Switched On – Steve Spacek: Houses (Black Focus)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

In which Steve Spacek goes back to basics. House music has always been at the heart of his musical thinking, but he feels it has been a long time since he indulged himself in a 4/4 beat. He does so through a long player made solely with iPhone and iPad apps, in Spacek’s words using technology to join the past with the present.

What’s the music like?

Spacek can never really sit still, which is a helpful quality to have in house music! Because of that he is always subtly creating and innovating.

In this case the past is still relatively recent – Detroit techno – but he adds his own welcome quirks to the mix, bringing in vocals to point towards soul and even experimental jazz. His own vocals are as distinctive as ever, while the resultant style is one that purposely includes UK rave music in a kind of transatlantic fusion.

As far as that translates to individual tracks, Tell Me is a really nice hybrid of deep house and UK garage, the latter diffused through its bassline. There are some nice bumpy beats and bass to African Dream which gets bigger perspective through faint keyboards. Song Life is really nice, deep and smooth with a good mix of polish and instinctive writing, which typifies the album. Love 4 Nano is great, with a cosmic synth and serrated bass sound twisting and turning among the chopped up and clipped vocals. The agile bassline of first track Rawl Aredo should not be forgotten either!

Does it all work?

Very much so. Spacek is ever inventive, and Houses works on a deeper level while providing energy through its beats. With four bonus tracks it clocks in at a generous 75 minutes, but thanks to Spacek’s subtly inventive ways through house music it never outstays its welcome.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you’re a fan of Matthew Herbert’s house exploits you will find yourself close in style to Steve Spacek. Yet the application of his falsetto voice and the UK concessions bring individuality to Houses, in what turns out to be a really fine and invigorating album.

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In concert – Sol Gabetta, NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi: Takemitsu, Schumann & Rachmaninov

Sol Gabetta (cello), NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Monday 24 February 2020

Takemitsu How slow the wind (1991)
Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)
Rachmaninov Symphony no.2 in E minor Op.27 (1906-07)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This Royal Festival Hall concert offered the relatively rare chance to catch the NHK Symphony Orchestra, on a mini-tour from Tokyo in the company of their chief conductor, Paavo Järvi.

As he told Arcana in an interview the previous week, Järvi has been acquainting himself with the music of Toru Takemitsu in recent years, culminating in a recording of his orchestral works with the NHK. One of them, How slow the wind, was a descriptive and colourful way in which to open the concert, presenting a picture of relative calm.

One of Takemitsu’s best qualities is the descriptive power of his music, which is able to capture the elements in a subtle but meaningful way. Rain, earth and air are three you can expect to encounter with particularly vivid results, and the latter was to the fore in this intriguing symphonic poem. As the title suggests, it really was the slowed down movement of air, and was played with attention to detail and affection, painting a picture far away from the Southbank. The influence of Debussy, as outlined by Järvi, was clear, but so too were elements of Ravel and Messiaen, though the percussive colours in which Takemitsu dressed the piece were wholly his own.

Sol Gabetta then took charge of the Schumann Cello Concerto. Clearly this is a piece she loves, and it is gratifying in recent years to see the concerto come into the centre of the instrument’s repertoire. The first movement, dominated by a nagging theme that stays in your head for long after, was a dramatic affair, the cellist seizing the initiative but ensuring Järvi and the relatively small orchestral forces were with her every step of the way. Gabetta’s high register tone was probing, with unerring accuracy in her tuning.

When Schumann moves seamlessly into the slow movement it is like walking into a different, calmer room of the same house, but Gabetta ensured the links throughout were clearly signposted, and her duet with leader of the NHK cellos Ryoichi Fujimori was both sensitive and ideally balanced.

The finale found a bold approach from Gabetta capitalizing on Schumann’s innovative writing, with the written-out cadenza particularly strongly executed before a thoroughly affirmative end. Gabetta capped this with the inclusion of the first movement of VasksGramata cellam as an encore. Gabetta gave this at the first night of the BBC Proms in 2016 and it is no less startling heard once again with its vocalisation.

For the second half it was slow burning Rachmaninov, the NHK smoothly into their stride for the first movement of the Symphony no.2 in E minor. If the moody bass strings at the opening were slightly withdrawn, that gave Järvi plenty to work with as the music unfolded. With the faster tempo came an airy texture as though the sun was shining through outdoors. Once we had glimpsed the brightness it was hard not to let go of it, and the Scherzo, taken at a fastish tempo, glinted at the edges.

Järvi judged the famous Andante just right, indulging in the gorgeous textures but never overdoing it, so that Kei Ito’s clarinet was given the best possible platform to deliver a heartstopping solo. Yet it was in the excited whoops of the finale where this interpretation really delivered, the orchestra stepping up another gear as the music excitedly passed between the instrument groups, percussion adding a sheen to the wonderful wall of sound.

