Tuesday, December 31, 2002


Work: ‘Goldberg Variations’
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer: Glenn Gould
Label: Glenn Gould Edition SM3K87703
Released: 1 September, 2002
Audio CD: 3 discs

Whether you fell in love with Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations years ago or have yet to discover them, the new Sony 3-disc digipack set, A State of Wonder, is an absolute treat. In short, it’s all here. First, the 1955 recording (38’ 26”) superbly remastered. As Tim Page says in his direct, illuminative introductory notes , “Gould’s Bach swung like mad. It was urgent, vibrant, strutting and downright sexy.” Next, the 1981 analogue re-recording (at 51’ 14” significantly slower, differently expressed and incorporating selected repeats). This compares favourably with the digital version released in 1982, days before Gould’s tragically early death. It is sonically fuller, though the ambience seems to temper the characteristic ‘attack’ of his playing. Then there is a third CD including some 1955 studio outtakes (released for the first time) and an extensive Page interview with Gould himself.

As if this wasn’t enough, the booklet sealed into the front of the attractive fold-out package includes a survey of Gould in the studio, the original liner notes he wrote for the 1955 recording, an excerpt from the score he annotated in 1981, and technical comments on these 16-bit 44.1KHz discs, including the digital-to-analogue issues on the 1981 set.

For less than the cost of many single discs these days, Sony and Legacy have provided us with a real treasure. One note of caution, however. The omission of any direct mention of J. S. Bach on the front cover, and in this review so far, is not without significance. For although these renditions are firmly rooted in the master’s aria and variations of BMV 988, they truly are (simultaneously) Glenn Gould from start to finish. He took what had once been regarded as beautiful but rather dryly academic harpsichord exercises and transformed them into a pianoforte tour-de-force that combined a deeply committed reading of the score with an unashamedly modern, post-Romantic sensibility.

Where does Gould begin and Bach end? Weave your way through all the raging arguments about authenticity in performance if you will - it is still pretty difficult to tell. Any yet it is also very clear. Whereas some of the myriad piano versions of Goldberg undeniably mire Bach in sentiment and floridity, Gould does neither. There is fire and passion here, certainly. But also restraint and attention. For musicologists it isn’t difficult to quarrel over points of interpretation, the faith(less)ness of particular modes of repetition, and so on. But somehow, and without warrant in the technical debates, one gains a sense of Gould fusing his soul with Bach’s through the medium of music. It is the feeling in these performances that is so undeniable.

If the great Johann Sebastian returned today I’m sure he would have some difficulty identifying Gould’s renditions in anything like the terms he put together the originals (inaccessible as those remain for us today). But I suspect he would still love what he heard and recognise his score as having been filtered lovingly through the hands of another, quite different master.

Sunday, December 29, 2002


Composers’ websites vary enormously. One of the best, by virtue of its organisation, accessibility and comprehensiveness, is that of the late Sir Michael Tippett, after Benjamin Britten perhaps the greatest British classical composer of the twentieth century. Here is a personal introduction to his work and a brief survey of the best web resources for exploring his music, ideas and continuing impact today.


Appreciating Tippett

I first fell under the spell of Tippett's music through his early popular works – 'Fantasia on a Theme by Corelli', the 'Concerto for Double String Orchestra' – and then (more intensely) through the 1953 opera 'A Midsummer Marriage'. With hindsight this highly idiosyncratic work acted as a bridge between the multi-layered lyricism of his early pieces and the specific density and angularity of the later orchestral, choral, music theatre and chamber compositions.

After very many listenings the Ritual Dances from 'The Midsummer Marriage' still retain their capacity to surprise and delight, and for me they constitute perhaps the single best introduction to Tippett’s strange-yet-familiar aural universe. The melodic elusiveness, textural variety, subtle colouration and rhythmic energy they embody are certainly persistent features of his writing. But they also convey a sense of the muse and the mystic behind the music.

The sheer humanitarian and political passion of Michael Tippett the man is well summed up in his famous après-religious oratorio, ‘A Child of Our Time’, the one work that has assuredly made its way into popular classical programming. Here the use of African-American spirituals in the role of a Bach-style chorale illustrates Tippett’s concern for both the past and the present. He is, in way not dissimilar to Messiaen, a very singular voice: a true one-off. But his idiomatic approach feeds on thoroughly absorbed musical tradition (from Purcell to Beethoven and beyond) at the very same time as it embraces the new, the global and the vernacular.

Anyone wanting a more extensive insight into the scale and breadth of Tippett's work is recommended to get hold of the good value 4-CD Nimbus boxed set. This is a fine entrée and includes the Ritual Dances, though it might also have benefitted from a further operatic excerpt and one symphonic representation.

Many argue that Colin Davis (LSO, Philips/Decca) remains Tippett's greatest interpreter, and the Hickox/Chandos recordings are undeniably good too. But there is also something special about hearing the composer conduct his own works. That, together with strong performances by the English Philharmonic and the Northern Philharmonic, among others, makes these Nimbus discs invaluable.


The premiere of ‘The Rose Lake’

One of my all-time concert highlights is a Tippett memory too -- the premiere of his last major work, 'The Rose Lake', at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 19 February 1995. Along with the superb subsequent recording (Davis/LSO on BMG), the Radio 3 broadcast of that event still takes my breath away. The concert also featured two other rhapsodic works which are among my favourites, Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

The BBC understandably decided to edit out the sad moment that almost marred this otherwise triumphant performance right at the end -- a boorish and (in the circumstances) callous interruption from a couple of apparent associates of The Hecklers, who yelled 'visions of hell' just as the last note was dying away. This was a twisted reference to the superb 'Visions of Paradise' Tippett festival at the Barbican, to which 'The Rose Lake's premier was the deserved climax.

How ironic that this gratuitous outburst should have been reserved for a work that marked a return to full-blown lyricism as this great composer's final testament: proof, if it were needed, that self-styled 'traditionalists' rarely qualify their knee-jerk protests with careful listening. [See also Clements on Stocken]

In the event Tippett dismissed this calculated insult with a characteristic smile and a wave. 'The Rose Lake', like much of his music, is a work of sheer, earthy transcendence, from the first burst of rototoms through to the searching strings and the finely layered detail that makes us pause and wonder. Indeed, in spite of the intensity of much of his writing, humour and gentleness were very much part of the Tippett’s persona. His last Royal Albert Hall pre-Prom talk was as full of laughter as it was of insight, I recall.

After the immediate praise that accompanies any well-known artist's death there is usually a fallow period. That is how it feels with Michael Tippett at the moment. 'A Child of Our Time' will continue to be part of the standard classical repertoire, of course. And snatches of his work crop up regularly at festivals and in chamber concerts. But surely the time is now ripe for a major retrospective for the British composer who, more than most, prefigured the hopes and fears of a new Millennium?


Tippett on the web

In the meantime, while we wait for a re-celebration, we have Tippett's excellent website and other net resources as pointers to his continuing influence and inspiration. Stephen Kristian is the prime mover in the extensive official site (sitemap here) which helpfully offers material in English, German, French, Spanish and Swedish.

In addition to a full list of compositions, michael-tippett.com includes transcriptions and arrangements, a chronological discography, opera background and synopses, TV and media material, books and articles by and about Tippett, photos, documents, features on his interests and connections, all the back issues of Schott’s Tippett in Focus periodical, recommended retailers, selected performance listings and the current Newsletter. It is a fantastic effort overall. Perhaps a next step might be to include references and samples of the debates and arguments that have followed Tippett’s composing career to date and will, I am sure, continue to rage as his legacy gains further weight and perspective.

Elsewhere on the web Tippett’s long-time collaborator and partner Meirion Bowen continues to be central to understanding the man and his music. Tore F Steenslid has also created a very good personal site about Tippett which includes an interview with both the composer and Bowen, CD reviews, commentary, links and more.

A sympathetic but more critical overview is provided by C. F. Wright on Musicweb. Wright avers that Tippett’s “contribution to music is, indeed, great. He has revived classical forms, the sonata, the string quartet, the concerto and the symphony." But, he continues, "he was hampered by his dependence on musical models and his crazes which fuelled and intensified his intellectualism which alienates much of the listening public who love his early works and, at best, are polite about his later ones. And yet 'The Rose Lake', his final orchestral work, does have a curious beauty about it.” That well represents the sceptic’s view.

