Office Soundtrack: Idomeneo (Mozart)

This is a definite top 10 opera for me. Possibly even top 5. I’ve had a blast, this week, reacquainting myself with the six recordings I have of it. Generally accepted as Mozart’s first mature opera, it’s a fine example of opera seria. Despite our man acknowledging Gluck’s reforms – ballet is included and the shipwreck scene closing Act I at least nods to, if not blatantly steals from, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – all the classical Italian tropes are present and correct. Particularly in the secco and stromentato recitatives.

The libretto by Varseco is fashioned from an original text by Danchet, with a strong Mestastasion flavour. Thus both the drama and the music are a skilled amalgam of the French and Italian styles.

As all opera, indeed all music, lends itself to a variety of interpretations, there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ or ‘best’ reading. Most will have their charms. These three, however, are in my view the best three available and cover all the bases both the casual listener and discerning connoisseur might require.

Jon Eliot Gardiner’s authority in this repertoire is, of course, indisputable.  Here, as in everything he approaches, impeccable scholarship and flawless musical instincts combine to produce probably the most authentic Idomeneo ever committed to disc. This is, essentially, the performance given at its premiere but ‘Jegsy’ has included the material an affronted and irked Amadeus was forced to cut from the score so fill your boots, dear listener.

Aided and abetted by his usual sidekicks, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists (they deliver probably the best closing Act III ballet you’ll ever hear, by the way), Eliot Gardiner deploys stellar talent in the lead roles. Consummate pro that he is, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, stamps himself all over his titular role and, for my money, is a far better fit than the more mainstream bel canto tenors found in rival recordings.

But it’s the women who steal the show; Sophie von Otter’s Idamante is moving and never less than convincing; Sylvia McNair is liquid, pure and sumptuous while Hillevi Martinpelto is a mesmerizingly lacerating Elettra.

Charles Mackerras is no less an authoritative Mozartian than Jegsy, but of the old school. Albeit something of a period instrument/performance pioneer. That said, his score is complete, too, so makes for an interesting apples-to-apples comparison.

Bostridge, as Idomeneo, isn’t my first choice; a tad too smooth, shading dangerously close to blandness on occasions. Rolfe Johnson pops up here, as well, in the smaller Arbace role.  While Lieberson (Idamante), Milne (Ilia) and Frittoli (Elettra) are all perfectly acceptable-to-excellent, Eliot Gardiner’s singers deliver that little bit more.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are outstanding, despatching the orchestral score with panache and a relaxed insouciance that disguises their commitment to the maestro’s vision.

With this performance, huge on excitement, the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. While Jegsy delivers gravitas and gripping solemnity, Mackerras winkles out the subtle humour hidden deep in the text, particularly Act II, and provides an exhilarating and good-natured reading. It’s marvellous fun and if encountering Idomeneo for the first time this is the most accessible reading available.

And so to René Jacobs. Crank or visionary? To many the man is marmite but it’s difficult to see why. Yes, he’s certainly idiosyncratic but the firmness of his intellectual grasp means anything he delivers doesn’t need to look long for strong supporting arguments.

His series of Mozart operas for Harmonia Mundi include some of the finest Mozart recordings of the modern age. Here, he goes further than even Jegsy and Charlie and includes every note willingly dispatched by Mozart himself! A courageous decision, to be sure. His reading features the least distinguished cast of the three but there are ample compensations. He is the better dramatist of the three and the human tragedy of the characters shines through stronger than in any other reading. You’ll either like his trademark (comparatively) breakneck tempi or you’ll howl in anguish but, for my money, it’s always at the service of the whole and sounds entirely natural in the context he sets for himself and his musicians.

Other highlights? I like what some might find to be the intrusive continuo and there is probably the best Act III quartet ever recorded. It’s electrifying, frankly.

The sound, too, is first rate. Combining clarity, depth and richness, it’s what hi-fi was made for. There is a bonus DVD, too, where Jacobs explains his thinking and approach which is well worth your time.

Serious collectors absolutely need all three. I couldn’t possibly do without any of them but if you’re an Idomeneo virgin I’d advise the MacKerras recording as your starting point.


