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Rich Pickings on Benjamin Britten

Photo: Denis de Marney/Getty Images

To commemorate this year’s Aldeburgh Festival (online only due to the lockdown) I have posted three links to films that demonstrate Benjamin Britten’s utter brilliance:

BILLY BUDD

David Coleman masterfully directs the BBC’s 1966 adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s classic opera Billy Budd. Britten’s masterpiece has a brilliantly lucid libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier based on the story by Herman Melville. Set in 1797 during the French Revolutionary Wars on HMS Indomitable, Budd is among three candidates pressed into navy service.

The ensemble performance is at the top of its game but of particular note are: Michael Langdon as Master of Arms and the real villain of the piece; Peter Pears as Captain Vere, a righteous leader with great respect for Budd; and Peter Glossop as Budd himself, a naïve foundling full of wonder for life at sea but destined for a tragic downfall.

Britten’s score is simply superb, highly emotional and imbued throughout with passion and pathos. A fine example of the days when the arts were televised with a high level of excellence and a great chance for the general public to be exposed to modern opera.

View the full film on YouTube:

PETER GRIMES

Another operatic classic by Britten is Peter Grimes which was adapted by the BBC in 1969 under the very fine direction of Brian Large with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Peter Pears is at the peak of his powers in the lead role, really written for him, as the anti-hero fisherman played with grit and guts.

Grimes’ only helper is the widow Ellen Orford (a great performance by Heather Harper) with the rest of the village casting him out to be a loner outsider due to meet an inevitable tragic end. Another remarkable score by Britten that is deeply moving due to the injustice towards Grimes.

The full BBC film is on YouTube (see below) but also on BBC iPlayer in a performance on Aldeburgh Beach. The latter has a design to die for with storm-clouds acting as a dramatic backdrop.

WAR REQUIEM

Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Britten’s slice of angry pacifism matches the power of the score with striking images and perfect performances throughout. Britten penned the score in 1962 for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral (its predecessor bombed in the blitz).

Alongside the traditional Latin Requiem are interspersed the World War One poems of Wilfred Owen. The Jarman film uses the 1963 recording with singers soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, tenor Peter Pears and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There are standout roles in the film (available on YouTube, see below) for Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean and Jarman really displays his artistic excellence with a deeply felt anti-war message.

Rich Pickings on Marc Almond

Marc-Almond-Contact-Information

Rich Jevons: How do you look back on the Leeds Poly days and the Warehouse etc? Was it just Dave Ball’s physique that kept you from being beaten up?!

Marc Almond: I have so many good memories about Leeds Poly and I’m sad its not there any more, it was where Soft Cell was formed. I’ve always being good at looking after myself and not putting myself in difficult situations but there were a couple of early gigs that got quite scary. I got hit in the face once, and then it was handy that Dave is quite scary when he’s angry.

When Tainted Love came out it was a bit of a meteoric rise.. How did you cope with this? And do you really hate hearing it now?!

Tainted Love was a huge shock to my life it turned upside down overnight and I was thrown into a very different world with no preparation. For a while I hated it because it came to represent many negative things to me and also because I’d heard it so much over a couple of years. Over the years I’ve come to embrace it and love it and appreciate it. Its given me a comfortable life and I’m proud that its become a classic that has been a big part of peoples life soundtrack. This will be the last tour I perform it on for a while, saving it for Festivals and special one off occasions in the future. 

Even in the early days you were very OUT with your sexuality (I read about it in Smash Hits as a teen and was quite shocked!) And also your honesty re drug use in the autobiogs.. I know it’s not a strategy but did you think it has been important to do this (probably beats the tabloids making it up anyhow!)

I think that magazines like Smash Hits presumed about my sexuality. I didn’t like to talk about it actually. In the early 80’s it could still be a career killer. I didn’t want to be labelled a Gay artist and still don’t. One day I just blurted it out in an interview, I hadn’t planned to. In one sense it was a relief. The drug use was becoming more common knowledge and obvious. What ever you say though, the press will still make up things and say what they want, now they can label me Gay 80’s artist officially much to my annoyance.

