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Monday, 30 November 2015

Russian Connections - and our connections to musical life and musicality

This is a review of a recital given by cellist Joy Lisney at Kings Place, London

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 November

This is a review of a recital given under the title Russian Connections by cellist Joy Lisney with her father, pianist James Lisney, a debut for both in Hall One at Kings Place, London, on Monday 30 November 2015 at 7.30 p.m.

Igor Stravinsky (in collaboration with Gregor Piatigorsky) ~ Suite Italienne (1933) (an arrangement, for cello and piano, of numbers from his ballet-score Pulcinella (1920))

In the Introduzione, one straightaway realized what, sometimes, is the great and overt immediacy of Joy Lisney’s playing, and the richness of the interpretative means open to her in furtherance of that aim. Apart from this untamed opening, which was fiery in its own right, and no longer merely pleasant pastoral fare, lifted from Pergolesi, it could also just be the way in which she gave us that prominent held note (in the Serenata), or the muscularity, spontaneity, or sheer inventiveness with which she performed the third-movement Aria. Come the next movement, and her emotional dialogue with the work had her letting rip, giving the Tarantella full throttle.

Predictably (despite a listing of five movements in the programme-notes, but with a dance predicated on wild abandon, even madness), no one had counted that there had only been four, so James (@jameslisney) and Joy Lisney (@JoyLisney) had to wait for keen applause to subside* before we could hear that Stravinksy does not intend the suite to end on that high-point, but with a Minuetto e Finale. Here, just as some sculptors say that they find the form within the block of stone, Joy seemed to be sensing the music within the instrument.

So, she responded to a definite pulse in the piano part, to which her part adds pizzicato notes, and energy was released as and into figuration, passion and the unplanned (though one reference that Joy and James had clearly picked up, in preparation for the event, was a little toreador mention). This was very good communication and listening, with James clearly watching for cues of Joy starting a phrase or coming off at the end of a long, bowed note, and fitting in with the inspirational nuances of the moment, and necessarily the piece was well received at Kings Place.

Benjamin Britten (dedicated to, and first performed by**, Mstislav Rostropovich) ~ Suite for Cello No. 3, Opus 87 (1971)

Joy Lisney gave us a few comments before presenting us with this most challenging, and assuredly insufficiently well-known, work for solo cello by Britten. She mentioned the Rostropovich connection, which is a fascinating fact of life to be reminded of, at the personal level between composers and muscians (and at the time of so much political distrust), how one is aware of more than one voice at some points, and, in this respect, how one could hear that Britten had been influenced by Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (BWV 1007–1012).

The suite is in nine parts, but performed without a pause, with – for being sure of the work’s progress – all that that entails. In the opening, marked Introduzione : Lento, one was quite aware of the intense theorbo-like resonance that Joy achieved (i.e. that instrument’s long, open bass-strings), and how this had the effect of rooting it in a ground-bass : not unlike with an undisclosed jazz standard (where one might not quite be able to put one’s finger on it, but know that one hears something 'in disguise'), Joy had also said that Britten has written variations on themes, but that he only clearly gives them to us at the end**.

Along with listening out for Bach’s voice, this description informed one’s listening, and, from the first, had one trying to assimilate often fragmentary elements of tonality and melody. In the Marcia : Allegro, perhaps there seemed to be a little hint of Shostakovich (and, later, Bartók ?), and the tone-quality of a pizzicato gesture that, in octaves, now resembled the fretted strings of a theorbo / lute, as it chimed alongside another line of music. Soon, in the Canto : Con moto, it was more like that of a guitar (or a plucked lyre), and Britten sounds to be in dialogue with Bach's Suite No. 1 (BWV 1007).

Probably having already reached Dialogo : Allegretto (via the Barcarolla : Lento), it certainly seemed a just description of what could be experienced – the competing demands of the poles of the player’s physical athleticism around the strings, and the expressiveness of the instrument and the texture of the composition. In the rapt space of Hall One, and at a crux where the material was ceasing to be difficult (and to become more open), one could see that Joy was self-aware as a performer, and fully alive in the act of being one, as she asserted what she found in this suite.

As one can safely state, without the need to give many more examples, Joy demonstrated in the concert-hall both the very great expressive possibilities in this work, and the variety of means through which she could give rise to them. (Likewise, one is trying here to outline the scope of a work that is best, as on the night, heard live – which, of course, is just as true of the Bach suites. That said, it assisted a little to have noticed the words Moto perpetuo earlier, and, knowing that one was hearing one, be able to place roughly where one was.)

More explicitly than earlier (what Britten had written had been more like hints at parts before), we heard the very lowest register openly talking to the top string, and then addressing an even higher, fluting / piping one. This progress towards integration of disparate voices not only put one in mind of the extreme fragmentation of musical lines in some of Bach’s writing for solo violin, but also indicated the sense of cohesion that presumably gives the performer the conviction to propel this piece across a fully felt trajectory to its conclusion.

Reminiscent of summative or restorative concluding movements in Bach’s writing for solo cello, there was a soaring, folk-dance quality to the final Passacaglia : Lento solenne (which, again, reminded fleetingly of Bartók). In the event, Britten ended not with rejoicing, but throaty, breathed, very quiet utterances, and one long sostenuto. After a long time of reflective appreciation, the audience burst into applause for this highly impressive playing.

* * * * *

At the end of the recital (but relevant to mention now), it was intended as a compliment to Joy’s playing and to James’ and her choice of repertoire to say that it had been a very varied programme – except that even a definite form of spoken words can bear a range of meanings in a recipient’s mind. Or the fact that some might say so, but one could validly interpret that they were thereby imputing something negative***, without being direct ?

Completed in November 1901, the main work in the second half was written 70 years earlier than that with which we had concluded the first, and so the two short arrangements (by Piatigorsky again) of Tchaikovsky that preceded quietly helped bridge the gap with something as different as the Britten (which were Valse Sentimentale and None but the Lonely Heart (Op. 51, No. 6. (1882), and Op. 6, No. 6 (1869), respectively)) – suffice to say, long, lyrical lines, and a sense of yearning.

Sergei Rachmaninov ~ Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor (1901), Opus 19 :

1. Lento - Allegro moderato
2. Allegro scherzando
3. Andante
4. Allegro mosso

The opening Lento of the Sonata for Cello and Piano is exploratory, elegiac, and one heard that Joy was both giving an awareness of the music reaching, and saying that it cannot, on the scale of the whole, yet be felt to be reaching too far. Particularly here for piano, under James Lisney’s adept hands, Rachmaninov’s writing felt very typical of his Piano Concerto No. 2, so it fits well to find that he was composing it at this time (between autumn 1900 and April 1901, his Opus 18, in C Minor) : in terms of chordal progression, and the way in which the cello part develops, one already gets the sense that its voice is more modest, or at least that it feels more difficult for it to be as exposed as the piano part.