Among the many in-depth treatments of his work (Ian Kemp’s monumental text comes to mind), David Clarke’s book on The Music and Thought of Michael Tippett (CUP) should not be overlooked. The US Library of Congress Citations give a fine overview of what is in and out of print both by, and about, Tippett.

Then there are several good on-line interviews by (among others) F. David Peat, one on behalf of the Stereo Society and another for the Pari Center for New Learning. John Whitmore’s 1999 recollections of rehearsals and performances of the 'Shires Suite' are also fascinating, and of the obituary reviews perhaps the best is the one that appeared in 1998 in the Musical Times.

You can hear Tippett himself in some lengthy discussions on ‘The Midsummer Marriage’, his approach to writing and his conscientious objection to war on the BBC Radio 4 archive. In addition, music samples can be located at the British Classical Music sound clips site (Michael Tippett and the piano).

The Peace Pledge Union provide a different kind of biographical note on Tippett’s life commitment to pacifism, and the Peace Now site includes reference to the memorial he inaugurated in London’s Tavistock Square.

Finally, for ongoing conversation, there is a Fans of Michael Tippett discussion forum to be found at Yahoo. You'll need to sign up to join in.

Saturday, December 28, 2002


A German electroacoustic composer and musicologist, Rainer Burck works in the contemporary classical field but with a background in alt-rock and an interest in jazz and experimental music. He is keen to communicate and is eclectic in his references and musical concerns (like NewFrontEars), but he has no interest in compromise…

In my eyes it would be absolute nonsense to state that "serious" contemporary music is "difficult" to understand and, for this reason, could only attract an academic audience. The problem some people have with this music is rather due to the fact that it lacks cliches they want to recognize.

Rainer will continue to tour in the US and Europe in 2003. There are some fine sound samples on his website.


Album ‘Debut
Artist: Deirdre Cartwright
CD Discs: 1
Label: Blow the Fuse BTF9401CD

Having already reviewed Deirdre Cartwright’s 'Play' (1998) and the latest album, 'Precious Things' (summer 2002), I thought I’d complete the circle by looking at ‘Debut’, her first fully fully-fledged bandleader outing. For those who don’t know her, Cartwright is a guitar virtuoso whose musical inclinations are very diverse but whose moorings are clearly in jazz - as much a spirit as a music to her. She had a brief dalliance with fame in her role as teacher-presenter of TV's 'Rockschool'. But most of her time has been devoted to composing and performing with different ensemble formations: jazz trios and the larger, evolving Deirdre Cartwright Group heard here.

On 'Debut', which was released in 1994, Cartwright assembled a fascinating collection of musical talent. Josefina Cupido, from Brazil, has a wide-ranging voice and an eclectic interest in percussion. Her recordings include 'One Woman, One Drum' (SLCD40000) with Paul Clarvis, Garry Hunt and Chris Brisco. Louise Elliott (tenor sax and flute) came to Britain from Australia in 1985. She has played with African and Latin musicians in Grand Union Orchestra, as well as recording with bass master Jah Wobble and trombonist Annie Whitehead. Gary Hammond (bongos, congas, assorted percussion) has worked with Theo Travis and John Etheridge on 'Secret Island' (33 Jazz). Chris Baron (drums and marimba) is now involved with Mark Nightingale's five trombone project, 'Bone Structure'. Former Cambridge organ scholar Steve Lodder (piano and synth) has played with many leading lights of modern jazz, notably Andy Sheppard, George Russell and Carla Bley. Last but not least is Cartwright's long-term collaborator Alison Rayner (acoustic and fretless electric bass). Rayner is also a composer and teacher. She led 'The Jazz Garden' quartet from 1989 to 1992.

The album itself, far from being the busy affair you might expect from such a sizeable line-up, is light and airy. Indeed it is full of subtle, fun-loving textures and wistful asides. From the brooding intro on 'Spartia' right through to the playfulness of 'Trap', the grooving of 'Grand Loup', gentle funk in 'Walk With Me', and some midnight balladry on 'When Pushing Comes to Shoving' and 'Pisces Moon', this CD positively shimmers with ideas. What links it all together is Cartwright's fluid, flighty but somehow unhurried guitar sound. The melodies are delicious, the harmony tempting. It all leaves you wanting more, just as any good music should.

At a time when technique alone can't buy you music, Deirdre Cartwright is one composer and guitarist who puts just that extra bit of devotion into her sound to make it truly lingering.
Order direct: info@blowthefuse.com


The Deirdre Cartwright Group will be touring again in the Spring of 2003: this will include appearances at the Cheltenham and Bath Jazz Festivals. The Group will also be working with visual artist Anne Robinson as part of the Arts Council funded ‘Looks Like Jazz’ initiative. There will be live VJing and specially created film and projections. The music explores the bluesy expressive guitar/organ retro sound mixed with influences from latin, swing and modern club culture. Dates announced so far:

24 April Bonington Theatre, Nottingham 8pm info@jazzsteps.co.uk

For more information check Blow the Fuse.


NewFrontEars is pleased to be a new member of the Art Music Webring, which contains sites that deal with music history, theory, performance, and education. The ring includes pages on composers, genres of classical music, specific instruments, teaching of instruments, voice, choral, orchestral and or other musical media under the general umbrella of ‘classical’ or ‘art’ music in Western culture. It was created in September 1998 and has 187 active member sites.

The Art Music Webring is maintained by composer Peter Ware. He has some excellent sound samples on his page.

The webring project as a whole went independent of Yahoo! recently and is self-funding. You can make a credit card or Paypal donation if you want to help.

Other good music webrings I have noticed include the Women Composers Network and the Early Music Network.


“The nineteenth century has a terrible, irresistible pull on people’s ears still. It’s wonderful music, but there are other things…”
George Benjamin, composer

“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”
Glenn Gould, pianist

“Materials taken from the past to articulate what is absolutely present, things in the wrong place for the right reasons.”
Tom Perchard on post-modern music

Tuesday, December 24, 2002


to all NFE readers. COMING SOON (between now and 31 Jan 2003): the full latest index; Michael Tippett on the web; profiles of Joanna MacGregor and Patrick Moraz; new music dates for 2003; more web sources; post-Christmas blues sounds; reviews: Takemitsu, Torke, Tviett, Rouse, Akira Inoue, Henze, Nuorvala, Bjork. I hope I can get the archives working in the new year (with a little help from Blogger). Then I’ll be able to reduce the extent of posting on this main page and do a little pruning. Apologies for the download time, meanwhile. Best wishes and thanks for your support, SB.



Another extraordinary year for serious, joyous, energetically creative music in many different genres. Here I’ve chosen recordings that have made a big impression on me. I hesitate to talk of ‘best’, because that elevates one person’s judgement ludicrously. The great thing about music is that it can hit you in so many ways from so many different angles. And just as I put the last keystroke into this exciting collection of aural possibilities I remembered three that, in other circumstances, I couldn’t do without: the fourth volume of the Naxos complete orchestral works of Rodrigo series, Weather Report's 'Live and Unrealeased', and the new 3 CD set marking twenty years of avant-music magazine, The Wire. More about all those soon. Meanwhile, here are some weighty discs to check out, in no particular order:

Joanna McGregor, Neural Circuits (Sound Circus)
One of the most adventurous pianists on the ‘contemporary classical’ scene dances her fingers around Sawnhey, Part, Schnittke, Messiaen and African melody with the Britten Sinfonia and Ensemble Bash. www.soundcircus.com

Mark Anthony Turnage, Fractured Lines / Silent Cities (Chandos)
Four orchestral set-pieces for the BBC Symphony / Slatkin, with Evelyn Glennie and Pete Erskine excelling as soloists on ‘Fractured Lines’. [Turnage at Schott]

Threnody Ensemble, Timbre Hollow (All Tomorrow's Parties)
Remarkable après-Tortoise art music from the genre-defying new music kids on the block. They listen to the universe and play it back in miniature. www.threnodyensemble.com

Messiaen, Complete Organ Works (DG)
Olivier Latry sheds new light on the textural, eerie, multi-chordal aural universe that comprises Messiaen’s organ music.

