Thursday, 31 March 2022

Still Life - Oli Spleen

Tomorrow, 1 April, sees the release of Oli Spleen's fifth studio album, Still Life. Oli describes the album as being 'about life in the shadow, and in spite of death'. He goes on to say that 'some of the themes within express global concerns, depicting the balancing forces of nature, the environment, displaced people, fears around climate change and mass extinction of species. Other themes are more personal, ranging from our own mortality, terminal illness, the grief of seeing a loved one slip away from us, and the general anxieties of life in these unpredictable times'.

Oli has collaborated with members of the band Birdeatsbaby, and their front person Mishkin Fitzgerald worked with Oli on most of the tracks and on production. Other local musicians, including Nick Hudson, Stuart Warwick, klezmer musicians Merlin and Polina Shepherd, and pianist Tristram Arnold. This range of musicians adds considerable variety in terms of musical style and texture, from the twisting clarinet and Russian vocals in the darkly disturbing empassioned cry of Refugee, to the lounge piano and accordion backing to the ethereal torch song, These Days Will Pass. Oli's voice is rich and deep, but he is not afraid to explore its more extreme capabilities, with quavering falsetto used to great effect in The Garden, and Bowie-esque ominous delivery in Thundercloud. Whilst a lot of the music is sombre and dark-toned, the album begins and ends with tracks with livelier, turning rhythms, with Out of the Dirt expressing the cycle of life and death, and Still Life offering some sense of hope (although perhaps that hope is snatched away by the final flatline...).

I reviewed Oli's second solo studio album, Gaslight Illuminations back in 2019 here, and I commented then that 'Spleen's soulful and expressive voice' is 'rich and immediate', and this still holds true in this often deeply personal and moving exploration of how life endures in the shadow of death. 

Listen and download from

Monday, 7 March 2022

Silent Classics brought to life 100 years on

Neil Brand

Neil Brand (presenter and composer)
David Gray (piano)
Joanna MacGregor (conductor)
Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra


Matthew Fairclough (sound projection)


2.45pm, Sunday 6 March 2022

Brighton Dome



One Week (1920)

starring Buster Keaton


Oliver Twist (1922)

starring Jackie Coogan & Lon Chaney

Joanna MacGregor
Improvising pianist, composer and film historian Neil Brand and the BPO’s Joanna MacGregor Music Director and today’s conductor introduced the closing concert of the BPO season. Brand then gave us a brief explanation of the art of piano improvisation, assisted by pianist David Gray. In the silent era, the majority of films in the cinema would be accompanied by an improvised pianist or organist – bands or orchestras were a rarity. The ability to play along and create the appropriate mood and atmosphere, as well as adding effects to highlight points of action is clearly a particularly highly developed form of improvisation. As well as performing to film for many years, Brand teaches the art, and we were treated to a few examples ably illustrated by David Gray, before he then took over proceedings for the showing of Buster Keaton’s 1920 classic, One Week.

The film was a delight – at around 20 minutes, it is packed full of sight gags, slapstick, and highly inventive and impressive stunts. I am sure I’ve seen many of the classic gags in clips, but seeing the whole film was great fun. Gray’s playing was highly impressive, capturing the mood and interjecting brilliantly timed effects to accompany the pratfalls and drama. The storm music was particularly effective, as was the inclusion of subtle brief musical references – I’m sure I spotted a hint of ‘There may be trouble ahead’ from Irving Berlin’s ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’, for example. Judging by the free-flowing audience laughter, adults and children alike thoroughly enjoyed this showing.

Jackie Coogan
After this short first half and an interval came the main course of Frank Lloyd’s 1922 film of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The film was a great hit at the time, but then lost, before a single print turned up in Yugoslavia some fifty years later. Jackie Coogan, the film’s star, himself assisted with the film’s restoration in 1973. Coogan was just seven years of age when he played Oliver in the film, and he is astonishing, perfectly capturing the innocence, as well as fear, without the oversentimentality of some later portrayals. Overall, the film is a dark telling of the well-known story, and much closer to the bleak portrayal of poverty and violence in Dickens’ original. Brand has updated his original score for the film, commissioned by the BFI in 2018, adding two percussionists to the 10 piece band, and it was this new version that was premiered here.The score is atmospheric and expressive, but largely sticks to the dark moods, aside from passages infused with Klezmer, associated with Fagin (played here by Lon Chaney). Brand avoids too many obvious sound effects, so the music doesn’t pull focus from the remarkably captivating film, but rather provides an atmospheric backdrop throughout. His instrumentation is highly imaginative, however, and the bassoonist (Jonathan Price) in particular gets some great moments, particularly the humorous characterisation of Mr Bumble. The keyboard player (Xiaowen Shang) also deserves particular mention, switching back and forth across the back of the stage between the piano and an electronic keyboard which doubled for organ, celesta, harpsichord and even some tuned percussion effects, I think.