I also remember an extensive NME interview with Chris Bohn entirely on Jacques Brel. What particularly interests you in his work? (I spent a year in France and couldn’t believe just how big he is still, the CDs in Fnac were like a library!)

It was artists like Bowie and Scott Walker in the 70’s that turned me onto Brel. His songs cover all aspects of life and tell stories, he mixes the poetical romance with a street gritty-ness. Watching him perform on DVD, he’s electric. He’s a very physical performer, bringing his songs to life whatever the language.

Following in troubadour mode can you tell us a bit about your love affair with Russia? (I thought Heart on Snow was one of the best things you’ve done, but then it did coincide with a particularly painful break-up.. melancholy music as therapy!)

Russia is very seductive, I think it was Winston Churchill that called it a riddle, wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery (maybe not in that order). When touring there I was given so many tapes (before C.D’s) of Russian Folk songs they call ‘Romance songs’ and loved them. Russians are quite depressive and melancholic and these sad songs lifted their spirit like an exorcism, I lived in Moscow on and off for three years while I recorded the album, meeting many fantastic musicians and interesting people. 

And finally, why the love of kitsch and cabaret?

I don’t really like applying words like Kitsch and Cabaret to my songs, though I like a little bit of melodrama sometimes. Whatever I do I like to keep one foot in to Rock Music or Pop even if it has a so called cabaret slant in the way artists like Bowie used theatrical references.

Marc Almond playlist:

My Hand Over My Heart – A gorgeous track from Tenement Symphony which sees Marc at his most celebratory and romantic (new, of course!)

What Makes A Man A Man – Marc tackles the thorny issue of homophobia in this great rendition live at the Royal Albert Hall. It is clearly autobiographical given his status as an ‘out’ artist and is highly emotional with Marc seeming close to tears.

The Days of Pearly Spencer – From Tenement Symphony and Marc makes the clessic song all his own. ‘Those tenements are memories / of where you’ve reasoned from’. It makes you look back at the list of abodes you have lived in over the decades – nothing beats my penthouse in Armley though!

Glorious – A great video to this track from Stranger Creatures which really revealed the influence of ecstasy on the production and design. I love that line about a symphony of sound that awakes us every day’ – how true for the more lucky of us far from the industrial racket and are able to blast out our tunes on awakening.

A Kind of Love – They must have had some real fun making this video for a song on the nature of love, so familiar for Marc’s works.

The Stars we Are – This album really brought Marc back into the public spotlight and I think right then he found ‘an answer to [his] dreams’.

Tears Run Rings – Back on familiar bittersweet territory and even a bit of political commentary too.

Love Letter – From the remarkable Stories of Johnny this aquatic video gets across the romantic themes adeptly.

Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart – A classy video for Marc’s classic collaboration with the late Gene Pitney that really hooked him in with an older audience to whom before he was almost an unknown, now number one for four weeks!

Slow Burn Love – Lead single from Chaos & the Dancing Star this song sees Marc in a positive writing mood – great vid!

Hollywood Forever – Another track from the new album with a cheeky vid to boot.

Stories of Johnny – Great insightful lyric and a great hook of a tune. The tabloids got worried that he was recording with a boy’s choir on this album – shame on them!

The Idol – Revealing Marc’s fascination with his namesake Marc Bolan (T Rex) with great 70s-style production and a very silly and humorous vid. He emphasises though the more serious side of the song with its ‘build ’em up and knock ’em down’ theme.

How Can I Be Sure? – I saw Maec on the Shadows & Reflections tour and this is a lovely track from that album with an arty black and white vid a la Fellini. Beats David Cassidy hands down too!

The Velvet Trail – This is my fave vid of all filmed on the dunes of Marc’s home town and imbued with a lilting melancholy, tristesse, ennui and so much nostalgia too.

Embers – Marc’s performance on this video benefits from a lovely pas de deux to highlight a great vocal outing.

Worship Me Now! – A very ironic and cynical take on both fame/stardom and fandom/followers.

Adored & Explored – Another scathing look at the ficklety of the music industry which Marc has very much had a love-hate relationship.

Waifs & Strays – Another highly autobiographical song from his time in Soho where Marc was a beacon for the lost and lonely. ‘Yes, it’s true, I’m a stray too’.