Though excellently weaving their roles together, James reflected standing, as if in orchestral terms, more in relation to an ensemble and to tutti passages, with the cello having the work of finding the most fleeting, innermost tenderness, and of giving a real emotional turmoil, especially in freer passages. When Rachmaninov intimated nearing the movement’s end, still he gave us more gradations of feeling, and led us, not yet into a coda, but to James giving us the principal theme on piano. In this way, and in service of the form of the composition, the duo had brought us to where the sonata felt more relaxed, and with a little glimpse of serenity, before a coda that – when it came – held off.

At the start of a movement marked Allegro scherzando, we heard the electricity of the raw, vital bass-line, with Joy expressionistically sawing the note, and, again with a hint of serenity in the midst of what else Rachmaninov is about here (including echoing the cello in a rumble on the piano) : there is tension to be found in this C Minor scherzando, amidst a part for cello that Joy gave a vocal character, and with one for piano that seemed both near and attentive.

In the year of this sonata, Rachmaninov also wrote his Prelude in G Minor (which, with nine others (as No. 5), was published as his Ten Preludes (1903), Opus 23), and one again has a sense of those kindred works. Moving away from the tension in the writing, he sets the cello off onto a statement, but soon enough brings it back to where it was : throughout the movement, Joy kept us gripped with the sensation that, in musical terms, she could help us glimpse whatever it might be to which the work was pointing, whether regret, yearning, or loss. In this way, Rachmaninov felt quite Schumannesque, alluding to what parts of the surface of the work want (at this stage) to deny.

The Andante has us hear the piano alone first (again, in Rachmaninov’s familiar idiom), and which is then above the cello-line when it enters – whose endeavour, under Joy’s hands, was building the beauty of the given theme, although there continue to be moments when we hear piano solo. If there is a sense of being on a scale where the music is reaching to be elsewhere, restraint is still being exercised, but we had a gradual feeling that the mood was easier, and more restorative, as the parts meshed and engaged with each other :

Partly that impression comes from their greater interchangeability as to which was in the higher register. Although the piano is placed briefly above the cello near the end of the movement (following, together and separately, some quietly insightful keyboard writing), it ultimately ends with them on a soft par, but with the final notes from piano solo.

In talking about the opening movement (above), it was mentioned that the composition of this sonata was contemporaneous with that of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (in C Minor), which is famous not least both through his status as a concert pianist***** and its place in the soundtrack to David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) : it is worth saying that it was not used for nothing by Lean, so to remind us that Rachmaninov makes it easy for us to build (our own) narratives around getting to such exuberance as we are to find in the closing Allegro.

Having kept us waiting (even if the very opening of the sonata is a subtle foreshadowing ?), what he presents us with here is the biggest melody in the piece (along with, in the light of it, the cello’s continuing apparent path of adaptation of its part to its circumstance). James had some coy downwards arpeggios preparatory to, and then providing contrast to, Joy’s searching in and exploring the lusciousness of this material – and then, of a sudden, Rachmaninov signals a change, with a decisive gesture from the cello, and with marching rhythms written just for the piano.

With an earnest tone set, and as the cello voice begins some gentle arpeggios, one senses that it is still in need of, and responding to, a form of encouragement, and it becomes further in accord with the piano-writing : in the growing self-realization, vigour develops, and Rachmaninov, rhythmically and in energetic terms, creates feelings of being on the verge of ending, and so of resolving what is happening with the theme.

From the piano first, a few reflective notes end up being all that the cello requires in order to lead to and address the full implications of the main theme, but, having done so, there is a need for a few quieter moments, as of breathing and mentally working through feelings. After the cello has joined in with a soaring peal, and the march-like figure has recurred, we revisited that more tranquil status, but the certainty and enthusiasm of the conclusion was secured now – as was the very great applause with which this performance was received, with a number of people in the audience standing to show their approval !

The compellingly framed performance of the sonata closed this debut evening at Kings Place, full of energy, invention and passion.


* Also, having heard this happen before, when they gave this work another time (and Joy approached it as a less adventuresome performer than now), it almost deserves the health warning : when the piece sounds as if it is over, hold back, as it does not conclude there.

** Joy has talked on her blog more about the Russian Connections tour, and the repertoire, the composers, and other connections. The first performance was at The Maltings, Snape, on 21 December 1974.

*** In terms of a ‘traditional’ way of putting concerts together, maybe so, but it is not for nothing that some value the approach of ensembles such as Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) : at lunch-time the following day in Cambridge (at West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH)), for the first of this season’s one-hour At Lunch series, three members of the Sinfonia gave us Beethoven (from 1800), a new commission (by Edward Nesbit), Brahms (from 1853), and a work (from 2008) by the orchestra’s principal pianist Huw Watkins (@WatkinsHuw).

**** If we consider that Britten was established as a composer by 1935 at the latest, and since Rachmaninov lived until 28 March 1943 (and, probably not helpfully to his survival, was working to the last), the men do actually have a significant overlap to their composing lives.

***** Although they have wrongly and for too many decades been disregarded – along with many of his works – he had toured with that work, his third concerto (in D Minor, Opus 30), and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Less like themselves, more like they want to be

This is a review of The Dressmaker (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 November

This is a review of The Dressmaker (2015)

It is almost as though The Dressmaker has been pinned to fit around this one fact : Sunset Blvd. (1950) premiered in Australia, on 25 August 1950.

For want of a better word, the film is set in Dungatar, in 1951, but nothing in the flash of music, the gestures, the stance, remotely desires more than to draw our attention to the fact that there is unfinished business in this implausible, symbolic place – symbolic, because its very set-up is pat in the way that that of films such as High Noon (1952) always was, so that there can be nothing behind its implausibility, if not symbolism. (Here, the paraphernalia of the wild west, and all the stock sights and spectacles of the age’s saloon-bars, have been rolled into one figure.)

Symbolism, but not of any subtle or interesting kind, because it wants to revisit an earlier time of colourless grey, bit by irritatingly nagging bit. As if picking the skin of forgetfulness off an obliging old tangerine, and miraculously penetrating to – although with no means to do so beyond being back there – what had been misremembered, misunderstood, misrepresented. At best, Kate Winslet, in the person of Myrtle Dunnage (‘Tilly’), says to her mother (‘Mad’ Molly, played by Judy Davis) : I need you to remember me, mum, so I can remember.

That, too, is just a gesture in the direction of a symbolic level for the rehabilitation and restitution of Tilly’s mother (and, a few times, Molly duly disbelieves why her daughter is there). By contrast, in the best of Ibsen, this notion of what really happened can be revelatory, electrifying, and rarely for good, and many a time Hitchcock made true film capital through showing us something on screen that, although it was not the mind’s obfuscations in dream, desire or trauma, mimicked them (e.g. Spellbound (1945), Vertigo (1958), and Marnie (1964) :

Here it is just entertainment, with an audience of would-be psychic explorers, but in titters at Hugo Weaving’s again wearing women’s clothes : he did so devastatingly as Nurse Noakes in Cloud Atlas (2012), and without either exploiting or mocking, as this role does, those who share this interest. The likely audience for The Dressmaker will be unlikely to gravitate towards Dogville (2003), or to do so to their taste, whereas those who missed it and have only witnessed the work of Lars von Trier in more recent works of excess such as Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomaniac Vol. I (2013) and Vol. II (2013), can seek a worthier film there.

