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.

Music to die to.

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First published in the Guardian on 8 November, 2017

There is plenty of music designed to comfort the living. The lone piper by the graveside, the requiem mass appealing for rest and salvation, the Korean mudang shaman who sings and dances to exorcise the pain of the bereaved family. We have our rituals to bolster those left behind. Colombians sing grief-thick chants called ‘alabados’ or, if a child has died, the women of the community offer up quiet lullabies. Ghananian pallbearers dance as they carry their caskets. In the north of China, rival gujiang bands set up camp outside the house of the deceased and play popular opera arias into the night. In the streets of New Orleans, Cajun jazz bands lead mournful processions from church to grave then raise their trumpets to the sky and kick off the party. Funeral music is meant to console and celebrate. It’s meant to remind us: keep living.

What about music for the dying? That’s a tougher list. Maybe we’re shy of the fragile moments at the end of a life. Maybe we feel it’s too intimate a time and place to intrude upon with any extraneous sounds, but a deathbed doesn’t need to be hushed. French monks at Cluny in the 11th century practiced extensive dying rituals, singing Gregorian chant for as long the dying process required. Sometimes the chanting went on for weeks. In a 21st century parallel, Rufus Wainwright described how his whole family sang to his mother Kate McGarrigle as she breathed her last. “One of the nurses said this could go on for four days,” he recalled, “and we had already exhausted the back catalogue.”

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Interview: Lewis Murphy

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First published in The Herald on 1 November, 2017

Contemporary opera always needs fresh advocates, so here’s a name to watch. Glasgow-born composer Lewis Murphy, 25, is already nearing the end of a two-year residency with one of the UK’s most prestigious opera houses. He and his regular librettist Laura Attridge use their work to consider tough contemporary matters: their latest collaborations look at the refugee crisis and female infertility via artificial intelligence. Murphy’s music is as unpretentious and plain-speaking as he is; there’s a clarity, a candidness, an emotional honesty that really works when it comes to telling difficult stories in the most unthreatening possible voice. The results are disarming, and have a tendency to get under the skin.

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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.

Schumann, Dvorak & the art of subtle anomaly

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First published in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra autumn 2017 newsletter, then in The Herald on 18 October, 2017

History is full of the times we got it wrong. The times an artist unveiled a bold new work or a change in direction and was met with incomprehension, or plain derision, from audiences and critics and their own artistic community. Beethoven got it for exploding string quartet form in the Grosse Fuge. Puccini got it for putting the lives of the poor and the sick on stage in his opera La boheme. Stravinsky for, well, pretty much everything about The Rite of Spring. Miles Davies for going electric.

In the cases I’ve just mentioned, general consensus swung around and, sooner or later, works that were initially heard as too weird or too radical were absorbed into the canon of ‘greats’. (Which didn’t always do them favours; ’canonical’ status often softens the way we play and hear things that still deserve to sound shocking.) In other cases, usually when the work in question is less obviously ‘out there’, those negative first impressions seem tougher to shift. We’re happy to reconsider wild unconventionality as creative genius in retrospect, as the product of a rogue but brilliant mind. But with subtler eccentricity we tend to fixate on the flaws. And one quality in particular that we can’t seem to handle is frailty.

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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.