The Necks, Hanging Gardens (Recommended)
The Australian piano, bass and keys trio traverse fresh territory in unexpected alt-jazz chamber music. www.thenecks.com

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Impulse)
The definitive studio and live edition of Coltrane’s burning, spiritual classic. The original masters are lost, but this still seers the soul. www.imulse.com

Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Yanqui U.X.O. (Constellation)
Godspeed! drone, deform, derange and crescendo their way towards a new world order in instrumental, post-rock soundscaping. www.brainwashed.com/godspeed/

Porcupine Tree, Metanoia (Delerium)
Never mind ‘In Absentia’ (though it’s not at all bad): these, vivid, twisted instrumental explorations are the real reason to get excited about the Tree. www.porcupinetree.com/

Bill Frisell, Rarum (ECM)
A superb 2-disc viewpoint on Frisell’s guitaristic alterity and FX spaciousness in a range of ECM settings. The definitive survey. [Bill Frisell on Songtone]

Harrison Birtwistle, Pulse Shadows (Tedec)
Evocative, dense and revealing settings of texts from Romanian-Jewish poet Paul Celan in nine songs and nine string quartet movements. [Birtwistle at Braunarts]

Messiaen, Vignt Regards Sur L'Enfant Jesus (Hyperion)
Virtuosity, poise, control, sweetness, mystery and ferocity characterise Steven Osbourne’s compelling take on this timelessly classic piano cycle.

Deirdre Cartwright, Precious Things (Blow the Fuse)
An extraordinary guitar talent with an unselfish, uncluttered, liquid technique and strong compositional and arranging skills. Deirdre Cartwright is the very spirit of jazz. www.blowthefuse.com

Sigur Ros, ( ) (Fat Cat)
Melting, pulsating instrumentation and shadowy, electronic scatting soothe us across the far-northern lights of an ambient planet. http://sigur-ros.com/

G.F. Handel, Arcadian Duets (Veritas)
Extraordinary singing and delicate chamber instrumentation lend these overlooked songs a vignette quality which can be lost when they are merged into an oratorio setting. http://gfhandel.org/

Michael Torke, Rapture / An American Abroad / Jasper (Naxos)
Post-minimalist percussive fireworks aided by Colin Currie in the Concerto and luscious, unapologetic Torkean tonality in ‘Jasper’ and ‘An American Abroad’. Part of the superb Naxos American Classics series. [Torke at Classical Net]

Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Footloose and Fancy Free (Discipline).
Acoustic surprises from the contemporary, drum-led jazz quartet who fizz and finesse in constantly unexpected directions, while moving ever closer to those post-bop roots. www.disciplineglobalmobile.com

John Scofield, Uberjam (Verve)
Scofield’s filigree guitar lines cross into new jazz, hip-hop, funk and pysch territory. This is the one he reckons Miles Davis would have really liked. Who can disagree? [Scofield Home Page]

Monteverdi, Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (Harmonia Mundi)
Stylish and crisp performances of Monteverdi’s 1638 collection of passionate, secular songs. Poets set include Petrarch, Rinnuccini and Tasso. The music is sonorous and revolutionary. [The Monteverdi Pages]

Martin Taylor, Solo (P3)
Along with ‘Artistry’, the fine jazz guitarist’s best lone workout. Musical sensitivity and unassuming (but jaw-dropping) technique make him among the most respected players of his era. www.martintaylor.com

Tommy Hamilton, Into the Silence (Spartacus)
Exquisitely atmospeheric, rubato sax quartet blend of standards, early chants, folk song and classics like John Coltane’s ‘Naima’.

Brian Ferneyhough, Works for Flute (Bridge)
Kolbeinn Bjarnason plays piccolo, flute and bass flute gloriously on this rich collection of deceptively (and relatively!) simple reflections from the doyen of twenty-first century maximalism. [Ferneyhough at editions-peters]



Artists: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks
CD: 15 April, 2002
Number of Discs: 2
Label: Discipline DGM0201

Deploying a set mostly culled from the band's two recent albums, 'The Sound Of Surprise' and 'A Part and Yet Apart', this live workout from Bill Bruford's Earthworks catches them in fine fettle at London's Pizza Express in summer 2001. (There is a matching DVD from a New York concert on the same tour with a substantially similar selection of material, plus a Bruford interview and discogragaphy.)

Additional pieces here include 'If Summer Had Its Ghosts', the title track from the album of the same name with Eddie Gomez and Ralph Towner, and 'Original Sin' from the Bruford-Levin Upper Extremities project. The ever-popular 'Bridge of Inhibition' (from the first Earthworks outing way back in 1987) is also included as an encore.

I was fortunate enough to attend the concerts from which this was recorded. It doesn't quite capture the energy of the front row, of course. But 'Footloose And Fancy Free' is, as you would expect, a high quality recording and a fitting rendition of the band that could almost give 'fusion' a good name. On this recording we are exempted the between-music patter, which means that we do not have to endure the leader's constant (unnecessary) apologies for past incursions in Yes and King Crimson. His jazz credentials are testified eloquently by the music, and his audience is broader than his past (in Britain at least), so why he needs to dig up that old turf is a mystery. It's as if he doesn't quite believe how far he's come himself.

If you haven't heard them for a few years, Earthworks as a unit have also moved well away from their earlier experimentations around Bruford's Simmons electronic chordal drum set, opting instead for a more orthodox acoustic quartet. Or perhaps that should be heterodox, for the quirky spirit of Django Bates and Iain Ballamy lives on even in their absence. This second line-up is angular, joyfully melodic in a non-obvious way, playfully polyrhythmic and deliberately transgressive of received musical categories.

Steve Hamilton on piano and Mark Hodgson on bass (brought in after an earlier dalliance with Geoff Gascoyne) pass muster as much by their ability to listen to and re-absorb musical ideas as by their prodigious playing talents. Patrick Clahar on sax, who features on this album, has now been replaced by Tim Garland, courtesy of Chick Corea and a thundering reputation on the burgeoning London jazz scene. He is bringing added compositional depth and material to an already powerful line-up. Clahar, as you will hear on ‘Footloose and Fancy Free’, is an extraordinary technician. But arguably he lacks an original sax voice. That could never be said of Garland.

One musician who doesn’t feature here, but who has played with Earthworks on past US and European tours, is guitarist Larry Coryell. It was never intended to be other than a passing gigging acquaintanceship, but it produced valuable, fresh angles on established compositions. Let's hope that Bruford and Coryell will release some highlights of this live collaboration in 2003.

Meanwhile, as ‘Footloose and Fancy Free’ demonstrates, Bill Bruford's own ever-maturing writing credits make him infinitely more than a drummer and percussionist. He is eager for us to realise this. And as he adds in the liner notes, "Being a performing artist doesn't mean being able to do it once perfectly in perfect conditions, rather it means being able to do it imperfectly in imperfect conditions night after night. That's when you polish the diamond." There is evidence of both the inspiration and the perspiration this implies on these CDs. And, yes, in spite of my comment on his apparent over-concern about those rock roots, he is right in his protestations. Forget 'prog': buy this.


Those who want to hear Earthworks first-hand will have an opportunity to do so early in 2003. Their website details further US and European dates, including a residency at Ronnie Scott's in London from 31 March. My own analysis of the embryonic second line up (captured late in their day on ‘Footloose and Fancy Free’, q.v. above) is linked to Bruford’s own reviews page and is hosted by Henry Potts.


The story of Gilbert E Kaplan’s extraordinary relationship with Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection) is set to take on a fresh dimension next year with a new rendition of a significantly ‘corrected’ score – also being re-issued by Universal Edition – appearing on Deutsche Grammophon.

Kaplan’s landmark recording of the gargantuan 80 minute work first appeared in 1988 after the amateur conductor, institutional investor and full-time obsessive, had spent ten years learning to handle the work from scratch. The recording, most recently issued by Conifer Classics in September 1998, features a 125 strong London Symphony Orchestra and five choirs totalling 200 voices: the Ardwyn Singers, the BBC Welsh Chorus, the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, the Dyfed Choir and the London Symphony Chorus. Oh, and let’s not forget soloists Benita Valente and Maureen Forrester, and the off-stage brass band.

To describe this as a monumental, wide screen performance of overwhelming dynamic range and emotion would be an underestimate. For many Mahler lovers it is nirvana. Even for agnostics, like myself, it is little short of breathtaking. And in the market place (not, it has to be said, a good arbiter of quality) the Kaplan Edition is outselling Bernstein, Haitink, Rattle and Solti put together. Indeed, though not universally appreciated by musicologists (what is?), it remains the best selling version of any of Mahler’s symphonic works in the world today.

Now, as if his sole dedication to this work and a grandstand performance at the Salzburg Festival in 1996 was not enough, Gilbert Kaplan has just spent two years in Vienna consulting 14 autographed sources to arrive at the definitive edition of the score. More than 380 errors and oversights in the existing universal edition were picked up, from minor intonations to fresh bursts of brass and leaps from C-natural to C-sharp. Much of this painstaking work research was undertaken through the ministrations of world renowned expert Dr Renate Stark-Voit.