MacGregor, conducting without aid of a clicktrack, did a remarkable job here of timing the performance against the film, hitting the spot throughout. Other than very occasional shaky ensemble and unsteady tuning at moments of tempo transition, the 12 BPO players performed tightly and impressively throughout the full 74 minutes of the film. 

Thursday, 3 March 2022

CD Reviews & Concert listings - March 2022

In the month of International Women’s Day, I am happy to say that by chance rather than design, I have ended up with three great recordings to review, as well as a range of concert listings, that feature no fewer than 14 women composers, 4 women conductors and 10 women performers. This shouldn’t be unusual, yet it still us - but it’s a sign of some progress that I haven’t explicitly gone looking for this. Credit should also go to the three recordings’ shared record company, First Hand Records, for supporting such a diverse range of music composed and performed by women.


Late last year, The Telling released a new album, partly in response to the very sad and sudden loss of singer Ariane Prüssner earlier that year. The album consists of two soundtracks to ‘concertplays’, something the group have become so well known for. ‘Vision’ is the imagined testimony of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and ‘Unsung Heroine’ charts the imagined life and love of troubadour Beatriz de Dia, who was possibly born in the early 1140s and died around 1212. You may have caught both of these concertplays over the years in Brighton, as the other lead singer and founder of The Telling, Clare Norburn was also founder and co-director for many years of Brighton Early Music Festival. The music on this recording consists of soundtracks for film versions of the plays made in 2020 following the first lockdown. Both soundtracks are testament to the chemistry of Clare Norburn’s soaring soprano and Ariane Prüssner’s rich, deep mezzo-soprano, so passionately expressive when combined. In Vision, they explore the beauty but also the pain of Hildegard’s often shocking visions. There are moments of ecstasy, such as when Norburn’s solo line bursts forth above the simple harp accompaniment (Jean Kelly on medieval harp here) in Ave generosa, or when Prüssner’s rich tones circle and wind passionately in Columba aspexit. In Unsung Heroine, we enter the world of the troubadour, with a whole range of songs drawing on Beatrix de Dia’s poetry, some with existing vocal lines, some borrowed from other songs of the time. There’s lots of forbidden love and jealousy here, as well as the distress of betrayal, the latter evocatively expressed by Norburn’s rise to stratospheric heights in Estat ai en greu cossirier (‘I have been in a state of great distress’). Prüssner on the other hand gives us the passion of two lovers and a jealous husband, and a love that can never be, in Kalenda mia (‘May Day’), here accompanied by harp (Joy Smith) and the medieval bowed string instrument, the vielle (Giles Lewin). This disc is a wonderful testament to these two rich explorations of contrasting medieval music, but more importantly to the deep musical partnership between two exceptional singers, one now sadly lost to us.

Various. 2021. Soundtracks to the concert plays: Unsung Heroine and Vision. The Telling. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR123.

American pianist, Sarah Cahill, has released the first volume of a three volume series, ‘The Future is Female’, aiming to celebrate women composers right from the 17th century through to the present day. In the first volume, loosely themed ‘In Nature’, the ten composers hail from across the globe, and there are a number of premiere recordings here. The works are presented chronologically, so we begin with a graceful and expressive Keyboard Sonata from Anna Bon (1739/40-after 1767). Born in Venice, she composed for Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia in Bayreuth, then later sang in Haydn’s ensemble at the court of Esterházy. Sadly, but not untypically, all record of her disappears after her marriage to an Italian singer. Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s (1805-1847) story is not dissimilar – despite being a child prodigy alongside her brother Felix, their father discouraged any ambition for Fanny as a composer, and once married, although she continued to compose in private, it was only after her death that her work began to be published. Here, Cahill plays two of her Vier Lieder, the rippling and poignantly expressive No. 1, with its turbulent, swirling left hand, and the gently throbbing No. 3, Cahill delivering the yearning melody with great lyricism here. Space won’t allow for discussion of all the pieces here, so I must focus on highlights, such as the turbulent waves around a constant chugging rhythm in Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreño’s (1853-1917) ‘Un rêve en mer’, or the brightly evocative bird song over dark chords in Fannie Dillon’s (1881-1947) ‘Birds at Dawn’. Agi Jambor’s (1909-1997) Piano Sonata: 'To the Victims of Auschwitz’ is unsurprisingly dark, with hammering repeated low octaves and nagging repetition, urgent driving rhythms, and then ghostly pianissimo tinkles at the top of the keyboard and a final deathly quiet chord to finish. Deirdre Gribbin (b.1967) explores the dark side of her adopted home of London in Unseen, with insistent, shaking urgency and dark, fearful undertones, before a moment of almost motionless calm. This is an impressive collection, with Cahill effortlessly traversing a phenomenal range of styles, even contributing her voice reciting a poem by Ruth Crawford Seeger in Eve Beglarian’s (b.1958) Fireside. Her exemplary performances here also serve to celebrate the variety of music composed by women over centuries excluded from the classical ‘canon’, and the next volume is eagerly awaited.

