UK

Proms 2010: Julian Anderson – Fantasias (London Première)

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Saturday 7 August’s Proms concert saw the first London performance of Julian Anderson‘s 25-minute Fantasias, a work the National Youth Orchestra has been playing around the country for the last few days, all under the direction of Semyon Bychkov.

It’s a work in five movements, the first of which puts the spotlight firmly on the brass section, about whom Anderson festoons a capricious collection of fanfare fragments, each of which gets thrown around like a drunken (almost pugilistic) hocket. It’s breathless, exhilarating stuff, showing the composer’s skill at collective brass writing (at times suggestive of some of John Pickard’s work). The remainder of the orchestra join in at the second Fantasia, the strings given something slow and potential, the winds to a large extent hiccuping at intervals (all very ‘Faber’); thankfully, it does broaden out into something less generic, first softening into a rather nice mush of overlapping strings atop tinkling celesta/harp offerings, before a semi-boisterous final few minutes where the instruments flounce around with gusto, like a chorus of dandies out on the town. Read more

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Proms 2010: Hans Abrahamsen – Wald (UK Première) plus Knussen, Bedford and Benjamin

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So, where were we? Ah yes, The Proms; my catchup starts with the concert that took place on Friday 6 August, given by the splendid Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Oliver Knussen‘s Two Organa is a work all the more engaging for its entirely lopsided nature. The first ‘organum’, “Notre Dame des Jouets”, could perhaps best be described as “sugar and spice and all things nice” (although without very much spice); exploring just white notes, it’s derived from an earlier incarnation, composed for a diatonic music box, and while undeniably rather fun, there’s little more going on beyond froth and fancy. The latter movement, on the other hand, could not be more different, drawing heavily on Knussen’s more characteristic, harmonically rich palette. In the wake of such a frivolous predecessor, the dense, concentric lines at work here come as something of a shock, given gravitas by the imposing presence of deep gongs. But it restrains itself from becoming ponderous, swiftly reducing into a sparser mixture, the lines given more room to move, fragments of the imagined organum sliding in and out of view. Read more

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Proms 2010: George Benjamin – Duet (London Première)

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Another day, another première—this time, it was the first London performance of George Benjamin‘s Duet, for piano and orchestra. In the solo rôle is the unsurpassable Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and he precedes Benjamin’s work with a rendition of György Ligeti‘s “Mesto, rigido e ceremoniale”, the second piece from his enthralling Musica ricercata series. It’s a piece that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone who knows Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, and Aimard superbly taps into its dark, profoundly unsettling mood. Built upon disarming repetitions and extreme dynamics, it’s unlike almost anything else in the piano repertoire (except, perhaps, for the sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya); substantial way beyond its mere three-minute span, the piece suffuses the air with mystery, establishing a dense, almost choking atmosphere for Benjamin’s Duet, which follows without a break. Read more

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The tentative return of Dubstar

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Having documented my love of Dubstar‘s music in a fairly exhaustive retrospective of their music a couple of years back, i was excited to hear that—following some rather acrimonious goings-on last year—the group had decided to get together to record a song for the new Amnesty International fundraising compilation, PEACE. Overall, the project is an impressive one; a collection of 182 songs, which can be downloaded following a donation to Amnesty that starts at a paltry €5 (of course, you can pay more if you wish). You can read more about the project, stream songs and donate/download at their rather nicely-designed interactive website here. It became available earlier this week and, as yet, i haven’t even scratched the surface of such a vast compilation (which amounts to 12½ hours of music); but i had no hesitation in starting with Dubstar’s contribution, a cover of The Passions’ “I’m in Love with a German Film Star”.