This is a film that never tries to do what Dogville does, but really feels like [it wants to be] Wes Anderson, but without Wes, and which is definitely written in a way that wishes that it could be even bad Wodehouse, but which just never will be : it desires to have older people ‘behave badly’, but does so in that stock way that Ronald Harwood uses for Billy Connolly’s character, when he adapts his stage-play as Quartet (2012), rather than is done more inventively, for Judi Dench, in Philomena (2013).

Whatever Rosalie Ham’s novel may be, it seems newly published (in paperback, but there is evidence of an audio-book on CD from 2003...), and does not appear in hardback until April next year.

Some reviews from Rotten Tomatoes (@RottenTomatoes) :

Peter Bradshaw (@PeterBradshaw1), for The Guardian, gave it one star, and closes his review by saying Surely Winslet can find better roles than this.

For Little White Lies (@LWLies, where they score things differently), the marks are not much kinder, and the review by David Jenkins (@DaveyJenkins) is headed 'This lop-sided couture western staggers on long past what should've been a short, sharp run time'.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

A night of all Tchaikovsky with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

29 November

This is a review of an all-Tchaikovsky programme given at The Corn Exchange, Cambridge, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Christoph Koeing, and with Laura van der Heijden as cello soloist, on Tuesday 24 November 2015 at 7.30 p.m.

The playing of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (@rpoonline) had last been previewed on these pages, in advance of a concert at The Corn Exchange, Cambridge (@CambridgeCornEx), when they were to give a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Opus 55, under Christoph Koenig. They returned with a concert of works, solely by Tchaikovsky.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) :

1. ‘Fantasy Overture’ Romeo and Juliet, TH 42, ČW 39 (1869 (revised 1880))

2. Variations on a Rococo Theme, for cello and orchestra, Opus 33 (1877)

3. Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64 (1888)

The opening statement of the (1) ‘Fantasy Overture’ Romeo and Juliet almost evoked Greek Orthodox chant, but flourished into another kind of beauty and tranquillity, with a sense of space given by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s (@rpoonline’s) subtle pizzicato. As the sound built emotively, still it felt to be delaying – whether we knew the piece, and what Christoph Koenig was having the ensemble delay for – and even when, with percussive reinforcement, there was a pulsing, it was heard dying away in the woodwind and brass.

Not so in the strings, which maintained the momentum, and heralded the gorgeous melody (which it is convenient to refer to as ‘the love theme’), although it did still cut away to piano. When we hear the blossoming of the theme, it is understated – harp, strings and the plangency of the oboe are ‘in reserve’. Koenig established Tchaikovsky’s tension through a suspensive mood, which broke out into a very forceful passage for timpani and brass in a whirl, and then quickly dissolved to woodwind over brass over lower strings.

The love theme is drawn forth with rich brass, but it gives way to the strings to explore another crescendo, and the theme is vanquished by an impassioned statement. Except that, in a coda with a pizzicato bass-pulse, which resolves the earlier monastic feel in the woodwind, we have the apotheosis of the love theme in measured terms : the work can conclude with the usual cadences, timpani and brass to the fore.

The initial section of the (2) Variations feels fresh, and opens in media res. It has an amiable conversationality to it, and cellist Laura van der Heijden (@LauraVDHCello) was clear and unfussy in making a statement of the principal theme for the work, yet bringing out the (good-)humour and its feeling. Tchaikovsky, through adept use of linking passages, brings us first into the variations, and then from one to the next : the first was as of a promenade, with winsome phrasing, whereas the second resembled the soloist in conversation with the orchestra, about the urbanity of their treatment of this material.

Next, came a sunset-tinged emotion, supported at its reticent heart by woodwind, and desirous of being heard, with which Tchaikovsky contrasted a mood with quiet flute and clarinet and pizzicato strings – van der Heijden was inward looking, as if to deeper things, and in improvisatory mode. After this time, in which (and in the preceding variation) the origins of the heart of the work can be located, Tchaikovsky concentrates on the upper strings of the cello in the next variation, with our soloist bringing out the accents in the writing, and Koenig creating an expansive feeling in the orchestra.

From here, and despite sprightly additions from principal flute Helen Keen, the work is not always brighter, but it is increasingly virtuosic : with trills and use of tremolo, some intense cadenza-like writing in the bass register, and even the impression of Tchaikovsky seeking to continue to explore it (even at the cost of keeping off reaching a finale) ? Eventually, this intense solo reverie does conclude, and it led into what van der Heijden and Koenig gave a distinct Scottish feel. It is vigorous writing for cello, played with liveliness and keen phrasing, and there are interactions between soloist and instrumentalists that keep us guessing as to the composer’s overall direction :

He gives us quick tutti sections, and ones where the soloist is moving over pizzicato strings : we heard van der Heijden going to the theme and unearthing more in it (as if it were a mineral-seam), and one minute being soulful on the lowest string, but then with brisk octaves and harmonics. Not just because there is nowhere else to go from here, and any set of variations must end (even if, with perhaps the most famous set (BWV 988), Bach movingly takes us back to the Aria where we began), Tchaikovsky momentarily jumps to quite another frame of mind to close the work, and to great applause for van der Heijden, who had clearly much impressed in her appearance at The Corn Exchange.

* * * * *

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64 (1888) :

1. Andante - Allegro con anima
2. Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza
3. Valse - Allegro moderato
4. Andante - Allegro maestoso

In (3) the Symphony No. 5, the clarinets quietly stated the opening theme of the Andante, on which Tchaikovsky has the bassoons and strings enlarge. Gradually, over time, Koenig led us into the energy of the Allegro con anima (which, as it emerged, did feel like ‘anima’, in a fully spirited sense), and we were introduced to the counter-theme, before the initial one returned, but with interruptions / interjections.

In a way, we were back to the opening of the concert, and the language and emotion of the Fantasy Overture, with that same sense of the composer in a whirlwind, exploring in, out and around the material. In all this, the RPO, under Koeing, was using dynamics very carefully, and the movement, and its close, were very understated.

As a second movement slowly starting and marked Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza (which means ‘with some freedom’), this one is quite a bit shorter, and begins with an emotional tutti, which nevertheless felt inward and restrained, and then a quiet solo horn superposed to give a tender statement of thematic content (with some support from the principal clarinet). Even as the horn is concluding, Tchaikovsky picks out moving his attention, for a cognate theme to be passed from oboe to clarinet to the basses.

