Friday, 20 April 2018

Jessica Curry

BAFTA award-winning composer Jessica Curry has championed the genre of video game music in her highly successful ClassicFM show, High Score, as well as composing works for the London Gay Men’s Chorus and others, and collaborating with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.  Her recent successful tour of Dear Esther Live concluded last month at the Brighton Dome.  Jess is a Brighton resident and keen fellow choral singer too, and I caught up with her to find out more.

When did you first start composing music?

I don’t come from a musical background at all but my mum bought a piano for me and my brother.  I started lessons when I was four and absolutely loved it. I was always writing little songs; the first Mozartian classic being ‘Jessica Curry is in a hurry, she’s going on holiday/Hip hip, hurray, she’s going on holiday.’ I think you can spot the innate talent right there. So it’s fair to say that writing music has always been part of my life. 

How would you describe your musical style?  Who are your musical inspirations?

My music is often described as being melancholy but with a great deal of hope within it: there is always the chink of light in what I write. I wasn’t classically trained and I wonder sometimes if that frees me from convention. I always start with my emotional reaction and then work from there.  I don’t take on many projects so each one that I commit to gets my full heart and soul – having that time to explore and question is invaluable I think and it gives you the headspace to experiment and to avoid those easy tropes. My musical inspirations are varied and ever-shifting but at the moment I’m listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell, The Bird and the Bees, John Harle, Saint Saviour, Charles Ives and Zbigniew Preisner. 

So how did you get into composing music for video games?

I can honestly say that composing for interactive music was never on my agenda! Husband Dan asked me to write the music for his first game, Dear Esther. It was also my first game soundtrack – it is not an interactive score: I had never played a game when I wrote it so I just wrote the music that I thought fitted the game. In retrospect I do think that that naivety played in my favour. Because I wasn’t aware of the conventions of game music, it completely freed me just to write. I wouldn’t advocate ignorance as a best practice technique for everything by the way but I think it worked for us because Dear Esther itself defied so many gamic conventions. I never intended to write music for a game because if I’m honest I didn’t think that that world had anything of interest for me as a composer. I am exceptionally glad to have been proved very wrong on this matter. 

What’s it been like bringing Dear Esther to life on stage? 

It’s been amazing and it’s been challenging.  When I originally envisaged it I always thought of it as a pure live rendition of the game, not a theatrical interpretation.  It also struck me that there was the really interesting concept of experiencing a game whilst sat with so many other people, most of whom are strangers.  Players have had such a strong emotional experience to Dear Esther over the years and I wanted that to be experienced collectively, which I think adds another deep, sometimes profound layer of immersion and emotion, especially when the game is so concerned with isolation and solitude.  The best part has been experiencing the audience’s reaction - you look round and they are spellbound.  

You’ve brought game music to new audiences with two successful series of ‘High Score’.  How was that for you?

I’ve absolutely loved writing and presenting High Score.  It’s been so much fun and I’ve loved bringing in new audiences – the gamers who don’t listen to ClassicFM and the ClassicFM audience who maybe haven’t experienced game soundtracks before.  There is another series in the works and I can’t wait.  

In her speech at the 2016 European Women In Games conference, Jess said ‘If someone's doing great work, reference their name, shout about them. A lot of women who write to me say that they don't feel heard, they don't feel seen and they don't feel valued. Always think about how you can be signal-boosting your colleagues and shouting about their achievements’.

So who out there would you shout about right now?

I have been championing the work of three amazing composers for a couple of years now.  Tess Tyler, Rebecca Dale and Luci Holland are all doing amazing work and I can’t wait to see where their careers will take them.  I feel passionately about not pulling up the ladder behind me. I was fortunate to have people give me a helping had when I was beginning my career and it gives me great pleasure to be able to do so for others now that I’m more established.  

And what’s in the future for you?  

I’ve just signed with Faber Music which is incredibly exciting so all of my back catalogue will be available to purchase as sheet music which is amazing!  Dear Esther Live is going to be performed internationally and I will definitely be writing more game music for The Chinese Room. I’ve also just started work on a new classical piece, so it should be an exciting year. 