It being Estonian Independence Day, Järvi – while noting the amusement of celebrating the day in London with a Japanese orchestra – gave us a glimpse of summer through Heino Eller’s sunkissed Homeland Tune, from the 5 Pieces for Strings. It was a fitting end to a concert that helpfully reminded us of the approach of spring – and in the process told of classical music’s potential reach. A Japanese orchestra conducted by an Estonian with an Argentinian cellist. What’s not to like about that?!

Further listening

You can listen to a playlist of the programme performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi. It includes Gabetta’s recording of the Schumann, and leading recordings of the other repertoire (including encores):

For a very fine disc of Heino Eller’s music for string orchestra, this collection from the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Tonu Kaljuste on ECM is just the ticket:

Wigmore Mondays – Meta4: String Quartets by Fanny Mendelssohn & Bartók

Meta4 [Antti Tikkanen, Minna Pensola (violins), Atte Kilpeläinen (viola), Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Monday 17 February 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A pleasingly varied program from the Finnish string quartet Meta4, not least because it gave the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3 audience a chance to hear Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet, many undoubtedly experiencing the piece for the first time.

Often overshadowed by her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s musical output, Fanny was clearly a highly accomplished composer in a time when women were not encouraged to follow such musical disciplines. Only now is the quality of her music fully revealed, and this String Quartet stands side by side with the seven completed works of her brother. This one, as its composer freely admits, stands in the shadow of the late quartets of Beethoven.

The work’s dimensions are relatively unusual, pointed towards the third movement by two relatively short movements, slow and fast respectively, and it spends a lot of time in C minor as well as the ‘home key’ of E flat major, creating a tension between darker thoughts and sunnier climes. There is an enjoyable disregard for convention in the slow first movement (from 2:41 on the broadcast), with a broad and quite free approach that Meta4 have fully under their wing, the three standing players swaying and moving around the stage in response to the music.

While this could have been off putting there was no doubting their commitment and involvement, ensuring the first movement Adagio was thoughtful and profound. The following Allegretto (6:55) was quite wary initially, its C minor fluttering speaking of unease, but its central section scurried forward with an energetic fugue started by Atte Kilpeläinen’s busy viola (from 8:01).

The Romanze (10:57), beautifully played, was back in C minor but grew to be the centre of the performance, the soft heart of the movement becoming something really substantial and emotive in this performance. Meanwhile the spirited and full bodied finale (18:18) signed off in a lively fashion, powering forward through unison from viola and cello to a headlong sprint for the finish. Occasionally the intonation was a little off in the upper reaches of the violin line, but this was otherwise a very fine performance.

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets rank among the very finest achievements in the form, and are rightly a cornerstone of any aspiring group’s repertoire. The First is the longest, in keeping with his earlier works as displaying deep Romantic-inspired passion but changing the musical language, finding a more individual voice as it strays further from tonality. The work came after several discarded attempts in the string quartet form, suggesting Bartók knew already that this would be one of his primary means of expression – and is regarded by many commentators on the composer as the work where his mature style arrives.

Much of the passion in this case was invested by the composer in a relationship with the young violinist Stefi Geyer, dedicatee of the Violin Concerto no.1, and the quartet is effectively a detailed account of their relationship and its ultimately tragic ending. That said, it is effectively a transition from the darkness of the breakup to the light and positivity of what might lie ahead.

Set in three substantial movements, this work often sounds as though there are more than four instruments playing, thanks to the use of multiple stopping (playing more than one note at a time on an instrument).

The first movement, described by Bartók as a ‘funeral dirge’, begins in shadow (26:39) but grows gradually in expressive intent. The quartet stay largely together in their outpouring, though a striking change of emphasis occurs at 31:04 when the cello takes on a drone-like figure. The music is briefly more assured, before dropping back to more threadbare, muted sounds.

The sorrowful first movement is effectively an introduction to the second (35:43) which pulls away from the slow tempo and starts noticeably to look up and outward. The textures become fuller, the dialogue between instruments is much more pronounced and the rhythmic definition starts to make itself known, as though Bartók wants to incorporate more of the traditional music around him. There are still pauses for reflection, but essentially the mood is one of grit and determination.

The third movement (46:06) is marked Allegro vivace – a real sign that the composer wants to get on with things. The cello takes up the mantle, its weighty dialogue with the viola inspiring full-bodied ensemble passages and more obviously folky asides.

The musical language flits between tonal statements, with bold tunes, and sections of music with a much less obvious centre. At 50:42 the music retreats, the quartet together but murmuring confidential asides to each other. The music builds and the statements become wilder and more sweeping. There are big chords from 55:49 where the sound could perhaps be bigger…but then Meta4 are saving themselves for a final push, finishing with a wonderfully robust and rustic chord.

