First published in The Herald on 21 March, 2018
Mermaids and mermen — let’s call them merfolk — live for approximately 300 years, after which they turn into sea foam. Who can say for sure what happens to humans when they die, but I doubt it involves much sea foam. This disparity is just one of the great melancholies that hang over The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who makes an ill-fated deal with a sea witch. The mermaid gives up her identity — tongue cut out, tail lost — for the love of a human prince. He hardly even notices her sacrifice. It’s a hopeless love, a feminist tragedy. His soul will live on after death (or not) while she’ll be foam.
Andersen was a complicated character himself. Born into poverty in Denmark in 1805, he was bisexual but he died a virgin. He wrote plucky female characters who head out on bold quests, and his handsome princes have flaws and sensitive sides. He published his works as plain Fairy Tales, soon abandoning the label “for children” because he realised his disturbing, wondrous imaginary realms belong to everyone. Some of his stories, like The Shadow, are so dark that I doubt many parents would risk reading them at their own bedtimes, let alone their children’s. Disney still cashes in on Andersen’s legacy — think of recent hits like Frozen, a rehash of Snedronningen (The Snow Queen). Except that in Disney, the most haunting details are glossed over and prettied up.
First published in The Herald on 12 April, 2017
What does Englishness mean in early 20th century orchestral music? Is there a discernible sense of national identity woven through the symphonies of Elgar, Walton and Vaughan Williams, the tone poems of Holst and Bax and Delius? And if so, does it mean the same thing when we hear it now as it did then?
These are contentious opening gambits. In 2017, in Scotland, in Britain, in Europe, we should know better than to prescribe any essentialising nationalistic attributes to a disparate group of artists. Yet for conductor John Wilson there is something in it — just not in any flag-clutching way. “The connection I can make with national identity is that there’s something about the melancholy of this music which is actually at the heart of the English character,” he says. “That’s what I respond to. That longing for something that was probably never there in the first place. It’s a peculiar English romance.”
First published in the Guardian on 30 March, 2017
Pergolesi/Bach: Stabat Mater/Cantatas
La Nuova Musica/Bates/Crowe/Mead (Harmonia Mundi)
I was mainly excited about this recording because it features two of my favourite baroque voices of the moment — countertenor Tim Mead and soprano Lucy Crowe — but it turns out the instrumental playing is just as enticing. La Nuova Musica under David Bates sound lush and languid in two of Bach’s alto cantatas (BWV 54 & 170). They let phrases sigh and breathe and supply a decent amount of bass under properly expressive melodic lines. In Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater the ensemble sounds sparser but not astringent, and I love the space and tenderness Bates allows in the aria Fac, ut portem Christi mortem. And the singing? Crowe and Mead are both in sumptuous voice, both fiery in the most dramatic moments of the Stabat Mater, but her nimble grace and charisma is occasionally weighed down by his more flannely delivery. He sounds beautiful in the cantatas, though, eking out all the most resonant corners.
First published in The Herald on 7 September, 2016
“It’s all completely wrong!” says John Harris, co-artistic director of Red Note Ensemble, by which he really means it is all completely right. Harris is talking about the notion of staging George Crumb’s modern classic Vox Balaenae underneath the body of a Concorde airplane — which is what Red Note are doing at this year’s Lammermuir Festival in a concert at the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian: audience under the belly of the plane, musicians between the wheels. Crumb’s iconic 1970s score is as much a salutation to the wonders of the natural world as the Concorde is to the wonders of machine technology, and for Harris, a clanger of a paradox like that is an ideal place to start any concert programming.
First published in The Herald on 20 August, 2016
Mahler had dark things on his mind while he was writing his Ninth Symphony in 1909-10. Antisemitism had cost him his job at the Vienna Court Opera, his daughter had died of diphtheria and he had developed a heart condition that meant he wouldn’t live to hear a full performance of the score. The epic emotional gamut in the music — despair, resignation, twisted nostalgia, nihilism — eventually trails off into a silence that feels like the bleakest oblivion or the sweetest transcendence or, if you’re Adorno, like simply “peering questioningly into uncertainty.”
First published in the Guardian on 6 October, 2014
It’s tenuous to describe a country’s contemporary music ‘sound’ – most likely there are umpteen – and even more tenuous to ascribe that sound to landscape. But this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert of new Icelandic works revealed a pronounced shared aesthetic among some, at least, of the country’s rising young composers. And call me prescriptive, but with their expansive vistas, subterranean rumbles, pale textures and chilly microtonal clusters, images of geysers and icy tundra were never far from the imagination.