Principal horn Laurence Davies, now with other woodwind players and more prominent orchestral accompaniment, revisited that theme, which is soon given over to string immersion : it develops to a soaring passage, but is ultimately held back, and leads to contributions in a folk idiom on clarinet, which the bassoon then brings out. Revolving the material results in a passionate crescendo, concluding with strings, timpani and horns (in a theme that will be heard, in less un-triumphant form, at the close of the work).

The mood calmed to first violins pizzicato, and with woodwind and brass, which felt like it might be an easier formulation for the symphony (and its composer) on which to meditate, and then gave rise to a full, unrestrained statement. A vigorous counter-melody came from the brass, but afterwards a decrescendo to a softer, more exposed, and very quiet end.

In comparison, not least, with what has gone before, Koenig made the Valse feel effortless, and it went with a sway, first the basses offering comments, and then the principal flute and oboe, and so on. When Tchaikovsky does bring us back to the feeling of the opening, Koenig drew out more of a sense of the quirkiness in the horn part. Before drawing the movement to a definite and quick close, he had Paul Boyes bring out the main theme, in sombre guise, on bassoon.

At the same time that the closing movement opened Andante, with a statement of the principal theme, we heard a hesitant one of subsidiary material*, and then Tchaikovsky opens out into variation form : fast, rhythmical writing that dominates our attention, and heralds bell-like descending motifs.

More peal-like gestures follow, treating the theme as a short fanfare, and could be heard in the strings and the brass, before arpeggiated string-writing ushered in a sudden tutti, and yet further figurations as of bells. Tchaikovsky takes the related theme through a series of rising modulations, and, on drawing in the timpani and brass, Koenig led the orchestra into a crescendo, which, with a drum-roll, fell back again to the second theme.

The close to the symphony, which now felt very ceremonious (hence the dignity conferred by Allegro maestoso), established the falling motifs and peals in their place, with the strings taking the latter up and down in celebration, ably assisted by the brass, including trombones. Its coda was characterized by a very quick, rising passage, building up to a full close – with full brass, woodwind, and timpani.

All in all, a very pleasurable and successful evening with Tchaikovsky, through Koenig and the RPO's welcome residency in Cambridge : a few years ago on The South Bank, Martyn Brabbins gave all of Beethoven's Symphonies in one day, so who know whether a Tchaikovsky all-nighter of the Concertos and Symphonies would appeal to Cambridge... ?


* A little as with Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Swinging it at Saffron Hall

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 November

This is a review of an evening at Saffron Hall (Saffron Walden, Essex) with Britten Sinfonia, Eddie Gomez, Sebastiaan de Krom, and conductor Kristjan Järvi, on Saturday 21 November 2015 at 7.30 p.m.

Part I :

1. Igor Stravinsky ~ Tango
2. Improvisation by Steven Osborne (on material from Keith Jarrett)
3. Frank Zappa ~ Igor’s Boogie
4. Stravinsky ~ Ragtime for 11 instruments
5. Zappa ~ The Perfect Stranger

Before playing (1) Tango, and then an improvisation, pianist Steven Osborne told us that the latter was not going to be a reflection on the Stravinsky (as the programme said), but a reaction to having heard Keith Jarrett in a solo concert the night before, at the EFG London Jazz Festival (@LondonJazzFest) at The Royal Festival Hall (@southbankcentre) – something so beautiful from Jarrett that it had been with him ever since, and which he wished to share with us.

To Stravinsky’s Tango (1940), in its original form for solo piano, Osborne brought a slight holding-back on the off-beat in the second, companion bar of those with which it opens. Initially, he was quite measured, and, when it came the first time, let the chromatic writing speak for itself. However, this was as preparation for it to repeat, where he now let rip for a few bars, and then brought a charmingly smiling humour to the succeeding passages, of greater restraint : on its third appearance, even a feel of the strident, and then just enjoying the riffy rumble in the bass. The work does not end with bravado, and Osborne brought it to us unforced and placid.

Whether or not the first section of his (2) improvisation also derived from Jarrett (to begin with, one was a little reminded of Staircase, with its bassy, deliberative ascents), Osborne brought in elements of contrary motion. As, with time, he rose up the keyboard, his playing increased in note-richness, and spikiness of attack, to very high and piercing notes, which then unleashed a wild torrent of discords : with movement up and down the keys, they subsided.

A sustained note linked to what clearly possessed the serenity and beauty of Jarrett’s recent solo recordings, and with his simplicity and understatement : the theme rippled for a while, before a moto perpetuo developed under notes of longer value, and there was a very strong feeling that there was something quite incredible about how vibrant the chordal progressions were. With a subtle diminuendo, the piece died away, to end very quietly.

The (3) first Zappa piece was very short, foregrounded woodwind, brass and marimba, and, after coming to resemble a march, had a fanfare-like close. (Starting at this point, Kristjan Järvi was conducting Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) (and those who joined in with it later).)

Stravinsky’s (4) Ragtime (1918) has none of the concision or – for want of a better word – ‘moderation’ of his Tango, more than two decades later. Right at the start, beats on the bass-drum are part of the fabric, although they are used, as off-beats and in combination with harmonies that sound off (almost in a ‘sick’ sort of way), to create an unsettling effect. Alongside all of which, we soon hear the crazily energetic sound of the cimbalom, which creates a sort of unease (if not disquiet) of its own, as does the later use of the snare-drum.

The connotations of the title ‘Ragtime’ may have led us to expect something of a more easy-going nature, but the piece itself, in its origins in the ambiguous world of The Soldier’s Tale (1917), is loaded with questions, epitomized by the use of trombone, which, played with a mute, sounded sneering and sour, or by the ironic sound of the cymbals, or even a prominent slide-effect by Jacqueline Shave (on violin). The mood appears to require the instrumentalists to play a little sharp, but, in structural terms, the work is relatively straightforward to follow (unlike much of what followed¹), and so we hear a phrase passed from Joy Farrall (clarinet) to Jacqueline Shave, sounding as an echo. In this first longer piece, one could appreciate the precision of the ensemble, but also the way in which the named individuals, amongst others, were bringing a swing and a sway to their part.

Frank Zappa’s (5) The Perfect Stranger (1984) is written for a great diversity of forces, including two grand pianos (the pianists double on celestes), and three percussionists on either side of the stage and at the rear, each with an array that incorporates snare-drums, marimbas, and tubular-bells. String-players were ranged across the front (with principal cellist Caroline Dearnley on one end, stage left (and next to Clare Finnimore, principal violist), and her fellow cellist on the other, with Shave (as leader) in the middle (flanked by two other violinists). Behind them, and centrally in the ensemble, a harp.