Only the Moment – A charming and endearing track from The Stars we Are with great production and an inventive vid.

The Desperate Hours – Marc did a passionate version of this when I saw him in Huddersfield Town Hall and the vid takes in the Hispanic influences of that time. Very poetic lyrics.

Yesterday When I Was Young – Performed live on Viva Cabaret on C4 some 27 years ago this is a perfect rendition of a heart-rending anthem. I kinda get this at 54!

Melancholy Rose – From the magnificent Mother Fist and again with much Hispanic influence and a great hook and quite sad vid to match the mood.

If You Go Away – From 12 Years of Tears this Brel cover reaches the greatest heights and depths – simply superb.

London Boys – This Bowie cover really suits Marc’s voice and becomes quite autobiographical too, given his time in Soho.

Burn Bright – This came out while I was in rehab in Bradford and was a real life-changing tune to reflect and meditate upon. Seven years down the line I never look back negatively but I think I do have this thing in common with this great artist.

The Exhibitionist – Appearing on the rather unsuccessful Stranger Things this is a dark and mysterious tune and vid.

Variety – Very arty vid to this quite absorbing tune about ‘variete’ – the spice of life.

So Long the Path – Heart of Snow is my fave Marc album and this moving video does justice to the haunting theme.

Weakness for Roses – Song by Baby Dee at the Wilton’s Music Hall this is a graceful and profound performance of a tremendous track.

Total Eclipse – At the Eurovision – a bit corny but fun.

Ruby Red – Marc sports a mohawk to perform this great tune from Mother Fist featuring some gorgeous zither.

You Have – From the rather dark Vermin in Ermine this is the highlight from that album and a spangly Marc sings amongst the Willing Sinners!

Enjoy!

Rich Pickings on Porgy & Bess

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This delightful and entertaining concert at Leeds Town Hall begins with Kern’s lively Overture for Showboat. It skillfully takes the themes of the show (largely romantic) and threads them in an alluring medley. Already the Airedale Symphony Orchestra are proving their high status. This is followed by another Showboat excerpt, namely Ol’ Man River featuring baritone Neil Balfour and the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus. While this is a splendid start, Balfour’s vocals do not manage to shine out above the orchestra as they clearly should.

The full chorus and orchestra really pull all their weight for Aaron Copeland’s The Promise of Living from the 1954 opera The Tender Land. For this the chorus really shine brightly and carry the uplifting themes exquisitely. But for me the highlight of the show has to be Agnus Dei, the choral adaptation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Rarely performed in this form Leeds Phil really prove their worth with exquisite and exacting tone and pitch.

Then just when you think that the mood cannot get any higher on comes soprano Sarah Power. She is simply gorgeous with the soaring notes of Korngold’s Marietta’s Aria (from Die tote Stadt) held perfectly. The Chorus continue the beatific mood with Randall Thompson’s Choose something like a Star which is a poetic masterpiece.

A more sustained piece comes in the form of Gershwin’s wonderful An American in Paris. It comes replete with three saxophonists, solo trumpet and, yes, four car horns! It has a metropolitan feel throughout and can be tempestuous with pounding percussion, or softer with sublime strings. The multiple false endings really keeps the audience on their toes. And the end of the first half is Bernstein’s witty Make our Garden grow from Candide.

After the interval we have another Broadway smash, the Suite from South Pacific which the orchestra perform with great confidence and aplomb. But the real meat of the evening comes in the form of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess in an arrangement by Robert Russell. Power belts out a sonorous Summertime with exquisite beauty, we are really hanging in her every word and blends perfectly with the orchestra.

Despite my earlier reservations about Balfour one has to admit his voice is a treasure, just not suited to the role. Leeds Phil really excel themselves in the second half with the ability to be both boldly brash and subtly subdued. There are just so many fabulous numbers we are really spoiled for choice to name the concert version’s peak. But I will plump for It ain’t necessarily so for the highlight, as much for it’s irreverent lyrics as the catchy tune.

A final note must go to the mastery of conductor John Anderson with a match made in heaven between Airedale Symphony Orchestra and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus that is simply a very fine feast for the ears.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Town Hall on 29 February 2020.

