Live review – Soloists, CBSO and Chorus / Kazuki Yamada – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 7 November 2019

Mendelssohn
Elijah Op.70 (1846)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although 173 years have passed since it first echoed around the Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah remains synonymous with Birmingham’s cultural tradition. Performances may be fewer than in its 19th-century heyday but there have been memorable ones – not least that in 1989 with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, for whom this piece was a speciality – and tonight saw a memorable account by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, who duly banished any notions of this being a mid-Victorian period piece.

Whatever his failings on a broader aesthetic level, Mendelssohn was nothing if not creatively pragmatic when it came to a big occasion, and Elijah accordingly fulfilled its remit. Whereas the composer’s earlier oratorio St Paul had given notice of his abiding interest in the Passions of Bach, here he drew on the exemplar of those biblical epics through which Handel shaped English musical taste over the ensuing 150 years; enhanced by the rhythmic poise of Mozart and the harmonic subtleties of Beethoven to result in music wholly representative of its era.

Structured in two parts of almost equal duration, Elijah charts the trials of its eponymous hero as he draws the Israelites away from the pagan enticements of Baal and back to the true faith before himself ascending on a fiery chariot to Heaven. Julius Schubring‘s text (as sung in the idiomatic translation by William Bartholomew) fashions out of Kings and associated biblical sources a framework whose emotional rhetoric is balanced by a keen underlying momentum and unfailing sense of when to open-out the narrative to allow for more intimate expression.

The score implies eight soloists, but the four on hand (the brief role of ‘The Boy’ affectingly taken by chorus soprano Ella McNamee) proved more than able. As Elijah, Matthew Brook conveyed the anguish and the ecstasy of his part with unwavering assurance, while Robert Murray overcame initial strain to give commanding portrayals of his advocate Obadiah and detractor Ahab. Keri Fuge brought due pathos to the Widow, with Karen Cargill eloquent as the Angel – having stolen the show as the Queen who vents her wrath in unequivocal terms.

As with most of its forerunners, of course, Elijah is defined by a choral contribution in which the CBSO Chorus was not found wanting. Having recently sung the work with Yamada (and these soloists) in Monte Carlo, it conveyed the anger and supplication of the forsaken People with audible conviction, while being no less assured in those intricate choral items by which Mendelssohn frames and punctuates the drama. If choral numbers were appreciably less than the composer might have expected, then this was undoubtedly a case of less equalling more.

Neither should there have been any surprise as to the degree of Yamada’s identity with this music. Japan has produced notable exponents of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, with the present conductor evidently following in their wake. If those choruses ending each half summoned not quite the intensity evinced by Frühbeck all those years ago, the clarity and incisiveness he drew from both chorus and orchestra was hardly to be gainsaid – so setting the seal on a memorable reading of a work sure to wear its Birmingham credentials well into the future.

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(Ben Hogwood writes…) Among the many available versions of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, sadly none of these appear to yet include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – though one wonders if an extension to their Mendelssohn in Birmingham series will be forthcoming under Edward Gardner.

Spotify does however have a recent recording of Elijah from the Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh, with Robert Murray once again in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab. The organ itself was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall:

Switched On – R Plus: The Last Summer (Loaded Records)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

When R Plus released singles Summer Dress and Those Were The Days in an undercover style earlier in the year there was a lot of chat as to who could be behind the music. Now R Plus has been revealed as a close relative of Faithless.

Key to the project is Rollo Armstrong but his sister Dido also plays a key role, having worked on the project alongside her recent album.

What’s the music like?

Some of the productions are Rollo on his own and are essentially down-tempo Faithless, sitting by the pool rather than heading towards the dancefloor, as they undoubtedly would have done with the edge of Maxi Jazz‘s vocal.

Dido’s vocal contributions work really well here, complementing the synths on the likes of the woozy Summer Dress and Cards. Landing and Together make a classy pair at the start, while Those Were The Days is top notch Rollo, a Balearic winner that is the equal of any of his solo projects over the last 25 years.

The dividing track will probably be Ozzie Girl, its tale of a holiday ‘romance’ vividly evocative of a summer holiday but not to everyone’s tastes.

Does it all work?

At times there could be more of an edge to the music, which does occasionally enjoy its comfort zone a little too much. Generally however The Last Summer is a success, Rollo’s honed production skills and instincts delivering a strong sunshine album.

Is it recommended?

A qualified recommendation. Faithless fans will enjoy its curiosity value and the effectiveness of the songs, not to mention the heat-soaked instrumentals. This is certainly music Rollo can make with ease, and it would be good in the future to see him really pushing his undoubted talents further once again.

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Switched On – Steve Hauschildt: Nonlin (Ghostly International)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Chicago-based Steve Hauschildt is in a rich vein of musical form at the moment, and follows up last year’s Dissolvi album with Nonlin, his second for the Ghostly label. The ex-Emeralds member has been recording while on tour, drawing from varied climates and cultural hubs such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Tbilisi and Brussels.

Hauschildt’s Bandcamp page describes his integration of ‘modular and granular synthesis’, and a technique of recording that plots grid-like backdrops, with subtle melodic loops, and treble lines that are relatively free to improvise.

What’s the music like?

This combination of a relatively rigid order for the background and free melodic presence in the foreground is effective throughout Nonlin, which manages to be both relaxing and stimulating at the same time.

