On record – Craven Faults: Erratics & Unconformities (The Leaf Label)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

How refreshing to find an artist that keeps their self-promotion to a minimum. That said, it would be good to know more about Craven Faults at some point! Real name Richard Formby, he has a simple biography on his record label site describing his moniker as ‘half-remembered journeys across post-industrial Yorkshire’.

In fact Craven Faults has been a thing for a while, with his well-received Lowfold Works EPs containing electronic music that shows off an ambitious grasp of musical structure. He is capable of stretching out his approach to minimal music into tracks of 20 minutes or more, using the barest of elements like Philip Glass does but building them up with oscillating synthesizers and drones.

Erratics & Unconformities is his first LP.

What’s the music like?

The Yorkshire reference is helpful, for as first track Vacca Wall establishes its shimmering content it feels like a look across the brooding landscape of the North Yorkshire Moors – but gradually opens out like the wings of a darkly shaded butterfly. This is music supported by a constant bass line, which tolls out like a deep bell, and a percussion track that never extends beyond a single kick drum, if at all.

The instruction from The Leaf Label to ‘put a 17-minute window in your diary and watch the video for Vacca Wall is worth following. In their words, ‘the rest of your inbox can wait, you need slowly unravelling analogue synthesizer arpeggios right now’:

With the mood set for the album, the next five tracks spread across nearly an hour, revealing different but often darker shades. The shorter Deipkier has a kick drum too, while Cupola Smelt Mill has sharper definition to the synthesizers and a bassline off the beat. Picking up the more industrial theme, Slack Sley & Temple is even darker, its brooding outlines giving the impression of a machine. This is the biggest track on the album, an expansive number of austere beauty.

Hangingstones regains some of the mood of the opening, while Signal Post has a more soothing drone at its base.

Does it all work?

Yes. Craven Faults has a distinctive style, and repeated listening brings out the rhythmic invention in his music, which is greater than you might at first think. It explains why he doesn’t need anything more than a kick drum.

Ultimately this album works best as a single unit in which to immerse yourself, drawing the listener in with its textures and spatial effects.

Is it recommended?

Yes, because there is some very fine music here – though it does come with the health warning that its dark nature is not necessarily ideal for the oppressively cloudy January days where it barely gets light!

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On record – Manuel Barrueco, José Staneck, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero – Villa-Lobos: Guitar & Harmonica Concertos (Naxos)

Manuel Barrueco (guitar), José Staneck (harmonica), São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero

Heitor Villa-Lobos
Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra (1951)
Sexteto Místico (1917-55)
Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1955)
Quinteto Instrumental (1957)

Sexteto Místico: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Layla Köhler (oboe), Douglas Braga (alto saxophone), Fábio Zanon (guitar), Rogério Zaghi (celesta), Suélem Sampaio (harp)
Quinteto Instrumental: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Adrian Petrutiu (violin), Ederson Fernandes (viola), Adriana Holtz (cello), Suélem Sampaio (harp)

Naxos 8.574018 [60’04”]

Producer and Engineer Ulrich Schneider

Recorded 30-31 July (Guitar Concerto), 2-4 August 2017 (Harmonica Concerto), 29 April 2018 (Sexteto & Quintet), 2017 Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Naxos make a significant addition to their series The Music of Brazil with works from the country’s favourite classical music son, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos’ instrument was the guitar, and it takes centre stage for the much-loved Concerto, complemented by its cousin for harmonica and orchestra. Two chamber-sized pieces for six and five instrumentalists respectively complete an attractive line-up.

What’s the music like?

Warm and sunny – a perfect counterpart to the gloomy late mornings and early evenings of December!

The Guitar Concerto is especially good, a compact design with the small orchestra complementing the guitar perfectly. The piece has an easy going nature from the beginning but that doesn’t mean it’s insubstantial, as the wistful second theme proves. The slow movement is elegant but also keenly felt, with a thoughtful yet virtuosic cadenza that leads straight into the finale, which is crisp and incisive.