The ‘first performance’ of the new Mahler 2 was given recently at the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna, 95 years after the original. Stark-Voit was a special adviser. Expect the new Kaplan edition around April 2003. Whatever you think – and it will be fascinating to compare with the LSO recording – it is an extraordinary labour of love and academic devotion.



After their acclaimed Thirsty Ear releases ‘Masses’ and ‘Amassed’, the UK experimental breakbeat duo Spring Heel Jack & Friends assemble a formidable group of hi-res improvisers including Matthew Shipp, Evan Parker, J Spaceman, William Parker and Han Bennink for a Contemporary Music Network tour co-sponsored by The Wire magazine. Bath: Michael Tippett Centre (22 January 2003), London: Queen Elizabeth Hall (23 January), Exeter: Phoenix (24 January), Brighton: Dome/Corn Exchange (25 January), Birmingham: Medicine Bar (26 January), Leeds: The Wardrobe (29 January), Gateshead: Caedmon Hall (30 January), Kendal: Brewery Arts Centre (31 January). Definitely worth catching.

Monday, December 23, 2002


Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi

Composer: Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Ensemble: Concerto Vocale
Conductor: René Jacobs
Performer: John Bowen, Bernarda Fink, Maria Christina Kiehr, Antonio Abete, Victor Torres, et al.
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMC9017367
Released: 4 November, 2002
Number of Discs: 2

Think of musical revolutionaries across the ages and the mind instantly turns (for different reasons) to Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Cage, Messiaen and Boulez. Rarely does the name Claudio Monteverdi crop up. It ought to. Though best known for the Vespers, a glorious collection of devotional music dedicated to Pope Paul V in 1610 (three years before he was made maestro di cappella at St Mark's Church in Venice), Monteverdi’s greatest innovations – alongside motets in ‘modern style’, the seconda prattica – mainly fall into two areas: operas and madrigals.

In many ways ‘Orfeo’ was the first operatic work to really capitalise on the dramatic form we know today. But it was eight varied collections of songs published between 1587 and 1638 (together with a ninth set made available after the composer’s death in 1651) that track Monteverdi’s full musical flowering.

These madrigals of war and love are the passionate culmination of that cycle, which spans both small scale settings and panoramic vocal dramas. They were published five years before Monteverdi died as book eight. Drawing on wide, secular poetic influences like those of Petrarch, Rinnuccini and Tasso, the late madrigals also link into the operatic tradition through the central works in the two main sections : the “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” and the “Lamento della ninfa”.

These Harmonia Mundi discs combine polished and stylish performances from Concerto Vocale under Rene Jacobs and fine overall production. Bowen and Kiehr are in especially good form. The sound is clear, crisp and well differentiated without losing the natural sensuousness of some of the literary and musical allusions. Thoroughly recommended.

Those who want to know more about the technique behind the music should look out for Eric T Chafe’s ‘Monteverdi’s Tonal Language’. The full settings of book eight are available through Amazon and in good music stores. Harmonia Mundi also have a Monteverdi recorded discography on the web. A good collection of internet resources are to be found on Monteverdi.org.



Album: ‘Sandinista’
Artists: The Clash
LP 1980; CD 4 October, 1999
Number of Discs: 2
Label: Columbia 4953482

In theory The Clash are the apotheosis of a movement that defiantly refused to write or play music proficiently. Nonsense. 'Sandinista' is testimony to the unhinged, witty, rude and wildly inconsistent musicality of political punk at its best. Its grooves hum to the sound of rockabilly, waltz, gospel, dance, jazz, children's ditties, funk, reggae, disco, dub, nifty instrumentals, psychedelia … even a bit of new wave and the odd Clash rock-out! The sad news today of Joe Strummer's death (on 22 December 2002) should be incentive enough to check out his headline band’s most ebullient, defiant recorded statement.

There are some palpably ludicrous and unlistenable things here, of course; but also moments of unalloyed genius suspended in time. My favourites are the more experimental dub and proto-dance tracks. ‘Equaliser’ and ‘Crooked Beat’ are among the standouts, way ahead of their time. No doubt today’s turntablists will be re-mixing them shortly.

Overall it will be impossible for you not to find something you love and something you hate on these CDs. Probably right next door to each other. That's the point. There is no serious attempt at quality control, which makes the overall impact of the album even more surprising. As an answer to the question "what would it sound like to hear The Clash attempting to play in the widest variety of imaginable popular styles?" there can be no doubt that 'Sandinista' is the only possible riposte. It is this that enables it to emerge as a powerful, anti-coherent protest against corporate rock.

The single 'London Calling' (not on here, of course) was a staple at Brixton parties right through to the late '80s and early '90s -- which is the only reason that an arty-farty muso type like me would have come across them. The arrival of a crazily eclectic album of the same name, then its terrible twin, 'Sandinista', signalled the final demise of the dreaded 'party tape'. It simply wasn't needed any more. "Why the hell did you put this garbage on after that last track?", someone would explode in righteous fury to the host... only to discover that the whole deranged thing was one band, one album. Unsurprisingly ‘The Guns of Brixton’ is hidden away at the end of ‘Broadway Song’ Extraordinary.

The Clash imploded in 1985, having outlived most on the original punk scene. Joe Strummer provided soundtracks to Alan Cox’s movie, ‘Walker’ (1988) and American director Jim Jarsmuch’s ‘Mystery Train’ (1989). After a brief stint with The Pogues in 1991 Strummer slipped into obscurity. In 1999 he re-emerged with The Mescaleros, releasing ‘Rock Art & the X-Ray Style’ that year and ‘Global A-Go-Go’ in 2001. Both albums pursue an industrial folk-rooted raucous guitar take on worldbeat trends. One of Strummer’s last gigs was a benefit for the firefighters strike in November 2002.

Saturday, December 21, 2002


I first came across the Icebreaker at London's South Bank in the early 1990s. I think it was as part of the Meltdown festival in 1994, the year it was curated by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, whose landmark work 'Hocketus' became a speciality of theirs.

The ensemble has played a key role in broadening the appeal in Britain of what is sometimes called 'post-minimalism' -- the musical movement spawned partly on the basis of early Steve Reich and the likes of Terry Riley and Lamont Young, but elaborated beyond its sparkling ascetiscism into a musical aesthetic rather than a mere set of conventions. It obeys though-composed art music conventions, incorporates rhythmic ideas and instrumentation from rock and jazz, checks worldbeat, and finds expression through attention to the potency of the manifest and the variable in the aural world. Archetypal post-modern music, you could say.

Jocelyn Pook, David Gordon, Michael Torke and Graham Fitkin, alongside the ubiquitous Andriessen and a host of new European practitioners, are the better known names in this area. Steve Martland took the genre in a muscular, combative direction in Britain. Michael Nyman headed off into neo-Haydn, goth-roccocoism (and bastardised the minimalising form for profit, according to some.) Meredith Monk almost criss-crossed with Laurie Anderson in the popular imagination. Piano Circus began again with Reich and have taken in Future Sound of London, Heiner Goebbels and a swathe of other experimentalists on the way.

In the US Icebreaker's allies and collaborators have long been found in the New York downtown scene that has flourished since the 1980s. The Bang on A Can festival and BoaC Ensemble (turn way left at CBGBs and keep going) have now been in Britain on a number of occasions.

Icebreaker are on tour in Germany and Holland in early 2003. There are no immediate prospects of British dates as far as I can see. Their official web site is the best source of future information. They describe themselves as follows:

"Icebreaker is a 12-piece group consisting of panpipes, saxes, electric violin and cello, guitars, percussion and keyboards. It boasts an exciting repertoire that encompasses some of the best known and most exciting names in contemporary music today and creates a music that appeals to contemporary classical, rock and alternative music audiences alike. Icebreaker has established itself as one of the UK's leading contemporary music interpreters."

The full Icebreaker discography is here. Their first recording was an eponymously titled cassette which I still have, but which I believe is now unavailable.