Hauschildt eases us in with the soft and slightly moody outlook of Cloudloss and Subtractive Skies, which pulse with shimmering loops while evoking the bigger spaces their titles imply.

As the album progresses so we hear more the beats and the sharper edges of the producer’s analogue gear. Attractor B has depth to its beats while Nonlin itself is machine like, with busy patterns and noises. Reverse Culture Music has a nice poise, Hauschildt using twinkling motifs up top and broad notes and sounds to create the space below. The last two tracks, The Spring in Chartreuse and American Spiral, are more obviously techno-based, the latter starting serenely but gradually twisting its lines.

Does it all work?

Yes. Hauschildt is a reliable source of quality, easy to listen to but never standing still either.

Is it recommended?

Yes, for the point above. Hauschildt’s body of work has no duds – and Nonlin is another extremely solid addition to the canon.

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Switched On – Space Dimension Controller: Love Beyond The Intersect (R&S Records)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Love Beyond The Intersect is the second album from Belfast-based Space Dimension Controller, aka Jack Hamill. Like its predecessor, 2016’s Orange Melamine, which drew from old VHS tapes, this one has an analogue and organic feel to it.

For the storyline Hamill goes back further to the 2013 debut Welcome to Mikrosector-50, renewing an acquaintance with its protagonist Mr 8040. In a refreshing break with the norm, the entire press release sets out the story.

It tells that Mr 8040 has crash landed on a strange planet, following a ‘space dust and vecta grog fuelled burnout’, and he is looking to escape in any way he can. The album follows his trials, tribulations and encounters, which become more emotional than he probably anticipated, and resolves with a neat twist that wouldn’t have been obvious at the beginning.

What’s the music like?

Deep orange may have been the colour last time out, but this time it’s deep purple – in colour only mind, not musical style! If anything Love Beyond The Intersect does reflect that colour though, being dark but more spaced out than its predecessor. There is still a good deal going on musically, but Hammill pans out to take in the surroundings, using expansive textures to complement the close-up, dub inflected places to which the music goes.

These include PVLN, where fragments of deep spoken word can be quite unnerving, recalling some of the work of Jimmy Edgar. Voices Lost To Empty Space, which is quicker and quite minimal with a busy bass line, portrays our subject’s desire to get a move on. He comes to a halt in Intersect Encounter though, where the planet’s heavy atmosphere has a sluggish effect on our subject.

The funk quotient definitely increases as the album progresses, with Early Steps adding a bit of disco and Sundown On Memory Point tripping along nicely. Alone In An Unknown Sector is cool – with those deep vocals back again – and has a nice loping beat and fuzzy backdrop, capturing weird lights and vapour trails. It’s quite a delicate approach to funk that reveals more with each listen, capped nicely by the title track, which chugs along in slow disco fashion.

Does it all work?

Yes. It’s fun to be able to approach the music of Love Beyond The Intersect on two levels. The concept album, as vividly brought to life by Hamill, fires the imagination – or you can just enjoy the album as a well-planned series of excellent, atmospheric tracks that make a really satisfying whole.

There is a pleasing urban grit to Hamill’s approach, and a decent amount of funk too. Parallels with The Orb would be valid at this point, but with less bonkers humour and a more subtle, endearing approach.

Is it recommended?

Yes, because there is more to Love Beyond The Intersect than initially meets the ear. What is never in doubt is Hamill’s clever storytelling, imagination and subtle electronic flair.

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Switched On – Will Saul: Open Too Close (Aus Music)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Will Saul is a seasoned dance music producer, but in the last decade or so his preference has been to operate behind the scenes. That still makes for a busy life of music, with the highly regarded Aus Music to run, an excellent contribution to the DJ Kicks! series and a good deal of DJ work.

Open Too Close sees him return to the album format for the first time in 13 years, and employs his structural thinking of a DJ, condensing ‘what I play in a club if an eight hour set was condensed into ten tracks’.

What’s the music like?

Saul’s approach is a good one on several levels, for it allows him to show off his musical versatility while giving the listener value for money in the variety stakes.

It proves easy to relocate Open Too Close to the club, for in Freya’s Theme we have the perfect warm-up, a shuffling beat supporting cool keyboards that is reminiscent of earlier Matthew Herbert. It successfully captures that moment in a club where you know it’s where you want to be for the rest of the night, and a few hours’ dancing at the very least lie ahead.

Capitalizing on that, Room 9 and Visions up the tempo successively, the latter given a brilliant vocal hook as its beat harks back to 1980s funk. Openings and Moorings are bouncy numbers, Saul hinting at urban garage with the offbeat vocals, before Pingalatu breaks cover, driving forward with a sound that is pleasingly rough round the edges, a bit of pure club music.

Through the album Saul puts his music in the context of stuff he really likes and the artists and DJs he works with and around, meaning the style is never restricted beyond something you would definitely dance to. My Left Sock shows this off brilliantly, an energetic piece of break beat, countered by the warm weather specials Submerge and One For Rex, with its clattering beat. Get Back Up signs off with a nod in the direction of Detroit, spacious chords complementing the robotic vocals.

Does it all work?

Yes. Saul appears to have deliberately given himself the maximum time of an hour to fulfil his brief, and the ten tracks described above form part of a longer-reaching structure like a DJ set, just as he wanted them to.

It means the music always feels like it’s heading somewhere, and with a good number of earworms there is no chance of Saul outstaying his welcome.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Great to have him back as a creator of music as well as a DJ. He’s too good not to do both!

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