It is still unusual to hear the combination of harmonica and orchestra in a classical context, and the instrument’s piercing tone won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, no matter how good the performance. That said, Villa-Lobos, who wrote the Harmonica Concerto for the skilled American harmonica player John Sebastian, gives the main instrument plenty of good tunes and soulful inflections.

The small-scale works accompanying the concertos are both attractive too. The Sexteto Místico appears to have had a chequered history. Begun in 1917, when composers were exploring alternative sonorities in their chamber music, it was not published until final completion in 1955. It paints attractive colours of pastel shades, the addition of guitar and celesta giving it an exotic air, especially in the unison passages. Meanwhile the bigger Quinteto Instrumental feels more classical in its instrumentation and musical language, again using consonant harmonies that radiate sunshine. With a warm sonic picture the recorded sound is ideal.

Does it all work?

Much of it does. The Guitar Concerto receives an ideal performance that feels wholly authentic with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s accompaniment. Their dialogue with Manuel Barrueco is beautifully observed and lovingly phrased under Giancarlo Guerrero‘s direction, and Barrueco gives an excellent account of a justly popular work.

José Staneck is on brilliant form in the Harmonica Concerto, with impressive virtuosity complemented by lyricism, but even that and a sensitive orchestral accompaniment do not quite win me over on the work. It could just be a case of unfamiliarity with the harmonica in this context though, so don’t let that put you off!

The sextet and quintet are ideal, sunlight streaming in on these affectionate accounts that capture the fluid writing for harp, guitar and celesta round the edges.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s great to see Villa-Lobos programmed in this way, and the disc has great warmth and hence enormous appeal. Barrueco’s version of the Guitar Concerto is a great modern complement to those made by John Williams, Julian Bream and Narciso Yepes, and the couplings show off the composer’s versatility and invention.

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You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Naxos website here

On record – Nash Ensemble – Julian Anderson: Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)

Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

Julian Anderson
Ring Dance (1987) Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins)
The Bearded Lady (1994) Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano)
The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) Philippa Davies (alto flute), Ian Brown (piano)
Prayer (2009) Lawrence Power (viola)
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) Benjamin Nabarro (violin, triangle), Michael Gurevich (violin, triangle), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)
Another Prayer (2012) Benjamin Nabarro (viola)
Van Gogh Blue (2015) Ian Brown (piano), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Marie Lloyd (clarinet, bass clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)

Producer and Engineer David Lefeber
Digital Editing Susanne Stanzeleit

Recorded 1-3 April 2019 at Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Kent

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Back in 2007 NMC released a disc called Book of Hours, a highly enjoyable compendium of the work of Julian Anderson, where smaller-scale music rubbed shoulders with ambitious works like the Symphony and the Book of Hours itself, which combined an ensemble and electronics to fascinating effect.

Poetry Nearing Silence is to all intents and purposes a follow-up release to that Gramophone Award winner, and features the Nash Ensemble and their members in short works by Anderson. They range from solo instrumental pieces to suites for ensemble, written from 1987 to 2015.

What’s the music like?

Concentrated, effective and stimulating. It is great to have such variety within a disc the listener can either dip into or experience in full. Either approach brings dividends.

Ring Dance, for two violins, opens the collection with the instruction that it should ‘be played with unimaginable joy!’ The open string drones with which the piece starts give a penetrating sound, and this approach is consistent with the piece. The instruction with some of the bowing is often to dig in hard near the strings, which gives an extra scratchy timbre. The sound is also striking when the open strings shift up a fifth, accentuating the positive if not always obviously joyful.

The Bearded Lady is next, receiving a tour de force account from clarinetist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. After the bold opening it becomes more lyrical if still high in its register, defiant yet mournful in its regret at how characters such as the bearded lady – in this case, Baba the Turk from Auden’s The Rake’s Progress – have been portrayed on stage. The uncompromising notes from the piano at the end speak plenty here.

It is surprising not more composers write for alto flute, for the instrument has a really appealing sonority. Anderson writes enchantingly on his nocturne The Colour of Pomegranates, aided by a richly coloured performance from Philippa Davies and Ian Brown, which builds to the sound of tolling bells on the piano and sharper, bird like squawks from the flute. This piece sounds a lot further East than England – and indeed is named after an Armenian film.