Office Soundtrack: The Hub of Hubbard

This is a simply ferocious session. The incendiary brace of Without a Song and the pedal-to-the-metal death-driver Just One of Those Things must surely comprise one of the most uncompromising openings to any hard-bop date ever recorded. One can only imagine what Cole Porter would have made of Hubbard’s scorching assault on his material.

Freddie was in Germany when he cut this session, straight off the back of intensive road-work and the resulting tightness of the quintet is a joy to hear.

From 1969 It’s fascinating, too, as he stands at the junction of the hard-bop he would soon leave behind and the electro-jazz funk he would embrace in barely a year’s time. The band barely pay lip service to the heads of each take before tearing them off and then reconstructing their charts in a white-hot blaze of unrestrained passion.

Freddie, himself, lays down at least three of the greatest solos he ever recorded and, frankly, they are worth the price alone. Add to that the self-penned Blues for Duane (Hubbard’s son), featuring a mellow and lyrical Daniels solo, and everything else is a bonus. That your buck is banged to beyond the max by Richard Davis on bass, Roland Hanna on keys and the too-little heard Louis Hayes on drums, means The Hub of Hubbard is both essential and, at under a tenner on CD, grand theft audio.

Go get it and thank me later.

Culture Music

The Magic Flute: Opera North

Nottingham Theatre Royal
There’s a school of thought that a decent Die Zauberflöte stands or falls on the strength (or lack thereof) of Papageno. Personally, I’ve always found the character capable of being immensely irritating and the mystifying preference of some to ham it up only intensifies my annoyance. Tonight’s culprit – Irish tenor, Gavin Ring – costumed as a bizarre combo of an extra from Mrs. Brown’s Boys and Vivien from The Young Ones, should’ve seen me bolting for the bar well before the end of Act 1. That I stayed was a testament to the overall excellence of one of the best Opera North productions I’ve ever seen. And, to be entirely fair, to Mr. Ring who, despite the shudderingly ridiculous costume, delivered a performance of warmth and charm.


The Magic Flute is one of only two operas, three at a push, that I can stand in English translation and while Schikeneder might have wept oceans at the liberties taken with his libretto, Opera North delivered a superb production.

The sets, FX and costumes held up well against anything on offer at Covent Garden this season and the pacing was perfect.

Musically, the company rarely fails to deliver, and this production was no exception. Many highlights but, for me, the Three Ladies were outstanding.

The poniards, hoodwinks, cabletows and regular steps (and a ‘Festive Board’ I kid you not!) provided nudge-nudge-wink-wink enjoyment for any Freemasons in the audience but the honours went to soprano Samantha Hays. Her Queen of The Night – unusually, all intense vulnerability and stricken pathos – was mesmerising and commanded the audience’s sympathy. Well, mine at least…


Office Soundtrack: Search For The New Land

Morgan’s commercial success with The Sidewinder means that this date, recorded before but released immediately afterwards, is too often overlooked.

Morgan is in expansive and relaxed form and perfectly in sync with a flawless rhythm section comprising Billy Higgins and Reggie Workman.

By now, the world knew he could tear it up plenty, when the mood took him. But here, he mostly eschews the incendiary feats of virtuosity and, instead, swings and swaggers with a lyrical gusto. Almost reminiscent of the great Harry James.

Where most musicians induce tension via harmonic means, Higgins and Workman ramp it up by stretching the rubato to snapping point. Most obviously on Mr. Kenyatta, arguably the stand-out cut against seriously stiff competition.

No filler, all killer and one of Morgan’s greatest sessions.


Office Soundtrack: The Colour Of Spring

Japan and David Sylvian blew my mind. I used to listen to Obscure Alternatives, an album I disliked intensely, just so I could then play Gentlemen Take Polaroids and sit and wonder how the fuck they got from there to here. With just the stepping stone of Quiet Life between the two.

Bowie, at least in any serious way, was still a year or two down the line for me. Bryan Ferry, too. And Lou Reed and Eno as well. Maybe if I’d arrived at Japan and Sylvian chronologically they wouldn’t have seemed so other worldly. Who knows? Who cares…

But all my retrospection had been duly done by the time this came my way and still it hammered me. Like something from the great architect of the musical universe himself. It was something that shattered expectations, conventions and understandings.