Rich Pickings on Orchestra of Opera North’s Viennese Whirl @ Leeds Town Hall

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Gavan Ring – photo Frances Marshall

The annual New Year festivities by Orchestra of Opera North kick off with the bombastic overture to Dvořák’s Carnival. Conductor Paul Daniel really brings out the best for this rousing and invigorating piece.

Korngold’s Straussiana pays homage to Johann Strauss II with some sublime strings and conjuring up sparkling chandeliers above a dance floor of an exquisitely dressed audience. Tenor Gavan Ring brings great passion to Franz Lehár’s Gern hab’ ich die Frau’n geküβt from Paganini. The libretto sees the protagonist as rather decadent and wild but still does worship the fairer sex. Ring has an exquisite voice and really sets the piece alight.

Ring then turns his supreme talents to Paolo Tosti’s L’alba separa dall luce l’ombra which expresses more of a deathwish despite the poetic description of the world as it appears to be.

But of course we all wait with eager anticipation for the Strauss polkas and Johann II doesn’t disappoint with the lively and flamboyant Tritsch-Tratsch (Chit-Chat or Tittle Tattle). Continuing with Strauss II’s work we have Frühlingstimmen (Voices of Spring) which is a playful and cheeky composition. The last of the Strauss II trilogy is Elektrophor which reflects the Strauss family’s interest in electricity with a lively pace.

After the interval comes another trilogy of Johann Strauss II’s wonderful work: there is the spritely overture to The Gypsy Baron; a taste of Hungary in Éljen a Magyar! (Long Live the Magyar!); and Vergnügungszug – Polka Schnell (Pleasure Train Polka), a tribute to Austria’s expanding railways.

Ring returns to belt out Franz Lehár’s Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (You are my heart’s delight) from Das Land des Lächelns. It is a touching love ballad with a real sense of romantic reverie. Another real delight is Ernesto de Curtis’ Torna a Surriento, half a tribute to the beauty of Sorrento, half a paean of unrequited love.

Perhaps the best known work of the concert was the Pizzicato Polka, a collaboration between Johann Strauss II and his younger brother Josef. It is a dainty delicate piece that is a pure gift for the strings. In contrast to this polka follows Unter Donner und Blitz (Amid Thunder and Lightning) which gives the percussion in particular a chance to display their genius skills.

The evening was the perfect tonic for our hopes and fears for the new decade and also encourages us to book early for a fantastic Leeds International Concert Season.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Town Hall on 29 December 2019.

Rich Pickings interviews Simon Lindley

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Rich Jevons talks to St Peters Singers Music Director Simon Lindley about the Good Friday concert of Bach’s St John’s Passion at Leeds Minster.

RJ: Firstly, for those not already familiar, could you tell us about St Peters Singers and your role with them?

SL: SPS is a choir around forty voices strong founded in 1977 by Harry Fearnley who appointed Dr Simon Lindley as Music Director – a position he still holds. Since formation the Choir has held weekly rehearsals at Leeds Minster (formerly Leeds Parish Church).

What particularly appeals to you about Bach’s St John’s Passion?

The vivid portrayal of Christ’s last week on earth beginning with the procession into Jerusalem on the morning of the first Palm Sunday and taking us through to His death on the Cross of Calvary and subsequent burial. Bach’s music is hall-marked by a wonderful use of drama and pathos; traditional Lutheran Chorale Hymns heighten the experience and beautiful vocal solos adorn the musical textures. Major male roles are taken by a tenor (described as the Evangelist or narrator) and a Bass who sings the words of Christ.

Could you place it in the context of Bach’s life and work?

Bach had just moved to Leipzig and the important post of Kantor or Director of Music. He was to hold the office for 27 years until his death in 1750. The St John Passion of 1723 was the first of its creator’s major choral works – to be followed by the St Matthew Passion in 1729 with the glorious Christmas Oratorio and immortal Mass in B minor following much later.

How was it received in its day?

The work formed the major part of the main church service on Good Friday so it would have been received with a degree of devotional response and much respect.

How does the work tell the Passion narrative?

By means of narrative recitative, choral involvement and commentary by means of reflective vocal solos.