Distant Early Warning Aesthetics
USA 1999

As a curious footnote to the above, there is an entirely different Icebreaker active in the US at the moment. Apparently ‘inspired’ by, er… the radar defence stations of the Antarctic, this project is the work of two Transatlantic producers and it is funded by NATO. Something to cheer us up while Bush bombs Iraq and starts World War 3, perhaps? Anyway, aside from potential scepticism about music being supported by the military industrial complex, the anonymous Amazon.co.uk review makes it sound aurally intriguing:

Alexander Perls and Simon Break, who create sparse, yet intense electronica, that slots somewhere in between the sound of Brian Eno and Bundy K Brown. Encased in a bleak surround and a mass of swirling atmospheres, ‘Distant Early Warning’s textures remain fairly constant, with tracks like "Co-prosperity Sphere" and the eerie, almost motionless "Reconnaissance Flight" setting the theme. They capture the loneliness and isolation of conflict with an unnerving calmness and sensitivity. "Listening Station" and "The Track North which address the dissemination of data are mysterious and beautiful slices of transatlantic audio. These are tracks where pulsing, high-pitch tones float on an ambient surface, anchored by distant beats, tonal organs and crackling radio interference. ‘



Audio CD (28 October, 2002)
Number of Discs: 2
Label: Impulse 5899452

Here at last is the definitive edition of one of the landmark albums of the twentieth century, John Coltane’s ‘A Love Supreme’. Traversing the limits of bop into free improvisory territory, this is the master at his most expressive, explosive and enduringly spiritual. It opened up a whole new vista of jazz then, and still unblocks ears today.

The first four tracks each contain the working melodic elements of the piece: ‘Acknowledgement’, ‘Resolution’, ‘Pursuance’ and ‘Psalm’. The live rendition follows, and then there are alternative takes and breakdowns of the first two movements - including a contribution from Archie Shepp (long hypothesised before the evidence here came to hand). The new source tape and some deft production really do make a significant difference to our appreciation of Coltrane’s achievement. It still isn't the master, but it is an early generation copy.The outtakes and a classic live Antibes performance reclaimed from what was effectively a bootleg also provide us with fresh perspectives on ‘A Love Supreme’, as it moves towards forty years in our presence.

An unfathomable amount of development has taken place in the jazz world since this extraordinary work was recorded, of course. But it still retains the capacity to surprise, entice and delight even the most over-educated listeners; surely a true testimony to its greatness. Winnowing sax, uncomplicated melodic sophistication, subtle modal development, percussive ingenuity (not just from the drummer) and a spirit of blazing (but well-tempered) religious passion make these inter-twining tracks what they are: wholly entrancing.

As if all this wasn’t enough, there is also a new book which helps to fill in the background to the album, the era that witnessed its birth and the creative force behind it. ‘A Love Supreme: The Creation of John Coltrane’s Classic Album’ by Ashley Kahn (Granta Books 2002, ISBN: 186207545X), has a Foreword by percussion legend Elvin Jones. It is full of information and insight, of course. But nothing can surpass the sonic delights so lovingly re-mastered on this CD. The story is, above all else, in those notes and in the personality and atmosphere that reveals them to be something inexplicably transcendent.

Friday, December 20, 2002


Sunday Evenings 9-11pm. Public Radio RTR FM (92.1)
Perth, Western Australia
Contemporary classical, experimental, electronic,
industrial, ambient, noise, etc.
Presenters: Bryce Moore and Sarah Combes.

'Welcome to the Difficult Listening Hour, the spot on your dial for the relentless and impenetrable sound of difficult music ...'
Laurie Anderson, from 'Home of the Brave'

'One of the most zealous supporters of contemporary music broadcasting...'
John L Walters, The Guardian

Public radio RTR FM is now broadcasting over the internet, 24 hours a day. Follow the Real Audio link from the Difficult Listening page, shown in the .sig below. If you want to catch Difficult Listening in particular, it goes to air at 1.00pm Sunday GMT, 9.00am US Eastern Time, and 6.00am US Pacific time.


15 December 2002
Presented by Sarah Combes

Pierre-Andre Arcand
The circle of drums (4' 47")
CD: The Animal Machines (OHM/Avatar: ohm/avtr 015)

Arc (5' 36")
CD: Crucible (Malignant: VIRUS 03CD)

Halim El-Dabh
Element, Being and Primeval (7' 26")
CD: Crossing into the Electric Magnetic (Without Fear: WFR 003)

Jethro Tilton
Night (6' 6")
CD: Somatic Dosing Unit (Beautamous Loaf: BLICD003)

Domenico De Clario
I went to the doctor (16' 41")
CD: Shaker Road: Quit Existing (Nonplace Recordings: efa27310-2, non10)

clipper (8' 21")
CD: tri repetae (Warp: cd38)

Ravenous (4' 56")
CD: Horse Rotor Vator (Some Bizarre: ROTA CD1)

Cevin Key
Greenhouse Gases (7' 23")
CD: Music for Cats (Metropolis: MET 075)

Aphex Twin
Phlange Phace (6' 57")
CD: The Aphex Twin Classics (R & S recordings: RS 95035 CD)

Skinny Puppy
Love (4' 12")
Stairs & Flowers (6' 59")
CD: Mind: The Perpectual Intercourse (Nettwerk Productions: W2 30005)

Attalal (5' 27")
CD: Furnace (Cleopatra: CLEO 9644-2)


8 December 2002
Presented by Sarah Combes

Anon (Trad)
Kofu Yataiyabashi (8' 36")
CD: Matsuri (Celestial Harmonies: 13081-2)

Martin Bartlett
Hexachords (11' 33")
Peter Hannan, soprano recorder; Buchla 400 computer-controlled synthesiser
CD: Burning Water (Periplum: P 0020)

Cluster (5' 46")
CD: Crucible (Malignant: VIRUS 03CD)

Mort aux Vaches (40' 45")
CD: Mort aux Vaches (Staalplaat: )

Hideko Kawamoto
Night Ascends from the Ear Like a Butterfly (8' 15")
CD: Sonic Circuits VII (Innova: 116)

Derek Thunes
Blues (3' 37")
Kronos Quartet
CD: In Formation (Reference: RR-9CD)

Urban Chillage (4' 12")
Chateau Plateau (4' 27")
CD: Music For Grass Bars (Hypnotic: CLP-9966-2)

Monte Cazzaza
The Womb is a Happening Thing (Pro-Choice Mix) (6' 12")
CD: Power Versus Wisdom, Live (Side Effects: DFX 15)

The Birthday Party
Deep in the Woods (4' 35")
CD: The Birthday Party Hits (Shock Records: CAKE5)

Einsturzende Neubauten
Yu-Gung (Futter mein Ego)
Half Man
CD: Some Bizarre (Bart: CD 331)

Skinny Puppy
Tormentor (4' 21")
CD: Too Dark Park (Nettwerk/Capitol Records: CDP 7946832)

Spacelab (6' 48")
CD: The Man Machine (Capitol Records: CDP 7 460392)

I Prefer (3' 52")
CD: The Land of Rape and Honey (Sire: 925799-2)


These playlists are stored cumulatively (for the last three months) at the website listed below. Contact DL if you want to receive them by email. If you have some music that you think DL might be interested in broadcasting, on tape, CD or vinyl, don't hesitate to get in touch.

PO Box 2237
Kardinya WA 6163

Thursday, December 19, 2002


The end of the year beckons, and everyone (surely) has to be forgiven at least one favourites list. There has been so much good music around in 2002, in spite of the blights wished upon us by the usual money-grabbing elements in the recording industry. It is fiendishly difficult to choose, but my selection includes (in no particular order) Birtwistle, Turnage, Torke, new Messiaen Recordings, The Necks, classic Coltane, Joanna MacGregor, Threnody Ensemble and eleven more...

Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Opera; ‘Sophie’s Choice’, music and libretto by Nicholas Maw [see
NewFrontEars stories on December 15 and 16]

Doyen of modern opera reviewers Andrew Porter, (“Grabbed by the grotesque” – Times Literary Supplement, 11/12/02) seems to have been mightily annoyed by the way the Royal Opera House Covent Garden handled press previews for its newest production. In an entertaining review-cum-hatchet-job he accuses Nicholas Maw’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ score of being derivative, unimaginative and predictable. (The same process tends to work in a different subjective direction when a reviewer enjoys the overall impact: I seem to recall that Porter lauded John Adams’s 'The Death of Klinghoffer' precisely for its ‘ingenious musical references’ back in ’91. Of course these things can be done artlessly… and they can certainly be made to sound artless by a critic who doesn’t appreciate what he deems to be the more ‘conservative’ contemporary composers.) Anyway, in the case of ‘Sophie’ all this is simply too much -- or perhaps too little -- for Porter to bare:

‘The text is delivered largely in arioso-recitative, at dictation speed’, he writes. ‘The music is puzzling.’ Then again, he seems to be pretty clear about it: ‘The start is Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasy, plus glissandos from Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream between the widespread common chords, and the narrator a new Captain Vere or Aschenbach. There are passages of dense, shifting harmonies over long pedals. There’s a good deal of unaccompanied, unison-strings line in Mahlerian, perhaps Shostakovich-like, gesture. “Time for a bit of counterpoint” seems to have prompted a Hindemithian interlude, “Must get in an ensemble somehow” a largo concertato for quartet and chorus. “Ought to have a duet somewhere” results in an odd waltz for soprano and mezzo (a Resistance leader and Sophie) – one of Maw’s less predictable responses to situation and text. It was hard to hear much musical structure, or much engagement with the drama on more than picturesque, illustrative, narrative levels.’