A motif on tubular-bells opened the work (and later we could keep seeing the two or three percussionists, primed by their sets² to give us a chord or a pair of chords). When we heard twin marimbas with what sounded like a xylophone, the effect was, for a moment, almost Boulezian³, but his is not the sound-world that Zappa inhabits, because (early on) he had Shave playing Zigeuner style, and had written passages with an extreme, highly slurred form of legato, as well as a jerky type of staccato.

Some moments in the work jumped out, such as a lovely short passage for Sarah Burnett on bassoon, and when the harp (Sally Pryce) came in and out of prominence. Likewise, we suddenly heard from the three blocks of percussion on snare-drum, or doubled marimbas with tubular-bells. All in all, though, the work had a quirky moodiness of its own, revolving its material ruminatively, but with occasional bright – and seemingly uncynical – overlays of brass (or of overshadowing with it), and we seemed a long way from where the evening had begun.

* * * * *

Part II :

6. Claus Ogerman ~ Excerpts from the Second Movement of Symbiosis (1974)
7. Darius Milhaud ~ La création du monde
8. Simon Bainbridge ~ Counterpoints

At this point in the evening, Eddie Gomez first came on stage, looking assured and relaxed along with Sebastiaan de Krom : with Steven Osborne, they were to form a neat trio, stage right, on piano, bass, and Pearl drum-kit, respectively. (Gomez’ bass had a pick-up so that he could monitor himself.)

The piece by (6) Ogerman began with a piano statement, passed to the woodwind and strings, and which, as it continued to be played, started to sound to have oriental overtones. Eddie Gomez waited, holding his bass, and with one leg casually resting on the calf of the other at one point. Steven Osborne then made a shorter utterance, with which the Britten Sinfonia players joined in, and which reminded of Aaron Copland. On Osborne’s third utterance, Sebastiaan de Krom joined in, using brushes, and Gomez started quietly strumming, although, since this was a work that might have had an improvised element, he seemed to be closely reading his score.

As the movement proceeded, Gomez was playing very far down the finger-board, in a way that sounded somewhat agitated at times, and plucking very close to the bridge. After a repeated note, with quiet strings, the sound of Gomez on bass became more agitated, but with piano-textures underneath it. Towards the end, he employed a lot of tremolo, and the impression made by the Sinfonia strings was quite luscious : it concluded with piano, bass, and strings.

Having first looked at the evening’s programme, and somehow confused reading the title of Milhaud’s La création du monde (his Opus 81a) with expecting to hear his Le bœuf sur le toit, Op. 58, one was more than prepared, in one’s head, for the insistence of its rondo-like form (from more than three years earlier****, and before he had heard jazz for himself in the States).

In the introduction of (7) La création du monde, he uses saxophone, and a Spanish style to his trumpets, to create a stately air, but it was not to be long before a jazzy bass, snare-drum and trombone launched first Paul Archibald (trumpet), and then Joy Farrall, with a ‘kick’ and a swing on clarinet. All of which, with Milhaud, very soon gets out of hand, with a riot of woodwind and brass – or seems to, because he suddenly drops down, eventually to the more subtle forces of string-quartet and flute. At this point, Bradley Grant gave thoughtful emphasis to some idiomatic writing for alto-sax, with some smooth slides and sinuous passages, before horn and other instruments joined in, and became more prominent.

There is gusto in the quartet of string-players, to whom Milhaud resorts again (and it seems that he heard performances in New York City where a string-quartet adopted such a percussive role), adding in timpani, and building up to a swirling, Gershwinesque tutti. Again, he brings us down from there, to oboe (Emma Feilding), before developing into further lively writing for Farrall, and a pulsing sort of shuffle.

However, these are passages into which he has built what might be punctuations, but which sometimes feel like interruptions : with a tin-pan-alley section, what begin as clearly signalled developments grow into a sort of primaeval, if short-lived, cacophony, in which alto-sax (Bradley Grant) and bassoon (Sarah Burnett) have key roles. They continue to do so, as, initially with a slow rallentando, Milhaud closes the work : he evokes material from the beginning, but patterns it differently, for a brief last riff, before a quiet close.

For reasons that were not entirely clear, unless indicating that he had very much enjoyed conducting Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia), Järvi half-turned to the audience with a cheeky grin at the end of the Milhaud (which was not to be the last that we saw of such playful expressions).

At times, Simon Bainbridge’s (8) Counterpoints (2015) was musically quite bewildering, but it often came to resemble a one-movement Chamber Symphony (or Kammerkonzert). As has already been remarked**, in commenting on Zappa’s The Perfect Stranger, there was much going on to see happening, or about to happen, but here it would probably have been better heard, and not watched – as, for example, when a small gong was raised out of and lowered back into water ? One wanted to be able to be aware of such sounds in the whole (and maybe then peep out, to see what they were), not have one’s attention drawn visually to the mechanics of the sound-production : sometimes, less is more, because one may see eight double-basses on stage, but not hear the sound of eight instruments.

The work had a very quiet start, with strings and a ‘squeaky’ bass-effect from Gomez. More so than before in the concert, Kristjan Järvi was bringing piano or cymbals, say, in and out with very definite cues or strokes. As well as familiar pairings, such as of marimba and vibraphone, composer Simon Bainbridge used a variety of instruments, and so we had Gomez with the rarely heard bass-flute (Sarah O'Flynn), and we could sense, at times, that there was an underpinning beat to the whole concerto.

In one moment with Järvi, there was a strange face-off with Gomez as to whether he would play when directed. Then, as there were further games, and an encouraging gesture and grin from Järvi, it all seemed to have been in good spirits. A special feature of this part of the work was an extended section for oboe and soft bass. The concerto ended with downwards cascades of notes, finishing with Gomez.


¹ Where one feels forced to give more of ‘an impression’, in more general terms, rather than describe the work and how it unfolded : completely unlike a fractal, where any part might give one the whole.

² It became especially true of the second half of the concert that being able to see so clearly what was happening was a distraction from listening (and so the opposite effect from hearing Colin Currie and The Colin Currie Group at this venue in an all-Reich concert)). The composition by Simon Bainbridge, which closed the evening, would actually have benefited from having closed eyes, had it not been realized too late.

³ This observation seems less unlikely, given that Jo Kirkbride’s programme-notes informed us that Pierre Boulez had commissioned the work, as one of three by Zappa that he recorded with The Ensemble Intercontemporain.

⁴ Apparently, according to Wikipedia® (@Wikipedia), Le bœuf sur le toit was originally to have been the score of one of Charlie Chaplin’s silent films (Cinéma-fantaisie for violin and piano).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

A collection of Angels and Saints, curated by Bojan Čičić

This reviews a concert by The Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Bojan Čičić

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

18 November

This is a review of a concert given by The Academy of Ancient Music, under the direction of violinist Bojan Čičić, at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Wednesday 18 November at 7.30 p.m.