As a side note, it was refreshing to see Meta4’s colourful attire for this concert, brightening up a dull February lunchtime! There need be no rules for dress in classical music like this, and it was good to see the quartet wearing what they felt comfortable with.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet in E flat major (1834) (2:41)

Bartók String Quartet no.1 (1908-9) (26:39)

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, which includes Meta4’s own recording of the Bartók from 2014:

It has taken an awful long time for the music of Fanny Mendelssohn to break through to anywhere near the centre of classical repertoire – which is unforgivable really, given how good it is. The playlist below collects her Piano Trio and Piano Quartet, bisected by a Piano Sonata in C minor:

Bartók, meanwhile, is an ever-present as one of the 20th century’s musical innovators. The string quartets form the backbone of his career, and the cycle by the Takács Quartet is certainly one of the finest:

You can see details of Meta4’s Bartók release here:

Live review – CBSO Youth Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Elgar Symphony no.1, Takemitsu & Richard Strauss

CBSO Youth Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 23 February 2020 (3pm)

Takemitsu Dreamtime (1981)
Richard Strauss Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Op.28 (1894-5)
Elgar Symphony no.1 in A flat major Op.55 (1907-08)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is hardly an understatement to say that the concerts given each season by the CBSO Youth Orchestra are frequently among the most enterprising and engaging of all those to be heard in Symphony Hall, with this afternoon’s event under Kazuki Yamada proving no exception.

A contrasted pair of tone poems comprised the succinct first half, beginning with a welcome revival of Toru Takemitsu‘s Dreamtime. Conceived as a dance piece for Netherlands Dance Theatre, this is typical of the music from its composer’s maturity in its dissonant (but rarely abrasive) harmonies and its diaphanous textures. Both of these were fully in evidence, with Yamada also mindful to instill a sense of cumulative unfolding as ensures cohesion in music that can easily drift or lose focus. Suffice to add there was little sense of that happening here.

Takemitsu was not a composer given to the humour (ironic or otherwise) permeating Richard Strauss‘s Till Eulenspiegel, heard in an account that initially felt a little stolid in its depiction of that prankster from the Middle Ages; but which soon gained in conviction over the course of Till’s encounters monkish, amorous and social on the way to a vivid depiction of his trial and execution – with its irrepressible pay-off. Assured playing by woodwind and brass were the highlights of a reading to remind one of just how technically exacting this music remains.

112 years on from its premiere and Elgar‘s First Symphony exudes a very different if equally unequivocal virtuosity, such as happily held few fears for these musicians. Japan has a noted line of Elgar interpreters (not least the conductor Tadaaki Otaka), and Yamada demonstrated his credentials with a taut while never inflexible take on the lengthy opening movements – its indelible ‘motto’ theme eloquently and un-fussily rendered, then the main Allegro securing an almost ideal balance between anxiety and rumination across music which strives without ever regaining that calm assurance whose glimpses become the more affecting for their transience. No less impressive was Yamada’s handling of the coda as this winds down towards becalmed resignation, abetted by playing of exquisite finesse from the CBSOYO woodwind and strings.

There was little to fault in a scherzo that alternated the incisive and the wistful with unforced rightness, and how unerringly Yamada judged its transition into an Adagio that, less moulded than it often is, yet unfolding seamlessly towards its serene close. Not that there was anything bland or uninvolving about this music, or a finale that (rightly) followed with minimal pause; the barely suppressed expectancy of its introduction heading into an Allegro whose impetus hardly faltered. Strings never sounded fazed by the contrapuntal intricacy of its development, while brass came into their collective own during an apotheosis where the re-emergence of the motto theme evinced a triumph shorn of bombast or self-regard; the closing bars setting the seal on a performance of a maturity the more remarkable given the age of its exponents.

Elgar One has over the years come in for more than its fair share of objections to its supposed overtones of jingoism and self-gratification. That there was nothing of that here was tribute to Yamada in his drawing so ardent and insightful an interpretation from the CBSOYO players.

Switched On – Ocoeur: Everything (n5MD)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Franck Zaragoza’s sixth album as Ocoeur comes with a plea. It is about getting people to restore their communication to a more direct level of humanity, rather than spending all the time gazing at devices, heads down.

With a wish that we engage with ‘Everything’ around us, Zaragoza gets to work on a broad, ambient canvas, producing an album of six rather beautiful tracks. The one-word titles speak of the simplicity he is searching for in his music.

What’s the music like?

Everything is a beauty. With it Zaragoza manages to suspend conventional feelings of time. Setting out its scope with the Jean Michel Jarre leanings of Ascent, laden with melancholy, it presents a simple, tonal musical language that evolves beautifully.

The title track introduces a kick drum as punctuation, though the appearance of any drums is relatively rare. Current has icy percussion around the edges as it unwraps a chilly, watery scene. Glow also uses shards of rhythm to accompany its luminous keyboards, unfolding at a natural pace.

It is however the closing pair of Dawn and Dusk that leave a lasting mark. At 20 minutes between them, they have an easy, natural progression across space and time in direct opposition to the busy digital environments around us. There is very little to anchor either production to the ground, but the floated motifs work really well.

Does it all work?

Yes. The softly reflective nature of this music makes it ideal for either end of the day, and Ocoeur’s slow yet measured progressions take place through sounds the listener can dive into.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. Its sentiment is spot on, but so is the feeling you get after 40 minutes spent in Ocoeur’s company. A cleansing and subtly uplifting experience.

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Everything is released on Friday February 28 on n5MD