Funny, other listeners have noted an interesting range of allusions, vernacular quotations (Polish and Hungarian folk tunes, for example), thoughtful melodic effects and a discernible architecture to the piece in those shifting harmonies. And some even appreciate references to other twentieth century greats who themselves tackled the moral torment of their times. Dif’rent strokes, I guess.

Porter further attacks Maw’s overall take on William Styron’s novel for failing to engage with the element of play and parody in its inherently sexual tragicomedy. But the composer made it quite clear from the outset that it is the moral drama he is concerned with. It doesn’t seem entirely congruous to accuse something of being long and laboured while simultaneously chiding it for not being even more ambitious. But maybe congruity is not the essence of this biting critique. Might Porter have rather enjoyed awarding ‘Sophie’ a bad sex award, too?

Anyway, where many have found the denouement fittingly moving, he is merely stirred to observe: ‘Not easy to write a music-drama that ends: “‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ The response: ‘Where was man?’” ‘

What of Porter’s own flourishing literary finale? It is, as I indicated, suitably revealing of its critical sources: ‘This account’, the reviewer tells us breathlessly, ‘is based on asingle hearing of ‘Sophie’s Choice’, for’ (indignity of indignities) ‘Covent Garden had withheld its usual, enlightened invitation to critics to attend rehearsals of a new opera, [to] discover in detail what is being essayed and created, [to] get “reservations” out of the way, and [to] follow the first performance with mind and ear attuned.’

Well the sheer inconsideration of those wicked ROH johnnies, thinking that overwhelming press interest plus initial technical problems means that they might be justified in spreading the freebies a little more evenly this time. They and their kind clearly deserve all the stick you can give them, don’t they? Anyway, perhaps someone will buy poor Porter a stiff drink and tell him to chill out a bit on this one… Meanwhile those who think they can restrain their wrath for a few more days can make their own judgement via satellite: BBC 4 televises the opera on December 22, 2002.

More lively debate on all this at rec.music.classical.contemporary.



Mahavishnu Project: 'Live Bootleg'
Label: Aggregate Music, PO Box 3158 Teaneck NJ 07666
Release date: February 2002
Information: info@mahavishnuproject.com

Canned in the sense of 'captured live on CD', not 'dropped'. And a good thing too. For if your idea of a covers band is a group of lowly clones unhealthily addicted to passing fashions, Gregg Bendian's worthy venture dedicated to John McLaughlin's ground-breaking '70s compatriots should quickly disabuse you of that notion.

Encouraged by, among others, Kermit Driscoll (Bill Frisell et al) and The Great Man JM Himself, Greg (dr), Pete McCann (gtr), Steve Hunt (keys), Todd Reynolds (v) and Stephan Crump (bs) give eight fine tunes from the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra an entertaining workout. The selections are from 'The Inner Mounting Flame', 'Birds of Fire' and 'Between Nothingness and Eternity' albums.

Bendian writes: 'Ultimately we think of Mahavishnu as a unique form of chamber music and our band as a kind of repertory chamber ensemble... Bill Milkowski refers to the original Mahavishnu's approach as "chamber punk" - I really like that!'

Others will be aware of John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, Billy Cobham, Rick Laird and the other members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as musicians who -- along with Weather Report and Chick Corea's Return To Forever -- broadcast the very best of jazz-rock fusion into the ether. (It has to be admitted that they have had many, less worthy imitators in that much-maligned genre.)

The music on this disc was recorded live onto DAT from a house soundboard. The liner notes advise the listener to expect some diminution of quality as against a through-recorded live album, but I have to say that I am pretty satisfied with the end product. A burning 'Celestial Terrestial Commuters' comes off particularly well, and played loud (as Bendian avers) the whole CD is both detailed and punchy. Soundboard recordings tend to be a bit flat, but this has enough roundedness in the acoustic to work nicely. It achieves a scale fitting to the electric chamber moniker.

Mahavishnu-heads should note that these are not (thank heavens) note-for-note reproductions of the original pieces but creative interpretations which project the spirit of Mahavishnu into a new era. It would be wonderful if the band made it to Europe eventually, though that might be asking a bit much. The Project are very fine musicians in their own right and not only can they carry off these performances with finesse, they also appreciate the dynamics that made Mahavishnu so electrifying in the other-than-a-pure-voltage sense.

Gratitude to my good friend and aural sparring partner Jonathan Crawford (respec') for pointing this one out to me. The other tracks on the album are: 'The Dance of Maya', 'Trilogy ('The Sunlit Path / Mere de la Mer / Tomorrow's Story Not the Same'), 'Dawn' / 'Open Country Jam', 'Birds of Fire', 'Resolution' / 'The Noonward Race', the seventeen minute 'Dream', and 'One Word'. Check it out.



The singer Kirsty Macoll, queen of ironic mockney post-folk balladry, tragically died off the coast of Mexico when she was hit by a speedboat while out scuba-diving with her son. Worthy of memorial attention are the tongue-in-cheek Latin grooves on her last album ('Tropical Brainstorm'), the wonderful 'A New England' -- transformed from the mundanity of Billy Bragg's original by the magic touch of Steve Lilywhite's production and instrumentation -- and occasional duets with her legendary father Ewan Macoll. Along with loveable Pogue-ish rogue Shane McGowan, Kirsty also produced just about the only decent Christmas single of the last thirty years, 'The Fairytale of New York'. The collection ‘The One and Only’ contains some additional gems, such as the extended 7' 34" mix of 'A New England', which veers unexpectedly into prog-psychedelic territory. Always more than a mere popular singer, Kirsty Macoll was someone of whom it is rightly said that there is more to her than immediately meets the ear.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

NOTE TO USERS: This weblog is updated daily at the moment, but there have been technical problems (at Blogger's end) with uploading and archiving. Please call back again if you can't find what you want today!


Performer: Kevin Bowyer
Label: Nimbus
Catalogue Number: NI55512
Released: 21 April, 1998

Jehan Alain is perhaps best known for his ostinato, invocational miniature ‘Litanies’, which remains (along with Messaien’s sublime ‘Le Banquet Celeste’) one of my favourite devotional organ pieces. Its intense, syncopated repetitions on a liturgical fragment are by turns meditative and ecstatic: ‘Litanies’ is simultaneously a work of simplicity and sophistication.

In his tragically short life (he was killed at the age of 29 during the second world war, in 1940) Alain composed some 34 organ works. They were published posthumously in three volumes, along with a further two volumes of piano works. Aside from this Nimbus collection, two separate discs were issued in the 1990s by Naxos.

Jehan Alain was a pupil of Dupree and a contemporary of Debussy, Dukas, Faure and Ravel. His harmonic language reflects the prevailing French musical scene of the time, but also a good deal of un-pompous individual flare and, in ‘Trois Danses’, the influences of family friend Andre Marchal, who was organist at the Paris church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
These performances by Kevin Bowyer (who has also completed a J. S. Bach cycle, works by Schoenberg and Brahms, and a fine collection of organ pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies, Jonathan Harvey and Malcolm Williamson – Nimbus 5509) were recorded in June-July 1997 at the restored Marcussen organ in the Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School, England.

The playing is wonderful and the recording highly skilled, but I confess to a bias towards performances of Alain’s music on less boxy instruments with a slightly flatter acoustic. The expansive chordal developments of his compositions are often complemented by subtle, angular details in alternate registers, and this delicate blend can be smudged by too round an ambience or too florid an instrumentation.

