Thursday, May 29, 2008

'Olivier Messiaen: Chamber Works’ by the Hebrides Ensemble

29 May 2008

I first encountered the ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ by Olivier Messiaen many years ago in a hot, packed hall in the Pump Rooms during the Bath Festival. It was a mesmerising experience. The quartet was written in a German prison camp in 1940 for a performance by the composer (on piano) with three of his fellow prisoners (a clarinettist, a violinist and a ‘cellist). The eight-movement work was premiered in the camp in front of 5000 prisoners. It is a difficult, serious, quiet and extremely moving piece of music – not easy listening but completely compelling. Best listened to as part of a massive audience holding its collective breath. The marvellous Hebrides Ensemble make their Wigmore Hall debut tomorrow with a performance including the ‘Quartet for the End of Time’. Unfortunately I’m not able to be there but I have been enjoying their new CD ‘Chamber Works’ by Messiaen, marking the composer’s centenary – more details at

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

'Music Hole' by Camille

27 May 2008

French singer/songwriter Camille Dalmais is an amazing vocal gymnast. I was impressed by her 2005 album ‘Le Fil’ which wove a series of inventive, quirky songs (mostly in French) around a single continuous drone note (‘the thread’). ‘Le Fil’ put Camille squarely in Kate Bush/Bjork territory but sometimes felt a little too coldly intellectual. Her new CD ‘Music Hole’ is much warmer and funkier. Sung almost entirely a capella – with ‘human percussion’ of clicks, claps, snaps, smacks and beatboxing plus occasional piano (by Jamie Cullum) – it’s a playful collection. There is some inventive use of stereo - listen on headphones with plenty of bass. Her (mostly English) lyrics are witty and clever. The songs encompass a variety of styles and are catchy, pretty and funny. Songs to admire and enjoy.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

'Hamlet': a ballet by David Nixon

23 May 2008

Last night we were at Milton Keynes Theatre to see 'Hamlet': a ballet by David Nixon performed by Northern Ballet Theatre. Setting the story in occupied Paris in 1940 gave the ballet a distinctive, ominously dark style with period costumes, references to Berlin cabaret and ever-present Nazi regalia (and incorporating some brutal torture scenes). There was some great dancing, particularly from Nathalie Leger as Gertrude and Darren Goldsmith as Claudius, and Ophelia's mad scene was performed with beautiful delicacy by Georgina May. I very much enjoyed the music by Philip Feeney – a varied and impressive orchestral score. But I thought there were some substantial problems with the plot: by adding new elements (such as the use of written death warrants) and cutting some key scenes, an already complicated plot became quite confusing. And in some cases the changes just didn't make sense: why would Laertes seek out Hamlet to avenge his sister's death when, in this version, Ophelia has not committed suicide but has instead been raped and murdered by Nazi officers? Nevertheless, a stylish and enjoyable production.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

'The Thirty Nine Steps'

20 May 2008

The Rex in Berkhamsted was described by the BBC as "possibly Britain’s most beautiful cinema": after our first visit on Sunday I am inclined to agree. This beautiful art deco picture house is celebrating its 70th anniversary and looks glorious following its recent refurbishment. With cabaret tables and large, high-backed swivel chairs in the stalls and rows of the most comfy cinema seats with masses of legroom in the gallery, it’s a luxurious experience. But it’s the décor and lighting that make the occasion. We went to see a new print of the 1935 Hitchcock classic ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’. It was wonderful to see it on a big screen, framed by a proscenium arch and elegant curtains: we could almost have been in the London Palladium watching ‘Mr Memory’ ourselves. And it was very exciting to discover that the audience at the Rex on Sunday included Joanna, the daughter of the film’s star Robert Donat, accompanied by her family including her great grandchildren. The film bears its age well: while there are some awkwardly long pauses and unintentionally funny exchanges (and the plot never made much sense!) it has great style (with camera angles that could have been from ‘Citizen Kane’) and some fantastic comic performances. Hitchcock combines exciting chases and serious menace with screwball comedy and a memorable set-piece finale. But it’s the scenes with John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft as the crofter and his wife that stand out – Laurie’s wide ‘Private Frazer’ eyes flitting from suspiciously from side to side across the straightest of faces. “Am I right sir?”


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

BBC Young Musician of the Year 2008

13 May 2008

As I said here in May 2006 "I love the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition" so it was eager anticipation that I sat down to watch the broadcast of this year's concerto final. I don't think I would go as far as Susan Tomes who says on the Guardian website "the BBC ruined the Young Musician of the Year" but it was a major disappointment not to be able to watch the five concerto performances in full. This year the concertos were performed un-broadcast on Saturday (though later available on Radio 3 and can now be watched in their entirety at and the finalists then returned on Sunday to each play an unaccompanied piece followed by a movement from their concerto. Apart from depriving us of the luxury of five full back-to-back concertos, it also reduced the fun of trying to guess the judges' decision as they had seen more of the finalists than we had. Nevertheless I maintained my record of failing to pick the winner. The performance by twelve-year-old trombonist, Peter Moore (the youngest ever winner) was actually the one I enjoyed the most but I was convinced he wouldn't be the judges' choice. I had narrowed it down to two - neither of whom won! As usual I enjoyed discovering some fantastic pieces of music. I really liked the Tomasi Trombone Concerto and the Flute Concerto by Ibert - neither of which I had heard before - and it was wonderful to hear the Rachmaninov 'Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini'. Do watch the full performances online while you can but don't bother with the 'Grand Final' programme. How sad that the impact of this landmark musical event should be so watered down in its thirtieth anniversary year - I do hope we can return to a full live broadcast of the concert in two years' time.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Toumani Diabaté

6 May 2008

For nearly 400 years, from around 1235 to 1600, the Mandé Empire covered a massive area, extending (at its peak) from central Africa (today's Chad and Niger) to West Africa (today's Mali and Senegal). With no written tradition, the archivists of the Empire were the 'griots' - hereditary musicians whose songs chronicled history and tradition. The Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, who we saw performing at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester last Saturday, claims to be able to trace his lineage back through 71 generations of kora players. The kora is the West African 21-string harp-lute built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin and Toumani Diabaté is the outstanding kora player of his generation, described by BBC Radio 3 as "on a par with Glenn Gould or Rostropovich - the sort of musician you only encounter once or twice in a lifetime". His new solo album, 'The Mandé Variations', sets out to make a case for Malian griot music as 'African classical music' - equivalent to Western or Indian classical music. It was fitting, therefore, to see him in a classical concert hall where the (amplified) delicacy of his playing received rapt attention and concentration from a packed audience. Toumani's technique is amazing - using only four fingers (the thumb and index finger of both hands) to pluck the strings, he manages to generate the most intricate effects, tunes, accompaniments and rhythms. You really need to see him live to convince yourself it is only one person playing! The pieces from 'The Mandé Variations' build slowly and quietly - each lasting around 10 minutes and certainly bear comparison with the steady, repetitive development within an Indian raga. The kora is more an equivalent of a harp than of a fretted instrument such as the sitar, requiring the most amazing dexterity. I had heard many recordings of Toumani Diabaté and had been impressed but not moved: seeing him live I was gripped - perhaps because the concert hall atmosphere allowed me to give the music the concentration required to understand, appreciate and be entranced by it. Toumani is a regular visitor to Manchester as his uncle has lived there for 20 years and I was delighted to hear that they will both be rooting for Manchester United in the forthcoming European Cup final! Toumani himself lived briefly in London in 1986: I loved the piece 'Elyne Road' which is based on his time in London and built around a quote from the UB40 song 'Kingston Town'. A magical evening.

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