Is the libretto Biblically based?

Most certainly – being based almost exclusively on the Gospel of St John. For wholly dramatic ends, the composer sets a couple of verses towards the end of the work representational of the tending in Twain of the Veil of the Temple from the top to the bottom – these verses come from St Matthew’s gospel account rather than St John’s.

What place does sacred music have in a secular world?

Bach used the same elements of Baroque musical style whether setting sacred or secular texts. The strength of the sacred is hugely significant.

Do you have to be a Christian to appreciate its power?

The power is of universal appeal, whether you are a believer or not.

What would you like your audience to take away with them?

The sense of humanity shot through with beauty and pathos shown throughout by music and words alike.

St Peters Singers perform St John’s Passion on 19 April 2019 at Leeds Minster. See St Peters website 

Coldplay: Ghost Stories – Review by Rich Jevons

Coldplay’s new release further marks their significance as one of the greatest British pop artists of our time. Tracks like Midnight use novel and absorbing digital effects on the vocal tracks alongside a hypnotic bass and superb sequencer segments.

Magic is simple but instantly catchy and is a paean to fidelity and the preciousness of love. The flipside of love is dealt with too though on Another’s Arms, a ballad of jealousy, loneliness and longing.

Oceans is also a bittersweet love song, plaintive and melancholic with a fine guitar and synthesiser backing. While Always in My Head again deals with absence and memory and check out the second single, A Sky Full of Stars, full of wonder at the cosmos. Simply their best yet.

Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots – Review by Rich Jevons

Damon Albarn’s debut solo album, Everyday Robots, is a reflective and introspective exploration of the artist’s inner self. It combines his interest in the esoteric, mentioning ‘the standing stones’ and the ‘Green Man’, with his mastery of the latest technology, always used lovingly, by no means tech for tech’s sake.

A case in point is Aitor Throup’s video for the title track where Throup aims to use the symbols metaphors and visual systems that could get to the core of what Albarn was trying to get across and at the same time focus on him as an individual.

There is an ancient aspect to this and a connection to nature, whether it be the timeless essence of the universe, mother Earth or pagan rituals. But also the robotic, with the video creating a digital Albarn using software and facial reconstruction techniques.

One minute it is just a skull, then gradually layers of virtual ‘skin’ are applied, appropriate given the cerebral nature of Everyday Robots and the idea of getting beneath the surface too.

Matt Cronin has edited a video of Albarn’s tablet footage for the lilting melancholy tune that is Lonely Press Play. Somehow you cannot ever imagine Albarn being lonely, especially given the number of his collaborators, but anyhow this is spiked by the idea that you could lift out of this mood with ‘click’.

More akin to his Gorillaz work is Heavy Seas of Love, as ever beautifully produced and here in a more optimistic mood but still esoteric though: ‘radiance is in you’ certainly sounds rather Rosicrucian.

Mr Tembo is a funky catchy number inspired by a baby elephant Albarn met in Mkomazi, Tanzania and features African backing accompaniment. Similarly, You & Me has what sounds like an African steel drum and has a wonderful flow that drifts on with some great guitar work. It has an end-of-the-days feel ‘when the twilight comes’ and ‘it all goes round again’, the autumn of life’s cycle. There is a verse with a drugs reference that much of the press have picked up on but as Albarn told the Guardian reporter ‘Do we have to there?’ which of course they did!

I’m not sure if The Selfish Giant, which starts with the line ‘Celebrate the passing drugs’ may deal with this too, an unconscious fear of what he may have lost if the habit took over. ‘Freedom taking cocaine’ is mentioned in Photographs, a track which conjures up wild fantastic cityscapes.

Hostiles continues the spiritual quest, ‘trying to find the key..’ and magically ‘fighting off the hostiles’ for protection.

The most nostalgic track is Hollow Ponds which refers to the heat wave of 1976 when he would have been an adolescent, and then when ‘half my road was now a motorway’ in 1991 and other significant events and dates.

While the slowest and most pared down track is The History of a Cheating Heart, anad again nostalgic: ‘I always go back to the moment / I fear the most’.

So this is an exceptional album that you can explore and have adventures with your self.