Various. 2022. The Future is Female: Vol. 1 In Nature. Sarah Cahill. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR131.


I very much enjoyed the first volume of violinist Kinga Ujszászi and harpsichordist Tom Foster’s exploration of the riches of an amazing archive from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the ‘Cabinet of Wonders’, and now they’re back with another volume of delights. The archive has miraculously survived all that time in Dresden, and is known as ‘Schrank II’ after the cabinet in which it was stored. This volume presents us with music by Martino Bitti (1655/56-1743), Henricus Albicastro (c.1660-1730), Carlo Fiorelli (c.1673-unknown), and two works of uncertain origin, but possibly attributable to Girolamo Laurenti (1678-1751) and Antonio Montanari (1676-1737). I have to confess only the last of these names was at all familiar to me, but there is some delightful and inventive music on offer here. Bitti’s ‘Dresden’ Sonatas (of which three are performed here) have delicate grace and lively, bouncy faster movements. There are harmonically relatively conventional, but Bitti explores the higher register of the violin to great effect in the second Allegro of the Sonata No. 4. There are some slightly more interesting harmonic shifts in No. 1’s middle movement, which dances along nicely, and there is great rapid interplay between violin and harpsichord, a 10th apart, in the opening movement. No.5’s final Gigue is lively, with the harpsichord trilling like a strumming guitar. Albicastro’s offering has a mournfully lyrical opening, as well as rapid figuration and imitation between the instruments in the middle movement. The Laurenti is perhaps the most overtly virtuosic for the violin, but it is the Montanari that stands out for me, with its sliding chromatic lines, frequent tempo changes, and delicate joint figurations from the two instruments. Ujszászi’s virtuosity is without doubt, but she is also alive to the more lyrical and expressive moments, and brings a graceful lightness to even the more conventional passages. There is clear unanimity between Ujszászi and Foster throughout, whether when imitating one another, or when in rapid runs together as in the Bitti. Given there are around 1750 works in ‘Schrank II’, I think we can confidently expect more volumes from these two talented players.

Various. 2022. Cabinet of Wonders, Vol. 2. Kinga Ujszászi, Tom Foster. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR121.


Joanna MacGregor

Sian Edwards

The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Joanna MacGregor present Silent Classics, with Neil Brand (pianist, film historian & composer), with live music performed to the Buster Keaton classic One Week, and Oliver Twist, starring Jackie Coogan & Lon Chaney (2.45pm, Sunday 6 MarchBrighton Dome). They return later in the month for Elgar, Mozart and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, with Joanna MacGregor now on the piano, and Sian Edwards conducting (2.45, Sunday 27 MarchBrighton Dome).

Holly Mathieson
London Philharmonic Orchestra perform Williams, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with Martin James Bartlett (piano), conducted by Holly Mathieson (7.30pm, Saturday 12 March, Brighton Dome and 3pm, Sunday 13 March, Congress Theatre, Eastbourne).

Jeneba Kanneh-Mason
Worthing Symphony Orchestra perform Mainly Mozart, including the Concerto for flute and harp (with soloists Monica McCarron & Elizabeth Green), the Piano Concerto No. 6 with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (piano) and Elgar & Haydn also on the programme (2.45pm, Sunday 13 March, Assembly Hall, Worthing). 

Brighton Early Music Festival celebrates Early Music Day with a concert of Renaissance Music on a Grand Scale, including Brumel’s ‘Earthquake’ Mass, and music by Robert Carver, performed by the BREMF Consort of Voices and members of the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, conducted by Deborah Roberts (7.30pm, Sunday 20 March, St Martin’s Church, Brighton).

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared at Scene, March 2022)