Find out more about Jessica Curry at

(This interview first appeared in GScene, March 2018)

CD Reviews - March & April 2018

Johannes Pramsohler (violin) and Philippe Grisvard (harpsichord) have worked together on a number of recordings. Their latest, lavishly produced and beautifully packaged double CD recording focuses on French Sonatas for the Harpsichord and Violin.  They begin with Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772), and explore his influence on other composers from around 1740-1760, and the changing role of the violin in accompanying sonatas for the harpsichord from that period.  So across the two discs, we have two of Mondonville’s influential Sonatas, as well as sonatas from six other composers, including no fewer than five world premiere recordings.  As ever, the energy and dedication that Pramsohler & Grisvard bring to the repertoire is highly engaging.  There is a consistent brightness and energy in their sound, always refined, and with incredible attention to the fine detail, with delicate ornamentation and graceful poise.  It is also fascinating to hear the contrasting styles of different composers, from the sophisticated grace of Jacques Duphly’s (1715-1789) characterful pieces, grouped and presented here as two ‘sonatas’, to the virtuosic and more dramatic Sonatas by Louis-Gabriel Guillemain (1705-1770).  These latter works put great technical demands on both players, and the evident enthusiasm Pramsohler and Grisvard have for them is infectious.  The harpsichord is perhaps most dominant in the Versaille harpsichordist Luc Marchand’s (1709-1799) Suite here, with its rattling repetitions and ringing scales in the final Carillon du Parnasse, whereas the melodic lines and ideas are shared and swapped back and forth between the instruments more in Michel Corrette’s (1707-1795) Sonata.  This is a fascinating collection, put together with great insight (and highly informative notes from the players), and performed with such energy and commitment throughout.  Highly recommended.

The Flautadors formed just over ten years ago when they met at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.  The recorder quartet have performed a wide repertoire, spanning 900 or so years, and they have built up an impressive collection of all kinds of instruments, ranging through medieval, renaissance and baroque, through to modern instruments – a total of 54 different recorders are used on this new recording alone.  On this latest recording, they mix works from the last 40 years or so with arrangements of Scottish traditional melodies by Ian Wilson, one of the quartet members.  They are at times joined by three more recorder players, to perform Arvo Pärt’s (b.1935) ringing Arbos, with its characteristic falling lines and layers built up by different instruments playing the lines at differently proportioned speeds, with added overtones from three triangles.  The extra recorder players also join in for the most substantial work here, the iconic In C by Terry Riley (b.1964).  Here they use 25 different instruments to create a wider range of pitches, to perform the 53 repeated cells that make up the work, to be performed consecutively by all the players at times of their own choosing.  The homogenous textures created by performing this work on the same instruments (albeit different sizes) makes this different from many other performances I’ve heard – but then that’s part of the beauty of this hypnotically fascinating piece, that it will by definition be different every time you hear it.  Other works worthy of mention here include the disc’s title piece, Bavardage by David Murphy (b.1970).  This is full of highly virtuosic chromatic runs, intentionally overblown, harsh chordal effects and great gossipy, chattering effects.  In contrast, Ryohei Hirose’s (1930-2008) Idyll 1 is full of dark, mysterious atmosphere, which the performers enhance by using Norwegian ‘sea flutes’.  The highly effective arrangements, including the rapid patterns in Brose and Butter and the organ-like warmth on the lower instruments in Niel Gow’s (1727-1807) Lament provide welcome contrast to some of the harsher technical exploits on display in other works, and the disc is nicely rounded off with another effective arrangement of Peter Maxwell Davies’ (1934-2016) Fairwell to Stromness.  An intriguing exploration of the perhaps unexpected versatility of the recorder, expertly performed by The Flautadors throughout.

Various. 2017. Bavardage. The Flautadors. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR55. 

