Messiaen Centenary Celebration, Bath Abbey: Bach, Dhafer Youssef, Messiaen

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Last Wednesday, the Beloved and i were at Bath Abbey, for a “Messiaen Centenary Celebration” given as part of the Bath Festival. The highlight of the concert was Messiaen‘s rarely-performed Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, preceded by two works, a keyboard concerto by J. S. Bach, and the world première of Les Ondes Orientales by Dhafer Youssef. Thankfully, the concert was recorded by the BBC, and broadcast yesterday. Joanna MacGregor is the artistic director of the Bath Festival, so she was prominent in all three pieces. The Bach concerto is spirited and fun, with some lovely string writing, particularly in the slow middle movement; the solo part is highly florid, and almost continuous, but Joanna MacGregor tackles such things with incredible ease. In fact, she appeared so relaxed with the material that her communicative/reflective facial expressions seemed to become rather exaggerated (think Natalie Clein, but not so comic); all the same, it was a refreshing opener, a kind of musical sorbet. Read more

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Mixtape #6 : Piano

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For years, the piano has been to me an object of fascination and awe; its range of capabilities, expressive potential and timbral variety are breathtaking. Also for years, these qualities were the very things preventing me from attempting to compose something for it. Listening to piano music is a supreme joy, and so this new mixtape is a concoction of some of the more interesting examples that have been occupying my ears of late. It also represents some of my favourite composers, all of them bringing something unique to the instrument. Read more

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Down with politics! : And One – Bodypop

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If you were to combine Leonard Cohen, Laibach and Aqua with just a sprinkling (dare i suggest it) of The Village People, the result would go some way to resembling And One. To describe them as ‘peculiar’ is not really to say anything meaningful about Europop, which has never borne much resemblance to the pop music from Britain and America. In recent years, this fact is proving to be No Bad Thing; through the late 90s and 00s, ‘English pop’ (to include both sides of the Atlantic) has collapsed into a generic, uninspired agglomeration of meaningless plastic, vacuous/misogynistic randb, and the woeful efforts of pseudo-rock bands, who arguably try hardest to be interesting, but for the most part—due to a ‘retro’ mindset—succeed only in producing pastiche replicas of something older, better and far more genuine. Against such a pitiful backdrop, the often tawdry excesses of Europop (and its Asian cousin, J-Pop) have come to be a powerful blessing, albeit a mixed one; individuality and originality, at one end of the continuum, become a questionable understanding of “quality control” and a habit of taking oneself too seriously at the other. And One’s particular brand of EBM has fallen into this trap regularly, and yet when they avoid it it’s with such panache and conviction that it renders their flaws entirely forgiveable.

They have a substantial corpus of albums and singles, all of which meander freely within the no man’s land betwixt egregious and enthralling. However, their most recent album, Bodypop, suggests that, finally, they are grasping what aspects of their musical personality should be pursued, and which can be ejected. Political issues have always mattered to And One, and this has been reflected in much of their work; however, Europop—like all the popular genres—is a weak instrument for political discourse; it may, and does, stir up feelings, but only in the most superficial and transient way; in any case, the majority of listeners to this kind of music, i would imagine, do not come to it with political opinion among their principal concerns. The title Bodypop immediately suggests a different emphasis, and indeed this is their least overtly political album, allowing their highly danceable tunes to move in a less fettered way (although with an occasional tendency to march). Furthermore, a striking lyricism is prominent here; lengthy, moving melodies that demonstrate just how superb Steve Naghavi’s baritone voice really is. And One wouldn’t be And One if palpable campery and kitschness were absent, and a couple of songs—’So Klingt Liebe’ and ‘Body Company’—will happily furnish the gay clubs of Europe with floor-fillers. They’re not so outré that they become silly, though; despite my allusion to The Village People earlier, Pet Shop Boys is probably a better comparison. Read more

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Interpretations on Record: Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

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Radio 3 now calls it simply “CD Review”, but a few years back it was known as “Interpretations on Record”. Each programme focuses on a particular composition, examining the available recordings with the intention of choosing one that is arguably better than the others. This is an edition of the programme dating back almost 12 years, when Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie was the work under the spotlight. Presented by Michael Oliver and lasting a little over 70 minutes, it includes fascinating information about the earliest performances of the piece, as well as a useful discussion on the difficulties it presents from a recording perspective. Read more

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Messiaen’s Méditations – the greatest organ work of all time?

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Trinity Sunday, and an opportunity to share one of the most prized CDs of my collection. It’s a complete recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s organ cycle Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, performed by Messiaen himself on the organ of the Parisian church where he was organist for most of his life, the appropriately named La Trinité. The nine meditations (which i shall be hearing in concert in a month’s time) are among Messiaen’s finest creations—still controversial for some due to his quirky creation of a “communicable language” that he then uses to “say” phrases from Scripture. Nonetheless, the sounds and textures are unique in the organ repertory, bearing little resemblance to conventional—or, indeed, any other—organ music. Despite taking liberties with his own score, Messiaen’s performances are incredibly exciting, and the recording is marvellously vivid, capturing the timbres brilliantly (the deep bass notes are, literally, breathtaking). Read more

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Mixtape #5 : Beats

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If music was my first love, then my fascination with rhythm was the first part of that attraction; beat-driven music—particularly early hip-hop and electro—dominated my earliest teenage years. My taste in beats has evolved since that time, of course, and the selection represented here (which may well come as little surprise to regular readers) is a selection of relatively recent music. Each of them has something distinctive, something that separates it from the terrible plethora of dance music that predominates the current musical landscape (at least, the popular landscape); each of them, too, is in my opinion one of the very best tracks by that artist. Read more

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Thomas Adès – These Premises Are Alarmed, Concerto Conciso, Asyla (World Premières)

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i’ve been interested in Thomas Adès‘ work for many years, so here are recordings of the world première performances of three of his compositions. The tale behind his miniature orchestral work These Premises Are Alarmed is interesting, if disappointing. Adès was commissioned to compose a piece for the series of three inaugural concerts at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, which opened in September 1996 (i was fortunate enough to attend these concerts). For some time beforehand, the word was circulated that Adès was at work on a piano concerto, which—in Classical fashion—he would direct from the keyboard. As the concert approached, however, rumours began to fly that Adès was having difficulties with the piece and things seemed to be getting rather desperate. Eventually, all that could be salvaged from the project was a mere three minutes of music, a pretty meagre offering (George Benjamin, also commissioned for these concerts, wrote Sometime Voices, a substantial work). It’s difficult to be too praiseworthy about These Premises Are Alarmed; the orchestration is interesting and lively, but there’s the ever-present sense that this is material pieced together in haste. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to Adès’ abilities that the result has such aplomb. Read more

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