And even the music itself, eerie & aching with all the yearning of one soul reaching out towards the rest of us, was still less than the sum of its parts. Not since Miles Davis did a musician understand the power of absence like Mark Hollis; the devastating impact of emptiness and the transforming force of the note unwritten; the note unplayed; the note unheard but always felt. But it had to be that way. Those big, haunting spaces made room for all the humanity he crammed in.

R.I.P. Mark Hollis. The world just got that little bit darker.


Office Soundtrack: Hush!

I bought this purely for Child’s Play. A spirited & infectious freewheeling work-out with Byrd and Coles; both of whom are clearly having a high old time.

The Duke himself, however, always passed me by. No doubting his lyrical feel & melodic sensibility (still less his skill as an arranger) but his improvs too often erred on the side of caution and in a time and place crammed with so much incendiary talent his minor status was pretty much assured.

This, though, is a delight and offers more than just the Byrd/Coles showcase. The short format suits Pearson perfectly and, the irritating fade-out on Angel Eyes aside, represents one of his most enjoyable sessions.

Conventional? Yes. Predictable, even. But a tight, compact session fizzing with energy and high on melody.


Office Soundtrack: The Black Parade

This is a brave, imaginative and superbly-executed piece of work. The young band deciding, in the middle of the digital, disposable, attention-wrecking noughties, to release a concept album inspired by the great dinosaur rock acts of yore. The listener, therefore, will find a deliberate and brilliantly-wrought homage to Queen, Pink Floyd, ELO, Yes and others.

Turbo-charged 70s stadium rock via post-911 armageddon emo and a nutty vaudeville workout  sounds an unlikely, if not horrifying, amalgam. Yet its genius is not merely the audacious musical alchemy that the band deploy to stunning effect; it’s the humanity. And it rises, defiantly, from the cracks, between the charred and cancer-ravaged corpses that litter the album, like spring flowers defiantly in bloom; it’s the powerful and distinctive voice of a young band at their peak that really scores. All the Emo stereotyping and scorn heaped upon the band’s collective head count for nought in the face of one of the very best albums of the last thirty years.

Gerard Way, far too frequently maligned as a self-indulgent, self-pitying emo poster-boy, turns in a career-defining performance and the lyrics, all bitter asides, witty irony and biting cynicism, nestle snugly with moments of real heart, real beauty and an empathy that moves.

Once described as The Dark Side of The Moon for the Tim Burton generation, The Black Parade is angry and celebratory, tender and bitter and very special indeed. The listener will wade through death before the epiphany arrives; this album is life. And it is beauty unbound.

Haters gonna hate, of course, but listen without prejudice, my friends. The Black Parade deserves nothing less. And so do you.


Office Soundtrack: Hub-Tones

There has been some controversy regarding Blue Note‘s Rudy Van Gelder remasters but they work brilliantly for most listeners. The thing about the horns, and, of course, it’s purely subjective, is that these editions actually improve what many thought was a slight imbalance on the original recordings. Yes, we know Rudy liked to shove the brass right up in your face and, especially with a swaggering, incendiary player like Freddie, it’s great. But it often seemed as though the keys, in particular, and the bass, were low in the mix, rather than the horns being high, per se.

This 1962 set is a classic from Freddie, his sixth for Blue Note. Apart from the stellar contribution of Spaulding on alto, a nice alternative to tenor, and Herbie Hancock repaying Hubbard’s favour for Maiden Voyage, the confidence and mastery evident on Lament for Booker from the 24 yr old Hubbard is worth the price alone.
Miles Davis, for all his trailblazing vision and imagination, wasn’t even half the technical and physical horn player of Hubbard.

You need this in your life.


Evil Scarecrow

Stumbled over a couple of drafts of old reviews, earlier today, of Evil Scarecrow gigs from a few years back. I can’t recall where they originally appeared (or, frustratingly where and when the gigs took place)  – Powerplay Magazine, perhaps, during my two-year stint with the mag – but on re-reading them I was immediately reminded of what a really great band they are.

They’ve had some well-deserved success, over recent years, including appearances at Bloodstock, the Metal Hammer awards and much else. All the while, bafflingly, remaining unsigned by a major rock or metal label. Such as they even exist these days.

News of the ‘Best Black Metal Parody Band from Nottingham, in The World, Ever’ appearing at this year’s Download Festival is both welcome and, hopefully, an opportunity for them to catch the eye of a decent label talent scout.