Pianist Peter Donohoe has released a comprehensive double disc of music for piano solo, and music for piano and orchestra, by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).  The solo works take up about a disc and a half, and include two early but highly contrasting Sonatas, as well as Three Movements from Petrushka, Stravinsky’s own recasting of music from his successful ballet score.  The first Sonata from 1904 shows the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, with strong flavours of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, amongst others.  Its dramatic opening and rhythmic finale in particular are full of Rachmaninovian romanticism.  Yet its sensually warm, jazzy slow movement and playful scherzo have more individual inventiveness.  For the second Sonata here, we jump forward 21 years, into Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase, and the writing is much more angular and sparse, and here Donohoe plays Stravinsky’s ironic score with great precision and bite, without ever allowing it to tip over into pastiche. The Three Movements from Petrushka have drive and those wonderfully Stravinskian crashing rhythms, and Donohoe produces a bright, almost glassy sound here.  Other works include the Serenade in A, with its Chopinesque opening, and perky Cadenza finale, and a quirky, humourously dark Tango, as well as Piano-Rag-Music, in which the jazz influences are mixed with dislocated rhythms that could only be Stravinsky’s. Donohoe is joined by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Atherton, for the three orchestral works here.  These were recorded in the nineties, and there is a bit of a sudden shift in the acoustic from the solo recordings, which means that the stately brass opening to the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments sounds a little muffled.  But once the ear adapts to the different sound, this is a tight performance, with spiky woodwind matching the percussive piano.  The mournful and ponderous central movement is lifted by the cadenza like passages, given great energy by Donohoe here.  The short serialist Movements for Piano and Orchestra is performed here with great clarity and conviction, and the interest of the detail shines through the austere writing.  The Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra that closes proceedings is playful and exuberant, where rhythm is paramount, and there is some really tight playing from the woodwind in particular.  Overall, Donohoe convincingly traverses the wide range of styles here, from the early romanticism, through neo-classicism, jazz influences and serialism, giving us great insight into Stravinsky’s writing for the instrument over his lifetime.

Stravinsky, I. 2018. Music for Piano Solo and Piano and Orchestra. Peter Donohoe, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, David Atherton. Compact Disc. Somm Recordings. SOMMCD 266-2.

Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet returns with the Manchester Camerata, conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy for their second volume of Mozart’s (1756-1791) Piano Concertos.  As before, there are two concerti here, and they are separated by two of Mozart’s Divertimenti.  The two concerti date from 1784, composed in Vienna, although they differ in their orchestration.   In K449, Mozart adds oboes and horns to strings, but they have a largely supporting role.  He adds flute, oboes, bassoons and horns to K459, and it is the wind writing that brings added colour and interest, particularly in the opening movement, with lots of dialogue between the solo piano and woodwind.  There is some especially beautiful Mozartian wind writing in the slow movement too.  Back to K449, the Manchester Camerata begin proceedings with a warm, emphatic opening, sharply paced by Takács-Nagy.  This is matched by authoritative command from Bavouzet when the piano enters, and the overall feel is fresh and joyful.  By contrast, the slow movement is subdued, almost distant, and Bavouzet’s introspective interpretation brings out an underlying darkness here.  The rondo finale is definitely tongue-in-cheek, with perky violins poking fun at the faux formality. Bavouzet takes delight in the rapid figurations and runs, Mozart at his most inventively playful.  K459 is all about contrast and dialogue, particularly with the woodwind.  So the opening movement’s piano entry initially sounds rather plain, like a sonata for a pupil, but immediately the dialogue with the wind raises the interest, and Mozart takes advantage of the richer opportunities for contrast that his orchestration provides.  The Manchester Camerata wind players deserve special mention here, and Bavouzet’s response is sensitively balanced. The strings get their moment in the finale, with a sudden striking fugue section, and the dashing tempo brings things to a joyous conclusion.  The two Divertimenti for strings placed between the concerti give the Camerata strings more chance to shine, and shine they do, with great precision and energy. The opening movement of K136 has bite, and also real dynamic shape, Takács-Nagy ensuring the energy builds through the frequent repeated figures. The slow movements of both K136 & K138 have poise, delicacy and warm but never weighty string sound, with perhaps a touch of subtle sadness added in K138.  The violins are once again lithe and spirited in their skittering runs in K136’s finale, and the finale of K138 is boisterous, dashed off with panache. Overall, this is a joyful disc, and Bavouzet’s effortless excellence is paired so well with the precision and energy of the Manchester Camerata and Takács-Nagy.