The concert was being recorded by the BBC for later transmission on Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3) (on Monday 23 November : available to listen to for 30 days), so we had Martin Handley on the stage at West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH), Cambridge, introducing the items, and sometimes stopping to interview Bojan Čičić (@BojanCicic), who was leading The Academy of Ancient Music (@AAMorchestra), about features of the programme that he had devised for the concert*, which made for a fascinating element of the evening**


1. Vivaldi (1678–1741) ~ Concerto for Violin in F Major
2. Vejanovskỷ (1633-1693) ~ Sonata in D Major
3. Vejanovskỷ ~ Sonata in C Major
4. Vivaldi ~ Sonata in E Flat Major
5. Leclair (1697-1764) ~ Concerto for Violin and Strings in D Major

6. Manfredini (1684-1762) ~ Concerto in C Major
7. Biber (1644-1704) ~ Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin
8. Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in E Major
9. Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in D Major

1 Antonio Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in F Major Per la solennita di San Lorenzo

1. Largo – Andante molto
2. Largo
3. Allegro non molto

The rather sombre mood of the opening Largo broadened into a tutti section with the Andante molto, full of graciousness. It became immediately clear that Bojan Čičić’s immense technical facility was being employed for purposes of expressiveness, and, as ever with AAM, it was a pleasure to hear a clear bass-line from Judith Evans. The solo writing had Čičić giving a skittering effect on violin, as well performing fast passages (not for the only time in the evening), with a smaller group of players.

The Largo felt very triste, and almost looked inward as some of Bach’s fugal writing for solo instruments can feel to do : the sadness was soulfully placed and centred, without sentimentalism. Vivaldi gave the violin some bird-like passages (another of the programme’s recurring themes), before the other instruments came in and, with the organ (Alastair Ross), drew to a close.

The closing Allegro non molto began with variant forms, a bit like a round, of a falling motif, and then, when Čičić came to make an explicit statement of the material, there were more bird-like bars heard, and one came to appreciate how cellist Joseph Crouch was often operating in a block with David Miller (on theorbo) and Judith Evans (on bass). A highly virtuoso run for Čičić exemplified his phrasing, and his control of pace and energy, as the concerto was nearing its end, with a singing line for the soloist, where he came in and out of prominence.

2 / 3 Pavel Josef Vejanovskỷ ~ Sonata in D Major Sancti spiritus and C Major Paschalis

We had been directed to Giovanni Gabrieli by our programme-notes, and there was a definite feel of ‘courtliness’ in this music, whose open-soundedness was also reminiscent of that of Claudio Monteverdi : almost necessarily, because of the purpose for which these Sonatas had been written, they were oriented to the celebratory, and always had the effect of the ensemble in mind.

4 Vivaldi ~ Sonata in E Flat Major Santo sepolcro

1. Largo molto
2. Allegro ma poco

Returning to Vivaldi, the Largo molto gave us an accreting group of players, and, as it took shape, did it remind somewhat of his Opus 8 (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione***), Concerto No. 4 in F minor, ‘L'inverno’, RV 297 ? There was a simplicity of line, but it was held steady and supported by Čičić’s direction, and the movement came down to a very quiet end. The Allegro ma poco, in nature a fugue, was characterized by Vivaldi’s use of repeated notes, and the piece seemed to appeal on the general level of emotion more than directly musically. It also put one in mind a little of the fugal writing (from the Kyrie eleison)of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor, K. 626 (incomplete from 1791).

5 Jean-Marie Leclair ~ Concerto for Violin and Strings in D Major, Opus 7, No. 2

1. Adagio – Allegro ma non troppo
2. Adagio
3. Allegro

The Concerto began with a clear statement of its material, here using the organ to build up its effect. Nonetheless, it felt that Leclair was initially holding much back, despite contributions made by the theorbo and notes from the organ. Later, a sense of warmth and inclusiveness had emerged in the writing of the Allegro ma non troppo, although there were still little moments of harmonic tension.

Čičić was provided with some lively playing, especially when we had reduced to the four violins, and Leclair next gave those strings some paired entries, before we heard him rising through the keys. In a solo section, we had the clear sense that this player was serving the music, and not himself, and the complex nature of the writing makes one wonder who the original violinist was (and wish to find out what is thought).

The relatively short Adagio, with its clock-effect, felt as though it owed to Vivaldi’s Opus 8 (please see above), whichever of that Concerto, or Concerto No. 3 in F Major, ‘L'autunno’, RV 293, it may be. The concluding Allegro gave the impression of the soloist building virtuosity with the other instrumentalists, and there was a sort of keening, with a bird-like quality, in the cadenzas : there was the clear idea that Leclair envisaged the soloist shining with this writing, and one could also appreciate the attack that Miller (theorbo) and Crouch (cello) brought to their playing. With the developing bird-tones (which seemed most like a cuckoo ?), Leclair showed us his sense of humour – which was rather silly, but still funny (as Python can be), and the AAM did it very well.

* * * * *

6 Francesco Onofrio Manfredini ~ Concerto in C Major Pastorale per in Santissimo Natale, Op. 3, No. 12

1. Pastorale : Largo
2. Largo
3. Allegro

It is well worth giving this Concerto Grosso an airing, as it is usually eclipsed by that of Corelli, whereas it is more reflective, and trying other things. (Apparently, if larger forces had been available, Čičić had been contemplating Locatelli’s version of such ‘Christmas Concerti’.) The first two movements, which seem to help make us ready for the relative exuberance of the third, both ended with quiet gestures / cadences on theorbo from Miller, and Ross (on organ) and Evans (double-bass) both underpinned the ‘suspensiveness’ of the central Largo.

Marked Allegro, the closing movement signals that apparent exuberance in yet more bird-like calls, before the very fine writing for violin takes us into flourishes and arabesques. The piece ends thoughtfully, and we might be reminded that the first Sunday in Advent this year is at the end of November.

7 Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber ~ Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin (which concludes ‘The Mystery Sonatas’, for Violin and Continuo)

In tackling this demanding Passacaglia, which impressed those members of the audience at West Road who were not already thoroughly impressed, Čičić brought out its liltingly rhythmical character, underneath its expansively developing form : now as a completely solo performer, his playing occupies the air, and speaks to us through its violinistic excellence, rather than to claim (or exert) power.

In conversation with Handley, he said how the Passacaglia is unusual for the time, being amongst the earliest writing that we have for solo violin, and, in this as in playing the piece, one was aware of Čičić’s keen, but unassuming knowledge and understanding of music from this period. (Inevitably, as one had listened, one thought also of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and forwards in time to Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin.)

8 Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in E Major Il riposo

1. Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Allegro

From the start of the Allegro, there was a patent oddness in the muted string-sound that Vivaldi requires, especially in the section when we were without the recognizable trio of instruments (cello, theorbo, and double-bass), with the impression of ‘thinness’ / ‘wateriness’ being appropriately otherworldly, if the repose does echo a status of being written for the feast of the nativity : meaning and expression were always foremost.