Another change of sound brings in the husky viola of Lawrence Power for Prayer, a more recent piece in which Anderson enjoys writing for the instrument he learned briefly in his teens. Here is a reminder that the instrument has a much bigger range than composers often use, grainy in its lower register but with a penetrating line higher up where Anderson capitalises for his melodic material. You might expect Prayer to be a contemplation but this one lets its thoughts unravel and regroup.

After four pieces bringing forward solo instruments, the disc moves to the ensemble number that gave its name. Poetry Nearing Silence is for seven players and runs through eight short movements, where Anderson reacts to the unusual drawings and words therein of Tom Phillips. The crisp chords that open Muse in Rocks or Pebbles or Clouds or Foliage are immediately appealing for their watery colours, and the suite continues to deliver keen illustrations of its subject matter. Anderson writes dreamy lines through Know Vienna, while the intriguing buzzing of a ratchet, played by the second violin, adds mystery to the bigger ensemble number My Future as the Star in a Film of My Room. As the suite progresses Anderson makes keen use of his resources in concentrated, expressive music that charms and impresses in equal measure. Shrill clarinet and gritty strings make notable colours, yet when the piece collapses as the bell tolls in Tall Rain Rattled Over Paris, the music subsides into silence. A dramatic piece well worth returning to.

Another Prayer returns us to solo instruments, this time for violin. It is around the same length as its viola counterpart heard earlier on, and shares some melodic material. It shares its restlessness too, forthright from the start and buzzing with nervous energy. Benjamin Nabarro rises to its challenges comfortably, but also creates a rarefied atmosphere with the harmonics of the central section.

Finally the most substantial piece, Van Gogh Blue, based on the painter’s letters that relish ‘the sheer stuff of which his own art is made’. This is the most obviously expressive piece of the collection, with clarinet-rich sonorities and expansive piano teamed to immediate effect in L’Aube, soleil naissant. Second movement Les Vignobles invokes the dance, while Les Alpilles teems with activity and life, the painter seemingly writing faster than his pen will allow. The clarinets dominate here. Eygalieres is a heat haze, with lovely colours emanating from the suspended chords of the ensemble, expanded by the piano. They create fuzzy yet bright sound worlds. Finally la nuit, peindre les étoiles is more playful, pizzicato violin and clarinet often in cahoots. There is a bigger scope to this movement, the recording playing effectively with perspective as some of the group sound detached and distant, almost bickering in the room next door.  The sparring, completed over solemn piano notes, completes an eventful and compelling piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is well worth giving the disc several airings so the works make themselves clear. It will be apparent that Julian Anderson is capable of writing concentrated music that sticks, and that he is incredibly versatile in his writing either for alto flute, viola or even the ratchet. Martyn Brabbins conducts superb accounts of the ensemble pieces, technically fault free in the way the Nash Ensemble tend to be – but also finding the sensitive centre of Van Gogh Blue in the beautifully voiced Eygalieres.

Is it recommended?

Yes, very much so. While Anderson’s orchestral works have rightly enjoyed good exposure of late, the chamber music has tended to drift under the radar. What it needed was a collection like this to push it into the spotlight.

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You can listen to clips from Poetry Nearing Silence and to purchase a copy at the Presto website here

On record – Devonté Hynes: Queen & Slim: Original Motion Picture Score (Domino)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It has been quite a year for Devonté Hynes. While keeping his Blood Orange pop persona very much in the foreground through touring and the new Angel’s Pulse mixtape, he has really furthered his ambitions to be a composer of soundtrack and ultimately classical material. The latter projects have borne fruit with the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble, but the soundtrack ventures have also progressed with this, his second soundtrack commission after Palo Alto, completed for Gia Coppola in 2013.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas to a script from Lena Waithe, Queen & Slim has been well-received, a romantic drama with an undoubtedly tragic overtone. Without giving away too much of the plot, that is the loose blueprint from which Hynes’ score evolves.