Mozart, W. A. 2017. Piano Concertos, etc., Volume 2. Jean-Efllam Bavouzet, Manchester Camerata, Gábor Takács-Nagy. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10958.

Duo Enßle-Lamprecht are Anne Suse Enßle (recorders) and Philipp Lamprecht (percussion), and they specialise in music from the Middle Ages, as well as new and experimental music. Tesserae, their new recording of medieval music, both sacred and secular, is a fascinating exploration, with inventive combinations of recorders and flute with percussion, including bells, tabor and naker (drums), tamburello (a kind of tambourine) and castanets.  As a result, they create a wide variety of textures and moods here.  So in music by the enigmatic 14th century ‘Monk of Salzburg’, about whom little is known, we have simple plainchant on bells in one piece, and a double flute producing a strange effect of a drone with a surprisingly florid melody in another.  And a hurdy-gurdy makes an appearance, with its swelling drone and strange clickings in the dance-like ‘O Vasenacht’.  Lamprecht even lends his earthy, mournful voice to the ‘lark song’ of the famous French troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn (12th century), accompanied again by the hurdy-gurdy and winding tenor recorder. This is highly atmospheric music, and Enßle demonstrates impressive versatility, both in switching between the various recorders, but also between the simple drawn out plainchant style melodies and the more virtuosic, florid pieces, such as in the soaring, joyful ‘Chominciamento di Gioia’, with rapid precision tonguing and birdlike swoops.  The various drums and percussion are added to different pieces sparingly and sensitively, and overall, this is a highly enjoyable collection, with virtuosity and unexpected variety from both musicians.

Various. 2017. Tesserae: Medieval music for recorders and percussion. Duo Enßle-Lamprecht. Compact Disc. Addax Records ADX 13712.

For his fifth volume of Chopin (1810-1849), pianist Louis Lortie enters the world of the mazurka.  There are twelve Mazurkas here (out of the 59 plus that Chopin wrote), and as with previous volumes, Lortie breaks up the sets of short pieces based on the traditional Polish dance with some of Chopin’s more substantial offerings, here three of the Polonaises.  As with many of Chopin’s ‘genre’ pieces, it is sometimes hard to define what links the mazurkas together – in fact it is their very oddness and individuality, harmonically and rhythmically, albeit often within a simple three-part form that marks them out.  So the drone-like bass in the middle section of Op. 7 No. 1, the constant offbeat accents in Op. 33 No. 3, and the distant key relationship of the opening theme’s return (from A minor to G sharp minor) in Op. 59 No. 1.  Lortie adds a personal flavour, with authentic rubato in Op. 7 No. 1, and those offbeat accents in Op. 33 No. 3 are highly pointed.  With such individual, quirky miniatures as these, interpretations will inevitably be personal and varied, and Lortie’s approach is generally light and airy, emphasising the delicacy and whimsy – but he captures the dark moments too, such as that strange melody over the drone in Op. 7 No.1.  The Polonaises are a different matter – grand dramatic statements with dynamic extremes. Yet here too, Lortie avoids the overly heavy attack that some use to create those extremes.  So the huge chords and octaves in Op. 26 No. 1, for example, have weight and thundering impact, but without being overblown and aggressive.  Lortie ends the disc with Chopin’s Allegro de concert, Op. 46 – possibly a projected third piano concerto in formation, and a great opportunity for Lortie to end proceedings with some dazzling virtuosity and character.  Another great volume in an impressive series.

Chopin, F. 2017. Louis Lortie plays Chopin, Volume 5. Louis Lortie. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10943.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, March & April 2018)

Monday, 9 April 2018

Intense Elgar from Isserlis, with the RPO woodwinds as equal stars of the show

© Satoshi Aoyagi

Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a

Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Britten: 'Some excellent woodwind playing here (a feature of the evening), weaving around the viola and cello theme'. 

Elgar: 'Isserlis’ Elgar was commanding, intense and passionate, and his presence and audience communication was engaging'.

Rachmaninov: '... exceptional quality of the woodwind playing throughout. With much solo work, as well as extensive ensemble passages, the entire section was as sharp as a pin tonight'.

'An intelligent and engaging reading of this somewhat underrated score'.  

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.