So no further excuse needed, then, to share their excellent new video and the very best wishes to the band and their lovely manager, Jen Hill, for Download ’15.

If you’re new to the band, here are those aforementioned reviews which will give you some idea of what you’re getting into…

As the Dies irae from Verdi’s Requiem filled the venue, Evil Scarecrow ascended the stage to a furious roar. Possibly Black Metal’s best kept secret, the parody band achieves the seemingly impossible task of combining a deep respect for extreme metal while mercilessly taking the piss.

Sixty Six Minutes Past Six, Vampire Trousers and Blacken The Everything contained enough blast beats, death growls and bowel-churning riffage to satisfy even the most po-faced of Norwegian Church burners, while simultaneously serving up a large side order of pure comedy genius.

Main man, Doctor Hell’s, famous 4 Note Solo triggered laughter all over the venue while Ashes induced moshing of such intensity that bodies crashed over the monitors and onto the stage, with wince-inducing regularity. Bassist Kraven Mordeth, skinsman Papa Bongo and keyboard player Princess Luxury played on, unconcernedly. Just another day at the altar. Lead guitarist, Brother Pain’s end of show crowd surf to the strains of the “…best Black Metal cover of The Final Countdown, in the world, ever” had to be seen to be believed.

Superb stuff and the best metal theatre since Alice Cooper exchanged guillotined babies for God and golf. Peerless.


Pantomime metal mentalists, Evil Scarecrow, can seemingly do no wrong, currently. Their well-deserved and hard-earned rapidly ascending star shows no signs of dimming and their first visit to the MFN facilitated an enjoyable deflowering for many scarecrow virgins.

Architects, not so much of songs as comedy sketches of ironic invention, everything that is brilliant about this act was, tonight, on vibrant and multi-sensory display.

Morbid Witches kindly purchasing pints of mild, fashionistas sporting Vampyre Trousers and “…the most evil, most metal, most violent cover of a cartoon theme tune ever” (Thunder Cats, natch) were just some of the attractions on show at the Evil Scarecrow circus of comic madness.

Robotatron worked it’s failure-proofed, nutty magic, Dr Hell and Brother Pain each had their very own face-painted mini-me and a guest appearance by celebrity-groupie, Slagbot, ensured everything that was needed for the most fun to be had since, well, the last Evil Scarecrow party, was present and correct.

Dr Hell, even by his own particularly high standards, was on singular form and his doomed attempts to conjure the mass-sob fest that was Blacken The Everything were hilariously subverted by Brother Pain leading the rest of the band into an impromptu hoe-down.

His crazed rush around the venue, dispensing high fives along with the licks, kept the grin-quotient high while new drummer Ringmaster Monty Blitzfist’s manic and tireless theatrics, it has to be said, have raised the Scarecrow game to even greater heights.

The icy beauty of Princess Luxury thawed several times to reveal delighted grins while Kraven Morrdeth, all hearty Viking machismo, hammed it up marvellously. When a band is having as much fun as the crowd, magic happens. And it did.

Fast becoming an institution that is virtually criticism-resistant, Evil Scarecrow delivered yet another outstanding slice of tongue-in-cheek metal theatre that still, somehow, retains freshness, vitality and sincerity.

 Six hundred and sixty six out of six hundred and sixty six.

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Mozart is reputed to have considered rhythm to be the most important element in music. One might wonder if the idiosyncratic, mercurial genius that was the late Glenn Gould would have agreed.

What prompted this train of thought was an early morning listen to Bach’s Italian Concerto. I’m a harpsichord snob but, on this occasion, I’d picked out a recording by Sokolov; purely for the rip-roaring final presto. I was taught that presto means to play as a quickly as possible. Far too many recordings of the the Italian Concerto fall apart when the musicians hit that all-important final movement. Instead reconfiguring it as a stately mid-tempo dance. This is to wreck some of JSB’s most exhilarating writing. The right hand should be a blur; hence Sokolov. But then I remembered I’d got Gould doing the thing. Now this is how it should be played. It’s executed at a, frankly, insane pace and is all the more grin inducingly-enjoyable as a result.

On this evidence, Gould must surely have considered tempo to be the most important element in music. While never, for even a moment, sacrificing melody or rhythm.

The presto kicks in here at 10:06. Put your seat belt on.