I realise that these are subjective preferences, and no doubt specialists in French organ music will tell me that I am wrong. (I also locate myself on what is today regarded as the ‘wrong’ side of parallel arguments concerning the ‘authentic’ performance of the Handel organ concertos, where I think the Karl Richter got it absolutely right for the scale of these pieces, for example.) Perhaps it is all really to do with intimacy. There is a fragility, a vulnerability, but also an unaffected, quiet certainty to Alain’s works that can all-too-easily be lost by over-performance or too large a sound. For me, though it is difficult to choose, Bowyer is a slightly better interpreter than Eric Lebrun on the Naxos set. But the dynamic and acoustic is not always quite as it should be.

Quibbling aside, though, this is a fine recent account of Alain’s somewhat overlooked organ cycle. I hesitate to use the word ‘complete’, since he would undoubtedly have gone on to even greater things if he had lived longer; but these pieces certainly constitute a true and faithful account of his work.

Marie-Claire Alain, the renowned organist and young sister of Jehan, has recorded what will probably, for historical reasons, remain the definitive performances of his works. She has also penned his biography*. I nonetheless look forward to further interpretations in different settings. Meanwhile, and in spite of a rather personal caveat, I have little hesitation in commending the Nimbus recording as the best available. The eleven pages of notes by Felix Aprahamian are concise and very illuminating.

Jehan Alain is definitely a composer who deserves more attention and recognition outside the circles of the cognoscenti. Treat yourself if you do not already know him.

* Check out the Erato boxed tribute. Her Jehan Alain set is only available on vinyl.

Monday, December 16, 2002


Thanks to Len Mullenger for pointing out (of course) the model, detailed review of Nicholas Maw’s opera, ‘Sophie’s Choice’, by Marc Bridle. This features on the ever-excellent MusicWeb site. A must-visit place on the web. Bridle explores the music, libretto, staging and overall trajectory in considerable detail. His thoughtful, critical response is light years away from the cheap shots that have been fired in some sections of the media, and overall he is supportive of Maw’s and the ROH’s venture. Noting that, so far, the work is a ‘hit’, Bridle observes:

“Simon Rattle’s conducting is both urgent and spellbinding, and he produces ravishing sounds from the strings, notably the burnished-sounding ‘cellos and deeply sonorous basses. Indeed, the playing is largely magnificent. There are moments of pathos and of anger in the orchestral writing, but Maw is masterly at being able to make every sung or spoken word clearly audible above the orchestra. Most of the vocal writing is for single voice, or in dialogue, with only one or two pieces for duet or quartet (excluding the choral Auschwitz scenes where the singing is mostly monosyllabic.”



Label: Sony Jazz 5094752
Released: 7 October 2002

One of the pleasant surprises in recent years has been the growing popularity of really top class jazz singers like Claire Martin, Diana Krall and Sarah Jane Morris. At a time when song is being blandly soul-ified and corporately schmaltzed, it is encouraging that potentially market-oriented performers are doing justice to the roots of their art and introducing the standards to new generations. The most high profile artists include sonorous new commercial talents like Norah Jones. Much more outré, and therefore of lower visibility, are the likes of Norma Winstone and Christine Tobin, who can move song form well into the left-field. (I hope to feature Tobin in the near future. She is quite extraordinary in her audaciousness and genre-defying iconoclasm.)

Among those in the ‘in between’ category I recently came across Jane Monheit, whose new album ‘In the Sun’ features traditions of different kinds - Leonard Bernstein's ‘Some Other Time’ (from ‘On the Town’), Ellington’s ‘Just Squeeze Me’, ‘Haunted Heart’ (not quite strong enough) and a wonderfully inventive, lightly bopping re-working of Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’. Monheit’s clear, high, pure voice is also well suited to the Brazilian stylings of by Brazilian Ivan Lins. She came second in the 1998 Thelonius Monk Vocal Prize aged just 20. There is evidently much more to come.

The strings on the album are arranged by Alan Broadbent. Other stellar instrumentalists featured on a (little too smooth) production are bassist Ron Carter, trumpeter Tom Harrell, drummer Kenny Washington and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm.

For me absolute the highlight was the surprise of Bill Evans’ and Eugene Lees’ ‘Turn Out The Stars’. That Evans magic works every time.

Apparently Monheit’s 2001 and 2000 CDs, ‘Come Dream With Me’ and ‘Never Never Land’ emphasise her capabilities as a popular chantreuse and are a little more up-beat. Those with purer jazz ballad inclinations like me may therefore prefer the quieter, more thoughtful strains of ‘In the Sun’. But it would be worth checking out all three.



Meanwhile singer Maggy Burrowes, who teaches voice through the Feldenkrais Method of learning by awareness, is developing a following throughout clubs in London and the Southeast of England, including spots at well-known venues like Ronnie Scott’s. I heard a fifteen minute demo CD earlier today and was most impressed.

Burrowes has an extraordinarily expressive voice – tender, rich, emotionally persuasive and intense. Her versions of ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ are enormously inventive and unselfconsciously melancholic. ‘Black Coffee’ and ‘No Moon At All’ also capture that smoky-but-clear 2 AM feeling. Only the more up-tempo and popularly diatonic ‘Under the Ivy’ (with Andy Smith on piano and keys) didn’t quite work for me.

Once again the quality of the sidespersons is crucial. Burrowes goes for an uncluttered and coolly cultured jazz sound. Phil Scraggs’ gently slapping bass is a joy. James Woodrow’s Epiphone (?) guitar is bell-like but somehow moody. Simon Robinson lends more piano on ‘Blackbird’ and Stephen Wrigley adds guitar on ‘No Moon’.

I have no direct source for Burrowes CDs or tapes at the moment, but I will let you know when I do. Meanwhile those in the London area are advised to scour their jazz listings for performances by Maggy and her accomplices. Thanks to Pam and Steve Chapman for pointing me in the direction of her work.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

INDEX for December 2002 / Coming Soon

Upcoming next week: A cornucopia of Christmas delights including … Icebreaker (ensemble), Michael Tippett (composer), Godspeed! You Black Emperor (post-rock), Joanna MacGregor and Patrick Moraz (eclectic pianism)...

26.5 Nicholas Maw: ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (Royal Opera House)
26.4 Steve Howe: ‘Skyline’ et al
26.3 ‘Masterpiece Guitars’: Martin Taylor w. Steve Howe
26.2 Derek Bailey: ‘Guitar Drums’n’Bass’ (free improv)
26.1 The Necks live at the Purcell Room (15 December 2002)
25.3 New and Contemporary Music weblogs and websites - inc. december.org
25.2 Ravel: Piano Concertos in G and D; Valses
25.1 Adrian Legg: ‘Guitar for Mortals (14 December 2002)
22.4 Occasional Index, vol 1-22 (51 pieces, 20 June – 13 December 2002)
22.3 Handel: ‘Gloria’ and ‘Dixit Dominus’ (Emma Kirby et al)
22.2 Chad Wackerman: ‘Forty Reasons’ – jazz fusion / freeform
22.1 Striking a note or two for peace (CD collection; Godspeed!) [13 December 2002]
21.1 Gustav Holst: ‘The Planets’ w. Colin Matthews: ‘Pluto’ [11 December 2002]
20.1 Quota: Aaron Copland [8 December 2002]
19.1 Threnody Ensemble – biography [7 December 2002]
18.1 The Shout (Choir of Babel) – upcoming concerts [4 December 2002]
17.1 Fast ‘Trane approaching (London Jazz Festival) [26 November 2002]


The epic new opera by Nicholas Maw, ‘Sophie’s Choice’, is halfway through its premier run at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. Based on the best-selling novel by William Styron (which gained publicity as a film of the same name), Maw’s piece – to which he contributed a libretto based on the original text as well as four hours of music – is produced by Trevor Nunn and allegedly cost nearly £1 million to put on for an initial ten nights ending 22 December, when it is broadcast live on BBC 4.

Part of the expense has been occasioned by the heavily subsidised seats, aimed at placating the usual army of nay-sayers who like to dismiss modern opera as an elitist and redundant art. No doubt flying in Sir Simon Rattle from his new ensconcement with the Berlin Philharmonic cost a pretty penny too.

It has been widely observed that the potential disjuncture between the topic, the medium, the literary form and music makes ‘Sophie’s Choice’ ambitious, to put it mildly. Nicholas Maw is not a fashionable composer. He works in a tonal, lyrical but somehow recognisably modern form without being obviously in debt to either serialism or post-minimalism.