The mood of tranquillity continued with the lovely ambience of the Adagio, a musical feeling of suspension, to which David Miller’s quiet plucking of the theorbo added. The Allegro had a distinct chirpiness about it (perhaps on account of the narrative in the gospel according to Luke ?), as well as a reflective side, and a violin passage seemed to bring in what felt like very good-natured rejoicing (at the virgin birth ?). Yet there was also a passage of suspension in the playing of the familiar trio, keeping us off, until ready, for the quiet close.

9 Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in D Major S. lingua di S. Antonio di Padova

By the time of this final work in the concert****, one was fully aware both of how tight the ensemble was, and, from the Allegro's first cadenza, how much Bojan Čičić was enjoying playing*****, as well as directing AAM (@AAMorchestra), by gesture and by nod. The communication between the instrumentalists was clear, with taut, attentive first and second violins (respectively, with Čičić, Rebecca Livermore, and William Thorp and Iwona Muszynska), as well as the very familiar face of Jane Rogers, on viola, on the other side of the chamber-organ. The second cadenza showed Čičić continuing to have a good time with this Concerto, which felt not only natural, but spontaneous and alive.

The scene was being set, in the second movement (marked Grave), for the conclusion of the work, but it had its own poise and grace, and Čičić was no less impressive for that, both as director and violinist : in the Allegro, he showed great confidence and assurance in establishing a forceful pace and beat for its opening, and then turning to the kindred material for the solo part.

AAM showed that it was really together under his direction, and with his excitingly taking choices for clarity and for the nature of the work’s expressiveness. As has been said, it was clear that the audience would have gladly heard more from this director and orchestra, but it was not to be on this occasion.

As is usually possible at West Road (@WestRoadCH) – as is also true of York Early Music Festival / National Centre of Early Music (@yorkearlymusic) or at King’s College Chapel (@ConcertsatKings) – a chance to congratulate Bojan Čičić on his playing and leadership, and to express the hope that the exposure, here and on Radio 3, might bring greater recognition for him as a soloist (though he did point out that we are talking about the world of baroque violin, of course).


* The first of four performances, the others being at Milton Court Concert Hall, London, on 20 November, at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, on 25 November, and at Hall for Cornwall, Truro, on 26 November.

** It was also interesting to see how the emphasis and even some of the information differed between Handley’s presentation and the content of the AAM programme-notes (which, unusually, also did not provide RV numbers (for the works by Vivaldi)).

*** It is a great shame that more attention is not given to all twelve Concertos in the set.

**** There was ample enthusiasm for an encore, but maybe none had been prepared, or some of the AAM players needed to get away ?

***** In its real sense, where ‘to enjoy’ and ‘to rejoice’ have common origins – not the more vacuous sense in which, most often when being served something, one is nowadays seemingly unceasingly enjoined to ‘enjoy [it]’. [It seems that, in some places (such as, some are still discussing such matters as what words mean – and why.]

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Plowing one's own furrow

This is a review of a gig that James Farm gave at Saffron Hall

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 November

This is a review of a gig that James Farm gave at Saffron Hall on Saturday 14 November 2015

As Joshua Redman (tenor (and also alto) saxophone) made us aware, as spokesman / leader, all of the compositions were by members of James Farm, the sidemen being Aaron Parks (on piano (and Rhodes keyboard)), Eric Harland (drums / percussion), and Matt Penman (double-bass)

Set-list (one undivided set) :

1. Two steps ~ Matt Penman

2. If by air ~ Joshua Redman

3. Unknown* ~ Aaron Parks

4. City folk ~ Joshua Redman

run together with

5. Farms ~ Aaron Parks

6. Aspirin ~ Joshua Redman

7. North star ~ Eric Harland

Encore :

8. Otherwise ~ Aaron Parks

The gig at Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW) opened with the full quartet of James Farm (@jamesfarmmusic), because sometimes it dropped down to the classic trio of piano, bass and drums when Redman wandered around to the other side of the stage for a breather, and ‘to listen in’, and with Penman’s (1) ‘Two steps’ : with Harland (drums), Penman laid down a bass-pattern, overlaid by Parks (on piano), and then Redman came in softly on tenor.

With time, Redman moved to a breathy voice, with a slightly ‘flattened’, melancholic tone, and this was the first in a versatile employment, across the set, of differing tone-qualities and timbres. In this, he was amply matched by Parks, who evoked a rain-drenched mood before, not for the last time with these numbers, this one became syncopated. That paved the way for some bluesy playing from Redman, which was also go-ahead, exploring soulful aspects of the tune in honeyed terms – the overall feel was incredibly loose and sassy as it concluded.

Apart from gentle cymbals, Redman gave a solo statement of the theme of his (2) ‘If by air’, and, as the others joined in, his playing was freely placed and elegiac. As he dropped back, and we heard him more alongside Harland’s drums and Penman’s bass, there was the first of several feelings of being reminded of Keith Jarrett. Whether others sensed that, too, we were being taken, with piano textures underneath, to other places in this gig. A change of pace led into a simple, unadorned statement of the theme, which developed a rhythmic overlay, until there was a holiday / celebratory feel to the whole.

As leader, Redman gave the impression of a skilled pilot of the quartet, but (as he did when going over to the mixing-desk) of being all right with letting the group form a trio, where Parks could be exploratory : in fact, he was rocking it, and impressing with the colours and dimensions in his playing. As the initiation of a sort of extended coda to the piece, when Redman had come back in, he gave us a style of cyclic repetition, and, with his ripples of scales, James Farm was tearing it up by the close.

At this point, and with some playful irony when saying it (pretending that he had forgotten the venue, etc.), Redman told us that it was a great honour and a true privilege to be at... Saffron Hall (and he had seemed quite surprised at the reception and attention that the first two numbers had received). More seriously, after naming the preceding items and introducing the other players and himself, he alluded to the attacks in Paris over night, and offered, as an antidote to violence and destruction, musical ‘experiences of the moment’, and, in it, the artists baring their souls as part of common humanity.

Parks’ (3) ‘Unknown’* featured, when he presented its recursive theme solo, a prominently repeated note. Redman, now playing on alto and coming in softly with ‘tapping’ from Harland (who was using soft beaters on the drums), presented a pure, high sax tone first, and then intervallic leaps up and down. As the piece developed, the other members established a solid beat, and with ‘firm’ piano from Parks, for Redman’s warm and rounded tone, and with the energy of the beat for him to lay back on. Over time, it emerged that they were rocking up the tune, until Redman took himself out, and the pace stepped down. When he came in again, he was in a contemplative frame, and less 'bright', and ‘Unknown’ drew to a close, with Parks using the sustaining-pedal to hold a moment in the air.