What’s the music like?

With 20 tracks spread over little more than 36 minutes, it is perhaps inevitable that Queen & Slim feels a little fragmented at times. Yet as Hynes has already shown us in his pop music that he is capable of setting a scene with very little padding to his structures, and so it proves here.

Kids may be just over a minute but even in that time it shows a tender heart to its string scoring. This cuts to the rather more sombre piano of Hair, but here too Hynes expands the sound with a doleful saxophone. Opening then shows his ease with analogue or digital sources, teasing out threat-ridden music with little more than dissonant drones and a bass drum.

Of the more substantial numbers on the soundtrack most stick in the memory. A Couple Deer has a lovely calming sonority, while Love Theme makes much from little material, not greatly substantial but hitting the right emotional spot.

Slim Calls Home spreads out its perspective to big reverberation but then Uncle’s House reintroduces the ominous drums of Opening, which Get Upstairs and Start The Car take a step further. Hynes has a distinctive way of pointing his strings and the textures bode ill rather than good.

Sneak Out is perhaps the most distinctive and unnerving track of all, and at four minutes has time to develop. It begins with rough tremolos from solo string instruments that provide eerie outlines rather than solid shapes, the uneasy atmosphere not helped by the introduction of a wavering bass line.

A resolution is ultimately found, but despite its initially consonant chords the music of Arrival is bittersweet, with booming percussion and string-based dissonances returning to cloud the picture. The closing track Kissed All Your Scars remains affected by this but provides more respite.

Some of the snippets of music are little more than descriptive postcards in the style of Max Richter, forming briefly sketched portraits but unable to say much more than that in half a minute. They do still show Hynes’ deft way with scoring, however.

Does it all work?

Yes, largely. Some of the promising material is frustratingly short but necessarily so, meaning the listener has to deal with occasionally being sold short when enjoyable scenes or moods move on abruptly.

With that taken in to account, Hynes sets his scenes with very little fuss and plenty of flair. As an orchestrator he is of the ‘less is more’ approach, which gives him plenty of room for manoeuvre.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you are following Hynes’ work on all fronts then this will be essential listening, and it serves as an exciting pointer to show where he might go next. His is one of the most inquisitive minds in music currently, and the ease with which he moves across genres is rare indeed. It will be interesting to see if he moves on to bigger structures in the future.

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You can purchase this release from the Domino website

Switched On – Balance presents Vivrant mixed by Jeremy Olander

Various Artists: Balance presents Vivrant mixed by Jeremy Olander (Balance)

What’s the story?

‘Melancholic’ and ‘cinematic’ are two of the words closely associated with Jeremy Olander’s music. They are often applied to the Swedish producer’s own work and his DJ sets, which often contain a lot of his own music. Time, then, for him to release one of those commercially – which he does here on the Balance label. Olander confesses to feeling a little intimidated by the prospect, with last year’s epic contribution from James Zabiela casting quite a shadow, but he nonetheless steps up with music from his own studio and those of his Vivrant label artists.

What’s the music like?

Yes. Olander goes for an expansive style in his mixing, and often stays rooted to the same pitch for ten minutes or more. This is a really effective tactic, creating wide open spaces and a pleasant feeling of hypnosis for the listener, who after a while will discover their feet are tapping automatically. The introduction of the first mix bears this out, with three tracks from J.Singh that stay rooted to one pitch before long bass notes move the music on. Marino Canal & Miguel Payda’s Hidden Eyes are excellent, with a moody vocal and soaring line.

The mix is like a single, arching structure, as is the second which has an utterly sublime beginning from Olander’s own track Akzo. This is a lovely, starry piece of music and it cuts to more spacey, beat driven material in Yoyo. Again the continuity here is more important than single standout single tracks, and Olander judges the build of intensity in the mix just right, finishing with his own Life After Death.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Olander’s mixes are in for the long haul and work best when heard in full, creating spaced out and hypnotic atmospheres. They may not always be full of hooks but the late night spell is cast to perfection.

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You can buy this release on the Balance website