All-in-all this is an event that one can predict will have the critics slavering for a modicum of blood, and that has been the case in a number of instances, in spite of Rattle’s ardent defence of the venture and its music. The Guardian review is not untypical. In the US reactions have been more positive (search on Google for the breadth of reaction), and Le Monde was relatively nuanced.

The British critics, rather pathetically, seem to enjoy picking and digging at anything they see as ‘getting above its station’, and that has been the case here too. I have not had a chance to see the staged work – attempts to get tickets have been fruitless so far – but I have heard a bit if the score on the radio. In places it has a filmic quality, the recitatif is melodic, and the overall sound world is reminiscent of Britten (and sometimes, faintly, Tippett). It often eschews more traditionally operatic styles for cultural inference: folk traditions and flourishes. The denouement of the whole work (a quotation adapted from Ellie Weisel) is enormously moving, and unusually for an opera -- though perhaps not so for one that deals with the sheer artistic and ethical impossibility of the Holocaust -- the few silences are unbearably momentous.

The ROH has taken a considerable risk with this production, and is to be congratulated. Their background information sets the scene well. BBC Radio 3 information has come up trumps as usual. Sequenza 21 has some effective reportage story on ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and on its composer in their issue of 9-16 December. (Search in the back issues if you are reading this after then.)

Sadly this production, which has been commended for its visual impact and cleverness, as well as for the scale of the musical enterprise involved, is unlikely to be revived in the near future – and when it is it seems certain that Rattle will not have time to get behind the baton again. My guess is that it will be pared down to under three hours too. But whenever it appears again in Europe I’ll be there.

There are rumours of a US version, incidentally. The Met in NY has been shameful in its neglect of contemporary opera; a staging there would be quite a coup. And pretty unthinkable, I suppose…

Above all, this is a work of great moral force – what comparable horror is it that we should be avoiding in our age? If aesthetics can claim precedence over ethics in the post-Cold War era, how can this be so? It's up to us in the end... In the meantime 'Sophie's Choice' deserves a place in the twenty-first century repertoire, and Maw merits more than a second hearing.


Audio CD (28 October, 2002)
Label: InsideOut 65362

A slightly curious choice for review in NewFrontEars perhaps, but bear with me. Essentially a set of fresh soundscapes ideally suited to Steve Howe’s crystalline playing (the Gibson ES-175D and Fender Precision Bass take the most prominent spots in a sea of strings that also includes Koto, Danelectro Coral sitar, Autoharp and mandolin), ‘Skyline’ employs electronic keyboards for atmosphere and texture. The bass additions harmonise unobtrusively into the instrumental blend, and the percussion provides more of a pulse than a beat, “pushing the rhythms enough to complement the flavour”, as Howe says in a brief, prosaic liner note. Paul Sutin, a long-term collaborator, takes the keys on eight of the twelve tracks – which clock in at exactly one hour in total. A very rounded project.

Under the bar code on the back of the package we are encouraged by InsideOut to ‘File under Progressive Rock’. This is a tag that Howe will never escape, and just to rub it in there are two stickers reminding us that he is ‘the guitarist of [rather than ‘for’, interestingly enough] Yes’. In ‘Skyline’s context such labels are largely meaningless, of course, though they emphasise the particular market niche which provides Howe’s bread-and-butter income. And at least they fend off the other term that might well pollute such a venture, ‘New Age’. It’s hard to deny that this is restful, ambient music. But that need not be the insult it often implies. There are some softly strong themes at work here, and in a couple of places (‘Secret Arrow’ and ‘Camera Obscura’ come to mind) it as if a few of Howe’s trademark ascending and descending runs, with their oddly metered phrasing and counter-harmonic propensities, are being gently lowered toward us from the rooftop. This is soloing in slow motion, composition patiently reconstructed, improvisation through temporal expansion.

Each of the dozen tracks has its own charm, but some take a little more time to reveal their worth than others. Howe uses twenty-one different guitars (including electric, steel, Spanish and FX, 6- and 12-string) to good effect. In every case it is the overall tapestry of sound and emotional scope he is interested in, not instrument-swapping for its own sake. A few of the pieces drift in and out of consciousness, some stand out and call for more attention. I’m none-too-keen on fades, and that remains true even in this essentially pastoral setting. The hinted vocals and keyboard patches on the opening and closing pieces (‘Small Acts of Human Kindness’ and its reprise) are the most questionable aspects of the whole enterprise, and (ironically) they are also the point at which the guitarist’s lineage is most evident. They might just have worked better in Yes, and Yes might similarly work better sometimes if it paid more attention to Howe the colourist.

However, if Steve Howe is about the nearest Yes have got to a muse, his heart is rarely obscured. He tells us in his notes that “Skyline offers me the opportunity to explore the partnership of melodic and improvisational playing.” He is known for both, of course. Here you have the opportunity to view them at close quarters and at contemplative pace. Pleasingly, the join is hard to detect. In spite of its merits, many will probably still dismiss this album as elevator music. I can see why, to be fair. It isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally go for. But ‘elevational’ seems much more fitting to the tenor of ‘Skyline’, and (like the music itself) it is a more generous and measured judgement.

If, like me. you enjoy Howe’s sound, phrasing and melodic angularity but find this particular offering a little too soporific, I suggest you try Not Necessarily Acoustic, Natural Timbre or The Steve Howe Album – at least until his duo with the peerless jazz fretman Martin Taylor, appears in January 2003. That’s called Masterpiece Guitars (see immediately below).


For the past two years Martin Taylor has been recording some of the historic guitars from the Chinery Collection with Steve Howe. He embraked on a solo tour of the US earlier in the year which culminated in a concert with Steve at the National Museum of American History, where he played some of the guitars from the famous Blues Guitar Collection which is housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Washington Post remarked in its first Performing Arts Column: "No matter how complex or daring, Taylor's interpretation never short change the melodies; indeed, his remarkably fluid touch imbues a seamless beauty. Taylor is something to behold." He was also featured in an All Star Concert with George Benson, Kenny Burell and Larry Coryell.

Henry Potts writes: “Masterpiece Guitars, a collaboration between Steve Howe and Martin Taylor recorded in early 1996 and produced by Howe, is finally to be released by P3 Music in Feb 2003 (in Europe). Prior to general release, a limited edition series were available at the Classic American Guitar Show (Plainview, NY; 4-5 May), which Howe attended, and now via 20th Century Guitar Online magazine.”


Derek Bailey, Guitar, Drums ‘n’ Bass (Avant – Koch, 1997)

Mention guitar music and a few names instantly stand out – Segovia, Wes Montgomery, Hendrix. In his own way Derek Bailey, now implausibly in his seventies, has had just as dramatic and important an impact on the guitar landscape of the twentieth century as any of those ‘greats’. That his endeavours have taken place largely in the obscure world of free and improvised music explains his relative anonymity. His output has been varied and prodigious, however.

Of his many recordings Guitar Drums’n’Bass most readily achieves the status of pure fun. With running titles like N/JZ/BM [Remix], Re-Re-Re [Upmix], DNJBB [Cake Mix], Concrete [Cement Mix], Ninja [De Mix] and Pie [Amatosis mix], Bailey’s warped, off-kilter and violently eerie electric sound blends and competes with the critical beats of DJ Ninja. This is joyously discordant, disarming, danceable and deranged music.

If you are unfamiliar with Bailey’s sonic universe and want a CD to wreck the office Christmas party sound system, annoy the hell out of boorish metalheadz ("Oi, turn that bleedin' noise dahn mate!") or drive crotchety old Aunty Vera to an early grave, here is a glorious opportunity, dear reader. Indeed it must be the joys of the Season that called this little aural classic to mind after five years unworthy languishing in the attic.

Incidentally, the European Free Improvisation Derek Bailey page has up-to-date information, clips, concert news and resources. A one-off pioneer in new and avant garde music. "And is it jazz?" We can safely leave that one to the police....


Listen to all the music from their wonderful concert at this year's London Jazz Festival. BBC Radio Three link here. One of Australia's most compelling cultural enterprises, this piano, bass, and keyboards trio have generated an enormous cult following with an irresistible hypnotic mixture of ambient sound washes, shifting rhythms and psychedelic mood swings. They produce a post-jazz, post-rock, post-everything sonic experience that has few parallels or rivals. They are three musicians seizing the moment, communicating with a fierce energy and warmth - the music is a thrilling emotional journey into unknown territory.

"Like seeing a world in a grain of sand, The Necks permit us to hear a whole new world of music in a sliver of sound", The Guardian.