chamber music

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.

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.