In a rather fitting metaphor for the reality of the group’s members in recent times, the song emerges out of distortion and noise, settling into a restrained, rather minimal backdrop of bassline, guitar and soft drums. And then it happens: Sarah Blackwood opens her mouth, and immediately the tingles down the spine begin in earnest, and one is lost in a welter of feelings and sensations that propel me back a decade, to the last time my ears heard anything of the kind. Blackwood’s voice is unique and legendary, capable of astonishing purity of tone, without even the remotest whisp of vibrato; from lesser throats, the result would emerge dull and emotionless, whereas from Sarah Blackwood, i would argue, comes one of pop music’s most expressive voices, one that’s enhanced by the gentle edge lent by her delicious northern accent. Anyway, enough of the hero-worship.

It’s a wise choice of cover song; indeed, with its rather lovely poignant shifts of harmony it could almost have been written by Dubstar themselves. Read more

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The Revelation

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Quite a few years ago, the BBC broadcast what i can only assume was one of the last productions to have involved the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It was a one-off dramatisation of the book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, starring Derek Jacobi in the rôle of John the evangelist, accompanied by music composed by Radiophonic Workshop veteran Peter Howell. Howell’s music (akin more to a film score than the bleeps and noises of conventional Radiophonic fare) is a mixture of synthesisers and voices (performed by the BBC Singers) and, along with the striking sound effects, helps to bring this most abstruse portion of scripture alive in a powerful, vivid way. The dramatisation uses about a third of the text of Revelation from the King James Version, and is grand in scope beyond its 30-minute brevity, particularly in the opening of the Seven Seals, and the encounter with the Whore of Babylon. It’s preceded by a specially-written introduction to Revelation, read by Judy Dench. As the season of Advent is now upon us, shifting attention forward, to the future, there’s no better time to delve deeply into the Bible’s most challenging book. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Michael Finnissy & Arvo Pärt

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The liturgical year began in earnest on Sunday, the Advent clock once again beginning the countdown to Christ’s (first and/or second, depending on your eschatological mindset) coming. Here, then, a couple of days late (due to personal circumstances, including, in reverse order, a world première in Birmingham and a car crash in Bicester) are highlights from the Advent Carol Service, broadcast, as last year, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It would be nice to think they choose St John’s as John the apostle’s writings are so significant and, indeed, drawn upon during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but it may simply be accidental; either way, St John’s continues to be one of the finest choirs in the land. Read more

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25 years on: Propaganda – Dr. Mabuse and Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries | 5 Comments

This year marks the 25th anniversary of two of the most striking songs of the 1980s—as well as being, in my opinion, among the best songs of all time.

The first is “Dr. Mabuse” by German synthpop outfit Propaganda, inspired by the character made famous by Fritz Lang. Released to a modicum of chart success in March 1984 (it reached No. 27 in the UK chart the following month), my first contact with the song was a few months later, on the compilation album Now That’s What I Call Music 3. Propaganda spent much of their time in the shadow of mightier acts; they hailed from Dusseldorf, home to none other than Kraftwerk, and during their time on the renowned ZTT label—formed out of the perfect collision of Paul Morley and Trevor Horn—continuously played second fiddle to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax”, released a couple of months earlier, had taken the label into the stratosphere of success (aided in no small part by the BBC’s laughable “ban”). This, together with their particularly European (i.e. non-British) sound—crowned by Claudia Brücken’s sharply accented vocals—meant that Propaganda’s popularity in the UK never lived up to their merits. Not that they were the most imaginative band in the world; they certainly weren’t, but “Dr. Mabuse” is an outstanding song, surpassing everything they did after, and outclassing most other songs that year. A feature of the ZTT label—rarely an advantageous or helpful one—was that remixes of songs released as singles were made in abundance. Furthermore, the same version often ended up with a plethora of subtly different titles and accompanying verbiage, which may have been something to do with releases in different territories or even the label losing the plot (clearly the case on some occasions), but was most likely the influence of Paul Morley, someone not exactly known for restraint where words are concerned. “Dr. Mabuse” is no stranger to this melée of remixes and names, but thankfully not to the same extent as Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the number of versions is relatively low. Read more

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