Redman switched back to tenor for (4) ‘City folk’, and seemed to float notes towards us, as a dance-rhythm materialized (bossa nova ?). Penman began playing in his higher register, and introduced a tap (from the case of his bass ?) – here (as earlier in the set ?), a short unacknowledged solo, which gave way to Parks playing expansively and with drums more prominent. Again, an acoustic space to be punctuated by a feeling of purity from Redman, bringing a ‘straighter’ sound-quality. From this place, we slipped away into a clear solo for Penman, with him up and down the finger-board of the bass, and using a ‘slap’ style of playing.

Then, with cymbal added in, along with Harland clicking the rim of his drum, we heard Parks sounding wide, and nearly ‘lush’ (so the notes say ?), on piano – another spot where Harland, Penman and he just took up as a trio. With Redman’s energetic re-entry, over what turned into Messiaen-like spaced piano-chords, one became aware that the ensemble’s playing resembled a ladder, with a sense of modulating ascent – and, as earlier in the set, Harland could be seen in wonderment at Redman, as he was picking up the number and going with it :

Here, Redman was pushing – and circling – through with his sax, and with a confident and uncomplicated tone, a part of the set that felt truly at its nascent peak, for its elongated elaboration, and the punch and invention of Redman’s performance. Eventually, the number came right down to Harland using the end of his stick on the centre of a cymbal, to the subtle rattle of shells, to percussive space noises, and to minimal contributions of texture from Parks.

As ‘City folk’ ended, it was not with its absolute end, and it became clear that what turned out to be (5) ‘Farms’ (Parks) was arriving. James Farm was creatively talking matters over to itself – and in communion with itself and its thoughts – in this ‘baring of souls’, there on stage, to which Redman had drawn our attention. This is what is at the heart of what the best of jazz means, that it can have a provisionality to it, and, in that, a quality of responsiveness and spontaneity : trying may not always work, or catch the right cadence or mood, but is it not so important that the attempt is made** ?

Here, a new, dance-like riff made itself known (which felt like waltzing ?), and we heard open, ‘sounded’ figures on piano. When Redman came in, he brought a richness of tone, alongside Harland on brushes, and the use of twang in Penman’s bass-notes : his sax was moody, with short runs, accents, and held notes. Perhaps echoing an (as yet) unplaced standard, there was a ‘relaxed’ feel, with Parks balladic, expressive, urbane on piano, until we wound up to tenor to the fore, and on a strong beat. Yet, in the event, a very different ending, with piping from Redman, Harland on brushes, and Parks gently letting chords reverberate.

For Redman’s (6) ‘Apsirin’, Parks switched to a Rhodes keyboard, making sequences of three-chord statements, as if they were spoken utterances (a fall, and then a greater rise). This was a multi-patterned number, with a strong ensemble feel, and which migrated from being flowingly tender to an energized and passionate section.

Parks now switched to a setting on the Rhodes as if of a chime, with minor bell-like overtones, and the intention, at any rate, appeared to be that Redman and he would alternate, with the former making relatively short, and fluid and increasingly faster, responses to Parks' passages. However, whether cues from Parks were being missed or not clearly given, this section did not often appear to flow, and one must credit the effort and the risk, because Parks and he did get ‘into line’, and the piece could grow, and then end with drums and the triple-chord motif.

Redman, introducing Eric Harland’s (7) ‘North star’ as the closing item, said of him that he is ‘the most optimistic’ person that he knows, and that there is not a sad song of Eric’s : the composition was also quite a challenging one, in that the beat had been multi-divided between time-signatures, with the further effect that there was an integral interruption to it (Harland is, after all, a highly experienced drummer, as well as a composer).

When Harland was laying this pattern down, one could see that the other players, such as Parks, were attempting it, but not straightaway picking it up, so all credit, again, to James Farm for playing this number from their City Folk album live, and choosing to do so as the closer. For a moment, one saw Matt Penman bowing his bass, around the time that Parks passed over to Redman, and the two of them were then left again to explore Penman’s intense bass, with Parks supporting, in the trio.

Redman, whether in response to a sudden inspiration or hearing a pre-arranged cue, then had the conundrum of getting back in from the other side of the stage, because he found that there was no navigable route between drum-kit and the bass-amp, or between Penman and the far end of the piano… When back on (he jumped over, past his own playback speaker), he produced an echoey, transparent tone, and then the drums came up, Penman’s bass became strong, and Redman presented what sounded like strokes in Morse.

Between them, with Redman fleetingly placing notes over the top, Harland and Parks were growing the sound, until they fell back into a quieter mode, to which Redman added a ‘wider’, more open sax-tone, and started blending in and out of the whole. Later, as he moved in and out of the groove, came scales (or fragments of them) and trills, and then the overall sensation became that of pulsation, and of a textured backdrop to a driving force. Just before the close and a decrescendo, Redman started playing more breathily, and we ended with drums, strummed bass-notes, and a short flash of harmonics.

Needless to say, a very appreciative house was intent on making clear that it would not be satisfied without hearing a little more…

Building on his earlier irony, Joshua Redman suggested that it was going to be a surprise that James Farm (@jamesfarmmusic) was going to give Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW) ‘another song’ – after all that applause seeking it !

It was (8) ‘Otherwise’, one more by Aaron Parks (and from the new album – or, as Redman put it, from the second of the last two albums - which, he went on to say, are the only two albums – yet...).

Parks presented something funkyish, even slightly spooky, before becoming more rhythmic, and Redman now adopted a more relaxed intonation, but with a hint of angularity. The initial ‘feel’ from the group was as smooth as Henry Mancini’s title-theme from The Pink Panther (1963), but later reminded a little, quite appropriately, of Keith Jarrett : his so-called European quartet again (especially the albums Belonging and My Song), with the rise and fall as of Garbarek on sax, and a swinging piano style and a Jarrett-type ‘punch’.

Redman’s tenor soon became more pulsing in nature, and pushing the song forward with his playing, as well as making note repetition part of his expression – and with Parks using the structure of his chord progressions to create a tension. From that, Redman brought us back into the initial smooth section, and, after momentarily giving us some funk, the very end was sax flutter-notes and drums.

Reluctantly, members of the audience at Saffron Hall accepted that the gig was over, and pretty much on schedule, and queued to buy their CDs and get them signed...


* The title ‘Unknown’ chimed with a discussion about names of works and bands before the gig (it has been told that ‘James Farm’ derives from those of the group’s members, which at least seems to hold good for J[oshua] + A[aron] + M[att] + E[ric]), in which one observation had been that, since the start of the twentieth century – and no doubt highly confusingly so for curators ! – ‘Untitled’ has been a prominent label for works of art.

** Indeed, the evening's programme-notes (by Peter Bacon), once they have put the members of James Farm in their jazz and own contexts, go on to provide an overview of the tracks on the City Folk album, and then say :

But while that may be how it all worked out on the recordings, in live concert it might evolve in a completely different way. Aaron Parks has remarked that the real challenges in playing with James Farm are not only in finding ways to improvise over the song-based structure that the band favours, but also in dealing with the unpredictability of these always adventurous and challenging musicians. […]

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)